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.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson was a solid read first of interest to me when I saw one of the blurbs on the back jacket written by Derek Sivers, author of the excellent Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, and I enjoyed quite a bit the book from Manson, with some of the things that resonated with me noted below:

From Chapter 1 titled Don’t Try - The world wants you to care about everything, real success is only caring about the important things. Also, you shouldn’t spend too much energy thinking about what you don’t have.

From Chapter 2 titled Happiness is a Problem - A principle of the Buddha is that pain and loss are inevitable, one should let go of trying to resist them. Additionally from this chapter is to not hope for a life without problems, but try to have good problems, and happiness is from solving problems, along with the notion that who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.

From Chapter 3 titled You Are Not Special - Entitlement is a failed strategy and people should try to resist the tyranny of exceptionalism.

From Chapter 4 titled The Value of Suffering - We decide what our values are, either for better or worse.

From Chapter 5 titled You Are Always Choosing - It’s not always your fault when bad things happen, but you’re responsible for how you feel about and react to things.

From Chapter 6 titled You’re Wrong About Everything (But So Am I) - Growth is iterative, don’t try to be right about everything, just try to be a little less wrong tomorrow, and admit when you’re wrong.

From Chapter 7 titled Failure is the Way Forward - Don’t just sit there, do... anything.

From Chapter 8 titled The Importance of Saying No - When you choose a value for yourself, you reject alternate values. Also settling down into a life by definition means you’re rejecting alternate lives.

From Chapter 9 titled ... And Then You Die - Was about the death of his friend Josh in their late teens and noted that since we’re all going to die, you may as well do something and be productive.

Really a good book and additional writing from Manson can be found on his website.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was a lyrically written and excellent book from a geochemist, geobiologist, and professor who studies trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Jahren writes in the beginning how she grew up the daughter of a scientist in small town Minnesota, 100 miles from Minneapolis and how science appealed to her when young, with it being so much about doing and working with things.

The book is about science and Jahren's love of it, but even more so, it's about her life and a friendship and work partnership that she formed while still a graduate student. There's great tales of she and her colleague Bill acting as co-conspirators in life and work, and traveling the world, with after meeting at Berkeley, stops in Atlanta, Baltimore, the Arctic, Norway, and Hawaii. In many ways, the book is like a traveling road trip story featuring two people on the same wavelength, both in how they interacted with each other and with students, teaching them to get into the muck and dive into their work. Jahren describes her work partner as being someone eclectic, loyal, and interesting, and it's really compelling reading on him.

In relation to herself, Jahren writes of how she suffered from anxiety, mania, and debilitating depression and how after meeting her future husband, marrying, and becoming pregnant, how difficult it was to be off medication early in the pregnancy and she notes how a bipolar woman seven times more likely to have an episode while pregnant as when not.

Jahren also details how when her son was about to start school, she and her family moved to Europe for a year, and recounts the story of her partner in crime Bill coming to visit, with him on the heels of dealing with having his elderly father die. It's just a really great story of friendship and Jahren at the end writes of both her family and Bill having moved to Hawaii and she saying goodnight to her son, writing of it with the memorable phrase that "raising a child is essentially one long, slow agony of letting go" and then leaving for the lab to work with Bill, where she'll "use the other half of her heart."

Two additional things I enjoyed from the book were how Jahren uses one of my favorite words in doppelganger, and in the epilogue has an encouragement for people to plant a tree a year, perhaps an oak or something of a similar solid ilk.

The Best Team Money Can Buy from Molly Knight

The Best Team Money Can Buy from Molly Knight was a good read subtitled The Los Angeles Dodgers Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse.

The book was published in 2015 and covers the events leading up to the 2012 sale of the Dodgers by Frank McCourt to The Guggenheim Partners led by Mark Walter and then heavily focuses on the 2013 season and a bit on the 2014 campaign and it's aftermath.

Knight starts things off with a story of her going in January 2014 to Clayton Kershaw's Dallas-area home and being there when news broke of his seven year $215M contract extension with the Dodgers, and then after this, she begins the main part of the book by chronicling the dysfunction of the team under Frank and Jaime McCourt prior to their divorce that ultimately forced the sale of the team. She covers the mega-trade towards the end of the 2012 season for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford from the Red Sox, and details well the following season and it's key contributors, including manager Don Mattingly, along with players Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Kenley Jansen, Gonzalez, and especially Kershaw and Yasiel Puig.

It's a solid book about interesting characters, but suffers the fate that many sports books do in both aging quickly, and not having the most compelling finish possible, with a comparison being the Tom Verducci book The Cubs Way that was published in the offseason following Chicago's historic 2016 World Championship.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer was a interesting non-fiction tale of history and danger about the preservation of historical manuscripts in the African country of Mali.

The book centers on Abdel Kader Haidara, who followed in the footsteps of his father, a scholar and Islamic judicial authority who died in 1981 when Haidara was seventeen. He was named in his father's will as the custodian of the family library, and starting in 1985, worked on behalf of the Ahmed Baba Institute, purchasing manuscripts from people who had them in their homes and attempting to preserve and protect the precious documents against termites and the ravages of time. The manuscripts dated back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and contained African history, logic, astrology, music, medicine, and notions celebrating both humanity and religion.

Hammer wrote of how he in 2006 wrote a piece for the Smithsonian Magazine on Haidara and his efforts and at the time, the author saw the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism in the area. The book covers how unrest in the region started to intensify in 2011 and in early 2012, Tuareg rebels took control of Timbuktu and instituted a harsh brand of Islamic governing with whippings and other atrocities. Islamist jihadis then took out the Tuaregs in July and put in place Shariah law and even more draconian measures including amputations, firing squads, and stonings as punishment for acts they deemed wrong.

With these extremists in power and trumpeting their interpretation of Islam as rejecting some of what the manuscripts contained, Haidara feared the documents could be destroyed for representing ideas counter to their notion of Islam and in the summer to fall of 2012 evacuated 270,000 of the 377,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu. The extremists grip on the region became tenuous as international pressure mounted and the French launched an offensive against the jihadis in early 2013. Of the roughly 100,000 manuscripts remaining hidden in Timbuktu, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters found and destroyed 4,000 of them, confirming to Haidara the importance of getting them out of the area and Haidara had the remaining documents go down the Niger River to safety. The French then defeated the jihadis in March 2013, taking back Mali.

While the book a story of a dangerous venture by Haidara successfully achieved, it's very much a historical read about what seems a horrible place to be, including the possibility of kidnapping of westerners for ransom money, and atrocities in the name of a view of a religion, with Hammer noting a terrorist attack at a Mali Radisson hotel in November 2015 that left nineteen dead. It's an informative and very interesting book, but also one that feels to portray that area of the world as one to avoid.