Have you ever wondered how an author puts the ideas for a book together? I sure have, and over the past couple of years I’ve had the great pleasure to watch one of my intellectual heroes in action (even though I don’t agree with him on everything). The author I’m referring to is Nassim Taleb, and the book is called Antifragile. For many parts of the book, Nassim bounced ideas off those who follow his Facebook page, a page which he uses strictly for philosophical discussions. 
Anyway, I recently finished reading the book, and I can assure you that I savored it very slowly. I can also assure you that I will reread it again in the very near future. Since I have plans to submit an essay review of the book to some other publications, I will not be writing one here on Coffee Theory. Rather, I’m hoping to find time in the near future to write a series of posts about ideas contained within the book (stay tuned).
What I love about Taleb is that he is as an independent thinker as a human being can possibly be. He has no pressure to publish and his intellectual pursuits are freely chosen (this is true authenticity). He has the courage to call people charlatans, frauds, and hucksters, a quality I greatly admire. He also puts his money, both figuratively and literally, where his mouth is. Some people, not surprisingly, despise him for what they perceive to arrogance. I, however, can’t help but notice that only egomaniacs are offended by an egomaniac.
Anyway, here is the brief blurb I wrote for my Amazon review: “Antifragile is excellent, absolutely excellent — and this beautiful book contains ideas that, if properly digested and put into practice, will change your life. While reading Antifragile I had the (obvious) epiphany that the book itself is antifragile. Bravo Monsieur Taleb!” 
Needless to say, this is a book you won’t want to miss.
 You can find Nassim Taleb’s Facebook page here.
 You can find my Amazon review here.
Gun control, not surprisingly, is a very contentious issue among the readers of both this blog and the other blog I write for, Rationally Speaking. There were two interesting comments on my “The Gun as the Scapegoat” post (thanks for the thought provoking comments Bob and Alexander!). Anyway, I want to address a couple of the points they brought up.
First off, the phrase “gun control” is nebulous, so I should have been more clear. In this post I’ll make it crystal clear as to what I meant to take issue with in that last post, i.e., the claim that revoking the right to own a gun (of any type) is a solution to this cultural problem we Americans have been dealing with.
Here’s something that I think most of us will agree on: a psychopath with a gun can cause more damage than a psychopath with a knife. However, a psychopath with bleach has the potential to create more damage than a psychopath with guns. Right now bleach is legal, but I’m sure a psychopath could find a way to poison and kill a large number of people with it at a school cafeteria or something. Should we take preventive measures and ban bleach too? Like guns, I don’t regularly use bleach so I would only be opposed to banning it for reasons of principle.
What many people seem to forget is that simply making something illegal doesn’t necessarily mean it will remove it from society. Drugs are the perfect example. What reason do we have to believe that guns will be any different? For what it’s worth, I have yet to hear a good answer to this question.
One of my main points is that imposing gun restrictions will only fatten the tails. In other words, when you outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns and they will be able to cause more harm with those guns. Think about it this way: one psychopath on a train can cause much more harm when he is the only one with a gun than can one psychopath on a train in which everyone has a gun.
Economic logic tells us that increasing the cost of committing a crime will decrease the amount of crime we see. That sounds simple enough, right? Therefore when a criminal’s potential victims are armed the cost of committing a crime increases greatly (criminals, like the rest of us, don’t want to get shot). However, many people aren’t persuaded by this logic (sadly) and claim that there is no evidence that guns actually reduce crime. They are, however, mistaken. The book More Guns, Less Crime is loaded with evidence showing that more guns actually cause less crime (by no means do I agree with everything in the book though.)
One of my main concerns with *all* of the empirical work on guns and gun control is this: Is it really possible to scientifically know if gun control laws (or the number of concealed weapon permits issued) reduce crime? One can cherry pick the data to get whatever result they want (as people from both sides have done). One problem for the anti-gun folks, though, is that it’s very difficult to capture every instance in which a gun prevented a crime — how do you measure such a thing? When talking about guns and gun control, I think economic logic is more important than are dubious (at best) statistical analyses. In other words, much of the evidence supporting the claim that more guns cause less crime is opaque to those doing the analysis.
