Climate Quote

“We should really be aware that if you go back 10,000 years, the climate goes apesh*t,” he says. “People generally have no idea about this, but these warm-cold-warm-cold patterns are standard for the Pleistocene. The stability of the Holocene, which human civilisation was built upon, is totally anomalous.

More here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Esperanto

Like its vastly more successful digital cousins — C++, HTML, Python — Esperanto is an artificial language, designed to have perfectly regular grammar, with none of the messy exceptions of natural tongues. Out loud, all that regularity creates strange cadences, like someone speaking Italian slowly while chewing gum. William Auld, the Modernist Scottish poet who wrote his greatest work in Esperanto, was nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times, but never won. But it is supremely easy to learn, like a puzzle piece formed to fit into the human brain.

Invented at the end of the 19th century, in many ways it presaged the early online society that the web would bring to life at the end of the 20th. It’s only ever been spoken by an assortment of fans and true believers spread across the globe, but to speak Esperanto is to become an automatic citizen in the most welcoming non-nation on Earth.

The League of Nations almost adopted Esperanto, but the idea was shot down by the French delegate. Zamenhof was Jewish, so Adolf Hitler denounced Esperanto as a language designed to unify the Jewish diaspora, and the Nazis were officially anti-Esperanto. Joseph Stalin was reportedly an Esperantist, but he turned on the language in the late ’30s, calling it a “language of spies,” and started purging people who spoke it.

Ayatolla Khomeini, too, waffled on Esperanto. Shortly after the Iranian Revolution, he urged his people to learn the language as an anti-imperialist counterpoint to English, and an official translation of the Qur’an followed. But adherents of the Baha’i faith had been fans of Esperanto for decades, and Khomeini was definitely not a fan of Baha’i, so his enthusiasm dimmed.

And Baha’i’s not the only smaller religion that’s embraced Esperanto as a liturgical language. In Brazil, which has one of the world’s largest populations of Esperantists, the language is intimately associated with the séance-centric Spiritist movement, and many followers of the neo-Shinto Japanese religion Oomoto have studied some Esperanto.

Mao Zedong liked Esperanto too. The Communist Party of China has published an Esperanto magazine, El Popola Ĉinio, since 1950, and state radio stations still regularly broadcast in the language.

And perhaps most famously, George Soros grew up speaking Esperanto, though his public involvement with the language hasn’t gone beyond getting his father’s Esperanto memoirs translated into English.

More here via MR. I had never heard of this language before.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Uber Winners

Who wins with Uber, other than consumers.

On the positive side, the so-called sharing economy allows workers to use their time more flexibly. Drivers can earn money without working full time, and without having to wait around at taxi stands for the next passenger. The workers can use their newly acquired spare time for other purposes, including studying for college, teaching themselves programming or simultaneously offering themselves out for different sharing services: If no one wants a ride, go help someone with repairs around the house.

In short, these developments benefit those workers who are willing and able to turn their spare time to productive uses. These workers tend to be self-starters and people who are good at shifting roles quickly. Think of them as disciplined and ambitious task switchers. That describes a lot of people, but of course, it isn’t everybody.

That’s where some of the problems come in. Uber drivers are much more likely to have a college degree than are taxi drivers or chauffeurs, according to the Hall and Krueger study. It found striking differences between the two groups: 48 percent of Uber drivers have a college degree or higher, whereas that figure is only 18 percent for taxi drivers and chauffeurs.

If I’m interviewing you, not being a self starter is a deal killer. We can’t afford not to take advantage of this world. Sorry (sorta).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When I cried after a math test

I had been failing exams for about 9 months straight. 4 in a row from July 2012 through March 2013. The humiliation, the self doubt. The guilt!

With a full time job, a new baby and nearest parents a 7 hour drive away, me studying put an incredible strain on my wife (who pulled me out of the emotional gutter more than once). And sitting for an exam every 3 months or so is a brutal pace. There are no breaks. Every evening, every weekend, on the commute, at lunch. Always studying. One exams ends (fail) and literally the next week I have to be back at it.

