Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

plexSteven Levy’s 2011 book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is very much worth reading for anyone in or around the tech industry, or for an outsider who’s seeking an accessible description of what makes Google’s business magical. In other words, even if you know a lot about Google already, there are dozens of interesting nuggets about the creation of the various products. And if you don’t know the first thing about AdWords or why Google search is better than other services, you’ll find a jargon-free yet still sophisticated description.

My Kindle highlights from the book are below.

Google even had its own version of the Learning Annex, called Google University. Besides a number of work-related courses (“Managing Within the Law,” “Advanced Interviewing Techniques”), there were classes in creative writing, Greek mythology, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and, for those contemplating a new career funded with Google gains, “Terroir: The Geology & Wines of California.”

‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list. “They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

But then Eric Schmidt revealed Google’s internal motto to a reporter from Wired. To McCaffrey, that was the moment when “Don’t be evil” got out of control and became a hammer to clobber Google’s every move. “We lost it, and I could never grasp it back,” she says. “Everybody would’ve been happy if it could’ve been this sort of silent code or little undercurrent that we secretly harbored instead of this thing that set us up for a lot of ridiculous criticism.” Elliot Schrage, who was in charge of communications and policy for Google from 2005 to 2008, concluded that “Don’t be evil” might originally have benefited the company but became “a millstone around my neck” as Google’s growth took it to controversial regions of the world.

Bo Cowgill, a Google statistician, did a series of studies of his colleagues’ behavior, based on their participation in a “prediction market,” a setup that allowed them to make bets on the success of internal projects. He discovered that “daily stock price movements affect the mood, effort level and decision-making of employees.” As you’d expect, increases in stock performance made people happier and more optimistic—but they also led them to regard innovative ideas more warily, indicating that as Googlers became richer, they became more conservative. That was exactly the downside of the IPO that the founders had dreaded.

Around 2005, Google determined a simple formula to distribute its engineering talent: 70–20–10. Seventy percent of its engineers would work in either search or ads. Twenty percent would focus on key products such as applications. The remaining 10 percent would work on wild cards, which often emerged from the 20 percent time where people could choose their own projects. For all the talk about its other, well-publicized fraction—the 20 percent of free time that supposedly gestated Google’s big innovations—70–20–10 became Google’s magic allocation algorithm.

not just to identify what one wants to do but to break down the task into measurable bites (“key results”). In his book High Output Management, Grove imagined the OKR system applied to Christopher Columbus. The explorer fell short of his objective of finding a trade route to India, but he did carry out some subsidiary OKRs: he gathered a crew; he bought supplies; he avoided pirates; and by discovering the New World, he brought riches to Spain. Doerr had Google at metrics. “Google did more than adopt it,” says Doerr. “They embraced it.” OKRs became an essential component of Google culture. Every employee had to set, and then get approval for, quarterly OKRs and annual OKRs. There were OKRs at the team level, the department level, and even the company level. (Those last were used sparingly, for important initiatives or to address gaping failures.) Four times a year, everything stopped at Google for divisionwide meetings to assess OKR progress.

What’s more, OKRs were not private benchmarks shared only with managers. They were public knowledge, as much a part of an employee’s Google identity as the job description. The OKRs appeared on every employee’s biographical information on MOMA, Google’s internal website. (The name didn’t stand for anything in particular—according to Marissa Mayer, Larry Page just wanted something fast and short and easy to type.) You could even see Larry and Sergey’s OKRs.

For a number of years, Brin and Page drew organizational and clerical support from a pool of four sharp young women known as LSA, or Larry and Sergey Assistants. (Googlers referred to LSA as if it were a single organization. You would say, “I’ll check with LSA to see if Sergey can come to this meeting.”) The system seemed to work well, but Brin and Page felt constrained. By having assistants, they noticed, it was easier for people to ask things of them. “Most people aren’t willing to ask me if they want to meet with me,” says Page. “They’re happy to ask an assistant.” When a meeting request came, an LSA would have to see if Page or Brin actually wanted to do it. In truth, the founders almost never wanted to do it. So one day, Brin and Page abruptly dissolved LSA. They would thereafter have no assistants. Whatever they felt was important at the moment would be their work. Sergey sometimes liked to move his workplace right in the middle of a project he found

Of all of Google’s secrets, this massive digital infrastructure was perhaps its most closely held. It never disclosed the number of these data centers. (According to an industry observer, Data Center Knowledge, there were twenty-four major facilities by 2009, a number Google didn’t confirm or dispute.) Google would not say how many servers it had in those centers. (Google did, however, eventually say that it is the largest computer manufacturer in the world—making its own servers requires it to build more units every year than the industry giants HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Nor did Google spokespeople deny reports that it had more than a million of those servers in operation.) And it never welcomed outsiders to peer into its data centers.

