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.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by Mark Epstein was a book I heard about from 10% Happier by Dan Harris, with Epstein written of as one of the people who got Harris interested in the practice of meditation.

The title of Epstein's book refers to it being ok for for things to go wrong, just those things don't then have to become worse than they are. If bad events happen, they happen, if someone sad or feeling empty, it's not awful for them to feel that way and the toxic part isn't typically the situation, but the reaction to it.

Epstein writes of how "happiness comes from letting go," which reminds me of Harris describing meditating as looking dispassionately upon one's situation and feelings. Related to this, another idea from Epstein is how people can often get so caught up in their emotional reaction to a situation they become paralyzed, one approach would be for someone to look past the current spot and at the next thing to come. Additionally, Epstein touched on something Harris noted, meditation doesn't have to involve sitting quietly by oneself in a room, however it occurs, meditation is about being explicitly aware of surroundings and feelings, not overwhelmed by them, but aware.

The book definitely didn't feel as entertaining as 10% Happier, but was a quick read and had some interesting concepts to it.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

10% Happier by Dan Harris

10% Happier by Dan Harris was a really interesting book about meditation, with Harris telling his story of starting down the path towards trying it after being a news reporter suffering from anxiety and having a panic attack while on air at CBS's Good Morning America.  He recounts how he went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with depression, and Harris then was introduced to Mark Epstein, a writer, Buddhist, and psychiatrist who extolled to Harris the benefits of meditation.

Harris writes in the book how meditation is about mindfulness, defeating the negative voice in your head and people shouldn't over-dramatize meditation or the practice of meditating. He notes describing to others his goal in meditating to be 10% happier, and the time required simply five minutes a day, if more spent, that's great, if not, that's ok as well.

In terms of actual practice, meditation is described as sitting comfortably and just feeling your breath, when your attention wanders from it, forgive yourself and just return to focusing on the breath. It's about being in the present moment, not letting yourself be consumed by thoughts of the past or future, and viewing things with a remove, simply observing things as they are rather than having a huge emotional response to them.

Harris also writes in the book about attending a ten-day silent retreat in Marin County led by Joseph Goldstein. The first five days were difficult for him, and then after being encouraged to not struggle, or worry about the struggle so much, he had a breakthrough of sorts, not necessarily enlightenment, but something where he could see the benefit of being there. Several of the things that he noted as having taken from the retreat and speakers there were to ask "is this useful?" about a potential reaction of his to an problem or stressful situation and to respond to said difficult situation with the steps of (A) recognize it, (B) allow yourself to lean into it, (C) investigate your reaction to it, and (D) have a non-identification or non-emotional response to it. Additionally, Harris noted having learned from the retreat the practice of metta meditation, the directing positive thoughts towards another person, for instance with thinking about them and mentally wishing "may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you live with ease" towards the person.

Towards the end of the book Harris writes more about others and the notion of having positive interactions with people and acknowledging their humanity, through things as simple as having a practice of making eye contact and smiling towards those he passes. Also noted is the idea of keeping in mind the question of "what matters most?" when considering a response to situations.

The book had a lot of interesting material and the writing of Mark Epstein seems a good place to go for someone wanting to learn more about meditation.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche was a fast and entertaining read with the subtitle A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime.

The book was published in 2004 and included as it's last chapter a feature (or slightly updated version of a feature) Langewiesche did for Vanity Fair in 2000 with "The Shipbreakers" on the largely manual tearing apart of ships in India. Additionally, The Outlaw Sea brought to mind a great 2014 story from Langewiesche titled "Salvage Beast" on Nick Sloane, a man whose business to board and attempt to either save or salvage the cargo from ships in distress.

One of the stories told in The Outlaw Law that stood out as particular interesting was on the 1994 sinking of the Baltic ferry The Estonia and how the people who had the best chance of survival just went, they didn't delay and took control of their fate, "they started early and moved fast, the mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death."

Langewiesche is an excellent writer whose work feels to be very much worthy of seeking out.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Algorithms to Live By from Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Algorithms to Live By from Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths was an interesting book with the subtitle The Computer Science of Human Decisions.

