Books Read in 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Huari

Like Sapiens, Huari’s previous book, Homo Deus changed my perspective on reality. Homo Deus breaks down the forces shaping our future. Though the book’s close left me in a nihialistic depression, Homo Deus goes in my “must-read-if-you’re-a-human” category.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Geoffrey Miller

Reading Spent is like taking the red pill and awakening to our consumer society as it really is. Miller looks at consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology. He argues that purchases are driven by status seeking, social signaling, and sexual solicitation. While the book needs more judicious editing, it’s a must-read for marketers.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

There’s some great questions in this book. Here’s my thoughts on a few of them:

“What are the big companies of the future that don’t exist yet?”

Obviously, augmented reality will be a big player. Instead of looking at screens, we’ll have digital elements incorporated into our line of sight. Here’s a creative imagining on what a world with AR could be like:
I predict another large company of the future will be an AI service that helps you make life decisions. The AI-powered service would monitor your vitals as you respond to situations around you. It would then compare your data to the data from lifetimes of other users, and use that data to help you make deicions that optimize your happiness.

For example, I might think that taking a well-paying job in a big city is the right life choice. The AI might disagree, telling me that people like me who make that choice have a 20% higher risk of heart disease. Moreover, the service would remind me that there’s a 65% chance my commute would be longer than 40 minutes. It knows from its history of monitoring my vitals that a lengthy commute elevates my blood pressure. The service predicts I’ll be at least 4% happier and have 16% fewer medical bills in a small town.

While this type of service may sound like science fiction, I’m already dependent on Spotify to predict my next favorite songs. Spotify pays attention to every track I play, knows which music I’ve never heard, and delivers me a custom playlist every week. On average I like 30% of its recommendations, a better win rate than friends’ recommendations.

Zero to One also asks:

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I would say, “Buying X won’t make you happy.” While many people would agree with me on this one, few agree with it in action. Myself included.

One of my favorite passages in Zero to One:

If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will—if all of today’s conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done — then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.

Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster by Alistair Croll and Benjamin

This book lays the groundwork for a deep comprehension of business analytics. Dense and helpful, I highlighted every other paragraph.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

This book manages to live up to its hype. Captivated, I devoured it in two days and felt I had lived Noah’s childhood myself. Go with the audiobook version to savor Noah’s knack for accents.

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

This is a rare gem in the self-help world because it manages to be humble, funny, and… actually helpful. Throughout the book I kept thinking, “Huh. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

Adams argues that you should create systems instead of goals. I used to try to build habits by doing sprints. E.g., “Meditate every day for thirty minutes for 30 days.” I would succeed, but the behavior wouldn’t stick around. Building a ‘forever system’ in your life is more effective, albeit a slower process.

Adams doesn’t think failing matters as long as you fail forward–that is, you create knowledge and contacts from each failure. He thinks as long as you keep trying and learning, you’re bound to find success someday. It worked for him, will it work for everyone?

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Average is Over is a fascinating read on where technology is taking jobs and the economy. Cowen uses computer-aided chess tournaments to extrapolate how humans will work with intelligent machines.

What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney

Someone finally explains why animals have no trouble in the cold, but I freak out the minute the temperature drops below 67. It turns out that animals have brown fat that they burn to keep warm. We too could develop and use this fat, if only we stopped confining ourselves to temperature-controlled boxes. Carney, like Wim Hoff, proposes we have the power to condition ourselves to embrace the elements. As someone who’s dabbled in Hoff’s methods, I appreciated getting a deeper understanding of the science behind them. I closed the book enamored by the cold, but it may take a few more reads before I can keep my hands off the thermostat.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

An entertaining book about where technology is going. Having adored Wired as a kid, I felt waves of nostalgia as Kelly described the evolution of the internet in the same excited tone as early Wired issues. I loved Kelly’s description of a future city where you basically own nothing — every gadget is provided on-demand through a seamless network. While I’m more concerned about AI’s problems than Kelly, I enjoyed the dose of optimism.

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

Lots of good ideas for productivity experimentation in here. My favorites:

  • Keep track of your productivity. As with everything, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  • Use caffeine strategically. Use it only when you want your brain at full capacity, not as a daily routine that your brain will normalize.
  • Write down each distraction as it arises and then ignore it.

Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields

Minimalism is scraping away the excess to live what is truly important to you. This is a good book to get started on minimalism, though reading a few minimalism blogs would suffice.

Lying by Sam Harris

Thought-provoking read that questions the harmlessness of white lies. Lies separate the liar from those around him.

