I think this video does a good job to interrogate my love of certain kinds of comedic news. I was a late-convert to Jon Stewart, and felt crushed when he announced his (much deserved) retirement. While I’ll admit I haven’t given Trevor Noah a fair shake, I pretty much stopped watching the Daily Show after the change-over. Similarly, I’ve watched other shows that riff on the format, whether on cable (such as Samantha Bee), subscription services (like Hasan Minhaj), or online content (I get John Oliver through YouTube). It’s not lost on me that all of the names listed above are Daily Show alumni. My consumption also includes shows that are inspired by the presentation format, like Some More News on YouTube. Still, it’s rare that I consistently follow any one show because I tend to find the material or subjects to be somewhat hollow. The only exceptions to this, as noted by Wisecrack, are Oliver’s and Minhaj’s shows, which I feel to be both smart and wise in the material they present. Rather than trying to punch for the sake of cracking jokes, their shows punch at topics that are meant to help people that aren’t in on the joke. That is, their shows aren’t just speaking to the in-crowd as a private way of mocking the out-group. This was a great video essay that made me think.
I purchased Hannah Ardent’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as a birthday present for myself a few years ago (I know, I’m weird). I still haven’t cracked into it as of writing, but last week I received an email update from my alma mater, and in it they discussed how one of the faculty members had recently returned from time spent doing research at the Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The email also described the regular reading group that occurs, and how it recently moved online to promote physical distancing. I checked out their YouTube page and found this series that I hope to carve out some time to follow along with. Origins is a pretty hefty book, and Ardent is a pretty powerful thinker, so I’m glad to have a resource to help me understand the nuances of her work better.
Right as the pandemic was shutting down work for us, some friends and I decided to start a book club. Last week, we met for our second session to discuss Gulliver’s Travels. I had chosen the book, largely because I was intending to read the book for myself and it seemed like a convenient way to pull double duty.
The book club’s initial pitch was largely for us to use audiobooks to read through non-fiction books since it was mostly what the three of us were doing in our personal lives. Yet I chose a fictional story because, as I mentioned in my overview of what I read in 2019, I feel largely burnt out of self-help, productivity, and business books and I want to broaden my reading a bit.
Not only did I choose a work of fiction, but I decided that since I owned a copy of the book I would try and read my physical copy. It seemed relatively straightforward, and I thought I would make my way through the book at a decent pace.
However, when we met last week to discuss the book, I had to admit in shame that I hadn’t finished the book. I barely made it out of the first of the four voyages Gulliver undertakes.
Truthfully, I’m finding reading (in all forms) difficult at the moment. I found it challenging to read the book since it was sometimes inconvenient to try and read it at night in bed, so I borrowed an ebook copy from the library to read on my phone or tablet. I didn’t elect to purchase an audio copy (but if my own audiobooks are any indication, I wouldn’t be making much progress there either).
So, why is it so hard to read right now? Three reasons have occured to me.
First, unlike when I used to travel to work, I don’t have 40-60 minutes each day where I’m stuck in my car. The lack of captive audiences is considered the biggest reason why podcast authors are noting a dip in listening time since the middle of March. Unlike a few months ago, it’s difficult to plow through a book when I’ve got nothing else going on during a commute.
Second, you’d think being at home all day means I would have plenty of opportunities to listen to podcasts and audiobook guilt-free. Turns out, this isn’t true for me. I feel guilty listening to books or podcasts during “working hours.” And aside from time when I’m running on the elliptical or out doing yard work, I feel guilty listening to my stuff when in shared spaces with others in the house.
But in this case, I had elected not to listen to the story but to read it. That posed a challenge because unlike time when I’m exercising, doing chores, or driving, you can’t multitask while reading. Instead, I have to carve out dedicated time away from my family, when there are no pressing chores, and when I’m not supposed to be working. I’m finding it challenging to eke out those quiet moments that I can set aside just for reading.
Finally, unlike when I was working from the college, my time is much more fluid now. Without context or code switching, the lack of liminality means I don’t mentally put myself in a head-space to read like I did a few months ago. But further than that, I find that I don’t hold fast to “normal working hours,” and instead I’ve noticed myself shifting later into the evening with my work. As work creeps later in the evening, I lose the demarcation of time, especially discretionary time for reading.
I don’t think this is a lost cause. I may be finding it challenging to read while working from home, but it’s merely something to be mindful of, and I have to be more intentional with my time if I want to give myself opportunities to read. The pandemic has forced us all to change how we live our lives, and it stands to reason that the habits I used before to find reading time during the day are not appropriate to expect to carry forward. Instead, if I want to succeed, I have to find a way to create new habits from our new circumstances.
