Aristotle is my writing coach

Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)
Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

“The beginning is more than half the task, and throws a flood of light on many aspects of the inquiry” (p. 17, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

This echoes something that Jon Franklin, my literary journalism professor at the University of Maryland (undoubtedly quoting someone equally famous as the philosopher of old) always said:

“The definition of writer’s block is not knowing what you are doing.”

Because I work as a writer, I interpret Aristotle’s statement in my own terms, and what he says is true. The hardest work is arranging a plan of attack, an illuminating principle, a beginning. Even if you don’t follow the classic “inverted triangle” of writing the most important facts first, the first sentences of any piece are Aristotle’s “flood of light.” If these sentences are no good, they leave the reader in the dark. If they cast the right light, the reader can sense they are in good hands.

It strikes me that good writers–particularly non-fiction writers, reporters, and essayists–fit Aristotle’s definition of the “sincere man”

“Such a man is to be commended. His inclination, if any, is toward understatement, because this seems to be in better taste, since exaggeration is wearisome” (p. 106, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

Exaggeration and hyperbole are everywhere, a function of much of the language we encounter being crafted by marketers and not artists. A worthwhile artist doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence with hollow claims, which are “wearisome” to sort through.

The Mother of All Goals – Dropping to “Normal” Weight with StickK

 

By Dan Wilcock

Weight loss is a great American pastime, or perhaps a great American folly. Oceans of money are spent on it. Entire forests are cut down to publish guidebooks. The only times I’ve been fairly successful at it have been when I’m not particularly paying attention to it.

I set a goal for myself this week: drop enough weight to achieve normal BMI. I’m a 5’10” male, so that means 172 pounds. Right now I’m around 200, of which I’m not particularly proud. But there it is.

What makes me think I have a chance in hell of reaching weighing what I did when I entered college?

I’m going to nudge myself my using StickK, where I’ve created a commitment page and pledged to contribute $5 to charity each week I don’t meet my weight goal. The first few months of .5 pounds/week reduction targets probably won’t be that tough. I imagine that toward the end it will be a lot harder and I may need to cough up the cash.

Why aim at so-called “normal” weight when there are good reasons to be skeptical of BMI in the first place? Why try to be what Americans perceive as skinny when some studies suggest that being a little overweight is healthier over a lifetime? I agree with this skepticism. Muscle-bound people are sometimes considered obese using BMI since it’s such a crude measurement. Being a little overweight may be just the margin we need against wear and tear and the ravages of time.

All that being said, the goal and its attainment matter to me. Dropping to 172 would provide a lifetime benefit. Getting there will require setting a lot of new baselines from which to live—in terms of daily exercise (I love to run), nutrition, and sleep. I’m also fond of StickK’s methodology—setting up iterative real consequences over time for success or failure (your get to keep your money or fork it)—such that progress occurs in dripping drops. There’s a very popular social science book behind ideas like this called Nudge, which I recommend.

Failure is a real possibility, and I’m happy to pay for it. But, as I’ve written before here, archers aim high to hit distant targets. I’ll let you know how proximate to the mark I am as I go.

Have you tried using StickK or similar programs to meet a goal? Have you succeeded or failed? Drop a comment if you’d like.

Rediscovering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Almost at Random

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2011 photo by Bloomberg via Taleb’s website fooledbyrandomness.com)

 

By Daniel Wilcock

A random mistake at the airport earlier this month—checking in the book I intended to read along with the bag that contained it—reintroduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Incerto” series of books. Even though I’d read and loved the Black Swan a few years back, the other three volumes, Fooled by Randomness, the Bed of Procrustes, and his latest Antifragile, somehow hadn’t caught my attention despite my knowing about them. How foolish. Taleb is an intellectual of the street fighting variety. His books pull brains out of stupid mode and light them on fire. They awaken readers to errors and misperceptions everywhere. That for me is the mark of a good philosopher. Yet a grain of salt or two may be needed. His stridency and dismissiveness of others are also the marks of an egotist cult leader, which I don’t think he is, but more on that later. How did I figure that his other books weren’t worth reading? Consider this blog post a way to make amends for this error.

