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2021 in Books

As promised and previously updated here and here, I read 50 (51 actually) books in 2021.

One of the last books I read this year, and easily one of my favorites, was Ridgeline by Michael Punke, who also wrote The Revenant. It describes the fight between Capt. William Fetterman and the Sioux chief Crazy Horse at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.

Punke switches between the perspective of the settlers, soldiers, and the Sioux to great effect. I can’t stop thinking about what it’d be like on one hand, to live in a small fort surrounded by people who want to kill you, or on the other, to have your entire way of life threatened by that same group of heavily armed people in the small fort.

Other excellent historical fiction this year were Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield.

Towards the end of the year I switched to reading about oppressive states and bad leaders. That included:

The Party by Richard McGregor, a look inside the Chinese Communist Party’s inner workings.

The Fear by Peter Godwin. The most harrowing of the lot, this book is about the Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and his descent from liberator to murderous dictator.

The Man Without a Face by Massha Gessen is an excellent look at Putin’s rise to power and what makes him who he is.

Erdogan Rising by Hannah Lucinda Smith is about the rapid decline of democracy in Turkey under the populist Erdogan.

The Wires of War by Jacob Helberg. This was less about any individual leader and more about threats to America’s technological sovereignty in the face of foreign disinformation campaigns, and intellectual property theft as well as internal complacency and mismanagement of our technological future.

I recommend all of them.

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Semipalmated Plover

A juvenile plover from last September. This photo was taken on a little island that, during non-pandemic times, is accessible by a ferry and a popular picnicking spot. Last year it was mostly deserted since the ferry wasn’t running and it was only accessible by kayak.

Juvenile Semipalmated Plover
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West Coast Brown Pelicans

This year I got to see one of my favorite birds, the Brown Pelican, on both US coasts. This set is a few shots of Brown Pelicans on the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon coast.

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Nabokov shows no love for Dostoyevsky and little for Tolstoy

My three favorite Russian authors are Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov which makes these two interview questions and answers amusing:

Why do you dislike writers who go in for soul-searching and self-revelations in print? After all, do you not do it at another remove, behind a thicket of art?

If you are alluding to Dostoevski’s worst novels, then, indeed, I dislike intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigmarole. No, I do not object to soul-searching and self-revelation, but in those books the soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddled search.

Great writers have had strong political and sociological preferences or ideas. Tolstoy was one. Does the presence of such ideas in his work make you think the less of him? I go by books, not by authors. I consider Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature; it is closely followed by The Death of Ivan llyich. I detest Resurrection and The Kreuzer Sonata.

Tolstoy’s publicistic forays are unreadable. War and Peace, though a little too long, is a rollicking historical novel written for that amorphic and limp creature known as “the general reader,” and more specifically for the young. In terms of artistic structure it does not satisfy me. I derive no pleasure from its cumbersome message, from the didactic interludes, from the artificial coincidences, with cool Prince Audrey turning up to witness this or that historical moment, this or that footnote in the sources used often uncritically by the author.

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Product Management as an OODA Loop

This one’s a bit half-baked, but is it useful to think of the product management lifecycle as a Boyd-style OODA loop?

Observe: Gather data about the product and market.

  • Is the market the same today as it was yesterday?
  • What are your competitors doing? Who are the unlikely market disruptors?
  • How will regulation or oversight change your market?
  • What’s trendy?
  • What economic trends might affect what you’re building?

Orient: Planning, inventing and re-inventing, market positioning, disrupting.

  • Is the same thing you’ve always done still effective or has your doctrine become dogmatic?
  • Are the mental models you’re using (still) the optimal ones? Is it time to switch strategies?

Decide:  Gather stakeholder feedback and, based on your orientation, make a decision.

  • At some point, observing and orienting can become bikeshedding, it’s time to make a decision–the whole point of the OODA loop is to make a decision before your competitor does.

Act: Building

  • Trust the process and move fast.

Under OODA loop theory every [product manager] observes the situation, orients himself . . . decides what to do and then does it. If his opponent can do this faster, however, his own actions become outdated and disconnected to the true situation, and his opponent’s advantage increases geometrically.

John Boyd

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Future memories

Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion—and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow
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The Whole

One holds the Whole dear not out of love for the Whole; rather, it is out of love for oneself that one holds the Whole dear.

…by reflecting and concentrating on one’s self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world.

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.4

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Notes on Ikigai

A dump of my notes on the book Ikigai by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

Key takeaways:

Focus less on the perennial problems and more on the day to day:

  • Especially focus on flow in both vocational and avocational contexts.
  • Less multitasking. It interferes with flow.
  • Also focus on microflow. Create and enjoy rituals. Find small activities with intrinsic rewards and do them frequently.
  • Optimize for having less low-key continual stress, but more short bursts of intense stress doing things like exercise.
  • Don’t ask “what’s the purpose of my life?” Ask “what’s the purpose of my life right now?”

Be with people. Smile and be friendly and people will want to be with you.

Eat a large variety of food and only to 80% full. Caloric restriction can help.

Other notes:

Some of these notes are direct concepts from the book, some of them are just what I wrote down as I read.

Ikigai – The center of a Venn diagram between what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

Forget the idea of retirement. It’s escape and if you’re escaping, maybe think about how to think differently about what you do or change what you do.

Active mind, youthful body. Stress shortens longevity. Frequent low doses of cortisol constantly flowing through the body cause adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue. This opposed to our ancestors who had occasional high doses of cortisol and adrenalin in moments of actual danger which kept the body healthy.

Don’t sit all day. Find small reasons to remain active. Sleep 7-9 hours a day. Melatonin strengthens our immune system, protects against cancer promotes insulin production, slows Alzheimers, helps prevent osteoporosis and fights heart disease. Slows production after 30 years old. Balanced diet with calcium, moderate sun, sleep, avoiding stress, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine (which make it harder to sleep) can help.

Logotherapy – Viktor Frankl – “Well, in logotherapy the patient sits up straight and has to listen to things that are, on occasion, hard to hear.” (vs. in psychoanalysis: “the patient lies down on a couch and tells you things that are, on occasion, hard to say.”

The search for purpose / meaning as described by logotherapy in 5 steps:

  1. A person feels empty, frustrated, or anxious.
  2. The therapist shows him that what he is feeling is the desire to have a meaningful life.
  3. The patient discovers his life’s purpose ( at that particular point in time).
  4. Of his own free will, the patient decides to accept or reject that destiny.
  5. This new found passion for life helps him overcome obstacles and sorrows.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor Frankl

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

There’s a natural tension between what we’ve accomplished and what we’d like to achieve in the future. “What we need then is not a peaceful existence, but a challenge we can strive to meet by applying all the skills at our disposal.”

Existential crisis – trying to fill the gap between what’s expected of us and what we want for ourselves with economic power or physical pleasure, or by numbing the senses. 

Contrary to Sartre, we don’t create meaning for our lives, we discover it. This meaning can be transformed many times over the years.

Just as worry often brings about precisely the thing that was feared, excessive attention to a desire (or “hyper-intention”) can keep that desire from being fulfilled.

Seven conditions for achieving flow – Owen Schaffer

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you’re doing it
  4. Knowing where to go (where navigation is involved)
  5. Perceiving significant challenges
  6. Perceiving significant skills
  7. Being free from distractions

According to Csikszentmihalyi to focus we need:

  1. to be in a distraction-free environment
  2. to have control over what we’re doing at every moment

Some studies indicate that working on several things at once lowers our productivity by 60% and our IQ by 10 points.

“All that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and eery line, shall be instinct with life.”

Hokusai – artist of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji
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Vanitas

A list of common memento mori, literally “remember death”, short phrases to remind you that life is short & precious.

Tempus fugit – time flies.

Carpe diem – seize the day.

Dust to dust – shortened from Genesis 3:19 – “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Et in arcadia ego – the title of a 1637 painting by Nicolas Poussin. Literally “Even in Arcadia, there am I” where “I” is death.

Ubi sunt – where are they?

Where are those who were before us,
who led hounds and bore hawks,
And owned field and wood? 
The rich ladies in their chambers,
Who wore gold in their hair,
With their bright faces; ...

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may – the title of a 1909 painting by John William Waterhouse

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Sic transit gloria mundi – Thus passes worldly glory. A phrase used in papal coronation ceremonies in the 1400’s.

Memento mori – Remember death.

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Whither happiness?

For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizards’s rustling, a breath, a wink, an eye glance—little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.

Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

and similarly:

The playfulness and joy of a dog, its unconditional love and readiness to celebrate life at any moment often contrast sharply with the inner state of the dog’s owner — depressed, anxious, burdened by problems, lost in thought, not present in the only place and only time there is: Here and Now. One wonders: living with this person, how does the dog manage to remain so sane, so joyous?

Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks