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- We Had Not Been In Favor… Not Been Against
We Had Not Been In Favor… Not Been Against
ButWhatFor? Four for Friday | No. 046
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ButWhatFor? Four for Friday
1. One Quote: Drinking Your Vegetables
2. One Long: We Had Not Been In Favor… Not Been Against
3. One Short: Charlie Munger’s Bookshelf (Part 2!)
4. One Poll: Cambodia
• Supporting: Charlie Munger: 2020 CalTech Interview & Transcript
From this post on Twitter
I tend to struggle with audiobooks and podcasts. In the moment — while listening — I feel like I am getting something. I feel engaged. I feel like I am learning. I have a sense that I am even participating in the discussion.
However, after the fact, I rarely remember much beyond the general vibes I felt while listening.
I get the same feeling sometimes when reading as well. My mind drifts off a bit, and all the sudden a few pages have passed and I don’t remember anything about them. I couldn’t even swear to you that I read them — but I turned the pages nonetheless.
The difference, I guess, is that podcasts are almost always this way, whereas reading is almost always the opposite. But why?
I imagine it must be based in biology, somehow? I could convince myself humans tend to focus on what they see, and reading requires active involvement by moving your eyes across pages and refocusing on word after word after word. Your brain is then turning the words on the pages into imagined sounds in your head so that you can feel the meaning of the sentences. That’s a lot of effort going on to turn ink into meaning.
Hearing, on the other hand, when it comes to how it focuses a human’s attention, is really more about noticing things not currently in your line of sight so that you can adjust your line of sight, if needed. It’s kind of a background sense, whereas sight is at the forefront. Thus, you are probably focusing on other things while listening as well, dividing focus and attention even if you are unaware of it…
Regardless, it all adds up to my focus on audio rarely matching my focus on printed words…
Sometimes I wonder how much of life I am living as if it is a podcast I am listening to as opposed to a book I am focused on. That’s something to keep in mind going into a new year.
We Had Not Been In Favor… Not Been Against
There is a local Korean grocery store about 15 minutes from my house. It has a small take-out restaurant in the back.
It’s a great little spot started by a family that immigrated to the USA — and thus you can get real Korean food in the middle of a small Midwestern town. I spent about eighteen months living in Korea over a decade ago, so it’s a nice once-in-a-while stop that combines memories with great food.
However, it is also a dangerous place to stop. So much so that my wife rarely approves of me doing so anymore.
You see, a few doors down from the grocery story is an establishment of questionable propriety. The kind of place that takes advantage of the more base human cravings to draw you in and further erode your well-pruned sense of right and wrong — that's right, a used bookstore.
It’s near impossible to get in, get the food, and get out of the small shopping center without being lured in by the siren song of unorganized, inexpensive, and greying books untidily scattered across a maze of bookshelves so near collapse from unrelenting addition without subtraction that one can’t help but attempt to relieve the shelves of a part of their overflowing burden.
And thus, like an Odysseus lacking bonds fastened tight to a mast, I will carelessly dive into the dark abyss and walk away having purchased many more books that I could ever hope to read.
Fortunately, I found time to read at least one of these books, Survival in the Killing Fields, which is a memoir / story of how Haing Ngor, a Cambodian doctor, barely survived the Khmer Rouge’s brutalization of his country.
I was taught about Cambodia’s time under Pol Pot when I was in middle-school, if I remember correctly. I knew about the Khmer Rouge and the awful atrocities they committed against their own country. I knew it had been a terrible period for the country and its people, and that things had happened about the time the US was pulling out of Vietnam — and that many had been killed — but that was about it.
When I bought the book, I was on a reading binge of authoritarian regime-related books that was sparked by an accidental acquisition of the first book in this list — The Volunteer, Ordinary Men, The Gulag Archipelago Book 1, Cannibal Island, King Leopold’s Ghost, Blood Red Sunset, The Cowshed, and Confessions (wow, it was so much easier to read books before having my first child…). So the idea of digging into the Cambodian-equivalent felt like something worth doing.
And, man, was it a brutal book. There is something hauntingly sickening about the more primitive depravity Cambodia experienced relative to the cold-hearted, modern murder machines you encounter in European atrocities. I’m not saying one situation was better or worse for those involved — every story was terrible and I find the desire to compare atrocities as a needless game that just leaves us all feeling worse — I am just saying it pulled on a different, more uneducated and fearful part of my heart.
I think the below quote summarizes well the hard-to-imagine destruction of Cambodia — which included the deaths of around 25% of the entire population from starvation, disease, genocide, and executions:
While identity politics-based revenge played a part in what the Khmer Rouge — a group that was generally poorer and from the countryside, having grown up being told that those in the cities were the source of their misfortunes — was pursuing, at least when viewed collectively, they seemed to be spurred on by an actual belief that they were doing was best for the country and its people.
