Q3 Book Review

Since returning to work from paternity leave, I set out to read 4 books. I started 14, but only finished 8. This was an intentional strategy: I have made a promise to not finish books that don’t grab my attention quickly. Below I’ve rated each book (as well the ones I didn’t finish) and included some interesting tidbits I learned along the way.

The Good

Here are some interesting things I learned from 3 of the books I read:


The Old Way 4/5 In the 1950s, the co-founder of Raytheon took his family into the Kalahari desert to study a group of hunter gathers that are believed to have been living in that habitat in much the same way for the past 150,000 years.

  1. The society they found was largely non-violent, non-hierarchical, trusting, and resourceful. In stark contrast to other ancient societies, it is believed that the !Kung had been forced by resource scarcity into extreme egalitarianism.

  2. The !Kung used to hunt using poison-tipped arrows. Each arrow was constructed to fall apart upon impact, leaving the poisoned tip in the animal and the shaft (bearing telltale signs of the person who made it) behind. The neurotoxin poison would then slowly kill the animal over the course of the next several days. As a result, a hunt would routinely take several days and require not just skill at shooting the animal, but then tracking it for many miles across the desert. The person who’s arrow was identified as having killed the animal would have the privilege of deciding who gets to eat how much of the meat, even though several men were commonly required to track and bring the animal back to camp.

  3. On the Kalahari desert, lions are at the top of the food chain, not people. For this reason, the !Kung would hunt during the day to avoid being attacked. This would routinely involve braving heat up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit at mid-day. Despite closely co-habitating with lions and hyenas, the !Kung had very few violent altercations. The primary killers for the !Kung were infant mortality (due to sickness) and injuries involved in hunting large game.

The Rise and Fall of Nations 3/5 Ruchir Sharma presents a framework for predicting the fate of nations based upon macro and microeconomic trends.

  1. Historically, about 50% of a nation’s GDP growth can be attributed to growth in the working-age population. As a result of aging populations globally, GDP growth is expected to slow, but some nations will slow more quickly than others. The US is well-positioned with a workforce that is aging slower than contemporaries and strong immigration. Nations like France and the UK are going to have a tough time growing in large part due to greying populations.

  2. Much of China’s recent growth can be attributed to domestic monetary easing and direct capital investment. Due to dodgy numbers, it’s hard to be sure, but it seems likely that in the past several years, the state has been leveraging cheap debt to invest in speculative infrastructure with little to no productivity improvements on the horizon. For this reason, as well as China’s rapidly aging population, it seems likely that the country’s yearly growth will start to fall in the coming years.

  3. Positive press attention about national outcomes tend to be slightly negatively correlated with outcomes. Basically, if Time magazine writes about the miracle in country X, it’s more likely than not that country X’s run of good luck is coming to an end. The inverse is not necessarily true: bad press tends to signal only the beginning of a longer period of reform and reinvestment. Sharma suggests the countries that are poised to be the next miracle growth economics are not mentioned in the press at all.

How Will You Measure Your Life 3/5 This book is a thoughtful meditation on how to live a fulfilling professional and personal life. Although there are saccharine bits that are a bit over the top, and the appeals to authority are laid on pretty thick, I learned a few useful lessons:

  1. Every job has what Clayton terms “hygiene” factors (things like salary, working hours, and prestige) as well as “motivating” factors (things like mission, people, and intrinsic interest). Every person will strive for a different mixture of the two, but it’s commonly a bad sign if you find your work skewing heavily to one side or the other. Really loving your work is more than just pay, but it’s also more than just loving a particular problem space. You need balance to find long-term satisfaction.

  2. For those driven careerists, it can help to think about your important relationships as the most important job you have. Rather than taking the love and support you receive from your close friends, spouse, and family members for granted, always ben thinking “what job does my [friend/spouse/family member] need me to do?” Christensen posits, and I can anecdotally confirm, that deep life satisfaction and meaning come from sacrificing for others. Thinking about the job others need you to do gives you an opportunity to build love and trust while experiencing a deep sense of meaning.

  3. I know from firsthand experience that it’s deceptively easy to shortchange your most important relationships in favor of your job, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I could quickly articulate why: long term relationships require massive investments of time, love, and presence. Because the investment is so great, at any particular moment, it’s hard to feel as though you are making progress or doing something meaningful whereas jobs are calibrated to give you an immediate sense of progress and self-importance. Basically, our society has learned how to get highly motivated people addicted to work through complicated systems of recognition and visible progress, and we’ve done the opposite for marriages and families by normalizing divorce, estrangement, and loneliness. It takes a wise person to recognize this trend, and I’ve definitely been guilty of overlooking it.

