Reading 📕

Full list can be found here.

2019

January

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t - and Can’t - Sit Still (Like, Literally) - John McWhorter

This was a great text, as many of McWhorter’s are, in highlighting that linguistic discrimination is an acceptable for of classism and ageism. McWhorter often describes language as a lava lamp and dictionaries as snapshots of the lava lamp. One of the major hiccups that gets in our way of recognizing and valuing language change for what it is is writing. He says We think of ourselves as speaking writing, rather than writing speech.” Don’t get hung up, as language is and will always be evolving.

Enough - Patrick Rhone

Felt like revisiting Patrick Rhone’s essay collections as I simplify this year. This is one of the texts that allowed me to originally begin my path of minimalism and course towards mindfulness a few years ago.

Like our center of gravity, each of us must find what is enough by swaying from less to more until a comfortable medium is found.

Minimal Mac: What We Believe In - Patrick Rhone

This is a collection of essays from Rhone’s intentionally defunct blog Minimal Mac wherein he aimed to be a unique voice amongst the sea of Apple fanboys. Rhone confesses his love for what is included in the Mac operating system especially under-utilized apps like Utilities and the powerhouse of TextEdit.

This Could Help - Patrick Rhone

Continuing my revisiting of Rhone’s writings, I had to include what is probably my favorite work of his thusfar. This essay collection is chock full of both broad and specific advice for approaching working and life with greater clarity. Rhone’s simple steps toward understanding why we do the things we do and how to become better humans are vital. I have neverending gratitude for his words.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art - Virginia Heffernan

Heffernan’s tribute to the beauty, grime, failed and achieved goals of the internet as a thing makes for an incredible book. She has opened my eyes to the hyperlexia that we all seem to suffer from. Our addiction to reading has compelled us to create and consume in ways that few could have ever predicted. I would have loved a section on personal creativity using sites like Angelfire, Geocities, and the like that were emblematic of the web that we must have both experienced. Other than that this was a really thorough text on connectivity from the early 80s to now. I have read a lot about the developmental history of tech, but never in a way that is as poetic and wise as Heffernan’s. Highly recommended.

As Michael Pollan has memorably chronicled in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, America in the age of rye surplus used to be a nation of drunks, then the overproduction of corn turned us into overeaters. I’d add that, as words have proliferated hypertrophically on the Internet, we’ve become a population of overreaders, of hyperlexics.

It’s hyperlexia that keeps people’s eyes fixed on their phones and not on nature, art, friends, mates, children, or work. And it’s hyperlexia that leads to fatalities in driving-while-texting accidents. We have become so compulsively unwilling to stop reading (Facebook, Tinder, WhatsApp) that we will risk our lives, livelihoods, and certainly marriages to keep at it.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now - Jaron Lanier

HIGHLIGHTS

Well, what better review could I give than this convincing me to delete all of my social media accounts. I think technically my Instagram is deactivated, but the rest are deleted. Lanier’s arguments along with prior reading of books like Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology by Sherry Turkle have cemented the assertion that the current implementation of social media is not worth participating in. Lanier stipulates that this does not mean social media will never be useful as his analogy of lead paint is apt:

Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until nontoxic varieties are available.

In addition to that, argument #3 states that social media is making you into an asshole,” and that is 100% accurate.


February

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism - Fumio Sasaki

While I am already fully on board with the practices of minimalism, Sasaki’s explanation of minimalism comes with several refreshing additions that Western minimalists are lacking. I could have done without the repetitive hero worship of Steve Jobs and the countless references to outside sources, but other than that this was a great collection of why and how to (with actually several unique recommendations). Sasaki takes some inspiration from Kondo, and perhaps deeper aspects of Japanese culture, in ensuring that items you have parted with do not mysteriously and haphazardly return to you. This is accomplished by expressing gratitude for the items that you are discarding, acknowledging the lessons they provided you with.

Overall, my favorite takeaway from this collection is the idea that we humans are encased in hardware that has not received a meaningful upgrade in over 50,000 years. I find this calming and marvel at how often myself and others rebel against this notion day in and day.

