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.


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

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The pyramid

The Five Dysfunctions is a business fable, which while it sounds cheesy (and maybe it is), the story really helps the message stick. I’ve read a few books like this and I’m starting to prefer the format to any other. Humans are hardwired to enjoy stories; it feels like a natural way to learn.

There’s a lot written about this book elsewhere, so I won’t try to do a full summary, but here are a few of my takeaways:

  • A management team should establish a common goal and a shared commitment to it. Emphasis on the shared–all departments should have buy in and be committed to it. Marketing should be committed to goals that are primarily engineering oriented. Product should commit to a goal primarily focused on the support team.
  • As a manger, the team you put first is the team of your peers. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s the only way to have unity as a whole business. When management is on the same page, the big problems can be solved as a team. The the team that works for you is obviously important, but as rough as it sounds, it has to come second.
  • Have healthy conflict. Conflict shouldn’t be avoided. When it happens, if the team trusts each other enough to have intense disagreement and still not lose sight of the fact that everyone is going towards a common goal, it’s a sign that the conflict is healthy.
  • Holding people accountable is almost never comfortable, but learning to do it anyway is a requirement for a leader.

On the Loss of Tribe

In suburban America we generally interact with our neighbors only at a surface level. Most interactions are limited to waving hi as we walk by or occasionally we stop for sidewalk chats. Sometimes we visit for longer at annual block parties.

In the book Ikigai, the authors share several conversations they had with Japanese people who live in small towns and villages noted for their longevity. The interviews almost universally mention the importance of easygoing but deliberate and frequent hangouts with neighbor friends.

Similarly, Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe speaks about the comradeship he felt as a soldier and its distinct absence when he got home. He’s spent the rest of his life deliberately making life decisions that will bring that sense of community back.

Years ago I moved with my wife and son to Uruguay. There, even though we were in a suburb to the capital city Montevideo, it felt like drop-in friendships formed naturally. Having a friend spontaneously show up at your door to chat, or planning an impromptu asado with neighbors was not uncommon. As cliché as it is to say about Latin American culture, the pace of life was slower and people seemed genuinely more connected because of it. I really miss it.

It’s not that this never happens here in suburbia, but it feels like when it does, it happens in spite of our culture instead of because of it. It reminds me of A Pattern Language (pdf). The book is about the impact that patterns used in architecture and community planning have on our lives. It feels like the patterns that we’ve built most American neighborhoods around, combined with our productivity culture, whether by accident or otherwise, are completely antithetical to fostering that easygoing hangout culture.

What a loss.

A few years ago at work I had a good group of co-workers who became friends. Most mornings we’d hang out just chatting for a half hour or on some days longer. I was lucky to have one co-worker, you know who you are if you’re reading this, who was great at fostering that type of environment as well as a boss who was very tolerant. (For what it’s worth, we were also a very productive team). At the time, I didn’t think much of it but I really miss it now. Especially since Covid and Zoom have essentially erased any potential for those types of hangouts.

In Concrete Cowboy, a movie based on the book Ghetto Cowboy about urban horse culture in Detroit, there are scenes of a group of people sitting around a fire talking. The feeling, at least in the movie, was that it wasn’t at all unusual to sit around at the end of the day, as the sun went down, enjoying each other’s company. Talking about the difficulties life brought each other, and observing how the world was changing brought a sense of place. Of belonging.

Yes, it’s just a movie, but we’ve all seen this type of easygoing hangout happening and we’ve all been part of them at times. The lamentable part is how they now feel exceptional to everyday life.

Online hangouts and the cozyweb are nice and have their a place for sure.

Formal get togethers and parties are also nice and have their place as well.

Neither are substitutes for the feeling of “tribe” though.


Summary of How to Have Impossible Conversations

This is raw outline of Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s fantastic book on how to have tough conversations that potentially change minds.

Focus first on instilling doubt rather than changing beliefs.


  1. Goals – why are you having the conversation?
  2. Partnerships – be a partner, not an adversary
  3. Rapport – build the relationship
  4. Listen – talk less, listen more.
  5. Delivering messages does not work. Conversations are exchanges, not debates. Deliver a message only on explicit request.
  6. Intentions – Socrates Meno dialog. People don’t knowingly desire bad things.
  7. Walk Away. If your primary emotion is frustration, it’s time to quit. Breathe.

50 Books in 2021: Update 2

I slowed down a bit from my earlier breakneck pace and also got… shall we say distracted by lots of shiny objects–the in-progress books below the list of finished books. Despite those intermissions, I’m still relatively on track for 50 this year. I’ll likely revisit this post and add mini-reviews or link each title to a longer reviews at some point in the near future.


