Happy New Year 2017

How to Take Your Time Back from Internet Companies Demanding Your Attention

How to Be Happy

  • Tips Not Answers: From Lewis Menand’s review of Smart, Faster, Better, I learned that all self help books have the same goal — to get us to be the people we know we should be. These books don’t have have any new solutions — they just reiterate common sense through the current cultural or businesses lenses. Menand points out that Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I love) could be summed up in the sentence “If you are nice to people, they will like you.” But, he continues, the purpose of these books is not “What would Jesus do? but How, exactly, would He do it?” Carnegie’s book has some great tips on how to be nice to people like, “Be a good listener and focus on what the other person is interested in.” To me, it’s a fundamental point that none of these books, as much as they try, have the answer — we already know the answer. But they do have some good tips and tricks on how help us anyway.
  • Wishing Others Well is a Quick Happiness Fix: I’ve always heard that the best way to make yourself happy is to focus on making other people happy — but I’ve found it hard to put into practice. Then I found the meditation app Buddify. It has a “Walking in the City” meditation they call “Zap” where you wish everyone well that you pass on the street. Give it a try because it’s amazing. It’s hard for me to find a quicker happiness fix.
  • Be Vulnerable to Build Stronger Connections with Friends: Brene Brown has a great recording of her seminar The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage. It’s a great follow up to her other work that I love. First you might want to check out her animated shorts on Empathy and Blame that are taken from her presentation at the Royal Society of the Arts. She also gave some great TED talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame.
  • Trigger Yourself to Stay on Track: Marshall Goldsmith wrote a great book called Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want to Be. He talks about how we react to our environment more frequently and powerfully than we’d like to admit. So Goldsmith places triggers in the environment each day to help drive progress on key goals. I’ve been doing this for about a year and it’s really life changing. If you’d like to try it yourself you can take his basic survey at Ask Me Every.
  • Journaling: I’ve been trying to journal at least once a week and preferably once a day for the last year. I got started with this very small book (128 pages) How to Make a Journal of Your Life which is quite inspiring. In terms of materials, I really like Moleskin notebooks. They have a lot of special edition notebooks which make me feel like I’m holding something meaningful in my hands. They come in large (which is actually kind of small) and small (which is tiny). They have lined and not lined. I like it without lines as I feel more free, especially when I paste in photos. Right now I’m using Alice in Wonderland, Large, Plain (no lines). For pens I use Liquid Expresso (extra fine) and Liquid Flair 8 pack for colors. My strategy for journaling is to write about:
    • The Positives (preferable): What are the things I want to hold on to. What things have happened in the past or are coming up on the future that I want to take a snapshot of?
    • The Negatives: But if I’m anxious about something, I’ll put that on paper as well and get it out of my mind.
  • Reduce Stress: According to Robert Sapolsky, research says that the following things lower our stress and make us happy. As a side fact, you get a lot more benefits if you enjoy doing these things and aren’t forced to do them:
    • Exercise: Do 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise. It’ll make your heart and brain work better as well as reduce your stress levels.
    • Meditate: Meditation lowers your blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels. It also lets you put stressors in perspective.
    • Friends and Family: Having friends and family you love and trust helps keep us calm.
    • Sleep: The human body needs 7-9 hours of sleep. Less than this causes significant stress on the body.

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Things I Learned This Year

  • Udacity is an Awesome Place for Online Learning: In order to review technical and coding skills and to learn new ones, I really like Udacity. Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google X and Google’s self driving car project. When Thrum wanted to have more of an impact he created Udacity — which is structured slightly different from other online learning sites. I’ve taken a number of great classes on Udacity including Hadoop and MapReduce (where I downloaded Hadoop to my PC), Intro to the Design of Everyday Things(1)Don Norman finds such fascinating devices as the Chinese Puzzle Pot. He uses it as an example of where your conceptual model fails. It looks like a regular pot but it works a bit differently. (a fantastic class led by Don Norman), and Intro to Computer Science (a good introduction to Python). They also do some very interesting online talks with thought leaders like Tony Fadell (Nest), Astro Teller (Google X) and Yann LeChun (Facebook’s Director of AI).
  • Hacking an Amazon Echo Isn’t That Difficult: This year I learned that it’s not that hard to play around with new technology. I built a little Alexa Skill to kick the tires and publish it. By using one of their standard templates, it only took a couple of hours but it gave me a much better understanding of how these things work!
  • The Ethics of AI: We are becoming more and more reliant on Artificial Intelligence, mostly because it keeps getting better more quickly than anything else. More and more, we’re relying on AI systems to make important decisions like who to hire at work or who to release from prison, even when these models may have strongly ingrained biases based on the training data. And as self driving cars become more of a reality, we will continue to become more reliant on machines. This brings up an interesting ethical question on self driving cars in specific — in an accident that can not be avoided, how does the car prioritize the life of the driver and passengers vs. others? How many injuries would need to be avoided of the car to prioritize the bystanders over the driver. Mercedes has already come up with a statement on this question “You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save. If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car.” Whether or not it’s the right answer, people will want their self driving cars to do everything possible to save their own lives.
  • The Man Who Saved the World: OK, I’ll cast my vote. Vasili Arkhipov, a Russian submariner, did more to save the world than anyone else. In a vote on whether or not to start a nuclear war, the vote was 2 to 1 with Arkhipov the only one against. Take a look at this video to learn how we came that close to self destruction.
  • Everyone is Using Q-Tips Wrong: Did you know that Q-Tips are absolutely not for cleaning your ears. Take a look at the strange history of Q-tips, the most bizarre thing that people buy.
  • Google Maps for Transit. Google Maps is integrated with most transit systems. You can find your route based on planned schedules or even, in some cases, real time data (like on certain subway lines in NYC). This is a far better interface than the other NYC MTA apps.
  • Asking vs Guessing. I never realized that there are two different types of people and they ask for things in two very different ways. If you don’t realize these two different frames, you could end up misunderstanding what’s expected of you. The Guardian had a nice overview of this idea that was first described on a Metafilter post that then went viral. In short:
    • In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise – fully realizing the answer may be no.
    • In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes.
  • Light Bulbs are Engineered to Burn Out: There has been a light bulb that’s been on since 1901 in a firehouse in Livermore California. The reason light bulbs burn out isn’t a technical problem but an economic one.
  • Monthly Temperatures: Because of the way the calendar is laid out, we think that January should be the same temperature as December, February the same as November and so on with June and July being the warmest months. But if you look at a graph, you’ll see that if July and August are the hottest months, and January and February are the coldest, then February feels a lot like December, March like November, etc. It doesn’t seem right intuitively but the temperature graphs don’t lie.

