Sunday, March 18, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was an excellent and profound book by the late neurosurgeon who died from cancer in March 2015 and is survived by his wife and their young daughter.

Kalanithi grew up in a family that heavily valued education and after they moved from the Northeast to Kingman, Arizona, his mother got a college prep reading list for her children and Kalanithi at ten read the book 1984, then others such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Don Quixote, developing a love of literature. He attended Stanford, completing degrees in Human Biology and English Literature, and went through Medical School at Yale.

Kalanithi decided to practice neurosurgery and the book shows his interest in the counseling of a patient or loved one of a patient through horrific decisions and times, almost a pastoral role in relation to medicine. While he was about to embark on the next phase of his career, Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer and in the book he notes how he returned to performing surgery, with him writing “even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

Kalanithi and his wife Lucy decided after the diagnosis to have a child and his cancer began to resist the medications he was on some five month's after his daughter Cady born, with Kalanithi then dying three months later. The book is great reading... profound, sad, uplifting, and a well-crafted account by someone who knew that his time was short, didn't know exactly how short it would be and fought to extend his life. Kalanithi in relation to the times right after his diagnosis, quotes writer Samuel Beckett with “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bobby Kennedy by Chris Matthews

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit was a solid book by Chris Matthews on the United States Senator and Attorney General under his brother John F. Kennedy and who was assassinated in 1968, eighty days after announcing his run for the presidency, and five years after JFK killed in Dallas.

Matthews hosts Hardball on MSNBC and chronicles well Kennedy's life, skill at getting things done and concern for those less fortunate. It's noted how after the assassination, Kennedy's body was carried from New York to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington via train, with an estimated one million people, few well-off as Matthews put it, lining the tracks to pay their respects.

Kennedy's early political work was on behalf of his brother, starting with him serving as JFK's campaign manager in a Senate race, and continuing up to the November 1963 shooting of the President in Dallas. In their work together, Bobby was often the driving force behind things, and while Attorney General in the White House, Bobby's morals and being on the right side of history was evident, with the two of them starting what would later get signed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After the death of his brother, Kennedy won election to the Senate in 1964, and felt compelled to run for President in 1968 due to both his opposition to the Vietnam War and view of civil rights and the under-represented. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King's death is pointed to as an example of his humanity and moral compass and a fundamental idea that he put forth in his all too short presidential campaign was the important ideal that America is great, and should also be good.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke was a good book from the retired poker player, author, corporate speaker and consultant. The subtitle is Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts and Duke notes that it’s about separating decision quality from outcome quality, if the outcome bad, it doesn’t mean it was a bad decision if made based on expected probabilities and the probabilities favored making it.

Covered in the book is how there's different facets to probabilistic decision-making, it's ok to be unsure of an outcome, to say something will happen 30% of the time and have it occur, or to say you're 30% confident something will occur and it does, doesn’t mean someone is wrong. Additionally, probabilistic decision-making looks at expected pay values (return times likelihood of success) in deciding on a course of action or choice, and very much tries to avoid thinking in absolutes.

Duke writes about beliefs that they're formed by (A) hearing something, (B) believing it, and then (C) maybe later deciding if it was true. The opposite of this approach is truth seeking, something that's difficult to do, often involves looking at dissenting viewpoints, and can be done with the help of others, in essence a support group around not buying into fallback ideas of simple good or bad luck, with insufficient weight put on the importance of decision making. In relation to discussions with others, Duke brings up the idea of saying things following an "and" rather than "but" statement and in relation to the self when making decisions, people should think about the future-tense version of themselves rather than simply the present-tense.

It was interesting reading provided by Duke and she highlights how there’s two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck, and the key is recognizing the difference between the two.

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey was a work of non-fiction on Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot convicted for murder and who took his own life while in prison.

Patterson is one of the few mega best-selling authors writing today and this as with many of his other books was co-written with others, and tells the story of someone who came from a splintered home life growing up, took in with a bad crowd and made a series of horrific decisions into his adulthood while a wealthy and famous NFL player, with it coming out after his death that Hernandez suffered from brain injury.

The book doesn't feel to be terrifically written and come across as a fairly straightforward recounting of events and more than anything else, is just a shame of a tale.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi was a bit of a weighty read at times, but a good book with really solid material in it. The three authors are all educators and subtitle of their book is 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, with some of the key things that stuck with me noted below...

Concepts around practice
- Practice makes permanent, basically the building of muscle memory, and if practice not done properly, the incorrect way to do something can become ingrained.
- Practice shouldn’t be about scrimmaging or simple repetition of a general activity, it should be made up of drills focused on skill mastery.

