Tag Archives: self-improvement

Hailing The New Year

In early 2013 I penned a personal reflection on what I had accomplished in 2012, and what I had hoped to see happen in the new year.

I didn’t actually accomplish much with regards to the specific goal I outlined for myself in that post, looking back on it now. My hope was to spend more time “practicing investing”, specifically in the sense of looking at lots of ideas and trying to value things.

In addition, while not a stated goal I did not make even half as much progress reading new material over the course of the year as compared to the year prior in 2012. In fact, I had planned not to in order to free up more time to spend on “doing” rather than “thinking about doing” investing.

My excuses were two. First, and this reason looms largest in my mind though it’s in objective actuality the least potent, the market continued to run up in 2013. Value dried up, the marginal effort expended yielded consequently less marginal return so I just threw in the towel and decided not to bother with it. We know this is a weak excuse because plenty of people, including value investors, managed to crank out stellar returns this year past, though some of this was on legacy positions made in 2012 and held through 2013 and I did notice my pen wasn’t the only dry one in 2013– many of my value blogger friends suddenly cut down on their blog output, while many others gave up blogging to get real jobs as money managers. From rags to riches, a sign of the times?

My second excuse is that while I had significant free time, even during the course of my “normal” daily professional responsibilities, to think about and act on my value investing interests and portfolio management duties, in 2013 the demands of my day job were much more significant as was the total opportunity to learn and grow as a businessman in the industry and more generally speaking. This dominated my time so that I did not grow as much as an investor, but I nonetheless grew as a businessperson and productive individual and ultimately I think what I learned in terms of the problems (and solutions) of a real operating business, as well as my ability to effect change, will have significant effects on my future investment returns. They clearly had significant effects on my short term investment returns this year! One small portfolio I tend to was essentially flat and uninvested, my personal portfolio grew by single digits, mostly uninvested and mostly through the churning of the JNet portfolio and the other larger portfolios I watch over grew mostly because legacy bond positions had increased in price and I decided it was time to take money off the table there (I traded some JNets around the margins, too).

I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, but I did accomplish other things so all in all I was satisfied with how 2013 went.

Looking ahead, I’ve decided the most important thing I can accomplish in 2014 is to master the art of focus. To that end, I am going to look for a way to disabuse myself of the portfolio management responsibilities I so eagerly sought out in 2012-2013, in order to completely free my time, attention and anxiety to be applied to my daily professional opportunities. The enterprise is much greater in scope and I can have a much more leveraged effect here. This is a real opportunity to harness competitive advantage and the power of the division of labor to better myself and provide a meaningful chance for someone more talented to do better than I can.

I’ll content myself with “playing Buffett” in my personal portfolio and enjoy the satisfaction of cheering from the sidelines on everything else. That way I can be myself in everything else I do.

If I can accomplish this, I forecast 2014, and beyond, will be very good for me.

Concerns of Meaningless Peons (#poverty, #inadequacy, #values)

The following is a running list of observed concerns and conditions of individuals which would suggest they may be living the lives of meaningless peons, updated as observational faculties permit:

  1. Owning less than an acre of land
  2. Not contemplating life from an Eames chair
  3. Emotionally invested in professional sports
  4. Arguing economics on the internet with idiots trying to vouchsafe wanton criminality in sophistry
  5. Leasing everything, owning nothing
  6. Primary pastimes revolves around drinking with your friends and Facebooking your exploits
  7. Fretting about how to get your child into a “good” public school

Note: the composer of the above list may be guilty of some or even all of the infractions mentioned.

Quotes – The Risk Of Self-Improvement

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.

~Epictetus

Observations On Expectations (#publicschool, #expectations, #psychology)

A story of expectations met and unmet, in two parts.

Part the first. I spoke in front of a group of students at a local continuation high school this morning. The original topic was my career (what do I do? what do I like/dislike about it? etc.) and my career path (what’s my background? education? how’d I get to where I am?) but I never quite got there. I mostly ended up talking about economics as I was speaking to an economics class, nominally, and the program coordinator kept prompting me on that subject.

