Plus The Heart of Darkness & Anguish of Central Banking
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“The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives, we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.”
— Carl Jung

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The Heart of Darkness - I first read this book in high school like many Americans. A friend suggested reading it and I just read Niall Ferguson's Empire on the history of the British empire. Heart of Darkness is known primarily as one of the early works of postmodern literature. It has an unreliable narrator with a nonlinear structure. It’s also known as a critique of imperialism from a fairly early time (it was written in 1899). I enjoyed it a lot more than I remember enjoying it in high school. The writing itself is terrific and I found it to be a real page turner. It also provides a more first person and human-centered perspective on the European Imperial project.

Ogilvy on Advertising - A classic for anyone in marketing or even not in marketing. Ad legend, David Ogilvy shares his insights on everything from the importance of research, to creating an effective ad campaign, to managing an advertising agency.

The key theme of the book is the importance of understanding your customer. Ogilvy talks about his robust research process and the importance of creating ads that appeal to their needs and desires. The old copywriting slogan is the most important one in marketing also easily forgotten: "Enter the conversation going on in your prospect's mind."

Articles and Podcasts

Finance and Economics

Anguish of Central Banking [Paper]

A talk delivered by former Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns in 1979, one year after his tenure as Fed Chair ended. Burns is not kindly remembered in economic and financial history. The most commonly accepted narrative is that he was too soft on inflation during his 1970-1978 tenure and create the extended stagflationary period that the U.S. experienced until iron-fisted Paul Volcker came in and raised rates enough to finally squelch inflation.

This narrative may be true, but it’s interesting to read Burns own account of the period and why he feels that inflation got out of control.

Broadly, his argument is that following the great success and effectiveness of the U.S. government in the 1940s (won a major war) through the 1960s (Apollo, lots of economic growth, Great Society) that there was a huge demand from citizens for fiscal policy to solve problems.

Because of the expectation of constant wage growth that set in over that period., it was impossible politically for the Fed to stop inflation. Congress would just blame the Fed and subvert it.

This made it politically unfeasible to stop inflation until it had gotten so bad that U.S. citizens finally decided that the government programs weren’t effective.

Stocks for the Long Run [Paper] (My Summary)

Conventional wisdom is that stocks are a safe investment over long holding periods, with long-term loss realizations in the U.S. being rare or nonexistent. This results in the prevalent recommendation for young investors with long horizons to invest heavily in stocks and “set it and forget it.” However, this paper performs a broader and longer examination of global stock market performance which challenges this belief and suggests that stocks are not as reliable of a long-term investment as many believe.

Evidence from their developed country sample indicates a considerable risk of loss for long-term investors. The distribution suggests that the -21% real return realization in Japan over the past 30 years is not exceedingly rare. In fact, this observation lies in the 9th percentile of the wealth distribution meaning that over the sample studied, there was almost a 1 in 10 chance of a comparable or worse outcome.

“Using the developed world sample, an investor who is comfortable with no more than a 2% chance of losing money over a 30 year period, should allocate no more than 35% to stocks, much less than is found in most portfolios today.”

If you want the short version, you can read my summary of the paper here.

Steve Keen on Marxism, Capitalism, and Economics [Podcast]

Steve Keen is an economist often associated with the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) movement. He’s probably more accurately described as ‘Post-Keynesian’ - an umbrella under which MMT falls but is more broad.

The first hour or so of this conversation is a terrific summary of the history of economic thought. In particular his characterization of how Marx’s actual thinking differs from how it’s commonly understood and Schumpeter’s association with the Austrian school were great. I’m a little more dubious about some of his perspective suggestions towards the second half of the podcast.

Biznass and Career

Venkatesh Rao — The Art of Gig [Podcast]

Lots of great bits in here on career advice particularly for those thinking of striking out on their own from a more traditional corporate background.

On how the marshmallow study people like to cite was discredited:

This comes up in famous two marshmallows tests which have been discredited, but it's interesting how it's been discredited. The original research claimed that kids who were willing to wait for the researcher to come back so they could have two marshmallows instead of having just one marshmallow right now, they did better in life and future.

Poking at that, some more recent research looked at some of the backgrounds of children who made the two kinds of different decisions, and it turned out that the kids who picked one marshmallow now versus two marshmallows later tended to come from less privileged backgrounds where the short-term environment was relatively stable, but the medium and long-term environments were so unstable that it was actually rational for them to say the future is so uncertain that rather take the one marshmallow now than risk this.

This section on the relationship between meaning making and courage in particular resonated with my own experience. All my best decisions in life have been courageous ones, and my worst decisions cowardly ones.

You kind of make this connection between meaning making [and] courage.

