Peterson, Jordan B. - 12 Rules for Life

allen lange, 2018, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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According to NY Times Jordan Peterson is currently the most influential thinker on earth. This is surely an exaggeration but he is an Internet phenomenon. Instead of dwelling on Peterson as a public figure and have an opinion on whether he’s a transfobic fascist as some would say, or the savior of men as other would have it, I thought I’d take the road less traveled and simply account for the twelve rules as they read and give my take of what they mean. It will not make much of a book review but at least we will know what’s discussed.

However, it must first be understood that this isn’t the author’s self help advice on how to succeed in life – to Peterson the rules run much deeper. Some years ago the author had something of a personal crisis trying to reconcile the monstrosities performed by the Nazi and communist regimes of the twentieth century with some sort of hope for mankind. Peterson landed in the opinion that the world is a troubled place and while it is hard to know what a good life is, it is reasonably easy to know in which direction to go – and this is away from Auschwitz, Gulag and totalitarianism. The rules are steps on this path.

1.     Stand up straight with your shoulders back – How you behave effects how others treat you. A person who takes responsibility for his life, acts with self-confidence and let this show in his body language will be treated as a winner, also by the opposite sex.

2.      Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping – Don’t be consumed by guilt. Instead learn to be proud of yourself and respect the progress you make. If you were to coach someone to become a better person, how would you do it? Now, do it to yourself.

3.      Make friends with people who want the best for you – If a person you know only takes and never gives you cannot waste your only life on them. Walk away.

4.      Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today – Act by an inner scorecard instead of an outer.

5.      Don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them – Your children will have a better life if they don’t grow up dysfunctional. Be an adult, set boundaries, teach them what’s right and wrong, encourage and mentor them and discipline them if necessary. Help each other as parents as it is hard work raising kids.

6.      Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world – Discard of any victim mentality and searches for scapegoats. Set your life straight and have the humility to not complain over others before you can govern yourself.

7.      Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient) – Those that can delay gratification do best in life. Most people know what is good. Set long-term goals and make the sacrifices needed to reach them.

8.      Tell the truth – or, at least don’t lie – Stand up for what you believe. It is the silent majority that paves the way for totalitarianism.

9.      Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t – To get to the truth we have to listen to those who hold other opinions than ours. Either you will see the issue differently and change your mind or you will become more confident in your opinion. Both are good things.

10.   Be precise in your speech – Face your personal monsters by diagnosing what they really are about. In precisely describing the bad you shine light on fears that lurk in the shadows.

11.   Do not bother children when they are skateboarding – If we overprotect our children they will grow up incapable of handling the world. This is especially destructive for boys with more innate aggressiveness that must be channeled into something constructive. If it is instead suppressed it will take nasty forms later.

12.   Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street –Appreciate the small joys of everyday life.

This somewhat odd book that draws on biology, literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy, religion and even folklore is unusual in that it salutes virtues like owning up to responsibilities. I like most of it.


Mats Larsson, May 12, 2018

Bevelin, Peter - Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger

Post Scriptum AB, 2007 (3rd ed.), [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 5

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Seeking Wisdom is about the gathering of wisdom by studying the finest of what others have already figured out. The book is filled with quotes from some of the greatest thinkers in history from fields such as physics, mathematics, psychology, biology, chemistry, economics, business and investing. Charles Munger of Berkshire Hathaway is in the investing world often quoted as coming up with the concept of multidisciplinary thinking. By internalizing a range of mental models on how to think and behave, the theory is that you will make better decisions and stay out of trouble both in life and as an investor. In Seeking Wisdom Bevelin describes many of these models.

Peter Bevelin is the Swedish author and investor who wrote Seeking Wisdom in order to remember what he had learned and to transfer some of the knowledge to his children. The author has been greatly influenced by his friend Charles Munger who read and commented on the book before publication. Another friend of his, Nassim Taleb, has been quoted saying that "Peter Bevelin is one of the smartest people around". Bevelin has written three other books on related topics.

The book is structured in four parts. Part one introduces the reader to why humans make certain decisions by describing how the brain works and why it works as it does. Most of it is explained as survival instincts from having been hunter-gatherers for most of the existence. Humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Part two describes the 28 most common psychological misjudgments that humans suffer from due to this ancient hardware of the brain. There is some overlap to Charles Munger's speech on Psychology of Human Misjudgment but the material is presented differently in the book and goes even further into detail. In part three the author presents other situations where humans suffer from misjudgments, by taking examples from physics and mathematics and linking them to subjects as investing and business. The last part gives the reader some well-needed guidelines on how to improve his or her thinking habits. You could argue that the author doesn’t add much to the content himself, but as this probably wasn’t the intention the criticism would be a bit unfair.

Apart from presenting explanations to why we think the way we do, the author describes ways to act in order to make sure that we learn. For example, by always asking the question "why?" we force ourselves to understand the meaning and not just the name. By designing checklists for our investment procedure, we may reduce the probability of making silly mistakes. By writing post mortems we can learn from our mistakes and prevent them from happening again. In order for the post mortem to be effective we need to write down our decisions from the outset and how we felt emotionally at that point. Otherwise there is a risk that we will fool ourselves and according to Richard Feynman: "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool".

This book has influenced me a lot and has taken me on the path of becoming a multidisciplinary thinker. Reading it once will hopefully get you on your path of learning but this is a book to be re-read on a frequent basis as it's difficult to take in all of the condensed wisdom the first couple of times. Seeking Wisdom is possibly an even greater source for further reading due to its vast bibliography.

Peter Bevelin's aim is to put the reader on the path to multidisciplinary thinking and for me he greatly succeeds.

