Louis L’amour was an autodidact’s autodidact. John Wayne called him the most interesting man in the world. L’amour spent the first couple decades of his adulthood wandering across the country, and around the world, doing odd jobs, and obsessively reading whatever he could find. Only much later did he become a famous novelist. Education of a Wandering Man is a quasi-autobiography, in which he describes the trajectory of his life, and the evolution of his thinking in terms of the places he traveled and the books he read.
L’amour spent years as a hobo, hopping trains from town to town, working various jobs. In each town he would visit the local library.
Its important to note, that unlike a bum, a hobo is ready and willing to work.
To properly understand the situation in America before the Depression, one must realize there was great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes.
Over the years the terms applied to wanderers have been confused until all meaning has been lost. To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work. A tramp was a wanderer of the same kind, but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy.
…Many hoboes would start working the harvest in Texas, and follow the ripening grain north through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska into the Dakotas. During harvest season ,when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain, and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided.”
He also worked on merchant ships, and traveled throughout Asia and most of the world. He would find books for free or cheap wherever he went, reading 100+ books per year. For example:
Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal. Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics) I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro. In Singapore, I came upon a copy of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Vol. 1 of 3: Or the Central and Western Rajput States of India (Classic Reprint) by James Tod.
Although he didn’t have real formal degrees, L’amour understood the value of books and knowledge:
Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization. They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost.
…Knowledge is like money: To be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and hopefully, in value. “
He wrote 89 novels, and clearly a lot of ideas came from paying close attention when he travelled:
People are forever asking me where I get my ideas, but one has only to listen, to look, and to live with awareness. As I have said in several of my stories, all men look, but so few can see. It is all there, waiting for any passerby.”
… for a writer, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.
As with reading, L’amour never let the challenges of a transient lifestyle interfere with writing:
“I began my writing in ship’s fo’c’sles, bunkhouses, hotel rooms- wherever I could sit down with a pen and something to write on.”
L’amour also spent time boxing in various small towns, and coaching other fighters. I’ve seen reference online to a 51-8 professional record, although I wasn’t able to verify it.
In the later years of his life L’amour spent more time in his personal library. His deep knowledge of the world gave him perspective:
Surely, the citizens and the rulers of Babylon and Rome did not see themselves as a passing phase. Each in its time believed it was the end-all of the world’s progression. I have no such feeling. Each age is a day that is dying, each one a dream that is fading.
In Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s Ray Kroc tells the story of how he built McDonalds into a behemoth. The key themes that run through it are his persistence and obsessive attention to detail. There are also some interesting strategic insights on how he views store operators differently than the typical franchise business, and how he selected real estate locations. If the book is too long, there is also a movie, and a country music song telling the same general story. The book is unique, however, since it provies a direct view into Ray Kroc’s thought process.
One of the basic decisions I made in this period affected the ehart of my franchise system and how it would develop. That was that the corporation was not going to get involved in being a supplier for its operators. My belef was that I had to help the individual operator succeed in every way I could. His success would insure my success. But I couldn’t do that and, at the same time, treat him a a customer.
There is a basic conflict in trying to treat a man as a partner on the one hand while selling him something at a profit on the other. Once you get into the supply business, you become more concerned about what you are making on sales to your franchisee than with how his sales are doing. The temptation coud become very strong to dilute the quality of what you are selling him in order to increase your profit. This would have a negative effect on your franchiesees business, and ultimately, of course, on yours. Many franchise systems came along after us and tried to be suppliers, and they got into severe business and financial difficulty. Our method enabled us to build a sophisticated system of purchasing that allows the operator to get his suplies at rock-bottom prices. As it turned out, my instinct helped us avoid some antitrust problems some other franchise operators got into.
On selecting locations for new stores:
Back in the days when we first got a company airplane, we used to spot good locations for McDonald’s stores by flying over a community and looking for schools and church steeples. After we got a general picture from the air, we’d follow up wit h a site survery. Now we use a helicopter, and its ideal. Scarceley a month goes by that I don’t get reports from whatever districts happen to be using our five copters on some new locations that we would never have discovered otherwise. We have a computer in Oak Brook tat is designed to make real estate surveys. But those printouts are of no use to me. After we find a promising location, I drive around it in a car, go to the corner saloon and into the neighborhood supermarket. I mingle with the people and observe their comings and goings. That twlls me what I need to know about how a McDonald’s store would do there.
