Book Review: Sum by David Eagleman

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

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This was my favorite paragraph from Sum by David Eagleman, because I think the third death captures the key motivation behind so many “immortality projects” (I mean change-the-world projects) — people try to extend the time horizon by which people still utter their name on planet Earth. Your kids will, their kids will, but for how many generations beyond that will your name be spoken?

The book is a slim volume of short stories / riffs on what happens in the afterlife. With great imagination, Eagleman hypothesizes different situations, settings, interfaces. For example, perhaps in the afterlife you relive all your experiences — not chronologically, but rather grouped by the type of the experience. You spend two conesecutive months driving in front of your house; seven consecutive months having sex; four months taking out the trash; eight weeks experiencing intense pain, i.e. all the pain you experienced in your whole life condensed into eight straight weeks.  There’s nothing religious about the book. There are, though, embedded within, quite a few lessons and perspectives on how we lead our lives while still breathing.

Sum is some of the most inventive short fiction I’ve read in a long while. Recommended.

Book Review: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

At Renaissance Weekend a few months ago, I heard a phenomenal lecture by Michael Starbird, a mathematician at the University of Texas. Afterwards, I bought his book, co-authored with Williams College professor Edward Burger, called The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.effective

It’s a very short, lively book that persuasively makes the case that there are learnable general skills that contribute to clear thinking and effective problem solving. The four elements they highlight are:

Understand deeply: Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success. Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right.

Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers— they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air— the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

Follow the flow of ideas: Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare— milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

(The fifth element is change.)

To remember these, they associate each of the four habits with a classic element of nature: Earth (understand deeply), Fire (make mistakes), Air (ask questions), Water (follow the flow).

I found many good points on each front, especially on the importance of depth of understanding. Kindle highlights below. All direct quotes from the book; bolded sentences my own addition.



You can understand anything better than you currently do. Setting a higher standard for yourself for what you mean by “understanding” can revolutionize how you perceive the world.

The most fundamental ideas in any subject can be understood with ever-increasing depth. Professional tennis players watch the ball; mathematicians understand a nuanced notion of number; successful students continue to improve their mastery of the concepts from previous chapters and courses as they move toward the more advanced material on the horizon; successful people regularly focus on the core purpose of their profession or life. True experts continually deepen their mastery of the basics.

The fundamental difference between the true master and the talented students clearly occurred at a far more basic level than in the intricacies of complex pieces. Tony explained that mastering an efficient, nuanced performance of simple pieces allows one to play spectacularly difficult pieces with greater control and artistry.

Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master. Open up a blank document on your computer. Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description of the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps? Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you fail to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together? Now compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss). When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action.

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come. If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. —George Polya

Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve. Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue. But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue. First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.

I simply asked the artist, “Tell me one insight into painting.” The artist, a bit surprised by the out-of-the-blue request, thought for several moments and then responded, “Shadows are the color of the sky.” I didn’t really believe him at first. Like most people, I thought shadows were gray or black, but if you look closely, you will see that indeed shadows in the great outdoors do have color—albeit subtle. I had seen shadows every day of my life, but I was wrong about what they really look like. Those colorful shadows gave me a whole new view of the world—a fresh perspective that transcends the art of painting.

Let’s return to a time in which photographs were not in living color. During that period, people referred to pictures as “photographs” rather than “black-and-white photographs” as we do today. The possibility of color did not exist, so it was unnecessary to insert the adjective “black-and-white.” However, suppose we did include the phrase “black-and-white” before the existence of color photography. By highlighting that reality, we become conscious of current limitations and thus open our minds to new possibilities and potential opportunities. World War I was given that name only after we were deeply embattled in World War II. Before that horrific period of the 1940s, World War I was simply called “The Great War” or, even worse, “The War to End All Wars.” What if we had called it “World War I” back in 1918? Such a label might have made the possibility of a second worldwide conflict a greater reality for governments and individuals, and might have led to better international policy decisions. We become conscious of issues when we explicitly identify and articulate them.

From the physical world to society, academics, personal relations, business, abstract ideas, and even sports, a deep examination of the simple and familiar is a potent first step for learning, thinking, creating, and problem solving.

instead extract a new insight from that misstep and correctly think, “Great: one down, nine to go—I’m making forward progress!” And indeed you are. After your first failure, think, “Terrific, I’m 10% done!” Mistakes, loss, and failure are all flashing lights clearly pointing the way to deeper understanding and creative solutions.