Planning of practice
- Practice needs to be planned well to be well executed and there should be a specific objective to practice, not just a purpose.
- There should be systems to help enable effective practices, like signals to bring people to order and names for drills.
- Oftentimes there’s too many things practiced, the most important steps should be simplified and practiced; when successfully executed, complexity can be added.
- Once there's great proficiency at the simple tasks, it enables creativity to come through as energy doesn't have to be expended on the simple.

During practice
- Feedback is an integral and standard part of practice, not simply a critique when something done wrong.
- Specific feedback is key, and should come right at the moment something done.
- Someone should practice applying feedback immediately after getting it.
- Should praise the work that people have put into something so they know results are connected to work.
- Modeling is incredibly important, along with description of what’s going on, people don’t know until they know.
- Should model skinny parts, don’t try to cover too much, just as with practice.
- Remember that people won’t usually say they don’t get something.
- Video can be extremely helpful, both someone watching video of their own practice, and in viewing videos of practice conducted by people in that field.

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon was an interesting historical read on the December 16, 1917 calamity in Halifax, Nova Scotia that killed 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 25,000 homeless as the result of the most powerful man-made explosion until Hiroshima decades later.

Bacon tells the story of The Mont-Blanc freighter in New York getting packed full of explosives to be used in WWI, then heading to Halifax before the planned trip across the Atlantic and colliding in the harbor with another ship, the Imo.

It was interesting reading of the choices people made, going towards disaster or fleeing it, with the crew of The Mont-Blanc abandoning in the harbor their burning ship, knowing it would explode, but not warning people, juxtaposed with the story of train dispatcher Vincent Coleman seeing the burning ammunition ship and telling co-workers to flee, while staying to send a telegram warning away an incoming train.

Noted in the book was that the explosion 83 million times more powerful than a gun being fired, with subsequent ground waves causing shaking 110 miles away, followed by even more destructive air waves, or shock waves, gas bubbles racing outwards destroying things in it's path. The explosion killed roughly 1,600 people instantly, and in it's aftermath, people and communities rushed to assist, with one outcome of the disaster the strengthening of ties between the United States and Canada, with specific mention made in the book of Boston's contributions and how there's every year a Christmas tree delivered from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts in thanks, a tradition from shortly after the explosion that restarted in 1976 and has occurred annually since.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Books from 2017

The 35 books that I finished in 2017 covered a wide variety of areas and while it's of course an imperfect science to group them, below are the categories that the books felt to belong within, along with the count:

Fiction - 4
Memoir - 4
Sports - 3
History (recent as well as past and both biography and otherwise) - 11
Self-Improvement (a very broad definition and including both memoir and otherwise)  - 13

In terms of favorites, below are the ones that were the most memorable for me, whether due to the writing, the topic, or both... with the hyperlinks for each to my writeup on the book:

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner 

In going a step further in picking favorites, the ones that stood out the most to me were the three noted in the memoir category above. Each featured solid writing, with Shoe Dog written along with Knight by one of my favorite authors, J.R. Moehinger, and Lab Girl as well as Paul and Me telling stories that both inspired and brought a smile to my face. Additionally, these last two had the cache of being by people I hadn't heard of and felt to be in the hidden gem category, especially Lab Girl by a geobiologist about her life and work.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel that I hadn't read in probably 30 years and picked back up upon hearing that my oldest boy reading it for his fifth grade class.

It's a great book and what stands out for me after re-reading it is the character of Atticus Finch. I loved how Lee had Atticus advise his children Jem and Scout to think of how others feel by getting inside their skin and walking around in it, and also how Lee had Atticus speak of needing to do the right thing so he could face his children.

Additionally, Lee wrote of how Atticus a deadeye shot with a rifle, but didn't want Jem and Scout to know, and how whether people agreed with him or not, many wanted Atticus to serve the role he did. This manifested both in his appointment to the legislature and in him being named to defend Tom Robinson on trial. It was a character of great quiet leadership that Lee created and the strong views of right and wrong held by Atticus made the interaction between he and Sheriff Heck Tate at the ending of the book that much more powerful.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson was a solid book on someone with a remarkable range of interests, with Isaacson detailing well how da Vinci found his attention going in addition to art, to the fields of: anatomy, architecture, military engineering and weaponry, geology, birds, flying machines, canals and water flow, the playing and design of musical instruments, and putting on lavish extravaganzas at court.

