“The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande


.Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And, with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields–from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

The Checklist Manifesto chronicles Dr. Gawande’s quest to better understand the sources of the greatest stresses and failures in the practice of medicine. From an essay he read in college, he gathers that there are two kinds of failure: those of ignorance and ineptitude. “Failures of ignorance we can forgive,” he says, “If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.” To remind us to apply this knowledge correctly, he happens upon a simple solution—the checklist.

He emphasizes with our inherent resistance to such a simple fix. He understands that a checklist feels by its very nature robotic and ‘soulless’ but says that a well-designed one doesn’t have to squelch our heroism. Across industries, from aviation to construction, Dr. Gawande shows that a checklist can get the routine and known checked off so we can focus our full attention on the parts of our jobs that include uncertainty.

Our world is complicated, and any method of better organizing all of our knowledge and information is much needed. Mundane as they are, the checklist has been shown to save lives and money in just about any place it’s methodically used.

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“The New New Thing” by Michael Lewis


I really do think, and not just because I happen to be writing a book about it, that the business of creating and foisting new technology upon others that goes on in Silicon Valley is near the core of the American experience. The United States obviously occupies a strange place in the world. It is the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy, of certain kinds of freedom, and of transience. Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world. It is one of those places, unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but like Las Vegas, that are unimaginable anywhere but in the United States. It is distinctively us.

This snapshot of late-1990s Silicon Valley is interesting because it’s so far removed from today. Think about what has changed: Google wasn’t started until 1998, Apple was floundering, and Microsoft ruled software; all while cell phones were novelties that could barely even function as phones.The ‘new new thing’ has since been fawned over and discarded a hundred times.

The main character here is Jim Clark, a name the public has forgotten who made billions from taking the Netscape browser public on the stock market. From reading this, I’m certain than he did a lot to push technologies from Netflix to GPS navigation from fanciful to commonplace. His gusto prompted gigantic tech companies to pour billions of dollars into these innovations that were terrible failures for their first dozen iterations.

Michael Lewis’ musings on untrammeled ambition and the ceaseless desire for New and More that technologists foist upon the world are not to be missed.

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“Napoleon” by Paul Johnson


The Louisiana Purchase must rate as Bonaparte’s greatest single failure of imagination. “Louisiana” compromised 828,000 square miles, subsequently becoming thirteen states. France was paid $15 million, or four cents an acre. If Bonaparte had used France’s legitimate rights to its American territory to explore and create an enormous dominion across the Atlantic, instead of trying to carve out an illegitimate empire in Europe, he would have enriched France instead of impoverishing her, provided scope for countless adventurous young Frenchmen instead of killing them in futile battles, and incidentally inflicted more damage on his British opponents than all his efforts in Europe. He would also have changed the globe permanently, something his career failed to achieve in the end.

This is a departure from the short biographies I’ve read by Paul Johnson because it’s obvious that he doesn’t like Napoleon. I’ve read his biographies on Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill, and each were intoxicating because of the author’s passion for his subject. His breathless enthusiasm is like that of a passionate teacher lecturing on something that excites him. But with Napoleon, Johnson’s usual enthusiasm is tempered by the tyrant’s pivotal failures.

Johnson sees Napoleon as a monumental but ultimately tragic figure, dragged down by his overwhelming aggression and ambition, a force of destruction and upheaval rather than creation. An opportunist for opportunity’s sake.

Perhaps that is the central lesson of Napoleon’s life, who was a brilliant battlefield strategist but miserable politician and statesmen. In fact, this point was made best by Johnson himself, in the final paragraph of this book:

The great evils of Bonapartism–the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power–came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century, which will go down in history as the Age of Infamy. It is well to remember the truth about the man whose example gave rise to all, to strip away the myth and reveal the reality. We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing–indeed are perilous in the extreme–without a humble and contrite heart.

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“Columbine” by David Cullen



National polls taken shortly after the attack would identify all sorts of culprits contributing to the tragedy: violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan. Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.

The frightening part of this book is that it offers no scapegoat, no easy answer. The closest thing it offers is in the psychological profiles of the two perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: that Eric was a psychopathic and Dylan was majorly depressed. And “an angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair.”

Insanity was marked by mental confusion. Eric Harris expressed cold, rational calculation. Fuselier ticked off Eric’s personality traits: charming callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose, and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy. It was like reciting the Psychopathy Checklist.