Niklas Sävås, May 1, 2018

Marshall, Tim - Prisoners of Geography

Elliot & Thompson Limited, 2015, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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There are many prisms through which our complex world can be understood. Out of those that really matter geopolitics is perhaps the most underappreciated one in the democratic western world. For anyone that wants to understand how Putin or Xi thinks about civilizations this is a great place to start. In Prisoners of Geography the journalist and former foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall with experience from the frontlines in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Syria gives the reader a crash course in the Real Politik of region after region such as the Middle East, Korea etc., and by this briefly covering the power politics of the entire globe including the predominant power struggle of the future between the US and China.

After a foreword by a former head of MI6 and a short introduction the chapters of the book each covers one relevant region after another. The chapter starts with a map to set the stage. Still, the book is best read with a proper atlas at hand and preferably one that also has topographic maps, to be able to clearly see the mountain ranges, desserts, jungles, plains, rivers, lakes and oceans that for centuries have set the stage for and shaped the power politics of regions. Marshall shows that geography but also natural resources and climate to a larger extent than often realized defines what a nation is and can be.

Africa for example is much larger than the US, China and India combined and has ample natural resources plus a hefty head start since it’s where humanity originated. However, the continent has few natural harbors, apart from the Nile the rivers cannot be used for transportation due to the violent and frequent waterfalls and the terrain is often not very friendly towards those who try to venture outside their home environment. Further, the amount of arable land is small and the animals of the continent are not easily domesticized. Hence, Africa is a continent with innumerable tribes, clans, religions and peoples but value-creating trade between regions is limited. Roads and railways that connect the continent are still to a large extent sorely absent. One of the many misfortunes of colonialism was leaving the power structure of an artificially made up state in a region with multiple rivaling groups that never thought of themselves as in anyway united within a country - a recipe for disaster.

It is also striking how similar geographic locations of the heartlands of Russia and China through centenaries have shaped comparable power politics. Both civilizations’ core is situated on in principle indefensible plains, without any obstacles for advancing armies, leading them to being attacked multiple times. The North European Plain for example stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pyrenees. The solution has become to create strategic depth by expanding outwards building moats of subordinated and expendable landmasses where attackers will be worn out before reaching the heartlands. The tragedy of Europe, and the so-called “German Issue”, is that Western Europe’s mightiest civilization - the German - is situated on the same plain open for attack from two flanks and thus the concept of lebensraum is a geopolitical parallel to for example the invasion of Tibet.

The book gives a stark reminder that even though man has gained the ability to fly and the Internet to some extent changes the playground to a very large extent, the struggle of civilizations over power and resources looks as it has always done shaped by geography but also the cultural, religious and demographic factors of the hand dealt. There is clearly a risk that those with a trusting, short sighted and self-centered post-conflict mindset in the western world are exploited by more cynical rulers who thinks in 100 year time frames and doesn’t obey any international rules that would give them a disadvantage in the pursuit of power.

Although undoubtedly presenting the reader with a rather bleak view of the world this book actually brightened up my Easter weekend. You will look differently at the world after reading Marshall’s book. Definitely recommended.

Mats Larsson, April 2, 2018

Ellenberg, Jordan - How Not To Be Wrong

Penguin Books, 2014, [Surrounding knowledge] Grade 4

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Part of the daily life as an investor is about making choices between alternatives. Is this stock at a more attractive valuation than that? Shall I buy, shall I sell or do nothing? A famous quote is: "investment is an art not a science", which doesn't mean that math is not needed, but instead that it's unlikely for anyone to become a successful investor by just looking at the numbers. Finance professor and value investor Aswath Damodaran describes people as either number crunchers or storytellers but insists that you need to tackle both to become a good investor. The book How Not To Be Wrong is focused on math but it's also likely to help you improve your storytelling capabilities.

The author, Jordan Ellenberg, is an American mathematician and writer. He has competed in the International Mathematical Olympiad three times, winning two gold medals and one silver medal. He has been writing about math for a general audience for the past fifteen years and he has penned pieces for many of the largest newspapers in the US. Ellenberg has also published two books where The Grasshopper King was his first.

How Not To Be Wrong is structured in five chapters describing linearity, inference, expectation, regression and existence. There are further sub-chapters where different real-world situations are described to clarify the subjects.

Some of the nuggets from the book are the description of a lottery called Cash WinFall which at some points had a positive expected value for the buyers. Some mathematically minded people noticed this and took advantage of the favorable odds in the game. As the author writes: "If gambling is exciting you are doing it wrong" - but in this specific example the opposite was true. Another gem is the story about the mathematician Abraham Wald who during World War II got the question from the US military on where the amount of armor on the air fighters should be strengthened. He was widely expected to answer to strengthen them where the bullet holes of the surviving planes were, but instead answered that the armor should be placed on the parts which were not hit on the surviving planes arguing that the destroyed planes were likely hit on those places, namely the engines. This is an example of survivorship bias. It is also an example of inversion where thinking like a mathematician, to prove something by showing that what can't be true, often gives us the right answer. The author brings up a profound quote from Sherlock Holmes on the topic: "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".

In science, statistical significance is a method used to distinguish if a hypothesis is true or false. It may be hard for the scientist to accept that a hypothesis failed and that the result was negative, wasting years of scientific work as the scientist is not rewarded for unsuccessful studies. This is an example of bad incentives. Similarly, it's hard for the investor who has put a lot of work into analyzing a stock, to accept that the numbers don't add up and move on to the next opportunity. By tweaking some numbers in the excel spreadsheet it may look like a compelling opportunity after all - confirmation bias at work. The author also brings up a study of the rate of return of 5 000 funds where the return was 20% higher if the dead funds were excluded which is another example of where it's possible to use statistics to suit the purpose.

For the most part, it’s easy to follow the reasoning in the book without knowing much math but in some parts, especially in the later parts of the book, it is a bit more difficult. The examples brought up throughout the book span across a wide spectrum of subjects and in a few examples I thought the point made by the author was a bit incomplete. However, I don't think of this as a great disturbance as the point is brought home anyway.

