Reading – 2016

December 2016

November 2016

  • Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations Series) NOTES: a bunch of writing stuff that was way over my head but makes me feel like I’m eating oatmeal with protein powder or something. Quotes:
    • … [you] will discover, in the years after you get out of school, is that managing to be an alive human being, and also to do good work and be as obsessive as you have to be, is really tricky. It’s not an accident when you see writers either become obsessed with the whole pop stardom thing or get into drugs and alcohol, or have terrible marriages.” Ditto lots of other careers.
    • “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.”
    • “Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens…. And this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.”
    • “It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like ‘It’s really important not to lie.’ OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don’t feel it. Until I get to be about thirty and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can’t trust you. I feel that I’m in pain, I’m nervous, I’m lonely, and I can’t figure out why. Then I realize, ‘Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie.’ The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting–which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff–can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.”
    • “America is one big experiment in what happens when you’re a wealthy, privileged culture that’s pretty much lost religion or spirituality as a real informing presence. It’s still a verbal presence — it’s part of the etiquette that our leaders use, but it’s not inside us anymore, which in one way makes us very liberal and moderate and we’re not fanatics and we don’t tend to go around blowing things up. But on the other hand, it’s very difficult to think that the point of life is to double your salary so that you can go to the mall more often. Even when you’re making fun and sneering at it, there’s a real dark emptiness about it.”
  • Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life NOTES: need to re-read and actually go through the workbook parts of the book. The “write down what you feel most happy doing” and “design three possible life options” were things that stuck with me.
  • Raising Accountable Kids: How to Be an Outstanding Parent Using the Power of Personal Accountability NOTES: fast, good, not amazing. Quotes:
  • “If I don’t want my kid to text while he drives, I’d better not do it myself. If I don’t want my kid to go to R-rated movies, I should not see them, either. If I don’t want my children to speak harshly to each other, I should watch my tone. If I don’t want my kid using foul words, I might want to keep my language in check. If I don’t want my kid to complain about others, I should temper my own criticisms. If I don’t want my kid to blame, I shouldn’t scream at the ref during the Little League game. If I want my kid to get more exercise, I better dust off my bicycle and take a ride. If I want my kid to be friendly and outgoing, I should go meet the new neighbors. If I want my kid to handle money well, I need to do the same.”
  • Ask your kids what you can do to be a better day / mom…
  • “The cognitive reframing looks like this: It’s not, “Why is my kid failing in school,” it’s “What can I do to help them get their grades up?” It’s not, “When will they be mature enough to clean their own room,” but “How can I help them learn better habits?””
  • QBQ: “… every parent look behind questions such as “Why won’t my kids listen?” or “When will they do what I ask?” to find better ones—QBQs—like “What can I do differently?” or “How can I improve as a parent?” This simple but challenging concept turns the focus – and responsibility – back to parents and to what they can do to make a difference.” Similar things can be applied to kids.

October 2016

  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization NOTES: Another systems thinking book, took me awhile to get through it (requires you to think a lot which is one of the points of the book to start out with) but I enjoyed it. Quotes: …
  • The Road to Character NOTES: Lots of stories about great leaders in this book. I’ll likely revisit a bunch of the chapters. Quotes:
    • After a reference to a radio show that happened after the end of WWII (Command Performance) and then while watching an NFL game.. “It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.”
    • “People who seek to serve the community end up falsifying their work… because they are not single-mindedly focused on the task at hand. But if you serve the work — if you perform each task to its utmost perfection — then you will experience the deep satisifaction of craftsmanship and you will end up serving the community more richly than you could have consciously planned.”
    • On Eisenhower: “Always try to associate yourself closely and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.”
    • A poem, kept by Eisenhower: “Take a bucket, fill it with water
      Put your hand in — clear up to the wrist.
      Now pull it out; the hole that remains
      Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed…
      The moral of this quaint example:
      To do just the best that you can,
      Be proud of yourself, but remember,
      There is no Indispensable Man!”
    • Again on Eisenhower and war: “He saw it as another hard duty to be endured. He had learned to focus less on the glamour and excitement of wartime heroics and more on the dull, mundane things that would proved to be the keys to victory. Preserving alliances with people that you might find insufferable.”
    • On George Marshall: “This is a common trait among modest people who achieve extraordinary success. It’s not that they were particularly brilliant or talented. The average collegiate GPA for a self-made millionaire is somewhere in the low B range. But at some crucial point in their lives, somebody told them they were too stupid to do something and they set out to prove the bastards wrong.”
    • More on Marshall: “That person then, who it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.
    • Further on Marshall: “War is a series of blunders and frustrations. At the outset of the Second World War, Marshall understood that he would have to ruthlessly cull the incompetent from their jobs. He said: ‘I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment. Mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others. I cannot allow myself to get angry, that would be fatal — it is too exhausting.”
    • Same guy, his directions for his funeral, loved this: “Bury me simply, like any ordinary officer of the US Army who has served his country honorably. No fuss. No elaborate ceremonials. Keep the service short, confine the guest-list to the family And above everything, do it quietly.”
    • George Eliot: “When we are young we think our troubles a mighty business — that the world is spread out expressly as a stage for the particular drama of our lives and that we have a right to rant and foam at the mouth if we are crossed. I have done enough of that in my time. But we begin at last to understand that these things are important only to one’s consciousness, which is but a globule of dew on a rose leaf that at midday there will be no trace of.”
    • “… stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture. The answer must be to join a counterculture. To live a decent life, to build up the soul, it’s probably necessary to declare that the forces that encourage the Big Me, while necessary and liberating in many ways, have gone too far. We are out of balance. It’s probably necessary to have one foot in the world of achievement but another foot in the counterculture that is in tension with the achievement ethos.”

