Brooklyn Walk

Wen and I went for a huge walk around Brooklyn today. In honor of a recent NY Times article on Crown Heights, we decided to wander over and check out the historic district (PDF).

It – plus surrounding Bed Stuy – are a truly unique area and well worth a visit; here are some photos.

The historic district starts with a couple of gorgeous old apartment buildings – The Bedfordshire and The Imperial.

The Bedfordshire

The Imperial

The Imperial Vertical

Around the corner, it’s time for homemade iced tea. Note the peeling paint; what makes Crown Heights so interesting is that there’s a huge variability in both the architectural styles and also the quality of the buildings. Abandoned buildings sit next to million dollar row houses.





There are many, many local churches (almost all Baptist or Pentecostal):




Note the scimitar in the carving below!


We paused for shaved ice; well worth the $1.


This guy could have used some shaved ice; it was damn hot.


A couple more photos, showing the local character:




The Brooklyn Public Library (Eastern Parkway Branch) is right on the edge of Crown Heights:



And finally, a shot of the Union Street Bridge’s administrative building. Not anywhere near to Crown Heights, but I liked the photo.


The Sixth Borough

Today Wen and I went to Governors Island (yes, that’s no apostrophe). It’s a unique place: picture a combination of old Coast Guard base, now abandoned; an ancient fort, fantastic views of the city and lots of art.

Moreover, the future of the island is still being debated, but you can be sure that it won’t look like what it currently does.  So here are some photos of what it looks like today.


The island has stunning views of the city. I loved seeing the Brooklyn docks as looking out my window, I have the exact opposite views:


As mentioned, the island if full of buildings, most of them abandoned.


With so many abandoned buildings, the plant life is pretty lush by New York standards.


The island sits in the middle of the harbour and gets pounded by the elements. Rich textures abound


And finally, when we visited, the island was littered with art installations

Bill on Bill

Last night I had the chance to see Bill Gates Jr. interview his dad, Bill Gates Sr. at the 92nd St. Y. The talk was quite rambling, but three really interesting points were made.

Jr. was asked what he thought about Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hour rule: if you do something for 10,000 hours you’ll be an expert.  His response was quite nuanced.

He suggested that no one sets out to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert. Rather, lots of people set out to do something and after 50 hours, 90% give up. After another 50 hours, another 90% give up, et cetera. As a result, the only people left after 10,000 hours are the fanatics – and the have the benefit of great pattern recognition as they’ve been through many cycles.

Another good question was around what is the biggest lever to improve health care systems. Jr. stated that there are actually two:

  • Rising living standards. As people’s income rises, they spend more on health care
  • Childhood vaccinations. In 1960, 20M kids under 5 died per year; now we’re down to 9M. The eradication of Smallpox alone reduced this by 3M. That’s why he’s funding a TB and malaria vaccine.
    • One interesting addendum: he stated that when you increase vaccination rates and reduce childhood mortality, people start having fewer children as they know they’ll be there to care for them in their old age. This was something I always wondered about: does increased childhood survival lead to a population bubble and a lower standard of living for a society? Bill’s answer: no

Sr. closed with some wise words: remember that the only reason you’re successful is because you’re part of a huge, interconnected society. We often think that our success is due exclusively to our selves, but if our society wasn’t so vastly networked, we’d never achieve success on such a scale. A great closing thought.

Don’t Be Fooled By Black Swans

Last night Wen, Rich and I went and listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb be interviewed at the powerHouse Arena. I’ve been a big fan of his books for years, but this was the first time I’d seen him speak. The interview started on a couple of false notes (he spent a few minutes telling us that they’d all just been out for drinks; the interviewer apologized for her French-accented English), but he had a couple of quotable points:

  • The difference between a fool and a saint is timing
  • If a problem is too hard to compute, the outcome is essentially random
  • Black swans are not black swans for everyone: only for ‘suckers’. To be crass, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a black swan for Americans; for the terrorists were exactly what they were expecting
  • Debt levels map one-to-one with forecasting overconfidence
  • If I told you that you have a 3.4% chance of losing everything on a trade, you probably wouldn’t take it. If I told you that a catastrophic failure only occurs every 30 years, you would
  • Religion is not about beliefs, it’s about creating heuristics for people who otherwise couldn’t think them up themselves
  • The best science is done by independents (Einstein, Darwin), not by people associated with institutions – those people try to please the tenure committee. There probably isn’t a perfect institution for creating better science, but abolishing tenure is likely a good start. (This feels very akin to how innovation in business occurs)
  • ‘Forecast’ is ‘prophesize’ in Arabic – but how would you feel about next year’s business ‘prophecy’?

Basically, everything he said could boil down to the following:

  • Almost everything that’s interesting in the world is nonlinear
  • And no one really understands how nonlinear dynamics work
  • So if anyone tells you they do, don’t believe them
  • Instead, always compute the likelihood that something will happen…
  • …and make sure that you’re never the ‘sucker’ based on those probabilities

He closed with an interesting comment that he wants to move from a world of true/false to sucker/non-sucker. An interesting thought; if you get a chance to see him speak, do so.