Sommers, Tamler – Why Honor Matters

Basic Books, 2018 [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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In this his third book the relatively young Texan associate professor of philosophy at the University of Huston, Tamler Sommers, defines the virtue of honor, describes the pros and cons of honor cultures and claims that honor is underrated in our modern world. The author argues that the Western world has made a mistake in suppressing the concept of honor to the extent that has been done and that we need to adapt a “constrained” honor concept to live a good life. Although clearly interesting, Why Honor Matters fails to fully tie together all the loose ends.

According to the author the Western world is virtually schizophrenic when it comes to honor. The concept has little place in the discourse apart from when we horrify over the blood feuds, racism and bullying of women in honor cultures. On the other hand we admire the courageous hero of books and movies that rights the wrongs and in sports honor is still a valid concept. The first two chapters of the book define what honor is and discusses why it’s a problem that the West has abandoned the concept. Chapters three through five, drills deeper in the various aspects of honor cultures. Then “the most ambitious and […] the most important chapter” six argues for introducing so called restorable justice in the Western criminal justice system. Finally, the last chapter tries to present a picture of how the contained type of honor concept might look.

Sommers distinguishes between a Western dignity framework with its roots in the enlightenment and honor cultures – and to be clear, honor cultures could be attributed to both the populations of the Appalachian mountains and the Afghan mountains as well as the Navy SEALS, Mexican drug cartels and NHL hockey teams. Dignity is in this respect a universal unbreakable value that comes with being a human being and it is as such skeptical of narrowing forms of identifications with for example nation, class, race etc. This is because too close identification risks excluding others from the moral sphere. Honor is a much more fragile value that takes the opposite view. Giving equal moral weight to outsiders and insiders of a group is seen as immoral. While others should be treated with respect and hospitality, caring for your own is absolute priority. In a dignity culture living a moral life is a pursuit and choice of the individual while in honor cultures the individual moral is a part of a group’s norms and a moral life a necessity to be accepted by, and gain status in, the group. Dignity is independent of social structures and this has huge value in breaking free from oppressive structures. The downside is a loss of stability and structure plus of the self-respect that comes from standing up for yourself. To the author the western focus on the free will and the independence from others is too abstract where an atomization is prioritized over the meaning and solidarity that exist in honor cultures. Without the, granted not always positive, group cohesion of group norms dignity societies instead come to depend on an all powerful state penetrating deep into civil society.

Although I agree that a person to his best ability should live an honorable life of integrity, I reserve this as a choice for myself. My quarrels with the book are three. The discussion around restorative justice comes up now and again in the book and not just in chapter six. I think that it could have been better flagged that a debate on procedural structures in the US court system were such a large part of the book. Further, at times the author in my view comes a bit too romanticizing of the “honorable savage” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The ending chapter on how to create the contained type of honor isn’t very developed. Basically Sommers says that since honor norms are not universal they are changeable. What we need to do is to have norms that prevent violent escalation and that utilize less violent methods for standing up for oneself. Examples given are the dance-offs in Hip Hop culture, NHL norms, poetry slams and the Chicago BAM-project (Becoming a Man) - a bit slim basis for the change of western culture.

An important debate worthy of a stronger finish.


Mats Larsson, November 7, 2018

Scruton, Roger - Fools, Frauds and Firebrands

Bloomsbury, 2015 [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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This is a deconstruction of the ideas of most of the leading socialist thinkers during the last 70 years including for example Jean-Paul Sartre, Michael Foucault, Jürgen Habermas and Antonio Gramsci. The author Sir Roger Scruton, who is a Cambridge philosopher, describes the theories of the thinkers, dissects what they really mean and by this exposes emptiness and charlatanism as well as intellectual vanity and the pursuit of power.

My big take from this exposé of over 20 post-world war socialist-Marxist thinkers is that they are largely all the same. The socialist intellectual movement is a purely academic discipline advanced by well-situated university professors who criticize the society that supports them. They all share a conspiracy theory type of framework where a secret force governs a system and by this is able to exercise power over a mentally sedated people. The culprit thus extracts the spoils of power. The tranquilized and deceived people on the other hand miss out on living in the paradise-like utopia that would materialize if they weren’t - unknowingly to themselves - ruled by this secret force. The academic is the only one who sees through the fog of domesticizing norms of power and must as part of a self-elected elite - a true philosopher king of Socrates’ - lead the people’s rebellion and by this liberate the enslaved noble savage of Rousseau so that he can live a life in spiritual harmony.

