my name is phillip

This is my little corner of the internet

I like books, music, cooking, Gardening, mountaineering, and building embedded systems

What I'm Reading: December 2018

I was inspired by Venkatesh Rao’s “Refactorings Roundup” to start collecting the things I’ve been reading and sharing them as a blog post.

I’m always seeking to increase the quality of my input rather than the quantity. These posts are another way for me to engage with this content on a deeper level. Pruning and sharing my notes helps highlight and reinforce the major ideas of the article, and a time-spaced review increases my memory of the content.


My reading this month was heavily tilted toward fiction. I’ve gotten too far ahead in my reading, so I’m reading less information-dense material while I’m working through my notes.


For those interested in reading the articles directly, you can click on the article title to go to the webpage. If you want to see the passages I highlighted from each article, click the "my notes" link to jump directly to the highlights.

How to Be a Systems Thinker

For the full article, click here.

Interesting idea around taxonomy and a connection to religion:

What you have is this process of differentiation, which is intellectually profound but only a beginning. Taxonomy is an essential basis for all we know about the natural world. We have learned to classify. A bee is not a butterfly. You can see that stage in many forms of religion and mythology. And then in some later forms, the switch is from making distinctions to recognizing relationships.

What comes along if you look at the New Testament is Jesus keeps violating all the rules about keeping things separate, which makes people angry, because that’s what they’ve been taught. He’s constantly posing the question, "What’s the connection?" And not, "What’s the difference?" You can see that this constant necessity of recognizing that things are separate and different and can be used in different ways, and then seeing that everything is connected, and how it’s connected and interdependent, that this is a sort of permanent balance in human intellect. If you look at the history of mythology, you can see people moving slowly forward. You can look at the history of science—things that were once equated we now see as separate. We can only go so far in breaking down more and more elementary particles, but we're still finding particles. We’re still interested in the separation of things, but we’re also still discovering relationships.

We need to consider the entire system:

We have taller smoke stacks on factories now, trying to prevent smog and acid rain. What we’re getting is that the fumes are traveling further, higher up, and still coming down in the form of acid rain. Let’s look at that. Someone has tried to solve a problem, which they did—they reduced smog. But we still put smoke up the chimney and think it disappears. It isn't gone. It’s gone somewhere. We need to look at the entire system. What happens to the smoke? What happens to the wash-off of fertilizer into brooks and streams? In that sense, we’re using the technology to correct a problem without understanding the epistemology of the problem. The problem is connected to a larger system, and it’s not solved by the quick fix.

Aquarium as a method for teaching about relationships and community:

One of my favorite memories of my childhood was my father helping me set up an aquarium. In retrospect, I understand that he was teaching me to think about a community of organisms and their interactions, interdependence, and the issue of keeping them in balance so that it would be a healthy community. That was just at the beginning of our looking at the natural world in terms of ecology and balance. Rather than itemizing what was there, I was learning to look at the relationships and not just separate things.

On humility as an essential element of wisdom:

One of the most essential elements of human wisdom at its best is humility, knowing that you don’t know everything. There’s a sense in which we haven’t learned how to build humility into our interactions with our devices. The computer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and it's willing to make projections when it hasn’t been provided with everything that would be relevant to those projections. How do we get there? I don’t know. It’s important to be aware of it, to realize that there are limits to what we can do with AI. It’s great for computation and arithmetic, and it saves huge amounts of labor. It seems to me that it lacks humility, lacks imagination, and lacks humor. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring those things into your interactions with your devices, particularly, in communicating with other human beings. But it does mean that elements of intelligence and wisdom—I like the word wisdom, because it's more multi-dimensional—are going to be lacking.

"War" is a problematic metaphor:

Americans are inclined to talk about the "war against drugs," or the "war against poverty," or the "war against cancer," without questioning whether "war" is an appropriate metaphor. It’s a way of talking about complexity, but if it doesn’t fit, it will cause you to make errors in how you deal with your problems. The war on poverty failed partly because poverty is not something you can defeat, and that makes warfare an inappropriate metaphor. The same is true with the war on drugs, which has gotten us into some ugly situations.

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Problems are Interconnected

For the full article, click here.

