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Preview: Ben Casnocha: The Blog

Ben Casnocha



A blog about entrepreneurship, books, current affairs, and intellectual life.



Updated: 2016-11-28T07:08:41Z

 



Impressions of Malaysia

2016-11-28T07:08:41Z

Malaysia is a country of 30 million people that co-anchors the SE Asian economy with Indonesia. It’s also a place known to have great food and friendly people. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit there for the … Continue reading
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A stop on the KL food tour

Malaysia is a country of 30 million people that co-anchors the SE Asian economy with Indonesia. It’s also a place known to have great food and friendly people. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit there for the first time recently to give a couple talks.

I was only in Kuala Lumpur so it’s probably more accurate to say I was in Kuala Lumpur rather than Malaysia, as the smaller towns and countryside are quite different from the capital city. (The most striking example of this distinction in Asia is the grand canyon of a difference between “Beijing/Shanghai” and “the rest of China.”)

Kuala Lumpur was more relaxed than I was expecting. A few years ago I spent several days in neighboring Jakarta, a city that overwhelms you with traffic and chaos. KL felt positively tranquil by Jakarta standards.

There isn’t a must-see attraction in KL. There are plenty of striking skyscrapers to gawk at; all the luxury hotel brands with posh buildings; some nice looking mosques; various museums, an aquarium, and so on. The malls are fun and huge and contain everything: movies, nice restaurants, casual restaurants, salons, coffee shops, all sorts of retail, banks, and more. Just wandering around a massive Malaysian mall gives you plenty to look at and think about.

The Kuala Lumpur food tour is very much worth doing. We tasted Malay, Chinese, and Indian food in places where there wasn’t a tourist in sight. A food tour remains a favorite way for me to see a city, learn about its culture and economy, of course taste some of its food. I’ve done them in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Kyoto, and now Kuala Lumpur. It’s great for non-foodies: they tend to emphasize cheap local eats.

Malaysia is predominately Muslim and seemingly a bit stricter about religious rules than its neighbor Indonesia. In Malaysia, if you’re not Muslim and marry a Muslim, you legally are required to convert — a requirement that’s uncommon in other Muslim-majority countries. Also, the local scandal of the moment in KL, as it was relayed to me by a few secular locals, was a boycott of Auntie Anne’s restaurant. Yes – the Western chain that sells those delicious hot dogs and pretzels. The reason for the boycott? The phrase “hot dog” on the menu. Dogs apparently are sacred to some Muslims. Thus, the phrase “hot dog” offends. Strange world. Strange times…

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The Factor That Colors Happiness and Unhappiness the Most

2016-11-18T07:15:20Z

Is she enjoying the city she’s living in? Is he enjoying his job, his co-workers, his boss? How’s he feeling about life? The factor that has the most explanatory power, in my view, on questions having to do with personal happiness and … Continue reading

Is she enjoying the city she’s living in? Is he enjoying his job, his co-workers, his boss? How’s he feeling about life?

The factor that has the most explanatory power, in my view, on questions having to do with personal happiness and satisfaction in one’s personal and professional life, is the following: Is this person satisfied with their romantic relationship status?

Note I am not saying “in a happy relationship.” There are plenty of people who are single and very happy with that status. But those who are single and yet would like to be in a relationship tend to be unhappy, and project that unhappiness across all aspects of their lives. Those in unhappy relationships act similarly.

Romance rules all. To deeply understand a person and their probable happiness is to understand their romantic happenings. Of course, in almost all professional contexts, and a great deal of personal ones too, it is inappropriate to probe on such topics. Which is one reason why most friendships are not very deep.

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What I’ve Been Reading

2016-11-13T08:01:00Z

Books and more books. 1. Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. An incredibly engaging journalistic introduction to Bitcoin and blockchain, with cinematic storytelling about the people who pioneered the technology over the past 15 years. The book is about a year … Continue reading

Books and more books.

(image) 1. Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. An incredibly engaging journalistic introduction to Bitcoin and blockchain, with cinematic storytelling about the people who pioneered the technology over the past 15 years. The book is about a year old and since then, Bitcoin has struggled, though I suspect many of the characters in this book — and the experts in real life — remain bullish on cryptocurrencies in the long run. Excellent for those learning the fundamentals of bitcoin and bitcoin history.

2. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I made the mistake of starting this sci-fi thriller at 11pm one night in bed. I was up till 1am. It’s a classic page turner set against the backdrop of the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a real thing and which is super interesting to contemplate. (There is a universe right now where Donald Trump is not the current president-elect, for example.)