The closest thing I came to any sort of conclusion while reading this was when I was watching a documentary of the JFK assassination and some perceptive videographer captured this image from the movie poster of the film Lee Harvey Oswald was watching at the Texas Theatre when he was captured, War is Hell:


“There are some things that only the people that do them understand.”

As chilling as that sentiment is, this book is a well-crafted snapshot of the late 90s. David Cullen approaches this delicate subject with nuance and respect. Along with 9/11, I consider this travesty to be one of the defining mass events of my adolescence. Harrowing, but necessary, reading.

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“The End of Power” by Moisés Naím


The three revolutionary changes that define our time are as follows: the More revolution, which is characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates, and quantity of products on the market; the Mobility revolution, which has set people, goods, money, ideas, and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates toward every corner of the planet (including those that were once remote and inaccessible); and the Mentality revolution, which reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.


Moisés Naím is convinced that being in charge is more difficult, less rewarding, and easier to fall out of than ever before in history. While technology is an obvious scapegoat for this, Naím proves that at its core this phenomena is rooted in the fact that “we are far more numerous on the planet; we live longer; we are in better health; we are more literate and educated; an unprecedented number of us are less desperate for food and have more time and money for other pursuits; and when we are not satisfied with our present location, it is now easier and cheaper than ever to move and try somewhere else.”

This book is an exploration of why people in power are having a more difficult time than ever exercising their authority. His anecdotes and quotes are convincing, and he makes his point from an exhaustive number of angles. Just take it from Bill Clinton’s quote on the cover: “The End of Power will change the way you read the news, the way you think about politics, and the way you look at the world.”

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The Compassionate Wisdom of Eric Hoffer


Here are some words that struck me, from Eric Hoffer’s collection of short essays In Our Time:

“In the alchemy of man’s soul almost all noble attributes—courage, honor, love, hope, faith, duty, loyalty—can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion also stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil within us. Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) is a tragically overlooked 20th century intellectual. He worked as a longshoreman and was self-educated by reading library books in his spare time. Later in life he became a writer. His prose is simple and direct, free of any academic pretension. Although Hoffer was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the last year of his life,  only one of his books, The True Believer, is still in print by a major publisher. President Eisenhower recommended this book to a desperate World War II veteran during his correspondence as president, writing:

“’Faith in a holy cause,’” Hoffer wrote, ‘is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.’”

In this letter, Eisenhower explained to the veteran that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems—freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.

I see Eric Hoffer as a wizened old man, fluent in the nooks and crannies of human history, from Medieval times to post-World War II America. A keen observer and participant in human nature. Through books he’d lived thousands of years and been witness to as many lives. His published writing is from the last 30 years of his life, looking back in the postwar era and all that came before it and wondering how mankind got to now.

Hoffer was as much a social historian as he was a philosopher, and had much to say on how people lived and thought. Some of his ideas are out of date, and others fall flat, but he writes with a unique sense of curiosity and wonderment.

He’s a bemused but cautious optimist. His philosophy on life was so simple that he believed it made compassion a reflexive instinct:

“It could well be that the adoption of a certain view of life would be fruitful of benevolence and compassion. We feel close to each other when we see ourselves as strangers and outsiders on this planet or see the planet as an island of life in a dark immensity of nothingness. We also draw together when we are aware that night must close in on all living things; that we are condemned to death at birth, and that life is a bus ride to the place of execution. All our squabbling and vying are about seats in the bus, and the ride is over before we know it.

“The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel


When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Because changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do, and become. If that leads to the question “But can I really change?,” I reply with what George Kelly said to his therapy clients when they kept asking him if they could get control of their lives. He looked straight into their eyes and said, “Would you like to?”


Walter Mischel’s research has an overall positive bent on the topics of self-control and discipline. His most discussed study, the famed Marshmallow Test, has been used by editorialists and blabbermouths all over the world to proclaim all sorts of things that he doesn’t necessarily believe, such as discipline being hardwired at birth. I got the impression that he wrote this book primarily to set the record straight.

Mischel is very clear that the most important determiner of self-control in any given situation is context. The example he uses is Bill Clinton: the man had the discipline to get a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale law degree, and rise to the most powerful political position in the world, all while showing no restraint around junk food or pretty young interns. A large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the myriad of ways available to frame a situation to allow for the most controlled response possible. The book makes you confront the question of how to delay gratification and resist temptation in a world rife with libidinous distractions and mindless entertainments.

