50 Fascinating Things I've Read Lately


Source: Twice25.

One of the best parts about reading on a Kindle is that highlighting passages and finding them later is easier than ever. I try to do it as much as possible. In no particular order, here are 50 quotes I found interesting, startling, funny, or amazing from books I've read lately.

1. "During the Great Plague of London in 1665, the people listened with avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than they were before or since." -- Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

2. "People were so convinced that flying was impossible that most of those who saw [the Wright brothers] flying about Dayton in 1905 decided that what they had seen must be some trick without significance -- somewhat as most people today would regard a demonstration of, let us say, telepathy ... It was not until May, 1908 -- nearly four and a half years after the Wrights' first flight -- that experienced reporters were sent to observe what they were doing." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

3. "The Commanding General is well aware the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes." -- Economist Kenneth Arrow, recalling the response of his superiors after pointing out that war forecasts were consistently inaccurate.

4. "The average working day was in the neighborhood of 10 hours, 6 days a week. In business offices there was a growing trend toward a Saturday half holiday, but if anyone had suggested a five-day week he would have been considered demented." Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change, on life in American in the early 1900s

5. "I have never been in an environment where almost everyone misinterprets good fortune as genius." -- Anonymous investment banker, Conversations with Wall Street

6. "It took nearly 500,000 years for the world's population to hit the 5 million mark, which it did sometime around 8000 B.C. Human life was plenty nasty and brutish back then, but it was its shortness that mattered most. It took so long to get to 5 million because it was devilishly hard to keep 5 million people alive all at once." -- Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One's Expecting

7. "As John D. Rockefeller put it, the way to success is to (1) get to work early, (2) stay late, and (3) strike oil." -- Bill Bonner, Family Fortunes

8. "In 2010, two biologists at the University of Queensland in Australia tabulated all the mammals that have very likely gone extinct in the past five hundred years. This yielded a list of 187 species. Then they checked to see how many were eventually recategorized as nonextinct. The answer: More than a third of all mammals that allegedly were lost to time in the past five hundred years have since been rediscovered." -- Sam Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts

9. "You never know what the American public is going to do, but you do know they will do it all at once." -- Bill Seidman

10. "The world has produced about 1 trillion barrels of oil since the start of the industry in the nineteenth century. Currently, it is thought that there are at least 5 trillion barrels of petroleum resources, of which 1.4 trillion is sufficiently developed and technically and economically accessible." -- Daniel Yergin, The Quest

11. "It is safer to be a speculator than an investor in the sense that a speculator is one who runs risks of which he is aware and an investor is one who runs risks of which he is unaware." -- John Maynard Keynes

12. "My conceptual framework, which basically emphasizes the importance of misconceptions, makes me extremely critical of my own decisions. I know that I am bound to be wrong, and therefore am more likely to correct my own mistakes." -- George Soros

13. "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of the recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." -- Herbert Simon

14. Texas senator Phil Gramm: "If this is the bust, the boom was sure as hell worth it. You agree with that, right?" Fed chairman Alan Greenspan: "Certainly." -- 2001 congressional hearing

15. "There were children of what we would consider junior high school age who had to spend the hours from five o'clock in the morning till eight o'clock at night -- with half an hour off for breakfast and half an hour for dinner -- six days a week, in an ill-lighted, ill-ventilated factory, foregoing sunshine, recreation, education, and health itself to keep the family alive; and all this even if the employer was raking in high profits. It had been conditions such as these, appearing wherever the new industrial capitalism seemed to be making its most active forward progress, that had prompted Karl Marx to see if he could not invent a different system." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

16. "The peculiar essence of our banking system is an unprecedented trust between man and man. And when that trust is much weakened by hidden causes, a small accident may greatly hurt it, and a great accident for a moment may almost destroy it." -- Walter Bagehot

17. "In 1933, the United States and the major powers of Western Europe all had more or less the same productive capacity that they'd had in 1929: the same factories, the same farmland, the same people with knowledge and ability and eagerness to toil. But when prices are falling and credit is collapsing -- the sort of deflationary cycle that the central bankers allowed to take hold in the early 1930s -- the whole system shuts down." -- Neil Irwin, The Alchemists

18. "Some countries experience financial crises because their banks face collapse. Others experience them because their public finances are out of control. But history teaches one consistent lesson: Regardless of how the crisis starts, it will soon spread." -- Neil Irwin, The Alchemists

19. "'The most important product of science is knowledge,' the physicist David Gross likes to say. 'However, the most important product of knowledge is ignorance.' The more we learn, the more we reveal what we do not know." -- Dan Gardner, Future Babble

20. "It is a singular fact that the Great Pyramids always predicts the history of the world accurately up to the date of publication of the book in question, but after that date it becomes less reliable." -- Bertrand Russell

21. "In 1999, the Federal Reserve Board estimated that their sample of 138 large firms spent some 40 percent of their earnings buying back their own shares." -- Maggie Mahar, Bull!

