Five books: recently read biographies

In the last year or so, I've stumbled into an unusual streak of 5 really good biographical books.

1. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. Standing in an airport bookstore with a few minutes to kill, I saw this book and picked it up. I remembered an article I read years ago  in Wired about Nike's early days. For some reason I remember the phrase "halcyon days" being used. Such an interesting word. Halcyon. But I digress. Anyway I opened the book and read the first few sentences and it was surprisingly good. So I decided to buy it and was not disappointed.  It's well written, and focuses on the interesting early years rather than then better known recent history.  Does a great job of showing exactly how a tiny humble importer of Japanese sneakers born out of old school business hustle and a passion for running, grows into a manufacturing and branding icon.

2.  So much things to say, by Roger Steffens.  An "oral history" of Bob Marley. It's a collection of transcripts of people who were close to him talking about their memories of the singer.  Bob means a lot to me, I grew up with his music, I know the lyrics to even the most obscure unreleased songs, his biography in great detail etc. Still this book was enlightening and very deeply touching.  I happened to read it a unique time -- was it high tide or low tide? think of that song here -- in the late fall 2018 -- Bob was born in 1945, just like my mother. Possibly one of my favorite books of all time.

3. Lenin, by Victor Sebestyen. Really thorough book on the life of the revolutionary Soviet leader.  In our new world order, many old isms and schisms are coming back. Nationalism, mercantlism, Marxism. People see them and argue about them.  Leninism is different. It's meta. It's about the processes of ideology and power. And it is more relevant than ever. Osama bin Laden and Steve Bannon are Leninists. While this book is about none of that, simply reading the life and thought process of this man is worth it as, in a way, we still live in his world.

4. The First Tycoon, by TJ Stiles. A very solid biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, well researched. Great window into US history. Through this one person’s life you learn a lot about (among other topics): steamboats in the early 19th century; railroads in the mid centurye; east-westtravel, the panama canal; and filibusters! woah. US-Nicaragua relations: this was perhaps the most surprising part,  it gives really really interesting context  to the US-Nicaragua problems of the last 30 years or so; the evolution of the modern corporation; the early stages of the stock market. Great read. My only criticism is that the author is a little too sympathetic to the subject. I prefer when a biographer is a bit more neutral, still this book is really a fountain of information.

5. Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Excellent in every way.  One of the best writers in the english language: very precise, efficient, elegant, unpretentious style.  Very interesting story, important history and super relevant to what’s happening int he world today.  


12 rules

Apparently everyone does this. So here are mine. Like my lists of books,  if I did this ten times I would generate ten different lists.

1. Burgers: well done. E. Coli.

2. Don't buy the second item on the menu (see my previous post on this). Relatedly for wine: order domestic or same continent. Imports tend to be  over-priced

3. Insurance: only buy insurance for losses you can't afford, or if you have asymmetric information

4. Debit cards: don't use them. Cash or credit are strictly better options.

5. Shoes: one area where it is usually worthwhile to pay the premium. Prioritize quality (comfort, weight, stitching) over quantity.

6. Investments: only make investments without deadlines,   timing is often where hidden uncertainty is greatest, so make sure time contingencies are on your side.

7. Identity: keep your identity small. (h/t Paul Graham)

8. Food:  the food chain is acyclic. don't eat animals that can eat you

9. Butter is always better than margarine. Never use artificial sweeteners.

10. Premature optimization is the root of (almost) all evil in software engineering (h/t Donald Knuth)

11. Never rewrite from scratch (h/t Jamie Zawinski)

12. My phone  does not notify me. I notify it.


Desire and scapegoating

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the thoughts of  Rene Girard. It's a pretty rare occasion when something makes you really think about the most basic things in a new way. That tweet led me to reading a bit more about it (thanks Dan!).

People are driven by memetic desire. Beyond our objective needs, what drive us most  is wanting want others want.  To put it in game theory terms, my utility function is a function of the utility function of others.  This most obviously explains things like fashion for example. But also, more deeply, the notion of status in society.

I want something because others want it. This is a self-reinforcing mechanism, and the object of desire can become scarce, so it creates occasional  instability,   frenzies of desire, and ultimately violence.  This is a fundamental process in all human societies.
The way societies deal with it is through scapegoating.  As the frustrated desires get stronger and stronger and become unsustainable,  societies create  scapegoats: some invidual or group which is blamed for the inability of the many to satisfy the memetic desire.   The frustration of desire reaches a paroxysm of violence on the scapegoat.   Scapegoating works as an auto-immune mechanism: by channelling the violence onto the scapegoat, and even institutionalizing it, society avoids self destruction.  And societies that don't scapegoat fall apart into chaotic violence. Thus scapegoating is an evolutionary adaptation to memetic desire.

This sheds some light on the institutionalization of  violence throughout history, whether it is Mayan human sacrifice or the politics of immigration.



Et ça, c'est le prince,
qui, sur le chemin de grâce
fait une pause pour réfléchir
au bord d'une mer de miel.
C'est là, le salut.


