Happy City by Charles Montgomery (Paperback)

Let me start by saying this book is quite niche. And by quite niche, I actually mean, super duper niche.

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I don’t listen to/read Tim Ferriss a lot anymore. Back in the day I used to be a hardcore Ferrissian. Before he became the Gwen Stefani of self improvement. Okay, he’s not quite the anti-christ, so maybe that analogy is unfair. I did however get completely wrapped up in the romance* of the 4-hour work week. Which meant I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to achieve this gimmicky state of work-life-nirvana (time I will NEVER get back) To steal a line from Penn&Teller (well, mostly from Penn because Teller never speaks) its all bullshit. Being in love however, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

*which is the section it should be filed under.

To give credit where credit is due. Tim has introduced me to some really interesting people. A large percentage of them are narcissistic, self-involved, assholes (but then again aren’t we all). But some of them are genuinely interesting. Enter stage right Peter Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache, early retiree, blogger and (annoyingly) nice guy.

This book was recommended by Mr. Money Mustache as one of his three best reads. The other two, as far as I can remember were a little generic. But this one piqued my interest.

In my youth I played a ridiculous amount of SimCity. When I wasn’t masturbating frantically I mean. I was obsessed with operational efficiency. To an extent I still am. Although my enthusiasm has waned somewhat on a macro-environmental level. I wanted the spurious citizens of Jo-ville, to be the happiest most efficient little imaginary people EVA! I was their (unelected) philosopher king* who ruled from atop the mountain, removed from his burghers, an un-corruptible, benevolent despot.

* I adore the concepts from Plato’s Republic. I just think they are completely unworkable with homo sapiens.

This book came hot on the heels of Tribe by Sebastian Junger (review linked) which I loved. A lot like Tribe this book tickles my sociological and anthropological interests. Why are our cities the way they are? Why are our societies so messed up? Why do we live in these strange, sprawling residential zones miles from our place of work? Why are we all so angry and unhappy?

The answer is largely, fucken automobiles!

I found it completely fascinating. I think I would even still find it fascinating even if I wasn’t this weird tribal-city-planning fruit-cake/nut-job. Truth be told, looking at the cover (and even paging through this book) I would probably never have read it. I’m super glad I did. Although now I feel I have secret insider knowledge that no one else has, but that is largely theoretical and superfluous. Not exactly a hot-topic when you’re grouped together with the other dads at a two-year-olds birthday party.

‘have you ever considered how urban sprawl is affecting our happiness coefficient?’

versus

‘how ’bout them Mets?. (bewildered, betrayed*)

*from The Birdcage. I might be paraphrasing. I haven’t watched it in a while. Also it should be mentioned that when it comes to the Subway series my blood is dark blue and domiciles near 161st street.

I started out by saying this book is a very niche field. But I think everyone should consider the way we live and not just take these sorts of things for granted.

Arbor mortis

I wake up every day at 03H59.

Which is a stupid time (I know). But it is also a very considered time. Most importantly its thirty one minutes before Jocko Willink gets up. I have a this weird competitive thing (slash mental disorder).

I don’t actually roll out of bed and attack my day (unlike Jocko) and kill my enemies. It takes me a solid ten minutes to check my feeds and then to haul my (plus-size) carcass out of bed. Then I loiter around and lollygag for a bit. This morning I was trying to figure out how to hard-reboot my fitbit (which decided to commit suicide during the night), but there’s always something. Also… I thought it might stop raining if I waited.

At zero dark thirty it was still bucketing down. Decided to swap out my backpack for a poncho instead for my 5km tour de neighborhood. On my way back and probably 700mtrs from my house I suddenly hear a thunderous crack behind me. I turn, three or four meters away this huge tree comes down across the road, directly were I was a second ago.

Holy cow! I stop and stare. Death by tree. That would have been… so incredibly… uncool!

An hour later, dry, in the car and on my way to work I drive to where the tree fell in the hope of an instragramable photo. Alas, the crazy German whose tree it is, has already, rather diligently, taken a chainsaw to it. Looking at it in the light now, it turns out to be a much bigger tree than I had initially given it credit for.

