Loserthink

Scott Adams has a new book out. Note the subtitle. Blurb reads:

Even the smartest and most educated among us can slip into ‘loserthink,’ since we haven’t been exposed to the best thinking practices in every discipline. Psychologists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, and artists, for example, all see the world through different filters. If we don’t understand the basics of those filters, we’re likely to fall into loserthink. Some signs you’ve succumbed to loserthink include: inability to get your ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, trusting your preferred news sources, and making too much of coincidences. And with the never-ending stream of urgent notifications on your phone and anger on your social media feeds, it’s easy to feel miserable, defensive, anxious, poor, and sick. But Adams offers a cure for loserthink by teaching you the most productive thinking practices from a variety of disciplines. In this book, you will learn how to… Recognise the walls of your own mental prison and break out. Understand the world in a way you have never seen it before. Be among the most perceptive and respected thinkers in every conversation. Your bubble of reality doesn’t have to be a prison. This book will show you how to break free.

Autumn books

In one of my periodic attempts to impose order on my study I rounded up all the books I have been

  • reading
  • reviewing
  • need to read for work
  • want to read for pleasure

And, having done so, wondered about my sanity.

From the top down…

How to summarise

Janet Malcolm has written a masterful review of Benjamin Moser’s authorised biography of Susan Sontag. Here’s a representative sample:

Moser’s biography, for all its pity and antipathy, conveys the extra-largeness of Sontag’s life. She knew more people, did more things, read more, went to more places (all this apart from the enormous amount of writing she produced) than most of the rest of us do. Moser’s anecdotes of the unpleasantness that she allowed herself as she grew older ring true, but recede in significance when viewed against the vast canvas of her lived experience. They are specks on it. The erudition for which she is known was part of a passion for culture that emerged, like a seedling in a crevice in a rock, during her emotionally and intellectually deprived childhood. How the seedling became the majestic flowering plant of Sontag’s maturity is an inspiring story—though perhaps also a chastening one. How many of us, who did not start out with Sontag’s disadvantages, have taken the opportunity that she pounced on to engage with the world’s best art and thought? While we watch reruns of “Law & Order,” Sontag seemingly read every great book ever written. She seemed to know that the opportunity comes only once. She had preternatural energy (sometimes enhanced by speed). She didn’t like to sleep.

Do read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

Bloomsday

Igoe_book

Today is Bloomsday — the day when Joyce enthusiasts all over the world celebrate Ulysses. In my case, I always host a Bloomsday lunch in which guests drink red Burgundy and eat Gorgonzola sandwiches. Why? Because that’s what Leopold Bloom had when he lunched in Davy Byrne’s pub, taking a break from his perambulations around Dublin.

This year’s lunch was special because one of the guests was an old friend, Dr Vivien Igoe, who is one of the foremost experts on Joyce’s connections with his native city. Her new book, The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses came out last week, and throws a fascinating light on Joyce’s powers of observation and imagination.

We’ve always known that most of the hundreds of characters in Ulysses were drawn from real people, and many of them appear under their own names in the pages of the novel. But who were they, really? Now we know, thanks to an extraordinary piece of scholarship.

Michael Lewis on Lightspeed

Michael Lewis is, IMHO, one of the best long-form journalists around and his new book is well up to his usual standard. In many ways, it adheres to the classic Lewis formula: find a scandalous set-up of which most people are blissfully unaware; locate some smart guys who have detected the systemic scam and figured out a way to profit from their ingenuity; and then tell their story.

In this case, the story is basically about the speed of light – or, to be more precise, about how the time-difference (in millionths of a second) that it takes an electronic share transaction to traverse one fibre-optic connection rather than another can provide an exceedingly lucrative trading advantage to those who have the kit and the know-how to exploit it.

In the video clip he explains the nub of the idea but, as always, it’s not so much the story as the way Lewis tells it — which is why his book is a must-read for anyone who cares about this stuff.

Writing about it in Quartz, Matt Phillips quotes from another part of the TV interview

“If it wasn’t complicated, it wouldn’t be allowed to happen,” he says. ”The complexity disguises what is happening. If it’s so complicated you can’t understand it, then you can’t question it.”

“This problem”, Phillips says, “goes beyond stock markets: The US financial system is awash in unnecessary complexity. And the reasons are simple: Complexity is profitable and it keeps regulators at bay. ”The jargon of bankers and banking experts is deliberately impenetrable,” wrote economists Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in their indispensible The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It. “This impenetrability helps them confuse policy makers and the public.”

