On Happiness and its Opposite

This is a fascinating, must-read piece in The New York Times in which the author, Arthur C. Brooks, posits that the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, and the things we can do to elevate our levels of happiness:

So when people say, “I am an unhappy person,” they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, “My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x > y.” The real questions are why, and what you can do to make y > x.

If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance. In many cases, of course, this is justified. Some people are oppressed or poor or have physical ailments that make life a chore. Research unsurprisingly suggests that racism causes unhappiness in children, and many academic studies trace a clear link between unhappiness and poverty. Another common source of unhappiness is loneliness, from which about 20 percent of Americans suffer enough to make it a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

The tangible advice comes near the end:

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life… Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

This was Abd al-Rahman’s formula as he sleepwalked through life. It is the worldly snake oil peddled by the culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But you know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery. You want to be free of the sticky cravings of unhappiness and find a formula for happiness instead. How? Simply invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous:

Love people, use things.

On France and Independent Bookstores

Pamela Druckerman, who lives in Paris, provides some insight on how the French people still value books and independent bookstore in France. The secret? Fixed prices on books across the entire country.

France, meanwhile, has just unanimously passed a so-called anti-Amazon law, which says online sellers can’t offer free shipping on discounted books. (“It will be either cheese or dessert, not both at once,” a French commentator explained.) The new measure is part of France’s effort to promote “biblio-diversity” and help independent bookstores compete. Here, there’s no big bookseller with the power to suddenly turn off the spigot. People in the industry estimate that Amazon has a 10 or 12 percent share of new book sales in France. Amazon reportedly handles 70 percent of the country’s online book sales, but just 18 percent of books are sold online.

The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 “Lang law,” named after former Culture Minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 percent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online. The Lang law was designed to make sure France continues to have lots of different books, publishers and booksellers.

And this point, beyond the economics of book pricing, is very important:

What underlies France’s book laws isn’t just an economic position — it’s also a worldview. Quite simply, the French treat books as special. Some 70 percent of French people said they read at least one book last year; the average among French readers was 15 books. Readers say they trust books far more than any other medium, including newspapers and TV. The French government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread and water. (A French friend of mine runs a charity, Libraries Without Borders, which brings books to survivors of natural disasters.) “We don’t force French people to go to bookstores,” explains Vincent Montagne, head of the French Publishers Association. “They go to bookstores because they read.”

On How the Wealthy Hide Money in New York City Real Estate

An excellent piece in New York Magazine on the booming real estate market with ultra high net worth individuals. Buildings such as 432 Park Avenue and 111 W. 57th are not yet completed but are selling out quickly.

The piece does a great job explaining how difficult it is to police the flow of money into real estate

The first rule of selling property to the ultrarich is that you can’t try to sell them property—you offer them status, or a lifestyle, or a unique place in the sky. A marketing video for 432 Park Avenue, scored to “Dream a Little Dream,” features a private jet, Modigliani statuary, and Harry Macklowe himself costumed as King Kong. One recent morning, at the development’s sales office in the GM Building, Wallgren led me down a hallway lined with vintage New York photographs, through a ten-by-ten-foot frame meant to illustrate the building’s enormous window size, to a scale model of Manhattan.

Extreme wealth demands extremely elaborate wealth management, and anyone who has a few million in spare cash will probably already have an entrée to the cloistered world of private banking. An anonymous high-net-worth client of Credit Suisse, who spoke to U.S. Senate investigators after taking advantage of an amnesty for tax cheats, described the process by which he would manage his funds when visiting Zurich. A remote-controlled elevator would take him to a bare meeting room where he and his private banker would discuss his money; all printed account statements would be destroyed after the visit.

The ways these ultra-rich go to to conceal their holdings is extreme:

Behind a New York City deed, there may be a Delaware LLC, which may be managed by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which may be owned by a trust in the Isle of Man, which may have a bank account in Liechtenstein managed by the private banker in Geneva. The true owner behind the structure might be known only to the banker. “It will be in some file, but not necessarily a computer file,” says Markus Meinzer, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Tax Justice Network. “It could be a black book.” If an investor wants to sell the property, he doesn’t have to transfer the deed—an act that would create a public paper trail. He can just shift ownership of the holding company.

The theatrical secrecy is designed to build personal trust between such bankers and their clients, which is especially vital when the goal of the transactions is to conceal assets from the prying eyes of rivals, vengeful spouses, or tax collectors. Moving the money itself is a relatively simple matter: A wire or a suitcase can convey cash from China to Singapore, or from Russia to an EU member state like Latvia, and once the funds have made it to a “white list” country, they can usually move onward without triggering alarms. Concealing the true ownership of a property or a bank account is trickier. That’s where the private bankers, wealth advisers, and lawyers earn their exorbitant fees.

Worth the read.

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Bonus: see this Vanity Fair piece from May 2014 which highlights the major high rise condos being built in New York City.

The Stanford Commencement Address by Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates jointly gave a commencement address at Stanford University earlier this month on June 15, 2014. The full transcript is here, but I wanted to highlight a few notable passages:

Melinda and I have described some devastating scenes. But we want to make the strongest case we can for the power of optimism. Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

And that brings me to what I see as a paradox.

The world of science and technology is driving phenomenal innovations – and Stanford stands at the center of that, creating new companies, prize-winning professors, ingenious software, miracle drugs, and amazing graduates. We’re on the verge of mind-blowing breakthroughs in what human beings can do for each other. And people here are really excited about the future.

At the same time, if you ask people across the United States, “Is the future going to be better than the past?” most people will say: “No. My kids will be worse off than I am.” They think innovation won’t make the world better for them or for their children.

So who’s right?

The people who say innovation will create new possibilities and make the world better?

…or…

The people who see a trend toward inequality and a decline in opportunity and don’t think innovation will change that?

The pessimists are wrong in my view, but they’re not crazy. If technology is purely market-driven and we don’t focus innovation on the big inequities, then we could have amazing inventions that leave the world even more divided.

The key driver to make notable change is building empathy:

If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy. If empathy channeled our optimism, we would see the poverty and the disease and the poor schools, we would answer with our innovations, and we would surprise the pessimists.

The question is: how do we build and develop empathy in others?

I like how Melinda closes the address, saying that young graduates shouldn’t be in a rush to change the world:

You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now.

But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart.

When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it.

That is the moment when change is born.

Student Debt and The Boomerang Kids

The New York Times paints a bleak image on the student debt crisis in the United States of America in this magazine piece:

One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support. The common explanation for the shift is that people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age amid several unfortunate and overlapping economic trends. Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. (Kasinecz still has about $60,000 to go.) And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree. According to Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at Yale University, the negative impact of graduating into a recession never fully disappears. Even 20 years later, the people who graduated into the recession of the early ’80s were making substantially less money than people lucky enough to have graduated a few years afterward, when the economy was booming.

Worth the click for the slide show alone.

The Pivot, or the Luck Factor in Silicon Valley

A thoughtful take on the concept of the “pivot” in Silicon Valley, from Scott Adams (the creator of the Dilbert comic):

Smart observers in the valley look for the “tell” that an early stage start-up will be a winner, but none can be found. Oh, sure, the team needs to be smart, talented, and willing to work long hours. But nearly every start-up has that going for it. Most have great ideas as well. None of it predicts success. 

So imagine if you will, some of the smartest, most rational humans the world has ever created, wallowing around in the absurdity of Silicon Valley, where success is mostly based on luck. How does one feel good about that? And what is the solution?

Answer: You institutionalize the pivot.

I’ve been watching the TV show Silicon Valley, and the episode where Pied Piper tried to pivot comes to mind.

Adams argues that the pivot is basically a way to optimize one’s luck:

Here’s the system:

1.      Form a team
2.      Slap together an idea and put it on the Internet.
3.      Collect data on user behavior.
4.      Adjust, pivot, and try again.

Thanks to Google Analytics, Optimizely, Bitly, and other tools for measuring customer behavior in real time, a smart team can try different approaches and different products until something works out. A start-up in 2014 is a guess- testing machine.

Read the rest here.

Richard Lewis Explains How Cultures Interpret Time

In this fascinating post, Richard Lewis (author of When Cultures Collide) explains how various cultures consider/view/understand time. Most of us in the West are used to “Linear Time” (i.e., event A happens, followed by event B, and so on) whereas people in southern Europe interpret time as being “multi-active”:

Southern Europeans are multi-active, rather than linear-active [read Lewis's analysis of cultures as multi-active, linear-active, and reactive]. The more things they can do at the same time, the happier and the more fulfilled they feel. They organize their time (and lives) in an entirely different way from Americans, Germans and the Swiss. Multi-active peoples are not very interested in schedules or punctuality. They pretend to observe them, especially if a linear-active partner or colleague insists on it, but they consider the present reality to be more important than appointments. In their ordering of things, priority is given to the relative thrill or significance of each meeting.