Yes they’re hard. These things are famous for being hard. So I give it everything I’ve got thinking, ‘hey, you’re a smart guy, you can do this’. Fail, fail, fail, fail. I begin to lose hope. Now the self talk is more like ‘maybe you’re just not cut out for this’. And the window is closing. More work responsibility and more kids means if I don’t do this now I will never do it.

A couple months later I finish another one and am flying through the post-exam survey (come on come on come on, give me the damn result) and click ‘submit’. The screen goes blank. Calculating. It probably only last 2 seconds but I’m not breathing at this point.

Pass. I burst out in tears. No kidding. Shaking. Sobbing. Not sad, not happy even, not relieved, not any emotion I’ve ever felt elsewhere in life. It’s like… a release. Like there was some kind of energy stored somewhere and it just all fell out at once.

And I am in this prometric testing center full of people. Security cameras everywhere. Trying to pull myself together (desperately, quietly). It takes like 5 full minutes. They must have wondered what on earth I was doing. Or maybe it happens all the time. It probably happens all the time.

Fast forward to today and I’m done. Like done done. I just found out I passed my latest exam and so have completed all the requirements to be a credentialed actuary. There’s some paperwork to get through before it’s all official but formalities aside it’s over.

Whew.

Time to reflect. Uh, I don’t know what to say. On paper I wasn’t cut out for this. Even in some big picture sense I’m a weirdo for this profession. You know those people who love math? Who play number games and logic puzzles and like learning shortcuts for calculating square roots in their heads? Not me.

How about the mega brains who learn effortlessly and cruise through exams? Ha. This has been an exercise in feeling stupid every single day. Of feeling that you understand something and then receiving humiliating proof you don’t have a clue.

No, I did it because I like business and want desperately to understand the inner workings of my industry. If I was in tech I’d probably do night courses to become an engineer.

Dont get me wrong, I understand the world is full of successful people who didn’t need to know how the sausage was made to cook it. My method is almost certainly a dumber way to succeed. It takes too much time and energy. But I’m such an intellectual wuss that I don’t have enough confidence to be a leader without a truckload of deep background knowledge.

So now I’m free. There are more exams of course. The fellowship level is a possibility but I doubt I’ll go there. Too many other things to learn. Things that won’t make me cry!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why Does Superman Listen To Music When He Studies?

All great achievement, argues Steven Kotler, founder of something called the flow genome project and author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, starts with Flow.

What is flow? One way of defining flow is as the compete absorption in what you are doing. It was named and popularized by someone with the strangest looking name possible to an English speaking person: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Here’s Wikipedia on flow.

Why should you care about flow?
Another way of thinking about flow is that it is what’s happening in your head when you are at your best. The key question then is: how do I get into a state of flow? Let me obnoxiously rephrase that in tech jargon: how do I hack flow?

Well, you’ve probably hacked flow tons of times in your student life, maybe without knowing it, by listening to music while studying. More on that later.

We’re told there are actually 17 ways of getting into flow and this podcast, an interview of Kotler by James Altucher, has a lot of good observations

For example Kotler talks about how you need to be at the crossover point between boredom and anxiety. Best way to do that is tackle something hard enough to focus your mind but easy enough that you can dispatch of it without stressing out and breaking your concentration. Hilariously, there’s even a point estimate of the percentage that a task’s difficulty needs to exceed your capability: 4%.

And there’s the chemistry part. Apparently you are looking for a dopamine surge that comes from being challenged a bit. But only a bit. Too much stimulus and you get overloaded into a fight or flight adrenaline surge. Flow, we are told, is actually shown to reduce stress.

Back to studying, which looks now like one of the most flow destroying of all activities. It’s usually boring, sometimes terrifying (I’m going to fail!) and when you need it the most, when you totally don’t understand something, you are more like 50% underwater than 4%.

