Reading in place

I often find that I forever associate books I read with the place in which I read them.

Reading Principles by Ray Dalio on a flight to Tel Aviv. Poor Economics on the Northern Line in rush hour. Thunderball on a beach in Devon. Reading Barbarian Days, a surfing autobiography, while on a surf trip in Portugal (sadly my own surfing didn’t do the book justice).

I have read a few books in lockdown, which I am sure will always remind me of this time. Two stand out as reminders of that other crisis we must not forget about – with this week’s CO2 readings the highest on record:

Drawdown lays out available solutions for global warming. The most uplifting thing I have read on the topic, full of the things we can do to reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon.

Let my people go surfing, about the life of Yvon Chouinard, and the philosophy of the environmentally-minded business he built (Patagonia).

Both highly recommended, if you’re looking for something to read in isolation, or anywhere else.


I’ve been reading a bit more fiction lately (Asimov’s Foundation and A Confederacy of Dunces are the most recent). I am finding it very engaging, after a period of reading quite a lot of quite earnest non-fiction.

Two things I have have particularly enjoyed. Firstly, the lightness and humour woven through the stories I have been reading, even while dealing with quite complicated or difficult things. This contrasts with the often endless seriousness of non-fiction. An (obvious) reminder that jokes are good.

Secondly, all too often non-fiction books consist of a compelling first 60 pages, followed by 200 or so pages of reiteration and exemplification. By contrast, (good) fiction builds throughout, so the final pages turn themselves. I’m not sure if the lesson there is that non-fiction should be more confidently succinct, or that writers should hold a little more back for the end, if they can.

Either way, if you haven’t done so recently, I recommend that you pick up a novel. And if you have any fiction recommendations, I would love to hear them.

You are what you read

PG Wodehouse has always been literary comfort food to me. I read the books when I was younger, and I would say that they are some of the few that I have re-read, often in times when I have felt I needed something warm and sustaining. When recovering from illness or jet-lag or otherwise. The language is crisp and clean, almost musical, always with a wry smile. The stories themselves are predictable, yet still they catch you off guard. It is timeless, yet so very of its time.

But I am getting off topic. To return to the subject, the thing that often strikes me when I have binged on Jeeves and Wooster is how PG’s turn of phrase and sentence structure begins to crop up in my own thoughts. How I find myself mimicking his abbreviations and metaphor (artlessly I might add). Some mixture of him infecting my mind, and me commandeering his voice. It doesn’t last forever of course, but for a while I am a little more Wodehouse.

You are what you read.

I have spent some time on Twitter lately, what with all this news that keeps happening. I found myself wondering how that very different type of reading was permeating my way of thinking. Obviously Twitter as a whole doesn’t have the consistent author’s voice to clearly spot influencing one’s internal narrative. But there is maybe something of the context switching, the pithiness and irreverence, the anxious tenor, that I perhaps can increasingly identify.

Where I take pleasure in noticing a spot of Wooster, I enjoy these Twitter tics rather less, which is probably a sign.

I can only assume that other people observe a similar influence on their thinking, depending on what content they have been consuming lately*. Whose voice do you enjoy borrowing, and whose do you like less?

*Of course it might just be me.

Books the remix

Andy Matuschak put out a very interesting piece recently, “Why books don’t work“. While the title is slightly clickbait-y, the content is a substantive and thought-provoking argument that non-fiction books are not actually good tools for conveying knowledge. That the central premise of book-based learning – “people absorb knowledge by reading sentences” – is not generally true*. Instead, people depend on “metacognition” (thinking about what they are reading) to actually absorb and internalize what they have read, which is not something that comes easily. And even those books which appear explicitly designed to facilitate learning (e.g. textbooks) depend on context to actually act as useful learning tools, whether that context is a course, a classroom or a discussion group.

The prescribed antidote is fortunately not an accepting shrug, but instead that this is an opportunity to “make new forms… it is possible to design new mediums which embody specific ideas”. To improve on the book medium “so that its “grain” bends in line with how people think and learn”. Matuschak acknowledges that this is a tall order, but proffers Quantum Computing, an initial attempt with his collaborator Michael Nielsen.

Matt Clifford included the piece in his weekly Matt’s Thoughts In Between newsletter (subscribe!), with the salient observation that this is a bet on human design in the face of the evolved book medium (which is often a brave bet to make). But books are a technology that haven’t changed in millenia (even e-readers try to mimic paper as much as possible), while our means of information transmission have transformed and proliferated unimaginably. Now seems as good a time as any to reconsider this cornerstone of human knowledge. And while Matuschak’s piece says “it doesn’t even necessarily mean abandoning paper”, I do think if something replaces the medium, it will likely be dynamic and tech enabled.

With these thoughts fresh in my mind I was interested to come across Going Critical, by Kevin Simler, which weaves interactive simulations into a very interesting piece on diffusion through a network. The piece is interspersed by illustrative examples that deepen understanding of quite complex phenomena in a very intuitive way. I recommend you give it a read.

