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From Russia with Dreams

I recently finished reading Garry Kasparov's Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Garry is a chess grandmaster and was the world chess champion from 1986 to 2005. He is the guy who famously lost to IBMs Deep Blue computer in 1997. His book mostly talks about events in Russian history focusing on the rise to power of Vladimir Putin. Garry's perspective and writing are very thoughtful and if you are interested in modern Russin history I highly recommend reading it.

One quote from the book about the Russian mentality has stayed with me "[In Russia] thinking people do not aspire to self-realization." Self-realization being "fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one's character or personality."

The quote struck me with a sharp contrast to American mentality and particularly The American Dream. The Dream being, a path to better one's life through hard work and determination. It makes me sad to think of how many people in the world are not able to dream with such audacity. In many people's plans, the first part of building a better life is leaving their home country for a place more like the United States. A place where personal growth, through hard work and determination, is a realistic possibility.

Today I'm not taking for granted my privilege of being able to build a better future for myself and my loved ones in the country where I was born. Along these lines, I'll leave you with one of my favorite speeches from Warren Buffett.

Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You're] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren.

What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world? Do you want men to push around females? It’s a 50/50 chance you get female. If you think about the political world, you want a system that gets what people want. You want more and more output because you’ll have more wealth to share around.

The US is a great system, turns out $50,000 GDP per capita, 6 times the amount when I was born in just one lifetime. But not knowing what slip you get, you want a system that once it produces output, you don’t want anyone to be left behind. You want to incentivize the top performers, don’t want equality in results, but do want something that those who get the bad tickets still have a decent life. You also don’t want fear in people’s minds — fear of lack of money in old age, fear of cost of health care.  I call this the “Ovarian Lottery.”

My sisters didn’t get the same ticket. Expectations for them were that they would marry well, or if they work, would work as a nurse, teacher, etc. If you are designing the world knowing 50/50 male or female, you don’t want this type of world for women — you could get female. Design your world this way; this should be your philosophy. I look at Forbes 400, look at their figures and see how it’s gone up in the last 30 years. Americans at the bottom are also improving, and that is great, but we don’t want that degree of inequality. Only governments can correct that. Right way to look at it is the standpoint of how you would view the world if you didn’t know who you would be. If you’re not willing to gamble with your slip out of 100 random slips, you are lucky!

Buffet quote text source: http://www.businessinsider.com/warren-buffett-on-the-ovarian-lottery-2013-12

New Book

I just started reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. A couple chapters in and I am loving the book. USA Today's review sums it up pretty well "Enchanting ... Willy Wonka meets The Matrix."

I'm even more excited because a movie is in progress. Great to read a book first and then see the movie, not many of the science fiction books that I love are turned into movies. (none of Asimov's, Daemon or Darkmatter) Now back to reading!

Book Review: Raising the Floor

I just finished the book Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream by Andy Stern. Andy is the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), currently the largest employee union in the United States.

His main argument in the book is that with technology and jobs moving to the "gig economy" (think Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turks) more middle-class Americans will have a difficult time earning more than their parents before them. His proposed solution is a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for every American of $1000/ month. The UBI would replace all other welfare programs. I won't go into a full explanation, you can read the book for that.

Although I am not convinced that a UBI is the right answer for the United States, I am interested in how it might work in 3rd world countries. There it would be *much* less expensive and potentially much more impactful. GiveDirectly is going to try the largest ever full-scale UBI experiment in Uganda and Kenya. The UBI will be provided for 12 years to every member of selected communities. Allowing every citizen to spend more time on improving themselves and their community rather than just surviving.

More information is available on GiveDirectly's website. They have already raised $23 million of the $30 million they need to run the program. You can help by supporting one person in the trial program for only $1 a day here!

Book Review: Forward the Foundation

Yesterday I finished the book Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Asimov is one of my favorite authors, he wrote over 500 books in his life. About widely varying topics including fundamental physics, limericks, and religion. I've been reading books in his science fiction series Foundation for the past couple years. The Foundation Series is actually made up of a couple smaller series of books that all take place in the same universe.

Here is the complete reading order:

Robot Series

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) and/or I, Robot (1950)
  2. Caves of Steel (1954)
  3. The Naked Sun (1957)
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  5. Robots and Empire (1985)

Empire Trilogy

  1. The Currents of Space (1952)
  2. The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  3. Pebble in the Sky (1950)

Preludes to Foundation

  1. Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  2. Forward the Foundation (1993)

Foundation Trilogy

  1. Foundation (1951)
  2. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  3. Second Foundation (1953)

Sequels to Foundation

  1. Foundation's Edge (1982)
  2. Foundation and Earth (1986)

Interestingly, although Forward the Foundation is chronology the 10th in the series it was the last book to be written. In fact, it was the last book Asimov ever wrote before he died. Some consider the book to be autobiographical in nature. Many aspects of the main character, Hari Seldon, closely resemble Asimov. In the book, Heri works on what is called "psychohistory" which is a combination of mathematics and history. Two subjects that Asimov himself extensively studied.

Throughout the book, Heri is obsessed with growing older and not being able to finish his work before he dies. This gives an interesting window in the way Asimov was thinking about his own mortality.

Asimov died right around the time I was conceived, so I consider him my spirit animal. I highly recommend this book and the whole rest of the series!