reading notes

Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Man, I should really start taking notes as I read, like at the end of each chapter. It feels like such a pain to go back and take notes on every chapter after I’ve finished the whole book. Alas, I never took notes at all in school, and apparently I still haven’t come very far.

Thoughts on the subject of being fooled by randomness, in July 2020: the ongoing dialogue around the current pandemic is like one giant demonstration of humans being utterly misled when thinking about randomness and statistics, from government leaders and scientists on down to individuals. ALL the biases and mistakes outlined below are present in the current dialogue.


Humans are bad at telling the difference between noise and meaning, and underestimate the share of randomness in everything. Especially “specialists” like scientists and economists. Some thinkers believe humans are basically rational, and some believe humans are basically irrational.

This book is composed of three parts:

Part I is about “visible and invisible histories and the elusive property of rare events (black swans).”

Part II is about cognitive biases in probability.

Part III is about practical and philosophical aids in the face of our irrationality.

Part I

Solon was a Greek legislator who believed that you can’t really evaluate how someone’s life went until you know it all the way to the end. Things that came via luck can easily be taken away by luck; things that came without need of luck are more robust.

Chapter 1: If you’re so rich, why aren’t you so smart?

Nero is a successful-enough trader. His MO is to trade conservatively and never put himself at risk of blowing up (losing so badly that your career is basically over), which also means he’s not as rich as others, but he’s set up his life so that he has everything he needs and wants.

By contrast, John is a much more “successful” trader who makes a lot more money, but by investing in assets that leave one vulnerable to blowing up, such as high-yield junk bonds. John is also unaware of his risk because he is just following what other people do, and not actually understanding what he’s doing.

Intellectual contempt does not control personal envy.

I highlighted this and the below quote, because I sometimes doubt myself and envy people who dove into some field and found success. Whereas I feel like I’ve invested more time into being generally wiser and “thinking” and writing, which can feel like wasted time.

Maybe if he had pushed himself harder or had sought the right opportunity–instead of “thinking,” writing articles and reading complicated papers.

John finally blows up in 1998, so Nero is vindicated.

There appears to be a correlation between positive performance (whether thanks to luck or skill) and increased serotonin, which makes one carry oneself more confidently and leader-like, which can change even day to day.

Behaviorial scientists believe that one of the main reasons why people become leaders is not from what skills they seem to possess, but rather from what extremely superficial impression they make on others through hardly perceptible physical signals–what we call today “charisma,” for example. The biology of the phenomenon is now well studied under the subject heading “social emotions.” Meanwhile some historian will “explain” the success in terms of, perhaps, tactical skills, the right education, or some other theoretical reason seen in hindsight.


In addition, there seems to be curious evidence of a link between leadership and a form of psychopathology (the sociopath) that encourages the non-blinking, self-confident, insensitive person to rally followers.

This one is interesting because I noticed it myself in the documentary King of Kong, and I was really wondering why everybody in the movie seems so enamored with Billy Mitchell, who comes off (to me) like a total psychopath. And I was so disappointed that the movie doesn’t mention that at all. Which made the experience of watching it kind of funny-horrifying.

Recall that Nero can be considered prosperous but not “very rich” by his day’s standards. However, according to some strange accounting measure we will see in the next chapter, he is extremely rich on the average of lives he could have led…

You can more accurately evaluate your life/profession if you take into account all possible outcomes, not only the ones that actually happen. That way you account for professions or decisions that come with huge risks that can wipe a lot of people out, as opposed to only looking at the success cases.

Chapter 2: A bizarre accounting method

More on the “possible worlds” concept from Chapter 1. Some stuff in real life is like playing Russian roulette but with thousands of chambers and just one bullet: it’s easy to forget (or be unaware) that you are actually still playing, and there still exists a risk of losing everything.

Particularly thoughtful are those who had to abandon scientific studies because of their inability to keep focused on a narrowly defined problem.

I just relate to this–intellectual curiosity but without any desire to specialize super narrowly.

As a derivatives trader I noticed that people do not like to insure against something abstract; the risk that merits their attention is always something vivid.

Referencing the famous Kahneman/Tversky experiment.

In addition to such problems with the perception of risk, it is also a scientific fact, and a shocking one, that both risk detection and risk avoidance are not mediated in the “thinking” part of the brain but largely in the emotional one (the “risk as feelings” theory). The consequences are not trivial: It means that rational thinking has little, very little, to do with risk avoidance. Much of what rational thinking seems to do is rationalize one’s actions by fitting some logic to them.

This is one of the many reasons that journalism may be the greatest plague we face today–as the world becomes more and more complicated and our minds are trained for more and more simplification.

Borrowed wisdom can be vicious. I need to make a huge effort not to be swayed by well-sounding remarks. I remind myself of Einstein’s remark that common sense is nothing but a collection of misconceptions acquired by age eighteen.

Correctness vs. intelligibility.

From the standpoint of an institution, the existence of a risk manager has less to do with actual risk reduction than it has to do with the impression of risk reduction.

You see this in the software security world as well.

Chapter 3: A mathematical meditation on history

Mathematics is principally a tool to meditate, rather than to compute.

Referring to Monte Carlo math as a way of thinking.

Path vs. outcome: a path is the series of events, not just the end result.

Stochastic processes refer to the dynamics of events unfolding with the course of time. Stochastic is a fancy Greek name for random. This branch of probability concerns itself with the study of the evolution of successive random events–one could call it the mathematics of history. The key about a process is that it has time in it.

Monte Carlo mathematics vs. “true” or theoretical mathematics based on formulas

As for Keynes, to the literate person he is not the political economist that tweed-clad leftists love to quote, but the author of the magisterial, introspective, and potent Treatise on Probability.

Just a note to check out the Keynes book.

People are bad at learning from history, both other people’s and their own.

A mistake is not something to be determined after the fact, but in the light of the information until that point.

It’s wrong to judge the quality of a decision by its outcome.

Bad trades catch up with you, it is frequently said in the markets. Mathematicians of probability give that a fancy name: ergodicity. It means, roughly, that (under certain conditions) very long sample paths would end up resembling each other.

Each one would revert to his long-term properties.

For a journalist, silence rarely surpasses any word.