In May, the impatient YouTube founders took out an ad in craigslist offering “hot” women $100 for every ten videos they’d post displaying their charms.They set up a series of meetings at the Denny’s in Redwood City, between Mountain View and YouTube headquarters in San Mateo. The YouTubers told Schmidt that their goal was to democratize the video experience online, and they felt that the idea resonated with him—after all, wasn’t that what Google wanted to do for the whole web?

as Eric Schmidt told a reporter when asked just how Google determines the application of its famous unofficial motto, “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.”

“Just tell me it’s not Google,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

With nowhere else to turn—and the economic downturn making the company a less attractive takeover target—Yahoo’s new CEO, former Autodesk head Carol Bartz, arranged to turn over Yahoo’s search business to Microsoft for a bargain price of a billion dollars. Microsoft got the main prize it had sought in the merger for barely 3 percent of its original offer.)

Book Review: Breath by Breath

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg is one of the better books on meditation I’ve read. It’s a terrific introduction by the founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.breahtbybreath

The problem with most of the stuff I read on the topic is it’s either inaccessibly technical / arcane, or too new-agey and lacking in substance. Breath by Breath strikes a good balance: it seems faithful to some of the key ideas expressed by the Buddha in the original Pali language while at the same time expressing in clear English how a meditation practice functions in modern life. There are also specific instructions and tips for those looking to strengthen their practice.

The emphasis on breath continues to be the most practical aspect of my practice. I have a very subtle perception of my breath and this allows me to return to the present moment more easily.

Some other random points from the book, among many:

  • The idea is to go from “doggy mind” to a “lion mind,” in which there is deep steadiness.
  • People often take up meditation because they want to achieve or gain something; the paradox in the practice is that the best way to get “there” to be fully present “here.”
  • The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing.
  • Buddhism isn’t about beliefs. It’s about firsthand knowledge.

Thanks to Amy and Brad Feld for letting me “steal” this book from them.


The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on about meditation. It’s worth watching for insights from one of the more prominent American experts on meditation. Shinzen says that when he thinks about meditation, he doesn’t call to mind the common image of someone sitting quietly in a darkened room. Rather, he thinks of someone in a gym, doing cardio, pumping weights, and making a lasting effect of the physical structure of his body. Certain formal exercises increase flexibility; others increase endurance; others build muscle strength.

Book Review: Help! by Oliver Burkeman

A few months ago I reviewed Oliver Burkeman’s recent book The Antidote, which is a powerful meditation against conventional self-help gospel and in favor of a different, darker sort of path for

After I wrote the review, I met Oliver in New York and he gave me a copy of his earlier book entitled Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. It’s a collection of his columns in The Guardian. It’s fantastic — full of insight, cyncial quips and cheap shots, and amusing yet still very wise suggestions on how to live the good life. It’s also easy to read. Each column is a couple pages long and the topics vary quite a bit, so you can skip around without feeling guilty.

I stand by my claim that Oliver is one of the most interesting commentators on, and curators of, the vast self-help space.

Favorite quotes from the book below.

SMART goals: ‘Smart’ stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded, and it’s one of those acronyms that ought to make you suspicious from the outset, if only because it spells out a slightly too convenient word.

The other day, I learned of some breakthrough psychological research which proves that contributing to good causes stimulates the same part of the brain as receiving large sums of money — only more so. Giving to others, it turns out, really may be the key to happiness. About 35 minutes later, I ran into a ‘charity mugger,’ collecting for a human rights organization, and became consumed with a quasi-homicidal rage that only worsened as he trotted after me down the street, stoking fantasies of breaking his clipboard in two and dropping it into pieces at his feet. There seems to be a contradiction here. Some possible conclusions: a) my brain is hardwired wrongly; b) the psychology researchers screwed up, or c) there are only certain conditions under which giving makes you happy, and being bullied by an out-of-work actor with a goatee isn’t one of them.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: when really big crises occur, people often find inner strength; it’s the little things that drive us crazy. Deep down, we know we can escape bereavement, and maybe illness and divorce, but we think we shouldn’t have to deal with queues or irritating colleagues.

The scholar Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the ‘comittment problem’: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarassable. Embarrassment — signalled by facial microexpressions that can’t be faked and that are remarkably consistent across cultures — ‘reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together.’ In the moment, you realize you’ve come to the restaurant without your wallet, your eyes shoot down, your head titles, a smile flickers. These are the ‘the most potent nonverbal cues we have to an individual’s commitment to the moral order.’

On a really bad day, I may spend hours stuck in angst-ridden meanderings, wondering if I need to make major changes in my life. It’s usually then that I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

Ted Huston, a University of Texas psychology professor who runs the PAIR Project, a long-term study of married couples that began in 1981. The project has reached numerous intruiging conclusions, such as that couples who are ‘particularly lovey-dovey’ as newlyweds are more likely to divorce.

We don’t know our friends nearly as well as we imagine. Research demonstrates that we tend to assume our friends agree with us — on politics, ethics, etcetera — more than they really do….Friendship may be less about being drawn to someone’s personality than about finding someone willing to endorse your sense of your own personality. In agreeing to keep your company, or lend an ear, a friend provides the ‘social-identity support’ we crave. You needn’t be a close match, nor deeply familiar with their psyche, to strike this mutual deal. And once a friendship has begun, cognitive dissonance helps keep it going: having decided that someone’s your friend, you want to like them, if only to confirm they you made the right decision. We don’t want to know everything about our fiends, Gill and Swann suggest: what we seek is ‘pragmatic accuracy.’ … Friendship as an agreement to keep each other company, overlook each other’s faults, and not probe too deeply in ways that might undermine the friendship.

“One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.’ They don’t see that their behavior may be irrelevant, or worse, that they succeeded in spite of it.” - Marshall Goldsmith in his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Neil Pasricha from has a deep affinity for another category of pleasures, usually neglected by purveyors of pop psychology, which fall under the heading of “relief”: the joyous moment an unpleasant experience stops, or when things don’t turn out half as badly as you were expecting. Who’d dissent, for example, from Pasricha’s observation that there’s a weirdly disproportionate enjoyment, when hauling luggage or shopping, in ‘picking up something that turns out to be a lot lighter than you expected’? Or ‘dropping your cell phone on the sidewalk and then realizing it’s totally fine’? Or arriving late for a rendezvous, sweaty and exhausted, only to find the other person’s even later’?

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Few writers could produce brief character sketches of about a dozen or so people, break up each sketch into five or six different parts, and then spread those parts out across different Unknownchapters. Somehow, Packer manages to paint vivid pictures of his subjects — who range from a tobacco farmer to a Washington lobbyist to a Silicon Valley icon. Collectively, these portraits lead to a vivid image of what’s happening in America today. As David Brooks wrote in his thoughtful review of the book, the “unwinding” that Packer refers to has to do with three large transformations:

The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

2. Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner. I love peanut butter. When I return home from trips, one of the first things I do is eat peanut butter. I eat it before going to bed. If that’s not comfort food, I don’t know what is. So skimming this history of Jif and Skippy and the other brands was fun. Hard core fans only. I did like these sentences: “More than Mom’s apple pie, peanut butter is the all-American food. With its rich, roasted-peanut aroma and flavor, caramel hue, and gooey, consoling texture, peanut butter is an enduring favorite, found in the pantries of at least 75% of American kitchens.”

3. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. This book is high end self-help — it asks “How to live?” and each chapter focuses on a different theme, with the insights all derived from Michel de Montaigne’s classic Essays. It’s a stimulating collection and an accessible introduction to Montaigne’s work.montainge

If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it — and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience — but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look insidey ourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. The philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty called Montaigne a writer who put “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.” More recently, the critic Colin Burrow has remarked that astonishment, together with Montaigne’s other key quality, fluidity, are what philosophy should be, but rarely has been, in the Western tradition.

4. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop and Matthew Green. A solid introduction to the new generation of philanthrpists like Gates and the mega giving they are undergoing. Some good coverage of corporate philanthropy, too. Two random lessons:

  • People are motivated to give in large part due to religious faith; this explains why Americans are more charitable than Europeans (Americans are more religious) and why people on the political right give more than those on the political left.
  • Government aid usually requires broad consensus and adheres to political correctness; private philanthropy, Mike Bloomberg suggests, is unique in that it can pursue a diversity of agenda.

5. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant. A very short and simple book that has generated some buzz amongst some Silicon Valley insiders. How simple? The point of the book is to tell yourself “I love myself” over and over and over again. That’s it. It’s almost laughably simple and almost certainly narcissistic. And I’m not sure I’d recommend the book. Then again, I tried it, and with some sheepishness, I must admit it does make me feel better when I’m feeling blue….

6. Fuck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John Parkin. “Fuck it” is the Western expression of the Eastern idea of “let it go.” Let it go. Fuck it. Move on. Another extremely simplistic book I’m not sure I’d recommend, but kind of amusing to read in parallel with Love Yourself.

7. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia.

consciousThis is an important book. Mackey and Sisodia present a framework for thinking about capitalism that involves multiple stakeholders and a do-good mission embedded in a for-profit structure. Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, believes we need to “liberate the heroic spirit of business” by letting free market enterprise flourish, because the businesses that themselves flourish are the ones that maintain elevated values, pursue a noble mission, and satisfy a variety of stakeholders (not just the shareholders). I expect we’ll see more and more books that seek to explain the default moral arc of capitalism.

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.


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.)