Year 37

It’s been a whirlwind week and change up here, and July came up quickly. It’ll be a busy month; I decided to add another level of challenge for myself and make it a dry month. I haven’t been drinking much in general, but figured I could use a month to focus on other things, read more, further increase my productivity, spare myself some calories, etc. Thanks to the sharing economy, Turo and Airbnb will net me a few thousand dollars extra this July… I finished both major house projects on time and have a few weeks vacant, I ended up deciding to turn on that revenue stream too. I don’t love vacation-renting my condo, and I exclusively list on Airbnb despite working for its competitor, but I have found Airbnb guests to be ridiculously clean and respectful.

I had a pretty great birthday / weekend. halibut_coveMy friends wanted to head out to Halibut Cove the following day, and I’m glad I went… my first trip there 5 years ago was underwhelming but we had a great experience and really good weather. I’ve spent quite a few birthdays down in Homer, and it never disappoints. Alaska is also overrun with tourists, which is frustrating for residents who have to jockey for meals and hotel rooms and deal with traffic, but much-needed here economically. It’s hard to believe we’re nearly halfway through the summer (July 15 is about the median). Much like every summer up here, it’ll be over before we all know it.

bathroomI’ll skip the retrospective on the past year of my life; it’s been a long and challenging one, but I’m on a gradual upswing. I am pretty pleased with the amount of tasks accomplished thus far this summer; my bathroom was completed before my friends got to my place and that was truly a miracle. Things are slowly falling into place, and hopefully that continues. My company unveiled some much-needed changes to our workflow that will guarantee a better experience in my present position if I don’t end up relocating.

It was nice to have people visiting who give a shit about things other than fishing and coasting through life… every so often I’ll reach an oasis of deep conversations in this existential and intellectual desert. It’s bothered me for some time that the shock of Trump has yet to wear off. I’ve reflected a lot over the past few years, watching my own family fall prey to this ‘us vs. them’ stuff blaring on the news… I think I’ve largely been spared because I gave up on fitting in early in life, and I completely reject ideology and really resist the urge to stereotype people. I regularly give a girl on my work team a bunch of shit for generalizing “Republicans” as the overarching enemy… I do the same with my conservative friends who bitch about every Democrat being woke. People are unbelievably tribal (for good evolutionary reasons) and we’re hard-wired to draw lines in the sand and think this way about each other — especially people who are different in some measurable way — I really hate it. I am even more resistant to this stuff after living in Alaska, a place deemed a major Trump-land which in reality is probably the most tolerant place I’ve encountered in my life, perhaps because most people up here have realized that life is for living, not arguing about politics. What’s happening across society makes me particularly sad for younger people, who seem to have so little sense of personal identity that they’ve adopted these political affiliations as the core of who they are. The amount of progressive ex-friends I’ve collected simply by disagreeing is pretty astounding and disappointing (this is a pretty well researched phenomenon: article here). Thankfully most of my closest friends are still in my life, I’d imagine because we’ve all come to the same conclusion — that political views are not a be-all, end-all, that a vote cast for another candidate or party is still a vote cast by a human being, and it’s absurd to try to peel complex, multifaceted and often confusing humans down which lever they pull in a voting booth. My juxtaposing interests and hobbies seem to have set me up to not fall prey to this to the same extent it seems to hit a lot of other people, and I like listening to contrarian points of view, whether they’re woke af or ultra conservative. I especially appreciated an apparently oddly timed birthday conversation about diversity and inclusion and what seem to be two separate generations of women in the corporate world, so I felt like that really shed some light on some of the stuff I struggle with presently (I tend to agree on the problem statements, but not so much the solutions chosen). I’m also really blown away by their experience living in the Catskills/Hudson Valley; and maybe I should accept growing up there I was just totally blind to whatever racism existed in that region, because I never heard or saw a damn thing, despite the fairly diverse makeup of my own school. If there was any kind of skepticism about diversity where I lived that I witnessed, it was toward the Hasidic Jews, who often left garbage out for the bears instead of taking it to the transfer station, resulting in constant frustration for everyone who lived there full time. That’s the full extent of anything even close to racism I ever encountered, though I also admit that I grew up with parents with two different religious and political affiliations. As kids we had to figure out what to believe 100% of the time. I often think about the clip in one of the Indiana Jones movies where he’s separated from his group and he stops and says “everyone’s lost but me!” Maybe that’s more relatable than I realized years ago.

I did knock out an extra book over the last week and I also dream_poolfinally pulled the trigger and bought 5 prints from Jared Pike’s Dream Pool series which I can’t wait to receive and hang up… I saw these online months ago and have been totally obsessed with them. I want to stare at them all day.