Most daily news is noise. Yet journalists get paid to say something, even when there is no new information to add. Unnecessary information (noise) is not just of zero value but of negative value.

Robert Shiller in 1981 posited that markets aren’t perfectly efficient (contrary to what financial theory asserted at the time), because prices often “overreact” and swing more than the funadmentals they are supposed to reflect.

You should favor older traders–those who have been exposed to markets the longest without blowing up. Because that means they have probably survived rare/random events, which is harder than e.g. riding a bull market on pure luck and then blowing up at the first rare event. Those who have survived, have most likely done so because they know how to protect themselves from the downside.

Noise vs. meaning: the more often you check your portfolio, the more useless the data AND the more stressful (because of the ups and downs).

Chapter 4: Randomness, nonsense, and the scientific intellectual

You can computer-generate very literary- or philosophical-sounding texts. It’s okay to enjoy irrational things and randomness in personal or aesthetic life.

Chapter 5: Survival of the least fit–can evolution be fooled by randomness?

The example of “Carlos” and emerging-markets bonds in 1998 and the danger of not having a stop-loss (a point at which you will sell, decided in advance). Especially combined with an information bubble, where all your friends have the same opinions as you.

And, at any point in time, the richest traders are often the worst traders. This, I will call the cross-sectional problem: At a given time in the market, the most successful traders are likely to be those that are best fit to the latest cycle.

The example of “John” and high-yield bonds, also in 1998. Leveraging yourself (putting in your own money to be able to borrow much more money to trade with) is probably a bad idea.

Both examples are characterized by overestimation of one’s own beliefs/abilities and denial when faced with reality.

Chapter 6: Skewness and asymmetry

Wherever you have asymmetry in outcomes, median can be very different from average or expected. Actual expectation is probability x the magnitude of the outcome.

The problem with the terms bullish and bearish is that people use them without accounting for the magnitude of the outcome: by how much they expect the market to go up or down.

You can profit from events that happen very rarely but come with a large payoff.

When looking at data, people are in the habit of blindly removing outliers. Instead, you need to think about whether you’re in a situation where it actually makes sense to remove outliers, or one where you need to pay special attention to outliers.

Shallow history / naive empiricism: “this has never happened before.” Actual history: “things that never happened before do happen.”

The peso problem: things that show no volatility tend to also be vulnerable to rare events. One of them is the Mexican peso.

Chapter 7: The problem of induction

No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

You can’t prove that something is always true, you can only disprove it. That’s the problem of induction, and the danger of improperly relying on empiricism.

I suddenly felt financially insecure and feared becoming an employee of some firm that would turn me into a corporate slave with “work ethics” (whenever I hear work ethics I interpret inefficient mediocrity).

I needed the backing of my bank account so I could buy time to think and enjoy life.

There was all along lurking in my mind the idea that these researchers had missed a point, but I did not quite know what it was. It was not what they knew, it was how they knew it, that was the subject of my annoyance.

Karl Popper proposed that there are only two kinds of theories:

  1. Theories that are known to be wrong, as they were tested and adequately rejected (he calls them falsified).
  2. Theories that have not yet been known to be wrong, not falsified yet, but are exposed to be proved wrong.

So a theory can never be right or verified. Also, a theory that cannot be falsified under any conditions is not a scientific theory.

More practically to me, Popper had many problems with statistics and statisticians. He refused to blindly accept the notion that knowledge can always increase with incremental information–which is the foundation of statistical inference…Sir Karl feared that some type of knowledge did not increase with information–but which type we could not ascertain.

I speculate in all of my activities on theories that represent some vision of the world, but with the following stipulation: No rare event should harm me. In fact, I would like all conceivable rare events to help me.

Popper believed that any idea of Utopia is necessarily closed owing to the fact that it chokes its own refutations. The simple notion of a good model for society that cannot be left open for falsification is totalitarian. I learned from Popper, in addition to the difference between an open and a closed society, that between an open and a closed mind.

Causality is easier to commit to memory…The effect of such compression is the reduction in the degree of detected randomness.

I want to take the best of what the past can give me without its dangers. Accordingly, I will use statistics and inductive methods to make aggressive bets, but I will not use them to manage my risks and exposure.

This is called a stop loss, a predetermined exit point, a protection from the black swan.

Part II

The monkeys-on-typewriters thought experiment, and survivorship biases.

Chapter 8: Too many millionaires next door

The virtue of capitalism is that society can take advantage of people’s greed rather than their benevolence, but there is no need to, in addition, extol such greed as a moral (or intellectual) accomplishment.

Books like The Millionaire Next Door suffer from a double survivorship bias. First, the authors focused only on the winners, and not everyone who tried the same things and didn’t win. Secondly, it focuses on what happened during a decades-long bull market; the same strategies tried at any other time in history, or in another country, might not have worked so well.

Chapter 9: It is easier to buy and sell than fry an egg

Trading is a profession that doesn’t strictly require any skill (in the way that the arts, cooking, dentistry etc do), and in any such profession, it is possible to succeed by pure luck, and not as uncommon as one would think. A Monte Carlo simulation shows that if you start with a big enough pool, you can have many people who make money for, say, 5 years in a row, out of pure luck.

In real life, we then retroactively attribute the success of such people to their competence.

The birthday problem (when there are 23 people in a room, the probability of there being 2 people with the same birthday is about 50%) demonstrates how easy it is for human intuition to be bad at estimating probabilities.

Backtesting or data snooping is fitting the rule to the past data. When doing so, you can always find some rule that appears perfectly correlated with the data, e.g. finding a correlation between some stock’s price and the temperature somewhere in the world.

A random series will always present some detectable pattern.

Even the fathers of statistical science forgot that a random series of runs need not exhibit a pattern to look random; as a matter of fact, data that is perfectly patternless would be extremely suspicious and appear to be man-made. A single random run is bound to exhibit some pattern–if one looks hard enough…real randomness does not look random!

Chapter 10: Loser takes all–on the nonlinearities of life

Life is unfair in a nonlinear way. Chance events, combined with a positive feedback loop, can allow a small initial bit of randomness to spiral into a huge advantage.

Path-dependent outcome: the probability of success can increase with each subsequent success. This breaks our familiar math of probability.