Learning to think probabilistically is one of the most critical skills one can master. Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t is a valuable book on thinking probabilistically and forecasting in an uncertain environment. It compares and contrasts examples across multiple disciplines, including weather forecasting, seismology, finance, and more.
This book pairs well with Against the Gods, Fortune’s Formula and Superforecasting. Against the Gods is in my opinion, the most important book on the development of probabilistic thinking. Early civilizations were good with geometry and logic, but helpless with uncertainty. Ironically it was gamblers and heretics who moved mankind forward by developing the science of probability, statistics, and ultimately risk management. Fortune’s Formula shows the connection between information theory, gambling, and correct position sizing for investors. It helps the answer the question: when you have a slight edge, how much should you bet? Nate Silver draws heavily on Superforecasting. Particularly important is the idea of “foxes and hedgehogs”. Foxes are multidisciplinary, adaptable, self critical , tolerant of complexity, cautious and empirical. In contrast, Hedgehogs are specialized, stalwart, stubborn, order-seeking, confident, and ideological. As you might expect, foxes make far better forecasters than hedgehogs, even though hedgehogs make for better television.
Anyways, here are a few key insights from my notes on The Signal and the Noise
1) Data is useless without context.
There are always patterns to find in data, but its critical to understand the theory behind the system you are studying to avoid being fooled by noise. This is true in forecasting the weather, investing, betting on sports, or any other probabilistic endeavor. The ability to understand context is also a critical advantage humans have over computer programs.
“Statistical inferences are much stronger when backed up by theory or at least some deeper thinking about their root causes. “
The importance of understanding context comes to the forefront when you compare human’s success with weather forecasting, vs relative failure with earthquake forecasting.
“Chaos theory is a demon that can be tamed- weather forecasts did so, at least in part. But weather forecasters have a much better theoretical understanding of th earth’s atmosphere than seismologists do of the earth’s crust. They know more or less, how weather works, right down to the molecular level. Seismologists don’t have that advantage. “
The ability to understand context is what separates success from failure in all pursuits dealing with uncertainty. The profile of professional sports gambler Bob Voulgaris, is highly instructive. Voulgaris focuses on NBA basketball. A key insight is that Voulgaris has powerful tools for analyzing data, and he makes good use of the data, but he also has deep understanding of the qualitative subletities of how NBA basketball works. Obvious statistical patterns are quickly incorporated into betting lines, whether they are signal or noise. Voulgaris looks deeper, and finds places where the line misprices true probabilities.
“Finding patterns is easy in any data rich environment; thats what mediocre gamblers do. The key is in determining whether the patterns represent noise or signal. “
2) Beware of overconfidence
“… the amount of confidence someone expresses in a prediction is not good indication of its accuracy, to the contrary, these qualities are often inversely correlated. “
3) Think big, and think small. Mix the macro and the micro.
“Good innovators typically think very big, and they think very small. New ideas are sometimes found in the most granular of details where few others bother to look. And they are sometimes found when you are doing your most abstract and philosophical thinking, considering why the world is the way that it is and whether there might be an alternative to the dominant paradigm.”
This is reminiscent of the “global micro” approach used by several manager’s profiled in Inside the House of Money: Top Hedge Fund Traders on Profiting in the Global Markets
4) Recognize the Value of Bayesian Thinking
The work of Thomas Bayes forms the framework underlying how good gamblers think.
Bayes was an English minister who argued in his theological work that admitting our own imperfections is a necessary step on the way to redemption. His most famous work, however, was “An Essay toward Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances,” which was not published until after his death. One interpretation of the essay concerns a person who emerges into the world( ie Adam, or someone from Plato’s cave), and rises to see the sun for the first time:
“At first the does not know whether this is typical of some sort of freak occurrence. However each day that he survives and the sun rises again, his confidence increases that it is a permanent feature of nature. Gradually, through this purely statistical form of inference, the probability that he assigns to his prediction that the sun will rise again tomorrow approaches(although never exactly reaches) 100 percent.”
In essence, beliefs on probability are updated as new information comes in.
Ironically Bayes philosophical work was extended by the mathematician and astronomer Pierre Simon-Laplace, who was likely an atheist. Although Laplace believed in scientific determinism, he was frustrated with the disconnect between (what he believed to be the perfection of nature, and human imperfections in understanding it, in particular with regards to astronomical observations. Consequently, he developed some measuring techniques that relied on probabilistic inferences, rather than exact measurements. “Laplace came to view probability as a waypoint between ignorance and knowledge.” The combined work of Laplace and Bayes led to simple expression that is concerned with conditional probability. In essence Bayesian math can be used to tell us the probability that a theory or hypothesis if some event has happened.