The secret force varies between thinkers. It can be the bourgeois, the western world/the US, the rational scientist, the corporation, capitalism, neo-liberalism, universal truths and rights, the consumer society, the society of the enlightenment and - later on - the man, the white man, the heterosexual (man) etc. etc. It is a rejection of the very society and context of the academic – making it an exercise in theatrical cultural self-loading (“their revulsion is a kind of holiness” as Scruton puts it). The arena of the coming revolution also conveniently varies with the academic discipline of the thinker and could be language/literature, the historic narrative, philosophy, sociology, art, architecture etc. It is always very unclear what the utopia really looks like. The important thing is instead the struggle and the solidarity of the select elite who leads it. “The contradictory nature of the socialist utopias is one explanation of the violence involved in the attempt to impose them: it takes infinite force to make people do what is impossible.” All thinkers are obliged to add their contribution to the ever-growing terminology swamp of academic socialism to mask that they all say pretty much the same thing.

Thus, the structure of the framework is the same as the one initially constructed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but the arena is now almost always cultural rather than a “materialistic”-economic one as in old-school Marxism - the exception perhaps being Gramsci, staging his revolution from below through the infiltration of all of society’s most important institutions (with regards to their power to influence the mind of the masses). Obviously, the “worker” still has to be paid tribute by all thinkers and generally functions as a lazy type of alibi in their theories, but in reality he is immaterial to these culture wars of the learned class. The worker is simply there to be governed by someone. The existential struggle is by whom – the progressive learned intellectual or the fascist Other.

It is indeed interesting to learn the historic origins of many of the expressions and phenomena that one is exposed to when reading the culture pages of daily newspapers. The reader for example learns the history of critical theory (Max Horkheimer’s “systematic critique of capitalist culture”), concepts like late-capitalism (Habermas’ spätkapitalismus) and “the gaze” and why communist thinkers’ texts seemingly confuse subject and object in the most peculiar way. The one large drawdown of the book is the language which is that of an elderly British philosophy professor. The book is no picnic to get trough but it’s totally worth it in the end.

Frightening but brutally vital knowledge.


Mats Larsson, October 8, 2018

Harari, Yuval Noah - Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

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Liberal humanism has overtaken traditional religion as the dominating narrative to drive the world forward. Still, the dominance is only temporary and in time dataism will take over. Homo Deus is the story of how this will happen and how the human race potentially will succumb in the process. Yuval Noah Harari who is a professor of history and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is the author of Sapiens that looked to the history of mankind. Homo Deus is the sequel where the historian instead looks to the future.

In a very condensed form the story Harari presents is the following one. Humans are only different in grade from animals. We are just slightly more advanced with regards to certain abilities but not others. The reason why the unexceptional humans have come to rule the world is our ability to rally behind shared narratives in large groups and the collective power that comes from this. Historically the dominating stories were various religions as they both provided a purpose to life and processes that helped mankind’s progress. Still, there was no free will as god ruled supreme. With the breakthrough of science traditional religions were proven false. By killing god humans seized power over their own destiny but by doing this they risked losing life’s purpose.

The savior turned out to be humanism that Harari defines as ideologies that worship humanity or the human – communism and Nazism are included but the chief humanist religion is democratic liberalism. Our belief in our own exceptionalism has managed to both free us from the deterministic reign of religious thought and still keep a purpose. Humanism has created a golden age – at least in relative historical terms - where starvation, war and plagues are manageable issues and where those in the elite now are looking to more ambitious goals such as eliminating death, creating artificial life and by this reaching a semi-divine status as a species.

Unfortunately science and artificial intelligence instead conspire against our ability to eat the cake and still keep it. Neuroscience threatens to degrade us to biological automata without free will that just react to external stimuli and all that we can do robots will soon do much better. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. Humanism’s revering of the human will falter and with it the meaning of human life will do the same. Still, people need an algorithm to live by. Just as humanism during its era was more useful than the defeated traditional religious faith, the next phase will require a new belief. The ideology that the author sees winning is called dataism where the purpose basically is data processing. “Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing”. People will degrade to units in a universal data processing system.

I’ve given Homo Deus an average rating. Still, there is nothing average about this book. The author is encyclopedic in his knowledge-scope and the topic is the survival of the human race. The grade instead reflects the intellectual dishonesty of almost force-feeding a narrative down the reader’s throat without openly discussing any uncertainties or qualifying the assumptions made along the way. What if we are exceptional - also in isolation and not only as a collective? What if we do have free will? What if Harari’s rather pointless dataism attracts no-one and something else emerges? Annoyingly, three pages from the end and after spending the book bulldozing any attempt to argue against his narrative, the author hints that he himself might not believe in his own Silicon Valley dystopia. Further, the sunny description on the book sleeve describes the many wonders of human achievement, while the book in itself portrays how we are relentlessly marching towards Ragnarök. It’s almost false advertising.

