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Ben Casnocha



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



Updated: 2017-01-08T18:25:23Z

 



Impressions of Morocco

2017-01-08T18:25:23Z

I spent 10 days in Morocco (Marrakech and Fes) over Christmas and New Year’s. Some of my impressions: Quite a beautiful country, physically. The old towns of Marrakech and Fes — the endless alleyways and crevices, and of course the … Continue reading →Locals lined up to see the King drive by in Marrakech I spent 10 days in Morocco (Marrakech and Fes) over Christmas and New Year’s. Some of my impressions: Quite a beautiful country, physically. The old towns of Marrakech and Fes — the endless alleyways and crevices, and of course the souks — are quite something to take in. You feel transported back in time as you walk the streets and interact with shop keepers whose families have owned the little candy store or butcher or scarf outlet for more decades than you can count. Outside the cities, the red desert landscape is punctuated by the Atlas mountain range. Food tours continue to be a highlight of my trips. The Marrakech city food tour brought us to hole-in-the-wall couscous restaurants that would have been impossible to find otherwise, and brought us face to face with the (whole) cooked head of a sheep. The eyeballs are a delicacy. I can only speak to the taste of the cheek meat… Rug negotiations. Morocco is known for their carpets. Rug makers spend years in the mountains hand weaving gorgeous rugs that eventually find their way into the dozens (hundreds?) of rug shops in the cities. Then, the rugs are hawked aggressively to the large numbers of French and Spanish tourists wandering the alleyways. “You want rug? Low price. Only the best price.” That sort of thing. Once inside the shop, the game of salesmanship and negotiation is fun to watch. They’ve been selling rugs for so long that you can bet that every word and expression offered during the display of rugs and discussion of colors, etc. is a refined technique with the aim of moving product. Morocco is a Muslim country, so there’s no alcohol served in most restaurants and you don’t see people drinking. (It makes New Year’s Eve a rather sober affair in Morocco.) That said, Moroccan wine is produced and consumed in huge quantities in the country… Men rule. During the day, the cafes are occupied almost exclusively by men. The stores are manned almost exclusively by men. “The women are at home,” our driver told us. Beautiful chandeliers and wall designs. Even in the most podunk restaurant in a non-hip restaurant, the light fixture will be some crazy ornate work of art. The Moroccan aesthetic is very popular in the U.S. — as a luxury good. In Morocco, the Moroccan aesthetic is…everywhere. All hail the king. The King of Morocco, who’s usually stationed in Rabat, came through Marrakech when we were there. News spread and soon thousands of people had lined up along the street to see him. Hours and hours and hours passed. Shops closed. Streets were blocked off. We were stranded — unable to cross a street back to our riad given the road closure. Finally the king’s motorcade whizzed by, the people on the street waved, and two seconds later it was all over. When we asked a guide about the scene later, he said shutting down the economic heartbeat of a city for a full day just so people can catch a glimpse of the king is nuts. “It’s why the government likes its people illiterate and uneducated. They’ll blindly be entranced by the king,” he said. Morocco’s riads (hotels inside the medina) all offer hamams; getting your body scrubbed down feels great. It’s crazy how much dead skin comes off. Hamam and regular Swedish massage are dirt cheap in Morocco so you can help yourself to multiple servings of each. Marrakech is a three hour flight from London. It’s well worth a visit. Read the memoir  “Dreams of Trespass” on the flight over. Happy 2017. I hope it’s a fun and peaceful year for you, wherever you are… [...]



Heleo Interview Part 1

2016-12-30T21:20:47Z

Here’s a six minute video excerpt (part 1) of a recent conversation I did with business site Heleo. We cover how adaptation is a business and life skill; how to get feedback on how you should adapt; what one might … Continue reading

Here’s a six minute video excerpt (part 1) of a recent conversation I did with business site Heleo. We cover how adaptation is a business and life skill; how to get feedback on how you should adapt; what one might need to unlearn from school; and why there IS such a thing as a dumb question in a meeting.

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Book Review: But What If We’re Wrong?

2016-12-27T19:09:54Z

Chuck Klosterman wrote one of the most stimulating books that I read in 2016: But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. There are countless interesting observations on science and pop culture and sports … Continue reading →Chuck Klosterman wrote one of the most stimulating books that I read in 2016: But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. There are countless interesting observations on science and pop culture and sports and history. By contemplating which assumptions of today might be disproven in the future, or which authors of note today might be forgotten in the future and which no-name writers might become famous after their death, he unearths novel theories about familiar topics. Why did Herman Melville become renowned by future generations but not his own? Which theories of science are we totally convinced are true today but may well be proven false by future generations of physicists? Which TV show made in 2016 will be referenced by historians in 2080 when they try to explain what life was like in 2016? My favorite paragraphs are pasted below, with the bold font mine. Thanks to Russ Roberts for recommending this via his Econtalk conversation with Chuck. When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, “Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived.” Aristotle had argued more than a thousand years prior: He believed all objects craved their “natural place,” and that this place was the geocentric center of the universe, and that the geocentric center of the universe was Earth. In other words, Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there. For the next thirty years, nothing about the reception of [Moby Dick] changes. But then World War I happens, and—somehow, and for reasons that can’t be totally explained—modernists living in postwar America start to view literature through a different lens. There is a Melville revival. The concept of what a novel is supposed to accomplish shifts in his direction and amplifies with each passing generation… I suspect most conventionally intelligent people are naïve realists, and I think it might be the defining intellectual quality of this era. The straightforward definition of naïve realism doesn’t seem that outlandish: It’s a theory that suggests the world is exactly as it appears. Any time you talk to police (or lawyers, or journalists) about any kind of inherently unsolvable mystery, you will inevitably find yourself confronted with the concept of Occam’s Razor: the philosophical argument that the best hypothesis is the one involving the lowest number of assumptions. The reason something becomes retrospectively significant in a far-flung future is detached from the reason it was significant at the time of its creation—and that’s almost always due to a recalibration of social ideologies that future generations will accept as normative. The arc of Lethem’s larger contention boils down to two points. The first is that no one is really remembered over the long haul, beyond a few totemic figures—Joyce, Shakespeare, Homer—and that these figures serve as placeholders for the muddled generalization of greatness (“Time is a motherfucker and it’s coming for all of us,” Lethem notes). The reason shadow histories remained in the shadows lay in the centralization of information: If an idea wasn’t discussed on one of three major networks or on the pages of a major daily newspaper or national magazine, it was almost impossible for that idea to gain traction with anyone who wasn’t consciously searching for alternative perspectives. That era is now over. There is no centralized information, so every idea has the same potential for distribution and acceptance.[...]



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 →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… [...]



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.[...]



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 [...]



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[...]



“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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