How Cycling Can Save the World - Peter Walker

Even with entering this book as an avid cyclist, I found myself learning and reconsidering bikes and their importance in several new ways. I have been everything from a BMX grom to a commuter to a bike activist to now a lycra-sporting roadie. Throughout my evolution, I have utilized bikes and their variety of designs for my means, but had never really thought big picture about the importance of the frame and wheels under me. Walker’s arguments for the improvements in health/fitness, transportation, economics, safety, environmental sustainability, and the lasting resulting enjoyment one gets from riding a bike are all sound. It was fascinating to read about the infrastructure that countries like Holland and Denmark have implemented into their urban planning that allow for more trips to be taken by bike. I was also challenged in reconceptualizing what compulsory helmet laws and hi-viz gear say about the culture of cycling, who it is for, and how these may act as barriers of entry. I also had to rethink the bias that many drivers would want me to believe about the roads being for cars” first and foremost. We certainly have a long way to go in bring back the bike back to the forefront in so many communities, but Walker will have you entirely convinced throughout this text. In highlighting the struggle one bike activist is facing in the Philippines to achieve the better world we all wish for, he had this to say:

I asked Yabut why his organization has the beautifully evocative name of the Firefly Brigade. His answer, for me, sums up perfectly why bikes are needed and why, in many places, they are returning in numbers not seen for decades. It came from some friends who shared the idea that the first thing that disappears from a city’s landscape because of the pollution are the fireflies,’ Yabut told me. We believe that if we can help to clean up the air, the land and water quality, then the fireflies can come back. And the vehicle, the instrument to do it, is the bicycle. It’s something that can answer so many problems. We’re just a volunteer organization, doing what we can. But we’re like the fireflies: we’re the smallest particles in the equation, but we believe that we put everything together. And then we end up as a swarm. That’s when everything starts to change.’

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

HIGHLIGHTS

Written in 1985, this text introduces the already existing pitfalls of a culture based around televised communication. The critique begins with the telegraph and the idea of news from nowhere to no one in particular” has created a culture where we are awash in irrelevant information. Since publication, it has gotten so much worse. Postman is not against television, especially junk television. He is arguing that we must grapple with the idea that everything on television is for entertainment purposes and that without addressing this, with taking television seriously we are lying to ourselves.

Considering the age of this text, published the year I was born, he did not stop his media critique at television, and I look forward to reading his later books on computers as well:

This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to television.

I am so appreciative of Postman’s insights in this book. It has me not only being more critical of media, but also considering definitions of intelligence as related to them:

Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication. In a purely oral culture, intelligence is often associated with aphoristic ingenuity, that is, the power to invent compact sayings of wide applicability. The wise Solomon, we are told in First Kings, knew three thousand proverbs. In a print culture, people with such a talent are thought to be quaint at best, more likely pompous bores. In a purely oral culture, a high value is always placed on the power to memorize, for where there are no written words, the human mind must function as a mobile library. To forget how something is to be said or done is a danger to the community and a gross form of stupidity. In a print culture, the memorization of a poem, a menu, a law or most anything else is merely charming. It is almost always functionally irrelevant and certainly not considered a sign of high intelligence.

There is so much more to highlight from Postman’s work, but I will just suggest reading it for yourself.


March

Lab Rats - Dan Lyons

I read Dan Lyons’ Disrupted last year and loved his exposing of the ridiculousness that entails working in a tech startup. Lab Rats had a much more serious tone with the emphasis on how deeply penetrating the Silicon Valley work culture, with initiatives like Agile have made approaching work in the modern era. Focus on growth over everything has made the whole endeavor’s of tech seem so foolish to me.

…they sell dollar bills for seventy-five cents and take credit for how fast they’re growing.

I am thankful that the institution I work for only approaches these practices at the very margins and is hesitant to adopt them fully. After visiting several startups and tech campuses in San Francisco this month, I am cautious about what pain may lurk behind every smile.

Technopoly - Neil Postman

HIGHLIGHTS

This book has blown my mind WIDE OPEN. I took more notes and highlights that I think any other text that I have read in the last ten years. Postman demonstrates how the most seemingly innocuous ideas behave as technologies (the concept of zero, stethoscopes, iq tests, etc.) and what this means for shaping our understanding. I feel like Postman’s work on media and cultural critique coupled with the ideas of Spiral Dynamics can make for some really compelling thought experiments. Postman was truly in his element when he wrote this:

This is why it is possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin your utterance with the words A study has shown…” or Scientists now tell us that…” More important, it is why in a Technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies, no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves. Alfred North Whitehead called such information inert,” but that metaphor is too passive. Information without regulation can be lethal.

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident - Donnie Eichar

I’ve known about the Dyatlov Pass Incident for a few years now and it has always intrigued me, but I finally got around to reading Eichar’s beautifully written book on his search for understanding this unsolved mystery. It was important to me to learn about the hikers’ skill level and lives that led them to this fateful evening spent in some of the coldest and toughest terrain on earth. I will admit that what originally sparked my curiosity was the assertion from some that snowmen or yeti could have been involved. I have always had a soft spot for sasquatch and to know that the indigenous of this are had stories and sightings going back centuries was fascinating. However, the resolution that is closer to truth than anything else is somehow even more fascinating than massive ice primates.

I don’t remember Sherlock Holmes ever mentioning what you are supposed to do when you’ve eliminated everything improbable, and nothing is left.