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Review of The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous , by Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pp., $35)

B ack when I was deployed in 2011, I read a fascinating passage in How the Mind Works by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Describing the power of familial bonds, he wrote, “every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the family a rival coalition competing for a person’s loyalties, but it is a rival with an unfair advantage: relatives innately care for one another more than comrades do.”

Joseph Henrich, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, explores the consequences of this idea at length in his recent book, The WEIRDest People in the World . Henrich presents a dazzling array of evidence to explain why variation exists among societies and why Europe in particular has played such an outsized role in human history. The “WEIRD” from his title is an acronym meaning “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic,” as well as a convenient reminder that people from such societies are psychologically different from most of the world, and from most humans throughout history.

Henrich’s book argues that the Western Church (his term for the branch of Christianity that rose to power in medieval Europe) enacted a peculiar set of taboos and proscriptions regarding marriage and family that dissolved Europe’s kin-based institutions. These rules produced a more individualistic society, which in turn spurred the creation of impersonal markets, fostered trust between unrelated strangers, and propelled the development of voluntary institutions, universally applicable laws, and innovation.

W EIRD people are hyper-individualistic, self-obsessed, nonconformist, analytical, and value constancy. We prize behavioral consistency across social contexts—in other words, “being ourselves” and “authenticity.” Non-WEIRD people, by contrast, view those who adjust their behavior in different contexts as more socially aware and mature.

WEIRD people are also more likely to feel guilt than shame, while the reverse is true for others. Guilt is a private emotion that results from falling short of our own expectations; shame is the result of not living up to the expectations of one’s community. A recent study led by Theresa E. Robertson found that people can experience shame for being accused of actions they didn’t commit. Shame is a reaction to others believing we did something bad rather than a reaction to actually doing something bad.

Delayed gratification also appears to be more prevalent in WEIRD societies. Offered the choice between a smaller monetary payment up front or a larger sum later, WEIRD people tend to choose the larger sum, while most non-WEIRD people prefer the immediate, smaller, reward. Henrich relays data suggesting that greater patience is most strongly linked to positive economic outcomes in lower-income countries. Thus, the tendency to defer gratification seems especially important for achieving prosperity in countries where formal institutions are less effective. Patience is related to success even after controlling for IQ and family income. Even within the same families, patient siblings obtain more education and higher earnings later in life.

WEIRD people are more likely to adhere to rules even in the absence of external sanctions. Until 2002, United Nations diplomats from other countries didn’t have to pay parking tickets in New York City. While diplomats from the UK, Sweden, Canada, and several other WEIRD countries received no parking tickets, those from Bulgaria, Egypt, Chad, and others accumulated more than 100 tickets per delegation member. When diplomatic immunity ended, parking violations declined, but the gap persisted.

Relative to other populations, WEIRD people are more likely to be fair-weather friends, assigning a higher value to impartiality, believing in universally applicable rules, and showing less favoritism toward friends, family members, and members of their ethnic group. This is illustrated in the Passenger’s Dilemma. Suppose you are in a car being driven by your close friend, who hits a pedestrian while speeding. His lawyer tells you that if you testify under oath that he was not speeding, it may save him from serious legal consequences. Does your friend have a right to expect you to lie for him, or do you think he has no right to expect this? People from Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S. generally tell researchers that your friend has no right to expect you to lie. But most non-WEIRD citizens, from places like South Korea, Nepal, and Venezuela, say they would willingly lie to help their friend.

WEIRD people make bad friends, apparently, but they are more willing to trust strangers. Henrich reports responses from across the globe to the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” In WEIRD countries, levels of trust were consistently above 50 percent, but below 10 percent in Brazil, Trinidad, and Tobago.

Furthermore, WEIRD people place a lot of importance on a person’s intentions, whereas others focus more on what actually happened and who was affected. Across ten diverse societies, Americans placed the most value on intentions, while individuals from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Namibia focused more on outcomes.

O f course, one might argue that all of these differences stem from formal institutions like courts, police, and governments. But, Henrich asks, how does one get there in the first place?

One key factor is religion: specifically, what Henrich and other researchers refer to as “Big Gods”—deities who oversee what people do, care whether they behave immorally, and punish wrongdoers. Societies that believe in moralizing gods who punish wrongdoers tend to have WEIRDer psychologies. “If you are WERID, you may think that religion always involves morally concerned gods who exhort people to behave properly,” Henrich writes. In fact, this aspect of religion is atypical. Roman gods were not concerned about immoral behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing. What upset them was the violation of oaths taken in their name. For instance, merchants had to swear sacred oaths to affirm the quality of their goods. Roman gods were said to be more concerned with their honor than the acts themselves.

Across countries, belief in an afterlife that depends on one’s behavior in life is associated with greater economic productivity and less crime. The book presents data from 1965 to 1995 showing that, for every 20 percent increase in those who believe in hell and heaven, a country’s economy will grow an extra 10 percent in the ensuing decade and its murder rate will go down. (Intriguingly, murder rates rise alongside increases in the number of people who believe only in heaven.)

Henrich posits that, beginning in about 400 CE, Christianity, or what he terms the “Western Church,” slowly eroded Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions. The Church supplanted ancestral gods like Thor and Odin, old Roman deities like Jupiter and Mercury, as well as other variants of Christianity, and initiated what Henrich terms the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). This program dissolved people’s connections to their extended family, banned cousin marriage, and gradually made the nuclear family and voluntary associations the center of social life.

The Church enacted extreme incest taboos in part because it did not want to compete with family members for people’s loyalty. Weakening family ties bolstered the Church’s place in people’s hearts, and helped spread its message by encouraging young adults to leave home in search of a spouse. The Church also blocked the transference of inheritance to anyone save those in the genealogical line of descent, further eroding extended kin-based relations.

The longer a country’s population was exposed to the Church, the weaker its kin-based institutions and the lower its rates of cousin marriage. “Each century of Western Church exposure cuts the rate of cousin marriage by nearly 60 percent,” Henrich writes.

T his shift had consequences for the personalities of WEIRD people. Success in kin-based institutions depends on conformity, deference to traditional authority, sensitivity to shame, and an orientation toward the collective. When relational bonds are weaker and people have to find ways to get along with strangers, success arises from independence, less deference to authority, more guilt, and more concern with cultivating personal attributes and achievement.

Henrich shows that the percentage of cousin marriages across countries predicts levels of individualism. The U.S. scores highest on the individualism scale and among the lowest on the prevalence of cousin marriage. Countries with a higher prevalence of cousin marriage such as Malaysia and Indonesia score lower on individualism. Prevalence of cousin marriage is also associated with lower rates of trust for strangers, higher willingness to lie for a friend, and lower rates of blood donation.

When researchers invited university students in various countries to play economic games in which they could easily cheat to win more money, students from countries with low cousin marriage proved less likely to do so. Such differences exist within European countries, as well. For example, southern Italians have higher rates of cousin marriage, lower levels of trust for strangers, and lower rates of blood donation than northern Italians.

Henrich argues that the MFP’s strong monogamous marriage norms constrained the darker aspects of male psychology and gave WEIRD societies an edge. Polygynous societies create large numbers of young, unmarried men with few prospects and no stake in the future. Henrich refers to this as a “math problem.” Imagine a society with 100 men and 100 women. If one man takes ten wives, that leaves 90 single women and 99 single men. If each one of the remaining women pairs up with one man, there will be nine single men leftover. Henrich documents how, across multiple continents in distinct historical epochs, rulers, kings, and emperors often took thousands of wives and concubines, leaving lower-ranking men without partners.

Such unmarried men, especially when young, threaten social stability. The book cites a famous study revealing that getting married reduces a man’s odds of committing a crime. The researchers also found that when men got divorced or their wives passed away, their likelihood of committing a crime increased. In short, monogamous marriage cultivated stability in WEIRD societies.

Higher rates of impersonal trust, individualism, and voluntary association helped give rise to markets, because people were more willing to trade and deal with strangers. Markets themselves, Henrich argues, promote those same WEIRD traits in a kind of feedback loop. Among hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers around the world, people who lived closer to markets trading in goods like honey, butter, and candles acted more fairly when researchers invited them to play economic games against strangers to win money. “This research,” Henrich says, “strongly suggests that greater market integration does indeed foster greater impersonal prosociality.”

Findings from anthropologist Deniz Salali are consistent with Henrich’s reasoning. Researchers visited three different BaYaka communities, a population in the Congo Basin. Two communities were made up of traditional nomadic foragers living in a remote area. The third lived within a town that contained a market. Offered the choice between receiving either one soup stock cube now or five cubes tomorrow, 54 percent of the BaYaka living within the town chose to wait for the five cubes, but only 18 percent did so in the nomadic camps. The reason is that, while people in kin-based communities care a lot about being fair and honest with fellow group members, they have less trust for strangers. Conversely, people used to interacting with strangers in a market context have an incentive to develop good relationships with them.

Still, there are downsides to impersonal markets. In commercialized societies, the social sphere is governed by market norms rather than dense networks of interpersonal relationships and extended family. This can lead some to feel alienated and exploited. Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, among others, has written about how market relations can crowd out more personal and satisfying interactions.

M arkets also shaped WEIRD psychology as it relates to time. People in more traditional small-scale societies feel less inclination to be punctual, in contrast to WEIRD societies. As Henrich says, “WEIRD people are always ‘saving’ time, ‘wasting’ time, and ‘losing’ time. . . . obsessed with thinking about time and money in the same way.” People in more individualistic cities like London and New York walk much faster on average than those in less individualistic cities like Singapore and Jakarta. European cities in 1450 that displayed public clocks were economically more prosperous than cities that did not.

The commodification of time and greater individualism gave rise to WEIRD societies’ tendency to prize individual achievements. This shift, along with the rising tide of commercial goods in a market society, heightened materialism. “From Bibles to pocket watches,” the book notes, “people wanted to tell strangers and neighbors about themselves through their purchases.”

Relatedly, Henrich reports research that undermines some longstanding theories within psychology and behavioral economics, such as the endowment effect . The idea is that people supposedly place greater value on items they possess. For example, if you randomly give one of two different types of pens to WEIRD participants and offer them the chance to exchange it for the other one, they tend to keep the one they were given. Personally owning a thing somehow makes it more valuable.