I always imagined going out in blaze of glory, something akin to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (1969) or the ending from Cowboy Bebop (1998). Or even something along the lines of the Battle of Camarón,

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Δ At the battle of Camarón, having run out ammunition the last five French Foreign Legionnaires mount a bayonet charge against the enemy. Two were immediately killed but the other three were captured. When brought before the Mexican Major, surprised that there are only three men left he exclaims, ‘These are not men! They are demons’. 65 Legionnaires outnumbered 46 to 1 inflicted 190 casualties and wounded over 300. 

Being killed by a falling tree seems quite passé in comparison.

Being of a stoic disposition (in so far as I like stoicism) death is supposed to be quite a blasé event (Look at me getting my é and ó on). Still, given the option to tick a box on checking out I’d obviously prefer dying… well… ‘well’. Trundling along and suddenly the world going dark because of a rapidly descending conifer is certainly not how I imagine it going.

Not that I would care, obviously. I’d be deader than a door-nail.

George S. Patton died stupidly. After defeating the Nazi’s he was driving along musing on how wasteful war was when the staff car he was driving in had to brake suddenly to avoid an army truck. While all the other passengers were only slightly injured, Patton hit his head on the glass partition that separated the driver from the rear passengers. He suffered a neck injury and was paralyzed. He died two weeks later.

Versus

Erwin Rommel who had two SS officers visit his house. ‘You can take this vial of poison and die with dignity, or we kill your family, and potentially everyone you know and love’. Rommel puts on his uniform says goodbye to his wife and son, drives to the outskirts of town and drinks the poison.

Given the choice I would choose the latter every time.

Anyways. I’m glad I avoided at least one ignominious end. Obviously I might not be so lucky next time. The only way to choose the way in which you will die is to kill yourself. The samurai might have been on to something. Although disemboweling myself seems like a tough ask.

Momento Mori. Motherfucker.

The Birth of Sake (2015)

My formative experience with Sake was when I was fifteen, sleeping over at a friends house. His dad marked the bottles in their bar with a sharpie so he would know if there was any clandestine imbibing of alcohol. Except for one, an archaic jar like bottle of Sake, which he didn’t care about.

It was god awful. I suspect it was waaaaaaaay beyond drinking, and tasted what I can only imagine paint thinners tastes like. Perhaps more useful as an embalming agent or to remove tar tracked into your carpet (but what did we know) I likely gave myself alcohol poisoning and ended up having to sleep with one foot on the floor to stop the room from spinning.

That episode colored my perception of Sake for the next twenty years.

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Until I went to Japan. Which was an experience of Damascasian proportions. OH! THIS is how its supposed to be.

I am a generally speaking a Japanophile. Sure there are things that I don’t really ‘get’. Like their insane obsession with pachinko (ball bearing gambling machines) and the otaku culture of Akihabara. But I love sushi, jujitsu, bullet trains, zen gardens and Kyoto.

The thing I admire most about Japanese people though, is the way they do things. The first day I was in Tokyo I went for a walk around the Imperial palace. On my way there, there was this small section of road construction. A temporary walkway had been constructed that deviated from the main pedestrian thoroughfare. It has been taped off and clearly marked out but there was this elderly Japanese gentleman standing there, in some sort of municipal uniform whose job it was to guide you through this small zig-zag detour. He took his job super seriously. He bowed as you approached and then extended his arm to demonstrate how best to engage the detour. I was fascinated. I think about that old man quite often and how he took such pride in himself and his extremely menial and boring job.

The Birth of Sake is a documentary about the 144 year old Yoshida Brewery. They brew Sake in a traditional way, a process that lasts the entire winter. In that time, the brewers eat, sleep and work together. This film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and went on to win the Best Documentary award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Making Sake in the this way is mind numblingly labor intensive. It makes the process of making our western beer and wine seem like adding orange flavored concentrate to water, shaking it up and then drinking the result.

You don’t need to be a fan of Sake to appreciate this movie. Or even alcohol really. This film is engrossing because of the mindset of the people. In a world of automation, devoid of human craftsmanship I find it fascinating to watch people who still take their trade so seriously. It makes me cheerful that stuff like this still exists.

Very much recommended. Catch it on Netflix.

 

Gah!

God. Twitter sucked me right back in.

And then I tweeted something mean. In response to this shitty self absorbed article. But still. I should have been a better person and let it slide.

