Category Archives: Books

The Four, Scott Galloway

The Four, by Scott Galloway is a smart, coarse, insightful tour of four companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) that are radically transforming the world.

Our economy (and society?) is increasingly dominated by a few multi-centacorn companies. It seems prudent to understand who these companies, what are their values, and what their ambitious plans might include.

Verdict: 8/10. Entertaining and insightful presentation of an important topic. I haven’t made significant updates to any existing beliefs, but I think I have a better and higher-definition model of how these companies are changing the world. Recommended.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker

Notes from Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker.

This book made me grapple with the actual costs of suboptimal sleep. I’ve started taking sleep hygiene and regularity much more seriously, to the chagrin of my social circle.

Why We Sleep was not my first introduction the the radical idea that sleep is important. So in what way did the book change my mind?

  • Make the costs of foregoing sleep more salient, and call attention to my insufficiently optimized my sleeping routine. Here’s a useful re-framing: Imagine I asked you to take a pill right now that would significantly worsen your mood, cognition, and energy level for the rest of the week. How much would I have to pay you to take that pill? I’m guessing it’s a three-figure sum – at least. It certainly is for me. So, why am I often willing to cut into my sleep time(i.e. take the pill) for a few extra hours of socializing, reading, or internet browsing?
  • Introduce and reinforce evidence-based tactics for better sleep, such as: Early AM light exposure, a bedtime routine, avoiding alcohol and heavy food in the evening, avoiding caffeine after lunch, avoiding blue light after dusk. I’ve already ordered my blue light blocking glasses, and I’ll be looking into a warm light alarm clock as well
  • As a result of this book, I experimented with two weeks of rigorous adherence to an optimal sleep schedule. My subjective assessment is that the quality of my mood, cognition, etc. is up about 20%. I still don’t quite want to rearrange my entire life around sleep – which is basically what perfect compliance would require – but I am much more likely to choose good sleep over things that interfere with it (staying up late, using screens late in the evening, drinking alcohol, coffee after lunch).

Why We Sleep could have benefited from tighter editing. The prose was occasionally lazy, and I didn’t feel the strong sense of authorial personality I rarely find in great airport books (Everybody Lies, for example). As a book, it is quite good but not great. As a tool for changing your mind and behaviour, Why We Sleep is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’m re-orienting several aspects of my life to support good sleep, and I’m strongly in favour of the policy and cultural changes Walker advocates in the final chapters.

The only major downside to reading Why We Sleep is that I am much less cool than I used to be. My friends make this very clear whenever I leave early from dinners, parties, etc. But I don’t plan to entirely give up on fun social events – I’ll just become an advocate for a new culture of great parties that start in mid-afternoon and end at dusk. Or perhaps earlier. Who says you can’t meet your friends at 7AM to do line up shots on the bar and dance the morning away?

Below are some of my Kindle highlights:

Page: 66

But if you bring that person into a sleep laboratory, or take them to a hotel—both of which are unfamiliar sleep environments—one half of the brain sleeps a little lighter than the other, as if it’s standing guard with just a tad more vigilance due to the potentially less safe context that the conscious brain has registered while awake. The more nights an individual sleeps in the new location, the more similar the sleep is in each half of the brain. It is perhaps the reason why so many of us sleep so poorly the first night in a hotel room.

Page: 138

In a disturbing later study, researchers in Australia took two groups of healthy adults, one of whom they got drunk to the legal driving limit (.08 percent blood alcohol), the other of whom they sleep-deprived for a single night. Both groups performed the concentration test to assess attention performance, specifically the number of lapses. After being awake for nineteen hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk. Said another way, if you wake up at seven a.m. and remain awake throughout the day, then go out socializing with friends until late that evening, yet drink no alcohol whatsoever, by the time you are driving home at two a.m. you are as cognitively impaired in your ability to attend to the road and what is around you as a legally drunk driver. In fact, participants in the above study started their nosedive in performance after just fifteen hours

Page: 151

I believe that the explanation resides in the bidirectional changes in emotional brain activity that we observed. Depression is not, as you may think, just about the excess presence of negative feelings. Major depression has as much to do with absence of positive emotions, a feature described as anhedonia: the inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences, such as food, socializing, or sex. The one-third of depressed individuals who respond to sleep deprivation may therefore be those who experience the greater amplification within reward circuits of the brain that I described earlier, resulting in far stronger sensitivity to, and experiencing of, positive rewarding triggers following sleep deprivation. Their anhedonia is therefore lessened, and now they can begin to experience a greater degree of pleasure from pleasurable life experiences. In contrast, the other two-thirds of depressed patients may suffer the opposite negative emotional consequences of sleep deprivation more dominantly: a worsening, rather than alleviation, of their depression. If we can identify what determines those who will be responders and those who will not, my hope is that we can create better, more tailored sleep-intervention methods for combating depression.

Page: 178

Although weight loss occurred under both conditions, the type of weight loss came from very different sources. When given just five and a half hours of sleep oppurtunity, more than 70 percent of the pounds lost came from lean body mass—muscle, not fat. Switch to the group offered eight and a half hours’ time in bed each night and a far more desirable outcome was observed, with well over 50 percent of weight loss coming from fat while preserving muscle. When you are not getting enough sleep, the body becomes especially stingy about giving up fat. Instead, muscle mass is depleted while fat is retained. Lean and toned is unlikely to be the outcome of dieting when you are cutting sleep short. The latter is counterproductive of the former. The upshot of all this work can be summarized as follows: short sleep (of the type that many adults in first-world countries commonly and routinely report) will increase hunger and appetite, compromise impulse control within the brain, increase food consumption (especially of high-calorie foods), decrease feelings of food satisfaction after eating, and prevent effective weight loss when dieting.

Page: 181

Despite knowing nothing about the underlying premise of the study, thus operating blind to the different sleep conditions, the judges’ scores were unambiguous. The faces pictured after one night of short sleep were rated as looking more fatigued, less healthy, and significantly less attractive, compared with the appealing image of that same individual after they had slept a full eight hours. Sundelin had revealed the true face of sleep loss, and with it, ratified the long-held concept of “beauty sleep.”

Page: 182

The less sleep an individual was getting in the week before facing the active common cold virus, the more likely it was that they would be infected and catch a cold. In those sleeping five hours on average, the infection rate was almost 50 percent. In those sleeping seven hours or more a night in the week prior, the infection rate was just 18 percent.

Page: 186

World Health Organization has officially classified nighttime shift work as a “probable carcinogen.”

Page: 196

REM sleep can therefore be considered as a state characterized by strong activation in visual, motor, emotional, and autobiographical memory regions of the brain, yet a relative deactivation in regions that control rational thought.

Page: 272

Second, alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of. When the body metabolizes alcohol it produces by-product chemicals called aldehydes and ketones. The aldehydes in particular will block the brain’s ability to generate REM sleep. It’s rather like the cerebral version of cardiac arrest, preventing the pulsating beat of brainwaves that otherwise power dream sleep. People consuming even moderate amounts of alcohol in the afternoon and/or evening are thus depriving themselves of dream sleep.

Page: 274

Glib advice aside, what is the recommendation when it comes to sleep and alcohol? It is hard not to sound puritanical, but the evidence is so strong regarding alcohol’s harmful effects on sleep that to do otherwise would be doing you, and the science, a disservice. Many people enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, even an aperitif thereafter. But it takes your liver and kidneys many hours to degrade and excrete that alcohol, even if you are an individual with fast-acting enzymes for ethanol decomposition. Nightly alcohol will disrupt your sleep, and the annoying advice of abstinence is the best, and most honest, I can offer.

Page: 277

A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C) is ideal for the sleep of most people, assuming standard bedding and clothing.

Page: 282

chapter, is the (ab)use of prescription sleeping pills. Sleeping pills do not provide natural sleep, can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening diseases.