How Not To Be Wrong is another great example of a book that, while not focused on finance, nevertheless is a great source of knowledge for the investor.

Niklas Sävås, March 25, 2018

Russell Hochshild, Arlie - Strangers in Their Own Land

The New Press, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Ever since the election of Donald Trump there has been a scramble for the liberal intelligentsia to try to understand and explain the events that came as such a complete and utter shock and so profoundly shook their worldview. The lack of understanding largely came from the dichotomy between the coastal and urban US and the middle and rural parts of the country; the country has grown ever more bifurcated the last decades. The liberal, left wing Berkeley sociologist professor had already prior to the 2016 presidential elections embarked on a journey to climb over to the other side of what she calls the empathy wall in a multi-year project to understand the emotional selves of the Tea-party members on the other side. In this particular case, the inhabitants of the areas of Louisiana that had suffered the most polluting effects of the oil industry but stilled stubbornly voted for politicians who opposed any further governmental regulation of the industry.

As the book progresses we get to follow how the author discusses with and eventually befriends a number of southerners. To some extent the narrative is a bit speculative since ever so often the reader will say “but you surely must understand that people think in this or that way” and then in the next chapter that specific angle is often covered. Or at least I hope it is speculative, or else the author started from a hugely naïve position. In chapter nine Russel Hochschild formulates the so-called deep story of the right wing republicans. “A deep story is a feels-as-if story-it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand and explore the subjective prism through which the party of the other side sees the world.”

To a large extent I think the author quite impressively nails the deep story and the character types it produces - I leave the details for the reader to explore. Equipped with this deep story she quite easily understands why people vote as they do. Still, being empathetic towards her newfound friends isn’t entirely enough in my view. First of all, the reader only partially and just at the very end learns of her liberal deep story, thus it is a republican deep story seen through an undisclosed subjective liberal prism that the author unveils. It is as if the liberal deep story is so obviously the norm that it doesn’t even have to be explained or understood by the reader.

Further, as pointed out in the above quote on the deep story, such a story removes judgment and facts. The author’s own deep story is strongly anti-business (and Wall-Street is surely hell on earth) and the appropriateness of this is never really discussed. The view is further reinforced as she on purpose has sought out a small subset of the victims of the potentially nastiest crony capitalism in the US for her study. Unfortunately it leads to a subtle belittlement of her newfound friends. Although they might not be evil Ayn Rand-reading bigots, their emotional deep story - which includes being pro-business - makes them unprotected victims of the corporate oppression the suffer. They are not evil, but they are like ignorant children that need protection from themselves. The book is in this respect equally a sociological study of the author herself. All corporate activities must abide to the law and ensuring this in my view entails a law that is upheld and an uncorrupt police force – not necessarily the big stat she advocates.

Despite my quarrels it’s a book well worth reading since the psychological portrait of the republican voter has seldom been painted. Still, if only to pick one book with this purpose I would chose J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy any day.

Mats Larsson, March 4, 2018

Ridley, Matt - The Rational Optimist

Forth Estate, 2010, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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The most successful investors in the past and present are often optimists. The investor who best showcases this is of course Warren Buffett. Buffett often mentions how future generations will enjoy even higher standards of living than those of today. With this he doesn't say that there won’t be periods where pessimists will be thriving financially but that in the long run the optimists are likely to win. The most important thing is of course to be rational and see the world as it is in order to prosper. In The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley explains why it's likely that optimists will continue to be the winners in the centuries to come.

Ridley who is a British journalist, businessman and science writer has written books such as: The Red Queen, Genome and The Evolution of Everything, as well as The Rational Optimist. He is an advocate of free markets. As such, Ridley wrote the Rational Optimist in order to satisfy his own curiosity of why people think that they would be better off being more self-sufficient; that technology has not improved living standards or that the exchange of things and ideas are not needed. When he wrote the book, the world had been through the financial crisis of 2008 and pessimism was thriving.

Ridley presents the reader with an historical background to how humans have evolved. He brings up examples of situations where the future has looked gloomy and where we humans have always come out stronger. Every chapter describes a period in history and brings up events of certain significance. The common thread is that humans have been able to tackle problems by working together. Through human exchanges people – for the good of all - are able to utilize the skills of others and not only their own. Ridley calls this the collective brain. Due to technologies as the Internet, people can easier than ever share ideas and skills, which is the key to prosperity. This is one of the main reasons to why Ridley is so optimistic of the future.

If asked early in the 20th century if the world would be better or worse off a hundred years from then, what would you have answered if you had been informed that the world would suffer from two world wars, the outbreak of HIV, as well as many other crises? Most likely your answer would have been worse. How wrong you would have been and how many opportunities you would have lost out on. The opportunity cost for staying out of the markets due to coming crises and macro factors would have been devastatingly high. Obviously, during shorter time intervals macro factors can have huge impacts but by being an optimist and by having a long-term investment horizon it’s quite rational to dismiss this.

I find it fascinating how Ridley presents facts that go against the common view of things. Some examples are that the growth of the world population is decelerating, meaning that the world population is likely to peak during the next century. Another is how important fossil fuels are likely to be in the next century. By reading the news it sometimes feels that fossil fuels will be obsolete within the next couple of years, which would be fantastic, but unfortunately far from the truth according to Ridley. What's important from an investment standpoint is to think about what facts like these will lead to for the future.

I chose to read the book after hearing that Tom Gayner, the CIO of Markel, recommended it. I thank him for it. What I think the book gives the reader is some well-needed filters against the pessimism coming from sources like news stories or from people around you. The pessimism will create biases that will lead to irrational decisions. The book will help you to separate signal from noise by taking a more positive long-term view.