By good fortune, but not randomness since the book is a perennial bestseller, a bookstore at Dulles International Airport happened to have a copy of Taleb’s second edition (2005) of Fooled by Randomness. Purchase made. Thus instead of reading the third volume of Lord of the Rings on the flight to Tokyo, an equally fine endeavor, I had the pleasure of jolting my worldview a bit. In Taleb’s hands, the hours ticked by pleasantly despite the cramped conditions, bland food, and impossibility of sleep.* If you enjoy non-technical philosophy and contrarian viewpoints, I’d say give this author a try.

Each of Taleb’s books is a fractal component his larger oeuvre, which argues that the “knowledge” and advice we encounter fail to adequately take into account the random, the opaque, and the unknown. This turns most modern human beings, particularly those who pay attention to mass media, into suckers and turkeys. His focus is on how to make decisions in an environment where we are continuously deluded and blind to the big disruptions he calls “black swans.” He thinks that these big events, which we never can predict, end up running our lives. He prefers negative to positive advice. These lessons, heavily informed by ancient philosophers like the stoics and contemporary behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman, mostly boil down to “don’t be a fool.” This is ultimately an impossible edict for humans, but archers aim high to hit distant targets.

Fooled by Randomness is the humblest and perhaps the most endearing of Taleb’s works. It shows how he gathered the bearings of his world view and contains the key admission that contextualizes the brash and seemingly arrogant way he battles with status quo thinkers. He admits repeatedly that he is a fool himself. One thing he attacks in others is their lack of similar humility, which is risky and ultimately destructive. Without this baseline caveat, it’s easy to misinterpret as self-righteous Taleb’s attacks on most other professional thinkers, particularly financial analysts, economists, journalists, and academics.

Fooled by Randomness is Taleb’s initial takedown of professional predictors. Like all of his books, it’s a mélange of autobiography (he worked as a trader for 20 years, then as an academic who writes books and doesn’t seem to like the academy much, and now as a flâneur, which is French for an idler who lives well by not making plans), philosophy, real-world observation and fictional narrative. It introduces a semi-autobiographical character called Nero Tulip (a name suffused with wry references), a financial trader who follows a seemingly lackluster “barbell” investment strategy of bonds plus small bets that pay off big in the event of market crashes. Despite having a risk-adverse worldview, Nero envies the flashy lifestyle of his neighbor, a fellow trader getting rich quickly with the latest financial trend. The neighbor “blows up” in the end and leaves the market. Nero is vindicated and remains in the market before he randomly ends up crashing a helicopter.

Later, in the Black Swan, Taleb introduces other semi-autobiographical characters like Fat Tony, another trader (and a necktie-free wise-guy gourmand that judges people subconsciously by smelling them) who functions as a comical mirror image of the experts Taleb attacks. Despite his argument that narratives pull the wool over our eyes, he calls it the “narrative fallacy,” Taleb uses these little stories nonetheless since humans’ brains function through narratives and also because he savors their artistic side. He appreciates style and intellectual pleasure, and finds great value in novelists and thinkers whose works have withstood the erasure of time. He’s a man who since his teens has read voraciously—40 to 60 hours a week, which reminds me of the number of miles run by marathoners each week—and I think these “Incerto” books are the output of his idiosyncratic inputs.

After putting down Fooled by Randomness, I picked up both the Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile. The former is a collection of Taleb’s aphorisms, pithy little sayings that contain his wit and wisdom, and I think best enjoyed piecemeal, perhaps a page a day. Antifragile is another beast altogether, but similar in structure and content to the Black Swan. Taleb writes that Antifragile contains his main argument, the central idea of the Incerto. The title is a new word he invented. Antifragile refers to the quality of things that benefit from randomness, volatility, damage. These things have convex shape rather than concave when plotted on an axis. They have more of an upside than a downside when stressed. Examples can include the human body (up to a certain limit), the world of small businesses, barbell-style investors, and authors. In other words, he’s come up with a philosophy based on his own path to the good life. Again, he favors negative advice, a time-tested school of thought called “via negativa.” He finds wisdom in the concept of “small is beautiful” since larger size makes things more fragile. I could go on, but if you find these ideas tantalizing, the best thing to do is pick up the original.

