My 2017 in Books

This is the fourth year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I post on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2016 list here, the 2015 list here, and the 2014 list here. As always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

January is a future-forward month for many folks in my line of work with CES beginning in a week (I’ll be leading VIP tours with Story-Tech once again) and myriad predictions about the year ahead by different sorts of thinkers across the spectrum, and that future orientation is one reason I like to start the year with look back at some of the places my mind has toured and when it toured them.

I read 50 books in 2017, which sounds like a lot but they weren’t all BIG books, and some of them were “chomp chomp, gulp” experiences. 20 were non-fiction books about history, science, business and where those all intersect; a bit less than half were science fiction and fantasy, and the remainder were crime fiction of one sort or another. It was a light year for literary fiction, but I have hopes for 2018.

I was surprised to see that the vast majority of the 50 were new books, published in either 2016 or 2017.

For those of you with short attention spans, the BEST book I read in 2017 was Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (chunky comments and link below). 

Here’s the efficient list:

1. Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2).

2. Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations.

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future.

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel.

5. Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World.  

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona).

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. 

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today. 

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. Finished 4/23/17. 

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. 

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent. 

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption.

22. Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace)  

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows.

25. Winslow, Don. The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel.

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard. 

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station.

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona).

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8). 

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel. Finished November 25, 2017.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense. 

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives.

For those of you who are ready to dig in, here’s the really-quite-a-bit-longer version:

Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2) (Tor Books). Finished January 6.

The first of two sequels to Hominids, which I read late in 2016, this continued the story of universe-hopping Neanderthals who came from a parallel world where Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens died out. The conceit is sufficiently fascinating — and an exercise in appreciating the unpredictability and “it could have happened another way” quality of natural selection — that I finished the book, but not so terrific that I read the third installment.

2.  Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations (TED Books, Simon & Schuster). Finished January 12.

This agreeable small volume is a TED book — a collection of similarly agreeable small volumes that reminds me of the Quantum Books that the University of California Press tried a couple decades back with the idea that it might be a good thing to publish books that it would only take the average college-educated reader an evening to read.  

Unlike his academic books, here Ariely is speaking to a mainstream audience about motivation, de-motivation, how different sorts of motivation interact, and how — despite an increasingly transactional, short-term mindset foisted upon us by the combo-platter of the gig economy and Wall Street’s quarterly earnings focus — the most motivational things in our lives have more to do with a longer time scales and social connection.  

Reading Ariely’s book reminded me of other books that deal with similar issues: Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (haven’t finished this one yet), and Adam Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Grand Central Publishing). Finished January 21.

I enjoyed this book, one of several “yikes! Things are changing fast and in multiple directions all at the same time!” books recently published, another being Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late: an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, which I still haven’t finished reading.

Rather than breaking new ground, Ito and Howe’s book usefully collects and organizes a group of common themes, or maybe memes, that have bubbled up over the last decade or so in books, TED talks and the like, and the authors deploy these themes in binary opposites: emergence over authority, pull over push, compasses over maps and the like. Some of these memes are so well worn that it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for them: businesses have to learn to fail fast, try new things, decentralize from a command a control model and embrace complexity. Yawn. 

On the other hand, when the authors dig into actual stories some of the memes come alive, like in the “risk over safety chapter” when they describe how one company spent $3 million dollars on a feasibility study for an MIT Media Lab proposal that only would have cost $600,000. “Implementing risk over safety does not mean blinding yourself to risk. It simply means understanding that as the cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes” (page 117). 

Likewise, in “systems over objects” the authors talk about “shifting the emphasis [at the Media Lab] from creating objects to building relationships” (225), using Google’s self-driving car initiative as an example. “In describing its self-driving car, Google has emphasized that the car itself is merely an object– the artificial intelligence that drives it is the system, and it must mesh seamlessly into the other systems it touches.” Perhaps the strongest chapter is “diversity over ability,” which relates a series of illuminating anecdotes about how “distance from the field” empowers outsiders to solve problems to which experts are blind because “the less exposed a given solver is to the discipline in which the problem resides, the more likely he or she is to solve it” (182).   

The authors are genuinely optimistic about how we humans will prosper in an age of increasing technological change, which is refreshing. Sometimes that optimism blinds them to the dark sides of the trends they chart: for example, the authors celebrate crowdsourcing (Jeff Howe invented the term) and how EaaS (everything as a service) reduces startup costs for entrepreneurs, but they don’t recognize how this same trend leads to the “gig economy” where nobody has health benefits or a 401K.