There is also the issue of the relatively low amount of accidental deaths that occur from guns compared to bathtubs, etc that I brought up in my last post. Many pro-gun control advocates claim this is an irrelevant point, which it is, unless of course the person is also making the claim that it’s a reason to ban guns (I’m amazed at how often I see this mistake). If an individual takes the position that we should make illegal anything that accidentally kills people, as many pro-gun control advocates seem to be tacitly suggesting, then I’m going to suggest that they need to take that position to its logical conclusion (i.e, ban bathtubs too). Here’s my take: something shouldn’t be banned simply because some small percentage of people accidentally die from it — there are costs and benefits to everything.
In the end, I think it’s important to remember that laws don’t stop evil people from doing evil things. The only answer to this cultural problem I can come up with has a Nietzschean ring to it, i.e., we need to remove the evil people, or at least limit their ability to cause harm. Hayek was right — top-down solutions, like gun control, don’t work. Given the fundamental essence of human nature, I can’t help but believe that the best of all possible solutions to this problem will not also be a practical one. Please correct me if you think I’m wrong.
My condolences go out to all of those who were affected by the recent Connecticut tragedy, and the recent Chinese tragedy. Of course, most Americans (particularly the ones sharing their opinions about gun control on Facebook) will pay no mention to the latter tragedy (I apologize for being in a rather cynical mood this morning).
Anyway, here are several thoughts that I’ve had related to the two tragedies.
1) Heinous crimes happen even without guns. 
2) Accidents happen and gun accidents happen. Accidental deaths, however, are a silly reason to ban something. Fact: almost three times as many children drown in bathtubs than die from accidental gun deaths. Should we outlaw bathtubs too? 
3) Hypothesis: We’d save more lives in this country by getting rid of McDonalds than we would by getting rid of guns. (HT: Guru Anaerobic).
4) If legally registered guns are the problem, why do we see so few murders at shooting ranges? (Hint: Legal gun owners aren’t the problem.)
5) It appears the American killer was also autistic, are we going to blame guns and Autism, or just guns?
6) I wrote a piece called “Guns & Epistemology” on Rationally Speaking after the Aurora massacre that seems relevant to share. 
The commonality behind all massacres is that the individual committing the crime against humanity was mentally ill. It’s easy to blame guns for the problem, but we ought to focus on the real issue here which is how we deal with mentally ill people. Of course, many people often use times of tragedy to create an emotional case for their irrational beliefs (there’s that cynicism thing again).
Dear Fellow Gen Y’ers,
With the possible exception of sleeping, most of us will spend more time working than we do any engaging in any other activity. What should we expect from our work though? Should we love it? Should we, dare I say, be passionate about it? Many amongst us have quixotic answers to these questions. Unfortunately, our collective optimism towards work may be making us worse off though.
You’ve probably heard this advice at some point in your life: “follow your passion and the money will follow”. This advice is not only a lie, it’s one of the most pernicious lies I know of. In fact, I know plenty of people who followed their passion, and guess what — the money didn’t follow. If you take the time to think about it, most of the swindlers who peddle this type of advice have a passion for helping lost souls find their passion. It turns out that helping people find their passion is one of the most popular passions amongst us Gen Y’ers.
Until very recently, work was considered an unpleasant necessity — a curse endemic to human existence. Times have changed and there is now a widespread belief (particularly amongst our peers) that we should be passionate about our work, or crazier yet, we believe that it should make us happy. Think about this goofy belief for a moment and you’ll quickly realize that a world in which everyone followed their dreams would be a nightmare. Our lives may not be perfect, but the economic progress that comes from working jobs we aren’t passionate about is what has ironically allowed us the luxury of worrying about finding a job we are passionate about.
Trying to find rewarding and fulfilling work is a noble pursuit, but sometimes there is an economic disconnect between the things we are passionate about and the things we can make money at (this is what hobbies and leisure time are for). What creates value for others doesn’t always generate money, and generating money doesn’t always make you happy. The trick, I think, is to find some tolerable way of creating value for others that also allows you to get paid. It may take some time to figure out exactly how to do this, but that is part of what makes life interesting.