Success is not about almost always succeeding. How would you feel if you were failing about 60% of the time? Sounds like a solid “F.” Well, in certain contexts you’d be a superstar. A major league baseball player who failed 60% of the time—that is, who had a batting average of .400—would be phenomenal. No

A transformative but challenging personal policy is to never pretend to know more than you do. Don’t build on ambiguity and ignorance. When you don’t know something, admit it as quickly as possible and immediately take action—ask a question.

If you are a teacher or a manager, instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” assume there are, and say, “Talk to your neighbor for sixty seconds and write down two questions.” Then randomly call on pairs to read their questions. That is, instead of asking whether there are questions, tell your listeners that they are to create questions—an important habit to develop for lifelong learning and curiosity.

there are at least two kinds of ignorance: cases in which you know the right question but not the answer, and cases in which you don’t even know which question to ask.

recognize that each new idea extends a line that started in the past and travels through the present into the future. Successful and effective learners and innovators harness the power of the flow of ideas, which suggests the element Water.

When you learn a new concept or master a skill, think about what extensions, variations, and applications are possible. It’s natural to think of the moment when you’ve solved a problem or mastered a new idea as a time to party and rest on your laurels—as if you’ve arrived at the final chapter of some great story. In fact, a bed of laurels will never offer a satisfying rest, and a new idea or solution should always be viewed as a beginning. Effective students and creative innovators regularly strive to uncover the unintended consequences of a lesson learned or a new idea. The time to work on a problem is after you’ve solved it. —R. H. Bing

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. —Pablo Picasso

Consider an issue or problem and now exaggerate some feature of it to a ridiculous extreme. If you are arguing one side of an issue, support the side you truly believe; then make the argument so exaggerated that you realize that it’s way over the top. Now study your exaggerated description and discover some underlying defect. Does that defect also exist in a nonexaggerated perspective?

How to Improve E-Books

I love print books: the way they feel in my hands, the ease with which I can skim / flip ahead or flip back, and my ability to scribble notes in the margins. I also love e-books for traveling, and highlighting sentences when a pen isn’t handy.

Whether it’s print or electronic, I like the focus reading requires. The singular, focused stimulation of text, with no distractions — uniquely suitable for deep thoughts. So I’m wary when e-book proponents suggest video, animation, sound, and the like — we already have plenty of media objects with those characteristics. Let books be.

That said, there are obvious improvements that could be done without harming the immersive experience. Kane Hsieh identifies several:

The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the ebook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of ebook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: ebooks should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for ebooks to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as ebooks try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

Another misstep in the growth of ebooks was the complete incompatability of previous libraries. People who have amassed libraries of paper books over many years were left behind by ebook distributors. Unlike music or photographs, there is no way to migrate an old book library into a new one. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to convert my tapes to CDs, my CDs to MP3s, and now import my MP3s into Spotify and listen to music over the cloud. Yet, if I want to read my favorite books on my Nexus 7, I have to pay for a separate ebook version, assuming one even exists.

It makes sense to have a third tier of book: paper + digital access. I am more than willing to pay a little extra for a book if it means that I have a copy for my library shelves and I can read it on a tablet on the subway. Amazon in particular is well positioned to implement this pricing structure. Better yet, why not a subscription service? $20/mo for all the books I can read? Unfortunately, as of now, the only options for paper book fans that want to use ebooks for convenience are to pay twice, or maintain two disjoint book libraries. Like its content, ebook pricing models cling to the past….

So ebooks, stop trying to be paper books; break free of the page and the book paradigms and realize your potential as a fully digital medium. As for me, and readers like me, you will never replace our beloved paper books – but if done correctly, I will be proud to own a library of ebooks. Until then, I only use you to avoid carrying books like IQ84 in my backpack.

Book Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman, who writes a great column / blog titled This Column Will Change Your Life, has a new book out: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

In his book, he argues against an optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to achieving happiness. Instead, he praises stoicism, meditation, keeping vague goals, tough love, and pursuing a ‘negative’ path to happiness.antidote-240

It’s a delight to read. Oliver doesn’t cite the same studies of everyone else — he commits real acts of journalism, traveling out to meet people, doing a 10 day meditation retreat himself, drawing upon new and old books alike. And rather than obsess only about the idea of happiness, Oliver riffs on a broad set of “deep” life questions.

