“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

This is a real page-turner, the most interesting novel I’ve read in a while.  Very good worldbuilding, and a nice “narration twist” as I’ll call it.  This book really just sets up the story for (I guess) the following two books; the majority of it is flashbacks of the main character’s life as an Imperial Fulcrum orogene.

The orogenes, or roggas, are individuals with an inherited trait of being able to control earthquakes and the like.  For the most part, they are shunned by society, since they are seen as destroyers of civilization and all that’s good — at times past, certain orogenes have either intentionally or accidentally in a fit of passion raised a volcano on their city or something similar.  The Fulcrum, a school and governing body of orogenes, is the only authorized user of their powers.  It is watched over carefully by the Guardians, superficially polite but under the surface almost cruelly inhumane towards the roggas.

The “Fifth Season” per the title is Death.  In this world, catastrophic seismic events which more or less end civilization occur every few hundred years on average.  Besides the event itself, the real killer is the years of nuclear winter which usually follow.  The different communities, or “comms” are built around vigilance and eternal preparation for surviving the next inevitable apocalypse.

The main event here is an engineered apocalyptic shake, which seems to have the potential for a Fifth Season much longer than ever before.  And the instigator is actually one of the “good guys.”  I won’t spoil the story any further; just will say that there’s lots of mysteries in the world-building vein which get revealed as the book goes on, only to reveal new mysteries later.  I guess that’s the definition of good pacing??  And the narration twist is pretty good.

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“Elon Musk” by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk seems like kind of a jerk to work for, and live with apparently – he often told he wife “if you were my employee I would fire you.”  But, man, what an incredible vision.  The reason he drives people so hard is because that’s what he demands of himself, and if he is giving his all then you should too.  For Elon, life is short and there is so much to be done to realize a goal so much more important than almost anything else: the very future of humanity itself.

This sounds very grandiose, but I think that is really what he is motivated by.  And I am glad he is out there doing it!  (But like I said, I think I’m too lazy and incompetent to work for him … but at the same time I sort of idolize his commitment and capability.  Weird/not weird?)  Elon’s purpose in life is to make humankind a multi-planetary species.  We need this as a kind of insurance policy against asteroid strikes or super-volcanoes or good ol’ fashioned nuclear holocaust or irreversible global warming.  A few of these at least seem a little too probable for us to remain comfortable while doing nothing.

One in particular, global warming.  Contrast what Elon is doing, with SpaceX trying to get us to Mars and Tesla (although he started out as more of an early investor in Tesla rather than a founder, but gets furious when people point this out) trying to get us using non-polluting cars, with Mayer Hillman giving up and saying we are doomed … Even if Hillman is right, I’d rather humanity goes down swinging!

Some of Elon’s lack of empathy and demanding nature might be explained by his father.  There isn’t much detail given, but Elon said “he managed to turn any happy moment miserable” and effectively psychologically tortured his kids.  Sounds horrible.

On the other side, his maternal grandfather sounds like quite a character.  Joshua Haldeman was a pioneering chiropractor in Canada when he abruptly decided to move the family to a life of adventure and flying bushplanes in South Africa in 1950.

After making a lot of money in the dot-com era with the sale of his first company Zip2, and then after being forced out at Paypal, Musk found himself with a lot of money and free to pursue his real goals.  He became involved in a concept called Mars Oasis, which would try to grow Earth plants on Mars.  This led to starting SpaceX.

In 2008, SpaceX seemed unable to have a successful launch, Tesla was running out of money, and Elon was going through a divorce.  Not a fun time.  But he perservered, and really was vindicated with the 2012 successful Falcon 9+Dragon launch to the ISS and the launch of the Tesla Model S.  And things have looked bright since then.

Recently I was in LA and stopped by the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne.  I wasn’t expecting to see much, but there is a mockup of the Falcon 9 first stage outside, which is pretty cool.  Later the same day, we saw the Getty Villa, which is a recreated Roman villa, stocked with ancient Greek and Roman statues and other artwork.  The contrast kind of struck me: here are two ways to spend your wealth; one looking forward and one looking back.

Elon Musk is a serial workaholic, very impatient with “fools” (anyone who disagrees with him), and fairly lacking in empathy.  But like I wrote above, I think it is all due to how important he feels his goals really are.  I’m glad he’s working on them and I’m sure he’ll have a place in the history books.

A few things from the Appendix which were interesting on their own:

  • Per Musk, PayPal’s secret to success was minimizing cost per transaction.  The best way to do this is with internal transactions, which are secure (no costs due to fraud) and have no external processing fees.  So, the goal is to encourage people to keep money in PayPal.  Counter-intuitively, making it very easy to transfer money out of PayPal made people more comfortable with leaving money there. Also, offering high money market rates is not a money maker for PayPal – it is to have people maintain a balance.
  • Musk’s letter to SpaceX employees on (not) going public (2013): very clear that he’s not in business to get (more) rich: “Creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure.”  Also: “If you really are better than most hedge fund managers, then there is no need to worry about the value of your SpaceX stock, as you can just invest in other public stocks and make billions of dollars in the market.”

