Books I Read in 2017

I made efforts to read more books in 2017. Those efforts were effective!

  • In 2015 I read 14 books.
  • In 2016 I read five books.
  • In 2017 I have read 22 books!

During the year I kept one huge note of my thoughts about what I’ve been reading. Here it is:

The Manual 3

The Manual is a collection of six authors providing a thought and a lesson. I purchased issues one through three in 2012, as they were first published. Volume three is no longer in print, but I do happen to have one on my shelf.

The content stands the test of five years time, as it still captivated thought and found applications in creative work today. The content is compelling at the time of reading, but the short format lacks a stickiness for retaining the ideas.

Leaders Eat Last

The emphasis on biology could make this book hard to digest for some world views, but that shouldn’t be a distraction.

The big posits are:

  • Providing safety for your tribe frees you up from focusing on inside threats, so you can instead take on your outside threats with camaraderie.
  • We’re biologically wired to have dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, and oxytocin released in various situations.
  • The current business emphasis on short term gains undermines the “social animal” that requires social bonds to thrive.

Like most philosophies that have a value underpinning, I’d ask if it’s short sighted to reach back to “the good ol’ days”, rather than progress forwards towards not needing these primitive chemical drops. Underpinning his entire argument is that death is bad, life should be fulfilling, and happiness should be expected along the way. Any argument that’s rooted in evolutionary biology ultimately cannot stand. Anchoring to “the way things are” is fighting against the progress of “the way things could be”.

While this wasn’t a philosophy book, it found me thinking about the beliefs underpinning our values, motivations, and actions. Why make an organization that lasts rather than cash out for billions? Why prefer selflessness to selfishness? Are those currently held values because of social evolution, and would we serve the long-term-greater-good by abandoning them to further progress? Or are we hard wired that way by a benevolent creator? In the same way Simon cites those who serve someone higher than the lab coats, we’re faced with a decision to choose our values, what their ultimate source is, and serve that source unwaveringly.

Economics in One Lesson

The major fallacy: looking only at first order effects, and/or looking only at the effects on a particular group.

  • The broken window fallacy
  • The fallacy on a sweater tariffs
  • The difference between need and demand is purchasing power
  • Measuring productivity is the goal, measuring employment is the means that can/has replaced the goal of being productive people

Thinking in abstractions that take away people often leads to fallacies. One such fallacy is the belief that destruction stimulates the economy.

Look at second order effects, and the impact on all groups. The only sustainable way to introduce more wealth is through productivity. Printing money for inflation means purchasing powers goes down, because the value of a dollar goes down.

We tend to think of wealth and purchasing power only as dollars in the bank. But your wealth is different than your money. Unless you are truly stuffing your money into your mattress, even the rich man is putting his money to work, creating more jobs by his intent to produce.

In software, the “quick fix” is an economic fallacy playing out. It focuses on the immediate effect of a bug being resolved, and on the special interest of one developer who does not want to spend time investing in the problem. The longer solution requires more cognitive resources, and perhaps even refactoring, but it considers the second order effect of the life of the code maintained by a team over several years.

Basically: an introduction to libertarianism.

The True Believer

The big idea of this book is to highlight the events and attitudes that make up a mass movement. The moral value of any particular mass movement is ignored, Hoffer is more interested in finding the common thread of what makes them possible and what elements lead to their relative success or failure.

The abandonment of self, or self-renunciation, is the root of fanaticism. Whether it be built for sins committed or reviling for the inner man, Hoffer posits this is the primary condition that makes a man ripe for joining a mass movement. Whether this comes from internal or external stimuli is not the concern. The felt need of insufficiencies, and the desire to bury that thought somewhere, is what makes the canvas of a true believer.

A mass movement is concerned only with the future. The present must be deconstructed. Made to look worthless. The past may be the desired outcome. Or the past may represent elements of the desired outcome.

Self-sacrifice is the ultimate goal for those wooing the fanatics. The self-renunciation finds it’s culmination in self-sacrifice. In this way, the boring fellow is granted eternity - as he lives not for himself, but for the mass movement.