So go ahead — follow your passion — but please don’t be disappointed as to where it takes you. If you do what you love there is a good chance you won’t be compensated all that well. If you’re okay with that, great, but please don’t complain about how you should be paid more to do something you love. Also, please remember that nothing sucks the untainted joy out of something like trying to do it for a living. If your hobby turns into your job you’ll have to find a new hobby and the cycle will continue ad infinitum.
P.S. Please read this article too.
I recently finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s delightful book Thinking, Fast And Slow [which is a book I can assure you I will read more than once]. If for some strange reason you’re unfamiliar with Kahneman’s work, he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for pioneering research done with his long-time colleague (and dear friend) Amos Tversky, who is now deceased. Their work focused on human decision making and dismantled the idea that the human species thinks like homo economicus. 
Ok, so here’s a very elementary overview of what the book is about. According to Kahneman, the brain has this duality to it when it comes to thinking. System 1 works quickly and intuitively, in other words, it’s the “fast” in Thinking Fast And Slow. For instance, if I were to throw a baseball into the air and ask you to catch it, you would hopefully be able to do so without having to make any complex calculations. Most of us intuitively and instinctively know how to catch a ball, although some people are better equipped to do this than others.
While System 1 generally works efficiently, it occasionally leads us astray. For example, answer the following question as quickly as you can: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Quick: say the answer out-loud.
That was easy, right? Now think about the correct answer to this question: the bat costs $1.05 and the ball costs $0.05 ($1.05 + $0.05 = $1.10). So, what happened? Your intuition (System 1) led you astray, but once you thought about this question for a minute you likely switched over to what Kahneman calls System 2 and were correctly able to answer the question. System 2 is analytical and rational, but unfortunately also lazy. I could conjure up many speculative evolutionary stories as to why we have these two systems, but I’ll refrain from doing so in this post.
What I really want to point out is that we all (yes, that includes yours truly) suffer from myriad biases.  Accordingly, I’ve heard many rationally and philosophically minded people lament the fact that their brain can’t be trusted. Wait a second — think about the previous sentence for a moment. The brain, the only thing we can think with, can’t be trusted to think properly, yet some part of our brain can also realize this. Kahneman is definitely on to something — no computer I know of can do this!
So here’s an important question I’ve been thinking about ever since I read this book: can the cognitive illusions that plague us be overcome? If you’re empirically minded, then you might be afraid to hear the answer to this question: it’s not looking good. I don’t fret over this though. Despite its flaws, our System 1 works wonderfully most of the time (as in the catching ball example) and has gotten us to this point in the evolutionary game. That’s not too shabby, right? Anyway, when tasked with answering this question, I really like how Kahneman put it in the book: “The best we can do is compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”
As for me, I’m trying to shed my illusions about the world and humanity to the best of my ability, but I’m not willing to do so at the cost of my humanity.
 If you want to see a fairly comprehensive list of biases then check out this Wikipedia entry.
I spend a fair amount of time commuting by train and by car. Unlike many commuters, I actually look forward to this time because it’s my chance to catch up on podcasts, particularly EconTalk. Anyway, I recently discovered a gem of an old interview (recorded in 2007) with George Mason University’s own Robin Hanson. 
I’m not exactly well versed in the medical literature, but I was surprised to hear Hanson mention an important study in the podcast that I had never heard of before. The study I’m referring to is the Rand Health Insurance Experiment (HIE). As Hanson puts it in this post, “If you remember only one medical study, it should be the RAND health insurance experiment, where from 1974 to 1982 the US government spent $50 million to randomly assign 7700 people in six US cities to three to five years each of either free or not free medicine, provided by the same set of doctors.”
Do you want to venture a guess as to what the result of this study was? Not surprisingly, the thousands of people who were randomly given free health care consumed more of it. However, shockingly, these people were not “healthier” by any objective measure. Wait a minute, can that possibly be true?
