Book Reco! The Gene

BOTTOM LINE: Super glad I read it; learned so much; super dense, so at times a careful read; fascinating. A+

 

I was a terrible student. With that disclosure: I can confidently say that I learned more about science from this book then I did from how ever many years Bio, Chem, Physics, and whatever else I was forced to sit through.

I clearly have a type. South Asian American doctors are apparently some of my favorite authors. Gawande, Kalanithi, and Mukherjee. Interspersing snippets of family history between an expansive journey through the history of genes, Mukherjee kills it. I’m not being self-deprecating when I claim almost total ignorance of the foundations of science. Yet, even with that deficit, The Gene never lost me.

Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene…each represents the irreducible unit– the building block, the basic organizational unit– of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte, of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.

That’s page 9. Wow. It never slows from there. Mukherjee elegantly integrates the whole in a constellation that is easy to follow, but breaks down the individual elements so I could still fundamentally grasp the thread. The book sparked all kinds of analogues and thoughts in the various circles my brain spends lots of time: software technology, investments, culture, politics.

I could easily (and might still in a future writing) highlight the 50-odd passages I scribbled around the margins in, but for now just one(ish) more:

In 1798, writing under a pseudonym, Malthus had published an incendiary paper — An Essay on the Principle of Population — in which he had argued that the human population was in constant struggle with its limited resource pool. As the population expanded, Malthus reasoned, its resource pool would be depleted, and competition between individuals would grow severe. A population’s inherent inclination to expand would be severely counterbalanced by the limitations of resources; its natural wont met by  natural want. And then potent apocalyptic forces– “sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague (would) advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands” — leveling the “population with the food of the world.” Those that survived this “natural selection” would restart the grim cycle again — Sisyphus moving from one famine to the next.

& then through-line straight to Darwin:

Flocks of finches fed on fruit until their population exploded. A bleak season came upon the island– a rotting monsoon or a parched summer– and fruit supplies dwindled drastically. Somewhere in the vast flock, a variant was born with a grotesque beak capable of cracking seeds. As famine raged through the finch world, this gross-beaked variant survived by feeding on hard seeds. It reproduced, and a new species of finch began to appear. The freak became the norm. As new Malthusian limits were imposed — diseases, famines, parasites — neew breeds gained a stronghold, and the population shifted again. **Freaks became norms, and norms became extinct. Monster by monster, evolution advanced.**

Those are macro passages from the opening where Mukherjee sets the table for the minutiae to come. He is just as strong delving into the micro of DNA-RNA-Amino Acids-Proteins-etc. What a book.

Few other stray thoughts:

  1. YMMV. I’ve been on quite the kick of thinking about genetics and why/how we’re different from each other. This probably comes from growing up with such an acute feeling of being an “other.” But today it’s definitely fueled by trying to make sense of our current world’s resurgence of “blood and soil” and what that truly means. I’ve also been reading scraps on population migrations, assimilation, acculturation, and so on. It’s all fascinating to me. I did 23andme almost a decade ago and am now looking forward to reading more into all that w/additional context.
  2. So many implications of all this for a world of massive computing power and well developed machine learning. I now understand a little better some of the A16Z bets and other things I’ve seen in the news. So much to think about.
  3. Would I have appreciated this book when I was in high school? Putting aside that it was written twenty years later, I can’t help but wonder if I had read this before my freshman year, if I would have then been interested enough to actually learn something in Bio + Chem. I’d like to think so, but who knows. The context was missing. The context here is so rich, it makes the learning feel necessary.
  4. 500 pages of text (another 100 of references), but totes worth it.

Byron Wien

The Life Report: Byron R. Wien

What a fantastic read! He’s an incredible market commentator and is featured in Barron’s this week. Loved the writing and his insights. Selections/reactions:

“Eventually I developed the necessary skills and became a partner of the firm. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t try to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life when you are a teenager.  Pursue your passion in college and the rest of your life will take care of itself.”

