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Book Review: Lives of Quiet Desperation

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Please indulge me for a book review not at all about investing.

One of the reasons, I think, Thoreau’s immortal quip, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” is so famous is because it’s so true. For reasons that don’t matter, I recently found myself in a few moments of such anger that I began to spiral—wallowing in a fury that discombobulates, grows upon itself, and erodes the foundations of meaning in the things we devote ourselves to, throwing the whole world out of whack.

What to do? I certainly don’t know, but here are some thoughts.

I start, each time, with my second favorite* quote ever: the great and wise Joseph Campbell, speaking of the struggle of the hero and his/her journey, summed it up like this: “The basic story of the adventure of the hero is, ‘Ok, so this thing has happened to you. Now what are you going to do with it?’”

What will you turn your disappointment into? And why will you do it? This, ultimately, is the question put to us all via basically all heroic myths through time and culture. For more, watch the still spectacular documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch just months before Campbell ’s death.

Next, look directly to the modern myths themselves. Everyone has their own story that packs the most pop for their own lives. For all mine, even as an adult, the story of the Batman has been the highest and greatest modern myth. In 2009, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert collaborated on a series of comic books called Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The idea was to write the “last” Batman story (as if there could be such a thing!). Though it is a comic, this is one of the most profound and deep works of fiction so far this century, without exception or qualification. Standing as an apparition over his own casket as those who knew him tell their stories about him, having just re-experienced the whole story of his life, Batman realizes this about his own life:

“…it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are. The Batman doesn’t compromise. I keep this city safe, even if it’s just by one person. And I do not ever give in, or give up. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later, and every enemy becomes a friend or lover. But that’s the one thing that doesn’t change: I don’t ever give up. I can’t give up.”

The meaning of a great myth is not to have us live up to such tremendous idealism, but to see that spirit as possible in us—to reach for it. If we devote just a bit of ourselves to this ethos: to our work, to our family and loved ones…it is impossible to go wrong. For Batman, and this is true in most great myths, the doing, the living, of the adventures is the meaning, not the goal or ending.

On that note, let us turn, briefly, to those great theorizers of the interior meaning of life: the Stoics, and specifically, Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, and with great pith, Aurelius reveals:

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.

Here is the rule to remember in the future, When anything tempts you to be bitter: not, “This is a misfortune” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”

Spin? Maybe. But in the modern world, at least partially, meaning is self-made, self-determined. Meaning is there for the making. The stoics were among the first to reveal this.

Then, there is the great inscriptor of the American soul, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each year, I endeavor to read all of his works (that’s right, all of them). But the heart of his work has always been the superlative essay, Self Reliance:

Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt action, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

The force of character is cumulative.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.  Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

This is a nice summation: that the “force of character” is principles based, not always accomplishment-based, and that those principles are the ones to bring peace and meaning in the end.

It’s not without a tad of whimsy that lastly we meet the indefatigable David Lee Roth, +25 years exiled from Van Halen, only to find himself not just back in the band, but back on top of the music world. And in their newest song, Blood and Fire, even the clown prince of rock knows:

Forgotten empires,

Lost victories long past,

Every time I bloom again

I thought it’d be the last.

And then something crazy happens…

And BOOM!

I’m doing the victory dance.

Would that we’d always be so wise to take such a long view, even in rock and roll.

*My favorite quote ever is also Joseph Campbell’s: “We must be willing to give up the life we’d planned, so as to live the life that is waiting for us.”

48 Things That Mattered – September 2, 2011 Edition

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Finance, Economics, Science, and the Thinking Life

Hello! My job requires a lot of reading (I mean, a lot), and in no particular order, here are the things that stood out last week. I hope you enjoy!
1.     Dollar’s decline? Sure, but it depends who you ask. Some popular measures of tracking dollar moves haven’t been updated in 12 years. More…

2.     Japan’s new Prime Minister is a hawk, and a “man of mediocrity”. But mediocrity’s been the hallmark of Japanese leadership for some time. US Rolls Eyes at Japan’s PM Revolving Door. More…

3.     That the IASB should tell banks how to set the future value of their assets is perhaps dubious. But it’s clear Greece has plenty more trouble ahead.  More…

4.     Comments on blogs are too often vitriolic, rude, and ignorant. We wonder: if the web weren’t anonymous, would there be so much animus? More…

5.     “Green shoots?” That was two years ago. But the global economy is still showing signs of life despite the recent gloom. Consumers Ramp Up Spending. Ten Reasons for Investors to Look on the Bright Side.

6.     Mimicry is a form of flattery. But what about outright intellectual property theft? China’s a wild west. How Beijing is Stifling Chinese Innovation.

7.     Obama’s new economic aide, Krueger, seems as old-hat, old-academic as it gets. Will he bring fresh thinking to the administration’s policies? More…

8.     Judging “reasonable” health insurance rates is a slippery slope. What happens when costs overwhelm the ability to competitively set prices? More…

9.     China’s capital markets are nothing like what we know in the US. So, to ensure a “soft landing”, monetary tightening tactics can delve into the bizarre: China Central Bank Moves in Secret to Curb Lending.

10.  Angela Merkel’s power is disintegrating before her very eyes. Even her most stalwart supporters are wobbling. Can she get the votes she needs to keep the eurozone bailout afloat? German Debate on Bailout Fund is Test for Merkel.

