My Midsummer Reading List

A quick rundown of what I've been reading this summer

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The two paper books I just finished were both impulse buys from the bookstore. Apparently you don’t need an optimized algorithm to find a good read.

Messy by Tim Harford

This is the cleanest takedown of compulsive orderliness I’ve ever read. A profusion of vignettes illustrates the folly of imposing a neat order on the natural world — from German experiments in forestry to over-automation.

What Taleb tried to accomplish in Antifragile — yet got lost in braggadocio, Harford does effortlessly. The vision of imposing a neat order on the natural world is a false messiah.

I enjoyed the long sections about music. Brian Eno artificially created chaos in the recording studio; inauspicious conditions led to Keith Jarret’s greatest concert. I have a tendency to look for the best workflow, the most productive software and optimize everything. This served as a powerful reminder to back away from perfection.

Perhaps too obvious to be profound, I keep coming back to the ideas in Messy. Add spontaneity and improvisation to your life. You don’t need perfect tools. Enjoy the chaos and “imperfections” of nature.

It’s refreshing to read an author’s blog that hashes out original ideas rather than being a mere marketing pitch. The Art of Time Well Spent and Why Brilliant People Lose their Touch are worth a read.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Let’s be honest, Harari is just cashing in on the success of Sapiens with this one. Nonetheless, the book served its purpose of keeping me occupied for a few flights.

Harari is oddly optimistic about technology, which seems odd given his personal history as a gay Israeli. To view technology as liberating is highly selective. It was modern technology that allowed the Germans to kill Harari’s relatives. A techno-dystopia is perhaps more plausible than a Jetsons future. Harari avoids this uncomfortable discussion.

It’s easy to live in Tel Aviv and forget that most of humanity lives in a completely different reality. Israel is surrounded by countries that imprison, even execute homosexuals. Seeing a future dominated by liberal values instead of religious fundamentalism is a Fukuyamiam assumption without much factual basis.

The most powerful chapter in the book focused on human reason and arguments. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that most people use logic, facts and research to understand issues and make informed decisions. There’s little hope of presenting evidence to encourage people to change their minds.

This renders most political discourse moot. Our primate brains work on emotion and the logic of the savannas whence we evolved. We pretend otherwise at our own peril.

The last chapter was an exploration of Hariri’s meditation practice. I always enjoy reading out other meditators approach the discipline.

Infantile design

The Babysitters Club and the Corporate Logo Singularity hit at something that I haven’t been able to put my finger on. Corporate design and expert UX types are talking to us as if we were children. I see a future of increasingly useless devices with a bunch of peppy apps.

I already have a nice stack of books to get me through the rest of the summer!