But the book reviews research led by Coren Apicella that calls the universality of this idea into question. The researchers randomly gave members of the Hadza—a group of modern hunter-foragers—one of two differently colored lighters to make fire and asked them if they wanted to exchange it for the other color. They traded their lighters about half the time. In other words, they don’t seem to fall prey to the endowment effect.

However, when the researchers administered the study to another Hadza community that was more market-integrated and had experience selling arrows, bows, and headbands to tourists, they kept their lighters 74 percent of the time. Henrich goes on to cite research showing that Americans exhibit a stronger endowment effect than East Asians, positing that impersonal markets cultivate an emphasis on personal attributes, and that WEIRDer people tend to view objects as extensions of themselves and so are more reluctant to part with them. Furthermore, in kin-based communities, people are less attached to their possessions because social norms dictate that they must be shared.

Furthermore, Henrich contends that the individualism and market societies that arose in part from the policies of the Western Church had profound effects on WEIRD personalities. Psychologists have long assumed that the “ Big Five ” personality profile (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) was universal, and that every person could be mapped along these personality configurations. But Henrich refers to this concept as the “WEIRD-5,” because researchers have failed to identify the five dimensions in non-student adult populations in Bolivia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Macedonia, among other non-WEIRD locations.

WEIRD societies, he argues, prize individualism and the cultivation of personal attributes. In contrast, in kin-based groups centered on the community rather than the individual, people experience less need to express and cultivate their underlying traits. Describing the Tsimané, a population of farmer-foragers living in Bolivia, Henrich writes, “everyone has to be a generalist. All men . . . have to learn to craft dugout canoes, track game, and make wooden bows. Extroverts can’t become insurance salesmen. . . . introverts can’t become economists.”

W EIRD psychology has implications for laws. Freed from kinship bonds, medieval Europeans were more mobile and flocked to urban centers in search of economic opportunities and romantic mates. Laws became centered more on individuals as opposed to one’s social position or family lineage. Individual-centered legal developments gave rise to “rights,” which, Henrich observes, are a historically unusual concept: “from the perspective of most human communities, the notion that each person has inherent rights . . . disconnected from their social relationships or heritage is not self-evident.” Furthermore, in many societies, he writes, the purpose of law is not to defend individual rights or preserve an abstract sense of justice. Laws are instead intended to maintain peace and restore social harmony. Universally applicable laws, independent of family, lineage, or relational ties, arose from the individualistic psychology of WEIRD societies.

Toward the end of the book, Henrich also suggests that the impersonal forces of WEIRD societies spurred technological innovation, because individuals were more willing to share their ideas with unrelated people and were eager to broadcast their ideas because of the prestige they would accrue as individuals.

Interestingly, Henrich suggests that the nuclear family has encouraged innovation, too. In kin-based clans, young men typically had to wait their turn to take charge, as elders were held in higher esteem. But in medieval Europe, young men were the heads of their small households, perhaps making them less fearful of breaking with tradition and more willing to take risks.

A professor once told me a story. He said that, as a young man, he was at a synagogue engaged in prayer. He thought prayer was silly but went along with it to please his family. The rabbi asked those present to pray for their loved ones. This reminded my professor of a family friend who had been sick, so later that week he brought him soup. He then asked me: does praying for our loved ones actually work?

As the world’s leading authority on cultural evolution, Henrich repeatedly hammers home a key point: that people in both WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies have no idea how or why their institutions and norms actually work. As he puts it, “People’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong.”

In this context, Henrich points to anthropologist Donald Tuzin’s research on the Ilahita Arapesh, a people living in New Guinea who had integrated 39 clans encompassing more than 2,500 people. The cooperation of this large community was sustained through mutual obligations, reciprocal responsibilities, and social rituals infused with supernatural beliefs. The villagers believed their community’s prosperity was the result of their rituals, which, they maintained, pleased their gods. When cooperation broke down, elders blamed this on members not adhering to the rituals properly and would then call for additional rites better to please their deities. The social bonding resulting from this activity, and not the favor of the gods, Henrich observes, was the real mechanism for improving the community’s cohesion. Likewise, it’s probable that WEIRD people themselves are mistaken in how and why their own norms and institutions operate, and so may be making a grave error in undermining them.

A new book explores the religious origins of the West’s divergent political, technological, and cultural development.

Read More
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about 1 year ago
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Review of The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous , by Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pp., $35)

B ack when I was deployed in 2011, I read a fascinating passage in How the Mind Works by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Describing the power of familial bonds, he wrote, “every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the family a rival coalition competing for a person’s loyalties, but it is a rival with an unfair advantage: relatives innately care for one another more than comrades do.”

Joseph Henrich, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, explores the consequences of this idea at length in his recent book, The WEIRDest People in the World . Henrich presents a dazzling array of evidence to explain why variation exists among societies and why Europe in particular has played such an outsized role in human history. The “WEIRD” from his title is an acronym meaning “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic,” as well as a convenient reminder that people from such societies are psychologically different from most of the world, and from most humans throughout history.

Henrich’s book argues that the Western Church (his term for the branch of Christianity that rose to power in medieval Europe) enacted a peculiar set of taboos and proscriptions regarding marriage and family that dissolved Europe’s kin-based institutions. These rules produced a more individualistic society, which in turn spurred the creation of impersonal markets, fostered trust between unrelated strangers, and propelled the development of voluntary institutions, universally applicable laws, and innovation.

W EIRD people are hyper-individualistic, self-obsessed, nonconformist, analytical, and value constancy. We prize behavioral consistency across social contexts—in other words, “being ourselves” and “authenticity.” Non-WEIRD people, by contrast, view those who adjust their behavior in different contexts as more socially aware and mature.

WEIRD people are also more likely to feel guilt than shame, while the reverse is true for others. Guilt is a private emotion that results from falling short of our own expectations; shame is the result of not living up to the expectations of one’s community. A recent study led by Theresa E. Robertson found that people can experience shame for being accused of actions they didn’t commit. Shame is a reaction to others believing we did something bad rather than a reaction to actually doing something bad.

Delayed gratification also appears to be more prevalent in WEIRD societies. Offered the choice between a smaller monetary payment up front or a larger sum later, WEIRD people tend to choose the larger sum, while most non-WEIRD people prefer the immediate, smaller, reward. Henrich relays data suggesting that greater patience is most strongly linked to positive economic outcomes in lower-income countries. Thus, the tendency to defer gratification seems especially important for achieving prosperity in countries where formal institutions are less effective. Patience is related to success even after controlling for IQ and family income. Even within the same families, patient siblings obtain more education and higher earnings later in life.

WEIRD people are more likely to adhere to rules even in the absence of external sanctions. Until 2002, United Nations diplomats from other countries didn’t have to pay parking tickets in New York City. While diplomats from the UK, Sweden, Canada, and several other WEIRD countries received no parking tickets, those from Bulgaria, Egypt, Chad, and others accumulated more than 100 tickets per delegation member. When diplomatic immunity ended, parking violations declined, but the gap persisted.

Relative to other populations, WEIRD people are more likely to be fair-weather friends, assigning a higher value to impartiality, believing in universally applicable rules, and showing less favoritism toward friends, family members, and members of their ethnic group. This is illustrated in the Passenger’s Dilemma. Suppose you are in a car being driven by your close friend, who hits a pedestrian while speeding. His lawyer tells you that if you testify under oath that he was not speeding, it may save him from serious legal consequences. Does your friend have a right to expect you to lie for him, or do you think he has no right to expect this? People from Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S. generally tell researchers that your friend has no right to expect you to lie. But most non-WEIRD citizens, from places like South Korea, Nepal, and Venezuela, say they would willingly lie to help their friend.

WEIRD people make bad friends, apparently, but they are more willing to trust strangers. Henrich reports responses from across the globe to the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” In WEIRD countries, levels of trust were consistently above 50 percent, but below 10 percent in Brazil, Trinidad, and Tobago.

Furthermore, WEIRD people place a lot of importance on a person’s intentions, whereas others focus more on what actually happened and who was affected. Across ten diverse societies, Americans placed the most value on intentions, while individuals from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Namibia focused more on outcomes.

O f course, one might argue that all of these differences stem from formal institutions like courts, police, and governments. But, Henrich asks, how does one get there in the first place?

One key factor is religion: specifically, what Henrich and other researchers refer to as “Big Gods”—deities who oversee what people do, care whether they behave immorally, and punish wrongdoers. Societies that believe in moralizing gods who punish wrongdoers tend to have WEIRDer psychologies. “If you are WERID, you may think that religion always involves morally concerned gods who exhort people to behave properly,” Henrich writes. In fact, this aspect of religion is atypical. Roman gods were not concerned about immoral behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing. What upset them was the violation of oaths taken in their name. For instance, merchants had to swear sacred oaths to affirm the quality of their goods. Roman gods were said to be more concerned with their honor than the acts themselves.

Across countries, belief in an afterlife that depends on one’s behavior in life is associated with greater economic productivity and less crime. The book presents data from 1965 to 1995 showing that, for every 20 percent increase in those who believe in hell and heaven, a country’s economy will grow an extra 10 percent in the ensuing decade and its murder rate will go down. (Intriguingly, murder rates rise alongside increases in the number of people who believe only in heaven.)

Henrich posits that, beginning in about 400 CE, Christianity, or what he terms the “Western Church,” slowly eroded Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions. The Church supplanted ancestral gods like Thor and Odin, old Roman deities like Jupiter and Mercury, as well as other variants of Christianity, and initiated what Henrich terms the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). This program dissolved people’s connections to their extended family, banned cousin marriage, and gradually made the nuclear family and voluntary associations the center of social life.

The Church enacted extreme incest taboos in part because it did not want to compete with family members for people’s loyalty. Weakening family ties bolstered the Church’s place in people’s hearts, and helped spread its message by encouraging young adults to leave home in search of a spouse. The Church also blocked the transference of inheritance to anyone save those in the genealogical line of descent, further eroding extended kin-based relations.

The longer a country’s population was exposed to the Church, the weaker its kin-based institutions and the lower its rates of cousin marriage. “Each century of Western Church exposure cuts the rate of cousin marriage by nearly 60 percent,” Henrich writes.

T his shift had consequences for the personalities of WEIRD people. Success in kin-based institutions depends on conformity, deference to traditional authority, sensitivity to shame, and an orientation toward the collective. When relational bonds are weaker and people have to find ways to get along with strangers, success arises from independence, less deference to authority, more guilt, and more concern with cultivating personal attributes and achievement.

