My 2018 Recommendations

Many bloggers write a “Books I Read Last Year” or “Recommended Movies” post at the end of the year. Frankly, I think most people do it because other people do it and because they’re really easy to write. It’s a total cop-out for generating content.

In fact, it’s such a good cop-out that I’m going to do it, too. It’s still a nice way to review the past year and share what I did. Here are the some things that I loved from 2018.

Continue reading “My 2018 Recommendations”

Discarding Anything That Didn’t “Spark Joy”: 8 Months Later

I’m in a book club called “Big Yak Mountain,” and we don’t read anything in particular. We’re 43 books in, and have read books from Ready Player One, which is going to be a Spielberg movie soon, to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which is definitely not coming to theaters near you. Some are thought-provoking. Others are mindless. Many books would never appear on my bucket list but ended up being fantastic reads. One of those books was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Despite the long-winded title, the book itself was surprisingly short, and it did in fact help us tidy up.

Continue reading “Discarding Anything That Didn’t “Spark Joy”: 8 Months Later”

Why I’m Not Sentimental About Books

I discovered over the past month that many bloggers write an annual “Books I Read Last Year” post. Anecdotally, this might in fact be the only post that many bloggers write for the entire year. Although I will tease them for not writing more often, I can’t make fun of them for their reading habit because they read a lot of books. Having struggled to find time to read myself, I’m quite impressed by it. Continue reading “Why I’m Not Sentimental About Books”

My Favorite Things (with Evidence)

People love to share their favorite things. They write gift guides. They sing songs about them. They form committees to publish lists. They will bore you endlessly at parties. However, most of that is just talk. To really know what someone’s favorite things are, they need to put their money where their mouth is: what things did they actually spend money on? Continue reading “My Favorite Things (with Evidence)”

My Life on a News Diet

Like many liberals, the last presidential election really forced me to think about my own role as an American citizen. In the month or two afterwards, I ended up writing a list of over 50 things that I could do to make this a better country. Of that, I ended up actually doing somewhere around 10 or 15 of them. I’m more engaged with my community in various groups and have met and engaged with people more different from myself. Julie and I have regular donations to community organizations that we think are providing valuable services. Of those changes, I am proud of most of them. However, one that really backfired was trying to become more informed. Continue reading “My Life on a News Diet”

My Magazine Reading Paradox

Under my desk right now, I have a stack of about 52 unread magazines, and when I say “about”, I mean I just crawled under my desk, did a shoddy job of counting, and am not confident enough to give an exact number. But there are 52 of them.

I finished the September 2014 edition of “Discover” magazine and thoroughly enjoyed it. The “upcoming science events” section in the back felt dated, but the rest was interesting, including a story about reconstructing soldiers’ faces and a story about a medical tech lab using everyday items. As my backlog would indicate, I’m not very diligent about reading magazines, but I really enjoy them. My stack is a mix of “Discover”, “Wired”, “Popular Science”, “Stanford Magazine”, and a few “Makes” as well.

I have a hard time reconciling that fact with related feelings about magazines. For one, I generally dislike owning physical books and find them a burden to carry around or even own as they take space on my bookshelf. I only really like having physical copies of books that I really enjoy.

Also, I like completing things and checking them off my list. Books are big, discrete volumes that I look back at a sense of accomplishment having read this or that. Periodicals are, well, periodic, and one can never really be done reading them until they go out of business.

And most apparently, there’s a lot of stuff in magazines that I’m not really that interested in. On the internet, I will browse my reddit front page and click on a few links. On the rare occasion I have physical newspapers, I skim a lot of headlines. Magazines are also an amalgamation of topics that I would seem to skip as well, but I actually read them cover-to-cover and enjoy them thoroughly for it.

I’m not sure what the difference is with a magazine, but somehow, they are the cheese with my broccoli. I enjoy magazines because I’m willing to read all of the stories I would never select myself but often open my mind to new ideas and learn about totally different topics. They are my touch point with basic sciences, inventions in consumer electronics, and innovations in every discipline of engineering I never encountered. When I started college, I was excited about taking only computer science and psychology courses. Now, I find batteries and social dynamics just as interesting and wish I had gotten more breadth in my education.

Today, there’s a lot of concern about internet “filter bubbles” created by algorithms that feed you only information that reinforces your existing ideology. We also talk about the “echo chamber” of cable news where media outlets reinforce and amplify the same message through exclusive exposure. Selectivity in our media is very comfortable: I myself am a very picky redditor.

It feels like our media and communities have fragmented so much, but I wonder how big the gap really is. I think most people are curious. Although it takes some small amount of willpower to get there, we also enjoy the mental exercise of engaging with those ideas. Political polarization isn’t new, but types of media are, and I wonder whether we all just need to find our “magazines.”

These days, most magazines have an online presence as well with all of their print content replicated. I don’t think of myself as a nostalgic person. I honestly really can’t relate to people who enjoy the physicality of flipping through the pages of a book. Even so, there’s something really “right” about magazines that I uncomfortably can’t explain.

But I’ll still enjoy the heck out of them.

Also, if anyone in the bay area wants back issues of magazines, let me know. I have a stack of read magazines under my desk that I want to get rid of but just value too much to throw away.

Storytelling in multiple media

I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.

My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.

Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.

Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.

I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.

Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.

Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.

There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.

But that is a story for my next post.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” Review (prefaced with ranting)

I have had a painful move out of psychology. Since I did research while I was still in school, I considered myself reasonably critical of experiments, basically fluent in psychological phenomenon, and quite up-to-date on recent findings. After I left school, I tried to keep in touch primarily through science writing, which I have actually found quite disappointing.

I’m generally disappointed by science reporting, and it’s entirely my own fault. Writers do report on recent findings, but I am rarely satisfied reading their accounts. I wonder how accurate their reporting is and whether they truly understood the paper. Even if they understood it and report it honestly, I wonder whether they have delivered a complete report of the paper. And even if they got all of that right, I wonder whether it’s properly contextualized in the body of knowledge and what else I’m missing. Of course, none of this is the fault of the journalist: they write for a wider audience, and they might actually have done everything correctly. It’s my problem that I don’t trust 3rd party reports. I would only feel comfortable having read the original paper and done the background myself, and I’m clearly unwilling to do that, or else I would still be in academia.

The other popular psychology writing comes in longer books or pieces from writers like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer and programs like Radio Lab. For awhile, I let these carry me, but the revelation that Lehrer self-plagiarized and fabricated quotes (see wikipedia’s references) made me re-evaluate this entire process, and I ended up being turned off by all of that as well. All of my above concerns are actually amplified here. The difference is that these pieces typically tell a “story” about what’s going on. A book or radio piece needs a compelling theme, and to do that, the writers pick and choose their science to fit their narrative, which can be quite misleading. Examples off the top of my head are Lehrer reporting on only 1 result from a paper and Radio Lab reporting on unfinished work.

So what’s left is science writing by actual scientists, and thankfully, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a Nobel Award-winning psychologist whose work in heuristics and biases is taught in  Psychology 101 classes. In this book, he shares key findings in his research areas over his career. He starts out by describing the 2 systems of thinking, the “fast” (automatic) and “slow” (deliberate) from the title. From there, he continues into how our automatic processing compels us towards statistically incorrect and inconsistent decision-making.

Beyond his credentials, Kahneman presents the material in what I believe is a compelling, accessible, and most importantly, honest manner. The 2 systems of thinking are the theme to this book, but he uses them out of necessity and accessibility, not artificial unity, which he is careful to point out. He presents studies individually and offers some of the alternative explanations for the phenomenon. Although other writers may take broad themes from these results, he understands and limits his conclusions and lessons to the scope of the study.

Even better, Kahneman raises meaningful and thoughtful questions. Instead of leaving the reader with a sense of awe for the science and some vague speculation, Kahneman finds the actual limits of the science and discusses the impact of it on daily life to public policy.

The catch of the book is that it is quite long at almost 500 pages, and it can get quite dense. Despite that, Kahneman avoids the pedantic writing of true academia and mixes in real life lessons for the reader and uses anecdotes to enliven (but not prove) his points. If his Nobel Prize didn’t do it, his writing this book should convince you of how seriously and deeply he has thought about his research and its broad consequences for the rest of us. If you’re human, it’s worth the read.