Niklas Sävås, February 25, 2018

Meadows, Donella H. - Thinking in Systems

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008, [Surrounding Thinking] Grade 4

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We are systems and we are surrounded by systems. The hydrological cycle of water precipitation and evaporation is a system inside the larger system that is the natural environment. The stock market is a system and it’s a part of the larger systems of financial markets and the economy as a whole. A cell is a system and a building block for the larger system of your body. According to the author, the late Dana Meadows, a systems researcher originally at MIT, a system is “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something”. Systems always contain elements, interconnections and a function/purpose. A system is more than the sum of its parts and displays varying degrees of complex behaviors. The author aims to show the reader a complementary way to see and understand the world.

Thinking in Systems contains three sections. In the first the author in a reductionist fashion presents the components of systems, then shows how they are interconnected to produce various effects and finally displays an array of archetype systems - what Meadows calls the systems zoo. A key insight is how no system can be understood by analyzing its parts but, if at all, by their exchanges.

In the second part the author goes deeper into her analysis of how systems function – or sometimes mal-function, as in the case of for example the so-called tragedy of the commons. Systems are not always easy to understand or even detect as they manifest themselves through a series of singular events. Mankind is easily seduced by spectacular happenings but by this easily misses underlying patterns and large slow changes. By thinking in systems a different understanding is gained which, if nothing else, often serves as an antidote for the need to find individual scapegoats or succumbing to conspiracy theories. To a very large extent systems cause their own behavior. The concluding section discusses various ways to change system behaviors by focusing on their main leverage points.

Meadows was the lead author of the hugely influential The Limits to Growth, published 1972 and associated with the so-called Rome Club, and she was as such lionized by later day environmentalists. The thoughts then presented by Meadows and her co-writers paved the way for much of the thoughts on peak-oil and a critique of growth-obsessed economism. The reader of Thinking in Systems gets an easily read and well-articulated primer on the topic but must be prepared for an anti-business tone. Economic growth is generally deleterious, GDP is a faulty and perilous measure, interest rates are one of the worst ideas of mankind, the industrial culture has destroyed our moral and companies are compared to cancers – from a systems function aspect, at least. Without getting into the debate of the limits to growth, today it’s not hard to conclude that the authors at that time underestimated the effects of technology and innovation and didn’t understand how the pricing mechanism leads to substitution and change. That said, throughout the book Meadows – probably due to her deep knowledge of complex systems – generally displays a humble and curious attitude.

Those investors who are well versed in George Soros’ concept of reflexivity or in the stock market as a complex adaptive system, as popularized by for example Michael Mauboussin, will feel very much at home in Meadows’ view of systems. Interplays between reinforcing and balancing loops, delays between cause and effect and stocks that reach tipping points cause behaviors that we with our limited rationality only partially can understand. Quite poetically Meadows concludes “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!” To succeed in the stock market it helps to get a feel for the flow of the market and to respond seamlessly to feedback from it.

For anyone wanting to understand systems this is definitely the place to start. And yes, it will give the reader a different perspective of the world.

Mats Larsson, January 22, 2018

Gladwell, Malcolm - The Tipping Point

Little, Brown and Company, 2000, [Surrounding knowledge] Grade 4

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At an early stage, it's often hard to know if a new idea or product will transform into something big or not. This is why value investors typically stay away from businesses without a track record. They are well aware that some of these ventures will turn into great successes but argue wisely that they are too hard to evaluate and prosper from. Still, some upstart businesses do reach a point of accelerating growth, why it would be great to be able to recognize patterns and signals for when it's about to happen. The author of this book describes a tipping point as an event when something reaches critical mass and begins to accelerate at a much higher rate.

The Tipping Point was the first book by the now famous author Malcolm Gladwell. He has today written five bestsellers - all with a focus on sociology and psychology. He became interested in the subject of tipping points and critical mass after having witnessed the sudden drop in crime rates in New York in the 1990s. After having analyzed the reasons for the escalation of crimes in the 1980s and the subsequent drop, he then shifted focus to other situations that showed similar characteristics. One of these is the story about the Airwalk shoes that had an exponential increase in demand - which then quickly disappeared. Indeed, retail and especially fashion is a sector that value investors often shun due to its unstable characteristics.

Gladwell starts with introducing the reader to how something can turn into an epidemic by describing situations covering the spread of viruses, trends and criminal acts. He describes the ingredients that he finds have led to tipping points with three features. A few special individuals are needed, the power of the few. It needs to be difficult to switch from, stickiness, and the environment or situation needs to be right, power of the context. Thereafter he presents in-depth case studies of different kind of epidemics where he uses the concepts earlier introduced to the reader.

As an example of the power of the context, it has been found that the number of 150 is a “magic number”. The company Gore along with the Hutterites and various military organizations have experienced first-hand that the efficiency suddenly drops drastically when groups surpass a size of 150 persons. The rule of 150 is explained by the fact that in a smaller group the members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and this increases efficiency. It's vital to know who the best person is for a specific task but when the group becomes larger than 150 people a tipping point is reached and beyond that size this becomes exponentially harder. Gore has solved this by opening a new plant when an old plant reaches 150 workers and it has worked fantastically well for them.

Many of the author’s ideas are very easy to grasp and therefore it's important to stay critical. Gladwell has been critiqued for over-emphasizing the broken window theory when explaining the change in NY crime rates. The theory explains how a broken window or graffiti in the subway leads to more criminal acts if it's not removed. Gladwell has since admitted that he overstated its importance. The concept of tipping points is however an essential mental model with parallels to other powerful concepts. Gladwell for example mentions that it's difficult to grasp how a paper folded over 50 times could reach the sun and that it doesn't make intuitive sense that a 15% compounded return leads to more than 16 times the money after 20 years. But it does and this is also one of the most important insights for an investor.

