This is the bookshelf from my home growing up

2018 in Books, Part I

Kyle Harrison
Jul 3, 2018 · 211 min read

Looks like 2018 is half over. Originally, I was using this to keep track of all the books I read this year. But as part of my reading, I’ve wanted to keep track of the things in each book that stuck out to me. Turns out, a lot of things stuck out to me thus far. So many that when I try and open this on the Medium app, it crashes. So, I’ve read 30 books so far this year. And to save myself from having a massive post at the end of the year, I’ll just share this now as Part I.

Here are some things to know.

First, this is a long post. This isn’t meant for casual consumption, so if you’re here at all, you’re a brave soul. This is meant, more than anything, as a repository for me to remember what struck me as I read, and as summaries of books I don’t want to forget. The desire to read has raced so much further ahead of the desire to comprehend, and I want to make sure that I do everything I can to improve my comprehension. I included all the quotes that I underlined or highlighted as I read. I included images of the book covers so you can quickly scroll from book to book if you’re curious.

The second thing, I made a concerted effort to read more fiction this year (thanks to my English-major wife Camden, and my champion-reader Aunt Cindy, who read 177 books in 2017.) I gravitated a lot towards Cormac McCarthy because I thought “I need more reasons to be depressed in my life.” In all seriousness, McCarthy is one of the most enjoyable authors I’ve had the privilege to peruse. Not that I’ve perused him. But like his words. On the page. Anyways… I bring this up because I also highlighted what struck me from the fiction I read. I tried not to have any spoilers, but if you’re hankering for some of the fiction I’ve got here, and you’re a spoiler-averse conformist, best to skip those ones.

Turnaround

I’ve always respected Mitt Romney for as long as I’ve had the opportunity to know who he was. I had the great privilege to work at Solamere Capital, which is managed by Tagg Romney, Mitt’s son, and had the chance to sit in several meetings where Mitt was involved as well. I’ll never forget one particular conversation; we were discussing a company we could purchase, and the cost synergies that could be realized. Mitt Romney spoke up and said, “Never speak lightly of those potential cost cutting areas. A lot of times, the costs to cut represent people’s jobs, and we never want to treat that lightly.” Many thanks to Pioneer Book in Provo, Utah for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues.”

“We live “lives of quiet desperation” unless we reach for something that is as meaningful as it is unexpected.”

“When a person finds greater meaning in what they are doing, and when they are stretched to the limits of their ability, the experience can be exhilarating and transforming.”

“He left behind writings insisting that it was the duty of all citizens to ensure that good men were elected to positions in government, men who would faithfully administer the affairs of the people.”

“One of her favorite quotes was something she was fond of saying when confronted with an opportunity to serve: “If not me, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?””

“I aspired, and though I achieved not, I was satisfied.”

“Work was never just a way to make a buck to my dad. There was a calling and purpose to it. It was about making life better for people.”

“There was always a sense of doing something important with Dad. It never occurred to me that it was just a political race so that Dad could get a better job. We were engaged in something bigger than that. As governor, he approached his work with a sense of nobility. At least in my eyes — in the eyes of a boy — he was doing important work.”

“My dad always said that if he’d have spent his whole life working at an automobile company as chief executive, accruing more and more stock options and making more and more money, that he’d have been enormously bored. His life would have been unfulfilling and uninteresting. He felt strongly that the course he took in public service meant that he had great new vistas and opportunities. It was a thrilling experience for him.”

“Our strategic audit took us to customers, to board members, to Wall Street analysts, to bankers, to suppliers, to former employees, and where possible, to competitors. We also got copies of every report that the company produced. We analyzed the numbers according to the tools that had been proven to work before in other diagnostics. Every conceivable way of interpreting market shares, segmentation, business definition, cash flow, investment policy, competitive position, product quality, customer satisfaction, technology position and countless other measures were employed. At the end of the strategic audit, we had a pretty good map of what was right and wrong in the business, of what had to be fixed, and which things were urgent and which were long term. We had hypotheses on which actions would have the greatest impact.”

“But I really had to have her support and counsel. For the past thirty years, at the end of every day, I had unloaded all my worries and concerns on Ann, and she had done the same to me. We’d give each other advice and perspective, not only on how to deal with a particular issue, but also on what was most important to us. Keeping life in perspective goes a long way to being able to confront problems with a calm head and sound judgment. Ann is my most trusted advisor; her judgment on the widest range of business, organizational, and human resources matters was more sound than any other I know. I simply could not turnaround the Olympics without her daily counsel.”

“Over the years, I had followed a straightforward turnaround formula. First came the strategic audit, a complete review of every aspect of the business. Then came building the team, both in terms of selecting the right people and building unity and motivation. Finally, it was time to “focus, focus, focus.” Turnarounds that failed did so because management tried to do too many things rather than focus on what was critical.”

“My old boss, Bill Bain, had often said there is a scientific basis for trusting your gut instincts. He reasoned that there are all kinds of signals, body language signals that your subconscious brain detects without you even being aware of it. The reading of these subtle indicators can form your impressions of someone. And those impressions may thus be just as reasonable as your other inputs. Whether or not that is so, I’ve tended to listen to what I feel in my heart about people.”

“I like smart people, a lot. Bill Bain, my old boss, used to joke that most things can be fixed, but smart — or dumb — is forever.”

““Get someone else to do what they don’t do well: you hired them for what they do better than anybody else.”

“It may be counter- intuitive, but talented people actually like to be asked to do something very, very difficult.”

“When I’m presented with a single viewpoint, I invariably take an opposing view. I’ve been told I’m prone to push it vehemently. Some call it arguing. I don’t. I call it debating the issue.”

“Good salesmanship isn’t fast, glib talk. The best salesmanship is about research, creative engineering of benefits and features to match the target’s needs, preparation of effective communications, and finally delivering the proposal itself, in person.”

“Whether in Washington, D.C., or in Provo, Utah, I found that disputing people’s concerns usually led to defensiveness and entrenched positions. I’d look instead for a transcendent value upon which we both could agree.”

“Spend as if you were about to go broke, I told him, but work up your plans as if money were no object.”

“There is not one day when I have regretted making a full commitment to public service. The battles, the triumphs, the personal associations are more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. I could have made a good deal more money over the last five years had I stayed at my investment job. It would mostly have gone to the taxman or to kids who are better off earning their own. Instead, I have come to know many more people and to help many more people I do not know. It’s a currency of an entirely different denomination: it can’t be taxed, stolen, or depleted. The more I have of it, the richer I feel.”

Way To Be

When I was maybe 12 or 13, my parents got me this book for Christmas. I remember reading it then, I remember reading it when I was maybe 16 or 17, and I read it this year. President Hinckley, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, certainly was writing to a mostly teenage audience, I was so inspired by how beneficial his words were as he laid out 9 ways to be:

  1. Be Grateful
  2. Be Smart
  3. Be Clean
  4. Be True
  5. Be Humble
  6. Be Prayerful
  7. Be Positive
  8. Be Still
  9. Be Involved

Each one of those attributes meant something different to me. I sat down early in the morning and came across this book, and read it from beginning to end (before you begin a slow clap, it’s a relatively quick read.) But to have so much truth offered in such quick succession, offered a new way to think about my life and the choices I make.

Some Quotes:

“You are good. But it is not enough just to be good. You must be good for something. You must contribute good to the world. The world must be a better place for your presence. And the good that is in you must spread to others.”

“There are few things more pathetic than those who have lost their curiosity and sense of adventure, and no longer care to learn.”

“I would like to suggest that we stop seeking out the storms of life and enjoy the sunlight. I am suggesting that we accentuate the positive. I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still out voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and hard effort. There is food all around us — if we will only look for it.”

“Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

“To you who have your lives ahead of you, I make a plea — that with all of your getting and going and doing, you will also give something to make the world a little better.”

The Greatest Miracle in the World

I don’t remember where I first heard about Og Mandino’s books, but I remember it was some time during my LDS Mission while I was in Waynesboro, PA. The first book of his I was exposed to was The Greatest Salesmen in the World. Mandino’s way of taking truths and weaving them into a narrative was inspiring for me. In the same early morning that I finished Gordon B. Hinckley’s ‘Way to Be,’ I also finished this short book, and I felt a powerful impression of the truths it was offering. Many thanks to the Freed Spirit Bookstore on Main St. in Waynesboro, PA for getting me my copy of this book. I’m not even sure they’re still in business anymore.

Some Quotes:

“Most humans, in varying degrees, are already dead. In one way or another they have lost their dreams, their ambitions, their desire for a better life. They have surrendered their fight for self-esteem and they have compromised their great potential. They have settled for a life of mediocrity, days of despair and nights of tears. They are no more than living deaths confined to cemeteries of their choice. Yet they need not remain in that state. They can be resurrected from their sorry condition. They can each perform the greatest miracle in the world. They can each come back from the dead… and in those books are the simple secrets, techniques and methods which they can still apply to their own livest to become anything they wish to be and to attain all the true riches of life.”

“Usually, I have discovered that most individuals are neither willing nor ready to accept help until they have hit bottom. At that point they figure that they have nothing to lose, and so they are far more receptive to my simple technique to help them try to begin a new life.”

“What a shame, Emerson should be read by thirty- and forty- and fifty-year olds, not teenagers. Emerson wrote — “Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed.When man is punished, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood, he has gained facts, learns his ignorance, is cured of the insanity of conceit, has got moderation, and real skill.”

“Maslow once wrote that either people do things which are fine and good, and thus respect themselves, or they do contemptible things and feel despicable, worthless, and unloveable. To my way of thinking, Maslow did not go far enough. I believe that most humans feel despicable, worthless, and unloveable without doing contemptible things. Just being sloppy in their work, or not caring about their appearance, or not studying or working a little longer to improve their position in life, or taking that unnecessary drink, or doing a thousand other stupid things, small acts that tarnish their already bruised self-image is enough to increase their self-hatred. Most of us not only have a will to die…we also have a will to fail.”

Dumbing Us Down

I’ve been reading more and more about education, and realizing how little about it I know. It began last year when I read ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ by Amanda Ripley and has continued in bits and pieces. Before I took the job I have now, I was in the process of interviewing for a job with Teach For America. My intention was to get that job and request a teaching position in New York City. I felt like that melting pot was one of the best places to get the experience I wanted. And while I’m sure I would have learned some truly invaluable lessons in New York, I chose a different path. But much of what I think I would have learned and been frustrated by, is clearly laid out in this book by a 30-year veteran of teaching all over New York. Many thanks to some random professor who left a stack of books in the BYU Spencer W. Kimball Tower (SWKT), because this was one of them and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some Quotes:

“Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act.”

“Rich or poor, school children who face the twenty-first century cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are (for we have divorced them from significant parental intention); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.

“Keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk constantly.”

How To Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy

As I got more involved in private equity and venture capital, everyone and their mother told me that if I wanted to be a good investor, reading everything I could about great investors was a requirement. I don’t remember where I first heard about Warren Buffet, but I’m grateful to my parents for getting me his biography, Snowball, for Christmas in 2013. Many thanks to the BYU Rollins Center for giving me my copy of this book. As much as I knew about Warren Buffet, hearing about his interactions with a Utah business, especially one where not being open on Sundays was such a strategic decision, was impactful.

Some Quotes:

“RC once told me, ‘the basis of being a good salesman is always having an answer ready for anything they might come up with. If a potential customer has a qualm or dislike, you have to have an answer. And he did. He always had an answer.”

“He judged success on satisfied customers and sales volume, not profit margins. That’s what kept people coming back to him for purchases, time and time again.”

“A company always goes at risk when it expands, but if you have done your homework and have a competitive advantage, the risk is minimized.”

“Our rule was very broad: Take care of the customer. Treat them as you’d like to be treated. It’s simple. Y et many companies ignore this approach, caught up in enforcing policies that don’t enhance the bottom line.”

“If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.”

“You can only stand on the laurels of what you did yesterday for a few minutes. Then you have the challenges of tomorrow.”

Walden

At the beginning of 2016, I didn’t know anything about Walden, and what little I knew of Henry David Thoreau could be summed up as “what smarter people than me read for fun.” Thanks to Solamere Capital, I had the chance to spend the summer in Boston, and a trip to Walden Pond was a no-brainer. I saw the replica of Thoreau’s little house, and became fascinated with the idea of such solitude. To be 100% clear, I still think I’m not smart enough to really grasp this whole “transcendentalism” thing. But what I did learn was the power of casting off any norms that society has required of you. If you can remove the burden of expectation, therein lies the beginning of anything important.

Some Quotes:

“I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?”

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.”

“Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

“When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.”

“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been thy failures hitherto, “be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?”

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”

“Man has invented, not only houses, but clothes and cooked food; and possibly from the accidental discovery of the warmth of fire, and the consequent use of it, at first a luxury, arose the present necessity to sit by it.”

“Yet some, not wise, go to the other side of the globe, to barbarous and unhealthy regions, and devote themselves to trade for ten or twenty years, in order that they may live — that is, keep comfortably warm — and die in New England at last.”

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

“It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.”

“No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

“All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.”

“We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.”

“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

“Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?”

“Morning work! By the blushes of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man’s morning work in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”

“But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.”

“I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one.”

“But,” says one, “you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?” I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

“Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.”

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners?”

“None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin.”

“When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all — looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck — I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.”

“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

“In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial.”

“The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.”

“Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.” I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”

“When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.”

“What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.”

“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

“Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race.”

“This only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.”

“A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; — and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and storybooks, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”

“We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.”

“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are, indeed, so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.”

“I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word.”

“Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage office?”

“Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me. I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude.”

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.”

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

“I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life; I mean that I had some.”

“To him Homer was a great writer, though what his writing was about he did not know. A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him.”

“Men paid him wages for work, and so helped to feed and clothe him; but he never exchanged opinions with them. He was so simply and naturally humble — if he can be called humble who never aspires — that humility was no distinct quality in him, nor could he conceive of it.”

“If I suggested any improvement in his mode of life, he merely answered, without expressing any regret, that it was too late. Yet he thoroughly believed in honesty and the like virtues.”

“Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was an taken up in getting a living or keeping it.”

“Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans.”

“For a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost — do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.”

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

“But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.”

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass — the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”

“Days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry. Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher’s desk.”

“It is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me.”

“I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars.”

“They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters, are they!”

“Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to particular trees, of kinds which are rare in this neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or on a hilltop.”

“A man will not need to study history to find out what is best for his own culture.”

Outliers

Usually, when I read books like this it’s more of a personal reflection. This book, however, made me think much more of my own children and the environment I’m creating for them to grow up in. Gladwell points out that “geniuses never actually make it on their own.” One story he told was of Chris Langan, with an IQ higher than Einstein but who had been kicked out of Reed and Montana State, never really finding acceptance in academia. When asked about whether he would ever teach somewhere like Harvard, he said, “When you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right versus what the man says you can do to receive another paycheck.” Gladwell’s response: “What? One of the main reasons college professors accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right. Langan has Harvard backwards.”

But the point he goes on to make is that Langan, though he had all the intelligence he could ever need, had to do everything alone. He didn’t know how to go through the process. I don’t profess to want desperately for my kids to be geniuses, but if I want them to be successful, I recognize the necessity for providing the support that most people can’t get alone.

The second big takeaway was the role of hard work; specifically, coming from a background where hard work is expected. Gladwell mentioned a Chinese proverb:

“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”

That, coupled with the idea that on average, Chinese kids spent something like 40% more time trying to solve a problem, it makes me think of kids I’ve talked to who, when trying to do something hard, give up relatively soon and hand it to me, saying “I need help.”

This book contrasted directly with what I read about in “Dumbing Us Down.” It’s great to say we should want less time in school and more time being taught in the world by family, but what about the kids that don’t have a family that can give them that? Where, if they’re not in school, they’re just exposed to more negative influences?

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I came across the idea of a Junto. I think it was in Alexander Hamilton by Chernow, but I can’t remember exactly. The idea intrigued me and actually led me to form my own Junto this past year, engaging in mutually improving conversations every Saturday at 7 AM PT. I wanted to get a better understanding of the man who would create such an organization, and I was certainly not disappointed. Many thanks to the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, not only for exposing me to this book, but also for offering me the opportunity to tour the oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. That idea of keeping an active ship for posterity reminds me of a game I used to play as a kid. I don’t mean to compare my short gaming career to the US Navy, but I remember it fondly.

I played Age of Empires II religiously almost every day. I would run campaign after campaign, building and destroying empires. I would tell myself stories with ever skirmish and advancement. I remember a campaign once where I controlled an island and had built a pretty substantial army. Unbeknownst to me, my enemy lurked in the shadows building just as formidable an army to meet mine. When I sent my troops into battle, I was distracted by an attack on my people back on the island. I diverted my attention to restore peace on the island, but when I returned to the battle in progress, only 5 or so of my Paladins were alive (I almost always played as the Celts.) As I rushed them back to our home island, the enemy pursued, destroying most of my protective ships and killing some of the few remaining Paladins in their retreat. By the time we reached the island, only one survived. To honor him, I placed him in my castle stronghold, built additional walls around him, had my Monks heal him, and allowed him to rest as a reminder to my people of the battles gone before.

Some Quotes:

Referring to Franklin’s belief in not eating animals — “I balanced some time between principle and inclination, until I recollected that, when the fish [I caught] were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then I thought, ‘If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

“I approved the amusing one’s self with poetry now and then, so far as to improve one’s language, but no farther.”

“I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.”

“The next thing most like living one’s life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.”

“Vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful.”

“I would therefore recommend to all who enter into partnerships, for, whatever esteem partners may have for, and confidence in each other at the time of the contract, little jealousies and disgusts may arise, with ideas of inequality in the care and burden of the business, etc., which are attended often with breach of friendship and of the connection, perhaps with lawsuits and other disagreeable consequences.”

“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”

In reference to a man Franklin knew — “He had some reason for loving to dispute, being eloquent, an acute sophister, and, therefore, generally successful in argumentative conversation. He had been brought up to it from a boy, his father, as I have heard, accustoming his children to dispute with one another for his diversion, while sitting at table after dinner; but I think the practice was not wise, for, in the course of my observation, these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.”

“This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn’d while the smith press’d the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without further grinding. ‘No,’ said the smith, ‘turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.’ ‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘but I think I like a speckled ax best.’”

Referring to a disagreeable acquaintance of Franklin’s who was not on his side — “I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book; I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasion, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says ‘He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.’”

Benjamin Franklin’s virtues:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e. waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed by trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates

No Apology: The Case For American Greatness

I turned 18 in 2010. The 2012 presidential election was the first major election I was able to vote in. During 2012, I was serving as an LDS missionary in Pennsylvania. If you’re not aware, LDS missionaries cut themselves off from the rest of the world as much as possible. I was able to vote via an absentee ballot, and I tried to educate myself as much as I could when you don’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or use the internet for more than weekly emails to family. I voted for Mitt Romney. I know a lot more now than I did then. I would still vote for Mitt Romney. I desperately wish I still lived in Utah this year so that I could have volunteered for Mitt Romney’s campaign for Senate.

Mick Moylan, a friend of mine, who is originally from Ireland, and is studying finance at BYU, also had the chance to intern at Solamere, and grew close to some of the folks helping run Mitt Romney’s campaign. He was offered a role with the campaign, and would need to withdraw from his classes for a semester to participate. When he and I talked about it, he asked what I thought, and with every measure of level-headedness, I made it very clear: “No matter what you do, I’ll respect your decision. But if you turn down this opportunity, it will be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” I think I have a future in diplomacy.

There was a wide range of reasons for me to believe Mick was facing the opportunity of lifetime, but a big one in my mind was the opportunity to work with a giant like Mitt Romney. He’s a man who I respect greatly, and anyone who can benefit from interactions with him is truly privileged. Many thanks to the personal library of Matt Waldrip, and Pioneer Book in Provo, Utah for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

Referring to his father — “Mitt,” he would reply, “the pursuit of the difficult makes men strong.”

“Just like individuals, companies, and human enterprises of every kind, nations that are undaunted by the challenges they face become stronger. Those that shrink from difficult tasks become weaker.”

“Michael Porter is convinced that, far from being a drag on the economy, “National advantage is enhanced by stringent standards that are rapidly, efficiently, and consistently applied.” I wish more Republicans and Democrats alike understood that important truth.”

“Ultimately, the recovery depends on the very same things that strengthen our long-term economy: investing in productivity, stimulating investment and innovation, exercising fiscal discipline, and securing our energy needs. There are no quick fixes, only enduring values.”

“Education pays — particularly in a world where two billion uneducated, unskilled workers have joined the workplace.”

“For the past three decades, we have imported far more goods than we have exported. Prior to that time, the United States was the world’s largest exporter; today China is. Much of what America produces is intellectual property, and a good deal of it is simply stolen by companies in other nations. In a service and technology driven economy like ours, we must ensure that ideas, discoveries, inventions, patents, designs, and trade secrets are protected, and that their use is properly compensated when they are incorporated by others; so far, this is something we have failed to do.”

“A growth agenda favors low taxes, dynamic regulation, educational achievement, investment in research, robust competition, free trade, energy security, and purposeful immigration. And it seeks to eliminate government waste, excessive litigation, unsustainable entitlement liabilities, runaway health-care costs, and dependence on foreign oil. This, in a nutshell, ought to be the economic agenda for America.”

“If the federal government published a balance sheet — just as it requires public companies to do — it would be forced to show its entitlement liability. And if it amortized that liability, it would also appear in the annual budget. We would see it, we would talk about it, and we would be more likely to do something about it. But the politicians keep it well hidden instead.”

“Politicians love to talk about transparency and accountability, but when they do, they are rarely referring to themselves. The time has come for that to change.”

“If the government is willing to give away money, there will always be a long line to get it.”

“The best way to see which of these or other ideas is most beneficial is to allow states to experiment, evaluate the results, and share them with the other states. Using the states as the laboratories the Constitution intended under our federal system is exactly what led us to meaningful and effective welfare reform in the 1990s. Such experimentation can lead us to the right result again. But Congress and the president must advocate for such a move and pass and implement it before such reforms can begin.”

“That’s one of the curious characteristics of financial incentives: Sometimes you aren’t even aware that they are bending you toward a particular kind of behavior.”

“If health care is free to the patient and profitable for the provider, the only result can be runaway spending.”

“I’ve learned that when politicians say they want to help people, there is often cause for a good deal of skepticism. People are used to promises made and promises forgotten.”

“Wherever a private sector alternative is unavailable, such as with the national defense, police, and the courts, the need to monitor and manage costs is critical because of government’s natural tendency toward inefficiency, low productivity, and excessive cost.”

“When General Motors collapsed, we saw all too clearly what happens when government runs something. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, called on the company to change its plans to close a distribution facility in his home district — and GM relented. It’s not that Congressman Frank wasn’t doing his job; in fact, he was doing exactly what the voters expect him to do. But that’s precisely why government, which must respond to voters, is a poor manager of businesses, which must respond to consumers and the marketplace.”

“Such a massively larger government would strike at the very premise of the American experiment. It would demand that we accept the belief that free people, pursuing happiness as they see fit, are less able to build and guide the national economy than politicians and bureaucrats.”

“Experience proves again and again that incentives are more effective than controls.”

“In my life, education had evolved from being about me to being about my children and ultimately to being about bettering the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.”

““There is little doubt from our research that education and training are decisive in national competitive advantage [emphasis added],” writes Michael Porter in his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations.”

“In a “flat world,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observes in his books, the product of labor moves easily across national borders. If the American workforce receives inferior education and skills, it will necessarily be confined to inferior tasks that pay inferior wages, producing, in turn, an inferior GDP. Education matters, not just for the few, but for the many.”

“States and municipalities should launch emergency efforts to keep kids in school at least until they receive their diploma. These could include programs to better match a student’s interests with his or her curriculum, bonus compensation for teachers who are successful in keeping their students in school, and drawing on community heroes and mentors to counsel young people.”

“There is no greater indictment of American government than the sorry state of American education. It is an epic failure.”

“Progressives de-emphasized the subjects that had previously been considered essential. Rather than teach the history of Western and American civilization, for example, they presented all the world’s cultures to our children and insisted that none was superior to the others. Presidents, generals, founding patriots, and “heroes proved in liberating strife” were less important than the champions of social causes. If our children do not learn about and come to cherish America’s heritage, history, culture, and founding principles, how can they be expected to defend the freedoms on which their country is based? How can young citizens become adult citizens equipped to critically examine contemporary political ideas in the light of history, or become informed about matters of public policy, or even simply understand the value of voting? Even in 2008, a year in which record numbers of young people were engaged in the presidential election, still only 52 percent of eligible voters under thirty bothered to vote. The abysmal voting patterns of young Americans are ample evidence that our education system has not equipped our children with the requisites of citizenship that sustain a democratic republic.”

“I studied the education literature to gain perspective. What I found was a virtual quicksand of differing opinion in which it would be easy to sink, but what was missing was an examination of data. Instead, most writers sought to convince their readers by appealing to their inherent prejudices and by recounting anecdotes that supported their particular policy preferences. But as R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia Business School has observed, real data is the collection and processing of anecdotes into reliable information. Anecdotes are illustrative but data is compelling — particularly if it is comprehensive and presented by an unbiased source. Far too often, I found that neither of these conditions prevailed when it came to discussions of education policy.”