The ground is made ripe for a mass movement by men of intellect. Writers, philosophers, artists. These acts of creativity tend to put chinks in the armor of the establishment. They themselves do not start the mass movement, but they do tend to precede them.

There were interesting bits on the Jews in Eastern Europe versus the Jews in Palastine. When a man feels isolated, he’s not prone to fight. He just went with the flow to internment camps. But when a man feels part of a collective whole already, his identity is satisfied, and the fighting for the group comes naturally. This thought feels similar to the story of 300, or Israel’s small armies in the Bible. Because they were already part of a collective mass movement, their identity was part of the whole, and they were able to take on powers much greater than their numbers would suggest.

The closing paragraph was great. That mass movements are ultimately a story of resurrection, and Hoffer’s historical references begin with Christianity. While I read his words with skepticism on moral judgement, (I thought he considered all movements bad), this closing idea seemed fair. That perhaps there is a longing in man to lose himself into a greater whole. And perhaps Jesus’ church is that place where men should find their identity. All other movements since then have elements and perversions of the order set out for us. This, of course, is me reconciling my 17 years of belief with the thoughts posited in this book.

I started this book because of a disdain for my experience at Mars Hill. What in myself led to my fanaticism, and abandoning myself to such an unhealthy organization? As I read, most of the elements were there.

  • I was a bored 20 something, with ample opportunities as a white male in the USA
  • I was part of the established evangelical church
  • In my opinion, the church seemed… castrated when compared with the stories and attitudes I read about Jesus and his followers in scripture. (In retrospect, castration is a funny sentiment to describe this attitude, because the church is referred to as a bride.)
  • The man of intellect (Driscoll) was producing tons of content that supported this dissatisfaction. The church had gone soft. The message was watered down. There was a future of the church, but only what Mars Hill was doing in Seattle would deliver us

I could go on about the elements. The main takeaway for me, is to be aware of these elements. To attempt to be sober-minded in my judgements. To not use this information to manipulate others into fanaticism. To not myself return to a place where I’m giving myself to an unhealthy cause.

Quotes:

to rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.

Strength of faith manifests itself not in moving mountains, but in not seeing mountains to move.

When a movement begins to rationalize its doctrine and make it intelligible, it is a sign that its dynamic soon is over; that it is primarily interested in stability.

Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us […] There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness.

The Power of Habit

I started listening to this book when I was driving across the country in 2016. I had to stop during a description of brain surgery, and later recalled the book-in-progress.

The big idea is the habit loop. Cue, routine, reward. This small pattern is in our lizard brain. We can program ourselves to respond automatically to cues. We can experiment with rewards. We can try to replace bad routines with good routines.

A handful of anecdotal examples were very interesting. The steel mill corporation focusing on safety. The gambling lady who was held accountable for her habits. The sleep walking murderers who are found not guilty for responding to a habit. The conclusion was satisfactory: habits are automatic, but it’s your responsibility to manipulate them when you have moments of clarity about them. Consciousness seemed to be a myth in the depths of the neuroscience… but the choice to believe made a mad man believe.

A fair mix of science and practical ways to use the information, I see why this book was so popular, and would pass on the recommendation.

The analogy of water was prominent in the end. Fish in water are humans in habits. They’re all around us, shaping our entire environments. You can miss them if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while.

Putting these ideas up next to Leaders Eat Last, The True Believer, and Thinking Fast and Slow… there’s a lot of overlap. The mix between how automatic things are, but how we’re also able to observe them and refine them. The story of Rosa Parks and Montgomery as social habit, next to the The True Believers rhetoric sparks thought, but nothing I completely understand yet. Rick Warren and Saddleback got a mention as being the pioneer of placing Christianity into daily habits in the US.

I’m compelled to look for habits at work and home, and how I can camouflage new habits into them. There’s the risk of being manipulative with this information, which reminds me of the honeymoon period of organizations embracing Myers Briggs profiles.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Equal parts economics, psychology, and a touch of philosophy at the end, this book was great. The conclusion chapter was extremely helpful for summarizing the vast amount of information that is presented and processed in this book.