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts (last one was October 2018!). Since many people find themselves with some extra reading time, here is what I’m working through while staying safe at home.
With some extra time at home and wanting to ensure I’m using my perishable foods wisely to cut down on waste, I decided to finally crack this book that I bought for myself at Christmas. When it originally arrived, I was slightly disappointed to see it was less of a recipe book and more of a primer on cooking (which I stuffily thought I had already a good grasp on). However, I recently checked out Nosrat’s latest podcast miniseries, which endeared me to her instantly (she’s so bubbly and full of passion, it was infectious!). Then I checked out the Netflix series that was created based on this book. Then I set to work cooking a minestrone soup from scratch (taking some cues from Jamie Oliver’s YouTube channel) and channeled Nosrat’s thoughts on what makes food taste good. The soup was a hit here at home, and it’s given me the confidence to keep practicing.
Some friends and I started a book club just before the government started shutting things down in the province. Our first book was Jim Mattis’ military memoir, and I chose Gulliver’s Travels as our second read. I had first encountered the story as a child, then again in first year of undergrad when I had to read excerpts for a class. However I don’t think I’ve read the unabridged book in its entirety, so I’m trying to approach this read fresh and wrap it up before we meet later this week.
I’ve been experimenting with reading fiction in bed before I go to sleep. I found the practice worked well reading The Alchemist, so I decided to continue the practice by grabbing a copy of Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a fictional telling of the Battle of Thermopylae. I chose this book because I learned in Mattis’s memoir that it’s one of the books on the US Marine Corps mandatory reading list for all enlisted soldiers, and it sounded interesting.
I mentioned while reflecting on my 2019 reading list that I’m gravitating more towards biographies and memoirs as of late, and when I was reminded that Savage released a book recently, I grabbed it on audiobook to listen to. I love Savage’s worldview when it comes to making, and I would jump at an opportunity to spend a day with him. I’ll have to settle for this book instead.
I was flirting with learning coding a little while back (also seems like a good skill to pick up now), so I had ordered this one since it had some good reviews. I didn’t buy it to learn coding itself, but because it was presented as a good primer for learning about the world/community of coding. It provides a quick overview of the history of coding and dives into a bit of the lives and psychology of people who devote themselves to coding. I also was interested by the section at the end where the author reflects on learning to code during the writing of the book. I’m only around 100 pages in, so I still have a bit more to go.
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.
In the waning days of 2018, I gave a preview of the books I read for the year by listing my top five books. I doubt my current list of books will grow before the new year chimes in tomorrow night, but I will save the 2019 list for next week, and instead present you with my top books I read this year.
My overall volume of reading this year was less than half of what I read last year. Since 2016, I’ve intentionally set about to increase my reading and I was able to keep the pace for three years. However, for some reason my reading slowed down a bit. I’ll reflect on this over the coming week and share some thoughts with my 2019 reading list post. Given the relatively short list this year, I will instead highlight all of my favourite books since it seems that these were the books that stuck with me.
In chronological order of when I finished them, here are my top books I read in 2019.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A delightful fictional story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard among ghosts and other creatures of the night. Rather than a horror story as you might expect from the premise, instead this is a charming and whimsical coming of age story that gripped me from start to finish. Like all good stories, I was sad when the book was over and missed the characters dearly.
The story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos company. Not only is this book a journalistic account of the deceptive “science” and events surrounding the failed tech venture, but it also explores the toxic achievement culture at the company’s top and the lengths the journalists and ex-employees had to go to in order to bring the company down. It’s a riveting story to experience, and I was happy to hear of the Ethics in Entrepreneurship initiative founded by two of the whistle blowers.
This memoir took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. While Straczynski is known for his ability to craft human stories in the most magical and alien of settings, none of his work of fiction can come close to matching his own personal story of growing up in an abusive home and how that shadow followed him throughout his life. Running in parallel with his own story, he also tells a mystery story about his family’s origins that spans three generations. I mostly started this book to learn about his craft and the origins of some of my favourite projects he’s worked on, but in the end I witnessed a masterclass in writing and reflection.
With the end of the show this year, I felt like it was time for me to crack into the books that kicked-off the phenomenon. I am grateful that I watched the series first as it really helped me keep track of all of the characters in this massive tale. Also, reading a large fictional story was a welcomed relief. Over the last three years, my primary genre to read is at the intersections of business, productivity, and personal development. I think one thing that has lead to me reading less is feeling burnt out of that kind of content, so it was great to read something for pleasure. I am still proud of going through 500-pages while up at the cottage; there is nothing quite like reading by the lake.
