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Book Notes — Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

Fooled by randomness

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: 2001
ISBN: 1400067936
Amazon link
My rating: 7/10

The book in three sentences:

The world is mostly random and non-linear, but we are hard-wired to construct narratives that make sense of it all. What we attribute to individuals’ and organizations’ skill is often mostly due to luck. We trick ourselves into thinking that what seems unlikely to happen — like the appearance of a black swan — will never actually take place.

My notes:

  • This is Taleb’s first book, published in 2004, before his more well-known “The Black Swan” came out three years later. Here, he lays out his thinking on why we are “fooled by randomness,” or built to make sense of a world that often is nonsensical.
  • Taleb relates his experience as a trader, taking an unconventional approach to investing, to illustrate how his grasp of how the world has brought him success. Unlike those around him, for example, he eschews news because its signal-to-noise ration is too high. A proud iconoclast, he assails journalists, economists, academics, MBAs (of which he is one) and other investors for being blindly taken in by randomness.
  • A passage from the prologue sums up Taleb’s thinking:

    We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions — even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his note to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with appointment of the new president “at the helm…”

    This confusion strikes people of different persuasions; the literature professor invests a deep meaning into a mere coincidental occurrence of word patterns, while the economist proudly detects “regularities” and “anomalies” in data that are plain random.

    At the cost of appearing biased, I have to say that the literary mind can be intentionally prone to the confusion between noise and meaning, that is, between a randomly constructed arrangement and a precisely intended message.

  • Perhaps because Nassim’s work is so influential — people often refer to “black swan” events, especially in the tech world — I feel as if rather than introduce me to a radical new way of thinking, this book reinforced many of Taleb’s arguments, which I had already internalized. Some of the best parts of the book, in my mind, are his anecdotes about colorful characters from the Wall Street world.
  • I must say I found what seemed to be his focus on proving his intellectual superiority to those around him to be mildly off-putting. Still, I found it quite entertaining and enriching. If you set out to read this book not as a nonfiction guide to his way of thinking but as a personal essay, which is how it structured, I think you’ll find it enjoyable and enlightening.
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    Book Notes Books

    Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    The dog stars

    The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
    Published: 2013
    ISBN: 1611736137
    Amazon link
    Rating: 8/10

    Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

    My notes:

    • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

    • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

    • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

    • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

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    Book Notes Books

    Book Notes — ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Never eat alone

    Never Eat Alone…and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
    By Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
    Published: 2005
    ISBN: 0385346654
    Amazon link
    Rating: 6/10

    Brief recap: A popular book about the power of networking. I didn’t find it revelatory, but appreciate the central theme, which is common sense: that you should help friends just to help them, not because you expect something in return. In other words, as the author writes, networking can be a huge advantage – but don’t keep score.

    My notes:

    • Ferrazzi relates his story of growing up in the U.S. in a lower-middle class family, outside of elite circles. One he became friends with influential people, however, he discovered that they helped him in school and work, and that – of course – it’s much better to be on the inside than on the outside looking in.
    • Anyone who’s read books about the power of networking is probably familiar with most of the notions mentioned here. These include: the importance of building relationships with business contacts over the long term; the importance of being kind to assistants and other gatekeepers; why it’s key to follow up after you meet new contacts in order to stay in touch; how to make the most of meeting people at conferences; how to make small talk; etc.

    • My main takeaway from the book, though, was that it reinforced the the importance of trust in building career capital via the relationships you make, over time. As Ferrazzi writes:

    My point is this: Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you, to paraphrase an earlier Kennedy, but what you can do for others. In other words, the currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.

    Business cycles ebb and flow; your friends and trusted associates remain.

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    Book Notes Books Life

    Book Notes — ‘Deep Work,’ by Cal Newport

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Deep work

    Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
    By Cal Newport
    Published: 2016
    ISBN: 1455586692
    Amazon link
    Rating: 9/10

    Brief recap: Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, argues that knowledge workers must devote themselves entirely to the most sophisticated and valuable contributions they can make – they must concentrate on what he calls “deep work.” Common sense, yes, but the book provides some compelling insights and plenty of practical tips. Highly recommended.

    My notes:

    • What is deep work? It’s the core stuff we are trained to do, for which we’ve developed deep expertise – the crux of what makes us experts in our field.

