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Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

The dog stars

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
Published: 2013
ISBN: 1611736137
Amazon link
Rating: 8/10

Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

My notes:

  • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

  • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

  • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

  • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

Book Notes — ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Never eat alone

Never Eat Alone…and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
By Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0385346654
Amazon link
Rating: 6/10

Brief recap: A popular book about the power of networking. I didn’t find it revelatory, but appreciate the central theme, which is common sense: that you should help friends just to help them, not because you expect something in return. In other words, as the author writes, networking can be a huge advantage – but don’t keep score.

My notes:

  • Ferrazzi relates his story of growing up in the U.S. in a lower-middle class family, outside of elite circles. One he became friends with influential people, however, he discovered that they helped him in school and work, and that – of course – it’s much better to be on the inside than on the outside looking in.
  • Anyone who’s read books about the power of networking is probably familiar with most of the notions mentioned here. These include: the importance of building relationships with business contacts over the long term; the importance of being kind to assistants and other gatekeepers; why it’s key to follow up after you meet new contacts in order to stay in touch; how to make the most of meeting people at conferences; how to make small talk; etc.

  • My main takeaway from the book, though, was that it reinforced the the importance of trust in building career capital via the relationships you make, over time. As Ferrazzi writes:

My point is this: Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you, to paraphrase an earlier Kennedy, but what you can do for others. In other words, the currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.

Business cycles ebb and flow; your friends and trusted associates remain.

Book Notes — ‘Deep Work,’ by Cal Newport

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Deep work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
By Cal Newport
Published: 2016
ISBN: 1455586692
Amazon link
Rating: 9/10

Brief recap: Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, argues that knowledge workers must devote themselves entirely to the most sophisticated and valuable contributions they can make – they must concentrate on what he calls “deep work.” Common sense, yes, but the book provides some compelling insights and plenty of practical tips. Highly recommended.

My notes:

  • What is deep work? It’s the core stuff we are trained to do, for which we’ve developed deep expertise – the crux of what makes us experts in our field.

    Or, as Newport writes:

    Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

    What isn’t deep work – or, as he calls it, “shallow work”? Newport says it’s activities that a recent college graduate could learn how to do relatively quickly.

    So, if you’re a consultant, let’s say, you must devote yourself entirely to your most important work, like producing deliverables for clients or bosses. Eschew all but the most critical email, needless meetings, social media and other distractions – even though it may seem like this stuff is important to your job.

  • Social media is largely a waste of time, and should avoided, Newport says. But our culture is so techno-centric – we are living in Neil Postman’s “technolopy”, he writes – that this is difficult:

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble…

  • After laying out, in the first half of the book, why deep work is important, Newport goes out to provide some tips for building more deep work into one’s life. A few that I liked, and have since implemented:
    • Keep a scorecard: log not only how many hours per day you’re able to spend on deep work, but track with a paper and pen, and post in a conspicuous place, details on when you’ve reached important milestones, such as completing important projects.
    • Train yourself to embrace boredom in order to build focus: Newport notes that a key requirement of deep work is the ability to concentrate deeply for long stretches of time, and that means resisting the temptation to surf the web or check in on social media when boredom strikes.

    • Ponder your work when walking. In a notable passage, Newport says he often takes long walks to and from his office, devoting the time to thinking about problems that are vexing him at work, searching for solutions.

    • That said, guard your downtime: Though Newport is a successful academic, publishing regularly, he argues that because he consistently focuses on deep work, he doesn’t have to work marathon hours. This is crucial because focusing is more mentally demanding than shallow work, and the brain needs time to relax. Newport even describes how he mentally prepares to leave his office every day, saying out loud to himself that he is finishing his work and shutting off his computer, serving as a reminder that it’s time to tune out a bit.

  • Newport earlier authored another interesting book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”

    The premise of that work: Follow your passion is terrible advice. True work satisfaction often comes only after a good deal of time, once we’ve developed expertise. So pick something you’re good at, that you like, and that society values. Then develop a craftsman’s mindset, honing your skills over time. Also worth checking out.

Book Notes — ‘Asian Godfathers,’ by Joe Studwell

Note: I have long kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

2016 06 01 asian godfathers

Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
By Joe Studwell
Published: Oct. 2007
Read: Nov. 2015
Amazon link

Brief recap: An incisive look at how Southeast Asia’s godfathers got rich by exploiting the region’s dysfunctional governments — and how local elites have used godfathers, in turn.

One of the best books, if not the very best, on the region that I’ve encountered; should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

My notes:

  • The region’s godfathers — largely Chinese and Indians — emigrated to Southeast Asia before World War II, taking advantage of opportunities for concessions and monopolies from local political elites in exchange for not seeking their own political power. Typical godfather behavior would be, for example, to bribe local politicians for lucrative monopolies, which they then used to build their own fortunes. Local elites got a steady stream of incoming cash in return, and weren’t challenged in the governmental sphere.

  • Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have very few global brands because they employ “technology-less industrialization” — entrepreneurs seek rents and have monopolies, so don’t need to improve productivity or become globally competitive.

  • The economic landscape in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong is “shaped by the interaction of two historical forces: migration and colonization.” That is, migrants came to Southeast Asia and began building their riches by taking advantage of colonial systems.

  • Thailand’s Thaksin was a godfather who committed the sin of political ambition — and alienated his fellow godfathers.

  • Studwell is highly critical of Singapore despite the fact it is known globally for good governance and its outsized economic development. He argues that its small size makes comparisons with countries irrelevant, and that both the city-state and Hong Kong show that small cities with deep water ports and good banking facilities were always destined to flourish in the region, despite their very different political models. “As relatively easily managed city states, with highly motivated and purely immigrant populations,” Studwell writes, “Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands. In other words, business comes to them because they perform certain tasks — principally services — a little better than surrounding countries.”

