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Month: December 2016

A Reflection on Reading (#books, #reading, #lifestyle)

A Reflection on Reading (#books, #reading, #lifestyle)

I used to love reading, but reading hasn’t been fun for me lately.

I’ve been a big reader since I was an adolescent. A non-embellished family lore story that gets mentioned with some frequency involves my father insisting that I stop wasting my time on mindless recreational activities (I was about eight in this story, so we’re not talking about drugs) and do something productive with my time. Trying to figure out what I could do differently I asked, “Like what?” Exasperated, he replied, “I don’t know, read a book!” “But I’ve read everything already.” “You’ve read every book in this house?” he asked, bemused. He began grabbing books off the shelf in my room at random and quizzing me, “What’s this one about? What about this one?” After doing this five or six times, he gave up, admitted maybe I was using my time as wisely as I could and maybe we didn’t have enough books, either, and agreed right then and there to buy me any book I wanted, any time I wanted, going forward. We started making a lot of trips to Barnes & Noble and Borders after that!

The story is not embellished but it might as well be. My father was too busy building our family business to prioritize reading much of anything that was not industry related. My mother had her hands full raising several small children and tending to the other household needs so she didn’t prioritize reading as much, either. Both my parents saw reading as important — one of those things you recognize the value in because you DON’T do it yourself, I suppose — and wanted their children, including me, to be readers. So I had a bookshelf in my room, and there were a few other titles strewn about here and there, but it wasn’t like we had some sophisticated reference library (we didn’t buy a set of encyclopedias until I was around thirteen, and by then the digital world of the internet had entered my life in a most distracting manner and I found searching for information there more fascinating than paging through a hardbound ‘pedia… who knows what would’ve happened if I had had access to that material when I was eight) and the most complicated story on my shelf at the time was probably a Boxcar Children novel or a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry.

The point is, I loved to read and if I found a book, I generally read it. As I got older, my interests in reading shifted. I spent a lot of time immersed in the fictional worlds of fantasy writing and sci-fi. I ended up owning and reading stacks of paperback novels that would be eight or nine feet high laid on top of one another. I also became interested in news magazines (though not newspapers, which I found cumbersome physically, dirty, and we never seemed to be subscribed to one). By my teenage years I was subscribed to TIME, Newsweek, National Review, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. As I entered high school I added The Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker to the list, as well as a few others. I continued reading mostly novels, essentially unaware of the world of biography, philosophy, social science and history more generally speaking. I read nothing of business or investing. I just didn’t know the stuff existed, though I wish I had because I can imagine myself enjoying reading it back then.

After going to college, I became more serious about reading. Part of this was because I found myself extremely frustrated in my classes with the material I was being taught and the lack of critical thinking I thought the classes entailed about the subject matter, concerns I’ve laid out in some detail in earlier posts. As a result, I took to a program of parallel self-study in various fields, such as economics. Again, at the time I was unaware that there was a phenomenon called “autodidactism”, which I had been doing a lot of my entire life but never with any discipline, but now I was discovering it and realizing just how powerful a dedicated program of reading and thinking could be for me in connecting the knowledge dots. I found a variety of printable media on sites like www.mises.org, entire economic treatises a thousand pages long or more, and started visiting Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) to print and spiral bind these works into more manageable mini-volumes. I’d stuff these things in my book bag and read them on my 30 minute subway commute to class and back, or more generally, in the back of the lecture I was supposed to be listening to instead. My grades suffered a bit (though I think that’s mostly because I found the official subject matter so disingenuous and so worthless that I’d often fall asleep in my apartment trying to study it) but my knowledge exploded. I was hooked on reading.

I’ve been a serious reader ever since. But being a serious reader is a lot different from being someone who loves reading. I’ve struggled with the two lately. Being a serious reader is hard work. It is exhausting. It is demanding of your time and energy and it leaves little room for other priorities. Done the right way, it entails a lot of ancillary obligations as well, in my experience, such as writing and reflecting on one’s reading, compiling annotated notes, meeting with others reading the same material to discuss, etc. It’s much more than a hobby, though it isn’t quite a paid career! And while it has rewarding moments, it isn’t exactly “fun.” It lacks spontaneity and the thrill of the unplanned discovery.

