Book Reviews: The Sweet Spot and 4,000 Weeks, on Happiness and Meaning and Time Management

I’m quite interested in the literature on happiness and meaning and yet I usually pass on reading new articles or books on the topics. I liked Paul Bloom’s explanation for why he’s the same, from his new book The Sweet Spot:

There is a famous remark by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, dismissing the work of another scientist: “He isn’t right. He isn’t even wrong.” I often think about this line while reading about meaning and purpose. The problem isn’t usually that I disagree with what I read—it’s that it’s too fuzzy and vague and general to take seriously.

“He isn’t right — he isn’t even wrong.” I’m going to have to start using that line!

I don’t know Bloom personally though I’ve been an avid consumer of his podcasts and writing over the years. Around the same as I read The Sweet Spot, I also read my old friend Oliver Burkeman’s new book 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I’ve been reading Oliver’s stuff for years, have recommended his books widely, and was delighted to discover a few years ago that he’s as engaging and pleasant in person as he is on the page.

Both Bloom and Burkeman offer sophisticated and provocative perspectives on timeless questions about how to construct a happy and/or meaningful life.

Burkeman’s falls under the guise of “time management” but it’s really about relinquishing your desire to be productive in all areas of your life in order to achieve higher levels of peace and happiness. He advocates for “strategic underachievement”: to be intentionally bad at things you care little about. Give up the idea you can get everything done you want to get done in your ever-so-short 4,000 weeks on this planet. Burkeman presents a sort of a manifesto for coming to terms with the fact that you’re not going to put a dent in the universe, and given that fact, he makes a case for smelling the flowers in the here and now.

Burkeman’s diagnosis of what ails unhappy high achievers starts from their fear of death and their lack of belief in an afterlife: “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future. And so they try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience.”

He argues there’s no way you’re going to accomplish all that you want to accomplish. Find peace in that, somehow. “You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.”

The advice reminds me of something a wise man once told me in a breakout session on the bucket lists. He said that the art of the bucket list as you get older is removing items from your bucket list, not adding them.

One especially provocative image from Burkeman’s book — somewhat unrelated to his core thesis — relates to the shortness of history. I had never thought about the past in this way; in how recent the past actually is:

In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough….

by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.”

Burkeman’s book was super and I highly recommend it.

Paul Bloom’s book is more directly about happiness and meaning and what it takes to achieve either or both. Happiness is great but meaning may be better, he argues, and there’s some amount of suffering that’s actually helpful for leading a meaningful life. He approvingly quotes Jordan Petersen: “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden you can bear and bearing it” and Slavoj Zizec says “the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle.” Want a meaningful life? Sign up for struggle.

Bloom divides chosen struggle/suffering into two categories:

The first involves spicy food, hot baths, frightening movies, rough sex, intense exercise, and the like. We’ll see that such experiences can give pleasure. They can increase the joy of future experiences, provide an escape from consciousness, satisfy curiosity, and enhance social status. The second is the sort involved in climbing mountains and having children. Such activities are effortful and often unpleasant. But they are part of a life well lived.

We seek out the first kind of suffering all the time. Think of the phrase “it hurts so good”: the pleasure that comes from pain. Sometimes we even express the same thing in pain and pleasure:

We scream when we are in pain. But, weirdly, we also scream for the opposite of pain—intense pleasure, joyous surprise, great excitement. Have you seen the videos of fangirls in the sixties in the presence of the Beatles? They positively shriek…. Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Bloom talks about the difference between the inputs for happiness and the inputs for meaning:

Health, feeling good, and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. The more people report thinking about the past and the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. Finding your life to be relatively easy is related to more happiness; finding your life to be difficult is related to less happiness and, though it is a small effect, more meaning. Do you consider your life a struggle? You’re likely to be less happy but more likely to see your life as more meaningful. Are you under stress? More meaning and less happiness. What about worrying? Again, more meaning and less happiness.