      Or, as Newport writes:

      Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

      What isn’t deep work – or, as he calls it, “shallow work”? Newport says it’s activities that a recent college graduate could learn how to do relatively quickly.

      So, if you’re a consultant, let’s say, you must devote yourself entirely to your most important work, like producing deliverables for clients or bosses. Eschew all but the most critical email, needless meetings, social media and other distractions – even though it may seem like this stuff is important to your job.

    • Social media is largely a waste of time, and should avoided, Newport says. But our culture is so techno-centric – we are living in Neil Postman’s “technolopy”, he writes – that this is difficult:

    Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble…

    • After laying out, in the first half of the book, why deep work is important, Newport goes out to provide some tips for building more deep work into one’s life. A few that I liked, and have since implemented:
      • Keep a scorecard: log not only how many hours per day you’re able to spend on deep work, but track with a paper and pen, and post in a conspicuous place, details on when you’ve reached important milestones, such as completing important projects.
      • Train yourself to embrace boredom in order to build focus: Newport notes that a key requirement of deep work is the ability to concentrate deeply for long stretches of time, and that means resisting the temptation to surf the web or check in on social media when boredom strikes.

      • Ponder your work when walking. In a notable passage, Newport says he often takes long walks to and from his office, devoting the time to thinking about problems that are vexing him at work, searching for solutions.

      • That said, guard your downtime: Though Newport is a successful academic, publishing regularly, he argues that because he consistently focuses on deep work, he doesn’t have to work marathon hours. This is crucial because focusing is more mentally demanding than shallow work, and the brain needs time to relax. Newport even describes how he mentally prepares to leave his office every day, saying out loud to himself that he is finishing his work and shutting off his computer, serving as a reminder that it’s time to tune out a bit.

    • Newport earlier authored another interesting book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”

      The premise of that work: Follow your passion is terrible advice. True work satisfaction often comes only after a good deal of time, once we’ve developed expertise. So pick something you’re good at, that you like, and that society values. Then develop a craftsman’s mindset, honing your skills over time. Also worth checking out.

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    Book Notes

    Book Notes — ‘Den of Thieves,’ by James B. Stewart

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Den of thieves

    Den of Thieves
    By James B. Stewart
    Published: 1991
    ISBN: 067179227X
    Amazon link
    Rating: 10/10

    Brief recap: An absolute classic. Pulitzer-prize winning Jim Stewart tells, though in-depth reporting and riveting storytelling, the story of the insider trading scandals that rocked Wall Street in the 1980s.

    My notes:

    • Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Dennis Levine, Martin Seigel – you’ve heard their names in connection with insider trading, and may remember some specifics of their deeds.

      In this book, Stewart – with whom I was lucky enough to study at journalism school – lays out in incredible detail what motivated them to break the law, precisely how they did it, and how they were caught.

      The book clearly communicates what a powerful factor greed can be, and how the characters in the story acted with brazen disregard for the law. Also, even people who are familiar with Wall Street excess might be surprised with just how much money the industry’s titans made (and make) – yachts, helicopters, lavish estates, it’s all here.

    • The book remains relevant even today. As Stewart writes in a new introduction in 2010, after the global financial crisis:

    When I finished writing Den of Thieves, in 1991, I ended with a question: Can it happen again?

    Nearly twenty years later, we know the answer: it did happen again. Which begs the same question: are we destined to repeat history yet again?

    I believe the answer lies in these pages, since this is ultimately a story not about insider trading or hostile takeovers but about human nature. In the most recent financial crisis, the setting has changed to subprime mortgages, asset-back securities, and exotic derivatives. Yet again, the power of vast sums of money to overpower everything in their path – laws, regulations, ethics, even common sense – has been on ample display. And once again, in the face of public outrage, there have been calls for reform.

    • Although “Den of Thieves” contains descriptions of complex matters like financial instruments and elaborate financing arrangements (not to mention a huge cast of characters), it is still a page turner – even at over 500 pages long.
    • Stewart reconstructs, in vivid scenes, how everything unfolded, putting the reader in the middle of the action. (For more on how Stewart tells stories, see his excellent 1998 book “Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction.”)