5) The road to wisdom is to be less and less wrong.
forecasting, or at least operating in an uncertain environment, is an iterative process.
Nate Silver titles one of the chapters “Less and Less Wrong, as a homage to the Danish mathematician, scientist, inventor, and poet Piet Hein, author of Grooks:
The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain
and simple to express:
and err again
In Zero to One Peter Thiel theorizes that a new innovation must be at least ten times better than the currently existing solution in an important dimension. This is a high bar, but it often achieved by focusing on an ignored or under exploited niche.
The examples of Uber, and Amazon show how focusing relentlessly on customers can also achieve this goal, especially when incumbents are attached to an old way of doing things that is unpleasant for customers. Good customer service can be extremely disruptive.
When facing regulatory challenges, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick went against conventional wisdom of his lobbyists. Rather than seeking to compromise with regulators, he focused on delivering a better product. In The Upstarts the author discusses what is known as “Travis’ law:
“Our product is so superior to the status quo that if we give people the opportunity to see it or try it, in any place in the world where government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the people, they will demand it and defend its right to exist.”
Mobilizing customers is Uber’s public affairs strategy.
This extreme focus on customers was a key factor in Amazon’s rise as well. Here is Jeff Bezos in the early days of Amazon(quoted from The Everything Store):
“You should wake up worried, terrified every morning. But don’t be worried about our competitors because they’re never going to send us any money anyway. Lets worried about our customers and stay heads down, focused.”
Bezos reiterated this sentiment in the most recent annual letter:
There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.
Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.
I can’t help but wonder if financial services will end up facing a similar level of disruption from Robo Advisers. Most of the financial services industry is clearly conflicted and not focused on actually improving client outcomes. That leaves a massive space for new entrants.
George Soros treats developments in financial markets as a historical process. In The Alchemy of Finance, he outlines his theory of reflexivity, discusses historical developments in markets, and describes a real time “experiment” he undertook while running the Quantum fund in the 1980s.
Markets are an ideal laboratory for testing theories: changes are expressed in quantitative terms, and the data are easily accessible.
Three of the key interrelated concepts in his framework, are anti-equilibrium, Imperfect Knowledge, and Reflexivity.
In markets, equilibrium is a very rare special case. Further, adjustments rarely lead to new equilibrium. The economy is always in adjustment.
According to George Soros:
If we want to understand the real world we must divert our gaze from a hypothetical final outcome , and concentrate our attention on the process of change that we observe all around us.
In trying to deal with macroeconomic developments, equilibrium analysis is totally inappropriate. Nothing could be further removed from reality than the assumptions that the participants base their decisions on perfect knowledge. People are groping to anticipate the future with the help of whatever guideposts they can establish. The outcome tends to diverge from expectations, leading to constantly changing expectations, and constantly changing outcomes. The process is reflexive.
The stock market, is of course a perfect example:
The concept of an equilibrium seems irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. The evidence shows persistent fluctuations, whatever length of time is chosen as the period of observation. Admittedly, the underlying conditions that are supposed to be reflected in stock prices are also constantly changing, but it is difficult to establish any firm relationship between changes in stock prices and changes in underlying conditions. Whatever relationship can be established has to be imputed rather than observed.
So its better to focus on nature and direction of ongoing adjustments, rather than trying to identify an equilibrium.
Perhaps more problematic with an exclusive focus on rarely occurring equilibrium conditions is the assumption of perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge is impossible. Everything is a provisional hypothesis, subject to improvement. Soros makes the bias of market participants the center part of his analysis.
In natural sciences, usually the thinking of participants and the events themselves can be separated. However, when people are involved, there is interplay between thoughts and actions. There is a partial link to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The basic deductive nomological approach of science is inadequate. Use of probabilistic generalization, or some other novel scientific method is preferable.
Thinking plays a dual role. On the one hand, participants seek to understand the situation in which they participate; on the other, their understanding serves as the basis of decisions which influence the course of the events. The two roles interfere with each other.
The influence of this idea is inseparable from the theory of imperfect knowledge.
The participants’ perceptions are inherently flawed, and there is a two-way connection between flawed perceptions and the actual course of events, which results in a lack of correspondence between the two.
