Book Summaries Business

The Intelligent Investor Summary

The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham is often cited as one of the best books on investment, most notably by Warren Buffet.

Graham lays the foundation for laymen by giving a sound approach to investment, written with simple language that is easy (albeit dated) to understand. You are presented with Graham’s personal investment philosophy and other potential investment philosophies based on the type of risk you are willing to tolerate.

For example, he doesn’t believe in speculation. Many people think about the stock market as a casino, where they can make money quickly by buying low and selling high. Graham thinks that this is the wrong approach. You don’t make money (sustainably) from buying and selling but from owning and holding securities, earning dividends and interest, and benefitting from their increase in value over many years.

Your main goal in investing should not be to make money, but to avoid losing money. That is the difference between an investor and a speculator.

Factors to consider when picking stocks

PE ratio is a measure of the valuation of a company’s stock. It has price in the numerator and earnings in the denominator. The higher the PE ratio, the more expensive the stock

PB ratio compares the price of the stock with its book. The higher the PB ratio, more expensive is the stock and vice-versa


Trailing P/E should be less than 15 and P/E * P/B should be less than or equal to 22.5.

When considering what stock to buy, don’t simply buy cheap companies.

Consider the following indicators:

  • Earnings per share (growth > 30% over 10 years prior is a good sign).
  • Current ratio (Current Assets/ Current Liabilities) > 2.
  • Company offers dividends, with consistent dividend growth.
  • Avoid companies with negative earnings per share previous 3 years.
  • Speculate the right way: Buy low and sell high. Avoid the herd instinct to start buying more when stocks are at record highs. See financial crashes as opportunities to buy for cheap.
Chapter 1: Investment Versus Speculation

Keep investments and speculation separate. If you must speculate, make sure it is no more than 10 percent of investment funds.

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Chapter 2: The Investor and Inflation

Inflation is an investment concern because it depletes real wealth, and the purchasing power of profits and principal. Fixed income securities are usually most hard hit.

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Chapter 3: A Century of Stock Market History

It is important to learn about the history of the stock market, so that you understand how stock prices are related to earnings, cash flow, and dividends.

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Chapter 4: General Portfolio Policy: The Defensive Investor

The conventional wisdom is that the investor should match the amount they risk with their risk tolerance.

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Chapter 5: The Defensive Investor and Common Stocks

As long as the stock is not overpriced, buying them could protect against inflation and offer a higher return than bonds or cash in the long run.

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Chapter 6: Portfolio Policy for the Enterprising Investor: Negative Approach

Unless lower rated bonds and preferred stock have a huge upside, enterprising investors should avoid them. Lowe rated securities usually collapse in adverse markets.

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Chapter 7: Portfolio Policy for the Enterprising Investor: Positive Approach

An enterprising investor wants to achieve a higher than average rate of return. There are 4 ways in which this type of investor can go beyond the defensive investor.

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Chapter 8: Mr. Market and Fluctuations

Mr. Market is the analogy given for the market. Imagine that you co-owned a company with Mr. Market.

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Chapter 9: Investing in Investment Funds

Investment funds are vehicles provide a convenient means for saving and investment, and potentially protecting investors from themselves.

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Chapter 10: The Investor and His Advisers 

Most investors are novices and make many mistakes. Drawdowns, high fees and expense ratios, and improper diversification are all common problems they face.

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Book Summaries Psychology

Altered Traits Summary

Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson takes a scientific look at the practice of meditation. From the start, we are assured that the authors are not interested in giving us a sales pitch about meditation.

They acknowledge that many hucksters try to make money by promoting meditation in a dishonest way, promising benefits that have not been validated by any evidence, and find a way to personally benefit from people’s wishful thinking.

But that is not to say that meditation does not have proven benefits. The rest of the book is a careful exploration of precisely what those benefits are, and to who they belong.

A Background of Meditation Research

The number of publications about meditation from 1970 to 2000 are negligible, and then at around 2005, we witnessed a rapid increase to over 1000 in the span of less than 10 years. 

Joseph Goldstein was instrumental in bringing meditation to the West. 

Clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side. 

Richie, one of the authors of the book, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior. 

When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy. 

In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis. 

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James observed, “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” The very existence of these states “means they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.” 

Buddha prescribed not only strong concentration for the attainment of a liberated mind, but a different kind of inner focus: the path of insight. Awareness stays open to anything that arises, rather than one thing to the exclusion of all else. It is total concentration. With mindfulness, the meditator notes what comes into the mind without reactivity, and lets go. If we think much of what just arose, we have lost our mindful stance – unless that reaction becomes the object of mindfulness. 

The Visuddhimagga describes how a carefully sustained mindfulness – the “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens” in our experience refines into nuanced insight practice that can lead to nirvana – the final epiphany.

Insight meditation causes a shift between ourselves and our thoughts. Usually, we are directed by our thoughts to react in various ways. But what we gain with strong mindfulness, is the ability to see each thought, whether pleasurable or painful, for what it truly is – a passing moment of mind, like any other. We don’t need to be chased through the day by our thoughts. 

The Abhidhamma distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy states of mind. Desires, self-centeredness, sluggishness, agitation are unhealthy. Even-mindedness, composure, ongoing mindfulness, and realistic confidence are healthy. A subset of healthy traits apply to both mind and body: buoyancy, flexibility, adaptability, and pliancy. 

Research showed that people who went on a meditation retreat and strengthened a sense of purpose in their lives showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells – even five months later. This enzyme protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect the lifespan of a cell. But this study only had 14 participants and has not been replicated. 

Few studies in psychology are targets of replication. Publication is inbuilt: few scientists report studies when they have found no significant results. And yet that null finding is significant. 

Physical and Psychological Stressors

Modern life, psychological stress, if it continues for a long time, can make you sick. Such stressors trigger the same biological reactions as when encountering predators in the past. 

Vulnerability to stress-worsened diseases like diabetes or hypertension reflects the downside of the brain’s design. The upside reflects the power of the human cortex, which has built civilization. But the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, contains the brain’s executive center.

It gives us a unique advantage among animals and a paradoxical disadvantage: the ability to anticipate the future and worry about it, as well as the tendency to think about the past, and regret. 

As Epictetus observed, it is not the things that happen to us that upset us but the view we take of them. The Dalai Lama reported that he met many people who had everything they wanted, yet were miserable. 

In the 1970s, science saw attention as mostly stimulus-driven, automatic, unconscious, and from the “bottom up” – a function of the brain stem, a primitive structure sitting above the spinal cord, rather than from a “top down” cortical area. This view considers attention involuntary. Something happens around us, a phone rings, and our attention automatically gets pulled to the source of the sound. A sound continues to the point of monotony and then we habituate (tune it out).

But there was no scientific concept for the volitional control of attention even though the scientists doing those experiments were using volitional control themselves. 

Decades before we began to drown in a sea of distractions, Herbert Simon observed, “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.” 

There are two kinds of awareness. One is being aware of something, the other is being aware that you are aware of something, without judgement. 

Meditation In a Lab 

Seasoned meditators (9,000 lifetime hours of Vipassana practice) had a 13 percent lower cholesterol level than controls. 

Even stressed novice meditators who were tested (unemployed job seekers) had reductions in kep pro-inflammatory cytokine. 

Constant stress and worry takes a toll on our cells, aging them. So do constant distractions and a wandering mind – due to the toxic effects of rumination. 