A few miscellaneous observations: the book is mercifully short (less than 240 pages) with lots of white space; as a physical artifact it has a sensuous quality that is engaging. I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as an e-book; the authors end each chapter with a PS written by only one of them, usually with an interesting personal story. 

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel (Ace). Finished January 24.

Delightful and absorbing third installment in the Linesman series: this one was better put together and more focused than the first two, and I whizzed through it in a couple of days. One thing I liked about it was that it had fewer points of view than the others, just Linesman Ean Lambert and his former bodyguard Dominque Radko. Solid space opera.

5.   Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (Crown Business). Finished February 2.

One index of how seriously I take a book is how many notes I take. I took a LOT with this book, which was recommended by my friend Carol Phillips, whose recommendations are always strong.

Moon shrewdly dissects the weirdness of competitors all having the same features on parallel products, which commodifies everything. The diagnosis part of the first half is worthwhile and stronger than the solutions of the second.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World (Little, Brown).  Finished February 11.

An impressive insider’s tour of the first eight years of these companies, with clear “I’m finishing this just as 2016 ends” up-to-the-minute details. Like Stone’s last book on Amazon (The Everything Store, 2013), this is an enjoyable read, full of engaging stories about the compelling personalities behind the companies. It’s hard not to fall in love with your subject, and so I’m sympathetic to Stone’s positive bias towards Uber and Airbnb, although as a transportation researcher I’m much more skeptical of Uber’s future.

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik (Mariner Books). Finished February 17.

Prescient 1969 science fiction novel from the author of the novels that became three classic movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Ubik has a philosophical underpinning to a satire of the EaaS (Everything as a Service) transformation happening in our lives today. It’s also damned funny, particularly when the protagonist can’t get out of his apartment until he pays the door a five cent fee because he signed a “door as a service” contract.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel (Daw, Penguin Group). Finished February 24.

I enjoy this series — a kind of English X-Files where a special team of detectives investigate crimes involving the supernatural — light fare though it is. The author started in British TV, which explains why reading this book feels like watching a season of a low budget but well constructed series. The author counts on the reader having read — and remembering — all the previous books, and this means that character development… Isn’t. A fun romp. Deserves to be a series on SyFy or the like.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished March 3.

Bujold is my favorite living science fiction and fantasy writer, so any time she releases something new it provokes my immediate purchase and abrupt disappearance from family life. The Penric and Desdemona series of novellas about a wizard and his pet demon are short enough that my wife and kids don’t miss me for long. (More on the business model for this and others below at #28.)

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press). Finished April 2.

Brilliant psychological profile of Tea Party Republicans and why to liberal eyes they so consistently vote against their own interests. This book is like a scholarly (although engaging) companion to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (see last year’s list).

My one gripe with the book is how little Hochschild engages with technology and media proliferation throughout. She mentions people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook communities from time to time, but doesn’t have a pervasive take on how, for example, alt-right websites and media to the right of Fox News has normalized Fox, and how that has impacted the information that her Tea Party subjects internalize.

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today (Public Affairs). Finished April 3.

Interesting book with a bunch of razor sharp insights — in particular on why Google is interested in Self-Driving Cars and what a potential success scenario for Magic Leap might mean for the world — and some very good questions to bear in mind as one is thinking about what’s coming. I like Webb’s notion of a “fringe map” with nodes and connections, which she develops as she’s thinking through new technologies and behaviors and how they will impact other things.

As a futurist, this was a useful book for me to have read.  

On the other hand, Webb’s methodology (six vectors one way, ten trends another) is so complex as to be unusable, which makes me think that in part she has created that deliberately in order to have the book act as an advertisement for her company without giving away the store.  

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Finished April 23. 

This was a close runner up to the Williams’ book for best book of my year. Sermon spent months as an undercover academic working at check cashing services, payday lenders and the like to get a up-close-and-personal feel for why millions of Americans are unbanked. The short answer is that they cannot afford the banks predatory fees, about which I have more to say here. Servon’s combination of Geertzian thick description and shrewd analysis makes this a compelling read as well as a convincing piece of analysis.

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire (Tor Science Fiction). Finished April 30, having started it the previous afternoon.

There is no other SF writer working today who so powerfully channels and updates the style of Robert Heinlein. (This is a high compliment.) Scalzi is a writing machine, and this new series explores what would happen to a galaxy-wide empire if the wormholes that link it together began to evaporate.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Vintage). Finished May 7.