Three years ago I traveled to South America with the Wolf and a friend. Though we were on a nearly 3 week journey, far from home, I took only two books with me– a non-fiction work about a traveler who tries to rediscover Hiram Bingham’s journey to Machu Picchu, which was part of our itinerary, and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I read the Machu Picchu book as a “serious” reader, as some background for the trip we were undertaking. I read the Tuchman book as someone who loves reading.

Since I read Tuchman’s book, I’ve come to understand that there are some academic criticisms of her telling of history in the story. I don’t think it’s so bad that the book is viewed as a complete fabrication of history, but there are people who argue she emphasized the wrong things, or interpreted events in a novel way that isn’t as rigorous as it could be. And I’ve got to say– I don’t give a damn. It was a marvelous book to read. I don’t know why I decided to finally read it, or why I picked that book of all books to accompany me on my long trip, and I don’t know what I expected to get out of it, but it was amazing. We had a hell of a time on our trip and I can honestly say that laying in bed at some of our hostels and inns, reading another chapter from Guns, were part of those happy memories. It reminded me of just how enjoyable reading can be.

As I mentioned, that was three years ago. Sadly, I haven’t had a similar reading experience since then. It has been almost all “serious” reading and if anything it’s gotten worse over the last few years because I made a resolution a couple years ago to double down on my reading discipline and treat it even more mechanically than I had been. Where did that take me?

It took me to a pretty scary place, reading-wise, where my edifying and sometimes enjoyable hobby became a master with a strange power over me. I realized a few days ago when I had hit the wall when I noticed that I was tracking my “currently reading” list on GoodReads.com, which numbered over twenty titles (!?), and I was spending a lot more time worrying about “getting through it all” than I was actually spending reading the damn books! It was beginning to dominate my thoughts– at work, at home, in play, walking the dog… this nagging anxiety that I had so much to read and it was so exhausting and so unrewarding to feel I was forcing myself to do it just followed me everywhere I went.

After chatting with a friend about some fun-sounding titles, I decided to take action. I logged into GoodReads and wiped my reading list. Completely. Just gone, no glaring record of what I might achieve but have not yet achieved in the world of reading. I grabbed the titles I was physically in the middle of that were laying about the house to remind me to keep working on them, and shelved them. I decided if they’re really interesting and worth my time, I will know where to find them– the idea that I’d lose track of a book I really wanted to read without the “help” of a cloud-based book list seemed truly silly. I shook out the contents of my head a little bit and gave myself permission to not be interested in the stuff I was trying to read right now (which I truly wasn’t, at least not RIGHT NOW) and simultaneously gave myself permission to buy and read the first “fun” book I could think of reading. I chose The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and for the first time in a long time, I used the 2day shipping feature on Amazon to ensure it’d arrive today so I could start reading it. A blaring alarm I was not listening to in this story is the fact that I was in the habit of ordering multiple books at a time and selecting the “Super Saver” shipping option, reasoning that I’d prefer a $1 e-credit because I “didn’t care when my books arrived.” I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something (“bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”… the ancient demonstration of time preference) I don’t know what would.

Now my mind is a bit more free. And I am looking forward to reading this goofy book this evening after it arrives. And I know that if I don’t want to keep turning the page, I can shelve it and pick up something else, order something else or even do something else entirely. There’s a time and a place for being a serious reader, but that time and place shouldn’t be found in my recreational reading regimen. I’m looking forward to loving reading again!

Why I Value Logic Over Data

Why I Value Logic Over Data

Some people think the most rigorous way of thinking about the world is “empiricism”, their word for looking at the “facts” (accumulated statistical data) and making up their minds on that basis.

There are at least two glaring issues with that approach:

  1. The decision about which facts to research and include have a strong influence on your conclusion; this is a problem with forming theory from history, which Mises discussed at length in his works
  2. The facts may not be disinterested; they may be purposeful fabrications or distortions of the public record, produced by propagandists and other agenda-driven entities, or they may be erroneous outcome of an act of unintentional negligence

Number one is always a risk because the hardest person not to fool is yourself, and most people won’t even realize they’re selectively picking data points until they’ve already been happily surprised to realize the facts agree with them and their mind is made up.