The two systems. The two species. The two selves.

System one is automatic. System two is effortful. Most biases we experience are a result of system two being lazy, and trying to substitute a similar question that is readily answerable by system one.

“Econs” are rational. “Humans” are biased.

The remembering self and the experiencing self. What happens if you retain no memories? We often make decisions for the remembering selves, with no guarantee of tomorrow.

Framing. Priming.

Quiet

Highlights:

  • The culture of extroversion.
  • The extrovert ideal.
  • The myth of brainstorming.
  • Caring for extroverted children and spouses.

I enjoyed listening to this book, though at this time of recollection, it’s highlights and practicalities are escaping memory.

My big takeaway is to not view introversion or extroversion with any moral value. While we live in a culture of extroversion as the ideal, the solution is not to require everyone to disavow their extroverison. Their are strengths in both ends of the spectrum. We should work towards balance.

99 Bottles of OOP

I had attended Sandi Metz’s training with my Planning Center comrades in 2013, so I kind of knew what to expect from this book. It was a good quick read about object oriented design, and a great follow up to POODIR.

Some of the refactoring in the middle chapters felt pedantic. And self identified at that. But, seeing the thought for thought process of code transformation without breaking functionality is a very helpful skill.

The hardest part, is knowing when code is “good enough”. Were the refactorings required to make the “six pack” requirement easy worth it? And that’s basically the conclusion of the book. A lot of design in software is hard to measure when considering costs in running your business.

Deep Work

This is a work of great practical value. The author quantified suspicions I’ve been having about work life balance.

The first section was the more intriguing. The proposition that positioning yourself for deep work will lead to unparalleled career gains. In an economy where most people are short sighted and stick to the shallows, those with the skills to avoid the noise and go deep will find a lot of success.

The second part of the book was more practical. Quit social media. Have a ceremony to wrap up your day. Boiling it down: learn discipline, and stick to it.

There was a little bit of anecdotal self-referencing. Heralding the increased publishing of papers in the field of computer science while adjusting to newborn life, and writing this very work all because of Deep Work. It was mentioned a few times too many, but it also left an impression so ¯\(ツ)/¯.

I have the luxury of not living in email. Most of the shallows I find, is idle moments because I don’t have a grand goal that I am aiming for. When such a goal presents itself, I’ll now be armed with the strategies and tools to achieve the task through Cal’s strategies.

On the whole: I’d recommend this book.

Tribe

Not to be confused with Tribes by Seth Godin.

This was a quick read. A deep dive into Native Americans, war, and PTSD. There are many cases of people going from western civilization to tribal organization. Even when entering as captives, many people prefer to stay there. There aren’t many cases citing the other transition, going from Native American tribalism to western individualism.

My skepticism of statistics kicks in. What if people that come into western individualism aren’t noticed, because all the individuals are more focused on themselves, and are more intrigued by the narrative of defecting, and why?

For all our wealth, we are less happy. People undergoing war times seem to have a more human connection and more captivating experience. For all the promises of peace, it seems that humans are better suited for war.

Another aside: in this book and many I’ve read this year, there seems to be an appeal to biological evolution, and that things are the way they are because of our best adaptations for survival. What I don’t get about this argument, is that it can’t really leave room for empathy with the soldier that has a hard time returning home. If you believe in survival of the fittest, you must be willing to accept this next progression that we let the warriors die in misery, while the wealthy live in luxury? I don’t think that’s what is happening. I don’t like the idea of destroying empathy. But it feels like the appeals to evolution often don’t concede that their desire for empathy could be stifling the progress of the species?

This was a good book. It disarmed fears of mass hysteria if I should ever encounter a man made or natural disaster in my life. Our worst fears are crisis, but all the data points to crisis driving humans together. And what we all need is other people.

Mindset

This book was incredibly practical. The simplicity of framing the conversation in terms of a binary is particularly helpful for an individual challenging themselves. I worry that the arguments could be reductionistic… in the same way that Myers-Briggs can reduce individual attributes in a binary. But with that precaution in mind, I find the idea of fixed-mindset vs growth-mindset helpful on a personal level.

