Every year I tend to read a good amount of books and listen to some audiobooks. I’ve always wanted to retain better memory of content I consume (including movies or shows) and these blog posts have been a great way to reinforce what I’ve gone through. These posts offer brief reviews, some thoughts or notable things from the works, and general impressions of the material. Beyond the memory benefits which come from writing these I think it is good to stop periodically after consuming new information and spend some time to think critically and assess the information or story.
I’ll update this post throughout the year as I finish books and things. I’d also love to get recommendations from anyone reading this or to hear your thoughts on any of the books listed. Please feel free to comment! Here are links for past book posts; last year I managed 35 (missing my target of ~50) and am hoping to increase that amount this year!
New entries will show up on the bottom of this page. PROBABLY SPOILERS BELOW!
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
John Carreyrou | Biography / Investigative Journalism | 2018
WOW. This was a great book to start off the year! My brother-in-law recommended this for our book club and I am so glad he did. The book tells the story of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. It is a wild story of ambitious goals, missed targets, hidden shortcomings, terrible management, a descent into bald-faced lying and dishonesty, and ultimately of collapse and failure.
There were several things that were most surprising to me:
- Early on it was clear (at least from the written account) that Sunny (basically the cofounder) was a horrible influence on Elizabeth and, apparently, an atrocious manager. His poor influence can be masked by the relationship he and Elizabeth had but it reads as if he was gradually coaxing her to make increasingly more unethical decisions and, likely, justifying those actions as not unethical or par-for-the-course in the business world. The fact that he lasted until the end was surprising.
- Secondly, I’m shocked at the resilience the organization had to employee disgruntlement. The legal threats and hardcore siloing of the company led to much more post-employment compliance than I would have thought. There were several very well intentioned people who had no recourse to expose the issues they saw.
- Third, I’m shocked that such an absolute lack of real technologies to back the claims made it through the scrutiny of so many people including the board, huge corporate partners, and even the FDA’s attempts to verify information.
Overall, this book was great. There is a clear journalistic bias/intent to show how bad things were but it seems fully warranted given what we know now (at the time of writing, criminal charges with substantial prison sentences were leveraged against both Sunny and Elizabeth). Great read, fascinating story, and a nearly unbelievable set of circumstances which led a huge company valuation almost evaporating overnight when the house of cards started to fall.
The Great Courses: The Real History of Pirates
Manushag Powell | Lecture Series
This was a course I picked up on a whim for a long drive. Overall, the content was pretty well researched and well presented however the volume of data was unfortunately pretty low. There was a lot of repeated emphasis about the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy which is where most of the good stories came from. There’s a lot of fascinating lore and stories about pirates and it’s remarkable what has stuck through to the modern era. The real history, though, is quite a lot less colorful and not quite as exhilarating.
It was a good course but felt like it either could have been structured better or about 4-5 lectures shorter.
How Minds Change
David McRaney | Psychology/Self-improvementish | 2022
This was a good book with, in my mind, a poor last chapter or two. The book takes us through the author’s journey and exposure to information to answer ‘How Minds Change’. Minds do clearly change – public opinion on gay marriage, civil rights, switching from right or left ideologies and back again – but the process for change is not straight forward. Why will a compelling argument fall on deaf ears? Why do stories or depictions sometimes make a huge difference and other times make not a difference at all? Why does this change for the same person depending on the topic?
The story told which starts with discussions with the people behind ‘Deep Canvassing’, talks with a former 9/11 denier, street epistemology discussions, ideas presented from researchers to former Westboro Baptist Church members. David McRaney does a good job painting a picture of the process which seems to lead to getting people to reconsider their beliefs and even emphasizes this process extensively at the end (which is great and I think one of the best takeaways from the book).
Despite the great value in what I’ve presented above I think there are two notable things which I have complaints about. In the sample conversations or recordings presented and depiction of the process there was a general lack of consideration about the way to respond to beliefs and claims in the dialectical process advocated. There was a huge emphasis on setting a confidence of beliefs, clearly understanding the claims and arguments, being empathetic and non-adversarial, etc. However, when it came to how to actually approach the conversations you make after the first steps in the process it was pretty light and the examples all seemed to show (unsurprisingly) very knowledgeable conversation about the topics which I don’t think easily translates to, say, a pro-vaccine construction worker talking to his anti-vax coworker. There needed, in my mind, to be an emphasis on how to arrive at defensible claims or finding ‘good’ qualities of challenges to pose the interlocutor in the process. It was a tiny bit like saying ‘hey, look at this process for Socratic argumentation and how great it is!’ and sending people out to have those conversations without ever analyzing how to find the ‘questions’ to ask based on the remarks from the belief holder.
The other negative though I have about this book is that the last chapter or two felt very flimsy, it attempted to use his approach to explain macro-changes in belief over time. This felt weak and almost tautological to the point of saying ‘Large changes in belief happen when there is adequate pressure for large changes in belief to happen’. It just felt like there was a bigger point he wanted to make or some apologetic for those who are the first who fight against bad beliefs held by the majority.
Overall though, I really like this book and think there are some great considerations within. Good read and I think beneficial for a wide audience to read and take to heart.
Ray Bradbury | 1953 | Sci-Fi / Dystopian
This book offers a lot to today’s world.
Before getting into the specific insights, let’s briefly recap the world of Farenheit 451.
The society shown in Farenheit 451 is socially disconnected and lacks meaningful relationships. Personal connections are superficial and shallow, and people rarely engage in meaningful conversations or share genuine emotions with one another.
Entertainment is the primary focus of people’s lives, and it takes the form of highly immersive television programs that fill entire rooms. The characters in these programs are designed to be incredibly relatable, allowing viewers to become emotionally invested in their stories. As a result, people spend hours engrossed in these programs with immersion and constant activity masking the fact that they are really about nothing – no investment in who is married to who or why they are all arguing with each other; just enjoyment of the activity in the scenes.
Constant consumption of entertainment leaves little time for personal reflection or introspection. People are encouraged to focus on the present moment and to avoid thinking too deeply about the world around them. This creates a society that is highly conformist, where individuals are discouraged from engaging in critical thinking or questioning the way things are.
Ultimately, the world of Farenheit 451 is oriented toward maximizing fun, pleasure, and being constantly entertained. Even jobs fit that mold; running around starting fires, medical calls more focused on the hardware than the patient, etc. The pastimes are similarly light and hyper digestible. Family life is portrayed as trivial and is more a convenience than supportive social entity. For example, when Mildred’s friends come to visit her, they talk about their children in a dismissive and superficial way, treating them as mere distractions rather than individuals deserving of love and attention. One of Mildred’s friends, Mrs. Bowles, even expresses relief at the idea of her children being taken away from her, and another jokes about slapping them during the few days per month they are at home and ‘intruding’ on her fun. Real interactions with each other are minimal and what interactions there are seem to emphasize entertainment over social relation. Another example of this is that kids will ostensibly be “hanging out” socially but the activity they do together is to go race cars, hit animals or people with them, and otherwise get a ‘thrill’ from it all. Parents speak of their relationships and divorce in a similar way, just another person to briefly co-habitate and have fun with.
Midway through the book, the protagonist – Guy Montag – (re)connects with a character named Faber who explains why everything feels ‘insubstantial’ to Guy. He posits that 3 things are needed to really live in the world. First, access to information/ideas is necessary to get exposure to a diversity of perspectives. Secondly, Faber describes leisure as an essential component to ‘dealing’ with the information and ideas you get exposed to. Lastly, he posits that one needs some ability to ‘act’ on the results of ideas & reflection on those ideas.
In the world of Farenheit 451 the ideas/access to information are effectively quashed. Books are burned, media is utterly generic, emphasis on sport and racing and even, to some degree, technical competency (engineering, et al.) replace debate, discourse, creative acts, and charity. Leisure is almost entirely absent in the society because if you’re not racing or watching the TV, you are laying in bed with your ear piece listening to jokes and ‘news’ and whatever else will prevent you from sitting with yourself, from experiencing silence in the way Kierkegaard describes it – “Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life.” Last on Faber’s list, the ability to act on your ideas is extremely limited. As soon as Guy even starts asking questions to his boss, Beatty, he is immediately suspect and an anomaly. Another recounted story is of encouraging students to bully/beat up of children who are the ‘nerds’ in the class. A message echoing statements that no one wants to feel ‘less than’ and that it is right enforce conformity forcefully.
Despite this book being written ~70 years ago, Bradbury has – unfortunately – predicted many of the challenges faced in our world today. The rest of this post is my argument that Faber’s 3 criteria needed to live a meaningful life are all challenged in today’s society.
First, access to quality information. While it is true that we have access to more information than Bradbury probably ever dreamt we could have, it also seems to be the case that we are at a point where there are enormous challenges to identify what of that information is “quality information”. Go and Google almost any topic for information. My guess is that you will find dozens or hundreds of listicles of fluff and only the occasional truly good resource about the topic. Additionally, the ‘democratization’ of information has also led to a huge amount of challenges to what even constitutes legitimate information. While there is a substantial amount of information which can and should be challenged, the internet age has led to wild attacks on well-justified beliefs and knowledge. It has also led to a world where claiming pretty straightforwardly ‘true’ information will lead not to productive discourse and discussion but to name calling, attacks, and hyperbolic claims. (*cough* If you disagree, go to a public place and assert that vaccines are, almost universally, a good thing and let me know how that goes.)
Leisure is in an even worse state. In the before-times, when the internet had not yet emerged, there was TV and radio and all sorts of things to keep you occupied but, at the end of the day, you would eventually get bored with your radio station and turn it off on your commute or, when your spouse was traveling, you may lay in bed and think about things instead of watching the news at night. Today, however, when the radio is boring we put on Spotify. When waiting for an appointment we scroll through social media. When bored and laying in bed or tired after work, we hop on to Instagram or Reddit or whatever site has some infinite scroll to stimulate us with mini dopamine hits for the cute animals pictures, for the funny “gotchas” supporting our beliefs, and for each little laugh and chuckle.
We are increasingly living in a world where silence isn’t permitted. You’re not listening to music on your ride home? What about a podcast? How about an audiobook? The notion of doing something in silence is rare or, to some people, an indication of ‘something wrong.’ Even activities which used to be associated with silence and a kind of leisure are increasingly missing that mark. On a hike after work? You’re listening to some motivational music, or at least a podcast, right?… In my own life I have friends who are proud that they try to fall asleep while appreciating some nice background music or with a timer on an audiobook so they can be entertained in to the daily abyss.
In addition to leisure evaporating from our life by distraction, there’s an inverse phenomenon. “Performative action”. If you are tired of just ‘absorbing’ the environment around you, we’re also encouraged to spend time doing largely inconsequential actions. What are we told to do if we want to make a difference? Should we volunteer at a food bank? Have a real conversation with a friend about a difficult topic like depression or alcoholism? Make some extra money to donate to a charity?
Nah, if you want to be engaged and make a difference? Write a spicy tweet! Advocate for your favorite cause by creating a hashtag. Want to do something better? Find a stranger on the internet who seems to be against a cause you care about and give them the best insults you’ve got. Don’t want to do something that big and put yourself on the line by stating something in your own words? That’s okay, just put some filter on your profile and you can be sure that YOU are making a difference.
While some of that might be a bit hyperbolic I think the general point is true. We spend less time with our thoughts or in nature than we did 10 years ago and far less than 20+ years ago. The opportunity to ‘be bored’ is diminishing as we have things that will passively ‘suck’ that time away from us. I’m with Bradbury in positing that is a very meaningful and potentially dangerous thing to lose.
Lastly, the ability to, ‘act on the information we have been exposed to and the thoughts we have had about it‘, seems to be at risk as well. We have a lot of ‘fake’ and ‘feel-good’ ways to act today. In the same way our ‘leisure’ is being eaten up by ‘fake actions’, those fake actions also undermine how we approach making real changes. Add a hashtag to your tweet, put a rainbow or Ukraine flag on your profile, scream in to the void, etc. It’s addicting. It FEELS like you are doing important things. However, with rare exception, these are just signals, they can amount to something but, individually, they seem more prone to make one feel like they did a thing as opposed to actually doing it. An hour of volunteering at a charity has got to be worth a few hundred tweets for your cause. A donation to a real org is more important than viciously calling out 1000 of their opponents on Twitter.
Ultimately, I think that we can make a legitimate claim that those 3 criteria are, to differing degrees, being challenged in today’s world. However, this is just some sci-fi book written in 1953, who cares? In this next section I’ll argue that (1) these 3 criteria are not just some randomly selected set of ideals from a writer but are actually valuable based on psychological literature and (2) propose some ways that could move us away from ending up in the world of Farenheit 451.
In terms of ‘evidence’ that these criteria matter, I think there are some reliable studies out there which can make the point. First, the importance of quality information to living a satisfying life has been highlighted by some experiments and can be seen especially poignantly in ‘misinformation’ today. A reasonably strong example of misinformation propagating more rapidly on social media and some of the ramifications can be found here. There also seems to be some evidence that people who are more exposed to political news are more likely to have misconceptions about political issues. As our attention is being increasingly trained in on instant-gratification information sources like Twitter, the ease of consuming misinformation & getting trapped in echo-chambers with no accountability is a real risk.
