Highlights From Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately

One of my favorite parts about reading on my Kindle Paperwhite is it allows me to highlight as I’m reading and then go find all those highlights in one place on the web anytime I need them.

These highlights don’t always have a use case but it’s nice to go back and review those passages, quotes, or statistics that stood out to the first time through.

I’ve been on the road a fair amount the past couple months and my general rule is no wifi on flights for two reasons:

(1) It never works so I just get angry that I spent $20 on crappy wifi.

(2) It gives me a break from playing on my phone and allows for reading time free from distractions.

This week I went through my highlights to see what stood out so I wanted to share some of the most interesting things from the books and articles I’ve been reading lately.

David Epstein shares a stat in his book Range that I wish I had known when I was 18:

Three-quarters of American college graduates go on to a career unrelated to their major—a trend that includes math and science majors—after having become competent only with the tools of a single discipline.

There are ancillary benefits to attending college — learning how to live on your own, networking, socializing, learning how to learn, etc. But it would be nice if more young people realized their entire life won’t be defined by the major they choose while still in their teens.

This one was also interesting from Epstein:

The word “percent” was almost absent from books in 1900. By 2000 it appeared about once every five thousand words.

I don’t know what to make of this but it’s crazy how language and norms change over time.

The Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport novels by John Sanford are two of my favorite detective series. The new Davenport book, Neon Prey, is the 27th book in the prey series. Flowers has long been a single man but has recently settled down and is expecting twins. Lucas gave Virgil one piece of advice about having kids that I liked:

The best advice I got is, Virgie, is stop worrying and enjoy it. Kids are wonderful, even when they’re not.

The best advice I got from a good friend before we had our first child was this: “People who constantly complain about their kids are probably crappy parents. It’s fun having kids even when it’s not fun.” And I’ve found this to be true.

In The Big Change: How America Transformed Itself, 1900-1950Frederick Lewis Allen notes how much smaller today’s big cities were in the year 1900:

You could not travel far, on your return to the America of 1900, without noticing how much smaller the cities and towns were. For in that year the population of the continental United States was just about half what it would be fifty years later—a little less than 76 million as against a little more than 150 million in 1950.

For example, you would find Los Angeles a fast-growing little city of only 102,489 people—about one-nineteenth of its 1950 population.

You would find Houston a pigmy city of 44,633 inhabitants, as against over thirteen times as many in 1950; Dallas, another pigmy with 42,638 people, as against over ten times as many in 1950.

Skyscrapers, for instance: the tallest building in the country was the Ivins Syndicate Building on Park Row in New York, which rose 29 stories, with towers which brought its utmost altitude to 382 feet.

I went to LA last week. I’m guessing it probably would’ve been easier to get around the city in an Uber back in 1900.

Allison Schrager shared a good stat to whip out at your next Kentucky Derby party in An Economist Walks Into a Brothel:

Thoroughbred horses are inbred by definition: 95 percent of modern Thoroughbreds are thought to trace their ancestry to a single horse, the Darley Arabian, born in 1700.

Daniel Hamermesh notes how education level has changed in marriages over the past 40 years in his book Spending Time:

In 1979, only 40 percent of American men with at least a college degree had wives who also had at least graduated from college. By 2016 the comparable percentage was 70 percent.

I’m not sure if this means couples are meeting in college or if people simply tend to look for similar traits in their mates but this is a fascinating trend.

In How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen discusses the importance of good theory when making decisions:

Good theory can help us categorize, explain, and, most important, predict. People often think that the best way to predict the future is by collecting as much data as possible before making a decision. But this is like driving a car looking only at the rearview mirror—because data is only available about the past.

That’s a hallmark of good theory: it dispenses its advice in “if-then” statements.

This is why an investment philosophy is so much more important than any single portfolio decision. Uncertainty about the future requires an if-then framework for making money decisions.

This New Yorker story about the day the dinosaurs died from a meteor strike would make for an excellent book. I loved how the author describes paleontology:

Paleontology is maddening work, its progress typically measured in millimetres. As I watched, DePalma and Pascucci lay on their stomachs under the beating sun, their eyes inches from the dirt wall, and picked away. DePalma poked the tip of an X-Acto into the thin laminations of sediment and loosened one dime-size flake at a time; he’d examine it closely, and, if he saw nothing, flick it away. When the chips accumulated, he gathered them into small piles with a paintbrush; when those piles accumulated, Pascucci swept them into larger piles with a broom and then shovelled them into a heap at the far end of the dig.

Financial progress often feels like it’s measured in millimetres as well.

I stumbled across this National Geographic piece from a few years ago about where coal came from and it blew my mind. 300 million years ago trees almost literally grew to the sky, often reaching heights of 160 feet tall. The trees would eventually become so tall that they’d fall over.

But there were no microbes at the time that today chew dead trees into smaller pieces. So the billions of trees would eventually pile up, one on top of the other, but never decompose.

Then over the course of millions of years, these dead trees created coal that we now use as a source of energy:

Instead, trunks and branches would fall on top of each other, and the weight of all that heavy wood would eventually compress those trees into peat and then, over time, into coal. Had those bacteria been around devouring wood, they’d have broken carbon bonds, releasing carbon and oxygen into the air, but instead the carbon stayed in the wood.

We’re talking about a spectacular amount of carbon. Biochemist Nick Lane guesses that the rate of coal formation back then was 600 times the normal rate. Ward and Kirschvink say that 90 percent—yup, 90 percent!—of the coal we burn today (and the coal dust we see flying about Beijing and New Delhi) comes from that single geological period, the Carboniferous period.

Where does coal come from? Surprisingly, trees that died hundreds of millions of years ago.


Now here’s what else I’ve been reading lately:

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