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    Book Notes

    Book Notes — ‘Purity,’ By Jonathan Franzen

    Note: I have long kept written notes on index cards about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    2016 06 22 franzen purity

    Purity
    By Jonathan Franzen
    Published: 2015
    Read: April 2016
    ISBN: 0374239215
    Amazon link
    Rating: 9/10

    Brief recap: A novel about youth, ambition, and desire, packed with sharp cultural observations. I loved it, as I have loved most of Franzen’s fiction.

    My notes:

    • The novel follows protagonist Pip Tyler as she seeks out direction in her life and tries to negotiate her relationship with her mother – and her father, who she didn’t know growing up.

    • While the novel is nearly 600 pages long, I found it to be extremely fast-paced, and loved the intricacy of the plot, with scences boucning between decades, both in the U.S. and in Germany.

    • I liked Franzen’s description of the geography in Bolivia, where part of the novel takes place.

    • I can’t excerpt it here because it present a major spolier, but the language describing one key character’s sudden demise was striking. I read that passage again and again.

    • My sense is that if you liked Franzen’s earlier works (as I did), such as “The Corrections” and “Freedoms,” you’ll like this one, too.

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    Book Notes Books Singapore

    Book Notes — ‘Asian Godfathers,’ by Joe Studwell

    Note: I have long kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    2016 06 01 asian godfathers

    Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
    By Joe Studwell
    Published: Oct. 2007
    Read: Nov. 2015
    Amazon link

    Brief recap: An incisive look at how Southeast Asia’s godfathers got rich by exploiting the region’s dysfunctional governments — and how local elites have used godfathers, in turn.

    One of the best books, if not the very best, on the region that I’ve encountered; should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

    My notes:

    • The region’s godfathers — largely Chinese and Indians — emigrated to Southeast Asia before World War II, taking advantage of opportunities for concessions and monopolies from local political elites in exchange for not seeking their own political power. Typical godfather behavior would be, for example, to bribe local politicians for lucrative monopolies, which they then used to build their own fortunes. Local elites got a steady stream of incoming cash in return, and weren’t challenged in the governmental sphere.

    • Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have very few global brands because they employ “technology-less industrialization” — entrepreneurs seek rents and have monopolies, so don’t need to improve productivity or become globally competitive.

    • The economic landscape in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong is “shaped by the interaction of two historical forces: migration and colonization.” That is, migrants came to Southeast Asia and began building their riches by taking advantage of colonial systems.

    • Thailand’s Thaksin was a godfather who committed the sin of political ambition — and alienated his fellow godfathers.

    • Studwell is highly critical of Singapore despite the fact it is known globally for good governance and its outsized economic development. He argues that its small size makes comparisons with countries irrelevant, and that both the city-state and Hong Kong show that small cities with deep water ports and good banking facilities were always destined to flourish in the region, despite their very different political models. “As relatively easily managed city states, with highly motivated and purely immigrant populations,” Studwell writes, “Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands. In other words, business comes to them because they perform certain tasks — principally services — a little better than surrounding countries.”

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    Book Notes Books

    Book Notes — ‘The One Thing,’ by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan

    Note: I have long kept written notes on index cards about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    2016-01-02_one_thing

    The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
    By Gary Keller with Jay Papasan
    Published: April, 2013
    Read: December, 2015
    Amazon link.

    Brief re-cap: This is a short book with a simple thesis: In every job, there is one single activity that you should focus on that will improve your value to your company or your customers. You should focus on that, above all else, even if it means neglecting other responsibilities, the authors argue.

    I didn’t find this book revelatory, exactly, but it served as a useful reminder of the necessity of prioritizing the most crucial projects over all others.

    My notes:

  • You must disabuse yourself of several common notions in order to have the biggest impact in your work and life. One is the idea that humans are adept at multitasking, that we can do it all. You can only ever concentrate on one thing at a time. So choose wisely.

    Another myth is the idea that willpower is available on demand. In fact, willpower decreases throughout the day, like a cellphone battery draining bit by bit. That means you must get your most important work done early in the day, while you’re still able to concentrate to the best of your abilities.

  • You should block out four hours on your calendar every day for your “one thing,” and treat it like an appointment that can’t be broken. Day after day of concentration on your most important work will yield big results down the line.
  • Embrace chaos. When you prioritize your “one thing,” some other stuff won’t get done. But that’s okay.