This summarizes why there are routes to success that are nonrandom, but few, very few, people have the mental stamina to follow them…Most people give up before the rewards.

Chapter 11: Randomness and our mind: we are probability blind

Kahneman and Tversky, etc.

If your mind operates by series of different disconnected rules, these may not be necessarily consistent with each other, and if they may still do the job locally, they will not necessarily do so globally.

Some heuristics. System I and System II.

Failures of probability thinking in the OJ Simpson trial.

I am glad to be a trader taking advantage of people’s biases but I am scared of living in such a society.

The false-positives quiz. How to think about options trading.

Absence of evidence vs. evidence of absence. (Saying you found no evidence of some effect != saying you found evidence of NO effect.)

The maximum of an average != the average maximum (and the former is less volatile).

Part III

Chapter 12: Gambler’s ticks and pigeons in a box


Chapter 13: Carneades comes to Rome: on probability and skepticism

The right to contradict oneself–to revise your opinion and avoid being “married to your position.” (And the danger of being unwilling to contradict yourself or your past views.)

Chapter 14: Bacchus abandons Antony

On Stoicism.


The inverse skills problem: the higher up the corporate ladder, the lower the evidence of an individual’s contribution.

More appropriately, what they have is skill in getting promoted within a company rather than pure skills in making optimal decisions–we call that “corporate political skill.”

On some additional benefits of randomness:

Subway riders are freer of their schedule, and not just because of the higher frequency of trains. Uncertainty protects them from themselves.

A slightly random schedule prevents us from optimizing and being exceedingly efficient, particularly in the wrong things. This little bit of uncertainty might make the diner relax and forget the time pressures. He would be forced to act as a satisficer instead of a maximizer–research on happiness shows that those who live under a self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress.

I am convinced that we are not made for clear-cut, well-delineated schedules. We are made to live like firemen, with downtime for lounging and meditating between calls, under the protection of protective uncertainty.

Standing on one leg

We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.

reading notes

Mastery, by Robert Greene

This is another one where instead of taking quotes from the book, I’m just writing my paraphrase of each concept. I think the way I’ll use these notes is that every once in a while, if I’m in need of some direction, I’ll mine these strategies for something new to try.

I. Finding your life’s task


  1. Return to your origins–the primal inclination strategy
    What were you drawn to as a child?
  2. Occupy the perfect niche–the Darwinian strategy
    Find a niche that’s less crowded with competitors by either going narrower and specializing, OR by combining multiple fields.
  3. Avoid the false path–the rebellion strategy
    Know when you are in a field for the wrong reasons (money, fame, approval, or other things), and rebel against that.
  4. Let go of the past–the adaptation strategy
    If circumstances force you to change your field, find a way to adapt that still lets you apply the experience you have.
  5. Find your way back–the life-or-death strategy
    If you’ve deviated far from your life’s task and are depressed because of it, stop what you’re doing.

Reversal: Your life’s task can also come out of what you’re naturally bad at and have to work really hard to get good at; not just out of what you’re naturally gifted at.

II. Apprenticeship

The three steps or modes:

  1. Deep observation–the passive mode
  2. Skills acquisition–the practice mode
  3. Experimentation–the active mode


  1. Value learning over money
  2. Keep expanding your horizons
  3. Revert to a feeling of inferiority
  4. Trust the process
    Don’t give up when you feel frustration, boredom, panic, or insecurity.
  5. Move toward resistance and pain
  6. Apprentice yourself in failure
  7. Combine the “how” and the “what”
    Know how things work in your field.
  8. Advance through trial and error
    Try different stuff, don’t follow one rigid career path that you set in advance.

Reversal: There is none.

III. Mentorship


  1. Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations
  2. Gaze deep into the mentor’s mirror
    Look for one who can provide tough love.
  3. Transfigure their ideas
  4. Create a back-and-forth dynamic
    You can have input on the process and adjust some of your mentor’s approaches to teach them how to work better with you.

Reversal: Educate yourself.

IV. Social intelligence


  1. Speak through your work
    Don’t call more attention to your person than to your work.
  2. Craft the appropriate persona
  3. See yourself as others see you
  4. Suffer fools gladly

Reversal: Just don’t work with large groups of people.

V. The creative-active


  1. Cultivate negative capability
    aka. a tolerance for not-knowing
  2. Allow for serendipity
  3. Alternate the mind through “the current”
    aka. the back-and-forth between observations/experiments/reality, and thoughts/speculations/explanations/theories.
  4. Alter your perspective
    Avoid the following lazy thinking patterns: looking at the “what” instead of the “how”; rushing to generalities and ignoring details; confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies; fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent
  5. Revert to primal forms of intelligence
    Non-linguistic forms like visual/spatial, kinesthetic, and anything using the other senses.

Strategies (why are there two lists of strategies in this chapter? Dunno):

  1. The authentic voice
    Find your voice… by first mastering what has already been done.
  2. The fact of great yield
    To discover something new, instead of starting with an ambition or goal and trying to work backwards from that, you can look for intriguing anomalies and see where they lead.
  3. Mechanical intelligence
    Instead of relying on abstract reasoning, try stuff out, see what works and what doesn’t.
  4. Natural powers
    Embrace slowness.
  5. The open field
    Create your own space, don’t just blindly imitate conventions.
  6. The high end
    Don’t get caught up in the details and forget the actual purpose of the work.
  7. The evolutionary hijack
    Be adaptable and open to learning from accidents.
  8. Dimensional thinking
    Don’t assume that something is simple, or try to reduce the complexity out of it, purely because you’re impatient to feel like you understand how it works. Stay humble.
  9. Alchemical creativity and the unconscious
    Pay attention to the often contradictory ideas found in the unconscious.

Reversal: Drugs and mental illness are not a shortcut to creativity. (How is that a reversal? Maybe he’s trying to say that there is none.)