Bloom says people who have happiness tend to also be the people who have meaning – there’s a correlation:

It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning. If you describe yourself as being bored, then you are less likely to have either a happy life or a meaningful life. Similarly, if you describe yourself as lacking social connection—as lonely—this is also bad for both happiness and meaningfulness. Indeed, one main finding by Baumeister and his colleagues is that there are correlations between happiness and meaning…

Over the years, I’ve moved more toward a focus on happiness. I’ve looked more skeptically at those who want to eat glass and stare into the abyss, to invoke a famous Musk line on entrepreneurship.

The title of Bloom’s book, “the sweet spot,” refers to finding the ideal balance between pleasure and struggle, between happiness and meaning. Practically this means: Have a ton of pleasure but not much struggle? Turn up the difficulty dial. Constantly stressed? Turn up the pleasure/happiness dial.

If you are, like me, more naturally oriented to ambitious, difficult endeavors, the appropriate counterbalance of focus would be hedonistic or leisure activities that drive happiness.

In previous writings on Buddhism, I’ve made the claim that for those of us who grew up in the West, we’re so over-programmed to Western ways of thinking that tacking a little bit more in the direction of Buddhism is helpful, and you needn’t worry about losing all your attachments or ambition overnight. At best, you will become a little more Eastern. The same applies here, in my opinion, in terms of adding sprinkles of hedonism on top of a meaning-rich — meaning-obsessed? — baseline.

Balancing happiness activities with meaning activities could be framed within “opponent-process” theory:

In modern times, many psychologists endorse an “opponent-process” theory of experience, whereby our minds seek balance, or homeostasis, so that positive reactions are met with negative feelings, and vice versa. The fear of skydiving is followed by feelings of relief and accomplishment, for instance.

This explains the unique pleasure of sauna followed by cold plunge!

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Bloom explains and disputes one of Dan Gilbert’s theories of happiness.

Gilbert, whose writing I’m a fan of, is — by Bloom’s account — pro happiness, pro pleasure, and pro hedonism to an extent. Gilbert puts forward an example of someone whose life is empty of meaning but who’s enjoying a wonderful, unbelievably pleasurable pool. Here’s Gilbert, as quoted by Bloom:

I may be a shameless hedonist happily swimming in my Olympic size pool, feeling the cool water and the warm sunshine on my skin and my hedonic state could only be described as pleasurable. Occasionally I jump out of the pool, pause, and think about how empty my life is, and for a few minutes I feel bad. Then I get back in the pool and swim some more.

Bloom goes to paraphrase Gilbert:

He points out that in his pool example, there are two different sorts of conscious experiences, which we can see as akin to two different people. There is the Experiencer, who feels the cool water and the warm sunshine and who is happy. And there is the Observer, who passes judgment on the life as a whole and who is disappointed….

Gilbert notes that the Observer is rarely present in our lives. We spend little time thinking of our lives as a whole. When you are in the pool, with the cool water and warm sunshine, or laughing with friends (or, for that matter, undergoing a painful dental procedure or falling down a flight of stairs), you aren’t evaluating your life. You are living it—you are the Experiencer.

So, if you’re mostly in the pool, even if you feel empty when you’re sitting poolside and reflecting on whether you’ve made contributions in the world, Gilbert says if the number of hours you’re in the pool far exceeds the poolside hours — you’ll be fine.

If you’re someone who has lots of pleasure and happiness in your life, then, it’s critical to be an Experiencer as much as possible — to live in the present moment, and don’t wallow in reflection too much. Mindfulness meditation is helpful here.

Bloom supports Gilbert’s case via another thought experiment:

Would you rather that your child has a life in which she was almost always happy except when she reflected on her life, or the other way around? . . . It’s hard to imagine condemning our children to 23 hours of unhappiness every day just so they’ll be glad for 1.

Powerful. Few parents would condemn their child to 23 hours of unhappiness just so they can have one hour of deep, meaning-rich reflection. Ultimately, though, Bloom is unconvinced by Gilbert:

There is also a more prosaic reason not to spend the rest of your life in Gilbert’s pool. You will probably get tired of it. This is one reason, I would suggest, that having a life of meaning and having a life of pleasure often go together. Long-term difficult projects, for instance, provide opportunities for novelty and excitement; they avoid one of the big problems faced by hedonists: boredom.

Bloom’s right that boredom is a risk with a life too centered on happiness. But it’s hard to get to that point, at least for me. There’s so much hedonistic novelty out there. So many experiences to have. So many pleasures to experience. It’s why I’m more convinced by Gilbert on this particular point.

But I take Bloom’s argument very well too: strike a balance. Bloom wouldn’t want you on the side of the pool reflecting all the time, or running 7 marathons a week just to experience the struggle. He would suggest you jump in and enjoy the water from time to time. He’s arguing for each of us to find our unique sweet spot between pleasure and pain, meaning and happiness. It strikes me as the absolute right way to think about things.

Some other random highlights from Bloom’s book:

Pain as a way to get in the present:

Psychologists who study benign masochism like to quote a dominatrix who said, “A whip is a great way to get someone to be here now. They can’t look away from it, and they can’t think of anything else.” Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, agreed, asking, “Where is indifference when pain intervenes?” (Elsewhere he wrote: “Seek pain! Seek pain, pain, pain!”)

Reminds me of a technique in Zen where the teacher screams at the top of his lungs in the middle of a sit to jolt the meditators back into the present moment. It happened to me once.

Stay in the present moment and you’ll be happier:

On the whole, people were less happy when they were mind-wandering than when they were not.

When my mind wanders, it’s usually in the direction of anxiety.

It’s hard to reach a “flow” state:

Flow is wonderful, then, but it’s difficult to find—sandwiched between boredom and anxiety, hard to get started, hard to sustain.

On stories and the arc of positive vs. negative:

… another analysis chugged through thousands of works of fiction, analyzing their emotional content as the stories progressed, and found that the stories fell into six main categories, only some of which end on a happy note: Rags to Riches (rise) Riches to Rags (fall) Man in a Hole (fall then rise) Icarus (rise then fall) Cinderella (rise then fall then rise) Oedipus (fall then rise then fall) This variety holds for aversive fictions as well. Yes, many horror movies end with the monster being killed, but many don’t.

We’re all different. I loved this way of putting it:

To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.

What I’ve Been Reading (September 2021)

I’ve been as busy as ever and thus delinquent in sharing some highlights from recent books.

1. The Institute by Stephen King. Totally gripping and addictive novel. Outstanding plot premise from a master of the craft. Expect to stay up late while reading.

2. The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina

Really well researched and well told stories from the lawless high seas. You learn about the brutal human rights violations of the people who work aboard fishing boats for literally years on end without seeing their families; piracy; ship stealing; and the terrible animal abuse of all types of fish.

My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Urbina’s words.

Also known as icefish, the toothfish can grow to over six feet long and gets its name from a sharklike double row of steel-sharp teeth. Among Antarctica’s largest predators, the grisly gray-black creature can prowl at depths of more than two miles, and its heart beats unusually slowly—once per six seconds—to preserve energy in the frigid depths. Its eyes are the size of billiard balls that grotesquely bulge from their sockets when fishermen pull them up to shallower depths with lower pressures. The fish is also a favorite entrée in upscale restaurants in the United States and Europe, costing about $30 a fillet. But diners won’t find “toothfish” on menus. There, it is sold under a more palatable name: Chilean sea bass. Demand soared in the 1980s and 1990s after a Los Angeles fish wholesaler with a flair for marketing renamed the fish.

To avoid wasting space and contaminating more valuable catch, deckhands usually throw the rest of the shark back into the water after they cut off the fins, which can sell for a hundred times the cost of the rest of the meat. It is a slow death: the sharks, alive but unable to swim without their fins, sink to the seafloor, where they starve, drown, or are slowly eaten by other fish.

By 2017, roughly a third of all shark species were nearing extinction.

By 2015, about ninety-four million tons of fish were caught each year, more than the weight of the entire human population.

As the size and strength of nets increased, so too did the amount of bycatch that was inadvertently killed and thrown back. More than half the global catch is now tossed overboard dead, or it is ground up and pelletized to feed pigs, poultry, and farmed fish. For instance, feeding a single “ranched” tuna can require catching and pelletizing over thirty times the weight of that tuna in fish pulled from the sea. These technological advances, as well as the industrialization of fishing, are a big reason why catches from the high seas rose 700 percent in the last half a century. They also partly explain why many of the world’s fish stocks are at the brink of collapse.

So-called pescetarians, indignant over the suffering of farm cows and chickens, frequently include wild fish in their diets, he said.

“No one has ever asked about us before,” said Purwanto, who had been working on the ship for a year. “Why do you want to know about life on the ship?” he asked. The investigator and the union inspector responded that they were simply checking for labor violations. Purwanto said that even if there were violations, it didn’t matter—he needed the job, so he would not say anything more. There was nothing else for him back in Indonesia, he said. “This is the best we can get.”

The Dutch doctor and founder of Women on Waves traverses the globe in a converted medical ship carrying an international team of volunteer doctors that provides abortions in places where it has been criminalized. Running these often-clandestine missions since the early years of the twenty-first century, Gomperts has repeatedly visited the coasts of Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, Morocco, and a half dozen other countries, dangerously skating the edge of federal and international law.

Over a thousand stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, like those desperately fleeing North Africa and the Middle East on boats crossing the Mediterranean.

after the September 11 attacks, when antiterrorism laws in the United States and much of Europe restricted crews’ access to ports. Crews were required to park no closer than half a mile from shore as they waited for a call from ship operators informing them of their next destination. On board, a crewman can sit, sometimes for months, within sight but out of reach of sending his wife an email, eating a decent meal, having a doctor check the toothache that keeps him up at night, or hearing his daughter’s voice on her birthday. In many ports, dockside brothels adjusted their business models to these new norms. “Love boats,” or floating bordellos, began shuttling women or girls, along with drugs and alcohol, out to the parked ships. But the longer the men were stuck, the less such boats came calling. Everyone knew that a stranded seafarer is soon a penniless seafarer.

The biggest change, though, I felt in my stomach. During several years of reporting at sea, I grappled with a worsening case of what some mariners called sway. Others referred to it as dock rock, land sickness, reverse seasickness, or mal de débarquement (French for “disembarkation sickness”).

An impatient raconteur, Hardberger listened as if he was eager for you to finish your story so he could start telling his (which was invariably better).

More than 90 percent of the world’s goods, from fuel to food to merchandise, is carried to market by sea,

If a chase starts on the high seas, it’s even more fraught. Except under special circumstances, a ship may only be stopped in international waters by a warship of its own flag or with permission granted from the fleeing ship’s flag state. Liberia, the country with the most vessels sailing under its flag—more than forty-one hundred—has no warships.

Whenever possible, Hardberger preferred to talk his way on board, using the collection of fake uniforms and official-sounding business cards he maintains. Among them: “Port Inspector,” “Proctor in Admiralty,” “Marine Surveyor,” “Internal Auditor,” and “Buyer’s Representative.” If he could win himself a formal tour from the ship’s crew, Hardberger wears glasses with a built-in video camera.

Over 56 million people globally work at sea on fishing boats. Another 1.6 million people work in shipping on freighters, tankers, container ships, and other types of merchant vessels. For the most part, both kinds of workers get their jobs through employment firms called manning agencies.

Over the past decade, no country has exported more seafarers annually than the Philippines, which provided roughly a quarter of the crews on merchant ships globally, despite comprising less than 2 percent of the world’s population.

