Sunday, November 28, 2021

Travels with George by Nathaniel Philbrick

Travels with George by Nathaniel Philbrick is a solid book subtitled In Search of Washington and His Legacy. Philbrick writes a first-person account of traveling with his wife and their dog on the same journeys that Washington took starting less than six months after his presidential inauguration in 1789.

Washington felt a great deal of pressure and consternation about being President and wanted to get out and be with the people of the fledgling country. He stayed in tavern houses and wanted to try to bring together Federalists who embraced the new constitution and Anti-Federalists who distrusted a strong central government. Washington started with a month-long tour of New England and the following year did a three-month-long circuit that took him to the South, covering thirteen states in total. 

It was interesting reading about Washington and his attempts to bring the country together, as well his attitudes and actions around slavery. There was also compelling mention of Washington's horrible teeth, and how wealthy people used to buy healthy teeth from others and implant them, replacing their rotted out teeth. 

The book is a good historical travelogue up and down the east coast, with Philbrick writing of his own life and interacting with people who would tell their stories of Washington and his actions. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John "Chick" Donohue and J.T. Molloy

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John "Chick" Donohue and J.T. Molloy is a remarkable nonfiction tale subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War. Donahue writes how he was 26 years old in his neighborhood New York bar in 1967 when he decided to take several cases of beer to Vietnam and deliver cans from home to local boys fighting there. 

The book is a rollicking story of Donahue's time in Vietnam, finding some of the people he set out to track down, and keeping himself alive while in a war zone. It's not necessarily great writing, but it is entertaining reading about someone who set off on a crazy plan and then had wild and dangerous adventures. He was in Saigon, slated to leave for home when the Tet offensive was launched, with the Vietcong briefly taking over the U.S. embassy and personnel airlifted off the roof. 

Donahue expected he'd only be in Vietnam three days, but was there for four months and a movie based on the book and starring Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, and Bill Murray began filming in fall 2021.

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John Petrocelli

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John Petrocelli is an interesting book that examines the type of information that's presented by people who don't really care if it's true or not. 

Petrocelli is a professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University and he writes of how bullshit is a disregard of genuine evidence or established knowledge. Maybe a statement is true, maybe it's not, it doesn't really matter to the person making it, nor does it matter to them whether the result of these bullshit statements is harmless or dangerous. A bullshitter move is to refute fact and say that research is needed.

Also in the book is the idea of truth-default bias. People have at least a passive presumption that others are being truthful, so when an idea is heard, that idea is afforded the benefit of the doubt, even if it's blatantly false. Another concept is the ease at which someone remembers something determines how true that thing feels. People remember anecdotes more than they remember actual studies with hard data behind them, and when is something is in the mind, it takes effort to purge it. 

Petrocelli covers that the way to combat bullshit is to have an attitude of skepticism and a practice of questioning, utilizing critical and scientific thinking skills. We need to compel bullshit artists to prove their thoughts and theories, asking them to clarify their claims. Give people a chance to correct themselves and if they don't, treat bullshit like lies, not like harmless statements that we write off as just things certain people say.

Monday, October 04, 2021

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant is an interesting work of nonfiction about Natchez, Mississippi. The book is noted to be part history and part travelogue and details a very different world than most people know.

Natchez is a town of ~15,000 on the Mississippi River across from Louisiana and is described as more like New Orleans than the rest of Mississippi and a city conflicted about whether it should be celebrating its past or breaking free from it. Natchez elected with 91% of the vote a gay black man for mayor, yet prominent white families dress up in elaborate hoopskirts and confederate uniforms for celebrations of the Old South. The book jacket notes that Natchez once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America, with much of that wealth built on cotton slavery, and the town and surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South. Women from two competing garden clubs ever year host Pilgrimage, where they put on hoopskirts and receive, or welcome visitors into their homes and ply them with tales of confederate days. Additionally, the Tableaux is an annual pageant that started in 1932 and features celebration of the good old days. 

Grant portrays a town where most people, even those hosting events like this, aren’t racist, but don’t want to let go of celebrating a past which clearly was racist. The description from a quote is that they love their history, but their own self-serving mythological version of that history. It’s such an interesting conflict between people respecting history as it actually was and those wanting to keep up the parts of the past they like, such as the pretty buildings, while also trying to have tourism money keep flowing into the town.