This seems to be true for most terrible atrocities on the scale of those discussed in the books above. Authoritarians are often viewed as being power hungry, but power in-and-of itself isn’t enough of an aphrodisiac that you can justify continuously killing innocents for it.
However, beliefs held with religious zeal about how to make the world a better place — however that is defined — seem to invite an individual to say the ends justifies whatever the means might need to be.
C.S. Lewis commented much more eloquently on the same idea, and I never really appreciated what he meant until I slowly chunked my way through atrocity after atrocity to see the same thing:
Getting through a book like this is tough, but the reason you should try to do so, I think, is twofold: 1) I believe we owe it to the people who have gone through such horrible experiences to not forget them and 2) so that we can learn things that might help avoid unfortunate outcomes, small or large, and improve the lives of those around us.
I intend, in the future, to write a review and deeper dive on the book, but for now, on the second point, one takeaway that echoes in my head as I think about this book — and really all of the books I listed above about the authoritarian regimes — is related to the quote at the top of this section. It is the idea that there are some things in life where you must pick a side, even if you would rather not be bothered.
This forced choice happens because in many situations, being indifferent or choosing to ignore a situation or do nothing is the same as voting either for or against a certain outcome.
An easy example would be a disease — let’s take cancer, for example.
If you find out that you have metastasized cancer, you no longer can choose to be indifferent about the disease. You can 1) choose treatment and try to beat back the cancer, 2) decide treatment doesn’t make sense, or 3) not think about your cancer and move on with your life.
But the third option is really just a different way to choose the second option.
Another extreme example would be a situation where you come across a burning car with a person trapped inside. I think most people would say they would never kill someone — but what would you be doing if you chose not to try to get the person out of the car, for fear of your own life or otherwise?
There are less obvious — and less extreme — examples, too.
You dislike your job, but you don’t take any action and instead just passively complain — that is more or less deciding to keep your job. You are overweight, but you don’t change diet or exercise — that is a choice to remain overweight. You know you are in a bad mood when you get home, but you let the mood stick as you walk in to see your family — that is a choice to ruin the evening.
This get’s a little trickier for me though — and this is where I can better relate to the Cambodians who ignored the revolutionary activities going on around them — when it is obvious that a single person’s action can’t make a change, and thus a single person’s action is more or less the same as being indifferent or taking no action.
Cambodia was an entire country of 8 million people. Let’s just say Haing decided he strongly opposed the Khmer Rouge’s revolution and told others about why he did. He tried to convince others to pay attention to what was happening far away and out of sight for the doctors, business people, busy mothers, and tired government workers of the cities. He spent every waking hour talking, writing, debating, pleading, and pushing back.
In all likelihood, Cambodia would still have been decimated by the Khmer Rouge. Maybe Haing wouldn’t have survived as he would be more quickly killed. It would seem doing nothing and doing something can also be more or less the same thing.
I am not exactly sure how I should bring this section to a close, so I will leave it here for now. If you have any reactions or thoughts, feel free to jump in with a comment on the website (click the title of this email to go to where you can comment on this post) or shoot me a note. I’m curious to hear what you think.
Charlie Munger’s Bookshelf, Part 2
Last week, we tried to identify as many books as we could from a recent picture of Charlie Munger’s bookshelf. We got a glimpse of other bookshelves in the Munger household thanks to a few tweets from Jason Zweig.
Something I am noticing here that makes me question my taste — whereas I almost always prefer the paperback version of a book and immediately toss out the book cover as unnecessary and annoying for a hardcover… Munger seems to prefer the opposite on both counts!
However, I also struggle with logically organizing my bookshelf — there is rough organization such as all the biographies being somewhat near each other — and it seems Munger’s bookshelf is also somewhat haphazardly put together. So maybe there is hope for me yet!
Similar to last week, if you see any titles that I have not called out, please leave a comment / shoot me an email so that I can add to the list!
First Picture (left to right, top to bottom):
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1991) by Justin Kaplan ($)
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1948) by Emery Neff ($)
The Canterbury Tales (1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer ($)
Distant Force: A Memoir of the Teledyne Corporation and the Man Who Created It (2007) by George Roberts ($)
Shakespeare's Principal Plays (1924) by Charles Brooke ($)
The American Mind: Selections From the Literature of the United States (1947) by Warfel, Gabriel & Williams ($)
Great English Short Stories (1930) by Melville Lewis ($)
The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1967) by Paul Harvey ($)
Second Picture (left to right, top to bottom):
The Wit and Humor of America (1907) by Marshall P. Wilder ($)
Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (1970) by Gerald Stourzh ($)
Truth and Other Tall Tales (2011) by Richard Holland
A Life of James Boswell (2002) by Peter Martin ($)
Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1975) by John Wain ($)
The Story of Philosophy (1926) by Will Durant ($)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012) by Jon Meacham ($)
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2002) ($)
Franklin and the Ladies (1926) by Peter Pauper Press ($)
Benjamin Franklin (1938) by Carl Van Doren ($)
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005) by Stacy Schiff ($)
The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II (2017) by Winston Groom ($)
Andrew Carnegie (2007) by David Nasaw ($)
Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013) by Daniel Kahneman ($)
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013) by Doris Kearns Goodwin ($)
($’s above take you to Amazon, which are affiliated links, meaning if you purchase them there I get a small commission)
Did you learn about Cambodia's Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge in school before college / university?