This is both common advice and also somewhat controversial. I’ve heard it argued that this only works if your passion is in something w/obvious commercial value. I don’t agree. In today’s world — with so much rapidly being automated and everything rote eventually to be absorbed by the borg — original thought, creative expression, and innovative thinking will be what earns value. I find it hard to see how one stumbles into these things without deeply caring, and dedicating oneself to an area. Working in an area well, without passion, without deep interest, seems like a fool’s errand. His advice is more valuable today than ever.

When giving career advice to young people, I tell them there is a perfect job out there for everyone, but most people never find it.  Keep looking.

Yes. I so agree with this. Now that I can afford to be selective with what I do, I spend the most time thinking about fit. Of late, it has certainly served me well. I only wish I grokked this earlier. I don’t see how this isn’t universally applicable.

In my job I’m expected to understand what is happening in the world and to identify secular change.  It seems clear that the United States and Europe are mature, overleveraged economies with dysfunctional governments.  Since growth will be slow, unemployment will be high and the standard of living for many people will decline.  Opportunities for young people will be fewer than the ones I could take advantage of.  There will be more social unrest.  I was born in the Depression and lived through the glorious years for America after World War II.  The future for these born now is not so bright.

I agree w/his general thrust on the nature of Western economies. But I disagree w/his final conclusion. I would amend as: The future for those being born, in a future projected forward as it looks today, is not bright. If one were to just project forward, I agree with him. But major advances in health, travel, energy, etc — could, of course, radically restructure our mode of living and economic system. In such a world, who’s to say creative freedom and the ability to find meaningful work won’t be greater?

Not having children is one regret, as I said.  Another is that I am estranged from my older brother to whom I loaned a large amount of money when my financial circumstances were marginal.  He never paid it back and lied to me throughout the process.  We talk only on our birthdays.

This struck a nerve. A question I’ve asked myself a lot of late: Can you see a regret coming and still do nothing to change it?

Fantastic read. Super interesting man.

creativity, inc

Great passage from our latest company book club selection, Creativity, Inc:

Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly— hindsight being 20-20 and all— we often aren’t open to knowing more. “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it— and stop there,” as Mark Twain once said, “lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again— and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” The cat’s hindsight, in other words, distorts her view. The past should be our teacher, not our master.

the deal with manufacturing.

A few years ago I was obsessed with manufacturing. While not an expert, I have read thousands of pages on the topic and hundreds of articles. In my campaign for Congress, I tried to make jobs, and as a result, manufacturing a cornerstone. All that to say, that this is something I find interesting and care deeply about.

In the past few days I came across two must-read articles on the topic.

1) The NY Times dives into the topic through the lens of Apple and the iPhone. How the US lost out on iPhone work; Apple, America and a squeezed middle class. Must Read.

2) The Atlantic Monthly absolutely blows the doors off with a great dissection at the high-level of American manufacturing and weaving in the human face. Making It in America. Phenomenal.

I recommend starting there. There are a slew of topics that every citizen should understand, Manufacturing among them. It drives the wealth and stability of nations and the type of society you have. At least until now it has. It was arguably the main building block of a prosperous and triumphant America. Our mercantilist policies and inherent natural advantages largely contributed to the sole superpower position we held.

I want to lay out 3 important things about manufacturing that are not well understood or known. I’ll do a separate post on why manufacturing matters — but the fact that it has historically been a primary source of work for the masses should be enough for now. (That shouldn’t be controversial.)

1) Automation. Robert Reich is the one who first drew my attention to this in 2009. Essentially, global competition aside, technology was rapidly cutting into the humans you needed for production. This trend has only accelerated, as robotics and software improve at scale, the costs of automating repetitive tasks continue to decline sharply. We’ll see more automation everywhere in the world. It will literally take a shortage of the natural resources (again, another post) to cease this inevitability. So, net, automation has cost a good chunk of American jobs. This is also true for Chinese, German, Japanese, South Korean, et al jobs.

2) Training. I blame politicians for why this is so little understood. Since the days of Bill Clinton, “Move up the value chain. Education is the key. etc, etc”  has been one of those safe ubiquitous lines everyone parrots. It’s led us to the “sacred truth” that everyone needs to go to college and then they’d be OK. I think this is total bullshit.  (Google “Thiel Higher Education Bubble” for an excellent background on the counter to this “truth”). In reality, “educated workforce” meant a very complex, diverse truth. It meant a great liberal arts education for some, a rigorous math, science/engineering education for others, and the missing one — was a highly valued vocational training. Germany has long known the importance of this and has a variety of vocational training. Both articles linked to above touch on the need for this. Over the past decade we have all but given up on this kind of training. While part of a more complex point, I believe that we should aggressively be retooling our community colleges to focus on this kind of vocational training.