“At the outset of my term as governor, my perspectives were shaped by the writings and studies by education experts, by discussions with teachers, principals, parents, and students, and by my study of statewide data on student achievement that was mined, collected, and carefully analyzed. What I learned was in large measure confirmed by data collected at the national and international levels, but even so, I did my best not to close the door entirely on alternative views.”

“McKinsey & Company analyzed a total of 112 studies evaluating the effect of class size on student achievement, fully 103 of which found no relationship whatsoever or a negative one. Only nine studies found a positive relationship, and in none of these was the positive relationship statistically significant.”

“Simply putting more money into the system we already have has not and will not give our kids a better education. Neither reduced class size nor increased spending will repair our broken education system. There are much better answers.”

“If a child’s parents come to school on the first day of school or reliably come to parent-teacher meetings, we know that that child will do just fine.”

“It is very difficult for a poor, undereducated single mother to devote sufficient attention to her child’s education. Study after study demonstrates that these children are far more likely to perform poorly at school, drop out of school, end up on welfare, use drugs, and commit crimes that send them to prison.”

Referring to a teacher he had — “He tore our papers apart paragraph by paragraph and line by line with critiques that sharpened our skills without crushing our confidence. He insisted that my classmates and I push our thinking and our writing beyond the superficial. I don’t remember what grades he gave me, but I do remember what he taught me.”

“Classroom size, school-building quality, community income levels, access to computers, and the ethnicity of the students — all these factors paled in comparison with the individual capabilities of the teacher.”

“The available evidence suggests that the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teachers,” it concluded. “[E]ven in good systems, students [who] do not progress quickly during their first years at school, because they are not exposed to teachers of sufficient caliber, stand very little chance of recovering the lost years.”

“The best education systems, the study determined, did at least three things to guarantee quality teachers: they hired only the best and brightest; they worked to develop and improve their teachers’ skills; and they monitored the performance of each child, teacher, and school, intervening when needed to ensure the best possible education for every student.”

“Another key finding from the McKinsey study was this: “A teacher’s level of literacy, as measured by vocabulary and other standardized tests, affects student achievement more than any other measurable teacher attribute.”

“The education writer for The Washington Post, Jay Matthews, recently authored Work Hard, Be Nice, which explains the success of KIPP — “Knowledge Is Power Program” — in charter schools. It is clear that talented, motivated, high-achieving teachers are at the core of KIPP’s success, and at the core of the success of schools that consistently outperform national averages.”

“Open alternative pathways into teaching, particularly for individuals who have excelled in other fields. The experience of the best-performing education systems is that nontraditional teachers tend to be of high caliber.” — side note, Teach For America is an organization that I think are doing a lot of great things. And one of their stated focuses is not on getting all these people coming out of college to be teachers forever. Instead, TFA teachers will go on to be leaders, who have an understanding of the issues in the education system. What if TFA also had a model to bring teachers in through the reverse? Open a path for professionals in a variety of fields to easily become teachers.

“Better teachers deserve better pay, and they should have access to a teaching-career track that provides higher status and greater rewards, such as in programs that create “mentor” or “master” teachers who supervise and support other teachers.”

“Reliable studies like the one recently conducted by the Rand Corporation indicate that, on average, charter-school students do not outperform their regular public-school counterparts in math and English scores, even when adjusted for income and background disparities. But even if the results of that study are replicated in other places by other researchers, it’s possible that those literacy and numeracy scores parallel the general results from public schools because charter schools often are designed to emphasize disciplines like music, art, science, or history, and to excel in those areas of study to the satisfaction of both students and parents.”

“As those experiences in Washington, D.C., and Michigan attest, the political forces thwarting education reform are extremely powerful, and their exercise of that power is often very discouraging.”

“The aim of the OPEC cartel is to constrain supply,” note the authors of Winning the Oil Endgame, “and thereby force others to produce high-cost oil first, then sell the cartel’s cheap oil for that higher price — and by depleting others’ oil first, make buyers even more dependent on the cartel later.”

“So if you’re serious about global warming, you have to say yes to nuclear; and if like me you’re serious about energy security, you get to the same place.”

“What people believe, value, strive for, and sacrifice for profoundly shape the nature of their society and affect its prosperity and security.”

“I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t like to work.”

“Hardworking parents raise hardworking kids; we should recognize that the opposite is also true. The influence of the work habits of our parents and other adults around us as we grow up has lasting impact.”

“And we need to remind parents that teaching their children to work is even more important than soccer, video games, or music lessons.”

“From classes designed to change parental attitudes to sermons in churches and conversations at family dinner tables, we must all make a renewed and active effort to expand our education culture. If we don’t, we risk wasting precious young lives and the diminishment of our nation.”

“Remember Teddy Roosevelt’s famous assertion: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

“Former education secretary Bill Bennett has reported in his books and on his radio program that American schools are failing to teach our children about America’s greatness. America’s contribution to liberty around the world and our past and present sacrifice in treasure and life is simply not taught as it once was. While every child rightly has been instructed in the heroes of social movements, Bennett has observed, very few are taught of the patriots of the wars fought for freedom, particularly those of the twentieth century. Instead, he explains, some educators are smitten with a devotion to multiculturalism, not merely as an appreciation of the cultures and customs of other peoples, but out of a conviction that no single system of values is superior to another, including our own. This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt.”

“When fatherless young people are encouraged to write about their lives,” writes author and National Public Radio and Fox news analyst Juan Williams, “they tell heartbreaking stories about feeling like ‘throwaway people.’” Best-selling author Walter Dean Myers says that this is because “they don’t have a father to push them, discipline them, and they give up trying to succeed . . . they don’t see themselves as wanted.”

“At the core of our system of government is an informed, involved, and responsible citizenry. The real peril to the nation if its citizenry fails to meet its duties was recognized by the Founders.”

“Two conditions were essential for the new Republic to succeed: voters who were informed and responsible in choosing their representatives, and representatives who were committed to rising above the immediate “passions” of the people and to acting in the interest of the entire nation.

“The critics may bellow, but “facts are stubborn things.” During my lifetime, America has paid very dearly in blood and treasure to secure freedom for ourselves and to win freedom for others. We have taken no colonies, only cemeteries where we have buried our dead.”

All The Pretty Horses

Many thanks to my wife Camden for convincing me to read this book, and letting me read her copy. This was one of many books that, as she was reading it, she would make a growling noise, before declaring to me in all earnestness, “I just want you to read this book so bad, so that we can talk about it.” I kept calling it the horse book. Finally, I decided to take her up on it, and I was hooked. Every McCarthy book I’ve read thus far didn’t take me longer than a week to read (and I read quite a few.) And it all started with this one.

As a kid, I read a series called ‘The Storm Testament’ over and over again. The story was set in the mid-1800’s about a boy who lives among a Ute tribe in Utah, before returning to the early Mormon settlements and participates in their journeys as part of this historical fiction. That, along with a deeply entrenched interest in John Wayne movies, led to being a cowboy for basically every Halloween, working at a horse ranch, and falling in love with my rural family-town of Luna, New Mexico. This book was just a cherry on top of my secret equestrian obsession.

Some Quotes:

“He lay on his back in his blankets and looked out where the quartermoon lay cocked over the heels of the mountains. In that false blue dawn the Pleiades seemed to be rising up into the darkness above the world and dragging all the stars away, the great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea-net. He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.”

“He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.”

“They went to France for their education. He and Gustavo. And others. All these young people. They all returned full of ideas. Full of ideas, and yet there seemed to be no agreement among them. How do you account for that? Their parents sent them for these ideas, no? And they went there and received them. Yet when they returned and opened their valises, so to speak, no two contained the same thing.”

“All my life I had the feelin that trouble was close at hand. Not that I was about to get into it. Just that it was always there.”

“My father had a great sense of the connectedness of things. I’m not sure I share it. He claimed that the responsibility for a decision could never be abandoned to a blind agency but could only be relegated to human decisions more and more remote from their consequences. The example he gave was of a tossed coin that was at one time a slug in a mint and of the coiner who took that slug from the tray and placed it in the die in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed, cara y cruz. No matter through whatever turnings nor how many of them. Till our turn comes at last and our turn passes.”

“He talked of those things we had spoken of so often at Rosario. So often and so far into the night. He said that those who have endured some misfortune which is their gift and which is their strength and that they must make their way back into the common enterprise of man for without they do so it cannot go forward and they themselves will wither in bitterness.”

“All courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.”

“In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don’t believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.”

“I’ve no sympathy with people to whom things happen. It may be that their luck is bad, but is that to count in their favor?”

“It was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

Leap of Faith

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Elder Zach Collier. We served together as missionaries in Pennsylvania, and he was the first person to expose me to Mormon Apologetics generally, with sites like FairMormon, and specifically, this book Leap of Faith.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to have a conversation with a friend who had come to the conclusion that there is a God, but as to whether or not he would speak through a specific church, that was a different question entirely. This led me to be reminded of this book, and more specifically to ponder more fully on the idea of forming a hypothesis, and testing it. Religion can have the same inquiries made as science, albeit the methods of evaluation are more emotional and qualitative.

I’m grateful to Bob Bennett for doing something that an inadequate number of Mormons and non-Mormons alike do, and that is to honestly ask the question — “where did the Book of Mormon come from?”

Some Quotes:

“In all this flurry of commentary and analysis, however, comparatively little is said about the Church’s premiere publication, the Book of Mormon. It is usually mentioned only in passing, primarily as an explanation of why Church members are called Mormons. The book is seldom, if ever, carefully examined on its own merits.”

“Some contemporary commentators who find much in the current Church that they approve of go so far as to suggest that the nineteenth-century Book of Mormon is an embarrassment to the twenty-first century Mormon Church. They say that the book has been outgrown, that it has outlived its usefulness. In a somewhat patronizing tone, they suggest that perhaps it should be quietly abandoned so that the “good things” the Church accomplishes will cease to be tainted by the “weird things” that the book talks about. The Church cannot do that, of course. Its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, called the book the “keystone of our religion.””

The author of Leap of Faith addresses a variety of questions as to the origins of the Book of Mormon. He evaluates three scenarios — Joseph Smith did it himself, he had help from a 3rd party, or God actually helped him. Within each of these scenarios he evaluates motive, and when he gets to God’s motive, he points out that “it is significant enough to provide a motive for God to have been involved in bringing the Book of Mormon forward in our time.”

“Considering the book in our time, not Joseph Smith’s, I see a message in it that God would want our society to hear but that neither Mormon nor Moroni would have thought of emphasizing. Mentioning it, for them, would have been like recording the daily rising of the sun. Here it is: God exists and is in charge.”

What I Found in a Thousand Towns

One of my recurring themes of thought so far this year has been how small to mid-size towns and cities grow, thrive, and remain prosperable. Whenever I think about a topic that I wish I understood more, I always think about how I just want to talk to a bunch of people about the thing, particularly people who are inimtately involved in it (for example, I’ve always wanted to write a book about bookstores, and I daydream about interviewing owners of bookstores.) To that point, Dar Williams’ provided that insight when it came to the small towns she profiled.

This was a book that, while I appreciate the insights Dar Williams has, and I respect her as an artist and mother and community member, I was underwhelmed by the quality of writing. This was one of the books I was probably most near to not finishing (granted, there are plenty of books that I start and don’t finish, so it was above those on the scale.) There was plenty of valuable anecdotal thought in what she wrote; just look how many quotes I highlighted below. But there are a lot better resources out there for developed urban thought and theory.

Many thanks to the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle for exposing me to it.

Some Quotes:

“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” (Gary Snyder)

“What this town is building, aside from new trails and a better school, is positive proximity, or a state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial.”

“When people transcend the myth that proximity means conflict and invasion of privacy, they gravitate toward finding ways to integrate the talents and skills of their community members.”

“I find myself almost befriending them, wanting to introduce them to each other. Peoria, Illinois, have you met Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Seattle, Washington, you have some interesting things in common with Asheville, North Carolina. Gardiner, Maine, I think Dover, New Hampshire, could provide some helpful insights as you continue the winning streak you’re on with your downtown.”

“Urban planner Jeff Speck talks about the “fabric” of mixed architecture and storefronts along a main street. Beacon is starting to have a discernible fabric with many interesting textures. Main Street looks unified without uniformity and therefore incorporates many lifestyles.”

“He said, “I make a simple analogy. You know people are afraid of change, and I get it, but in life, change is inevitable. And we all grew up and as clothing styles changed we never wanted to be out of style. We went with the new style! Well, guess what, the whole world changes. When new cars come out, we look to buy the new, trendier car; we don’t want to buy an old Model T. I say, ‘So why wouldn’t we accept change in everything we do? If you don’t change, you’re going to fall behind.’” He told me that people who have lived in Beacon for a long time are happy to see new life in the downtown. I’m betting they will only admit this to Randy.”

In relation to gentrification — “What good is it if the people who do their best work because they “buy in” to the city have to live somewhere else?”

“Gentrification is about financial displacement on two levels. One is pushing out residents who have created a sense of identity and cohesion in a town, event by event, layer by layer. The other level is abandoning the soul with which citizens created the eclectic, yet inclusive, feel of the town. Gentrification can create lack of affordability, and it can squash vitality when commodification and consumerism steamroll through the sense of positive proximity you can feel at Bank Square Café or Dogwood.”

“Where there is undeveloped land, there will always be a tension between those who want to keep the land/ water open and those who want to build on it or extract from under it.”

“Tourism alone, as an industry, will disproportionately fill up a town with zero- mobility jobs, and the service economy employment is somewhat cruelly coupled with a real- estate problem in which food servers can’t afford a place to live while part- time residents think nothing of spending six figures or more for their second and third homes.”

“But Back of Beyond is also more than a bookstore. For residents it’s also a place that offers itself as a local cultural hub close to the intersection of Main and Center Streets. It is a link between nature as a common experience and nature in the larger context of history and poetic reflection.”

“I’ve heard about a lot of painful transitions coming out of steel mill closings, mines shutting down, and the displacement of manufacturing. Moab’s was one of the quickest and most disorienting collapses, but its turnaround moment seems to have been the most dynamic and even fun. It’s not every day that you attract the attention of the Parisian garbage department.”

“Some cities have what I call a piñata problem: there is great wealth, but it’s hanging from a high place, far away from the city commons. There are mansions on the outskirts of town filled with famous citizens, high- paid executives, and even a scattering of multinational CEOs. Meanwhile, the downtown could desperately use a capital influx but does not get one.”

“As a traveler or a citizen, it’s easier to dig into discovering a city if it has some sort of “wayfinding” anchors of this kind. Signs are great, and landmark buildings do the job, but a body of water that runs through or beside a city will serve as a constant compass.”

“The success of a city is not in the achievement of homogeneity, it’s in the peaceful coexistence of its heterogeneous groups.”

“Towns cannot create civic engagement from scratch. Without positive proximity, there can be no grist for civic connections, and there are all too many opportunities for us to withdraw from the commons before properly examining what we might find there.”

“The first thing you need to share with anyone who wants to do something with a town that is in mourning because it has lost its manufacturing base,” Barbara said, “is you need to create a reason for people to come to that place, whatever it may be, whether it is history, or geography, or some combination thereof.”

“History lovers never laugh at their own towns. They learn about them, and often they spend a considerable amount of time translating the value of their towns to others.”

“The modern mind can embrace the importance of what David Reeves did: he used his resources to build an entire public school to compete with the kind of private school to which he could have sent his children. There were almost a hundred private academies along the East Coast by 1834, many of them around Philadelphia, but Reeves made an unusual decision to raise young minds equally and locally.”

“A town can revitalize its main streets and boast a network of locally owned businesses, but some wealthy and very cold-to-the-touch towns are full of boutiques and frilly, independent shops. Traveling minstrels like me avoid them, and, interestingly, they often have no performance venue. These are not exciting communities. They are exclusive enclaves.”

“We tended to see Walmart as the grim reaper of ailing downtowns, maybe even lowering the scythe before those towns had died. We assumed the staff would appreciate our condolences. They were angry. They told us not to disparage Walmart. Lowell needed the jobs.”

“Olivia says of Carrboro, “Here, we do buy local, and when you buy local, people can produce more, keep the prices down, and so on.” Local culture is self-perpetuating and reinforces positive proximity: in supporting each other, the makers and their friends have an overall pro-artisan ethos in which citizens and tourists can participate up and down the economic strata.”

“Instead of collecting recipes to take home, I wanted to take the best town-building ideas from this region to share with towns and cities everywhere.”

“If you’re like me, you’ve passed empty lots in cities and wondered how much soil remediation and positive proximity it would take to create a community garden, bypassing the wallet altogether and letting food itself feed our cities.”

“A willingness to share our skills, our stories, and ourselves with each other marks the difference between towns that feel like actual places and those with people who jump in and out of cars all day, shopping at impersonal franchises and filling their ears with radio/Internet content that alternates between celebrity fairy tales and isolation-reinforcing crime reports.”

“Jen said to herself, “I’ve got to make Middletown harder to leave.”

“Yes, one of the ways to be in a community is to “serve” it, but in a way that reflects the desire to serve one’s future community or the world at large.”

“Spencer Reece, now an award-winning poet and Episcopal minister, volunteered in the state hospital. One day he returned and said, “I used to have a measure of self-pity. Now I have none.”

“She told me that economics and business school professors had actually brought these local businesses into their classrooms and studied their business plans. This was like service learning at Wesleyan with a focus on local commerce.”

“There’s a problematic metaphor here. We have capitol buildings with gilded railings inside and syringes littered outside.”

“On top of wasting valuable space, these massive buildings tend to hide our officials from us and us from them. If we’re not around our governments, they can’t see us and our smiling, hopeful, citizen faces.”

“The United States has a problem to solve when it comes to homelessness. Perhaps, in the case of people sleeping on the capitol grounds in full view of legislators, it is fitting that the problems are there to be confronted as well.”

“Democracy itself was a departure from European monarchies, and the capitol building “was going to help the people to govern themselves for the first time instead of having a king tell them what to do.” The architecture celebrated the achievement of self-governance. “They chose to make them very regal so that there was an element of magic as people went into those beautiful buildings and sat in the gallery and watched what happened, where people would debate on their behalf in order to make change.” — Side note, reading the biographies of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, you get a sense of reverence for the Republic, and the government. These buildings represent that reverence, though what Dar Williams points out is that we’ve lost sight of those feelings.

“Despite the energy with which Gainesville citizens plunge into their interdisciplinary projects, there are still very few people who show up at public meetings.”

“I’m not the smartest guy I know, I’m not the person who reads the most, I’m not the person who has all the details,” he said. “I do seem to actively like to connect the different parts of stuff that I see with other parts.”

“If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the conscious bridgers I’ve met are interested in following that curve as far as it goes, finding opportunities for the whole community to gain more access to understanding, to healing, and in both the long and short term, to justice. They bring as many people as they can find on that arc, and then they stay the course.”

“Gainesville’s size and location (relatively small and remote) might be considered a disadvantage, but I have found that small cities have the advantage of some extra space to spread out, and they’re just far enough off the grid to incorporate intuitive, trial-and-error processes that can yield important discoveries.”

“As I started to learn the importance of bridging social capital in communities, I started trying to introduce myself to people more. I experience a strange feeling of exposure and commitment when I do this.”

“Translating ourselves, in an open and open-ended way, can be anxiety producing, and yet the habit of introducing ourselves to people around us can amount to a more solid, less fearful way of being in our communities.”

“ We look around at each other and see that change is coming. The question isn’t whom to blame, it’s “How will we manage this?” Bigger and bigger waves of tourists are coming in every weekend. Our public schools are improving, and wealthy young families are bound to notice and move here. How do we retain our character and avoid economic displacement? Positive proximity means we know we have only ourselves to decide how to face these changes.”

The Road

My second run with Cormac McCarthy, and he did not disappoint. Before beginning the read, I went to consult my local McCarthy expert. I thought Camden would have some initial thoughts before I began. Turns out, she hadn’t read it. She’d read Child of God, No Country For Old Men, and All The Pretty Horses, but nothing else by ol’ Cormac. Thus began the greatest race of our generation. The most amazing race since the TV show (which turns out, has had 30 seasons.) To see which of us could read more books by Cormac McCarthy.

As to the road itself, in all seriousness, I occasionally have the experience where I read a book and the distinct impression is: “this is important.” Dystopian world-building has become pervasive in fiction, especially of the teen variety. Even in TV, there is a massive market for imagining some of the worst-case scenarios that mankind could face. Camden and I were big fans of the Walking Dead for a while. One stark contrast that I drew between all of those stories and The Road was how anti-climactic this book was. There was no ultimate bad guy. There was no Negan-like force to reckon with. The world was cold, fruitless, and raw, and here’s the story of this man and his son.

Some of the reviews at the front of the book seemed to sum it up well:

“Devastating…McCarthy has never seemed more at home, more eloquent, than in the sere, postapocalyptic ash land of The Road.”

“Why read this?…Because in its lapidary transcription of the deepest despair short of total annihilation we may ever know, this book announces the triumph of language over nothingness.”

Some Quotes:

“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, don’t you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”

“In a pocket of his knapsack he’d found a last little packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.

You promised not to do that, the boy said.

What?

You know what, Papa.

He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy’s cup and poured some cocoa into his own and then handed it back.

I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.

I know.

If you break little promises you’ll break big ones. That’s what you said.

I know. But I won’t.”

“People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.”

“Coughing. Coughing. He bent over, holding his knees. Taste of blood. The slow surf crawled and seethed in the dark and he thought about his life but there was no life to think about and after a while he walked back.”

“The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.

The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”

After having their things stolen and chasing down the thief, the man takes the thief’s clothes and shoes, leaving him as he had left them —

“The man tried to see his face in the blue light from the burner. I wasn’t going to kill him, he said. But the boy didn’t answer. They rolled themselves in the blankets and lay there in the dark. He thought he could hear the sea but perhaps it was just the wind. He could tell by his breathing that the boy was still awake and after a while the boy said: But we did kill him.”

Lessons from Private Equity Any Company Can Use

I often talk about all the great internship experiences I had while I was in college. One such experience was my first exposure to true blue private equity. I had worked at early stage venture funds, but PE was a different beast all together, or so I learned as I started working for Cicero Group’s private equity practice. My manager at the time, Spencer Nelson, gave me this little book, which he’d gotten from Randy Shumway. This was my first exposure to how to think like an investor.

I read most of it during my internship, but never finished it all the way through. This year, I came across it and committed to reading it. I’m working at a PE fund, figured it couldn’t hurt. And I appreciated the insight it offered.

Some Quotes

“The private equity lens and its defined investment horizon merely provide the clearest view of how these lessons work. But to effect any transformation in your business, you have to be willing to challenge people in your organization and probably your board, and let them challenge you — all with the imperative of focusing your organization maniacally, relentlessly, and zealously on results. This is accomplished through a rigorous application of six main lessons:

1. Define the full potential: The target is increased equity value — how to turn $1 of equity value today into $3, $4, or $5 tomorrow. Strategic due diligence is the way to set the number, and growing cash flow by pursuing a few core initiatives is the way to get there.

2. Develop the blueprint: The blueprint is the road map for reaching your full potential — the who, what, where, when, and how. It zeroes in on the few core initiatives and delineates a step-by-step plan to turn them into results. The emphasis is on measurable action.

3. Accelerate performance: This involves molding the organization to the blueprint, matching talent to key initiatives, and getting people to own them. It also involves creating a rigorous program to achieve your ends — one that combines tools, discipline, and the monitoring of a few key metrics.

4. Harness the talent: This requires creating the right incentives to recruit, retain, and motivate your best talent — and get them to think and act like owners. It also requires assembling a decisive and efficient board.

5. Make equity sweat: The challenge is to embrace LBO economics. This calls for managing working capital aggressively, disciplining capital expenditures, and working the balance sheet hard.

6. Foster a results-oriented mind-set: The goal is to inculcate PE disciplines so that they become part of the company’s culture and create a repeatable formula for achieving results.

“They have a special room where they have all their performance data on the wall, and for fifteen to twenty minutes they go through their own performance, and they decide what they have to do in order to improve. The fact that they have to decide counts.”

“PE firms for the most part don’t run companies. They don’t want to run them, and will be the first to tell you that they wouldn’t do a very good job if they did run them. The best PE firms simply want to ensure that management is positioned for success. They are there, with internal and external resources, to help management deliver on its blueprint.”

“[PE firms] seek managers who, however experienced, are hungry for success, are willing to put their own financial upside at risk, and relish the challenge of transforming a company.”

Man’s Search For Meaning

The first time I heard about this book was in talking to a man next to me on a plane. I was reading JD Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and mentioned that it was occasionally really depressing, but insightful. The man said what I was reading couldn’t be anything close to Man’s Search For Meaning. He was right. When I’ve read or watched end-of-the-world scenarios, I sometimes wonder, ‘what is even the point in trying to stay alive?’ But the idea of meaning — finding the value in existing, no matter our circumstances, is important. Dignity is an undervalued concept. Life should be about enabling more and more people to live a dignified and meaningful life.

Special thanks to Erik Hansen for letting me borrow his copy of this book.

Some Quotes:

From the introduction — “Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is one of the great books of our time. Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading it, rereading it, and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages.”

“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

“Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”

“The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

“Does this not bring to mind the story of Death in Teheran? A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house, the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.”