Also in the book are the stories of Prince Ibrahima from Futa Jalon (what is now Guinea) and his enslavement in Natchez and his late in life effort to return to his homeland, the failing public schools, the famous thriller writer Greg Iles who lives in town, and the Santa Claus Parade that features men getting drunk and driving around behind police escorts and giving out Christmas presents and dinners to the poor.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley is a good book subtitled Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Ripley wrote The Smartest Kids in the World and this latest one examines conflict that devolves into an us vs. them paradigm (often leading to everyone being worse off), what causes high conflict, and how to escape it. 

The first story she covers is that of Gary Friedman, a conflict mediator, author, and former trial lawyer who ran for and won a seat on the Community Services District Board of Directors in his small town of Muir Beach, CA and then wound up in high conflict. Additionally, Ripley writes of a former gang leader in Chicago who would have killed to avenge a death not actually caused by what he thought, Columbia financially supporting people who forsake conflict with the government of the country and lay down their weapons, and the interactions between groups of conservative Michigan corrections officers and liberal Manhattan Jews.

Some of the terms that Ripley notes as important in examining whether a given situation is one of high conflict as opposed to healthy conflict are confirmation bias (interpreting new information as confirmation of one’s preexisting beliefs), looping for understanding (actively listening by reflecting back to someone what they seem to have said and checking to see if that summary was correct), and saturation point (that point in a conflict where the losses seem heavier than the gains and there’s opportunity for change).

In the appendix, Ripley notes that some of characteristics of healthy conflict vs. high conflict: 

Humility, fluidity, complexity, novelty, passion, curiosity, and questions.

Certainty, rigidity, simplicity, predictability, righteousness, assumption, and advocacy.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a solid book subtitled The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. It was published in 2017 and Thompson notes that he wrote a book about hits, those products and ideas that achieve extraordinary popularity and commercial success in pop culture and media. There's a focus on the secret to making things that people like in culture and why some things fail while similar things become hits.

Thompson notes that people like things that are familiar but presented in an original way, or the marrying of the old and new. People gravitate to the theory of MAYA (most advanced, yet acceptable); otherwise stated, people are attracted to the new, yet resistant to the unfamiliar. This is why people often compare companies to other better-known ones, with phrases like “Uber for…” A huge commercial success example of this idea of new, but still familiar was the movie Star Wars, something popular in part because it was written by George Lucas as a space western, alluding to stories people had seen from the past. Around the idea of myth-making, Thompson refers to the PBS show The Power of Myth on Joseph Campbell and his writing. Also in reference to the success of Star Wars is how Lucas wrote it for a 10-year-old boy, with that an example of how the biggest hits are often created for the smallest audiences, it’s good to have a tightly defined target.

Another example of a hit that Thompson covers is that of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book written as Twilight Fan fiction with the main character Edward reimagined as a corporate tycoon. Additionally, Thompson notes that repeated exposure is also a huge factor, you see something more frequently and as it becomes familiar, it rises in your esteem. This correlates to the notion that we like things we generally agree with, which of course can lead to harmful like-mindedness. 

Also of interest from Hit Makers is Thompson’s mention of various rhetorical devices in writing: epistrophe, anaphora, tricolon, epizeuxis, diacope, antithesis, parallelism, and what Thompson notes as the king of speech-making tricks, antimetabole. When Jon Favreau wrote for President Obama, he kept in mind that speeches are like songs, they require hooks, choruses, and clear structures, as well as repetition. 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller is an interesting and profound work of nonfiction subtitled A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life. Miller chronicles the life of David Starr Jordan, the first President of Stanford University, and a renowned taxonomist. 

Jordan embraced classifying fish, with Miller noting that he credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. It was fascinating reading of how Jordan suffered multiple personal calamities, and after each tended to plunge deeper into his work, in essence trying to bring order to chaos. For instance, after his collections were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he immediately set out rebuilding. Miller writes of how that Jordan’s ability to carry forward also came with a lack of doubt his beliefs, something that at first seems positive, but can become a grave negative. Jordan (whose name is many places at Stanford) believed strongly in the principle of eugenics, or breeding out imperfections from humanity with atrocities like forced sterilization. Also, Miller writes of how Jordan quite possibly had the namesake of the university, Jane Stanford, killed by strychnine poisoning.

The title of the book came from how in the 1980s, many taxonomists began to say that they didn’t believe there is a simple classification called fish, there’s too much variety in what we might consider fish, and too many of them are like what we wouldn’t consider fish. This changed view is interesting to consider juxtaposed with Jordan's lack of doubt in how he went about his life and work.

