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Preview: Ben Casnocha: The Blog

Ben Casnocha



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



Updated: 2017-04-22T18:00:55Z

 



John Stuart Mill’s Life, In a Sentence

2017-04-22T18:00:55Z

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.” That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account … Continue reading

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.”

That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account of Mill’s life. The opening paragraph of the piece contains this: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill.”

Mill made it onto my icons list of 2009.

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Book Short: The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen

2017-04-22T05:25:49Z

Tyler Cowen’s latest book — The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — follows up The Great Stagnation and Average is Over as the third in a trilogy about what’s gone wrong in America that has caused, … Continue reading →Tyler Cowen’s latest book — The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — follows up The Great Stagnation and Average is Over as the third in a trilogy about what’s gone wrong in America that has caused, in Tyler’s summation, wages to stagnate, infrastructure to decay, entrepreneurship to slow, and in general a large swath of Americans to fall behind in the modern economy. Lengthier reviews already published elsewhere, so I’ll offer just three impressions of this provocative book written by a good friend. First, reading it was reminder number 6,238 that I live in an exceptionally privileged life. I’m doing fine and almost everyone I know is doing just fine. The economy around me is booming. I travel almost exclusively to parts of the world where everyone is doing fine. That I find myself in this position is due almost entirely to luck and good fortune; what responsibilities I and my fellow lottery winners have to those handed a harder set of cards is one of the most important moral questions I grapple with. Second, the habits of mind and action that Tyler says contribute to the complacency of so many Americans are the same habits we write about in The Start-up of You — except we extoll the positive version of them, of course! Tyler talks about risk aversion; we talk about how to take intelligent risk. If you want solutions, at the individual level, to some of the diagnoses in The Complacent Class…then read The Start-up of You! Third, there’s an ambiguity in language on the topic of entrepreneurship that pops up in this book and other books and articles that study economic data. Tyler cites data — and points to this 538 piece summarizing the data — showing that fewer people are starting companies. Even the tech sector has fewer startups today! Entrepreneurship is slowing down, it seems? Well, maybe. Venture capital is pouring into startups. If there were fewer and fewer companies being started, why is there more and more venture capital being invested in startups? I think the issue here is the definition of “startup” and “high tech.” High level economic data tend to look at “new business formation” to draw conclusions about “entrepreneurship” and they define “startup” as any sort of new venture. Even “high tech” is broader than the specific niche that Silicon Valley is famous for and that venture capital chases: software and hardware startups financed and run in such a way as to one day achieve massive scale. This sort of entrepreneurship — the sort parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, glorified on Shark Tank, and written about in the popular press — is thriving, even if, in general, fewer Americans are starting “new businesses.” Of course, this doesn’t detract from the broader point that a lot of Americans are facing stagnant careers and a lot of once-stable industries are no longer reliable sources of prosperity. Anyway, Marginal Revolution, Tyler’s blog, has long been a must-read. And don’t miss his podcast, which is still fairly new but really hitting its stride… [...]



What I’ve Been Reading

2017-03-19T18:51:13Z

Two very long books. 1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed working my way through this novel. If you’re new to Murakami, I wouldn’t start with this one. It’s dauntingly long (almost 1,000 pages), and I could see some … Continue reading →Two very long books. 1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed working my way through this novel. If you’re new to Murakami, I wouldn’t start with this one. It’s dauntingly long (almost 1,000 pages), and I could see some readers getting lost — if you aren’t ready for it — amid the strangeness and sadness that permeate many scenes in the book. But if you’re in the right headspace, the hyper detailed descriptions, the plot, and strange sci-fi “weather” cast over Tokyo make a memorable reading experience. Here’s just one quote that gives a sense of the vibe: “Once you pass a certain age, life is just a continuous process of losing one thing after another. One after another, things you value slip out of your hands the way a comb loses teeth. People you love fade away one after another. That sort of thing.” 2. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon This is another brick of a book but of a very different sort: non-fiction, organized into focused chapters, each on some element of a non-ordinary life experience and how parents and families adapt. There are chapters on deafness, dwarfism, transgender, homosexuality, prodigies, autism, and others. If you’re a parent of a child who falls into any of these categories, it’s a a must-read. I’m not, but I still found myself learning a ton about the life experience of those with certain types of disabilities. In many chapters there’s a spotlight given to the push and pull of advocacy groups, politicians, educators, and others who try to standardize a point of view on whether parents should buy cochlear implants for their deaf child, for example, or a 5 year old boy who tells his parents he wants to become a girl. Solomon inclines to telling anecdotes over statistics, because “numbers imply trends and anecdotes imply chaos.” There’s a lot of messiness in the real family experiences profiled here. Internal debate. Changes of heart. I’m in awe at how Solomon shares stories about the families he spoke to. Genuine compassion and yet steel eyed honesty. He manages to assert his own opinion on topics where there’s true debate, but without simplifying the matter or selling short the diversity of views. [...]