Wu’s description of how television’s entrance into the home changed how much advertising had access to the private life of citizens was insightful. It was also salutary to have somebody point out that we’re all subservient to an almost-contractual exchange of attention for value that most of us never consciously agreed to and of which the terms vary wildly and beyond our control or even awareness. 

On the flawed side, there was a lot of sturm und drang about how bad the attention merchants have been for us, but it’s like the old saw about the weather: people complain but nobody does anything about it. At points in Wu’s book it sounded like he was going to articulate a plan for how to take back some of the attention that gets frittered away by media and technology — like what Levitin talks about in The Organized Mind although from more of a law and policy perspective — but Wu never gets there.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown). Finished May 18.

Well-written, compelling, incredibly depressing. As I read this book my most-frequent reaction was to mutter, “no… no… no…” at how many avoidable mistakes the Clinton campaign made. I guess I was feeling particularly masochistic in May.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy (Disney-Hyperion). Finished May 26.

The latest installment in the Percy Jackson universe of Greek demigods. Both of my kids were  devoted to this series at one point, although now the teenager has aged out of it. I was the first to read the first five-book series when I was on a LOT of planes for business and needed something light. Books 1-5 were terrific. The many sequels have been less great, although still quite good. The 12-year-old likes me to read this series with him, so I do.  

Like the first book in this series, the story is action-packed and well constructed. I like that in this series Riordan goes back to using single first-person narrator, in this case the defrocked Apollo who has been turned into a mortal teenager with only limited access to his godly powers. It is a somewhat-entertaining departure that Apollo is conceited and self-centered as a narrator, which seems appropriate for the Greek gods, even if it gets tired pretty quickly. I’ll read the next one, too.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books). Finished May 27.

Renny Gleeson recommended this book, and he doesn’t recommend things lightly. I got it at the library and was finally about to start reading it when my renewals ran out and it got recalled, so I bought it and dug back in.  

It’s a slow, long, challenging story, so I wound up taking breaks from it… and also getting seduced by the easy-like-Sunday-morning quality of the Scalzi novel and my desire to keep up with my boy by reading the Riordan.  

Liu’s book is difficult for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it’s translated from the Chinese and therefore requires more effort than a book by a Westerner. Beyond that, one of the key premises — that you need to be trained to understand an alien culture by experiencing that culture in a VR video game that takes a long, long time to master — is also a difficult cultural translation, even though this one is fictional.  

Not a world-shattering experience, but it is quite good.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press). Finished June 2.

Best book of the year.

If a webcam had been trained at my face while I was reading this book my expression would probably have been one of slowly dawning horror. If a comic-strip thought balloon had been connected to my head, it might have read, “Oh dear. I guess I really do live in even more of a bubble than I thought I did.”

Of the four “How did Trump become president?” books I’ve read, this is the most illuminating.

Emerging from a celebrated HBR article written in the feverish November days after the election and its shocking outcome, Williams has expanded her central argument into a compelling, direct, bracing and impressively short book. At 131 pages of text with another 50 pages of apparatus (notes, index), I read this book swiftly and with focused attention.

The reason White Working Class is so bracing is that while other books on the topic focus on the failures of working class conservatives to understand how badly the Republicans serve their economic interests (JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in The Own Land) or on how it was Hillary Clinton’s fault for running a poor campaign (Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered), Williams instead focuses squarely on how badly progressives understand the values and priorities of the white working class.  

In other words, Williams argues, the problem is us. 

Trump’s rise isn’t the fault of the Tea Party Republicans or duped Rust Belt workers, it’s our fault, the fault of Democrats who not only have neglected to make a case that the Democratic Party understands the desires and needs of the white working class in favor of other groups but also have condescended to the white working class for generations. 

It is neither trivial nor an accident, Williams argues, that moronic Homer Simpson is the most salient media representation of a white working class father who supports his family while his wife Marge stays at home to care for the house and children. Williams also mentions Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, and I’d toss Peter Griffin into the mix as well. White working class fathers visible in the media  (which is not a common sight in any event) are obese, crude and stupid.  

Folks on the left may fume and roll their eyes at Fox News and how it panders to the basest instincts of its viewers, but, Williams argues, the reason that Fox and its ilk have been able to convince the white working class that the mainstream media is the liberal media is that the mainstream media has abandoned the white working class by trivializing its values and priorities.

A don’t-miss read.

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit (Solaris). Finished June 10.

Interesting space opera with “calendrical rot” as a central conceit where different technologies are enable by different notions of time and moving outside of the dominant culture’s calendar is heresy. It’s a speedy, good story with a strong female protagonist in Cheris. My one issue with the book concerns its world building: a lot of things are poorly explained or not explained at all, which can be a bit confusing.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent (Dutton). Finished June 15.