The book jacket notes that it part biography, part memoir, and part scientific adventure, and Miller writes of how as she researched Jordan and his efforts to establish order from chaos, she was attempting to do the same in hers. I enjoy books that have this sort of duality in them, with the writer examining someone else’s life while also looking at their own and Miller at the end of the book noted that what she found was a life that matters to her, and that the chaos that she faced, and Jordan spent his life combating, can also bring good things. 

Monday, September 06, 2021

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui is a contemplative and interesting book that's noted to be an exploration of the world of swimming. The point is made that we must learn to live with water, it’s required for us to survive, and is all around us. Also, swimming can be a way to healing, health, and a community. 

Tsui details stories including someone's survival off the coast of Iceland, spending six hours in 28 degree Fahrenheit water and swimming three and a half miles to safety. Also, swimming in outdoor water is heavily written of, with likely health benefits from cold water swimming, and someone doing it is part of the elements. The Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club in San Francisco are noted for their swimmers who go into the Bay, including one who swam 30 miles from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, 17 hours through shark-infested waters.

It's also covered that people enjoy swimming more than many other forms of exercise and that swim lessons are an equalizer between people. No matter how powerful someone is, if they don’t know how to swim, they're the same as others from a lower stature or different culture. Additionally, swim teams can be a great combination of singular determination and being part of a collective. 

A couple of other things that stand out from the book are Japanese swimming martial arts, or Nihon eiho, and samurai swimmers from hundreds of year ago. Also, when you swim, you’re a part of a collective, and swimming in a body of water is a way of forging a connection with it, and with others who have swam there. 

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone is subtitled Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire and follows up on The Everything Store by Stone from 2013. In Amazon Unbound, it notes that at the end of 2010, Amazon had 33,700 employees and a market capitalization of $80B, with the net worth for Bezos at $15.9B. Amazon as of early Sept 2021 has roughly 1,300,000 employees and a market cap around $1.6T, with Bezos' net worth some $200B. Amazon Unbound details this exponential growth, with below the chapters and primary topics...

Chapter one – on the building of the Echo

Chapter two – on early efforts to create Amazon grocery retail stores

Chapter three – on Amazon in India

Chapter four – on AWS and Amazon stock doubling in 2015 after previously hiding its profitability to keep competitors out

Chapter five – on Bezos and his ownership of the Washington Post, purchased in 2013 for $250M

Chapter six – on efforts in Hollywood and Prime video

Chapter seven – on the Amazon flywheel leading to growth, counterfeit goods, and unhappy merchants

Chapter eight – on efforts in grocery and the 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods

Chapter nine – on logistics and supply chain

Chapter ten – on selling ads in Amazon site search results

Chapter eleven – on Bezos' Blue Origin space startup, founded in 2000

Chapter twelve – on the relationship with and impact of Amazon on Seattle and other cities with its HQ2 bakeoff

Chapter thirteen – on the breakup of Bezos’ marriage, including extortion and potential Saudi hacking 

Chapter fourteen – on government investigation into potential monopolistic and anti-trust behavior by Amazon

Chapter fifteen – on the pandemic, including the Amazon firing of whistleblowers around worker safety

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a solid book with the subtitle Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Scott notes that at the heart of being a good boss is having good relationships, ones built on radical candor. From this, a boss can provide guidance to produce better results and help employees achieve. 

It’s detailed that the role of a boss is to listen to their employees and to care personally about what they have to say. A boss should start by asking for feedback and criticism, not by giving it out, and understand what motivates each person. In 1:1 meetings, employees should set the agenda and a boss should be a partner, not an absentee manager or a micromanager, and from this, trust gets built.

Along with this foundation of trust, a boss should tell people clearly and directly when their work isn’t good enough. It’s not mean, it’s clear, and it should be provided in the moment and be about the actions, not the person. Also, everyone can be exceptional at something, it’s the role of the boss to help them find that thing. Scott as well details what she calls the get stuff done wheel: listen, clarify, debate, decide, persuade, execute, learn, listen again…

Listen – give the quiet ones a voice, create a culture of listening

Clarify – if someone doesn’t understand, the fault may be with the person making an unclear argument 

Debate – focus on ideas and not egos, create an obligation to dissent, be clear about when the debate will end

Decide – the decider should get facts, not opinions

Persuade – focus on the listener’s emotions, demonstrate your credibility, and show your work

Execute – don’t waste people’s time

Learn – be willing to course-correct

There’s a number of solid things by Scott in the book, both for a boss and for an employee of a boss.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Premonition by Michael Lewis

The Premonition by Michael Lewis is subtitled A Pandemic Story and covers some of the major players in U.S. pandemic response (or lack thereof) at a county, state, and federal (particularly the CDC) level. 