As promised, a grain of salt. I think any thinker who warns you off most other thinkers, and one who is so clearly impressed with his own pathways in life, runs the risk of being an egotistical cult leader. Were Taleb more of a religious fanatic, rather than what I perceive to be a very erudite and broad-minded deist, his brash denunciations of others would come across (to me) as highly suspect. He’s a rich and confident man making sweeping statements. You might argue that being a notoriously cantankerous philosopher is his retirement hobby. His words often lack much humility other than his early admission (and not often repeated by the time he gets to Antifragile) that he’s human and fooled by life just like the rest of us. I think his arguments in each book are highly worthwhile, but need to be placed in the deeper context of all four books taken together. Taleb says the books can be taken in any order, but I think Fooled by Randomness is the best place to start. Just reading the Bed of Procrustes, one might legitimately ask “who is this jackass?”

Taleb’s a self-confessed fool, but he’s grappling with the tools that illuminate his foolishness and even provide the chance for a good life. That’s why I won’t repeat the mistake of sleeping on his work. As Taleb the flâneur would argue, and as my mishap with my copy of Tolkien suggests, we gain from being open to randomness.

 

*

ANA economy-class does have a few good things going for it, such as the opportunity to savor Japanese beer such as Premium Malt’s (sic), but trans-pacific travel is still a grind. Having a good book for the 13 hour flight is an indispensable remedy for the pain of temporary captivity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a humorous fellow, but no fortune-teller

“A man’s learning dies with him; even his virtues fade out of remembrance; but the dividends on the stocks he bequeaths may serve to keep his memory green.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., from The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Boston, 1872

Here is the quote in context (the entire e-book is free) on Google Books.

While his words are good for a chuckle, clearly the fact that I’m blogging about professor Holmes more than thirteen decades later undermines his reputation as all-wise soothsayer—unless the time period being considered is geologic.

His son’s “learning” and “virtues” were arguably even more indelible. When the quote was published, his son, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., was around 31-years-old. Thirty years later, Holmes, Jr., became a member of the Supreme Court, where he served for 30 years. I wonder whether the second Holmes, more famous to contemporary Americans, would agree with his father’s quote. My guess is that all those dividends from stocks probably weren’t as valuable to him as his father’s words, particularly after the “panic of 1893” and then, a few decades later, “black Thursday.”

I read the quote in The Wench is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery novel by Sir Colin Dexter (Dexter’s early novels are filled with great quotations). More recently, I came across discussion of Holmes, Jr., in Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s excellent prohibition history, which contains yet another great Holmes quip, proving that humor probably ran in the family. Here’s the quote along with the context that Okrent sets:

The [Supreme] court’s senior member, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was known to appreciate his whiskey (in 1927 he registered his gratitude for an illegal gift bottle with a characteristically Holmesian aphorism: “I have not forgotten the prayer ‘Lead us into temptation.”

So, in short, Holmes was a humorous fellow, but he was no good at wisely predicting the future. Maybe that’s a reason why his son was even wiser, and appreciated a glass of whiskey now and then.

Capital in the 21st Century: A Review

By Dan Wilcock

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press, 2014)

In my opinion, the worldwide success of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is something to cheer. Wealthy individuals, middle-class, poor, policymakers, bankers, and even artists can see themselves in these pages. They can trace their life trajectories set against the historic patterns of wealth (usually at least 100 years in scope, sometimes much longer). In a few words, the subject matter strikes a chord with most everyone these days.