“A man’s character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and threw them into doubt.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision.”

“The preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”

“Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge.”

“All that oppressed me at that moment became objective.”

“By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”

“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man.”

“That no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.”

“Create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”

“The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.”

“We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.”

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”

“How can we dare to predict the behavior of man? We may predict the movements of a machine, of an automaton; more than this, we may even try to predict the mechanisms or “dynamisms” of the human psyche as well. But man is more than psyche.”

“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Israel on his lips.”

“As soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity — their depression disappeared although their economic situation had not changed and their hunger was the same. The truth is that man does not live by welfare alone.”

“So, let us be alert — alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”

Janesville

In line with my theme this year of thinking about how small to medium sized towns and cities grow, thrive, and sometimes fail, I was really interested in this book. Since the 2016 election, I’m not sure that people have rushed to understand the less-pondered lower middle class and Midwestern culture of America, as much as people already thinking about those things had their ideas suddenly elevated. This book had been in the works for years, but it became timely as the circumstances evolved around it.

More than anything, what struck me about this book was the role of economic dependence for a certain community. Janesville’s economy was completely dependent on the GM plant, and when that went away, their ability to sustain life as a community was significantly damaged. People talk about the world being flat and how technology and the internet have made the world ultimately accessible, makes me believe that no community should need to be economically dependent in this way, and that efforts could be made to diversify the things that drive value in any given community.

Many thanks to the Books, Inc. on California St. in San Francisco for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“By the time the plant closed, the United States was in a crushing financial crisis that left a nation strewn with discarded jobs and deteriorated wages. Still, Janesville’s people believed that their future would be like their past, that they could shape their own destiny. They had reason for this faith.”

“Without its assembly plant, Janesville goes on, its surface looking uncannily intact for a place that has been through an economic earthquake. Keeping up appearances, trying to hide the ways that pain is seeping in, is one thing that happens when good jobs go away and middle-class people tumble out of the middle class.”

“And the citizens of Janesville? They set out to reinvent their town and themselves. Over a few years, it became evident that no one outside — not the Democrats nor the Republicans, not the bureaucrats in Madison or in Washington, not the fading unions nor the struggling corporations — had the key to create the middle class anew. The people of Janesville do not give up. And not just the autoworkers. From the leading banker to the social worker devoted to sheltering homeless kids, people take risks for one another, their affection for their town keeping them here.”

“Call it arrogance, call it what you want, Bob sees himself as a fix-it guy — the adult in the room, the one with a doctorate who can take on a project and do it better than anyone else. Bob is, in particular, an ace at a skill most necessary when a plant shuts down — applying for government grants.”

“By that day in 2008 when General Motors handed the assembly plant its death sentence, the rumors that the plant would shut down had been hovering over town so long that they had become a familiar backdrop to life in Janesville — unsettling but so frequent that people stopped believing that it would happen.”

“As part of a first, early trickle of autoworkers at Blackhawk who have been recession-smacked out of a job, they do not know that they will need to molt, to shed old factory habits, factory ways of defining themselves, and pick up new ways.”

“He was on the Janesville City Council in 1971 when it commissioned a consultant to study how the city could best protect its economic future. The study’s core recommendation — to diversify — came as the plant was nearing its all-time peak workforce of 7,100, and few besides Tim saw any reason to take the advice seriously.”

“As she watches her smart, sensitive daughter in tears, Mary knows that Chelsea cannot see the scared farm girl who discovered that, without food stamps, there wouldn’t be enough to eat. She knows that Chelsea is seeing the banker and leading citizen who can always be depended upon to come up with a solution for the community. “Mom,” Chelsea implores her. “What are you going to do?””

“Their core question is as daunting as it is obvious: How to get the local economy out of its free fall? One obstacle, they quickly recognize, is that no one — not Forward Janesville; not Rock County; not the Janesville city government; not Beloit, the county’s second-largest city — has any real money to devote to a muscular economic development campaign.”

“Janesville has become a damaged brand, known now for being down on its economic luck. Fixing the brand — raising money from the local business community, marketing, keeping companies and winning new ones — will require a strong leader.”

“When Mary and Diane get talking, Mary is delighted to discover how much they agree. One of their central points of agreement is that, whatever this campaign will be, local businesses need to invest in it. “We are not going to wait for the government to come in and rescue us,” Diane is fond of saying. “We are not going to wait for GM to rescue us. We are on our own. Let’s get this job done.”

“As he struggled with what to do, he watched Barb in astonishment, her head deep into her schoolwork, turning crisis into opportunity.”

“If you don’t change with the times, you’ll be left behind.”

“Training people out of unemployment is a big, popular idea. In fact, it may be the only economic idea on which Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Democrats such as President Obama agree, anchored, as it is, in an abiding cultural myth, going back to America’s founding, of this as a land that offers its people a chance at personal reinvention. The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment.”

“Rock County 5.0 has not yet reached the goal of $1 million in private support. But it is $400,000 along the path. Respectable. And the project now has five well-defined, five-year strategies to buttress its 5.0 name: persuading local companies to stay and expand, attracting new businesses, offering special help to small businesses and start-ups, preparing real estate for commercial uses, and forging a workforce that employers will want to hire.”

“These foreclosures, and an understanding in the pit of her stomach that people who lose their jobs in America shouldn’t have to lose their homes, too, give Mary another idea. Her idea is to invite all the bank presidents and credit union leaders in the area to her office for a conversation about what they are seeing and what they might do about it. It becomes a hard conversation.”

“This is the human side of responding to the recession, Mary thinks, with the banks taking some of the hit and not loading the full burden onto their customers.”

“She is ready to leave, because she does not want to do what some of her co-workers will do during the next few months. Like them, she has been offered an opportunity to be paid longer if she were willing to fly to Mexico and train workers there. Linda has given training over the years, and she knows that she has a knack for it. If she were being asked to train someone in Janesville, she would, naturally, say yes. But to train someone in Mexico — Mexico! — to take over her job? After her forty-four years, she doesn’t have the heart for that.”

“Matt is a deliberate man, and deliberate men do not let their mortgage payments slip behind, but there it was. He and Darcy had lived near the edge of what General Motors’ $28 an hour could buy, as so many GM’ers did, paying $270 a month on their camper, trading in cars for newer models, even dipping into their 401(k) once in a while to take the girls on trips. So even though, as a GM’er, Matt was lucky to get his union SUB pay on top of his unemployment checks, and the federal government was covering his tuition and textbooks and gas mileage to campus and even the right clothes for climbing utility poles, it didn’t add up to anywhere near $28 an hour. The reality was that he and Darcy didn’t have much cushion, and his SUB pay was about to be cut in half, and his GM health benefits were going to run out.”

“Listening to this straight shooting, one thing the instructor says, in particular, burns into Matt’s mind: “If I were you guys and had an opportunity to get GM wages, I would run and not look back.” That is when Matt understands that the option he’d rejected is the only choice he has left. He couldn’t even call it a choice, because he feels that it has all come down to either Fort Wayne or maybe even bankruptcy sometime soon, and responsible men don’t file for bankruptcy.”

“It is so plain: He can’t let his kids feel that kind of money shame. Plan A, Plan B, or whatever plan it takes, he will at least be the man he’s always understood himself to be. Who would rather put himself out than his family. Who always keeps his word when he says he’ll do a job. Who understands that, in order to protect his family, he has to leave them.”

“Tammy and Jerad can see that their family is not the only one cutting back. Around town, “For Sale” signs have been cropping up on boats and campers and other grown-up toys that were trophies of middle-class lives.”

“Many people complained, many people cried, many people gave up. Some waited for things to go back to the way they were. . . . But there were a vital few that decided to create a new future for themselves and this area. They decided to use the economic obstacles as an economic opportunity. Those people were all of you.”

“Still, the point unspoken in the Dream Center today is that, even when people desperate for a job try to retrain, as the Job Center has been encouraging, they don’t always succeed.”

“Because to Sharon and Blackhawk’s instructors, the most surprising fact about these arriving factory workers was how many of them didn’t know how to use a computer — didn’t even know how to turn one on.”

“During his wrap-up, Bob begins in Janesville’s old-time, can-do way, telling Montgomery: “At no time do I feel that anyone in this room has felt defeated or unwilling to step forward to try and make a difference.” Then Bob’s words turn darker, more pointed. “At times,” he admits, “we have felt overwhelmed by the challenges. We have felt isolated and overlooked. We have been frustrated by government regulations and bogged down by the rules and red tape. “The one thing we are asking for most,” he tells Montgomery, “is recognition that best solutions to local problems come from the creativity and ingenuity of communities.”

“Janesville always has made a big thing of Labor Day, magnifying it into a three-day celebration of the well-performed work and well-mannered labor relations in which the community has long taken pride.”

“The days are gone, Barrett says from the stage, when all it took to make a decent living were “a good back and a good alarm clock.” Fighting for good jobs, he pledges, will be his top priority in Madison.”

“So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at friends’ and relatives’ places — or spending nights in out-of-the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

“Deep inside, Barb understands what is going on. But the solid lineup of A grades that she earned at Blackhawk never came with a lesson in this. What are you supposed to do when the job for which you’ve invested two years of your life studying, the job for which you beat out four hundred people as desperate as you were for $16.47 an hour and state benefits — what are you supposed to do when that job is pressing you down into a depression?”

“A dream, though, is no substitute for a paycheck. Miserable as she is, she cannot believe that Mike is right. Then one day, with Christmas coming soon, she suddenly sees her life in a new way. She sees that she spent fifteen years at Lear playing the game, staying somewhere she wasn’t happy, just because the money was too good to leave. Maybe she is too intelligent, too educated now, to play the same game again. Maybe toughness is recognizing what isn’t working in your life and fixing it.”

“She is reminded that you never know when one unexpected event will transform you into “the person on the other side.”

“It’s not that Mike doesn’t think about the times and the people of his past. But those times are gone, and no point dwelling on them.”

“Nationally, nearly half the trainees who got this help last year, and about one third this year in which he is graduating, will not quickly find a job.”

“By this summer, the laid-off workers who went to Blackhawk will be faring less well than their laid-off neighbors who did not.”

“Besides, the people who went to Blackhawk are not earning as much money. Before the recession, their wages had been about the same as for other local workers. By this summer, the people who have found a new job without retraining are being paid, on average, about 8 percent less than they were paid before. But those who went to Blackhawk are being paid, on average, one third less than before.”

“Whatever the reasons, Bob is becoming aware that the retraining gospel that the federal government and the Job Center’s own caseworkers have been spreading is based on a rock-bottom premise that hasn’t turned out to be true — at least, not yet.”

“Yes, he will be making less money than before. But that is part, he believes, of accepting that the old times are gone. Part of not dwelling on what you can’t change. Part of being grateful for what you have. In these new times, what Mike sees when he looks over the sweep of his life is, not the loss of his union office, but a gamble on human resources management that has paid off. He has a job. It is in his field. It is in Janesville.”

“Hard as it is to imagine, in Janesville where thousands of people have lost jobs and some are still out of work and some, like her dad, are job hopping and not earning enough money, it has never occurred to Kayzia before that what is going on in her family is going on all over town. That is what happens when she and Alyssa have decided that this is not a subject to discuss with friends, and other kids, who used to be middle-class, too, have decided the same thing. So, now, Kayzia is overwhelmed by this thought that is hitting her, all of a sudden. “There’s more kids like me!”

“When she gets home from work, Alyssa asks, as Kayzia knew she would, where the stuff has come from. Kayzia knows that her sister won’t like the answer. If they need something, they have been taught, they work harder for it. Or they do without.”

““Want to go grocery shopping?” Kayzia asks, gently as she can, trying to make it sound like it’s no big deal, like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world for a sixteen-year-old kid to offer to take her mom to Woodman’s and pay. She realizes, as she asks, that her childhood is slipping away. This is what growing up too fast looks like, and it has been creeping up on her for a while.”

“And then they come to an aisle so tempting but unnecessary that Kayzia lets herself walk down it only because it is, after all, her own money: the aisle with chocolate chip cookie dough Pop-Tarts.”

“When they get to the house, and she puts away the groceries with her mom, Kayzia is feeling something besides happiness over the Cocoa Puffs: relief that her dad is asleep. All this time after his General Motors job went away, with him bumping in and out of other work that doesn’t pay enough, she knows that he still isn’t over the idea that he’s supposed to provide for his family. He’s so hard on himself, she thinks, not giving himself credit for trying as hard as he can, looking online all the time for better jobs. In the morning, she knows, he will not be happy to find the refrigerator filled by this midnight shopping adventure fueled by his daughters’ checking accounts.”

“Paul has learned that there is not a good pool of businesses to call because, even two and a half years after the recession officially ended, not many companies are looking to move or to expand. “In this economy? I’m not taking a risk,” is the reply that Paul has heard from CEOs more times than he cares to remember.”

“In Rock County, Kate Flanagan manages a shrinking supply of public mental health services. She can see that, when a community is under stress, some people have less hope. People who were barely managing their addictions, their depression — their fragilities, no matter the form — sometimes lose their grip when they lose a job.”

“She notices that her Closet kids who have grown up poor, always been poor, tend to be tougher, better at coping with it. The fragile ones are new to being poor, with parents fighting about how to live without the money they used to have.”

“It isn’t simple to take someone with a high school degree and a factory job and to help lead them into new work.”

“For the last thirty years, I’ve been writing music about the distance between the American Dream and the American reality,” Springsteen said, punctuating the end of that thought with a guitar strum. “I am troubled by thirty years of increasing disparity in the wealth between our best-off citizens and everyday Americans. That is a disparity that threatens to divide us into two distinct and separate nations. We have to be better than that.”

“Janesville, even missing so many of its union jobs, is still a Democratic union town at heart. A native son on the GOP ticket, Jay muses, was not enough. The other side, he has to admit, spoke more to the middle class.”

“He and Barb always have tried to save, but he is aware that putting money aside seems more crucial than in the past. Having lost a job once, it’s always in the back of his head; he can’t rule out its happening again.”

“To her surprise, Barb believes that Lear’s closing was the best thing that could have happened. Its closing taught her that she is a survivor. It taught her that work exists that is worth doing, not for the wages, but because you feel good doing it.”

“When the speeches end, he wanders into a hallway linking the banquet room with the hotel lobby, and settles into a wingback chair. After this weekend, he will go back to his latest project, trying to launch an innovative way to teach out-of-a-job people new skills by leaning on local companies for help. Bob knows that the upbeat talk of John Beckord and Mary and Paul and their fellow optimists packed into the banquet room doesn’t match what he sees, still sees, coming through the Job Center’s doors.”

“The Forward Janesville crowd, as Bob sees it, believes that sugarcoating reality might make Janesville more appealing to new businesses. And yet, as he thinks about the situation, the truth is that a lot of people are still hurting, still can’t afford their mortgage or their rent. “To sit and say things are back to normal is bogus,” he muses. “I have a problem with people not accepting reality.”

“One July day, after she takes out an $8,000 private loan that she will need to repay with 11 percent interest, Alyssa will post on her Facebook page: “That moment when you feel like the people who are in charge of education don’t want you to receive one. I hate working my butt off to have to figure out a way to get the education I deserve.”

“As the girls’ names are called [during high school graduation], the slanting evening sunlight throws a golden glow on the vacant assembly plant across the river. Neither their grandfathers, with their good pensions after thirty years, nor their dad, cast out after thirteen years, look over to notice.”

“Even a small city wrenched by the worst of what a mighty recession metes out does not have a single fate. With broad outside forces — the federal government and the state, industry and labor — unable to lift back up its once prosperous middle class, Janesville has been left to rely to a considerable extent on its own resources. Fortunately, those resources include more generosity and ingenuity — and less bitterness — than in many communities that have been economically injured. Still, over time, some people prosper. Some grieve. Some get by.”

“Even among people who disagree over almost everything else about the economy, the common wisdom is that workers who lose a job, without much likelihood of finding another in the same field, should go back to school to train for a different one. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the retraining of such dislocated workers. However, research into whether this policy is useful is not extensive.”

“The findings were surprising: Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.”

“Retraining did not translate into greater success at finding a job. Among those who went back to school, the proportion who ended up with steady work was smaller than among the laid-off workers who did not. Worse still, more of those who retrained were not earning any money at all.”

“Based on the predictions of Blackhawk staff and local business leaders about which fields of study would be the most promising paths to available jobs, some of these students were channeled into associate’s degree programs in information technology and clinical laboratory technicians work. And others were enrolled in shorter certificate programs in certified nursing assistance, welding, and business. We looked at whether all the laid-off students who selected these promising programs fared better at finding work than those studying in other programs. They did not.”

Child of God

Round 3 with Mr. McCarthy, and I gotta say — this was the least fun I’ve ever had in my life. The book is short, and chronicles a terrible thing. The key takeaway I had came from the title, and a brief interaction that I quoted below. “Child of God.” The nature of human-kind is something a lot of people have thought on. The same humanity that leads someone to save someones life, or take them in, is the same humanity that leads to murder, rape, robbery, and pain. What are we to make of that?

A lot of people use it to “annihilate” the idea of God. Stephen Fry, a vocal atheist, was asked what he would say if God turned out to be real, and he met Him/Her/It face to face.

Ignore the weird dude at the end of the video who is…hosting a podcast? Or something?

“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world where there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly evil.”

You could add some of the things that happen in this book to Fry’s list. And as I thought about the idea of a Child of God, but one that does something we would call evil, what does that say about God? In my mind, the answer has everything to do with perspective. If this life is all their is, then yes, any amount of avoidable suffering is despicable and wrong. But if today is the only day we live, then getting surgery, vaccinations, putting our kids in timeout, or even making them exercise, or eat healthy, all of those things are completely out of the question and wrong, because they take this little time we have and fill it with unfortunate things.

But today is not the only day. This life is not all there is. And so what suffering we see here is not an ultimate thing, and to treat it as if it was, is the same as saying we should never vaccinate our kids because it hurts them. It does. But in the long run, the result is more important than the pain.

Some Quotes:

“It’s like a lot of things, said the smith. Do the least part of it wrong and ye’d just as well to do it all wrong.”

“You think people was meaner then than they are now? the deputy said.

The old man was looking out at the flooded town. No, he said. I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.”

Praise To The Man

BYU Speeches put together this book of some of the best speeches that have been given at BYU on the topic of Joseph Smith, the first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I won this book by doing a trivia challenge about Mormon speakers. I then lost the book I won, was late for class, ran back and gave the right answers to someone else so that they could win me another copy of the book, then ran back my class, and on the way met the girl who I went on my first date with at BYU after my mission.

It wasn’t a great date, and I didn’t see her again. But hey, the story is great.

Specifically, I’ve carried this book around for 5 years and never read it. I finally set out to read it and what I was struck by was the different ways in which people have identified the importance of someone like Joseph Smith as it relates to the whole of religious thought. If what Joseph Smith said happened to him actually did happen, it’s the most important thing to happen since the life of Jesus Christ. If there really is a prophet on the earth today like Moses, it’s probably important.

Some Quotes:

“Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith” by Richard Lloyd Anderson

“Joseph Smith and the Lighter Side” by Leonard J. Arrington

“What Came From Kirtland” by M. Russell Ballard

“Joseph Smith: The Chosen of God and the Friend of Man” by Ivan J. Barrett

“The Profile of a Prophet” by Hugh B. Brown

“Joseph Smith: The Mormon Prophet” by James A. Cullimore

“Joseph Smith’s Christlike Attributes” by Jack H. Goaslind

“Joseph Smith The Prophet” by David B. Haight

“Praise to the Man” by Gordon B. Hinckley

“A Choice Seer” by Neal A. Maxwell

“Joseph Smith: A Revealer of Christ” by Bruce R. McConkie

“Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil” by David L. Paulsen

“But For Joseph” by Katherine D. Pullins

“Stand by My Servant Joseph” by Cecil O. Samuelson

“Joseph Smith: Lover of the Cause of Christ” by Heidi S. Swinton

“Where is the clear voice of authority on right and wrong? Divided and drifting churches supply religious philosophers but not prophets. Yet Latter-Day Saints testify that Joseph Smith and his successors were called to rescue a world adrift in its own conceits and problems. Such a claim can be tested by the Bible, the record of prior prophets.”

“What are the most important things in the world today? Do not look for them in the media, for the three best historians of the first century barely mention Christianity as a disreputable superstition, and no one mentions Paul.”

“It was in such an environment that Joseph Smith grew up. But before he went through the stage of rebellion, before the development of a guilt complex, the Lord granted to him, at the age of fourteen, that glorious First Vision. The Lord got to him, in other words, before the religions of the day were able to deaden his youthful exuberance and openness, his capacity for enjoying the mental, cultural, and physical aspects of life. He thus avoided the artificially severe, ascetic, fun-abhorring mantle that contemporary religion seemed to insist upon. He was pious, but not inhibited; earnest, but not fanatical; a warm, affectionate, and enjoyable personality — a prophet who was both serious and playful — a wonderful exemplar of the precept “Man is that he might have joy.”

“Elder Russell Nelson recently expanded on this important principle. He said, ‘The Lord can only teach an inquiring mind.’ What an important lesson. The Lord doesn’t generally come to us — he waits for us to come to Him and ask. Then he gives us the answer. How many times have you said, ‘I have not received direction lately’ or ‘I feel a void in my life.’ Do we inquire of the Lord? Do we ask, seek, and knock as the Savior directed? As you have problems and questions in your lives, do you follow this principle? I testify to you that as your minds are opened and as you truly inquire of the Lord, he will answer you. As we humble ourselves, he will lead us by the hand and give us answers to our prayers.”

“Joseph Smith said something like this: ‘When I have heard a story about me, I sit down and think about it and pray about it, and I ask myself the question, ‘Did I say something or was there something about my manner to give some basis for that story to start?’ And often if I think about it long enough, I realize I have done something to give that basis. And there wells up in me a forgiveness of the person who has told that story, and a resolve that I will never do that again.”

“Ages ago in the Great Council, Jesus was the prepared but meek volunteer. As the Father described the plan of salvation and the need for a Savior, it was Jesus who stepped forward and said humbly but courageously, ‘Here am I, send me.’ Never has anyone offered to do so much for so many with so few words.”

“Elder Neal A. Maxwell, in his last visit to BYU in the spring of 2004, shed some significant light on this matter. In his comments he included our excellent faculty and generous donors, as well as you special students, in his expressions of gratitude for what has been and is being accomplished here. Listen carefully to his words: “In a way, LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the Kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this University. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.”

The Power of the Everyday Missionary

While this book is specifically about helping members of the LDS church, or Mormons, share what they believe, I think the concept of being missionaries of our causes is something that has been lost. If you have something in your life that you think offers you value, whether it’s a religion, a product, a service, a practice, a habit, anything — if you really care about someone, shouldn’t you want to share that with them? They may not accept it, it may not work for them, and that’s okay. But the act of sharing something you care about should be seen less as intrusive, or inappropriate, and more as a sign of love and caring.

Many thanks to Gary and Sherry Neuder for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“In this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything that you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel.”

“This experience also taught us that we don’t need to transform our relationships into friendships as a prerequisite to inviting others to learn about the gospel. Whether our platform with people is as neighbors, classmates, work associates, store clerks, or those riding on the same bus, there is no requirement to change that platform before we can invite them. Indeed, we need not and should not alter our relationships with others in order to invite them.”

“Because God gives answers when we ask questions, it is a good way to do missionary work. People will learn when they are ready to learn, not when we are ready to teach them. Discovering what questions are on people’s minds about religion helps me see that I actually am surrounded by many more people who are religious than I had imagined — because they have questions.”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Camden and I first saw this movie on a plane on our way to Hawaii. We watched the movie, and Camden had a very emotional reaction. She lost a brother to cancer, and the movie is hard to watch. I felt awful for having had us watch it, but afterwards Camden was grateful to have watched it. She is a strong person, and has born her grief with a lot of perspective. Afterwards, when we got to Seattle, we bought this book and she read it, and enjoyed it. It took me a long time to finally get around to reading it.

Many thanks to the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle for giving us our copy.

Some Quotes:

“In middle school I just had a hard time making friends. I don’t know why. If I knew why, it wouldn’t have been so impossible. One thing was that I just usually wasn’t interested in what other kids were interested in. For a lot of kids, it was sports or music, two things that I just couldn’t really get into. Music really only interested me as a soundtrack to a movie, and as for sports, I mean, come on. It’s some guys throwing some balls around, or trying to knock each other over, and you’re supposed to watch them for three hours at a time, and it just sort of seems like a waste. I dunno. I don’t want to sound condescending, so I’m not going to say anything else, except that it is literally impossible to imagine a thing dumber than sports.”

“This book probably makes it seem like I hate myself and everything I do. But that’s not totally true. I mostly just hate every person I’ve ever been. I’m actually fine with myself right now.”

Blink

Malcolm Gladwell was once described by my behavioral economics professor as muffin top research, just taking the sweet interesting tidbits off the top without any solid foundation. Pop culture psychology is another example. I think what Gladwell provides exceedingly well is anecdotes; illustrations of principles that have true concepts behind them, but may not always be aligned in exactly the right way. For any serious student of the ideas he writes about, he provides a valuable addition to your understanding, but probably wouldn’t base your entire theoretical base on him.