Isaacson notes how da Vinci was certainly a genius, but also really worked to become that and chronicled his ideas in notebook form, with us today having some 7,200 pages available, perhaps a quarter of what he actually wrote. These notebooks are cited by Isaacson as the foundation of his book and one missive from the notebooks written of as an example of how wide-ranging were da Vinci's interests is his to-do list item to “describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” the output from which Isaacson has as the code of the book.

Isaacson writes of how he was very much an art for art’s sake person, one who preferred the conception of a piece of work to the execution of it, and continually tinkered with his creations, leaving much work unfinished, and kept the Mona Lisa with him till his death. The book details how da Vinci was basically self-taught, and how his painting used shading and blurry edges to show movement and dimension, and sculpture had twists and turns to accomplish the same dynamism. Isaacson writes of how da Vinci was just so curious about how things work and would doggedly pursue the answers, with the method to look carefully at things and separate out each detail. An example of this, which also aided in his artwork, was da Vinci's work in the field of anatomy, resulting in his incredibly precise writings about ratios in parts of the human body. Also, da Vinci worked hard at perspective in his art, keeping in mind people would view large works like The Last Supper from different vantage points.

In the conclusion to the book Isaacson notes da Vinci's ability to apply imagination to intellect and lists out what he views as lessons of Leonardo:

·         Be curious, relentlessly curious.
·         Seek knowledge for its own sake.
·         Retain a childlike sense of wonder.
·         Observe.
·         Start with the details.
·         See things unseen.
·         Go down rabbit holes.
·         Get distracted.
·         Respect facts.
·         Procrastinate.
·         Let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Pursue perfection.
·         Think visually.
·         Avoid silos.
·         Let your reach exceed your grasp.
·         Indulge fantasy.
·         Create for yourself, not just for patrons.
·         Collaborate.
·         Make lists.
·         Take notes, on paper.
·         Be open to mystery.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was a fairly interesting book on a fascinating topic.

The title is in reference to the work of Stephens-Davidowitz as an internet researcher and how what people do in searches more representative of them than what they say about themselves and the introduction includes mention of Google Trends, a tool that notes how frequently a word has been searched for in different locations and at different times. Also, the author writes quite a bit about large data sets, and how they enable someone to be very specific in pinpointing data with particular characteristics, and yet have that data set large enough to still be statistically significant. Also noted about big data sets is the curse of dimensionality, with enough data points, you’re going to get statistical outliers.

One thing I particularly liked from the book was mention of the doppelgänger concept that I've written about a couple of times, and how, given a large enough set of people, you should be able find someone similar to you, your doppelgänger. This idea is noted as working in medicine as well, an example being the site PatientsLikeMe. There's also quite a bit in the book about A/B testing and how data can take the form of words, with particular words used telling a particular story, such as how data can reveal usage in print of "the United States is..." vs "the United States are..." through time after the Civil War.

Another things that stood out to me was mention of how New Data is great in fields where there’s incomplete or outmoded ways and types of data. It's noted how the field of finance advanced enough that there's not much room for innovation, but in opposition to this, the story of Jeff Sedar, champion racehorse evaluator is told. He helped identify future triple crown winner American Pharoah based on the enlarged size of the left ventricle of the heart, with that as a predictor of success, assuming no contradictory data points.

The book brought to mind for me others I found compelling on similar topics and while it not one of my favorites in the area, it was an interesting and fast read.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown was a solid book, with the subtitle referring to a Maya Angelou quote about belonging no place. Brown writes of how she at first disagreed with the idea, then later understood it as saying that belonging is when you show up as yourself, and as a result, you belong explicitly to yourself. It can be difficult to stand alone in the wilderness, but it's being true to your beliefs.

Brown notes towards the beginning of the book not feeling she belonged as part of her family growing up, the worst type of being an outsider, and goes on to write about four elements of true belonging:

1. People are hard to hate up close. Move in.
2. Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
3. Hold hands. With strangers.
4. Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.

In illustrating her third point, Brown tells the story of her driving in Houston and cars pulling to the side with news of the shuttle Challenger explosion. To the fourth point, she notes how strong back, soft front is a Buddhist principle, and back to the overarching idea of belonging, she covers how people should stop looking for confirmation they don't below, and to be aware of the difference between fitting in and true belonging.

Brown is a good writer and at the end of the book makes mention of additional writing being available on her website.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner

Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner was a really enjoyable to read book subtitled 53 Years of Adventures and Misadventures with My Pal Paul Newman.

