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Thursday, 14 January 2021

Weekend Reading

Reading across disciplines is one of the best ways to improve our investment acumen. Here is a summary of some of the best articles I read this week.

I especially try to not post Corona related articles as that is all one gets to read in all traditional media.


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Increasing intelligence

What we call 'intelligence' is as much about virtues such as honesty, integrity, and bravery, as it is about 'raw intellect’.

Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand — no matter how many other people try to convince them of it, or how many other people believe it, if they aren’t able to convince themselves of it, they won’t accept it.

It’s also so easy to think that you understand something, when you actually don’t. So even figuring out whether you understand something or not requires you to attack the thing from multiple angles and test your own understanding.

This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation, because it’s so hard; so most people simply don’t do it. 



Aging is mandatory, but senescence is optional

EVERYONE WANTS TO LIVE LONG, but no one wants to get old. So for centuries people have sought ways to slow aging and defer death. Not long ago, quacks would have tried to lure you to consume tobacco, mercury, or ground-up dog’s testicles to postpone your eternal rest; today’s peddlers of immortality hawk human growth hormone, melatonin, testosterone, mega-doses of vitamins, or alkaline food. For millennia, however, the most sensible advice has always included exercise. Just about everyone knows what countless studies confirm: regular physical activity slows the aging process and helps prolong life. I doubt anyone was astounded when Hippocrates wrote 2,500 years ago that “Eating alone will not make a man well; he must also take exercise.”

The more physically active women died at about one-third the rate of those who were unfit, and the fitter men had mortality rates about one-third to one-fourth lower than those who were least fit.

Aging is inexorable, but senescence, the deterioration of function associated with advancing years, correlates much less strongly with age. Instead, senescence is also influenced strongly by environmental factors like diet, physical activity, or radiation, and thus can be slowed, sometimes prevented, and even partly reversed.



The power of negative thinking

We should all spend more time thinking about the prospect of failure and what we might do about it. It is a useful mental habit but it is neither easy nor enjoyable. We humans thrive on optimism. We must be careful, then, when we allow ourselves to stare steadily at the prospect of failure. Stare too long, or with eyes too wide, and we will be so paralysed with anxiety that success, too, becomes impossible. Care is also needed in the steps we take to prevent disaster. Some precautions cause more trouble than they prevent.

But just because it is hard to think productively about the risk of failure does not mean we should give up. One gain is that of contingency planning: if you anticipate possible problems, you have the opportunity to prevent them or to prepare the ideal response.

A second advantage is the possibility of rapid learning. The third advantage of thinking seriously about failure is that we may turn away from projects that are doomed from the outset.

All around us are failures — of business models, of pandemic planning, even of our democratic institutions. It is fanciful to imagine designing slip bases for everything. Still: most things fail, sooner or later. Some fail gracefully, some disgracefully. It is worth giving that some thought.



You can beat the fund manager

Investing is one of those rare pursuits where amateurs can have an advantage over the professionals.

It happens in almost no other field. If I competed against any professional sports person, I’d lose every time. If I was asked to perform dentistry or heart surgery, I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t have the years of training needed to perform these highly specialised tasks.

However, good private investors, who know what they’re doing, out-perform the pros on a regular basis.

Professional investors bump up against liquidity restraints all the time. This is why most professional investors tend to steer clear of very small businesses, or they run excessively diverse portfolios to avoid owning too much of any one business. The limitations of this approach should be evident.

Most professional fund managers can’t afford to have long time horizons. A year or two of poor performance and they risk the sack. This problem is compounded by the short-term behaviour of many private investors, who pile in to funds that have recently performed well and sell those that are having a tougher time. Short-termism is further fuelled by the incentive structures of professional investors, which often do little to encourage long-term thinking.



Learning compounds due to memory

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved.

When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.


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