Some Quotes:

In those moments, our brain uses two very different strategies to make sense of the situation. The first is the one we’re most familiar with. It’s the conscious strategy. We think about what we’ve learned, and eventually we come up with an answer. This strategy is logical and definitive. But it takes us eighty cards to get there. It’s slow, and it needs a lot of information. There’s a second strategy, though. It operates a lot more quickly. It starts to kick in after ten cards, and it’s really smart, because it picks up the problem with the red decks almost immediately. It was the drawback, however, that it operates — at least at first — entirely below the surface of consciousness. It sends its messages through weirdly indirect channels, such as the sweat glands in the palms of our hands. It’s a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it’s reaching conclusions.”

“This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of, instead, as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”

“Timothy D. Wilson writes in his book Strangers to Ourselves: ‘The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.”

“Our unconscious is a powerful force. But it’s fallible. It’s not the case that our internal computer always shines through, instantly decoding the “truth” of a situation. It can be thrown off, distracted, and disabled. Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests and emotions and sentiments.”

“After the O.J. Simpson verdict, one of the jurors appeared on TV and said with absolute conviction, ‘Race had absolutely nothing to do with my decision,’ psychologist Joshua Aronson says. ‘But how on earth could she know that? What my research with priming race and test performance, and Bargh’s research with the interrupters, and Maier’s experiment with the topes show is that people are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say ‘I don’t know’ more often.”

“The results from these experiments are, obviously, quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act — and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment — are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.”

“If you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way — who would like to have a set of associations with blacks that are as positive as those that you have with whites — it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort.”

“You know, you get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning.”

“All that extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all; that, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.”

“That extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.”

“Market research isn’t always wrong, of course. If ‘All in the Family’ had been more traditional — and if the Aeron had been just a minor variation on the chair that came before it — the act of measuring consumer reactions would not have been nearly as difficult. But testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary is another matter, and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation. We like market research because it provides certainty — a score, a prediction; if someone asks us why we made the decision we did, we can point to a number. But the truth is that for the most important decisions, there can be no certainty.”

“What he was building, in those nights in the storerooms, was a kind of database in his unconscious. He was learning how to match the feeling he had about an object with what was formally understood about its background and style and value. Whenever we have something that we are good at — something we care about — that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions.”

“When we make a split-second decision,” Payne says, “we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.”

“The critics of police conduct invariably focus on the intentions of individual officers. They talk about racism and conscious bias. The defenders of the police, on the other hand, invariably take refuge in what Fyfe calls the split-second syndrome: An officer goes to the scene as quickly as possible. He sees the bad guy. There is no time for thought. He acts. That scenario requires that mistakes be accepted as unavoidable. In the end, both of these perspectives are defeatist. They accept as a given the fact that once any critical incident is in motion, there is nothing that can be done to stop or control it. And when our instinctive reactions are involved, that view is all too common. But that assumption is wrong. Our unconscious thinking is, in one critical respect, no different from our conscious thinking: in both, we are able to develop our rapid decision making with training and experience.”

“The ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience.”

“Because we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.”

“Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.”

“We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding.”

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

“On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated — when we have to juggle many different variables — then our unconscious thought processes may be superior.”

Quote from Sigmund Freud — “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”

“What if we put screens in the courtroom? We have a jury system in the Western world based on an idea that goes back to antiquity: that the accused has the right to confront his accusers and to be judged by a jury of his peers. Back then it was thought that for justice to be achieved, the jury, the accuser, and the accused all had to see one another. But now we know more: we know that what we see — particularly when it is the color of someone’s skin, or gender, or age, — does not always aid understanding. Sometimes we can make better judgments with less information. I think that the accused in a criminal trial shouldn’t be in the courtroom. He or she should be in another room entirely, answering questions by email or through the use of an intermediary. And I think that all evidence and testimony in a trial that tips the jury off to the age or race or gender of the defendent ought to be edited out.”

“It is not enough simply to explore the hidden recesses of our unconscious. Once we know about how the mind works — and about the strengths and weaknesses of human judgment — it is our responsibility to act.”

Weapons of Math Destruction

Everything about the world can be summed up as data. What isn’t as cut and dry is what that data means. This book is a great introduction to the ideas behind algorithms and how inherent bias can be built into even the most seemingly benign system.

Special thanks to Folio Books in San Francisco for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“But instead, in the wake of the crisis, new mathematical techniques were hotter than ever, and expanding into still more domains. They churned 24/7 through petabytes of information, much of it scraped from social media or e-commerce websites. And increasingly they focused not on the movements of global financial markets but on human beings, on us. Mathematicians and statisticians were studying our desires, movements, and spending power. They were predicting our trustworthiness and calculating our potential as students, workers, lovers, criminals.”

“The math-powered applications powering the data economy were based on choices made by fallible human beings. Some of these choices were no doubt made with the best intentions. Nevertheless, many of these models encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.”

“In Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD), many poisonous assumptions are camouflaged by math and go largely untested and unquestioned.”

“Do you see the paradox? An algorithm processes a slew of statistics and comes up with a probability that a certain person might be a bad hire, a risky borrower, a terrorist, or a miserable teacher. That probability is distilled into a score, which can turn someone’s life upside down. And yet when the person fights back, ‘suggestive’ countervailing evidence simply won’t cut it. The case must be ironclad. The human victims of WMDs, we’ll see time and again, are held to a far higher standard of evidence than the algorithms themselves.”

“But there’s one important distinction between a school district’s value-added model and, say, a WMD that scouts out prospects for extortionate payday loans. They have different payoffs. For the school district, the payoff is a kind of political currency, a sense that problems are being fixed. But for businesses it’s just the standard currency: money. For many of the businesses running these rogue algorithms, the money pouring in seems to prove that their models are working. Look at it through their eyes and it makes sense. When they’re building statistical systems to find customers or manipulate desperate borrowers, growing revenue appears to show that they’re on the right track. The software is doing its job. The trouble is that profits end up serving as a stand-in, or proxy for truth. We’ll see this dangerous confusion crop up again and again.”

“The folks building WMDs routinely lack data for the behaviors they’re most interested in. So they substitute stand-in data, or proxies. They draw statistical correlations between a person’s zip code or language patterns and her potential to pay back a loan or handle a job. These correlations are discriminatory, and some of them are illegal. Baseball models, for the most part, don’t use proxies because they have pertinent inputs like balls, strikes, and hits.”

“Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.”

“Needless to say, racists don’t spend a lot of time hunting down reliable data to train their twisted models. And once their model morphs into a belief, it becomes hardwired. It generates poisonous assumptions, yet rarely tests them, settling instead for data that seems to confirm and fortify them. Consequently, racism is the most slovenly of predictive models. It is powered by haphazard data gathering and spurious correlations, reinforced by institutional inequities, and polluted by confirmation bias.”

“The first question is (1) even if the participant is aware of being modeled, or what the model is used for, is the model opaque, or even invisible? (2) does that model work against the subject’s interest? In short, is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives? (3) Is whether a model has the capacity to grow exponentially. As a statistician would put it, can it scale?”

“I got the sense that the people warning about risk were viewed as party poopers or, worse, a threat to the bank’s bottom line. This was true even after the cataclysmic crash of 2008, and it’s not hard to understand why. If they survived that one — because they were too big to fail — why were they going to fret over risk in their portfolio now?”

“I wondered what the analogue to the credit crisis might be in Big Data. Instead of a bust, I saw a growing dystopia, with inequality rising. The algorithms would make sure that those deemed losers would remain that way. A lucky minority would gain ever more control over the data economy, raking in outrageous fortunes and convincing themselves all the while that they deserved it.”

“When you create a model from proxies, it is far simpler for people to game it. This is because proxies are easier to manipulate than the complicated reality they represent.”

“It’s here that we find the greatest shortcoming of the U.S. News college ranking. The proxies the journalists chose for educational excellence make sense, after all. Their spectacular failure comes, instead, from what they chose not to count: tuition and fees. Student financing was left out of the model.”

“The victims, of course, are the vast majority of Americans, the poor and middle-class families who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on courses and consultants. They miss out on precious insider knowledge. The result is an education system that favors the privileged. It tilts against needy students, locking out the great majority o them — and pushing them down a path toward poverty. It deepens the social divide.”

“So the government capitulated. And the result might be better. Instead of a ranking, the Education Department released loads of data on a website. The result is that students can ask their own questions about the things that matter to them — including class size, graduation rates, and the average debt held by graduating students. They don’t need to know anything about statistics or the weighting of variables. The software itself, much like an online travel site, creates individual models for each person. Think of it: transparent, controlled by the user, and personal. You might call it the opposite of a WMD.”

“The for-profit colleges do not bother targeting rich students. They and their parents know too much.”

“The feedback loop for this WMD is far less complicated than it is nefarious. The poorest 40 percent of the US population is in desperate straits. Many industrial jobs have disappeared, either replaced by technology or shipped overseas. Unions have lost their punch. The top 20 percent of the population controls 89 percent of the wealth in the country, and the bottom 40 percent controls none of it. Their assets are negative: the average household in this enormous and struggling underclass has a net debt of $14,800, much of it in extortionate credit card accounts. What these people need is money. And the key to earning more money, they hear again and again, is education.”

“… bankers are virtually invulnerable. They spend heavily on our politicians, which always helps, and are also viewed as crucial to our economy. That protects them. If their banks go south, our economy could go with them. (The poor have no such argument.)”

“The Constitution’s implicit judgment is that freeing someone who may well have committed a crime, for lack of evidence, poses less of a danger to our society than jailing or executing an innocent person. WMDs, by contrast, tend to favor efficiency. By their very nature, they feed on data that can be measured and counted. But fairness is squishy and hard to quantify.”

“The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime?”

“And this is precisely what happens. Consider a recidivism study by Michigan economics professor Michael Mueller-Smith. After studying 2.6 million criminal court records in Harris County, Texas, he concluded that the longer inmates in Harris County, Texas, spent locked up, the greater the chance that they would fail to find employment upon release, would require food stamps and other public assistance, and would commit further crimes. But to turn those conclusions into smart policy and better justice, politicians will have to take a stand on behalf of a feared minority that many (if not most) voters would much prefer to ignore. It’s a tough sell.”

“Not a chance, I’d say. The difference is this: Basketball teams are managing individuals, each one potentially worth millions of dollars. Their analytics engines are crucial to their competitive advantage, and they are hungry for data. Without constant feedback, their systems grow outdated and dumb. The companies hiring minimum-wage workers, by contrast, are managing herds. They slash expenses by replacing human resources professionals with machines, and those machines filter large populations into more manageable groups. Unless something goes haywire in the workforce — an outbreak of kleptomania, say, or plummeting productivity — the company has little reason to tweak the filtering model. It’s doing its job — even if it misses out on potential stars.”

“… We’ve seen time and again that mathematical models can sift through data to locate people who are likely to face great challenges, whether from crime, poverty, or education. It’s up to society whether to use that intelligence to reject and punish them — or to reach out to them with the resources they need. We can use the scale and efficiency that make WMDs so pernicious in order to help people. It all depends on the objective we choose.”

“Scheduling software can be seen as an extension of the just-in-time economy. But instead of lawn mower blades or cell phone screens showing up right on cue, it’s people, usually people who badly need money. And because they need money so desperately, the companies can bend their lives to the dictates of a mathematical model.”

“That’s all the more reason to spread the word about these and other WMDs. Once people recognize them and understand their statistical flaws, they’ll demand evaluations that are fairer for both students and teachers. However, if the goal of the testing is to find someone to blame, and to intimidate workers, then, as we’ve seen, a WMD that spews out meaningless scores gets an A-plus.”

“In other words, the modelers for e-scores have to make do with trying to answer the question, “How have people like you behaved in the past?” when ideally they would ask, “How have you behaved in the past?”

“…The world is dominated by automatic systems chomping away on our error-ridden dossiers. They urgently require human context, common sense, and fairness that only humans can provide. However, if we leave this issue to the marketplace, which prizes efficiency, growth, and cash flow (while tolerating a certain degree of errors), meddling humans will be instructed to stand clear of the machinery.”

“I have no reason to believe that the social scientists at Facebook are actively gaming the political system. Most of them are serious academics carrying out research on a platform that they could only have dreamed about two decades ago. But what they have demonstrated is Facebook’s enormous power to affect what we learn, how we feel, and whether we vote. Its platform is massive, powerful, and opaque. The algorithms are hidden from us, and we see only the results of the experiment researchers choose to publish.”

“In any case, the entire political system — the money, the attention, the fawning — turns to targeted voters like a flower following the sun. The rest of us are virtually ignored (except for fund-raising come-ons). The programs have already predicted our voting behavior, and any attempt to change it is not worth the investment. This creates a nefarious feedback loop. The disregarded voters are more likely to grow disenchanted. The winners know how to play the game. They get the inside story, while the vast majority of consumers receive only market-tested scraps.”

“It’s a silent war that hits the poor hardest but also hammers the middle class. Its victims, for the most part, lack economic power, access to lawyers, or well-funded political organizations to fight their battles. The result is widespread damage that all too often passes for inevitability.”

“Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.”

“How do we start to regulate the mathematical models that run more and more of our lives? I would like to suggest that the process begin with the modelers themselves. Like doctors, data scientists should pledge a Hippocratic Oath, one that focuses on the possible misuses and misinterpretations of their models. Following the market crash of 2008, two financial engineers, Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott, drew up such an oath. It reads:

  • I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.
  • Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.
  • I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.
  • Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.
  • I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.

“The achievement gap, mass incarceration, and voter apathy are big, nationwide problems that no free market nor mathematical algorithm will fix. So the first step is to get a grip on our techno-utopia, that unbounded and unwarranted hope in what algorithms and technology can accomplish. Before asking them to do better, we have to admit they can’t do everything.”

“Finally, models that have significant impact on our lives, including credit scores and e-scores, should be open and available to the public. Ideally, we could navigate them at the level of an app on our phones. In a tight month, for example, a consumer could use such an app to compare the impact of unpaid phone and electricity bills on her credit score and see how much a lower score would affect her plans to buy a car. The technology already exists. It’s only the will we’re lacking.”

“The researcher’s’ finding was not welcome. For a meeting with important public officials, our group prepared a PowerPoint presentation about homelessness in New York. After the slide with statistics about recidivism and the effectiveness of Section 8 was put up, an extremely awkward and brief conversation took place. Someone demanded the slide be taken down. The party line prevailed.”

“Models like this will abound in coming years, assessing our risk of osteoporosis or strokes, swooping in to help struggling students with calculus II, even predicting the people most likely to suffer life-altering falls. Many of these models, like some of the WMDs we’ve discussed, will arrive with the best intentions. But they must also deliver transparency, disclosing the input data they’re using as well as the results of their targeting. And they must be open to audits. These are powerful engines, after all. We must keep our eyes on them.”

“The Facebook debacle raises some interesting questions. First, what do we mean by “bias”? Given how polarized our newspapers and public discussions have become — there is now widespread disagreement about the facts themselves, and about the limits of appropriate debate — what policy could Facebook adopt that would be seen as universally fair?”

“But in the last couple of years, we have seen the darker consequences of its algorithm. For example, after the presidential election, if you asked Google “who won the popular vote,” the very first result was a link to a conspiracy blog claiming Trump had won. Dylann Roof, the young man who murdered nine church goers in Charleston in 2015, was by his own account radicalized after searching the term “black on White crime” and believing the results verbatim. This should not surprise us. Machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms do not have an embedded model of the world that can reliably distinguish between truth and lies.”

“We need to ensure that data effectively and comprehensively represents the world — even, we hope, bears witness to the world and its suffering, rather than shaping the world — especially in ways that exacerbate misery. To accomplish this, we’d need to expand the role of data scientist.”

“This brings us to a larger question about the nature of evidence itself. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in researching this book, it’s that different fields have very different concepts evidence of what constitute evidence, what elements of an argument need to be “proven,” and when accumulated evidence amounts to persuasive argument. What constitutes observable truth in law or philosophy may not in psychology.”

No Country For Old Men

In high school, I was a big fan of directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. I’ve known about No Country For Old Men for a long time, but had never seen the movie, and only recently knew that it was based on a book. After getting my feet wet in a few other McCarthy specials, I was finally ready to get exposed to this one. And it didn’t disappoint. The biggest impact I saw from this was the lack of conclusion, reflecting the messiness in the world. In reality, you don’t always find out who did it, you don’t always catch the bad guy, there isn’t always a happy ending.

Some Quotes:

“They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I dont know what them eyes was the windows to and I guess I’d as soon not know. But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that’s where this is goin.”

“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.”

“His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.”

“Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?”

“It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.”

“People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they dont deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things. I dont recall that I ever give the good Lord all that much cause to smile on me. But he did.”

“Nineteen is old enough to know that if you have got somethin that means the world to you it’s all that more likely it’ll get took away.”

“The sheriff shook his head. Dope, he said. Dope. They sell that shit to schoolkids. It’s worse than that. How’s that? Schoolkids buy it.”

“I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent in from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m gettin old.”

“Chigurh thought it an odd oversight but he knew that fear of an enemy can often blind men to other hazards, not least the shape which they themselves make in the world.”

“One of the things you realize about gettin older is that not everbody is goin to get older with you.”

“I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did.”

“It’s not about knowin where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it. You understand what I’m sayin?”

“You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who’s layin there?”

“He said there was nothin to set a man’s mind at ease like wakin up in the morning and not havin to decide who you were.”

“Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”

“Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”

“When you’re called on like that you have to make up your mind that you’ll live with the consequences. But you dont know what the consequences will be. You end up layin a lot of things at your own door that you didnt plan on.”

“It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong.”

“There’s two kinds of people that dont ask a lot of questions. One is too dumb to and the other dont need to.”

“What do we think is goin to come of that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people dont just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions. I dont have no answer about that. In particular I dont have no answer to take heart from.”

“You cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too. I said: You might even know some yourself.”

The Lost Continent

This book fits into my bucket of thinking about small towns and what sets them apart. Bill Bryson also just happens to be so dang funny. I was frequently taking pictures of jokes and sending it to my wife or my brother. There really is no end result, no summary. He sees good, and he sees bad as he travels around the whole country.

Thanks to Camden for getting me this birthday present, and for Bell’s Books in Palo Alto for my copy.

Some Quotes:

“And as for American closets, they seem to always be full of yesterday’s enthusiasms: golf clubs, scuba diving equipment, tennis rackets, exercise machines, tape recorders, dark room equipment, objects that once excited their owner and then were replaced by other objects even more shiny and exciting. That is the great, seductive thing about America — the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not. There is something deeply worrying, and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification, this constant appeal to the baser instincts.”

“I drove on into town. When I was growing up Main Street in Winfield had two grocery stores, a variety store, a tavern, a pool hall, a newspaper, a bank, a barbershop, a post office, two gas stations — all the things you would expect of any thriving little town. Everyone shopped locally; everyone knew everyone else. Now all that was left was a tavern and a place selling farm equipment. There were half a dozen vacant lots, full of patchy grass, where buildings had been torn down and never replaced. Most of the remaining buildings were dark and boarded up. It was like an abandoned film set which had long since been left to decay.”

“One of the things I was looking for on this trip was the perfect town. It began to bother me that I had never seen this town. But I felt sure that it must exist somewhere. It was inconceivable that a nation so firmly attached to small-town ideals, so dedicated in its fantasies to small-town notions, could not have somewhere built one perfect place — a place of harmony and industry, a place without shopping malls and oceanic parking lots, without factories, and drive-in churches, without Kwik-Kraps and Jiffi-Shits and commercial squalor from one end to the other. In this timeless place Bing Crosby would be the priest, Jimmy Stewart the mayor, Fred MacMurray the high-school principal, Henry Fonda a Quaker farmer. Walter Brennan would run the gas station, a boyish Mickey Rooney would deliver groceries, and somewhere at an open window Deanna Durbin would sing. And in the background, always, would be the kid on a bike and those two smartly striding men. The place I was looking for would be an amalgam of all those towns I had encountered in fiction. Indeed, that might well be its name — Amalgam, Ohio, or Amalgam, North Dakota. It could exist almost anywhere, but it had to exist. And on this trip, I intended to find it.”

“But there really was nothing there. I was perplexed and disillusioned. Before I had left on this trip I had lain awake at night in my bed in England and pictured myself stopping each evening at a motel in a little city, strolling into town along wide sidewalks, dining on the blue-late special at Betty’s Family Restaurant on the town square, then plugging a scented toothpick in my mouth and going for a stroll around town, very probably stopping off at Vern’s Midnite Tavern for a couple draws and a game of eight-ball with the boys or taking in a movie at the Regal or looking in at the Val-Hi Bowling Alley to kibitz the Mid-Week Hairdressers’ League matches before rounding off the night with a couple games of pinball and a grilled cheese sandwich. But here there was no square to stroll to, no Betty’s, no blue-plate specials, no Vern’s Midnite Tavern, no movie theater, no bowling alley. There was no town, just six-lane highways and shopping malls. There wasn’t even any sidewalks. Going for a walk, as I discovered, was a ridiculous and impossible undertaking.”

“It was an odd sensation to feel so deeply hated by people who hadn’t really had a proper chance to acquaint themselves with one’s shortcomings.”

“With so much poverty everywhere, Columbus, Mississippi came as a welcome surprise. It was a splendid little city, hometown of Tennessee Williams, with a population of 30,000. During the Civil War it was briefly the state capital, and it still had some large antebellum homes lining the well-shaded road in from the highway. But the real jewel was its downtown, which seemed hardly to have changed since about 1955. Crenshaw’s Barber Shop had a rotating pole out front and across the street was a genuine five-and-dime called McCrory’s and on the corner was the Bank of Mississippi in an imposing building with a big clock hanging over the sidewalk. The county courthouse, city hall and post office were all handsome and imposing edifices but built to a small-town scale. The people looked prosperous. The first person I saw was an obviously well-educated black man in a three-piece suit carrying a Wall Street Journal. It was all deeply pleasing and encouraging. This was a first-rate town. Combine it with Pella’s handsome square and you would almost have my long-sought Amalgam. I was beginning to realize that I was never going to find it in one place. I would have to collect it piecemeal — a courthouse here, a fire station there — and here I had found several pieces.”

“Where I come from you are poor if you can’t afford a refrigerator that makes its own ice cubes and your car doesn’t have automatic windows. Not having running water in the house is something beyond the realms of the imaginable to most Americans.”

“In my day, the principal concerns of university students were sex, smoking dope, rioting, and learning. Learning was something you did only when the the first three weren’t available, but at least you did it. Nowadays, American students’ principal concerns seem to be sex and keeping their clothes looking nice. I don’t think learning comes into it very much. At the time of my trip, there was an outcry in America over the contagion of ignorance that appeared to be sweeping through the nation’s young people.”

“Savannah is a seductive city and I found myself wandering almost involuntarily for hours. The city has more than 1,000 historic buildings, many of them still lived in as houses. This was, New York apart, the first American city I had ever been in where people actually lived downtown. What a difference it makes, how much more vibrant and alive it all seems, to see children playing ball in the street or skipping rope on the front stoops.”

“This isn’t supposed to happen in America. Wealthy children don’t play on the street; there isn’t any need. They lounge beside the pool or sneak reefers in the $3,000 treehouse that Daddy had built for them on their ninth birthday. And their mothers, when they wish to gossip with a neighbor, do it on the telephone or climb into their air-conditioned station wagons and drive a hundred yards. It made me realize how much cars and suburbs — and indiscriminate wealth — have spoiled American life.”

“That, alas, is the way of vacationing nowadays for many people. The whole idea is not to expose yourself to a moment of discomfort or inconvenience — indeed, not to breathe fresh air if possible. When the urge to travel seizes you, you pile into your thirteen-ton tin palace and drive 400 miles across the country, hermetically sealed against the elements, and stop at a campground where you dash to plug into their water supply and electricity so that you don’t have to go a single moment without air-conditioning or dishwasher and microwave facilities.”

“I was once more struck by this strange compartmentalization that goes on in America — a belief that no commercial activities must be allowed inside the park, but permitting unrestrained development outside, even though the landscape there may be just as outstanding. America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn’t have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.”

“It makes you realize what an immeasurably nice place much of America could be if only people possessed the same instinct for preservation as they do in Europe. You would think the millions of people who come to Williamsburg every year would say to each other, “Gosh, Bobbi, this place is beautiful. Let’s go home to Smellville and plant a lot trees and preserve all the fine old buildings.” But in fact that never occurs to them. They just go back and build more parking lots and Pizza Huts.”

“Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, as it turned out, was actually very nice. It’s a college town, with a decidedly sleepy air. You feel at first as if you should be wearing slippers and a bathrobe. Main Street was prosperous and tidy and the surrounding streets were mostly filled with large old houses sitting on ample lawns. Here and there church spires poked out from among the many trees. It was pretty well an ideal town — one of those rare American places where you wouldn’t need a car. From almost any house in town it would be a short and pleasant stroll to the library and post office and stores. My brother and his wife told me that a developer was about to build a big shopping mall outside town and most of the bigger merchants were going to move out there. People, it appeared, didn’t want to stroll to do their shopping. They actually wanted to get in their cars and drive to the edge of town, where they could then park and walk a similar distance across a flat, treeless parking lot. That is how America goes shopping and they wanted to be a part of it. So now downtown Bloomsburg is likely to become semiderelict and another nice little town will be lost. So the world progresses.”

