Highlights from Dreamland

One of the most important books of the decade:

They couldn’t conceive of their children on heroin. For every symptom, the parents had an answer. Did they see burned aluminum foil around the house? We thought he was burning incense. Was he slurring his speech? He was getting over the flu. Were his grades falling? He was going through a phase.

[…]

Drug overdoses passed fatal vehicle accidents nationwide for the first time in 2008.

[…]

It was true about much of a country where the streets were barren on summer evenings and kids no longer played Kick the Can as parents watched from porches. That dreamland had been lost and replaced, all too often, finally, by empty streets of bigger, nicer houses hiding addiction that each family kept secret.

Sam Quinones — Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

Book notes: Thinking in Bets

Just finished up Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts.

Overall, Thinking in Bets is a pretty middle of the road business book. It’s good for lots of tactical details around “thinking in bets” and avoiding inherent biases. It doesn’t have an overly compelling narrative.

Some of its more salient points include:

  • “Resulting” is judging a decision based on its results (which are probabilistic) instead of the thinking and process leading to the decision. A good decision can always have a bad outcome because no decision is ever 100% predictable.
  • Transforming “I know” into “I think with N% certainty” creates space for evaluating what you think you know that led to your current conclusion. It also creates space for others to critically examine the facts leading to your conclusion without you being “wrong”.
  • Sugar industry funded research that eventually triggered low-fat food products. Took decades of real-world impact to realize the flaws. See Snackwell opinions from Michael Pollan.
  • Separate the message from the messenger to avoid bias based on perception of messenger. For instance, liberals could learn a lot from conservatives this way. Tactically, practice this by removing the name from the statement and evaluate more objectively.
  • Remembering the future is the best way to plan for it. From the vantage point of the present, it’s hard to see beyond the next step. We end up over planning for addressing problems we have right now. When we work backward from the goal, we plan the decision tree in greater depth.

Overall, Thinking in Bets provides useful reference material for “thinking in bets.” Which is the title of the book. Which you don’t really understand the meaning of unless you’re a poker player or read the book.

Redshirts

"And that’s just what he did, until the day six months later when a systems failure caused the Intrepid to plow into a small asteroid, vaporizing the ship and killing everyone on board instantly.

[…]

No, no, I’m just fucking with you. They all lived happily ever after. Seriously."

I wish I could say this passage makes more sense with context. John Scalzi’s Redshirts is the most warped book I’ve read in a while.

Sunset, Mazatlan

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A few days on the beach was exactly what I needed to finish up decompressing. In addition to a few long, hot, and dehydrating runs, I had the chance to get a bit of reading in. The best part is that it has significantly renewed my interests in science and engineering.

Steward Brand on the fear of genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms, from Whole Earth Discipline:

What “nature” are we talking about, exactly? You can’t do anything against nature, if your idea of nature includes physics, chemistry, and mechanics. Abominations can be imagined but cannot be performed. Anything you can do you can only do because nature allows it. Nuclear fission is so natural it occurs geogically. Horizontal gene flow is so natural it is the norm among microbes. Apparently what people mean when they say “against Nature” is “against my understanding of Darwinian inheritance and traditional breedline agriculture.” Or maybe it’s not so cosmic, and what people mean by “against Nature” is “something I’m not used to yet.”

We’ve always been engineering our agriculture, and microbes swap genes continuously. If we permit, encourage and respect engineered pharmaceuticals on the open market, why not nutritionally improved food?

Book club

Having no iPod this journey, I’ve relied on a number of books to provoke my thoughts and imagination while stuck in various places, a gnarly dust storm most recently. These are a few I would highly recommend:

  • Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, L. Hunter Lovins, and Amory Lovins [Amazon | Google Books] – A testament, and blueprint, for how we should really be living: in harmony with our ecology. Otherwise, as the book points out, the life support systems of our planet, our ship through the desolate space, are going to cease functioning as we need them to. It holds an optimistic view of the future, though, and argues that by recognizing “natural capital” as limited and valuable, we can actually solve most of the issues humanity faces, climate change and social justice for instance, and live better at that. Personally, it has made me wonder why we don’t have hypercars and closed-loop domestic waste systems already. I’ve got a few projects for home in mind when I return, although I’m going to need to buy another copy because Anat has mine in either Pune or Israel.
  • Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marc de Villiers [Amazon | Google Books] – As I’ve discovered and rediscovered this entire trip, water access issues aren’t publicised to the degree they need to be. Or at all really. Being from the Pacific Northwest and all, I’ve always assumed water flows naturally from the tap everywhere and always. That’s not always the case. Although it starts off slow, the book is definitely worth finishing. For instance, one of the many interesting theses is that the conflict between Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is territorial largely due to water access. All three nations face water scarcity, and control of supply is integral to national security. As with so much development coverage though, India is nearly completely missed.
  • An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy [Amazon | Rediff Books] – In a vein similar to John Perkins’ Confessions of An Economic Hitman, Roy lambasts the United States, IMF, World Bank, Bechtel, and team for being authoritative, oppressive, and imperialist the world o’er. She argues that Empire, by causing social injustice and benefiting few, is weak. Her essays offer interesting perspective into how India fits into the picture.

Manoranjan! (“Enjoy” for those non-Hindi speakers like myself…)