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement | noiseI don’t have much good to say about this book, to be honest… I was surprised by how bored I was with the material, possibly because I’ve read a lot about this before. The Economist reviewer was equally unimpressed, but it got a good review in the NY Times. I loved Thinking Fast & Slow, and am a huge Kahneman admirer overall… I also loved Nudge and Conformity (Cass Sunstein) and will probably listen to his Audible lectures at some point. They put forward a ton of interesting examples of noise and decision making in different disciplines and there’s a lot of info in this surprisingly long book for what is really a pretty simple idea. The book just seemed very long and overly detailed, but completely devoid of mind-blowing moments.

That’s about it for the time being.

Last days of year 36: May/June

It was easy to conceive of being able to post in this thing once monthly when life was moving at a COVID pace; it’s unbelievable how quickly some things have gone back to normal, and how my life has gone from chill af to a hectic hellscape of shit to do. In the past month, idahoI’ve visited friends in Los Angeles and Idaho, work has ramped up precipitously, my condo has again been relinquished by my tenant, and I’ve been otherwise overwhelmed with externalities. My trip to Idaho was one of the highlights of the past few months… I’ve really missed my close friend who moved there last July, and it was awesome to slam through some hikes with her. The Sandpoint / Coeur d’Alene area is awesome. Even took some frigid dips in multiple lakes.

It feels amazing to get out and do things. It feels amazing to not wear a mask everywhere and to be able to see peoples’ faces, to not have to maneuver around everyone’s anxiety. The fog of fear and paranoia is slowly lifting, and I am really pleasantly surprised; I expected this crisis to drag on for a few months longer than it has, at least up here (and in the US). 

It’s been a cold spring in AK, and only in the past few weeks has the weather warmed up to normal temperatures. My Anchorage plants haven’t exactly been thriving, and I’ve been hustling back and forth in an attempt to complete two renovation projects by the time my first batch of friends/family visit… unlikely to happen thanks to a long wait for materials. I chose to paint my ugly wood cabinets this summer, and I’m torn on whether it was a good choice or not. Painting cabinets is a famously challenging and tedious ordeal, even for people who love painting (not me. I hate painting). cabinetsThat said, as I slowly reassemble them, I’m reasonably happy with how they look. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do these things myself is because I know they won’t be perfect and I have to learn to accept my own fuck-ups and not obsess over them forever. I’ve come a long way from being a control freak perfectionist to being (as I am now) mildly frustrated with the fact that the output isn’t professional-level quality. Also, a pro-level cabinet job costs around $5000. While my time is valuable, my materials cost has been approximately $200.

My life (and its locale) may be changing sooner than I expected, which is adding onto my pile of anxiety, but could potentially be really exciting and cool, and I feel ready in my head and otherwise emotionally to jump ship up here if the opportunity is offered to me. For the time being, the next few months will be filled with friends and family, and a lot of time outside in the sun. Managed to spurn a new side hustle or two, including listing my car on Turo for a surprising amount of money, thanks to the national rental car shortage.

The transition from managing a fair amount of down time to what was previously normal has been pretty draining, to be honest. I’ve been staring at this unfinished blog post for weeks now, and my book blips will be even shorter than usual, but I have read some great ones lately. I’ve done a lot of shit lately.

It’s my birthday next week: never a particularly exciting thing for me, but this year I truly feel like I’ve aged. I feel fucking old. It’s a strange dichotomy as I also like myself more every year as my confidence and wisdom grow. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of aging, which in this country is more often than not seen as a process of falling apart in a multitude of ways. I also somehow feel as though I’ve been through hell and back this year, and I suspect many people feel that way: it’s a year that I’m very glad has passed, filled with disappointment and bummers and even a few small disasters. I’ve made quite a lot of the collective misfortune of COVID, and I’ll be stepping away from the worst of this era with a lot of lessons learned.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything | 2030I feel like I read this book so long ago at this point that I don’t even remember all of the chapters, but it was a good one a friend and I read together. No particularly big surprises. I skipped the last chapter on crypto, because I am super tired of reading and hearing about cryptocurrency. Review in Publishers Weekly here.

Alone | aloneThis is a circumpolar classic that I began in the winter and then set down and lost track of; I love the writing style, and a lot of it is in the form of a journal, sometimes written while Byrd is sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. His experience underground in Antarctica taking instrument readings sounds horrible and definitely puts being stuck at home watching Netflix during COVID in perspective. After many, many years of reading Arctic and Antarctic expedition novels (and others, even stories of Everest climbers, explorers, etc) it’s crazy to really conceptualize how tough people were back then. There was simply no alternative.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know | thinkagainI’ve loved everything Adam Grant has written, particularly Give and Take, and Think Again is as good if not better than that one (his other book, Originals, was also OK. A good OK, but not as compelling, though I may reread it sometime soon). A lot of the source material and anecdotal information is worth following down the rabbit hole: I watched Accidental Courtesy as well, a documentary about a black guy who befriends white supremacists and ends up changing their opinions. I sent myself a few quotes to include, both for quality and to avoid having to write more, but I recommended this book to my work team, our leaders, many of my friends, etc. Further, I was pleased to see this book covered in Quillette, so linking to that here.

