What I’ve Been Reading

Books in brief.

1. Netherland: A Novel by Joseph O’Neill. A post 9/11 novel about all sorts of things, using cricket as central metaphor. A very competently written book (highly praised by the critics) with many interesting musings on life. I was engaged through to the end. My three favorite paragraphs below.

One night I went out with Appleby to a bar on the Lower East Side, anxious to talk about Rivera’s fate and scheme in his favor. Appleby, however, had arranged to meet up with friends. He passed the evening telling them jokes I couldn’t quite hear or get, and from time to time they stepped out onto the sidewalk to smoke cigarettes and make calls to carousers elsewhere in the city, returning with reports of parties in Williamsburg and SoHo and, as the night whirled away, leaving me on the rim of things. I drank up and left them to it.

No, it was simply that I was uninterested in making, as I saw it, a Xerox of some old emotional state. I was in my mid-thirties, with a marriage more or less behind me. I was no longer vulnerable to curiosity’s enormous momentum. I had nothing new to murmur to another on the subject of myself and not the smallest eagerness about being briefed on Danielle’s supposedly unique trajectory—a curve described under the action, one could safely guess, of the usual material and maternal and soulful longings, a few thwarting tics of character, and luck good and bad. A life seemed like an old story.

There came a moment, not long after the Danielle episode and in the first stimuli of spring, when I was taken by lightheaded yearning for an interlude of togetherness, a time-out, as it were, during which my still-wife and I might lie together in a Four Seasons suite, say, and work idly through a complimentary fruit basket and fuck at leisure and, most important, have hours-long, disinterested, beans-spilling, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may conversations in which we’d examine each other’s unknown nooks and crannies in the best of humor and faith.

2. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. A fine, if not especially revelatory, examination of how we perceive the nature of time. A great topic but doesn’t quite support a whole book. Some good nuggets, though.

Even memories of unique, personally momentous events can fade. Most of what we do is forgotten. When we talk about the study of memory, really it should be the study of forgetting. Every day we experience hundreds of moments that we simply forget

Once again William James summed it up for us, ‘In general time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back. On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short.’

The days are full of new experiences and while their parents rush them to school they want to take every opportunity to explore the world. They will stop and stare at workers digging up the road; they will pause to pat a dog; they will notice anything that’s different; they will try new things. Why walk along the pavement when you can hopscotch along avoiding the cracks in the paving stones or pick your way up and down the crenellations on a wall? This means that overall, despite a few slow hours where they’re forced to do something boring, on the whole days for children, just like ours on holiday, are all-absorbing, and packed with new memories which, looking back retrospectively, makes the months and years seem to stretch out.

If you feel you are someone who takes on too much (and this might not apply to you – I’m not saying everybody should turn down every request), then before you commit to an event later in the year, imagine it is happening next week. If it seems out of the question that you could fit it in, then ask yourself what steps you would need to take to be free to do it in six months’ time, remembering once again that you are unlikely to have more free time. By imagining it is next week you are more likely to consider the practical feasibility of the whole event,

Research has found that anticipation is associated with stronger emotions than remembering the past, so if we want to improve our well-being maybe we should pay less attention to the pleasures of nostalgia and more to anticipating positive events in the future.

‘Time rushes towards us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.’ Tennessee Williams

3. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Couldn’t make it far in this one. I enjoy random Alan Watts quotes but apparently couldn’t get into him in full length. My favorite paragraph of the little that I read:

This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain. By remembering the past we can plan for the future. But the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the “ability” to dread pain and to fear the unknown.

4. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. The premise of this book is captivating: when confronted with a life threatening situation, 90% of people freeze up and make horrible decisions (leading to death), 10% stay calm and survive. What do the 10% do exactly, and can we learn to do the same if we one day find ourselves in peril? Gonzales doesn’t deliver on the potential of this question, and it may not be his fault. What the 10% do is hard to concretely figure out (beyond obvious lessons like “Be decisive”), let alone really learn for yourself. The storytelling here is pretty good (and frequently tragic in nature). I read about half of the book before deciding to move on. Recommended for outdoorsmen or folks who find themselves braving the great outdoors regularly; for the lay reader it’s probably not worth it.

5. Empire Falls by Richard Russo. A modern classic. It’s a novel, though written 15 years ago, that resonates strongly in 2014 — it reveals how a small manufacturing town in America fares in an economy that no longer supports small manufacturing towns. Amidst a backdrop of economic malaise and a flight of the town’s best talent, Russo creates rich characters and a compelling social dynamic between them.

Max unzipped there and reflected that a good, long, soul-cleansing pee was something many men his age were incapable of. Once they turned seventy, they became leaky faucets with slow, incessant drips.