Fascinating 2045-set sci fi thriller where genetic manipulation has become the dominant industry on the planet, with cars grown out of synthetic shrimp, “degans” eat “deathless meat” that is vat grown, and designer babies are illegal, but only sometimes. I inhaled this book starting on a plane-ride home on a Tuesday night and then finished it on Thursday night. Recommended by Susan MacDermid.

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption (powerHouse Books). Finished June 17, 2017.

The Drum ran my review of this terrific book. Here are a few sample paragraphs:

Rosenblum’s thesis is that friction gets in the way of business success in a fractal manner: the always-self-replicating pattern ranges from how a product category removes friction from culture at the broadest level, down to how a specific brand of a product removes friction from the lives of customers, down to how removing internal friction from the business creating the product aligns the team, and then down to how removing friction from an individual’s life and work habits can bring more productivity, creativity and satisfaction.

This complex but enabling take on friction is what distinguishes Rosenblum’s take from the commonplace business cliche about friction (i.e., it’s bad).

Lest you think the book hovers at a platitudinous level emitting self-help-style bromides, Rosenblum connects his argument to case studies linking the elimination of friction to business success, economic success, rather than marketing vanity metrics.

Read the whole review of the book on The Drum.

22. Moon, Elizabeth Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace) (Del Rey). Finished June 21.

Terrific military SF coming at least a decade after the last book in this series. Since I hadn’t reread the previous volumes some of the references and relationships didn’t resonate, but this is a minor quibble. A compelling read that I sailed through in a handful of days.

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation (Bantam Spectra Books). Finished June 24.

Classic SF. I’d been thinking of Asimow’s notion of psychohistory in the context of AI, which prompted me to read the first volume of the trilogy. It’s an interesting, cerebral, canny and thoughtful take on how a civilization might survive a dark age.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows (Margaret K. McElderry Books;). Finished July 4.

Delightful YA fiction recommended by an English teacher and fellow Shakespearean at my son’s grade school. Nat Field, who shares a name and penchant for acting with a famous player from Shakespeare’s London, mysteriously switches places with his Renaissance namesake and finds himself acting side-by-side with Will Shakespeare himself in 1599. A richly imagined piece of historical fiction– and one that name checks my friend Andy Gurr along the way!

25. Winslow, Don. The Force (William Morrow). Finished July 22.  

I bought this book because of an enthusiastic blurb by Stephen King and because I saw it on the table at Costco. This was an uncharacteristic move since I don’t read Stephen King all that often, but I enjoyed the book. There are skaz-like qualities to the third-person narration in a grim story about corrupt New York cops. “The skaz” is a lit-crit term that describes a narration that is so completely in a character’s voice and subjectivity that it is startling and original. The most famous example is Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Imagine the Starz show Power from a corrupt cop’s point of view and then transform it into a novel, then you’ve got a good sense of The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel (Baen). Finished July 30.

The latest in this sprawling series: a good “pop it into you mouth, chew and swallow” read. I will always have fond feelings for the Liaden universe because I read the first several with my baby daughter asleep with her head on my right shoulder while rocking gently in the glider in her sunny room in our old house in Encino. 

Unlike Bujold’s Vorkosigan books — where it is conceivable to jump into the series at any point because each novel is a self-contained unit — starting with the Liaden series at “The Gathering Edge” would be incomprehensible. I’ve read them all, and even I have trouble keeping track of the characters and the history, not in the least because the story has split into different concurrent narratives as well as leapt back and forth in time.

The current book is an entry in the story of Theo Waitley, the half-Liaden, half-Terran captain of a sentient ship called Bechimo. It’s a picaresque series of episodes that aren’t a single tale and don’t really add up to anything as a single book, but the episodes are interesting. The story starts with two Ytrang explorers popping into the universe from a previous, now-destroyed universe… a bit of back story that hasn’t ever really been developed in the series until now, unless it was in one of the side-stories that the authors self-publish. (It feels somewhat like Heinlein and Asimov each trying to reconcile all their different stories into one universe or multiverse late in their lives.)

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard (Little, Brown). Finished July 31.

I inhaled this book in a single, albeit long, day, starting on a plane ride from Portland to New York and finishing in bed that night. Ballard is a terrific successor to Harry Bosch (whose adventures are not complete but seem to be winding down): she’s a smart, capable, passionate and reckless police detective. The story is a classic Connelly police procedural with a minor if very surprising twist at the end, and I wanted more Ballard the moment I was done. Ballard is pretty butch — female but not feminine — and I’ll be curious in future novels if Connelly explores her femininity at all.

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 5.

Enjoyable novella in the “Rivers of London” aka “Peter Grant” series (see #8, above) that occupies my time whenever they come out. As with #8, the author presumes that only fans will read this book as he uses characters from previous entries with little or no explanation. Not a good jumping off point for new readers.

Two interesting things about The Furthest Station.

#1: Unlike some of the full-length books where Big Movie-Like Action Sequences tend to take up the last quarter, this one is a solid police procedural… an episode of Law & Magical Order. I think the author realized what he had midstream and decided to release it as a novella, which leads me to… 

#2: The business model. Aaronovitch released this as an expensive direct-to-fans hardback created by Subterranean Press some months ago, only allowing a cheaper digital version to come out over the last few weeks. His usual publisher, DAW, didn’t handle this one– either the hardback or the digital. The cover illustrator for the DAW-published volumes also drew the cover for this one (or another artist did a good facsimile). So the series exists outside a single publisher (there are also comic books, which I haven’t investigated.). This is also what Lois McMaster Bujold is doing with her Penric novellas, and it shows that there is market appetite for what Kevin Kelly once called “1000 True Fans” supporting an artist and making smaller endeavors profitable, although I suspect that these smaller projects are only possible when built on the platform of bigger, mass market releases. 

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press). Finished August 6. 

I read the 2001 edition and then got the 2013 afterword via the USC library. Fascinating book that I’ll continue to think about and may need to buy. I first learned of this book in a Eugene Wei blog post, and subsequently quoted it in a column at the Center site.

Chwe’s central idea is that we need to share metaknowledge — we need not only to know something but also to know that other people know it, and that other people know we know it, and that they know that we know that they know it in infinite regression — in order to coordinate action. It’s helpful in understanding how Trump mobilized a base with blatant falsehoods that nonetheless became common “knowledge,” and it has helped me think through the sinister implications of the decline of shared reality because of new display technologies.

Most importantly, Chwe’s version of common knowledge helps to explain the timing of the #MeToo movement.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 9.

See #9. Another delightful novella set in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe.

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books). Finished August 14.

Really, really interesting. Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist and researcher who explores what our search histories say about us in case study after fascinating case study, divvied up across different fields, demographics and gender. The book is well worth reading, although I sometimes found the author overconfident about his conclusions. There’s a difference (that the author doesn’t seem to recognize) between the things that we search for and the things that we want, between what we believe about ourselves and the beliefs that come into focus based on what we do online. Those things all overlap, but they aren’t identical.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books). Finished August 24.

Fascinating near-future military techno-thriller about a Chinese attack on the USA in order to secure massive oil reserve under the Pacific Ocean. The authors combine canny extrapolation about technology with a crowded cast of characters and a narrative that moves in rapid bursts where each chapter is just a handful of pages, the POV always shifting. If this hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or mini series, then Hollywood is missing out.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished September 5.

I always like and rarely love Doctorow’s novels, and this one is no exception. The difficulty I face is that there are so many different stories trapped inside one book: it’s a book about post-automation economics and what happens when a world of easy plenty is in conflict with older notions of property; it’s a book about the singularity and what it means to upload your consciousness; it’s a book about gender identity and race. It’s a lot… and the parts don’t add up to anything more than the whole. I’m not sad that I read it, but nothing that changed my world view… which is what I want from science fiction.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Finished September 14.

Holy smokes did this take me a long time. It wasn’t in Kahneman territory, but SHEESH. I started reading the book on June 27, and over the course of the intervening months took several breaks.

On the other hand, I also took 21 pages of notes. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging history of humanity from when homo sapiens first walked across the African planes to the arrival of money as a kind of operating system for cultures, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel (William Morrow). Finished September 27.

Terrific, hard-to-describe, IMMENSE and often very funny 742-page science fiction, time travel story about an attempt to go back to the past in order to save magic from dying at the birth of the age of science.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8) (Baen Books). Finished October 2.

An enjoyable new addition to Asaro’s long-running half romance/ half space opera, although set in the earlier half of the series. One interesting departure is that Asaro writes this (and its predecessor) in the first person rather than her usual third person “free indirect discourse.”

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace (Type A Group). Finished October 14.

A small but mighty 79-page polemic against ad:tech and everything that’s wrong with it, which is a considerable amount, particularly from the privacy point of view. I loved Hoffman’s other book, Marketers are from Mars; Consumers are from New Jersey, a year or two ago, and Bad Men is just as good. I read it having just come from the Data + Marketing Association’s annual conference — an organization that only merits one brief mention alongside repeated diatribes against the ANA, 4As and IAB — so the issues of data use and misuse by marketers was already very much on my mind. Hoffman’s clarity — remove tracking and most of the problems with ad:tech go away — is refreshing. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Portfolio). Finished October 20.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Galloway interviewed at a conference and enjoy his appearances on the Re/Code podcast with Kara Swisher. He is always provocative, insightful and so very, very snarky. This book, his first, reads a lot like he sounds, which is both good and bad. On the good side, I breezed through the book, merrily underlining and making marginal comments. On the down side, I took not a page of notes, which is unusual for me. The book is heavier on snark than it is on research. Galloway trades on his status as a teacher at NYU, but the book is more of an immense blog post than a work with academic substance. The las chapter about entrepreneurship may be the most enduring, which isn’t a surprise since Galloway himself has been a successful serial entrepreneur.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance (Orbit). Finished October 25.

I ADORED Leckie’s “Ancillary” trilogy, so I was delighted to learn about this new novel set in a far-flung corner of the same fictional universe. While the trilogy was a trio of home runs, the new book is merely a base hit. Solid space opera with thoughtful and coherent world building and engaging characters, the weakness was in the anemic plot.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished October 29.

One definition of happiness is the release of anything new by Bujold. Although her novels come achingly slow, she has been exploding with Penric and Desdemona novellas (#9, #30) for the last couple of years, to my intense delight.

As with Ben Aaronovitch’s last piece (#28), an interesting feature of the Penric novellas is the business model. I paid $3.99 last night to buy this on iBooks — or to buy a license for it since it’s an ebook — and I presume that 70% of that money went to Bujold, or roughly $2.80 after Apple’s 30% commission. If she sells ten thousand of these, then that’s $28K. At forty thousand that’s $112K. Given her celebrity, I’m guessing it’s closer to forty thousand. And she’s also selling premium printed editions for those diehard fans. This is a nice piece of income, particularly if she can do it multiple times per year.

However, I suspect this is an at-best secondary revenue stream that is parasitic on the larger reputation from her sold-in-bookstore novels in the various series? In other words, this sort of author/reader DTC model is the happy result of salience in the marketplace but it does not in and of itself create or amplify that salience. At least that is my guess.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel (Little, Brown). Finished November 3.

Much as I loved Connelly’s last novel, with the new Renee Ballard character, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of his Harry Bosch stories. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or many other detectives, Bosch has aged over the years and over the novels, now in his late 60s or early 70s, forcibly retired from the LAPD but still working as a detective on a volunteer basis for the San Fernando PD. The cast of secondary characters remains vibrant, and also filled with ongoing tension. The relationship between Bosch and Mickey Heller, his half brother and star of the “Lincoln Lawyer” novels, is convincingly fraternal, with affection, respect and conflict. As usual, I inhaled this book over the course of two or three days. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange (Wiley). Finished November 20.

I don’t understand futures or derivatives as well as I’d like to, and the rise of exchanges for bitcoin at the CME Group and its competitors brought my lack of understanding into focus. Olson’s book is a memoir about how the Chicago Mercantile Exchange acquired the Chicago Board of Trade in 2007, with a helpful introduction to how these exchanges function built into the narrative.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished November 25, 2017.

This just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel is set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech. Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago) has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s I, Robot) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book Change Agent #20). 

Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that gives drugs away. 

Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family. 

The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot Maguffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was nonetheless satisfying.

This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished November 30.

See #49.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked (Penguin Press). Finished December 7.

Back in the 1980s the pro-gun lobby’s slogan was “guns don’t kill people: people kill people,” arguing that guns are neutral tools. I wasn’t sympathetic to that argument at the time because it’s easier to kill another person if you happen to have a custom-built tool for that purpose ready to hand.

Along those lines, Alter’s book usefully argues that the technologies we rely on to run our lives — particularly smart phones and social media — are not neutral tools but deliberately-engineered addictions. The book is a three-part endeavor: first, Alter explores and explains the nature of addiction generally; then, he makes the compelling case that many forms of technology qualify as addiction, and finally he articulates a number of ways his readers can both break the tech addictions and also avoid getting hooked in the first place. 

A handy, convincing and pretty-darned scary book.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel (Crown). Finished December 15.