Secondary effects occur are both on the positive and negative side of the spectrum:

The way it is usually told, the message Everything is Connected to Everything Else is not fun to hear. It is intended to cause repentance and reformation. More often, of course, it causes guilt, fear, and an uncontrollable urge to avoid environmentalists.

What we are rarely told is that solutions are as interconnected as problems. One good environmental action can send out waves of good effects as impressive as the chain of disasters that results from environmental evil.

Energy efficiency's everything-connected-to-everything benefits:

Take energy efficiency, for example. That doesn’t mean deprivation of creature comforts; it means insulating houses, driving cars with better mileage, and plugging in appliances that deliver the same service for less electricity. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute says we could reduce electricity use in the U.S. by 70% with already-proven and currently-economic efficiency measures. We could cut our $430 billion annual energy bill in half just by being as efficient as Japan and West Germany are.

Energy efficiency is a solution to economic problems — it cuts costs to homes, businesses, and government. But look at all the other problems it solves. It could allow us to shut down every nuclear power plant in the country, eliminating the need for heroic financing, political hassle, evacuation planning, the disposal of undisposable wastes, and the bureaucracy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It could free us from dependence on Persian Gulf oil and from involvement in Persian Gulf wars. It would do wonders for our trade and budget deficits. It would improve the air quality of our cities and go a long way toward solving the problems of acid rain and of global climate change.

Organic farming's everything-connected-to-everything benefits:

Organic farming, practiced successfully by tens of thousands of farmers in this country, can cut a farmer’s costs, helping to save the family farm and reducing the need for billions of dollars of farm subsidy. The use of fewer hazardous chemicals improves the health of farm workers and animals, reduces contamination of groundwater and lakes, restores wildlife populations, and eliminates the need for polluting chemical factories. It saves energy (half the energy used for agriculture goes into the manufacture of fertilizer). Returning organic wastes to the land reduces soil erosion, improves water retention, slows siltation of downstream reservoirs, and reduces urban garbage.

When we look at the short-term benefits of proposed solutions, we may miss these beneficial secondary effects:

Many of these environmental solutions are considered “uneconomic”, but that is because the economics have been figured only for the most short-term and close-in links of the chains. If we calculated the effects on the whole system, we’d see that the wages of environmental sin may be deadly, but the wages of environmental good sense can be enormous.

Everything is connected to everything else on this planet. That can be good news as well as bad.

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How Your Brain Keeps You Believing

For the full article, click here.

Why we need to build explicit experimentation into our operational processes:

The best way is to build explicit experimentation into how you operate. For example, suppose you have a formal process for ranking candidates that you’re considering hiring. You might periodically, and at random, hire the candidate ranked second or third. This approach allows you to test whether your ranking algorithm is actually working; without it, you’ll never really know. In the meantime, though, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains assume that things that are easier to process are just all around better. After all, in the harsh and dangerous environment in which our brains evolved, things that were familiar–the people in our group, the path to the river, the sun and moon moving across the sky–were likely to be safer and more trustworthy.

But our environment has changed enormously since then. Now more than ever, we need something far more reliable to separate truth from fiction. And for that, there’s always the scientific method.

We are influenced by the way information is presented to us:

Nor does this come down to just different types of information–it also matters how the same piece of information is presented or stated. We’re more likely to believe statements that are themselves easy to process. And one of the easiest ways to increase the fluency of a statement is to repeat it. Randomized controlled trials have shown that people are more likely to believe things to which they’ve been exposed repeatedly. What’s more, the simple act of recalling a “fact” increases its fluency and therefore makes it more believable.

We view information that is easier to process as reliable:

How do these false truths come to be so widely believed? The answer lies in a powerful shortcut that our brains use every day: Information that’s easier to process is viewed positively in almost every way. Cognitive scientists refer to this ease as “processing fluency,” and it’s why your knowledge base is probably more full of flawed ideas than you’d like to believe.

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Never Ending Now

For the full article, click here.

How many of you also do this when you're riding in a car?

From the moment the driver hit the gas pedal, everybody was on their phones. From the back, I watched my peers tap and text with ferocious intensity. As we sat in traffic and drove through Manhattan, one thing stuck out: the people in front of me only consumed content created within the last 24 hours. No exceptions.