Last month I bought one of the hastily printed  subsequent editions (the initial print run woefully underestimated popular demand) of this 577-page tome and just finished reading it. The book has a lot to teach about the nature of capital and its place in different types of economies. Everything boils down to two very simple equations that a middle-school student could understand. Probably the most important, to which Piketty consistently refers is:

β = s/g

This is the “capital/income ratio,”the meaning of which Piketty is really good about reminding the reader every time he uses is. β is calculated by dividing savings (s) by growth (g). He shows that throughout history, savings (which reflects the total value of accumulated capital) in rich countries has usually been larger than the rate of growth (the increase in national income). In rich countries today β is often somewhere around 6, which means that total wealth owned (almost entirely in private hands) is worth around 6 years of a given country’s income.

The other equation measures the share of national income that goes to capital’s owners:

α = r×β

r is the rate of return on capital. So, in the case where capital is worth 6 years of national income (β=6), and the rate of return (r) is 5%, then the amount of national income going to capital holders if 30%.

When r is greater than g, wealth begins to accumulate. The rich get richer. R has almost always been greater than g, according to Piketty’s analysis, except for a period of time in the 20th century (when growth was high and capital was subject to a series of shocks related to WWI and WWII). Those days are over. I won’t bother to recap his results specific here, but suffice to say they are food for thought.

OK, enough with the equations. If you could read what I just wrote and get it somewhat (and not to worry, Piketty reintroduces the equations almost every time), then you won’t have any trouble reading his book.

That’s a good thing, because I get the sense that Picketty would like his book to be read and understood by those who have the least proportion of α and β—most likely the low wage earners and asset poor individuals who make up more than half of rich countries peoples but own virtually no capital whatsoever.

That’s what’s great about Piketty. He genuinely cares about human outcomes, and his book’s value lies in showing to everyone that human outcomes are diverging radically. The inequality he presents throughout the book is a reversion to an earlier historical norm, which he ingeniously evokes by quoting from the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen—works of art from an era when the nature of capital was better defined and more commonly understood.

He doesn’t only look at the big picture. He also takes along look at the even more disturbing (particularly in the US) pattern of individual inequality. He makes a compelling case for the amazing rise in top executive pay in America and the spectacular drop in top income tax rates during the 80s and 90s.

This points to some of his suggested solutions: Progressive income taxes topping out at around 80% (as seen in the 20th century) for the highest incomes, an annual progressive global tax on large fortunes (combined with intepol-like global cooperation to stamp out tax havens), or a one-time global tax topping out somewhere around 25% for the largest fortunes. Compared to readjusting the economic balance through inflation or controls on capital (as seen in China), Piketty argues that a return to confiscatory taxation on oligarch-level wealth is the most just and equitable course.

Try telling that to the wealthy who increasingly control politics. Just saying.

I think he makes a strong case, although if I were President I don’t think I’d go as far as he advocates. The wealthy he wants to tax would remain wealthy. The forces he describes would help that wealth to grow again. But then again I’m just above that “50%-and-owns-nothing” category.

What a marvel to have this book explaining the big picture of wealth, in clear prose and without too much math/theory. A highly recommended book.

 

Good enough

Everything goes better with simplicity. That’s why I changed this blog’s original title, “Abstract Utility,” which was a bit too, um, well, abstract. The new name is “good enough,” a useful way to look at life. I also added a tag line, “a blog about books, ideas, and the good life.” That’s what I tend to write about here. This month I read three books that infused brilliantly within my worldview and inspired me to change this blog’s name, look and feel: In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore, Enough by Bill McKibben, and You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

Each book shares a core value about the pleasure and mystery of being human. Honore’s book is about the worldwide movement to slow down and enjoy life. McKibben’s book from a decade ago warns us that we’ll lose our identity as humans once genetic engineering and artificial intelligence converge. Lanier’s book is about how our much hyped internet has become a disappointing slum where humans are devalued and the anti-human “hive mind” reigns.