Thanks to the Libby app and the library, I was able to check out books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if I had to purchase them. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this memoir was fascinating. I’m drawn to books where people look over their life and career to draw lessons when connecting their experiences. Whatever the political climate we find ourselves in, I find it somewhat reassuring to know there are people in the deep state who work to put the mission above party, though as more evidence comes to light, that faith is beginning to crumble.
Despite the subject matter, there is no other word I can think of to describe this book than “awesome.” And I mean “awesome” in both senses of the word. The book inspires “awe” at the sheer scope of things, but also a riveting tale of Snowden’s life to date, full of creativity, ingenuity, and technological espionage. I marveled at the fact that he is only a few years older than me, but what he has gone through is likely to dwarf any contributions I’ll ever make. I hope he can come home one day, but for the present I hope he remains safe while the effects of his actions continue to simmer in the current political climate.
In looking over my top books for the year, we see three genres stand out – fantasy, current events journalism, and memoirs. I would have also included biography in this list, however one book is missing that I unfortunately couldn’t finish before it was checked back in to the library: Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’ll get added to my 2020 list when the library finally releases it back to me.
As I said above, I think I’m starting to burn out of the business and productivity genres of books. When I reviewed the list for the year, I had almost no recollection of the content for nearly all of the books. It would seem I’ve hit a bit of a block, where I’ve consumed so much content in a short amount of time that I’m failing to hold on to it (or, as a corollary, the content is so superficial that it doesn’t stick…).
I still have a number of books on the go that I hope to finish early next year (such as the first Witcher book that the game and Netflix series was based on, Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature, and Working by Robert A. Caro, to name a few). Once I clear some of the current backlog, I plan to start selecting my reading a bit more intentionally so that I can reflect on the lessons the books have to offer. Overall, the main themes that stick out in the books that speak to me personally are good moral stories, cautionary tales, and the reflections of/about people over a long period of time to draw connections and lessons from their life and work.
It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be. While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide. I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force. The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States. Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.
Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse. Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”
Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago. Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.
I’ve been reading Scott Young’s recently released book, Ultralearning, and I think it’s a pretty good summary of how one can take on an intense learning project for personal and professional development. It functions like an autodidact’s road map with plenty of good tips, insights, and stories to round things out. Elements of the animated bibliography are present, but I don’t find it contrived in its execution. The stories help frame the chapter and serve as an introduction to the core material.
It’s funny how last week I was talking about mnemonic devices, because after drafting that post I ended up reading about the concept in Chapter 10 of the book as it dealt with ways of supporting retention of material you learn.
In chapter 9 of the book, Young talks about ways of providing feedback in the learning process, whether the feedback is provided from others or feedback you can use in your own learning process. He parses out three kinds of feedback that I found interesting, not only for my own personal use in learning, but also as something I should keep in mind as a teacher.
The three kinds of feedback he outlines are outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback. Each type of feedback serves a specific purpose, and you should be mindful of the context the feedback is given, as the wrong type of feedback can set you back in your learning.
Outcome feedback – provides information on whether you are getting answers right or if you are meeting a pre-identified set of learning objectives. It tells you that you are right but doesn’t give any indication of why (or why you are wrong).
Informational feedback – provides further information to explain the underlying reason why something is right or wrong. It can be informative to re-affirm what you have learned, and can identify key areas of strength or weakness, however it does not create a concrete process forward.
Corrective feedback – provides, as the name indicates, a path forward for the learner in terms of how to overcome deficiencies. It details not only how one is right/wrong, why they are right/wrong, but how to address or avoid being wrong. This type of feedback not only requires a level of comprehension of the material, but requires sufficient understanding to teach the underlying processes to the learner through explanation, demonstration, suggestion, etc.
As a teacher, it’s important to know what kind of feedback is warranted and under what circumstances. Most of us tend to focus just on outcomes, but students often don’t learn from pure outcome assessment. Rather, you need to take the further steps to go beyond an evaluation and ensure you are addressing the underlying deficiency present in the student’s performance. Outcome assessment is awesome because it’s quick and definitive, but it’s also lazy if your goal is to improve your students. On the other hand, corrective feedback is desirable but it’s labour-intensive and must be done carefully so as not to remove critical thinking from your student – you don’t want them to merely follow your instructions but instead you want to promote their thinking and reasoning through problems without your guidance.