    My Favorite Books

  • Overall Pick: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Amazon, Audible). This is a bit of a fanboy review but this book is awesome. In the article Ernest Cline is the Luckiest Geek Alive, Cline describes the book as, “What if Willy Wonka was a video game designer and held a contest inside his greatest video game?” Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where nearly everyone lives in a virtual world called “The Oasis” and the only way to save the world is through an encyclopedia knowledge of 80’s trivia. The book presents such a compelling version of the VR future that all employees of the VR firm Oculus are asked to read the book before they start. The Audiobook is read fantastically by Wil Wheaton (who is mentioned very briefly in the book). Oh, and Steven Spielberg is making it into a movie.
  • Guilty Pleasure: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (Amazon, Audible). A pruriently intellectual book on gossip, twitter and social media shaming. What happens when Lindsey Stone posts a picture mocking a sign at Arlington National Cemetery and it follows her for the rest of her life or when Justine Sacco tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” and it ruined her life. Ronson does a great job of going deep into the specific stories but also making some general points about what social media shaming is doing to society.
  • Business: Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull (CEO of Pixar) (Amazon, Audible). Creativity Inc is a great book that combines the history of Pixar with the lessons that they’ve learned as a business. The lessons in the book are pretty run of the mill but the real spark is how Pixar implements them. When Catmull says “Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others,” it sounds like any other book on iterative development. But he shows how Pixar implements this, how movies like Toy Story 2 and Up were completely remade from the initial draft. As a bonus, Catmull talks a lot about his decades long relationship with Steve Jobs and how Jobs impacted Pixar.
  • Economics: Misbehaving – The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler (Amazon, Audible). Thaler is the founder of Behavioral Economics, inspired by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. In the book Thaler talks about how he got started in economics and started noticing how humans don’t act in the ways that economists expect them to. For example, in his first experience as a professor he got enormous pushback from students when he presented them with a hard test, with an average score of 72. Though the class was graded on a curve, this shouldn’t make a difference to anyone — but it did to the students. How did he learn to placate them? By changing the total available points to 137. Poof! The human students became much happier.
  • Memoir: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Amazon, Audible). I was expecting a teenage story similar to all the other comedy celebrity stories out there — like Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” But this book is so much more — chronicling Noah’s life through the collapse of Apartheid and seeing the culture through the eyes of a half black / half white man who doesn’t really belong to either culture.
  • Technology: The Elon Musk Blog Series: Wait but Why by Tim Urban (Amazon e-book, Original web series). Tim Urban writes a great blog called Wait But Why? Elon Musk liked it so much he asked Tim to write about his companies. After months of work, many interviews with Elon and staff and 90,000 words Tim put together a very complete picture of the problems that Tesla (global warming) and SpaceX (global annihilation) are looking to solve and how they are looking to solve them.

    Just for Fun

  • This guy photoshops himself into Kendall Jenner’s Instagram and improves them a thousand percent.
  • Malcolm Gladwell had a podcast this year called Revisionist History. It’s pretty awesome. Malcolm is such a brilliant storyteller and uses the podcast medium even better than he uses his writing. He may not be right but he’s always mesmerizing.
  • Grace Hopper may be the most important Computer Science alum from Yale but I’d never seen a video of her. Here she is on Letterman.
  • Kangaroo Cups are a great invention for kids prone to spilling their drinks that have outgrown traditional sippy cups. Originally created for Parkinson’s patients, these 3 legged cups provide a simple spill resistant open topped cup.
  • Ever wonder what Disney World would look like after the Zombie Apocalypse?
  • Betteridge’s law of headlines states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” @BetteridgesLaw has it’s own twitter feed with items like Is London still the counterculture capital? and Are your old toys worth a fortune?
  • For my banking friends, this is certainly the funniest credit card security question joke that’s ever been created.


1 Don Norman finds such fascinating devices as the Chinese Puzzle Pot. He uses it as an example of where your conceptual model fails. It looks like a regular pot but it works a bit differently.