3) Industrial Policy. Automation aside, the Apple story talks about foreign governments that targeted specific desired industries and how this resulted in an unbeatable combination. This is  called industrial policy and is rarely talked about in America. Countries that have heavily used industrial policy: Japan, China, Germany, South Korea. It’s a list of the powerful, triumphant manufacturers of the world. America once had a very muscular industrial policy from the 1800’s going through World War II. With Europe in shambles and our industrial and economic might seemingly infinite, foreign policy and political concerns prevailed over any kind of industrial policy. The result has been a consistent (with a surge this past decade) overseas build-up of industrial capability that has led to the realization of Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound of jobs going away.” Industrial policy can be a combination of tax benefits, cash and natural resource subsidies, calculated currency manipulation, and protectionist trade restrictions to protect a fledgling industry. While there are examples of America focusing here (agricultural) we’ve sat out this “game.” While industrial policy has its share of valid skeptics (can the government really pick the right industries that matter?) — it really does matter. The rise of most of China, Japan, South Korea, etc is the blinding proof that an intellectually-honest person can’t ignore.

There are a lot of other important things to join. The importance of building a cost infrastructure that supports manufacturing vs consumption. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most geared towards production and jobs — China is a 10 towards supporting jobs (manufacturing, etc). The US is close to a 1. On the scale of 1 to 10, with focused on consuming as much as possible, America is a 10 and China is a 1. We’ve focused on consumerism and the amassing of boundless crap. By the way, lately that crap has been debt. Unfortunately we’re not having a real conversation about where we’re headed, what we’ve been doing, and where want to go, nor discussing the actual impact on Americans’ lives. Both the NYT piece and The Atlantic do these things on some level.

I’ll end by saying that while I loved the articles, I found Davidson’s closing line in The Atlantic to be a bit disingenuous:

For most of U.S. history, most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didn’t make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it all added up to a better sort of life than the one we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.

In so far as the future is always hard to predict, fine. That aside, I think it actually is fairly clear. In fact, it’s the strength of the article. He lays out the clear arc:
1) People like Maggie, who the article opens, with are quite rare. A great very many “Maggie’s” across the country don’t even have the opportunity that she has.
2) Even for Maggie, the basic ideal of a middle class life eludes her reach on a salary of sub-$30K.
3) The writing is on the wall that with automation, even what the lucky ones like Maggie have, is likely to be gone in the foreseeable future.

The “very lucky” in this story, Luke, is shown as a clear anomaly. In fact the NY Times story on Apple presented the other side of Luke, in the well-trained Eric Sargoza an engineer who can’t find a job because he’s been replaced by someone in Shenzen who makes nearly what he did.

The obvious outstanding variable left is that we live in increasingly chaotic times. In times like this you can’t predict the future, because there are just too many variables. In the absence of predicting the future, you have to at least connect the dots and prepare best you can. Sadly, the dots have clearly been there since I was born (30+ years). We’ve chosen mostly to ignore them and, I fear, the chickens are coming home to roost.

financial services reading.

Lots of disturbing, horrifying, and bizarre facts out there about the state of the financial services sector of our economy.

One of my all-time favorite writers, Michael Lewis, has a great piece on AIG in Vanity Fair.

Much more controversially, Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone posts a searing indictment of uber-bank Goldman Sachs. Almost must read.

The past year in the banking sector (based on the actions over the past decade+) has had a truly stunning impact on our country. Likely, we’re going through a history-shaping event. It’s why I’m shocked at how what has gone on has been out of the public spotlight. I hope to see more in-depth reporting coming out soon on the role lobbyists, PAC’s, and financial firms themselves played in this national nightmare.

good articles to read, take two.

Con’t…

6) Dream on a shelf — ESPN.com OTL. Interesting read on the insides of big money sport. More as a human interest story than financial deep-dive.

