Moontower #54


There used to be this concept known as dine-in. You would go to a restaurant, park your car, then go inside and meet somebody known as a host. This host was in charge of finding you a table. With chairs. And you could stay there to eat an entire dinner. And other people that did not live in your house were able to go and sit on their own chairs at the same table. You would prearrange a meeting time with these people just as you do with an AmazonZoom date now — by texting them ahead of time to see if you had a mutual opening in your calendar. There were many more appointments in those days that needed tracking so you would not just presume they were free.

Back to the host. It’s amazing to think how they could coordinate all of this. Tables needed to turn over. There were only so many people that could be served every hour. Dead space was lost time, but the rent was still being charged. Not only that. Think of how much property the restaurant used to need. Space for dining room obviously, but that’s not even the half of it. They needed land for a whole parking lot. You can google image “parking structures” to see just how businesses would economize on that need. Ugly, but I guess they were effective.

Anyway, one of my last dine-in experiences was with a navy pilot who was shipping off to the South China Sea. He was explaining how China had been basically adding rocks to tiny islands to grow them. After 30 years, these man-made bodies were large enough for the Chinese to build bases on. I can’t help thinking this maneuver is both completely unimaginative and genius at the same time. But whatever your opinion, they were playing a long game. Many Asian nations stake claims to the various islands. Land disputes are common. A military base is a handier way to end a dispute than posting a flag.

(Quick aside on why my friend deployed there: Since WWII, the US has been chaperone to the dance of the high seas. Making sure the trade routes to the punch bowl were always clear. De-escalating tensions between the horny boys with their emerging economies and testosterones. Only the metalheads, playing the role of North Korea in this overreach of a metaphor, want a mosh pit to break out but nobody asks them to dance anyway. So the chaperone is there to hinder encroachment by the jocks who are most capable of inciting a ruckus.)

It’s hard to deny the sovereignty of a military base. So every time a cartographer sits down to update borders, the Google Earth satellite view is going to be a better guide to labels than any deed filed at [insert Asian country] town hall. Even natural borders like rivers are arbitrary. Like the spot of a football. They are subject to influence and judgment.

This brings me to one of my favorite reads. The powerfully provocative (and amusing) The Categories Are Made For Man, Not Man For the Categories.

Some teasers:

  • “…I have a special place in my heart for the people who occasionally try to prove Biblical fallibility by pointing out whales are not a type of fish.”
  • “Your job is not to draw “the correct border”. There is no one correct border between Israel and Palestine…Instead you’d be making a series of trade-offs…[and] there are also much stupider decisions you could make…But, crucially, they would not be false. They would not be factually incorrect. They would just be failing to achieve pretty much any of the goals that we would expect a person solving land disputes in the Middle East to have.”

The conversation extends beyond physical borders:
“Statements like “the Zambezi River is full of angry hippos” are brute facts. Statements like “the Zambezi River is the territory of Namibia” are negotiable.

In the same way, statements like “whales have little hairs” are brute facts. Statements like “whales are not a kind of fish” are negotiable.

So it’s important to keep these two sorts of statements separate, and remember that in no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect.”

Slatestar summarizes the primacy of facts and definitions that characterize so-called rationalists (a tribe he is undoubtedly a key member) with this:
Abraham Lincoln’s famous riddle: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” And the answer: “Four – because a tail isn’t a leg regardless of what you call it.”

(if John Wilkes Booth had to suffer through that riddle, then I don’t blame him)

Now it’s going to start getting weird for people who pride themselves on being very left-brained (a false binary I’m not sure why anyone would proudly subscribe to):

I take this argument seriously because sticking to the truth really is important. But having taken it seriously, I think it’s seriously wrong.

Pause. Here’s an inventory of the practical upshots as I see them:

  1. Categories are defined by people.
  2. The usefulness of a category depends on the context.
  3. Therefore applying a category requires discretion.
  4. Discretion is inherently negotiable

Ok, now I urge you to read the whole post. (Link with my highlights)

He’s a psychiatrist. It’s interesting to see how this has influenced his thinking on issues of mental health, trangenderism, trans-Napoleonism, and therapies. The “hairdryer incident” shows just how wide the divide can be even amongst intelligent, reasonable people.

I’ve written here before about my own recognition of how categories made up. It’s not necessarily inconsistent to treat a group versus an individual from a group differently. The context of relationships is scale-dependant. When I deal with an individual I do my best to abide by the zeroth commandment. (Link)

The Money Angle

A finance version of “categories are made for man”.

