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Misc

Books I read in 2019

Here’s my list of books for this year. I counted 21 for 2019, which definitely constitutes a great year of reading for me. I love reading and have been working hard on keeping my throughput high by putting aside books that I don’t enjoy without guilt, freely skipping through books if I feel like it, and not getting stuck on any one in particular. I’d like to keep increasing the number of books I read per year (or at least remain constant) and have plenty on the list to start off 2020.

Here is what I read in 2019 in roughly sequential order, descending from the most recent:

We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider

Great collection of stories and was surprised by the humor and impact of the writing.

Getting Things Done by David Allen

A legendary productivity system I had yet to understand until this year.

⭐️ What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murukami

One of my now all-time faves. Good for fans or running or just those who like a good memoir.

A Guide to the Good Life by William B Irvine

Deep Work by Cal Newport

What if instead we didn’t have to schedule deep thinking time, but instead had to schedule time to be distracted?

The Lessons of History by Will Durant

A short summary of world history. Really entertaining and educational read.

⭐️ Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

One of my now all-time faves. The journey and methods of an artist building their skills until they were the best in the world.

⭐️ So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

One of my now all-time faves. It’s all about deliberate practice.

Remote by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun

⭐️ The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One of my now all-time faves. Cannot recommend enough.

⭐️ Levels of the Game by John McPhee

One of my now all-time faves. Impossible to put down once you start.

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry W. Philips

Rework by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

Will make you think about the tools and processes you use at work or for any project more intelligently.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A book about writing that’s brimming with wisdom about life.

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#52)

Giving thanks travels well: Celebrating Thanksgiving outside of the US is a bit different. Thanksgiving travels well, even if your neighbours don’t have the Thursday off to drink and eat all day. It’s a holiday about gratitude, which everyone can get behind. I was fortunate to spend it with great people this year. I’m also grateful for all the sources of inspiration this year, such as Austin Kleon, Cal Newport, Haruki Murukami, John McPhee, Tyler Cowen, Shane Parrish, Seth Godin, Sam Harris, Ben Franklin, Jason Fried, Steve Martin, Tim Ferriss, and Paulo Cohelo…to name a few.


Book excerpt I was thinking about last week:

“What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work. Simply put, artists learn how to proceed, or they don’t. The individual recipe any artist finds for proceeding belongs to that artist alone — it’s non-transferable and of little use to others.” (David Bayles, Ted Orland, Art & Fear)

I love the first part. And, while I think there is an important point in the second part (you need to figure out things for yourself), I find the individual recipes of others an endless source of inspiration and of much use.

Another book excerpt that made me think about my current work and what I spend the most amount of my time doing (albeit as a novice at the moment):

“An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking.” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

I think a lot of us are like a mechanic in how we work, or at least it would be helpful to think of ourselves in that way.


What it’s like when a distributed company gets together: I missed “the grand meetup” this year but a recent Distibuted podcast covered this years’ get together in detail. I’m looking forward to it next year!

It can be especially difficult to foster a company culture when workers aren’t co-located. It can’t be forced into existence in an employee handbook. The people who make up the company have to live it and embrace it.

The GM addresses this challenge in several ways, including a number of traditions that have developed over the years. For example, the all-company photo — this year, it included so many people that resident photographer (and Automattic’s first employee!) Donncha Ó Caoimh had to take it from a roof overlooking the crowd. Each event ends with a big party, where an all-Automattician band provides the soundtrack. Matt Mullenweg holds an hours-long Town Hall where anyone from across the company can ask the CEO a question directly. These highlights help to cultivate a sense of togetherness and shared values.


Don’t believe everything you read: I learned that previously boiled water isn’t really any different than fresh water, at least as far as my coffee is concerned.


I should make more time for poetry: Away messages made me think this.

Whenever an old poet — an old poet — dies, I can’t get too upset. This is what they’ve been training for! I think. It’s go time!


Quote that I was thinking about:

People are most vociferously opposed to those forces they have to resist most fiercely in themselves.

Tim Krieder

The 50 best nonfiction books of the past 25 years: Interesting list. There are definitely some on here I am going to add for 2020.


The story behind the graphing calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class.

Today, Texas Instruments still sells a dozen or so different calculator models intended for different kinds of students, ranging from the TI-73 and TI-73 Explorer for middle school classes to the TI-Nspire CX and TI-Nspire CX CAS ($149), an almost smartphone-like calculator with more processing power. But the most popular calculators, teachers tell me, include the TI-83 Plus ($94), launched in 1999; the TI-84 Plus ($118), launched in 2004; the very similar TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, also launched in 2004; and the TI-89 Titanium ($128).

