Bored? Read these:
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
Scarcity is at the root of what makes people unhappy. But it also has some amazing benefits. Mullainathan and Shafir write:
When scarcity captures the mind, we become more attentive and efficient. There are many situations in our lives where maintaining focus can be challenging. We procrastinate at work because we keep getting distracted. We buy overpriced items at the grocery store because our minds are elsewhere. A tight deadline or a shortage of cash focuses us on the task at hand. With our minds riveted, we are less prone to careless error. This makes perfect sense: scarcity captures us because it is important, worthy of our attention.
There are normal people who can remember almost anything -- a string of 1,000 random numbers, the order of multiple decks of cards, the names of a hundred strangers in less than a minute. Foer writes about the science of memory before tackling the strategies himself, becoming the U.S. Memory Champion. He writes:
The principle underlying all memory techniques is that our brains don't remember all types of information equally well. As exceptional as we are at remembering visual imagery (think of the two-picture recognition test), we're terrible at remembering other kinds of information, like lists of words or numbers. The point of memory techniques is to ... take the kinds of memories our brains aren't good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it.
Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E Thomas
Lawyer M.E. Thomas writes about her life as a functioning, law-abiding, closet sociopath -- which, in her telling, is about 4% of the American population. Half the book is science, half is an egomaniacal rant, but it's all fascinating. She writes:
Sharks see in black-and-white. Scientists have suggested that contrast against background may be more helpful than color for predators in detecting potential prey, helping them to focus on crucial spatial relationships rather than extraneous details. I'm color-blind in a way that makes mass hysteria seem particularly striking in contrast to normal, expected behavior. My lack of empathy means I don't get caught up in other people's panic. It gives me a unique perspective. And in the financial world, being able to think opposite the pack is all you need.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
Violence -- war, murder, rape, torture, execution, robbery, lynching, racism, you name it -- has declined substantially almost everywhere in the world over the last several hundred years. We are, on average, living in the most peaceful and safe period the world has ever seen, but few want to admit that. Pinker writes:
Perhaps the main cause of the illusion of ever-present violence springs from one of the forces that drove violence down in the first place. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. By the standards of the mass atrocities of human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an ethnic minority is intimidated by hooligans, is pretty mild stuff. But from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.
The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
Benjamin Roth was a lawyer living through the Great Depression in the 1930s. He kept a regular diary of the country's economic misery, which is son published a few years ago. It is the most fascinating business book I've ever read. Here's a sample entry:
August 20, 1931: This morning a client 65 years of age came into the office and we had a long talk about his personal affairs. He had been in the liquor business and in 1921 when Prohibition put an end to his activity he had accumulated about $200,000 in liquid cash. He is now broke except for some worthless real estate. He became a prey to high pressure salesmen of worthless stocks, tried one business after the other, speculated in real estate and in many ways tried to make more money quickly. We discussed 7 or 8 other men to whom the same thing happened. Not one was able to hold his money. They were good saloonkeepers but had not learned how to keep their money or to make it work for them. They knew absolutely nothing about sound investments and were not satisfied with a moderate return of 4% or 5%. I asked him what he would do again in the same circumstances. With tears in his eyes he said he would preserve and protect the principal at all hazards.
When countries get rich they have fewer babies, and when they have fewer babies everything we know about business, the economy, politics, education, and retirement is thrown up in the air. Last writes:
In 1979, the world's fertility rate was 6.0; today it's 2.52. From a current population of 6.9 billion, the United Nations and others predict that world population will peak somewhere between 10 billion and 12 billion in the next 85 years and then begin the long, inexorable process of shrinking back down. The reason for these predictions is that all but a handful of countries are experiencing long-term declines in their fertility rates. All First World countries are already below the 2.1 line [needed to replace their populations]. And while the fertility rates in many parts of the developing world are still above the 2.1 mark, their rates of decline are, in most cases, even steeper than in the First World.
Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom
There are a lot of jerks in the world. Why? Paul Bloom argues that we're all born with a natural sense of morality; it's just prone to being robbed and misshapened. He writes:
Children are sensitive to inequality ... but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less. In this regard, they are similar to monkeys, chimpanzees, and dogs, all of whom show signs of being bothered by getting a smaller reward than someone else . For instance, researchers have done studies with pairs of dogs, in which each dog does a trick. One dog is then rewarded with a nice treat, while the other gets a lesser treat. The researchers find that the dog offered a lesser treat will sometimes act, well, pissed, and refuse to eat it.
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