Monday, January 14, 2013

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, December 2012

Reviews of books read last month: four non-fiction books and a novel.

1. "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking"
   by Oliver Burkeman

Despite appearances of affluence, many people in the "first" world
don't seem to be happy enough.  There is no shortage of books and
seminars from self-help gurus on how to get happier.  The author of
"The Antidote" argues that the popular "cult of optimism", backed by
egotism and materialism, don't appear to be that effective.  Burkeman
thinks he has the answer to why a relentless focus on positive thinking
doesn't work.  Asking an unhappy person to only think positive thoughts
and suppress any negative thoughts is bound to fail.  "The Antidote"
opens with a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "Try to pose for yourself
this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the
cursed thing will come to mind every minute".  The difficulty of
thought suppression is backed up by research studies, for example:

The author proposes a counterintuitive approach to achieving happiness:
we need to accept that failure, uncertainty and death are a normal part
of life.  The book looks at practitioners of so-called "negative paths"
to happiness.  Recent research seems to support aspects of age-old
approaches such as ancient Stoicism and Buddhist teaching.  He also
asks a philosophical question which most self-help masters prefer to
gloss over: who exactly is the "self" in need of help or improvement?
This is not an easy question to answer, other than perhaps we
shouldn't take ourselves too seriously.

The author admits there is no single answer to achieving happiness.
Instead he describes "negative" approaches to happiness that seem to
work.  One such negative approach is the ancient philosophy of
Stoicism.  In particular, the concept of "negative visualisation" or
"the premeditation of evils", suggests that when facing something
difficult, thinking about the worst-case scenario can actually help
us remain realistic and reduce anxiety about the future.  We should
be open to failure or uncertainty.  Note that the modern day definition
of a stoic, "one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy,
grief, pleasure, or pain" ( provides an
erroneous view of ancient Stoicism.  See the notes after the reviews
for more about ancient Stoic philosophy.

The book then discusses Buddhism, which teaches meditation and non-
attachment.  Allowing negative thoughts and emotions to pass through
our minds without judgment, we can accept what is happening and move
on.  "All our distress arises from trying to scramble to solid ground
that doesn't actually exist... becoming a Buddhist is about becoming
homeless" (Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist nun).  Other religious
thinkers echo similar ideas.  "The truth that many people never
understand is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you
suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture
you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt" (Thomas Merton,
Catholic monk and writer).  Modern psychology supports the importance
of acceptance (for example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

Another "negative" path is memento mori.  Life is impermanent, and
thinking about death can actually spur us to focus on doing what is
important to us.  This reminded me of a quote from Steve Jobs' 2005
Stanford commencement speech: "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is
the most important thing I've ever encountered to help me make the
big choices in life, because almost everything--all external
expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these
things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is
truly important."

Overall, a refreshing approach to the ongoing puzzle of human happiness.
The use of anecdotes, interviews, philosophy and current research makes
a compelling case for rethinking our approach to happiness.

For the time-challenged:
* An overview article by the author:
* A brief intro video:
* Burkeman's RSA talk:

2. "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis

The author was a bonds trader for a brief time in the 1980s.  His 1990
tell-all book on the excesses and misdeeds of bonds market firms,
"Liar's Poker" caused a storm.  Since then he's been a financial
journalist and author of other books.  "The Big Short" is his summary
of the recent Global Financial Crisis, and what a compelling story it
is.  It's packed with heroes, villains, anti-heroes and not-so-innocent
bystanders who let it all happen.

The book reads a bit like a novel as it describes events as they
unfolded.  The seeds were sewn during the excesses of the 1980s and
flamed by the easy credit of the 1990s.  The post-9/11 quantitive
easing and relaxed regulation by government agencies stoked the fires
even further, as investment banks looked for more ways to make money
from other people's money.  After saturating the market with mortgages
to borrowers having good collateral, mortgage lenders dramatically
softened lending practices, allowing so-called NINJA loans to people
with "no income, no jobs, and no assets".  To sweeten the deal, these
deposit-free mortgages charged very low "teaser" rates in the early
years.  The assumption was that as long as most people kept up with the
repayments, all would be well.  "Instead of following rule not to make
loans to people who couldn't repay them, applied a more complicated
one: make as many loans as you can, no matter how risky, but just keep
them off your books" (page 23).

Using financial alchemy, these risky loans were transformed into solid
"AAA" securities.  The details of this process are rather complicated,
and the author does a reasonable job of explaining the various
instruments created: mortgages were pooled into mortgaged-backed
securities (MBS), which were repackaged as collateralised debt
obligations (CDO).  As a hedge or insurance for non-payment, credit
default swaps (CDS) could be taken out on those CDOs.  Ratings agencies
were supposed to provide reliable assessments of the riskiness of all
these instruments, but it's clear that "AAA" ratings were handed out
too freely.  It wasn't only rating agencies that failed to understand
the true risk and complexity of the instruments.  Traders and
management of the lenders, investment banks, hedge funds and insurers
barely understood the Rube Goldberg-like contraption they were part of,
and appeared to underestimate the potential impact if it all fell apart.
Throw in inadequate regulation and supervision of the bond market, and
the impossible yet inevitable happened in 2008.