You form the habit of doing the meaningful thing or the easier but maybe intellectually more challenging thing. I would say that today the world is set up in a way where it's actually hard to learn this meaning making trick except by accident.

And one of the things that I think this growing conversation around the gig economy is doing is sort of like reinforcing the intense practicality of looking for meaning. And if you look at all the literature, not just my books but like Paul Millerd’s book, The Pathless Path, you kind of notice this equation that a lot of people don't get. Like if you look at conversations about meaning making in the abstract, the way talking heads talk about them and talking about like lost boys listening to podcasts and getting radicalized … it seems like a philosophical spiritual problem that should be addressed with like religion and philosophy ideas and so forth.

It's not, it's really as simple as meaning making is unlocked when you first learn to take courageous decisions and keep doing that so it becomes a habit.

Learning to make meaning is the most intensely practical thing you can do. It's not a matter of spiritual retreats and going on like soul searching journeys, having shamans take you on like Ayahuasca retreats and things like that. It's not about that at all. It's like the first time you come to a hard decision in your career or life, make the hard decision, see how good you are taking and making tough calls and then keep doing that, meaning making will take care of itself.

The Checklist

This is the original article that spawned Atul Gawande’s best-selling book The Checklist Manifesto. I have never read the book because I’ve always so thoroughly agreed with the premise that I wasn’t sure I would get much out of it, but this piece was a nice overview and helpful to send around to anyone in your life that is checklist-resistant.

The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

A reminder to eat your Wheaties and make your SOPs.

Is It My Fault You Can't Handle The Truth?

On why “telling the truth” is sometimes a cop out. “‘I'm just telling the truth’ is a mask frequently worn by callous self-centeredness.”

Even if my words are accurate, rational, and true, the way I deliver them may color that truth with an entirely different message.

Sometimes that message delivered with our "truth" is "screw you, I don't care what you think." That message is never helpful.

Or in the words of our generation’s great philosopher Taylor Swift:

“You call me up again just to break me like a promise; so casually cruel in the name of being honest”

Urbanism and Cities

Narrative Deserts

“Marc Auge defines a Non-place as a space where humans remain largely anonymous and transient - airports, motorways, hotel rooms. Spaces that do not hold enough significance to be considered Places.

The ratio of Non-places to Places determines how interesting a city is. For example, while both Houston and Los Angeles are car cities, Los Angeles has more Places while Houston has more Non-places. Even though connected by freeways, Los Angeles neighborhoods are self-contained, highly dense, and walkable, and each has its own unique thing going for them.”
A core principle of 20th-century mall design, which has since spread to a much wider variety of spaces, was a type of environmentally-induced disorientation called the Gruen Transfer, a phenomenon that architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter describes as “a threshold, the moment when a shopper’s purposive behavior and directed, coherent bodily movements break down under the barrage of excessive, narrow-spectrum stimulation and continual interruption of attention.” These conditions follow directly from the mall’s physical layout—its architecture, decor, lighting, and soundscape. “The unconsciously bewildered shopper, rendered docile, cannot help but drift into the prepared pathways and patterns of externally induced consumer activity, unfocused but exquisitely suggestible to gentle but firm environmental cues.” The result of this confusion, of course, is more shopping, particularly the kinds of spontaneous purchases that mall-goers had not planned on making before entering the mall itself.

The Astonishing Transformation of Austin

A short history of Austin and some of its notable residents including Michael Dell and John Mackey (Whole Foods). I did not know about the MCC story of how Austin became a tech center.

Austin’s future was determined in January, 1983, when Admiral Bob Inman, recently retired from the Navy and from serving as the deputy director of the C.I.A., was selected to head a novel consortium called the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium. Japan dominated the semiconductor-manufacturing industry at the time and had announced an ambitious effort to create computers capable of generating artificial intelligence. The Reagan Administration saw this as a serious threat, and M.C.C. was the response. Twenty of America’s foremost high-tech companies—among them Microsoft, Boeing, G.E., and Lockheed—would share resources to secure America’s hold on the future. The first decision was where to locate this new entity.

And this fun little anecdote about Austin mascot Matthew McConaughey:

This was underscored when [McConaughey] got busted for playing bongos in the middle of the night with his windows open—for being “disorderly,” a cop standing in my front yard told me, and on suspicion of possessing a small amount of narcotics. (McConaughey ultimately paid fifty bucks for violating a sound ordinance.) It didn’t help his case that he wasn’t wearing clothes at the time, but in Old Austin such behavior wouldn’t even have been commented upon.

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The Interesting Times is a short note to help you better invest your time and money in an uncertain world as well as a digest of the most interesting things I find on the internet, centered around antifragility, complex systems, investing, technology, and decision making.
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