If you know what you are getting into and have the time to dwell on paths alternative from the author’s this is a very worthwhile book to read – but don’t judge it by its cover.

Mats Larsson, August 5, 2018

Robbins, Tony - Awaken the Giant Within

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1991 [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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To know yourself and how you act is often described as essential attributes for the investor. Having patience and a long-term perspective are two examples of such traits. Certainly, you also need to master the craft of investing and finance but in order to stick out from the crowd it is necessary to master your own emotions. Most of the literature on psychology is theoretical where the guidance on how to avoid negative reactions is slim. Awaken the Giant Within turns this upside down and is purely written for the practical person who wants to understand how to use the theories in real world situations.

Tony Robbins is one of the leading self-help influencers in the world. He is widely known as a speaker, advisor and author and is also a very successful entrepreneur. He wrote Awaken the Giant Within as a 31-year-old having studied the subject of psychology voraciously from a very young age. Robbins calls himself a coach and wants to create a way of life for others where negatives are turned into positives and where they become able to master their emotions, physiology, relationships and financial situations. He has advised numerous influencial people as Bill Clinton, Wayne Gretzky, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. One example of a successful investor who Robbins has been able to transform is Guy Spier who talks warmly of Robbins in his book The Education of a Value Investor.

The book is organized in four sections. All sections consist of various practical challenges which forces the reader to be active. The first part presents most of the theoretical background on why we feel and act as we do and what measures can be taken to improve. Part one is more than half of the text. The second part confronts and challenges the reader to figure out which values and rules his life is based on and how they should be changed and re-arranged in order to lead to improvements. The whole third part is a seven-day challenge consisting of a step-to-step guidance on how to improve emotionally, physically, relationship-wise and financially. The last part is all about philanthropy and how it's possible to become a better person and at the same time help people in need by giving.

This is a book that can help investors and others to break out of negative thought patterns. The author describes easy methods as how the usage of less negative words to describe a situation will improve the actual temperament of the reader. If you are saying that you are stressed out, exhausted or angry the negative emotion will become even stronger. As humans, we are trying to avoid pain and instead experience pleasure. An example in how that can distort rationality is in situations when the proof tells us that we are wrong and we disregard it due to the truth being too hard to bear, a concept named cognitive dissonance. This is not a recipe of good thinking for the rational investor. Some simple, but hugely important, wisdom from the book is to prioritize the long-term versus the short-term, to avoid distortive substances and to be aware of the shortcomings of oneself and how to tackle them in order to improve.

I was positively surprised by how much of Robbin’s work is built on the latest theories in human psychology. For me that created trust in the tools presented in the book. Awaken the Giant Within is for the active reader and needs to be read with a pen in hand. The commitment to read the book is therefore greater than the mere 500 pages. To get the full benefit of the book the reader needs to be open for change and take on the challenges the author presents. This is therefore a commitment stretching from weeks to years. The end result is likely to be a game changer for your life and who you want to be as a person.

If you are not willing to put in the substantial effort of reading it now I suggest you read something else and pick up this book when you are ready and motivated to transform yourself and people around you. But why wait?

Niklas Sävås, July 31, 2018

Rosling, Hans - Factfullness

Flatiron Books, 2018, [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Very few persons hold a factual view of what the state of our world is. We consistently think our problems are grimmer than they are. In Factfullness the late Hans Rosling points to biases that shape our faulty views and also shows us how to correct them. Rosling was a physician, statistician and Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute who took the TED Talks audience by storm with his folksy style and enlightening diagrams showing us the world as we hadn’t seen it before. The aim of his public talks as well as this book was simply to combat the ignorance of how the world looks, since without a correct worldview we will make the wrong decisions.

First out the reader is put to the test as Rosling asks thirteen multiple choice questions about the state of the world, i.e. topics like population growth, life expectancies, literacy, income distribution, education, health and global warming. The same test has previously been put to 14.000 persons globally and excluding the global warming questions the average number of correct answers was two out of twelve. We significantly underperform blind chance and the results are little different or even worse among population groups with higher education. We are actively and systematically misrepresenting the world.

The problem isn’t a lack of facts, an evil conspiracy or fake news, but our own biases. We are hard wired to over-dramatize. We notice and remember spectacular events while we ignore gradual but more important changes. Further, negative events render a lot more interest than positive. A commercial media industry that competes for consumer attention then naturally serves us exactly this; a never ending array of spectacular negative news items. This is what sells, and this is also what we as media consumers want to buy. Incentives also matter in other ways. Rosling, who at least in his youth politically had a leftish bent, in one of his public speeches notices that professional investors were among those with the most fact based view and showed the most interest to learn and correct what they had gotten wrong. The reason was simple. If they got it wrong they lost money. In contrast, developing world aid workers knew less and also didn’t really want to change. A world in disarray was what they thought necessary in order to mobilize the rich to help the poor. At least some even felt threatened by a world view where the developing world wasn’t a helpless victim being brutalized by their former colonial masters.