There are some echoes of the sub-prime/CDO scandal in Lewis’s new book, in that the people who are supposed to understand how the system worked had little or no idea what was going on under their corporate noses. He recounts how the ‘good’ guys in his tale discovered this when they sought to enlighten leading figures in the financial world about flash trading:

The most sophisticated investors didn’t know what was going on in their own market. Not the big mutual funds, Fidelity and Vanguard. Not the big money-management firms like T. Rowe Price and Capital Group. Not even the most sophisticated hedge funds. The legendary investor David Einhorn, for instance, was shocked; so was Dan Loeb, another prominent hedge-fund manager.

This is an indicator of a really serious underlying problem in our networked world — the stupendous power that superior knowledge, IQ and technical understanding confers on some people. We are completely dependent on systems that are so complex that virtually nobody understands how they work — and how they can be manipulated and gamed by those who do understand them. The obvious rejoinder is “twas ever thus”, but I think that’s too complacent. What’s different now is that the level of technical expertise needed is beyond the reach or capacity of almost everyone. Which means that the elites who do ‘get’ it — and those who employ them — have colossal advantages.

LATER The book has made a BIG impact, to judge from the media coverage, and mostly the reactions have been complimentary. But there were a few contrary opinions. And Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing in the New York Times made some good points.

There is only one problem with Mr. Lewis’s tale: He reserves blame for the wrong villains. He points mostly to the hedge funds and investment banks engaged in high-frequency trading.

But Mr. Lewis seemingly glosses over the real black hats: the big stock exchanges, which are enabling — and profiting handsomely — from the extra-fast access they are providing to certain investors.

While the big Wall Street banks may have invented high-speed trading, it has gained widespread use because it has been encouraged by stock markets like the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and Bats, an electronic exchange that was a pioneer in this area. These exchanges don’t just passively allow certain investors to connect to their systems. They have created systems and pricing tiers specifically for high-speed trading. They are charging higher rates for faster speeds and more data for select clients. The more you pay, the faster you trade.

That is the real problem: The exchanges have a financial incentive to create an uneven playing field.

Footnote: Readers on IoS devices may not be able to see the video clip, for reasons best known to the late Steve Jobs.

The rise of e-reading

Fascinating Pew report on the e-reading phenomenon.

Main findings:

A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.

The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.

Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books.

For device owners, those who own e-book readers also stand out. They say they have read an average of 24 books in the previous year (vs. 16 books by those who do not own that device). They report having read a median of 12 books (vs. 7 books by those who do not own the device).

Overall, those who reported reading the most books in the past year include: women compared with men; whites compared with minorities; well-educated Americans compared with less-educated Americans; and those age 65 and older compared with younger age groups.

30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now. Some 41% of tablet owners and 35% of e-reading device owners said they are reading more since the advent of e-content. Fully 42% of readers of e-books said they are reading more now that long-form reading material is available in digital format. The longer people have owned an e-book reader or tablet, the more likely they are to say they are reading more: 41% of those who have owned either device for more than a year say they are reading more vs. 35% of those who have owned either device for less than six months who say they are reading more.

Men who own e-reading devices and e-content consumers under age 50 are particularly likely to say they are reading more.

The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers. In Pew’s December 2011 survey, they found that 72% of American adults had read a printed book and 11% listened to an audiobook in the previous year, compared with the 17% of adults who had read an e-book.

This is really interesting stuff which, among other things, tends to undermine the widespread meme about the ‘death’ of the book. It’s the old misconception: confusing function with format.

Full report here.

Digital abundance

One of the points I often make in lectures is that economics has severe limitations as an analytical framework for looking at our new media ecosystem because it’s the study of the allocation of scarce resources, whereas what characterises the digital ecosystem is abundance. That sounds glib when I say it, but this installation by Erik Kessels — on show as part of an exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam — makes the point vividly. It features print-outs of all the images uploaded to Flickr in a single 24-hour period. There are several rooms like this…

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Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: an interview

As many readers of this blog know, I have a new book coming out in January in which I try to distil what I think people should know about the Internet. My Open University colleague Monica Shelley has done an interview with me about it which has just gone on the departmental website. Here it is for anyone outside the firewall. The book has nine big ideas in it (seven plus or minus two in homage to George Miller). Monica wisely decided to focus on the most basic five ideas; otherwise she’d have been there all day. Thanks to her and to Joe Mills, who shot and edited the clip.