“I was seized with a huge envy for these people and their unassuming lives. It must be wonderful to live in a safe and timeless place, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, and you can count on each other. I envied them their sense of community, their football games, their bring-and-bake sales, their church socials. I felt guilty for mocking them. They were good people.”

Talking about college kids (remember, this book was written in the 80s)— “These kids wear button-down-collar shirts and penny loafers. They look like they’re on their way to an Osmonds concert. And they don’t know anything! You talk to them in a bar and they don’t know who’s running for president. They’ve never heard of Nicaragua. It’s scary. They’re getting an education, can you believe that? They want to be insurance salesmen and computer programmers. That’s their dream in life. They want to make a lot of money so they can go out and buy more penny loafers and Madonna albums. It terrifies me sometimes.”

“Generally speaking — which is of course, always dangerous thing to do, generally speaking — Americans revere the past only as long as there is some money in it somewhere and it doesn’t mean going without air-conditioning, free parking and other essential conveniences. Preserving the past for its own sake doesn’t come into it much. There is little room for sentiment. When somebody comes along and offers a group of nuns good money for their staircase, they don’t say, ‘Certainly not, it is a hallowed shrine,’ they say, ‘How much?’ And if the offer is good enough they will sell it to build a new convent on a bigger site, with air-conditioning, lots of parking space, and a games room. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that nuns are worse than other Americans in this regard. They are simply behaving in the customary American way. I find that very sad. It is no wonder that so few things last for more than a generation in America.”

In a casino — “On the way out my attention was caught by a machine making a lot of noise. A woman had just won $600. For ninety seconds the machine just poured out money, a waterfall of silver. When it stopped, the woman regarded the pile without pleasure and began feeding it back into the machine. I felt sorry for her. It was going to take her all night to get rid of that kind of money.”

“I don’t know why it should be, but the National Park Service has a long history of incompetence. In the 1960s, if you can believe it, the park service invited the Walt Disney Corporation to build a development in Sequoia National Park. Mercifully, that plan was quashed. But others have succeeded, most notably in 1923 when, after a long fight between conservationists and businessmen, the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the northern part of Yosemite — which was said to be even more spectacularly beautiful than Yosemite Valley itself — was flooded to create a reservoir to provide drinking water for San Francisco, 150 miles to the west. So for the last sixty years one of the half-dozen or so most breathtaking stretches of landscape on the planet has lain under water for commercial reasons. God help us if they ever find oil there.”

Education Nation

In line with my interest in learning more about education, I had the chance to read this book where, little did I know, was sponsored by George Lucas’ foundation. From Star Wars to education, the man has range. What was fascinating about this book was the practical examples they gave of these new educational philosophies.

Thanks to Powell’s in Portland for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“Students need to learn how to become wise human beings, emotionally and intellectually.”

“At Edutopia, our job is to produce and disseminate information about the most innovative learning environments, addressing core concepts of project-based learning, cooperative learning, technology integration, comprehensive assessment, and teacher development for implementing these practices.”

“I strongly believe that education is the single most important job of the human race.”

“Any good idea is as good as any other good idea, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

“What would it take to create an Education Nation? It would take greater political will than we have mustered to confront the barriers to modernize our schools. It would take a shift in the cultural values of families and communities. And it would mean bringing to scale the pockets of educational innovation that exist in many schools and other learning environments around the country. For the past several decades, this innovation has been occurring at the edges of our school system and is growing. When these multiple edges converge and move to occupy the center, an Education Nation will be born.”

“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.” — John Dewey, ‘Waste in Education’

“‘The biggest obstacle to school change is our memories.’ We all think we know what a school is and how a classroom is organized, since we spent eighteen years in them during our formative years. It’s hard to imagine anything else.”

“If we just allowed children to ask and seek answers to questions they naturally ask, they would lead their own learning into many domains.”

“George Leonard was a senior editor for Look magazine in the 1960s and reported on topics ranging from brain physiology to schools. A common thread was the untapped reserves of human potential. ‘In 1964,’ he wrote, ‘I spent six months interviewing leading psychologists and brain researchers on the subject of the human potential. They all agreed that most of the innate capability of most people is routinely squandered. It was clear that our mode of education itself was a major cause of this tragic waste.”

“As human beings, we are meant to love learning.”

“In the education wars, such as the battle between emphasizing basic skills versus higher-order thinking skills, experts dig in their heels, sharpen their opposing points of view, hone their debating skills, and publish their op-ed pieces. Instead of spinning our wheels in these timeworn debates, it’s time to issue a cease-fire, step back, and think harder. In fact, as in most debates, both sides make good points. Practicing an important ‘twenty first-century skill,’ we need a greater consensus that synthesizes these ‘either/or’ debates into a more inclusive and bigger-picture ‘both-and’ understanding.”

“If students have a choice and a voice in what and how they learn, they’ll work harder at it. Find what they enjoy doing, such as arts or sports, and connect learning to it.”

“That’s my definition of how innovation happens: take the best elements of what has been, integrate diverse sources of knowledge and talent, and create a breakthrough that hasn’t been imagined before.”

“When we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

“The obsession with testing is slowing down an already lumbering educational system, at a time when we need to be speeding up.”

“Research has found that teaching children to appreciate their brains motivates them to learn and expend greater effort.”

“American curricula often try to jam too many different topics into each year. For example, American high schools try to teach fifty to sixty science topics per year, as opposed to nine in Japanese schools. To show students how to learn and how to appreciate the growth in their understanding, we need more depth in what we teach them.”

“If we could get half as exercised about scholastics as sports, our schools would rapidly improve.”

“Nichols said that parents in America would never stand for htis, for sports to be taught to their children solely through memorizing terms and reading about what athletes do. Sports require performance, watching others perform, and obvserving oneself performing. Sports coaches and athletes routinely make use of videotape analysis of games to improve performance. Yet millions of parents settle for science, mathematics, history, and other subjects taught through rote memorization of definitions from textbooks, while their children never get a chance to actively perform real science or history.”

“The deep connection between disciplines imply a profound change in professional development as well. I suggest that an estimated 20 percent of teachers’ time should be devoted to collegial interaction devoted to creating new learning strategies. Part of this discussion should focus on the need for storytelling…to explore science more fully: how it works, how it doesn’t work, the nature of science, some of its history, and something about who does it and how it is done. This approach will reduce the content in each of the disciplines, but it is an essential trade-off.”

“Start by having the youngest students use their hands to make things, such as Lego robots, buildings, and vehicles, learning to apply mathematics and science principles, rather than first serving them an austere diet of abstract rules of arithmetic.”

“The ultimate role of project-based learning is not to be implanted within a traditional curriculum, but to supplant the old curriculum with a new way of organizing entire courses. This coursewide approach to PBL is still rare and has been frustrated by assessment systems based on memorization of information” (you perform to what is measured.)

“While it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 career academies operating around the country, they range in quality and rigor. The goal is to combine rigorous academic and technical curricula with workplace internships that work in tandem, integrating learning across the school and workplace. This integration is not easy to achieve with traditional curricula and schedules, as Simon Hauger’s experience reveals, and some workplaces are less prepared to involve high school students. A rigorous academy model requires close communication between high school faculty and employer mentors.”

“[National Geographic’s] Education Foundation focuses on partnerships with schools and universities and has led to a move to “rebrand” geography education under the banner of “geoliteracy,” defining it as “the ability to reason about the world to make personal, professional, and civic decisions. It is essential for life in today’s complex and inter-connected society.”

“Children are not merely vessels into which facts are poured one week and then when it comes time for exams, they turn themselves upside down and let the facts run out. Children bring all of themselves, their feelings, and their experiences to the learning.” (Fred Rogers)

“Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has documented the “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal” intelligences among the eight “multiple intelligences” that include the verbal, logical-mathematical, musical, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences. He has also reframed the role of these intelligences for twenty-first century thinking and behavior. He describes the “intrapersonal intelligence” as the ability to identify and use one’s feelings and motivations, to have a deep understanding of oneself. The “interpersonal intelligence” is exercised in relationship with others, in having empathy with the feelings of others and working well in groups.”

“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” (Albert Einstein)

“What is another of students’ most frequently asked questions? Not ‘How can I become a critical thinker and prepare for the twenty-first-century economy?’ Not ‘Can I go beyond the textbook and look for additional sources to expand my knowledge?’ It’s ‘Will this be on the test?’ Neither teachers nor students want to waste their time on teaching and learning beyond what they’re assessed on. So it’s high time to broaden our view of the nature of assessment and what teaching for understanding is about.”

“While tests have been used to assess district and school performance, the primary purpose of assessment should be to give ongoing feedback at the classroom level to teachers and learners on how to improve learning.”

“One-to-one access is now the digital civil right of every student to fully participate in his or her own education.”

“I like Governor King’s answer to the skeptical question: Why laptops for students? If Maine has funds for computers, why not spend that money instead on roads and bridges, tax incentives for companies, health care, any other pressing priorities in the state budget? In a state where hockey is the closest thing to a state sport, Governor King quoted Wayne Gretzky’s answer to “How did you get to be the best hockey player of all time? You’re not the biggest guy out there, you’re not the fastest.” Gretzky said, “Most players skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.” With industries such as logging in decline, Angus King saw where Maine’s future could be — in a digital, scientifically literate workforce — and wanted to move Maine there.”

“Any teacher will tell you, if your students are engaged, you can teach them anything. If they’re not engaged, you can be Socrates, and not teach them anything.”

“The problem with Americans is we think of education as a cost. But other nations think of it as an investment.” (John Gage)

“In my 1994 book, ‘The Smart Parent’s Guide to Kid’s TV,’ I quoted a shocking statistic: by the time children graduate high school, they will have spent more time with TV than in the classroom. Do the math: 6 hours a day in school, 31 weeks a year, multiplied by 13 years: 12,000 hours. Back then, kids spent an average of four hours a day watching TV. Four hours a day, over 52 weeks and 13 years amounts to 18,000 hours.”

“In learning, as in life, time is everything. It’s about time that schools improve how they use it. There should be greater national urgency about improving the hours that K-12 students have during those vital thirteen years. For policymakers concerned about our nation losing its competitive edge, time is running out.”

“Louv makes the point that some students labeled with [ADHD] may in fact have a form of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ Students who can’t pay attention in traditional lecture-bound classrooms come alive when they encounter animals, plants, fresh air, and hands-on activity. ‘Nature’s Ritalin,’ says Louv, has a restorative effect on children’s minds and bodies — without the drugs.”

“Waters has created what she calls a ‘complete seed-to-table’ experience. The curriculum addresses multiple subject areas, including the science of composting and the water cycle, the mathematics of recipes, and the cultural significance of foods. In using their hands, bodies, and minds, students exercise all of their senses and intelligences. They are also practicing a healthier lifestyle.”

“You can read millions of words about the Civil War. Only standing on the battlefields will you really begin to understand it.” (James McPherson)

“Whenever the topic of involving parents comes up at conferences, heads nod. Most involved in education — from the school house to the state house — knows that what happens outside of the classroom, especially in the home, can do more to determine a student’s success than anything else, in many cases, more than what schools themselves can contribute.”

“Can affection ‘cause’ intelligence? Can kind words from a teacher’s or a parent’s heart stimulate a child’s brain? By age three, the preschoolers with greater verbal stimulation had average vocabularies of 1,100 words and IQs of 117. Children who experienced greater verbal punishment had vocabularies of 525 words and IQs of 79.”

“What students really crave is a pat on the back for learning a difficult concept or a word of encouragement for trying something new. Teachers could use some affection, too. They are underappreciated, underpaid, and under a lot of undeserved pressure.”

“Research and information retrieval skills have replaced memorization. There are several areas in which all students should be proficient to be successful.”

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” (Alan Kay)

“Another principle from innovation research is that those seeking to change don’t adopt new practices wholesale. They adapt them to their local needs and experience and often improve the idea they’re importing. To that end, it’s also important for educators and others in communities to examine their own situations and connect present conditions to future possibilities. So, a complementary strategy engages stakeholders in building future scenarios based on their own experiences and aspirations, addressing local needs and strengths.”

“The KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Ohio, together with the Institute for the Future, have created a 2020 forecast summarizing in one graphical map six broad and global drivers of change, societal and technological trends related to each driver, and signals of each driver and trend.”

The Screwtape Letter

Before my LDS mission, I maybe knew that C.S. Lewis had written the Chronicles of Narnia, but only because of the movies. Other than that, I didn’t know much about him. On my mission, I got a CD of “Mere Christianity,” and loved it. While I was in Altoona, PA, Sharon and Emmet Cook had a copy of the Screwtape Letters in their bathroom, and that was the first time I heard about this book. It was a quick read and a clear commentary on the temptations we go through, and how we can choose to respond to them.

Some Quotes:

“It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.”

“Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”

“Desiring their freedom, He (meaning God) therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own.’”

“The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.”

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.”

“Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”

“The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.”

“He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”

“An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return — that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart.”

“A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all — and more amusing.”

“All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.”

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

“The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

“We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually short-lived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable grounds for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding.”

“Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured, and, as a result, ill-tempered.”

“The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels.”

“A spoiled saint, a Pharisee, an inquisitor, or a magician, makes better sport in Hell than a mere common tyrant or debauchee.”

“For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them.”

“Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.”

“We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain — not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

“A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others.”

“In discussing any joint action, it becomes obligatory that A should argue in favour of B’s supposed wishes and against his own, while B does the opposite. It is often impossible to find out either party’s real wishes; with luck, they end up doing something that neither wants, while each feels a glow of self-righteousness and harbours a secret claim to preferential treatment for the unselfishness shown and a secret grudge against the other for the ease with which the sacrifice has been accepted.”

“The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.”

“To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge — to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior — this would be rejected as utterly simple-minded.”

“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.”

“So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, or attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or ‘science’ or psychology, or what not.”

“The more he fears, the more he will hate.”

“In peace, we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them.”

“He (speaking of God) did not create the Humans — He did not become one of them and die among them by torture — in order to produce candidates for Limbo; ‘failed’ humans. He wanted to make Saints; gods, things like Himself.”

“No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior.”

“You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them ‘tyrants’ then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of corn, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers. All nobodies. All equals.”

“No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.”

“It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss.”

“At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud-pies, and call it modeling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have ‘parity of esteem.’

“The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows?”

“As an English politician remarked not long ago, ‘A democracy does not want great men.’”

“For ‘democracy’ or the ‘democratic spirit’ (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of sub-literates, morally flaccid from lack of discipline in youth, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and soft from lifelong pampering. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be. For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs, only one result is possible.”

“I mean the delusion that the fate of nations is in itself more important than that of individual souls. The overthrow of free peoples and the multiplication of slave-states are for us a means (besides of course, being fun); but the real end is the destruction of individuals.”

“Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

I first heard about Jon Ronson from a Reply All podcast episode where he told some of the same stories in the book. Camden actually ended up reading this book first and then encouraging me to follow suit. What really struck me about this book was his comparisons to public shamings in the olden days, with whippings, and the stocks, etc. What I can’t understand is that lack of human empathy in those situations. I remember as a kid feeling a deep fear of injustice; when other kids would get picked up against their will and thrown in a trash can, or things like that. Even if it wasn’t me, even if it wasn’t someone I knew, I felt so uncomfortable with that. How people can do anything like that is an enigma, but Ronson specifically points out the power of the internet in being able to intensify that experience, and it’s frightening.

Some Quotes:

“He looked as if he felt he were taking a risk even mentioning to me the existence of the terror. He meant that we all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it go out — some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.” I think he was right. Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried. Maybe it’s a work impropriety. Or maybe it’s just a feeling that at at any moment we’ll blurt something out during some important meeting that’ll prove to everyone that we aren’t proper professional people or, in fact, functional human beings. I think that even in these days of significant oversharing we keep this particular terror concealed.”

“The sermon, by the Reverend Nathan Strong of Hartford, Connecticut, was an entreaty to people to be less exuberant at executions: ‘Do not go to that place of horror with elevated spirits and gay hearts, for death is there! Justice and judgement are there! The power of government, displayed in its most awful form, is there…The person who can go and look on death merely to gratify an idle humor is destitute both of humanity and piety.’”

“If Jonah had been found guilty of ‘lying or publishing false news,’ in the 1800s, he would have been ‘fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes.’”

“It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether the person we had just shamed was okay or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche.”

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve treated a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?”

“He was just like everyone who participates in mass online destruction. Who would want to know? Whatever that pleasurable rush that overwhelms us is — group madness or something else — nobody wants to ruin it by facing the fact that it comes with a cost.”

“And his second message was that a smart orator could, if he knew the tricks, hypnotize the crowd into acquiescence or whip it up to do his bidding. LeBon listed the tricks: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”

“I asked Mercedes what sorts of people gathered on 4chan. ‘A lot of them are bored, under-stimulated, over-persecuted, powerless kids,’ she replied. ‘They know they can’t be anything they want. So they went to the internet. On the Internet we have the power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.’”

“Part of the reason these kids have become experts on the Internet is because they don’t have power anywhere else. Skilled trade is shrinking. That’s why they went there. And then, holy sh**, it blew up.”

The story that struck me the most was the vortex of shame that occurred at a tech conference. Two white guys were making inappropriate sexual comments behind a woman named Adria at the conference. Adria was offended, stood up, took a picture of the two guys, and tweeted it out. The online backlash was swift and merciless. One of the guys in particular, Hank, was targeted and fired from his job. He shared online that he had been fired, and the backlash turned and shifted its focus onto Adria, who was then also fired.

“I asked Hank if he found himself behaving differently since the incident. Had it altered how he lived his life? ‘I distance myself from female developers a little bit now,’ Hank replied. ‘I’m not as friendly. There’s humor, but it’s very mundane. You just don’t know. I can’t afford another Donglegate.’ — ‘Give me an example,’ I said. ‘So you’re in your new workplace’ — Hank was offered another job right away — ‘and you’re talking to a female developer. In what way do you act differently toward her?’ ‘Well,’ Hank said, ‘We don’t have female developers at the place I’m working at now. So.’

“‘You’ve got a new job now, right?’ I said to Adria. ‘No,’ she said.”

“It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.”

This story reminded me of a John Oliver piece about online abuse and how much worse it is for women than for men.

After an experience where the author was going to dress as a woman and see how he got treated, but was too afraid to do it — “Now, as I lay in my hotel room, I understood the truth of it. My terror of humiliation had closed a door. Great adventures that might have unfolded involving me dressed as a woman would never now unfold. I’d been constrained by the terror. It had blown me off course. Which, actually, meant that I was just like the vast majority of people.”

“We felt inexorably altered by the power of Mike’s narrative and became determined to take action. Most of us, it goes without saying, were inexorably altered back to how we’d been earlier that day by the time we’d had dinner or whatever.”

A guy who decided to lie in a story because he thought it was important — “You want to do something in the world? Be willing to throw your life away. I was, ‘Fine. I’ll throw my life away. Fine.’”

“The way we construct our consciousness is to tell the story of ourselves to ourselves, the story of who we believe we are. I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person. One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your own story.”

“Prurient curiosity may not be great. But curiosity is. People’s flaws need to be written about. The flaws of some people lead to horrors inflicted on others. And then there are the more human flaws that, when you shine a light onto them, de-demonize people who might otherwise be seen as ogres.”

James Gilligan, a psychologist who studied chronic murder and suicide rates in Massachusetts prisons, said that all these prisoners would say the same kind of thing. “The men would all say that they had died. One inmate told me he feels like ‘food that is decomposing.’ These men’s souls did not just die. They have dead souls because their souls were murdered. How did it happen? A central secret. And that was secret was that they felt ashamed — deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.’”

“So they grew up and — ‘all violence being a person’s attempt to replace shame with self-esteem’ — they murdered people.”

“And after they were jailed, things only got worse. At Walpoke — Massachusett’s most riot-prone prison during the 1970s — officers intentionally flooded cells and put insects in the prisoner’s food. They forced inmates to lie face down before they were allowed to eat meals. Sometimes officers would tell prisoners they had a visitor. Prisoners almost never had visitors, so this was exciting to hear. Then the officer would say that the prisoner didn’t really have a visitor and that he was just kidding. And so on. “They thought these things would be how to get them to obey,” Gilligan told me. “But it did the exact opposite. It stimulated violence.”

“”If shaming worked, if prison worked, then it would work,’ Jim said to me. ‘But it doesn’t work.’ He paused. ‘Look, some people need to go to prison forever. Some people are incapable…but most people…”

It’s disorienting,” I said, “that the line between hell and redemption in the U.S. justice system is so fine.”

“We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”

“We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years — since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed — we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with. I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they’ve committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, although not as much as I’d anticipated, but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.”

“Google has the informal corporate motto of ‘Don’t be evil,’ but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.”

“Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behavior (you drive at twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour zone). You get instant real-time feedback for it (the sign tells you you’re driving at twenty-seven miles per hour). You decide whether or not to change your behavior as a result of feedback (you lower your speed to twenty-five miles per hour). Yo uget instant feedback for that decision too (the sign tells you [you slowed down]). And it all happens in the flash of an eye — in the few moments it takes you to drive past your speed sign.”

“Maybe — as my friend the documentary maker Adam Curtis e-mailed me — they’re turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformists, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. “Look!” we’re saying. “WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!” We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”

Evicted

Another book that I was attracted to in line with my thoughts around small towns and cities, and particularly focusing on the negative side of things. This book was pretty heart wrenching. When you’re an upper middle class white dude, you just don’t get exposed to these kinds of situations. What was really fascinating was at the end when the author lays out how he pursued this project, and he really did insert himself into this type of life and situation. This was another book where, as I read, I kept thinking — “this is important.”

My wife and I manage our apartment complex that we currently live in, and we frequently turn people who apply to live here because they didn’t pass in the “system.” We have no control over that, but the book pointed out the idea that even if you try and create a fair way to evaluate people, if the system is set up to unfairly disadvantage women and people of color, your “fair measurement” is still going to be inherently biased.

Thanks to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for exposing me to my copy of this book.

Some Quotes:

“Eviction’s fallout is severe. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.”

“Sherrena nodded reassuringly and said, almost to herself, ‘I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because nobody is feeling sorry for me. Last time I checked, the mortgage company still wanted their money.’”

“When people asked, ‘Why real estate?’ Sherrena would reply with some talk about ‘long-term residuals’ or ‘property being the best investment out there.’ But there was more to it. Sherrena shared something with other landlords: an unbending confidence that she could make it on her own without a school or a company to fall back on, without a contract or a pension or a union. She had an understanding with the universe that she could strike out into nothing and through her own gumption and intelligence come back with a good living.”

“When she moved onto Thirteenth street, Arleen was receiving W-2 T, owing mainly to her chronic depression. She received the samestipend in 2008 that she would have when welfare was reformed a decade earlier: $20.65 a day, $7,536 a year. Since 1997, welfare stipends in Milwaukee and almost everywhere else have not budget even as housing costs have soared. For years, politicians have known that families could not survive on welfare alone. This was the case before rent and utility costs climbed through the 2000s and it was even more true afterward.”

“Most poor people in America were like Arleen: they did not live in public housing or apartments subsidized by vouchers. Three in four families who qualified for assistance received nothing.”

“The public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by the intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities)

“The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.”

“The truth was that Doreen and Patrice didn’t expect much from Malik (who had just gotten their daughter/sister pregnant), not because of anything he had done, but because of their own experience with men…Doreen and Patrice did not see why a man needed to be involved in family decisions about where to raise a child, let alone what to name it.”

“The small act of screening could have big consequences. From thousands of yes/no decisions emerged a geography of advantage and disadvantage that characterized the modern American city: good schools and failing ones, safe streets and dangerous ones. Landlords were major players in distributing the spoils. They decided who got to live where. And their screening practices (or lack thereof) revealed why crime and gang activity or an area’s civic engagement and its spirit of neighborliness could vary drastically from one block to the next. They also helped explain why on the same block in the same low-income neighborhood, one apartment complex but not another became familiar to the police.”

“Screening practices that banned criminality and poverty in the same stroke drew poor families shoulder to shoulder with drug dealers, sex offenders, and other lawbreakers in places with lenient requirements. Neighborhoods marred by high poverty could incite crime, and crime could invite poverty, but also because the techniques landlords used to ‘keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property’ kept poverty out as well. This also meant that violence, drug activity, deep poverty, and other social problems coalesced at a much smaller, more acute level than the neighborhood. They gathered at the same address.”

“Some landlords neglected to screen tenants for the same reason payday lenders offered unsecured, high-interest loans to families with unpaid debt or lousy credit; for the same reason that the subprime industry gave mortgages to people who could not afford them; for the same reason Rent-A-Center allowed you to take home a new Hisense air conditioner or Klaussner “Lazarus” reclining sofa without running a credit check. There was a business model at the bottom of every market.”

“In Milwaukee’s poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace — especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system every year, which was twice as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.”

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

“For the chronically and desperately poor whose credit was already wrecked, a docketed judgment was just another shove deeper into the pit. But for the tenant who went on to land a decent job or marry and then take another tentative step forward, applying for student loans or purchasing a first home — for that tenant, it was a real barrier on the already difficult road to self-reliance and security.”