I read 5 more books that I really enjoyed. I won’t provide detailed summaries here for brevity, but here’s the TLDR cliff notes review:

  1. The Great Leveler 4/5 This book takes the hypothesis that income inequality is only ever substantially reduced by human violence. I was so taken by this book, I’m doing more research and will post a longer blog post response later.

  2. Strangers Drowning 4/5 This is about people who sacrifice almost everything they have to help others. The author does an amazing job at deeply empathizing with her subjects and contextualizing their sacrifices. I was enthralled.

  3. How to Lie With Statistics 4/5 This one has held up incredibly well over the years. It’s also very fun, short, and practical. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants a quick statistics refresher.

  4. Frozen in Time 4/5 Ah, survival-porn. I do enjoy stories about the most extreme survival situations and this one delivered. It didn’t teach me anything profound and it didn’t alter my world view, but I know a lot more about glaciers, WW2 planes, and living in the arctic.

  5. Global Inequality 4/5 Follow-up reading from the Great Leveler. This focuses on global, rather than domestic inequality. The author presents some fascinating (and well-researched) counter-culture beliefs on immigration, the US government, and how we might be able to build a better tomorrow.

The Bad

Books I couldn’t finish:

  1. What Should We be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night 1/5 This is just a collection of short (and I mean very short), unsubstantiated suggestions from scientists about what we might want to worry about. Very little evidence is provided for their beliefs and the segments are too brief to even get into the reasons why something is worrisome.

  2. Men, Machines, and Modern Times 1/5 The audio recording of this book is only a few hours long. The introduction, forward, and notes about this edition are 1 hour long. When I finally got to the bit about how a naval officer corrected gun sights and increased firing throughput in the last 19th century (interesting premise!), the author glossed over the entire discovery process in about 5 minutes, and returned to over-intellectualized academic philosophizing about technological progress. I know it’s a classic, but it was worse than useless.

  3. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa 2/5 This one was a bit better and may have actually been a good book, but it makes for a difficult audio experience. I think this is the sort of book you read with a notepad to keep track of everything. I knew I was in for trouble when the first 5 minutes of the recording was nothing by a wall-to-wall acronym glossary of rebel groups operating in the Congo over the last 30 years. Add to that a difficult time telling apart Congolese names without seeing them spelled, and I was lost almost immediately in the minutia.

  4. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital 2/5 This purports to be a somewhat shocking tell-all about the depravity of DC political culture, but it actually just reads like the story of any industry/city/location populated by wealthy, hyper-motivated people. I wasn’t able to learn much and after a short period, the narrative style starts to read like a disaffected barista trying to seem worldly and detached while name-dropping about all their powerful friends.

  5. What to Think about Machines that Think: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence 2/5 This was slightly better than What to Worry About, but only slightly. The segments are too short, too little evidence is presented, nothing is learned.

  6. Stories of Your Life and Others 2/5 These are supposed to be some of the best recent sci-fi stories, but I couldn’t really get into them, which is strange because I deeply enjoyed the movie adaptation of Arrival.

The 10 Best Movies I've Seen This Year

Over parental leave, I was able to indulge my inner cinephile. I watched 61 movies in 56 days - mostly while feeding my new infant. That’s ~1.08 movies/day, for a total of approximately 130 hours of film. If you think that sounds like a lot of time feeding an infant, it is.

I’ve included the full list of movies that I watched at the end of this post, but below you’ll find the top 10. For anyone not familiar with my taste in movies, these are pretty much all what my friends have euphemistically labeled “depressing indie dramas.” Look elsewhere for lighthearted comedies!


#10 - Burning

I loved the understated, ambiguous storytelling in this thriller. On the surface it’s the story of the wealth and opportunity divide in South Korea, but under the straightforward plot points there are layers of meaning that peel back and imply different interpretations. These additional layers keep interested viewers second-guessing assumptions beyond the ending credits. I consider myself a fairly sophisticated movie viewer, but I missed some major metaphors and allegories and had a satisfying time reading the Wikipedia summary afterwards only to realize that fact. Another big plus for this one: although it deals with explicit, violent themes, it’s not visually explicit. Like all good taut, psychological thrillers, the violence is left out of the frame for the viewer to imagine.

