Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The narrator of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is a nameless 90 year old man, who meets a 14 year old girl in a brothel – the latest in a long series of women he has met in various locations (the titled melancholy whores, though the original Spanish is bit less formal). The narrator makes no attempt to charm the reader, telling us he is “the end of a line, without merit or brilliance”: indeed, he stands out almost exclusively for his lechery. The story, though, is one of rebirth – at ninety, he finds himself in the grip of a whole new emotion, a youthful passion about the girl he has met.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It hurts me, therefore, to say I wasn’t wild about MMMY. It had neither the substance nor the stunning imagery typically associated with Marquez, and though it wasn’t a bad read, I didn’t find it up to the standard of his other works. The self-centeredness of the narrator means the rest of the characters exist almost exclusively in relation to himself, rather than having personalities of their own. Appropriate for a character study, as the book in some ways is, but it also makes the interactions less compelling, because it portrays one star dimming its way out of the sky, not a constellation.

“The adolescents of my generation, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia.”

“Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.”

“I would not have traded the delights of my suffering for anything in the world.”

“I never had intimate friends, and the few who came close are in New York. By which I mean they’re dead, because that’s where I suppose condemned souls go in order not to endure the truth of their past lives.”

Elon Musk – Ashlee Vance

“Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”

Anyone who has Tony Stark (of Iron Man fame) based on them has a pretty good story to tell. The world first met Elon Musk when a South Africa trade magazine published the source code to a video game he had written. It was only 167 lines of code, but then that is more than most 12 year olds manage. Since then, he has cut up logs in Vancouver, dropped out of a PhD program, binged on video games for days, told a venture capitalist that he was like a samurai because he would rather commit seppuku than fail, achieved what many thought was impossible in three different sectors – the internet with PayPal, space with SpaceX, and electric cars with Tesla – and is trying for a fourth.

He’s also a brutal boss, and sometimes seems to take credit for the work of others or shape narratives to his own advantage, not always truthfully. For that reason, he can be a controversial figure, despite his achievements. One of the first journalists to get full access, Vance aims to show the good with the bad: attempts to capture as much of the character and achievements of Musk as possible.

The biography is excellent: well written, insightful, and interesting. Despite his flaws, Musk comes across as an impressive figure: not perfect, but someone committed to serving humanity, with a towering intellect, tremendous drive, and a penchant for taking enormous risks and making them work through effort and focus.

My one complaint is something I’m not sure could be avoided, at least anytime soon. The fact that Elon Musk is not yet dead – indeed, is still middle-aged – means much of the final third of the book is based on speculation on what he will do, not what he has done. For the same reason the Ancient Greeks would judge no one happy until they were dead, it is still too soon to tell how some of Musk’s ventures will play out. Still, based only on what he has already done, he has played a major role in humanity’s development for generations to come. An amazing achievement, and one I hope others emulate.

The Procrastination Equation – Piers Steel

Procrastination = Expectancy*ValueImpulsiveness*Delay

As a loyal reader, I’m sure you never procrastinate anything. For those of us in less lucky circumstances, however (no more than 95% of the world, I’m sure), procrastination is ever-present. The average American employee sends 77 texts per day: the total cost of responding to those annoying pop-up email notifications while at work uses up – per person – about a month of productivity a year. Some distractions may be unavoidable, but good workspace design, careful planning, and removing access to easy temptations can make a big difference.

Piers Steel introduces what he calls the procrastination equation: the greater the expected value of the activity (probability of occurrence*value of the activity), the less likely we are to procrastinate, while the more impulsive we or our environment is, and the longer the delay until the results are felt, the more we do.

He makes a number of good points: he wisely differentiates laziness from procrastination, for example, pointing out that the lazy never want to get a task done, while procrastinators do plan to get it done, just not immediately. I’m not sure I find his central procrastination equation quite satisfying, though: it’s not structural, as an economist would say. Does value mean the reward from doing the activity, or how unpleasant the activity is to do? Does delay mean the delay in reward, or delay until the task needs to be completed? He fudges a number of concepts for the sake of simplicity.