I chose to read The Tipping Point to try to understand why ideas and businesses take off in order to be able to look for patterns as to when this is in the process of happening. After reading it, I don't think the book gave all the answers but it definitely delivered some. In the end, the greatest takeaway for me is the reinforcement that it's possible to create change with small means. The small details that differentiate one business from another may well be why one survives and thrives while the other goes away which is important to think about when evaluating moats. The book will hopefully also help the reader be even more conscious of the limitations in being a human as well as an investor.

Niklas Sävås, January 18, 2018

Wucker, Michele - The Gray Rhino

St. Martin’s Press, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 3

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Language commends a powerful grip over the mind. That which we have no words for hides in the shade while an expression like for example the black swan as popularized by Nassim Taleb spurs discussion around the subject at hand. In this book the Chicago based journalist, author and opinion maker Michele Wucker launches the concept of a gray rhino as a highly probable and largely predictable, high-impact, yet willfully neglected threat. The question the book tries to answer is why decision makers often keep failing to address these obvious hazards until they turn into a full-blown imminent crisis. Wucker’s aim with this book is to make people react earlier.

After two introductory chapters defining the gray rhino concept, presenting the general outline of the book and discussing the difficulty of forecasting the future, the book dedicates one chapter each to the stages of the below described framework before finishing of with a couple of concluding sections – including a side note on real rhinos. The framework describes a typical but unfortunate five-stage response to facing a gray rhino: 1) denial, 2) muddling, 3) diagnosis, 4) panic and 5) action. The response is unfortunate as it’s too slow. Activities to handle the issue are only done when the threat is imminent and immediate, not earlier when it would have been much cheaper to do something. The gray rhinos that the author brings up are generally something out of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals or sometimes from the last financial crisis but the framework can clearly be applied to any crisis. The human capacity to procrastinate is universal.

In the first stage of the framework the delay, as I read Wucker, is mainly psychological and the threat simply isn’t picked up due to individual biases or groupthink. Since the future is never set in stone the uncertainty gives an excuse to turn the other way. In the second stage the threat is recognized but then more social and institutional obstacles for actions come in play. Naysayers are disruptive for the efficiency of organizations as they walk in the opposite direction from everybody else and the cost of postponing something is in the future while the cost of action hits this year’s budget.

Diagnosing the threat to know how to counter it might be necessary but the process could turn into a delaying tactic in itself. The success of handling the threat comes from the speed of recognizing and defining it plus in prioritizing and acting on the choices made. If the analyzing phase has taken too long leading to inaction, the next stage is panic – ironically leading to everyone freezing for a period before finally acting. The problem of acting while under stress is that the choices made tend to be less thought through.

The author’s solution, which I think is a very wise one, is to create automated systems to aid in the handling of gray rhinos - a system that sends up progressively more red flags as the threat grows larger and that automates responses in accordance to procedures thought out in advance when everyone was in a calm and rational state of mind. Otherwise the general advice from the author is to set up processes and incentive systems to create the ability to think in long-term horizons.

The topic is interesting, I agree with the solutions although it isn’t always easy to - from historical experiences - construct automated systems that will handle future events, but the book isn’t as good as it should have been. Wucker never strongly motivates her framework to start with and the later chapters where the response stages are discussed contain tons of loosely connected stories that bounce back and forth – I lack a stringent story-line. If one removes the many case examples there are very little new generalizable detail in later chapters compared to the initial presentation. The presentation of this important topic, in my opinion, becomes superficial and jumbled.

Instead of focusing too much on unknown unknowns, we should try to handle the unknown knowns; what we should know but refuse to acknowledge. Wucker at least gives us a fair start.


Mats Larsson, January 03, 2018

Hill, Napoleon - Think and Grow Rich

The Ralston Society, 1937, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Have you ever paused to think about what you are doing subconsciously as a matter of routine? How often you procrastinate? The need to think through our actions in a world where everyone wants to grab the attention has possibly never been greater, which is why I think Think and Grow Rich written by Napoleon Hill is more important than ever. This is a book for anyone looking to develop his or her thought process and improve as an investor.

Hill, an American author that focused his writings on how to achieve success, got the assignment to write a book on the methods used by successful people from the steel king Andrew Carnegie. Thus, the text doesn’t reflect the author’s experiences but instead the insights of many of the most effective people and businessmen through history. Hill did not get paid but accepted the offer anyway and spent 25 years gathering facts on people as Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie among others.

Within 50 years the book had sold over 20 million copies and successful people still today often recommend the book. Among its supporters is Warren Buffett. Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger often mention the importance of thinking. To think through the long-term prospects and competitive advantages of businesses is seen as one of the keys to successful investing.

The book is about having the correct mindset and to strive for achievement. The importance of setting up goals together with a definite due date are some of the key factors to influence the subconscious mind. A person’s correct mindset is set by his desire and faith plus continuous repetition. Marcus Aurelius once said "the things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts" which is a quote that summarizes a lot of this book. In order to achieve success, the thoughts need to lead to action.  Furthermore, few people have succeeded alone. Instead they have progressed with the help of others. Hence, it’s of great value to have people to brainstorm with and also a loving spouse.

The book is easy to read and can be used as a step-by-step guide on how to think and act in order to succeed in life. In the first version, it consisted of thousands of pages which was shorted down to one thousand pages in a later version and then to under 250 pages in this version. A few inspiring examples from the book are about Henry Ford and his V8 engine which his scientists said was impossible to build - but Ford pushed them to triumph. Another describes how Charles M. Schwab convinced JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie to make a deal which transformed the steel industry.