VI. Mastery


  1. Connect to your environment–primal powers
  2. Play to your strengths–supreme focus
  3. Transform yourself through practice–the fingertip feel
  4. Internalize the details–the life force
  5. Widen your vision–the global perspective
  6. Submit to the other–the inside-out perspective
  7. Synthesize all forms of knowledge–the universal man/woman
reading notes

The incandescent lava we have inside: Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante

I almost didn’t take notes, as I could have underlined this entire book; but there were some ideas I know I’ll want to refer to later, so here we go.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others–in some measure becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes onself again, the person one usually is, in terms of occupations, thoughts, language. Thus I am now me again, I am here, I go about my ordinary business, I have nothing to do with the book, or, to be exact, I entered it, but I can no longer enter it. Nor, on the other hand, can the book re-enter me. So what’s left is to protect myself from its effects, and that is what I try to do. I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

–letter to Goffredo Fofi, unsent, 1995

I think of writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction. The stories that you tell, the words that you use and refine, the characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone, and which nevertheless is a sort of key to all the doors, the real reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping away, filling pages.

–letter to Sandra Ozzola, May 18, 1998

I have to admit with some embarrassment that I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that that is not my path.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go.

–interview with Stefania Scateni, September 8, 2002

I work by contrast: clarity of facts and low emotional reaction alternating with a sort of storm of blood, of frenzied writing. However, I try to avoid dividing lines between the two moments. I tend to make them slide into one another without a break.

A writer seeks above all a form for his world. Naturally it’s an interior world, hence private, not yet public or only partly public. In that sense “publishing a book” means deciding to offer to others, in the form that seems to us most fitting, what intimately belongs to us.

Jensen: Ten years passed between your first book and this recent one. Would you call yourself a perfectionist?
Ferrante: No, only someone who writes when she wants to and publishes when she’s not too ashamed of the result.

–interview with Jesper Storgaard Jensen (Denmark), August 17, 2003

If I were capable of writing about our Berlusconian Italy not through allegories, parables, and satires, I would like to find a plot and characters that could represent the mythology within which the symbol Berlusconi is dangerously encysted. I say symbol because the man will disappear, his personal troubles and those of his management have their power, one way or another the political struggle with remove him from the scene, but his ascent as supreme leader within democratic institutions, the construction of his figure as a democratically elected economic-political-television duce, will remain a perfectible, repeatable model.

His money, his television channels, his market surveys have practically demonstrated that the interests of an individual can be installed overnight, thanks to a business group (not a party), on top of the political dissatisfaction of half of Italy, higher classes and lower classes, passed off as a heroic story of national salvation and, above all, without extinguishing democratic assurances.

–letter to Sandro Ferri, April 2002

Ferrante wrote the above about Berlusconi in 2002. Frantumaglia came out in the US in 2016. Just think about that for a moment.

Once, in exasperation, I said in dialect: We need a rope, there’s one in the storeroom.

This is just a cue to remind me of a devastating story Ferrante tells that’s way too long to quote here.

We have to watch ourselves, attend to our very individual expansion into the internal lands that are ours, and drill, searching beyond the tested vocabulary. Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside, better to provoke disgust with that, than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds.

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

–quoting Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900

Because I had grown up in the middle of all that cutting and sewing, the way Dido tricks the king of the Gaetuli immediately convinced me. Iarbas had said to her mockingly: I’ll give you as much land as the skin of a bull can go around. Little, very little, an ironic male insult. The king–I was sure, not for nothing was he the son of Amon–must have thought that even if the bull’s hide was cut into strips it would never surround enough land for the construction of a city. But I had seen the fair-haired Dido in the same concentrated pose as my mother when she worked–beautiful, her black hair carefully combed, her skilled hands scarred by wounds from the needle or the scissors–and I had understood that the story was plausible. All night (crucial labors are carried out at night), Dido had been bent over the hide of the beast, reducing it into almost invisible strips, which were then sewed together in such a way that the seams couldn’t even be guessed at, a very long Ariadne’s thread, a ball of animal skin that would unroll to enclose a vast piece of African land and, at the same time, the boundaries of a new city.

–La Frantumaglia (letter to Giuliana Olivero and Camilla Valletti, April 11, 2003)

But there is no correct way to activate the power of a written story, and instructions for use are not worth much. The “right reading” is an invention of academics and critics. Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book. The shelves where we line up the volumes we’ve read are deceptive. We have available there only titles, covers, pages. But the books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules… The as yet unsurpassed force of literature lies in its capacity to construct vibrating bodies from whose veins anyone can drink…

–unpublished, October 10, 2005

What can writing do that e.g. film can’t? Literature is the source. Movies look to books to get their stories. That’s why a book adaptation of a movie is NOT like a movie adaptation of a book; the processes aren’t reversible. And that indicates a hierarchy or one-directionalness.

Erbani: How do you feel about the questions that are raised about your identity–are you amused, irritated, or something else?
Ferrante: They are legitimate, but reductive. For those who love reading, the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer… Why would anyone be interested in my little personal story if we can do without Homer’s or Shakespeare’s? Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith. The believer knows very well that there is nothing at all at the bureau of vital statistics about the Jesus that truly counts for him.

–interview with Francesco Erbani, December 4, 2006

I’m convinced, however, that potentially a page has more body than a film. We have to activate all our physical resources as writers and readers to make it function. Writing and reading are great investments of physicality. In writing and reading, in composing signs and deciphering them, there is an involvement of the body that compares only with writing, performing, and listening to music.

Dear Elisabetta, thank you for the verb “to fill”; it’s a beautiful word when it’s used to describe an effect of reading. A book for me must attempt to channel living, magmatic material that cannot easily be reduced to words or to the confessional genre, which is essential for our existence.

We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us–thankfully–fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal. Which is why the more effective stories resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.

–Q&A with listeners of Fahrenheit, December 2006

I don’t know what the Neapolitan mother is like. I know what some mothers I’ve known are like, who were born and grew up in that city. They are cheerful and foul-mouthed women, silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them; prepared to claim that men have to be men; and incapable of admitting, even to themselves, that, with that, they drive them to become even more brutish. To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy. Their vital, obscene, suffering subjugation, full of plans for insurrection that end in nothing, makes both empathy and disaffected rejection difficult.

This is the key that unlocks all the novels.

We tend to keep distant from us everything that hinders consistency, but a story shouldn’t be consistent, in fact it’s in inconsistency that we should find nourishment.

But I write stories, and whenever the words arrange things with beautiful consistency I become suspicious and I keep an eye on the things that ignore the truth of words and mind their own business.