Number two is far more sinister because it corrupts the entire empirical enterprise. You can’t reason about the facts when they have no connection to reality.

Few people, if any, take the time to sniff through their sources. They see some number, they assume it was compiled accurately or honestly (or both!) and get on with reasoning from the data. The questions of methodology, competency and partisanship are not part of the equation, and if they were considered, one might be taken aback at just how long it takes to conduct a verified empirical study.

Using logic is more efficient. I don’t have to worry about whether someone is trying to mislead me with bad data. I can think about the logical structure of the argument in question and make up my own mind about its soundness.

Another Story About The ER (#health, #parenting, #infancy, #risks)

Another Story About The ER (#health, #parenting, #infancy, #risks)

The following is an email sent by a friend who reads the blog in response to the recent posts about my visit to the ER. It is about an experience he had with his infant daughter and I got his permission to share it as it is illustrative of many of the principles touched upon in my earlier posts:

When [my baby] was 9 days old she presented with what appeared to be an infection in her right eye (eye lid swelling, puss coming out the side, dark skin around the eye [picture attachment omitted]).

I think we waited overnight (details are a little fuzzy now that it’s been over 2 years) before doing anything because we were hoping it would resolve itself without having to go to a doctor, who might urge us to go to the ER, which we wanted to avoid if at all possible.

The next day it didn’t look better so we took her to the pediatrician, who was particularly concerned and brought another doctor into the room to examine her, we expressed our concern that we really didn’t want to go to the ER if at all possible, both doctors said we should go. They were concerned “because she’s so young” and “because the infection is so close to the brain.”

We got to the ER and it took for fucking ever to even get a room, of course you’re shoved into a massive environment of sick people dying to infect you with god knows what disease they have from living a terrible unhealthy life. It was literally like 6 hours before we finally got a room. At this point it was late at night and I kept thinking, “man, her eye looks better, if it looked like this 6 hours ago I don’t think we would’ve been sent to the ER.”

But the doctors kept saying shit like, “yeah we’ve seen things look better but actually be getting worse.”

The doctors wanted to do a blood test to see what the infection was and start her immediately on IV antibiotics. Additionally, they wanted to do a spinal tap (some advanced way of determining what the infection might be). I wanted to push the IV antibiotics back until we knew what the infection might be (as the results of a blood test might indicate), but they kept pushing and saying, “these things can move fast, we really think you should get IV antibiotics ASAP.”

Eventually we caved and agreed to the IV antibiotics (which was an awful experience in their own right because [my baby] was so small, and her veins were difficult to find, took literally 4 practitioners before they could finally access her vein — [my baby] was screaming like crazy and we were saying, “can’t you find someone else to do it?” And the girl said, “don’t feel bad, she won’t remember it.” Who says that?!) As a side note, god forbid you have to go through something like this, but if you do immediately ask for a practitioner from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to insert any IV into your child, they can find a needle in a haystack.

At this point they were still pushing for a spinal tap and I said, “If the blood results come back negative, is there ANY reason to do a spinal tap?” The doctor said typically no. I said, “Well let’s see what the blood results say then.” The results came back negative, so I said I’m not doing the spinal tap. The doctor kept saying, “well, sometimes things can slip by the blood tests.” But I refused. I left to go home and get changes of clothes for me and [my wife] since we didn’t realize we’d be at the hospital for 2 days, and while I was gone [my wife] said that they sent in some other doctor (female this time) to pull at her emotions to try and get her to agree to a spinal tap, but she refused, we didn’t do it — the infection just looked so much better already (even before the god damned antibiotics).