The message is the medium

I've started posting stuff over on medium.com/@nemozen

After many years on Blogger, I finally got tired of trying  to write a posts on the Blogger app and failing, I gave up.  Medium, both the app and the website, seem to be really author-friendly.



Let us assume, for now, that wealth inequality is by itself undesirable.  OK therefore if Bill Gates moves to Ethiopia tomorrow, it would be a bad thing. The Gini coefficient would shoot through the roof! Wait no.... Where is the actual harm? To make it clearer assume all his investments and charity are unchanged globally, he just wants to live there.  Does his presence make people worse off? No probably not, on the contrary. Certainly all the people who would sell him goods and services are happy. And who knows what else. Yet clearly inequality has increased. So what is the real problem?

This the point where your typical lefty friend is stumped.  And then your righty friend jumps in and says: aha, yes this shows that most importantly we want total wealth to increase.  A rising tide lifts all boats etc. And then your lefty friend says: well if it wasn't for evil capitalists  then the Ethiopians wouldn't be poor in the first place!  To which, righty says: No, not evil, wealth creator! And lefty: No, what about the monopoly abuse... And so on. Until they both sink in intellectual quicksand. When they finally stop,  instead of answering the real question we started with, lefty goes back to his original assumption that inequality is the root of all problems and right goes on thinking all rich people deserve it.

Here's a simple test to make this more productive.  Always ask first: When you are talking about inequality are you really talking about injustice? Almost every case where someone speaks of a concrete example of inequality, when you peal through layers, they really mean material injustice. They are against the *way* wealth is obtained.  Whether it is Wall Street or kleptocrats in poor countries, the real root of the accusations is theft, abuse of power, denial of opportunity, corruption, and especially  regulatory capture. And those are usually clearer issues with clearer solutions.

Of course clearer doesn't mean easier. Justice is hard by itself.  But if you seek real understanding, in each instance, first look at injustice. When you have fully considered that, often you will find the issue is fundamentally injustice. The rest, as they say in research, is implementation details.

Now in the rare cases where there really is no injustice, there is something to say about inequality.  When you rigourously examine what people can actually defend,  it is not the overall inequality.  Say one independent worker is at the 40th percentile because they want time for their hobbies; and another person  works twice as  much and ends up at the 80th percentile. Few people would argue that the second person should subsidize the first.  When you get down to it, morally the case is: help those at the bottom. Yet, when politicians talk about inequality (in the US especially), it's always about the middle. Middle class this, middle class that. How come?

Because the real issues they are talking about are actually issues of injustice.   And if you are part of the machinery of said injustices, then the best way to avoid dealing with questions of injustice is to roll  them into with the incoherent debate about "inequality".   That will make sure everyone is so confused they will think you are the good guy. That is also partly why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements became what they are. They both started out as rebellions against bail-outs. Now they are mainly fighting against each other while being directed by their former targets. Political jujitsu.

So if you, dear reader, are a kleptocrat, congrats! It's working. If you are not, then please don't get confused. Focus on injustice.

P.S.  The jujitsu works because of fundamental human traits: desire and scapegoating. I recently came across the thoughts  Rene Girard. That deserves its own post.


It's getting better all the time

It's easy to feel gloomy these days about the geopolitical future. Terrorism,  surveillance states, economic crises, etc. But overall life is getting better. Placed behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance", I would chose the present over any point in the past.  If you consider the standard of living of the whole world, that should be obvious. 

MDG water info graphicBut it's still nice to stumble across a good reminder of things getting better, like the "millennium development goals". The water part in particular was a positive surprise.  But it's not just water. The percentages of people who suffer from malnutrition, or don't have shoes, etc. is decreasing dramatically.

The biggest factor in raising global standards of living, in my opinion, is not aid. It's not so much "giving back" as "not taking away in the first place". That is, not denying people the right to create, to own, to  trade what they want fairly. Hernando de Soto is right.

So yeah it's getting better. Of course, that doesn't mean we should take it for granted. In particular as I've posted about before, with asteroids and climate change, humanity is being pretty stupid with the odds.  When it comes to tail risks, let's hope we collectively don't continue to act like Taleb's turkey.


Update on Ethiopic transliteration in Gmail, Google Docs, Blogger, etc.

ሰላም ዓለም!

Transliteration is is the conversion of a text from one script to another. For example,  typing  something in the Roman alphabet, like "selam alem", and having it show up in fidel (Ethiopic script) as ሰላም ዓለም.  This is a really convenient way for people who want to write in languages that use non-Roman scripts, to write on an ordinary computer which has a keyboard with roman letters.  

A few years ago (it's hard to believe it's already been that long!)  Ethiopic transliteration in Gmail, Google Docs, etc. was launched.   With several user interface changes in Google products, the instructions ain that post are a bit out of date. Here's a quick update so there's an easy reference somewhere.