#9 - You Were Never Really Here

Like Burning, this one deals with heavy, violent, uncomfortable themes, but is more explicit in their depiction. I was initially turned off by the slow start to the story, but it’s ending can best be described as a subtle and beautiful conclusion to a nightmare. The thing I loved most about the film was the mixing of the real and the unreal to explain the character’s mental states. Unlike other films that have similar storylines (8MM for instance), the focus here is less about what happens in the real world and more about what happens inside the heads of the protagonists.

#8 - Wild Tales

This one was a blast and shares a great deal with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (see below). The “film” is actually a collection of shorts that meditate on the theme of revenge. Most are pretty short (<20 minutes) and are darkly funny. If you like early Cohen brothers movies, comedies of the absurd, or if a towing company has ever caused you to boil over with anger, you’ll enjoy this movie.

#7 - Shoplifters

Shoplifters tells the story of a group of petty thieves eking out a living at the margin of modern Japanese society. Although they aren’t related by blood, they function as a family and the film encourages the viewer to question what really defines a family. Other movies have told a similar yarn, but they either devolve into 2D characters spouting syrupy truisms (“family are the people you choose!”) or they become absurdly dark or overly complex (think Oceans 11 but in melodrama form). Shoplifters threads the needle and tells a story that feels real every step of the way, warming your heart without sliding into postmodern cynicism.

#6 - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Like Wild Tales, this one is a collection of short films and it follows a similar trajectory: starting with the lightest and funniest of the bunch and ending with the most profound and touching. As someone who loves western films as a genre and aesthetic, I couldn’t get enough of these short films. They were schlocky, flawed, serious, devastating, and profound at all the right times. My favorite of the bunch was the last one, so if you’re struggling with some of the humor and gallows humor that comes first, stick around until the end.

#5 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This was the first movie I finished after starting leave and it was incredible. Normally I don’t go in for movies that have extensive narrative voice-over. If you have to outright tell me what’s going on in the movie, then it’s failing to tell the story itself. But here, the interstitial narration made everything more poignant and added what felt like genuine attempts to understand the historical truth of the story. Sure, it was glamorized and sure there were large portions of fiction interspersed to fill in the holes of the real story. Yet it managed to take an event whose meaning is largely lost to modern viewers and contextualize, humanize, and dramatize it. That’s no small feat.

#4 - Winter’s Bone

Boy, did the director nail the depiction of rural, rustbelt America. I grew up in Appalachia, which isn’t quite the Ozarks, but this felt a bit like a documentary in several parts. It’s always tempting for Hollywood writers to depict poor rural people like the murders in Deliverance, and what struck me most about this movie was how nuanced and dignified the characters are. They are real humans with foibles and weakness, but also dignity and strength. I always love a movie in which “the good guys” commit transgressions and “the bad guys” partially redeem themselves, because that’s the way I perceive life: there’s a lot more grey than there is black and white. If you’re wondering whether the world of this film is accurate to reality, the answer is “yes.”

#3 - 1945

This one came completely out of left field and left me speechless. It’s a story from World War 2 that I’ve never heard told: we open on a rural village in Hungary after WW2 has ended. Two Jews get off a train and start walking from the depot into the village center. Advance notice reaches the village, where a prominent couple is preparing to be married. The villager elders don’t know whether the Jews are returning to reclaim property that was taken during the Holocaust. The uncertainty causes tensions to rise and secrets to be revealed. I loved the black and white photography, slow and deliberate pacing, and the (somewhat) twist ending.


#2 - The Handmaiden

Fair disclosure: this one was pretty twisted. That said, it was also beautifully filmed, directed, and acted, and I think that somewhat makes up for the sadism. For me, there were two elements of this film that really made it shine: the cinematography and the twists. The cinematography was so deft as to be initially invisible. The story is moved forward as much by the way the film is constructed as the dialogue and acting, and that’s always a pleasure to behold. The twists are baked in from the first few scenes: you know that you are going to be guided through the plot by an unreliable narrator, yet the hints as to what’s really going on are provided to the astute so that you don’t end the movie with a big reveal and artificial “gotcha” moment.

#1 - Roma

Roma is the story of a housemaid working for an upper-middle class Mexican family in the 1970s. It’s a simple story, but the film is tremendously nuanced and beautiful. Like Shoplifters, you end the story feeling simultaneously repulsed by some of things you’ve witnessed, but at the same time, a tremendous urge to hug the very same characters. Unlike most arthouse films, there’s enough reality and narrative to make this compelling without sacrificing the breath-taking visual meditations on daily struggles. Most of the other films on this list are too dark, too artsy, or too weird for most people to appreciate, but Roma is the rare gem that is simultaneously accessible and exquisite.