Henrich shows that the percentage of cousin marriages across countries predicts levels of individualism. The U.S. scores highest on the individualism scale and among the lowest on the prevalence of cousin marriage. Countries with a higher prevalence of cousin marriage such as Malaysia and Indonesia score lower on individualism. Prevalence of cousin marriage is also associated with lower rates of trust for strangers, higher willingness to lie for a friend, and lower rates of blood donation.

When researchers invited university students in various countries to play economic games in which they could easily cheat to win more money, students from countries with low cousin marriage proved less likely to do so. Such differences exist within European countries, as well. For example, southern Italians have higher rates of cousin marriage, lower levels of trust for strangers, and lower rates of blood donation than northern Italians.

Henrich argues that the MFP’s strong monogamous marriage norms constrained the darker aspects of male psychology and gave WEIRD societies an edge. Polygynous societies create large numbers of young, unmarried men with few prospects and no stake in the future. Henrich refers to this as a “math problem.” Imagine a society with 100 men and 100 women. If one man takes ten wives, that leaves 90 single women and 99 single men. If each one of the remaining women pairs up with one man, there will be nine single men leftover. Henrich documents how, across multiple continents in distinct historical epochs, rulers, kings, and emperors often took thousands of wives and concubines, leaving lower-ranking men without partners.

Such unmarried men, especially when young, threaten social stability. The book cites a famous study revealing that getting married reduces a man’s odds of committing a crime. The researchers also found that when men got divorced or their wives passed away, their likelihood of committing a crime increased. In short, monogamous marriage cultivated stability in WEIRD societies.

Higher rates of impersonal trust, individualism, and voluntary association helped give rise to markets, because people were more willing to trade and deal with strangers. Markets themselves, Henrich argues, promote those same WEIRD traits in a kind of feedback loop. Among hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers around the world, people who lived closer to markets trading in goods like honey, butter, and candles acted more fairly when researchers invited them to play economic games against strangers to win money. “This research,” Henrich says, “strongly suggests that greater market integration does indeed foster greater impersonal prosociality.”

Findings from anthropologist Deniz Salali are consistent with Henrich’s reasoning. Researchers visited three different BaYaka communities, a population in the Congo Basin. Two communities were made up of traditional nomadic foragers living in a remote area. The third lived within a town that contained a market. Offered the choice between receiving either one soup stock cube now or five cubes tomorrow, 54 percent of the BaYaka living within the town chose to wait for the five cubes, but only 18 percent did so in the nomadic camps. The reason is that, while people in kin-based communities care a lot about being fair and honest with fellow group members, they have less trust for strangers. Conversely, people used to interacting with strangers in a market context have an incentive to develop good relationships with them.

Still, there are downsides to impersonal markets. In commercialized societies, the social sphere is governed by market norms rather than dense networks of interpersonal relationships and extended family. This can lead some to feel alienated and exploited. Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, among others, has written about how market relations can crowd out more personal and satisfying interactions.

M arkets also shaped WEIRD psychology as it relates to time. People in more traditional small-scale societies feel less inclination to be punctual, in contrast to WEIRD societies. As Henrich says, “WEIRD people are always ‘saving’ time, ‘wasting’ time, and ‘losing’ time. . . . obsessed with thinking about time and money in the same way.” People in more individualistic cities like London and New York walk much faster on average than those in less individualistic cities like Singapore and Jakarta. European cities in 1450 that displayed public clocks were economically more prosperous than cities that did not.

The commodification of time and greater individualism gave rise to WEIRD societies’ tendency to prize individual achievements. This shift, along with the rising tide of commercial goods in a market society, heightened materialism. “From Bibles to pocket watches,” the book notes, “people wanted to tell strangers and neighbors about themselves through their purchases.”

Relatedly, Henrich reports research that undermines some longstanding theories within psychology and behavioral economics, such as the endowment effect . The idea is that people supposedly place greater value on items they possess. For example, if you randomly give one of two different types of pens to WEIRD participants and offer them the chance to exchange it for the other one, they tend to keep the one they were given. Personally owning a thing somehow makes it more valuable.

But the book reviews research led by Coren Apicella that calls the universality of this idea into question. The researchers randomly gave members of the Hadza—a group of modern hunter-foragers—one of two differently colored lighters to make fire and asked them if they wanted to exchange it for the other color. They traded their lighters about half the time. In other words, they don’t seem to fall prey to the endowment effect.

However, when the researchers administered the study to another Hadza community that was more market-integrated and had experience selling arrows, bows, and headbands to tourists, they kept their lighters 74 percent of the time. Henrich goes on to cite research showing that Americans exhibit a stronger endowment effect than East Asians, positing that impersonal markets cultivate an emphasis on personal attributes, and that WEIRDer people tend to view objects as extensions of themselves and so are more reluctant to part with them. Furthermore, in kin-based communities, people are less attached to their possessions because social norms dictate that they must be shared.

Furthermore, Henrich contends that the individualism and market societies that arose in part from the policies of the Western Church had profound effects on WEIRD personalities. Psychologists have long assumed that the “ Big Five ” personality profile (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) was universal, and that every person could be mapped along these personality configurations. But Henrich refers to this concept as the “WEIRD-5,” because researchers have failed to identify the five dimensions in non-student adult populations in Bolivia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Macedonia, among other non-WEIRD locations.

WEIRD societies, he argues, prize individualism and the cultivation of personal attributes. In contrast, in kin-based groups centered on the community rather than the individual, people experience less need to express and cultivate their underlying traits. Describing the Tsimané, a population of farmer-foragers living in Bolivia, Henrich writes, “everyone has to be a generalist. All men . . . have to learn to craft dugout canoes, track game, and make wooden bows. Extroverts can’t become insurance salesmen. . . . introverts can’t become economists.”

W EIRD psychology has implications for laws. Freed from kinship bonds, medieval Europeans were more mobile and flocked to urban centers in search of economic opportunities and romantic mates. Laws became centered more on individuals as opposed to one’s social position or family lineage. Individual-centered legal developments gave rise to “rights,” which, Henrich observes, are a historically unusual concept: “from the perspective of most human communities, the notion that each person has inherent rights . . . disconnected from their social relationships or heritage is not self-evident.” Furthermore, in many societies, he writes, the purpose of law is not to defend individual rights or preserve an abstract sense of justice. Laws are instead intended to maintain peace and restore social harmony. Universally applicable laws, independent of family, lineage, or relational ties, arose from the individualistic psychology of WEIRD societies.

Toward the end of the book, Henrich also suggests that the impersonal forces of WEIRD societies spurred technological innovation, because individuals were more willing to share their ideas with unrelated people and were eager to broadcast their ideas because of the prestige they would accrue as individuals.

Interestingly, Henrich suggests that the nuclear family has encouraged innovation, too. In kin-based clans, young men typically had to wait their turn to take charge, as elders were held in higher esteem. But in medieval Europe, young men were the heads of their small households, perhaps making them less fearful of breaking with tradition and more willing to take risks.

A professor once told me a story. He said that, as a young man, he was at a synagogue engaged in prayer. He thought prayer was silly but went along with it to please his family. The rabbi asked those present to pray for their loved ones. This reminded my professor of a family friend who had been sick, so later that week he brought him soup. He then asked me: does praying for our loved ones actually work?

As the world’s leading authority on cultural evolution, Henrich repeatedly hammers home a key point: that people in both WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies have no idea how or why their institutions and norms actually work. As he puts it, “People’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong.”

In this context, Henrich points to anthropologist Donald Tuzin’s research on the Ilahita Arapesh, a people living in New Guinea who had integrated 39 clans encompassing more than 2,500 people. The cooperation of this large community was sustained through mutual obligations, reciprocal responsibilities, and social rituals infused with supernatural beliefs. The villagers believed their community’s prosperity was the result of their rituals, which, they maintained, pleased their gods. When cooperation broke down, elders blamed this on members not adhering to the rituals properly and would then call for additional rites better to please their deities. The social bonding resulting from this activity, and not the favor of the gods, Henrich observes, was the real mechanism for improving the community’s cohesion. Likewise, it’s probable that WEIRD people themselves are mistaken in how and why their own norms and institutions operate, and so may be making a grave error in undermining them.

A new book explores the religious origins of the West’s divergent political, technological, and cultural development.

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The World Beyond Your Head: How Distraction Shapes Who We Are - Forte Labs

Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head (Affiliate Link) is the most important book I’ve read in quite some time.

It makes a sweeping argument about what it means to be an ethical, autonomous human in the digital age.

Crawford draws a strong connection from the distractions buzzing on our phones, to the evolving nature of attention, to how that influences the kinds of individuals we become, to the kind of society such individuals inhabit.

I want to get as many eyeballs on Crawford’s ideas as I can, so I’ve summarized it below as a free post.

Assume anything below is either paraphrased or taken directly from the book.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

Our understanding of the self and how it is formed was born at a particular historical moment: the Enlightenment, in 18th century Europe. The memory of centuries of religious wars was fresh, and the project of Enlightenment thinkers was to liberate the individual from every source of tyranny — from rigid tradition, religious dogma, and repressive authorities.

This thinking paved the way for “liberalism,” from the Latin word liber , which means “to free.” By any measure, it’s been one of the most successful projects of all time, giving us precious rights and freedoms and completely reshaping our conception of what it means to be human.

But there has been a cost to this freedom. In order to secure us against any coercive influence, these philosophers placed the ideal self in a vacuum. Removing or weakening the structures that repressed us —social hierarchy, the nuclear family, paternalism, the Protestant work ethic, sexual mores— they also undermined the meaning and coherence that these very same structures once gave our lives.

Companies have stepped into this vacuum to shape our outlook on the world, and therefore our behavior, in their favor. Armed with big data, targeted advertising, real-time notifications, and detailed psychographic profiles, they’ve launched a campaign of distraction to influence what we pay attention to. And what we pay attention to determines our identity.

The conception we inherited from the Enlightenment of what it means to be free is to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. To buy what I want. To consume what I want. To live how I want. We believe these preferences to express the authentic core of our deepest self, a pure flashing forth of the unconditioned will. This self is “free” when there remain no restrictions, encumbrances, or limits on its preference-satisfying behavior. Both the left and the right of the political spectrum are in full agreement on this point: everything can be justified in the name of “giving people what they want.”