Book Notes — ‘The One Thing,’ by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan

Note: I have long kept written notes on index cards about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.


The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
By Gary Keller with Jay Papasan
Published: April, 2013
Read: December, 2015
Amazon link.

Brief re-cap: This is a short book with a simple thesis: In every job, there is one single activity that you should focus on that will improve your value to your company or your customers. You should focus on that, above all else, even if it means neglecting other responsibilities, the authors argue.

I didn’t find this book revelatory, exactly, but it served as a useful reminder of the necessity of prioritizing the most crucial projects over all others.

My notes:

  • You must disabuse yourself of several common notions in order to have the biggest impact in your work and life. One is the idea that humans are adept at multitasking, that we can do it all. You can only ever concentrate on one thing at a time. So choose wisely.

    Another myth is the idea that willpower is available on demand. In fact, willpower decreases throughout the day, like a cellphone battery draining bit by bit. That means you must get your most important work done early in the day, while you’re still able to concentrate to the best of your abilities.

  • You should block out four hours on your calendar every day for your “one thing,” and treat it like an appointment that can’t be broken. Day after day of concentration on your most important work will yield big results down the line.
  • Embrace chaos. When you prioritize your “one thing,” some other stuff won’t get done. But that’s okay.
  • Book Coming Out Later This Year: ‘The Art of Atari’

    2016 05 02 atari

    “The Art of Atari,” a book by pop culture author Robert V. Conte and designer Tim Lapetino set for publication in October, looks really amazing.

    From the description on Amazon:

    Sourced from private collections worldwide, this book spans over 40 years of the company’s unique illustrations used in packaging, advertisements, catalogs, and more.


    The Art of Atari includes behind-the-scenes details on how dozens of games featured within were conceived of, illustrated, approved (or rejected), and brought to life!

    There’s more artwork to marvel at on the book’s official site,

    (Via Kottke.)

    On Exercise and Weight Loss — and a Re-Plug for the Excellent ‘Why Calories Count’


    There’s a Vox story doing the rounds on social media called “Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies.”

    Much of the post will be old news to those who have read the excellent book “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim.

    In Aug. 2012, I recommended the book here on, summarizing some of the points the authors made on exercise:

    Many people over-emphasize the importance of exercise in weight loss. The best way to lose weight, or to maintain a healthy weight, is not to overeat. Yes, exercise is important because it keeps our bodies functioning optimally, and it provides psychological benefits. But to maintain your weight, just as we’ve heard through the years, its best to consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, etc. Yes: this is common sense.

    Interestingly, one reason, the authors say, that weight loss strategies in the U.S. so often focus heavily on exercise — think about the workout scenes in “The Biggest Loser” — is that exercise doesn’t threaten the food industry or policymakers. If you tell people to eat less, then the question becomes: Eat less of what? And that raises problems for, say, companies that derive their revenues from packaged food products. (As the saying goes, you can only squeeze so much profit out of broccoli.)

    If you’re interested in nutrition, exercise, and the culture of food, the book is a must-read.

    2015 Media Picks: My Favorite Book, Album, Movie, TV Show — and Goal and Save

    2016-01-04harrisjpgBook: “Waking Up”

    I read a lot of really great books this year, most of which were published prior to 2015.

    The one that comes closest to qualifying for this list, however, since it was published in late 2014, is Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

    Harris, a neuroscientist, illustrates that our perception of the world quite literally dictates the quality of our lives. He discusses eastern and western religions, consciousness, the illusion of the self, meditation, gurus, and psychedelic  drugs.

    “Our minds are all we have,” he writes early on in the book. “They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.”

    Highly recommended.

    Album: “Meamodern Sounds in Country Music”

    2016-01-04_sturgillAgain, I’m kind of cheating here. Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” came out in mid-2014. But it’s too good to ignore. I blogged about it back in February.

    Unfortunately, it’s not available on Spotify — my current pick for music streaming given Rdio’s demise and my brief but ultimaely ill-fated dalliance with Apple Music — but you can listen to it on Amazon or YouTube.

    Movie: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

    2016-01-04SWSerious “Star Wars” nerds may have their quibbles. But as a casual fan — as in, I like the movies, I really do, but I don’t live or die by them — I found “The Force Awakens” to be thrilling and fun.

    It’s great to have the crew back again.

    TV show: “Fargo”

    2016-01-04fargoHoly shit, “Fargo.”

    Season one was fantastic. And so was season two, which just concluded.

    It seems crazy, the idea of replicating, for TV, the setting (mostly) for one of the finest films ever made. But it works. And there’s more to come!

    Goal: Messi vs. Athetic Bilbao

    Okay, so a goal represents the greatest achievement in the world’s greatest game (except for saving a penalty), and isn’t a piece of media, exactly. But it kind of is, when it’s reproduced. Like it is here. I don’t care.

    THAT MESSI GOAL against Atheltic Bilbao, which I mentioned back in June, was outrageous:

    Save: David De Gea vs. Everton

    Again, we have to go back to late 2014, but it’s worth it.

    As I blogged at the time, De Gea was exceptional against Everton. The save he pulls off at the one minute mark here is just…I’m speechless.

    What a year.

    Richard Scarry, 1963 vs. 1991

    2015 11 12 scary

    These photos from Flickr user alan taylor show how editions of the popular book for children, “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever,” changed between 1963 and 1991.

    Males in the kitchen, less overtly obedient kids, fewer “handsome” airline pilots, the addition of menorahs, gender neutral professional titles and more.

    A fascinating study.

    Via Kottke. There’s more over at Fusion.

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