He leads a thoughtful discussion about our fear of death and the various “immortality projects” we take on as a result.

He says our attachment to goal-setting can be explained by our inability to deal with the anxiety produced by uncertainty. (I’ve written before about the fact that I’m not an especially goal-oriented person, despite high ambition.)

He suggests that thinking through the worst case scenario in your mind — grappling in your head with possible negative outcomes from a given endeavor — may be more productive than soaking up self-help positivity maxims.

He cites Paul Pearsall’s effort to get the concept of “awe” accepted as one of the primary human emotions, alongside love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness. “Unlike all the other emotions, awe is all of our feelings rolled into one intense one. You can’t peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it’s a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion.” (Awe, to me, is the core emotion of a secular spiritual practice that emphasizes nature/the outdoors.)

He also quotes others throughout. For example, on trusting uncertainty:

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

– Martha Nussbaum, Univ of Chicago Law School

 On love and vulnerability:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

– C.S. Lewis

The most important characteristic of the book is its tone: it’s not bubbling with sunny, practical solutions for building a meaningful life. It’s a darker view of the human experience. But he does not employ said darkness as a cheap way to seem sophisticated — he’s subtle, and thus worth listening to.

Bottom Line: Oliver Burkeman writes about everyday philosophy and the wisdom of the good life. I believe he is underrated. I recommend his book.

Book Review: The Expats

A great CIA thriller set in Europe, which I conveniently read while in Paris: The Expats by Chris Pavone.

Mostly it’s a plot-driven page turner, but there were some juicy quotes, which I re-produce below:

Kate was taken aback by this excessive garrulousness. People who were too outgoing made her suspicious. She couldn’t help but presume that all the loud noise was created to hide quiet lies. And the more distinct a surface personality appeared, the more Kate was convinced that it was a veneer.

Conversations with Julia often became much more personal than Kate wanted. Julia wore her need for intimacy on her sleeve, practically begging Kate to open up to her. Despite Julia’s bluff of outgoing confidence, she was tremendously insecure. She’d been unlucky in love, unconfident in relationships, and uncomfortable in intimacy. She’d been lonely her whole life, much like Kate, until she’d chanced into Bill. But she was still operating on lonely-person principles, still worried that her happiness could be wrenched away at any moment, for reasons out of her control.

She was worried — no, it was beyond the uncertainty of worry; it was awareness — that this would cross some line in their marriage, a line that no one acknowledged until you were there on its precipice. You know the lines are there, you feel them: the things you don’t discuss. The sexual fantasies. The flirtations with other people. The deep-seated distrusts, misgivings, resentments. You go about your business, as far away from these lines as possible, pretending they’re not there. So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it’s not only shocking and horrifying, it’s banal. Because you’ve always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would.

All people have secrets. Part of being human is having secrets, and being curious about other people’s secrets. Dirty fetishes and debilitating fascinations and shameful defeats and ill-begotten triumphs, humiliating selfishness and repulsive inhumanity. The horrible things that people have thought and done, the lowest points in their lives.

Book Discussion: “Future Perfect” by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. I’ve blogged about his various books several times; I’ve read them all.

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout discussion with Steven and a handful of other commentators to discuss his new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. The full hour discussion is below and on YouTube. (BTW: Google Hangout group discussions work pretty well — I’ll be doing more of them.)

Audiobook Review: This is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and professor at MIT. He also speaks English with a native Dominican accent. These two facts make his latest novel, This is How You Lose Her, an unusually good choice for audiobook.

The stories, which surround the life of a Dominican man at different points in his life, are well-written. They are on themes of infidelity, friendship, love found, and love lost. There are sentences like “The half-life of love is forever.” When Diaz speaks these sentences on the audiobook from the perspective of the man, he does so with intensity — especially when it’s a lewd reference or expletive. There are probably a dozen Spanish sentences scattered throughout, and Dominican musical beats separating each chapter.

You can listen to a sample on Audible.com. Here’s the Amazon hardcover link.

So far, my algorithm for listening to audiobook (vs. print or e-book) has been “something I probably won’t need to reference later.” This recent experience has led me to modify that criteria: I’ll also seek audiobook when it’s read by someone with a voice that truly upgrades the reading experience in authentic way.