Coco (2017)

Really great movie, and makes you think.  Who will remember you after you are dead?  And what do you want to be remembered for?

Love is the best answer.

Arrival (2016)

Really did a good job on the weird, surreal, otherworldly, mysterious atmosphere regarding the alien presence.  But they kind of spoiled it when Amy Adams finally cracked their language.  Turns out they are understandable after all, and have understandable, selfish motives, just like us!

Kind of spoiled it for me.  Also the whole “we just gotta work together! Yeah!” ending is kind of lame.  Plus, knowing the alien language = being able to see the (only yours?) future is kind of …magic, not sci-fi.

“Boomerang” by Michael Lewis

Before the 2008 credit crisis, countries discovered they could borrow extraordinary sums and do whatever they wanted.  Big debt ensues.

  • Iceland – became heavily involved in investment banking, from virtually no experience at all. They would borrow foreign money cheaply, use it buy assets (land and companies – usually not the best ones) at inflated prices. Therefore they now have booked some very valuable assets, and they would continue the cycle by borrowing again, with the assets as collateral.  Worked as long as people kept accepting the rising, inflated asset prices.
    • “We don’t have a debt crisis; just a liquidity crisis!”  Well, here’s what that really means: you sell me your cat for $1 billion, and I sell you my dog for $1 billion.  Now we each have assets worth $1 billion, awesome!  I decide to borrow a paltry sum, $10 million, with my $1 billion cat as collateral.  Life is good!  But $10 million doesn’t last as long as it used to, and I start to get behind on the payments…  Hmmm, well, (sorry Fluffy!) I guess it’s time to sell this $1 billion cat!  Uh, oh; no one will pay me $1 billion for old Fluffy.  But I’m still worth $1 billion, you know; it’s just a non-liquid market right now for $1 billion cats.  A liquidity crisis!
  • Greece – government was too generous. Incredible pension and govt wage insolvency. Everyone cheats on taxes.  There’s a monastery which traded a lake it had been ceded in medieval times for millions in government land.
  • Ireland – incredible property development boom, but with no real customers. A few banks about to go under due to their ill-advised investments; inexplicably govt decided to bail them out.
  • Germany – very trusting; think that everyone else follows the rules like they do.  And so they get burned.  They thought AAA rated bonds meant risk free. Didn’t care about what the bonds were actually for, as long as they had a good rating. Interesting stories of American banks creating complicated investment products with sole purpose of selling to suckers like the Germans and then having their own traders short.
  • California – incredible pension debt and gerrymandering which prevents anyone from solving the problem.  Points to example of moderate, popular Schwarzenegger making no progress as example of this.

In the end, Lewis doesn’t really leave us anywhere besides knowing some stories about bad big finance decisions.  There’s some attempt at guilt – bankers choosing to go so deeply in debt that they sink their country does seem pretty immoral.  But did that stop anyone from doing it?  No.  People are wired for self-interest, that’s why capitalism works.  Unfortunately they also are poor at evaluating risk; but even if we could do it perfectly no one’s risk tolerance is the same.  So what do we do?  I think that’s the pickle.  It seems like the answer is regulation to prevent future-crushing deals (for those other than the parties to the deal itself – we should allow banks to fail!) from happening in the first place, but I think the problem is bankers are creative at finding loopholes, and politicians don’t want onerous regulation which would be seen as hurting they economy.

From a personal level, takeaway is that debt is bad – avoid.  But even if you are totally clean, it is possible that others will screw up your country or currency.  Maybe bitcoin is the answer?  Although that suffers from similar problems – large bitcoin holders kind of determine its future.  Diversification in many currencies?

“Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Really short audio book of 3 CDs, but very dense on good ideas.  (Well, at least they sound pretty good.  Lately I often think of the survivorship fallacy when hearing someone who “made it” tell their secrets of success – are those really repeatable formulae that would work for me, or were they just lucky??)

Lots of good tips on starting/maintaining a business, but overall the biggest message I got is this: have a great product and be confident about it.  Doesn’t have to be great for everyone, just enough to satisfy you and enough to secure customers to sustain your business.  Never forget why you are in business: to get a better life for yourself (via providing a useful product or service to others).

There’s something of the message of Siddhartha here too – you have to make your own path in business, too; as well as in life in general.

