The Ego Tunnel

Written on September 8, 2016. Written by .

This is a pretty deep book about the nature of consciousness. I sometimes found it hard to tell if what I was hearing was profound or obvious. I still don’t understand the central analogy with a tunnel: what specific properties of a tunnel map to specific properties of consciousness? I may have missed it, but I don’t think this mapping was made explicit. I don’t think I made much progress on my first reading, but this book is definitely good food for thought and I may want to give it a second read at some point.

★★★★

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Antifragile

Written on September 8, 2016. Written by .

Something is “antifragile” if it gains from disorder/uncertainty/randomness, as opposed to “robust” things that neither gain nor lose from disorder/uncertainty/randomness. I think this is an interesting concept that I hadn’t heard of or thought about before reading this book. Taleb discusses some ideas for how to apply the concept of antifragility to your life and business (such as trying to let your body heal itself rather than using a doctor right away), but I didn’t come away with any specific action items. Nor did I have an epiphanies that would influence my future decisions or behaviors. Overall I think it was a lot of fluff, as I had expected after reading “The Black Swan”.

★★★★★

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Radical Acceptance

Written on September 8, 2016. Written by .

This book is about a Buddhist-inspired approach to self-acceptance. I got the feeling that I wasn’t really in the target audience because I couldn’t relate to a lot of the material. I can see how it might be helpful for others, but in the end I don’t think I got much out of it.

★★★★★

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Business Adventures

Written on September 8, 2016. Written by .

I read this book because I heard it was Bill Gates’ favorite business book. It is a collection of true stories about business events in the 1960s. The narration is quite detailed, sometimes describing the appearance of the scene and feelings of individuals. I found the stories pretty boring, partly because the stories are so old, perhaps partly because they were so drawn out with narration, but also I think because the stories themselves weren’t that interesting.

★★★★★

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Sapiens

Written on June 27, 2016. Written by .

This book talked about the human ability to collectively believe in ideas that are not necessarily true, but have important implications for society. For example, believing that fiat money has value is only true because so many other people believe it, but it is not objectively true because it would not have value under other circumstances. I liked how this book talked about how the imperialism and capitalism basically steamrolled the planet, crushing many resistant societies in the process. The book had an interesting perspective that emphasized that many successful ideas were not the best ideas for the benefit of the people; happy tribes were forced to try to conform to capitalist society and basically became depressed. I would have liked it if the book focused on this topic more, but instead it dabbles in a variety of ideas that are very loosely tied by the theme of things that humans construct with their minds.

★★★★

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Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor

Written on April 16, 2016. Written by .

Although Charlie Munger is really interesting, I didn’t get a whole lot out of this book. It is mostly a very basic introduction to Munger’s investing philosophy, which I’ve read about many times before. Even if I hadn’t been exposed to his investing philosophy before, I still think there are other books that cover the topic more thoroughly.

★★★★★

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Progress and Poverty

Written on February 7, 2016. Written by .

The thesis of this book is very important. It argues that poverty and much human suffering is the direct result of private ownership of land. The author attempts to prove some basic theorems of economics, but I wasn’t convinced that these proofs were rigorous. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about them though, so perhaps I just didn’t understand fully on my first read. But even if these proofs are not rigorous, the argument of the book is still quite convincing, though I had already come to the same conclusion independently before ever reading the book or hearing about the idea. The book is definitely short on details about the solution to the problem. The author also gets unnecessarily verbose in some parts. Despite these shortcomings, the core thesis is persuasively presented. Given that the topic is so little known and yet so important, I think this original presentation of it is a definitely worth reading. 

★★★★

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The Myth of Freedom

Written on February 7, 2016. Written by .

Although this book was fairly down-to-earth relative to most Buddhist texts, I didn’t really get much out of it. It primarily focused on discussing psychological tendencies of people in general during the course of their daily lives. It had a more pessimistic/negative tone than other books of this type and I found it somewhat boring.

★★★★★

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Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Written on September 20, 2015. Written by .

What I found interesting about this book is that it seemed to make an honest effort to explain non-dual experience to the reader. Most books that discuss non-duality shroud the concept in mystery so it’s hard to even believe that they are talking about something really important. This was the first book that really convinced me that there is something awesome behind the idea of non-duality and that I should try to understand it. Despite the books attempts at explanation, I still don’t understand what non-duality really means, but it did provide some good analogies, like the optical blind spot.

You can really tell that the author is very intelligent and rational, though he discusses some things that are typically associated with irrationality. It was very interesting seeing such a clear-minded approach to the topic of spirituality.

★★★★

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The Pessimism Bubble

Written on July 27, 2015. Written by .

Economist Robert Shiller was recently quoted by Business Insider as saying

So there is a bubble element what [sic] we see. But I’m not sure that the current situation is a classic bubble because I’m not certain that most people have extravagant expectations. […] In fact, the current environment may be driven more by fear than by a sense of a new era. I detect a tinge of anxiety and insecurity now that is a factor in markets, which is quite different from other market booms historically.

As I discussed in  Why is it so hard to find good investments lately?, I also believe we are currently in an asset bubble in which it is particularly challenging to find good investments. In that post I argued that consumer prices were undervalued, but I never felt satisfied with that statement because it didn’t point to an actionable way to profit from the current situation.

I think Shiller and other commentators are correct that the current bubble is fundamentally different than most prior bubbles. The typical bubble is driven by irrational optimism and exuberance (see Shiller’s book: Irrational Exuberance). The current bubble seems to be driven by pessimism. There is some economic research to support the idea of pessimism-based bubbles and the idea is plausible in the sense that any kind of irrationality can lead to mis-pricing, though intuitively pessimism would lead to asset lower prices. Below I’ll try to explain how pessimism might lead to higher asset prices.

Economically, we can divide all the things you can do with wealth into the following categories:

  1. Consume it
  2. Store it (gold, cash, land)
  3. Loan it (investing)
  4. Use it as capital for new enterprise

In a pessimistic environment, people tend to reduce consumption and new enterprise. The most defensive approach is to store wealth, but some forms of investment like treasuries are possibly even safer than storage and provide a better return, so they can also be very defensive.

After the recent financial crises, people started to shift more of their wealth into conservative investments, creating large bubbles in gold, treasuries, and investment grade corporate bonds. As the crisis abated, asset allocation started to move up the risk spectrum into stocks and real estate.

Risk Spectrum:

All the savings that people were hoarding started to make treasuries, cash, and investment-grade bonds so expensive that investors got crowded out into medium risk investments. But based on the current low interest rates, the economy as a whole is still avoiding the highest risk investment in new enterprise. If there were a lot of new enterprise formation, there would be high demand for capital, which would drive interest rates up. The Federal Reserve has some influence over interest rates, but they do not have the power to counter the global economy. The global economy’s pessimism is the only reason why the FED is able to keep their rates so low.

The problem with this situation is that people don’t want to store their wealth because with negative real interest rates, they will be losing value. So everyone wants to loan their money to someone else to do something productive with it. But if not enough people are creating new enterprise, there’s a lot of wealth that can’t find productive uses. Loaning money around doesn’t create new wealth unless it ends up in the hands of the people who have productive uses for it. So the actionable way to profit from the current bubble is to borrow a lot of money and use it for new enterprise. Just as those who moved into stocks ahead of the curve in 2011 made a lot of money, if you stay one step ahead on the risk spectrum, you have the best chances.

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