Apparently people consume more of something when it’s cheaper, but that doesn’t necessarily make them healthier. It turns out that medicine is one of these things – go figure! In a PBS documentary called Money and Medicine Roger Weisberg reiterates this point: “And as we look at medical evidence, comparative effectiveness, and outcomes research, we’re discovering that often places that do less have better health outcomes for their patients.” 
Here’s an interesting thing to think about: doctors are, in many important ways, very similar to auto mechanics. For example, doctors and auto mechanics have a pecuniary incentive to act as salesmen. In other words, doctors, again like auto mechanics, don’t make money unless they sell you something. Doctors get paid for every surgery, every procedure, and every pharmaceutical they prescribe, but they don’t get paid for giving you negative advice. That’s right, what makes for a good business opportunity doesn’t necessarily make for a good health outcome — such is the nature of a capitalist system.
When it comes to the future of public health in places like the United States I expect to see an increase in expenditure on health care and a decline in healthy individuals. Call me cynical, but the evidence thus far supports my speculation. At the end of the day, this podcast reminded me that most of us worry far too much about not receiving enough health care and worry far too little about receiving too much. Although our ancestors had myriad other problems, they didn’t have this one.
As a general rule of thumb (and in my humble opinion), the things with the greatest efficacy when it comes to improving your health (like fasting) are not advertised because there is nothing to sell. As Baltasar Gracián wrote in The Art of Worldly Wisdom: “It takes a wise doctor to know when not to prescribe.” Wise doctors do exist, but I think it’s going to take the elimination of perverse pecuniary incentives in the health care system to get most doctors to know when not to prescribe. Worse yet, I’m not sure this is even possible given the economic framework we are operating in.
 Listen to this podcast called “Hanson on Health”.
 See this transcript.
There are two things I’m pretty damn sure of:
1) Most people are afraid of public speaking.
2) I fall into the category of “most people”.
That’s right, I have a confession to make: I’m afraid of public speaking!
Confessions Of A Public Speaker, written by Scott Berkun, is laced with insights about speaking — it’s partly autobiographical and entirely useful. Near the beginning of the book Berkun reminds readers that if they’re interested in the world of ideas, and want to help traffic them, then there is no escaping writing or speaking. I’m a person who wants to traffic ideas, so this applies to me. I’m very comfortable writing and not so comfortable speaking.
Writing and speaking, however, are two completely different skill sets, so I don’t find this fact to be abnormal. Strangely, many people assume that those who write well also speak well. Why should good writers be any more likely to be good speakers than good dancers though?
Arthur Krystal wrote about this issue in his essay “When Writers Speak” (included in The Best American Essays 2010). “Like most writers,” Krystal wrote, “I seem to be smarter in print than in person.” My thoughts exactly. Writing protects me from saying something really, really stupid or illogical, well most of the time anyway.
Despite my anxieties about public speaking, I’ve actually done a fair amount of public speaking in both academic and business settings already. Perhaps I’m some sort of emotional masochist, but I always seem to find pleasure in the anxious thrill that comes when actually presenting. Strange as it may be, I’m more afraid of thinking about presenting and first getting up on stage than I am actually presenting. Once I start presenting, the butterflies usually go away.
Anyway, speaking is a life skill that I would really like to excel at, which is why I decided to read this book. As I alluded to, I actually like presenting, well at least as long as at least two conditions are met: 1) I know what I’m talking about and 2) I’m interested in what I’m talking about. If these conditions aren’t met, it’s a waste of both my time and the audience’s time — any presentation worth giving is worth preparing for.
What I particularly liked about this book was Berkun’s no bullshit approach. In the book, Berkun touches on something important that many public speaking gurus often fail to acknowledge, i.e., “No amount of training will make a man with two brain cells seem anything but dumb, as the problem is not his ability to speak, it’s his inability to think. It’s rarely said, but some people will never be good public speakers. Unless they find someone to do their thinking for them, they only have, at best, half the tools they need.” In other words, before worrying about speaking, always make sure have something interesting and intelligent to say first.