Factfullness isn’t a book that tries to show the true state of the world, but a book that in ten chapters lists ten cognitive biases in how we understand our surroundings. Rosling calls them the Gap Instinct, the Straight Line Instinct, the Blame Instinct and so on. Some are due to our less developed ability to instinctively grasp statistics, some are due to how emotions often trump analytical reasoning. The chapters all contain introductory anecdotes from Rosling’s upbringing and life as a practicing medical doctor in for example rural Africa and as such the book also becomes a type of memoir. The chapters also give practical advice on how to correct the biases so that we can see the world as it is for ourselves.

Rosling charmed the audience of TED Talks with his energetic, enthusiastic, down to earth and almost naïve style presenting a combination of real life stories and graphs on global developments. His combination of integrity and empathy is rare and the distinctly Swedish dialect only added to his popularity. To me, Rosling’s style that in public presentations was so disarming and endearing, at first felt a bit banal in written text. In the end however I had to capitulate. Rosling is above all extremely rational and his pursuit to make the world a better place through facts is admirable. The plain language might actually be what gives the book the broad readership it deserves.

Read Factfullness both to gain a fact based worldview but also to gain peace of mind as so much is getting better over time.

Mats Larsson, July 9, 2018

Walton, Sam & Huey, John - Sam Walton: Made in America

Bantam Books, 1992 [Surrounding Knowledge] Grade 4

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Sam Walton: Made in America pushes the reader to become a better and more honest person by presenting the standards that Sam Walton set on himself and others. "I'd hate to see any descendants of mine fall into the category of what I'd call "idle rich" - a group I've never had much use for." There are dozens of similar quotes in the book which summarizes Walton's worldview. The book is a biography filled with wisdom and real life lessons on business and management.

Sam Walton was the founder of one of the most successful businesses of the 20th century, Wal-Mart. What started with one store in the small town of Bentonville, Arkansas, developed into a store network covering the whole US. Walton who in building Wal-Mart became the richest man in America, co-authored the book together with John Huey in the end of his life while struggling with cancer. Huey, an author and journalist, has, among else, served as the editor-in-chief of Time Inc.

The structure of the book follows the life of Sam Walton in chronological order. The reader is set on a journey from Walton's early days working in a retail store, to when he started his own shop and thereafter the development of his huge legacy. Every chapter is filled with viewpoints from family members and Wal-Mart employees which gives the reader a more objective view of how things where.

Customer obsession and constant improvement are core themes when describing Wal-Mart’s strategy. Similar to the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, Walton had the idea that if you always try to do a bit more for the customer then you will stay ahead of the competition. Bezos has mentioned that Sam Walton and Wal-Mart was a big inspiration for him when building Amazon. Walton was studying the competitors deeply and was in the words of the super-investor Mohnish Pabrai ”a shameless cloner” as he applied the good concepts that he learned from his competitors. A quote from the book reads: "most everything I have done I've copied from somebody else". Another quote is about the learning’s from Sol Price, another highly successful manager within retail: "I guess I've stolen - I actually prefer the word "borrowed" - as many ideas from Sol Price as from anybody else in the business". By studying others, Walton created a great corporate culture driven by incentives to his partners which led to better customer treatment. He constantly adjusted the business to what he thought was for the best. These constant adjustments were probably one of the keys for Wal-Mart to stand out from the competition in one of the most competitive industries around.

A further lesson to learn from Wal-Mart is the growth strategy the company used. The business grew in smaller towns in areas close to its distribution centers in order to benefit from economies of scale in the specific area. A less well-known and riskier aspect of the growth strategy was that it was built on debt financing. From the start of Wal-Mart until the listing in 1971 the company and its owners were saddled with debt. Since Walton used debt in order to grow the business he was relieved when he got rid of the burden when going public.

There are a lot of interesting facts in the book that are important from an investment standpoint. The reader will get a better idea of the retail industry and what it takes to become successful but especially what to look for in a manager. Walton mentions that the investors who profited most from Wal-Mart were the ones that had a long-term view and that studied the company and got familiar with the strengths and the management approach.

Even though the book is written at the very end of Sam Walton's life I don't think it shines through. Possibly, this is due to the skill of the co-author John Huey. I think all managers, investors and people in general would become better in their professions and in life by learning from Sam Walton. This book is a great place to start.

Niklas Sävås, June 30, 2018

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