The Full List

Below is the full list of films that I watched, along with my subjective 1-10 rating:

  1. Roma 9

  2. The Handmaiden 9

  3. 1945 9

  4. Winter's Bone 9

  5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 9

  6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 8

  7. Shoplifters 8

  8. Wild Tales 8

  9. You Were Never Really Here 8

  10. Burning 8

  11. Mid90s 8

  12. Ida 8

  13. Tucker & Dale vs Evil 8

  14. The Florida Project 8

  15. The Last Black Man in San Francisco 8

  16. A Separation 7

  17. So Sorry to Bother You 7

  18. A Most Violent Year 7

  19. Searching 7

  20. Nocturnal Animals 7

  21. Leave No Trace 7

  22. Room 7

  23. Changeling 6

  24. Prisoners 6

  25. The Guilty 6

  26. First Man 6

  27. The Mule 6

  28. Bad Times at the El Royal 6

  29. Gone Girl 6

  30. Can You Ever Forgive Me? 6

  31. Green Book 6

  32. Vice 6

  33. The Old Man and the Gun 6

  34. Hail Caesar! 6

  35. Becoming Bond 6

  36. The Secret In their Eyes 6

  37. The Square 6

  38. Fyre 5

  39. Beasts of No Nation 5

  40. Incendies 5

  41. Up In the Air 5

  42. Papillon 5

  43. Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse 5

  44. The Favourite 5

  45. Suburbicon 5

  46. They Shall Not Grow Old 5

  47. Tully 5

  48. Hacksaw Ridge 4

  49. Her 4

  50. The Post 4

  51. Three Identical Strangers 4

  52. The Sisters Brothers 4

  53. Infernal Affairs 4

  54. A Prayer Before Dawn 4

  55. A Simple Favor 4

  56. Bone Tomahawk 4

  57. Upgrade 3

  58. Won't You Be My Neighbor? 3

  59. Dangal 3

  60. Game Night 3

5 Books I Read on Paternity Leave

Back in May, our second child (Rose) was born. Starting on her delivery date (5/9/19), I started 12 weeks of paternity leave. Family is a great gift. I’ve been able to really get to know my daughter while not worrying about the effects of sleep deprivation on my work or career.

At the same time, family leave is a lot of repetition and grueling hours. Infants sleep a lot, but in very short bursts without respect to adult circadian rhythms, which often left me bouncing, feeding, and holding Rose for hours at a stretch in the early AM.

One of the big lessons I learned last year from the birth of my older son is the importance of distraction. It’s frustrating to have your sleep ruthlessly destroyed by an infant, much less so if you have something to distract you from the endless cycle of bouncing, feeding, changing, bouncing, and holding.

To help with that distraction, I created a goal for myself to read 3 books while out on leave. It was an intentionally modest goal because I wasn’t sure how bad the sleep deprivation was going to be, but it turned out to be too easy. I ended up reading the equivalent of more than 2,800 pages worth of nonfiction across 5 books. I “read” most of the content via Audible using Apple Airpods, which are a great way for parents to be productive while also accomplishing chores.

Below, I’ve summarized 5 things that I learned from 3 of the books that I read as well as some short notes on 123 Magic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the two books I started, but didn’t finish:

The Power Broker is the best biography I’ve ever read. It’s also the most detailed, realistic, and clear-eyed explanation of how politics actually work that I’ve encountered. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Authorities (IE “New York Transit Authority”) during the mid-century were legally not governed or subject to the whims of elected officials. I don’t know if this is still the case, but the result was that any official who directly or indirectly ran such an authority was effectively above the law. Add to the mix that authorities could both raise bonds whose covenants were strongly protected by law as well as raise money to service the bonds with tolls and you have the key to Robert Moses’ power: a massive, independent, quasi-state organ that answered only to it’s commissioner.

  2. Robert Moses created the modern park. This doesn’t just include the parks he directly built (of which their are hundreds). He literally trained a generation of civil servants in the US and abroad in disciplines like architecture, landscaping, zoning, fundraising, PR, and budgeting. If you have been to a park that was built after the late 1920s, it was almost certainly heavily influenced, if not outright designed and built, by Robert Moses.

  3. As with parks, the supremacy of the automobile in US cities was heavily influenced by Robert Moses’ outdated ideas about transit. He grew up wealthy in the very earliest parts of the 20th century when cars were predominantly owned by wealthy families and used for recreation. To him “driving in the car” was about relaxation and leisure. But for most mid-century drivers, cars were utilitarian and traffic was a quality of life problem. Moses built infrastructure in NYC to intentionally exclude public transit, which made people’s lives worse.