American territories like Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas may be tiny islands, but they add huge swaths of ocean to U.S. jurisdiction. As a result, no country has a bigger maritime domain than the United States.

I learned that corals are masterful hunters. They use minute poisonous barbs to spear tiny planktonic prey or deploy nets made of mucus to nab their victims. I learned that corals are also densely populated microcosms with more marine species living in a two-acre area than there are different species of birds in all of North America.

Long said he often considered jumping overboard to escape. He told a doctor who later treated him that he never once saw land during his three years at sea.

My nose nearly brushed the swinging hindquarters of the boy above me. Being that close to a complete stranger and breathing in his funk felt like an invasion of his privacy and a self-inflicted assault on mine.

Other officers offered more helpful tips [for not drowning]: Wear a headlamp and bright colors when on deck. If the water is cold when you fall in, clench your jaw and resist taking that first panicked gasp because it’s usually the one that drowns you. Limit heat loss by keeping your knees to your chest, they told me. Never swim against the current. Kick off heavy boots or shoes. If it’s not too cold, remove and tie off the ends of your pants or shirt to capture air in them and to use them as floatation devices.

The nonchalance on his face reminded me of a saying that truly dangerous men are not of a certain size but of a certain look.

Cruise liners, like most large ships, burn massive amounts of the dirtiest fuel on the market.

Their engines groaned when turned on or off, like an old man bending down to pick up a dropped cane.

Essentially waterborne dormitories for guards, these armories double as depots for their weapons, and they allow maritime security companies to avoid moving their guards on and off shore with every new assignment. Private security firms pay the armories as little as $25 per night for room and board for each guard, who tends to deploy for six to nine months or longer at sea.

Orcas are the largest apex predators on earth, meaning they sit at the top of the food chain and are not prey to any animals, except humans.

 

3. Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr

Some good nuggets about Amazon’s practices and policies that have contributed to years of innovation.

My kindle highlights are pasted below; all Bryar and Carr’s words:

When ranking candidates: There are only four options—strongly inclined to hire, inclined to hire, not inclined to hire, or strongly not inclined to hire.

One question that often gets a telling response [in reference checks] is, “If given the chance, would you hire this person again?”

Amazon’s SVP of Devices, Dave Limp, summed up nicely what might happen next: “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

Tufte offered wise advice on how to get started. “Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is Microsoft Word, not PowerPoint. Get used to it.” That is essentially what we did.

“Let me orally walk you through the document.” Resist that temptation; it will likely be a waste of time. The whole point of the written document is to clearly present the reasoning and to avoid the hazards of live presentation. The attendees have already walked themselves through the argument.

Watch what happens when we improve customer experience: Better customer experience leads to more traffic. More traffic attracts more sellers seeking those buyers. More sellers lead to wider selection. Wider selection enhances customer experience, completing the circle.

In the same 2015 shareholder letter, Jeff wrote, “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible—one-way doors—and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that—they are changeable, reversible—they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long.

Put another way, if the average discount of a free shipping promotion was 10 percent, we’d see significantly more demand lift (called elasticity) by offering free shipping than by discounting product prices by 10 percent. It wasn’t even close. Free shipping drove sales. We just had to figure out a sustainable way to offer free shipping.

 

4. The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you by Rob Fitzpatrick

A rare business book that I found original and super helpful. I’ve recommended it to several of our founders at Village Global who are engaged in customer development. The premise is that most potential customers will lie to you about how they perceive the value of your product, so you need to be really smart in how you frame and phrase questions to elicit honest responses.

My kindle highlights are pasted below; all Fitzpatrick’s words.

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it. We do that by asking good questions. The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about.

Eventually you do need to mention what you’re building and take people’s money for it. However, the big mistake is almost always to mention your idea too soon rather than too late.

Talk about their life instead of your idea

Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future

Talk less and listen more

How to fix it: Just like the others, fix it by asking about their life as it already is. How much does the problem cost them? How much do they currently pay to solve it? How big is the budget they’ve allocated? I hope you’re noticing a trend here.

Rule of thumb: Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are, not where the customer thinks they are.

“Did you google around for any other ways to solve it?” He seemed a little bit like he’d been caught stealing from the cookie jar and said, “No… I didn’t really think to. It’s something I’m used to dealing with, you know?” In the abstract, it’s something he would “definitely” pay to solve. Once we got specific, he didn’t even care enough to search for a solution (which do exist, incidentally).

Rule of thumb: If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.

Rule of thumb: People stop lying when you ask them for money.

Rule of thumb: While it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them.

The first startup I worked at fell for the “I would definitely buy that” trap and subsequently lost about 10 million bucks. They mistook fluffy future promises and excited compliments for commitment. They incorrectly believed they had proven themselves right and wildly over-invested.

You: “When’s the last time that happened?” We use The Mom Test and ask for a concrete example in the past. Them: “Two weekends ago.” We’ve successfully anchored the fluff and are now ready to get real facts instead of generics and hypotheticals.

While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.

“How are you coping without it?” “Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is it something we could add later?” “How would that fit into your day?”

Or, in shorter form: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask The mnemonic is “Very Few Wizards Properly Ask [for help].”

Phone calls end up sounding more like scripted interviews than natural conversations, because they are. It’s a constraint of the medium.

Collecting compliments instead of facts and commitments. “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback.” “Everybody I’ve talked to loves the idea.”

Brad Feld on Nietzsche and Entrepreneurship

I spoke to Brad Feld for an hour about Nietzsche and his new book (co-authored with Dave Jilk) of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche.

The audio version is on the Village Global podcast here or YouTube version here.

My favorite part of the conversation was about how difficult it is to “see the world clearly.” We covered a bunch of interesting entrepreneurial topics.

The Code Breakers

I read and enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s new book The Code Breaker, about Jennifer Daudna, mRNA, and gene editing. Here’s Isaacson’s claim about the importance of this topic:

The invention of CRISPR and the plague of COVID will hasten our transition to the third great revolution of modern times. These revolutions arose from the discovery, beginning just over a century ago, of the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene. The first half of the twentieth century, beginning with Albert Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity and quantum theory, featured a revolution driven by physics. In the five decades following his miracle year, his theories led to atom bombs and nuclear power, transistors and spaceships, lasers and radar.

The second half of the twentieth century was an information-technology era, based on the idea that all information could be encoded by binary digits—known as bits—and all logical processes could be performed by circuits with on-off switches. In the 1950s, this led to the development of the microchip, the computer, and the internet. When these three innovations were combined, the digital revolution was born.

Now we have entered a third and even more momentous era, a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code.

Since reading the book, I’ve been thinking about whether I should invest more time and energy to understand biology (and related life sciences trends) more thoroughly.

Isaacson does a fine job explaining the basics of mRNA in this book, but there’s at least another 30-40 hours of reading/studying that I could do would likely be both accessible to a novice and beneficial. And if this is truly a third and “even more momentous” era as the physics and computer revolutions, then it may well be worth it.

So many topics, so little time…

Book Review: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Ulysses S. Grant

I read 900 pages about Ulysses S. Grant in Ron Chernow’s authoritative biography. It was extraordinary. It’s hard not to agree with Chernow claims that Grant is the most underrated president in U.S. history.

I knew little to nothing about Grant going in, and hadn’t read a full length book about the Civil War before. So I got a superb education in the three areas I look for when reading a biography:

  1. A person of consequence
  2. The time period in which the person lived, in this case, Civil War-era America
  3. The ideas that defined their life’s work — in this case, fighting to free slaves and to maintain that freedom afterwards

I highlighted 163 sentences on my Kindle. I’ve pasted many of them below and bolded the sentences that stand out.