11.  More than a few nations (mostly developing ones) are holding or reversing monetary tightening plans. Even the hawkish ECB. Europeans Appear Set to Pause Rate Rises.

12.  Say what you will about artificially low rates, the US yield curve’s current steepness has basically never portended imminent recession. More…

13.  Collegiate? Forthcoming? Open? Sure. But publically bifurcated sentiment at the Fed isn’t instilling confidence in anyone. Economy Deeply Divides Fed.

14.  The death of PCs? Many analysts say so. Let’s just say, instead, Steve Jobs revolutionized the way we do our computing. Steve Jobs and the Death of the Personal Computer.

15.  Who Would Bail Out the European Central Bank? Well, maybe the Fed will print its way into oblivion. Either way, options are few and if it comes to that, trouble will have already hit markets.

16.  A spate of books and research recently have made the notion of living forever, or at least to 150, all the rage. What happens to social security then? More…

17.  The Panama Canal opened trade in the world like few other events. Upgrades continue to matter to trade’s proliferation—particularly to the US eastern seaboard. More…

18.  “Pro sports teams don’t operate in a free market, the way real businesses do. Their employees are 25 years old and make millions of dollars a year. Their customers are obsessively loyal and emotionally engaged in their fortunes to the point that — were the business in question, say, discount retailing or lawn products — it would be considered psychologically unhealthy.” So says Malcolm Gladwell.  More…

19.  A piece of Texas found in Antarctica? Wow! But it’s not the manifest destiny you might think…Piece of Crust Stolen from Texas Found in Antarctica.

20.  Office life has always been a battleground. Now we need perpetual “war rooms” for productivity? More…

21.  Forecasting of yore meant symbology, intuition, and interpreting bizarre pictures. Doesn’t sound so different than economics to me. The Querent.

22.  Dante’s walk from hell to heaven was a doozy. But you don’t have to walk that far to get the benefits. Maybe Mrs. Dalloway is more your style. More…

23.  Thomas Sowell says, “Government intervention may look good to the media but its actual track record — both today and in the 1930s — is far worse than the track record of letting the economy recover on its own.” An Unusual Economy?

24.  Robber Barons, Texans, and rants by Upton Sinclair make the popular history of US oil. But the real history is even more interesting. Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company (Part I: The Fallacious Textbook Story).

25.  Want a less populous earth? Try making everyone richer. Trading Fertility for Prosperity.

26.  Education today is a web of interconnectivity. Should we all just forget the notion of focused attention? Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age.

27.  Nearly any which way you measure it, stocks are darn cheap. Compared to treasury bonds? Gonzo! Stocks Undervalued by 65%.

28.  High volatility and big downturns get stomachs churning, and government officials into protection mode. But to some, Banning Risk Is Our Biggest Risk.

29.  If we’ve learned anything from neuroscience, it’s that we’re at the tip of the iceberg. Policy based on psychological theory is dangerous. Wall Street Wants to Train Your Brain. More…

30.  GDP is useful because it allows at least some tacitly common way to see what the economy is doing. But, dig in to the calculation and you’ll see many flaws. What GDP Doesn’t Say.

31.  Investor sentiment ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Fisher Investments’ Forbes contributor  Lara Hoffmans. Consumer Confidence and Funny Feelings.

32.  Batman and Superman to meet for the first time…again? DC comics has had some dumb ideas, but starting the whole superhero universe over again might just take the cake. More…

33.  Steven Hawking says philosophy is dead. Hardly. Philosophy Rules.

34.  Free market capitalism: making folks nicer and nicer. So says Matt Ridley. So says Matt Ridley.

35.  Willpower: is there anything more powerful to human achievement? And for that matter, interesting to study? The Will in the World.

36.  All cultures and peoples have a narrative. Latin America’s of the last 100 years has been epic. More…
 
37.  Need self confidence? Try saying “I” less. The Power of Pronouns.
 
38.  The euro debt crisis will ultimately be solved—at least in part—by some bizarre accounting. Count on it. Euro Crisis Requires Market Solution.

39.  Greece isn’t the only PIIGs country with ills. Will forced austerity bring Italy and Portugal’s economies down too? Portugal Promises Biggest Cuts in Decades. Italian Austerity-Plan Drama.

40.  Tech revolution? In Israel, it’s cultural as well as economic. More…

41.  The next great fossil fuel frontier might just be the top of the world. Arctic Riches Lure Explorers.
 
42.  Germany’s economy is slowing, but holding up. The eurozone better hope it stays that way. Germany’s Resiliency Buoys Europe.

43.  What is Debt? Whatever it is, it’s become a moral issue through time.
 
44.  US productivity is a key economic stat. That it’s been falling for a few months might be less about efficiency and more about increasing headcount. Only time will tell. Then again, we could all use a little respite, no? More… More…

45.  A contrary view on anti-trust law. AT&T/T-Mobile Blocked: A Case For Anti Trust Repeal.
 
46.  Transparency is a good thing. Fudging the rules of accounting is not. More…

47.  New IMF chief Lagarde is marking her territory, certainly. But Will the IMF Stand Up to Europe?

48.  “Although globalization is widely recognized these days, the U.S. economy actually remains relatively closed. The vast majority of goods and services sold in the United States is produced here. In 2010, imports were about 16% of U.S. GDP. Imports from China amounted to 2.5% of GDP.” The U.S. Content of “Made in China”.

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