3. Lightning Rods by Helen Dewitt. I definitely would not admit to being entertained by this entertaining novel. Definitely not.

4. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by Martha Nussbaum. I’m a Nussbaum fan and the early chapters here contained provocative reflections on the power of emotions. How an emotion like fear of death manifests in so many aspects of our thought stream. Ultimately this was too dense for me to make it all the way through, but I’m glad I read as far as I did.

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Visiting Prison Again — With Defy Ventures

2016-10-31T19:12:19Z

A few weeks ago, I continued my education on an issue I’m passionate about — criminal justice reform and the prison system — when I participated in a Defy Ventures event at a California maximum security prison. It was an incredibly powerful day. … Continue reading → A few weeks ago, I continued my education on an issue I’m passionate about — criminal justice reform and the prison system — when I participated in a Defy Ventures event at a California maximum security prison. It was an incredibly powerful day. About 50 VCs and entrepreneurs, mostly from LA, trekked to the prison north of Los Angeles, under the organizing leadership of Mark Suster and Brad Feld and the non-profit Defy Ventures. Defy Ventures, in their own words, “transforms the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey.” Catherine Hoke, founder/CEO of Defy, is one of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve ever encountered — and I’ve encountered many passionate entrepreneurs. From 9:15am-8pm we gathered with the inmates in an indoor gymnasium. The gym looked and felt like any other — except for the multiple signs on the wall that said “No Warning Shots Will Be Fired in the Gym” and for the gunner who paced back and forth from a ledge near the roof of the building, holding an automatic rifle. The schedule was non-stop. Shaking hands, talking 1:1, listening to their business pitches. Many of the inmates were nervous: some told us that the opportunity to meet us was the biggest opportunity they ever had in their life. We were also nervous: we were in a max security prison. A day full of personal interactions with “criminals” forces you to abandon stereotypes and understand these men for who they are: human beings, flawed like all of us, but human. The most powerful hour of the day occurred just after lunch. Inmates and volunteers lined up in two lines facing each other. There was about 7-8 yards separating the two lines, and a line of tape on the floor in the middle. We stared at each other across the line. Catherine posed a series of questions and asked us to step to the middle line if the statement was true for us. Example: “If you grew up in poverty, step to the line.” Almost every inmate stepped to the line; almost no volunteers did. “If your parents have been incarcerated, step to the line.” Almost every inmate stepped to the line; almost no volunteers did. And so on. It became abundantly clear very early on — and clear in the most visible way, as people physically stepped forward and back during the questions — that most of the inmates were dealt a set of cards in life that made “failure” a likelihood. We were asked to maintain eye contact with the inmate standing directly across from us in the lineup. I didn’t know the backstory of the person I happened to line up across from. Then the question: “If you were arrested under the age of 17, step to the line.” He did. Then: “If you have been incarcerated for more than 20 years, step to the line.” He did. Those two questions stopped me cold. He made a mistake as a teenager, and has spent 20 years in the slammer. Are you kidding me? I choked up. Meanwhile, he maintained a steady, compassionate gaze, reaching out to shake volunteers’ hands whenever they stepped to the line. Afterwards, I went up to him and learned his story. He was in for attempted murder — he had been out with a group of guys one night and one person had a gun and the prosecution proved there was intent to kill. I asked about his time behind bars. He said he spent several years at Pelican Bay, the notorious supermax prison in California, where the entire prison was on complete lock down for three straight years — meaning everyone was confined to their cell 23-24 hours a day. I can’t imagine the effect such isolation has on the human mind. By the en[...]



Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

2016-10-24T01:58:08Z

One of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more … Continue reading →One of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more than one cocktail party conversation where someone is going on about how myths underpin modern society (which is one of the arguments of the book). It’s extraordinary in scope, engagingly written, and full of provocative factoids that make you stop and think. Through it all, there is an overarching argument about why homo sapiens overtook other human species on earth (punch line: our ability to cooperate and trade with strangers). And he also presents a history of the world that’s driven by what he calls three revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, scientific. But even if you don’t follow the overarching argument, there’s plenty to think about when it comes to ancient history, animal rights, religion, happiness, and technological revolution. Not surprisingly, with so much ground covered, subject matter experts have quibbled (or more than quibbled) with some of Yuval’s claims, though nothing triggered me to lose trust in Harari as a guide. I highlighted 170 sentences or paragraphs in the book. I’ve pasted a bunch of them below. As always, each paragraph is a new thought, and all are direct quotes from the book. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings. The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.  Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger preda[...]