But after several hundred years, during which nearly everything about how society works has undergone a radical transformation, how does this idea of freedom hold up?

As radically autonomous individuals, now responsible for choosing every aspect of our identity, we often find ourselves lost in a fog of choices. In a culture predicated on freedom, we are left with the daunting responsibility of constructing a self in the absence of the structures our species has always relied on. Without any established sources of authority guiding us in who or what to pay attention to, our mental lives become shapeless and unmoored. This leaves us highly susceptible to whatever happens to attract our attention — to distraction.

The preferences that we hold so dear are no longer pure, unfiltered urges arising from our deepest selves. They are instead the object of intense social engineering predicated on maximizing distraction. The ecologies of attention that we inhabit — the websites, ads, apps, notifications, and devices — are designed explicitly to hook every perceptual trigger we know of, as often as possible.

Thus our highly individualistic understanding of freedom, inherited from the liberal tradition, leaves us vulnerable to anyone who knows how to use these tools. The paradoxical result of leaving the individual alone in splendid independence, is to deny them the ability to make sense of themselves, others, and the world they inhabit.

The self is left totally free, and totally alone. By removing the will to a separate realm, we were cut off from being able to impact the outside world. The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence.

Crawford suggests a possible way out of this predicament: skilled practices. In his previous book, Shop Class as Soulcraft (Affiliate Link) , he discussed the de-skilling of everyday life. We are no longer expected to have any particular knowledge or skill — just a generalized, abstract form of intelligence suited to solving “general” problems. The ideal of skill has been replaced with the ideal of flexibility, which requires remaining unattached to any particular community, craft, or tradition.

The punch line of that book is that genuine agency is not about being able to make any choice you want (as in shopping). It lies in voluntary submission to things that have their own intractable ways (like musical instruments, gardens, or building a bridge). In order to gain autonomy, paradoxically, you have to start by submitting to a reality beyond your own head.

A new understanding of the individual needs to be grounded in 3 discoveries we’ve made about how the human mind works: that we are fundamentally embodied , social , and situated.

We are embodied

The last couple decades of research in cognitive science have revealed how deeply embodied our minds are.

We don’t gather data about the external world, create an internal model of that world in our minds, and then manipulate the model to determine the proper course of action. Instead, we act on the world, and discover courses of action directly in the medium of physical reality. As the famous saying goes, “the world is its own best model.”

A quick example: when catching a fly ball, we don’t calculate the parabolic trajectories of the ball, and then map probabilistic projections onto a mental model of the field we are playing on, while at the same time calculating wind speed and direction and the friction of our shoes on the grass. Instead, research has found that we simply run in such a way that the ball appears to move in a straight line in our vision. Much simpler, isn’t it?

What this is pointing to is that our basic mode of thinking is extended cognition . We naturally and automatically structure our environment, physically and informationally, in such a way that our reasoning is “dissipated” into the surrounding substrates. It’s quite remarkable really: we are designed to purposefully entangle our minds in complex linguistic, social, political, and institutional webs. This is evolution’s way of reducing the load on our brains, while also gaining access to much greater capabilities.

A simple example: when a bartender receives several orders, the first thing he’ll do is lay out the correct glasses, close together and in a certain order. This trivial action accomplishes two major things: it offloads the remembering of orders onto a physical arrangement of objects, and it facilitates the action of pouring the same fluid into multiple glasses, while reducing spillage.

These “jigs,” or guiding mechanisms, are found in any type of expertise. Our most sophisticated abilities are “scaffolded” by external props — technologies and cultural practices alike — in such a way that they become integral parts of our cognitive system. Andy Clark’s book Supersizing the Mind details how there is no clear boundary we can draw between “native” and “extended” cognition. It’s all us.

Thus the process of developing expertise is not passive accumulation of bits of knowledge. It is running up against the hard constraints of reality. It is contending with the basic relationship of our selves to the world: that it resists our will. As we become skilled, the very elements of that world that were initially sources of frustration, become elements of a self that has expanded.

But there is a way in which modern liberalism interferes in the process described above: it inserts representations between ourselves and the world.

Consider how a baby learns about the world. It pokes and it prods and it drops things and puts things in its mouth. The sensorimotor streams being generated by these actions are bound together into a common experience of time. All the senses co-occurring together in a shared timeline is what allows the baby to improve the effectiveness of its actions. This “cross-modal binding” is believed to be key to our grasp of reality, helping our brain decide that this is not a dream or hallucination.

Now consider how the modern world works: we interact with it through representations.

Driving a late-model car, all the hard edges are smoothed out and padded for us. Comfy seats, power steering, proximity warnings, and now, even driving itself taken care of for us. Separated from the reality of our driving environment, we pay less attention and driving actually becomes more dangerous. Research has shown that narrower roads with less visibility, and without curbs, center lines, guardrails, and even traffic signs and signals, are home to significantly fewer crashes and traffic fatalities. They force people to pay attention.

The use of smartphones is perhaps a more familiar example. Staring into the rectangular screen from a few inches away, we collapse the normal zone of relevance, centered on the body, that normally helps us take our bearings and get oriented. The horizon of near-me and far-from-me gives way to a vague sense of being no place in particular, at no particular time. To be present with those I share my life with is just one option among many. And usually not the most amusing one.

What is constructed is a fragile self. One that is held hostage by the representations through which it interacts with others and reality. This fragile self is eager to take advantage of manufactured experiences, to escape from the frustrations of a world that lacks a basic intelligibility. Gambling and addiction are the classic options. But technology is the ultimate escape, replacing risky uncertainty with a well-structured “choice architecture” installed on our behalf by anonymous designers.

What begins to happen is that we relocate the standard of truth from outside our heads to inside our heads. The worthiness of something in reality is not independent of us, but depends on the representation of it we create in our minds. Basically, how we feel about it.

The problem with this relocation is that attention gets demoted. Or at least redirected. Instead of being a spotlight that illuminates the outer world, it becomes a tool for evaluating our own mental processes. And these processes are supposed to be neutral, detached, objective, not “infected” by our mental biases, and especially not by the opinions of other people. Somehow we evolved from questioning the legitimacy of particular political authorities in 17th-century Europe, to questioning the legitimacy of other people’s authority, to questioning the legitimacy of our own experience.

The incredible discoveries of the last few decades in embodied perception and extended cognition have been resisted at every step. But not because there is no evidence. They’ve been resisted because they contradict the fundamental understanding of the individual on which modern epistemology, the liberal arts, and our whole moral-political order is based.

We are social

The prevailing, Cartesian view of reason is that being rational requires freeing your mind from any taint of outside authority. Kant writes:

Enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity… [This immaturity consists not in a] lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use [one’s own understanding] without the guidance of another.” Further, “laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large portion of men … remain immature for life.”

Everything located outside your head, especially other people, are identified as potential threats to your freedom.

But this makes education a tricky matter. Because the first step in education, training, or skill-building is, again, submission. Submission to communities of practice, aesthetic traditions, and the guidance of teachers and mentors.

An example: the scientist Michael Polanyi studied how knowledge was generated and applied by the sciences across different countries over time. In contrast to the positivists of the day who insisted that science could proceed rationally step by step, he advocated for the critical role of “tacit knowledge.”

This was knowledge that could not be stated explicitly, but that was passed from one scientist to the other. It included the habits, the rules of thumb, the emotions, the best practices, and the things “everyone knows” but that are hard to write down. This tacit knowledge, he argued, explained why scientific progress remained centered in Europe long after its economic dominance had faded. The culture of science had been born there, and was not easily exported.

Polanyi argued that a key feature of this tacit knowledge is that it started by submitting to authority, and learning by example:

“You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.”

This idea is intolerable if, like Descartes, you believe that to be rational is to reject “example or custom” in order to “reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own.”

We are deeply wired for social learning, such that the term is virtually redundant. Every interaction with the outside world involves inhabiting and contending with the social fabric of society.

When I pick up chopsticks, it is norms that guide my fingers and shape my movements. These norms are constrained by, but not directly apparent from , the physical characteristics of the chopsticks.

When I see a wall covered in different angular shapes in slightly varying colors, I assume that it is the sunlight coming through the window creating the effect. This is partly informed by my knowledge that painters don’t usually paint walls with geometric shapes in different colors. I know the social norm that this is way too much trouble.

The opposing view to the asocial self is that individuality is something that needs to be achieved, and that others are indispensable to that effort. There is no self that exists prior to, or at a deeper level, than the self that exists in the world with others. The problem of self-knowledge is not one of introspection — it is about figuring out how we can make ourselves intelligible to others through our actions, and from them receive back a reflected view of ourselves.

Here’s the question: who are we to look to for a check on our subjective take of ourselves? Who will tell us the truth?

Crawford suggests that here, once again, skilled practices are a bridge back to reality. Skilled practices are embedded in communities of practice, aesthetic traditions, and the hard constraints of a craft, which tell us the truth far more reliably than the voices in our heads.

A summary graphic by Vladimir Oane

What it takes to be an individual is to develop a considered view of the world, and to stand behind it. Doing so exposes one to conflict, and you may have to reconsider that view.

He suggests that the act of charging money for one’s work is a prime example — you are asking for justification from another person for the work you’ve done. Pushback, negotiation, and of course, taking one’s business elsewhere are always a possibility, and that is what makes it a fair exchange. Work, then, is a mode of acting in the world that carries the possibility of justification through pay.

Contrast this refining process with the digital life. Once again, we insert representations between ourselves and others. What erodes our sense of self is not the narcissism of the selfie taker, but the frictionless array of weak ties in which we summon people according to our needs. The fragile self this creates is insulated from conflict, from confrontation, but is denied the interaction that would allow it to justify itself to others.

We need other people to achieve individuality. But to play that role for us, those others have to be available in an unmediated way, not via a representation tailored to our psychic comfort. And I must also make myself available to them, in an unmediated way, and face any potential conflicts.

To put this another way, for the subjectivist who thinks that what they feel or think is the ultimate test of reality, value judgments don’t actually apprehend anything. There is nothing out there in the world that could make them true or false. Your moral and aesthetic judgments can’t deepen or mature, only change. As internal states, they are basically incommunicable. Subjectivism leaves people isolated in the cocoon of their own opinions.