I introduced two economic concepts to the assembled: TNSTAAFL/opportunity cost, and subjective value theory. I tried to apply them to “real life” to make them tangible and interesting to the audience. I talked about how everyone got suckered into the Housing Bubble, which cost a lot of people their homes, their personal finances, their jobs and sometimes more. I suggested that a person who understood that TNSTAAFL wouldn’t have gotten suckered in because he would’ve recognized the bubble for what it was and played it safe as he could. Subjective value theory I used to explain why we have an economy and why people work jobs, to serve each other’s subjective needs. I encouraged the class to think about their own values and to pursue them, and recognize that when people tell them what to do they’re simply telling them they should follow subjective values other than their own. I tried to highlight the role opportunity cost plays in pursuing subjective values, for example, people often get into traps such as pursuing money to provide for their families in such a way that they don’t get to spend time with their families. This opportunity cost is forgotten or ignored.

I also covered time value of money and the function of credit during a brief tangent, prompted by the program coordinator emphasizing the importance of personal finance principles.

The instructor goaded the students into applauding me before I had even spoke, as some kind of polite welcome for someone who had taken the time to stand before them and pontificate on a subject they cared little about. I said, “We’ll see if you still feel like applauding me at the end” and then began my talk. At the end of it, as the students rose to leave at the sound of the Pavlovian bell, one of the young men closest to me in the front of the room turned to his classmate and said in a quite intentionally audible way, “Thank GOD that is over!”

The morning’s events completely met my expectations and as a result, I was satisfied with myself when I myself left. I had entered a prison, whose inmates were being held against their will, by force of law, who had been assembled before me because they had no other choice save punishment and who had little to no interest in the subjects I had been invited to speak about before them. You certainly can’t blame a person in such circumstances for being disengaged, melodramatic and at times downright hostile.

If you put me in a cage I’d be uncomfortable and not in a friendly mood, either.

I didn’t expect to touch anyone, change a life or spark a fire or interest in anyone for the subjects I spoke about (economics, careers, my career, me) and if I happened to do that despite my intentions, that’s fine. I expected to go in there, treat the poor beasts with respect and maybe a bit of sympathy, having once been caged in a similar manner myself, and deliver my thoughts as articulately and coherently as I could. I expected to get practice speaking before an audience and trying, not necessarily succeeding, at making a foreign subject engaging or relatable for them.

In this, I met my expectations and so I believe I succeeded and thus I felt satisfied.

Part the second. For some time now I have watched in despair as a previously favorite blog of mine has gone into seemingly terminal decline. What was once a source of original thinking, unique coverage and respectable ideological consistency has in time become a haven for hacks and simpletons, its content hollowed-out and refocused on a few topics I just don’t have much interest in. The purveyor of the site has taken numerous opportunities, on his blog and his new webcast radio show, to demonstrate qualities of his personality I’ve found surprising, disappointing and at times reprehensible.

My distress with this reached a fever pitch early this week when a long-awaited debate on the subject of “intellectual property” was joined by the purveyor and another popular blogger on the subject. While the purveyor’s behavior leading up to the discussion gave me no reason to believe it’d be an intelligent, objective attempt at sussing out the truth by the two parties, but rather much evidence that it would be a battle of wills and ego characterized by willful blindness of reason and savage emotional assaults on each respective victim, the final product was so shockingly extreme in terms of all the undesirable qualities I suspected it would contain that I almost couldn’t believe these two adults had allowed themselves to be recorded, their outrage to be shared in front of a public audience of strangers.

I found myself so disappointed with the whole thing. It was anti-intellectual and truly uncivilized, the kind of stuff blood feuds at made of (gusto about sacred honor and the like that can never be satiated by way of reasonable argument). I knew both men were capable of a bit of underhandedness, but at least in the past the underhandedness seemed to have some kind of productive point. This time, after I finished sitting through two and a half hours of two middle-aged men calling each other names and screaming at one another, waiting for a point, I realized too late that there was none beyond sharing pure hate and distrust.

Who was to blame for my dissatisfaction in this instance? Initially, I found myself disgusted with these two people for subjecting me to this idiocy. “How dare they!” Then I thought about it some more. They are who they are. Their current skills and capabilities with regards to interpersonal communication and intellectual reasoning are aspects of their identity that exist as they do, whether I find them appealing or satisfying or not. I expected them to work hard to please me in their debating efforts (despite, I should add, much evidence that they were capable of no such thing) and when they didn’t live up to my expectations, I was disappointed.