  1. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  2. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
  3. The Hamlet – William Faulkner
  4. The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
  5. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  6. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck 
  7. The Sunset Limited – Cormac McCarthy 
  8. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens 
  9. Conscious- Annaka Harris 
  10. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
  11. Extraterrestrial – Avi Loeb
  12. The Evolution of Desire – Cynthia L. Haven
  13. Never Enough – Judith Grisel
  14. Unmasked – Andy Ngo
  15. La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert – Joel Dicker (the first and only book I’ve read entirely in French)
  16. The Revolt of the Public – Martin Guri
  17. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
  18. Gun, With Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem 
  19. Klara and the Sun – Ishiguro Kazuo
  20. Live Not By Lies – Robert Dreher
  21. The Virtues of War -Steven Pressfield
  22. All About Love – bell hooks 
  23. The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
  24. The Price of Tomorrow – Jeff Booth
  25. A Thousand Brains – Jeff Hawkins
  26. The Comfort Crisis – Michael Easter


  • An Elegant Puzzle – Will Larson
  • Postjournalism – Andrey Mir
  • Battling to the End – René Girard
  • Human Diversity – Charles Murray
  • L’Élégance du hérisson – Muriel Barbery
  • The Sovereign Individual – James Dale Davidson
  • Baltasar and Blimunda – José Saramago
  • The Courage to Be – Paul Tillich
  • Novels, Tales, Journeys – Pushkin
  • Falcoln Freeway – Christian Hagenlocher
  • War and Peace and War – Peter Turchin
  • Lila – Robert Pirsig
  • The Language of Creation – Matthieu Pageau
  • Hollow Kingdom – Kira Jane Buxton
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

How to Create a Creative Cauldron

A couple of days ago I finished the book Creativity, Inc. One section in particular stood out to me:

[Ivan] Sutherland and Dave Evans, who was chair of the university’s computer science department, were magnets for bright students with diverse interests, and they led us with a light touch. Basically, they welcomed us to the program, gave us workspace and access to computers, and then let us pursue whatever turned us on. The result was a collaborative, supportive community so inspiring that I would later seek to replicate it at Pixar.

One of my classmates, Jim Clark, would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Another, John Warnock, would co-found Adobe, known for Photoshop and the PDF file format, among other things. Still another, Alan Kay, would lead on a number of fronts, from object-oriented programming to “windowing” graphical user interfaces. In many respects, my fellow students were the most inspirational part of my university experience; this collegial, collaborative atmosphere was vital not just to my enjoyment of the program but also to the quality of the work that I did.

Reading about that group and the environment created by Sutheland and Evans made me feel a twinge of jealousy. How awesome would it be to find yourself in an environment like that? How awesome would it be to create one?


Let me check my phone.

Lately I am sick of my iPhone. It’s become a crutch to help make sure my mind is constantly occupied and to keep me constantly “doing something.” It seems that just waiting or sitting is socially awkward now, so at the first sign of nothing happening, out it comes. It’s time, once again, to apply some moderation and start using it in a more healthy way.

Here’s what I’ve been trying:

  • Disable almost all notifications. Especially email.
  • Set times of the day for checking the phone and stick to them. E.g. no social media except for between 5 and 5:30 pm and 9 to 9:30 pm (or whatever).
  • Keep a paper list of stuff to look up later. Who is the president of Azerbaijan? Why does the moon look so big tonight? Important questions, no doubt, but they can wait. Save them up, along with questions like “I wonder where Jane is, haven’t seen her in years?” and take care of the list all at once. Doodle some while you’ve got the pen out.
  • Find small, useful things to do on the phone. Sometimes, despite best intentions, the phone is going to come out. Rather than immediately going to a game, I like to have a book of short essays, that wasy I can turn on the phone, read something useful, then turn it back off. Here are a couple good books along these lines: This Will Make You Smarter – the title sounds a little pretentious but it’s really good. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Learning about what creative people do every day to keep their output high is strangely fascinating, even if you’re not an artist. Another more productive technique is to find a good Spaced Repetition (SRS) app and learn words in another language. There are tons of other useful, learning-oriented apps to help you, if you’re going to be distracting yourself, do it in a more meaningful way.

Admittedly, none of that is all that exciting, but there is some very interesting thought going on around this:

This very good podcast with Tim Ferriss (who is a lot of the inspiration for re-starting this blog) interviewing Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, and all around fascinating and wise person who, among many other things, spends time with the Quakers and has some great insights there.

This Secular Buddhist podcast with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang on The Distraction Addiction and this one with Andrew Holecek on Meditation in the iGeneration are great, and very related to the above. Pang has also written a really nice series of articles on “Mindful iPhone.”

The book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic. Another day.



Arjuna and Krishna

This morning I woke up early to try to get my meditation practice going again, and afterwards, to keep with the theme and try to keep myself motivated, I decided to read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s short, I’ve read it a couple of times before, but have never really studied it per se. I’ve found lots of parts that resonated with me, but for some reason, this morning more than ever, just the story of it really struck me as almost overwhelmingly poignant.

Here you have Arjuna, the leader of an army of men on the battle field, facing off against an army that from a human perspective looks just about like his own army.  He is in a chariot with Krishna and they ride out between the two armies, surveying the situation. Not only does he know personally many of the men in his own army, but he recognizes men from the opposition, knows them by name and knows that many of them are related to his own soldiers. It reminded me a bit of the American Civil War in that sense. Upon seeing this, he is struck with crushing sorrow at the impending loss of life of his friends on both sides.