In the deepest sense, he hadn’t loved her. Not the way he’d intended to. Not as he’d sworn he would before God and family and friends, and this simple truth embarrassed him too deeply to allow for anything like analysis. No, he hadn’t loved her, and he didn’t know why. He also didn’t know what to call whatever it was that would’ve prevented him from telling her, even if he had known. If you didn’t call it love, what did you call the kind of affection that makes you want to protect someone from hurt? What was the name of the feeling that threatened to swamp him now, that made him want to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be all right. If not love, then what?

but you were clever enough to avoid what you feared most, which was a poor crippled young woman, who was suicidally in love with you and whose pitiful devotion would’ve made your life one long, hellish exercise in moral virtue.”

My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’s heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.

There’d still be a good television and one shitty one. The only difference was that what people had thought of as the good big one now would become the shitty little one. Worse, the quickest way to beget a new desire, Bea knew, was to satisfy an old one, and each new desire had a way of becoming more expensive than the last.

6. China Airborne by James Fallows. A brisk, fun report on the state of aviation in China, and what it says about China more generally. For airplane junkies only.

7. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Some interesting nuggets here about how artists organize their day–when they wake up, how they work, when they take breaks, etc. It doesn’t take long before you re-learn that everyone is different. No, you don’t have to be a morning person to be an artist (thank God!). I didn’t feel like I needed to finish it. I liked this nugget:

“He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, obsessively studied his past matches, looking for the slightest imperfection, but when it came time to play a chess game, he said he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.” After Herb Stein finishes shooting a soap opera episode, he immediately goes home and reviews the rough cut. “I watch the whole thing,” Stein says, “and I just take notes. I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find thirty mistakes, thirty things that I could have done better. If I can’t find thirty, then I’m not looking hard enough.” These mistakes are usually little things, so minor that nobody else would notice. But Stein knows that the only way to get it right the next time is to study what he got wrong this time. Tom Brady spends hours watching game tape every week, critically looking at each of his passing decisions, but when he’s standing in the pocket he knows that he can’t hesitate before making a throw. It’s not an accident that all of these experts have converged on such a similar method. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.

From Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

Ben Franklin Didn’t Like the Choice of Bald Eagle

As a Franklin devotee, I kind of loved this anecdote. Fight on, Ben!

In 1782, after years of argument and indecision, Congress concluded that the bald eagle would make an appropriate symbol of national power and authority, and so it was decided that the bird, depicted with its wings outspread, its talons grasping an olive branch, etcetera, should be adopted as the emblem for the great seal of the United States….Not everybody agreed with the decision… Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey a better choice and considered the bald eagle—a plunderer and a scavenger of dead fish rather than a hunter, and timid if mobbed by much smaller birds—an animal of bad moral character and in fact a coward.

(From Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.)

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

In 2009, I reviewed at length Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where I noted that the book so captivated me that I spent a whole day reading it instead of exploring the Afro-Caribbean streets of Cartagena, Colombia where I happened to be at the time.

Last week, I read Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, lying next to a pool in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Once again, Hamid kept me adhered to my chair, as evidenced by the picture to the right.book

It’s a rags-to-riches story of a boy who’s born in a poor village who transforms himself into a big city entrepreneur-mogul.

As a piece of writing, Hamid is masterful. His effortless use of the second person voice — rare in novels — increases the sense of urgency while reading. He can also bring characters to life with an efficient dash of a paragraph, which is how the book clocks in at a brisk 200 pages or so and yet still feels deep.

Three big picture themes especially resonated with me.

The first theme is the simple entrepreneurial hustle required in a dirty, somewhat dangerous, fast moving emerging market. The self-help structure is a parody, but effectively conveys the underlying truth which is that only relentless do-anything go-getter win in “Rising Asia.” (The namelessness of places and people – “Rising Asia” is the setting of the book, “you” the protagonist, and “Pretty Girl” the main romantic interest – permits readers to interpret its various lessons as broadly as possible.)

The second theme that resonated is the relationship between romance and careerism. The protagonist’s marriage falls apart because of his relentless focus on his career. And the real object of his sexual desires is not his wife but another girl who also happens to be obsessed with her career, and therefore stays firmly single despite an occasional hotel rendezvous together. Two careerists do not a couple make.

Third, I learned that the humanity of a person gets brought into relief from the juxtaposition of flaws and virtues. For example, in this book, the protagonist entrepreneur essentially misleads customers about the authenticity of his product; bribes government officials; hires employee based on nepotism; and commits other unethical or unwise acts. Yet he somehow maintains your sympathy throughout. Why? His flaws are rationalized with an air of reasonableness, and he maintains several other virtues besides. Real people tend to be a bundle of the good and bad and complicated shades of both all at the same time. Skilled writers direct a wide lens to capture this nuance–we see flaw and virtue together, and it reminds us of ourselves, and makes the whole story feel relatable.

This was a novel that was not easy to put down, and it will not be easy to forget.

Favorite paragraphs excerpted below.

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Life is Not a Highlight Reel

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment.

A romantic relationship is not about the “highlights” you see on Instagram or Facebook of international trips or fancy dinner parties. Those things are nice but necessarily infrequent. Most of the time is downtime, and if you can’t love the downtime, you’ve got a problem. As Kramer in Seinfeld once famously mocked, conversation with a spouse tends to be repeated discussion of very ordinary days.

Relationships, like life in general, consist mostly of ordinary moments, not extraordinary ones.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, he notes that our day-to-day lives are full of tedium. For example, suppose after you work you need to pick up some food: “You will go to the supermarket. At the supermarket you will get a cart. The cart will have three functional wheels, and one wheel that spins out all curvy in a weird direction. That wheel – and thus the cart – will drive you mad. If you let it.”

Wallace’s point: How we choose to respond to things like the supermarket cart that can’t roll straight, and the million other daily hassles, in part defines who we are.

The minimum response, I think, is to simply tolerate the trivia, in some Zen kind of way. Accept the trivia for what it is and don’t get too depressed by it. Simple, but not at all easy.

The more ambitious response, as articulated by various sages over the years, is to aspire to find sacredness in, and have compassion towards, the ordinariness around us. Even if said ordinariness seems maddening or utterly banal on the surface. As Abraham Maslow put in: “…the sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard.”

Indeed, some of the happiest people I know find joy in the smallest of pleasures and find amusement in what are usually inconsequential inconveniences.

And to Tyler’s point, some of the happiest couples I know are at their best when it’s just the two of them on the couch looking at YouTube videos on their iPad, or taking their dog for a walk together.

So, as I’ve come to see it, the reality is this: For the most part, life is one damn mundane thing after another.

The choice that determines sanity is whether you let the little things drive you bonkers, or worse yet let the little things foment existential angst — or whether instead you can find a way to tolerate it all peacefully.

The choice that determines higher wisdom or enlightenment is whether you can learn toappreciate the little experiences — most of them trivial, indeed — as the precious, joyous stuff.

As the writer Dani Shapiro has noted, if you wait for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — you may just miss your life.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Sometimes I meet with a friend or acquaintance and I leave the meeting thinking, “Am I doing enough with my life? Am I taking enough risk?” Ramit Sethi once told me he loves those sorts of meetings. (I love them too, though as I’ve written, if someone is too much better than me, it’s actually demotivating.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s film which opened on Christmas Day, is a recent example of a movie which caused me to ask questions I ought to ask myself more often: Am I being adventurous enough? Am I being bold enough? Am I trying hard enough to realize my fantasies? Why haven’t I visited Iceland? The questions popped to mind as I took in the gorgeous photography and listened to the lovely soundtrack. (The official trailer is an accurate proxy for physical beauty in the entire film.)

To be sure, most of the critics have given Mitty mixed reviews. I’m hardly a film sophisticate, and even I saw flaws in the movie.

Sure, the actual storyline/plot is so-so, but it’s good enough to make you reflect on the big questions. Because you don’t have to be a shy paper pusher who works in the basement of an office, as Walter Mitty does, to day dream. And you don’t have to be able to jump through windows or on to arctic ships, as Mitty does, in order to make real a more adventrous and perhaps authentic version of yourself.

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On my flight to Hong Kong, I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film about older Brits who try to invigorate their lives by moving to a hotel for old people in India. It’s a story of seeking adventure, even to your very last day. I enjoyed it quite a bit, for reasons similar to why I liked Mitty.

Another movie I saw recently and loved was Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teen angst, high school travails, mental illness, broken romance, and a surprise ending. Deeply affecting.

Books: “Average is Over” and “The Second Machine Age”

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen was published a couple months ago; The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee will be published a couple weeks from now. I’ve read both and together they provide a persuasive account of how our economy is changing (due to technology and globalization) and who in the labor market will survive and thrive in an era where “average is over.” There are various summaries available.

For individual readers (as opposed to policy makers), you can think of the two books as prequels to The Start-Up of You. In The Start-Up of You, we provide practical advice on how to make yourself more adaptable, how to take risks, how to market yourself, how to grow your network–in a word, how to make yourself more entrepreneurial. Tyler, Erik, and Andy all assert that individuals will need to do these sorts of things to survive in a more challenging labor market, but they don’t have time to get into the details. (They focus more on the macro trends and implications, which are quite important in their own right.) So for enterprising individuals who want to understand the economy they’re living in and specific advice that should follow from this understanding, consider all three excellent books!

Q4. Done.

The fourth quarter of 2013 was a doozy. Starting in late September, life got hectic on all fronts. So hectic that I feel like I haven’t had time to reflect on all that’s been happening, or process/clarify all the ideas swirling about in my head.