This particular approach worked very well, and was very memorable. But I think what struck me was how appropriate it was to the specific topic, but that it wouldn’t necessarily be generalisable. Which lead me to a general observation: I think that if something does replace books, it won’t be another monolithic medium, but a rich mixture of forms. Kevin shared a range of his inspirations. I look forward to seeing others’ explorations, and may even break out of the box myself.

*In a perfect and slightly ironic illustration of this phenomenon, I found myself having to revisit the original article quite a bit to remember the details, having read it a few days ago.

Habits and habitat

I got back from San Francisco on Tuesday. It was a good trip, but between the time difference and the unfamiliar surroundings, my normal routine was thrown off somewhat.

I wouldn’t say I have always thought that much about routine, but reading Principles by Ray Dalio last year gave me a renewed appreciation of the importance of habits – what he calls “the most powerful tool in your brain’s toolbox … If you do just about anything frequently enough over time, you will form a habit that will control you”.

Since then I have made a concerted effort to build certain habits, with some success. Though as Ray says in Principles, “developing this skill takes some work”. This is particularly the case when you are away from home, and while I was away last week, a few of my newer habits fell by the wayside.

I have picked them back up from the wayside now, which is good. But I am reminded of a nice turn of phrase my sister used when we talked about this a while back, resolving “to make my habits into my habitat, keeping them with me as I go”.

I didn’t quite manage to do that on this trip, but I am hopeful that next time round I will do better.

Decisions, process and results

I am always interested in what “sticks” when I read a book, what messages or lessons persist once time has passed and the details are forgotten. Call it a “book recall” rather than a “book review”. Human memory being what it is (recalled from The Invisible Gorilla), I am sure that these memories are not perfect, but I will commit to this method and not check my work (caveat emptor).

I read “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” by Annie Duke some time last year, a former poker player’s take on handling uncertainty and making decisions. Unsurprisingly, we learned that becoming more comfortable with uncertainty is good for decision-making. But the main thing which stuck with me was about assessing our past decisions. It’s all too easy to focus on the outcome of a decision, whether the end result was a good or bad one. This is obviously particularly relevant in poker, where a hand can be won or lost. But what is more important is whether the process that went into making that decision was good or bad.

Probably pretty obvious stuff. But it is so easy to myopically emphasize results, so-called “resulting”, if memory serves. In some cases, the quality of a result can be related to the quality of the process – in these cases there is no downside to resulting. But we all know that results can also be driven by things outside your control. To avoid getting inappropriately disheartened (in the case of bad luck), or hubristic (in the case of good luck), a focus on process not outcome is a useful tonic that is not always instinctive.

I am sure I have butchered Annie’s message along the way. But that is the main thing I recall, and have tried to actively bring to my life since finishing the book. Give it a read!

Rabbits in a Cairo market

I recently finished Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I don’t know why I hadn’t before, having read Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan and recently Skin in the Game.

The core focus of the book is response to shock and volatility; whether something breaks (fragile), survives (robust) or grows stronger (the previously undefined eponymous “antifragile”). The importance of this response is in the fact that shock and volatility are inevitable for almost anyone or anything, given enough time.

This central premise is then expounded with explanations and motifs.

It is classic Taleb: caustic, thought-provoking (and quite verbose). As an occasional reviewer and sometime creator of business forecasts (for my sins), it gave me pause. Though even if I wanted to be just like Fat Tony, Taleb’s apocryphal antifragile New Yorker, I fear that a full metamorphosis would be beyond me.

I have been thinking quite a lot lately about education, so I noted his observation that at the country level, elite education tended to be a product, rather than a cause, of prosperity, as one to think about.

My reading context coloured my experience. I read the latter half of the book while travelling in Egypt, in Cairo and Alexandria. These are places where history puts things into perspective, which complemented Taleb’s frequent references to “the ancients” and his distaste for Neomania. The pyramids, and so many of the buildings there, are a testament to robustness and building in redundancy. Regional history also has plenty of examples of the risks of naive intervention and iatrogenics (“harm caused by the healer”).

But one thing that stayed with me was in light of Taleb’s turkey economists, making optimistic forecasts about their future on the farm up until Thanksgiving Eve (or Christmas Eve, for our British turkey friends). At which point things suddenly take a turn for the worse. We were walking through a market, where we came across a man with an open crate full of rabbits, sat happily on a bed of green leaves, munching away. Our friend, a local, indicated that they were not being sold as pet rabbits. The rabbits weren’t tied up, and were free to hop off at any time, avoiding their impending fate, but instead they sat and ate, seemingly confident of many salad-eating days ahead. A warning to all those of us complacently happy with our lot. While I know Fat Tony-esque antifragility may not be achievable, I can at least aspire not to be one of those rabbits.