I write with greatest pleasure when I feel that the story has no need of preamble or even of a perspective. There it is, it’s there, I see it and feel it, it’s a world made up entirely of living material, of breath, of heat and cold.

–interview with Marina Terragni and Luisa Muraro, January 27, 2007

Karen Valby: Have you ever regretted not revealing your identity? Felt a surge of ego that made you want to throw open your window and cry “It’s I who have created this world!”?
Ferrante: Without reserve, I can say that my entire identity is in the books I write. Your image of the window is amusing. My home is on the upper floors, I’m afraid of heights, and my ego gladly avoids leaning out the window.

–interview with Karen Valby (USA), September 5, 2014

I decided to publish Troubling Love not so much because of the story it told, which continued to embarrass me and frighten me, but because for the first time it seemed to me that I could say: here’s how I have to write.

–interview with Sandra Ozzola, Sandro Ferri, and Eva Ferri, 2015 (edited and published in The Paris Review)

The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I’ve long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written–I prefer the rough draft to the final version.

–interview with Maurício Meireles (Brazil), May 28, 2015

“Too written.”

Jobey: The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels. Are you, in some ways, telling the same story?
Ferrante: Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady. Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all.

–interview with Liz Jobey (UK), 2015

reading notes

Strategically, profoundly, madly letting go: Thinking in Systems, by Donella H. Meadows

Some terminology
Balancing loop: as X increases, it’s harder and harder for X to keep increasing
Reinforcing loop: as X increases, it’s easier and easier for X to keep increasing

i. Systems zoo: a few examples of common types of systems

One stock with two competing balancing loops: a thermostat
Stock: the amount of heat/temperature in a room
Balancing loop #1: thermostat/heater which tries to keep the room at a temp higher than what it would be
Balancing loop #2: heat will keep leaving the room as long as it’s colder outside

One stock with one reinforcing loop and one balancing loop #1: population
Stock: the population
Reinforcing loop: the birth rate
Balancing loop: the death rate

One stock with one reinforcing loop and one balancing loop #2: industrial economy
Stock: physical capital
Reinforcing loop: products (and resulting profits which can be reinvested)
Balancing loop: depreciation of capital (becoming obsolete and wearing out)

One stock with two competing balancing loops, with delays: inventory of a car dealership
Stock: cars on the lot
Balancing loop #1: car sales decrease the stock
Balancing loop #1: ordering cars from the factory restores the stock
Perception delay: the dealer intentionally waits to get a more accurately gauge sales trends
Response delay: the dealer intentionally splits any adjustment across several orders, instead of ordering as many as projected all at once (again, to account for random dips/spikes)
Delivery delay: delay between putting in an order and receiving the new stock
The existence of delays in a balancing feedback loop can cause oscillations.

“High leverage, wrong direction” … This perverse kind of result can be seen all the time–someone trying to fix a system is attracted intuitively to a policy lever that in fact does have a strong effect on the system. And then the well-intentioned fixer pulls the lever in the wrong direction!

The correct way to make an adjustment can be in a counterintuitive direction. For example, you can think the way to correct for oscillations is to react faster (shorten delays), when in fact the answer might be to react more slowly (lengthen delays, e.g. lengthen the perception delay by waiting longer for trends to smooth out).

A renewable stock constrained by a non-renewable stock: oil economy
Renewable stock: capital
Constraining non-renewable stock: oil in one oil field
Balancing loop #1: depreciation of physical capital
Balancing loop #2: more capital means you can extract oil faster (a reinforcing loop).. but the more oil you extract, the more costly it becomes to extract the remaining oil

Whenever we see a growing entity, whether it be a population, a corporation, a bank account, a rumor, an epidemic, or sales of a new product, we look for the reinforcing loops that are driving it and for the balancing loops that ultimately will constrain it.

According to the dynamics of depletion, the larger the stock of initial resources, the more new discoveries, the longer the growth loops elude the control loops, and the higher the capital stock and its extraction rate grow, and the earlier, faster, and farther will be the economic fall on the back side of the production peak.

A renewable stock constrained by a renewable stock: fishing economy
Renewable stock: capital
Constraining renewable stock: fish
Scenario #1: the industry stabilizes at an equilibrium which can continue indefinitely
Scenario #2: better fishing technology than Scenario #1 that allows you to fish slightly too much, can result in oscillations
Scenario #3: even better fishing technology than Scenario #2 that allows you to fish way too much, can result in a complete wipeout of the fish–as if it were nonrenewable

ii. Why systems work so well

Resilience: feedback loops to restore a system to its desired state
Meta-resilience: a set of feedback loops that can restore or rebuild feedback loops
Meta-meta-resilience (aka self-organization): feedback loops that can learn, create, design, and evolve the feedback loops that restore feedback loops

I don’t think meta-meta-resilience has ever really occurred to me in my life and work, but it seems like that would be the holy grail, and something I should think about.

Because resilience may not be obvious without a whole-system view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property.

One of my personal favorite examples of this is that fear of germs/bacteria can result in a weak immune system. (Similar ideas are mentioned in Antifragile.)

What you need to think about may change over time, as self-organizing systems evolve new degrees of hierarchy and integration. The energy systems of nations were once almost completely decomposable one from another. That is no longer true. People whose thinking has not evolved as fast as the energy economy has may be shocked to discover how dependent they have become on resources and decisions halfway around the world.

This reminds me of a Shane Parrish podcast where the interviewee (who I can’t for the life of me remember right now, but maybe it’ll come back someday) points out that we’re good at perceiving change on small time scales, like from one year to another, and ok at perceiving change at extremely long time scales, like over centuries, but bad at perceiving change at that time scale in the middle, where things drift slightly from year to year, but end up vastly different over the course of like 50 years.

Therefore we assume a lot of things are the same as they were at the time when we first learned them (RIP Pluto). It’d be a good exercise to every once and while stop and think, “What was true in the world when I was a teenager that isn’t true anymore? What was true when I was in my 20s that isn’t true anymore?”

iii. Why systems surprise us

We focus too much on specific events, not enough on overall behaviors or trends.

If the news did a better job of putting events into historical context, we would have better behavior-level understanding, which is deeper than event-level understanding. When a systems thinker encounters a problem, the first thing he or she does is look for data, time graphs, the history of the system.