“As a former teacher, I was appalled at the pricing, not only for educators but for the families who were forced to pay inflated prices for the damn things,” she told me. “The margin is incredible. I can’t verify the exact numbers, but the margin was like 85% 90%.” In comparison, PC manufacturers like HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, and Acer have profit margins below 3%. (Texas Instruments did not return a request for comment for this story.)


This made me laugh:

https://i0.wp.com/media.wired.com/photos/5dd416b944aad10009406a39/master/w_1600%2Cc_limit/20191121-ehler-wasteland.jpg?w=580&ssl=1

From Wired’s cartoons.


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Moving to Scotland

What I learned last week (#28)

Book excerpt I loved, very relevant to fatherhood and my parenting philosophy:

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Author I learned about: I had never heard of A. A. Gill before last week, but after a recommendation I looked him up and the collection Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism is on my reading list.

“The act of feeding someone,” he says as he shares a scavenged dinner in a King’s Cross homeless shelter, “is the most basic transubstantiation”, a rite central to all religions.

Such glimpses of a loftier truth are the glory of Gill’s essays, and they open metaphysical vistas in journalistic junkets or stunts contrived for the sake of a feature article. On safari in Botswana with his well-travelled twins, huddled around a sparky blaze in the bush, he hears a tribal elder call the pricks of light in the black sky “the campfires of my ancestors”. Gill takes this to mean that “Earth and heaven mirror each other, the countless generations stretching back to the first men” and extending forward, in a tiny appendix, to “me and my kids”.

Elsewhere, he tries his hand at life drawing, and while studying the nude model he’s reminded of our fumbling search for “an empathy with the human condition and the spirit that makes us sparks of the divine”. Not by chance, that image rekindles the Botswana campfire: at their finest, Gill’s essays are what he calls “votive art”, an offering of gratitude as devout as a lighted candle.

From The Guardian’s review of Lines in the Sand

I had never read The Alchemist and was surprised and delighted to discover it: Until last week I didn’t realize I had never read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, mistaking it in my head for another book. I finally read it while on a trip last week and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in recent memory. While my reaction is certainly due in part to big decisions and changes happening in my life right now, it is, without-a-doubt, a beautiful and moving book.

“If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”


WeChat is not a messaging app, it’s the operating system for 1 billion people: Think Facebook has a lot of power? WeChat is watching is a fascinating look at the creation of a deeply centralized ecosystem with interesting, convenient and scary implications.

Hyper-centralization makes life convenient. It also presents a worrying potential for fraud. On a typical day I’ve paid my phone bill, sent money to people, bought groceries, and even sent authorized documents to the bank, all through one app, protected by one password and kept intentionally unencrypted to comply with government data-sharing regulations.

Moreover, the data centralization that has enabled WeChat to map itself neatly onto users’ personal and commercial lives, has now created an opportunity for the government to step in and invite it into their political lives. Beyond sharing data with the government, WeChat is now rolling out a digital ID card. Every Chinese citizen is issued an ID card. It functions like a domestic passport and is needed for any interaction with the state—at hospitals, booking trains, flying domestically, or making bank transactions. In Guangzhou, the provincial government has already debuted a WeChat ID card and there are plans for it to be rolled out across the whole of China. Hijiacking WeChat in the future could grant a hacker everything from a user’s government-approved identity to his or her bank details, address, and coffee preferences.

WeChat’s role in the social-credit system (!?) that is being rolled out is pretty wild:

WeChat’s data centralization makes it a cornerstone of the government’s social-credit system that is feted to appear nationwide in 2020. Mooted in 2014 in a document entitled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” the plan is to build a system that incentivizes good behavior and punishes that deemed unconducive to the construction of a harmonious society or, as the document itself dictates, a system that will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”12 Under the pilot scheme, people with outstanding court orders or who have defaulted on loans can’t book high-speed rail tickets and can’t fly in planes.

The nationwide social credit system will be compiled by combining government records with commercial profiles. At present, Ant Financial, the finance-arm of Alibaba, China’s Internet conglomerate, has rolled out “sesame credit,” which gives people a score out of 950 based on their punctuality paying back loans, their purchase history, their social networks (having friends with high scores boosts your own score), and data shared from the government such as court-orders and fines. People with high-scores get preferential loans, can rent cars without deposits and are even guaranteed visas for countries like Luxemburg and Singapore, among other perks. China Rapid Finance, which is partnered with Tencent, is responsible for creating a similar scheme off the back of WeChat data.


Favorite quote was from Sam (as written by his teachers on a father’s day card):

“Thank you for taking me to coffee store and playing trucks!

Love Sam”