The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

“I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got. Ambition—what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?”

Would you rather be invisible or fly? According to pop psychologists, the answer tells us something interesting about what we seek in life. Flight is noble, something to aspire to: invisibility is more primal, allowing us to avoid threat and remain mysterious. For myself, I’m not sure what I’d do with flight – sure, it would be cool to fly around town, but it seems insufficient to actually fight crime, for example. Invisibility seems much more practical, but also has some downsides, particularly if its permanent.

Neither answer is wrong, of course. For Wells, though, invisibility is not just a superpower, but also a burden. In The Invisible Man, Griffin, the title character, has rendered himself invisible through science, but is unable to turn it off. Reluctant to reveal his secret, he is forced to flee his fellow man.

At the beginning, Griffin is, if something of a jerk, also somewhat sympathetic: naked in winter and desperate to undo his curse, he travels to a small town with his equipment, where he tries to blend in as a burn victim with a fake nose. He rapidly uses up any forbearance the reader might have, however, culminating in his (somewhat stupid and flawed) plan to begin a reign of terror, killing anyone who stands up to him and dominating the region. Isolated from his fellow man, he grows cold and contemptuous towards them, no longer a part of society but an observer of it.

What he would do when he had a cold or someone bought a dog isn’t clear, but then it appears he wasn’t a man given to thinking ahead.

Invisible Man came out in serial form in 1897, part of a burgeoning body of popular science fiction that drew on seemingly miraculous technology such as electricity and the telegraph to dream about what the future would be like, from Jules Verne to H.G. Wells himself. Wells’ War of the Worlds is perhaps the best known of these, though all of them continue to influence modern science fiction, if not the same broad readership as they once did. Today, sci-fi is likely to examine themes of environmental decay, the internet, and biotechnology: then, authors were fascinated about the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology, and the dangers thereof. The technologies have changed, but in many ways the concerns have not.

Influence – Robert Cialdini

“Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life…When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it…The problem comes when something causes the normally trustworthy cues to counsel us poorly, to lead us to erroneous actions and wrongheaded decisions…If, as seems true, the frequency of shortcut response is increasing with the pace and form of modern life, we can be sure that the frequency of this trickery is destined to increase as well.”

Attractive candidates in Canadian Federal elections have received 2.5 times as many votes as unattractive candidates, a fact that presumably makes Justin Trudeau rub his hands with glee. Better yet, despite such evidence, 73% of Canadians denied any possibility that physical attractiveness affects their votes. We don’t understand our own biases well, and they make a huge difference to our behaviour. That makes them fascinating and also extremely important.

Cialdini lists 6 factors that influence our behaviour: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. These explain why we buy what we do, how we vote, how Chinese POW camps worked, why giving people electric shocks or hazing them to join a group makes them value the group more, how to fundraise, why we say we won, referring to a sports team, while they lost, why banning cleaning products containing phosphates increased how effect people believed them to be, and many, many, many other factors.

Influence has been on my list for a while, and I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. I shouldn’t have taken so long: I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s the best guide to behavioural economics I’ve read, written when behavioural economics wasn’t much more than a dream in the minds of people like Kahneman, Tversky, and Thaler. It’s fascinating and feels almost comprehensive in its discussion of the factors that influence our behaviour, and provides useful, insightful examples and commentary. My only complaint is that each section ends with a discussion of how to avoid the bias, and it does feel a bit out of date: using modern terminology, he basically just advises us to engage system 2 each time. Still, well worth the read, and definitely a classic.

The Resilience Dividend – Judith Rodin

“Resilience building is a concept that can be learned and a practice that can be developed…Too often, however, resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”

When we think of disaster response, we tend to think of infrastructure: levees in New Orleans, or rebuilding homes after an earthquake or tsunami. That’s fair, but it misses a key piece of the picture. Emergency response is in many ways about people. No one person (or almost no one) can have everything they need to weather a disaster, or rebuild after it. Networks have to come together to recover: communities, they used to be called. Rodin rightly highlights their importance, before and after, in ensuring the best possible response to crises.

Rodin practices what she preaches: as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, she has led disaster response programs in a huge number of regions. Urbanization, Climate Change, and Globalization, she points out, have each made the modern world potentially more vulnerable to volatile shocks, creating what Rodin calls a socio-ecological-economic nexus, where each creates problems that feed off the other two. Sadly, as a society we tend to ignore potential problems until they occur, at which point we often freak out and overreact, creating yet more problems.