Each book taught me in different ways that it’s OK to reject biotechnology and Silicon Valley’s vision for the future, that it is all right to be imperfect and slow, and that each person has inherent qualities that risk being blurred by the web. They complement each other and reinforce the idea that more, faster, better, stronger, healthier, prettier, richer, etc., etc. etc. are a road to ruin when pursued to excess. Each person has the power to invert this sad aspect of the human condition by saying “good enough,” when it happens to be true.

“Good enough,” the idea,  helps people establish lasting wealth because they are no longer trapped in the consumerist vortex. It helps folks improve their lives by managing technology, not the opposite. It opens up human relationships because it permits honest listening. Instead of just waiting for the other person to finish speaking to say more, it opens the ears and the heart. It limits disappointment and promotes satisfaction.

I realize that, particularly for young people, this might be horrible advice. There’s still something to be said for motivated striving, getting good grades, making it into good schools, but only to the “enough” point. The standard thinking in America is better to overshoot than to fall short of “enough.” But I think that programming is responsible for a great deal of misery. Each of us can be the judge of what’s good enough for us. Our lives are short, but at least we have this ability to discern between “more” and “enough.”

A good example of how to choose enough: slow down while driving. Be courteous to pedestrians and bikers. One of my neighbors was a royal jerk yesterday. It infuriated me that he tailgated behind me in his SUV, obviously wanting me to speed up on the 15-miles-per-hour street where I live. Then when I reverse parked in front of my house, which slowed him down further, he felt it necessary to spend a few second staring me down. Why was all this anger created? Why does he need to get home 15 seconds faster? Why did I need to get angry as well, about someone who lives a half block from me (though I don’t know him)? All this flare-up could be reduced with a little dose of “good enough.”

So here’s my good enough: even though my neighbor pissed me off, I’m going to forgive him. I like where I live in Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. My neighbors don’t need to be perfect. Most of them are great. Things are tranquil and carefree. Plus I live a pleasant five-minute walk from the bus that takes me to work. Since it’s the start of the line, I always have a seat, which means I can read.

See? “Good enough” is a powerful idea. It may not be what industry wants, and it definitely isn’t what we learn in school or on TV, but it works for me.

Six great quotes about invention from Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway

Dean Kamen (video screenshot from Time.com) holds 440 patents and is on a quest to solve the world’s largest health problem: lack of access to clean water

By Dan Wilcock

Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development, holder of 440 patents, inventor of the Segway, and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, thinks deeply about invention and what it takes to be an inventor.  He shared these gems at the Time Future of Invention forum held at the Newseum in Washington, DC, Nov. 21, 2013.

Recommended viewing: Time posted the video of Kamen’s interview, from which these quotations are taken.

  1. “Government plays a critical role in invention at the highest level of abstraction. They fund public education. Without tools, it’s pretty hard to turn some great abstract idea into reality. If you don’t have a little math, and a little physics, and a little electrical engineering, you can have great ideas, but they are just ideas.”
  2. “Teaching is sort of the antithesis of inventing because teaching is all about analysis. They teach you how to break something down based on the experience of people before you. That’s how you learned algebra and trigonometry, with the answers in the back of the book. You’re learning what people have done, what’s in the past. So you’re learning what’s here. Invention is not analysis, breaking things down. Invention is synthesis. It’s putting things together in a way they were never put together before. You rarely get to do that in school. In fact, when you do it the way it was never done before you get an F.”
  3. “You probably remember the story of David and Goliath. As a little kid, I heard that story and maybe it proves I was born a geek because the moral of that story…is that technology is cool.” (In reference to the Slingshot water purifier, on which DEKA will partner with Coca-Cola to bring clean water to villages around the world)
  4. “Ultimately, inventing is not a committee activity.”
  5. “Inventing is seeing the same problem that everyone around the world is seeing, but looking at it differently.”
  6. “If we don’t redouble our efforts to increase incentives for invention, this country’s going to lose its edge.”