In his essay “Writing and Speaking” Paul Graham noted something very important that is tangentially related to Berkun’s point, i.e., good writing is rooted in good thinking, while good speaking needn’t necessarily be.  A good speaker who is motivating and passionate can often convince people of silly things despite glaring logical inconsistencies, a good writer doesn’t have this luxury. Graham makes this point as follows: “As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter.” There is undoubetdly some truth to that claim, I’m just not sure how much.
Anyway, thinking about speaking and speaking about thinking are two of life’s great joys. Business people and teachers of all kinds will surely benefit greatly from the insights contained within this book.
 Like Paul Graham, if given the choice, I’d rather be a good thinker and a poor speaker than a poor thinker and good speaker. See his essay “Writing And Speaking”
“If you are losing your leisure, look out! You may be losing your soul.” -Logan Pearsall Smith
I recently finsished reading a book called A Geography of Time, written by a social psychologist named Robert Levine. As one can easily discern from the title, the book is about life’s most important non-renewable resource.
It won’t come as a surprise to people who have travelled extensively (or to philosophical types), but how people perceive time heavily influences the creation of culture. And there are certainly many different ways to perceive time. As an American I live in a culture that is obsessed with clock time and with Ben Franklin’s assertion that “time is money”. Some cultures live by event time and the peoples of those cultures rightfully find some aspects of our time culture to be foolish. I can’t say that I always disagree.
I often lament the fact that I do not live in a country (like France) that has a more a relaxed perception of time and I’m disgusted by the sick sense of pride Americans take in the number of hours they work. Then again, at least I don’t live in Japan.
The pace of life in Japan is one of the fastest in the world and Levine states that “The magnitude of Japenese dedication to work can be dazzling.” The Japanese work long hours, avoid vacations, and dread the day they have to retire. Instead of “Blue Mondays”, the Japanese are more likely to be afflicted with “Sunday Disease” and “The Holiday Syndrome”. Pretty twisted, right?
The Japanese, however, also have a term called Karōshi, which means death from overwork. It turns out that too much of a good thing kills too — the Japanese literally love their work to death. Despite their ungodly dedication to work, the Japanese are a remarkably healthy people too, at least according to most health statistics. Surely there are a number of reasons (e.g., diet and activity level) that may help explain why this is so; however, for the purposes of this post I’d like to avoid the quagmire that is epidemiological research — I’m not trying to make any scientific health claims here. Rather, I’m speculating that speedy cultures aren’t necessarily more unhealthy than slower ones for reasons philosophical.
There was a wonderful film released in 2012 called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it chronicles the life of one workaholic sushi chef named Jiro. Jiro’s dedication to his craft is both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. All those hours of work just to get sushi that tastes a tad bit better, if it even noticeably tastes better at all (Ah, the law of Diminishing Marginal Returns strikes again). Yet Jiro seemed to be a healthy guy and he has certainly found purpose in his quest to make the world’s best sushi.
One thing that is noticeably different about Japanese culture is that they have a principle called giri, which is in essence an obligation to others. Japanese workaholism is powered by this concept. While the official number of hours spent at work is very high in Japan, there seems to be a greater focus on well-being and social cohesiveness. The Japanese simply aren’t tyrannized by the clock in the same that most Americans seem to be.
Aspects of the Japanese work culture are certainly fascinating and I think there are many societal and personal lessons to be learned from studying it. It turns out that speed and ambition don’t necessarily kill; however, they can make a bad situation even worse. There is also somewhat of a contradiction at play here: what’s good for society isn’t necessarily good for the individual and what’s good for the individual isn’t necessarily good for society.
I can’t control what’s good for society, but I can change my relationship with time and work to make my own life better. I believe that hard work won’t kill you, but hard work without passion and without purpose will, even if it’s just on the inside. It’s important to remember that when and where we think about work won’t magically start and stop with clock time. As one of my favorite thinkers Nassim Taleb put it :”Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.”
Work is nothing to be afraid of, shitty work is. Your happiness depends on how you define the word “shitty”, which is going to be different for all of us.