The book sometimes feels poorly edited: it claims that Norman Borlaug retired in 1983 at age 65, then died 26 years later at the age of 95, for example. Even for Norman Borlaug, that’s tricky (he actually retired in 1979). It can also sometimes feel like a little brother to Taleb’s tremendous book on the same subject, Anti-Fragile. Rodin uses more examples, but doesn’t always seem to have thought issues through the same way Taleb has: she argues for centralized control of response without really considering alternatives, for example.

An important subject, and written by a hugely successful and important figure, but for me not perfect. It is important to highlight the essential role of people and communities in recovery, and the value of investing in them, but I would have liked to have seen it go a little farther, using some of the lessons from Anti-Fragile.

Location Review – Cambodia

I’ve spent two weeks in Cambodia, so some quick thoughts with the context that I  definitely haven’t seen everything.

Cambodia is a striking country, perhaps best known for the stunning temples around Angkor Wat. Indeed, Angkor Wat is just one of over 100 temples in the area, ruins easily among the world’s best, along with places like Machu Picchu and Petra. Its food is excellent (though interestingly – and to my mind disappointingly – not spicy: it predates the arrival of the chilli with the Portuguese), its people are friendly, and its beaches and countryside are beautiful. It’s also inexpensive! I’ve been paying around 5 dollars a night for accommodation.

Equally interesting, if more morbid, is its recent dark history. Forty years ago, a quarter of the Cambodian population – 2 out of 8 million – died under the Khmer Rouge. Anyone with an education, anyone who could speak a foreign language, even anyone who wore glasses was executed, as they pursued their quest to empty the cities and form a completely agrarian society.

That history provides an interesting (also horrible and depressing) contrast to its neighbours. Singapore has dedicated itself to the formation of human capital and the development of their population; for a time, Cambodia did the opposite. The effects of such a colossal loss in human potential are catastrophic. Today, Cambodia feels far poorer than its neighbours, and i suspect its loss of human capital in that generation and the difficulty in training the next play an important role in that.

Jared Diamond has advanced the point that studying early cultures allows us to consider other ways of organizing our society. In a different way, so does travel. Our home countries have adopted one set of laws, norms, and values, and travel can give us insight into alternatives, though globalization sometimes limits the diversity. To that end, Cambodia provides an interesting case study.

I’m not sure I’d live here: the total disregard for traffic lights and laws by individual drivers trying to speed up their trip ensures that everyone is inconvenienced and worse off, and in some ways that is emblematic of a larger failure to collaborate over public goods that is a bit frustrating. Definitely worth a trip, though!

Secret Formula – Frederick Allen

Coke, wrote the future Pulitzer prize winner William Allen White, is “a sublimated essence of all that America stands for, a decent thing honestly made, universally distributed, conscientiously improved with the years.”

Coca-cola has aroused strong feelings throughout its history. At one point, French communists attempted to kidnap the daughter of Coke’s manager in France as a bargaining tactic – the manager in Vienna was dragged from his car and beaten.  It has waged countless regulatory and legal battles, some justified and some not. Despite being named for cocaine and the kola nut, both ingredients were removed almost immediately. It invented the modern Santa, and remains closely linked to the American dream.

Its history is also closely bound with that of a single man: Robert Woodruff, who played a key role in its development for sixty years. The son of a corporate raider who acquired the firm, he had no experience in the industry when he was appointed leader, but he would leave an indelible mark on the firm. In many ways, its story is not of a product but of a brand. It is marketing, not the product itself, that has forged Coke’s reputation.

Allen explores its history in depth, from family feuds over ownership to the war with Pepsi. It’s an interesting story, and Allen’s dry asides help make it compelling. It can also be painful; the bungling and total misunderstanding of what they were selling to consumers – a brand, not a taste – that led to New Coke are excruciating.

The book is interesting and enlightening, in many ways reflecting the history of the USA itself as Coke responded to wars, social trends, and changes in government. Allen is unabashedly pro Coke, but gives plenty of time to its failures, too. A bit oddly, though, the story ends in 2000. Perhaps that was all the access he could get given Coke’s desire for secrecy, but it makes it feel a bit truncated. Still, an interesting story of an American institution, one of the best known brands in the world, and a marketing triumph. I learned a lot reading it.