We are stuck in a Never-Ending Now thanks to social media:

The structure of our social media feeds place us in a Never-Ending Now. It sucks us into a temporal myopia. Like hamsters running on a wheel, we live in an endless cycle of ephemeral content consumption. Consider the time-bias of our major social media feeds:

  • Snapchat: 24 Hours or Less
  • Instagram Stories: 24 Hours or Less
  • The Instagram Feed: 3 Days or Less
  • Facebook: 5 Days or Less
  • Twitter: 2 Days or Less

The medium is the message:

As Marshall McLuhan wrote:

“Societies have been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication… Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes… Men are never aware of the ground rulesof their environmental systems or cultures… All media works us over completely… and leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, and unaltered. The medium is the message.” You are what you consume. End of story. Here’s Tim Wu writing in The Attention Merchants:

“Any and all information that one consumes—pays attention to—will have some influence… As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.”

I tend to prefer older information (especially books that have stood the test of time), and it seems the author agrees:

Soon, I will experiment with “atemporality.” For days or weeks at a time, I will escape the present moment and only consume content published in a different decade. For example, if I want to learn about the 1970s, all my media consumption will consist of books, videos, and interviews published in the 1970s. By doing so, I’ll embody the mindset of people in a bygone era and gain new perspectives on the here and now.

There is nothing new under the sun:

Everything has been said before. The big concepts aren’t new. You’ll find them in old works. Nassim Taleb calls this the Lindy Effect: “The longer something has been in print, the longer it will remain in print and the higher value it is.”

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The Side Effects of Meditation

For the full article, click here.

I've certainly noticed a general distancing from people (and their problems) after regular meditation:

Sometimes while he was meditating, he would feel a vertigo-type feeling, or like he was looking at one of those Magic Eye posters. He says he was feeling overall less stressed —about everything. “It's like I figured out how to get around living and having problems,” he says. “So it was really positive at first.”

Then, when his girlfriend would tell him about problems at work, he’d look down from, what he calls, “cloud nine” and think, "Well, I can't really relate to this.” He started to worry that if he kept meditating, he would become a zombie. “Am I not going to be able to relate to people and their stresses?" he asked himself.

Many people recommend Radical Acceptance, but this is how I felt after reading that book and working through the exercises. I had to stop thinking that there was something wrong with me to break the cycle; luckily I did not have any lasting struggles.

Around March 2018, things started to change. He began feeling highly emotional, crying a lot, and dealing with intrusive thoughts. He developed an obsession with the idea of trauma, and the idea that he had a repressed memory. He thought if he felt this terrible, there must have been something in his past that he didn’t remember making him feel this way.

He began to catalog everything he had ever done that he was ashamed or embarrassed about, revealing any secret he’d ever held close. “I was looking for the meaning of why I felt so bad,” he says. “Why did I feel so unlike myself? Why did I feel so upset, or guilty, or negative?”

I, for one, actually seek more of an even keel and immersion. With the positive and the negative, there is always the opposite close behind. But I have certainly never experienced a lack of love for my family.

Meditation has been shown to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, an area of your brain related to attention and also executive control; it keeps regions like the limbic system and amygdala—both emotion centers—under control. “That will result in reduced emotional reactivity,” Britton says

The amygdala isn’t only involved in negative emotions, but also positive ones. If you decrease one, the other may follow. “People in our research complain of not having any emotions, even positive ones, not feeling any kind of love or affection for their families,” Britton says. “That's like too much of that same once-beneficial process.”

A point worth emphasizing: meditation is powerful.

What all the researchers and meditators can find common ground in, perhaps, and what’s ignored by the deluge of meditation apps and casual recommendations is this: Meditation is powerful. It’s a skill not to be taken lightly, and in the right circumstance can provide incredible benefit, and in others, harm.

Ensure a balanced diet with meditation (as with everything else):

“That would be my ideal sort of mindfulness program, would be to have multiple dimensions of different processes; use your own mindfulness or your monitoring skills to understand where you are, and then know which practices are going to get you to a more optimal level of each one,” Britton says. “Everybody's going to be different.”

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Burger Death

For the full article, click here.