I think Hill summarizes the ways to become successful in a great way and if the concepts are followed I am confident they will also lead to riches. However, if the book is read only once it probably won't make much difference. In investment circles one of the key factors in getting an edge is having a truly long-term view. In the same mold, I would set the importance of having a good thought process. This is exactly what Think and Grow Rich will help the reader with.

Niklas Sävås, November 23, 2017

Mishra, Pankai - Age of Anger: A History of the Present

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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I’m quite torn about this book. On the one hand it is monumental and thought provoking, on the other hand I feel that it’s intellectually dishonest. Indian born but UK resident, Pankaj Mishra is an author of several books, a columnist for a number of well known publications in the US and UK and he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The Age of Anger has been tooted as a book that lets us understand the new post-liberal world we are entering. The author’s thesis is that the “angriness” of our age, be it expressed by Islamistic terror, the election of aggressive populist leaders - like Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in the US - or by the UK exodus from the EU, is really a global sequel to an earlier European resistance towards the enlightenment and its acolyte the liberal market economy. Osama Bin Laden is our time’s Mikhail Bakunin. Mishra tells a story of a pendulum movement through time. Just like the romantic movement of the late 18th century until the mid 19th century in the author’s narrative was a countermovement against the enlightenment that ended in Marxist and fascist outbreaks of violence, our time’s reactions against the globalized neo-liberal market economy will, according to Mishra, end in World War III.

The structure of the book is that the author first over a few chapters outlines his thesis, then the voluminous mid-section is dedicated to endless examples and historic references that are meant to display the connection between the previous European counter-movement and the current global one. Finally the author in the end again outlines his proposed Hegelian process towards human destruction. The amount of name-dropping in the central part is close to numbing. For those not supremely interested in a detailed exposé of historic anti-enlightenment composers, poets, philosophers, writers etc. and who only want the gist of the author’s argument the middle section can be disregarded.

Why do I think the writing to be intellectually dishonest? The author tries to portray himself as an objective observer and analyst of this pendulous movement between the enlightenment and its critics. He is only reporting the truth as he (alone) has discovered it. Mishra is anything but impartial. It is not that he shies away from describing the violence of fascists and Islamists but he understands them and their actions are explained by the necessity to react. They are almost excused. When describing the enlightenment, globalization and market economy the tone is hardly equally understanding. The contempt, loathing and scorn displayed when discussing the guilty party is distasteful and frankly bordering on childish.

Enlightenment critics have always seen the belief in reason as oppression and the conviction around universal truths as Western cultural imperialism. Also, from day one the industrial revolution as well as the scientific revolution that followed the enlightenment was accused of killing the spirituality of mankind. The Age of Anger adds nothing new in this respect. Mishra is obviously right in that the argumentation of earlier German romanticists, Marxists and fascists as well as today’s Islamists, populists and left wing neo-colonialists often are strikingly similar when it comes to these topics. This is however hardly a solid foundation for a theory of a deterministic road to hell for humanity.

I am not one to take the rootlessness of people in a globalized world lightly. Liberalism is just a framework of freedom that should be filled with things that give meaning to life. At the same time it becomes absurd to describe our age’s Western World as bordering to hell on Earth. It makes you wonder why Mishra would want to stay in London and attend the meetings of the Royal Society? One is reminded of the intellectual father of the post-colonialist theory, Edward Said, who sat in comfort at his Columbia University professor’s chair.

This book will delight the anti-Western cadre. Its confrontational style will however make any discussion of the relevant topics impossible.

Mats Larsson, September 11, 2017

Vance, J.D. - Hillbilly Elegy

William Collins, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Wow, where to start? This elegy is a touching cocktail of one part gripping family saga spanning three generations, one part intimate account of the emotional maturing of the author plus finally a sociological study of the Scots-Irish decedents in the Appalachian mountains and surrounding states that the author calls hillbillies. Political pundits, experts and commentators who have awakened to the new reality of Donald Trump’s presidency have focused on the latter part but at hart Hillbilly Elegy is the very personal story of young J.D. Vance born in Middleton, Ohio but with his roots in the mountain town Jackson, Kentucky.

The account of J.D.’s family history is dramatic, tragic, fascinating and often totally absurd. It contains violence, drug abuse and an acute lack of father figures but also love, support and pride. While the author is the storyteller and there are several important and colorful characters like for example his sister Lindsey, his mom and J.D.’s grandfather Papaw, the towering figure of the family and of the author’s upbringing is his grandmother Mamaw – a crazy hillbilly by her own account. And this is meant in a positive sense.

My feeling is that Hillbilly Elegy as much as anything is a piece of self-therapy for the author – a way to analyze and understand his persona and how it is shaped by his upbringing. With all skeletons out in the open daylight, they are significantly less daunting. We are invited to follow the transformation from a person fostered into and culture of “learned helplessness” characterized by low trust (as people always fail you), honor culture, a feeling of victimization and a fair amount of ignorance of the outside world, to a person married to a Asian immigrant, living in “Silicon-everything-is-possible-Valley” working with the super entrepreneur Peter Thiel.

It’s a journey from what Carol S. Dweck calls a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and it is made possible by Mamaw’s and Papaw’s insistence on education, the possibility of a refuge (and pure physical protection) at Mamaw’s house during the most chaotic periods and the transformative experience of joining the US Marine that instilled a sense that effort pays, that later resulted in a law degree from Yale. Still, no one can fully escape his upbringing and even today J.D. has to actively control his violent reflexes when it comes to minor injustices and he has had to learn how to handle domestic disputes without destructive fighting.