September 2016

  • Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging NOTES: lots of good people stuff in this book, quotes:
    • “This book is about why that [someone treating the author like a member of his tribe] sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why – for many people – war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
    • “…A wealthy person who has never had to reply on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide.”
    • “… something called self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered ‘intrinsic’ to human happiness and far outweight ‘extrinsic’ values such as beauty, money and status…. modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones…”
    • Wow, what a prediction… “… the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively – that should be encouraged – but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals.” Fuck. (wrote this after the election)
    • “… Leacock relates a story about how she went on a hunting trip with a Cree named Thomas. Deep in the bush they encountered two men, strangers, who had run out of food and were extremely hungry. Thomas gave them all his flour and lard, despite the fact that he would have to cut his own trip short as a result. Leacock probed Thomas to why he did this, and he finally lost patience with her. ‘Suppose, now not to give them flower, lard’, he explained. ‘Just dead inside.'”

August 2016

  • boo!

July 2016

  • boo!

June 2016

  • The Systems Bible: The Beginner’s Guide to Systems Large and Small NOTES: impossible to summarize, the skeleton of the book is hung on capitalized and pithy axioms like “SYSTEMS IN GENERAL WORK POORLY OR NOT AT ALL”. If I had a photographic memory, it’d be incredibly useful, maybe one of those books that you take off the bookshelf once a year to remember that the world and systems are complex and that problems are hard and solutions are harder. Fun pithy quotes:
    • Complex systems exhibit unexpected behavior.
    • A large system, produced by expanding the dimensions of a smaller system, does not behave like the smaller system.
    • The army is now fully prepared to fight the previous war.
    • A temporary patch will very likely be permanent.
    • The chart is not the patient.
    • The reader is invited to ask, is it possible that I am seeing the world from inside a system? Am I, unbeknownst to myself, a Systems-person? The answer is always, yes. The relevant question is, simply, which system? At that moment one can graduate from being a systems person to becoming a true student of systematics?
    • Any large system is going to be operating most of the time in failure mode.
    • Colossal systems foster colossal errors.
    • In setting up a new system, tread softly. You may be disturbing another system that is actually working.
    • Knowledge does not keep any better than fish.
    • A system that ignores feedback has already begun the process of terminal instability.
    • Systems… are such stuff are dreams made on. It behooves us to look into the quality of our dreams.
  • Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier NOTES: another great adventure book, should be required reading if you live in Oregon.

May 2016

April 2016

  • Between the World and Me NOTES: read if you’re a white male and want to broaden your views.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow NOTES: 5 out of 5 stars, took me a long time to get through it because small print + more than 400 pages. System 1 (automatic) vs. System 2 (analytical / long term) thinking is the big theme of the book.
    • Chapter / section on “priming”, where just repeating certain subjects (ie: “forgetful”, “bald”, “gray”, “wrinkle”) can prime people think about being “old” and they’ll actually walk slower, which is insane. Pg 53
    • Pg 58, the story about how putting pictures of eyes in the kitchen of a corporate office dramatically influenced the rate at which folks would add contributions to the coffee fun.
    • Pg 63, putting something in writing in bold or otherwise marking it up in strong ways (red vs. light blue) influences how strongly someone will believe what you’ve written. Simple language is actually better than complex language.
    • Pg 66, the exposure effect. The story about a study where the researcher put Turkish words in an English language newspaper for a number of weeks and then after a month or so, sent a survey out to readers asking if which words (in Turkish) were viewed more favorably… the ones that were listed most often were viewed most favorably even though no one knew what they meant. Wow.
    • Pg 118, small samples, “Unfortunately, the causal analysis is pointless because the facts are wrong. If the statisticians who reported to the Gates Foundation had asked about the characteristics of the worst schools, they would have found that bad schools also tend to be smaller than average. The truth is that small schools are not better on average; they are simply more variable. If anything, say Wainer and Zwerling, large schools tend to produce better results, especially in higher grades, where a variety of curricular options is valuable.”
    • “The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.” The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequencies at which events come to mind are usually not accurate reflections of the probabilities of such events in real life.”
    • Likely just need to review this article once in awhile.

March 2016

  • boo!

February 2016

January 2016

Now with 50% less caffeine!