“When the move was done, the crew gathered by the trucks, instinctively stomping the ground to shake loose any stowaway roaches. Those who smoked reached for their packs. They didn’t know where the children would go, and they didn’t ask.”

“Asking for help from better-off kin was complicated. Those ties were banked, saved for emergency situations or opportunities to get ahead. People were careful not to overdraw their account because when family members with money grew exhausted by repeated requests, they sometimes withheld support for long periods of time, pegging their relatives’ misfortunes to individual failings. This was one reason why family members in the best position to help were often not asked to do so.”

“Hispanic and African American neighborhoods had been targeted by the subprime lending industry: renters were lured into buying bad mortgages, and homeowners were encouraged to refinance under riskier terms. Then it all came crashing down. Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.”

“Pastor Daryl felt torn. On the one hand, he thought it was the job of the church, not the government, to care for the poor and the hungry. That, to him, was ‘pure Christianity.’ When it came to Larraine, though, Pastor Daryl believed a lot of hardship was self-inflicted. ‘She made some stupid choices, spending her money foolishly…Making her go without for a while may be the best thing for her, so that she can be reminded, ‘Hey when I make foolish choices there are consequences.’” It was easy to go on about helping ‘the poor.’ Helping a poor person with a name, a face, a history, and many needs, a person whose mistakes and lapses of judgement you have recorded — that was a more trying matter.”

“Lamar’s labor was cheap, but he knew there were better deals to be had. When the plumbing broke, the roof leaked, or rooms needed painting, savvy inner-city landlords did not phone plumbers, roofers, or painters. They relied on two desperate and on-hand labor pools: tenants themselves and jobless men. New landlords would speak of “knowing a good plumber.” Experienced landlords would say they “had a guy.” Lamar knew that Sherrena “had people” and doubed that she would let him stay. He did the painting anyway, having no better option.”

“Like many inner-city landlords, Sherrena and Quentin tried to limit the number of appliances in their units. If you didn’t include a stove or refrigerator, you didn’t have to fix it when it broke.”

“Reported high rates of joblessness among black men with little education obscured the fact that many of these men did regularly work, if not in the formal labor market. Some hustling in the underground economy plied the illicit trades, but the biggest drug kingpin in the city would have been envious of the massive cash-paid labor force urban landlords had at their disposal.”

“As housing projects were demolished, the voucher program grew into the nation’s largest housing subsidy program for low-income families. In policy circles, vouchers were known as ‘public-private partnership.’ In real estate circles, they were known as ‘a win.’”

“In the 1960s and 1970s, destitute families often relied on extended kin networks to get by. Poor black families were ‘immersed in a domestic web of a large number of kin and friends whom they [could] count on,’ wrote the anthropologist Carol Stack in All Our Kin. Those entwined in such a web swapped goods and services on a daily basis. This did little to lift families out of poverty, but it was enough to keep them afloat. But large-scale social transformations — the crack epidemic, the rise of the black middle class, and the prison boom among them — had frayed the family safety net in poor communities. So had state policies like Aid to Families with Dependent Children that sought to limit ‘kin dependence’ by giving mothers who lived alone or with unrelated roommates a larger stipend than those who lived with relatives.”

“In his old life, before the fall, he might have been more sympathetic. But he had come to view sympathy as a kind of naivete, a sentiment voiced from a certain distance by the callow middle classes. ‘They can be compassionate because it’s not their only option,’ he said of liberals who didn’t live in trailer parks.”

“No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves.”

“Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them — which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.”

“All over the city, people who lived in distressed neighborhoods were more likely to help their neighbors pay bills, buy groceries, fix their car, or lend a hand in other ways, compared to their peers in better-off areas.”

“When people began to view their neighborhood as brimming with deprivation and vice, full of ‘all sorts of shipwrecked humanity,’ they lost confidence in its political capacity. Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma — believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events — were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them. A community that saw so clearly its own pain had a difficult time also sensing its potential.”

“Scott had never reached out to his family for help. He considered their lawns and jobs and children and normal problems and concluded, ‘They wouldn’t know what to do…How much help could they possibly be?’ Middle-class relatives could be useless that way.”

“The year the police called Sherrena, Wisconsin saw more than one victim per week murdered by a current or former romantic partner or relative. After the numbers were released, Milwaukee’s chief of police appeared on the local news and puzzled over the fact that many victims had never contacted the police for help. A nightly news reporter summed up the chief’s views: ‘He believes that if police were contacted more often, that victims would have the tools to prevent fatal situations from occurring in the future.’ What the chief failed to realize, or failed to reveal, was that his departments own rules presented battered women with a devil’s bargain: keep quiet and face abuse, or call the police and face eviction.”

“To Sammy, Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.”

“People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.”

“I have a right to live, and I have a right to live like I want to live,’ she said. ‘People don’t realize that even poor people get tired of the same old taste. Like, I literally hate hot dogs, but I was brought up on them. So you think, ‘When I get older, I will have steak.’ So now I’m older. And I do.’”

“Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true. An eviction not only consumed renters’ time, causing them to miss work, it also weighed heavily on their minds, often triggering mistakes on the job. It overwhelmed workers with stress, leading them to act unprofessionally, and commonly resulted in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing the likelihood of being late or missing days.”

“Four days after the baby came, Belt Buckle called and told Pam and Ned that their application had been approved. Pam had two evictions on her record, was a convicted felon, and received welfare. Ned had an outstanding warrant, no verifiable income, and a long record that included three evictions, felony drug convictions, and several misdemeanors like reckless driving and carrying a concealed weapon. They had five daughters. But they were white.”

“When Arleen was alone, she sometimes cried for [her cat.] But she was teaching her sons to love small, to reject what they could not have. Arleen was protecting them, and herself. What other self-defense was there for a single mother who could not consistently provide for her children? If a poor father failed his family, he could leave the way Larry did, try again at some time down the road. Poor mothers — most of them, anyway — had to embrace this failure, and live with it.”

“Most Milwaukeeans believed their city was racially segregated because people preferred it that way. But the ghetto had always been more a product of social design than desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefitted from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.”

“Other landlords and property management companies…tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality. Because black men were disproportionately incarcerated and black women disproportionately evicted, uniformly denying housing to applicants with recent criminal or conviction records still had an incommensurate impact on African Americans.”

“Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor. Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself.”

“It was once said that the poor are ‘constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance.’ Especially for poor African American families — who live in neighborhoods with rates of violence and concentrated poverty so extreme that even the worst white neighborhoods bear little resemblance — living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged.”

“After trying for seventy-three places, Vanetta and Crystal were approved for a $500-a-month two-bedroom apartment. Desperate tenants willing to overlook neglected repairs had found a desperate landlord willing to overlook evictions and convictions.”

“What the judge was saying, in essence, was: We all agree that you were poor and scared when you did this violent, hurtful thing (she had stolen a purse at gunpoint), and if you had been allowed to go on working five days a week at Old Country Buffet, refilling soup pots and mopping up frozen yogurt spills, none of us would be here right now. You might have been able to save enough to move to an apartment that was de-leaded and clean in a neighborhood without drug dealers and with safe schools. With time, you may have been able to get Bo-Bo the medical treatment he needs for his seizures, and maybe you could have even started taking night classes to become a nurse, like you always wanted. And, who knows, maybe you could have actually become a nurse, a real nurse with a uniform and everything. Then you could really give your kids a childhood that would look nothing like the one Shortcake gave you. If you did that, you would walk around this cold city with your head held high, and maybe you would eventually come to feel that you were worth something and deserving of a man who could support you other than by lending you his pistol for a stickup or at least one who didn’t break down your door and beat you in front of your children. Maybe you would meet someone with a steady job and get married in a small church with Kendal standing proudly up front by the groom and Tembi as the poofy-dressed flower girl and Bo-Bo as the grinning, toddling ring bearer, just like you always dreamed it, and from that day on your groom would introduce you as “my wife.” But that’s not what happened. What happened was that your hours were cut, and your electricity was about to be shut off, and you and your children were about to be thrown out of your home, and you snatched someone’s purse as your friend pointed a gun at her face. And if it was poverty that caused this crime, who’s to say you won’t do it again? Because you were poor then and you are poor now. We all see the underlying cause, we see it every day in this court. But the justice system is no charity, no jobs program, no Housing Authority. If we cannot pull the weed up from the roots, then at least we can cut it low at the stem.”

“David and Anna’s working-class home was one of those places that seemed to belong to everybody. People would walk through the door without knocking and open the refrigerator without asking. ‘This is the Aldea Recovery House,’ Anna would say. ‘If somebody’s not here, somebody’s calling.’ She kept large bowls of rice and beans on hand and never locked the door.”

“He’d have to stay clean for five years and attend bi-weekly AA meetings. Scott recognized his weaknesses. He didn’t know if he would have tried harder to get clean years ago if the nursing board had not put license reinstatement so far out of reach. But giving up did come easier when things seemed impossible.”

“‘It is difficult to force a man out of himself and to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state,’ Alexis de Tocqueville once observed. ‘But if it is a question of taking a road past his property, he sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests.’ It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running a school board.”

“What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?”

“Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates. In this way, eviction can unravel the fabric of a community, helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to combat crime and promote civic engagement remains untapped. Milwaukee neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the following year, even after controlling for past crime rates and other relevant factors.”

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

“Poor families are living above their means, in apartments they cannot afford. The thing is, those apartments are already at the bottom of the market. Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.”

“But [solutions] depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?”

“If we acknowledge that housing is a basic right of all Americans, then we must think differently about another right: the right to make as much money as possible by providing families with housing — and especially to profit excessively from the less fortunate. Since the founding of this country, a long line of American visionaries have called for a more balanced relationship, one that protects people from the profit motive, ‘not to destroy individualism,’ in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, ‘but to protect it.’ Child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safety regulations, and other protections we now take for granted came about when we chose to place the well-being of people above money.”

“In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack — good jobs, a strong safety net, role models — we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty. We have overlooked a fact that landlords never have: there is a lot of money to be made off the poor. The ‘hood is good.”

“The idea is simple. Every family below a certain income level would be eligible for a housing voucher. They could use that voucher to live anywhere they wanted, just as families can use food stamps to buy groceries virtually anywhere, as long as their housing was neither too expensive, big, and luxirious, nor too shabby and run-down. Their home would need to be decent, modest, and fairly priced. Program administrators could develop fine-grained analyses, borrowing from algorithms and other tools commonly used in the private market, to prevent landlords from charging too much and families from selecting more housing than they need. The family would dedicate 30 percent of their income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest.”

“Building that much public housing risks repeating the failures of the past, by drawing the nation’s poorest citizens under the same roof and contributing to racial segregation and concentrated poverty.”

“Families crushed by the high cost of housing cannot afford vocational training or extra schooling that would allow them to acquire new skills and many cannot stay in one place long enough to hold down the same job. Affordable housing is a human-capital investment, just like job programs or education, one that would strengthen and steady the American workforce. By and large, the poor do not want some small life. They don’t want to game the system or eke out an existence; they want to thrive and contribute: to become nurses (that was Vanetta’s dream) or run their own charities (that was Arleen’s). A stable home would extend to them the opportunity to realize those dreams.”

“But even if code enforcement and program administration were made much more reasonable and landlord-friendly, some property owners — particularly those operating in prosperous areas — would still turn away voucher holders. They simply don’t want “those people.” If we continue to permit this kind of discrimination, we consign voucher holders to certain landlords who own property in certain neighborhoods. Doing so denies low-income families the opportunity to move into economically healthy and safe neighborhoods and hobbles our ability to promote integration through social policy. Accordingly, a universal voucher program would not only strive to make participation attractive to landlords, it would also mandate participation. Just as we have outlawed discrimination on the basis of race or religion, discrimination against voucher holders would be illegal under a universal voucher program.”

“‘The business of housing the poor,’ Jacob Riis wrote 125 years ago, ‘if it is to amount to anything, must be a business, as it was business with our fathers to put them where they are. As charity, pastime, or fad, it will miserably fail, always and everywhere.”

“Making a universal housing program as efficient as possible would require regulating costs. Expanding housing vouches without stabilizing rent would be asking taxpayers to subsidize landlords’ profits. Today, landlords overcharge voucher holders simply because they can. In distressed neighborhoods, where voucher holders tend to live, market rent is lower than what landlords are allowed to charge voucher holders, according to metropolitan-wide rent ceilings set by program administrators. So the Housing Choice Voucher Program likely costs not millions but billions of dollars more than it should, resulting in the unnecessary denial of help to hundreds of thousands of families. In fact, economists have argued that the current housing voucher program could be expanded to serve all poor families in America without additional spending if we prevented overcharging and made the program more efficient.”

“If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.”

“When I began studying poverty as a graduate student, I learned that most accounts explained inequality in one of two ways. The first referenced ‘structural forces’ seemingly beyond our control: historical legacies of discrimination, say, or massive transformations of the economy. The second emphasized individual deficiencies, from ‘cultural’ practices, like starting a family out of wedlock, to ‘human capital’ shortfalls, like low levels of education. Liberals preferred the first explanation and conservatives the second. To me, both seemed off. Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine.”

“Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing?”

“Together, these combined data sources provide a new portrait of the powerful ways the private housing sector is shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities. They have shown that problems endemic to poverty — residential instability, severe deprivation, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, even joblessness — stem from the lack of affordable housing in our cities. I have made all survey data publicly available through the Harvard Dataverse Network.”

“It is ultimately up to future researchers to determine whether what I found in Milwaukee is true in other places. A thousand questions remain unanswered. We need a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. We need a now sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets.”

“Maybe what we are really asking when we ask if a study is ‘generalizable’ is: Can it really be this bad everywhere? Or maybe we’re asking: Do I really have to pay attention to this problem?”

“And after almost every academic talk I have given on the material in this book, I have been asked questions like ‘How did you feel when you saw that?’ ‘How did you gain this sort of access?’ These are fine questions but there is a bigger game afoot. There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land. At a time of rampant inequality and widespread hardship, when hunger and homelessness are found throughout America, I am interested in a different, more urgent conversation. “I” don’t matter. I hope that when you talk about this book, you talk first about Sherrena and Tobin, Arleen and Jori, Larraine and Scott and Pam, Crystal and Vanetta — and the fact that somewhere in your city, a family has just been evicted from their home, their things piled high on the sidewalk.”

My Bookstore

I mentioned before how I have this weird desire to write a book about bookstores, and particularly how good bookstores stay in business. This, I thought, would give me good exposure to a variety of bookstores, what they have in common, how they differ. And it was great for that, though there was a lot of wishy-washy arguments about why Amazon and ebooks are stupid, and bookstores are important. I agree that bookstores are important, but it can’t be in spite of Amazon, they have to evolve to co-exist with Amazon. That’s what I hope to write a book about someday.

Thanks to Dog Eared Books in San Francisco for exposing me to this book.

Some Quotes:

“I can still remember the incomparable thrill of coming upon that elusive number eleven or seventeen in my favorite series, the one I’d been searching for for years, now magically there, where it hadn’t been the week before, filling me with wonder at the way the world worked, how you had to wait to the point of almost unbearable longing for the good stuff in life. (It would take five decades and the emergence of Amazon.com, with its point-and-click, to vanquish that primal wonder.)”

“We take every independent bookstore’s failure personally. Surely there’s something we might have done. We do not hate e-books purchased online — well, OK, some of us do — but we owe our careers, at least my generatoin of writers does, to the great independents, so many of them long gone now. Those that remain gamely continue to fight the good fight, even as customers increasingly use their stores as showrooms, their employees for their expertise, and their sales-tax dollars to fund their schools, but then go home and surrender to the online retailer’s chilly embrace. They point and click, and in this simple act, without meaning to, undermine the future of the next generation of writers and the one after that.”

“I wish that unpretentious coffee shop was still around, but — like so many things — it dissolved into a procession of dull establishments whose names no one could remember.”

“Customers loved it when staffers hand-selected books for them and explained why they thought the choice was a good fit.”

“This bookstore is the cultural soul of a large community. It’s the place to take writing classes, learn languages, attend conferences, participate in book clubs and speakers’ series, and, if you are a teenager, Twitter-talk (whatever that is). Elaine and Bill Petrocelli work with schools, community organizations, and restaurants, they do fund-raising for many causes, and they have a partnership with Dominican University so that students can receive credit for classes and conferences. Their clientele is so loyal that Amazon and the chains have not been able to put them out of business, and, let me tell you, they have tried.”

“In keeping with the owners’ concept of a bookshop as both a community center and a tabernacle of ideas, Politics & Prose had been among the first stores in Washington to sponsor author events, nurturing personal and, usually, amiable conversatoins between writers and readers.”

“Still, knock wood, P&P continues to thrive by dint of a smart, enthusiastic staff and fiercely loyal customers.”

“When I first moved to Rhinebeck it had a new age bookstore that also sold pendants and amulets, oil by the vial, and handmade instruments. Across the street was another bookstore that sold potboilers and Christian literature. They sat facing each other for a number of years until one became a real estate company and the other became a real estate company. If you wanted a book, you had to drive to another town.”

“A ‘text’ existing only on a screen and in the mind is not, to me, a book. To me, it is not enough that a book is thought realized in language; it must also be language further realized in print on paper pages bound between covers. It is a material artifact, a thing made not only to be seen but also to be held and smelled, containing language that can be touched, and underlined with an actual pencil.”

“A part of the life of each one is my memory of the bookstore where I brought it and of the bookseller who sold it to me.”

“A part of my economic life thus becomes a part of my social life. For that I need actual people in an actual place in the actual world.”

“The odd thing is, he won. He won, in this time of woe, in the age in which children seem mostly interested in playing games with their thumbs, when reading is a quaint notion from the dusty halls of antiquity, when public funding for libraries is being scraped to the white bone, Jake Reiss is winning, because he is making a dollar by making good books and authors available to people who love to read and love the people who make it a pleasure, and because, late in his own life, he fell in love with books himself.”

“I feel at home here, and I am honored that my books are on these shelves, but as I sat down to describe why I liked the place, I found myself not with a list of things it is but things that it is not. It does not have comfy chairs, or cozy reading areas, but nor do I have to try and think over the roar of construction of a double-chocolate frappacin…frabucin…oh, to hell with it. There are, as near I can tell, no charging stations or other portals for laptops, though I am sure there is a drop or two somewhere around. I am pretty sure there is no Wifi…Wyfy… you know what I mean. You do not bring laptop to Jake’s, though you can read a newspaper, standing up.”

“But until I first set foot in Ketchum in 1985 I had never seen a bookstore so crucial to the well-being of a community as Chapter One. And our community itself knows that its ‘common resource,’ more than the store itself, is the store’s owner and manager, Cheryl Thomas, a spiritual icon for decades in our valley.”

“BookPeople is where browsing earned its golden spurs as American pastime. I often loiter in the store for hours, flipping through merchandise, scribbling down notes from a book I don’t want to buy. Never has one of the stores 125 employees reprimanded me. Loitering is part of the atmosphere. Clerks encourage me to graze both book-filled floors. Loitering is part of the flavor. Whenever I get blue, I take a drive to Lamar Boulevard, park my convertible, and seize the universe of knowledge in its shelves.”

“If elementary school libraries were half this fun, America’s literacy rate could be higher than those of Norway and Denmark.”

“What this avenue of American industry needs, then, is not so much someone interested in selling a few books, but rather someone interested in selling a few books (and maybe a few gift items from a carefully curated stock) as a means of saving civilization.”

“Among the many gifts he gave his children — and, by extension, my children — was this rule: If they ever found themselves together in a bookstore, he would buy them whatever they wanted. The rule, importantly, did not extend to toy stores or ice cream shops or pony stables. Just bookstores, just whatever they wanted. We’ve raised our children this way, and it is wonderful. It wears on the credit card, true, but children’s books tend to be less expensive, and the benefit of having your kids think there’s little difference between a bookstore and a public library — well, like our credit card company says: priceless.”

“People in a good bookstore use their feet differently: there is never a full step as we are reluctant to drift too fast past the anthologies of fiction, some familiar some new.”

“I love that the store sits between a toy shop and a liquor store. How great is that? It’s also on the same busy block as a bank, a dry cleaner, a health food shop, and a grocery store, which means that I walk by all the time. I can rarely resist the urge to stop in, even when I have no money to spend and no time to browse.”

“I knew that under its new ownership, my beloved bookstore would thrive rather than merely survive. And it has. It’s more vibrant than ever. There’s an elegant new logo — hand-drawn by A.C. Harkness, an incredibly gifted artist who works at the store — and a new awning. There are newly designed bookmarks, tote bags, and T-shirts. There are more books in stock, more events, and even more customers.”

“Something about the illicitness of slipping a light back on after everyone is asleep makes reading all the more pleasurable.”

“It’s booksellers like these — booksellers who read broadly and thoughtfully and have opinions they love to share — who help new literary voices find an audience. Without their support — hand-selling my novels and keeping them front of store — I might well be back practicing law. If they disappear, our choices as readers will narrow and our lives as well.”

“Statisticians may tell you that people cluster around jobs or transit or high-speed Internet, but some cluster around more important things. Like bookstores.”

“Books are things that you talk about. Things you need to talk about, because the more you talk about books, the more you understand the people you’re talking about books with. It’s as simple as that.”

“All of us, not just writers, are susceptible to our surroundings. There are plenty of places that make me feel tense, lonely, and glum — hospital waiting rooms, most fast-food restaurants, all malls, especially the Mall of America. And there are a handful of places that make me feel safe and relaxed, unguarded — like myself, but maybe more interesting, more optimistic, more open to possibility.”

“Nancy also has a rare capacity for attention. When she greets someone — in the store, or elsewhere — she comes to a physical and emotional pause. She takes you in. She wants to know how you are and what you’ve been reading.”

“There is no coffee bar. Before the last expansion, Nancy asked her customers if they wanted books or coffee. One hundred percent voted for more books.”

“Quail Ridge Books & Music, which Newsweek recently named on of the great bookstores in the country, has been phenomenally successful. Even in these hard economic times, the store is holding its own. But as the years pass, and the culture shifts, the book business and bookstores have become increasingly fragile. What if there was no Quail Ridge Books & Music? An unthinkable question, but I’ve heard many people ask it. If we did not have this magnificent bookstore, I and countless others would lose a refuge, and intellectual home. Since this particular store is so vital to our community, there’s a good chance it will continue for decades, in one form or another. But the possibility of an ending makes the existence of any living thing — and bookstores are live entities — more precious. So read, Reader, read. And buy books, from stores.”

“Sometimes there’s a reading downstairs, and it might include a short concert of blues music, a heated political argument, or cascades of delirious laughter. There are political meetings, book-group meetings, and the more informal meetings that make up the texture of daily life in a place worth living in. The work of the bookstore is, ultimately, to create that kind of space.”

“There is a lesson here. I think stores should be well organized and have self-contained sections where you can find your philosophy books, your nonfiction, your books about fast cars, on and on. But there is equal, and possibly greater, benefit, in having these sections closely intermingling, or even overlapping.”

“Double thanks, Eagle Harbor Book Company, for putting that few extra bucks I spend by not shopping online or at a box store right back into the community, for bringing your resources into our classrooms, for sponsoring local events, for championing local authors, for encouraging book clubs, for providing your community with a venue for discourse and discussion.”

“When you know a little, it is easy to assume you know a lot.”

“At Watchung Booksellers there’s a daily rhythm to the life of books. Kids are running around — a bookstore like this is where kids are first brought into the wider world of reading.”

“I’ve often wondered how a store that seems to have been made for browsing can make a profit.”

“And if my wife is sometimes dismayed by the quantity of those books, which she is, I tell her it could be worse. Rather than collecting books and spending the bulk of my free time reading them, I say, I could be buying motorcycles or exotic pets. This is usually justification enough, but it’s nice to add that those same books have been helping to make me the man that I am.”

“Maybe what bookstores are feeling now is not only a loss of market share, but also a loss of power or influence. Yet there are these old bookstores all over the world that we fetishize for their history and quirkiness — like Shakespeare & Co. but maybe people love the idea of these places more than they love shopping there. But what is required for that system to work is booksellers who know their books, who are willing to stock obscure things, and writers who are voraciously well-read, who are not just reading the most fashionable books. Maybe MFA culture really has imperiled that, because I still read what writers recommend, but it’s usually people in their program, or it’s people you read about in the New York Times. It’s very odd or rare that you read an author recommend really oddball things.”

“Of course, Barnes & Noble came and gobbled the indie stores up. Of course, Barnes & Noble then left a few years later, leaving Hoboken with just one used-books store, which wasn’t enough.”

“At a time when other businesses are shutting down and when more and more people are resorting to the solitary path of online ebook buying, these are stores that are all about enhancing the community and preserving the history and business of real typeface-on-paper works of art, while also looking ahead to the transitions of the future. There is a lot of proof that people still love real bookstores and real books and those who read them…People, books, conversations about books, readings from books.”

“No Kindle or Amazon or national chain will ever substitute for this place where everybody knows your name. We shop local. We are local. We’re proud to call ourselves regulars.”