This two way connection is what Soros called “reflexivity.”
The thinking of participants, exactly because it is not governed by reality, is easily influenced by theories. In the field of natural phenomena, scientific method is effective only then its theories are valid, but in social political , and economic matters, theories can be effective without being valid.
Effective here, means having an impact. For example, in a bubble, the cost of capital for some companies drops to be absurdly low, relative to the risk of their respective enterprises. Consequently, some businesses that would have otherwise died, may go on to survive. (Example from two decades after the Alchemy of Finance was written: Peter Thiel mentions when being interviewed in Inside the House of Money, that Paypal did a massive capital raise right a the height of the tech bubble, even though it didn’t need the money at the time) On the flip side, a depression can be self fulfilling, if businesses are unable to refinance.
This seems to be especially true in the credit markets:
Loans are based on the lender’s estimation of the borrowers ability to service his debt. The valuation of the collateral is supposed to be independent of the act of lending; but in actual fact the act of lending can affect the value of the collateral. This is true of the individual case and of the economy as a whole. Credit expansion stimulates the economy and enhances the collateral values; the repayment or contraction of credit has a depressing influence both on the economy and on the valuation of collateral. The connection between credit and economy activity is anything but constant- for instance , credit for building a new factory has quite a different effect from credit for a leveraged buyout. This makes it difficult to quantify the connection between credit and economic activity. Yet it is a mistake to ignore it.
This is reminiscent of Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis
In terms of the stock market, Soros asserts (1)Markets are always biased in one direction or another. (2) Markets can influence the events that they anticipate.
In The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, John Gaddis discusses the methods that historians use, comparing them to methods of sciences such as astronomy, paleontology, and geology. The book is a great exploration of different approaches to examining evidence. Here are a few key lessons.
Since we’re historians, not novelists , we’re obliged to tier our narrative as closely as possible to the evidence that has survived: that’s an inductive process. But we have no way of knowing, until we begin looking for evidence with the purposes of our narrative in mind, how much of its going to be relevant: that’s a deductive calculation. Composing the narrative will then produce places where more research is needed, and we’re back to induction again. But that new evidence will still have to fit within the modified narrative so we’re back to deduction. And so on until, as I earlier quoted William H. McNeill, “it feels right, and then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.” That’s why the distinction between induction and deduction is largely meaningless for the historian seeking to establish causation. The verb “to fit” which implies both procedures, is much better. Its not just tailors who look at what they have to cover, and then what they have with which to cover it, and then back and forth, again and again, until the fit is as good as its going to get.
Biography, like the larger sphere of history within which it resides is at once a deductive and an inductive exercise. Patterns of human behavior extending across time and space can alert us to the kinds of questions we should be asking about the particular individual we’re dealing with: that’s where deduction comes in.…But these patterns alone can’t determine the answers, for it’s all to easy to to find what you’re looking for when you’ve already decided a head of time what it is. The evidence of particular experience in biography has got to discipline what we know from collective experience: induction is how we do that.
Theories like relativity, plate tectonics, and natural selection emphasize relationships among variables, some of them continuous and others contingent. Regularity and randomness coexist within such theories: they allow for punctuations that upset equilibria such as asteroid impacts, earthquakes, or the outbreak of new and lethal diseases. Nor do they require singling out certain variables as more important than others.Nor do they require singling out certain variables as more important than others: what would the independent variables be for the Andromeda galaxy or the Norwegian coastline, or the Darwin finch? Reductionism in these realms is only a stepping stone towards synthesis.
Historians,however, reject the doctrine of immaculate causation, which seems to be implied in the idea that one can identify, without reference to all that has preceded it, such a thing as an independent variable. Causes always have antecedents. We may rank their relative significance, but we’d think it irresponsible to seek to isolate or “tease out” single causes for complex events. We see history as proceeding instead from multiple causes and their intersections. Interconnections matter more to us than does the enshrinement of particular variables.
Cal Newport defines Deep Work as activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to the limit. Deep Work is essential in order to quickly master new things quickly, and to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed.
Cal Newport quotes A.G. Sertillanges, a Dominican friar and professor of moral philosophy who wrote in The Intellectual Life
Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.
Winifred Gallagher concludes in the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life that management of attention is the key to improving nearly every aspect of existence. Realizing this is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to fit Deep Work into a busy schedule. Newport outlines 4 applicable philosophies for fitting deep work into the demands of a modern schedule.