What is the definition of “risk”? If you ask a quant, they will say volatility. If you ask Warren Buffet he will tell you that’s stupid and that risk is the chance of permanent loss as opposed to price variation. I don’t want to get into a taxonomy of risk definitions. And I definitely don’t want to get into semantics. Or near-semantics like “risk” versus “uncertainty”.

Just like the border drawn on a map. It has nothing to do with some objective sense of right or wrong. The criteria for evaluating the definition of a border is simply how useful it is. The concept of risk is useful insofar as it helps you judge the merit of an investment. No single measure of risk is sufficient. Think of risk as a multi-faceted prism. The same investment projects different qualities depending on which angle you view it.

Check out this Twitter poll by @Econompic:

This poll targets differing views of risk. It’s trying to find a weakness in the “risk is volatility” definition. It does this by showing that asset B which has very low volatility is an inferior investment. It is, therefore, riskier according to any non-volatility based definition. It is riskier in a common-sense definition of risk. It’s possible however to find a context where the volatility-based definition matters. Let’s say you are a bank and mandated to hold all excess reserves in one of these investments overnight (I know it’s a stretch). Well, the volatility-based definition is useful if losing 2% in one day is an unacceptable outcome.

This exercise a reminder that any definition of risk should be evaluated by its usefulness. Any single definition is incomplete and insufficient for making an investment decision.

Picking on the quants’ definition of “volatility as risk” as popularized by Buffett is not new. Cliff Asness defends the quants in the first item of his cranky list My Top 10 Pet Peeves. (Link)

I also like #10 on poor justifications for individual bonds to bond funds.

I published my notes this week for an old interview between Ted Seides and Basil Qunibi of Novus. Novus is a fund consultant that is best described as “Moneyball for allocators”. Novus does performance attribution. Which means they figure out if a manager’s edge is what they say it is. If a manager’s performance has been due to good timing but they say their edge is security selection you should care. Especially if you attribute timing to luck as opposed to a persistent skill. You will also learn about the 4 Cs that they track and how they predict performance. (Link)

Climb Higher

So March is over. I know it’s hard to believe but it was only 31 days. Just like every other March ever. I’ve written about time dilation and how memories are the true x-axis in our experience of time. The topic is immediately relevant to all of us at the exact same time.

Morgan Housel wrote this week:

There’s a well-known idea that time feels like it speeds up as you age. Summer break feels like an eternity when you’re nine years old but your 60s can skip by in a flash.

The leading theory for why this happens is that the perception of time relies on the number of memories formed in a period, and memories are encoded from new and surprising experiences. The monotony of commuting to work on the same road for 20 years passes without leaving a mark. But every day is a memorable surprise to a child experiencing her first summer camp, or learning how big the universe is for the first time.

Time slowed in March because for the first time since childhood many of us are being bombarded with new and surprising experiences.

We learned that shaking hands can be deadly.

That the economy can stop overnight.

How much people can come together, and how isolating lockdown can feel.

Derek Sivers once wrote:

People only really learn when they’re surprised. If they’re not surprised, then what you told them just fits in with what they already know. No minds were changed. No new perspective. Just more information.
See the full post. (Link)

Going even deeper

More To That, with its signature cartoons, starts with the physical fact that time passes faster in the mountains than at sea level. It’s a fantastic and fun read. Don’t worry, it doesn’t go too Christopher Nolan on you. It ends with a provocative idea:
Remember that when you enter one of those [periods of shock], you enter a space where time expands, and things slow down substantially. The days will move by slower as the haze of uncertainty thickens, and you will feel each minute lengthen as familiar routines fade away into the background.

It is here where your decisions will matter most.

The majority of progress is determined by the minority of choices you make. Setbacks, such as the one we’re all in the midst of, is where we lay down the foundation for how things will move once the dust settles. It’s not the years of continual progress that builds our view of the world, but our response to rapid pushbacks that does.

Full post. (Link)

Last Call

  • Stanford is offering a free online intro to coding course with live instruction and help. Thanks to Avi for pointing out this sweet opportunity. (Link)
  • As I expected, burglaries are down. Unfortunately, domestic crime is up. Crime trends in the time of coronavirus. (Link)
  • Out with the walkscores and in with the speedtests. This clever table shows how the public scripts have flipped so quickly. (Link)
  • A computer in everybody’s pocket is one of those rare but massive shifts that delineates human eras. Studying the effects with traditional pych experiments feels a bit…underpowered. The right study feels like it needs to match the scale of the shift. Enter the “human screenome project” which I learned about in Brian’s letter. (Link)

Finally, 2 links that were especially outstanding.