Sorry. I am filled with self loathing.

I plan to go off and flagellate myself now.

Bad Joey. No biscuit.

 

The fallibility of opinion

Things you will never hear a market commentator say.

  1. I don’t know
  2. I was wrong

I’ve been amusing myself today by googling who* gave Steinhoff a buy recommendation recently… and then looking them up on twitter to see what they are tweeting about. Surprisingly not a lot of contrition/mea culpa going on.

*a lot of (weirdly) charismatic financial journalists who are (supposedly) balls deep into the market

The sad truth is, if you care what a market commentator thinks about a stock… you shouldn’t be trading. You should be in index funds exclusively, something capped or equally weighted. Personally I prefer capped because of the churn that happens in an equally weighted. But really, I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other.

If you just got wiped out by Steinhoff you need to have a long hard look at your strategy. Well… maybe you should stop crying first, pick yourself up off the floor and then take a good hard look at your strategy.

No single stock should be that much of a body blow. You need to stop with your social media outrage, realize that you are an idiot and take some responsibility. Also, toughen the fuck up.

If your portfolio only wobbled by a percentage point or two I think you get to strut in a malapert fashion for a bit. But stop short of schadenfreude or expressing an exaggerated sense of self. Also well done. Maybe you know what you’re doing.

 

 

 

Growth forecasting. And other made up stuff.

Economists are never wrong, as the saying goes, but their predictions are sometimes subject to an unexpected asymmetrical shock which causes them to awry. 

I really like economics but ended up majoring in Industrial psychology (because I thought it was interesting) and finance (because I wanted to be a trader). Several years later I decided to have another crack at majoring in economics. But then got distracted by philosophy and political science (and the humanities in general). My enthusiasm for traditional and linear forms of education and the piece of cardboard they give you afterwards has waned somewhat over the years, so I don’t ever see myself progressing past economics 202 on any official platform.  Besides being an economist is a lot like being a horoscope writer, you dwell in a dim twilight realm bereft of light, peddling your own particular brand of bullshit to anyone who will listen to you. Some people even aggrandize their vocation with a prefix. Senior economist, which personally I think is hilarious that something so spurious should have a hierarchy. Still… I have a soft spot for economics, even if the practitioners thereof are mostly kooks and whack-jobs.

We all make predictions. Especially about the economy. We don’t need to be able to chart aggregates on a graph to do this. Just like economists we can make stuff up as we go. Sometimes we will be right. And sometimes we will be wrong. When we are right we get to croon on about it indefinitely. When we are wrong, we casually forget to mention it. (or delete our blog post)

Besides, really, its all Bismark. Which is a fantastic line from Dan Carlin I have decided to love (steal) and casually drop into as many conversations as possible.

James Burke – ‘… we don’t know whats going on. But we think that we do and that we have instruments that tell us we know and we run our systems based on the fact that we have a pretty good handle and more or less we manage to stumble along, the Fed drops the rate and to a certain extent the economy behaves the way it is expected to behave. The instruments we use are extremely crude so on a macro level we see things happening more or less the way we thought they ought to, what we don’t see are the levels, the more subtle levels at which the effects are less immediately visible, less easily understood on the front page of a newspaper, or more likely to have an outcome down the road, in which case, by that time of course we don’t know they are late effects, we see them as something else. I am not a conspiracy freak, but I have long believed that what we think is going on is nothing like what is going on, I’m talking about the way the political institutions work, I believe that Realpolitik has always been whats really happening and the flak, the blah, blah, is what the rest of us believe is going on and I think that’s the way the world works.

Dan Carlin- ‘Its all Bismark’. 

James Burke – ‘Its all Bismark’.

After that lengthy prologue I suppose I can move onto what I originally wanted to blog about. Which is growth forecasting. Which is probably the blandest most boring topic for a blog post in the history of the world. If only it wasn’t so damn important. We will all live or die by this annoying little term. 

Our governments borrow money (if you believe this) to improve our lives by building roads and hospitals and libraries and they assume (because economists tell them) that future growth in the economy will be able to outpace the interest that they need to pay on these loans. Our pension funds extrapolate data from previous decades to surmise how much money we will have when we retire. 