The author wondered whether other journalists avoided mentioning great spots to avoid destroying them:

But beyond a heads up, I wondered if they ever actually considered not writing about a place to not, for lack of a better phrase, “blow it up.” Brett Anderson, at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said that, before and at the beginning of his tenure, this was something that went on. “My predecessor wrote about a restaurant she loved without naming it,” he said. “I’d never go that far, but before Bourdain and Fieri and the proliferation of listicles, there was certainly a lot more internal hand-wringing around ‘do we share every last precious secret we have with our readers?’ But now in the social media age, there’s no incentive to withhold. It just takes one Anderson Cooper tweet, and your favorite po’ boy place is packed for months.” He tells the story of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a soul food restaurant in the Treme neighborhood known for its fried chicken. “It was always delicious, but never really crowded,” he said. “But then it started appearing on all these national lists, and now, no matter the day, you’ve got to get there before 11am if you don’t want to wait two hours.”

One restauranteur/chef does everything in his power to avoid internet-driven customers:

Willamette Week named Paiche its 2016 restaurant of the year. It made The Oregonian’s best restaurants list. Portland Monthly gave it a great review. Despite de Cossio’s wishes, it became a destination restaurant. So he changed it. He got rid of dinner service. And the ceviche. And made it just a breakfast and lunch cafe with a focus on coffee. He wasn’t interested in serving the “narrow kind of customer” that populated his restaurant. He was more interested, he said, in returning it to the neighborhood.

What happened after Stanich's became internet famous:

Stanich explained that, as these issues were going on in the background, it was hard to read the social media screeds attacking them, and listen to the answering machine messages at the restaurant calling him a fat fuck and telling him to fuck himself for closing his own restaurant. He didn’t care about them, he insisted. He only cared about people like that woman who’d shown up, the regulars who live in NE Portland. “I need to take care of the people who took care of me,” he said. “They don’t turn on you.”

Internet-list-driven customers tend to be one-time customers.

This was the same sentiment the chef at Paiche had expressed, and that I’d heard from others. If there was one main negative takeaway from the raging fires of food tourist culture and the lists fanning the flames, it was that the people crowding the restaurant were one time customers. They were there to check off a thing on a list, and put it on Instagram. They weren’t invested in the restaurant’s success, but instead in having a public facing opinion of a well known place. In other words, they had nothing to lose except money and the restaurant had nothing to gain except money, and that made the entire situation feel both precarious and a little gross.

The question at the core of the article:

I’ve been asking myself what the other side of this looks like. How do I do this better? Is there a way to celebrate a place without the possibility of destroying it? Or is this just what we are now -- a horde with a checklist and a camera phone, intent on self-producing the destruction of anything left that feels real, one Instagram story at a time?

The power that lists have on our mind:

But the most important part of the article revolves around a 2011 psychological study on the “paradox of choice.”

In the digital age, where every bit of information is available at any point in time and that overwhelming fact alone can render any person frozen in indecision for weeks, the study found things that allow us to make decisions faster, like lists, also make us happier. Knowing you can accomplish something, even if it’s as simple as reading a list, is pleasurable.

On top of that, our never-ending buffet of information has led us to reason that we must make the most of our time away from the information superhighway, and that time should only be spent doing the best things. So naturally, the best lists are lists of “bests.”

Centuries ago (2014), when Facebook’s algorithm overlords promoted the idea of Facebook becoming everyone’s “personalized newspaper,” “best” lists flourished in a way that, like the steroid era in baseball, seems in retrospect almost hilariously false, but the traffic gains looked real, so everyone made more lists. Except there was a slight problem: good, sturdy, reliable lists requiring on the ground knowledge and reporting were actually hard/expensive to make, and few places wanted to pay for that sort of reporting, so most lists just ended up plagiarizing off of the few good ones. And, as these lists increased in frequency while simultaneously decreasing in quality, you watched the collective trust in any one list diminish. Comment sections turned cynical, “this is clickbait!” being the most common refrain, then outright ugly and hostile as discourse on the internet has devolved into a garbage fire inside a waste processing plant atop a landfill built on a massive skunk burial ground.

Matt Levine had excellent commentary on this article which points out the dangerous aspect of internet fame and how it is impacting the physical world:

A thing that is often said about the internet is that it creates the conditions for the “long tail”: No matter how obscure your interests, there is a community that shares them, and because those people can be reached worldwide at zero marginal cost, there will be niche businesses that can make a quiet living catering to unusual interests.