This has always frustrated me about the news, and was even more painful when I was a kid, and didn’t know the context of any news (e.g., what is Hamas and what does that have to do with anything?), plus it was harder to find resources to fill those gaps. It still annoys me today, but I’m better at getting my questions answered, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that if I actually want to understand it well, I should just read at least a full book.

But also, as a kid, I was frustrated because I assumed that all grownups just knew all the context, and I was the only one left out. But now I realize that’s not true. At any given time, the vast majority of grownups consuming a news item are very much in the dark as to the backstory and trends over a long period of time. If they weren’t in the dark, they wouldn’t be reading or watching the daily news.

Secondly, and more seriously, in trying to find statistical links that relate flows to each other, econometricians are searching for something that does not exist. There’s no reason to expect any flow to bear a stable relationship to any other flow. Flows go up and down, on and off, in all sorts of combinations, in response to stocks, not to other flows.

This is referring to the issues with economic reports.

We’re not great at understanding nonlinear relationships.

We use boundaries to create a system (or mental model), but then later we forget that the boundaries exist and are self-imposed.

When we think in terms of systems, we see that a fundamental misconception is embedded in the popular term “side-effects” … This phrase means roughly “effects which I hadn’t foreseen or don’t want to think about” … Side-effects no more deserve the adjective “side” than does the “principal” effect. It is hard to think in terms of systems, and we eagerly warp our language to protect ourselves from the necessity of doing so.

Garrett Hardin, ecologist

We forget that limiting factors are layered. Growth often changes which factor is the limiting factor.

To shift attention from the abundant factors to the next potential limiting factor is to gain real understanding of, and control over, the growth process.

We have a hard time thinking intuitively about systems that have delays.

Bounded rationality: individuals can each make decisions that are rational for them locally, yet which in the aggregate lead to a result that isn’t good for anyone.

iv. System traps and opportunities

When systems have problems that are not just surprising, but perverse–set up in a way that makes the desired state really hard to achieve.

Policy resistance: When a system is composed of subsystems whose goals are at odds with each other. If the system is in a bad state and one actor tries to fix it by pulling harder in their own direction, all other actors just have to exert more effort to get it back into the previous state, which nobody liked anyway. Example: war on drugs. Example: Nicolae Ceausescu’s government trying to increase Romania’s birthrate by outlawing abortion.

The tragedy of the commons: Example: overgrazing, overfishing.

Drift to low performance: A reinforcing loop where low performance leads you to psychologically lower your standards/expectations, so performance drifts lower and lower.

Escalation: Examples: price wars, arms races.

Success to the successful: Example: America.

Some people think the fall of the communist Soviet Union has disproved the theories of Karl Marx, but this particular analysis of his–that market competition systematically eliminates market competition–is demonstrated wherever there is, or used to be, a competitive market.

Shifting the burden to the intervenor–addiction: Addressing the symptom instead of the root cause, such that you become dependent on the thing that addresses the symptom.

Rule beating: Rules that are poorly crafted such that they can incentivize people to do stuff that abides “by the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.”

Seeking the wrong goal: When the measurable results you’re looking for and incentivizing have nothing to do with what you actually want to see. Example: conflating “quality education” with “performance on standardized tests.”

v. Leverage points–places to intervene in a system

From least effective to most effective.

12: Numbers: constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, standards

Numbers, the sizes of flows, are dead last on my list of powerful interventions. Diddling with the details, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Probably 90–no 95, no 99 percent–of our attention goes to parameters, but there’s not a lot of leverage in them.

11: Buffers: the sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows

10: Stock-and-flow structures: physical systems and their nodes of intersection

9: Delays: the lengths of time relative to the rates of system changes

8: Balancing feedback loops: the strength of the feedbacks relative to the impacts they are trying to correct

7: Reinforcing feedback loops: the strength of the gain of driving loops

6: Information flows: the structure of who does and does not have access to information

5: Rules: incentives, punishments, and constraints

4: Self-organization: the power to add, change, or evolve system structure

3: Goals: the purpose or function of the system

2: Paradigms: the mindset out of which the system–its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters–arises

1: Transcending paradigms

To realize that no paradigm is true = enlightenment.

If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe.

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go and dancing with the system.

Response to the excuse that you can let low quality stuff pass without being addressed, just because it’s hard to quantify and measure:

Human beings have been endowed not only with the ability to count, but also with the ability to assess quality. Be a quality detector. Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality.

reading notes

All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no: On Photography, by Susan Sontag

Oh man. Sontag already thought the proliferation of photographs, and the superficial nostalgia/pathos they brought, was troubling, in 1977–I wish she could have lived to see Instagram. Or maybe not.

I’ve had a few years of experience with darkroom photography and I’m familiar with some of the most iconic American photographers and photographs, but I’m not so interested in photography’s place in our culture, which is the subject of these essays. But I liked reading them anyhow, for the critical thinking, to see how Sontag’s mind works.

Okay, but the highlight of the whole book: did you know that the word cliché, which means a trite/overused expression, originally came from the word for something like a photographic negative–like a block print, a template that printers could use to print the same image repeatedly? (Another word for the same object: a stereotype!) Thanks, Sontag! (This is mentioned in “The Image-World,” summarized below.)

For this book, instead of quoting from it, I’ll go through and write my [very personal, idiosyncratic] tl;dr of each essay in the book. Only way I’ll remember what they were about.

In Plato’s Cave
Photographs necessarily involve appropriating the subject, and then you can have the illusion that you understand the subjects, when you don’t. Photographs of people suffering may help goad people into taking action, but they can also make people numb. Photographs are almost more real to people than experience itself, and everyone is addicted to them.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly
Diane Arbus, her approach, subjects, and her stance toward her subjects, where to place her work in the context of photography and art, and what this all says about America (basically: it’s NOT all rainbows and unicorns like how Walt Whitman saw America).

Melancholy Objects
Photography is more Surrealist than other arts that were trying to be Surrealist, like painting or poetry. Class tourism is when you photograph e.g. poor people, because it feels exotic. This is Surrealist. Photography is fond of taking subjects that are “ugly” or rejected and reframing them as beautiful. This is also Surrealist.