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“Trading Up” by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske


This is a book about the shift in consumer purchase behavior towards either really nice, luxury goods or cheap alternatives in the areas the individual consumer considers expendable. For example, someone might buy cheap underwear in order to save up enough to buy that set of premium golf clubs. Although Trading Up was written in 2003 and revised in 2005, this phenomenon is in full-swing and evident at any retail store.

They also go through great lengths to describe the reasons a consumer would strive for what they call a New Luxury good. Namely, New Luxury goods have significant emotional appeal instead of Old Luxury’s appeal to status anxiety. These emotional spaces of appeal can take several angles, such as “Taking care of me”, “Connecting with others”, “Questing and exploration”, and “Individual style”. All four emotional spaces are profiled in the book and read like a marketing primer for the Internet Age.

The authors detail the evolution of the use of expendable income through case histories of different industries. I hadn’t known that wine was considered a cheap drunkard’s drink before premium alternatives came along that appealed to consumer’s emotional needs. Other surprises are hidden throughout this book, and in a strange way thinking about consumer behavior has given a lot of products and advertising copy I see in the aisles of grocery stores a fresh perspective.

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“Silver Screen Fiend” by Patton Oswalt

I like to drink.
At my drunkest the worst I do is rewatch
Murder on the Orient Express or fall asleep.
I used to smoke a lot of pot. All it made me do
was go on long walks by myself and laugh at things.
I’ve enjoyed my share of LSD and mushrooms.
They exploded my being from the inside out—
while I sat and listened to music.

I’ve done my due diligence as far as vices,
but I’m an unbearable slouch when it comes
to interesting stories connected to them.

This will be either the most interestin or
the most boring addiction memoir you’ve ever read.
I can’t promise it ever gets “harrowing,”
but I can promise that I tried—I really tried—
to make it funny.

Here we go.

And so begins “Silver Screen Fiend”, Patton Oswalt’s memoir about his mid-twenties and early thirties. He focuses especially on the four years he spent living in Los Angeles and watching A LOT of movies (1995-1999). During this time, he was employed as a writer for MadTV and practiced his stand-up comedy, all while harboring a pipedream of being a film director.

He kept track of all the movies he watched: beginning with Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and ending with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace four years later to the day. Seeing The Phantom Menace was the flowering of a slow-blossoming epiphany for him, because he had so many complaints about how crummy it was without ever trying to make a movie. In the end, he realizes he’d been taking movies way too seriously:

Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life. And it hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film.

Consuming art and media is so much easier than making your own. No amount of watching movies will make you a better maker of movies if you’re not actively striving to create your own. Oswalt was slow to realize this. Furthermore, it got to the point where his love of movies was interfering with his ability to fully engaging with life. So this book is, in it’s own way, inspirational and motivational. I’m glad I read it.

High School Graduation Speech, my favorite essay of Patton’s.
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“The Glass Cage” by Nicholas Carr

Because designers often assume that human beings are “unreliable and inefficient,” at least when compared to a computer, they strive to give them as small a role as possible in the operation of systems. People end up functioning as mere monitors, passive watchers of screens. That’s a job that humans, with our notoriously wandering minds, are particularly bad at. Research on vigilance, dating back to studies of British radar operators watching for German submarines during World War II, shows that even highly motivated people can’t keep their attention focused on a display of relatively stable information for more than about half an hour. They get bored; they daydream; their concentration drifts. “This means,” Bainbridge wrote, “that is is humanly impossible to carry out the basic function of monitoring for unlikely abnormalities.”

Automation asks so little of us. By it’s very definition, it runs itself, and that’s the problem. In some industries more than others, technology has gotten so advanced that it’s reduced its employees to passive monitors instead of engaged participants. That’s a role humans are uniquely bad at being. Our collective nature means we thrive on active participation. We are defined by the work we do.

Nicholas Carr isn’t a disenfranchised Luddite. Rather, he’s a deep thinker on the possibilities of technology and where it’s taking us. After all, as he says, technology is “what makes us human. Technology is in our nature. Through our tools we give our dreams form. We bring them into the world. The practicality of technology may distinguish it from art, but both spring from a similar, distinctly human yearning.” But he does have serious misgivings about letting the machines work for us (telling us how to navigate, remembering facts, etc.) while we sit idly. And those misgivings make for an engaging, if harrowing, read.

Quotes and Anecdotes: The Downside of GPS
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