1) The Monastic Philosophy
This is available to a limited pool of people, mainly tenured professors, and successful authors. Examples include computer scientist Donald Knuth and science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, who both go to extreme lengths to eliminate shallow tasks and communication.
2) The Bimodal Philosophy
Practically speaking, this is about taking a proper holiday, or carefully blocking off certain days for different kinds of work. It need not be long. Carl Jung, on several key occasions in the 1920s retreated to a house in the woods in order to work on writing, but spent most of his time to living a very active social life in Zurich. Adam Grant, a famous business school professor is, is very active with university responsibilities most of the time, but when working on a book, he’ll cut himself off from most office communication for 2-4 day periods.
3) The Rhythmic Philosophy
This is perhaps the most practical method for most people. Basically, it means creating a simple regular habit of deep work. Combine a simple scheduling heuristic, and an easy way to keep track.
One suggested method is to get up 90 minutes earlier and spend the extra time on deep work(this happens to be the method used by yours truly to get more reading/writing/coding done )
4) The Journalistic Philosophy
This seems like it could be combined with the rhythmic philosophy. In essence it means getting deep work in whenever you can fit it. It does require strong attention discipline(but like muscles, this can be trained). Walter Isaacson managed to write his first 800+ page book while working full time as a journalist using this method. (us mere mortal can use noise cancelling headphones as an aid in applying the journalistic philosophy of deep work)
Newport also offers two suggestions for ramping up the amount of deep work one does.
- Beware of distractions and looping. This is when the brain wanders into unrelated issues when it should be focused on a critical task. Newport used the example of when his brain would rehash preliminary results over and over again when he was trying to work on a proof.
- Structure deep thinking. Identify relevant variables, define the specific next step questions, and once it is solved , consolidate the gains by reviewing the identified answer. Approach problem solving methodically.
Dead Companies Walking, by Scott Fearon is one of the most fascinating business books I’ve ever read. The author is a talented hedge fund manager with a great track record on both the long and the short side. His ability to spot “Dead Companies Walking” is a key part of his edge. Even for long only investors, the tales of what to avoid are valuable. The book describes 6 main reasons why companies fail:
1) Historical myopia: learning from only the recent past.
This seems to be most prevalent in cyclical industries, such as energy. The author’s formative experience was starting at a Texas bank right before the oil bust of the 1980s. People looked at charts going back only a couple decades, and assumed that prices would drop only to a certain level. Equally absurd assumptions can be applied to all sorts of metrics that people use in the investment decision making process.
2) Relying too heavily on a formula.
If a company follows a strict formula or metric, such as adding a certain number of stores annually, they can quickly find themselves making illogical decisions. Value Merchants, a retailer is an example used in this chapter.
Investors that rely too much on formulas can end up investing in zombie companies on the cusp of obsolescence. Various yellow page companies, for example, looked extremely cheap on an EBITDA basis in the early 2000s.
Relying too much on formulas an result in errors of omission. For example, investors may that relied on a strict valuation formula would have turned down Starbucks and Costco in their early days.
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator exposes the twisted incentive system that makes the media susceptible to manipulation, and the boiler room environment in which much of the “news” is manufactured. The book outlines tricks used to steal people’s time and attention. while serving some other agenda. By understanding the logic behind business choices that the media makes, readers can better predict and anticipate actions(some might even be able to use the book to redirect, accelerate and control stories). It was written back in 2012, but after reading, it makes sense that clickbait could help swing an election.
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King is the biography of Sam Zemurray, known in the early days as Sam the Banana Man. He was an Russian Immigrant turned American Banana Tycoon.
Sam’s philosophy was ” get up first, work harder, get your hands in the dirt and the blood in your eyes.” He had an exceptional ability ability to think abstractly and to translate ideas into actions.
Here are a few highlights from his bio:
1)He built his empire by starting with bananas that were too ripe, and therefore discarded by his larger competitors:
Sam grew fixated on ripes, recognizing a product where others had seen only trash. It was the worldview of the immigrant: understanding how so-called garbage might be valued under a different name, seeing nutrition where others saw only waste. He was the son of a Russian farmer, for whom food had once been scarce enough to make even a freckled banana seem precious”
He later expanded beyond this strategy, which resembled deep value “cigar butt” investing, to build a massive fruit empire. This is one of several reasons that the Investor Field Guide compared him to Warren Buffett.
2) He was resourceful and tenacious. He once built a long dock when he couldn’t get permit for a bridge: