This book and the first volume should not be missed, especially with the political climate today. If you liked Clash of Civilizations or Guns, Germs,This book and the first volume should not be missed, especially with the political climate today. If you liked Clash of Civilizations or Guns, Germs, & Steel, this is along the same lines but much better....more
We Are Legion is a nice start to a casual sci-fi series. It's an exploration of AI, digital cloning, post-apocalyptic civilization, and an especiallyWe Are Legion is a nice start to a casual sci-fi series. It's an exploration of AI, digital cloning, post-apocalyptic civilization, and an especially fun dive into self-replicating Von Neumann probes. The book's characters are almost all digital copies of Bob, an erstwhile Silicon Valley tech startup founder. Each Bob comes, rather inexplicably, with minor differences from the original, who started it all after having been restored from his long-term cryogenically preserved state.
While I can see how some might love the dry, geeky humor, it didn't resonate much with me. Also, coming so recently off having read Cixin Liu's beyond good Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, Bob was a good distraction but probably not too memorable....more
What a tough book to read. Despite Vance’s very compassionate portrayal of his family, he doesn’t hold back on giving details that I’m sure they wouldWhat a tough book to read. Despite Vance’s very compassionate portrayal of his family, he doesn’t hold back on giving details that I’m sure they would prefer to remain private. It’s even more uncomfortable after his explanation of the intense aversion “hillbillies” have to a member of the family even insinuating anything negative about his or her kin. And yet, here it is. A no holds barred look at a culture in serious distress.
It’s a book that needed to be written. There’s no way to understand this culture unless you either live in it or you get an up close and personal look at it. No amount of statistics about education, drugs, employment, or demographics can give you a clear picture. The Bible Belt is a real place with real people and unless America understands them, their already formidable problems will only intensify. The honor culture is very different from the dignity culture that you are probably part of and unless you get it, it is easy to vilify it or to try to fix it with simplistic solutions that only make it worse.
Maybe the toughest part of reading this was that I can see shadows of what he describes in my own extended family and friends. I was lucky enough to come from a very loving Southern family, but the attitudes of Vance’s family members are very familiar to me. I always thought the things I saw were individual quirks rather than something more endemic, but clearly they are a pattern.
Vance is on a mission to help his country, his people, and by extension, my people. The approach he’s taking is thoughtful, compassionate, and worthy of your attention.
Also worth checking out is Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind and the TV show Justified....more
At no point do you get the sense that Martínez is censoring himself beyond what he might absolutely have to do for legal reasons. He’s all in. His perAt no point do you get the sense that Martínez is censoring himself beyond what he might absolutely have to do for legal reasons. He’s all in. His personal life is a wreck and he shamelessly puts it out there for all the world to see and judge him by. His career in both Wall Street and Silicon Valley is full of of ups and downs and decisions that are, at best, morally ambiguous.
The writing is good. It’s funny, irreverent, and shows more than a passing knowledge of history and literature. There’s a ton of hard won advice and insight into not only Valley culture, but business, negotiation, and how to live the startup life. For all the self deprecation: “there was nothing badass about my career in technology. The scant success I had was due purely to happenstance, combined with being a ruthless little shit when it counted.” it’s clear that his mostly upward career trajectory was due to more than just luck.
You’ll learn a lot about the cutthroat world of online ads. About how decisions are made inside Facebook, and to a lesser degree, Twitter. You’ll get some lessons in the mysterious machinations of His Holiness Paul Graham and vice-pontiff Chris Sacca. You’ll learn how to optimize your job offer, how to read a term sheet and how to win from a position of weakness. It’s information that someone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice their career at the alter of full-disclosure could never tell you. I seriously doubt you’ll ever read anything like this again.
Come for the schadenfreude, stay for the insight....more
Just to get this out of the way, whatever I may say about this book, you should read it. Any criticisms of it have to be considered in light of the faJust to get this out of the way, whatever I may say about this book, you should read it. Any criticisms of it have to be considered in light of the fact it’s written by DFW and therefore, even at its worst, much better than the best work of most other authors.
That said, this is a strange book. As far as I can tell it’s mostly non-fiction, and it takes no great detective work to figure this out since DFW lays it out quite clearly in Chapter 9 which doubles as an Author’s Foreword. He tells us that despite the foreword coming after the disclaimer that all characters and events are fictional, that this is only because:
I need this legal protection in order to inform you that what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.
He then goes on for several pages about why, despite the apparent Gödelian paradox of saying that the book is fictional then later saying it’s not, that the book is actually only declared fiction at the insistence of his publisher. And that:
Here is the real truth: What follows is substantially true and accurate. At least, it’s a mainly true and accurate partial record of what I saw and heard and did, of whom I knew and worked alongside and under, and of what-all eventuated at IRS Post 047, the Midwest Regional Examination Center, Peoria IL, in 1985–86.
Again, several paragraphs later:
The point I’m trying to drive home here is that it’s still all substantially true—i.e., the book this Foreword is part of—regardless of the various ways some of the forthcoming §s have had to be distorted, depersonalized, polyphonized, or otherwise jazzed up in order to conform to the specs of the legal disclaimer.
And, though it’s not DFW’s last statement of this, I’ll reluctantly make it mine:
The Pale King is basically a nonfiction memoir, with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c. Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.
I don’t know if that’s enough to capture why DFW is the best. I suppose it’s not, but can you see how it makes him lovable? I don’t say “lovable” much in relation to authors, but there is something undeniably, and incredibly, endearing about DFW.
The rest of the book is a meditation on work, boredom, what we do with our lives, and how we justify the things we give time to. All this through the lens of employees of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS and everything surrounding it are, most would agree, “Massively, spectacularly dull.” Yet somehow, the Pale King manages to be anything but.
It overcomes the challenge of avoiding drabness not by having a riveting plot. In fact there really is not much of a plot at all. Instead, it’s good because of its insistence on looking life right in the face. It’s a book for today, an attempt at answering the question of why we’re so obsessively self-distracting. As DFW says:
I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but he’s grappling with the question of finding meaning and satisfication. He’s doing that, but in the context of the income tax. For DFW a key question how to find purpose with the mundane always so close at hand.
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
It’s not all tax and boredom though. Scattered throughout are various curios. Chapters of marginally related topics such as a special type of ESP where the events precognated (this is only the 300th instance of that word on the Internet by the way) are accurate but uninteresting, a boy whose obsessive quest is to have placed his lips on every inch of his body, and a girl who can keep her eyes open without blinking indefinitely.
So, read it. Maybe don’t make it your first book by DFW, but don’t skip it....more
This is the first book I’ve read as a direct result of reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work.
The problem All Things Shining addresses is thaThis is the first book I’ve read as a direct result of reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work.
The problem All Things Shining addresses is that the more choice of thought and actions we have, the more we are prone to nihilistic tendencies. This is counter-intuitive but in many ways, it's true. Being free from the shackles of religion, superstition, fate, and god-ordained kings should be empowering and joyful. But it's not that simple. Freedom can be whatever we make it which, it turns out, is a problem. The paradox of so much choice can lead to paralysis. Not knowing with certainty what our role in society is, or what the future of the universe and humanity might be can leave us conflicted, anxious, and worried about wasting time and energy. As Dostoyevsky’s observed, “when nothing matters, everything is okay.”
All Things Shining implicates everyone from Descartes and Kant to Luther and St Augustine, luminaries usually spared much criticism, in the unfortunate spread of nihilism and existential angst in modern society.
Fortunately though, we're not left to wallow in our discontent. The authors suggest that rather than endless speculation about things we can't know, or fretting over things we can't change, we should focus on the shining things. Their examples of finding the shining things come from the Greeks and their gods, the last professional full time wheelwright, Herman Melville, whose white whale graces the cover of the book, David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Gilbert
When the Greeks were blessed with good fortune, cursed with bad, or captivated by whatever passion the gods brought them, they fully embraced it, allowing it to consume their attention until, like all shining things, it passed. There was no question about where the feeling came from, only acceptance.
Today we can't blind ourselves to the fact that the Greek gods don't exist, but we can occasionally allow ourselves to be carried away in the passion of a crowd watching football or dancing together or joined in awe of any human accomplishment.
We can master skills and crafts and find the hidden value in working with materials in the physical world. As we master these skills, we can enter flow states, and find lasting passion in our craftsmanship.
We can feel the meditative bliss of being caught up in a moment of gratitude or acceptance. We can allow the creative muses work within us or simply appreciate the creativity of others.
In short, we can find pleasure, joy, and even meaning in the realm of human action. If we work at it, enough pleasure to forget the trap of nihilism and flourish, confident in our place in the world and in the skills we've mastered.
For me, this was a new way of thinking about meaning. I love the idea and I’m excited to keep going down the path of books Cal Newport mentions.Rapt is next....more
The story is less cohesive than The Dark Forest but this is easily compensated for by the incredible creativity and inventiveness of Liu Cixin's plot.The story is less cohesive than The Dark Forest but this is easily compensated for by the incredible creativity and inventiveness of Liu Cixin's plot. He slowly builds concept on concept until the most insane universe seems utterly plausible.
The book that I can most closely compare this too isn't science fiction at all, it's Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence. What Bostrom does with AI, Liu Cixin does with interstellar civilizations.
Death's End is tough to read in an existential sense, but a very strong finish to the best sci-fi series I've ever read....more
It may seem overly generous to compare Stegner to Tolstoy or even Shakespeare, but I don't think it's out of the question. With each book I read fromIt may seem overly generous to compare Stegner to Tolstoy or even Shakespeare, but I don't think it's out of the question. With each book I read from him I am further struck by how much of the human experience he captures and by how well he does it.
All the Little Live Things is a book of contrasts more than it's a book of plot. The story revolves around an aging couple juxtaposed with both a young couple and with the children of the 60's in a few of their various incarnations. All are represented in a way that shows not only sympathy for their choices, but a profound understanding of their motivations. Stegner weaves their lives together in a beautiful and tragic story that will remain with you long after the last page.
In the beginning, it can be struggle to get interested in the book because the protagonist is such a curmudgeon, but as the story unwinds it becomes, in what is typical Stegner fashion, beautifully heart wrenching. Stick with it, it's worth it....more
This is a book about how to live disguised as a productivity book. If the only thing you’re interested in is how to squeeze more work into every day,This is a book about how to live disguised as a productivity book. If the only thing you’re interested in is how to squeeze more work into every day, there are better resources such as David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done. If you want more than that, don’t miss Deep Work.
The message that stood out most to me was the connection between doing deep work and generally finding meaning in work. This idea seems to be a carry over from Newport’s earlier book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but since I haven’t read that book, this was my first exposure to it.
Passion is often trotted out as the show horse we’re all to chase if we’re to find happiness and success in our careers. In Deep Work, Newport convincingly argues that it’s actually skill and mastery that lead to passion and not the other way around. When we work at something long enough to get good at it, we find inherent satisfaction in doing it. This is partly due to Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s very influential concept of "flow." Flow the state we attain when we work at something that is right at the fine edge between too hard and too easy. We block out all other stimuli and go into a state of meditative work in which time passes quickly and in a deeply satisfying way. If we practice something enough to easily enter this flow state, we begin to associate these positive experiences with the work and develop a passion for the work.
Additionally, when we create work we’re passionate about, it can lead to an overall happier life. This is part of the idea behind another book, Rapt, which again, I haven’t read, but is summarized briefly in Deep Work. The core idea is that we are what we think. When we spend time focusing on pleasant or positive aspects of our experiences, we start to frame everything that happens in our lives in a way that is congruous with the positive things we’re focusing on. It seems like a pretty obvious conclusion, but when placed alongside the idea of creating passionate work, it’s easy to see how important it is to do work we’re good at. It is a direct contributor to our overall happiness.
Happiness is great, but there are a couple other things we want from work, both of which circle back to make happiness itself easier to find. Obviously, the first is money. Once the money is flowing, we seek meaning. Newport makes arguments for how deep work can lead to both of these.
Money is the easy one. Robots are taking over the world. If your job can be done by someone with less than a college education, it’s very likely that at some point in the not too distant future, it’ll be automated by a robot. If you can become someone who builds or works with these robots in a way that increases automation, you will probably make a lot of money. If you don’t do that, you can still make money by being one of the best in your field, whatever you field may be. In order to do either of those though, you’re going to have to be able focus deeply and produce a lot of good work quick. This comes at a time when people who can do deep work are fewer and fewer. As Nicholas Carr shows in The Shallows, the increasingly distracted world we live in means that many people’s brains are permanently altered so as to render them incapable of extended periods of focus and concentration.
It should be said that while deep work is one way to greatly increase your probability of making money, there ways to do it without deep work. For example, having capital to begin with and investing it or there are some forms of management where deep work isn’t as much of a requirement. In most other fields though, the ability to work deeply is increasingly rare and increasingly necessary.
We also crave meaning. For a long time, meaning was found principally in the domain of religion, usually state run, or in the government of the state you happened to have been born into. This is argued in the book All Things Shining by Harvard philosophy chair Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. This is another book that I’ve added to my queue, so I won’t take on the argument directly, but rather quote from Deep Work to make the point. Here’s how Newport describes the loss of religious or state imbued meaning:
From Descartes’s skepticism came the radical belief that the individual seeking certainty trumped a God or king bestowing truth. The resulting Enlightenment, of course, led to the concept of human rights and freed many from oppression. But as Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the metaphysical this thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life,” Dreyfus and Kelly worry; “it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.”
Then on how deep work can restore meaning. This is a long quote, but worth it:
Craftsmanship, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in their book’s conclusion, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner. To illustrate this claim, they use as an organizing example an account of a master wheelwright—the now lost profession of shaping wooden wagon wheels. “Because each piece of wood is distinct, it has its own personality,” they write after a passage describing the details of the wheelwright’s craft. “The woodworker has an intimate relationship with the wood he works. Its subtle virtues call out to be cultivated and cared for.” In this appreciation for the “subtle virtues” of his medium, they note, the craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not; this value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform.
As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning. At the same time, this meaning seems safer than the sources cited in previous eras. The wheelwright, the authors imply, cannot easily use the inherent quality of a piece of pine to justify a despotic monarchy.
If you’re not fully convinced, it’s perfectly understandable. The argument is further developed in the book and you, like I plan to, should probably also read All Things Shining. If Carr, Dreyfus, and Kelly have any chance of being right, this is very much worth exploring as it contributes answers to one of the most pressing concerns for those fortunate enough to be in a position to choose the direction of their career.
After explaining how to find happiness, wealth, and meaning, we’re still only at the halfway point of the book. Let me just pause here to emphasize how impressive this is. Most non-fiction books have a couple main points that they beat on for a few chapters with long, questionably necessary, examples. Deep Work is not one of those books. Newport is capable of integrating disparate ideas into a very compelling way. Every paragraph contributes.
The second half of the book successfully transitions from philosophy to action. Newport talks about barriers to working deeply. For example, our tendency to do things that are the easiest in the moment or that will give us the appearance of working. He gives strategies for avoiding this type of behavior by focusing on measurable, metric based work, and on work that has longer term benefits while not necessarily causing us to appear busy.
He gives tips for training our attention spans and short term memories. He discusses the detriments of social media. Different strategies are discussed for carving out time to dive deep into your work depending on the type of job you have and what your family situation is. Methods for measuring progress and holding yourself accountable are discussed. Overall, it’s a very practical guide to changing your life to get the benefits mentioned above.
Deep Work is well written, well researched and essential for anyone who gets the feeling that they might not be getting everything they could from their career. ...more
Just to be clear, this is not a book of self-help. If anything, it's a memento mori. Read it, be depressed about your imminent demise, then go out intJust to be clear, this is not a book of self-help. If anything, it's a memento mori. Read it, be depressed about your imminent demise, then go out into the world and do something positive about it....more
Part I - The Inspiring Part While I have mixed opinions of many of the ideas in The Inevitable, this particular paragraph stuck out as insightful and,Part I - The Inspiring Part While I have mixed opinions of many of the ideas in The Inevitable, this particular paragraph stuck out as insightful and, for anyone interested in building products, potentially inspirational for some good ideas.
"Three generations ago, many a tinkerer struck it rich by taking a tool and making an electric version. Take a manual pump; electrify it. Find a hand-wringer washer; electrify it. The entrepreneurs didn't need to generate the electricity; they bought it from the grid and used it to automate the previously manual. Now everything that we formerly electrified we will “cognify.“ There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or more valuable by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. Find something that can be made better by adding online smartness to it."
Thinking about this at a surface level is pretty exciting. Kelly also talks about how the general feeling in Silicon Valley in the 90’s was that the gold rush had passed and that everything good had already been done. He believes that we’re again in a lull where it may feel like everything has been done but that in fact we are on the cusp of another flowering of ideas and technology.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as he makes it sound. The way he talks about AI as if it were a simple commodity glosses over a lot of really big problems that aren't going to go away easily. Yes, you can rent a lot of powerful machines from Amazon or Google and install TensorFlow on them, but for any AI to work well, you need a LOT of data to train a model. Gathering data specific to a problem, normalizing it and using it in a way that gives results that are good more than 50% of the time for any given problem is very hard. If it was easy, every bit of software we use today would already have AI.
That said, the idea is exciting. A lot of problems that seemed "solved" are now ripe for the taking. If Kelly is right, and I think he is, there will be a lot of people who are either going to have to learn to incorporate AI into their products or watch helplessly as they are disrupted by smaller competitors who have products that are less feature-rich but seem almost magical in comparison.
What if your todo list could tell you what you're forgetting to add to the list based on your other tasks? What if your shopping list could suggest recipes based on your list or ingredients that would go well with what you're buying? Maybe it could even suggest your whole shopping list after it learned what you usually buy and how often you buy it.
Those are maybe the two simplest examples of how adding some IQ to an existing software could drastically change it. Niche market products and software that runs internet of things hardware are already evolving to incorporate AI in surprising ways. Kelly explores some of these in his book but the best ideas are yet to come. The more I think about it, the more exciting it is.
Part II - A General Review of the Book
I felt uncomfortable for large portions of the book. Kelly is, to no one’s surprise, an unabashed technologist. Even thought the title of the book is “Inevitable,” I get the clear impression that he’s not writing about what will happen as much as about what he hopes to happen. In his ideal world screens would be much more prevalent than they are now. Content would flow between them as we move between home, transportation, and work. User created content becomes more widely distributed, remixed and repurposed with micropayments flowing freely between consumers and remixers and eventually compensating original creators. Curators, some human, some AI trained by humans thrive in a world where taste and work drive the majority of humanity’s leisure time. Despite having every book ever written available in the cloud, many people move will move from consuming deeply to flitting from thing to thing to satisfy their every whim. In the physical world, ownership will wane as renting and sharing increases. This means everything from clothing to transportation to gadgets and living spaces. Everything from the food you eat to the number of breaths you take a day can and will be tracked and this information will be available to share at will to those who can process it either to provide insight or to sell you more things.
It’s quite the vision of hyper-pervasive technology in a hyper-connected world.
I appreciate Kelly’s optimism. His excitement is contagious. The problem is, and maybe this is just my resistance to the inevitable, that this all hinges on such an extreme level of consumption that it makes even today’s cell phone obsessed culture seem moderate. It comes at the expense of thoughtfulness, environmental stewardship, mindfulness and tangible, real world connection and creation.
It reminds me of the story of the islander who sits on the beach all day eating coconuts. One day he’s approached by someone who tells him he should stop being so lazy and sell the coconuts. “Why?” He asks. “So you can make some money.” “Why would I want that?” “So you can get rich and build a big house and have servants.” “Why would I want that?” “So you can sit on the beach and eat coconuts all day.”
What are we looking for in this hyper-connected utopia? If all the connectivity only leads to consumption, entertainment and away from creativity and actual human connection, it hardly seems worth it....more