Good Reading -- February 2018

February 16, 2018

 

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Books

  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst -- It took me several months of dedicated effort to get through this book, which is filled with dense material running more than 700 pages (excluding notes). I would also need to read it  2-3 more times to really absorb it. The writing isn't impenetrable but the topics are weighty and intricate. The author is brilliant, the treatment is multidisciplinary and open-minded, and the resources are awesome (including extensive remedial education on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins in the appendix). I highly recommend it, but come prepared.

    • "This book explores the biology of violence, aggression, and competition -- the behaviors and the impulses behind them, the acts of individuals, groups, and states...It is also a book about the ways in which people do the opposite. What does biology teach us about cooperation, affiliation, reconciliation, empathy, and altruism?"

    • "The goal of this book is to avoid categorical thinking. Putting facts into nice cleanly demarcated buckets of explanation has its advantages -- for example, it can help you remember facts better. But it can wreak havoc on your ability to think about those facts. This is because the boundaries between different categories are often arbitrary, but once some arbitrary boundary exists, we forget that it is arbitrary and get way too impressed with its importance." 

    • "If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would 'It's complicated.' Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, 'We used to think X, but now we realize that...' Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns...Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have not choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so...you're one of the lucky humans. So try."

  • The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek -- I really, really wanted to like this book. My mom's family is from Battle Creek and my beloved late grandfather worked for Kellogg's for 42 years. I'm even interested in the cereal business and obscure 19th century Americana. This book has some interesting pieces but it is a slog -- at 544 pages of dense, flowery prose, I ended up skimming large parts of it.

  • Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century -- This is the book-length version of the article I sent around a few months ago. The individual stories are compelling, and this strikes me as similar to Hillbilly Elegy in many ways. Unfortunately I'd have to recommend the article over the book. 

  • The Death and Life of the Great Lakes -- I was predisposed to liking this book because I've always been interested in the Great Lakes and I live in the area. At first I was scared that it was going to devolve into a breathless only-we-can-stop-this story of man-made ecological horrors. It was actually more balanced that that, even if the intended and unintended consequences are impossible to miss. The history is fascinating either way.

 

Facts and Figures

  • 2017 was the first year in which the global airline industry recorded zero fatalities on scheduled commercial jet service. About 8 billion passengers stepped on board a commercial jet flight and all arrived safely at their destination. That level of safety -- across ~35 million flights -- is just astounding. (Source: IATA)

    • There has not been a U.S. carrier fatality since 2009, and the last major U.S. carrier's fatal accident was in 2001. That period covers many billions of passengers and compares to hundreds of thousands of Americans killed on the roads and even several dozen killed on trains. 

      • Note: this data was released and I made note of it before the tragic February 2018 crash of a passenger jet in Russia.

         

         

Quoted

  • "Will the last person leaving SEATTLE turn off the lights" -- A billboard on the highway near Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, 1971

    • That billboard was referenced by former Boeing CEO Phil Condit in an interview about the "Boeing Bust" of the late '60s and early '70s during which ~2/3 Boeing engineers quit or were laid off.

  • "What is good for our customers is also, in the long run, good for us." -- Ingvar Kamprad, December 1976 (see below)

    • "The first rule is to maintain an extremely low level of prices. But we must not compromise either functionality or technical quality. [And] without low costs, we can never accomplish our purpose."

    • "Wasting resources is a mortal sin at IKEA [and it] is one of the greatest diseases of mankind."

    • "Simplicity is a virtue. There have to be rules to enable a lot of people to function together in a company. but the more complicated the rules are, the harder they are to comply with. Complicated rules paralyze!"

    • "Exaggerated planning is the most common cause of corporate death."

    • "By always asking why we are doing this or that, we can find new paths. By refusing to accept a pattern simply because it is well established, we make progress. Our protest against convention is not a protest for its own sake: it is a deliberate expression of our constant search for development and improvement."

    • "Time is your most important resource. You can do so much in 10 minutes. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. You can never get them back."

       

       

Links

  • The 99 best things that happened in 2017 -- Some of these might be a little fuzzy and in need of verification or clarification, but many are legit and offer a lot of hope. People don't talk about the plane that landed safely (see above).

  • The Testament of a Furniture Dealer -- Many of you already know about my obsession with low-cost business models, and the world recently lost one of its pioneers. Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, died last month at 91. A 17-year-old kid from rural Sweden founded a mail-order household goods company, later decided to sell super cheap, simple, flat-pack, DIY furniture from a no-frills warehouse, and along the way became one of the wealthiest people in the world (without ever issuing debt or equity). If that's not an fascinating business story I don't know what is. (A Forbes profile from 2000 is here. Notice the discrepancies between accounts, and the messiness and contradictions throughout.)

  • The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica -- It was exhausting and confounding but also fascinating to read about this man and his experiences. I have "Endurance" on the shelf and I might read that next.

  • The Father of Portfolio Theory Bets on Rebuilding -- Things I would not have expected to read, ever: "Harry Markowitz, the father of diversification, has 100% of his liquid assets in the stock market, betting on rebuilding post-hurricanes: 'We are going to have economic activity at least until Puerto Rico is rebuilt, at which time I might be dead."

    • "'My knowledge is inference and action. I never did a study of the construction industry, but I know there’s walls there, and glass there, and if you want to get rid of rubble,' you will need the right equipment.

    • "Markowitz put one third of his liquid assets into large-cap stocks, one third into an iShares fund tracking small-caps, and one third into an iShares fund tracking emerging markets.But that wasn’t quite right. 'Then I said no, no, no, let’s take the one-third big cap and split it equally among six equities,” he says. He picked Weyerhaeuser to represent the lumber that would be needed, USG for the wallboards, Corning for the glass, Caterpillar because “think of how many bulldozers they’re going to need all over Puerto Rico,” 3M “for who knows what, replacing all the Scotch tape of the world, and mining, of course,” and, finally, United Technologies, which manufactures and maintains air conditioners and Otis elevators.

    • "Markowitz usually prefers diversifying with passive investments. But he doesn’t think he is too heavily concentrated. He points to his two index-tracking funds and his fixed assets in the form of two houses, one to live in and one for entertaining."

 

 

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