The gene that makes us susceptible to diabetes may never develop the disease if we have a lifelong habit of exercise and not eating sugar. 

Compared with non-meditators, meditators had greater cortical thickness in areas important for sensing inside one’s own body and for attention (anterior insula and zones of the prefrontal cortex). 

A study at UCLA finds meditation slows the usual shrinkage of our brain as we age. At age fifty, meditators’ brains are younger by 7.5 years compared to brains of non meditators of the same age. For every year beyond fifty, the brains of meditators were younger than their peers’ by one month and twenty two days. Researchers concluded that meditation can help slow down brain atrophy. But the problem is that in those studies, many different types of meditation were sampled, so it is not clear which type of meditation results in the different benefits. 

An article in the one of the JAMA journals (official publication of the American Medical Associated, showed that mindfulness (but not mantra based meditation like T.M, which had insufficient research) could lessen anxiety and depression, as well as pain. The degree of improvement was about as much as for medications, but without the troubling side effects. 

But the meta-analysis found that when it came to other health indicators (eating habits, sleep, substance use, or weight problems), no benefits were found. And no benefits were found either for other psychological troubles like ugly moods, addictions, and poor attention. 

Making History 

A seasoned meditator, and a Tibeten monk arrived to Wisconsin, for a series of scientific experiments, that would measure his brain activity while he meditated. His name was Mingyur Rinpoche. 

The protocol he was given, had him meditate on compassion for one minute, followed by a 30 seconds of neutral resting period. To make sure that any findings were not due to chance, he would have to do this four times in a row. 

Just as Mingyur behan the meditation, there was a sudden huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying signals from the bain. The researches thought this meant he had moved (a common problem with EEG research). Oddly, this burst lasted the entire period of compassion meditation. And as far as anyone could tell, Mingyur had not moved an inch. 

The four experimented watched, transfixed, while Mingyur moved on to repeat the exercise. Instantly, the same dramatic burst of electrical signal occurred. He was perfectly stil. As this pattern repeated each time he was instructed to generate compassion, the team looked at each other in astonished silence – almost jumping off their seats in excitement. They were witnessing a profound and historic event. 

The news of that session created a scientific stir – these findings have been cited more than 1,100 times in the world’s scientific literature. 

The next surprise event happened when Mingyur underwent another batch of tests, but this time with fMRI (which creates 3-D video of brain activity). The EEG readings are more precise in time. The fMRI readings are more accurate in neural locations. 

The closest resemblance to brain activity that followed Mingyur’s meditation on compassion, was in epileptic seizures – but those last brief seconds, not a full minute. And seizures are involuntary, in contrast to Mingyur’s intentional control of brain activity.

The Tibetan monk was a meditation prodigy with 62,000 hours of lifetime practice up to that point. Compared to controls, Mingyur’s brain is clearly ageing more slowly. The chronological age of his brain was 41, while his brain fit more closely the norm for whose chronological age was 33. This remarkable fact demonstrates the further reaches of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change structure). 

In contemplative science, “altered state” refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An “altered trait” indicates that the practice of meditation has transformed the brain and biology so that the changes can be seen before the beginning of a meditation session. 


For novice meditators, there was no difference between their brains at rest, and when they were trying to meditate on cue. This contrasts with the findings obtained from experienced yogis, such Mingyur (and 21 others). 

Interestingly, hearing sounds of people in distress caused less activity in an area in the brain responsible for self-centered thought among yogis, when compared to others. 

Many of the amazing results seen with expert meditators were not seen in novice meditators, but there were some important benefits. Even for people who had meditated for as little as 8 minutes a day, for two weeks, improvements in focus, less mind wandering, and better working memory were noted – enough to produce improvements in GRE scores. But these effects are unlikely to persist without continued practice. 

After meditating for many years, the early effects deepen and new ones emerge. For example, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol – a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress – lessens. 

Words of Caution 

It is not mere practice that takes a meditator from “novice” to “expert.” Going on retreats and getting personal advice from seasoned meditators are important to make incremental improvements. The quality of the practice, not just the quantity counts. 

Meditation is not a substitute for real world compassion or action. 

The Dalai Lama remarked that in some cases, practitioners have the impression that they are holy people – which is true when everything is fine, when the sun is shining and the belly is full. But when confronted with a real challenge or crisis, they become just like everyone else. 

Neural Hacking 

A group of religious scholars, experimental psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers gathered under the auspices of the Mind and Life institute to explore the corner of the mind that begins with everyday desire. Sometimes the pathway runs though craving to addiction (whether drugs, porn, or shopping). 

The religious scholars pinpointed the problem at the moment of grasping – the impulse that makes us lean in toward pleasure. In this state, there is a feeling of uneasiness that drives the clinging and seductive intuition that the object of our desire will relieve our disease. 

This contrasts with the state of utter ease when nongrasping. Mindfulness helps us observe what is happening within the mind itself rather than get carried away by it. 

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Judson Brewer has helped people addicted to cigarettes kick the habit with mindfulness exercises in his lab. 


Richie and Dan, the authors of the book, were inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which showed that science shifts abruptly from time to time as new ideas and innovative paradigms force shifts in thinking. They wanted a new paradigm in psychology. 

By now, the evidence has confirmed their hunches. Sustained mind training alters the brain both in structure and function. 

Practical advice

Find a meditation practice that appeals to you. Practice every day, for one month, even as short as a few minutes. See how you feel after 30 days. 

Book Summaries History Politics Psychology

A Culture of Narcissism Summary

A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch was published in 1979. Lasch argues that the “me generation” that Tom Wolfe previously celebrated, was in fact, dysfunctional, empty, and worthy of contempt.

He bases his argument on Sigmund Freud’s insights, who wrote an important paper on the subject called, On Narcissism.  At first, Lasch points out a social paradox. People are expected to submit to the rules of society, but modern society refuses to ground these rules into a moral code. The individual’s reaction is to become self-absorbed, and far from feeling elated or grandiose, he loses self-efficacy and self-worth. The self shrinks back towards a passive state in which the world remains unformed.

The egomaniacal, experience-devouring imperial self regresses into a grandiose, narcissistic, infantile, empty self: a “dark wet hole” as Rudolph Wurlitzer writes in Nog, “where everything finds its way sooner or later. I remain near the entrance, handling goods as they are shoved in, listening and nodding.

He then borrows a term from Phillip Rieff, the author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the “psychological man.” Who is the psychological man? He is the modern individual, who has cut himself off from his roots, and from his past. He is plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, and a sense of inner emptiness.

He seeks neither self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly work against it. Whereas man used to look towards priests, self-help preachers, or models of success such as successful business leaders, his main ally in the struggle for composure is now the therapist. The modern equivalent to salvation is “mental health.”

Therapy has established itself as the successor both to rugged individualism and to religion; but this does not mean that the “triumph of the therapeutic” has become a new religion in its own right. Therapy constitutes an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adhreres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs.

The principal goal of the therapist is not help you carve out a future, but to sedate you. He does not want you to look forward to the future, but to focus on your emotions in the present. The idea here is not that the therapist should be responsible for fulfilling these functions – it is not his job to do this. But since therapy has taken over the role of religion in alleviating man’s angst about the future and the purpose of his life, it is tasked with the heavy burden of giving people good answers, and in empowering them. Yet, Lasch argues that it does the opposite, it reduces man further and further. Even meaning and love, to the therapist, are not valuable in themselves, but useful insofar as they fulfil the patient’s emotional needs.