We stayed with [my baby] in the hospital like 36 hours, during that time we were regaled with fantastical tales of babies contracting Hep B and why we should really give her the Hep B vaccine. I kept asking the doctor to give me a realistic example of how [my baby] would contract Hep B at this age. His examples were literally so absurd they’re not even worth typing them, one involved a syringe with Hep B on it being mistakenly inserted into [my baby] by someone in the hospital, it was so ridiculous I could barely listen to it. We didn’t get her a Hep B vaccine, and still haven’t, and she’s miraculously Hep B free! I also mentioned to the doctor, “even if we agreed that [my baby] should get a Hep B vaccine soon, wouldn’t this be a BAD time to give it to her given that she’s obviously fighting off some infection?” The doctor wasn’t fazed by this logic, they’re total vaccine zealots, they’d vaccinate a cadaver given the opportunity.

In any case, in thinking back on the whole situation and what I would do differently, I think I would just wait an extra few hours before going to see the doctor, and when it looked better pre-IV antibiotics, I would’ve said, “let’s wait another few hours and see how she’s doing.” I just don’t buy their insane logic that something is visibly getting better but somehow actually getting worse. I’m sure there’s some textbook case of this happening to 1 in 1,000,000 babies, but doesn’t seem worth the known risks of IV antibiotics at such a young age.

It’s so sad and frustrating that you can’t simply take a doctor’s advice and trust that he’s already thoroughly immersed himself in the risks and benefits of the trade-offs between treatment / non-treatment. All they know is how to limit their own legal liability.

Hopefully you can avoid such a mess from happening to you!

He adds in an addendum:

Since doctors in large hospitals work in shifts, you naturally see the same doctor for awhile, and then see a new doctor for awhile. When it was time for [my baby] to be released, we were given an older doctor (maybe late 50s, early 60s). Not only was he WAY more respectful than pretty much every previous doctor we had, but he literally said something to the effect of, “if you’d gotten an older doctor, you may never have been admitted to the hospital, probably would’ve suggested you wait and see how the infection progressed.”

It seems that the doctors being minted today are inculcated with one-off horror stories starting on day 1 of their education.

Review – Family Fortunes (#wealth, #family, #investing, #business)

Review – Family Fortunes (#wealth, #family, #investing, #business)

Family Fortunes: How to Build Family Wealth and Hold on to It for 100 Years

by Bill Bonner, Will Bonner, published 2012

What kind of habits and modes of thought separate Old Money families from everyone else? How do you build a family fortune? How do you get a family to work together toward a single purpose as the “core” is continually invaded by new spouses and children? How do you invest your prodigious wealth at high rates of return? How do you hold on to your family fortune for 100 years? Why does 100 years seem like a long time when it’s really only 3-4 generations of people?

Frustratingly (maddeningly?), the answer most often given in this book to questions like these is, “We don’t know, but here’s our guess.”

What I didn’t get from this book, then, were many specific, useful ideas for implementing with my own family enterprise– or family-as-enterprise. What I did get, and what will be the focus of this review, are a lot of questions, principles to ponder, and general strategic problems in need of robust solutions. This is not a how-to manual for putting together the essential structure of long-lived family institutions such as tax and estate planning, family organization and branding, household management.

Most people will not have a family fortune to contend with. It is not something that can be acquired through a known formula, but rather it is the outcome of an entrepreneurial process that is, epistemologically speaking, random. Just as one can not predictably create a family fortune, one can not predictably control the size or scope of the family fortune, within certain bounds. In other words, your family may have the good fortune to stumble upon a business opportunity with a significant market capitalization. That’s the first hurdle, and there’s no formula for getting there. Then, that fortune might turn out to be worth $50M, $100M, or $5B. That’s another hurdle, and there’s no formula. Failing to seize every opportunity you are presented with might limit your total fortune, and being eager and observant for those opportunities might extend the limit. But there is no recipe for turning something that is worth $50M into $5B unless it was the kind of opportunity that can scale that big in the first place.

Some market opportunities are worth a lot to one person who owns them (“he made a fortune!”), but they’re still not worth a lot to the market or economy as a whole (limited scale). This is an important point because of the gilded cage nature of family fortunes– once you have one, you’re kind of stuck with it, but it’s really tempting to think you have a lot more control over it than you do, or that it’s a lot more durable than it might be.