We don’t typically look to communities of skilled practice to refine our sense of who we are. Stripped of traditional “authoritative structures,” we look to the public. We look around to see what everyone else thinks. The demand to be an individual makes us anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion, less willing to challenge people and institutions, further eroding the intense interaction that makes us individuals.

Thus the texture of our modern liberal society is one of polite separation. We are all equal, free, and infinitely tolerant. But we are also alone, depressed, and disconnected.

We are situated

We are told that our modern knowledge-based economy is in a state of radical flux. “Disruption” is everywhere and assumed to be good. So a twenty-first century education must form workers that are equally indeterminate and disruptable. They shouldn’t be burdened with any particular knowledge, the thinking goes. What is wanted is a generic smartness, to be applied in the abstract.

But consider what happens when you go deep into some particular skill or art. It trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning, seeing things you didn’t see before. You begin to care deeply about quality, because you have been initiated by a mentor into a spirit of craftsmanship. Your judgments mature alongside your emotional involvement, to make your knowledge truly personal .

There is always the danger of craftsmanship becoming obsessive navel-gazing. This is why it’s important that the craftsman is responsible to a wider circle of his peers. At some point he has to put his preferences aside and his cherished project on the market, and become public-spirited by financial necessity, if nothing else.

The dialectic between tradition and innovation, each begetting the other, is very different from our modern notion of creativity. We conceive of creativity as a mysterious, crypto-theological concept: something ineffable that is irrational, incommunicable, and unteachable. The skilled practitioner, by first obeying the rules of his craft, is then capable of greater feats of creative daring.

Once again, we find the paradox: to become a skilled individual first requires submission to what is. Kierkegaard taught us that rebellion is only possible from a place of reverence. A flattened human landscape, in which we are embarrassed by the idea of superiority, makes rebellion impossible. Attention to rank — the well-earned kind — can put our democratic commitments (which include rebellion) on a more firm foundation.

Conclusion

The question of what to pay attention to is the question of what to value. This question is no longer answered for us at our birth. We have to decide, each and every moment, what to attend to, which determines who we become.

In this new world, as we are free to choose our selves, we are also given a new burden of self-regulation. To gain admission to the upper-middle class and stay there, now requires nothing less than an extraordinary feat of self-discipline. The already wealthy outsource this to the professional nagging services — financial planners, tutors, personal trainers, productivity coaches — while the rest make do.

In The Weariness of the Self , Alain Ehrenberg writes that, in this new economy, the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with the axis of the possible and impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer how good you are, but how capable you are. Capability here is measured in something like kilowatt hours — the raw ability to make things happen.

With this shift, our primary affliction has changed. Guilt has given way to weariness. Weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self.

The Latin root of the English word “attention” is tenere , which means “to make tense.” External objects provide an attachment point for the mind, a lifeline by which we can pull ourselves out of our private, virtual reality.

These external objects are delightfully concrete. They exist in well-ordered ecologies of attention. The ones described in detail in the book are those of the short-order cook, the hockey player, the motorcycle racer, the jazz musician, the glassblower, and the organ maker.

Our education taught us critical thinking and analysis, so that we could have opinions of our own. But personal development requires stepping beyond the personal — starting with submission to a world beyond your head.

Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head (Affiliate Link) is the most important book I’ve read in quite some time. It makes a sweeping argument about what it means to be an ethical, autonomous human in the digital age. Crawford draws a strong connection from the distractions buzzing on our phones, to the evolving ... Read more

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about 1 year ago
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Submit to Freedom: Geoffrey & Justin talk about Bronze Age Mindset

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BAP-Vox Ch. 1, Bronze Age Pervert & Vox author Tara Burton

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Bronze Age Pervert - Bronze Age Mindset - YouTube

about 1 year ago
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Martian Review – Matt Mullenweg

On the recommendation of my friend Timothy Young I checked out the book The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir . Think of it like Shackleton’s Voyage (a great recommendation from Toni ) but on Mars. I really enjoyed the book, and if you like geeky, science-filled novels you will too. One thing about the publishing I thought was really cool, as the Wikipedia puts it :

Having been rebuffed by literary agents when trying to get prior books published, Weir decided to put the book online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website. At the request of fans he made an Amazon Kindle version available through Amazon.com at 99 cents (the minimum he could set the price). The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months, more than had previously downloaded it for free. This garnered the attention of publishers: Podium Publishing, an audiobook publisher, signed for the audiobook rights in January 2013. Weir sold the print rights to Crown in March 2013 for six figures.

On the recommendation of my friend Timothy Young I checked out the book The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir. Think of it like Shackleton’s Voyage (a great recommendation from Toni) but on Mars.…

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about 1 year ago
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Who is Steve Jobs? – Matt Mullenweg

I checked out the new book Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli because there had been some interesting excerpts published to the web, and apparently those closest to Steve didn’t like the Walter Isaacson book , with Jony Ive saying “My regard [for Isaacson’s book] couldn’t be any lower.”

Along with about a million other people I bought and read the authorized biography, and didn’t think it portrayed Jobs in a way that made me think any less of him, but there must have been some things in there that someone who knew him closely felt were so off that as a group they decided to coordinate and speak with a new author to set the record straight, as Eddy Cue said of the new Becoming book, “Well done and first to get it right.” I will never know who Steve Jobs really was, but it is interesting to triangulate and learn from different takes, especially Isaacson’s biography that Jobs himself endorsed but might not have read and this new one promoted by his closest friends, colleagues, and family.

As an independent third party who doesn’t know any of the characters involved personally, I must say that I felt like I got a much worse impression of Steve Jobs from Becoming than from the authorized biography. It was great to hear the direct voices and anecdotes of so many people close to him that haven’t spoken much publicly like his wife Laurene — he was a very private man and his friends respect that. But the parts where Schlender/Tetzeli try to balance things out by acknowledging some of the rougher parts of Steve’s public life, especially the recent ones around options backdating, anti-poaching agreements, book pricing, (all overblown in my opinion) or even when trying to show his negotiating acumen with suppliers, Disney, or music labels, they make Jobs look like an insensitive jerk, which seems to be the opposite of what everyone involved was intending.

The direct quotes in the book could not be kinder, and it’s clear from both books that Jobs was incredibly warm, caring, and thoughtful to those closest to him, but Becoming tries so hard to emphasize that it makes the contrast of some of his public and private actions seem especially callous. The personal anecdotes from the author are the best part: one of the most interesting parts of the book is actually when Jobs calls Schlender to invite him for a walk, as one of the people he reached out to and wanted to speak to before he passed, and Schlender — not knowing the context — actually chastises him for cutting off his journalistic access and other trivia, and then blows off the meeting, to his lifelong regret.

It’s tragic, and it’s very human , and that’s what makes for great stories. No one suggests that Steve Jobs was a saint, nor did he need to be. His legacy is already well-protected both in the incredible results while he was alive, and even more so in what the team he built has accomplished since his passing, both periods which actually amaze and inspire me. Becoming Steve Jobs tries harder and accomplishes less to honor the man. It is worth reading if, like me, you gobble up every book around the technology leaders of the past 40 years and want a different take on a familiar tune, but if you were only to read one book about Jobs, and get the most positive impression of the man and his genius, I’d recommend Isaacson’s Steve Jobs .

I checked out the new book Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli because there had been some interesting excerpts published to the web, and apparently those closest to Steve didn&…

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‎Conversations with Tyler: Michael Orthofer on Why Fiction Matters on Apple Podcasts

Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word. Check out the reader Q&A here and the Strand shopping video here. Transcript and links Follow Michael on Twitter Follow Tyler on Twitter More CWT goodness: Facebook Twitter Instagram Email

‎Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about aut…

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Just read Steve McQueen's bio because I wanted to read about an adventurous person and love cars + motos. Was a fun read. What next? I wanna read about an adventurous person. Preferences: - 1950-present - Moto/culture culture - American - Adventurous

about 1 year ago
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Summary: Principles by Ray Dalio Part 2

  • Think for yourself to first decide what do you want.
  • Find out what’s true.
  • Ask “what should you do to achieve what you want in light of what’s true?”

Those are the 3 things Ray Dalio says someone must do in order to find their principles.

For next week, read Part Two: Life Principles. Pages 132 to 298 .

Now, time for a quick recap.

Last week we read Where I’m Coming From , the first section of Principles .

Dalio told us about growing up, starting his hedgefund, and a little bit about his philosophies.

Now, in the past I’d take a few hours to write a summary and my takeaways. But, a few of you posted some great stuff in The Anti-MBA Facebook group , so I’ll share those instead:

“I find it particularly interesting how he builds his systems around historical data, while Elon Musk really makes it a point to not look at history when making decisions, and that you can’t just assume things are the same.”

-Ben Levey

Hear ya, Ben. There’s so much conflicting advice out there from successful people. One of my favorite entrepreneurs is a guy named Kevin Ryan. He started Gilt, Business Insider, and DoubleClick and has sold billions of dollars worth of companies.

When I asked him if he looked at the numbers before starting a business, he said something like “Not really. I just look to make sure the market is big enough and that’s it. If the topic interests me, I do it.”

But there are plenty of people who do the opposite. Like James Simons , a mathematician billionaire who runs a hedgefund.

Basically, there are thousands of ways to get something done, and I’m pretty sure I can point to a ‘successful’ person who’s made a specific way work.

“The man helped McDonald’s usher in the McNugget in 1983!”

– Paresh Jha

Loved that story (page 25). Basically, Dalio showed cattle farmers how to use futures. This made the price of chicken less volatile, which meant McDonalds could buy a ton of it, inspiring them to create the McNugget.

“I wish he had gotten into more details about certain practices he put in place. For instance, with new hires. How does he put them through training to discern what their strengths and weaknesses are beside having them take personality tests?”

– Evie Gold

Completely agree. This book is about 450 pages. Most it is on the principles, not Dalio’s bio. I find biographies to be more actionable than other types of storytelling, so I think Dalio missed the mark by making this section short.

Anyone here work at Bridgewater? Comment in the group and tell us what work there is like.

“I continue to be amazed at the help of people who seem “self-made” receive at some point or another. Examples: Ray’s father giving him a loan, Bill Gates being from a well off family that could afford a computer when many other couldn’t

“I continue to be amazed at the help of people who seem “self-made” receive at some point or another.