Amongst those interested in rationality, there are some who believe that more information is always better. The reason I suspect they hold this belief is because they think that it is within our epistemic powers to fully understand the universe, if only we can collect and analyze all of the information that describes it. This belief, however, is a dangerous one.
I happen to agree with J.B.S. Haldane who wrote the following: “My suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” [my emphasis] As with many things in life, I believe that more information is sometimes better, but more is certainly not always better.
It has been in vogue for quite some time now to write books about the myriad cognitive errors that we humans are prone to making. To readers of this blog, it’s no surprise to learn that we are indeed Predictably Irrational. However, the very same psychological processes, intuitions, and gut feelings that lead us astray often times help us navigate the world and make good decisions despite all the complexity.
It turns out that evolution may not care about rationality as much as some philosophers do. In other words, rationality may aid our survival, but it obviously isn’t necessary to be entirely rational in order to survive. The economist in me can’t help but think that the evolutionary costs of hyper-rationality may simply outweigh the benefits.
Anyway, I recently read Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Gut Feelings, which was excellent and very accessible. In my opinion Gigerenzer explains why Nassim Taleb’s aphorism — “To bankrupt a fool, give him information” – contains not only a half-truth, but one-and-a-half truths. The secret to good to decision making, argues Gigerenzer, is not to collect as much information as possible, but to discard most of it and trust your intuitions when appropriate. We humans have evolved to use rules of thumb (scientifically referred to as “heuristics”) that help us cope with the subjectivity that is endemic to the human experience – at least Mother Nature didn’t entirely throw us to the wolves.
It’s interesting to note that Gigerenzer’s research was at the foundation of Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster book called Blink, which also waxed lyrical about the beauty of human intuition. When I start to think about thinking and intution, I can’t help but conclude that the wise person knows when to trust their gut feelings without having to justify this trust to others. However, the wise person also knows when these subconscious processes can lead them astray. At its best, the human mind is a fickle thing.
Today I noticed that both Tim Ferriss and Gary Taubes, both of whose work I largely respect, announced the debut of a new organization called the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI).  As Tim Ferriss put it in this blog post, “No hidden agenda, no corporate interests, nothing to do with food subsidies or ulterior motives. Just good science. It’s about time, right?”
In general, I like the approach of this organization, but I still remain skeptical of its universal dietary optimism. To make claims about certain foods being universally healthy or unhealthy seems dubious — what is healthy for one person may actually be unhealthy for another (e.g., milk).
Over the last 10,000 years some people have dietarily evolved to tolerate certain products of agriculture that others have not (e.g., lactose).  Mention this on the Web in public discourse, however, and you will soon understand where Godwin’s Law came from (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” As Godwin’s Law informs us, many people will fear where this line of evolutionary reasoning heads because of the potentially politically incorrect logical implications. In one important sense, though, it is absolutely true that those who have the allele that allows them to tolerate lactose are indeed genetically different than those who do not have it. When it comes to the ability to tolerate lactose, not all people are created equal — as one might suspect, this is most likely true in other areas of human biology as well.
I, politically incorrect as it may be, maintain the belief that evolution is accelerating its work on the human species and will continue to do so until we humans eventually speciate. Again, I think the last 10,000 years of human development provide plenty of evidence to support this claim.
Anyway, when it comes to diet and health, many people seem to want to ignore the elephant in the room, which is that science cannot provide us with a one-size fits all diet recommendation that works for everyone. However, I’m not suggesting that certain modern techno-foods are not bad for all humans across the board either. I’m also not trying to say that we should do away with an empirical approach to dietary issues all together either — in fact, I’m suggesting quite the opposite.
If we increase the sample of people being studied to include a massive amount of others who have evolved radically different food tolerations than certain others (like ourselves), then we will end up diluting the most important data point (ourselves) into obscurity. What I’m suggesting is that when it comes to what dietary choices will make you healthy, the most important data point is you. In other words, anecdotal evidence is not always inferior to empirical evidence, which is difficult for the scientific minded to remember when arguing about what foods are good or bad.
 See The 10,o00 Year Explosion