Disclosure: I read Secret Formula as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews and order it when it is released Oct. 27th here: Secret Formula.

In the Plex – Steven Levy

“Google’s culture has informally emerged from its founders’ beliefs that a workplace should be loaded with perks and overloaded with intellectual stimulation.”

Working at Google (also: Alphabet) means you get free food, pilates, doctors, massages, and swag. In some ways, it is organized to feel exactly like college, and indeed they recruit people who haven’t done anything else. It has a strong, probably unique culture, and possesses tremendous power in the modern world, both for the information in possesses and the services it provides.

All that sounds nice, and in many ways its culture has led to its strength. It has also led to some blind spots, though. Googlers (Alphabeters?) can sometimes be baffled by the public’s response to their products: for a company based explicitly on doing good, they have managed to alienate a number of their natural allies, including people who believe in freedom of information and transparency. It is in some ways a closed shop, quick to accuse critics of self-interest rather than legitimate concerns, and oblivious to the fact that the massive power it has assembled can be used for evil as well as good. Their behaviour has also not always matched their ideal, as when they first partnered with, then crushed, Mozilla, or when they settled with the publishing industry to not actually make books available to the public, but just to sell them.

In the Plex, with extensive interviews of googlers and studies of google, looks at this issue in the broader context of google’s evolution as a firm. As it continues to expand, it faces the dual challenge of outside critics and how to maintain its culture in an increasingly sprawling empire. The book addresses a lot of important questions, and google’s story is certainly fascinating. In the Plex can sometimes be a bit oblivious, as when it discusses Google using Al Gore to give free gmail accounts (which were at the time selling for about $100 on a secondary market) to politicians who were critics of them, without seeming to realize that verges on bribery. Overall, though, it does a good job looking at the challenges with the triumphs. I’m not sure anyway wants to go back to a world without google, but I think there are a lot of people who would like to see some changes in how data is protected and stored

Focus – Daniel Goleman

“Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones. But focus goes too far when it says no to the right things, too.”

In order to avoid feelings of lust, Buddhist monks were traditionally taught to see other people only as bags of bones: by focusing on the biology of the person, they were distracted from other features. The modern interpretation, advanced by Walter Mischel, is that to resist tempting cookies, you focus on seeing them as a picture, or otherwise abstract yourself from the hot cues that lead us to temptation.

Goleman points out that one of the key things we don’t achieve today is focus: the ability to pay attention to a single thing for an extended period of time. If we don’t manage this, however, our reflections almost inevitably become shallow. Whether we focus on our inner world, on other people, or on the world at large, being able to tune in and out of things at will is essential to self-actualization. This ability to focus, to really immerse ourselves in an activity, is essential to flow, that feeling of happiness in an activity, and to expertise and self-development.

It’s a fun book. I’ve never seen meditation compared to video games, for example, but Goleman makes a good case that both can be used to help train your attention (though video games may be more open to abuse). It’s a survey book written by a science journalist, but does a great job covering key issues, from Herbert Simon’s advice that information consumes ‘the attention of its recipients…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention’ to Singapore’s introduction of self-control into the national curriculum for all children. An important and still emerging topic, but one with a tremendous potential for impact. Definitely recommended.

Location review – Myanmar

By special request, I’m going to try something a little different, and review not a book, but a trip: Myanmar! Summary: post-apocalyptic capital, amazing temples, phenomenal people, all changing at breakneck speed.

I’ve been backpacking for two weeks in Myanmar, and it’s been great. By far the best thing is the tremendous kindness of the locals; tourist infrastructure is a bit thin on the ground, but its more than made up for by the willingness of people to help.

It’s also a fascinating time to visit. Seven years ago, a sim card cost upwards of 5000 dollars. As little as two years ago, they cost $175, well out of the reach of most citizens. Today, they cost $1.50. In the last two years, internet access has gone from almost nonexistent to universal: every single person has a smartphone and uses 3G. It’s an enormous, almost unprecedented, leap, and is fuelling a dramatic country-wide evolution.

And it may change more. In November elections are due, with the results unknown. Regardless, people seem eager to talk about politics, a very positive change.

I can highly recommend Bagan, in particular. A plain littered with 2000 temples, the view at sunrise and sunset is utterly phenomenal. Yangon is quiet for a se Asian city, but rich with history and interesting. Lake Inle, a tourist hotspot, is well-beloved, but for me it was simply a nice lake, similar to ones elsewhere, and not unique to Myanmar like Bagan.