  • The founder of Bonobos wrote a personal essay called The Risk Not Taken. If it doesn’t hit you personally, you can probably think of someone who needs to read it.
  • This video is supposed to be about how to draw better. It’s so much more. I wouldn’t be surprised if it helped push a few of you forward. Today. I think many of us need to hear this lesson. (Link. Only need to watch first 8 minutes)

From My Actual Life 

Lockdown living quick hits


We played lots of Sushi Go this week as a family. It’s a simple introduction to the “hand drafting” mechanism for the 6-year-old. Thought we’d give him a dose of that before busting out 7 Wonders. When my mom and cousin were staying with us for a few weeks last year we were playing that game nightly. Be cool to have Zak in the mix when we get the band back together.


I introduced Zak to Scratch Jr this weekend which is a block-based coding language derived from Scratch, a coding language developed by the MIT Media Lab about 5 years ago. It’s very intuitive. Within an hour Zak was able to design and loop a very simple story (a snake walks around on the screen, and when it touches the cat, the cat says “ouch”). It’s free. We used the iOS version.

Homeschooling has been more like homeplaying. It’s been really fun to watch the progression of how the boys play together with so much time together. They are role-playing Marvel, playing with Beyblades, fuse beads, drawing/coloring, building forts and jumping all over the furniture. Giving them “school” stuff to do feels like it’s more about giving us some quiet.

We implemented a system this week for Zak. He collects and files a bead for any of the following accomplishments.

  • Math (workbooks, online, Singapore math tests, Sudoku)
  • Reading (he’s into Bad Guys books)
  • Research (this is writing about an experience. So going on a hike, or something he learned from watching a video or show)
  • Act of kindness (this week was writing letters to grandma and a cousin. Could also be helping with someone else’s chores)
  • Games (playing Chess online)
  • Writing (any creative story or simply about his weekend)
  • Special Projects (ie learning Scratch Jr, science project, helping me with the Census, learning to ride a bike)

The rule is he must collect 3 beads per week per category, except acts of kindness which is every day. When he earns a bead he files it in a tray with compartments and at the end of the week, we reset. Week 1 went well as he felt like he had a say in how his days went and it otherwise provided a touch of structure to the day which is mostly them playing. 10am is garage time. That’s when they come to my home office and do stuff. Mostly jumping on furniture and pulling things out of storage that they shouldn’t. Like the plastic Easter eggs.

I got some inspiration of having a system from this post called Kanban Kids.

I’ll caveat all this with a quick thought. If the kids were singularly obsessed with something like music, chess, or anything where they were more on the “producing” rather than “consuming” side of the spectrum, I’d pretty much be ok with letting them do that the whole time. We try to span different things because they aren’t obsessed, not because we have an issue with obsession.
Date Night

We are very lucky to have Yinh’s mom living with us. Yinh and I were able to steal a few hours on Friday. We ordered takeout sandwiches from Southie’s in Rockridge, grabbed some sodas and fries from McDonald’s drive-thru, then parked in an empty lot to eat and chat without being yelled over. I’m not exactly recommending this behavior which I learned makes us scofflaws. Interested in how other couples are mixing up the routine.


We are still watching these Marvel movies. The 3-year-old is obsessed with Thanos who is one of the most diabolical villains ever. Channeling a Chris Rock joke, I’m thinking his 529 will be used as bail money one day. After the kids go down, Yinh and I are watching season 3 of Ozarks. Every time I watch Ozarks I go to bed grateful for how simple my life is. It’s like a parable of the perils of compounding lies. The relief after an episode ends is that same feeling when the alarm goes off, and you realize it’s Saturday.

Zoom happy hour

Saturday night a group of college friends got together for Zoom and booze. I do recommend this. It was a highlight of the week. When you are 20 years removed from college you probably don’t see your college friends that often, even if you  have a Whatsapp group with them. These happy hours are a COVID silver lining. Something that should persist when it’s all over. For a fun wrinkle, this week we all got on the Houseparty app which has a built-in trivia and charades system. It works well enough. The questions flash kinda fast. Or our reaction speeds are not on par with the average Houseparty user. Or we were all drunk. I’m gonna go with that.

Finally, some pics from our hikes this week.

This upcoming week Zak wants to do a 10 miler with a 6lb weight in his pack. His mother’s genes. I put a 25 lb kettlebell in my pack and was tired after a 3 miler. Lotta wood to chop.

The second bug is a yellow velvet ant which has a strong sting like a wasp. Its nickname is the “cow killer”.

Stay groovy.

Leave a Reply