“We often hear the term ‘bricks-and-mortar’ stores used as if such stores have been relegated to the dust-bin of history. Who needs an old-fashioned bookshop when it’s so easy to shop in cyberspace? The more our culture becomes disconnected by the age of ‘instant digital communication,’ the more we feel the loss of the personal, the human-contact experience. Many of us are beginning to realize what a great loss it would be not to have a place like Hickory Stick. The use of mobile reading devices has become a fact of modern life, and they certainly have their place. But we believe that the book as a tactile object with beautiful graphics, binding, color, and deckle-edged paper will be with us for some time to come. A bookstore…is also a thing of beauty to behold, with its intelligent, friendly staff and a wonderful display of inviting books of all kinds. The bricks-and-mortar bookstore continues to be an irreplaceable part of what makes life better for us all.”

“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” (Anna Quindlen)

“In this age, when the future of bricks-and-mortar stores seems uncertain, this store illustrates precisely how the Internet fails. Never, while Googling someone or purchasing some obscure work, did I meet another writer or editor or learn about some new journal or anthology.”

“The indie bookstore is what’s left of The Commons. It’s the one place people can still come with journals in hand and not feel self-conscious. The one place where veterans and punk college students and extreme sports fanatics and broken-hearted writers all mingle under the same roof, unafraid to discuss ideas. What kind of country have we become that this is it? That this is what remains? No Amazonia of the Kindled tentacles can possibly take that place.”

“Here’s a universal truth: The really great places are often the ones that are a drag to get to, and they have been able to remain great places for exactly that reason. Try going to the Spear-O-Wigwam ranch in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming (rutted dirt road straight up) or Isle au Haut off the coast of Maine (you arrive on the mail boat.)”

“In a country where reading is less and less valued, City Lights is a literary oasis. Books are important here, and so are their readers. City Lights knows its customers, and that, to me, is what makes an independent bookstore great.”

“Which do you love more: books or bookstores? That’s something to contemplate these days, as the resources for both appear to be receding from us.”

“The fact that I can have a bookstore and pay the bills in a town of this size, despite Amazon and Kindle, is amazing! I think we read because we want to be connected — and that’s one service of the independent bookstore. People do love to make a personal connection with a book — and this is a place to connect.”

“I readily admit that I have outsized envy for those who live in quaint towns with a charming main street — the pizza place where you’re greeted by name, a bookstore whose owner holds behind the counter new releases she knows you’ll love, the coffeehouse where they start pouring your cup as you open the door.”

“What I don’t love, what I find disorienting and a little flat, is the crushing sameness of the spaces between cities and towns. The highways of South Carolina look startlingly similar to the highways of Vermont. The outskirts of nearly every town look more or less the same. The same big-box stores, the same retailers’ names in the interchangeable malls, the same ten or twelve restaurants with the same logos shining out in the twilight.”

“We were lured to the outskirts of town by lower prices, but the low prices always came with hidden costs. The old downtown shops that we liked on principle but didn’t get around to visiting very often couldn’t compete anymore and went out of business.”

“‘Amazon isn’t bad,’ a bookseller of my acquaintance said on Twitter, two or three years back, ‘Monoculture is bad.’”

“Every time an independent bookstore closes, the literary and cultural landscape becomes less diverse. I hope there will be a time when Amazon can coexist more easily with the bricks-and-mortar bookstores in this country. There’s an argument to be made that Amazon’s current business practices are no longer even in Amazon’s best interests, since every closed bookstore represents one fewer place that might potentially be persuaded to stock the titles from Amazon’s new publishing imprints. For the rest of us, a less diverse literary world means fewer people who read and recommend books for a living, fewer staff picks, fewer possibilities for new writers to be brought to our collective attention.”

“She began telling us about conversations she’d had with a few people along the way who’d told her that they buy only e-books. When asked why, they told her it was because it was more convenient. She found this interesting, she said. When, she asked, did convenience become the most important thing? I personally have no quarrel with e-books and believe they’ll continue to coexist with print, but there’s something in Krauss’s sentiment that resonates. I think it applies to the decision of how and where we buy our books. There was a time when we — all of us, the general public — were referred to as citizens. At some point this shifted, and now we’re mostly called consumers. I have some real problems with this change, because while citizenship implies rights and responsibilities, to my mind consumerism mostly just implies shopping. And yet shadows of the original word remain. The word consumer, I’ve come to realize, comes with its own intimations of responsibility, in that it reflects a very basic fact of life in a capitalist society, which is that we get to change the world we live in by means of where we spend our money. This concept is hardly new, but if it happens that you’re someone who enjoys having a bookstore in your town, I would argue that it’s never been more important.”

Buffett: The Biography

I thoroughly enjoy everything I’ve read about Warren Buffett. I had read Snowball, Warren Buffet’s more recent biography, but I heard about this one on the Investor’s Field Guide podcast where the guest, Savneet Singh, whose trying to build the Berkshire Hathaway of software, mentioned reading it when he was younger. There are a number of things that struck me in this book, but more than anything, it was the dogmatic focus with which Buffett lives his life. He doesn’t want to have time for anything other than what he loves to do. That’s why he “tap dances to work every morning.”

Some Quotes:

“Beneath the jargon of Wall Street, he seemed to unearth a street from small-town America.”

“Buffett’s genius was largely a genius of character — of patience, discipline, and rationality. These were common enough virtues, but they were rare in the heat of financial passions, and indispensable to anyone who would test his mettle in the stock market.”

“As an investor, Buffett eschewed the use of leverage, futures, dynamic hedging, modern portfolio analysis, and all of the esoteric strategies developed by academics. Unlike the modern portfolio manager, whose mind-set is that of a trader, Buffett risked his capital on the long-term growth of a few select businesses.”

“His talent sprang from his unrivaled independence of mind and ability to focus on his work and shut out the world, yet those same qualities exacted a toll.”

“Buffett’s one concession to modernity is a private jet. Otherwise, he derives little pleasure from spending his fabulous wealth. He has no art collection or snazzy car, and he has never lost his taste for hamburgers. He lives in a commonplace house on a tree-lined block, on the same street where he works. His consuming passion — and pleasure — is his work, or, as he calls it, his canvas. It is there that he revealed the secrets of his trade, and left a self-portrait.”

“Howard Buffett was determined that Warren would never repeat his own experience of hardship. Also, he resolved that as a parent, he would never follow the example of Ernest and demean his son. He unfailingly expressed confidence in Warren and supported him in whatever he did. And though Warren had his mother’s high spirits, his universe revolved around his father.”

“Howard would recite a favorite maxim from Emerson: The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

“He was fond of telling them, “You are not required to carry the whole burden — nor are you permitted to put down your share.”

“And when Warren talked, his friends perked up their ears. He didn’t persuade the other boys to join him so much as he attracted them — a fireball, as his father said, drawing moths.”

“By his senior year, he was planning on a career not just in business, but specifically in investing. Sitting in the breakfast nook at home, at an age when other boys didn’t get past the sports pages, he was already studying the stock tables. And word of his supposed expertise had followed him to school, where his teachers tried to pick his brain about the market.”

“Warren usually did not have a date, but — of importance for a future investor — he was comfortable without being part of the crowd.”

“Ben Graham opened the door, and in a way that spoke to Buffett personally. He gave Buffett the tools to explore the market’s manifold possibilities, and also an approach that fit his student’s temper. Armed with Graham’s techniques, Buffett could dismisss the oracles and make use of his native talents. And steeled by the example of Graham’s character, Buffett would be able to work with his trademark self-reliance — with the “sweetness” of Emersonian independence of which Buffett had heard from his father.”

“For stock speculation is largely a matter of A trying to decide what B, C and D are likely to think — with B, C and D trying to do the same.”

“Every stockpicker worth his salt eventually comes to such a crossroads. It is extremely difficult to commit one’s capital in the face of ridicule — and this is why Graham was invaluable. He liked to say, “You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you.” Picking a stock depended not on the whim of the crowd, but on the facts.”

“What was most unusual about the young salesman was his appetite for research. Searching for ideas, he read the heavy purple-bound Moody’s manuals page for page with the zest of a small boy reading comics.”

“You try to be greedy when others are fearful and you try to be very fearful when others are greedy.”

“He regarded the majority of tips as a waste, which is why brokers passed them along. But good ideas — his ideas — he treated as intensely private. He regarded them as his creation — as a tiny bit sacred.”

“Because of his conservatism, he refused to analyze companies subjectively, preferring to stick to his mathematical guidelines. According to Irving Kahn, an assistant to Graham, when anyone tried to talk to Graham about a company’s products, “Ben would look out the window and get bored.”

“By now, Buffett was familiar with virtually every stock and bond in existence. Line for line, he had soaked up the financial pages and the Moody’s books; day after day, he had built up a mental portrait of Wall Street. He could measure each stone against the skyline, and there was no one else whose analysis he trusted better than his own.”

“Then he offered the terms. The Davises, as limited partners, would get all of the profits that Buffett could earn up to 4 percent. They would share any remaining profits — 75 percent to the Davises and 25 percent to Buffett.5 Thus, Buffett was not asking the Davises to gamble alone; Buffett’s money would be on the same horse. If his results were mediocre or worse, Buffett would get zilch — no salary, no fee, nada.”

“Buffett insisted on not disclosing his stocks because he was afraid that someone would copy him — thus making it more expensive if he wanted to buy more. He wouldn’t talk to anyone — he maintained that he was afraid to talk in bed because his wife might hear.”

“When Buffett insisted on secrecy, it was not merely to prevent leaks, but also to prevent intrusions, and to maintain that sweet independence. He wanted no amateur tipsters or second-guessers. For a stock to merit investment, Buffett had to persuade himself of it, and if he did, what was the use of other opinions?”

“But Buffett couldn’t get a handle on Dempster. It needed an overhaul, but working with the gritty details was not his forte. It was like cleaning the fruit bins at the Buffett store; he preferred the numerical abstractions to the business itself.Each month, Buffett would entreat the managers to cut their overhead and trim the inventory, and they would give it lip service and wait for him to go back to Omaha. Promptly, Buffett put the company up for sale.”

“Virtually every other stock man in the country chatted up ideas with nary a second thought. Over lunch, at golf courses, on the telephone-tens of thousands of times every day — investment people inhaled and exhaled the name of a favored stock. And most of their tips were forgotten days, if not moments, later, to be supplanted by a new hot stock. But Buffett was different. He was possessive about stocks, like an artist with an unfinished canvas. He liked to tell stories of his coups in the market — but only when they were wrapped up. And only of stocks that were on his agenda to talk about.”

“Buffett was a talker more than a conversationalist.”

“Buffett spent the day reading annual reports and business publications and talking on the telephone. With more and more reports to read and stocks to analyze, he was ever in good humor. But it was rather solitary. He often lunched alone, sending out for a cheeseburger and french fries. His tiny staff knew nothing more of his stock picks than his wife did.”

“Bottle was doing — and doing well — the dirty work that Buffett couldn’t do. He was squeezing cash from Dempster’s underperforming factories, which cash Buffett was funneling into stocks and bonds. From Harry Bottle’s clay, Buffett was sculpting a wholly different enterprise — one with a diversified (and steadily rising) portfolio of securities. This was the sort of alchemy that was very much within Buffett’s range.”

“If we’d kept them the company would have gone bankrupt,” he said. “I’ve kept close tabs and most of them are better off.” Though this has the ring of rationalization, Buffett hated being called a liquidator and vowed that he would “never” lay people off again.”

“Three things had made it work: the initial bargain price, Buffett’s patience in holding on, and his and Bottle’s turnaround.”

“Never count on making a good sale. Have the purchase price be so attractive that even a mediocre sale gives good results.”

“What was not so apparent was that Buffett was also beginning to think differently — that is, to think in qualitative terms, as well as in the merely numerical terms that had appealed to Graham. When Buffett looked at a stock, he was beginning to see not just a frozen snapshot of assets, but a live, ongoing business with a unique set of dynamics and potential.

“The “main qualification is a bargain price,” he wrote; but he also would pay “considerable attention” to qualitative factors.”

“His serious point was that even trifling sums should be invested with the utmost care. To Buffett, blowing $30,000 represented the loss not of $30,000 but of the potential for $2 trillion.”

“What is one really trying to do in the investment world? Not pay the least taxes, although that may be a factor to be considered in achieving the end. Means and end should not be confused, however, and the end is to come away with the largest after-tax rate of compound.”

““Ultimately,” he reasoned, there were only three ways to avoid a tax: (1) to give the asset away, (2) to lose back the gain, and (3) to die with the asset — “and that’s a little too ultimate for me — even the zealots would have to view this ‘cure’ with mixed emotions.”

“I believe in establishing yardsticks prior to the act; retrospectively, almost anything can be made to look good in relation to something or other.”

“He ridiculed the fund managers who took the opposite tack — which is to say, most of those working on Wall Street. Diversification had become an article of faith; fund managers were commonly stuffing their portfolios with hundreds of different stocks. Paraphrasing Billy Rose, Buffett doubted that they could intelligently select so many securities any more than a sheik could get to “know” a harem of one hundred girls.”

“Owning so many stocks was an admission that one could not pick the winners.”

“Buffett scarcely thought about spending his wealth on material comforts. That wasn’t why he wanted it. The money was a proof: a score-card for his favorite game.”

“Buffett acknowledged his contrasting sentiments, quite comically, one summer when the family was touring San Simeon, the William Randolph Hearst mansion in California. The guide was giving a blow-by-blow account of how much Hearst had paid for every item — the drapes, carpets, antiques, and so on. Bored to tears, Buffett protested, “Don’t tell us how he spent it. Tell us how he made it!””

“Discrimination collided with his belief in merit and his faith in neutral yardsticks, which lay at the heart of his investing. In the same vein, he thought it was wrong that rich kids got a big head start over everyone else.”

“Most people — high-powered executives perhaps especially — tend to compartmentalize their lives. They may be tigers at the office and kittens at home. But Buffett was all of a remarkably consistent piece. To young Peter, his father ran on an inner clock whose springs and gears never ceased to turn. Day to day, Buffett was in his own solar system.”

“Susie tolerated him perhaps because Warren, in his absentminded way, was unfailingly good-natured.”

“Buffett, it should be understood, was not abandoning the Graham credo of hunting for securities that were well below “intrinsic value.” But his definition of value was changing, or rather, broadening.”

“Buffett doesn’t dodge questions … but sometimes he’s a trifle oblique.”

“With each successful vault, the bar of expectations climbed. The brighter his star, the darker was the shadow of a looming burnout. Buffett had been saying all along that it could not go on forever. On Wall Street, nothing does.”

“Stocks were going up. This had hardly bothered Buffett when his fund was small. But as his capital swelled, he grew increasingly antsy. The combination of more cash to invest and fewer bargains had him trapped. He complained of being pressed for ideas and, bit by bit, of a strain.”

“Let me again suggest [that] the future has never been clear to me (give us a call when the next few months are obvious to you — or, for that matter, the next few hours).”

“Buffett avoided trying to forecast the stock market, and most assuredly avoided buying or selling stocks based on people’s opinions of it. Rather, he tried to analyze the long-term business prospects of individual companies. This owed to his bias for logical reasoning. One could “predict” the market trend, as one could predict which way a bird would fly when it left the tree. But that was guesswork — not analysis. If he ever sold stocks “just because some astrologer thinks the quotations may go lower,” he warned, they would all be in trouble.”

“It seemed that the dizzier Go-Go’s success, the greater was Buffett’s urge to apply the brakes. Indeed, he kept a newspaper clipping of the 1929 crash in plain view on his wall, just as a reminder.”

“But both companies were cheap, and Buffett thought he could make a profit as an operator.”

“Buffett, in contrast, took a share of the profits, but nothing up-front and no management fee.”

“The stock market is a crowd, consisting of whoever is following prices at any given moment. This amorphous assemblage revalues prices every day, even every hour. Yet the outlook for a given business — say, a Walt Disney — changes far more slowly. The public’s ardor for Mary Poppins is unlikely to change from a Tuesday to a Wednesday, or even over a month or two. Most of the fluctuations in Disney’s shares, therefore, derive from changes not in the business but in the way that the business is perceived.”

“Buffett illustrated this with an allegory about an oil prospector, who arrived at heaven’s gate only to hear the distressing news that the “compound” reserved for oilmen was full. Given permission by Saint Peter to say a few words, the prospector shouted, “Oil discovered in hell!” — whereupon every oilman in heaven departed for the nether reaches. Impressed, Saint Peter told him there was now plenty of room. Quoting Buffett: The prospector paused. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll go along with the rest of the boys. There might be some truth to that rumor after all.”

“One wonders how such silk-stocking paragons could be so gullible. The answer is, they were afraid to be left behind. The choice was to buy the popular stocks, which, after all, were rising, or to risk momentarily lagging the pack. And those who lagged, even for a quarter or two, could not raise new capital. For a money manager in the Go-Go days there were no second acts.”

“Buffett had nothing but doubts. The partnership had $65 million, but where would he put it? The bargains were gone, and the game had changed. Wall Street was putting more and more chips on ever briefer spins of the wheel. It was true, Buffett told his partners, that this self-fulfilling merry-go-round had been quite profitable. It was also true that the fashionable stocks might continue to go up. Nonetheless, Buffett was “sure” that he, personally, would not do well with them. Nor did he wish to try. He could offer no proof that prices were silly, only conviction.”

“In Munger’s view, it was better to pay a fair price for a good business than a cut rate for a stinker. The cheap business, too often, was so full of problems as to turn out to be no “bargain.”

“Indeed, Buffett was starting to feel that managing a portfolio was a bit of a rat race. One puffed on a cigar butt and then tossed it out; the ephemeral quality was unsatisfying.”

“When I am dealing with people I like, in businesses I find stimulating (what business isn’t?), and achieving worthwhile overall returns on capital employed (say, 10–12%), it seems foolish to rush from situation to situation to earn a few more percentage points.”

“But what about the famed access of New Yorkers to “inside information?” Buffett replied, “With enough inside information and a million dollars you can go broke in a year.”

“Buffett reminded partners of a seemingly lost distinction: “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

“My approach to bonds is pretty much like my approach to stocks. If I can’t understand something, I tend to forget it.”

Rosner stayed for twenty years. Toward the end of his tenure, he told Buffett: “I’ll tell you why it worked. You forgot you bought this business. And I forgot I sold it.”

“According to economic theory, when a company is so mismanaged, sooner or later an investor will decide that he can do more with its assets and take it over.”

“Warren asked questions like crazy. About the marketing, the machinery, about what I thought should be done, where I thought the company was going, the technical end of it, what kind of products were we selling, who we were selling to. He wanted to know everything.”

“Buffett told Jack about his own career, recounting his rise as an investor. Jack asked, “How do you do it?” Buffett said he read “a couple of thousand” financial statements a year.”

“Chace now made ready to hear the new owner’s plans for the mill. But Buffett said anything to do with warps and looms would be up to Chace. Buffett would watch the money.”

“Then Buffett explained to Chace the basic theory of return on investment. He didn’t particularly care how much yarn Chace produced, or even how much he sold. Nor was Buffett interested in the total profit as an isolated number. What counted was the profit as a percentage of the capital invested.”

“Buffett also followed through with his promise of autonomy. He told Chace not to bother with quarterly projections and other time-wasters. He merely wanted Chace to send him a monthly financial report and to warn him of any unpleasant surprises.”

“Chace’s freedom had one boundary. Only Buffett could allocate capital. And as most of the previous capital that Seabury had poured into textiles had gone for naught, Buffett was extremely reluctant to put in more.

“Ringwalt stated his philosophy in simple terms: “There is no such thing as a bad risk. There are only bad rates.” This was an insight worth its weight in gold.”

“The apparent riddle was why a New Bedford fabric mill would want to acquire an Omaha insurance company. But Buffett did not think of Berkshire as necessarily a textile company, but as a corporation whose capital ought to be deployed in the greenest possible pastures.”

“Most older entrepreneurs such as Abegg are eager to retire when they sell out, and the new owners (while praising their storied careers) usually are anxious to show them the door. Buffett was different. Running a bank, a claims office, or a retail chain was out of his arc, and he had no desire to try. Indeed, he felt, if he didn’t like the way the business was run, why buy it? He looked for a type: the self-starter with a proven record. What is interesting is that they stuck with him. Abegg, who was seventy-one when he sold to Buffett, continued to manage under Buffett’s ownership — as did Jack Ringwalt at National Indemnity and Ben Rosner at Diversified. (Abegg would run the bank until he was eighty.) None of these multimillionaires needed to work, but Buffett understood that most people, regardless of what they say, are looking for appreciation as much as they are for money. He made it clear that he was depending on them, and he underlined this by showing admiration for their work and by trusting them to run their own operations.”

“Moreover, in measuring investments, Buffett was absolutely unwilling to relax his standards. Many a portfolio manager has been known to explain, “This doesn’t look so hot, so we’re only investing a little.” Buffett refused to make such compromises, and he could be brutally honest about shooting down a prospect.”

“This says a lot about Buffett’s effect on people. Though he wouldn’t loosen his wallet, he was uncanny as a motivator.”

“Like his father, he hated free riders (e.g., his disdain for stock options), but he saw more of them within the country clubs and boardrooms than without. Once, at a formal dinner, when a guest complained about the cost of welfare programs for the poor, Buffett replied tartly, “I’m a lot more concerned about welfare for the rich.”

“Despite his ideals, Buffett was suspicious of the liberal impulse to simply spend money.”

“Partly, Buffett was just tight, but he genuinely did not think people or organizations (or his kids) benefited from easy cash. He measured social projects through the same lens as business ventures: he wanted a return. Good works required that one proceed on the basis of trial and error, even on faith. Buffett was incapable of such a leap. Indeed, the very discipline that made him a good investor crippled what could have been a powerful inclination to work for societal changes. He needed a yardstick. “In investment you can measure results,” he admitted to a reporter. “With some of this other stuff, you don’t know in the end whether you’ve won or lost.”

“Buffett complained to Rosenfield, “They talk about open government but they don’t send statements.”

“Though he was proud of the Pulitzer, he wanted a profit. And the Sun was a poor business. When it raised its rates, its circulation dropped, rather sharply. “Warren didn’t anticipate that,” Lipsey noted. The experience seems to have jolted him. Buffett suddenly wanted to learn all there was to know about newspapers. He began to study the economics of newspapers, and of other media properties, in great detail. As once, after discovering GEICO, he had immersed himself in insurance, now he wouldn’t sleep until he knew the newspaper business from the bottom up. And the more he learned, the more he knew that the Sun, as a secondary paper, was hopeless.”

“But it had registered on Buffett that it would be “wonderful” indeed to own a dominant newspaper. Such a paper, he would tell his pals, would be like the only bridge in a small town. Anyone who had to get across would have to pay the toll. An advertiser in a one-paper city was in the same boat. A department store in Omaha had to advertise in the Omaha World-Herald, the monopoly daily — which meant that the paper had relative freedom to raise its rates.”

“But little by little, he began to creep back into the game. Once again, the catalyst for his metamorphosis was Wall Street. Fund managers, who had been stunned by the collapse of Go-Go, had retreated into a shell. Their funds were now clustered in a group of big, well-known growth stocks, such as Xerox, Kodak, Polaroid, Avon, and Texas Instruments, which were dubbed the nifty fifty. In the prevailing view, these companies, unlike the small high-fliers of the Go-Go era, would grow forever. They were thus said to be “safe” — indeed, safe at any price.”

“The funds had converged on “safer” stocks, but risk is never wedded to one stock or another; it is present wherever investors mindlessly imitate one another.”

“In the evenings, Buffett would go to Cris Drugstore, on 50th Street, for the late edition of the World-Herald, which carried the closing stock prices. Then he would go home and read a stack of annual reports. For anyone else it would have been work. For Buffett it was a night on the town. He did not merely do this nine-to-five. If he was awake, the wheels were turning. He would offer to help Peter with his homework, but Peter knew it wasn’t what his father really wanted to do.”

“His immersion in stocks was terribly difficult for his wife, in manifold ways. According to what Susie told her confidantes, she yearned for more of the usual sort of sharing that one would have with a spouse. When — as occurred periodically — Howie, their middle child, had some problems, Susie had to turn to her own father, the psychologist, for guidance. Her spellbound hubby was in a dream chamber. It was not that Warren was uncaring about the family. He was never mean — they knew he wouldn’t knowingly hurt a flea. As Peter said, he had blinders on.”

“Buffett’s decision to sell notes was based on a Buffett rule of thumb: get the money when it is cheap. (If you wait to borrow until you need a loan, it is likely to be when others are also borrowing, when — perforce — rates will be higher.)”

“It’s a lot different going out to Kalamazoo and telling whoever owns the television station out there that because the Dow is down 20 points that day he ought to sell the station to you a lot cheaper. You get into the real world when you deal with a business. But in stocks everyone is thinking about relative price. When we bought 8 percent or 9 percent of the Washington Post in one month not one person who was selling to us was thinking that he was selling us $400 million [worth] for $80 million. They were selling to us because communication stocks were going down, or other people were selling, or whatever reason. They had nonsensical reasons.”

“The trick in such markets was to have the cash to exploit the moment — as Buffett put it, “to have your check clear.”

“Buffett’s rare ability to separate his emotions from the Dow Jones Industrial Average was a big part of his success. In the sixties, when he had been making tons of money, he had been full of fearful prophecies. But now, with his portfolio underwater, he was salivating.”