My highlight was the capital of Naypyidaw. Almost no tourists go, so transport is a little tricky, but it is unique. It was built ten years ago, in secret, and civil servants were given two months to pack up and move after the announcement. Apartment buildings are colour coded based on which employees should live there-green for the ministry of agriculture, for example. Though the official count is one million, many still commute, and so wide, ten lane streets are utterly empty of traffic. It feels post-apocalyptic, complete with forests still growing between various ministries.

I recommend it highly, and now is a good time to go. By the time you blink, it will be totally different again.

The 4-Hour Work Week – Tim Ferriss

Note: I’m travelling for the next few weeks, so I may be posting a bit less than usual.

“Whether a yearlong sabbatical, a new business idea, reengineering your life within the corporate beast, or dreams you’ve postponed for “some day,” there has never been a better time for testing the uncommon.”

Have you thought much about lifestyle design? Most of us save our plans for our ideal lifestyle for when we’re retired. Now, I’m not one to discourage retirement saving – definitely a good idea! – but time is also a limiting factor. Is it worth working hard today to free up more time in retirement? Or would it be better to take more free time today, even if it means having less retirement? Our retirements have increased dramatically in length in recent decades, but it seems possible we’d be better spending some of that time off in advance (say with a 4-hour work week), and working a little later in our lives.

Ferriss is one of these guys that if you’ve done an MBA, you probably couldn’t avoid hearing about him. He appeals specifically to people who feel trapped in an investment banker or consultant-style life, and feel like they’re missing out on other things in life. The book is basically an extensive application of the 80/20 rule: that you can get 80% of the results you want for only 20% of the effort, or conversely you can avoid 80% of the problems by doing 20% less. Applied to life, that says that if you redesign your life a little, you can free up a lot of time (though sadly, 20% of a forty hour work week is 8 hours – math is once again sacrificed to salesmanship), which you can then use for the things that really matter.

Sounds reasonable, and I think we could all do a better job focusing on what matters instead of getting caught up in the rat race. How Ferriss chooses to spend his time is not what I would choose: Wikipedia suggests he spends the bulk of his time self-promoting, and I suspect there’s a grain of truth in that. He won a kickboxing championship in China, for example, by carefully reading the rules, temporarily dropping 30 pounds just before the weigh in, and then just pushing the other competitors out of the ring with his much greater size. Permitted by the rules, but I’m not sure I’d find it satisfying. His advice also isn’t exactly the golden rule, doing unto others. Still, reminders to focus on what’s important are always good, and his advice to seek the millionaire lifestyle if that’s what you want, rather than money for the sake of money, is spot on. I’m sure he’d agree his choices are not for everyone, but we might all enjoy a 4-hour work week.

The Holmes Manual – Mike Holmes

“We can’t live without water, but it can be a real pain.”

The HVAC system (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) is the lungs of your house. There’s some fascinating work looking at the microbe colonies that life on and around our bodies – when you enter a work environment, your colonies mix with those of your coworkers, and over time they become more uniform. If your house or work recirculates air, that’s a much more dramatic process: if it takes in air from outside, then you’ll get more exposure to different microbes. This may help increase your resistance to some things, and make for a healthier environment – work is ongoing.

There, something you may never have thought about. I was reminded of these studies reading Mike Holmes’ book (the Holmes Manual, of course) on home renovations: he very much sees a house as a living organism, one that must be allowed to breath easily. Not a perspective I usually take.

Holmes is a bit of a cult figure in Canada, with multiple TV shows to his name. His book is not really a DIY guide: Holmes only believes in doing work to the highest possible standard, often to a level beyond what the everyday homeowner could achieve. As a guide to the best possible solution to any household problem though, the gold standard of construction if you will, he’s excellent. He spends most of his time on parts of the house homeowners may never see, including the HVAC, foundations, attics, and roofs: he wisely suggests that if you do good work on these parts of the house, you carefully document and photograph it, so that for resale you can provide evidence. Often, such investments can more than pay for themselves, in value at sale and in savings in energy bills (particularly in Canada), but without evidence people tend to assume mediocre work at best, since that is the norm.

The Holmes Manual is an unusual book for this blog, I know, but I happened to pick it up – better, I sometimes think, to read the wisest book from many different disciplines, then hit diminishing marginal returns by reading too many in the same field.