The Heroism of Vision
At first the photographer was thought of as just the person operating the camera, like a scribe as opposed to a writer. But soon anybody with a camera was thought to have their own special way of seeing the world, and it becomes heroic to photograph things that otherwise go unnoticed. A photograph always makes its subject beautiful in a way, and you can’t really avoid that, which can be disturbing when the subject is something horrific. Again: you think you understand the subject, but you don’t.

Photographic Evangels (my favorite piece!)
Photography has always been suffering from an identity crisis, mostly around how and why it’s legit. Is it a fine art or not? Does it involve thinking, or is it spontaneous? Is it about expressing yourself, or about documenting reality? At first photographers were desperate to be thought of as artists; now they feel like they’re too cool to be thought of as artists. Because their work is more accessible. But–oh no!–what if it becomes so accessible that anybody can claim to be a photographer? That keeps the professional photographers up at night. Photographers also claim that they’re freeing painters and writers from the drudgery of trying to describe things, which is a silly claim for a lot of reasons.

The Image-World
Images have become more real to us than the real world, such that when you see a thing in person, you might be disappointed because it doesn’t look like the photograph. China has a super different notion of camera culture: photographs should always be posed, and should always show the subject in the best possible light. Capitalism is fueled by a constant mass supply of images, which we now have. And like anything we consume, the more images we take and look at, the more we need.

A Brief Anthology of Quotations
Just quotes that are relevant to all the other essays.

reading notes

A real understanding of Quality captures the System: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why.

But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.

“The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” (quoting Albert Einstein)

I want to talk about another kind of high country now in the world of thought, which in some ways, for me at least, seems to parallel or produce feelings similar to this, and call it the high country of the mind.

If all of human knowledge, everything that’s known, is believed to be an enormous hierarchic structure, then the high country of the mind is found at the uppermost reaches of this structure in the most general, the most abstract considerations of all.

All of the philosophers he was reading showed it. The whole university he was attending smelled of the same ugliness. It was everywhere, in the classroom, in the textbooks. It was in himself and he didn’t know how or why. It was reason itself that was ugly and there seemed no way to get free.

It’s a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distances between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him.

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

We live in entirely different time structures.

“I’ve heard it said that the only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know. Everyone’s familiar with that. I think the same thing occurs with whole civilizations when expansion’s needed at the roots.”

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed.

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical.

A real understanding of Quality doesn’t just serve the System, or even beat it or even escape it. A real understanding of Quality captures the System, tames it, and puts it to work for one’s own personal use, while leaving one completely free to fulfill his inner destiny.

Once you begin to hear the sound of that Quality, see that Korean wall, that nonintellectual reality in its pure form, you want to forget all that word stuff, which you finally begin to see is always somewhere else.

“In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live.”

Then, having identified the nature of geometric axioms, he [Poincaré] turned to the question, Is Euclidian geometry true or is Riemann geometry true?

He answered, The question has no meaning.

As well ask whether the metric system is true and the avoirdupois system is false; whether Cartesian coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false. One geometry cannot be more true than another; it can only be more convenient. Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable.

Just live with it for a while. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it. That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it.

My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out.

Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. His world began and ended with this stunt. The reason why, if he were not more than two thousand years dead, he would have gladly rubbed him out is that he saw him as a prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirit of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind, rote, eternal naming of things. Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish “principles” and study “methods” and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries–the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason.

Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency–or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.

reading notes

Many people have a tree growing in their heads: A Thousand Plateaus, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

I liked the first “chapter” (or “plateau”, they call it) of the book, but decided to give up on it after that, so I only have notes from the chapter known as Introduction: Rhizome, which is (as I read it) mostly a comparison of tree structures vs. rhizome structures (like the ginger plant). (Or in engineering terms, trees vs. graphs.)

Whenever desire climbs a tree, internal repercussions trip it up and it falls to its death; the rhizome, on the other hand, acts on desire by external, productive outgrowths.

I don’t remember why I wrote this down, but it does sound cool.

Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree.

Note to self, see Walt Whitman. And: to what extent can we say the nervous system, including the brain, is decentralized?

…short-term memory is of the rhizome or diagram type, and long-term memory is arborescent and centralized (imprint, engram, tracing, or photograph). Short-term memory is in no way subject to a law of contiguity or immediacy to its object; it can act at a distance, come or return a long time after, but always under conditions of discontinuity, rupture, and multiplicity.

“…In a hierarchical system, an individual has only one active neighbor, his or her hierarchical superior…” –Pierre Rosenstiehl and Jean Petitot

I’m thinking of the inherent loneliness of the conventional organizational tree-hierarchy, in companies.

We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is composed of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs. Each morning we would wake up, and each of us would ask himself what plateau he was going to tackle, writing five lines here, ten there.

The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed.

reading notes

A difficult apprenticeship: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, by Hélène Cixous

Three lectures given in May 1990 at the University of California, Irvine.

I’d heard a quote from this book years ago, and the other week I found a copy on the shelf at McNally Jackson, which might have been the first time I’ve seen it in all the intervening years.

The three steps are:

I. The School of the Dead
II. The School of Dreams
III. The School of Roots

Cixous quoting from a letter Kafka wrote in 1904:

But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And Cixous herself:

The writer has a foreign origin; we do not know about the particular nature of these foreigners, but we feel they feel there is an appeal, that someone is calling them back.

The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family. We don’t know the authors, we read books and we take them for the authors. We think there must be an analogy or identification between the book and the author. But you can be sure there is an immense difference between the author and the person who wrote; and if you were to meet that person, it would be someone else.

Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort. Painting is trying to paint what you cannot paint and writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written.

I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveler. Poetry is about traveling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.

Mandelstam wore out hundreds of pairs of shoes. You cannot write such intense, dense poetry without the kind of dance that dances you round the world.

Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving.

A dream’s charm is that you are transported into another world; no, you are not transported, you are already in the other world.

In the text, as in dreams, there is no entrance. I offer this as a test to all apprentice-writers: if you are marking time you are not yet there.

Genuine books are always like that: the site, the bed, the hope of another book. The whole time you were expecting to read the book, you were reading another book. The book in place of the book. What is the book written while you are preparing to write a book? There is no appointment with writing other than the one we go to wondering what we’re doing here and where we’re going.

