On The Guns of August

I recently finished reading The Guns of August, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic about the Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Wilson, facing this group of “ignorant men,” as he called them, and accompanied by his fellow officer and future chief, Sir John French, “who knows nothing at all about the subject,” pinned up his great map of Belgium on the wall and lectured for two hours. He swept away many illusions when he explained how Germany, counting on Russia’s slow mobilization, would send the bulk of her forces against the French, achieving superiority of numbers over them. He correctly predicated the German plan of attack upon a right-wing envelopment but, schooled in the French theories, estimated the force that would come down west of the Meuse at no more than four divisions. He stated that, if all six British divisions were sent immediately upon the outbreak of war to the extreme left of the French line, the chances of stopping the Germans would be favorable.

Coming from Haldane this conclusion had a profound effect upon Liberal thinking and planning. The first result was a naval pact with France by which the British undertook at threat of war to safeguard the Channel and French coasts from enemy attack, leaving the French fleet free to concentrate in the Mediterranean. As this disposed the French fleet where it would not otherwise be, except by virtue of the agreement, it left a distinct obligation upon Britain…This curious document managed to satisfy everybody: the French because the whole British Cabinet Government had now officially acknowledged the existence of the joint plans, the antiwar group because it said England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a formula that both saved the plans and quieted their opponents. To have substituted a definite alliance with France, as he was urged in some quarters, would “break up the Cabinet,” he said.

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments Struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.

How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liege, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and how this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or “peace without victory” and would prolong the war for four more years.

At the time of the disaster General Marquis de Laguiche, the French military attache came to express his condolences to the Commander • in Chief. ‘We are happy to have made such sacrifices for our Allies,” the Grand Duke replied gallantly. Equanimity in the face of catastrophe was his code, and Russians, in the knowledge of inexhaustible supplies of manpower, are accustomed to accepting gigantic fatalities with comparative calm. The Russian steam roller in which the Western Allies placed such hopes, which after their debacle on the Western Front was awaited even more anxiously, had fallen apart on the road as if it had been put together with pins. In its premature start and early demise it had been. Just as the Grand Duke said, a sacrifice for an ally. Whatever it cost the Russians, the sacrifice accomplished what the French wanted: withdrawal of German strength from the Western Front. The two corps that came too late for Tannenberg were to be absent from the Mame.

But Francois faced battle, whereas Kluck, thinking he faced only pursuit and mopping up, ignored the precaution. He believed the French incapable, after ten days of retreat, of the morale and energy required to turn around at the sound of the bugle and fight again. Nor was he worried about his flank. “The General fears nothing from the direction of Paris,” recorded an officer on September 4. “After we have destroyed the remains of the Franco-British Army he will return to Paris and give the IVth Reserve the honor of leading the entry into the French capital.”

In conclusion:

After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Mame was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

A recommended read in the areas of history and military conflicts.

On This Is Water

I recently finished reading This Is Water – Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life – by David Foster Wallace. The content of this book was delivered as a commencement speech on 2005 and was highly recommended by Shane Parrish from Farnam Street.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us here, but the fact is that religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s atheist’s—arrogance, Wind certainty. a closed-mindedness that’s like an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

This is not a matter of virtue—it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract thinking instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me. Instead of paying attention to what’s going on inside me.

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”

Which means vet another cliche is true: Your education really is the job of a lifetime, and it commences—now.

A highly recommended quick read filled with inspiration.


On A Brief History of Time

I recently finished reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This masterpiece has been on my reading list for quite some time and I am very glad that I have finally come around to reading it.

Below are a few excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly perceptive:

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.

The theory of relativity does, however, force us to change . fundamentally our ideas of space and time. We must accept that time is not completely separate from and independent of space, but is combined with it to form an object called space-time.

The situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities: when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. Just as one cannot talk about events in the universe without the notions of space and time, so in general relativity it became meaningless to talk about space and time outside the limits of the universe.

However, general relativity claims to be only a partial theory, so what the singularity theorems really show is that there must have been a time in the very early universe when the universe was so small that one could no longer ignore the small-scale effects of the other great partial theory Of the twentieth century, quantum mechanics. At the start of the 1970s then, we were forced to turn our search for an understanding off the universe from our theory of the extraordinarily vast to our theory of the extraordinarily tiny. That theory, quantum mechanics, will be described next, before we turn to the efforts to combine the two partial theories into a single quantum theory of gravity.

Thus, in a sense, classical general relativity, by predicting points of infinite density, predicts its own downfall, just as classical (that is, non-quantum) mechanics predicted its downfall by suggesting that atoms should collapse to infinite density. We do not yet have a complete consistent theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics, but we do know a number of the features it should have. The consequences that these would have for black holes and the big bang will be described in later chapters. For the moment, however, we shall turn to the recent attempts to bring together our understanding of the other forces of nature into a single unified quantum theory.

To summarize, the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and backward directions of time. However, there are at least three arrows of time that do distinguish the past from the future. They are the thermodynamic arrow, the direction of time in which disorder increases; the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which i we remember the past and nor the future; and the cosmological arrow, the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contracts. I have shown that the psychological arrow is essentially the same ass the thermodynamic arrow, so that the two would always point in the same direction. The no boundary proposal for the universe predicts the existence of a well-defined thermodynamic arrow of time because the universe must start off in a smooth and ordered state. And the reason we observe this thermodynamic arrow to agree with the cosmological arrow is that intelligent beings can exist only in the expanding phase.

Even if we do discover a complete unified theory, it would not mean that we would be able to predict events in general, for two reasons. The first is the limitation that the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics sets on our powers of prediction. There is nothing we can do to get around that. In practice, however, this first limitation is less restrictive than the second one. It arises from the fact that we could not solve the equations of the theory exactly, except in very simple situations. (We cannot even solve exactly for the motion of three bodies in Newton’s theory of gravity, and the difficulty increases with the number of bodies and the complexity of the theory.) We already know the laws that govern the behavior of matter under all but the most extreme conditions. In particular, we know the basic laws that underlie all of chemistry and biology. Yet we have certainly not reduced these subjects to the status of solved problems: we have, as yet, had little success in predicting human behavior from mathematical equations! So even if we do find a complete set of basic laws, there will still be in the years ahead the intellectually challenging task of developing better approximation methods, so that we can make useful predictions of the probable outcomes in complicated and realistic situations. A complete. consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.

In conclusion:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

A must read that is relevant to everyone and anyone who is looking to better understand our universe.

Letter from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

I recently finished reading Letter from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by John Graham – written by George Horace Lorimer. This book was recommended by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street.

Below are key excerpts from this insightful book:

The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education.

There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.

College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool. And a good, strong boy will turn out a bright, strong man whether he’s worn smooth in the grab-what-you-want-and-eat-standing-with-one-eye-skinned-for-the-dog school of the streets and stores, or polished up and slicked down in the give-your-order-to-the-waiter-and-get-a-sixteen-course-dinner school of the professors. But while the lack of a college education can’t keep No. 1 down, having it boosts No. 2 up.

It isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.

Some men learn all they know from books; others from life; both kinds are narrow. The first are all theory; the second are all practice. It’s the fellow who knows enough about practice to test his theories for blow-holes that gives the world a shove ahead, and finds a fair margin of profit in shoving it.

The better trained they are the faster they find reasons for getting their salaries raised. The fellow who hasn’t had the training may be just as smart, but he’s apt to paw the air when he’s reaching for ideas.

It’s not what a man does during working-hours, but after them, that breaks down his health. A fellow and his business should be bosom friends in the office and sworn enemies out of it. A clear mind is one that is swept clean of business at six o’clock every night and isn’t opened up for it again until after the shutters are taken down next morning.

Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible. Procrastination is the longest word in the language, but there’s only one letter between its ends when they occupy their proper places in the alphabet.

A business man’s conversation should be regulated by fewer and simpler rules than any other function of the human animal. They are: Have something to say. Say it. Stop talking.

Remember that when you’re in the right you can afford to keep your temper, and that when you’re in the wrong you can’t afford to lose it.

A real salesman is one-part talk and nine-parts judgment; and he uses the nine-parts of judgment to tell when to use the one-part of talk.

Tact is the knack of keeping quiet at the right time; of being so agreeable yourself that no one can be disagreeable to you; of making inferiority feel like equality. A tactful man can pull the stinger from a bee without getting stung.

Some salesmen think that selling is like eating—to satisfy an existing appetite; but a good salesman is like a good cook—he can create an appetite when the buyer isn’t hungry.

A masterpiece that is filled with practical wisdom. A must read!

On Cosmos

I recently finished reading Cosmos by the late Carl Sagan. This book is an accompaniment to the wildly famous TV show of the same name: “At this writing it has an estimated worldwide viewing audience of over 200 million people, or almost 5 percent of the human population of the planet Earth. It is dedicated to the proposition that the public is far more intelligent than it has generally been given credit for; at the deepest scientific questions on the nature and origin of the world excite the interests and passions of enormous numbers of people. The present epoch is a major crossroads for our civilization and perhaps for our species. Whatever road we take, our fate is indissolubly bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science. In addition. science is a delight; evolution has arranged that we take pleasure in understanding—those who understand are more likely to survive. The Cosmos television series and this book represent a hopeful experiment in communicating some of the ideas, methods and joys of science.”

Below are a few highlighted excerpts from this masterpiece:

On Science:

Science is an ongoing process. It never ends. There is no single ultimate truth to be achieved, after which all the scientists can retire. And because this is so, the world is far more interesting. both for the scientists and for the millions of people in every nation who, while not professional scientists, are deeply interested in the methods and findings of science. So, while there is little in the Cosmos book that has become obsolete since its first publication. there have been many significant new findings.

On Biology, History and Physics:

Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know die past to understand the present. And you have to know to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find—only that it is very much worth seeking.

On Kepler and Newton’s contributions to science:

Kepler and Newton represent a critical transition in human history, the discovery that fairly simple mathematical laws pervade all of Nature; that the same rules apply on Earth as in the skies; and that there is a resonance between the way we think and the way the world works. They unflinchingly respected the accuracy of observational data, and their predictions of the motion of the planets to high precision provided compelling evidence that, at an unexpectedly deep level, humans can understand the Cosmos. Our modem global civilization, our view of the world and our present exploration of the Universe are profoundly indebted to their insights.

Humans as wanderers:

We embarked on our cosmic voyage with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.

On our loyalty:

For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation ancient and vast, from which we spring.

A must read for anyone and everyone!

On Reign Of Error

I just finished reading the next book on our reading list, within the Houston Nonfiction Book Club that I am part of, Reign of Error – The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch.

While one might not agree with every argument advanced by the author, your view about the education system will definitely be challenged by this book regardless on your current stance with respect to the public vs. private education debate. This book invoked within me similar feelings of transformation as did Naomi Klein‘s highly recommended, The Shock Doctrine, a few years ago.

The purpose of this book is in essence to answer four questions about education:

First, is American education in crisis? Second, is American education failing and declining? Third, what is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states: Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children?

Diane begins, by setting the background for her work:

In Hollywood films and television documentaries, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Traditional public schools are bad; their supporters are apologists for the unions. Those who advocate for charter schools, virtual schooling, and “school choice” are reformers; their supporters insist they are championing the rights of minorities. They say they are leaders of the civil rights movement of our day. It is a compelling narrative, one that gives us easy villains and ready-made solutions. It appeals to values Americans have traditionally cherished—choice, freedom, optimism, and a latent distrust of government. There is only one problem with this narrative. It is wrong. Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education as such is not “broken.” Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it. The solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised. They have failed even by their own most highly valued measure, which is test scores. At the same time, the reformers’ solutions have had a destructive impact on education as a whole.

Her premise to advance education is to reverse our current path:

Stop doing the wrong things. Stop promoting competition and choice as answers to the very inequality that was created by competition and choice. Stop the mindless attacks on the education profession. A good society requires both a vibrant private sector and a responsible public sector. We must not permit the public sector to be privatized and eviscerated. In a democracy, important social goals require social collaboration. We must work to establish programs that improve the lives of children and families. To build a strong educational system, we need to build a strong and respected education profession. The federal government and states must develop policies to recruit, support, and retain career educators, both in the classroom and in positions of leadership. If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools. We must act decisively to reduce the causes of inequity. We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of. We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation. Public education is a basic public responsibility: we must not be persuaded by a false crisis narrative to privatize it. It is time for parents, educators, and other concerned citizens to join together to strengthen our public schools and preserve them for future generations. The future of our democracy depends on it.

The language being used to drive the privatization effort is intentionally misleading:

If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that their children’s teachers will be judged by the same test scores that label their children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public knew how inaccurate and unreliable these methods are, both for children and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. And that is why the reform message must be rebranded to make it palatable to the public.

The movement towards privatization of education is a bi-partisan effort:

Perhaps the most curious development over the three decades from A Nation at Risk to the 2012 report of the Council on Foreign Relations was this: what was originally seen in 1983 as the agenda of the most libertarian Republicans—school choice—had now become the agenda of the establishment, both Republicans and Democrats. Though there was no new evidence to support this agenda and a growing body of evidence against it, the realignment of political forces on the right and the left presented the most serious challenge to the legitimacy and future of public education in our nation’s history.

While there has been an increased focused on more testing and standardization, the quality of education has suffered:

Surely, there is value in structured, disciplined learning, whether in history, literature, mathematics, or science; students need to learn to study and to think; they need the skills and knowledge that are patiently acquired over time. Just as surely, there is value in the activities and projects that encourage innovation. The incessant demand for more testing and standardization advances neither.

Diane then goes on to outline, sixteen claims/fallacies that the reformers have been promoting to advance their privatization agenda, and below I will highlight three of them:

First, the fallacy surrounding high school graduation rates:

CLAIM: The nation has a dropout crisis, and high school graduation rates are falling. REALITY: high school graduation rates are at an all-time high…If college completion is important as an investment in the knowledge and skills of our population (and not just as a credential), then we must encourage and enable students to persist. If we treated education as both an economic good for the ongoing development of our nation and a basic human right, then public higher education would be subsidized by the state and freely available to all who choose to pursue a degree. That’s about as likely to happen as becoming first in the world in degree completion by 2020, but it would move us closer to the latter goal.

Second, the fallacy around the academic challenges in poorer schools are attributable to the ineffectiveness of their teachers:

CLAIM: Poverty is an excuse for ineffective teaching and failing schools. REALITY: Poverty is highly correlated with low academic achievement…The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence. It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children. And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control.

Third, the fallacy that charter schools are the solution to the educational challenges of America:

CLAIM: Charter schools will revolutionize American education by their freedom to innovate and produce dramatically better results.REALITY Charter schools run the gamut from excellent to awful and are, on average, no more innovative or successful than public schools.

Before transitioning from the fallacies, to the solutions, the author reminds us again that poverty is not a problem that education alone can address:

There is no example in which an entire school district eliminated poverty by reforming its schools or by replacing public education with privately managed charters and vouchers. If the root causes of poverty are not addressed, society will remain unchanged. Some poor students will get the chance to go to college, but the vast majority who are impoverished will remain impoverished. The current reform approach is ineffective at eliminating poverty or improving education. It may offer an escape hatch for some poor children, as public schools always have, but it leaves intact the sources of inequality. The current reform approach does not alter the status quo of deep poverty and entrenched inequality…We need broader and deeper thinking. We must decide if we truly want to eliminate poverty and establish equal educational opportunity We must decide if we truly want to build a society with liberty and justice for all. If that is our true purpose, then we need to move on two fronts, changing society and improving schools at the same time.

Diane, then goes on to detail an eleven point action plan, of which I have highlighted six below:

  • Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
  • Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
  • Every school should have a full, balanced. and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign languages, mathematics.  and physical education.
  • Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
  • Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.
  • Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

On a concluding note:

Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear; on encouragement, not threats; on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the human person, not a slavish devotion to data; on support and mutual respect, not a regime of punishment and blame. To be lasting, school reform must rely on collaboration and teamwork among students, parents, teachers, principals and local communities. Despite its faults, the American system of democratically controlled schools has been the mainstay of our communities and the foundation for our nation’s success. We must work together to improve our public schools. We must extend the promise of equal educational opportunity to all the children of our nation. Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.

A very highly recommended read.

On Outliers

I recently finished reading Outliers – The Story of Success – by Malcolm Gladwell.

The main premise of the book, as outlined by Malcom is: “In Outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is mainly by asking where they dire from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. In Outliers I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.”

2- “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

3- “We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.”

4- “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.”

5- “Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying…Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful.”

6- “So far in Outliers we’ve seen that success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you are born, what your parents did tor a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world. The question for the second part of Outliers is whether the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears can play the same role. Can we learn something about why people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously? 1 think we can.”

7- “Each of us has his or her own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific.”

8- “The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how ten it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths ot the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a timesharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

9- “Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”


Omar Halabieh


On The Closing of The American Mind

I just finished reading The Closing of The American Mind by Allan Bloom. As the author best puts it this is a book on “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students”. This book offers a thorough historical lesson of our education echo-system and how it came to where it currently is.

Allan structure the book into three main sections. Students, where he describes the current state of students – particularly those getting ready to enroll in university – the books they read, the music they listen to and the relationships they engage in. The second section is “Nihilism, American Style” where the author discusses current culture (or lack there of), values and creativity to name a few themes. There is a strong focus in that section on Continental Europe and its thinkers –  and their influence on America. The last and final section “The University”  discusses the current role of this education centerpiece, and the back-warding it has gone through in terms of achieving its mission. Allan calls for a “revolution” of its role and a reversion to the roots of embracing classical liberal art and the early work of the Greek Philosophers.

A unique piece of literary work – based on years of research and experience from an educator. If one was to read one book on the evolution of education, this would definitely be a top contender. One that would make you think, and reconsider your views. The only criticism I have is with regards to the structure of the book which is sometimes hard to follow. That being said, the author does a good job of recapping the main point towards the end. To that effect it may be wise to re-read the book at a later point again, given the global understanding acquired from the first reading.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the souls of the young accounts for the difference between the students I knew at the beginning of my teaching career and those I face now. The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind’s eye that permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the assistance of literature in the grand style.”

2- “Thus, the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.”

3- “Values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them, to find the truth or the good life.”

4- “Good and evil are what made it possible for men to live and act. The character of their judgments of good and evil shows what they are.”

5- “Since values are not rational and not grounded in the natures of those subject to them, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect. Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values. .. Commitment values the values and makes them valuable. Not love of truth but intellectual honesty characterizes the proper state of mind. Since there is no truth in the values, and what truth there is about life is not lovable, the hallmark of the authentic self is consulting one’s oracle while facing up to what one is and what one experiences. Decisions, not deliberations, are the movers of deed. One cannot know or plan the future. One must will it.”

6- “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear. That is what tragic literature is about. It articulates all the noble things men want and perhaps need and shows how unbearable it is when it appears that they cannot coexist harmoniously. ”

7- “Many will say that my reports of the decisive influence of Continental, particularly German, philosophy on us are false or exaggerated and that, even if it were true that all this language comes from the source to which I attribute it, language does not have such effects. But the language is all around us. Its sources are also undeniable, as is the thought that produced the language.  We know how the language was popularized.”

8- “Men (in democracies) are actually on their own in comparison to what they were in other regimes and with respect to the usual sources of opinion. This promotes a measure of reason. However, since very few people school themselves in the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest encouraged by the regime, they need help on a vast number of issues – in fact, all issues, inasmuch as everything is opened up to fresh and independent judgement – for the consideration of which they have neither time nor capacity. Even the self-interest about which they calculate- the end – may become doubtful. Some kind of authority is often necessary for most men and is necessary, at least sometimes, for all men. In the absence of anything else to which to turn, the common beliefs of most men are almost always what will determine judgement. This is just where tradition used to be most valuable. ..tradition does provide a counterpoise to and a repair from the merely current, and contains the petrified remains of old wisdom.”

9- “To sum up, there is one simple rule for the university’s activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences tahat are available in democratic society. They will have them in any events.”

10- “It turned out that natural science had nothing to say about human things, about the uses of science for life or about the scientist. When a poet writes about a poet, he does so as a poet. When a scientist talks about scientists, he does not do so as a scientist. It he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science.”

11- “What happened to the universities in Germany in the thirties is what has happened and is happening everywhere. The essence of it all is not social, political, psychological or economic, but philosophic. And, for those who wish to see, contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task. This is properly an academic task.”

12- “And one cannot jump on and off the tradition like a train. Once broken, our link with it is hard to renew. The instinctive heads of scholars, are list.”


Omar Halabieh

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind

On Talent is Overrated

I just finished reading On Talent is Overrated – What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin. The main premise of the book is that performing at high levels is not a mere function of innate talent, but the results of years of “deliberate practice”.  The later is not what most of us consider practice to be, indeed it consists of the following elements: It can be repeated a lot, feedback on results is continuously available, it’s highly demanding mentally and it isn’t much fun. While this hypothesis may not be earth shattering, its implications and applications in organizations is far reaching. This leads us to rethink the following (as stated by the author):

1- Understand that each person in the organization is not just doing a job, but also being stretched and grown.

2- Find ways to develop leaders within their jobs.

3- Encourage their leaders to be active in their communities.

4- Understand the critical roles of teachers and feedback.

5- Identifying promising performers early.

6- Understand that people development works best through inspiration, not authority.

7- Invest significant time, money, and energy in developing people.

8- Make leadership development part of the culture.

Leading companies are one that have embedded the above understanding as part of their respective corporate cultures. The author not only focuses on the corporate world, but gives examples from a wide variety of fields to support his hypothesis, such as sports, music, chess etc. He goes on to also discuss what drives us to become great and the elements of passion.

What I particularly like about this book, is its one that gets you thinking outside the box, and makes you rethink how successful people in your life and their journey to greatness. This book is a must read for any leader to help him better unleash the talent within their organization. My only critique about this book is that it does not discuss in any depth some of the cases in our every day lives where innate talent has played a big role in helping the respective individuals achieve greatness.

I will end with a quote from the book: “Great performance is not reserverd for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.”


Omar Halabieh

Talent Is Overrated

On Grad School

A few days ago, I was asked to participate in nominating my graduate supervisor at the University of Waterloo for an award on excellence in graduate supervision. This event, together with a few conversations with some of my colleagues, lead me to reflect on my graduate school years. Particularly, I have been contemplating about how graduate school has contributed to my professional career development.

If I had to summarize my findings I would say that the most valuable skill acquired during that experience is that of working independently.  What I mean by that is given some very high level objectives, it’s the ability to define concrete steps and deliver on them to successfully complete the objectives . More importantly, working independently also requires the ability to be self-driven and self-motivated over longer period of times despite the ups and downs along the journey. In the corporate world, individuals who have this skill require very little management and build a very trustful relationship with their manager. Over time, they will attract more and more challenging tasks that will further accelerate their development.


Omar Halabieh