Reflection and idea development happens when I write. And while I’ve been doing a lot of writing of late, I haven’t done enough on personal topics.

So one goal for 2014: Write more on this blog. Write more personally.

I’m celebrating New Year’s in Hong Kong and Thailand. Wherever you are, Happy 2014!

If You’re Hot and Smart You Can’t Be…

Many years ago, when I was writing my first spec for a software product, an engineer told me: Your software can be good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

It crystallized the idea of tradeoffs very powerfully in my brain.

Ever since, I’ve noticed the “pick two out of three” rule applies in a broad set of contexts. Tradeoffs abound when traits are inversely correlated or simply rare in combination.

Here are some other examples some friends and I came up with. Pick two out of three.

  • Products generally: easy to use, secure, private
  • Your significant other: hot, smart, emotionally stable
  • Vacations: exotic, relaxing, cheap
  • Non-fiction: original, entertaining, short
  • Meals made at home: tasty, nutritious, easy to make/cleanup
  • Shoes: comfortable, durable, stylish

And as I learned in compiling this list:

  • Blog posts: honest, politically correct, concise

Visiting the Panama Canal

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.” – David McCullough

A couple months ago, I watched a video on Bill Gates’s blog about his visit to the Panama Canal. He called it one of the Top 10 places he’s been to, and given that he’s been to a lot of places, this caught my attention. My Mom and I headed down there for a weekend to see the Canal and greater Panama City, and I’m happy to report that it is now on my Top 10 list too — even though my overall list is probably considerably shorter than Bill’s!

The flight into Panama City at night was beautiful. Out my airplane window, I saw dozens of ships lined up in the water, waiting to enter the Canal Zone. The next morning we explored Panama City. It’s the most developed city in Central America. Half of the tallest sky scrapers in Latin America are in Panama, we were told. The water is drinkable. The taxi drivers are professional and friendly. The malls are as fancy as anywhere in the world, and all the usual A-list hotel brands have outposts along a main strip. The old town is lovely to stroll around in, and it’s one the part of Panama City that does feel genuinely Latin American, so long as you ignore the eye-catching streak of sky scrappers visible across the water.

canal2

The Canal is the main attraction, of course, and it’s worth setting aside an entire day for the effort. Before going to the Canal — or even if you can’t go — read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas. It’s the authoritative account of how the canal got built against all odds. McCullough starts by recounting the French effort to build a canal in Panama. After 20,000 French died and untold tresaure expended, the French gave up. Then he masterfully recounts the debate in America’s government about whether to attempt to build something that almost everyone said was impossible. Then he covers the actual construction, the enormous public health challenges that were overcome, and the eventual mind-blowing triumph — the most impressive civil engineering project in history.

There are so many stats about the construction and end result. Here are a few:

  • “Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.”
  • With the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 to the Compagnie Nouvelle, the United States had spent more for the rights, privileges, and properties that went with the Canal Zone—an area roughly a third the size of Long Island—than for any actual territorial acquisition in its history, more than for the Louisiana Territory ($15,000,000), Alaska ($7,200,000), and the Philippines ($20,000,000) combined.
  • The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
  • Largest overseas effort in U.S. history.
  • Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.
  • “The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.”

But as McCullough says, no recitation of stats could do justice to the grandeur.

To be sure, the actual visual of the canal when you’re there is not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or even the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel. The canal is alive and functional — a centerpiece of global commerce — it’s not a national park or historical piece. That’s why it’s helpful to have the historical and political background to fully appreciate the impressiveness.

We went on a partial boat tour — you’re in an actual boat in the canal and you cross through two sets of locks which raise up the ship by 85 feet by pumping 27 million gallons of freshwater into the locked off area in less than eight minutes. I’m glad we were in a boat and not viewing the canal from the Miraflores Locks museum, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the full seven hours riding across the entire canal. It’s not necessary to get a good sense of what’s happening.

As I learned about canal on the tour, I reflected on how little I knew before my trip. I cannot remember ever hearing about it in school. I remember studying the building of the Hoover Dam, and man-made flight, and entering outer space, and learning about other science achievements. Yet, even though the Panama Canal is as or more impressive than any of the above, it doesn’t seem as prominent in the history books. Most likely this because the U.S. government has blood on its hands in Panama: it seized/stole the land from Colombia in order to ensure the Canal was built, an event which kicked off a series of shameful intrusions in Central America sovereignty.

It’s worth learning more about. And given how easy it is to get in and out of Panama, it’s worth visiting in person.

At the end of the McCullough book, there’s a moving quote by John Stevens, who was chief engineer at the Canal from 1905-1907. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote soon before dying. The great works had still to come: “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean…”

Other direct quotes from McCullough’s book below.

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