  4. Money for public improvements has always been in short supply and the only reason that NYC has so much top-quality infrastructure is FDR’s New Deal and the federal highway programs of the 50s. These programs, despite being nationally funded, we disproportionately spent in the empire state.

  5. If you want a more definitive, detailed study of the misuse of power, look no further. If there’s one thing I took away from The Power Broker, it is that in the real world, there is no benevolent justice and that might makes right.

I read Chernow’s “Titan” about 6 months ago, which focuses on Carnegie’s contemporary, John D. Rockefeller Sr. I’ve always been curious about Carnegie and figured I’d read the two biographies close together so that I could retain historical context. Although I personally found Nasaw’s writing to be less interesting than Chernow’s, this was still a good read.

  1. Carnegie (like Rockefeller and many of the Gilded Age robber barons) was born poor, raised by a mother who received little to no help from her husband, and benefited greatly from being the right age at the right time in American history.

  2. US Steel, which is the company Carnegie is remembered for, was actually only incorporated under that name upon the trust’s creation by JP Morgan in the latter portion of Carnegie’s life. For most of his professional career, the interests that we know today as “US Steel” were a lose web of companies, with the two primary being “Carnegie Steel” and “H. C. Frick & Company.” Internally, the companies were divided into works and foundries that had their own worker demographics, advantages, and challenges.

  3. Carnegie only started in the steel business in his 30s after already having become wealthy working for Thomas Scott and the Pennsylvania Railroad. While working for the railroad, he worked his way up the corporate ladder on the basis of his work ethic and personal appeal. In a word, men in power generally liked him and gave him his first lucky breaks.

  4. He remained a bachelor until the age of 51 because his mother exerted an outsized influence over her adult son. He and his wife Louise spent several years (a very long time for the era) in a secret courtship because their mothers disapproved of the match. Rather than anger them both, Carnegie and Louise agreed to wait until one of them passed away to get married.

  5. He initially became wealthy by exploiting his connections at the Pennsylvania Railroad to profit from insider trading. Interestingly, insider trading was not illegal in the late 19th century. The lack of modern taxation, coupled with very few laws that regulated cartels transformed him from merely a very wealthy man into one of the wealthiest of all time.

  1. For those of us non-sports fans, Muhammed Ali was not the boxer’s given name. He was named Cassius Clay by his parents and adopted the name Muhammed Ali after falling under the influence of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam.

  2. Everyone can judge Ali however they please, but I think he was a pretty unpleasant human. He was wildly unfaithful to his 4 wives, abused substances (primarily, but not restricted to alcohol), verbally and emotionally abused friends, lovers, and wives, had a studied inability to self-reflect, and was vain to the point of absurdity.

  3. He was a great boxer, but probably not as great as you might assume given his legend. His early career was indeed marked by skill, athleticism, and strategy in the ring that defied the odds, but this period was relatively short-lived. Most of the fights that he’s best known for (Liston, Foreman, and Frazier to name a few) were fought past his prime and increasingly demonstrated that his competitive advantage late in life was not in his boxing skill, but in his ability to absorb damage and not fall over.

  4. Financially, he was a typical professional athlete. At the same time as he was being paid more than any other athlete alive, he had perennial money problems. Although he rarely admitted it, there’s ample evidence that he kept fighting well past his prime for the simple reason that he’d become adapted to being a spendthrift and didn’t want to face up to mounting pressures to reign in his lifestyle.

  5. As with most highly successful people in modern times, a large part of his success stemmed from an ability to handle and manipulate the press to his advantage. Without reading several biographies of Ali, it’s hard to tease out Eig’s bias from reality, but from the facts presented in this book, he won multiple championship fights on the basis of public approval, not skill. Further, his ability to attract contenders, generate hype, and sell tickets proved an essential element to his fame,

The Rest

The last two books I read were Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and 123 Magic. I don’t either deserves their own 5 point writeup, but if you’re interested in philosophical musings or parenting techniques, I would recommend them both.

In the spirit of avoiding publication bias, I thought I’d close by mentioning the two books I started, but couldn’t finish.

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. The problem here was that I tried to read this directly after The Power Broker and Archie Brown was just no match for Robert Caro. Brown’s thesis statement—that charismatic leaders are less effective and dangerous to the systems in which they operate— simply felt like so much useless ivory tower idealism. Who cares whether charismatic leaders are dangerous and less effective if everyone always puts them in power anyway?

Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation. I really wanted to like this one because I know next to nothing about Russian history. Unfortunately, this book reads like a textbook for students studying Russian history. In other words, extremely dense, lacking in narrative structure, and with an almost glee in focusing on historical details that are either inaccessible or boring to a casual reader.


It’s been fun continuing to read challenging nonfiction, even while sleep deprived and I look forward to continuing for the foreseeable future. If you have any good nonfiction recommendations, ping me and I’ll add them to my list!

First Half of 2019 Goal Retro

The Backstory

In April of 2018, my first child (Greg) was born. It took a while to sink in, but the biggest thing that immediately changed in my life was a profound sense of being out of control.

Prior to being a parent, it was easy to fool myself into thinking I could control the conditions of my life. It's not that I've ever felt supremely in control, but I honestly believed that I could exert my will over large, abstract things like my career, where I lived, and generally how I spent my time.

But when fundamental elements of life -- things like sleep, hygiene, and marital satisfaction -- are taken out of your hands by a squalling baby, it becomes hard to avoid the fact that you were never in control in the first place.

I spent the six months after his birth wallowing in an ever-deepening realization that plans and effort were futile. None of my pre-kid coping strategies worked anymore. I could't just take a walk to empty my mind because Greg was crying and I told Becca I would take care of him. I couldn't rely on a good night's sleep to rejuvenate me because Greg was waking me up every 1.5 hours to feed. I couldn't listen to music because I should be trying to make up all the lost sleep. I couldn't reduce work stress by catching up on email at home because there were bottles to be cleaned, etc, etc.

I made a list of the most important elements of my life and concluded 5 were significantly worse off after Greg was born. I stopped trying to plan anything because it seemed irrelevant. Often I couldn't focus on anything for more than a few minutes anyway. What good were plans that were whole days away? People told me it would get better as Greg got older, but I honestly couldn't believe them.

Then, late in 2018, a close friend (who also has young children) shared that he kept personal goals for himself and it got me thinking that perhaps I could regain some small vestige of control and predictability. So, in November and December of 2018, I created some goals and I started working on them in January.

H1 2019 Goals

I won't share all the goals publicly because some are quite personal, but after 4 months, I can say that they have been a huge help in regaining a small sense of control again. Here's the abridged list of goals:


  1. Be less angry at home.

  2. Invest in my marriage through regular action.

  3. Read 6 books, write 1 blog post about my reading.

  4. Get better at playing Battlefield 5.


  1. Ship the projects I committed to for this half.

  2. Broaden my professional network at work.

  3. Build team culture.

Report Card

Here’s a summary of how I did. I’m evaluating myself early because this week my second child is going to be born and I assume most of this is going to go by the wayside in short order once she’s around:

Exceeded My Goal

  1. Read 6 books. I've already read 11 and this blog post satisfies the second constraint.

  2. Get better at BF5. In January, I had a K/D ratio of about .2, now if I'm trying, I can typically hit 1.5.

  3. Broaden my professional network at work. I originally set the goal of meeting an additional 25 people, which proved too easy and also not valuable. But by focusing on expanding my network, I made choices that exceeded the spirit of this goal.

Met My Goal

  1. Ship my projects at work. I intentionally constrained this to be delivered before I went out on leave, and I hit it.

Did Not Meet My Goal

  1. Be less angry at home. The way this goal was written was great, but it wasn't formed in a way that I could actually make good progress towards it. I essentially stopped trying to accomplish this in January.

  2. Build team culture. I got to February and realized that this wasn't a goal that was worth completing. As a result, I didn't accomplish it.

  3. Invest in my marriage through regular action. I had planned to be more intentional about spending time with Becca and for reasons discussed below, that didn't work.


So, I had mixed success at the specific goals that I set, but I had very high success at regaining a sense of small-scale control and excitement to achieve things of personal importance again.

What’s Am I Going to Change?

  1. Shorten the goal horizon. I set myself the goal of accomplishing these items over 6 months, but then quickly realized that two of the goals weren't really actionable and/or I hadn't set myself up for success to accomplish them. But to honor the system I'd set up, I'd have to wait another 4 months to change and revise my goals. I'll be changing to quarterly goals on 6/30.

  2. Setup a weekly tracker. I was on-track for my marital improvement goal until about 6 weeks in when I realized the format of my tracker didn't let me see whether I'd actually done something nice for Becca for the preceding 6 weeks. I thought I had, but that didn't feel satisfying or convincing and I lost steam. Next time, I'll setup a weekly tracker so that I can track my progress more closely.

