Books / Audiobooks / Podcasts / Articles

A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorpe

I finished listening to A Man for All Markets. It’s an amazing book on a number of fronts.  Here’s a few of the impressive bits:

  1. There’s a lot of people who write memoirs like this that seem a bit over the top. But Thorpe is a bit of an over the top genius generally credited with the creation of card counting in blackjack, risk arbitrage and hedge funds and wearable computers.
  2. He might have won the Nobel prize but decided on a different path. Thorpe had to decide whether to be a businessman or a professor first. When he published his book Beat the Market he showed how to correctly price options. Instead of pushing this further, Thorpe decided to trade on his findings. Eventually others published what became known as the Black Scholes model for option pricing which eventually won the Nobel Prize..
  3. Thorpe seems to have known everyone in finance, from Warren Buffett to Bernie Madoff (who he knew was a fraud decades ago). He even talks about how Buffett used to challenge people to a game of dice with non-transitive dice.

Overall I really loved the audiobook. Thorpe narrates the book himself and does a pretty darn good job. This is from an 85 year old man worth about $800 million.


Ideas Product Management

Let’s Get On The Same Page People! OR Great Ideas Need Great Communication

Have you been here? You have a great idea — an amazing and awesome idea that will completely transform your product. But it never quite took off. Why? One reason might be that you didn’t communicate the idea well enough. Communication is an incredibly important skill in an organization, though it’s very hard to do well. A lot of times an idea is totally clear to me and therefore I think it should be very clear to someone else. But the other person has a very different perspective.

In this post I’ll explain why communication is important, show some examples of communication failures and then present one useful way of thinking about communication

Why is Communication So Important?

As people move up in an organization, technical skills become less important and business skills gradually grow in importance.

  1. Technical Skills. When starting off in a job you are hired for your specific skills as an individual contributor. These are skills like creating a PowerPoint, or analyzing a spreadsheet or coding up a project in a programming language.
  2. Business Skills. As you get more senior in an organization, it’s more important to set direction and get everyone moving in that direction. That’s all about communication.

Examples People Being On Different Pages

  1. I remember one day a few years ago. It was a beautiful day. I was casually walking down the street smiling all the way. Then I noticed a thin blond woman around 40. She was in thin white dress with a small stroller next to her and this awful grimace on her face. She was shooting her hand up as she desperately tried to hail a cab.
  2. So I thought to myself “I’ll help her hail a cab because she looks like she needs lots of help.” So I put my arm up.
  3. Man, did she start screaming, “Don’t steal my cab! I just stepped on a piece of glass which is now stuck in my foot! I really need this cab!
  4. “When I look back, she obviously thought I was trying to hail a cab for myself — because I never told her what I was up to. Why would a person be hailing a cab for her without mentioning it? Instead of this being helpful I just made her life more difficult.
  5. This is a pretty amazing article that introduced Michael Lewis into the world of high frequency traders which he later wrote about in Flash Boys. It follows the case of Sergey Aleynikov who worked at Goldman Sachs. The way Goldman saw it, Aleynikov stole Goldman’s software code that was worth millions. Aleynikov thought he was just uploading open source software to an online repository. It’s a story about the hacker ethos vs. the Goldman ethos. Spoiler Alert: Goldman wins and Aleynikov ends up in jail.Here’s one example of the difference. Goldman thought Aleynikov was being nefarious because he was using a repository called “subversion” (i.e., he was trying to subvert Goldman). In reality, subversion is a repository for multiple versions of your code (“sub-versions” of your code).
  6. There’s a lot of comedy based on people coming at the same situation from different points of view. One of my favorites is Rowan Atkinson’s Fatal Conversations where the Principal at a boarding school is concerned about a student’s horrible behavior. The father, for some reason, is more concerned that the principal has beaten his son to death. The humor, of course, is the two different perspectives.
  7. Richard Feynman, the famous physicist had synesthesia, a mental difference where some things are seen as colors. From Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman: “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”
  8. I could go on forever with examples. While I was writing this, I happened to listen to the an episode of Invisibilia called Frame of Reference where they talk about how one person can have two different points of view inside their own head.
  9. How Does Pixar Think About Communication?In the book Creativity Inc Ed Catmull wrote about the different mental models that people use to make sense of their jobs. Here’s a great one on communication:
  10. Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”
Fun Stuff

Silly But Makes Me Laugh — One of My Favorite Mike Royko Columns

When I was in college we used to have this big newspaper room (which they’ve since taken the newspapers out of). I used to love and go in and read random papers from around the country. My favorite was Mike Royko who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. Below was one of my favorite columns from 1996. It’s extremely silly but made me laugh. Hey, you can’t be too serious when you’re writing 4 columns a week. Note that the Chicago Tribune doesn’t seem to have it online so I’m putting the whole thing here:

By Mike Royko

13 Mar 1996

A man in Canada recently made a bit of news when he took legal steps to change his family’s name.

His name has been Arthur Lawrence Death. He wants it changed to Arthur Lawrence Deeth, which is the way it has always been pronounced, except by those who snicker and make wisecracks.