How Romeo Stevens Improved His Life

2017-03-13T20:44:48Z

He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well … Continue reading →He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well gets things working more often than not. Weights, cardio, yoga, but also just walking and sit stand desk ($30 from Ikea parts). Info triaging. Reading many things at a coarser level and prioritizing more ruthlessly based on what seems valuable, alive. This is a rather pithy description for something of such vast value. It is probably worth a post. (huge ht to Alex Ray for finally finally convincing me to actually do this.) Developing exobrain systems that work for me in a pleasant rather than onerous, virtue based way. eg I use workflowy, pomodoros, and konmarie like systems a lot. I find many other systems for organizing my priorities to be unpleasant, so I don’t use them. Note I said organize my priorities, I don’t use such systems in order to try to make myself work. Once I stop thinking of these as ‘productivity systems’ I started getting tons of value out of them. That frame is propaganda for an internal fight that it’s better to get a ceasefire on rather than developing ever more powerful weapons for. Noticing negative self talk and not putting up with it. Internal parts that are motivated to get something can engage respectfully with other parts/values or they can be ignored. This got more subtle as I got better at it. I went from noticing explicitly violent internal moves (yelling, shaming, etc.) to noticing that parts use things like hypnotic binding, misleading choice of words to frame issues etc. Your parts are as smart as you because they are you. (sometimes they seem smarter because systems arrived at via selection don’t have to stick to a particular abstraction level the way explicitly planned ones do) Internalizing the core framework of coherence therapy and Immunity to Change by Kegan: that your current bugs/negative emotions/etc. are trying to help you and if you don’t acknowledge the important job they are doing any fighting you do against them likely won’t work. Or in other words, akrasia is self healing unless you figure out the ways your current coping strategies are helping you get your needs met and you find alternate ways. I don’t know what to call this one that won’t induce an eye roll. To paraphrase Lama Yeshe: ‘I am not telling you to help others as some sort of virtuous commandment. I am saying that from a 100% selfish standpoint you should try out focusing on the needs of others. Try it for 3 weeks, and honestly evaluate if your life is better. If not, you never have to do it again. But it will likely be impossible not to notice how much better things go when you get in the habit of keeping a lookout for ways you can assist others in their positive goals. No one is telling you to give up your critical faculties and be taken advantage of. And you’ll find that your paranoia was unwarranted.’ I’ll note that if you are secretly keeping a tally of how people owe you you are not doing the thing. This might be semi-involuntary and take conscious effort to drop. Others might be wary as they suspect you of angling for some advantage. Let them in on the secret that you are being selfish. Those you genuinely enjoy helping and those you don’t will work itself out naturally. My attention span has improved dramatically as a result of significantly reduced use of super stimuli (news feeds, video games, pornography, super stimulating foods, hero’s journey fiction, hyper attention grabbing style music, frequency of hamster pellet checks (fb, email, [...]



Low-Pressure Requests for Intro

2017-03-02T18:38:36Z

A friend asked me via email if I’d be open to introducing him to another busy friend of mine. He then wrote: If you are willing, and feel you could recommend a meeting with sincerity, then I’d be most grateful … Continue reading

A friend asked me via email if I’d be open to introducing him to another busy friend of mine. He then wrote:

If you are willing, and feel you could recommend a meeting with sincerity, then I’d be most grateful for an introduction. And if you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing. In my mind, the latter choice is the default, so please know I have zero expectations.

I really liked the way he put this. It feels very low pressure. I’m going to start using the phrase “If you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing….please know I have zero expectations.”

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Asking Acquaintances About Mutual Friends

2017-02-26T06:01:31Z

All business is people business ultimately, and so improving your ability to size someone up should be a relentless priority — it is for me, anyway. By “size a person up” I mean figuring out how much you trust a person, how you … Continue reading

All business is people business ultimately, and so improving your ability to size someone up should be a relentless priority — it is for me, anyway. By “size a person up” I mean figuring out how much you trust a person, how you can best collaborate with him, whether you’d hire her, whether you should fire him.

One of the simple ways I size a person up is by understanding how they understand and judge other people. In this way, I start to be build a model of the person I’m getting to know. I get to know their likes and dislikes, their biases, their underlying motivations, and of course their meta ability to evaluate people — all by hearing them talk about friends I know well.

Practically speaking, when I meet someone new, I like to ask them about someone we know in common. “So how do you know Jane?” Sure, it’s a trite question. But it can lead to a substantive exchange. It doesn’t have to be gossip. How has this person partnered with Jane? What’s frustrated him about Jane? What have been the delights?

When you ask someone to talk about their relationship with someone else, they often inadvertently reveal a lot about who they are.

At a breakfast meeting, I once asked an acquaintance — who I was also evaluating as a prospective business partner — to describe how he knew a mutual friend. As I probed, I realized this acquaintance spoke in condescending, patriarchal terms about a person who I very much considered his peer. It was revealing. I may not have gotten a glimpse at this element of his oversized ego if we had not gone down this path.

In another case, by talking about mutual friends I realized the person I was speaking to grasped subtleties about a friend’s personality that I had missed, and it made me all the more excited about partnering with him because of his extraordinary ability to make sense of at least one complicated person — and likely many others.