7) What makes us happy? The Atlantic. An ongoing *72* year study of 268 men at Harvard college probing the factors that make some men happy, and others miserable.

8 ) The secrets of self control – The New Yorker. Self control, a topic that’s always fascinated me, is really well-discussed here.

9) When underdogs break the rules – The New Yorker. Why do people pick fights they know they are going to lose? I love the underdog and those who face long odds bravely. But I struggle with understanding the masochism of confronting a foe in the manner in which you’re at a known disadvantage. Find your advantage, right?

10) Geithner and the gilded age – NYTimes. Good read on Geithner, who as Treasury Secretary, is now one of the most important people in the world. Both fascinating and depressing. Try not to throw up in your mouth as you read about his best friends on wall street.

2 hours of pain and bliss.

Below are some of the more interesting articles I’ve found over the past month. Not sure if it adds up to 2 hours of reading, but it sounded like a good title to me. Why pain? Because reading some of these articles made my blood boil and indignation rage. After avoiding these kinds of articles for a few months, I’ve jumped back in and hope that maybe something productive will result. Here goes…

1) NYTimes: Banks up to their old tricks.

After screwing over their country (and, to be fair, many other countries) American banks have decided they’ve been punished enough. They are passionately lobbying against regulation of the same complex financial instruments that pushed the world economy to the brink of collapse. They’re pushing for less transparency and less oversight. The money quotes:

“The banks run the place,” Mr. Peterson said. “I will tell you what the problem is — they give three times more money than the next biggest group. It’s huge the amount of money they put into politics.”

“The outrage among the public means that things have a chance to change, if things move quickly,” said Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and a former director of trading and markets at the C.F.T.C. “We’re in this brief moment of time when the average citizen is on a level playing field with the lobbyist.”

The banks run the place? A brief moment in time when the average citizen is on a level playing field with a lobbying group out to bankrupt taxpayers? Wait. What was that sound? Oh, just me throwing my laptop against the wall.


2) NYTimes Magazine: Tom Davis Gives up on Washington

An old article on a republican congressman from Virginia. Half human interest story and half sad state affairs of Washington. I would take 435 Tom Davis’ over almost anything else you could give me. I found it really interesting to read the story of a man who spent a lifetime in politics, played the game enough to exist within the power structures, yet refused to compromise on some core ideas and principles.

3) The New Yorker: Money Talks – the Obama budget

Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget head may have the toughest job on the planet. By all appearances he’s a non-political, intellectually honest policy wonk trying to follow through on an ambitious agenda while not bankrupting America. In times like these, saying that last phrase, becomes more than empty rhetoric. Interesting to read about the schism within the administration between those who are scared of our deficits and those who feel we need to march ahead to “right America”. Though, unlike the battle in 90’s, we live in a different world where the dollar is actually in some amount of danger.

4) New Yorker: Cost of healthcare…

Atul Gawande is an *amazing* writer. He wrote a great book called Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance. Here he takes on the peculiarities of health care costs. Gawande writes with the credibility of a renowned doctor and with the incisiveness of a gifted author to confront a taboo in the world of medicine– the profound import of money. Examining a city in TX that boasts health care spending far above the national average and surrounding towns, he dives in full bore. There’s a synergy to this and the Orszag article and, hopefully, we’re approaching a consensus in potential approaches. Make no mistake, health care is the single biggest threat to our country’s future. It threatens private sector viability and the potential to bankrupt the government. Social Security and bailouts can’t touch our medical system.


5) New York Review of Books: Crisis and how to deal with it.

Niall Ferguson is one of my favorite authors and speakers on economic issues. I’ll warn you to not read this next to any sharp objects, prescription drugs, or other dangerous things. The conversation, between some of the “brightest economic minds”, offers very, very little sunshine.

I’ll have 5 more in a few days.

reading: the unforgiving minute.

I read Joker One and The Unforgiving Minute back-to-back (thanks, Amazon recommendations!) I expected similar books since they are first-person tales from Iraq and Afghanistan. While true, I found them to be of very different quality. While readable, I found that Unforgiving Minute lacked the power and voice of Joker One.