…It’s reassuring to learn that very few people are truly “self-made” who have accomplished a great deal without some level of help or support at some point.”

– Austin Gaydos

I also found it inspiring to hear that Dalio went broke in his early to mid 30’s. The guy’s one of the 100 richest folks in the world. Yet, he was far from an early success.

OK folks, that’s it for tonight.

Please comment in the FB group with your thoughts and feedback: https://www.facebook.com/groups/theantimba/

– Sam ( https://twitter.com/thesamparr )

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This is the summary of the first section of Ray Dalio's book Principles. Here are my favorite parts and my thoughts on what it all means.

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about 1 year ago
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The Anti-MBA Book Club, Principles: Week 1 - The Anti-MBA

Dearest Anti-MBA-ers,

Welcome to week 1 of this month’s book, Principles .

For this week, read Part One: Where I’m Coming From. Pages 0 to 131.

As you read, comment in the FB group: https://www.facebook.com/ groups/theantimba/ .

A few things to look out for and know:

1. This first part of the book is about Ray Dalio’s life. In my opinion, it’s the best part.

2 . One thing that I love is that Ray nearly went broke in his early to mid 30’s and even had to power a couple grand from his parents to support his family. While he’s currently one of the most richest men in the world (worth $17b), he was far from an overnight success.

3. My favorite part from the book is when Ray describes shapers, which are people who put dents in the world. I summarized that part and put my thoughts here: http://www.theantimba.com/ray- dalio-principles-shapers/

4 . Ray is incredibly logical. Almost too logical. He stays away from emotion when it comes from decision making. In my opinion, this is incredibly inhuman. What do you think?

Ok. Start reading. I’ll email you again on Sunday with next week’s reading.

Remember…comment in the FB group with cool sh*t that you’re learning.

– Sam

Dearest Anti-MBA-ers, Welcome to week 1 of this month’s book, Principles. For this week, read Part One: Where I’m Coming From. Pages 0 to 131. As you read, comment in the FB group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/theantimba/. A few things to look out for and know: 1. This first part of the book is about Ray Dalio’s life. In my opinion, it’s...

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about 1 year ago

In keeping with year-end tradition, I wanted to share the best books I read in 2020 – a year unlike any other - with a list of reads heavily influenced by global events including…

12 months ago
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Best Books I read in 2020 - by Erik Torenberg - Erik Torenberg's Thoughts

Below are some summaries of the best books I read this year ( tweet storm version, for those who want shorter summaries…)

Secular Cycles

Amazon.com: Secular Cycles (9780691136967): Turchin, Peter, Nefedov, Sergey A.: Books

In Secular Cycles , Peter Turchin tries to quantify history in "secular cycles" using demographic data. His main point is that as the population expands, wages go down, which increases inequality (as the number of elites increases), which increases social unrest. As a result, this Structural Demographic Theory can predict violence, something we’re seeing in society today.

Put simply, society only has enough room for so many elites. As the class of elites expands, there becomes a growing pressure to find roles for them, so they can keep up with their lifestyles. This, of course, costs a lot for whoever employs them, causing tension as intra-elite competition ensues.

We also haven’t taken into account those less fortunate, since the poor are clearly also in need. The problem arises when the state spends more on the elite than they do other groups, which makes it harder to raise taxes, wages, and more — so if you can’t keep the elite happy and alleviate hunger for the poor, the problems with state funding could lead to its collapse. With wages falling (ie. labor becoming cheaper), there’s the potential for mass mobilization. Paired with overpopulation, we could see a societal breakdown.

The WEIRDest People in the World

Henrich's book on WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) cultures is the best account of the industrial revolution I've read. Once WEIRD-ness gets going, it eats everything in sight, and completely reorders power, norms, and social structures. The main argument is that WEIRD cultures make people more analytical and individualistic than non-WEIRD societies, and their citizens are outliers in terms of our studies of behavioral science. If we generalize about “human nature” only using a subset of the population, we’ll come to incorrect conclusions; this book questions our scientific methods as it relates to behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and more while proposing new ways of restructuring our studies.

The Courage to Be Disliked

"The Courage To Be Disliked" is Adlerian psychology meets stoicism, written by a Japanese classics professor who studied Greek philosophy. The book is a fascinating fusion of the three, and a strong counterpoint to Freud and current therapy culture.

While Freud would argue a person’s psychic wounds (ie. trauma) cause their present unhappiness, Adler denies this, positing that we’re not at the mercy of our past, but instead the driver of our own life and future.

The main point is that while trauma and calamity and misfortune may have strong effects on us, we are the arbiters of the relative meaning we give to those past experiences, not the other way around. It’s up to us to take what we experience, rationalize it, and move forward. (More in my thread here )

Inventing the Individual

Inventing the Individual shows how Christianity set the stage for consciousness, agency, and moral equality, going against the broader narrative that Western liberalism emerged as an opposition to the church during the Renaissance. Within, Siedentop posits that the individual replaced families, tribes, and communities as the core of social organization, and that the beginnings of Western liberalism as we know it date back farther than we originally thought.

It’s a dense read, but an interesting argument for how Christianity was foundational to Western liberal thought.

An Anxious Age

Bottum’s An Anxious Age dives into why our nation is so focused on being on the “right side of history” — why we desperately try to seek validation from others that we are, in fact, morally upstanding citizens of society. He posits that as Mainline Protestant churches dissolved, so too did our sense of unity and meaning. Faced with the post-Darwin necessity to invent new values, we ended up with the exact same values in new clothes — which explains why people act against their own interests: in the religious frame, demanding sacrifice makes a religion *more* attractive.

A Secular Age

In A Secular Age , Charles Taylortraces how we became a secular society — not just in how the belief in God & religion as the core source of meaning has moved away from mainstream discourse, but also in how our society has shifted from one where belief in God is the sole source of truth to one where belief in God is one of several options for finding truth. While it’s clear that we’ve become less dependent on religion and God for meaning and truth, what’s less obvious is what these changes mean to our society.

Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx stripped the world of its cosmic meaning through natural selection, metaphysics, and economics, respectively. Since we could no longer trust external authority, we went inwards to find meaning.

The Therapeutic Turn

As religion was replaced by other sources of truth, psychology , as Ole Jacob Madsen claims, institutionalized the rise of "your truth." As therapy permeated Western society, more and more people began looking inward for meaning. While the purpose of inner-life used to be to serve society (through contributions to the Church, God, etc.), now the purpose of society is to serve self-actualization. The inner-self used to be the sinner, the liar; now it's the Oracle.

As a result, Madsen demonstrates that psychological solutions often are individual solutions to larger structural problems. Because of this, psychologists and therapists may be hurting the same people they’re trying to help. As our culture normalizes (and even glorifies) individual suffering and therapy as a means of fixing it, it becomes harder to understand which individual problems are truly worth solving. While therapy can be great, it alone cannot solve anything, and it isn’t the appropriate lens by which to view all societal problems.

Identity

Building off the idea that Western society has shifted its focus towards the self, Identity by Francis Fukuyama explains how the Hegelian desire for recognition leads to identitarianism and how we can fix the problem of identity politics leading to political divisions. While it’s obvious that human beings have a natural desire to fit in, we used to conform to our external communities; now, instead, we believe our external reality should conform to us.

"I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety and make me inauthentic."

It has become increasingly clear that the government now plays a role in serving individual needs for recognition.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Thus, institutions are no longer places for the formation of individuals — instead they’ve become platforms for performance where individuals project their inner being outward. As Western culture has shifted away from finding meaning in an external authority (ie. God), they’ve become increasingly focused on how their individuality is what makes them human.

In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman proposes that the sexual revolution was a byproduct, not a cause, of this focus on identity — people are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are on the inside. This better helps us understand and appreciate the power of identitarianism, particularly in the realm of sex.

On Being Authentic

This prominence of authenticity is somewhat novel.

When Socrates said "Know thyself", he didn't mean it like we mean it today, where you should get in touch with your true self and self-actualize. “Know thyself" really meant "know thy place."

Since humans are inherently social beings, Guignon argues authenticity has less to do with what’s inside you, and more about your relation to and membership of the communities of which you’re a part.

The Authenticity Hoax

While it’s obvious the great things individualism has provided, for many, the single-minded quest for authenticity has turned out to be a disappointment, an endless hamster wheel. When we look for the "real me" in isolation, there is often nothing there.

This is because, similar to Guignon, Potter believes the individual is part of a broader context that makes them who they are. Further, he claims, the desire to find one’s inner truth in a world that doesn’t really care about a given individual is actually an exclusionary status-seeking practice at best; at its worst, this search for authenticity leads to reactionism and political stagnation.

After Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre

In a world of empathy-based ethics, the moral sense is ultimately the aesthetic sense. And that means that when the sacred order collapses, morality is simply a matter of taste, not truth. There are no morals anymore, it's all taste, aesthetics, ~vibes~.

MacIntyre posits that morality is we know it is based on incomplete information — from the Enlightenment to now, our studies have been based on philosophers who abandoned teleology, the idea that something is created as a means to an end. Along with ascribing moral agency to the individual, these two things meant that ethics are inherently subjective. While the book doesn’t end with a solution to the problems it proposes, it’s quite an interesting foray into ideas surrounding virtue, ethics, and morality.

Nietzsche and the Nazis

The irony is that "self esteem" was a concept from Ayn Rand's camp. It's something Nietzsche would say, but meaning the opposite: feeling good about yourself even when you have no reason to. Nietzsche meant fully realizing one's full creative potential.

Nietzsche has been one of the most misunderstood philosophers, most harmfully by the Nazis. Hicks digs into how this happened and why it was wrong for the nazis to claim Nietzsche, as he explicitly rejected their racial superiority vision of the world.

Cynical Theories

Post-modernism combines our new Descartes-ism "I feel, therefore it's true" with the power principle: knowledge is a function of power ("who holds power, makes truth") and that the person or group who has less power thus has a moral claim to truth.

Cynical Theories dives into postmodernism, explaining its core principles and how those principles contribute to the culture war we face today.

The God That Failed

It’s crazy to consider how many elites and intellectuals and cool people in the West in the 1930s were communists. It's also interesting tracking what it took to shock Western intellectuals out of communism: The Spanish Civil War, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, and 1989. Through the course of six essays by various authors, The God That Failed shows how well-meaning intellectuals fell for it.