‘Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.’

‘The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again. There’s evidence that disagreeable people speak up more frequently—especially when leaders aren’t receptive—and foster more task conflict. They’re like the doctor in the show House or the boss in the film The Devil Wears Prada. They give the critical feedback we might not want to hear, but need to hear. Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy. It helps if certain conditions are in place. Studies in oil drilling and tech companies suggest that dissatisfaction promotes creativity only when people feel committed and supported—and that cultural misfits are most likely to add value when they have strong bonds with their colleagues.’

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again | upswingI’m not completely finished with this book yet, but this also gets a standing ovation for the inclusion of data instead of just anecdotes and hypotheses with no hard backing. To be clear, this book does not offer solid answers, nor does it contain solutions to the decisiveness in modern American society; and some of the data (like searching Google’s book databases for uses of “we” vs “I” over time) is a bit dodgy. That said, for someone who constantly wonders why things happen and where we’re all heading together, this is well worth the time (his first book, Bowling Alone, is a prerequisite, only in the sense that if you haven’t read it and care about this kind of stuff, you should, and then read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Review of The Upswing in Harvard Magazine here.

The Fall of Hyperion | fallofhyperionMy Bolt Thrower software engineer buddy from NY and I are still chipping away at Hyperion, and we’re on book 2, though I am only about 1/3 of the way through, this one is far less appealing than the first. I suspect the rest of this series will be a let-down versus the first book, which injected all of the context and built the characters and plot. But I’m (slowly) enjoying it, for the most part.

Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, Quillette. Have watched Sharp Objects (A-), Mare of Eastown (A+) and getting through The Night Of on streaming. Quiet Place 2 was great. While I was in LA, we saw the new Saw movie (solely to see something in the Chinese theatre), which was also surprisingly good, though Chris Rock isn’t really suited for serious roles. 

Up next in books will be Noise by Daniel Kahneman; Outline by Rachel Cusk (reading by request of someone else); The Frontlines of Peace, about the failures of UN peacekeeping missions; a biography of Gorbachev and some others. Also planning on reading Thomas Picketty’s latest; I read Capital in the 21st Century despite a lot of skepticism and feeling that it was largely against my values/beliefs. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious about his new one as well.

Shots! Shots! Shots!

February tends to be an upswing month in the far north, and this year didn’t disappoint. While the Lower 48 is still reeling in pandemic turmoil, Alaska is nearing 30% of its age-eligible population vaccinated, and we’re moving quickly through the eligibility tiers. I decided over the past few days to participate in the vaccine Hunger Games, hoping to catch a shot on its way to the trash, as many of my friends have. I even called our state hotline to ask them if this was an acceptable thing to do, and they said yes. So, here’s hoping. All in all, my parents have received their second shots and my siblings caught COVID early on, so I’d say everyone else is in a good place. Here in Anchorage, our positivity rate is hovering around 2%, which isn’t half bad and has made it seem somewhat reasonable to occasionally have dinner at a restaurant and see a friend or two regularly. At around 30 degrees, my cold-wimp of a dog can run happily outside as well, so I’d say the past month has been a win. 

I won’t gain much from an earlier shot; I’ve surrendered to not traveling extensively for some time. My parents are visiting this summer, and I don’t want to go back to the Northeast until most of everyone I’d want to see has been vaccinated and thus comfortable socializing. My company’s travel ban still stands; so whether I am vaccinated today or a month or two from now changes very little if anything for me. After a year of not seeing my closest friends or my family, the only real source of any value in my life has been whatever I do alone: working out, reading, etc, and the very brief periods of time I spend with a very small handful of other people. Maybe somehow it doesn’t feel all that horrible full-time because I’ve been here before; feeling like I have very little other than myself is more of a normal feeling than an abnormal one. Some days, like today, I wake up and wonder if the way I’ve structured my life has been a massive error in judgment… but generally, I am just chugging along. Nothing meant anything prior to the pandemic and I’m not sure that has changed for better or for worse.