It never occurs to the therapist, to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to others, to someone, or some tradition that is outside himself. Love is self-sacrifice and meaning is submission to a higher authority. These sublimations (of libidinal energy) are deemed intolerably oppressive. Lasch here alludes to Freud’s idea of sublimation and libidinal energy. In short, the individual’s ego is nourished through sexual (or libidinal) energy since his youth. At some point in life, he gets disappointed, when the love that he used to direct inwards, is directed towards a person who does not return the favor. He then retreats into himself and becomes narcissistic and delusional. This is a very rough sketch of Freud’s concept of narcissism which is explained in more detail here.

The post-Freudian therapies attempt to rid the individual from the ideas of love and duty, and for whom mental health means gratifying each impulse and removing all inhibitions.


In an interesting section about Ellul’s work on propaganda, Lasch notes that propaganda does not use facts to support an argument, but to exert emotional pressure. Advertising does the same. But in both cases, the point is not to make the emotional appeal obvious or direct – the emotional appeal is made through the facts themselves which give the person the illusion that they are being “informed.”

Since the propagandist knows that educated people relish facts and the illusion of being informed, they do not use high-sounding slogans, or appeal to fantastic ideas. They do not call for heroism or sacrifice or reminds his audience of the glorious past. They merely stick to the “facts.” This marks the union of propaganda and “information.”

Impending Disaster

Near the turn of the twentieth century, there was a growing conviction that everything was coming to an end. And people were so sure of a catastrophic event, a nuclear war, that people gave up on looking for a solution, and instead, kept themselves busy with survival strategies designed to prolong their lives, or programs that ensured good health and peace of mind.

After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or bellydancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past.

From Politics to Self-Examination

After displacing religion as the organizing framework of American culture, the therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics. Lasch discusses the political revolutionaries of the sixties, such as Abbie Hoffman and his associate, Jerry Rubin, who decided (a decade later) that it was more important to get one’s head together, and immerse themselves in therapeutic activities, than move multitudes.


Long lasting relationships have become more difficult. Relationships are framed in terms of combat. “assertiveness” “fighting fair”… Open relationships are more common. But they end up intensifying the disease they pretend to cure. The root of their problems are social. By refusing to commit or attach themselves to others, they presume that their problems have nothing to do with other people, and everything to do with their inner feelings. 

There is the ego that is healthy, it contains the healthy judgements of others and superior ideals to strive towards. The sadistic superego, is the archaic and destructive force that is harsh and punishing. The superego is filled with destructive forces from early violent fantasies, which result from the parents failure to satisfy all the fantasies of the child. 

In a society, where there is no extreme disdain for authority, the superego softens, and forms into a harsh but constructive conscience. Whereas in a society that hates authority, the child grows up still thinking of their parents as devouring monsters and fails to develop a healthy supergo. 

Creative Work

According to Kohut, useful creative work which confronts the individual with unsolved intellectual and aesthetic problems, offers hope for the narcissist to transcend their predicament since it requires the individual think about problems that are outside the self. 

Freud revised his initial theory on narcissism. He first concluded that the libido was comprised of self-love. He changed his mind and concluded that the id was in fact, the great reservoir of the libido. He acknowledged the existence of non-sexual drives, such as aggression or the death instinct, and the alliance between the Ego and the Id, Ego and aggression. This is important, because the way in which you define narcissism determines how and to what extent you recognize narcissism in society. 

The narcissist does not love himself but is defending himself against aggressive impulses.

Those who deny the psychological dimension also deny the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age: dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings. They also do not discuss what might be called the secondary characteristics of narcissism: pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor. 

Thus they deprive themselves of any basis on which to make connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women. For these critics, narcissism remains at its loosest a synonym for selfishness and at its most precise a metaphor, and nothing more, that describes the state of mind in which the world appears as a mirror of the self.

In short, Lasch defines contemporary man as disconnected from traditional methods of connecting with the world. The triumph of the therapeutic sensibility, particularly in the US, has resulted in a self-obsessed individual, who has no care for posterity, idealizes youth and perfect, requires constant adulation and praise, worships fame and celebrity, despises old age and weakness, hates dependence on others yet need their warmth, has pseudo self-insight, sees the world as a reflection of themselves, doesn’t want lasting relationships, doesn’t want lengthy commitments, feels empty, is a hypochondriac due to aggression directed inwards, desires the illusion of success and competence, rather than success and competence.

The narcissist thinks that people are disposable, usable, not important, and has faux intelligence, that is, he is good at intellectualizing but only to evade, for example by rephrasing what the other person said, rather than trying to find truth. He tries to defend ego from libidinal (non-sexual) forces, including death drive and aggression, disdains all forms of authority, worships consumerist culture, think it is more important to be worshipped by others than to be content, makes no real effort to understand the world.

Lasch’s criticism is an extreme point of view, and could be interpreted as reactionary. But the value of the book is not found in the literal truths of the criticisms laid forth, but by the existence of such a perspective. There is no harm in the therapeutic. An individual can find, through analysis, useful insight about the nature of their thoughts. Self-reflection is valuable. But the pathological aspect of the therapeutic emerges when it becomes the only ideal the individual is interested in.

In other words, rather than strive for personal success, or social change, or spiritual enlightenment, the modern individual is only interested in the avoidance of pain. The problem with having no interest other than the therapeutic is that it shrinks the individual, and makes life less adventurous, and less meaningful. There is nothing wrong with being interested in improving one’s health, but when it becomes one’s sole preoccupation, it leads to hypochondria and narcissism.

Book Summaries

How to Make Decisions? ( The Top Books in Decision Science)

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious

Author(s): Gerd Gigerenzer

First published: 2007

Gut feelings are the result of unconscious mental processes—processes that apply rules of thumb that we’ve derived from our environment and prior experiences. But gut feelings are not things to run away from, they lead to good practical decisions, and underlie the moral choices that make our society function.

Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart

Author(s): Gerd Gigerenzer

First published: 2000

Fast and frugal heuristics–simple rules for making decisions when time is pressing and deep thought an unaffordable luxury. 

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

Author(s): Gerd Gigerenzer

First published: 2007

Anyone can learn to make better decisions for their health, finances, family, and business without needing to consult an expert or a supercomputer, and Gigerenzer shows us how.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Author(s): Leonard Mlodinow

First published: 2008

Our lives are profoundly informed by chance and randomness and everything from wine ratings and corporate success to school grades and political polls are less reliable than we believe.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Author(s): Jordan Ellenberg

First published: 2014

Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t

Author(s): Nate Silver

First published: 2012

How can we distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data?

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Author(s): Nassim Nicholas Taleb

First published: 2005

An investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand.

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

Author(s): Judea Pearl, Dana Mackenzie

First published: 2018

A Turing Award-winning computer scientist and statistician shows how understanding causality has revolutionized science and will revolutionize artificial intelligence

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Author(s): Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner

First published: 2015

As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study, even experts’ predictions are only slightly better than chance. However, an important and underreported conclusion of that study was that some experts do have real foresight, and Tetlock has spent the past decade trying to figure out why. What makes some people so good? And can this talent be taught?

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Author(s): Ori Brafman, Rom Brafman

First published: 2008

Why is it so difficult to sell a plummeting stock or end a doomed relationship? Why do we listen to advice just because it came from someone “important”? Why are we more likely to fall in love when there’s danger involved?

Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction

Author(s): John Brockman (Editor)

First published: 2013

Original ideas by today’s leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who are radically expanding our understanding of human thought.

Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking

Author(s): Tim Hurson

First published: 2007

How you can start with an intractable technical problem, an unmet consumer need, or a gaping chasm in your business strategy and, by following a clearly defined, practical thinking process, arrive at a robust, innovative solution. 

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making

Author(s): Reid Hastie, Robyn M. Dawes

First published: 1988

Renowned authors Hastie and Dawes compare the basic principles of rationality with actual behavior in making decisions. 

Thinking and Deciding

Author(s): Jonathan Baron

First published: 1988

How should we think? What, if anything, keeps us from thinking that way? How can we improve our thinking and decision making? 

Algorithms to Live By

Author(s):Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths

First published: 2016

A fascinating exploration of how insights from computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives, helping to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind

The Art of Choosing

Author(s): Sheena Iyengar

First published: 2010

Whether mundane or life-altering, these choices define us and shape our lives. Sheena Iyengar asks the difficult questions about how and why we choose: Is the desire for choice innate or bound by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? How much control do we really have over what we choose? 

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Author(s):Barry Schwartz

First published: 2004

A social critique of our obsession with choice, and how it contributes to anxiety, dissatisfaction and regret.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Author(s): Daniel Kahneman

First published: 2011

A groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. 

How We Decide

Author(s): Jonah Lehrer

First published: 2009

Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason—and the precise mix depends on the situation.

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions

Author(s): Gary Klein

First published: 1998

Gary Klein is one of the developers of the naturalistic decision making approach, which views people as inherently skilled and experienced. It documents human strengths and capabilities that so far have been downplayed or ignored.

Rationality: From AI to Zombies

Author(s): Eliezer Yudkowsky

First published: 2015

Eliezer Yudkowsky explains the science underlying human irrationality with a mix of fables, argumentative essays, and personal vignettes. 

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

Author(s): Daniel H. Pink

First published: 2004

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions

Author(s): John S. Hammond, Howard Raiffa, Ralph L. Keeney

First published: 1998

Where should I live? Is it time to switch careers? What is the best course of action for me?

Book Summaries

Week 52: The Lesser of Two Evils

It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of — namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown –

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

What Nietsche points out in a few sentences, is that each philosopher before him was unknowingly disguising their subjective philosophy in objective language. To understand why this is controversial, you would only need to read any major philosophical work of the past. What you will notice is that the writer is setting forth a framework or set of principles that can, in contrast to other more feeble minds, explain how the world really works, and how people ought to behave. Any of these philosophers would be shocked at such a rude critique aimed directly at them, especially by an unknown German philologist.

The secret that no one would ever want to admit is that their opinion, their way of seeing the world, is a reflection of themselves rather than of what is objectively true. Few people are professional philosophers. Even fewer people desire to become professional philosophers (some philosophers are thinking about quitting). 

But regular people act like the professional philosophers that Nietzsche is alluding to. They impose their ideas, allude to self-serving examples, and ignore everything else. Confirmation bias is universal. Yet the problem is not that people interpret the world differently, but that the existence of so many different interpretations suggests that all interpretations are of equal quality. Or to compel people to avoid interpretation altogether, and to stick to the facts.

Why? There is no way of avoiding an interpretive framework. The “sticking to the facts” has a subjective slant. Which facts exactly? Why?

David Hume wrote that you “cannot derive an ought from an is.” Implicitly, each cautious person understands this. Since you cannot derive an ought from an is, it becomes safe to stick to discussing what “is”, and avoid being culpable for a mistaken “ought”. While this is sound advice for someone who doesn’t want to tell others what stocks to invest in, it’s not always good advice. 

If your friend asks for your opinion, you cannot simply lay out the facts – you must represent a position, no matter how tenuous your arguments. You must stand for something. To refuse to do so means you stand for nothing, which itself is something, but unlikely to be what you intended to stand for in the first place.

De facto, you have subscribed to an interpretation of the world, consciously or unconsciously. If you don’t wrestle with your own subjective interpretation, or the subjective interpretations of others, then you become a victim to your biases, unwittingly.

The response to Nietzsche is not to transform yourself into a disembodied processor of facts – an impossible feat in light of what we know about how the brain functions. The old idea that logical decisions come from a cool, detached mind has been undermined since the mid nineties when Damasio published his book Descartes’ Error.

Damasio showed that patients with damage to the part of the prefrontal cortex that processes emotions struggle with making even routine decisions.


Intelligent interpretations are needed just as much as accurate facts. When smart people refuse to give people advice for fear of inadvertently being mistaken, they don’t realize that advice will be given nonetheless. 

You have probably heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect – a much talked about phenomenon that states that incompetent people will overrate their intellectual abilities. And there is the Imposter syndrome, on the opposite end of the scale, where more-intelligent people underrate their abilities, and have a fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

In Week 12- Via Negativa, I discussed the value of negative knowledge. It is easier to build a foundation from negative knowledge than from positive knowledge. It is hard to know which kinds of foods are best for you, without extensive experimentation and reading, but it is trivial to know which foods are the worst for you, your stomach will let you know. 

If your friend asks for advice, avoid asking them what they want – they wouldn’t be seeking advice if they already knew. Instead, ask them what they don’t want, at all costs. 

But there is another thing to be said about lesser evils. It is potentially destructive to misinterpret the facts, but to object to any interpretation whatsoever may be the greater evil. It may be destructive to give a friend bad advice, but it may be worse to give them no advice at all.

Another platitude, “the perfect is the enemy of the good” comes to mind. Take the field of psychology or philosophy, where some of the questions that are being asked are: “what is human nature?” or “what should human beings aim towards?” – these aren’t questions that can be answered without bias. Neither can open ended questions such as “what kind of job should I look for?” or “what kind of city should I live in?”

The useful answer would be the one that holds a position and defends it. So that when your friend wonders what they should do about something, you should not react with the objectivity of the psychoanalyst or the scientist, but from the perspective of a human being, who has chosen which side of the argument they are on, and will give you their reasons for being there.

Book Summaries Psychology

Motivation and Personality Summary

The central project of Maslow in Motivation and Personality is to study the psychology of healthy minded people. Thus far, psychology has been restricted to the study of mental illnesses but this exclusive focus does not inspire hope or optimism in either the layman or the scientist. 

The hierarchy of needs has become a common every day term that many people understand. Once we have satisfied our lower needs (hunger, shelter) then we can move on to satisfying our higher needs: self actualization. 

What is self-actualization? It is a mode of behavior that can be described as ideal. It is a philosophical ideal more so than a scientific ideal. In fact, Maslow argues that the scientist himself is biased. There are human reasons for why he does his job, for why he is a scientist in the first place. A philosophical ideal is necessary to ground the motivations of a scientist, and ultimately, this ideal is itself biased, subjective, and unscientific. In other words, Maslow affirms Hume’s observation: you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Science as an endeavor is informed by a prejudiced philosophical ideal, and the question of the healthy individual should not be so much a scientific question as much as a philosophical one. But Maslow does not just limit himself to conjecture, he draws on social science, biology, as well as philosophy, to construct a convincing ideal for human beings to aspire to. This is not to say that the person who does not embody these characteristics should be considered sick. 

But none of this is to say that Maslow was not empirical. On the contrary, he has based “self actualization” on the lives of people he has interviewed, as well as historical figures such as Huxley, Spinoza, Einstein, and William James. 

Some of the characteristics that he found in common were: 

  • More efficient perception of reality. Secure in their own ignorance. Unthreatened by the unknown. 
  • Accept their contradictory nature. At peace with their vices, bad habits, and animal nature. 
  • Behave spontaneity, simplicity, and naturally. Unconventional thinking, not necessarily actions. 
  • Not self-centered or narcissistic. Outward focused. 
  • Independence from culture and environment. Think for themselves. Enjoy solitude. Reserved, calm, self-disciplined. 
  • Act according to own judgements, not others. Priority is self-development and inner growth. 
  • Rich subjective experience. Enjoy reality, grateful for what they have. 
  • Have peak and transcendental/ religious experiences. 
  • Treat people according to their character not race, class, or education.
  • Creative and humorous. 
  • Distrust of enculturation and ethnocentrism.

After basic needs such as health, safety, belongingness love, and esteem are satisfied, self-actualization becomes possible. But to choose not to self-actualize, means to betray one’s identity in an important way. The consequence of this betrayal will likely be a life of perpetual dissatisfactions.

The desire to become what one is, and what one is capable of becoming is the end of self-actualization.   

Book Summaries Business

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World Summary (7/10)

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein argues that instead of aiming to hyper specialize, more people should be trying to gain multi-disciplinary experience. Instead of planning and implementing, they should be testing and learning. Specialization is necessary, but only after a sufficient test period.

In the past, people had to rely on their own experience to understand the world. But modern people are more scientific, more inclined to use abstract ideas and schemas to inform their understanding and are less reliant on their personal experiences. Premodern people missed the forest for the trees, while modern people miss the trees for the forest.

Flynn (they named the “Flynn effect” after him) conducted a study at one of the America’s top state universities to understand the correlation between GPA and critical thinking skills. He found that there was zero correlation.  

Epstein, before being a journalist, was in grad school ad studied how changes in plant life might impact the subterranean permafrost. Years, later as an investigative journalist, he realized that he had committed statistical malpractice in one section of the thesis that earned him a master’s degree from Columbia University. Like many grad students, he only had to hit a button on the computer to do statistical analysis, he did not have to think deeply about how statistical analysis worked.

The stat program spit out a number summarily deemed “statistically significant.” Unfortunately, it was almost certainly a false positive, because I did not understand the limitations of the statistical test in the context in which I applied it. Nor did the scientists who reviewed the work. As statistician Doug Altman put it, “Everyone is so busy doing research they don’t have time to stop and think about the way they’re doing it.”

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

The point being – it is possible to hyperspecialize without having a true understanding of what you are doing. But the deeper point is that this is not a one-off event.

The economy is made up of people who are hyper specialists. In the crash of 2008, insurance regulators regulated insurance, bank regulated banks, securities, securities regulators regulated securities, and consumer regulators regulated consumers, but no one looks across these markets. Because everyone specializes, no one is trained to identify systemic issues.

Fermi problems force you to think broadly, without detailed prior knowledge. The problem with formal education is that people are not trained to solve Fermi problems at all.

The Inside View

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky counted the term “inside view.” When we make judgements, we take the inside view, based narrowly on the details of a particular project that is right in front of us.

Kahneman had a personal experience about the dangers of this tendency when he assembled a team to write a high school curriculum on the science of decision making. After a year of weekly meetings, he asked each person in the team how long they thought the project would take. The lowest estimate was one and a half years, and the highest estimate was two and a half years.

When Kahneman asked a team member, Seymour, who has considerable experience with designing curriculums how this one compared with other projects he had worked on, he thought for a while. Before this question, he thought it would take two years longer. Seymour said he hadn’t thought of comparing this project with the other he had worked on, but that about 40 percent of the teams he’d seen never finished at all, and not a single one he could think of took less than seven years.

Seymour realized that Kahneman’s group would never work on a project that might take six more years on a curriculum that might fail. After debating the new opinion for a few minutes, the group went ahead and trusted its average “about two years” estimate. They forged ahead and completed the project 8 years later. At which point, Kahneman was not even in the country or on the team anymore, and the agency that asked for the curriculum was no longer interested.

We are inclined to take the inside view, rather than considering the outside view. That is why entrepreneurs with a “me too” idea often do not consider the true likelihood that they will succeed or how long it will take them to build their business by comparing themselves to others. They will trust their own judgements that are based on unique surface features of their own business. The outside view is a very counter intuitive way of looking at things.

In a unique 2012 experiment, a business strategy professor, Lovallo and a few other researchers recruited Investors from large private equity firms who consider many projects in many different areas. The researchers theorized that if anyone would take the outside view it would be these guys.

The investors were told to assess a project they were working on with a detailed description of the steps to success and to return the project’s return on investment. They were then asked to write down their estimated ROI of similar projects to theirs which they knew about. In the end, the investors predicted that the return on their own project would be around 50 percent higher than the outside projects. They were asked to think more. They revised their estimates and were shocked at what they had done.

This phenomenon applies to many areas, from gambling on horse races to predicting who will win the election. The more internal details you learn about a scenario, the more likely you think it will be.  

A Problem Well Put

In one of the most cited studies of expert problem solving ever conducted, an interdisciplinary team of scientists came to a pretty simple conclusion: successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Less successful problem solvers tend to mentally classify problems only by superficial, overtly stated features. As Education pioneer John Dewey put it in Logic, The theory of Inquiry, “a problem well put is half-solved.”

Specializing Early

“Match quality” is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

In England and Wales, students must apply to a specific major and specialize early. In Scotland, students were given a two year sampling period, and then chose what they wanted to specialize in.

Malamud, an economist from Northwestern University, analyzed data for thousands of former students and found that college graduates in England and Wales were far more likely to leap out of their career fields than their later-specializing Scottish peers. Despite starting out behind in income because they had fewer specific skills, the Scots quickly caught up.

Quitters Never Win

Steven Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics asked his readers who were considering life changes to flip a digital coin. Heads – they make the change, tails – they do not. 20,000 people responded, agonizing over everything from online dating, getting a tattoo, having a child, or pondering a job change. Six months later, those who flipped heads and changed jobs were much happier than those who did not. According to Levitt, the study suggested that “winners never quit and quitters never win” is poor advice.

Winston Churchill’s “never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. The end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Young and Foolish

The expression “young and foolish” describes the tendency of young adults to gravitate to risky jobs, but it is not foolish at all. It is ideal. They have less experience than older workers, and so the first avenues they should try are those with high risk and reward, and that have high informational value. Attempting to be a professional athlete or actor or to found a lucrative start-up is unlikely to succeed, but the potential reward is extremely high. Thanks to constant feedback and an unforgiving weed-out process, those who try will learn quickly if they might be a match, at least compared to jobs with less constant feedback.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Short term planning sounds like a terrible life strategy but it is ultimately the most efficient.

Sunk Costs

A recent international Gallup survey of more than two hundred thousand workers in 150 countries reported that 85 percent were either “not engaged” with their work or “actively disengaged.”

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

In that condition, quitting takes more guts, but the problem is that humans are bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy.” In The Confidence Game, professional poker player and psychology PhD Maria Konnikova explained that conmen know to begin by asking their marks for many small favors or investments before progressing to large asks. Once an investment has occurred, walking away becomes harder.