He has some good suggestions, beyond just the usual turning off email notifications. Creating a separate computer user profile with a completely different background and icons for work, for example, can help you reduce access to tempting distractions and clearly delineate when you’re supposed to be working. You can also try to create success spirals, racking up small victories that can inspire you and lend you strength when you face harder tasks. Hardly revolutionary, but a solid addition to an extensive literature on procrastination.

Most Likely to Succeed – Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

“Our bottom line? Our nation continues to plod away with incremental fixes to an obsolete education system, as innovation races ahead.”

When I lived in Tanzania, I used to visit a primary school where the children were taught by having them all stand and recite things aloud. Learning by rote used to be common everywhere, and still is in much of the world. The idea that students should be engaged and think critically, and not just some students but all students, remains a new and powerful one.

Wagner and Dintersmith argue that even where kids no longer chant in unison, we haven’t cracked it; that students are spending too much time on rote learning, and not enough on really learning how to innovate. Children are taught to name the parts of the car, in other words, rather than how to actually drive. Likely to Succeed places the blame on standardized testing and the drive to prepare kids for college instead of teach them.

Standardized tests certainly have disadvantages as well as advantages, but it seems extreme to place the blame for the poor results of the American educational system entirely on them. The authors have a strong ideological position, and there is some support for it, but claiming as they do that standardized testing is the single largest threat to national security feels a bit much. They also occasionally misuse statistics, such as when they discuss the returns to getting a university education. There’s an important question over whether university teaches valuable information or just adds a signal without teaching much, but the statistics are fairly clear the returns to going are large.

Most Likely to Succeed has some solid ideas, and readers may find themselves nodding their heads as they go along – I liked their point that allowing students to use computers in exams might actually makes more sense if students are to learn to problem solve with technology – but for me the book struggles because it isn’t adding much to the debate. Everyone agrees we should teach students to think critically, and that we don’t just want to create low level thinkers. In some, egregious, cases, how to fix that is clear, but in most it is not: to learn how to do math, some evidence suggests rote learning is an important first step. The book doesn’t really provide answers on how to resolve the hard questions, or where to go next, other than that we should be teaching students high level skills somehow. I suspect education is also not as monolithic as the authors suggest: I didn’t go to an American school, but my impression is that the variance between them is extremely wide. For that reason, I found something like College Disrupted, which accounts for this variance and uses data to explain how education should change, more satisfying.

You can see more reviews (and get your own copy) here: Most Likely to Succeed.

The Economics of Enough – Diane Coyle

“For more than a generation Western governments have been borrowing on a large scale from their own citizens but increasingly also from foreigners in much poorer countries. The cost of these promises will be piled onto taxpayers as yet unborn or too young to vote.”

At the moment, we appear to be leaving future generations a rather bad hand. Public debt seems to verge on the unsustainable, and the number of things they’ll to pay for, whether cleaning the environment or reducing inequality, seem to be increasing. Axel Weber, previously president of Germany’s Bundesbank, once joked that in face of spiraling debt, future generations “are doing the only thing they can. They’re avoiding being born.” One of the less common explanations for Europe’s demographic crisis.

A fairly basic law says that what cannot go on forever will stop. Whether it is climate change, public borrowing, inequality, or deteriorating social capital, says Coyle, we’re in the midst of a number of unsustainable trends, ones that can and must change. That means measuring things properly (as she discusses in depth in another book, GDP: A Short History), and making decisions as if the future matters, indeed as if we should leave the next generation with at least as much capital as we inherited.

In the end, Coyle is hopeful: by curbing our instinct to demand ever more, and making sure we think about the consequences for the future of our decisions today, she says, we can do a lot to leave future generations in a good position. This also means facing basic trade-offs, though, instead of pretending they don’t exist and borrowing to avoid them: she suggests, for example, that we should pick any two of efficiency, fairness, and freedom, but that not all three can be achieved simultaneously.

It’s not a new message, perhaps, but it is an important message. We could do a lot more to care for future generations (some days, it might be fair doing anything would be an improvement, Elon Musk excepted). Coyne mixes some practical suggestions with philosophical discussion, and if it doesn’t quite feel like she’s cracked the problem, she’s at least thinking about the right things.