Imagine you’re the guy with the $50M fortune. You’re pretty happy with your luck, assuming everything else is right in your life, but you’re aware of people with $5B fortunes. If you can generate a $50M fortune, why can’t you generate a $5B fortune? Are those people smarter? Better connected? More productive? What’s the difference?

Luck, and leverage, but using leverage without blowing up is really just a residue of luck.

So you’ve got this $50M fortune. What can you do with it? If you have it invested in the business that created it, you enjoy a nice income stream from it each year (maybe that’s worth $2.5M, maybe it’s worth $5M if you’re really lucky) and you reinvest where and when you can. If your business doesn’t scale easily though, you can’t put it back in and make more. You’re stuck at $50M. What if you take the $50M out by selling the business? Now you have $50M in cash with no annual return and an investment problem. Where are you going to put $50M to work such that you can, say, spend $5M per year and still have $50M left over to do it again next year? Know any hot stocks? You didn’t make your fortune in investing the first time around, what makes you think you’re going to make it there the second time around just because you have $50M now? (Note: you are statistically and logically unlikely to achieve this outcome if you so desire it.) Know any good businesses for sale? Oh, that’s right, you just sold one!

That’s the gilded cage. You’re stuck with a $50M fortune. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And nothing changes at scale besides the difficulty of the problem. It isn’t easier but actually harder to achieve yield at higher increments of invested capital due to the economic phenomenon of diminishing marginal returns (if this were not the case, you could infinitely scale things by always adding more resources to every project; DMR ensures that the more you add over time, the less incremental gain you get to the point that you get no return or a negative return, ie, waste). If you had $5B, you’d have even fewer places to put it and you’d have given up an even rarer business opportunity in selling.

Unless your business value is about to become permanently impaired and you can see the writing on the wall when no one else can — technological change, regulatory change, some kind of disastrous political or economic event — your business will never be as valuable to you on the market as it is under your ownership, assuming you’re a competent operator. I’m not going to explore what you do if you’re incompetent because that’s a special case, although it follows the same general logic and leads to the same general investment problems.

I think what this means is that the primary challenge for a family with a fortune in terms of managing their business is to be sensitive to the innovation required over time to maintain the economic value of the assets, to manage the capital structure of their business intelligently (ie, not too much debt) so they don’t lose control because of the volatility of the business cycle, and to build cash up and keep their eyes peeled for a truly unique investment opportunity, the kind that made the first family fortune possible. That means it’s more important to avoid doing the wrong things than it is to try to be finding the right things to do. It also means it requires great patience. If we’re talking about building multi-generational wealth, patience is implied in the premise, but it’s still worth repeating. Bonner emphasizes this frequently– find ways to let time work for you, not against you. He believes luck, advantages and businesses all tend to grow over time so the idea is to set things up so those advantages will accumulate in your favor.

Smart investing is not the way to build a fortune. Some people will build a fortune building an investment business (ie, a wealth manager), but it will not be the investing itself that makes them rich but the operational leverage they gain through their fee structure. Because Bonner is a skeptic of “investing” as a tool for wealth building, he would land squarely on my side of the skeptic’s divide about the value public capital markets play in economic growth. Why should a person find it necessary or valuable to contribute capital to a company building things in other people’s towns instead of investing in opportunities in their own town, right “down the street”? Profit signals and differing equity returns will attract capital from disparate areas and thereby indicate relative value across an economy, but I am skeptical that this process and the capital markets in general would be as big a part of the economy overall as they are presently if we were in anything more closely approximating free market conditions without crony capitalist interventions.

So, you may get lucky and find yourself with a fortune, small or large, from a family business. If you do, hold on to it, appreciate it, care for it, tend to it responsibly and hope you or one of your descendants has an opportunity to take another swing at an uncertain point in the future. But don’t try to force it, and don’t think there’s anything you can do to greatly enhance your opportunity beyond what it is. And understand that it will never be as valuable to you as a pile of cash as it is invested in your business.

The other big topic in the book is building the institutional framework of a long-lived family that can participate in this family business over the generations and can also be “true” to the family culture and values. Family planning is an idea that attracts me, and I have spent considerable time on my own with the concept of creating a family brand (what the ancients’ termed a coat of arms) to identify the family and its enterprises.