Music, though, can give you a lifeline of dopamine that might get flow kickstarted. Here’s the NYT.

we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

Music is fun and that good feeling can put you in the moment, even before you get to your favorite song. Translating that surge to the work at hand isn’t always easy. I know I’m prone to spacing out with tunes when I should be focusing, but it helps my chances.

Of course it’s not just studying. Anything that puts extra demands on our minds can benefit from flow. Look at what athletes are doing before big games: immersed in music, getting into the moment, preparing themselves for maximum performance. Now we know why!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why BlackBerry failed

Although the market rejected his initial touch-screen approach, Mr. Lazaridis believed the four pillars of BlackBerry’s success—good battery life, miserly use of carrier’s spectrum, security and the ability to type—still ruled in the new smartphone world and gave his company its competitive advantage. Two years after Apple’s launch, it still amazed Mr. Lazaridis that iPhone users had to cart around adapters to power up depleted batteries. His early prediction that Apple would cause AT&T headaches by using up its network bandwidth also proved right.

But there was no going back. Apple was setting a new agenda for the wireless industry. RIM, like others, were now followers. “We built a perfectly evolved, optimized service and product offering that made the industry take off,” says Mr. Lazaridis. “There was a point where the carrier, by changing the rules, forced all the other carriers to change the rules eventually. It allowed Apple to reset what the expectations were. Conservation didn’t matter. Battery life didn’t matter. Cost didn’t matter. That’s their genius. We had to respond in a way that was completely different than what people expected.”

More here. What a gold mine.

RIM never had a chance. None of the carriers of the day did. Their whole decision making structure had the wrong focus (efficiency, security) and the wrong view of customers (carriers, enterprise) to compete with Apple.

The lesson I guess is that organizations for the most part cannot change who they are. The article paints an interesting mix of blaming the carriers for changing the rules and yet an implicit buy in to the immorality of those rules.

It’s a very common thing to see things that are perhaps changing about the world and say “no chance!” for no reason other than that real change doesn’t come along all that often. It sure makes me feel smart to play the odds on an uncomfortable new technology, trash it and be right. But let’s be honest, my mental models of all the things I feel like an expert in are just as vulnerable to iPhone style disruption as RIM was.

It doesn’t mean that I should become a fanboy of every new thing either, the constant failure would be exhausting. Rather to be aware. It happens. Be ready, react quickly.

Worst of all, know that incumbents are probably all screwed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Groupthink

The problem is that central banks tend to follow the conventional wisdom of economists.  So when central banks screw up, the conventional wisdom of economists will never blame the central bank (at the time); that would be like blaming themselves. They’ll invent some ad hoc theory about mysterious “shocks.”

The other night at dinner my wife told me that the Chinese sometimes say, “If you cannot see the true shape of Lu Mountain, it’s because you are standing on Lu Mountain.”

That’s Scott Sumner. He distinguishes himself by being consistent. I remember a post he wrote early in 2009 saying he was baffled that he felt he was in the majority of economists on his beliefs about the causes of the crisis but as soon as the crisis bit everyone else retreated to some vague wacky model that had been discredited in the literature.

I can’t evaluate the evidence on that claim but I think there is something different about how people think about difficult, complicated situations when they’re in them than they do looking back.

For example, in my business there are cycles of high and low margins, called hard and soft markets. Many firms adopt an explicit strategy of ‘waiting out’ the soft market. Sounds easy.

Yet when hard markets come, being defined as rapid increases in prices after a big cycle changing event, they say instead, wow the new normal is riskier than ever and even with these price increases we can’t make money. So we’ll keep sitting out until we are sure. And they miss out.

The phenomenon is captured in the title of the Reinhardt and Rogoff book “This time it’s different”. We are able to distill the essence of complex situations in hindsight. In the moment we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Because we are scared.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment