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20210509 – Range


The main idea of this book is to convince reader that narrow and early specialization is not necessarily lead to success in all areas, but rather only in very specific, human designed fields, which are subject to formal rules such as chess or some sports. The wider and more complex problems could be better resolved by people with wider experience in multiple areas of activities with approach based on wide range of ideas and knowledge. This diversity of experience, ideas, and attitudes could help looking at the problem out of box and find non-trivial solution.


INTRODUCTION: Roger vs. Tiger

Author starts with comparison between two sportsmen: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, one intentionally trained from early childhood and another one coming to the sport in which he achieved the top level relatively late. Author analyses how it happened and unexpectedly finds that the near elite who eventually failed practiced more than those who succeeded in becoming elite.

Another finding was:” an enormous and too often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”

The key inference from these and other findings was that success comes from diverse experience and relatively late specialization that better support new approaches leading to high achievement.

CHAPTER 1: The Cult of the Head Start

This chapter tells another story of very successful early training for high achievement – Laszlo Polgar’s daughters and chess. Then comes discussion of Kahneman and Klein work demonstrating that:” Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform. … In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.”

Then author provides multiple examples from chess and other formalized domains, which he counters with example of Steve Jobs and his class in calligraphy that eventually led to multiple fonts for Mac computers and Claude Shannon who generated theory of information from Boolean logic and experience with communication networks.

CHAPTER 2: How the Wicked World Was Made The next came look at Flynn effect in IQ testing. The improvement came from increase in experience with abstract thinking typical for literate people in city environment, but not very usable in agricultural villages. Author illustrates this idea by results of research conducted back in 1930s in Uzbekistan. Here is nice illustration when illusion works for educated people, but not for illiterates:

Author then discusses difference between narrow and broad thinking and its higher usability and value in the constantly changing world  that requires quick and effective adjustment rather that deep drilling into narrow field, if one wants to succeed.

CHAPTER 3: When Less of the Same Is More

This chapter narrates the story of Vivaldi’s figlie del coros, Jack Cecchini, and their non-trivial, but outstanding musical careers.   

CHAPTER 4: Learning, Fast and Slow

Here author moves to the process of learning and how it often comes down to getting the right answer to the test without really understanding underlying logic. It is done with algorithmically defined process – “blocked” practice and author rejects it as ineffective and presents ideas of “mixed” practice when student generate solution based on previous experience, free search, and some directional hints from teacher – the process much more difficult and time consuming, but also much more effective in developing problem resolution skills.

CHAPTER 5: Thinking Outside Experience

This chapter begins with the story of thinking outside the box in astronomy: Kepler and Copernicus and then discusses some typical non-trivial problems and solutions. After that author proceeds to review experiments by Kahneman and Lovallo demonstrating that familiarity with details of subsystem causes people to make logical mistakes of missing complexity of total. Author then discusses use and misuse of analogical thinking and concludes that wide range knowledge, even if not very deep, helps to solve problems by finding applicable analogies. Experiments demonstrate that this method produces better results than approach based on deep and very precise knowledge that often limits search of solution to very narrow range of possibilities.

CHAPTER 6: The Trouble with Too Much Grit

In this chapter author brings the story of Van Gogh to discuss “match quality” – degree of fit between individual and work he/she does by using research of Ofer Malamud related to early vs. late specialization of students that demonstrated superiority of later choice. Author links it to ideas of “Grit” as explanation of success and pretty much rejects it by stating that match is more important and good match could be achieved only via experience. Therefore one should be ready to give up on something that is not working and move on to something that has better chance of working.

CHAPTER 7: Flirting with Your Possible Selves

The next story is about Frances Hesselbein who found her true call as CEO of Girl scouts at rather late age and mostly serendipitously. Author also discusses works of David Gilbert on “Predictors” and “Reflectors”, Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow test”, Herminia Ibarra’s “plan-and-implement” vs. “test-and-learn” models, and a few typical stories concluding once again that flexibility is better fit to generate success than dogged rigidity of pursuit of preset objective.

CHAPTER 8: The Outsider Advantage

This is a set of other examples of specialists not able to resolve problems and helped by amateurs with wider scope of knowledge. These examples are for website inviting everybody participate that generate solutions, Exxon Valdez sill handling, Swanson ideas about “Undiscovered public knowledge, and so on. Here is author’s general conclusion for this chapter: “The more information specialists create, the more opportunity exists for curious dilettantes to contribute by merging strands of widely available but disparate information—undiscovered public knowledge, as Don Swanson called it. The larger and more easily accessible the library of human knowledge, the more chances for inquisitive patrons to make connections at the cutting edge. An operation like InnoCentive, which at first blush seems totally counterintuitive, should become even more fruitful as specialization accelerates. It isn’t just the increase in new knowledge that generates opportunities for nonspecialists, though. In a race to the forefront, a lot of useful knowledge is simply left behind to molder. That presents another kind of opportunity for those who want to create and invent but who cannot or simply do not want to work at the cutting edge. They can push forward by looking back; they can excavate old knowledge but wield it in a new way.”

CHAPTER 9: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

This chapter starts with the stories of non-trivial approach to various “wicked” problems such as computer games that produced Nintendo, 3M that produced stickers, and others concluding:” Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”

CHAPTER 10: Fooled by Expertise

In this chapter author moves from non-specialists who solve problems to experts who create problems. He uses wonderful example of Paul Ehrlich and his prophecies and then moves to discuss Tetlock’s research and results, both original and recent, about more effective methods of predictions of the future.  

CHAPTER 11: Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools

This is about use and misuse of statistical analysis for which author uses business case of car race decision making and real case of causes of Challenger incident, which also was converted into business case. From this author moves to firefighters who were not able to change their typical MO in non-typical situation resulting in their death. Author presents here the problem of overspecialization that narrows scope of search for solution resulting in failure and suggest different approach:” Even now, even in endeavors that engender specialization unprecedented in history, there are beacons of breadth. Individuals who live by historian Arnold Toynbee’s words that “no tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.” Rather than wielding a single tool, they have managed to collect and protect an entire toolshed, and they show the power of range in a hyperspecialized world.”  

CHAPTER 12: Deliberate Amateurs

The final chapter is about successful amateurs who actually solve problems because they do not know that these problems are not solvable. Author uses here example of Oliver Smithies who worked in various areas getting Nobel level results and then discusses work of Casadevall who analyzed current situation in science and research and concluded that its stress on deep specialization and publishing rather than application of results to technology is not really that productive.   

CONCLUSION: Expanding Your Range

In conclusion author pretty much comes up with recommendation to expand one’s range, not to be afraid that it is too late, and try to use this range to pursue whatever objective is desired.


It is nice book that provides lots of examples for such views at various problems’ solution and approach to learning that I believed for a very long time, ever since I was deciding what to do after the school. Back then I choose less specialization and wider approach to education and training and this choice served me well. I did a lot of various staff: computer hardware, software, management, business consulting, and a few others in two very different countries and cultures, so I can confirm based on my experience that it did helped with complex problems to use analogies and tools from unrelated fields. So, ideas of this books are not new, but narrative is quite entertaining.

20210502 Turchin, Peter – Ages of Discord


The main idea of this book is to use variation of specific parameters such as state power, population wellbeing, and elite internal conflict to demonstrate cyclical character of society development when periods of stability follow by periods of disintegration and back to stability and prosperity. Then these ideas applied to specific case of USA, which is currently seems to be moving now into period of discord.


PART ONE A Theoretical Introduction
1: Multi-Secular Cycles in Historical and Modern Societies
Author starts by using American Civil war as an example of fragility of human societies, the example that is currently nearly forgotten. Then he discusses new approach to history – Cliodynamics, which evaluates historic events based on measurable parameters and using this evaluation to predict future events. Author provides example for use of such parameters to calculate Index of Political Instability as applied to history:

PART TWO Overview of Structural Demographic Variables: 1780-2010

Part II presents a systematic survey of time-series data on the overall dynamics of the fundamental variables of the structural-demographic model over the entire history of the United States.

3: Demography and Wellbeing
In this chapter author discusses demographical parameters that have impact of societies development such as Labor supply, Economic Wellbeing as it is expressed via real wages, physical stature of population as function of of food availability and environmental conditions, life expectancy, and age at first marriage as a proxy for Social mood. The author synthetizes it for United States as it is presented in a graph:

4: Elite Dynamics
Here author analyses the second component – American elite. Author defines it as combination of bureaucratic elite and wealth elite, the division specific for USA because in great many other countries like Russia or Chine, the bureaucracy runs supreme. Author then discusses number of elite members and their proportion in population mainly on the basis of wealth. Here is the relevant graph:

For purposes of estimation of society’s stability it is important to analyze intraelite data, which are not normally available, so author uses proxies such as data for law and business students. He then analyses levels of elite fragmentation by using as proxy levels of political fragmentation. Here is graph of polarization based on the US House data:

Overall author concludes that there is clear elite overproduction:” The empirical survey in this chapter, thus, suggests that between 1780 and 2010 the factors reflecting elite overproduction moved cyclically and were positively (if imperfectly) correlated. What is particularly interesting is that the overall curve reflecting elite overproduction was negatively correlated with the average wellbeing curve. Over the course of American history elite overproduction and popular wellbeing have moved in opposite directions…”  Here is the graph:

5: The State

Here author discusses the growth of state power in USA as force parallel to elite, and while intermixing with elite, but not exactly the same. Here is his synthesis of growth of the state combined with cyclical character of support for the state:” The history of the American state in the longue durée is characterized by two trends. The first was the shift from a minimalist role of the state that prevailed in the nineteenth century to a more activist state of today. The second trend was a cyclic one that conforms quite well with the pattern predicted the Structural-Demographic Theory. Integrative periods (with peaks in 1820 and 1960) were periods of national consolidation and patriotism, territorial expansion, and high state legitimacy. In contrast, disintegrative periods—or Ages of Discord—were characterized by particularistic mood, an inward rather than expansionist focus, and low state legitimacy.”

6: Dynamics of Sociopolitical Instability

In this chapter author reviews patterns of political instability and violence in USA based on number of event and fatalities:

12. From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution: A Dynamical Model
In this chapter author:” will follow in the footsteps of Chapter 9 by developing a quantitative model (using the conceptual framework of Chapter 2). A major focus will be the dynamics of general population and wellbeing since 1930 and why real wages stopped growing in the 1970s.”

13. Social Pressures towards Instability: From the Reagan Revolution to the Troubles of Our Times
Here author:” focus on elite overproduction, intensified intraelite competition and conflict during the 1990s. I combine the trends in wellbeing and elite overproduction with state variables (public debt and trust in the state institutions) and bring the three major structural-demographic components (population–elites–state) together in a single measure of the Political Stress Indicator”

14: Conclusion: Two Ages of Discord
In conclusion author summarizes content of the book and provides prediction of increase instability of American society in near future, which will continue for quite a few years ahead before it would arrive to the next period of stability and prosperity. Here is the summary graph for secular cycles:


This is one more book that looks at cyclical character of previous development and predicts period of trouble for American Society in 2020s. So far, these prophesies proved to be correct based on events of year 2020. I actually completely agree with these predictions, but not because of cyclical character of history. I think that period of trouble comes from society’s outgrowing existing methods of human interactions, exchange of goods and services, and cooperation. We are not any more in agrarian society when 90% of population had to work on land to produce food or even in industrial society when 90% of population had to work in industries selling their labor to produce goods and services. We are quickly moving into automated production society when only small minority would be actually busy controlling production of goods and services by machines. So, neither agrarian models of independent farmers or plantations with slaves, nor industrial model of managers and worker would do. Sure, automated production would produce more than enough of goods and services, but it could not possibly produce psychological satisfaction for majority of population. I think this problem could be resolved by changing of method of resource allocation and exchange rules, but it would still take quite a bit of time to overcome Age of Discord II.