Another study published in JMIR showed likely direct negative outcomes from COVID-19 misinformation informing bad behaviors as well as the presence of misinformation causing indirect negative outcomes (distress, anxiety, et al). Beyond these studies I think there is an ‘unhealthy’ sort of cognitive dissonance which arises from the conflicting information on social media sites as opposed to the conflicting opinions you may get by talking with people who have actually experienced things, conflicting opinions at a convention/symposium, etc. It seems that encountering (especially undesired) lots of low-quality highly-charged information will do nothing but increase dissonance and resulting discomfort/stress/anxiety. If our social experience continues to be increasingly based on skimming IMs, Twitter, and other high-volume news sources it seems that exceptional steps would need to be taken to better parse the information and effectively handle disinformation.
Regarding the importance of leisure to process information, this also has some psychological evidence to back it up. The concept of “cognitive overload” has been discussed extensively, which refers to the negative effects of being overwhelmed by too much information. “Make it Stick” by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel highlight how opportunities for reflection have substantial impacts on learning, many of the disciplines which emphasize meditation similarly tout the benefits of giving the mind time to slow down. There seems to be a substantial amount of literature to suggest that there are rather essential benefits which come with giving oneself an amount of leisure time.
Lastly, the importance of the ability to act on one’s thoughts also seems to be well supported. In social psychology, the concept of “conformity” has been discussed extensively and there is general consensus that pressure to conform to opinions and behaviors of a majority or authoritative group are extraordinarily hard to overcome. In a classic study conducted by Solomon Asch, it was found that people were more likely to conform to the opinions of the group, even when those opinions were obviously wrong. Digital ‘Tribes’ are increasingly prevalent and as we are encouraged by our friends to set banner, use hashtags, bash outliers, and conform to the group of mainstream groups, it seems like the effort to exert actions apart from that consensus requires ever-more effort, risk, and willingness to endure negative experiences.
So, if we are indeed shifting in to a world where those 3 proposed qualities for a satisfying life are challenged. Where does that leave us? If you were willing to read this far, let me just close with a few possible actions which may help move past some of the worst risks of the current state of things.
At the highest level, some sort of legislation ensuring continued emphasis on real, high quality, studies around addiction to social media platforms and its impact us. It also seems that there should be some hybrid public/private oversight group including experts who can weigh in on the trend of the use of digital systems. Potential incentives for companies who find other ways to measure success than ‘increased user time’, etc., also seems worth considering. Those things are likely pipe dreams and would operate in a complex, political, dysfunctional way so, in lieu of that, challenge your political representatives to have a stance on the issue and do what you can to encourage friends and family to be aware of some of the cons which come with the many pros of the internet today.
Perhaps one of the most ‘addictive’ aspects of modern social media is how sites implement infinite scrolling features. If GDPR was able to make everyone suffer through cookie pop-ups, it would be great if there was some similar push to, at least, require opting into anything with an infinite-scroll. Other beneficial features might be requiring anything with an infinite scroll to provide a weekly usage report to show how many hours users spend just scrolling, liking, and sharing. Another simple way to move us from this trajectory is to give users legitimately good ways to try to reduce screentime and addiction. Ask the user the maximum time they want to spend on the site and auto-turn it off at that time. Require a ‘justification’ text or simple acknowledgement to re-enable the app after that amount of usage per day/week. Even better, allow those to go to an optional accountability friend who can give you grief if they see you on Reddit 12 hours a day.
I’m not sure what can be done to reduce the largely fake incentive of social engagement (views, likes, etc.) but I think there are creative ways one could encourage users to have hot takes on things without driving users to strive for non-stop positive stimulation and feeding them stats and metrics which attempt to get them hooked. Despite that, there has got to be some good options to make it clear that ‘likes’ does not equate to some net ‘good’ about oneself.
There are plenty of challenges and just as many creative solutions out there which can help steer us from some of the outcomes highlighted in Farenheit 451. As a book it offers a huge amount of societally relevant commentary and has been prescient in many ways since it was written. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read it to give it a try and, more importantly (if you read this article), to consider what a healthy level way of living with technology looks like to you and then taking some steps to try to use it that way.
West with Giraffes
Lynda Rutledge | 2021 | Historical Fiction / Novel
Neil Gaiman/Terry Prachett | 1990 | Fantasy
Aldous Huxley | 1962 | Sci-Fi / Dystopian / Utopian
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe | 1839 | Tragic Play / Classic