Mini Habits by Stephen Guise

The premise of Mini Habits is that you do one super-easy thing every day to build lasting change. Guise argues that if you make your habit super easy and do it every day, you overcome your resistance and a major habit builds. It sounds good in theory, but so far my attempt at using mini habits has not yielded success.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts by Marshall Goldsmith

I wasn’t impressed with this book, but I liked the idea of doing daily ratings for values every evening. Such as, “Did I treat everyone with kindness today?” and then rate that from a 1-10. Or, “Did I make the best choices for my health today?” or “Did I make the wisest decisions for how to invest my time today?” You can set up this type of daily review and scoring system with the HabitBull app.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko

The Millionaire Next Door presents the findings from studies of America’s multi-millionaires. The authors found that the millionaires who keep their money are those who forego the status symbols of wealth. After all, expensive status symbols drain finances. “I am not my car,” says one millionaire studied, reflecting the sentiment of the many millionaires who drive regular trucks and sedans. While many of the millionaires studied made their fortunes from being in profitable industries (e.g., attorney, doctor), many simply scrimped and saved their way to financial independence.

This book made me reflect on my material desires and see if they originated from a desire to appear a certain way. For example, will people think less of me if I never update my wardrobe? Or will I get the societal belonging I crave if I focus that energy on helping others?

Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf

In Wired to Eat, Wolf recommends a paleo diet with the addition of select carbohydates. Wolf provides evidence that everyone processes carbohydrates differently. Thus he recommends that you test your own body with different carbohydrates to see which work best with your body. This idea made sense to me. Why are there so many conflicting opinions about what to eat? Perhaps because everyone’s body reacts to food differently.

The Complete Guide to Fasting by by Jimmy Moore and Dr. Jason Fung

Good overview on fasting. If you are already convinced of fasting’s health benefits, skip it unless you want more information.

Your Money or Your Life

Robin looks at money through the eyes of life energy. It takes you X number of hours to afford Y. Using this perspective, you get a better sense of the value of your money.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Women have difficulty negotiating in a society where both women and men expect women to be “nice.”

IF WE CLOSED THE GENDER PAY GAP… the average Hispanic woman would earn $1,000,000 more over the course of her career. – LeanIn.org

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes

Fascinating book on the history and ramifications of sugar. So many things I didn’t know, such as how the British Empire was built on the sugar, coffee, tea, and cacao trade. “Sugar is a drug to make the suffering of every day bearable.”

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Light, artful read with a strong message. To live a good story and have a consequential life, you have to go beyond comfort and seek a meaningful challenge filled with risk and obstacles. You can also choose to solve problems by choosing a different story. A family became concerned that their daughter was dating a troublemaker. They realized that she was doing that because she didn’t have any better story to live than the story he brought to her life. So the dad decided that they were, as a family, going to build an orphanage. This meant a lot of work and sacrifice in everyone’s lives, but the family became engaged with the meaning it provided in their lives. The girl lost interest in the guy.

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic by Esther Perel

To keep the spark alive in long-term relationships, introduce mystery. For most couples, this means spending more time apart. I’ve found Perel’s well-produced podcast similarly entertaining and thought-provoking.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

This was a perfect book for me as I tried to figure out where to travel and where to call home. Weiner chronicles his thoughts on what makes places and cultures happy, such as Icelanders’ freedom to reinvent their career without society’s disapproval.

Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang

A fun read on one man’s experiments with rejection. Jing argues that our fear of rejection stems from an evolutionary reliance on staying included in a tribe. Now that being rejected by someone has little impact on our survival, our fear of being rejected causes more harm than good. I loved how Jiang opened his life to adventure and connection by asking unusual questions.

The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Cute parable on achieving success through a giving mindset. I have experienced this principle in my life. I’ve been successful when I aimed to do my best to help others succeed. When I didn’t worry about compensation; when I didn’t try to keep score.

Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy

It’s a good book. But instead of reading it, consider meditating on your impending death.

The Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams

A little gem of a copywriting book.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Why X would go viral: people look good by sharing X, a routine event prompts people to share about X, there’s emotion involved in sharing X, people can be helpful by sharing X, there’s a good story behind X.

The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy

What you do today matters because it adds onto what you did yesterday and builds the foundation for what you do tomorrow. Make it count.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

I’ve savored this one slowly and picked it up in hard times. Chodron’s writing is a gift.

What your prospect is thinking while reading your advertisement

I picked up “The Wizard of Ads” by Roy H. Williams at Ryan Deiss’s recommendation, and I was delighted to find several marketing truisms eloquently portrayed.

Here Williams intersperses average ad copy with a prospect’s thoughts.

For more than fifty years, hundreds of families have trusted their insurance needs to the caring professionals at Parkins and Maddock

(Why?)

because competitive pricing is a Parkins and Maddock specialty

(“Competitive?” Doesn’t that mean “about the same price as everyone else”?)

and they are known for their fast, fair, and friendly service.

(Yeah, until you have a claim.)