Christian and Griffiths note in the introduction that human algorithm design is about "searching for better solutions to the challenges people encounter every day" and while they cover quite a bit of additional ground, below are the concepts from the book that resonated the most with me...

Optimal stopping - if someone looking to decide on something, whether it be a job, an apartment, or a spouse, the right amount of time (whether measured in actual time or in options looked at) is 37%. Once they've looked at 37% of the choices, or for that percentage of the time allocated to searching, the right course of action is to then choose the best option come across. This percentage is noted in the book as also applying in a different way... by taking this approach, someone has a 37% chance of making the best choice, and as they continue searching past this in time elapsed or options viewed, their odds of getting the best choice don't deviate much from 37%. Also interesting in this chapter was mention of looking for parking and how one expert notes that parking occupancy ideally should be at 85%, and when parking occupancy goes from 90% to 95%, it doubles the amount of search time for a spot.

Explore / exploit - when early in something, someone should explore alternatives, when settled in, they should exploit what they know they like.

Sorting / searching - in many cases it's easier to just search rather than spend the time on sort.

Caching - the thing most likely to be looked for is the last thing used, thus it's best to cache that recently used thing so it's easily and quickly accessible.

Constraint relaxation - if someone vexed by a difficult and complex problem, they should take away some of the complexity and solve the problem they wish existed, then they've got something to work with and could add back in complexity.

Computational kindness - people prefer receiving a constrained problem, it's better to make a suggestion than to simply say to someone that whatever they want to do is fine.

Algorithms to Live By was a weighty read at times and I found some sections to grab my attention much more than others, but it definitely had some interesting concepts to it for someone willing to spend the time.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Make Your Bed by William McRaven

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World by William McRaven was a very short (about an hour to read) book from the retired U.S. Navy Admiral and written out of a 2014 commencement speech on ten principles he learned in Navy Seal training...

1. Start your day with a task completed.
2. You can't go it alone.
3. Only the size of your heart matters.
4. Life's not fair - drive on.
5. Failure can make you stronger.
6. You must dare greatly.
7. Stand up to the bullies.
8. Rise to the occasion.
9. Give people hope.
10. Never, ever quit.

The principles that resonated with me the most were the first, fourth, and tenth, with the tenth a fairly obvious one as to why it's important and first about starting your day with an accomplishment, something that can be built upon or even if nothing else goes right, something that got done out of the day.

The fourth principle about life not being fair was memorable with it's mention of how Navy drill instructors in San Diego would have people run from the beach to the water and get soaked, then roll in sand, and spend the rest of their training day as a "sugar cookie," caked in sand and extremely uncomfortable. What's key is that this directive was done sometimes as punishment for a mistake, and sometimes just because, to teach the valuable lesson that life's not always fair, you have to accept that and continue moving forward. Even if nothing else was of value from the book, this idea alone an important one.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was a really good, and somewhat gutting to read book. Written by the Facebook COO, Sandberg, and psychology professor, Grant, Option B has Grant's research into resiliency along with Sandberg's story about life since the death of her husband and father of two children, Dave Goldberg.

The main premise from the title is that if in any situation, the preferred option A not available, someone has to make the most out of option B, they basically have no choice but to move forward, and the option B idea was quoted by Sandberg in a Facebook post 30 days after Goldberg's death.

One concept that was particularly of interest to me from the book was attributed to psychologist Martin Seligman with how three P's can stunt recovery: Personalization - the belief that we're at fault in our calamities, Pervasiveness - the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life, and Permanence - the belief that the effects of a horrible event will last forever. Additionally, below are the chapter titles, along with ideas that struck me from each.

Chapter 1 - Breathing again... includes how children are uniquely resilient and can move forward to be happy after a tragedy.

Chapter 2 - Kicking the elephant out of the room, acknowledge it... includes how when interacting with someone who has suffered tragedy it can be good rather than to ask "how are you?" to ask "how are you, today?"

Chapter 3 - The platinum role of friendship... includes the importance of being willing to be there for others.