  • Learn from successes, not failures. Success rate of businesses with a founder who succeeded already at a first business is 34% vs 23% for those who already failed with a business… 23% is the same success rate for those who are starting their first business
  • Start small and frugal – no need for unnecessary growth
  • Your idea doesn’t need to be unique; you just need to execute better than anyone else

 

 

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

I read this book sometime during high school; I think it was an Academic Decathlon selection for one year.  Since then I’ve confused the storyline a bit in my mind with stories of the Buddha himself.  Siddhartha in this story does meet the Buddha, but goes on his own quest for meaning.  Which is kind of the point – everyone need to find their own meaning in life.

He begins as a son of a Brahmin family, the priestly caste.  He feels like there is something lacking in what his father and others preach, so he joins a group of wandering ascetics as a shramana for a few years.  Then he and his friend, Govinda, hear of a new teacher, the Buddha, and leave the shramanas to find him.  They listen to his teachings for a while; Govinda is convinced that it’s the answer and stays as a disciple of Buddha.  But Siddhartha, though acknowledging that the Buddha does seem to have achieved peace and perfection, thinks that he won’t achieve it himself by following someone else – he must experience his own revelation, find his own path.

“Wisdom cannot be conveyed.  The wisdom a sage attempts to convey always sounds like folly…  One can convey knowledge but not wisdom.  One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be borne by it, one can work wonders with it, but one can neither speak it nor teach it.”

So Siddhartha leaves the Buddha and decides to try out worldly pleasures for a time.  As shramana, Siddhartha and his crew always secretly disdained the “child people” in the real world, who were so concerned with the trivialities of love and life.  But as he became more worldly himself, he began to respect them more: “He envied them the importance they were able to attribute to their lives, the passion of their joys and fears, the fearful but sweet bliss of their eternal amorousness.  These people incessantly fell in love with themselves, their women, their children, with honor or money, plans or hopes.”  I have caught myself in times past looking down on others who seem so concerned with things I see as meaningless, like fashion or celebrity gossip or anime or …  But then, those activities make people happy.  So what’s it to me?  I have hobbies and interests which others might view in the same light.  I also think about studies on happiness – the one thing that happy people have in common is striving for a cause.  Doesn’t seem to matter what it is, as long as it is truly important to you.

Siddhartha says he only learned three things from his time as a shramana: he can think, he can wait, and he can fast.  But these are all he needs to quickly become wealthy and win over the beautiful Kamala.  There’s a recipe for success for you: be smart enough to recognize opportunity, patient enough to wait for the right moment, and willing to sacrifice when necessary to seize that opportunity.

He grows into a rich man.  But then he realizes that all his wealth is meaningless, since it will all be consumed by death one day.  (You can’t take it with you!)  He becomes a ferryman, learning from the older ferryman he joins as well as from the river.  The river teaches him that time doesn’t matter – the river is at the source and at it’s mouth all at the same time.

At one point as a ferryman, Siddhartha’s son comes to live with him when Kamala dies.  The boy is very unhappy with the simple life.  Siddhartha tries to show him by example how peaceful and happy it can be, but to no avail.  The boy just gets angry and eventually runs away.  Siddhartha is saddened, but then realizes how much it was like him rebelling against his own father and joining the shramana – yet another example of how everyone must find their own path.

“Backstage Wall Street” by Joshua Brown

This is not a book advising you on what to invest in; rather it is advice on what to avoid.  Or rather, who to avoid.  Never forget that brokers, fund managers and the like are salesman, first and foremost and often last.  They want your business because that is how they make their money.  According to the author, who was one for many years, they spend so much time honing their sales skills that they typically are no better at picking stocks than their clients.

Some specific tips:

  • Go ETF, not mutual funds
  • For foreign indices go with equal weight indices rather than market cap weight (since typically one or two large companies dominate)
  • “Buy and hold” and the futility of timing the markets “is one of the greatest stories ever told, despite the fact that in the past century we’ve seen 25 cyclical bear markets and two bone-crushing secular bear markets.”  Investment professions market and promote stories which serve their interests, so always think about what they are trying to convince you to do, and why.
  • Avoid like the plague: SPACs (companies which set up an all-star management team first, they find a struggling company to buyout and “turn around”), reverse Chinese mergers (similar; but involves a Chinese company with majorly cooked books buying a small, yet stock market listed, company in order to get themselves listed after the merger), “one-drug biotechs” (there are only ~7 biotech-developed drugs approved by the FDA each year)
  • If you must get investment advice, hire an RIA (Registered Investment Advisor), who are fee-based rather than commission-based, and have a higher fiduciary responsibility to their clients: “I work with smart people who are more concerned with what’s right rather than ‘What can I sell?'”

“Islam: A Very Short Introduction” by Malise Ruthven

I heard about the “Very Short Introduction” series not long ago and thought it sounded so cool!  But now I’m not so sure – there’s a lot of info in this book, but it didn’t seem like a very good beginner’s introduction to the topic.  Very highbrow and graduate-level, I thought.  Anyway, I did learn quite a bit.