The story of the two men could be described as a yarn, romp, or celebration of lives that Hotchner and his close friend lived in full. Newman's experiences as a champion race car driver and prolific actor are certainly chronicled, including how Slap Shot his favorite movie to make and the hijinks that Newman got into during it's filming, but the book focuses even more on the adventures of the two together.

Roughly half the book covers their charitable endeavors, which were just as gamely and entertainingly pursued as their leisurely pursuits, and it was great reading of how Newman used his celebrity for such good, both in the money he gave away and in the cache his name and personal involvement carried in getting things accomplished in the important causes he cared about.

Newman’s Own salad dressing was started as a lark in the barn and the two men fairly early on decided to have all profits go to charity, with when the book published in 2010, some $300M had been donated. Additionally, Newman came up with the idea for the Hole in the Wall Gang summer camps for critically ill children and the he and Hotchner made the camp a reality, and a model that's been copied by other camps worldwide.

Also covered in the book are the end of camp season galas that over a period of 18 years raised an additional $11M for charity, and the book a wonderful tale of great things done by the two, with the legacy carrying on after Newman's 2008 death, and Hotchner now at the age of 97.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was close to the tenth book I've read from Bryson and certainly the longest, with at many times throughout the read my attention waning a bit.

The chapter I liked the most was the third, titled The Reverend Evan’s Universe about an amateur stargazer in Australia who looks for supernovae, or dying stars that collapse and then explode. What appealed to me about this particular section was the science blended together with a very human story, and Bryson writes stories of both adventure and people different than most exceptionally well.

Also interesting to me from the book was chapter thirteen, Bang, about an asteroid about a mile and a half wide that hit several million years ago where Manson, Iowa is, with the event known as the Manson impact. Bryson notes the passage of time filling the crater in and leading to a flat ground, something that makes entertaining how the impact attempted to be monetized in the area.

A Short History of Nearly Everything can be a slog at times, but Bryson's voice definitely comes through in the writing and gives the sense that he enjoyed learning about what he covers in the book.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone was really a good book about Elizebeth Friedman, whose code breaking exploits on behalf of the US government began in WWI, continued during Prohibition where she helped capture smugglers, and through WWII with her instrumental in the breaking of Nazi spy rings in South America.

Fagone details how Friedman started in code breaking through a fairly remarkable turn of events, with her just out of college in 1916 meeting in Chicago a wealth eccentric named George Fabyan and taking a job at his Riverbank Laboratories investigating the works of William Shakespeare and whether it was really Francis Bacon who wrote them. While at Riverbank, she met William, her future husband and fellow acclaimed code breaker, and WWI began with the US brought into the war out of an intercepted message from the German Foreign Minister proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico. William and Elizebeth began working at Riverbank for the military and for the first eight months of the war, they and their team did all the code breaking for every part of the government, with the two of them largely founding the field of cryptology, or looking to break the ciphers people used in sending coded messages.

Williams and Elizebeth married in 1917 during the war, left Riverbank in 1920, began raising two children, and continued working for the government, with Elizebeth largely focused on smugglers, and William eventually having his work revolve around decoding Japanese messages, and starting to show signs of depression and mental illness, brought on in part by the stress of his work. WWII began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and there was almost immediately a great concern by the US government about Nazi influence in South America and Elizebeth between 1940-1945 combated German clandestine spy efforts to get a hold on the continent. William continued breaking Japanese codes, suffered a mental breakdown in early 1941 and was never really the same after, and in December 1941, the US declared war on Japan After Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the US three days later.

Elizebeth was working on solving a next generation Enigma at the same time as British code breakers, cracked the machine and learned that Germany and Argentina were secretly working together, with her efforts helping force Argentina to split with Germany and greatly weaken them in South America. In addition to finding the information that would break spy rings in South America, Elizebeth also intercepted messages indicating German U-boats were targeted the RMS Queen Mary carrying 8,398 US servicemen and her intelligence was provided to the ship captain who evaded a U-boat laying in wait.

Elizebeth was part of the Coast Guard, but her work secret and J Edgar Hoover and his FBI would often take credit for her accomplishments, with another result of this that William for decades was solely noted as the force behind code breaking, and credited with the birth of the NSA, the part of the government that works in signal intelligence. Eventually Elizebeth began to receive more recognition for her work and William died in 1969 at the age of  78 and Elizebeth in 1980 at 88.

I found interesting from Fagone how the book came out of him finding a trove of Elizebeth Friedman letters in a library and previously enjoyed Fagone's book, Ingenious, and liked this even more, with both having excellent writing, and this one something that for myself was a more compelling topic with it being about a remarkable historical figure.