The insomnia and “blah” feeling that punctuated my winter seems to have largely passed, though I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint its cause. While a lot of people up here struggle with some level of seasonal affective disorder, I’ve always enjoyed the dark days of winter, and the ensuing excitement of spring. The sun is strong, and the days are growing longer rapidly; we’ll be getting tans in no time (I typed this up yesterday, and as I hit “publish” it’s pukin’ outside, brah). The vaccination timeline doesn’t leave much room to travel before it’s summer up here, and I plan to stay put for most of it and bounce around the state; I’ve spent too many Alaskan summers careening through other countries. Sadly, most of the countries on my to-do list will not be open or vaccinated for some time regardless, so I expect to not go far until 2022. And New York is too hot in the summer to be bothered; my pilgrimage to the homeland will take place in the fall or winter. While our tourism industry will take another huge hit this summer, the state of Alaska will be wide open to Alaskans and people who DIY their trips, and I’m looking forward to that. What money I (continue) to save on international travel will be pumped into the remaining upgrades to my house.

Further, in an increased effort to help myself feel better, I’ve been using my FitBit to help me sleep (did you know caffeine stays in your system for hours and hours and you should probably cut that shit out by 3pm? Well, I didn’t, but it’s made a huge difference); I added the oh-so-popular 10,000 steps to my daily regimen (tough when you barely leave your house); I tried kencko, which isn’t bad but I’m not sure evaporated fruit and vegetable flakes are worth the money… and a friend and I jotted down a bunch of food ideas on scraps of paper and put them in a jar, and we draw one a week for our Saturday dinner & movie night. This very simple thing has been a lot of fun and given me something to look forward to and provided a small outlet for much-underutilized creativity. I haven’t been much for cooking this entire time, as it’s been just me, but the small spurts of company I have have given me a reason to do so. 

Fathers and Sons | I’ve been working through some Russian classics I had missed as a teenager, and this was a great one. I found the theme pretty timely given how polarized everyone is, although in Fathers and Sons it’s between generations, with the backdrop of significant social and political change in Russia. This novel is the birthplace of “nihilism,” at least in the context it’s used today, and you watch the characters marry and separate from their chosen beliefs; the rifts those beliefs cause in their families and in themselves and the friction toward one another. It of course ends in relative tragedy, after love challenges the belief systems of both the “sons” and they proceed in different directions. This is the first more contemporary novel I’ve enjoyed (contemporary in its subject matter) — of the somewhat-recently read Russian classics, I didn’t love The Master and the Margarita, but I have really deeply loved And Quiet Flows the Don and A Hero of Our Time. Bazarov is a Byronic hero, as well, which is one of the many reasons this book was so enjoyable; it’s an easy read in a way versus something like A Hero of Our Time because so much of Fathers and Sons is about characters who outwardly explain their belief systems.

Big White Ghetto | My mother saw this author on the news, told me this sounded “right up my alley,” and she wasn’t wrong. This book is an informed rampage through what to me (and the author) are often well intentioned and nonetheless stupid ideas. The title is to some degree misleading, as he also talks about inner-city blacks, but his focus is on how policies have allowed people to retain their victim mentalities and foster poor health and often poorer financial decisions. I was particularly pleased by the chapter about casinos, which have become an absurd “solution” to Alaska’s budget deficits recently (and I’ll be writing a lengthy op-ed for one of our local outlets about that sooner than later). This is not an insane right-winger read: he can’t stand the tail end of either party. It is more than worth a read, and his solutions aren’t warm and fuzzy by any means. His own backstory gives this book special credence; he’s not someone who hasn’t lived in the world of learned helplessness. On top of offering a ton of variable content and subject matter, he’s a gifted (and often darkly funny) writer. Review in Forbes here.

Oblomov | I was sure I wouldn’t like this, but I ended up loving it. I initially hated the slothful, worthless Oblomov, but he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character really rapidly — when his friend arrives to dress him down about wasting his life taking naps — and he explains that participating in the trivialities of society seem utterly worthless and he doesn’t want to spend his life pretending and talking about stupid shit to people who don’t really care about one another. Some parts of the book are really long and tiresome, particularly the part about his childhood, which gave more context to why Oblomov became the person he was but was also a bit boring. I actually loved the way the ending wrapped up with basically “and there lies Oblomov, and I wanted to tell the story of his life, and it’s the story I just told you.” Goncharov is probably the easiest Russian writer to read; he writes totally matter-of-factly, and most of the book happens in dialog, which makes it super easy to follow. I found a lot of it to be about picking your battles; grappling with meaninglessness versus ambition and purpose; tradition versus modernity. As much as I really detested his character, his laziness, his indifference, his lack of motivation, I found him to be one of the most sympathetic lazy characters I’ve encountered.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error | I heard a lot of mixed reviews on this book — mostly that it was good but had a lot of fluff — I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. She offers a ton of historical and biological context; she paints a picture with a lot of different but all entirely interesting information. There’s some behavioral econ, some evolutionary biology, some anthropology, some philosophy. I’d say it’s more of a mish-mash than a book that concludes somewhere, but the material presented adds a lot of context for anyone and she does a good job of fleshing out why it’s difficult to accept being wrong, and why humans try to avoid it at all costs, and how we do so, whether consciously or not. NY Times review here.

March’s audiobook project is Ulysses, which is hard for me not because it’s hard but because I don’t love stream-of-consciousness writing at all, though I will take this opportunity to plug probably the best modern SOC book I’ve read that was never included in this blog: Ducks, Newburyport. It’s tough to even call Ducks, Newburyport a book, when it reads like more of a project, an entire book in a single sentence, but it is unbelievable in its style and imagery and the sheer volume of emotion the author can cram into a single sentence. I will not finish this book for a very long time; I read bits and pieces here and there, but it is pretty extraordinary and well worth the read even if this narrative style is not your thing. My plan is to finish Ulysses and take another pass at Infinite Jest before the summer, thanks to two contemporary SOC works I’ve loved: Ducks, Newburyport and many years ago Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (I loved this book so much I’ve read every single one of his other books, and found that very sadly none of them are even remotely as good). Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Everything is Illuminated was pretty OK, too. Not my favorite, but not bad. New Yorker review of Ducks, Newburyport here.

That’s all for February. We’re now comping over COVID-19; so the next 12 months in comparison should be better than the last, month:month. 

January 2020 in Books

It’s been a productive month in books! I also have a pretty random assortment here (probably more random than is typical, even for me). I’ve been a devoted reader since I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed the past few weeks of deep-diving into another human being through literature. So in addition to my normal book-load, I’ve wrapped up Severin’s Journey Into the Dark (amazing); Straw Dogs (entertaining but I disagree with most of the ideas) and All The Pretty Horses and then The Crossing (interesting and totally atypical for me; I’ll be finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy over the next few months and moving onto some of his other stuff). I loved The Crossing.

I’ve also revisited a few books I’ve loved very deeply for a long time, namely Camus’ Lyrical & Critical Essays. I also recently re-read my favorite contemporary novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I think I would be an entirely different person if I had not spent my entire life thus far obsessed with books. There is no better way to learn about, to really come to know another person than to read each other’s favorites. It is really uniquely intimate. It’s uniquely flattering, as well; someone else can choose to inhabit your world, even briefly. It’s an underrated experience, especially given (a) people don’t read like they used to (last year, I saw that over a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book or even a part of one in a year) and (b) we are living in a culture of extreme narcissism, where people star in their own social media novellas and could care less about anyone but themselves.

But I digress. Onto the rest.

The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness | I read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Edition and read it on a whim, because I like the idea and I’ve seen some bizarre things in my personal life that correlate. While it’s a bit touchy-feely (and a bit preachy at times), it’s well-cited and there’s a ton of research in the notes. I actually find the title to be a bit misleading: the premise of the book is basically that the mind-body connection is under-emphasized by the medical profession, and people who have loving relationships / social connections / solid communities are more physically resilient (and recover faster). Essentially that having people who give a shit about you is paramount to your physical health. Total rocket science, right? Not so much, but it’s surprising how much this element of people’s lives is ignored when there’s something wrong physically with them; further, how much loneliness can foster illness. There are a ton of studies that relay this point, but this book is a pretty well-organized summary of the sort of mental/emotional hierarchy of needs that contribute to your physical well-being.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America | This was an incredible read. Books about poverty tend to be extremely politicized; this one was not. The author was a Wall Street trader who began taking walks through various neighborhoods in NYC and eventually quit his job to learn more about the way people live. This is one of the few books that manages to feature a sense of humanity alongside common sense: he answered, for himself, many of the questions I’ve asked myself over the duration of my life. This book and Hillbilly Elegy are probably two of my favorite books on this topic, and they are both written from entirely different perspectives, with largely different opinions, and they attribute some of the issues of our time to different things. I will never forget this short excerpt in this book, which does a good job of showcasing how much this author really focused on telling fair stories of other people with no judgement:

Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I ­photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

People who grow up in tremendous comfort, in stable, healthy families think they know and understand how all of this works; they just don’t. And I say that as someone who does not buy the conservative “get a job” trope, nor the bleeding heart “give them more public assistance” remedy. Reality is so much more nuanced, complex, often impossible. This book is really thought provoking, reasonable and open-minded. So pleased I read it.

The Lion’s Den | I’m a huge Anthony Marra fan; I’ve read all of his other stuff with extreme immediacy, and this was no different. The Lion’s Den is a short story about a guy who lost his father; it was good, but I didn’t love it, probably because his Eastern Europe / Russia stuff resonates much more with me. He is an incredible writer and this took me almost no time, so it was worth reading, but it was nowhere near as amazing as his other short, The Wolves of Bilaya Forest.

Talking to Strangers | Malcolm Gladwell is another author whose books I’ve read in their entirety, and I’m surprised to say I really was bored out of my mind with this one. The premise is actually brilliant: he basically talks about instances where people talked past one another and thought they knew more than they did; it’s largely anecdotes of cognitive bias. It’s rare I stop reading a book (in this case it was an audiobook), but I got about halfway through and found it too boring, though the theme was interesting. I actually really like Gladwell; his style is often criticized, but I find his quirky stories give me a lot to think about in a short period of time, and his books are easy ways to find interesting ideas with virtually no effort. The New York Times published a great article on him and his work here, and despite not loving this particular book, I’d read his next one as I’ve read all his previous ones.

Wilderness | This was another surprisingly disappointing, dry read. I am a huge, huge fan of Rockwell Kent: I own some of his other books (Greenland Journal is on my rare book wishlist). This artwork has always really impressed me; I recently acquired a copy of Moby Dick with his illustrations, which I will definitely cherish forever and have wanted for a long time (Moby Dick is one of my all-time favorites). I thought Wilderness would score more points because it’s based a mere two hours and a boat ride from my house, on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, but his diary entries are dull and underwhelming, and the drawings are not great either. N by E and Salamina are far better reads. To be fair, his other books are in more interesting settings than boring af Fox Island in the winter. He loved the North, was completely captivated by Newfoundland; Greenland; Alaska and the Adirondacks and for that he will always have my undying love.

Re-reads:

Coming Into the Country | This is the third time I’ve traversed this book in its entirety in my life; I started listening to the audiobook version a year or two ago, and recently finished. I cannot express how unbelievable it is that a book written 44 years ago is still so spot-on, with regard to the people of Alaska, the culture, the “story” of Alaska in its entirety. For 7.5 years of my life I have lived here and loved this state, have chased all kinds of stories, anecdotes, histories, driven all kinds of roads in every direction, flown a bazillion air miles to far flung toiletless towns in the Bush, met some of the most interesting characters of my life, and I am mystified by how McPhee captured Alaska in a book that is still somehow so relevant. I would hands down recommend this book to anyone who moved here, or wanted to really know or understand this state, its traditions and legacy. This won’t be the last time I read Coming Into The Country, and a Fairbanks-based writer wrote an incredible follow-up to the Yukon-Charley Rivers section of Coming Into The Country called A Land Gone Lonesome which is also incredible and worth reading (and perhaps re-reading).

Lyrical & Critical Essays | I have a beat-up copy of this book I’ve had since college, with 100 different scribbles and highlights in it. I’ve re-read these lyrical essays countless times over my adult life, wondering if they will ever cease to resonate with me, and thus far they have not. At 35, I have read everything Camus has written/published; these lyrical essays are the best, in my opinion. These essays are a full-spectrum foundation of his values, his belief system, and much of what he stood for in his life, and are a perfect precursor to anything else one might read from him. Skip the critical essays; they’re not nearly as good. Linking to Goodreads reviews, as this is an old book, but much loved by virtually everyone who reads it.

Upcoming for February: Gogol’s Collected Tales; Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy 3); Vaclav Havel’s Open Letters; The Nation Killers, on Soviet resettlement to Kazakhstan; a bunch of others.

34, Redux

This post was supposed to be a reading roundup, but when I logged into my Kindle I realized the only books I’ve read lately are what a kind person would call “personal development” and what an asshole would call “self-help.” I’ve sort of challenged myself to infuse some personal items into this blog, though I don’t share it widely among people who actually know me.  I’ve learned some lessons over the past few weeks, and as is often the case, these lessons were spurned by personal challenges. So, a few takeaways from 2019 so far, and then a brief list of loosely related reading.

Side note, I wrote a reflective post when I quit my last job and I received quite a lot of feedback, so this is sort of in the same style. It makes me uncomfortable to post this kind of stuff here, but it’s probably a good kind of discomfort.

  • I lost one of my close friends in the beginning of this year. It hit me surprisingly hard, and I think it punctuated the next few months of reflection on how the year was going. I will probably never look at 2019 without the sting of this happening; I cherish my close people, my friends especially, living 5,000 miles from where I spent the first 28 years of my life. Suicide is additionally difficult to deal with; it’s tough to stop yourself from wondering what you could’ve done (the answer is always “nothing”). This friend was also from New Jersey; he grew up a few miles from where my mother did. He was one of the two human links I have to home, here in Alaska. I was crushed. For a long time.
  • Alaska’s 7.1 earthquake in November created tremendous challenges for me work-wise and set the tone for how I spent my working time to present day. I rely on a lot of data sets; most of my vital tools were broken or unreliable as a result of what this earthquake did to hotel inventory across Anchorage. I’ll come out of Q2 at the top of my team, again, but the real-time stress was grinding and part of the struggle was knowing I would fail in certain measures and trying to compensate elsewhere.
  • Every single time I have tried to get away this year, it has been foiled by primary or secondary life responsibilities: work, schedule changes, board meetings and most recently, health. Work-life balance is important, and I have made a huge effort to figure out how to make that happen; this year, not so much. Part of it is on me, part of it is just how the cards have fallen. My life in 2019 is pretty much one I can’t escape. My life isn’t hard by any means, but it’s important to be able to check out at times. I have thus far not had this opportunity to the desired extent.
  • 5 days ago, I turned 35. I was supposed to be at Inti Raymi in Peru, followed by a brutal hike through the Andes. Neither of these things happened: the thyroid function test I had taken before I left for Bosnia and Georgia was ominous, and I went into total thyroid meltdown about halfway through my June itinerary. I called it before I got back to the US, canceled my Peru trip, somehow survived a few long work days in Seattle before I came home to figure out how to play this round. Plus sides: my intuition has been incredibly good my entire life and has failed me fewer times than my shitty thyroid has; also, the Mayo Clinic accepted my case and I’ll be delaying a(nother) trip to instead go there in July to figure out why every few years I am saddled with a few frightening weeks of feeling as though I’ve smoked a pound of meth. Womp womp.
    • This short breakdown will go full-circle; I actually had a kick ass birthday in Anchorage, thanks to (no surprise) my friends, namely my other fellow New Jerseyan, cementing something I haven’t ignored for a single moment of my life: the infinite value of my people.

When I think of the year so far, this is what I think of: the most significant, and the most recent. I am a cynical person. I tend to focus on things that are (a) wrong or (b) broken in order to figure them out and turn them around. This is the lesson, though: I spent the first 6 months of this year thinking this was the shittiest year I’ve had in a long time… which turned out to be patently false.

How do I know this? Mostly thanks to Microsoft Excel. I think I experienced the most nerve-wracking minute and a half in my career recently when I explained to my colleagues during a working session on “best practices” that one of my personal best practices is that I have an actual failure tracker and I use it to give myself a full personal performance review every year on my birthday. So when I did the run-down for this year, there was way more in the The Good column than The Bad and Failures columns. For people interested in behavioral economics, this is the Availability heuristic: I was thinking about these big things, and this recent health stuff, and that’s what I recalled.

So, due to the time of year, I’ve read some interesting books on a variety of topics: growing up, personality forming, etc. Here’s a short list (the books are long and somewhat complex, save the last one, so they’ve taken a fair amount of time):

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do | I wish I had read this long before I did. I’m not sure if I find it completely plausible, but it is interesting. There is a Wikipedia page, as well as a full breakdown of many of her points and examples. I would like to believe this is true, at least to a large extent, and I think it could be. It’s encouraging to think that people can outshine their parents when it comes to behavior and positive character traits; that people are not necessarily as constrained by the ills of their home lives, as many of us are led to believe.

Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration | This book is a pretty dry read, but if you can get past the boring language, the concepts are pretty great. This guy also has a Wikipedia page, and there is a summary in PDF. In some ways his general idea is similar to Viktor Frankl: suffering gives life meaning (and, to a large degree, builds character), and people who are developmentally inclined tend to flail an awful lot, but it’s good for them and it helps them grow into themselves while shedding unsavory parts. The author is a pretty tormented individual himself, which makes his theory extra interesting. Again, like anyone I find I tend to gravitate to theories with high confirmation bias; that said, I’ve never quite read anything as meticulously drawn out as this particular development theory. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, by far.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success | Pretty basic but also thoughtful book; I was told about this by one of my newer colleagues, and while the TEDTalk by this woman is dreadfully boring, her book is an easy read, and worth considering. It’s something that seems to have gained wide adoption in the corporate sphere these days, which means very little other than I now hear “growth mindset” all the time and I can know what it means instead of assuming.

How To Win Friends and Influence People | I read this book when I was a kid, and I recently re-read it, truly mystified by how simple advice written in 1936 is still so relevant. Not a huge surprise, I guess, but some of Carnegie’s points are so simple you actually feel stupid not knowing them all before you read them. The Wikipedia page breaks it down, but reading the entire book is definitely worthwhile, if for no other reason than to marvel at the fact that advice that was pertinent in the 19-frickin’ 30s is still so legit today.

And that’s about it. My next reading roundup will surely not be this stuff. Long story short, sometimes life isn’t as shitty as it seems. Time will tell, I’m sure, but apart from my friend’s death, most of my struggles are what you’d call first-world problems; for perspective’s sake, five years ago when I had my first unfortunate thyroid experience, I had terrible insurance and was strapped with a bill for $10,000 (and no real answers). I was determined to change my life around so (a) I didn’t hate my job and (b) had excellent healthcare… and this time will be different.

I remember Jordan Petersen’s advice about bench-marking against yourself, and through that lens, I am moving in the right direction… at times, more slowly than others.

Q4 Reading Roundup (2 of 2)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure | This book starts with a completely absurd fictional account of the authors hiking up to some Zen master’s retreat and being granted some advice that is completely wrong. The long, unnecessary anecdote sets the stage for the rest of the book. The rest of it is good, and sad. I am glad I graduated from college over a decade ago, I am sure I’d be disgusted by campus society these days. My main issue with a book like this is that I’m not sure what good it does, other than provide confirmation of a problem will remain unresolved because the people causing the problem will not accept the book’s key points. I would happily pass along copies of this to people who could benefit greatly from its content, but those people have long un-followed me on Facebook and haven’t read much if anything I’ve passed along to them. You could build much more upon this idea, as this learned fragility flows into corporations and government from the university system, and the consequences are already frightening. Review here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |While this 100-chapter book took me forever to get through; I really enjoyed it, I will never write a review (of anything) as complete or thoughtful as Aschwin’s, so I will link to his.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America | I’m still really unsure how I feel about this very lengthy and bitter-sounding history of poor whites in America. Further, while some explanation of inequality make sense to me (property ownership value compounds over generations, so if you start later you can have less inherited wealth), this tirade against a country that allegedly oppresses opportunities for the poorest whites, who are generationally poor, fails to account for the fact that millions of poor immigrants with even fewer opportunities landed in this country, dispersed and flourished. The book has no real topic order; some of her reflections on people like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin are interesting, and her cultural critique is worth considering. Overall I was not a fan: the disjointed style and the wildly resentful tone were not particularly persuasive. Two completely different reviews, one from the Washington Post here and one from the National Review here. There is a false comparison to Hillbilly Elegy: the two books are nothing alike.

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Book 11) | I will never forget the way this book opens, with the shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo. I consider myself a fairly rational and often unemotional person; the Bosnian War has always evoked very deep horror in me, and absent geography, I can’t think of a worse building to go up in flames than a library, though I attribute this partially to my own culture, in which burning books is taboo.

This book is similar in tone to The Serbs: it is highly critical of Serb politicians and nationalists. It is rightfully critical of the West and the UN. Its primary focus is Christoslavism, which is integral to explaining the history of the Balkans. The extent of cruelty and dehumanization and groupthink leading up to and during this war is staggering. That it dragged on for years before anyone intervened is sickening. The book details the rapid destruction of tolerance and history, and the way Serb and Bosnian Serb politicians fanned the flames of hatred. It is not unbiased, but it is very good. I wish I could say that September’s trip to BiH was fulfilling enough to stop reading books about the Balkans. It was not, and I have quite a few others I will read in 2019 before heading back to Sarajevo in June.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives |Not sure why or how I came across this book, it but’s a pretty diverse collection of stories by refugees in America. No real opinion, it’s always interesting to read about how other people live. Pretty good read. SF Gate review here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border |This book was pretty well-received for offering a different perspective on border patrol, though I’m not sure in the end it lacks any sympathy. It’s tragic and torn; also really well-written. NY Times review here.

Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.

My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible.  The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).

Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.

TL;DR

One of the items on my current to-do list was to create a recommended reading list for my colleagues. I’m a part of a high performing team (I don’t dole out compliments like this; we consistently beat our numbers and we have no interpersonal drama, which combined is a monumental achievement), and twice a year or so we go through our so-called ‘Group Norms’ in order to ensure we are all on the same page, and we properly integrate newcomers and keep the bar high. It has been a brilliant strategy for us to maintain ‘synergy,’ a buzz word I hate but a concept that is integral to consistent performance. On top of that, I am the team bookworm weirdo, and I am fairly sure they did not expect this long of a list. But I want to ‘keep it 100,’ as the young people say.

I think it’s safe to say I’m obsessed with reading. I spent three years of my life in a ‘good school’, Boston University. Otherwise, I don’t consider myself well educated in the way a lot of people mean it. I am well self-educated, and my glory years at a private college were wedged between primary education at a crap public high school in upstate New York and a tediously boring online MBA program I completed as quickly as possible (7 months) to stave off prolonged torture. Watching paint dry is more interesting than getting an MBA. If given the option of doing it again or a shotgun shell to the knee cap, I might honestly choose the latter.

I read all kinds of books. One category of many is what I guess you’d loosely call ‘business books’. I’d venture to call some of them ‘self help’ books (aren’t all books self help books? Books help you to learn, by yourself). Mostly they are books about being a part of the world and functioning in different segments of society.

In any case, below is the list I posted for my team. I left off the few I read that were wholly unimpressive. Most of these are very good, some are better than others.

Top 10 with asterisks.

If you’re ambling around here and think I’ve missed one (or ten, or fifty), leave them in my comments.