  • There’s no central religious authority in Islam like Western Christianity had the Papacy.  By itself this led to some unique characteristics, but consequentially for world history the Islamic world didn’t develop secular political powers as a counterbalance to religious ones, like what happened in Europe.  So the political realm is intricately tied in with religious life in most Islamic countries.
  • “Jihad” is misunderstood; first and foremost it is an inward struggle in one’s own heart against wickedness.
  • Islam is very insistent on obedience: “whichever verses of the Quran may seem to us to contradict truth or reality, there are two explanations: either we have made an error in understanding the meaning of these verses, or we are mistaken in our understanding of what is truth and reality.”  Might be my whole religious mindset right now, but this just strikes me as almost chilling arrogance…  For the faithful, there is no way they can be wrong.  But how does that jive with faithful in other religions, who also believe there is no way they can be wrong?

“World Order” by Henry Kissinger

World Order, a.k.a. how to keep the world at peace.  I was impressed with Kissinger‘s knowledge of the history and nuances of the subject.  He must have been a terrific Secretary of State, or maybe a lot of his wisdom was developed on the job or afterwards?  In any case, after listening to his book, I am more worried about the current crop of buffoons, even more so when critical positions like Sec State are treated as a revolving door.  When players in this game have nuclear weapons, you should not mess around!

This is really a book of history.  The thought that kept occurring to me is whether or not we really have enough data to say “here is how to create a peaceful, stable world order.”  Seems like we might only be able to point to concepts in the past that have seemed to work for a time and certain region, but may or may not be applicable now.

If anything, the “Westphalian system,” which Kissinger marks as the beginning of modern world order, seems like the best system we’ve come up with.  It’s from the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War (1648).  The fundamental principles are national sovereignty and self-interest, noninterference in other nations’ domestic affairs, and maintaining the balance of power between nations (ie. don’t let anyone get too strong).

Also in harmony with the Westphalian system is the concept that there are bad actors in every country; one aim of diplomacy is (or should be) to keep them from taking power, or, if they do, organize to quickly defeat them.  This has pretty much been the history of Europe since the Peace of Westphalia.  I guess it doesn’t have that great of a record after all, since there were at least three pretty devastating wars in that time frame (Napoleon, WWI, WWII) — but hard to say if it would have been better or worse otherwise.

After each of the major conflicts, Kissinger saw the key task of diplomats as reassembling the shatter world order.  After Napoleon, the challenge was working a very powerful Russia into the mix.  After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles was a failure since it was too punitive to seem fair to Germany (so angry people elected Hitler), and too lenient to prevent his moves toward war (allies unable to enforce terms against German rearmament).  After WWII, we seem to have done a better job … but maybe, Kissinger says, that’s just because we naturally ended up with the America-Soviet balance in the Cold War.  After the Soviet Union fell, the world became effectively unipolar, and now we are once again in a state of trying to regain a workable world order.

Kissinger goes through a few main challenges.  One is Russia, which has a very different heritage from Europe.  Russia has almost always been led by an autocrat with absolute power, and the guiding foreign policy for centuries was expansion and enforcing the ruler’s will, rather than cooperation and respect for fellow nation-citizens of the world community.

The other key modern challenge is the Islamic world.  A world with many valid nation-actors, each respecting each other’s sovereignty is at odds with the Islamic view, which see the world as two spheres: the realm of peace (Islam), and the realm of war (everywhere else, which will eventually turn to Islam by conversion or submission).

I didn’t realize how openly hostile Iran is towards USA…  A 2007 letter to President Bush closed with same phrase “peace only to those who submit to Islam,” which was used very early on to the Byzantine emperor, shortly before attacking.

Kissinger’s advice to Iran applies to the whole Islamic community: “Iran needs to decide whether it is a country, or a cause.”  In other words, are they willing to treat the rest of the world as equals, or are they going to maintain the idea of their religious superiority at all (probably great!) costs.

Finally there are aspects in American culture today which also threaten world order.  The American concern over human rights has some concerned that we are straying from Westphalian principles, which left each country alone to define its own domestic policies.  Also, often foreign groups use American emotion to their advantage.  For instance, during the Arab Spring, protest groups sought for American statements supporting them; America felt pressured to do so since it was promoting democracy, even before we knew much about the groups or their prospects or goals, and before we had considered how it would affect our long term strategic interests.

Kissinger also has a dismal outlook for social media’s effect on the future.  Political candidates are already more a product of market research and data mining, focused on emotional issues for short term gains, rather than long term strategy. (eg. Trump’s wall with Mexico; the threatened steel tariffs with China to “bring back American manufacturing jobs”)

Good read (well; listen) — lots to think about.  I hope Trump reads it.