The request for a name change is understandable. But what is surprising is the large number of people born with unusual and potentially embarrassing names who choose to live with them.

By searching a national phone book program, I came across a wide range of names that could bring smirks from store clerks, bank tellers and traffic cops.

For example, there is a Martin Pecker, a businessman in Boca Raton, Fla.

He is one of several dozen Peckers scattered across the country.

Of his name, Pecker says: “Honestly, I love it. As a kid I got a lot of teasing for being a Pecker. But I grew up big–I’m 6-3 and 220–and my sons are big, so people are careful about what they say. And with women, I used to get flattering remarks.

“Here in Boca, I have a physician friend named Zipper. We were in a society page together once. Zipper and Pecker.”

Then there is James Pee of Birmingham, Ala., one of a few dozen Pees, who seem to live mostly in Southern states.

Laughing, Pee said: “I’ve had trouble with my name since I was a kid. Spent 10 years in the Air Force, so I got a hard time there too. I’ve had nicknames like Pee-Pee, Urine, Little Pee.

“Around Kosciusko, Miss., there are so may Pees that there is a Pee Cemetery.

“I never really thought seriously about changing it. And I asked my son, who’s in college, how he felt. He said that if I could get by being a Pee, he’d just as soon stay a Pee too.”

Paul Crapper of Lehigh Acres, Fla., one of numerous Crappers, said: “I’m perfectly happy being a Crapper. People make remarks, but I just pass it off or say something like: `I’m like Alka Seltzer, I bring relief.’ ”

Walter Crapp of Brownsville, Pa., feels the same way: “I never considered changing it. My grandfather came from Russia and had a long name. So I just decided to keep Crapp and drop the rest.”

Of her married name, Suzan Geek says: “I believe we are the only Geeks in North Carolina,” which might be a matter of debate.

“People sometimes laugh because they can’t believe someone could be a Geek. And when I order a pizza by phone, they almost always laugh. But I’m in real estate, and I assure you that nobody ever forgets my name.”

Among the more distinctive names are Murder or Murders.

Danny Murders, 51, of Russellville, Ark., has done considerable research on how the names came about.

“When my ancestors came to the New World in the 1700s, it was Murdaugh, with a Scottish brogue. They were farmers and moved West. Later, in Tennessee, the census takers spelled it phonetically so it became Murder or Murders. Around Hot Springs, there are about 26 families named Murders. There are four brothers known as the Murders Boys. As far as I know, none of the Murders have changed their name.”

A Killer named Christine, in Cheshire, Conn., says: “Oh, yes, it is a daily conversation piece. People will say things like, `You don’t look like a killer.’ And I’ve often been asked to show an ID because people don’t believe my name can be Killer. The name is of German origin. As for my being teased, not very often. Maybe they were afraid.”

Jack Ripper, 60, who runs a sign company in Detroit, says: “Sure, I get called Jack the Ripper about twice a day. Because of the Ripper name, people used to ask my mother, `Is Jack the Ripper your husband?’ And she’d always say, `No, but my son is.’ I like it. That’s why I put it on my business. People don’t forget a name like Jack Ripper.”

Peter Hitler, 54, of Mequon, Wis., says: “Well, it is interesting to say the least. Our family goes back to the 1700s in Circleville, in southern Ohio. There were a lot of Hitlers there. A Hitler Street, a Hitler cemetery.

“There used to be a lot more of us, but they changed their names around World War II. I was just a kid, but my older brother took a lot of flak. My parents took our name out of the phone book.

“There aren’t too many Hitlers left. I’ve run across three or four. I guess the name is outlawed in Germany.

“I’m in real estate and not a day goes by without someone saying, `Oh, my gosh,’ or `Why didn’t you change your name.’ Any time I present my credit card, someone makes a remark. But it is something you live with. I don’t think about it anymore.”

Which is what a New Yorker named Ben Mussolini said: “Hey, forget it. I’ve been through this before. I don’t feel like talking about it.”

And the woman who answered the phone listed for Jim Wierdo said: “The Wierdos don’t have this number anymore. But so many people keep calling. I don’t know why.”


Books / Audiobooks / Podcasts / Articles

Inertia or “How Did I Get Here?”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity:

You see those pictures of people in Pompeii and you think, how weird: one quick game of dice after your tea and you’re frozen, and that’s how people remember you for the next few thousand years. Suppose it was the first game of dice you’ve ever played? Suppose you were only doing it to keep your friend Augustus company? Suppose you’d just at that moment finished a brilliant poem or something? Wouldn’t it be annoying to be commemorated as a dice player? Sometimes I look at my shop (because I haven’t let the grass grow under my feet the last fourteen years! About ten years ago I borrowed the money to start my own!), and at my regular Saturday punters, and I know exactly how those inhabitants of Pompeii must feel, if they could feel anything (although the fact that they can’t is kind of the point of them). I’m stuck in this pose, this shop-managing pose, forever, because of a few short weeks in 1979 when I went a bit potty for a while. It could be worse, I guess; I could have walked into an army recruiting office, or the nearest abattoir.

In the past I totally know what he meant. These days, I’m feeling pretty good!