So when you need auto, home, healthy, life, or any other type of insurance

(I just love talking about insurance.)

find out how much Parkins and Maddock can save you by calling them

(Is that softball game tonight or tomorrow night?)

at 862-3791.

(I think I’ll stop and get a Coke.)

That number again is 862-3791.

(And maybe some fries. I love french fries.)

Parkins and Maddock is open weekdays till seven for your convenience

(I think that game is tomorrow night.)

and until four on Saturdays, but closed on Sundays.

(But I’d better call and check on it.)

Find out for yourself why hundreds of families

(Should I take a burger home for Bobby?)

trust Parkins and Maddock, year after year.

(Yeah, a burger with cheese.)

Call Parkins and Maddock today at 862-3791.

(I’ll get myself one, too.)

You’ll be glad you did.

Granted, advertising looks a bit different in a Facebook ads world. But the principle is the same: in a world where attention is the scarcest resource, say something worth paying attention to.

Write as if your prospect is thinking, “Why should I pay attention? What’s in it for me? Why should I trust you? Why should I take action?”

Write while imagining your prospect with their phone dinging, their TV blaring, their child yelling from down the hall, their stomach grumbling.

Why You Need Ratio KPIs

“Ratios are easier to act on. Think about driving a car. Distance traveled is informational. But speed – distance per hour – is something you can act on, because it tells you about your current state, and whether you need to go faster or slower to get to your destination on time. Ratios are inherently comparative. If you compare a daily metric to the same metric over a month, you’ll see whether you’re looking at a sudden spike or a long-term trend. In a car, speed is one metric, but speed right now over average speed this hour shows you a lot about whether you’re accelerating or slowing down.”

– Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, Lean Analytics

Reflections on Effective Altruism 2017 San Franciso

I heard about the Effective Altruism organization through a blog post on Giving What We Can. Here’s how EA explains their aim:

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

Here’s an example of the effective altruism concept (from this excellent article):

Most donors say they want to “help people”. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of 550,000 pounds to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that 550,000 pounds to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Interesting, right? I didn’t know a ton about the Effective Altruism community or ideas, so going to EA Global 2017 was a perfect crash course.

I was surprised by how much the conference focused on the dangers of AI. It makes sense — AI could very well be disastrous for humanity — but I thought that global warming would still be a focus. At least in the sessions I attended, it wasn’t. The only mention of global warming was from the numerous vegan groups at the conference, citing that a primary cause of global warming is meat consumption.

Speaking of the vegan groups, one of the highlights from the conference was learning about The Good Food Institute, an organization whose perspective is that educating the public about the immeasurable suffering in factory farms will not be effective enough to change people’s consumption patterns. The true solution to this truly horrific problem is to change the food supply itself. Their aim is to make lab-grown meat and other meat alternatives so much cheaper and palatable that those sources will simply replace meat in the food supply. I thought this was a genius and very promising approach.

I summoned my courage and tried iAnimal, a virtual reality experience of factory farming. While I have been aware of the horrors of factory farming (and even small animal farms), it was a very different experience to witness it in VR. VR has a quality of feeling more real than reality, and the experience had a way of sticking in my body and mind for weeks. It was effective. While I try to choose animal products from farms I think will be treated better, I have found myself just opting for vegan options instead. Why risk being the cause of any animal suffering, ever?

At the conference, I was introduced to the concept of QALYs. A QALY, defined as a year lived in perfect health, is a unit of measurement used to gauge the impact of disease or death prevention. One amazing EAer had created a board game where you had to work with the other players to earn thousands of human and animal QALYs. Each round, players would earn money based on their economic position and have the opportunity to donate toward the goal of accumulating QALYs. Donate to the Against Malaria Foundation and you’ll save people from malaria and rack up QALYs quickly. Donate to Make a Wish Foundation and you won’t help much at all.

My favorite part of the conference was meeting people and asking them questions. Everyone was super smart, kind, and happy to talk about any number of interesting topics they had spent years researching. It was easy to feel intimidated by these people with stacks of research papers to their name, so I was relieved when Will MacAskill said that marketing is one of the needed career paths for the movement. Phew, there’s a need for a plebian like myself. Despite my insecurities, everyone was incredibly open and willing to connect. I felt like I had finally found a community I felt inspired and positively challenged by.

For a much more thorough and informed review of the conference, please see Scott Alexander’s excellent blog post on it. (Thanks for the link, Justin.)

“It costs less than $1 a day!”

I’m sure you know the classic “pennies-a-day” effect: “it costs less than $1 a day!”. NPR stations ask people to donate by joining their dollar-a-day club. Framed in that manner, the donation seems quite reasonable—about the cost of a cup of coffee. Contrast that with what would happen if they asked people to join their “$365 a year” club.

– from Peep Laja’s excellent blog post