Discussion Questions for “Alone Together”

For November, my book club* read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. In it, Turkle, a professor at MIT, investigates how our relationship with technology has developed. In part 1, she writes about robots, from tamagotchis and furbies to robots for elderly care, and how we interact with and feel about them. In part 2, she writes about how Facebook, texting, and online communities have changed our relationships with each other.

Since it can be heavy reading, we focused primarily on the second half of the book. In all, we were pretty neutral about the book. Although she had many good points, some of her examples seemed somewhat extreme, and we also felt that there was a lot of bias. I think we spent most of the discussion disagreeing with her, but she brings up some very interesting topics for discussion. Below are the discussion questions we worked from, which I think are interesting enough even having not read the book. I have, however, added a bit more context for it.

  1. Turkle writes about how we develop an online self  that is independent of our real life self. What do you think of that?
    1. Pete spends significant about of time on Second Life talking Jade, a sort of second wife. He notes that it’s easier to talk to Jade about some issues than his real wife because he doesn’t have to be concerned with Jade worrying about him like his wife would. Thoughts? What is it about the medium that makes this work?
    2. Adolescents seem worry a lot about their Facebook profiles and the sort of person that it portrays. This includes the obvious things such as profile pictures, but also minor things such as the order of artists in “favorite music”. Have you cared so much about your online presentation?
  2. Turkle suggests that thee digital world can’t offer the same opportunities for relationships that real life can.
    1. Is this a problem? Is there a place for this type of relationship?
    2. How does this work for adolescents or others who aren’t fully capable of developing relationships?
  3. We love multitasking because it makes us feel productive. We love technology because it allows us to be on-call at all times to respond to things. Neither of these, however, are working well for us. Multitasking makes us less efficient at all of the things we’re working on , and being more able to quickly deal with problems leads to more stress
    1. Are you okay with this change?
    2. What is it about this method of working that appeals so strongly to us?
    3. If you think it’s bad, how do we reverse this trend?
  4. Time is a big theme. Technology leads us to expect faster responses to each other. Technology also makes us expect things to develop quickly, whereas many things in real life (relationships in particular) happen incrementally over a long time.
    1. Adolescents today are growing up like this. How do you see this affecting us in the future?
    2. How have you expectations changed about response times with technology?
  5. Being disrupted sounds bad, but really, we love it. We check our email and Facebook obsessively for updates. We love the ping of push notifications like texts and emails, and it’s all instant gratification
    1. It may seem intrinsic to the technology, but products are designed to get us addicted to using it. Do ou think this is good?
    2. How does this change our reward system?
  6. The phone call is dying. These days, we don’t use the phone as much because we’re often not up to the demands of it. Many adolescents love the fact that texts can be carefully constructed, whereas phone calls
  7. because we can’t meet the demands of it. There’s a lot of talk about being able to control things better when it’s done via text, where you can edit your message exactly as you like.
    1. How important is it to you to be able to control the message you present when talking to others?
    2. Do you see phone calls as a lot of pressure?
    3. Is texting more or less efficient than talking?
  8. Another benefit to texting is that it’s asynchronous. Suddenly, we see phone calls as a possible inconvenience to others as we demand their attention immediately, and maybe they’re busy
    1. Before, we mentioned that we like being disrupted, though. How do we resolve this?
    2. Since when did we get so sensitive about bothering others?
  9. PostSecret and communities. The internet is supposed to be our liberation as free flow of information allows us to develop the exact communities that really fit us.
    1. Are these communities good substitutes for what we have in reality?
    2. Turkle seems to believe that these aren’t real communities in that you can run from the bad stuff. Is she right?
    3. What about authenticity in these? Is it okay that a good portion of PostSecret is fake? Or FML?
  10. Technology is supposed to make us feel better. We’re constantly connected so if bad things happen, we have a safety blanket. It also, however, makes us anxious as we’re tied to it
    1. Is this inherent in the design of these things?

Not All Book Collections Are Made Equal

(If you think this entry might be boring, you can instead check out my review of the new Ike’s Place on Stanford campus at TUSB)

You might find many reasons to be in Portland, Oregon, but all friends, family, websites, travel books, and random strangers will recommend you go to Powell’s Books. Add blogs to that list because I’m telling you to go to Powell’s Books. Powell’s is like most independent bookstores you’ll go to: friendly, passionate employees, great deals on used books, local-specific sections, and an odd array of hard-to-find and esoteric books. Maybe about all that does make it special is that it’s big. City-block big.

I knew the recommendations were right when I saw the markings for multiple floors. Instead of a nook for general science, a whole range was dedicated to cognitive psychology. Although most sections couldn’t be investigated in the hour or two I had allocated, I did pay attention to the “food writing” and “history of food” section. My recent obsession with food and food writing drew me to “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.” It’s been so long since I have read regular literature, and I gobbled through it before I had even left town.

As regular readers know, I have been trying to pare down my worldly possessions, and acquiring books doesn’t fit well with that, especially of the throw-away variety as I treat most regular literature. I agonized quite a bit about this particular book but was suckered by the glitz of the country’s largest bookstore to buy something. In fact, I knew I probably wanted to get rid of the book as soon as I had finished reading it, probably by dumping it off on an unsuspecting friend who wouldn’t know the deadweight they would soon be responsible for. Wouldn’t that be amazing: a place to peruse interesting books, find exciting reads, get a book for long enough to read, then get rid of it for someone else to read? Please join me in lamenting how rare these places are.

You might be thinking I’m an idiot right now, but I can’t even begin to explain how different my attitude toward bookstores is from my attitude toward libraries. I love bookstores. When I’m walking around touristy commercial areas, I’m always on the look-out for one of 3 things: candy shops, toy stores, and bookstores. Every trip to a bookstore is a chance to discover all the knowledge and fun I don’t bother to make time for. I can see what’s new and exciting laid out as I step through the front door. And I know I want to make my way back to the general science or psychology and check out things there. I can easily find the bestsellers and sexiest reads without needing to troll through too much trash. Victory.

I haven’t been excited about libraries in a long time. Frankly, they’re hard to use. For me. And I think I understand the call number system and general library organization better than most people. Being on a college campus, I have been less than 5 minutes away from a bike at almost all times, and never have I been excited to find a book to read at Green Library. It’s scary. I don’t want to have to walk through stacks to find the books. I don’t know what DR books are in the Library of Congress call number system. It’s hard. I think there might be collections of good reads in one of reading rooms, but the complete silence in those is just as terrifying.

To feign a balanced judgment of the library, there are services I use. Chances are that I’m headed down to the Blockbuster-equivalent in the basement on any visit. It’s not the worst, though. If I’m in need of a break, I might drop in and pick up a copy of “Wired” or “Sports Illustrated” off of the wall of periodicals. That’s fairly inviting.

And to generalize this phenomenon, I went to the main library at Rice University the other day during a dead hour, hoping to find an interesting book or magazine to read. That was almost impossible. I entered on the main level and went over to the section with new books and periodicals. New books were a mess. There were a few shelves along one wall, organized by call number and without too much work to draw my attention to any particular books. Although I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed several of them, I scanned all of the shelves, and none of them screamed “must-read” to me. The periodicals were worse as your weekly magazines like “Time” and “US News & World Report” were also sorted into piles on ranges along with scientific and technical journals. I did not have the patience at all to look for anything good, especially trying to read the poorly printed labels on the side of the shelves. Only by finding the call number of a sports book I found in the new books section and going to the corresponding number in the periodicals did I find a copy of “Sports Illustrated” to sit down with.

I wanted to read something fun right then, and I couldn’t. In the Chapters I had visited 3 days before, I found 3 or 4 interesting books in less than a minute. At Rice, I wandered for at least 5 minutes hoping to find where I could find the presentable section and likely even longer before I got to the “Sports Illustrated.” Libraries: I want to borrow interesting books. Please make it easy for me. Sell me on your books like a bookstore will.