The fixed mindset thinks that intelligence is fixed. This means all interactions are framed in such a way, that the pre-existing attributes must be confirmed and defended. Failure is fatal, because it means “I’m no longer a winner, I’m now a loser”.

The growth mindset thinks intelligence is a skill. Like a muscle, it can be stretched, broken down, and built up over time (or even atrophy). With a growth mindset, challenges are opportunities to grow. Failure is okay, because it means I need to buckle down, put in more practice, learn from those who didn’t fail, etc.

The intersection of faith that I am wrestling with, is how to deal with the side-effects of sin. An act of sin can be described as momentary moral failure. But that moral failure can have lasting impact on victims. Though it’s not the author’s concern, there seems to be little thought for how to do the heavy work of reconciling these serious moral failures that devestate the lives of others. While the goal of the growth mindset is to forgive and move on… it can almost seem to trivialize past hurts in other people.

Maybe that provides an opportunity of radical grace. Not holding onto hurts caused by others’ failures. Being problematically forgiving to the point that it unsettles people.

I find that thoughts of YNAB and finances are coming in… you cannot change how you spent money in the past. You cannot change how you’ve wronged people (or been wronged by people), so there is truly no use in latching onto it. Learn from it. Grow. Get onto the next thing.

The elevator pitch summary: judge and be judged versus learn and help learn. 

Rework

  • :pencil2: Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
  • :shopping_cart: Buy on Amazon
  • :speaker: Finished July

I listened to the audiobook of this one. I didn’t start writing this note until way after. It was a fun listen with routine 37 Signals Basecamp mantra.

Start scrappy. Stay small. Stick to what you know. Scratch your own itch.

I loved this book… but I’ve been following these guys for so long that the content was more reinforcing than revelating.

To Save Everything Click Here

This book was transformative. As a person who makes my living building solutions to problems, it was particularly challenging, and refined how I think about the products I produce. Evgeny provides insightful critiques to some of the most ubiquitously accepted assumptions of our time.

The two pedals of this assumption bicycle are “The Internet” and solutionism. Highlighting the religious fervor that worshippers have for “the Internet” underpins many of the arguments, and I think this observation is astute. “The Internet” is beyond questioning. “The Internet” has intrinsic qualities that are unchanging, and must be appealed to. If you asked a theologian, it sounds like many of the tenants of Christian doctrine.

If I were to offer one concern to Evgeny’s approach, it’s that most arguments are made from analogy, which always has it’s limits when fully exhausted. I think this approach resonates heavily with me, because I am far too quick to present arguments by way of analogy. And as I derived from one point in this book, abstractions are attractive because they make problems easier to understand by masking them in a more understood problem… but the nuance is lost when you appeal to an abstraction.

Quotes:

The more fixes we have, the more problems we see.

The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’ blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities for what we built yesterday

Here is modernity in a nutshell: We are left with possibly better food but without the joy of cooking

it’s not a revolution if nobody loses

“We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.” [Shirky] argues, “It is too early to tell whether the Internet’s effect on media will be as radical as that of the printing press. It is not too early to tell that there is nothing that happened between 1450 and now that comes close.”

Does “open governement” refer to making train schedules and city maps more accessible? Or does it refer to publishing data that could embarrass politicians and end careers?

Boredom with established truths is the great enemy of the free man.

to put it bluntly, it’s never been cheaper to ac on one’s stupidity.

[Digital Rights Management] schemes lead to a kind of “moral disability,” whereby humans put morality on autopilot and no longer culitivate any disposition for honesty. Thus, notes Kerr “digital locks would ensure particular outcomes for property owners but would do so at the expense of the moral project of honesty.”

Focusing on calories—just because they are the easiest to count—is a somewhat defective way to think about nutrition and might even lead to dieting disorders.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

  • :pencil2: Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
  • :shopping_cart: Buy on Amazon
  • :closed_book: Finished September 14

Super practical book that every human should read, regardless of parenthood. I took note of the more practical pages for referencing later.