Transliteration as a standalone tool

To use it as a standalone tool, where you can just type text to copy elsewhere, go to google.com/intl/am/inputtools/try/ or google.com/transliterate/amharic (similarly for tigrinya

How to write Amharic or Tigrinya in Gmail, and in Google Docs:

To use Amharic transliteration directly while writing inside Gmail, Docs, Blogger, Sites, etc. you need to set it as an "input method" (all of the following works with Tigrinya as well as Amharic.  Just select Tigrinya instead in the settings).
  1. Go to Gmail Settings (the little gear icon in the top right corner of the Gmail window) and click on Settings.
  2. In settings, under the "General" tab, in the "Language" section, click on "Show all language options" and then click on the checkbox to "Enable input tools".
  3. Click on the "Edit tools" link right next to it. A large window will pop-up with various languages on the left under Input Tools, select Amharic and move it over to the right column under "Selected input tools" using the big arrow, in the middle of the window, and click OK
  4. Save the settings: back on the settings page, make sure you scroll all the way down and click on Save
  5. Once you have done that, you will see the አ icon right next to the gear icon in the top right in Gmail. Just click on that icon whenever you want to switch to typing in Amharic 
  6. Then when you type phonetically in roman letters, and as you finish each word, the corresponding text in Ethiopic shows up.  
  7. You don't have to memorize any rules, just type naturally the words as they sound, and it will figure out the best transliteration. For example "negergn" becomes ነገርግን but "negeregn" becomes ነገረኝ.  Notice that "gn" gives different results in the two cases. The transliteration shows up as you type, showing multiple candidates, and when you hit space at the end of the word, the top one is automatically chosen.  You can also select the several other choices if the top one is not what you mean.
  8. This also works in Google Docs, Blogger,  Google Sites and most Google products that have text input.

P.S. Ethiopic font

Note that before you can use transliteration, your computer must have an Ethiopic (Ge'ez) font installed. Most recent versions of Windows or Mac have it pre-installed so you can skip this part. If you can see the following text "ሰላም ዓለም" (or read the text on this web page, then you have an Ethiopic font installed. If you can't see it, then you need to install a font like this one for example.


Random matrix and phase shifts

I just stumbled across this great article on Tracy-Widom distribution. It talks about random matrices and phase shifts.  This reminded me of some work I did on resource allocation in network interconnection. We derived routing matrix conditions for "peering" and "dis-peering" (the latter a new term) to be equilibria in the decentralized resource allocation game. I wonder what a probablisitic approach with the routing matrix randomized would add to the game theoretic results. Large scale self organizing interconnections (or failure thereof).


Don't buy the second item on the menu

Yesterday a door to door salesman from Time Warner Cable came to our door. He was a nice guy so I listened to him even though I've been avoiding cable for a long time. Anyway here are the current options for Internet access from Time Warner Cable:
"If Internet is all you need, however, TWC offers its “Everyday Low Price” plan for just $15 per month. This includes 2 Mbps download speeds, 5 emails accounts and 100 MB of email storage. Need to go faster? Try Basic (3 Mbps and $30 per month) or Standard ($35 per month with 15 Mbps). If you’re an online gamer or download large files on a regular basis, the 20Mpbs of TWC’s Turbo plan ($45 per month) may be the best option, while home business users may want to try out the Extreme plan, which offers 30 Mbps download speeds at $55 per month. Finally, if you have a large family or Internet users or connect multiple devices on a daily basis, you may need the Ultimate plan, which provides download speeds of 50 Mbps, 30 email accounts and 10 gigabytes (GB) of email storage for $65 each month."
OK now consider the slope or marginal prices:
  • The first 2 Mbps costs $7.50 per. Fair enough. 
  • But then the next 1Mbps costs $15!
  • The next 12Mbps cost  just $0.42 per!!!
  • Then the next 5Mbps cost $2, 
  • And the following 10Mpbs are $1,
  • And then 20Mbps more at $0.50 each.
The first and the last three are totally reasonable. But notice the second item on the list is a horrifically bad deal.  Why does it exist, who in their right mind would pick that? It's like  a trap. Maybe some people will just ignore the Mbps amidst all the verbiage about storage and email etc (extras which really are insignificant in terms of cost) and think to themselves: "Hey, I'm not poor and "Everyday Low Price" that sounds like the plan for poor people.  And I don't understand the high end stuff, so let me get Basic, that sounds reasonable." And boom, they are paying an astronomical price. Even if not many people fall for it, it's very profitable.  It's also kind of unethical in my opinion. (This is not the first time I'm finding fault with Time Warner in these pages, and I don't even use them. )

A more innocent version of the same thing is wine lists at restaurants. Never order the second item! It's for suckers. To see why, imagine a naive and status-conscious customer who doesn't know much about wine: he will skip the first one to avoid looking cheap, but will hesitate to go to far down the list because they can't justify buying the expensive ones. So he will settle for the second one. The restaurateur willing to exploit this can profit by putting the cheapest wine at the second cheapest price.  Thus gouging the suckers without affecting others. The moral of the story is, even if you don't know about wine, you can still have a wine list strategy.