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.

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.