Not by them, but by myself. For expecting people to live to serve my intellectual and emotional needs.

In the first part, I participated in something that could easily be seen as a disastrous waste of everybody’s time. Yet, I walked away from it in a positive state of mind. In the second part, I witnessed a true social tragedy and felt depressed and upset. Both circumstances were undesirable, but my reaction was different each time because my expectations were different.

Expectations can glorify our existence or cast the light of our lives down a dark abyss. I hope to remind myself of this fact more often.

Review – How To Read A Book (#reading, #understanding, #philosophy, #education)

How To Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (buy on Amazon.com)

by Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, published 1972

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.

“Literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well”

HTRAB seeks to be a remedy for those described above who have read many books but understood little of any of them. As the authors define it, good reading is active reading, that is, it involves note-taking and and highlighting (write in your books to make them truly yours) and question-asking, with the ultimate question being, “What has the author tried to communicate to me and, assuming I’ve understood him, what do I think of what he has said?” A book is an absent teacher– it is ultimately your responsibility to answer on your own and for yourself the questions you might pose to it.

The 4 levels of reading

The authors set out four levels of reading, which are hierarchical in terms of complexity and skill required, and cumulative, in the sense that each level includes the skills and complexity of those below it while adding unique qualities of its own. The levels are:

  1. Elementary
  2. Inspectional
  3. Analytical
  4. Syntopical

Elementary reading is exactly what it sounds like, the most basic level of reading that all people learning to read initially experience. At this level of reading, one begins to comprehend the letters and words they form as being connected to or representative of concepts, actions, etc. Unfortunately, at this level of reading, comprehension doesn’t go much beyond this and even more tragically, few readers ever seem to graduate beyond this level, even during and after time spent in college. For elementary readers, books are full of words one must step and stumble over, but little meaning is ever found in them.

Inspectional reading is the beginning of true “reading for understanding”, which is the kind of reading HTRAB is primarily focused on. Inspectional reading is both a level of sophistication and a specific tool that can be used to heighten overall understanding and reading skill for one who “reads well.” It is a skill in the sense that an inspectional reader is able to draw out of a book its essential meaning and something about the way in which the author goes about it (as opposed to an elementary reader, who never quite gets that far, missing the meaning forest for the crowd of symbolic trees). It is a specific tool in that inspectional reading entails a deliberate process by which a reader examines the preface and introductory material of the book (or the first few pages) and the conclusion or epilogue (or last few pages) in detail, surveys the table of contents (if available) and index to get a feel for the overall structure, order and topics covered in the book and then jumps around at random through the middle of the book reading passages and pages of interest that appear to be central to the author’s theme and argument. In this way, an inspectional reader quickly learns what the book is about, how the author goes about elaborating upon it and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not it’s a message and artifice worthy of the readers attention and time.

Without this process, or at a minimum, familiarizing oneself with the table of contents, a reader who starts at the first page and tries to plow through is only making his reading more challenging because he is attempting to learn what he is attempting to understand (the topic and structure), at the same time that he is trying to understand it.

The three primary questions answered by an inspectional (summary) reading are:

  1. What kind of book is it?
  2. What is it about as a whole?
  3. What is the structural order of the work whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of that general subject matter?

Tools to prepare you for reading well

The authors suggest four essential questions to be asked by an active reader:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or in part?
  4. What of it?

These are questions the reader should have always in the back of his mind as he reads, and which he should be able to answer confidently by the time he finishes.

The authors also recommend several techniques for “making a book your own”:

  • Underline major points and forceful statements
  • Make vertical lines in the margins for passages worthy of quoting at length
  • Stars, asterisks or other markings in the margins where the ten or twelve most critical points are made throughout the book
  • Numbers in the margin to catalog the points of an argument being made sequentially
  • Numbers of other pages in the margin indicating where in the text an idea is revisited or referenced
  • Circling of key words or phrases, similar to underlining
  • Writing in the margin or top or bottom of the page or at the end of a chapter as endnotes, to record questions (and answers), a simplified thesis of what you have read or to catalog a sequential argument in concentrated form

Several other techniques and methods are discussed in HTRAB which are critical to reading well. One is to study the title of the book and learn what you can from it. Authors usually take care in naming their books and the titles give significant clues about what the book is and is not about. Another is to practice stating the unity of the book– in a sentence or a paragraph at most, explain what kind of book it is, what it is about and list the devices the author employs to explore that theme. A final tool is to keep in mind the author’s intentions at all times– every book is written ostensibly to solve a problem, which the book is supposed to be a solution for, which begs the questions, “What is the problem the author wanted to solve by writing his book?” and “What solution does he offer to the problem in writing his book?”

