Practical analysis for investment professionals
22 September 2016

Weekend Reads: Storytelling, Information Overload, and Chaos Syndrome

Posted In: Weekend Reads

This may come as something of a surprise, but television sets didn’t flicker into grainy existence nationwide in South Africa until 1976 and TV ads didn’t start until 1978. Programming was tightly controlled and limited to a few hours a night, alternating between Afrikaans and English.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t watch much television as a young kid. But we did listen to radio shows. So it’s not surprising that I’m still drawn to radio as a medium for storytelling.

One of the best radio storytellers I know is Guy Raz, host of the TED Radio Hour. Every week, he focuses on a single theme with three or four speakers (sometimes more) who take the idea in all sorts of directions. The show is “one of the most popular podcasts out there, drawing more than 8 million listeners on the radio and millions more podcast downloads.”

Twice in the past few weeks, I caught the show while driving and was riveted. Most recently, I sat in my car, parked in the driveway, so I could continue listening to the story of Neil Harbisson, an artist who was born totally color-blind. (He was featured in a show dedicated to the topic “Extrasensory.”) Now, thanks to a device attached to his head, he can “hear” color.

I know, I know. I can hear you saying, “Whaaaat?”

Well, imagine “hearing” a Picasso?

If this story isn’t mind-blowing enough, here’s something else I heard on an episode devoted to how big data is helping us understand the world and ourselves: Theoretical physicist Riccardo Sabatani tells listeners that the amount of information it takes to assemble a human being is the equivalent of 2,000 Titanics filled with thumb drives. “Every time you see from now on a pregnant lady,” he says during the TED Talk, “she is assembling the biggest amount of information you will ever encounter.”

If you’ve never listened to an episode and want to catch up, start with “6 Must-Listen Episodes to Get You Ready for TED Radio Hour’s Third Season,” which covers the “Seven Deadly Sins,” “Success,” “Keeping Secrets,” “Just a Little Nicer,” “Haves and Have Nots,” and “Peering into Space.”

And if you still have time, below are links to some other recommendations for interesting reads, in case you missed them.

But first, an historical side note on why television took so long to get to South Africa: Rob Nixon writes that Albert Hertzog, South Africa’s minister of posts and telegraphs from 1958 to 1968, “warned the parliament that ‘inside the pill of TV there is the bitter poison which will ultimately mean the downfall of civilizations.’ Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd likened television to poison gas and the atom bomb. The little box was a threat ‘to the racial struggle on a global scale,’ he declared. ‘TV would cause absolute chaos to South African life.'”

  • As Andrew Sullivan, the veteran blogger behind the now-shuttered the Dish, tells it, he was “a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web,” but he paid a hefty personal price for his “full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news.” In his deeply personal article, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan takes the reader along his journey back to finding himself. He makes reference to an alarming, but not altogether surprising, finding from a recent study of young adults that participants reported “using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.” (New York Magazine)
  • Wondering how US politics got so insane? Jonathan Rauch’s recent Atlantic cover story theorizes that the severely fractured US political system is plagued with a “chaos syndrome” and that the cure requires a return to establishment politics. (Atlantic)
  • It’s very likely that in the recent past you misremembered something. It may have been something trivial, like a password or small detail, or possibly something more consequential, like the time Oliver Sacks vividly described the scene after an incendiary bomb exploded behind his house in the winter of 1940–1941, when London was bombarded in the Blitz, only to find out many years later that he wasn’t there. As Simon Makin explains in, “What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember” “Most people think of memory as a faithful, if incomplete, recording of the past — a kind of multimedia storehouse of experiences. But psychologists, neuroscientists and lawyers know better. Eyewitness testimony, for instance, is now known to be notoriously unreliable. This is because memory is not just about retrieving stored information. Our minds normally construct memories using a blend of remembered experiences and knowledge about the world. Our memories can be frazzled, though, by new experiences that end up tangling the past and the present.” (The New York Review of BooksScientific American)
  • If you’re a regular reader of my Weekend Reads, you’ll know I am fascinated with food and stories of brilliant restaurateurs. One of my favorite television shows is Chef’s Table, a documentary series that devotes each episode to one of the globe’s most amazing chefs. Now there’s Chef’s Table: France. As Sophie Gilbert writes in “Is Food the Greatest Art Form of All?“: “It isn’t really about food at all — it’s about art.” For a dive into the surreal world of gastronomy, check out Nick Paumgarten’s recent piece on a restaurant that is booked until 2025. Or not. (AtlanticThe New Yorker)
  • On the topic of television, if you’re a fan of geopolitical drama and have not yet watched Occupied, a “straightforward noirish thriller” set in Norway, it’s worth carving out a big chunk of time for some binge watching. The sparse, gripping show, is based on a concept developed by best-selling crime writer Jo Nesbo. (The New York Times)
  • And finally, a look at some of the stranger names that crop up on US maps. (I admit that when I first saw the names, I thought it had to be a joke, and then I looked up a few.)

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Christian Mueller

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer for Barron’s and the Financial Times. Prior to her freelance work, Foster spent nearly a decade on staff at the FT as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau. Foster holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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