“Buffett was as fearful of inflation as anyone. His response was to hunt for stocks, such as newspapers, that would be able to raise rates in step. Similarly, he avoided companies with big capital costs. (In an inflationary world, capital-intensive firms need more dollars to replenish equipment and inventory.) What Buffett did not do was buy or sell stocks on the basis of macroeconomic predictions.”

“He could not size up how the country’s problems would influence the shares of the Washington Post. His genius was in not trying. Civilization is too variegated, its dynamics far too rich, for one to foresee its tides, let alone the waves and wavelets that affect securities prices. Wars would be won and lost; prosperity would be hailed as everlasting and bemoaned as ne’er recurring, as would politics, hemlines, and the weather enjoy their seasons. Analyzing them was Wall Street’s great game — and its great distraction. In its floating salon, everything was interesting and nothing was certain — the President, the economy, the effect of OPEC on sales of Pepsi-Cola.”

“I call investing the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing. You stand at the plate, the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47! U.S. Steel at 39! and nobody calls a strike on you. There’s no penalty except opportunity lost. All day you wait for the pitch you like; then when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.”

“Investors often assume that book value approximates, or at least is suggestive of, what a company is “worth.” In fact, the two express quite different concepts. Book value is equal to the capital that has gone into a business, plus whatever profits have been retained. An investor is concerned with how much can be taken out in the future; that is what determines a company’s “worth” (or its “intrinsic value,” as Buffett would say).”

“When Peters insisted that something had to be done to reinvigorate Wesco, Buffett said he’d like to try it himself. He talked some about his relationship with other companies, which he described as being one of partnership. He talked some about himself. He was calmly reassuring, pushing the right buttons.”

“As Buffett explained to the SEC, Berkshire was something he intended never to sell. I just like it. Berkshire is something that I would be in the rest of my life. It is public, but it is almost like the family business now.”

“He didn’t tell her what to do. He advised, he counseled. The secret to his seduction was his patience. It seemed to exert a magnetic pull on her. And the more she got to know him, the more she liked his ideas.”

“He often commented that he had been unhappy until he had met Susie, or that he wouldn’t have turned out well without her. As a couple, they did not fit a normal pattern. Though their interests, and increasingly their schedules, were separate, Buffett remained extremely attached to her. Even now, she would nestle next to him and take his hand in public as though they were teenagers. Knowing that she was his muse, she seemed incapable of saying no to him.”

“If Buffett couldn’t see a business, he wasn’t comfortable with it. It wasn’t enough for him to get an expert’s assurance on a new project, which is what the typical executive relies on. If he didn’t understand a venture — he, personally — he felt that he’d be speculating. And Buffett wouldn’t do that.”

“He insistently reminded them — as he had Ken Chace, so many years earlier, outside the textile mill — that size was not the goal; the return to shareholders was.”

“Over the next few years, Berkshire doubled its stake, making Buffett the controlling investor. GEICO seemed to go through a Buffett mold — Buffett had that effect on companies.”

“One time, Buffett said an investor should approach the stock market as if he had a lifetime punch card. Every time he bought a stock he punched a hole. When the card had twenty holes he was done — no more investing for life. Obviously, the investor would filter out every idea but the best. Lou Simpson, who was managing GEICO’s portfolio, said this parable had a profound impact on him.”

“In an era when managers were increasingly under the gun to raise their stock or face a takeover, Buffett wanted Byrne to manage for the long term, and emphasized that he wouldn’t sell him out.”

“No doubt, Buffett wanted Byrne to know that he trusted him. And he must have guessed that if he showed his faith, Byrne would not want to let him down. One could say that Buffett was lucky, except that he got lucky too often.”

“Quite obviously, Buffett evolved. He was influenced by Charlie Munger and by the writer-investor Philip Fisher, each of whom stressed good, well-managed companies as distinct from statistically cheap ones. And he was influenced by his own experience.”

“Some years later, Buffett admitted that the stocks he was buying were entirely different from those that Graham would buy. What he had retained from Graham was “the proper temperamental set” — that is, the principle of buying value, the conservatism embedded in Graham’s margin of safety principle, and the attitude of detachment from the daily market gyrations.”

“The best thing I did was to choose the right heroes. It all comes from Graham.”

“But the Evening News was a big step for him. It was not a stock-market investment but a business owned in entire. Buffett would not have Kay Graham to take the punches for him; he would be personally on the line. Even before the sale closed, Buffett seemed to have a strategy in mind for the paper.”

“Buffett was on one of his highs, helping to design a newspaper, getting involved with ad rates, promotional schemes, pricing. He dashed off a note to a certain publisher friend: “Kay, I’m having so much fun with this it is sinful.”

“Perhaps it is necessary to add that the typical businessman does not spend $32.5 million without commissioning a study, often several of them. They provide him with a sense of security — the blessing of supposed experts — even if it is a false security. Ultimately, someone has to evaluate the facts. The someone ought to be the CEO, though it takes a rarely self-assured one to appear before a board without a prop. Buffett’s instinct was to remove the layers between the decision and himself. Yet as one who dispensed with the normal props, he could be made to seem suspect.”

“In the newsroom, people had a sense that this owner would be different. As one veteran put it, “Warren seemed to take a real interest.” He occasionally sent a note commending a story, and he showed up at a staff picnic wearing, of all things, a T-shirt. The reporters, a cynical bunch, loved his skepticism. Rather than pontificate on the redeeming value of capitalism, he tipped the paper to a story on a topic that concerned him much more — namely, how greedy and perhaps unethical he considered his fellow tycoons to be.”

“In 1980, Lipsey moved to Buffalo full-time. Buffett hadn’t asked him to do it, but Lipsey knew that Buffett, in his none too casual way, wanted him there — badly. And Lipsey had gotten hooked on the battle with the Courier-Express.”

““What about profit-sharing for people in the newsroom?” Buffett was asked. On its face, this seemed reasonable. The newsroom had certainly done its bit.

“Buffett replied coldly, “There is nothing anybody on the third floor [the newsroom] can do that affects profits.” The staff was shocked, though Buffett was merely living up to his brutal-but-principled capitalist credo. The owners of the Buffalo Evening News had run very great risks. Employees had not come forward during the dark years to share in the losses. Nor, now, would they share in the gains.”

“A decade after its war with the Courier-Express, the News reached three-fourths of the households in Buffalo — the highest such ratio of any metropolitan paper in the country. But Buffalo was the poorer for having one newspaper instead of two, and total newspaper readership in the city was much less than when the Courier-Express had been alive.”

““I have a picture of Mom and the French Café people coming over,” Peter said. “Dad was like the dad. He was upstairs reading. Mom and her friends were like the kids.”

“While they had always had different interests, as the house emptied of children Susie was more aware of a sense of missing something. Kent Bellows, an artist friend who was hanging around the house, thought Warren and Susie had “a great marriage”; they were a case of opposites attracting. Yet so much of the time, Warren seemed to be in a shell — present physically, but not much more. He would be enveloped in a volume of Standard & Poor’s or preoccupied with his thoughts. In an emotive sense, he was, indeed, Susie’s opposite. Susie said to Bellows, “All Warren needs to be happy is a book and a sixty-watt bulb.”

“He couldn’t rise early enough, as though a bundle of papers still awaited him at the office.”

“As Buffett was investing, he also began to write, occasionally for business magazines, but primarily in the Berkshire Hathaway annual reports. He had always had an urge to chronicle his progress, but his pen had been strangely silent since the days of Buffett Partnership. Now, increasingly, he used the letters to sketch lucid business primers that ranged over investing, management, and finance.”

“It comforted no one that Wall Street had survived a similar brush with Armageddon only five years before — or that the earlier slump had been followed by one of the greatest rallies ever. Financial cycles are apparent only in retrospect.”

“Heinz H. Biel, vice president of Janney Montgomery Scott, joined the chorus: Knowing that stocks are cheap does not impel one to go on a buying spree; the future is clouded by many ugly questions.”

“Buffett could not have disagreed more. The same week, he penned an essay for Forbes, attacking the herd instincts of pension-fund managers and their age-old rationalization. The future is never clear; you pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus. Uncertainty actually is the friend of the buyer of long-term values.”

“The origin of this singular insight was that Buffett looked beneath the form of a security to its economic substance. A stock, like a bond, was a claim on a corporate asset. A stock also bore a “coupon,” at least implicitly — the underlying corporate earnings.”

“Buffett suggested that such managers and directors could “sharpen their thinking” by asking if they would be willing to sell all of their company on the same basis as they were selling part of it. And if not, why were they selling part of it?”

“Where the latter loathed businessmen as capitalists, Buffett arrived at his critique via the opposite route. He attacked CEOs for being wards of the corporate state — that is, for being insufficiently capitalist and self-reliant.”

“overstate. At virtually every public company in America, high share turnover is not only the rule, it is devoutly encouraged by the executives. The typical CEO thinks of his investors as a faceless and changeable mass — to use Phil Fisher’s analogy, like the diners in a highway road stop. At Berkshire, the turnover was extremely low, which — as was clear from Buffett’s letters — was how he wanted his “café” to operate: “We much prefer owners who like our service and menu and who return year after year.”

“In part, Buffett was good at writing annual reports because he was good at reading them.”

“Many run the business so as to maximize not the economic reality but the reported results. “In the long run,” Buffett warned, “managements stressing accounting appearance over economic substance usually achieve little of either.”

“Shareholders pressed Buffett to split his stock. The rationale — and it is an article of faith at virtually every public company — is that a lower share price is more affordable and thus tends to enhance the public’s interest in a stock. But in his 1983 letter, Buffett ruled out a split. Slicing the pie into more pieces would hardly increase its value. (Try it with a pizza.)”

“His aim was to profit from the long-term growth of (hopefully) well-chosen businesses, but not from nimbly entering and exiting them, or from financial legerdemain, or from various forms of pie-splitting and (at foolish prices) pie-acquiring.”

“Regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns, and are very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations. We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us into such sub-par businesses.… Nevertheless, gin rummy managerial behavior (discard your least promising business at each turn) is not our style.”

“One question Buffett always asked himself in appraising a business is how comfortable he would feel having to compete against it, assuming that he had ample capital, personnel, experience in the same industry, and so forth.”

“Her method was her motto: “Sell cheap and tell the truth.”

“Since Buffett had no wish to run a store himself, or even to closely supervise one, he wanted managers who would “feel like I do,” ready to tap-dance at the start of the workday.”

“When the Omaha World-Herald inquired as to her favorite movie, Mrs. B replied, “Too busy.” Her favorite cocktail? “None. Drinkers go broke.” Her hobby, then? Driving around and spying on competitors.”

“Like the Furniture Mart, it perfected the high-volume/low-price formula — which, once in place, tends to be self-perpetuating. Of course, the profits on diamonds were considerably higher than those on carpets.”

“The comparison is illustrative, because the Hathaway mill was everything the Mart was not. The mill was indistinguishable from its competitors; the end consumer didn’t know it existed. As Buffett would bitterly joke, no one went into a men’s store and asked for “a pinstriped suit with a Hathaway lining.”

“Buffett drew from this a broad maxim: a good manager was unlikely to overcome a bad business. This led to a truism about problem businesses in general: “‘turnarounds’ seldom turn …”

“This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brain power and energy are applied to a faulty premise. The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson’s horse. “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse — not a remarkable mathematician.” And a brilliantly run textile firm was not a brilliant business.”

“Buffett’s perspective had also changed. At one time, his view of the Street had been exclusively that of a shareholder. Now, in middle age, he also identified with CEOs — with the Dick Munros and Andy Siglers. He was suspicious of the raiders and of the havoc they caused in corporate boardrooms, and wary of stock prices inflated by takeover fever.”

“When the ABC team returned, Buffett blinked. “I know I’ll regret doing this,” he began — and declared that Wasserstein could have the warrants. The ABC people were stunned. Now each side had to figure out what the warrants were worth. Wasserstein’s computer mavens began to crunch a series of numbers. Buffett, handling the calculations for Cap Cities, simply did them in his head.”

“Perelman eschewed high-tech and looked for strong cash flow. Like Buffett, he took a long-term view and was, at heart, a financial person, not a manager. He once told Forbes that he carefully read ten annual reports a week.”

“A raider with access to somebody else’s dough would pay a lot more than a company was worth. And Wall Street’s soaring appetite for junk bonds was providing a vast supply of easy money.”

“One of the best young money managers thought Buffett had sort of lost it. “Warren has had three careers,” this investor-critic explained. “In the old days, he was a scavenger. He looked for value. Then it got hard to find stuff and he became a franchise investor; he bought great businesses at reasonable prices. And then he said, ‘I can no longer find good businesses at even acceptable prices, and I will take advantage of my size and teach the world a lesson about long-term investing.’ We think he screwed up. It’s stupid.” Buffett and Munger doubted that they could have done better trying to dance in and out. For one thing, a buy-and-hold investor put off the tax man — over time, a very big saving.‖ For another, their long-term approach created opportunities: a Mrs. B or Ralph Schey was more inclined to sell to an owner such as Buffett. And, knowing that divorce was not an option, Buffett was a bit — quite a bit — more circumspect in choosing a partner. To the extent that he, or any investor, is not thinking about how and when he will get out, he will be more selective on the way in. As in a marriage, this is apt to lead to better results.”

“LBO artists did not really qualify as “investors.” They merely transferred assets from one pocket to the next. They did not “create” value, which Buffett defined as adding to the sum of socially useful or desirable products and services.”

“One time, when Buffett was speaking off-the-cuff to a group at Cap Cities, he was asked what techniques he recommended to managers. He launched into a tale about a stranger in a small town. The fellow wanted to get acquainted with folks, so he went over to the village square and saw an old-timer with “kind of a mean-looking German shepherd.” Buffett continued: He looked at the dog a little tentatively and he said, “Does your dog bite?” The old-timer said, “Nope.” So the stranger reached down to pet him and the dog lunged at him and practically took off his arm, and the stranger as he was repairing his shredded coat turned to the old-timer and said, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The guy says, “Ain’t my dog.” The moral for managers: It’s important to ask the right question.”

“A compact organization lets all of us spend our time managing the business rather than managing each other.”

“Munger said it was lucky that the heads of Berkshire’s operating units, such as See’s Candy, did not work in the same office. Close up, comparing oneself to Buffett would be “hard on the human ego.” His intensity was better at a distance.”

“Buffett tried to offset his managerial shortcomings by restricting his role at World Book, See’s Candy, and such to a very few big decisions. He liked to say that one didn’t need a big “circle of competence” — but it was important to know where the “perimeter” was. And Buffett was unusually aware of his own limitations. As applied to managing, he picked the chorus line but didn’t attempt to dance (no “advice” on carpets for Mrs. B). Where other managers often created problems by interfering, Buffett’s native genius for simplicity averted them.”

“The common thread is that historians, football coaches, and CEOs are equally fearful of shouldering, or even delegating responsibility for, big decisions.”

“Buffett did not rule out expansion; he simply demanded that a Blumkin, a Lipsey, or a Schey convince him that said manager could do more by retaining a dollar of earnings than Buffett and Munger could do by investing it elsewhere. The manager who did not convince sent a dividend to Omaha. Buffett applied the same equation to himself at the corporate level. That is, if he and Munger could not find superior investments, it would be time for Berkshire to stop growing and to pay dividends to shareholders.”

“Buffett was looking for “people with no ego.”

“Without due recognition of crowd-thinking (which often seems crowd-madness) our theories of economics leave much to be desired.” (Bernard Baruch)

“scarcely a business school in the country used Graham’s texts. Instead of price and value, Buffett lamented in a postmortem, “professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas.”

“The premise of Buffett’s career was that stockpicking, though difficult and subjective, was susceptible to reasoned analysis. Occasionally, certain stocks sold for far less than they were “worth.” An astute investor could profit by buying them.”

“This “science” was grounded in the only evidence that scholars considered relevant: the data of (supposedly perfect) stock prices. It ignored all of the myriad and changing factors — such as a company’s strategy, products, market strength, and management — that are central to valuing a business in the real world. Such variables are subjective and imprecise; but they are, of course, the stuff that investor-analysts such as Buffett reckon with every day.”

“This fetching comment introduced a straw man. Graham-and-Dodders did not claim to know the proper price for a stock. Theirs was a rough science, at best. What they said was that on occasion a stock was so out of line that one could leap in without any claim to precision. Such instances might be rare. Graham-and-Dodd investors typically owned only a dozen or so stocks from among the thousands available. But those few could make one rich. Quoting Buffett: Observing correctly that the market was frequently efficient, [EMT adherents] went on to conclude incorrectly that it was always efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day.”

“The only factor necessary to calculate the expected relative return on a stock was its beta. Nothing about the fundamentals of a company mattered; the one number, beta, computed from past stock prices, was the only relevant issue.”

“Buffett found it “extraordinary” that academics studied such things. They studied what was measurable, rather than what was meaningful.”

“In a remarkable comment, circa 1979, the chief strategist at Drexel Burnham said his aim was to make the analyst less like an independent entrepreneur who worked alone judging stocks. Less, that is, like a Warren Buffett.”

“Speculation had so overwhelmed markets that their proper, value-discovering role was being swamped by hyperactive trading.”

“As a remedy for the “casino society,” Buffett proposed what Jonathan Swift would have called “a modest tax”: 100 percent of the profits on stocks and futures held for less than a year. This idea disappeared without a trace. But fears about hyperactive trading did not.”

“But the general rule was true for all: if you didn’t understand the business — be it a newspaper or a software firm — you couldn’t value the stock.

  • Look for managers who treated the shareholders’ capital with ownerlike care and thoughtfulness.
  • Study prospects — and their competitors — in great detail. Look at raw data, not analysts’ summaries. Trust your own eyes, Buffett said. But one needn’t value a business too precisely. A basketball coach doesn’t check to see if a prospect is six foot one or six foot two; he looks for seven-footers.
  • The vast majority of stocks would not be compelling either way — so ignore them. Merrill Lynch had an opinion on every stock; Buffett did not. But when an investor had conviction about a stock, he or she should also show courage — and buy a ton of it.”

“And some of these others, being less than anxious to slog through annual reports, were reluctant to believe that Buffett found his stocks the way he said he did.”

“Most of what Buffett did, such as reading reports and trade journals, the small investor could also do. He felt very deeply that the common wisdom was dead wrong; the little guy could invest in the market, so long as he stuck to his Graham-and-Dodd knitting.39 But people, he found, either took to this approach immediately or they never did. Many had a “perverse” need to make it complicated.”

“Of course, following Graham and Dodd would not make Doris — or most anyone else — as gifted as Buffett. At the mere mention of a stock — any stock — he could spit back a fact-filled summary of it, just as the young Warren had once recited from memory the populations of cities. Similarly, his ability for figures left his colleagues stunned.42 (Buffett explained his penchant for mental math by saying that if he didn’t understand a figure in his head, he didn’t “understand” it; thus, no computer.)”

“Anyone is free to adopt the approach of evaluating a stock as a share of a business, rather than a blip on a screen, just as anyone is free to trade options. Munger said the Buffett style was “perfectly learnable.” Don’t misunderstand. I do not think that tens of thousands of people can perform as well. But hundreds of thousands can perform quite well — materially better — than they otherwise might. There is a duality there.”

“Buffett said it did not require a formal education, nor even a high IQ.45 What mattered was temperament. He would illustrate this with a little game at business schools. Suppose, he would tell a class, each student could be guaranteed 10 percent of one of their classmates’ future earnings. Whom would they choose? The students would start to scrutinize one another intently. They weren’t looking for the smartest, necessarily, Buffett would observe, but for someone with the intangibles: energy, discipline, integrity, instinct. What mattered most was confidence in one’s own judgment, from which would flow the Kiplingesque cool to keep one’s head “when all about you are losing theirs.” In market terms, if you knew what a stock was worth — what a business was worth — then a falling quote was no cause for alarm. Indeed, before he invested in a stock, Buffett wanted to feel sufficiently comfortable so that if the market were to close for a period of years and leave him with no quoted price at all, he would still be happy owning it.46 This sounds extraordinary, but one’s house is not quoted day-by-day, and most people do not lose sleep over its value. That is how Buffett looked at Coca-Cola.”

“In fact, Buffett approached philanthropy more or less as he did investing. He refused to “diversify,” preferring that his foundation give to a few “high-leverage” causes that he hoped would reap the biggest social bang for the buck. Sensibly, he wanted to focus his giving, and he recognized that in the case of many charities, too much may be spent on administrator lunches and so forth.”

“Buffett liked to point out that rich people threw money at their colleges in return for getting their names on buildings, but did nothing for their elementary schools, which were trusted with more formative years.”

“People who did not have powerful jobs, women in particular, noticed that Buffett treated them without any hubris or air of self-importance.”

““Don’t tell me about the economics — I know they’re great. You make a product for a penny, you sell it for a dollar, and you sell it to addicts. And it has tremendous brand loyalty.”

“On Wall Street, it was often the good ideas that got you into trouble, for what the wise did in the beginning, “fools do in the end.”

“At one point, Seth Schofield, the chief executive, called Buffett to apologize for the way his investment was turning out. “Seth, I want you to remember one thing,” Buffett shot back. “I called you, you didn’t call me. So I have no one to blame but myself if it doesn’t work out, and let’s let it go at that.”

“What’s more, the problems at his companies did not require Buffett to get personally involved. He liked to say that he had “arranged” his life so that he needn’t do anything he didn’t like.”

“I view Warren as a resource. I go to him if I’ve got something that I can’t ask anybody inside the firm about and get a reliable answer. Or, more than that, if I don’t trust the answer that I can get in the firm to be truly objective. Warren is a terrific call.”

“For varying reasons, each of the directors is convinced that Buffett is the one person who has the combination of reputation, financial clout, experience, and inner strength to save the firm.”

“Instinctively, he shrank from confronting his adversaries, but he was superb at winning them over without a fight. He did not so much convince; he disarmed, he co-opted. Though fearful of hostility, he knew what many are slow to learn — that a sustained demonstration of good faith is apt to be returned in kind, if it is not undermined by any conflicting behavior. That is how he had induced Kay Graham to trust him, and Stan Lipsey to go to Buffalo and save his newspaper; and the SEC to drop its investigation of Blue Chip. Now he had to cooperate with Salomon’s investigators, bow down before its accusers, actually help Justice prove its case. He had to assume, very publicly, as only Buffett could, a personal responsibility for the scandal — to show that the stain was not only purged but deeply and sincerely regretted.”

“People — at least some people — he maintained, were not the purely economic creatures depicted by economists. They could also be motivated by loyalty.”

“This was Buffett’s essential virtue — the courage to stick to his course.”

“Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future.”

“into Berkshire and like amounts into the S&P 500 and crude oil, the Berkshire at year-end 1995 would have been worth $17.8 million, the S&P portfolio $224,000, and the crude oil $72,000.”

“Among history’s great capitalists, Buffett stands out for his sheer skill at evaluating businesses. What John D. Rockefeller, the oil cartelist, Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropic steel baron, Sam Walton, the humble retailer, and Bill Gates, the software nerd, have in common is that each owes his fortune to a single product or innovation. Buffett made his money as a pure investor: picking diverse businesses and stocks.”

“When he took over Berkshire, in 1965, the once-great yarn mill was fading. He redeployed its capital into insurance, candy, department stores (a mistake), banking, and media. These were followed by tobacco, soft drinks, razor blades, airlines (another mistake), and various whole businesses from encyclopedias to shoes. In sum, he built an industrial empire now worth $38 billion entirely from what miserable trickle of cash he could wrest from a dying textile mill, before that mill was sold for scrap.”

“His one passion has been to collect — not money, precisely, but tangible evidence of himself. He clings to his friends, his house, his old foods and stock lines, and his stocks themselves. Notably, he says he does not enjoy running businesses; he enjoys owning them.”

“Indeed, Buffett tracks the destiny of every one of Berkshire’s million-plus shares — a level of familiarity that no other public CEO would dream of or, for that matter, even remotely desire.”

“The point is that Buffett views all investing, and all that he has ever attempted, as “value investing.”

“If we have lost the people with Emersonian inner conviction, it is because we have lost the fixed stars that formerly guided them. The modern relativism has reduced us all to being timid specialists, peeping out from cubbyholes marked “growth” and “derivative.”

“We see him in his inner sanctum, without advisers or lackeys, opposite the framed and fading newspapers and the looming picture of his father, who counseled him toward just such sweet Emersonian solitude. Hours pass without interruption; the telephone scarcely rings. He is looking not for patterns on a screen but for the fundamental values.”

“He stripped Wall Street of its mystery and rejoined it to Main Street — a mythical or disappearing place, perhaps, but one that is comprehensible to the ordinary American.”

“In Munger’s phrase, he strove to be more than a “miserable accumulator,” in particular by treating investors and investees as partners, with no fingers crossed and no “exit strategies.”

“I certainly have no desire to sell a good controlled business run by people I like and admire, merely to obtain a fancy price.”

“This is why Buffett filled a hollow. More than most, he reclaimed the rewards that spring not from trading commitments one for the next, but from preserving them.”

““Never lose money” is an unyielding standard; it forecloses the option of taking any speculative risks. This is why Buffett has so outdistanced investors who earn impressive returns in many years but who, on occasion, succumb to speculation and suffer punishing losses.”

“ The man who taught America how to invest is writing a new chapter on giving it away.”

Kyle Harrison

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“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” (O’Connor) // “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” (Franklin)

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