Since world war two, the growth rate in the world economy has, for all tense and purposes been, astronomical. Technological innovation has been the main driver behind this growth. 

What if we’re done growing?

I mean not completely. New technology is still being developed that will drive productivity and therefore growth. But what if the lofty single and double digits of growth are done? As soon as you mention this, people tend to switch off, label you cynical and shuffle off. 

Freakeconomics recently did a podcast on what essentially is the law of diminishing returns. 

The law of diminishing returns refers to a point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested

The example they use (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here because I’m relying on memory) is an acre of crops. Back in the day, the yield on an acre of corn (for example) wasn’t great. But as we’ve progressed (mostly in the last century) and we’ve developed fertilizers and pesticides. We have genetically modified the corn to be drought resistance, disease resistant and to produce as big cob as possible. We’ve almost maxed out the productivity for an acre of corn. Now we can do more R&D and eke out a tiny bit more productivity out of that corn… but that will cost of millions of dollars in research… and really, does that 1% increase in productivity out weigh the cost of research? Probably not.

I think assuming that we can continue to grow exponentially (Chip manufacturers for example are struggling to keep up with Moore law of semi-conductors) is super irresponsible of us as a species. Especially when we are making huge financial decisions based on guess work and extrapolation of past performance. 

What happens if the world economy only grows at 2% for the next three decades? 2% growth in 10BC was twenty times the annual growth rate for an ancient Roman. As I understand it up until the 19th century the world was ticking along at under 1% GDP growth per year. 

With the debt levels being what they are 2% growth would be catastrophic. 

I worry about technology. Especially the tech that is coming in the next couple of decades. Soon we will be able to print anything from houses to complex mechanical spares. What does that do to the building industry? The engineering industry? Self driving trucks, drone deliveries? What if we develop fusion and put all the coal industry out of work? There are hundreds of labor intensive industries staring down a barrel of gun. 

I think optimists will argue that we will muddle along and somehow it will all work out. I worry about all the mouths we will have to feed and the crazy political populism and ideology that comes with that with this drive to optimize.

Poor people eventually snap. Ask a French aristocrat. 

I generally dislike pessimism. But I also dislike continual and buoyant optimism. I suppose everyone is every era feels like they are on the cusp of some sort of disaster, and somehow we’ve gotten through as a species. Technology may save us. IBM couldn’t see the use for personal computer. And that wasn’t that long ago. Edison invented the lightbulb with virtually no R&D funding. There are countless counter arguments to techno-pessimism. 

Studying finance. I only ever learned one thing that I thought was valuable. Hedge your bets. Cover your short positions with long positions. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket and assumption is the mother of all fuck ups. 

Dream Retirement

In 1571 at the venerable age of 38 Michel de Montaigne (a French philosopher) retired. He moved himself into a tower which housed his library where he could read and blog (okay, write essays) in relative solitude for the rest of his days. Across his bookshelves he had the following inscribed.

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure

This sounds awesome. I would add some accouterments that perhaps were lacking in Michel de Montaigne’s man cave. Some decent speakers, Wifi and a MacBook air. But generally speaking, I think he had the right idea. I would maybe also add a grappling mat so I could roll some Jujitsu.

Michel de Montaigne came from serious money though. Which clearly helped. I’m not quite there yet. But maybe one day.

 

 

Headgames

I suffer from depression.

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My head-doc tells me I’m genetically disposed towards this kind of chemical imbalance. I try argue with her that depression is symptomatic of something else and that anti-depressants are simply treating the manifestation of the cause. She counters that seizures are symptomatic for an epileptic and that some people are genetically disposed towards epilepsy, would I therefore argue that an epileptic forgo his medication and reduce their stress levels as a form of treatment.

I slump back down into my high back wing chair, momentarily defeated. I point out that a real psychiatrist should have a chaise longue or a settee instead of wing chairs. She says settees are for psychologists. I laugh. I tried Cognitive behavioral therapy once. It didn’t do much for me. Well… that’s not entirely true. Cognitive behavioral therapy is actually a lot like stoicism actually. You re-frame your problems, changing the way you think about them. I don’t really have any ‘real’ problems… other than I think life is pointless. (some might call that a biggie) That is to say I appreciate our complete and utter insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. I find that annoying.

I decided (on my own volition) to go off my meds. And had a massive relapse as a result. Which is why I’m back at the head-doc. Even though I think life is generally futile I prefer to be functional while I’m acting out my futility. The drugs don’t change your subjective feelings about the world, but you don’t mind it so much.

I used to judge people who were ‘depressed’. Toughen up. Or get over it. But if you’ve never experienced the crushing lethargy your brain can inflict on you its a difficult thing to appreciate.

Interestingly whenever they change your medication they ask you if you’re having suicidal thoughts or think about death. As a stoic I find I have to answer that question carefully. Eventually I went with, ‘Academically I think about death ALL the time’. But no, I don’t think about suicide, ever.

Except for the poisoned cupcake. Which is really more about euthanasia than suicide.

You should keep a poisoned cupcake in your fridge. The day you forget that the cupcake is poisoned and eat the cupcake is indicative that dementia or Alzheimer’s is now firmly entrenched in your mind… and things are going downhill from there anyway. Might as well end it (by accident).

I obviously don’t mention my poisoned cupcake theory. Most people I mention this to tend to look at me askance. I don’t really have a poisoned cupcake in my fridge. Probably because cupcakes don’t last very long in the domicile of the Jo. Poisoned or otherwise.

I ask how long before I can try go off my meds again. ‘Two years’ she says. I stare at her unconvinced. That’s a really long time I mumble. But the alternative is just barely utilitarian life where I struggle with the most basic tasks. So for the time being I will stick with the program. Annoying.

Unspecified whine

I fumbled and dropped my Tupperware on the way to the kitchen this morning, which resulted in my chicken being distributed in a large circumference around my personage. I briefly considering eating it anyway. But the questionable hygiene of the office firma and the judgmental stares of my co-workers swayed me away from this endeavor.

This, as it turns out, has been indicative for my Monday so far – basically fubar. I’m trying to take it my stride with stoic resolve and fortitude. But I’m hungry and entering the realm of the ravenous hostility that comes from not eating for three hours.

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I’m wallowing, (mostly) in self pity but also achieving some more general type wallowing that comes from privilege. I’ve tried to infuse a modicum of imperturbability into my psyche by looking at pictures of suffering. I have a folder on Pinterest for just such occasions, aptly named, ‘Pictures to make you sad’.

Its not doing anything for me today. As an aside, Kevin Carter (who took this picture, that won the 1994 Pulitzer prizes for photography) killed himself in a park near my house. As a child I used to catch tadpoles and crabs in the river there. Unfortunately these days as an unsupervised minor undertaking such a venture you are more likely to catch Diphtheria, experience unbidden sodomy and then have your organs harvested in room lit by single flickering light bulb. Which as I understand it, is less amusing than keeping river creatures in a glass jar until they belly up and die after a few days. I’m glad I got to kill larval stage animals without compromising my sphincter integrity or losing a kidney. It doesn’t seem like a good trade off.

Speaking of creepy crawlies (after reading Caroline Paul – Fighting Fire) my wife and I have become very cognizant of not letting my twenty month old daughter develop irrational fears. Ie. We have been super careful not to unfairly demonize snakes, spiders and other hexapodal invertebrates… its cute when she says ‘hello’ to the Daddy-long-legs or the Christmas beetle. But obviously less endearing when she tries to offer salutations to a Black Widow or tries to high five hornets. My mother muses out loud that her grandchild is a Hindu. I think she means a Jain… but I don’t really want to get into it with her. To my mother all Indians are Hindu. In any event I have become this weird black-helicopter parent*. Which in invalidates 90% of the concepts I imagined about being a parent. It certainly wasn’t how I was raised…

* which is basically like a regular helicopter parent, but supposedly working in the background in stealth mode (with varying degrees of success) and only intervening under dire circumstances. Sometimes I wonder if I’m coddling her.

In other news I had this idea that I would start this week by cutting down on my caffeine intake. It hasn’t really worked out for me so far today. I’ve also taken four Tramadol (not all at once) in an effort to rid myself of this throbbing headache. So I’ve been pumping myself full stimulants and opioids since I woke up. I marking today down as a failure for cleaning living. Just thought I would mention it.