Van Gogh and Grit

Van Gogh was a paragon of persistence in the face of adversity. At each job he had, Vincent was convinced that if he worked harder than everyone around him, he would succeed. But then he would fail.

His interests constantly wavered. He first wanted to be an artist, devoted all his energy to one style and medium, then would abandon it soon thereafter.

 “I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest” is Van Gogh in a nutshell, at least up until the final few years of his life when he settled on his unique style and creatively erupted.

Van Gosh was an example of match quality optimization. He tested options with maniacal intensity and got the maximum information signal about his fit as quickly as possible, and then moved to something else and repeated, until he had zigzagged his way to a place no one else had ever been, and where he alone excelled. His grit, his sticking to one thing was not very impressive, but it didn’t matter in the end.

The End of History Illusion

Francis Fukuyama originally coined the term “the end of history” as meaning the end of the war of ideas since liberal democracy has emerged as the most sustainable form of government.

The “end of history illusion” refers to a common pattern in people that was discovered by psychologist Dan Gilbert. Each person, no matter what their age, tends to think that they will not change much in the future even though they acknowledge that they have a changed a lot in the past.

As we age, we tend to become more agreeable, conscientious, less neurotic, and more emotionally stable. But we tend to become lower in openness.

Plan-and-Implement versus Test-and-learn

The “plan and implement” model is the idea that we should make long term plans and execute them without deviation, as opposed to the “test-and-learn” model. We are commonly told that geniuses opt for the “plan-and-implement” model, but this is not true. For example, the myth about Michelangelo was that he used to envision a full figure in a block of marble before he ever touched it and would simply chip away the excess stone to free the figure inside. But he was a test-and-learn all-star. He constantly changed his plans. He left three-fifths of his sculptures unfinished, each time moving on to something more promising. And he was multiskilled, he was a sculptor, painter, master architect, and made engineering designs for fortifications in Florence.

Breadth is Tricky to Grow

Specialization is obvious: keep going straight. Breadth is trickier to grow. A subsidiary of PricewaterhouseCoopers that studied technological innovation over a decade found that there was no statistically significant relationship between R&D spending and performance. Seeding the soil for generalists and polymaths who integrate knowledge takes more than money. It takes opportunity.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Fooled by Expertise

Paul Ehrlich was a Stanford biologist who argued in a 1968 book The Population Bomb that it was too late to prevent a doomsday apocalypse from overpopulation. Resource shortages would cause mass starvation. While the human population was growing exponentially, the food supply was not. Ehrlich was an accomplished butterfly specialist and knew that nature did not regulate animal populations delicately.

He laid out many scenarios that could unfold, ranging from best case to worst case. Even the best case scenario forecasted half a billion deaths by starvation. And then Ehrlich challenged the world to come up with a more optimistic vision.

Economist Julian Simon took up the challenge.

The late 1960’s was the prime of the “green revolution.”

Technology from other sectors—water control techniques, hybridized seeds, management strategies—moved into agriculture, and global crop yields were increasing. Simon saw that innovation was altering the equation.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Instead of being the problem, population growth was going to be the solution since more good ideas and technological breakthroughs would emerge.

Simon proposed a bet. Ehrlich could choose five metals that he expected to become more expensive as resources were depleted and chaos ensued over the next decade. The material stakes were $1,000 worth of Ehrlich’s five metals. If, ten years hence, prices had gone down, Ehrlich would have to pay the price difference to Simon. If prices went up, Simon would be on the hook for the difference. Ehrlich’s liability was capped at $1,000, whereas Simon’s risk had no roof. The bet was made official in 1980.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

In October 1990, Simon found a check for $576 dollars in his mailbox. The price of every one of the metals declined. Ehrlich was wrong. Although malnourishment is still a global issue, it is not as big an issue as it once was. In the 1960s, 50 out of 100,000 global citizens died each year from famine. Today that number is 0.5.

Even though Ehrlich’s predictions were embarrassingly bad, he doubled down on them in another book. He argued that the timeline had been a little off but now the population bomb really detonated. Despite a long string of bad predictions, Ehrlich amassed a huge following and received prestigious rewards.

Simon became a standard-bearer for scholars who felt that Ehrlich had ignored economic principles, and for anyone angry at an incessant flow of dire predictions that did not manifest. The kind of excessive regulations Ehrlich advocated, the Simon camp argued, would quell the very innovation that had delivered humanity from catastrophe.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

But in the end, despite both of their successes in their respective domains, both were mistaken. When economists later examined metal prices for every ten-year window from 1900 to 2008, during which time the population of the world quadrupled, they discovered that Ehrlich would have won the bet 62 percent of the time. The catch was that commodity prices are a bad proxy for population effects, especially over a single decade.

The variable that both men thought would vindicate their worldviews had little to do with them. Commodity prices went up and down with macroeconomic cycles. A recession during the bet brought the prices down. The two men might as well have flipped a coin, yet both declared victory.

Both defended their ideas more strongly and continued to miss the value of the other’s ideas. Ehrlich was wrong about population and the imminent apocalypse but was correct on aspects of environmental degradation.

Simon was right about the influence of human genius on food and energy supply but was wrong when it came to the environment. The improvements in air and water quality did come, but not from technological initiative and markets, but from regulations that people like Ehrlich pushed for.

Intellectual sparring partners ideally would hone each other’s arguments so that they are both sharper. But the opposite happened with Ehrlich and Simon. Each man became more dogmatic as they amassed more information to support their own view, and the inadequacies of their models became starker. Some thinkers fall in love with their ideas, even in the face of contrary facts, and their predictions become worse as they amass more information about the world.

Confirmation Bias

Researches in Canada and the U.S started a study in 2017 by asking a well-educated and politically diverse group of adults to read arguments confirming their beliefs about controversial subjects. But when the participants were given the option of getting paid to read the contrary arguments, two thirds decided they would rather not look at them, let alone seriously consider them.

Psychology professor Dan Kahan has showed that the more scientifically literate adults are more likely to become dogmatic about polarizing topics in science. Kahan thinks it is because they become better at finding evidence to confirm their feelings.


Interventional cardiologists specialize in treating chest pain by placing stents—a metal tube that pries open blood vessels. It is very intuitive. When patients have chest pain, and imaging shows a narrowed artery, a stent is placed to open it and prevent a heart attack. It has become a reflex in cardiologists. But randomized clinical trials that compared stents with more conservative forms of treatment show that stents for patients with constant chest pain prevent no heart attacks and do not extend the lives of patients.

But interventional cardiologists only see a tiny part of a complicated system. Stents are always implemented even when it is proven not to be necessary for many patients.

The Flu

In 2015, Casadevall showed that biomedical research funding rose exponentially over a recent thirty-five-year period, while discovery slowed down. Life expectancy in countries at the biomedical cutting edge, like the United Kingdom and the United States, recently declined after decades of improvement.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

The flu kills hundreds of thousands of people each year worldwide while humanity fights it with a clumsily produced vaccine from the 1940’s.

The 2008 Crash

Creativity researcher Simonton has shown that more work creates more duds, which increases the chances of success among eminent creators. Edison had more than a thousand patents, most were unimportant, and was rejected for many more.