While the book is at times a bit technical, it is always entertaining.

Related videos:
* A short interview on the PBS News Hour:
* A longer interview at UC Berkeley:

3. "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer

Soon after its publication, the author was found to have fabricated
quotes, and was involved in self-plagiarism.  I still decided to read
it, since I'm interested in the subject matter, and the core ideas
should (hopefully) hold up.  The book uses recent findings in
neuroscience and psychology to support anecdotes into imagination and
the creative process.  Topics include the evolution of Bob Dylan's
songwriting, Pixar movies, the development of Post-It Notes, Apple
design process and William Shakespeare's playwriting.

Several conditions are required for creativity to flourish.  Talent and
inspiration are not enough: a fair degree of "grit" or determination is
more important.  Playfulness and curiosity help, along with an openness
to new things.  Creative "stealing" can spur creativity: Shakespeare
borrowed ideas from Italian writers of his time, as well as Roman and
Greek mythology.  Education can sometimes harm creativity, since some
schools hamper playfulness and curiosity.

The individual can only do so much, and working with others can take
creativity to the next level.  Large population centres, or at least
high concentrations of creative people in universities and companies,
foster greater innovation.  Organisations can further encourage cross-
pollination of ideas by promoting casual interactions.  For example,
cafeterias and toilets can be placed in the middle of a building
complex, where workers from different departments converge.  Clubs also
bring together people from differing backgrounds.  But one poster child
of collaboration, brainstorming, isn't as effective as it's hyped to
be.  In fact, empirical research has consistently shown that it induces
groupthink and actually suppresses potential, making each individual
less creative.

The author concludes by saying that as our creative problems keep
getting more difficult, we need to create a culture that doesn't impede
creativity.  Overall, an interesting read.  The recent controversy does
make the reader question the content, but many of the points reinforce
or corroborate what I've read elsewhere.

Here's a video of the author's RSA talk for the book:

4. "The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer
    Loyalty" by Carmine Gallo

This book examines how Apple interacts with its customers, mainly
the service provided by Apple's retail stores.  It compares and
contrasts Apple's customer practices with those of other companies.
Apple has deservedly earned high praise for customer service, and the
incredible success of its Stores vindicates its approach.  Apple only
started its stores in 2001, and it didn't take long for them to become
the world's most profitable retail operation.

A few things stood out while reading the book.  First, Apple Store
employees don't work on commission.  They're expected to listen to
needs of customer, and help them walk away happy, even if that means
_not_ actually selling them anything, or even down-sell as in this

Secondly, Apple gives its staff discretion to break rules.  This goes
beyond simply exchanging slightly out-of-warranty items.  In one
example, a store was opened early to make a young girl's dream come

Thirdly, the Stores reinforce the usefulness of their products by
using iPod touches as mobile point-of-sale devices, rather than
traditional cash registers:

Many of the practices seem like common sense, making you wonder why
every retailer doesn't do the same.  Cynics will charge that this is
a book written by an Apple fanboy, but perhaps if they read this book,
they'll understand why Apple really does have such a positive standing.

Here's a slideshow prepared by the author, outlining the main points
of the book:

5. "Up a Tree at Night in the Park with a Hedgehog" by P. Robert Smith

This is a short comical novel by a rookie author.  Benton (Ben) is a
philosophy graduate, teaching English to foreign students.  He recently
lost his fiancee to an unfortunate accident on the eve of their wedding.
It doesn't take long to see that this 36 year old is very immature and
has questionable morals.  He quickly finding a new girlfriend, and then
proceeding to cheat on her with one of his young students.

The supporting characters are sometimes amusing, but aren't fleshed-out
enough for my liking.  The author tries (too hard?) to shock the reader,
breaking as many taboos as possible within the first few chapters.  The
story is told as a series of related vignettes, with quick and humorous
segues between them, leading eventually to the scene described in the
title.  The ending is a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying.

I was hooked by the title, expecting a fun, quirky story.  It didn't
quite work for me, but at least it was brief.


Some more notes about Stoicism.
* Started by the Ancient Greeks and refined by the Romans.
* Early Stoics taught that "destructive emotions resulted from errors
  in judgment".
* Later Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasised that "virtue
  is sufficient for happiness".
* Epictetus: "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires,
  but by the removal of desire".
* Marcus Aurelius: "Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,'
  you are rid of the hurt itself".
* Seneca: "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she
  pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything,
  reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes".

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