Bottom Line: Get to know someone new by asking him or her about someone you already know well.

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Knowledge Accumulates Over Generations

2017-02-11T20:09:12Z

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today … Continue reading

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today that subsequent generations, benefitting from greater scientific discovery, will laugh at?

You can learn this lesson vividly in the arena of building engineering and home repair, as I have.

Consider a building structure that was originally built 100 years ago but has been updated over time. An engineer will inspect the building and say, “Oh, that foundation work utilized a technique that was common in 1980.” Or: “That way of supporting a second story addition was popular in the 70’s.” A specific building technique is easily timestamped based on the prevailing knowledge at that time. With the punch line being: There’s a different best practice today. “In 2017, we do it differently.” And, usually (but not always) — it’s a better technique.

It’s inspiring to see how building engineers continue to iterate their approach. And it occurred that it’d be amusing if management consultants similarly couched their advice in before-and-after timestamped language. “That way of doing performance management was popular in the 80’s, but we know better now.” “Structuring your decision making that way was popular in the 90’s, but we know better now.”

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Related, somewhat of a counterpoint: The always provocative Robin Hanson says one of the big neglected problems in the world is that each generation has to re-learn lessons during its individual lifetimes.

Neglected Big Problems

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Book Short: The Checklist Manifesto

2017-02-01T07:22:59Z

Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto is a wonderfully engaging summation of how the world has become so complex, and how to use checklists — yes, a simple to-do checklist — to manage the complexity that underlies modern professions. The surgery … Continue reading →Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto is a wonderfully engaging summation of how the world has become so complex, and how to use checklists — yes, a simple to-do checklist — to manage the complexity that underlies modern professions. The surgery room is the primary setting for the book’s examples, Gawande’s own vocation of course, but there are also useful stories from the worlds of building construction, aviation, and Wall Street trading. Here’s Derek Sivers’ detailed summary of the book.   [...]



Which Health Advice Is Actually True?

2017-01-18T00:55:11Z

Spencer Greenberg, an extremely rational person and ultra synthesizer, posted the below as a public entry on Facebook. I found it interesting. What follows are Spencer’s words… A query for you about human health: what are dietary/nutrition/health recommendations that are (essentially) … Continue reading →Spencer Greenberg, an extremely rational person and ultra synthesizer, posted the below as a public entry on Facebook. I found it interesting. What follows are Spencer’s words… A query for you about human health: what are dietary/nutrition/health recommendations that are (essentially) universally agreed on by nutrition and health experts of all stripes and schools of thought? Given the incredibly high levels of disagreement in this area, and the poor quality of a lot of the studies, this depressingly short list (below) is all I can come up with. I’m hoping you can help me expand it! Also, this list probably has some mistakes, so let me know what I’m getting wrong! -Preliminary List of Universally Recommended Health Interventions- (1) Don’t consume a lot of sugar (at best, it’s empty calories and probably causes tooth decay, but some claim it’s much worse than that). (2) Exercise regularly (its best to rotate which type of exercise you do – be very careful to avoid injury, especially when you are getting into new forms of exercise – it’s also unclear what forms of exercise are best e.g. strength training vs. cardio, and how much exercise you should get – also, extremely high levels of exercise are believed to be associated with increasing some health risks). (3) If you are going to eat a lot of carbohydrates, generally you should choose complex carbs over simple carbs (usually whole grains are also recommended over refined grains, but some argue that whole grains should be sprouted/soaked to remove parts of the seed that are designed to protect it from digestion [HT: Gary Basin]). (4) Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least once per day (though perhaps it is not actually a good idea immediately after eating, especially if you’ve been eating acidic foods, the suggestion is to brush before breakfast, or wait an hour after eating – and beware of brushing too often or too vigorously – brushing twice per day may be better than brushing once – and also note that there do exist some very small segment of people in the health field that are against fluoride). (5) Hydrate regularly throughout each day, especially as soon as you feel thirsty, but even if you don’t (doing so with water is the safest bet, though it’s not clear how much liquid you need in total, and it’s also not clear whether it’s important to do this with water or if other drinks like non-sugary tea are fine replacements. Also, the the 8 cups of water a day thing seems to be bullshit). (6) Eat plenty of vegetables (preferably not deep fried ones though – note also that there do exist a very small number of people in the health field who advocate an essentially zero-carb or meat only diet). (7) Don’t eat a lot of deep fried foods in general. (8) Take Vitamin D3 supplements if you are >60 years old and don’t get a lot of outdoor time, and for the general population, take it if you get very little sunlight. (9) Avoid frequently drinking large quantities of alcohol. (10) Avoid frequently consuming tobacco products (but since many of them are addictive, that means it’s safest to avoid them altogether). (11) If you have the ability to make yourself lose weight and keep it off, prioritize weight and fat loss if you have a very high body fat percentage or a lot of body fat around the gut area [HT: Julia June Bossmann, Ben Hoffman] (the extent to which mild to moderate obesity is bad [...]



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[...]