His failures were legion, but his successes—the mass-market light bulb, the phonograph, a precursor to the film projector—were earthshaking. Sandwiched between King Lear and Macbeth, Shakespeare quilled Timon of Athens. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread achieved a feat akin to Geim’s Ig Nobel/Nobel double: she was the first woman ever to win the Turner Prize—a British award for the best artistic production of the year—and also the “Anti-Turner Prizer” for the worst British artist. And she won them in the same year.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

Book Summaries health

Body By Science Summary (9/10)

Body By Science by Doug McGuff is a book that contradicts most of the advice that you will find online about strength training. From the perspective of a physician, McGuff explains how building muscle is a biological process that requires sufficient rest as well as intense stimulation, and that more frequent training can impede rather than help your muscle growth process. Most people who peddle fitness advice want to sell you their supplements, but McGuff sticks to the evidence we have, and recommends a training program that is intimidating, challenging, but incredibly efficient.


The Big Three: Leg Press, Pull Down, Chest Press

The Big Five: The Big Three + Overhead Press + Seated (or compound) row

Instead of devoting energy to complex movements, these exercises allow you to perform simple and natural movements, allowing you to focus on eprforming hard work rather than execute opposing movements.


Big Five: go to true failure, perform once.

Time Under Load (TUL)

Measuring how much time you spend while doing a set of reps gives more accurate insigth into progress even if small.

Between Exercises

Move quickly between exercises, there are metabolic benefits to doing so. (30 seconds to 1 minute between each exercise)

No Wasted Time

Performing the Big Five or the Big Three stimulates all major muscle groups without chewing off unnecessary clock once a week. 50% of ada[tation comes from sufficiently intense stimulation, 50% comes from sufficient recovery.


  • Seated Row: Upper body pulling exercise.
    • Muscles Activated: Targets torso. Do not tuck your elbows in or flare them out. Let them ride neutrally.
  • Chest Press: Follow Seated Row with this upper body pushing exercise.
    • Muscles Activated: Front of torso muscles are activated (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, triceps and deltoid musculature surrounding shoulder joint. If using a machine, don’t tuck or flare arms too much and don’t tuck shoulders up. Incline and decline chest press not recommended if trainee is already performing chest press.
  • Pulldown: Arms in front of you, not on the sides. Underhand Grip, hands a little narrower than shoulder width apart. Safer and activates muscles better.
    • Muscles activated: Although most train biceps with single joint movements (barbell curls, the biceps crosses both elbow and shoulder joint. Pulldown involves rotation around elbow and shoulder joint, you’re involving the biceps from both ends. Latissimus, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles are also activated.
    • Performance: Get in a slumped position, lower shoulders directly towards hips in linear fashion.
  • Overhead Press: After pulldown, move to overhead press.
    • Muscles activated: Triceps, deltoid musculature and pectoralis muscles.
    • Performance: Parallel Grip, hands in front of you.
  • Leg Press: Final exercise.
    • Muscles activated: Entire lower body from waist down, emphasis on hip and buttock musculature, and hamstring and quadriceps (front of thigh) in addition to inner calf muscles.
    • Performance: Legs perpendicular to ceiling, hips flexed slightly more than 90 degrees. Knees bent to as close to 90 degrees as possible. Slow, smooth movements just short of lock out. As you go back to starting position, allow weights to “tap” the weight stack.

Free Weight Big 5

  • Bent Over Barbell Row
  • Standing Overhead Press
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Squat

Always move slowly. Fast movements diminish strength gains (momentum contributes to movement). Machines are safer with no downside.


Either add more weights to train to failure or exercise super slow with the same weight and measure TUL.


Swimming does not produce “swimmer’s body” – rather, a particular body type has emerged that is best suited for swimming.

Exercise is purposefully directed activity that stimulates the body to produce a positive adaptation in fitness level and health. Physical activity (in contrast) can improve fitness and health, but can also undermine one’s health (running, jogging, tennis).

Studies have documented that 60 percent of runners are injured in an average year.

Fitness does not necessarily mean good health. The body is always in an anabolic (building) or catabolic (destroying) state. Some activities like running do not allow for enough building after being in a catabolic state. Any repetitive activity has this wear and tear effect on the body.

People who exercise more frequently do not experience more strength or muscle gains than those who train less frequently. In 2005, CNN reported the surprising findings of McMaster University research group, which found that hard exercise once a week was as effective as an hour of moderate daily activity.

In these studies, the key findings showed that a workout requiring six to nine minutes a week produced the same muscle enzymes (essential for diabetes 2 prevention) as a workout requiring four and a half to six hours per week.

It does not matter how many reps you do, or how many minutes you spent during strength training, a positive adaptation can only happen by training to failure.

One set to failure is enough, no need for three.

There is no reason to perform a full range of motion during exercises.

History of Health

Higher population densities made the spread of plague easier.

The invention of the sewer increased longevity – dealt with waste management and the problem of disease. The principle source of improving life expectancy was not medical advancement but technological advancement that made our environment more like it was in the past.

People think they were doing something right to be fit before their mid-twenties, but it was just the natural process of the body strengthening each year.

The degree of leanness (lack of body fat) that is currently in vogue is just as detrimental as an overabundance of body fat.

The problem today is not that people are inactive but that calories are so readily available to be consumed.


When mobilizing glycogen out of a cell during high intensity exercise, we are able to activate hormone sensitive lipase, which permits the mobilization of bodyfat. This is not done by low intensity exercise.


Adequate hydration is important for enhancing the body’s response to the exercise stimulus, it also has much to do with the fat loss process. Hydration signals to the body that all is well, and to metabolize as usual.

A calorie is a unit of heat measurement that represents the amount of heat required to raise one liter of water one degree centigrade. If you drink 3 liters of ice cold water a day, you would need 111 extra calories to burn to raise that quantity of water to 37 degrees centigrade (37 calories per liter * 3). Plus cold water lowers core body temperature which results in more calories burned.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms linked to hydrogen. They are essential to the fat loss process because of their effect o hormone sensitivity. Carbon atoms can be saturated or unsaturated. A carbon atom can bind 4 molecules, if it binds two other carbons and 2 hydrogens, it is fully saturated. It is unsaturated if it develops a double bond with another carbon, so that only one hydrogen is bound to it. Omega 3 has its double bond 3 carbon atoms back from the end of the chain – omega 3 and omega 9 has its double bond further down the chain.

The position of the double bond determines the shape and flexibility of the fatty acid. Omega 3 have the double bond in alocation that makes them elongated and flexible. Because of this, the cell walls will be fully expanded, placing all the hormonal receptors on the exterior of the cell facing outward toward the environment, where they can appropiately interact with the circulating hormone. These hormones are necessary for creating fat mobilization process, that is why it is important that they are connected to receptors.

Omega 3 is found in tofu, walnuts, flax seed and oil, chia. It is primarily found in green leafy plants and grasses and meat from the animals that eat this vegetation. The best way to get it is to eat plenty of green leafy vegetables and fish. Omega 6 is found in grain based agriproducts and in the animals that eat them.

Psychology of Training

What is required is to rid people of the neurosis of having to go back to the gym to train frequently. Fitness magazines only exist to sell supplements and instill a sense of training angst by convincing you that you are not doing enough.

Nothing will be lost by extending recovery period to 7 to 14 days. There is no upside to performing more workouts.

The gulf between what you want and what you perceive is often the result of genetics. The frustration results in an inaccurate understanding of biology.

Reluctant as the trainee may be to accept it, there is a distinct evolutionary disincentive for having excess muscle.