The Age of Entitlement

Caldwell’s bold claim is that what undergirds the culture wars is the fact that we have two irreconcilable constitutions, and our country is split over which constitution they subscribe to: the one of 1789 or 1964. While it's an interesting perspective, it assumes history starts in the 1960s, and so doesn’t do justice to the greater forces that led to the split constitutions, if we grant him his claim.

Homage to Catalonia

The Spanish Civil War might be a good analogue for where we are today, where all the radical ideas on the left and the right were fresh, and there was massive infighting on both sides — even more hatred towards the in-group adjacent than the out-group. Orwell’s personal account of his time fighting for the POUM militia of the Republican army in the Spanish Civil War has unique parallels to today. He notices manipulation of truth to push a political agenda, disconnection from the root cause for those engaged in ideological warfare, and scapegoating as a mechanism of attritting one’s opponent. It’s definitely a timely read.

History Has Begun

Bruno claims that we resolve our conflicting desires of peace and conflict by fighting virtually. The civil war takes place mostly on Twitter, giving us the drama of a war without the body count.

Reality is up for grabs, as I mentioned in this thread , but another version of this is what my friend calls kaleidoscope theory: Culture fragments into thousands of shards. Each culture plays out its own fantasies alongside all the other cultures. The result is skyrocketing cultural innovation, at the cost of shared alignment on anything.

Small Men on the Wrong Side of History

But if reality is truly up for grabs, why does the right lose so much? Over time we’ve seen their candidates win, but the underlying issues go increasingly left.

Ed West posits that it’s for the same reason there are no epic movies stigmatizing the Russian Revolution, Mao, Pol Pot, or Castro: The Whigs dominate culture and write history.

Suicide of the West

Similar to West, but much earlier in 1963, Burnham predicted that liberalism could not defend itself from far leftism, since that was its logical endpoint. Once you concede care and fairness as most important, you're never going far enough. You’re a Trotskyite in 1932 — utterly vilified.

Kindly Inquisitors

Rauch tries to defend liberalism in his book Kindly Inquisitors , saying that liberalism is all about conflict resolution. Markets determine who has economic resources, democracy determines who has political power, and science determines who has truth.

The reason liberal science is important is not because we're all liberal, tolerant people at heart — most of us aren't. In fact, we're all mostly fundamentalists at heart. We always think we're right. Liberalism, as Rauch puts it, protects us from our totalitarian instincts — to demand people agree with us. (More in my thread here )

The Great Delusion

Mearsheimer traces how, post-cold war, the U.S moved from an Offensive Realism strategy (protect U.S interests at all costs) to a Liberal Hegemony strategy (promote liberal democracies globally at all costs). We got high on our own supply.

Both offensive and defensive realists agreed that a Liberal Hegemony was a big mistake (just consider the wars in the Middle East). Liberal Hegemony was based on the mistake that liberalism was universally shared, and that it was a more powerful and cohering force than nationalism. (More in my thread here )

Restoring the Promise

As it relates to education, to me, it’s quite simple. Colleges are charging too much, acting like a monopoly, and aren’t setting students up for success in the job market. In the last half century, costs have tripled, 40% of students drop out, and 3% of GDP is spent on colleges. I wrote about this in depth on this blog here and here .

On Beauty

Zadie Smith's On Beauty is an amazing novel.

"It's been too long. We're family. But Howard couldn't do this when he was sixteen and he couldn't do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love."

Cheers to what will be an epic 2021…

Until next week,

Erik

Below are some summaries of the best books I read this year (tweet storm version, for those who want shorter summaries…) Secular Cycles In Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin tries to quantify history in "secular cycles" using demographic data. His main point is that as the population expands, wages go down, which increases inequality (as the number of elites increases), which increases social unrest. As a result, this

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The Future of Sleep Fitness with Matteo Franceschetti of Eight Sleep

Ramit Sethi (@ramitsethi), founder and CEO of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, joined Ben Casnocha to discuss:- Ramit’s philosophy of personal finance. He says he focuses on $30,000 questions as opposed to $3 questions because there’s no limit on how much you can earn, but there is a limit on how much …

00:23:36 - Matteo Franceschetti (@m_franceschetti), founder and CEO at Eight Sleep, joins Erik on this episode to discuss:- The differences between deep, light…

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How Bestseller Lists Work…and Introducing the Amazon Monthly 100 – The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

by Tim Ferriss Categories

So you want a bestseller? If you’re going to compete against 200,000+ books per year in the US, you better understand how the lists work. (Photo: See-ming Lee )

This will be a short post, but it’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Special thanks to my book agent, Steve Hanselman , for help.

Having had two bestsellers (and preparing to launch what I hope will be a third ), I’m constantly asked about how bestseller lists work. It can be a very complicated subject, but I’ll provide a summary of the major lists below, with the bonus of a brand-new list you’ve never seen: The Amazon Monthly 100 .

The New York Times

At the top of the heap of all the lists, of course, are the publishing industry standards: The New York Times Bestseller lists. Yes, “lists.” There are a lot of NYT lists: in fact, now 20 weekly and 3 monthly lists. Check them out here . The 4-Hour Workweek is still appearing here at #10 this weekend , more than five years after publication! It’s been a wild ride.

The New York Times list is what they call a “survey,” based on a proprietary and closely-guarded list of accounts they poll weekly for sales. It’s tabulated Sunday to Sunday, which is why I prefer to launch on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays, two common options for publishers (nope, you can’t just launch at retail whenever you like)…

The Times uses a methodology for filtering these reported sales that excludes books which are reported too narrowly. For example, if only a few accounts are reporting significant numbers, and most are not reporting any, they will automatically exclude this title. Ditto if a lot of bulk sales (high-volume sales to one customer) are reported without the balance of a broad reporting profile. You may have noticed the “dagger” next to titles on their lists–that means bulk sales have been reported, but a lot of “normal” sales too, so the title makes it. Often titles that do well across the board are not even tracked on the list. Note to authors: it is the publisher’s job to make sure NYT have a copy of the book and are tracking it. Independent bookstores are known to be central to success on the Times’ lists, so if they turn their nose up at your book, you are toast, alas.

Nonfiction books that deal with advice, how-to, political and a host of other prescriptive and practical matters (including some religion) are treated by the Times separately from all other non-fiction. They are given the shortest of all the lists, the 10-slot weekly “Advice/How-To” list, sometimes referred to as the “Mt. Everest of lists.” To make matters more confusing, the Times refuses to track eBook sales for all this “lesser” non-fiction! This all means that many worthy and popular titles fail to make the shorter Advice/How-to list and are then doubly damned by being ignored on the NYT eBook lists… even if they had enough sales to make both lists in the broader “Nonfiction” category. I’ve seen authors petition for reclassification precisely for this reason. It can make the difference between “New York Times bestseller” on the cover and resume, or not.

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today

All of these vagaries don’t apply to the other major lists, like the Wall Street Journal list , which is based strictly on Nielsen Bookscan reporting (estimated to be about 75-80% of the actual market on most general trade titles) and includes eBooks, without filtering out types of non-fiction. This is sometimes referred to as a “compiled” list . Bookscan will remove books from its reporting that are selling in bulk in only a few outlets, so they keep the lists true in that way.

Some say the truest of all the lists, which tracks all formats of a single title rolled up into one number that is then ranked against all other types of books (fiction, nonfiction, children’s), is the USA Today list . Unlike the Times, everything fights against everything else, like the old UFC with no weight classes. Like the Times, it’s a survey based on a list of polled outlets, but there is no attempt to separate or filter categories or types of books (e.g. advice/how-to).

Now, The Amazon Monthly 100

If you’ve ever wondered like me what a pure listing of all new hardcovers would look like, regardless of subject matter, the below list provided to me by Amazon — which I’ll call the “Amazon Monthly 100” — is probably the closest you’ll ever get.

I could see some variation of this list becoming the new standard in bestseller lists.

The normal Amazon top 100 is usually calculated on an hourly basis. The below list of the top 100 hardcovers was calculated over a MONTH (July). Making it a month is important, as this duration removes all one-week wonders and most pay-for-play (buying your own books to hit the list).

If you read through these top 100 for July, you’ll see many books that never made the other lists.

Can you spot them? Would you like to see a list like this every month, or something like it? Let me know and I’ll try and deliver!

Related and Recommended

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page .

So you want a bestseller? If you’re going to compete against 200,000+ books per year in the US, you better understand how the lists work. (Photo: See-ming Lee) This will be a short post, but …

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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Teen Reviews

by Ashlee Vance

5 Stars

Image result for Elon Musk Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for A Fantastic Future

Elon Musk is truly an amazing and intelligent man. In this biography written by Ashlee Vance, you will learn about Musk’s childhood, Tesla, and much more. The author interviewed many of the people featured in this book to make it feel more real and legitimate, and it makes it feel more natural. Along the way, there are some pictures and descriptions for you to look at. After reading the book and looking back at those pages, it’s very interesting seeing how you interpret some of the objects, and how they differ from the actual vehicles and crafts.

Elon has a very unique personality, and it develops and improves as the book goes on, which makes you want to keep reading. You will learn about all the different things he designs and how he becomes an inspiring figure. There are many reviews on the back of the book from fellow founders of large companies and just successful people in general.

Sadly, the major downfall of this book is the fact that there is a good amount of mature language. It’s not abused, but be aware that there are some words that you will just have to get used to seeing.

I think all of the chapters in this book are worthy and should exist. But my favourite chapters were Elon’s World, Africa, Elon’s First Start-Up, and the Revenge of the Electric Car. That doesn’t mean that any of the other chapters are bad. I will say I got very bored on the Canada chapter, which is kind of ironic.

However, pretty much everything you need to know, and more is all in this book. You will probably read many things you have never known about Musk, which thus improves your reading experience.

Alec T.

View in Library Catalogue: Print

Elon Musk is truly an amazing and intelligent man. In this biography written by Ashlee Vance, you will learn about Musk’s childhood, Tesla, and much more. The author interviewed many of the people featured in this book to make it feel more real and legitimate, and it makes it feel more natural. Along the way, there are some pictures and descriptions for you to look at. After reading the book and looking back at those pages, it’s very interesting seeing how you interpret some of the objects, and how they differ from the actual vehicles and crafts.