However, the journey shouldn’t unequivocally be seen as originating in bad and ending in good. Yes, the hillbilly culture includes suspicion towards outsiders, sexism and a lack of agency, i.e. a feeling that nothing a person does matters for how his life will turn out. But it is also an environment of loyalty, toughness, courage, independence, frank hillbilly justice and a deep love of both the extended family and of country. Unfortunately, it is the author’s view that the negative traits increasingly are gaining the upper hand. In a knowledge-economy manliness is defined as aggressiveness and good grades in school are for sissies and fagots. Those that try to make a better life elsewhere are seen as outcasts. There is a cynical feeling of isolation and being left out but also an inwardly culture that discourages doing anything about it. No wonder the social mobility of the US Scots-Irish group is the lowest of any in the US. Problems are psychologically suppressed, drug use is rampaging and with no confidence in media at all conspiracy theories set the agenda.

Globalization has created a divide between an international and increasingly speed-blinded liberal elite and a western world blue color population that cannot compete on a global manufacturing market and therefore hardly appreciates the long-term structural wealth creation that comes with global trade. Hence, increasingly western world politics is influenced by the working class’ feelings of fear and anger and a sense of being under attack. However, this story isn’t just a melancholic, plaintive elegy, it advocates a culture revolution from within: “We hillbillies must wake the hell up”.


Mats Larsson, July 05, 2017

Haidt, Jonathan - The Righteous Mind

Penguin Group, 2012, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 5

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The last few years’ capital markets have been heavily influenced by politics. Hence, a political understanding is important. This book offers the most illuminating road map to politics I’ve read in years. It covers the differences in moral view between what in the US is called liberals (the political left wing) and pretty much everybody else in the world. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of ethical leadership at Stern School of Business. He is unusual in that his work mixes psychology, sociology, biology and, importantly, cultural anthropology, allowing him to transcend normal academic departmental boundaries and view issues from new angles. He is also a very accomplished popular science writer letting him to eloquently argue for his sometimes-controversial opinions.

The book has three fairly different parts. The first shows that the systems that Daniel Kahneman calls system 1 and system 2 is equally at play when it comes to moral. We have an immediate, instinctive and emotional intuition on moral issues and only afterwards the slow and deliberate logic comes into play – and mostly the logic is simply used to rationalize the instinctive intuition. The aim of our moral actions is further more a PR effort towards our tribe than a search for truth.

The second part is the vital one. Through his research around the globe and in various US environments the author has shown that there are 6 innate moral “taste buds” that we all to some extent share: a) care-harm, b) liberty-oppression, c) fairness-cheating, d) loyalty-betrayal, e) authority-subversion and f) sanctity-degradation. The conservative westerner is similar to most people around the world in that all 6 facets of morality matter about equally, while the western liberal almost only focuses on (in decreasing amounts) a, b and c. With regards to b the focus is on liberty from the oppression of big corporations through the state, while conservatives and libertarians instead want liberty from the oppression of the state itself. The low emphasis on d-f gives liberals and libertarians a very autonomous world-view while the others look more to relationships. A person with one type of moral matrix has a very hard time understanding that there can be more than one form of moral truth for people and the most trouble in understanding others the liberals have as they have the narrowest set of moral principles. The advantage (?) of the liberal will be that he will instead experience less moral dilemmas than the more diverse conservative.

In the third part Haidt brings forward the notion that the Darwinian selection that shapes our behavior not only is at work at the individual level but also on a group level. Groups that manage to better bind people together and foster stronger commitment have tended to out-compete less captivating ones. Natural selection favors group efforts and this is the explanation for the fact that people often experience the greatest joy during moments when they become a part of a whole. Unfortunately this also makes groups very competitive towards each other, making discussing differing moral world-views extremely hard.

In the tradition of psychology Haidt’s work on moral is descriptive, it displays the map of different moral matrixes but doesn’t really argue that any group’s view is more or less right or wrong. Haidt is more of a moral anthropologist than a moral philosopher. On the plus side the description is a lot more interesting and nuanced than I had expected but personally I think that the question of morals cannot only concern itself with how it works but also with how it should work. To be fair the author gives a few brief suggestions for a moral middle ground between liberals, libertarians and conservatives that could be seen as normative.

With Haidt’s map at hand one’s navigation between various expressed political opinions becomes ridiculously easy. You will understand were everybody is coming from – even though they don’t necessarily will themselves.


Mats Larsson, Jan 3, 2017

Duckworth, Angela - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Scrobner, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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I initially intended postponing writing this review until next year but given the topic of Angela Duckworth’s book it felt out of place to put it off. This is a book on following through on the goals you set up and the results that over time come with showing grit. The overriding theme is that effort trumps innate talent when it comes to which personality traits that drive success. 

While there are several academics that study positive psychology and related topics Angela Duckworth, who is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, literally invented the research field of grit. Wikipedia defines grit as “passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve [the] objective.” Related concepts are said to be perseverance, conscientiousness, resilience, hardiness, ambition etc. 


There are three parts to the book. The first lays out the theory framework of grit that is said to consist of two parts; passion and perseverance. The latter is perhaps more intuitive but without passion it’s hard to muster the strength to be perseverant. The passion in question is of an enduring, slow burning kind, allowing a person to consistently and stubbornly over time work towards a set direction despite at times suffering setbacks. It’s the intrinsic motivation that brings hardiness in effort. 


Gritty people often have their priorities in order and consciously or unconsciously work towards a hierarchy of ambitions but doable goals where each lower one supports a higher in a consistent fashion, in the end leading to the desired state where the sum of all the efforts creates something larger. In achieving one’s goals Duckworth shows that effort counts twice as much as talent. Talent multiplied by effort builds skill. That skill multiplied by more effort builds achievement. Hence, putting in even more effort is what makes skill productive. “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” 


The question is whether the capability for grit that overpowers talent is itself in the genes? The answer is yes, but as the author shows the environment is even more important. One study she refers to assigns a roughly 70/30 split for the environment and for innate talent when it comes grittiness. This means that grit can be grown and part two and three of the book address how to grow grit inside-out and outside-in, i.e. how to grow one’s own grit and how to grow grit in others. 