Results from last week’s poll:
Question: Before he passed away in November, did you know who Charlie Munger was?
Results: 76% were aware!
“He was Warren Buffett's right hand man and key to B-H's success.”
“Associated with Warren Buffett.”
Charlie Munger: 2020 CalTech Interview & Transcript
Taking further inspiration from all the great content shared around Charlie Munger during the last month or so, I wanted to share a transcript from a discussion Charlie gave ~3 years ago at Caltech.
Despite being 96 years old at the time, Charlie Munger was as sharp as ever in this interview. While the interviewer could have dived into some of the questions more deeply, it was still good to hear Charlie’s latest thoughts on the economy during COVID, China, career selection and investing.
As an investor, Charlie, you have been phenomenally successful over the very long run. But perhaps we could try to start by looking back at the time when you left the Army, which brought you to Caltech. And to start, what was Caltech like in 1944?
Well, the main campus looked very much the way it does now. And the Athenaeum was exactly the way it is now.
I was in the part of the campus where Thomas Hunt Morgan was. And, of course, he was the world’s greatest geneticist, and he used fruit flies. And they stank. And so, my whole part of the campus had the odor of dying fruit flies the whole time I was there. By the way, I liked the campus. I got used to the fruit fly odor.
I was so ignorant in those days, I could have walked over and introduced myself and he would have been quite courteous with me. And he was a very great man and I was too dumb to do it. It didn’t occur to me.
At the end of the war, you decided not to return to mathematics at Michigan or to stay and go to college somewhere else, instead you went to law school.
My father had gone to the Harvard Law School and my grandfather was a distinguished judge in Nebraska. So that was a natural course of activity for me.
In thinking about these career changes, which a lot of people go through over the course of their lifetime, what could our fellow alumni, and in particular, our soon to be new alumni, borrow from your experiences in those early days of your life, when you were choosing a career that still has resonance today?
Well, it’s very important when you choose a career - if you go into a career that’s very tough you’re not going to do very well. And if you go into one where you have special advantages and you like the work, you’re going to do pretty well. And so I went into law because I didn’t want to be a surgeon. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I didn’t want to be a... I just went down the family path, and it wasn’t the wisest decision I ever made.
Once you started to get into investment, your legal training, your mathematical background, your experiences. What came to be resonant for you?
What happened was there were things I didn’t like about law practice, but I had an army of children to support and no family money or anything to start with. So I had to make my way in life for this army of children.
It was going to be a little difficult and there were things about law practice I saw that were quite limiting. And what happened was, my pitifully, small earnings as a young man, I kept underspending them. I kept investing fairly boldly and fairly smartly.
At the end of my first 13 years of practice, I had more liquid investments made than I’d made in all those years of law practice, pre-tax. I had done that in my spare time with these little, tiny sums. So it was natural for me, partly prompted by Warren Buffett’s success, to think I should just start working for myself instead of for other people. If I could do that in my spare time, I thought, well, what will happen if I do it full time?
One of the things that connects Caltech tech to investing is of course the process of discovery, which creates new technologies. For an economic historian, one thing that we’re very aware of is that technological change has driven a lot of the growth of the American economy over the last several centuries. But from your perspective as an investor, what have been the most dramatic transformation you’ve seen over those 75 years?
Well, of course there have been huge booms and huge busts, and that has been very interesting. And, of course, the government has tried to do things that will dampen down the fluctuations and make recoveries from the busts happen faster. And, of course, that’s caused a fair amount of inflation in a life that’s been as long as mine.
What’s happening in the investment field is that so many people have gone into it and people have made so much money and it’s driven an almost frenzy of activity in the investment field. When I was young, there was practically nobody in it and they weren’t very smart, and now almost everybody’s smart, even a Caltech graduate. A good proportion of them are sucked into finance by the money. That’s been a hugely important development.
I don’t welcome it myself at all. I don’t think we want the whole world trying to get rich by outsmarting the rest of the world in marketable securities, but that’s what’s happened. There’s been frenzies of speculation and so on, so it’s been very interesting, but it’s not been all good.
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