Do we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots?… Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried.

reading notes

The human dies, but the idea spreads: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is the book I wished existed, when I was a kid. A book that would attempt to explain all of human history, and give you a framework in which to place the happenings in the textbooks (movements, wars), without which just memorizing the happenings is totally meaningless. In other words this book, introductory as it is, has been more valuable to me than 15 years of history class.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. …

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.

Labelling things “natural” vs. “unnatural” == a form of violence.

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.

This seems like a really helpful way to test how deeply you understand any system. Being able to explain the things that are uncontroversial to it isn’t enough. If you can also explain the spots where things break down, the contradictions, the sources of cognitive dissonance, the things people need to ignore to continue functioning in the system, that demonstrates a deeper understanding.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

Money == a trust system. Nothing more.

In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea–such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth–can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.


An understanding of the Old Persian section gave him the key he needed to unlock the secrets of the Elamite and Babylonian sections. The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices–the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats. Without the efforts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern empires.

For all the crappy things wrought by imperialists, Harari argues that they were often more curious about the past of the places they were visiting than the people who had been living there.

As humans use their power to counter the forces of nature and subjugate the ecosystem to their needs and whims, they might cause more and more unanticipated and dangerous side effects. These are likely to be controllable only by even more drastic manipulations of the ecosystem, which would result in even worse chaos.

Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed.

This circles back to the first thing I quoted here. “Nature” is bigger than we usually picture it, and, for all we know, nature seems perfectly fine with having some entities destroy other entities and/or themselves en masse (see: supernovas). If you define nature as “life on Earth,” then yeah, it’s technically possible for us to cause all life on Earth to end. If you define nature as “the universe”.. it’s not so easy for humans to cause the universe to cease to exist. At least, at the moment we have no idea how we would be able to do that.

It’s certainly sad if our species destroys the source of all the gifts given to us and to future generations of our species and all the other species we know of. But it may be presumptuous to claim that that would be offensive to nature, when it could be (for example) just a routine thing that happens every few billion years. In other words, it’s possible that what we’re doing to the earth sucks for us way more than it sucks for the universe.

reading notes

Everything I highlighted in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

I wanted to go on offense. I wanted to have the time to focus, to learn the things I wanted to learn, to build what I wanted to build, and to really invest in relationships that I wanted to grow, rather than just doing a day of coffee after coffee after coffee.

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Smart people should make things.

The standard pace is for chumps.

What is the ultimate quantification of success? For me, it’s not how much time you spend doing what you love. It’s how little time you spend doing what you hate.

There needs to be one decisive reason, and then the worthiness of the trip needs to be measured against that one reason.

So if you’re planning to do something with your life, if you have a 10-year-plan of how to get there, you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months?

If you can’t come up with 10 ideas, come up with 20 ideas… You are putting too much pressure on yourself.

But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1) Become the best at one specific thing. 2) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

What interesting thing are you working on? Why is that interesting to you? What’s surprising about that? Is anybody else thinking about this?

Don’t force it.

Law 2: When given a choice… take both.
Law 3: Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.
Law 6: When forced to compromise, ask for more.
Law 7: If you can’t win, change the rules.
Law 8: If you can’t change the rules, then ignore them.
Law 11: “No” simply means begin again at one level higher.
Law 13: When in doubt: THINK.
Law 16: The faster you move, the slower time passes, the longer you live.

Any time I’m telling myself, “But I’m making so much money,” that’s a warning sign that I’m doing the wrong thing.

The season writing process for The Office began with the Blue Sky Period, which was B.J.’s favorite part of every year.
For 2 to 4 weeks, the writers’ room banter was each person asking, “What if…?” over and over again. Crazy scenarios were encouraged, not penalized.

So take as long as you want if you’re talented. You’ll get their attention again if you have a reason to.

In the midst of overwhelm, is life not showing me exactly what I should subtract?

He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.

She travels with a weighted jump rope.

The second you start doing it for an audience, you’ve lost the long game because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run requires, most of all, keeping yourself excited about it.

You never want to solve a research problem with language.

What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.

On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and see friends, read, or watch a movie in the evening. The very best days of my life are given over to uninterrupted debauchery, but these are, alas, undependable and increasingly difficult to arrange. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, “What time?”

Don’t panic. Let the silence do the work.

Don’t try to describe things.

Drop into something.

In any situation in life, you only have three options. You always have three options. You can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it. What is not a good option is to sit around wishing you would change it but not changing it, wishing you would leave it but not leaving it, and not accepting it.

Choose your five chimps carefully.

Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.

If you can’t see yourself working with someone for life, don’t work with them for a day.

All the real benefits in life come from compound interest.

Warren Buffett spends a year deciding and a day acting.

My one repeated learning in life: “There are no adults.” Everyone’s making it up as they go along. Figure it out yourself, and do it.

If you’re studying my game, you’re entering my game.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Be clear that your ladder is leaning against the right building.

What if I did the opposite for 48 hours?

What’s the least crowded channel?

Do I need to make it back the way I lost it?

What if I could only subtract to solve problems?

Am I hunting antelope or field mice?

What would this look like if it were easy?

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

No hurry, no pause.

Everything was one take, even if it didn’t work.

There were three reasons why we survived: We had no money, we had no technology, and we had no plan.

There was too much competition over there. If everyone’s trying to get through that one little door, you’re in the wrong place.

Remember that the things they fire you for when you are young are the same things that they give lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old.

You get in your own way–thinking that you needed to know something, a trick or a process, before it would flow. If you got out of the way, it would just flow.

“I did it once, but I don’t know if I can do it again.” It was never you. The best you can do is just to get out of the way so it comes through.

“Oh, I don’t know if I’m doing it right. These other guys seem to know.” No, they don’t know. None of them know. That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to know.

When people say: “You do so many things. You’re a musician, you’re a painter, you’re a composer, you’re a cinematographer, you’re the editor. You do so many different things.” I go, “No, I only do one thing. I live a creative life.”

Oh, mission got cancelled? Good. We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.
Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.
Didn’t get funded? Good. We own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a better résumé.
Got injured? Good. Needed a break from training.
Got tapped out? Good. It’s better to tap out in training than to tap out on the street.
Got beat? Good. We learned.
Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.