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One other point on audiobooks: I’m buying CDs now for the car because it’s too damn hard to download MP3s and sync across iTunes and control the start/stop functions while also using phone’s GPS. Old school works.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. A Gift of Freedom: How the John T. Olin Foundation Changed America by John J. Miller. A remarkable account of how a foundation with a set of intellectual convictions went about spreading those ideas into society, especially via the academy. Any philanthropist keen on spreading a philosophical idea should read this book.

2. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality by Leigh Eric Schmidt. I was hoping this would shed light on the uniquely American view of spirituality, but it was too dense for me. Too much detailed history. That said, the following six characteristics that she says help define what most Americans mean by “spiritual” I thought was spot on:

1) a yearning for mystical experience  or epiphanic awareness; 2) a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation; 3) a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to that presence; 4) a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a search for unity in diversity; 5) an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive reforms; 6) an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and adventuresome seeking

3. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The classic introductory book; full of wise guidance on the nature of meditation and stuffed with practical exercises to get you started. Excellent for uninitiated.

4. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. As a huge Robert Wright fan, it was about time I read Non-Zero, cited by many in the Valley as their favorite book. It’s been a decade since the book came out, and many of the assertions about globalization and greater economic/political integration — and how they drive greater zero-sumness in the world — may seem less profound than on the date of publication. But it remains an excellent introduction to basic game theory and the authoritative framework for thinking about non-zero-sum interactions.

5. Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur by Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor. Brad’s blog posts on work-life-balance are among the most thoughtful you’ll read anywhere. His post last November “Resetting My Priorities” was especially poignant. In his latest book, co-authored with his wife Amy, they detail the full range of strategies they employ to have a happy marriage amidst the chaos of busy entrepreneurial lives. I expect this book will occupy a very important niche that many people will turn to on a downswing. Hopefully an increasing number of entrepreneurs will turn to it proactively at the outset of a relationship. It’s a critical topic I’ll write more about in a later post.

6. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by Bryan Caplan. Citing twin studies to make a nature over nurture argument, Caplan says parents put too much pressure on themselves by thinking every choice they make will be consequential to their kids’ futures. Relax, he says. Do less work and relish the fact that while the first couple decades of their life are rough from a parenting perspective, you’ll have them around at least as long after that; in their adult years they can be vital companions and caretakers. There are other points he makes, but this is the one that seemed most compelling.

7. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. I picked this up in a bookstore on a whim, and while there are some good writing tips throughout, I made the mistake of thinking I could read it passively versus actively. Hence, by the time I reached the end, none of it had stuck. I’ll have to re-visit it when I’m prepared to try out the tips in real writing in real time.

8. How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton. An appealing title and excellent form factor in terms of a smaller physical book. I love de Botton, but I didn’t glean any killer insights out of this one, other than a vigorous head nod at this general point: “A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexually temping than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marques de Sade.”

Book Short: Republic, Lost

Larry Lessig’s latest — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress, and a Plan to Stop It — is an excellent overview of how money and campaign finance cripples D.C. lawmakers.

At a time when everyone seems to have a different pet policy issue that’s “urgent” and “critical” to our country’s future, it’s refreshing read something that contemplates deeper, underlying issues that, if addressed, could have a positive trickle down effect on the entire system.

Lessig’s writing in general is, as they say, self-recommending.

Book Review: The Best American Essays of 2012

This year’s edition is curated by David Brooks, and as usual, it’s phenomenal. One of the things I most look forward to in my annual reading diet is diving into the latest Best American Essays series.

Brooks must have death on his mind as several essays in the anthology are directly or indirectly on the topic.

There’s Miah Arnold’s piece on teaching English classes to some of the sickest children in the world in Houston. Imagine teaching a class where your child-aged students are dying every day, every week–you grow attached to your students but before the semester’s over, they’re dead. “When you know somebody with less than six months to live and that person agrees to spend any moment of it with you, the immensity of that generosity does change you, undeniably.”

There’s Dudley Clendin’s short piece titled “The Good Short Life,” about living (and dying) of A.L.S. It’s very moving. There’s this serious point:

We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And after describing why he’d rather die than be an (expensive) vegetable:

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

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Here are my excerpts from the 2001 edition. From the 2007 edition. Thanks to Amy Batchelor for her on-going inspiration to read this series.