Health Benefits from Training

The closer you get to realizing your muscular potential, the closer you get to optimizing the potential of your metabolic system or “support system.” More muscle improves processing of waste materials, oxygenating blood, controlling insulin levels, optimizing bone mineral density, optimizing aerobic capacity, enhancing flexibility, and reducing chances of injury.

Restoring insulin sensitivity decreases sustemic inflammatory state, which results in a less generalized inflamation of blood vessel walls, requiring less need for cholesterol to be transported for this purpose on LDL molecules.

As a muscle becomes stronger, fewer motor units will have to be recruited to perform a task, thus relaxing the demand on the cardiovascular system.


  1. Eat natural unprocessed foods
  2. Stay cool
  3. Sleep well and sleep cool
  4. Avoid stress as much as possible
  5. High intensity exercise
Book Summaries Productivity

Limitless Summary (6/10)

In Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life, Kwik argues that the digital world has made us too reliant on the judgment of others rather than on our own. We don’t let other people make decision for us in the real world, but don’t mind doing so through our devices.

Digital Challenges

 There are 4 villains challenging our ability to think.

  1. Digital Deluge: Information overload.
  2. Digital distraction: No ability to focus.
  3. Digital Dementia: Losing memory muscle.
  4. Digital Deduction: Over-dependence on internet for critical thinking.

Poor memory results from us never allowing our brains to be bored.

The half-life of information is how long it takes before this information is replaced. You can study all you want, but the “facts” you know will soon become outdated.

Information overload makes people more stressed and less happy and satisfied. Many people have failed to develop routines for processing this information. The more you force yourself to recall information rather than look it up, the more you strengthen your permanent memory.

The ubiquity of information about everything means that there’s a ubiquity of opinion about everything. If you want to know how to feel about a controversial topic, you can just go online and collate the different opinions.

This could be a good thing. Having multiple perspectives can help us form our own opinions but people don’t do that. They select a few sources to do most of the thinking for them.

Natural ability to concentrate usually wanes after 10 to 40 minutes. That is why apps like Pomodoro can be helpful in managing how long you focus for and how long your breaks are. The sweet spot, as suggested by the app, is 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break.

Stretching the Mind

Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” When you read a book, you get the chance to permanently stretch the range of your mind.

To learn properly, you must be willing to suspend your current beliefs. The mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.

3 questions when learning something new.

  1. How can I use this?
  2. Why must I use this?
  3. When will I use this?

Each second, your senses gather up to 11 million bits of information from the world. The conscious mind only processes 50 bits per second.

“Knowledge is power” is often accredited to Sir Francis Bacon. But it was his secretary, Hobbes, in his younger years who penned the phrase. Originally, it was, “The end of knowledge is power, and the use of theorems is for the construction of problems and the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.


Steven Kotler, founder of the Flow Research Collective and author of The Rise of Superman outlines 4 stages of Flow:

  • Stage 1: Struggle – feels like the opposite of Flow.
  • Stage 2: Relaxation – Break before Flow.
  • Stage 3: Flow: The Superman Experience.
  • Stage 4: Consolidation: Feeling somewhat let down, pulling everything you have accomplished together.

The 4 Levels of Competence

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: Unaware of speed reading.  
  2. Conscious Incompetence: Know about speed reading but don’t do anything about it.
  3. Conscious Competence: Know about Speed Reading and do it when you want.
  4. Unconscious competence: Life-long learning goal – speed reading becomes automatic.


With down time, rats could record memories of their new experiences. Without downtime, they were unable to do so.  This could be known by measuring neural activity.

Book Summaries History Politics

The Better Angels of our Nature Summary (8/10)

The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker argues that violence has declined with time. He does this by discussing the threats of violence one by one, going through what the statistical data shows us.

Human malevolence is a constant threat to peace and prosperity, but while human beings do have an evil side, they also have a good side. People were much more cruel, torturous, blood thirsty, and violent centuries ago. Human sacrifice, vicious forms of entertainment, as well as public torture were a normal part of life. Sexism and racism are problems that still exist, but have vastly improved, and “honor” sports like dueling have become ridiculous artifacts of the past.

Pinker calls on us to imagine the past for what it really was, not a majestic time of beauty and art, but a horrific moment in history, where mankind was ignorant and brutal. Despite the contemporary issues we face, such as nuclear terrorism, cyberwars, biological and chemical warfare, there seems to be a general movement towards peace, and mutual prosperity. Countries today are less interested in plunging into costly wars, when they can engage in prosperous trade.

Of course, as Pinker admits, this argument was used before the two World Wars a century ago, and one must be cautious about their optimism. But the author does not claim that peace will last forever, or that potential for conflict has eroded, only that we have gone through many decades of peace, and have experienced a social transformation in the way we approach violence. We are far more empathetic than we once were, tolerant, and open to other ideas.

Pinker has not written this book to say, “it’s all over, we can now celebrate forever.” On the contrary, the point of the book is to show how easy it is for us to regress to violent conflict, if we do not guard reason and the boons of the Enlightenment with vigilance and caution.

It is not clear that prior to the Enlightenment, as Pinker insists, mankind was a brutish and primitive race. It is true that before the scientific revolution, man’s life was marked by ignorance towards most things, but our political and social values, as well as our literacy, can be attributed to events that unfolded long before the modern scientific method. What Pinker is right about, is that the printing press accelerated the progress of the human race like no other technology in history.

The democratization of information was an event that made it possible for human civilization to make substantial leaps in progress. And as Pinker mentions, the Islamic civilization, which was responsible for preserving Greek civilization, and inventing astronomy and spreading knowledge of algebra to the rest of the world, was only left behind because they refused to embrace the printing press for religious reasons.

Below are chapter summaries.

Chapter 1: A Foreign Country

Pinker starts with pointing a hypocrisy that exists across all religions, but in particular, Christianity. Modern day Christians pay lip service to the Bible as their moral guide, but their morality really comes from other sources.

Full Summary

Chapter 2: The Pacification Process

In the Leviathan, Hobbes explains the logic of violence in a fewer than a hundred words (as good as any explanation you can find today).

Full Summary

Chapter 3: The Civilizing Process

There are less homicides today among unrelated men. But there has not been as much decline in violence within families (women or kin).

Full Summary

Chapter 4: The Humanitarian Revolution

A remarkable transformation in history happened in most of the world – capital punishment was abolished, and governments used less violence against its subjects. Slavery was outlawed and people lost their thirst for cruelty. This occurred between the 17th and 18th Centuries, beginning in the Age of Reason, and ending with the Enlightenment.

Full Summary

Chapter 5: The Long Peace

If we assume that World War 2 was the most destructive event in history, it doesn’t tell us anything about the trends of in war and peace.

Full Summary

Chapter 6: The New Peace

The Venezuelan politician Juan Pérez Alfonzo said, “Oil is the devil’s excrement.” A country can be cursed by natural resources because they concentrate power and wealth in the hands of whoever monopolizes them.

Full Summary

Chapter 7: The Rights Revolution

Before the 19th century, the idea that animals should have rights was laughable. But throughout the century, movements that had their basis in humanitarianism and romanticism led to the protection of animals

Full Summary

Chapter 8: Inner Demons

So far, Pinker has argued that the history of human beings has been shaped by violence. He has also noted that violence has declined. There is nothing about human nature that is exclusively violent or peaceful. The environment that we occupy, either through our own innovations or by sheer accident, is what determines our movement in either direction.

Full Summary