Book Notes: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

2016-09-17T20:40:29Z

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, … Continue reading →Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, how our very old brain is ill-equipped for modern society, the community norms of Native Americans, and more. Somehow it manages to hold together to be a stimulating and coherent read from start to finish. I think does accurately describe some of the dynamics that lead to modern unhappiness. Recommended. Highlighted sentences from the Kindle below, not in order. “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”  It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticize Indian life, and it might well have been easy for men like George as well. That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbors and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in microcosm in the legal profession. In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6,000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession—such as high billable hours or making partner at a law firm—had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seem to lead significantly happier lives. Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are. Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression. “The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment… that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012. “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans. Also unthi[...]



“There Are No Shortcuts”

2016-09-02T05:41:41Z

A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard … Continue reading

A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard to get some attention; to generate some controversy. But to make your name mean something and to have it stand for dignity and integrity — that’s rare. It’s not something you can buy. There are no shortcuts. Video below (start at minute 13).

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When Giving Advice to Peers…

2016-08-21T23:36:46Z

It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a … Continue reading →It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a partner, someone who’s close to you in terms of professional trajectory — can feel subtle resentment. Even if he asks for your feedback, a part of him is asking himself: “Who are you to be giving me advice?” I handle this in two ways. “I’m Trying, Too.” Make your advice come off as less condescending by acknowledging your own on-going quest to live up to it or your own on-going need to be reminded of it. In her brilliant book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes to a reader: You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation–I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgement of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out. She literally says: “I don’t say this as a condemnation — I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too.” And that’s what makes it work. Another example. Recently, a friend on Facebook recently wrote about how she is grappling with critiques of her personality. Another friend — who’s her peer, not an anointed Wise One — commented: “Be yourself, because your self is awesome. Trite to say, a lifetime to try to do. I know because I’m also trying.” I know because I’m also trying. That’s the sort of advice given by a friend who’s a peer. From “You should…” to “I would…” The second approach I take when giving advice to a peer or prideful person is I avoid directly addressing their scenario and instead I make it about myself. When you find yourself saying “You should do X…” you begin to trigger people’s pride instincts. Even if they asked you directly for advice, by directly telling them what to do, you risk unleashing subtle but very real swirls of resentment. So if you tell me about an employee you’re trying to hire and a dilemma you’re facing in the hiring process, and ask me what you should do about it, I would talk about a similar experience I’ve had and how I handled it, or construct a hypothetical parallel experience and talk through what I would do in that scenario. I’m avoiding the phrase “you should do X, you should think about Y.” I’m instead saying “I would be doing X, I guess I would be thinking about Y, I wonder about Z…” I’m trusting in their ability to connect the dots between my experience or my constructed parallel scenario and their own situation. Note that for people who are clearly my junior, or where I do not fear at all any status offense, I will sometimes be quite direct in my advice. But relationships with peers at work and the associated status considerations are rarely quite that simple! [...]



Haunting Photo of the Day

2016-08-19T18:16:58Z

A five year old boy placed on an ambulance in Syria, after being pulled out of a bombed out house. NPR has a video of him being carried into the ambulance but the photo is almost more haunting. The eerie … Continue reading
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Mahmoud Raslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A five year old boy placed on an ambulance in Syria, after being pulled out of a bombed out house. NPR has a video of him being carried into the ambulance but the photo is almost more haunting. The eerie stillness of it all.

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Book Notes: The Road to Character

2016-08-19T04:39:18Z

I’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing … Continue reading →I’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing Happiness. Brooks shares stories about exemplars of moral virtue from various historical periods. He makes a special point to underscore how our modern culture may be distorting the most fulfilling version of the good life. He challenges those who take moral shortcuts en route to professional achievement. Most of all, he recommends prioritizing “eulogy virtues” (the sorts of things people talk about at your funeral) over “resume virtues” (the sorts of accomplishments you list on your resume). Highly recommended. Below are some of my favorite paragraphs and sentences. The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.” This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation. But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time. One could, Frankl wrote, still participate in a rapturous passion for one’s beloved and thus understand the full meaning of the words “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” A dozen voices from across the institution told students that while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure. Eisenhower himself would later lose his own firstborn son, Doud Dwight, known in the family as “Icky,” an experience that darkened his world ever after. “This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life,” he would write decades later, “the one I have never been able to forget completely. Today, when I think of it, even now as I write about it, the keenness of our loss comes back to me as fresh and terrible as it was in that long dark day soon after Christmas, 1920.” The fragility and remorselessness of this life demanded a certain level of discipline. When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable mor[...]