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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Teen Reviews

by Ashlee Vance

5 Stars

Image result for Elon Musk Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for A Fantastic Future

Elon Musk is truly an amazing and intelligent man. In this biography written by Ashlee Vance, you will learn about Musk’s childhood, Tesla, and much more. The author interviewed many of the people featured in this book to make it feel more real and legitimate, and it makes it feel more natural. Along the way, there are some pictures and descriptions for you to look at. After reading the book and looking back at those pages, it’s very interesting seeing how you interpret some of the objects, and how they differ from the actual vehicles and crafts.

Elon has a very unique personality, and it develops and improves as the book goes on, which makes you want to keep reading. You will learn about all the different things he designs and how he becomes an inspiring figure. There are many reviews on the back of the book from fellow founders of large companies and just successful people in general.

Sadly, the major downfall of this book is the fact that there is a good amount of mature language. It’s not abused, but be aware that there are some words that you will just have to get used to seeing.

I think all of the chapters in this book are worthy and should exist. But my favourite chapters were Elon’s World, Africa, Elon’s First Start-Up, and the Revenge of the Electric Car. That doesn’t mean that any of the other chapters are bad. I will say I got very bored on the Canada chapter, which is kind of ironic.

However, pretty much everything you need to know, and more is all in this book. You will probably read many things you have never known about Musk, which thus improves your reading experience.

Alec T.

View in Library Catalogue: Print

Elon Musk is truly an amazing and intelligent man. In this biography written by Ashlee Vance, you will learn about Musk’s childhood, Tesla, and much more. The author interviewed many of the people featured in this book to make it feel more real and legitimate, and it makes it feel more natural. Along the way, there are some pictures and descriptions for you to look at. After reading the book and looking back at those pages, it’s very interesting seeing how you interpret some of the objects, and how they differ from the actual vehicles and crafts.

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I recently finished The Alchemy of Air , by Thomas Hager. It’s the story of the Haber-Bosch process, the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

What is the Haber-Bosch process? It’s what keeps billions of people in the modern world from starving to death. In Hager’s phrase: it turns air into bread.

Some background. Plants, like all living organisms, need to take in nutrients for metabolism. For animals, the macronutrients needed are large, complex molecules: proteins, carbohydrates, fats. But for plants they are elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). Nitrogen is needed in the largest quantities.

Nitrogen is all around us: it constitutes about four-fifths of the atmosphere. But plants can’t use atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen gas, N 2 , consists of two atoms held together by a triple covalent bond. The strength of this bond renders nitrogen mostly inert: it doesn’t react with much. To use it in chemical processes, plants need other nitrogen-containing molecules. These substances are known as “fixed” nitrogen; the process of turning nitrogen gas into usable form is called fixation.

In nature, nitrogen fixation is performed by bacteria. Some of these bacteria live in the soil; some live in a symbiotic relationship on the roots of certain plants, such as peas and other legumes.

Nitrogen availability is one of the top factors in plant growth and therefore in agriculture. The more fixed nitrogen is in the soil, the more crops can grow. Unfortunately, when you farm a plot of land, natural processes don’t replace the nitrogen as fast as it is depleted.

Pre-industrial farmers had no chemistry or advanced biology to guide them, but they knew that soil would lose its fertility over the years, and they had learned a few tricks. One was fertilization with natural substances, particularly animal waste, which contains nitrogen. Another was crop rotation: planting peas, for instance, would replace some of the nitrogen in the soil, thanks to those nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots.

But these techniques could only go so far. As the world population increased in the 19th century, more and more farmland was needed. Famine was staved off, for a time, by the opening of the prairies of the New World, but those resources were finite. The world needed fertilizer.

An island off the coast of Peru where it almost never rains had accumulated untold centuries of—don’t laugh—seagull droppings, some of the world’s best known natural fertilizer. An industry was made out of mining guano on these islands, where it was piled several stories high, and shipping it all over the world. When that ran out after a couple decades, attention turned inland to the Atacama Desert, where, with no rainfall and no life, unusual minerals grew in crystals on the rocks. The crystals included salitre , or Chilean saltpeter, a nitrogen salt that could be made into fertilizer.

It could be made into something else important, too: gunpowder. It turns out that nitrogen is a crucial component not only of fertilizer, but also of explosives. Needing it both to feed and to arm their people, every country considered saltpeter a strategic commodity. Peru, Chile and Bolivia went to war over the saltpeter resources of the Atacama in the late 1800s (Bolivia, at the time, had a small strip of land in the desert, running to the ocean; it lost that strip in the war and has remained landlocked ever since).

By the end of the 19th century, as population continued to soar, it was clear that the Chilean saltpeter would run out within decades, just as the guano had. Sir William Crookes, head of the British Academy of Sciences, warned that the world was heading for mass famine, a true Malthusian catastrophe , unless we discovered a way to synthesize fertilizer. And he called on the chemists of the world to do it.

Nearby, in Germany, other scientists were thinking the same thing. Germany was highly dependent on salt shipped halfway around the world from Chile. But Germany did not have the world’s best navy. If—God forbid—Germany were ever to be at war with England (!), they would quickly blockade Germany and deprive it of nitrogen. Germany would have no food and no bombs—not a good look, in wartime.

The prospect of synthesizing fixed nitrogen was tantalizing. After all, the nitrogen itself is abundant in the atmosphere. A product such as ammonia, NH 3 , could be made from that and hydrogen, which of course is present in water. All you need is a way to put them together in the right combination.

The problem, again, is that triple covalent bond. Owing to the strength of that bond, it takes very high temperatures to rip N 2 apart. More troublesome is that ammonia is by comparison a weak molecule. So at temperatures high enough to separate the nitrogen atoms, the ammonia basically burns up.

Fritz Haber was the chemist who solved the fundamental problem. He found that increasing the pressure of the gases allowed him to decrease the temperature. At very high pressures, he could start to get an appreciable amount of ammonia. By introducing the right catalyst, he could increase the production to levels that were within reach of a viable industrial process.

Carl Bosch was the industrialist at the German chemical company BASF who led the team that figured out how to turn this into a profitable process, at scale. The challenges were enormous. To start with, the pressures required by the process were immense, around 200 atmospheres. The required temperatures, too, were very high. No one had ever done industrial chemistry in that regime before, and Bosch’s team had to invent almost everything from scratch, pioneering an entirely new subfield of high-pressure industrial chemistry. Their furnaces kept exploding—not only from the pressure itself, but because hydrogen was eating away at the steel walls of the container, as it forced into them. No material was strong enough and inexpensive enough to serve as the container wall. Finally Bosch came up with an ingenious system in which the furnaces had an inner lining of material to protect the steel, which would be replaced on a regular basis.

A further challenge was the catalyst: Haber had used osmium, an extremely rare metal. BASF bought up the entire world’s supply, but it wasn’t enough to produce the quantities they needed. They experimented with thousands of other materials, finally settling on a catalyst with an iron base combined with other elements.

This is the Haber-Bosch process: it turns pure nitrogen and hydrogen gas into ammonia. The nitrogen can be isolated from the atmosphere (by cooling air until it condenses into liquid, then carefully increasing the temperature: different substances boil at different temperatures, so this process separates them). Hydrogen can be produced from water by electrolysis, or, these days, found in natural gas deposits. The output of the process, ammonia, is the precursor of many important products, including fertilizers and explosives.

The new BASF plant that Bosch built began turning out tons of ammonia a day. It beat out all competing processes (including one that used electric arcs through the air), and provided the world with fertilizer—cheaper and of more consistent quality than could be obtained from the salts of Chile, which were abandoned before they ran out.

Haber-Bosch fed the world—but it also prolonged World War I, and later helped fuel the rise of Hitler.

The Alchemy of Air is as much about the lives of Haber and Bosch, and what happened after their process became a reality, as it is about the science and technology of the process itself. Even though the technology was my main interest this time, I found the history captivating.

Haber was a Jew, at a time when Jews were second-class citizens in Germany. Rather than denouncing the society he lived in, this seemed to cause Haber to seek its approval. After his scientific achievement with ammonia, he got a high-status job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Berlin, and sought to be an adviser to the Kaiser himself. Jews were barred from military service, but Haber was able to become a science adviser to the military—even pioneering the use of poison gas in WW1, a role that left him with a reputation as a war criminal.

Haber believed that if Jews showed what good, patriotic German citizens they could be, they could eventually be accepted as equals. Decades later, when the Nazis came to power and began “cleansing” Jews first out of the German government, then out of all of society, Haber saw his dream of acceptance fall completely to pieces. He died, shortly before WW2, in great distress.

Bosch, on the other hand, held liberal political views and was against the Nazis. He even tried to speak out against them, and in a personal meeting with Hilter made a futile argument for freedom of inquiry and better treatment of the Jews. But at the same time he made deals with the Nazis to secure funding for his chemical company—by then he was the head, not only of BASF, but of a broader industry association called IG Farben. He was building a massive chemical plant in the heart of Germany, at Leuna, to produce not only ammonia but also what he saw as his magnum opus: synthetic gasoline, made from coal. In the end Farben became virtually a state company and provided much of the material Germany needed for WW2, including ammonia, gasoline, and rubber.

Bosch died shortly after the war began. On his deathbed, he predicted that the war would be a disaster for Germany. It would go well at first, he said, and Germany would occupy France and maybe even Britain. But then Hitler would make the fatal mistake of invading Russia. In the end, the skies would darken with Allied planes, and much of Germany would be destroyed. It happened as he predicted, and Bosch’s beloved Leuna was a major target, ultimately crippled by wave after wave of Allied bombing raids.

Synthetic ammonia is one of the most important industrial products of the modern world, and so Haber-Bosch is one of the most important industrial processes. Around 1% of the total energy of the economy is devoted to it, and Hager estimates that half the nitrogen atoms in your body came from it. It’s a crucial part of the story of industrial agriculture, and so a crucial part of the story of how we became smart, rich and free .

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

Social media link image credit: Stacy Spensley, CC BY 2.0

I recently finished The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager. It’s the story of the Haber-Bosch process, the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

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Alright, after two chapters I understand the hype. @JamesClear articulates a lot of little things I've noticed or half-thought but never consciously defined. I have pretty good habits formed by my identity as a diligent person... time to keep refining with this guide 💪 https://t.co/f81uNbTgQe

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