Fair or not, I can’t help but compare the two.  The Unforgiving Minute is the story of Craig Mullaney’s life as a military man. Unlike Joker One which tracks the author’s experience as a platoon commander, Minute tracks Mullaney’s life. Much of the story surrounds his experience at West Point, training, his tour in Afghanistan, his experience as a Rhodes Scholar, falling in love, and his relationship with his family. If you’re looking for a glimpse of life at West Point and into military culture, this is the book for you.

While Minute is almost an autobiography, and Joker One is more of a military account, I felt like Joker One was more personal. I think this is due to how honest Campbell is in his detailed accounts of his failures, insecurities, and the details of war. Despite glossing over the personal details of his personal life, I felt a vivid portrait of the man and a feeling that I somehow knew him. Whereas while Mullaney’s book dives deeply into his personal relationships, it carries an almost detached tone. It was strange to read such personal details such as his relationship with his father or his wife and still feel so distant. I can’t deconstruct the elements that makes Joker profoundly personal and Minute feel detached, but I’m pretty sure if I could, they would be instructive. Any literary experts who can do this, please reach out and help!

Minute is still a good book. But, for me, lacked the power of Joker.

does twitter improve memory?

Last month I read an article in Wired about a woman who remembers everything. You name a date and she’ll tick off hundreds of events that have happened to her on this date. The publicity eventually attracted  Wired. The article reached the new conclusion that the reason she remembers so much is because she has a form of OCD that makes her take detailed notes on her life which she feels compelled to re-read.

I found this interesting because I kept a journal back around 2000 for a few years. When I go back and read the detailed entries about my day, things that had all but completely disappeared from my mind rush back. Stories and events that were such a big deal, then doomed to be forgotten, are revived. Nostalgia aside, I think it’s helpful. Seeing how I thought about things, reacted to events, people, challenges, successes, etc is helpful for me to compare and contrast where I am today. It’s easy for me to think that everything is different in my life now. While , it’s in some ways true, in many others, the same themes are still present and powerful. Events change, but the themes have been constant. Without my record, it’s easy for me to remember that past very differently.

As I think about the Wired article’s conclusions: that memory is strengthened by how we treat, record, and revisit it, I wonder how memory is changing. With our Facebook status updates, blogs, and Tweets, millions of us are constantly sharing details of our lives. Will this act of recording, sharing, and commenting on our lives enable us to remember better? Whereas previously, we had to live in the moment, today, we constantly stop and “document.”

Then again, if all of our social posts contain little substantive contemplation of our lives, it’s doubtful any of it will be very useful 🙂

religion vs spirituality.

time cover I’ve long listened to the discussion between being “religious” vs “spiritual.” Of late, I’ve heard of a lot of fatigue with people classifying themselves as “spiritual.” I suspect this has to do with how nebulous a term “spiritual” actually is and how many people have chosen to identify as such. There’s a great article in TIME magazine, actually it’s a whole section in the print edition, that covers the role of faith (religion)in health (medicine).

One of the things that struck me was how one of the experts, Rev. George Handzo, a chaplain with the HealthCare Chaplaincy of New York City describes the religion/spirituality talk:

“…Religion has to do with an organized set of beliefs. So I’m a Lutheran; I adhere to a set of beliefs that has been defines as Lutheran, and I identify with a community that’s Lutheran.

Spirituality, I think, is a much broader concept, and it has to do with probably a personal quest. Lutheran is what some other people have said Lutheran is. Your spirituality is what you say it is…”

(emphasis and parenthesis mine)

I thought this was such an incisive statement.

Going further, the series of articles is pretty great. Ever since my first psychology classes at Rutgers where I heard about the role of faith, religion, and belief in more positive outcomes for cancer patients, I’ve been fascinated by the power of faith and healing. The series speaks to a need for a more holistic health care system where not just the diagnostic of the individual goes past merely the clinical and goes broader to the social and faith-based. I, for one, am in favor (duh, given my earlier stated fascination with it) of involving clergy, guru’s, or whatever is right for the person to guide them through a period of deep illness in consultation with medical staff. TIME did a great job of gathering up a man of faith (quoted above), a medical doctor, and a psychiatrist to dive deeper. Good stuff.