Part two goes into detail of much of what’s already been stated and the author brings forward 4 key concepts for building one’s own grit: 1) interest – where the quest to find something to arouse passion is usually a trial-and-error process, 2) practice – where we get a quick tutorial in the concept of deliberate practice as popularized by Anders Ericsson, 3) purpose – that adds in the motivation that comes from doing work that in some way matters also for others and 4) hope – that deals with the grinding work with the ambition locked in, helped by what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Part three addresses how to build grit through parenting or coaching sports teams. Apart from bringing forward the concept of the social multiplier where grit rubs off in groups I found the ending part less worked through, with more anecdotes and the author’s own opinions. 


This is an engaging and at the same personal book. Duckworth starts and ends Grit with how her father had noted that she wasn’t a genius when she was a child. From a fixed mindset this might have been true but Duckworth showed that grit and a growth mindset mattered more. Where Anders Ericsson’s book Peak focuses on the type of practice needed to be an expert performer, Duckworth’s publication answers much of the questions around how to find the motivation to pursue this training. Reading Grit first and Peak thereafter will give anyone the ammunition to become the best version of who they aspire to be – and it also turns out that grittier people are happier than others! 
 
Mats Larsson, Dec 23, 2016

Ericsson, Anders & Pool, Robert - Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise

Bodley Head, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Anders Ericsson is the world’s leading expert on expertise. Ericsson who is a professor at Florida State has spent 30 years researching human performance – and yes, he is Swedish. Together with the journalist Robert Pool he gives the inside view of how experts are made.

There are several myths when it comes to expertise. Perhaps the most prevalent one is that ability is innate and by this predestined – “I’m simply not good with math”. In fact Ericsson’s research shows that genetic predisposition plays a very marginal role compared to the work put in when it comes to developing a skill. And it isn’t too late. Our brain retains much of its adaptability through out life, so while some things might be easier to learn as a child we can all develop. Other misconceptions are that one gets better the longer one does something, or that all it takes is effort – or 10,000 hours of practice specifically.

What it takes to become an elite performer is instead dedicated training that rewires the brain – so-called deliberate practice. What Ericsson has found is that while true elite performers practiced a lot they all practiced in essentially the same way. Without this specific type of practice, 10.000 hours and spent effort will not amount to much. The hands-on almost physical ring to the expression deliberate practice is carefully chosen. There is a difference between knowledge and skill. The bottom line is what someone is able to do, not what they know. Expert skill in this respect is the practical application of something.

Deliberate practice is purposeful and informed in that it is guided by an understanding of what makes elite performers great and has a clear understanding of how they achieved their excellence. A large part of being an expert is in developing and internalizing what Ericsson calls mental representations, “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about” allowing the expert to see patterns where non-experts only sees randomness. The concept is similar to, but broader, than Charlie Munger’s mental models. Ericsson’s concept for example also includes physical and musical skills.

So what is this magic formula? Well the short version is to identify the real experts, identify what makes them great (generally what they do differently) and design a practice that leads you to do the same. The practice should preferably be overseen by a coach that has set up a plan with a number of milestones that in combination leads to a bigger change. The coach also monitors the progress. The practice should be designed to stay just outside the trainee’s comfort zone and as such it requires effort, attention and isn’t always enjoyable and importantly the process involves feedback and modifications of the practice in response to the feedback. The training focuses on aspect after aspect (or mental representation) of something and improves them specifically. Over time new skills are built on top of old skills and skills regarding different aspects combine to form something larger than the sum of the parts.

I must admit that I was initially skeptical of this book as it might well be the tale from the horses mouth, but still a tale that has been told several times as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and so many other books have already presented Ericsson’s research to the general public. Not unsurprisingly however it turns out that listening to the original source gives a special depth – then the reader will have to accept that he probably has heard all the examples previously and that in the name of being perfectly clear the authors repeat themselves slightly too often.

In the end this is a book of hope and enthusiasm – after having read it you find yourself making plans for how to improve the sub skills that are holding you back from reaching the next level; Focus. Feedback. Fix it.

Mats Larsson, Dec 13, 2016

Newport, Cal - Deep Work

Grand Central Publishing, 2016, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

Buying and reading this book is an excessive exercise in confirmation bias on my part. This is very much what I believe and if I would only rate the book with regards to its importance it has five-star qualities. The hypothesis of Carl Newport, an assistant professor in computer science at... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Hess, Edward D. - Learn or Die

Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 3

What does it take for organizations to create a culture of learning that will make them prosper? The author’s viewpoint is that winning companies are those that outlearn others and that the formula to create a HPLO, a High Performing Learning Organization, equals the right people + ... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Iceman, Eli T. - Power Grid Operations

Dog Ear Publishing, 2012, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

In the public discussion about electrical utilities power generation gets most of the attention and the power grid gets very little – apart from some vague remarks about “smart grids”. This is a shame as the grid is a very complex... Further reading... Link to Amazon... 

Carnegie, Dale - How to Win Friends and Influence People

Vermilion, 2006 (first published in 1937), [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 3

This must be one of the best guides to Warren Buffett’s psyche and persona that there is. On the cover Buffett is quoted saying “[Carnegie] changed my life.” Dale Carnegie is the pioneer in the self-improvement genre and in adult education overall and this book remains a best seller... Further reading...  Link to Amazon...

Rodin, Judith and Brandenburg, Margot - The Power of Impact Investing

Wharton, 2014 [Surrounding knowledge] Grade 4

Impact investing is similar to value investing in one crucial aspect: you either grasp its eloquent righteousness instantly or you don’t. If you are one of the people who reflexively turn your back on concepts such as socially responsible investments (SRI), ethical investing or corporate... Further reading... Link to Amazon...