Chapter 4 - Self-compassion and self-confidence... includes how writing helped Sandberg through some of the toughest times.

Chapter 5 - Bouncing forward... includes how there can be growth from tragedy, and that someone's death does not have to be the end of their story.

Chapter 6 - Taking back joy... includes the need for a focus on others, having happiness for them and with them.

Chapter 7 - Raising resilient kids... includes four core beliefs that help kids be resilient: that they have some control over their lives, they can learn from failure, they matter as human beings, and they have real strengths to rely on and share. Also notes how nostalgia can and should be a pleasant state of mind.

Chapter 8 - Finding strength together

Chapter 9 - Failing and learning at work

Chapter 10 - To love and laugh again

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Fly by Wire by William Langewiesche

Fly by Wire by William Langewiesche was an excellent book about the landing by Captain Sully Sullenberger of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York January 15, 2009.

I've previously posted about a couple of great stories for Vanity Fair done by Langewiesche and in Fly by Wire he covers multiple topics pertaining to the successful landing of the Airbus A320 after it hit a flock of Canada geese and had both engines fail. There's interesting material on the history of the industry and airplane accidents as well as near accidents, especially those involving gliding without engine power as Sullenberger did. Referenced was a 20-minute, 34,500-foot, 90-mile glide over the Pacific in August 2001 with Captain Robert Piche in command after his airplane sprung a fuel leak and ran out.

Langewiesche recounts Sullenberger's three minute and twenty one second glide to the Hudson landing, and how it successful due to both Sullenberger's skill and fly-by-wire system the airplane operated with. Fly-by-wire is the working together of electrical control circuits and digital computers and detailed in the book is how the modern jetliner started with Bernard Ziegler building on behalf of Airbus in Europe a commercial airplane not for the top 10% of pilots like Sullenberger appears to be, but for the other 90%. The A320 is designed with flight envelope protections so that it will stop itself from doing things deemed beyond the limits of what it should and these systems were still fully functional after the bird strike killed power to the engines, making the landing on the Hudson one where Sullenberger made the right decisions and the flight control systems executed them, with keeping the airline positioned correctly all the way to the water landing.

The parts of the book about the modern commercial jet were interesting and the flight and rescue compelling, with stories of communication with air traffic control and passenger heroics, including the father of five who held someone else's baby for the crash. The plane was then in the water for four minutes until the first small ferries and rescue boats arrived, eventually getting all 150 passengers and 5 crew members off without a single fatality.

Really a well written book by Langewiesche on a fascinating topic.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar

Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a good book about Abdul-Jabbar's long friendship with and admiration of John Wooden. Covered is Wooden recruiting the high-school phenom Lew Alcindor to UCLA, their four years together there and the challenges Alcindor faced due to his race, his conversion to Islam at 24-years-old and taking the Abdul-Jabbar name, and the ongoing friendship between the two men until Wooden's death in 2010 at 99-years-old.

I've long admired Wooden, have posted on him and writing about him a number of times, and enjoyed quite a bit the stories from Abdul-Jabbar about Wooden. These included how with basketball he was about preparation and practice, controlling what you can control, and with people he always tried to see the best in them, despite any evidence to the contrary. One anecdote in the book I particularly liked had Wooden talking to Abdul-Jabbar about his love of westerns because of the clear good guy and bad guy, with the good guy always doing the right thing. Kareem noted how that's not realistic, to which Wooden agreed that it's not, but could be.

I also was struck by Abdul-Jabbar's story about the photo on the back cover of the book, with Abdul-Jabbar helping Wooden walk across the court at Pauley Pavilion in 2007 and feeling proud to be there for him.

The book is a nice read about both men and includes quotes from Wooden at the beginning of each chapter:

"A coach' primary function should not be to make better players, but to make better people."

"A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment."

"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"

"You can do more good by being good than any other way."

"Things work out best for people who make the best of the way things work out."

"Friendship is two-sided. It isn't a friend a friend just because someone's doing nice things for you. That's a nice person. There's friendship when you do for each other. It's like marriage, it's two-sided."

"Players with fight never lose a game, they just run out of time."