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.

“Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Firsthand stories from Russians who lived through the transition from communism to capitalism.  For the most part, the main emotions they have is shock and anger — Russia threw away the great dream of socialism, which they worked so hard for and suffered for (even some former work camp inmates long for the old days), and sold it so cheaply for blue jeans, VCRs, and salami.  (For some reason there is a very consistent reference to salami, as in if you have salami, life is good.  I guess it was scarce during Soviet times?)  Now, mobsters and a$$holes are in charge.

It was sickening to read about parts of Russia occupied by Germans during the war.  In one Jewish village, they marched everyone out to the woods, had men dig two big pits, threw kids in one and buried them alive; then threw everyone else in the other one and buried them.  Sick.  Of course Stalin and his like did some similar stuff; yet for the most part Stalin’s image is fairly intact, even today.  The attitude is that he was harsh, but he won the war and bootstrapped the country to the forefront of the world; he was what Russia needed at the time.  So they say.

One story from a man imprisoned in a work camp from age 16 to 30, who came out to no family or friends.  Very lonely.  Eventually married a woman who had a daughter and found some peace.  Just before he died: “Write that I was a happy man on my tombstone. That I was loved.  The most terrible torment is not being loved.”

Other choice quotes:

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.”

“We’d built it all then handed it over to the gangsters.”

“Reamde” by Neal Stephenson

Memorable story, but not really cyberpunk-y at all like Stephenson’s other stuff.

There is a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG called T’Rain that sets up the initial plot.  A Chinese hacker of the game, “The Troll,” created a ransomware virus that encrypts user’s files unless an in-game ransom is paid, via a drop at a specific location.  A different hacker named Peter, in Seattle, accidentally gives this virus to a shady dude, Wallace, as he sells him a bunch of stolen credit card numbers.  Unfortunately, the shady dude works for a Russian mobster, and lots of other important stuff gets encrypted on his computer.

The mobster, Ivanov, and crew get to Seattle and kidnap Peter as well as his girlfriend, Zula, an Eritrean refugee adopted in childhood by a family in Iowa, and whose uncle coincidentally is the creator of T’Rain.  Ivanov goes sort of crazy when they are unable to decrypt the files or payoff the Troll (the area in T’Rain is overrun by armies stealing gold from virus victims before they can deposit it).  So he takes them along with a Hungarian hacker named Csongor to Xiamen to search for the Troll and get revenge.

They find the Troll’s apartment building.  Zula, Peter, and Csongor are chained to a pipe in the basement while Ivanov’s team of mercenaries, led by all-around badass but really a good guy at heart Sokolov, go to confront the Troll.  But at the last minute, Zula directs them to one apartment above where they actually think the Troll lives and she uses the fuse box to cycle power to the Troll’s apartment in an attempt to warn him.  Her intentions are good – no one deserves torture/murder at the hands of a crazy Russian mobster.  Even if it means losing her own life – she already figures Ivanov will kill them when he’s done with the Troll.

Here is where the story takes a major twist.  Turns out the apartment they barge in on was a safehouse for a group of jihadists.  A massive firefight ensues, and the main jihadist, Abdullah Jones, ends up escaping with Zula as a hostage.  It all gets pretty “Mad, Mad, Mad World” with groups of characters hijacking a plane to Canada, or a boat to the Phillipines, a British MI6 agent trying to get out of China, and especially towards the end, as the jihadists and all the other main characters converge on a compound of right-wing extremists in Northern Idaho (“American Taliban” as Sokolov puts it) owned by another of Zula’s uncles.

First thought is how instantaneous choices can have extensive repercussions.  Zula’s choice to spare the Troll seemed to lead to many more deaths than would otherwise have occurred.  Yet still there is no question she did the right thing at the right time.

Second thought, the whole T’Rain angle was really abandoned midway through.  There’s backstory and set up of a civil war going on between bright and dark liveried characters, possibly fueled by competing game writers, but the subplot just goes nowhere.  Also the few descriptions of T’Rain make it seem way too detailed to be possible – characters wiggling fingers for instance.


“Against the Gods” by Peter L. Bernstein

This is a book on the history of risk, mostly on the key developments in the mathematical history of probability theory.  Kind of a weird topic, but interesting enough.  Probability theory is so important across a wide range of other fields.

I was a little distracted with lots of little errors throughout, eg. p. 117 Jacob Bernoulli lived from 1654-1705, but next paragraph says he died at age 80.  P. 78 says 7195 plague deaths during week in Sept 1665, but figure on next page has that many deaths for April 1665.

Before the age of rationality, risk was obviously known.  A dice would sometimes turn up a 1, sometimes a 6.  But apparently not much formal thought was given to why or how risk could be exploited or avoided — it was in the hands of fate, or the up to the “gods” as in this book’s title.

Knowledge was built up little by little. Often there were independent advances tailored to solving a specific problem, eg. calculating gambling odds or mortality tables.  Makes me not feel so bad about not grasping hard subjects immediately; not even the originating geniuses did that from scratch. By the same token, how wonderful it is that books and knowledge transfer exist.  Really, that’s the one key characteristic of modern humanity. Intelligence + society.  But I digress.

There’s a chapter on Galton and regression to the mean, plus the context of the “random walk” of the stock market.  The recommendation is to “ignore short-term volatility and hold on for the long pull… The stock market may be a risky place for a matter of months or even for a couple of years, but the risk of losing anything substantial over a period of five years or longer should be small.”  Ok, easy enough, and squares with our experiences in the USA over the past 100 years or so.

However, regression to the mean is easily spotted in historical data, but then other times just fails to materialize. There is an anecdote from 1959, when stock dividends began to surpass bond yields.  Old hands predicted that the situation would soon reverse to normal (with bonds more of a surety). “I am still waiting. The fact that something so unthinkable could occur has had a lasting impact on my view of life and on investing in particular…has left me skeptical about the wisdom of extrapolating from the past… Never depend on <regression to the mean> to come into play without constantly questioning the relevance of the assumptions that support the procedure.”

This reaches a conclusion in the chapters on Frank Knight and Keynes.  They seem to be saying that all previous probability theory is not applicable to real world situations with irrational humans involved, because all probability-based forecasting is based on a set of past data.  Past results impose no guarantee on future behavior when non-deterministic humanity is involved.

There is always uncertainty: “Under conditions of uncertainty, the choice is not between rejecting a hypothesis and accepting it, but between reject and not-reject.  You can decide that the probability that you are wrong is so small that you should not reject the hypothesis.  You can decide that the probability the you are wrong is so large that you should reject the hypothesis.  But with any probability short of zero that you are wrong – certainty rather than uncertainty – you cannot accept a hypothesis.”

Some treatment of Kahneman, including the loss aversion and the endowment effect – “our tendency to set a higher selling price on what we own than what we would pay for the identical item if we did not own it.”

Finally a brief treatment of portfolio insurance, options, and other derivatives.  I read somewhere that economic crashes are rarer now due to fancy risk mitigation devices such as these, but they make the crashes which come much more severe.