The trouble I have with family planning is the same trouble I have with all planning, particularly that of the central variety– what if the individual members of your family don’t really find value in your plan? Obviously, raising them with certain values and viewpoints creates a better chance for a kind of coalescing around this identity and direction. But is that how I want to raise my children, by telling them what is important? I think they can figure that kind of stuff out on their own, just as I did. Hopefully I can lead by example, and provide a demonstration of the virtue of the family virtue. But I think a potentially frustrating consequence of putting this emphasis on building multi-generational institutions together is you might find out your family just doesn’t see the use in them. That’s kind of worse case, though, and doesn’t necessarily argue against the project in general.

Yet, what if you’re successful at this? Building a business and building wealth is a coordination problem resolved by growing trust. Who can you trust more than members of your own family? Creating a family organization based on shared values and common identity and linking that organization to a business entity could allow for a uniquely successful competitive strategy and management continuity over a significantly longer timeline than the average public or private competitor– in other words, huge competitive advantages over time. Simultaneously, this arrangement could solve one of the common problems of families and their constituent members, that being how each as an individual and the family as a whole can achieve security, success and satisfaction with one’s productive efforts and life. As I’ve argued in the past, I believe the family is the best institution for accomplishing this task and it is certainly far superior to the currently dominant model of public corporations (for-profit and nation-states/institutional gangsterism).

3/5

Review – Zero to One (#startups, #review, #books)

Review – Zero to One (#startups, #review, #books)

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future (buy on Amazon.com)

by Peter Thiel, published 2014

No wonder Peter Thiel is encouraging young people to avoid college and start companies– if the best lecture on startup entrepreneurship is Peter Thiel’s Stanford class-turned-book, it’s clear how vapid the value offering is in the average college course.

Thiel encourages the reader to build companies that make the world a better place on a principled basis, and he strongly advises to avoid competitive markets. And while he says that the book is not and can not be a how-to book for starting a company but rather a set of guidelines for how to think about what it takes to succeed as a startup, the book’s content doesn’t appear revelatory for any but the most amateur business mind. Maybe it would shock some people to learn they have to have a plan for selling their product, not just designing it, but if that’s the level you’re at (or that’s the “truth” you’re wedded to), is Peter Thiel’s book really going to be the bridge between your idea and massive success? Or any success?

It reads much more as a personal journal, reflecting on funny stories and anecdotes about Thiel’s own success with PayPal, than it seems to be a guide to entrepreneurship principles. Most of the “rules” are validated by some quirky thing that happened to Thiel and his mafia, for example, deciding not to invest in green energy companies because their CEOs were too well dressed and everyone knows real tech people wear tshirts and jeans. Huh?

It is also more useful as a descriptive work that explains entrepreneurship phenomena witnessed after the fact, rather than anything with a predictive quality to it. In other words, few entrepreneurship success stories will have failed to check the various boxes Thiel covers, but it’s also likely that many failures will have checked them, too. The book provides more insights into questions such as, “Why did Company X manage to grow so rapidly in Market Y?” rather than answering such questions as “How can Company X grow rapidly in Market Y?”

I was much more impressed by Thiel’s short speech pre-election to the National Press Club, outlining his reasons for supporting Donald Trump:

You can disagree with his reasons and his choice, but there is clearly a set of principles he believes in and an overall framework for understanding social issues that guided him to throw in his lot with Trump. That’s more educational than this book, unfortunately.

2/5

Review – How Children Learn (#children, #learning, #education)

Review – How Children Learn (#children, #learning, #education)

How Children Learn (buy on Amazon.com)

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!

4/5

My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

My Trip To South Africa & Dubai (#travel, #SouthAfrica, #Dubai, #safari)

In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.

Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.

The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?

Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.

The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting longhulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.

We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.

When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.

After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.

Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.

Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.

As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-mallarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.

I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.

As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.

Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.

The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.

On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.

We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.

The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!

Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.

And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.

All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.

The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).

On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.

I was really happy we only decided to spend a day there!