Principa Amoris

An academic book that felt mostly targeted at academics and practitioners. The love equations predicting the happiness and final outcome of a marriage have a high degree of accuracy. What I appreciated about Gottman was his love for mathematics, but also for not dehumanizing the subjects. The practical steps of how to change your variables were much appreciated.

The biggest things I remember are:

  • Accept every bid you can
  • Try to have positive startup in conflicts
  • Repair early and often when miscommunication or regrettable interactions happen

Columbine

A thorough re-telling of the events that happened in Columbine. How the media handled it. How the church handled it. How psychopaths work.

So much of what made things confusing in the aftermath is that people didn’t tell the truth. The media and the church both preferred narratives to facts. It may have resulted in short-term gains in viewership and parishioners, in the long run it damages reputations.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

The great scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn’t one.

That hot take from the introduction sets the stage for some discourse that I desperately needed.

I remembering becoming a Christian in high school. I was warmly welcomed into the evangelical church, and I quickly learned what beliefs had to be checked at the door. To be fair, we must distinguish between what we do and do not believe, because words and ideas have to mean things, and humans want to organize information.

The comfort this book provided was understanding evangelicalism as a particular expression of Christianity within a much richer history of Christian thought. You can be faithful to Jesus without accepting all the distinctives that are tied up in celebrity pastors gathering their followers through the charisma of presentation rather than the thouroughness of contemplation.

It’s interesting to weigh the tradeoffs of the reformation. Most presentations of the reformation lack a nuance of tradeoffs, preferring a narrative of only positive. But when anybody is allowed to pick up a Bible and gather a following… anbybody is able to pick up a Bible a gather a following. The substance of belief is replaced with the ability to gather a crowd, because it’s an easier question to answer. There was a certain guarantee in having an established church that vetted the leadership for you. Like anything, the availability of choice puts the burden on the individual to do the research. But the established church is itself an abstraction, and the theme of the year continues: abstractions are not free.

iGen

Millenials are over. It’s all about iGen now.

While I found this book interesting, I am skeptical about it’s conclusions. The methods of measurement appear to be sound. The historical comparisons appear to be fair. My skepticism is that the dataset is too small, or the age of the subjects is still too malleable. Like any abstraction, it feels like it may be too early to say what this next generation will value.

Overall, it was an interesting read. The single-generation contrast between Millenials and iGen was non-intuitive, which gave me a re-appreciation for Thinking Fast and Slow, and how bad we actually are at intuition in some cases. It’ll be interesting to re-visit in a few years, as this generation is more integrated into the work force and institutions.

Singular

There’s something special about reading a book when you know how long the author labored over it. It was about two years ago to the day when I remember Zack sharing his new pursuit over lunch.

The story was a great balance of teenage nostalgia and philosophical depth. If we could preserve consciousness without experiencing the pains of the day to day, do we lose anything? How much of who we are is nature vs nurture?

Some deep questions of life are presented through a compelling narrative, but no conclusions are demanded of the reader. The space is left for contemplation, and enjoying the discovery over a nice glass of whisky.

Silence

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Silence?

Rich Kids

Practical advice wrapped in a narrative. I hadn’t heard of the author, but based on the introductory praise I gather that Rich Habits is the vehicle that has driven his initial success.

The prose is effective enough in communicating a bunch of good advice. If forced to make a wager, I would bet that doing the things in this book would result in success and happiness.

Where I have to be a critic with this book, is the narrow definition of success and happiness it offers. Acquiring possessions and being in the presence of celebrity seems to be the carrot dangled before the wealth-habits stick. While I feel confident that I could pass along any of this practical advice and embrace it myself, the measure of a life worthy of praise left me wanting for a wider definition of what makes people successful.

Invisible Ink

A quick read that made me want to pay closer attention to every story. Learning to recognize what makes a good story could give a deeper appreciation for each story heard. Learning to tell a better story will make me a better communicator.


In conclusion, I’m happy with my increased reading this year. If I were to do one thing different in the upcoming year, it would be to write down my reactions more immediately and along the way.

I had a fervor for capturing every tangent thought when I started the year, and it’s shrinking can be seen as I review the note chronologically. Write early and write often going forward.