A few of my high level takeaways first:

  1. Grant was a common man who for much of his life lacked grand ambition: “Unlike many great historical figures, Grant brooded on no vast dreams, harbored no spacious vision for his future, and would have settled for a contented, small-town life.”
  2. Grant was and is to this day rather misunderstood as a drunkard who got lucky in war. He battled an inclination to alcohol his whole life but his reputation in this regard, Chrenow argues, is undeserved.
  3. The truly bloody horror of the Civil War. The image of thousands of bodies rotting in the battlefield and there having to be a mutually called-for truce for a couple hours because the stench overwhelmed the olfactory senses of both sides — that image is seared in my memory. 
  4. The degree to which black people in America were massacred after the abolition of slavery. “Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath.”
  5. Reconstruction was a failure. “Once Reconstruction collapsed, it left southern blacks for eighty years at the mercy of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tactics designed to segregate them from whites and deny them the vote.”
  6. The Mexico war and how America acquired/stole/fought for what is now California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Arizona — an imperialist move, at Mexico’s expense, that deeply troubled Grant.

Kindle highlights now pasted below — all Chernow’s words:

Grant never grew vainglorious from military fame, never gloated over enemy defeats, never engaged in victory celebrations. He has been derided as a plodding, dim-witted commander who enjoyed superior manpower and matériel and whose crude idea of strategy was to launch large, brutal assaults upon the enemy.

The relentless focus on Grant’s last battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia has obscured his stellar record of winning battles in the western war long before taking charge of Union forces in early 1864.

While scandals unquestionably sullied his presidency, they eclipsed a far more notable achievement—safeguarding the civil rights of African Americans.

Frederick Douglass paired Grant with Lincoln as the two people who had done most to secure African American advances:

The imperishable story of Grant’s presidency was his campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan.

Perhaps the most explosively persistent myth about Grant is that he was a “drunkard,” with all that implies about self-indulgence and moral laxity.

what they saw as the overweening executive power of “King” Andrew Jackson, selecting the “Whig” name to liken their struggle to that against King George III. Abraham Lincoln ventured into politics as an ardent Whig, characterizing the party as one founded to depose that “‘detestable, ignorant, reckless, vain and malignant tyrant,’ Andrew Jackson.”

The Whig ideology featured a strong moralistic component that doubtless resonated in the straitlaced, church-going Grant household. To strengthen the country’s moral fiber, many Whigs wanted to expand the school system and favored Sabbath observance. They inveighed against the menace of alcohol, which was both a national problem—by 1830 each American drank, on average, seven gallons of pure alcohol per year—as well as a local scourge in Brown County, which had two dozen distilleries and many grape-growing sections.

He tamed even the most refractory horses through a fine sensitivity to their nature rather than by his physical prowess. “If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness,” Grant once observed, “they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man.”

“Boys enjoy the misery of their companions,” Grant concluded, “. . . and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”

Although Julia stood just five feet two inches tall and grew stout and homely with the years, she was a dainty adolescent with many attractive features.

It is a striking feature of Grant’s early life that women spied his hidden potential and forecast great things for him, whereas men counted his gentleness against him and overlooked his virtues.

In his Memoirs, Grant blasted the Texas scheme as an imperialist adventure, pure and simple, designed to add slave states to the Union. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He always said he never forgave himself for going into the Mexican War.

“Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River,” Grant later noted, “and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.”

As the American army tarried near Monterrey, Grant savored his time there and was beguiled by Mexico—an attraction that lasted a lifetime, feeding a love of foreign travel. “The climate is excellent, the soil rich, and the scenery beautiful,” he informed Julia.

With Scott’s army poised to strike at Mexico City’s gates, President Polk had his emissary, Nicholas P. Trist, attempt on September 2 to negotiate a peace treaty by which Mexico would relinquish Texas to the Rio Grande and transfer New Mexico and California to the United States for a negotiated sum.

But in time Grant saw how a wise, charitable policy toward a conquered civilian population restored peaceful conditions with impressive speed. “Lawlessness was soon suppressed,” Grant wrote, “and the City of Mexico settled down into a quiet, law-abiding place.”91 Other accounts of the American occupation depicted atrocities raging on both sides.