Lewis notes in the introduction that the United States has a bit more than 4% of the world’s population and as of Spring 2021, had a bit more than 20% of its COVID-19 deaths. In February 2021, The Lancet published a piece noted that if the COVID-19 death rate in the U.S. had tracked at the average of the other G7 nations, 180,000 of the then 450,000 dead would still be alive.

The book covers how decentralized the federal government is and yes, it got worse under Trump, but it wasn’t great to begin with. It’s remarkable how ineffectual the CDC is written of as being, and how many county health officers assume that the CDC will provide guidance and leadership. The CDC mentality was described as focused on taking no action they could be blamed for later. Lewis notes what a loss it is that many brilliant and capable people leave government work to be more well treated and respected in the private sector. 

It's covered how President George W. Bush in 2005 read the John Barry book The Great Influenza and demanded that a pandemic plan be created. Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher were two people involved in the creation of the plan and what they wrote was that lives could be saved by taking measures before vaccines available. Additionally, a scientist named Bob Glass figured out along with his high-school-aged daughter how infectious disease transmission could be limited. One of the things that they espoused was school closings, especially giving how tightly confined kids were in school. 

Charity Dean is a former chief health officer for Santa Barbara County, and in that role, was struck by the power she had to combat communicable diseases and relentlessly tracked down potentially cataclysmic public health crises. California was noted as unusual with control held at the county health officer level, for most other states, it was the state health officer or governor. As we went in the pandemic, Dean was second in charge at the California Department of Public Health, with the person in charge for the state, Karen Smith, having no experience in communicable diseases and a see no evil, hear no evil approach. She in late February had a call with the 58 county health officers in California and said they on their own, same as Trump said to the states.

Hatchett, Mecher, Dean, Lisa Koonin and a handful of other people, some 5-10 in total, were in contact by early 2020 and all felt that a pandemic was coming, despite the statements from the CDC and White House. It’s described as being like the Mann Gulch fire, burning out of control, but people don’t realize it yet. From their calls and emails emerged actions cherry picked from by the actual government.

Lewis throughout the book writes of the things that should have been done that simply weren’t, and how we should have learned so that we prepared for a virus with the same level of communicability, but a greater potency and fatality rate.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a solid book with the subtitle An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. It’s a fast read with lots of tangible steps to take and systems in it. 

Clear starts with the attention-grabbing story of getting hit square in the face with a baseball bat in high school, almost losing his life. He writes about the habits he started to build while in college, with habits defined as a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and in many cases, automatically. Small habits that accumulate can make a big difference, working on the same principle as compound interest. Also, your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, often without huge changes until eventually leading to exponential results. Goals are the results you want to achieve, and systems the more important processes that lead to those results. 

The book details how behavior change is about outcomes, processes, and identity, with the most impactful identity, being someone who does something or does things a certain way. For instance, “I’m not a smoker” rather than “I want to quit smoking.” Your habits are how you embody your identity. As you do something, you become that thing and the best way to change who you are is to change what you do. Clear notes that people should first decide the type of person they want to be, then prove it to themselves with small wins. Habits can change your beliefs about yourself and are mental shortcuts learned from experience. Clear notes that to build better habits, one should make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying:

1. Make it obvious - The first step is to simply notice what your habits are. From there you can take actions. You can make a specific plan of steps to take that are to become a habit, and the more specific, the better. Make the habits you want right in front of you to implement. For instance, if you want to eat healthy, buy fruit and put it out on the table for you to grab from. 

2. Make it attractive - You can pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. For instance, if you do ten 10 burpees, you can check your social media. A good way to build better habits is to join a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. 

3. Make it easy - Habits aren’t hard to form, they simply come from reps. You can set yourself up for success at forming habits by priming your environment so the habit easy to do. Remove the friction associated with good behaviors, increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. It’s ok to reduce your habits at first, to make them small. For instance, reading at night can begin with “read for two minutes.” Just show up, don’t worry about what happens next as in doing so repeatedly, your identity becomes that of someone who shows up. 

4. Make it satisfying - It’s good to create rewards for good behavior. For instance, using toothpaste that leaves your mouth feeling good. The brushing is what’s important, but the taste is what’s satisfying. A habit tracker is a simple way to feel good about what you’re doing. A good way to think about falling short on doing something is the law of two, it’s ok to miss something once, you don’t want to miss it twice. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Towards the end, Clear notes that the goldilocks rule states that people experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right at the edge of their current abilities. The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom. Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated, but you have to work through boredom. It’s the ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting that makes the difference. Habits + deliberate practice = mastery.