22. "In the mid-1980s, operating problems took [nuclear] plants off-line so often that, on an annual basis, they operated at only about 55 percent of their rated total generating capacity. Today, as a result of several decades of experience and an intense focus on performance ... nuclear plants in the United States operate at over 90 percent of capacity. That improvement in operating efficiently is so significant in its impact that it can almost be seen as a new source in electric power itself." -- Daniel Yergin, The Quest

23. "We believe our own judgments are less biased and more independent than those of others partly because we rely on introspection to tell us what we are thinking and feeling, but we have no way of knowing what others are really thinking." -- Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

24. "New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." -- Sam Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts

25. "Full-time college students through the early 1960s spent roughly forty hours per week on academic pursuits (i.e., combined studying and class time); at which point a steady decline ensued through the following decades. Today, full-time college students on average report spending only twenty-seven hours per week on academic activities -- that is, less time than a typical high school student spends at school." -- Richard Arum, Academically Adrift

26. "Look down there. There are six million people with incomes that aggregate thousands of millions of dollars. They are just waiting for someone to come and tell them what to do with their savings. Take a good look, eat a good lunch, and go down and tell them." -- National City Bank president Charles Mitchell, c.1925, to his bond salesmen

27. "Since 1970, the 'vehicle lane miles' (that's the metric traffic engineers use to count how much we drive) consumed by Americans have risen by 150 percent. During that period we added only 5 percent to our highway capacity. Now you know why we have to much traffic these days." -- Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One's Expecting

28. "During the year 1932, the total amount of money paid out in wages was 60 per cent less than in 1929 ... American business as a whole was running at a net loss of over five billion dollars." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

29. "In 1979, the world's fertility rate was 6.0; today it's 2.52." -- Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One's Expecting

30. "The Pentagon now spends 84 cents on pensions for every dollar it spends on basic pay." -- Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One's Expecting

31. "With deregulation, [stock broker] commissions fell precipitously. In 1976, brokers had to move an average of $77 worth of stock to earn $1 of commissions; 10 years later, they needed to peddle $216 worth of stock to make the same dollar. The firms had to find another profit center [which became investment banking fees]." -- Maggie Mahar, Bull!

32. "The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have 'too much information' is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest." -- Nate Silver -- The Signal and the Noise

33. "The Federal government has spent about half as much on investment in recent years, as a share of the economy, as it did in the 1960s. As a society, we are setting aside fewer of our resources for the future and using more for immediate gratification. We have been consuming rather than investing. We're suffering from investment-deficit disorder." -- David Leonhard, Here's the Deal

34. "According to the medieval science historian Guy Beaujouan, before the thirteenth century no more than five persons in the whole of Europe knew how to perform a division." -- Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

35. "More data -- such as paying attention to the eye colors of the people around when crossing the street -- can make you miss the big truck." -- Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

36. "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguishable from the truth." -- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

37. "What looks like tomorrow's problem is rarely the real problem when tomorrow rolls around." -- Dan Gardner, Future Babble

38. "As William Galston puckishly notes, you only have to do three things to avoid poverty in America: (1) finish high school; (2) marry before you have a kid; and (3) don't have the kid until after you turn 20. Check off those boxes, and the rest of life generally takes care of itself." -- Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One's Expecting

39. "Millions of people are alive today because of the civil wars and genocides that did not take place but would have taken place if the world had remained as it was in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s." -- Steven Pinker, The Better Nature of Our Angels

40. "In the single year 1901, one out of every 399 railroad employees was killed, and one out of every 26 was injured. Among engineers, conductors, brakeman, trainmen, etc., the figures were even worse: in that single year, one out of every 137 was killed." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

41. "Medical knowledge about cirrhosis or hepatitis takes about forty-five years for half of it to be disproven or become out-of-date. This is about twice the half-life of the actual radioisotope samarium-151." -- Sam Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts

42. "What we refer to confidently as memory is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling." -- William Maxwell

43. "Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil-industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world's highest health costs (by far), the world's largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by age 75 -- and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades." -- David Leonhard, Here's the Deal

44. "Not until 1907 did Ellsworth M. Statler build in Buffalo the first hotel which offered every guest a room and private bath at a moderate price." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

45. "In 1910 [Ford's] price per care had been $950. It went down to $780, to $690, to $600, to $550, to $490, to $360; then after an increase due to the shortages and inflation of World War I, went down again until by 1924 the price of a Ford was only $290." -- Frederick Lewis Allan, The Big Change

46. "Greed is not simply wanting more; rather, it is taking more at another's expense." -- Peter Ressler, Monika Mitchell, Conversations with Wall Street

47. "A recent paper in the journal Science finds that people are coming to rely more and more on search engines rather than their own memory. When the study was released, many people fretted about this and how it is hurting our brains and making us dumber. While this is certainly a common argument, I took away the opposite conclusion. Paradoxically, by not relaying on our own memories, we become more likely to be up-to-date in our facts, because the newest knowledge is more likely to be online than in our own heads." -- Sam Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts

48. "In science, Thomas Kuhn, inventor of the concept of the paradigm shift, found that the greatest discoveries were almost invariably made by newcomers and the very young (think of the middle-aged former printer, Ben Franklin, taming lightning; or Einstein, the twenty-seven-year-old patent clerk, deriving E= MC^2)." -- William Thorndike, The Outsiders

49. "Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks." -- Warren Buffett

50. "According to one study by the United States Geological survey, 86 percent of oil reserves in the United States are the result not of what is estimated at the time of discovery but of the revisions and additions that come with further development." -- Daniel Yergin, The Quest

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.

The article 50 Fascinating Things I've Read Lately originally appeared on Fool.com.

Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2013 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Originally published