worry they’re not anxious enough

from yesterday’s Washington Post


Normal world we’re living in

from today’s WSJ


The Ten Day MBA

My New Years’ resolution this year was to learn business.  So I finally took off the shelf and read this one, which had been recommended to me years ago by a business school graduate.

Friends, this book is fantastic.  Funny and informative and clarifying.  Shortly after finishing it, I overheard a loud, obnoxious conversation between two young businessmen at a bar, and I was able to follow all the acronyms and MBA gibberish they spewed at each other, as well as see many flaws in their thinking.  

I thought this was a funny part.  The chapter on ethics is of course the shortest, and much of it is devoted to a “I’m telling you this so you know not to do it” kind of moral reasoning.

How about Genichi Taguchi, from the chapter on Operations?:

This book is worth the cost just for the summaries of leadership and public speaking books included at the end.  

Highest praise to author Steven Silbiger.  I don’t know how much business you can learn from a book but this felt like a good start.


Nassim Nicholas Taleb

 

Has any writer ever distilled his key ideas into his titles so well?

Great example from this book.  Casinos employ all kinds of mathematicians to build sophisticated models of probability to ensure their edge.  These probabilities work within the rule-bound world of games, but to imagine life exists within the controlled parameters of a game is what Taleb calls “the ludic fallacy” (from the Latin for game).  In real life, crazy things you couldn’t have predicted may happen:

You almost don’t need to read these books, once you grasp the implications of the titles.  Our brains have difficulty grasping the implications of probability. 

Prepare yourself and live a life that accepts and can absorb risk.

You’d be crazy to armchair psychoanalyze as feisty a Twitter arguer as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but I did feel like this passage in Fooled By Randomness suggests hints to an origin story for a man obsessed with probability:

I’ve now read all these books and found them entertaining, eccentric, inventive, infectious, and fun.  I even liked:

Felt like my brain was getting steady nutrition as well as entertainment from these books.

This commencement address he gave is one of many samples available for free over at Medium.


Darkest Hour

This movie is on HBO this month.  I saw the movie in the theater and thought it was pretty good.  It really captured the batty, Lewis Carroll eccentricity element of Churchill and the British Parliament.

But one thing that I was wondering about was the title.  I remembered a story I’d heard years ago about Churchill visiting Harrow in 1941.  The schoolboys sang a new verse to an old song:

When Churchill visited Harrow on October 29 to hear the traditional songs again, he discovered that an additional verse had been added to one of them. It ran:

“Not less we praise in darker days
The leader of our nation,
And Churchill’s name shall win acclaim
From each new generation.
For you have power in danger’s hour
Our freedom to defend, Sir!
Though long the fight we know that right
Will triumph in the end, Sir!”

Churchill didn’t care for the word darker.  In his speech to the school he said:

You sang here a verse of a School Song: you sang that extra verse written in my honour, which I was very greatly complimented by and which you have repeated today. But there is one word in it I want to alter – I wanted to do so last year, but I did not venture to. It is the line: “Not less we praise in darker days.”

I have obtained the Head Master’s permission to alter darker to sterner. “Not less we praise in sterner days.”

Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

Getting all that from the National Churchill Museum.

I believe this Wikipedia page is inaccurate:

The Darkest Hour” is a phrase coined by British prime minister

Did he coin this phrase?

Winston Churchill to describe the period of World War II between the Fall of France in June 1940 and the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (totaling 363 days, or 11 months and 28 days), when the British Empire stood alone (or almost alone after the Italian invasion of Greece) against the Axis Powers in Europe.

Perhaps he uses it in his volumes of history, which I don’t have at hand.  But that’s not the source Wiki cites.  In the cited “Finest Hour” speech, Churchill did use the phrase “darkest hour,” but to refer to what a sad period this was in French history:

The House will have read the historic declaration in which, at the desire of many Frenchmen-and of our own hearts-we have proclaimed our willingness at the darkest hour in French history to conclude a union of common citizenship in this struggle.

I bought screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s book:

on Kindle and did a search.  Unless I’m missing something, I can find no other time in the book where Churchill himself is quoted using the phrase “darkest hour.”

So, the movie about Churchill uses for its title a term that Churchill himself specifically asked people not to use.

My question as always: is this interesting? 


What is a story? What is narrative?

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent… But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.

says McKee.

What is a story?  What makes something a story?  It’s a question of personal and professional interest here at Helytimes.  The dictionary gives me this for narrative:

a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

boldface mine.

The human brain is wired to look for patterns and connections.  Humans think in stories and seem to prefer a story, even a troubling story, to random or unrelated events.  This can trick us as well as bring us wisdom and pleasure.

Nicholas Nassem Taleb discusses this in The Black Swan:

Narrative is a way to compress and store information.

From some investing site or Twitter or something, I came across this paper:

“Cracking the enigma of asset bubbles with narratives,” by Preston Teeter and Jörgen Sandberg in Strategic Organization.  You can download a PDF for free.

Teeter and Sandberg suggest that “mathematical deductivist models and tightly controlled, reductionist experiments” only get you so far in understanding asset bubbles.  What really drives a bubble is the narrative that infects and influences investors.

Clearly, under such circumstances, individuals are not making rational, cool-headed decisions based upon careful and cautious fundamental analysis, nor are their decisions isolated from the communities in which they live or the institutions that govern their lives.  As such, only by incorporating the role of narratives into our research efforts and theoretical constructs will we be able to make substantial progress toward better understanding, predicting, and preventing asset bubbles.

Cool!  But, of course, we need a definition of narrative:

But first, in order to develop a more structured view of how bubbles form, we also need a means of identifying the structural features of the narratives that emerge before, during, and after asset bubbles. The most widely used method of evaluating the structural characteristics of a narrative is that based on Formalist theories (see Fiol, 1989Hartz and Steger, 2010Pentland, 1999Propp, 1958). From a structural point of view, a narrative contains three essential elements: a “narrative subject,” which is in search of or destined for a certain object; a “destinator” or source of the subject’s ideology; and a set of “enabling and impeding forces.” As an example of how to operationalize these elements, consider the following excerpt from another Greenspan (1988) speech:

More adequate capital, risk-based capital, and increased securities powers for bank holding companies would provide a solid beginning for our efforts to ensure financial stability. (p. 11)

OK great.  Let’s get to the source here.  Fiol, Hartz and Steger, and Pentland are all articles about “narrative” in business settings.  Propp is the source here.  Propp is this man:

Vladimir Propp, a Soviet analyst of folktales, and his book is this:

I’ve now examined this book, and find it mostly incomprehensible:

Propp’s 31 functions (summarized here on Wikipedia) are pretty interesting.  How a Soviet theorist would feel about his work on Russian folktales being used by Australian economists to assess asset bubbles in capitalist markets is a fun question.  Maybe he’d be horrified, maybe he’d be delighted.  Perhaps he’d file it under Function 6:

TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.

There’s some connection here to Dan Harmon’s story circles.

But when it comes to the definition of what makes a story go, I like the blunter version, expressed by David Mamet in this legendary memo to the writers of The Unit::

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

Cracking the enigma of narrative is a fun project.

ps don’t talk to me about Aristotle unless you’ve REALLY read The Poetics. 


God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright

a spontaneous Helytimes Book Prize For Excellence is awarded to God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright.  Absolutely fantastic.  The Alamo, Marfa, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, how the legislature works, the Kennedy assassination, Spindletop, everything you’d want to read about in a book about Texas is succinctly, thoughtfully, humorously explored.

Two clips:

What?! and:

A special bonus:  this book has a firsthand account of the 1999 Matthew McConaughey “bongos incident.”