Page: 291

The obvious methods involve reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, removing screen technology from the bedroom, and having a cool bedroom. In addition, patients must (1) establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends, (2) go to bed only when sleepy and avoid sleeping on the couch early/mid-evenings, (3) never lie awake in bed for a significant time period; rather, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until the urge to sleep returns, (4) avoid daytime napping if you are having difficulty sleeping at night, (5) reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts and worries by learning to mentally decelerate before bed, and (6) remove visible clockfaces from view in the bedroom, preventing clock-watching anxiety at night. One of the more paradoxical CBT-I methods used to help insomniacs sleep is to restrict their time spent in bed, perhaps even to just six hours of sleep or less to begin with. By keeping patients awake for longer, we build up a strong sleep pressure—a greater abundance of adenosine. Under this heavier weight of sleep pressure, patients fall asleep faster, and achieve a more stable, solid form of sleep across the night. In this way, a patient can regain their psychological confidence in being able to self-generate and sustain healthy, rapid, and sound sleep, night after night: something that has eluded them for months if not years. Upon reestablishing a patient’s confidence in this regard, time in bed is gradually increased. While this may all sound a little contrived or even dubious, skeptical readers, or those normally inclined toward drugs for help, should first evaluate the proven benefits of CBT-I before dismissing it outright. Results, which have now been replicated in numerous clinical studies around the globe, demonstrate that CBT-I is more effective than sleeping pills in addressing numerous problematic aspects of sleep for insomnia sufferers. CBT-I consistently helps people fall asleep faster at night, sleep longer, and obtain superior sleep quality by significantly decreasing the amount of time spent awake at night.VII More importantly, the benefits of CBT-I persist long term, even after patients stop working with their sleep therapist. This sustainability stands in stark contrast to the punch of rebound insomnia than individuals experience following the cessation of sleeping pills. So powerful is the evidence favoring CBT-I over sleeping pills for improved sleep across all levels, and so limited or nonexistent are the safety risks associated with CBT-I (unlike sleeping pills), that in 2016, the American College of Physicians made a landmark recommendation. A committee of distinguished sleep doctors and scientists evaluated all aspects of the efficacy and safety of CBT-I relative to standard sleeping pills. Published in the prestigious journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the conclusion from this comprehensive evaluation of all existing data was this: CBT-I must be used as the first-line treatment for all… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.

Page: 293

if you can only adhere to one of these each and every day, make it: going to bed and waking up at the same time of day no matter what. It is perhaps the single most effective way of helping improve your sleep, even though it involves the use of an alarm clock.

Page: 297

As my Harvard colleague, Dr. Czeisler has pointed out, innumerable policies exist within the workplace regarding smoking, substance abuse, ethical behavior, and injury and disease prevention. But insufficient sleep—another harmful, potentially deadly factor—is commonly tolerated and even woefully encouraged.

Page: 300

People often tell me that they do not have enough time to sleep because they have so much work to do. Without wanting to be combative in any way whatsoever, I respond by informing them that perhaps the reason they still have so much to do at the end of the day is precisely because they do not get enough sleep at night.

Page: 303

Workers in the far western locations obtained more sunlight later into the evening, and consequently went to bed an hour later, on average, than those in the far eastern locations. However, all workers in both regions had to wake up at the same time each morning, since they were all in the same time zone and on the same schedule. Therefore, western-dwelling workers in that time zone had less sleep opportunity time than the eastern-dwelling workers.

Page: 305

One organization above all has known about the occupational benefits of sleep longer than most. In the mid-1990s, NASA refined the science of sleeping on the job for the benefit of their astronauts. They discovered that naps as short as twenty-six minutes in length still offered a 34 percent improvement in task performance and more than a 50 percent increase in overall alertness. These results hatched the so-called NASA nap culture throughout terrestrial workers in the organization.

Page: 311

In the year before this time change, the average verbal SAT scores of the top-performing students was a very respectable 605. The following year, after switching to an 8:30 a.m. start time, that score rose to an average 761 for the same top-tier bracket of students. Math SAT scores also improved, increasing from an average of 683 in the year prior to the time change, to 739 in the year after. Add this all up, and you see that investing in delaying school start times—allowing students more sleep and better alignment with their unchangeable biological rhythms—returned a net SAT profit of 212 points. That improvement will change which tier of university those teenagers go to, potentially altering their subsequent life trajectories as a consequence.

Page: 316

functioning in the months ahead. Their “ADHD” is cured. Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky

What would the Harry Potter universe look like if the protagonist had been raised by an Oxford Professor of Chemistry instead of the Evil StepTropes? More generally, what would fiction look like if some characters were actually intelligent?

Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality by AI Safety Researcher / Decision Theorist / Fascinating Oddball Eliezer Yudkowsky answers these questions. It’s a great story if you like great stories, and you’ll enjoy it even more if you’re interested in the author’s non-Potterverse work on machine learning, intelligence, consciousness, and the long-term impacts of disruptive technology.

My favourite aspect of the book is the author’s creation of Intelligent characters. HPMOR has several Level 3 Characters. They usually make good decisions, they’re genre-savvy, and even when they make mistakes, they make the sort of mistakes that are common and realistic for smart people to make. The non-genius characters still make good decisions and behave rationally in complex situations.

Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Notes from Everybody Lies, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies is the best airport book I’ve ever read. It is this generation’s Freakonomics.

Summary: A fun exploration of some interesting results from recent literature exploring the rich new datasets provided by internet search, and a thoughtful meditation on the opportunity these datasets offer to economists. The titillating search data is bait, a spoonful of sugar to go with the medicinal call to adventure: there’s an exciting new world of interesting, actionable data out there, and economists should be exploring it with the same vigour they approach the BLS.

Some examples:

  • Traditional polling firms have not had a great year (Trump, Brexit, a few provincial elections here in Canada that defied expectations). Can internet search data do any better? Yes. When people search for candidate comparisons, they tend to list the candidates in their order of preference. So, Trump supporters will search “Trump Clinton” while Clinton supporters prefer “Clinton Trump.” Trump outperformed Clinton on this metric throughout the election.
  • Clinton was hurt by low turnout in black communities. Her polling numbers were good, but actual searches for voting information (location and hours of voting, for example) were way down from 2008 and 2012.
  • Do people turn to humour for relief from sadness? Counterintuitively, no. Searches for jokes are lowest on Mondays, the day when people most often report feeling unhappy.
  • Can you guess what are the most common searches that begin with “My husband wants me to…” ? You’ll have to bu the book to find out, because this is a family blog.

I laughed out loud a few times while reading Everybody Lies. There probably aren’t more than ten attempts at humour in the entire book, but when they land, they land.

Final Review, 10/10

(A note on reviews: I assign points relative to genre. So, a perfect score means Everybody Lies is at the extreme right end of the quality distribution for popular economics/science aimed at a general audience.)

Algorithms To Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Notes from Algorithms To Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

I enjoyed it a lot, despite my prior familiarity with the content.

My favourite new insight came from the concluding chapter on computational kindness: We can make life easier on ourselves and others by minimizing the computational requirements of our interactions. Being flexible when making group decisions is actually less “nice” than being decisive.

For example, would you like to meet for coffee next week at 2:00 PM on Thursday at the Bridgehead on Bank and Albert? Or would you like to meet for coffee “sometime next week, preferably somewhere downtown – I’m flexible”? Giving people fewer options can make their life easier. If they don’t like your suggestion, they can always push back.

Or maybe this just my new rationalization for being a selfish jerk when making plans with friends…

Computing takes energy and should be avoided – there are many other examples of this theme in Algorithms To Live By. Often when we think of rational decision-making, our mental image is a vast amount of time spent collecting data, testing hypotheses, reflecting on the results. But rationality implies an optimization process for deciding how much time and energy to allocate to each decision.

AlphaZero isn’t the best chess AI because it runs more cycles, or has more lines of code. It’s the best because it makes the best moves and wins games.

Final review: 8.5/10, a great read if you’re already knee-deep in the Rationalist oeuvre, and it if you’re not, it may also introduce some useful new decision-making strategies.