In countries inhabited by linear-active people, time is clock- and calendar- related, segmented in an abstract manner for our convenience, measurement, and disposal. In multi-active cultures like the Arab and Latin spheres, time is event- or personality-related, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, molded, stretched, or dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says.

“I have to rush,” says the American, “my time is up.” The Spaniard or Arab, scornful of this submissive attitude to schedules, would only use this expression if death were imminent.

There are also other great bits from the piece. This part about Japanese culture I had never known before:

Another example is the start and finish of all types of classes in Japan, where the lesson cannot begin without being preceded by a formal request on the part of the students for the teacher to start. Similarly, they must offer a ritualistic expression of appreciation at the end of the class.

Read the rest here.

Computer Program Named Eugene Passes the Turing Test

Some fascinating news in the artificial intelligence world: the Turing test was passed for the first time, ever, at The University of Reading this month. The news is all the more interesting because the test was passed with a program simulating a 13-year-old boy named Eugene:

The 65 year-old iconic Turing Test was passed for the very first time by supercomputer Eugene Goostman during Turing Test 2014 held at the renowned Royal Society in London on Saturday.

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‘Eugene’, a computer programme that simulates a 13 year old boy, was developed in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The development team includes Eugene’s creator Vladimir Veselov, who was born in Russia and now lives in the United States, and Ukrainian born Eugene Demchenko who now lives in Russia.

The Turing Test is based on 20th century mathematician and code-breaker Turing’s 1950 famous question and answer game, ‘Can Machines Think?’. The experiment investigates whether people can detect if they are talking to machines or humans. The event is particularly poignant as it took place on the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death, nearly six months after he was given a posthumous royal pardon.

If a computer is mistaken for a human more than 30% of the time during a series of five minute keyboard conversations it passes the test. No computer has ever achieved this, until now. Eugene managed to convince 33% of the human judges that it was human.

This historic event was organised by the University’s School of Systems Engineering in partnership with RoboLaw, an EU-funded organisation examining the regulation of emerging robotic technologies.

Professor Kevin Warwick, a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Coventry University, said: “In the field of Artificial Intelligence there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test, when a computer convinces a sufficient number of interrogators into believing that it is not a machine but rather is a human. It is fitting that such an important landmark has been reached at the Royal Society in London, the home of British Science and the scene of many great advances in human understanding over the centuries. This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting.

Read more: What is the Turing Test and why does it matter?

Sophia Amoruso’s Advice For Millennials

New York Magazine has a feature on Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, and her memoir, #GIRLBOSS. This is some very good advice for millenials:

Amoruso has loads of advice about the workplace, all of it shrewd and unsweetened. Don’t ask for a promotion until you’ve held a job for a year; don’t mistake your boss for a friend; fight the natural human impulse to consider yourself an exception; and never have your phone visible during a job interview. Don’t compliment your interviewer’s outfit, because “making small talk about what someone is wearing is just another form of unsolicited feedback.” Spell-check your cover letters, for fuck’s sake. These rules may seem rudimentary to anyone born before 1982, but they’re aimed at millennial-specific bad manners. A #GIRLBOSS would never take a funeral selfie or wear pajamas on an airplane.

If there’s one generational habit that galls Amoruso more than informality, it’s entitlement. Even as a thief, she was diligent. “A lot of people in my generation don’t seem to get that you have to work your way up,” she writes. “I don’t care if filing invoices is beneath you. If you don’t do it, who do you think is going to? Your boss? Nope. That’s why she hired you.”

Read the rest here.

David Sedaris Book Signing at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, GA

Whilst I was walking in Atlanta yesterday, I stumbled upon a bookstore called A Cappella Books. While I didn’t end up going inside, I put it on my radar to check out in depth in a future visit.

Today, I browsed the bookstore’s website and saw that A Capella Books is hosting David Sedaris (one of my favourite writers) for a book signing for Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls on June 16, 2014 at 7PM. You can purchase a copy of the book on Amazon (or don’t, actually*), or get it through A Cappella Books’s website for $17 (signed by David Sedaris).

I’m looking forward to this event. If you’re in Atlanta, I hope you can make it too.

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*Based on the recent controversy with Amazon and Hachette, David Sedaris suggests getting his book(s) at an actual store, like A Cappella Books:

If you don’t want to go to a store, or if you don’t want to use some other website to buy the book, then don’t buy the book. Don’t do it. Get something else you can get on Amazon, like a toaster or thermal socks. I think they sell those. Go ahead. Don’t get my book. Get a flashlight instead.

For further reading on this blog:

(1) “On Guest Rooms and Conversation Snippets”

(2) David Sedaris on Socialized Medicine