  3. Don't include work goals. I have a separate system at work for tracking my career goals, and the redundancy was more confusing than helpful.

  4. Have fewer goals. I had 7 goals for this six month period and that was probably 2-3 too many. If I can't easily enumerate my goals while walking from my car to the office, I probably have too many.

  5. Add a fitness goal. I avoided doing that this time because in the past, fitness goals just haven't been a good use of my time. Other people claim regular workouts make them feel good. I can honestly say that's never been true for me. But, it's become obvious that if I do nothing, I start actively feeling bad after a while, so I need to do something physical, even if it's not the typical “train for a marathon/crossfit/rock climbing” thing, so I'll be adding that in for next quarter.

3 Things I Learned From Each Book

I decided to make it easy for myself just write out three of the neatest/most impactful things I learned from each book that I read:

The Case Against Education

  1. Almost all of the value of education is signaling, so curricula doesn't really matter. Also, there's no strong evidence that attending prestigious schools (high school + college) have any significant positive impact on opportunities and earnings.

  2. For good to excellent students, it probably makes sense to attend a public university and get an engineering degree.

  3. For average or below average students, college doesn't make sense and learning practical skills (like a trade) as early as high school is a good idea.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

  1. The difference between John D. Rockefeller and other less prosperous businessmen from his generation was mostly luck.

  2. Despite contemporary reporting, Rockefeller was a virtuous person with few vices outside of his ruthlessness in business.

  3. The antitrust breakup of Standard Oil not only failed to stem Standard Oil's control of the market, it was the major event that catapulted Rockefeller from being a wealthy industrialist to one of the wealthiest men in all of recorded history.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

  1. Humans are not built for rational thought. We evolved to impress other primates and pass on our genes. It is a modern conceit that we are capable of making rational choices.

  2. Most rational argument is in defense of intuitive reasoning, not the other way around.

  3. We make almost all of our choices based upon emotion and intuition. We are so dependent upon emotion and intuition that people without the capacity to emote or intuit become fundamentally incapable of making choices and functioning in society.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

  1. The transcontinental railroad was started during the American Civil War and was enabled by the US government and Abraham Lincoln in particular.

  2. Prior to the transcontinental railroad, it took months to travel from New York to San Francisco. Travelers could cut the voyage short by as much as a month by traveling overland across Panama, but for most Americans, the odds of dying from yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, or other tropical illness during the crossing was between 20-33%.

  3. As with most huge construction projects, there was a phenomenal amount of graft, brinksmanship, and political maneuvering required to span the continent.

Master of Doom: How Two Guys Created An Empire and Transformer Pop Culture

  1. John Romero and John Carmack both had troubled youths and started ID software out of Shreveport Louisiana, rather than of the current tech hotbeds.

  2. Shareware was a largely untested publishing path before Commander Keen and Doom.

  3. History appears to have vindicated Carmack's game-engine-first style of development.

Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders the Birth of the FBI

  1. In the early 1920s, oil was discovered in vast quantities under the Osage Indian reservation in Kansas, and made individuals in the tribe millionaires overnight.

  2. Through a system of racism, bigotry, and greed, white landowners and politicians stealthily killed and stole the mineral rights from hundreds of Osage Indians.

  3. The oil fields became exhausted in the 1940s and today the tribe and their reservation has largely been forgotten.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And the Meaning of Things

  1. People who compulsively collect things often treat their possessions are physically part of them.

  2. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to cure hoarding behaviors.

  3. Goat trails is a term that refers to the narrow paths through piles of hoarded belongings that hoarders create to navigate their homes.

Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

  1. Through numerous quirks of geography, the United States is predisposed to having a larger, more dynamic, and more stable economy than any other nation on earth.

  2. Due to technological breakthroughs (fracking, automation, et al) and rapidly aging populations outside of the US, the US will have diminishing incentives to protect and invest in global trade in the 21st century.

  3. The same forces that cause the US to de-prioritize participating in the economy of the world will make it more attractive to live here in the coming decades.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

  1. During the mid-1500s, Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire were fighting for supremacy of the known world in the first ever large-scale maritime battles on the Mediterranean sea.

  2. To secure the western Mediterranean, the Turks needed to capture Malta, but Christian Knights (the order of St. John in particular) held the island despite battles of almost inhuman savagery.

  3. The violence and disregard for human life by both empires contrasts so strongly with our current world views about human rights that certain elements are hard to believe.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

  1. Randomness in all things is the rule, not the exception, and accounting for that fact can often mean the difference between catastrophic failure and incredible success.