But this is the other side of that. When your niche is as utterly mainstream as burgers, and you are very good at it, you can’t make a quiet living doing it. The internet will find you, and news of your success will go out to the whole world, and the whole world will beat a path to your door, and the niche that you wanted to serve—neighborhood sports fans who know you and care about your family and come in every week—will be swamped by tourists and list-checkers and Instagrammers, and it will be impossible for you to provide the experience you wanted to provide to the people you wanted to provide it to. Modern media systems “impose scale on fragile phenomena,” as Rob Horning tweeted. Everything finds the level of popularity it deserves, even if that’s not the level that it wants: Your anime knitting patterns business might find enough buyers to be sustainable, but your superlative neighborhood burger will find too many buyers to be sustainable.

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No One is Crazy

For the full article, click here.

No one is crazy.

People can be misinformed. They can have incomplete information. They can be bad at math. They can be persuaded by rotten marketing. They can have no idea what they’re doing. They can misjudge the consequences of their actions.

Oh, can they ever.

But the decision to buy a lottery ticket – or a stock, or a house, or whatever – makes sense to them in that moment and checks all the boxes they need to check. Every decision everyone makes is rationalized in their head when they make it.

We all think that we are immune to the crazy:

The cornerstone of behavioral finance is that most people assume it’s a field whose documented flaws apply to other people, but not themselves. That’s because we judge others based solely on their actions, but when judging ourselves we have an internal dialogue that rationalizes what others identify as bad decisions. We rarely hear the internal justifications other people have for their mistakes, but we’re keenly aware of our own. Daniel Kahneman begins his book: “The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”

The author's proposed rules:

  1. Be careful taking cues from other people when you have no idea what they’re thinking.

  2. No one is crazy, including you. But everyone justifies actions based on poor reasoning, including you.

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Thirty Days of Kindness

For the full article, click here.

The author wanted to explore giving without the expectation of receiving:

But what about pure, altruistic generosity, without the expectation of receiving something in return? Some researchers argue this type of generosity doesn’t exist. But I set out to see whether I could learn to give without the promise of getting. I made lists of various kind acts and placed reminders on my bathroom mirror, my work computer, my car dashboard: Make someone’s day today!

It's interesting that we find it easier to buy things for people than to perform other acts of kindness:

My first act of kindness was buying coffee for the woman behind me in the drive-thru lane at Starbucks. In fact, my first few acts were buying something for someone—lunch for an old friend, a copy of my favorite book to a stranger—but they didn’t make me feel much of anything. The recipients were grateful, but was I really making their day, and was that really boosting my happiness?

Ripple effect (behavior is contagious):

Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained researcher and The Happiness Guy at SUCCESS, calls this the ripple effect. Our behavior, he discovered, is literally contagious. “Our habits, attitudes and actions spread through a complicated web of connections to infect those around us,” he writes. That’s why we sync up with our best friends, often finishing each other’s sentences and reading each other’s thoughts. It’s also why one negative attitude can spread like a disease across an office and infect everyone’s mood.

Does generosity make us happier?

So are happier people more generous, or does generosity make us happier? Rather than thinking of it as a cause-and-effect relationship, consider happiness and generosity as intertwining entities. “Generating and expressing kindness quickly dispels suffering and replaces it with lasting fulfillment,” writes Ricard, the Buddhist monk. “In turn the gradual actualization of genuine happiness allows kindness to develop as the natural reflection of inner joy.” Helping behavior increases positive emotions, which increases our sense of purpose, regulates stress, and improves short- and long-term health. All of that contributes to a heightened level of happiness, causing us to feel more generous, creating a circle of happiness and generosity.


Empathy requires feeling what others feel, “to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain,” whereas compassion involves concern and a desire to help without the need to mirror someone else’s anguish.

The author noted that she was kinder toward strangers:

And maybe I avoided generosity toward my close friends and co-workers because it was more difficult. Buying coffee for a stranger is easy, detached and allows for a clean exit. Gently pushing a friend to divulge her source of anxiety after she says “I’m fine” is not. After all, altruism and honest self-reflection take time and practice.

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A Delicious Herb Rub for Meat

The Forever War

The Forever War