Free to Learn – Peter Gray

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.”

Ask someone over 50 for their favourite moment in childhood, and most of them will raise a time when they were playing with other children, far from adults. Today, Gray argues, we deny children the same opportunity to be free to learn: we over-regulate and over-structure their lives, denying them the opportunity to develop essential skills through independent growth and learning.

Peter Gray, as he puts it, is an evolutionary development psychologist: he studies child development from a Darwinian perspective. That sounds a bit Hunger Games, but in truth what he means is he studies how child behaviours evolved. That leads him to a number of interesting insights, chief of which is the value of free play in childhood. Play, he argues, is how children evolved the ability to build skills, develop the ability to control their lives, and learn to be adults.

When children play, they don’t fear failure, they are forced to be creative, and they learn how to accommodate others and see things from the viewpoint of others: after all, if someone else doesn’t enjoy the game, they leave. Only in school and adult-run environments, where participation is mandatory, can you remain safely oblivious to the feelings of others, since they don’t have the option to leave. You also don’t need to come up with your own rules, settle conflicts on your own, or otherwise do much of value other than follow the orders of adults – hardly the first-best skill for our children.

The first half of the 20th century was a golden age for play – as children worked less and less, they had more time to devote to their own activities, closer to the pre-industrial era. In the last 50 years, however, school hours and structured time has steadily increased. Free play is increasingly a scarce resource.

The book is interesting, and it advances a compelling thesis, that children should be free to make mistakes and free to learn. Gray also studies several schools which have taken a low-regulation approach in depth, including Sudbury Valley School, which is entirely democratic: teachers and students all have one vote apiece. My sole criticism would be he discusses almost exclusively lab research: understandable for a biologist, but unfortunate. Economists and others have done some great working in actual schools looking at some of these questions, which could give his arguments more external validity. Still, a worthwhile and sometimes provocative read.

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

“The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

Most of us assume that thinking over a decision is better than making it immediately – that the first best option for choice is taking our time, gathering information, and being as rational as possible. Gladwell points out this isn’t always the case: that sometimes instinctive decisions can be as good or even potentially better than slow ones, helping us integrate information in a way we might struggle to do consciously. When we’re deciding whether to switch jobs or marry someone, we can certainly draw up a list of pros and cons, Ben Franklin–style, but our instinctive reaction to the choice might actually give us more information as to our true preferences. Though he doesn’t mention it, this is the reasoning that underlies the suggestion that to make a decision, flip a coin until you aren’t unhappy when it lands.

Blink is perhaps the best known pop-social science book out there, and Gladwell is well known for his cocktail-party-appropriate anecdotes and stories. This one follows the trend: some great research is included, from Gottman’s research on marriage durability (the four horsemen of divorce are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, of which contempt is the true death knell) to American war games that pitted complex algorithmic strategy against a decentralized, rough and ready approach. As always, it’s also brilliantly written and tremendously engaging.

I’m not quite convinced, though. The problem with instinct, it seems to me, is it is hard to tell whether it’s right or not without deliberation. It may well be just as good in some cases, but without checking, how can we know? That suggests it’s useful only once we have justified its use with deliberation, which seems significantly more subtle than just claiming decisions made quickly can be as good as those made cautiously. That said, we all use instinct sometimes, and we can definitely do better at training and improving our thin-slicing abilities. Blink does a great job giving examples of thin-slicing, and also starts the conversation on how we can do better.

To Sell is Human – Daniel H. Pink

“Selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a car lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred.”

You probably believe you have a job that isn’t sales (unless you are in sales). Perhaps you think you’re a university professor, a doctor, a machinist, or an electrician. That’s all well and nice, says Pink, but you’re kidding yourself. Almost all of us spend a large chunk of our time convincing other people to do things – as teachers, we convince students to learn, or as office workers, we convince our coworkers to help on our projects or our bosses to listen to our ideas. Despite the bad name of sales, says Pink, this isn’t a bad thing. In the modern world, salespeople can no longer rely on asymmetric information to bamboozle their clients: instead, in an age of free information, they have to rely on actually working in the client’s interest.

It’s an interesting point, and an interesting book. I’m not quite convinced, though. I agree we all spend a lot of our time convincing others of things, but I’m not sure that’s a modern phenomenon: I suspect that’s been true in almost any age. Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal, after all. I’m also not sure sales doesn’t – in part – still deserve its bad name. It’s true, the internet means you can look up a used car as well as the salesman, but even when the information exists, finding it isn’t easy given how much else is out there. Salesmen still have an advantage because they curate information, even if they aren’t the sole holders of it.

The book also has a bunch of cute stories, as these books often do. The first ‘elevator pitch’, for example: the man who figured out how to make elevators safe for people needed a way to convince them it worked, so he built an elevator at a world fair, hoisted it up, and cut the cable. To the gasps of the crowd, it plummeted…until the automatic brakes kicked in and stopped it. I’m not sure I agree with the book’s thesis, but for a quick summer read, it’s light, entertaining, and interesting.

Summer Book Recommendations

As it hits the peak of summer (but not Midsummer, which was ages ago, confusingly enough), it seemed apropos to pass on some summer book suggestions: a selection of reviews I’ve written over the past year

What If – Randall Munroe

A recommendation I share with Bill Gates – a hilarious yet educational way to learn why not to swim in nuclear waste ponds (hint: it isn’t because of the nuclear waste)

Business Adventures – John Brooks

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates’ favourite business book. What more needs to be said? It’s a classic discussion of the fundamentals of running and understanding a business.

The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley

A light but compelling read on the educational systems of Finland and Korea, both of whom have schoolkids who do very well on international test scores, Poland, which has dramatically improved recently, and the US, which…has not and does not. Light and suitable for summer, but on a important topic and full of great ideas.

Daily Rituals – Mason Currey

We all have our daily rituals – waking up at a particular time, checking our phone, sitting in a room naked having an ‘air bath’ for an hour. That last one might only apply to Benjamin Franklin. A fun walk through some eccentric rituals, rich with stories for summer barbecues and even a little motivating.

College Disrupted – Ryan Craig

A study of the American educational system and how it needs to change. Data driven and insightful, it takes the unusual step of looking at the whole educational system, not just the top 50 universities we usually think of.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marquez writes beautifully and thinks deeply. His books are always worthwhile, but Love in the Time of Cholera is a beautiful meditation on the nature of love.

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

Summer can be a great time to work on our own projects. Perhaps one of your is improving your writing with help from a man who, sayeth the Economist, writes like an angel?

 

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History – Diane Coyle

“Environmentalists believe it leads to an overemphasis on growth at the expense of the planet, “happiness” advocates think it needs to be replaced with indicators of genuine well-being, and activists such as those in the Occupy movement argue that a focus on GDP has disguised inequality and social disharmony.”

GDP gets used a lot, in almost any discussion of politics or economics. It’s easy to forget it’s a recent phenomenon: the idea dates back only to the 1940s, and as recently as 1985, we really only had GDP data for around 60 countries, and that of poor quality. Only in 1999, when Angus Maddison published long-run estimates, did we actually get long-run GDP data on most countries, and even those are limited.

Today it is the rod by which all else is measured. As Diane Coyle points out, however, it is also deeply limited – some would say flawed. It counts some major sectors poorly, such as services, and omits others, such as household work: if a woman marries her gardener and stops paying him, GDP falls. The current system also gives a vast estimate of the contribution of financial services to the economy, giving that sector tremendous political influence, as in the UK: it’s not clear this estimate is reasonable, since in some ways it measures how much risk they bear, not how much value they are creating.

What’s the solution? Coyle argues that attempts to replace GDP with a new single metric won’t work: whether it’s happiness or inequality, no single number can capture the complex mix of freedom, prosperity, fairness, and the human capability to innovate and create that we believe is important. Instead, she suggests we use a dashboard approach: that using a mix of indicators allows us to measure how we are doing in a number of areas, and to tradeoff one against the other as necessary.

A sensible idea, in a sensible, well-written book. I’ve met Diane personally, and her personality shines through clearly in her writing: data-driven, clearly analyzed, and well-researched. The history of GDP may never be a summer thriller, but the book is about as light as it could be, and it covers and important and interesting topic.