The war culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a huge bonanza for the United States. It expanded American territory by nearly a quarter, forcing Mexico to shed half its territory. The United States gained Texas with the crucial Rio Grande boundary as well as New Mexico and California—territories encompassing the current states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and part of Colorado. In exchange, the United States relinquished claims to Baja California, assumed $3.5 million in Mexican debts owed to American citizens, and handed over $15 million.

As the war’s rabid opponents—Senator Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them—had predicted, the victory carved out a vast territory up for grabs between slave owners and abolitionists, possibly tipping the tenuous balance between North and South.

As a Whig opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso and denounced President Polk’s war in thunderous terms: “He is deeply conscious of being in the wrong . . . he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.”

One impression superseded all others: that Grant was “just power and will and resolution,”

This episode makes clear that Grant, from an early age, acknowledged that he had a chronic drinking problem, was never cavalier about it, and was determined to resolve it. This overly controlled young man now wrestled with a disease that caused a total loss of control, which must have made it more tormenting and pestered his Methodist conscience.

It is unclear how closely Grant followed current affairs as the national debate over slavery broadened and intensified. Through the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state while other territories wrested from Mexico were left free to adopt slavery or not.

The Sackets Harbor idyll ended in May 1852 when the Fourth Infantry was ordered to the West Coast, triggering a slow-motion crisis in Grant’s life. The Gold Rush had drawn a stampede of settlers to California that demanded a strengthened military presence.

but he had no assurance of that as he journeyed to Governors Island in New York to prepare his regiment for the taxing journey to Panama, across the isthmus, then up the West Coast to San Francisco.

zone rife with cholera, but he was blandly reassured by army brass that the epidemic would be “quickly over.”51 In the end, his anxiety proved more than justified. From the outset, the ill-fated trip was an irremediable fiasco.

Altogether Grant estimated that one-third of the people under his care died at Cruces or Panama City as well as one-seventh of the Fourth Infantry group that had left New York Harbor. As the hellish story surfaced, it provoked fierce condemnation of War Department negligence, an indictment Grant endorsed, telling Julia darkly “there is a great accountability somewhere for the loss which we have sustained.”

The fort commanded a hundred-foot bluff with spacious views of Humboldt Bay and the sea beyond, and was hemmed in by deep stands of towering sequoia and other redwood trees, steeped in perpetual shadow.

Aside from recreational drinking and dancing, the only available pastimes were fishing and hunting elk, deer, and black bears, activities that awakened little interest in Grant.

Because local Indians posed no real threat, all the drills and discipline performed at the post seemed pointless and irksome.

Despite his grim stint at Fort Humboldt, Grant had fallen in love with the natural beauty of northern California and grown so attached to the place that he had visions of making it his permanent home in future years.

In May, Republicans met in Chicago at a huge, barnlike wooden structure known as the Wigwam where Abraham Lincoln emerged as the presidential standard-bearer. While his opposition to extending slavery was well known, he ducked many controversial issues. A comparative unknown, a dark horse who could juggle conflicting constituencies, he became the nominee less because he appealed to the most people than because he offended the fewest.

Despite pro-Union sentiment thinly scattered through the South, many southern officers felt that loyalty to their states outweighed attachment to the federal government. The decision of Robert E. Lee, who rebuffed an offer to command the U.S. Army and rushed to Virginia’s defense, was typical of southern officers who opposed secession but stuck with their native states.

“The air fresh and invigorating, without being cold.”

They were both haunted men, tough and manly on the outside, but hypersensitive to criticism,

Shiloh was a free-for-all of death in which brute force trumped tactical subtleties. “It was a case of Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” Grant wrote.

The ground was slick with blood and carpeted with torn limbs and decapitated heads. Wild pigs rooted among putrefying bodies, their snorts audible to the dying soldiers.