The process of analytical reading

The third level of reading, and the most critical for all who wish to learn to read well, is the analytical level. At the analytical level, the primary intention of the reader is to be thorough, complete and to read for understanding. Some of the tools previously discussed are, in fact, part of the analytical reading toolkit. In total, the process or “rules” for analytical reading are:

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve
  5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words
  6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences
  7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences
  8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed
  9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and interpretation of the book (do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say, “I understand.”)
  10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
  11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make
  12. For criticism, special criteria apply such as: show wherein the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete

I made a note of some other helpful tips for reading well analytically:

  • the important words (in the sense of being critical to the author’s argument) are the one’s that give you the most trouble
  • one clue to an important word is that the author quarrels with other writers about it
  • if you never ask yourself any questions about a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you insights you did not already possess
  • it is best to do all you can without outside help because if you act on this principle consistently you will find you need less and less of it (and take more and more from your reading)

Bringing it all together: syntopical reading

Syntopical reading is the reading of multiple books, with similar topics, in order to synthesize a “conversation” amongst and between the authors. The beauty of this method of reading is it allows one to pit perspectives and arguments from differing backgrounds and even differing time periods into one intellectual commons. It also allows the reader to get a “full measure” of the literary world’s treatment of a given subject. It can be performed by either multi-inspectional reading of various titles, or multi-analytical reading of those same titles.

The steps of a successful syntopical reading are:

  1. Creative a tentative bibliography of your subject
  2. Inspect all of the books in the bibliography to ensure they’re germane and to get a clearer perspective of the subject itself
  3. Inspect the books amassed to find the most relevant passages to the subject matter
  4. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology that all authors can be assumed to agree with, even if they didn’t employ such terminology themselves
  5. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted to have provided answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not
  6. Define the issues, major and minor, by lining up the authors’ respective viewpoints on one side or another
  7. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues so as to throw maximum light on the subject

An afterword

Despite my efforts at being analytical, this review was something of an inspectional survey itself. One thing I took away from my reading is that I do a lot of the things mentioned in the analytical reading process, although I actually neglect a lot of the inspectional reading elements and now realize their value. The reading also confirmed some of my biases by throwing into stark relief the inadequacies of many other people’s reading efforts I am aware of, either from direct personal experience or via interaction with their “interpretations” of ideas gleaned from things they have read. It is somewhat dismaying to realize how few intellectual opponents would qualify as “well read” analytical book users, and how inadequate their attempts at criticism are in light of this. One would be more satisfied to think one’s opponents were both more competent, and more honest, than that.

At the end of HTRAB, the authors provide a number of special tips for the reading of specific kinds of works (poems and plays, history, social science, hard science and math, etc.), as well as a bibliography of “great books” (similar to that found here) and a short essay on what reading well can do for an individual. Aside from the hopefully true suggestion that the mind-exercise provided by reading well can actually help one sustain the vitality and quality of their life even into old age, the discussion of the growing relationship one can develop with truly “great” books is comforting, as well. I think for me personally this passage resonated because of my own experiences reading what I refer to as “acts of philosophy” even when their subject matter is not philosophy per se (endlessly re-readable books like Security Analysis and Human Action which seem to give up new secrets and ideas with each new pass through).

Despite my epistemological misgivings about HTRAB (for example, could HTRAB, in and of itself, assist a person currently capable of nothing more than elementary reading to rise above themselves?), I do believe it itself is a title worth revisiting in the future. My first foray amongst its pages was admittedly quick and inspectional, and there were many passages I will admit I skipped just so I could get to the end and get this up on my blog. It may or may not be a “great” book (I believe I will suspend judgment on that for now), it is undoubtedly a “good” book with much to recommend it and I would encourage anyone who is interested, as well as my future self, to pick it up and give it a read.