  2. It is easy to be fooled into linking cause and effect in complex systems, especially over relatively short periods of time (like a market cycle).

  3. Even what would be considered traditionally "safe" investing strategies incorporate enormous risk in the form of extremely high impact low probability events, that are actually fairly probable when compounded over a person's lifetime. (And example would be a country defaulting on their debt and ruining the currency or environmental degradation causing large areas to become rapidly depopulated.)

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

  1. There is no definitive, reproducible evidence that breastfeeding improves outcomes for children apart from moderate reductions in infant rashes and diarrhea. This includes the infamous Belarus study that claims the opposite.

  2. Sleep training is effective, can be implemented as early as 3 months of age and has no documented long-term negative effects.

  3. Children that talk earlier test slightly higher on verbal skills in high school, but the effect size is not huge.

The Best 3 Books I Read

  1. The Righteous Mind

  2. Fooled by Randomness

  3. Killers of the Flower Moon

Knowing How to Code Isn't Valuable

Silicon valley would have you believe that learning how to program is an extremely valuable skill set that unlocks untold career and personal possibilities. All you have to do, dear reader, is learn enough to sling some Ruby on Rails, deploy your own website, and the world will be your oyster.

Back in 2012, I believed this line of reasoning and began teaching myself to program. I tried everything from Codecademy to traditional textbooks, but couldn't make anything stick. I am extraordinarily motivated, but I found it It difficult to make forward progress. Even after exhausting hours learning the basics, my goal of building products and turbocharging my career seemed just as unattainable as when I started.

This frustration motivated my cofounders and I to start building Code Combat in early 2013. Our goal was to teach the world to code and bring that silicon valley prosperity to everyone. It seemed obvious to us that if we created a product that was fun to play and at least slightly educational, people like me (motivated 20 somethings) would find it easier to continue learning CS and become valuable software developers.

Over the course of two years, I learned the hard truth that knowing how to program computers isn't actually that valuable. The skill that is valuable is wanting to program computers. And that distinction is troublesome for motivated 20-somethings.

Young adults have an incredible ability to teach themselves anything, but they are especially motivated to learn things that improve their quality of life. Often that means earning more money or finding a job with better work/life balance. And so for many people who graduated college with useless liberal arts degrees (like myself), it is tempting to teach ourselves skills that actually make us valuable members of the economy. As in, paid well and sought after by employers.

Programming is a particularly attractive skill to learn because it's very well compensated, in extraordinarily high demand, and doesn't require as many unpleasant work/life compromises as other industries [1].

To many people, then, programming looks like a ticket out of their humdrum career trajectory. All you need to do is learn a bit of obscure syntax, and you'll be raking in the dough while being endlessly pursued by recruiters offering ever-higher salaries.

The reality is more disappointing.

Like most valuable skills, programming is difficult to master. Unlike other skills, however, the barrier to entry is very low and the rate of change is very high. This means that you, newbie programmer, can learn one or two frameworks and languages and be unemployable in a year or two if you aren't constantly learning and improving your craft. To make matters worse, thousands of new programmers and tinkerers are constantly entering the labor market out of inherent interest. Because they want to program and can learn for free, they will outcompete and outbuild you.

This is why coding boot camps heavily screen for people who want to program. And it's why, even with 1-5% acceptance rates, they still have an image problem with their graduates [2]. Companies don't want to entrust their mission-critical backend infrastructure to a philosophy major who is dabbling in programming. They want someone whose desire to program has given them years of experience wrangling complex systems and making them work.

Our initial business model at Code Combat was to educate players enough to be employable. When that failed, we turned to simply discovering players with enough skills to be employable. When that didn't scale, we turned to the real hard work: introducing programming to kids who might otherwise have never learned about it. 

That turns out to be an extraordinarily difficult niche to monetize, but it's what adds the most value. Because of Code Combat, millions of kids who otherwise may have never heard about programming have written hundreds of lines of Python and JavaScript.

It's my profound hope that in 10 years I'll meet a child that was introduced to programming on Code Combat. I imagine that child much like myself: a sort of nerdy kid who fell in love with computers and developed a real passion for tinkering with them. For her, all the silicon valley promises of prosperity and opportunity will be true because she doesn't just know how to program, she will want to program, which is the skill that's actually in demand.

[1] I'm looking at you management consultants.

[2] When we started Code Combat in 2013, most bootcamps were earning money by charging recruiting fees for their students. Today, they have almost all stopped doing that and fund their operations the good old fashioned way: charging tuition. Companies hiring boot camp graduates simply don't value them enough to pay placement fees.