Despite the advice of several friends I could never bring myself to read Weir’s celebrated first novel The Martian (nor see the Matt Damon film) because I found the idea so disturbing– a novel-length version of the classic Poe story “The Premature Burial.” Ack!

Weir’s new book, Artemis, is a delightful hard science fiction romp where Jazz, a smuggler of whom Han Solo would be proud, gets involved in a complex caper on Earth’s fully-colonized, multicultural moon. Complex characterization meets intricately thought out tech and culture in a very near future.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater (Random House). Finished December 15.

I’ve been aware of Trillin as a writer for many years but never took the time to wade into his delicious prose until David Brooks — a writer I enjoy but with whom I rarely agree — mentioned Trillin’s books about eating in a recent New York Times piece where columnists recommend books to each other. “This strikes me as the perfect season to go back and read some of Calvin Trillin’s hilarious food books. They remind one, in these shadowy times, that the world can be savory and amusing, and still worth rising out of bed for.”

I found Alice, Let’s Eat in my local library and proceeded to irritate my family with non-stop chuckles, giggles and the occasional guffaw. Trillin’s pose as an enthusiastic glutton pitted against the sensible caution — and desire to see parts of the world besides restaurants in their travels — of his wife Alice is an inexhaustible narrative device. A glum mood evaporated once I opened the book, and I now have Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff on my desk to be savored as one of my first books in 2018.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 20.

See #49.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 26.

Having read the first three of Eastman’s Pekkala novels in less than a month — the third in less than a day — I’m of two minds. 

On one hand, the books are fast-paced and easily inhaled; the early Soviet setting with flashbacks to the end of the Tsarist regime are powerfully researched, and Pekkala, the Finnish protagonist who is the most-feared detective in the Soviet Union has an uncanny, Holmes-like quality that is compelling. 

On the other hand, the Holmes comparison does have drawbacks. Pekkala in the third book seems to have sedimented into a series of narrative gestures. Like Holmes, Pekkala does not possess much in the way of interiority, not a lot of subjective experience. The mission to serve justice is all that is there. In this third book, Pekkala realizes that he was betrayed by his old master the Tsar in the latter days before the Russian Revolution, but that betrayal has no impact on the plot nor on the character’s ways of thinking at the end of the story. I’m therefore becoming less interested in Pekkala because I don’t think I’ll ever get his story, even though he is vexed by the loss of his one true love, Ilya, and feels guilty about not showing his affection for his faithful, Watson-like assistant, Kirov. Recommended by Peter Horan.

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives (River Grove Books). Finished December 28.

If you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore in which to throw rocks, then you can’t throw a rock in a bookstore without it caroming off at least two books about innovation in business. My library at home is full of them, some of which are useful and some of which disappoint.  Professionally, I’ve also participated in innovation workshops, mentored at startup incubators affiliated with brands like Pepsi and Nike, and helped to produce entire events devoted to innovation. So I have some expertise within which to evaluate innovation thinking.

What sets Kumar Mehta’s book apart from most innovation treatises is its practicality and applicability. Mehta usefully identifies different levels and styles of corporate endeavor and how those do and do not match different forms of innovation. He also maps out how to avoid GMOOT (“Get Me One Of Those!”) and other shiny object digressions in favor of creating manageable and measurable “biomes” or environments where innovation can thrive. He also provides clearsighted ways to approach innovation, what to avoid, and how to evaluate what you’ve got once you get it. 

Most books like these are covert brochures for consultancies where key parts of the described process are left out because the desired result of anybody reading the book is for the reader to hire the consultant. While I certainly foresee businesses engaging Mehta for help understanding and nurturing their own innovation biomes as an accelerant, everything a reader needs to know to make productive use of Mehta’s ideas is right there in the book. This is rare.

And that’s the 50.

What this list doesn’t reflect are re-reads — often late night visits with old friends — or partial reads, nor does it show the disapproving stacks and shelves of books that I haven’t yet managed to finish.

But there’s always 2018.

Why is “me too” happening now?

It’s challenging to go onto Facebook and Twitter right now and face the ever-swelling river of “me too” posts from women sharing their horrible stories of sexual harassment. It’s good that these posts are happening, good that it’s challenging. Part of what I find challenging is that I don’t know how to respond other than to bear witness.

The spark that started “me too” is Harvey Weinstein’s despicable, sexually predatory behavior — as reported by both The New York Times and The New Yorker. It’s a good thing that this has come to light and that the entertainment industry is exiling him.

And it’s shocking that he got away with it for decades.

Actually, it’s not shocking at all, which is the real problem.

What I don’t understand — what I find curious — is why “me too” is happening now.

Please don’t get me wrong: it’s terrible that — near as I can tell — every woman I know has been sexually assaulted — and it’s courageous and admirable that they are sharing these terrible experiences with the world.

What I’m wondering is why “me too” didn’t happen, say, after the Bill Cosby stories came out. I grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, and the child of a celebrity once  mentioned that Cosby was a known philanderer, but I never heard stories of him drugging women and raping them. Hannibal Buress started talking about Cosby as a rapist onstage in 2014 — and it’s fucked up that it took a man talking about it for this to become a thing — and after that women started to come forward to share their horrible Cosby experiences.

But the Cosby stories did not create “me too,” where women all over the world are sharing their stories of sexual harassment by men who aren’t famous.

Nor did the Access Hollywood, Donald Trump, “pussy-grabbing” story — the story that shockingly failed to derail his candidacy — create “me too.”

Perhaps the Cosby stories seemed too bizarre. Although countless women have been drugged or plied with alcohol and then raped, maybe the scenario of the most famous screen dad in the world slipping rufies into the drinks of young actresses didn’t resemble the experiences of other women enough to create “me too.”

In contrast, maybe Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, although profoundly weird, sounded like the experiences most other women have had with a lot of other men, making “me too” less of a leap.

Maybe the rapid succession of Cosby, Trump, Ailes and O’Reilly stories made it possible for women to create “me too” once the Weinstein story broke.

It’s good that “me too” is happening.  Why is it happening now?

Shortly after the “pussy-grabbing” story, Eugene Wei posted a remarkable piece called, “The Age of Distributed Truth,” in which he talks about Cosby, Justin Caldbeck, Trump and Susan Fowler’s post about the toxic bro culture at Uber. Wei then talks about Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s book “Rational Ritual,” and Chwe’s notion of “Common Knowledge”–

Knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on — that is, “common knowledge.”

By this logic, after the New York Times article — followed quickly by the New Yorker article — it was impossible not to know that others knew about Weinstein, which made “me too” possible.

But that still doesn’t explain why it was the Weinstein story that provoked “me too.”

I don’t have an answer, and my question is far from the most important question about me too.

If you have an answer, please share it.

Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with Apple News on my iPhone

I love my iPhone. The dangerous problem is that while sometimes I love it the way a writer loves a favorite pen while at other times I love it the way an alcoholic loves beer.

Or like Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, iPhone.

Today, I had a lovers quarrel with the iPhone.

From nowhere — certainly from no action on my part — the iPhone decided to start sharing notifications from the News app.

There has been no update for that App in the App Store (perhaps because it is bundled with the OS that updated a couple weeks back), and I cannot discern what triggered the change aside from Apple’s business strategy of disintermediating both Facebook and the news properties themselves.

I suffer from acute distractibility at the best of times, which is why I’ve deleted all social media from the iPhone as a portcullis next to a moat around my concentration, such as it is. I get no notifications when an email arrives. I think the new Facebook Messenger app has some nifty “we hate Snapchat” features, but after a five minute exploratory look I deleted it.

My attention is my most precious asset.

So when the iPhone News app started interrupting me to let me know that TIME magazine had a mighty keen article about “5 Tech Predictions for 2017” — this hardly qualifies as urgent — I opened “Settings” and scrolled down to News, whereupon I changed the alert style from “Alerts” to “None.”

Thinking that was it, I went back to my life. Au contraire!

The next time I went to do something with the iPhone and pressed the wakey-wakey button, there was a notification on the lock screen from the Wall Street Journal: “Taxpayers are pouring money into charitable-giving accounts, worried that deductions may not last.” Heaven forfend! Thank the good lord that the iPhone decided that knowing about this was more important than whatever it was that I picked the phone up to do in the first place… which I can no longer remember because of the interruption.

I went back to Settings and looked more closely. Ah ha! What I missed the first time was the faint gray little letters that said, “Alert Style When Unlocked.” I had eliminated the interruptions that would happen when I was using the device, but not when I was about to use the device… which is a vulnerable moment of distractibility.

Sheesh.

I then toggled everything off: “Show on Lock Screen,” “Badge App Icon,” “Show in Notification Center” and “Allow Notifications.” That’s a lot of things to toggle, and while I suspect that simply choosing “Allow Notifications” would have done the trick, I’m a suspicious sort of guy and decided to overcompensate.

But that still wasn’t enough.

If I swiped right from the iPhone home screen that took me to a screen where — you guessed it — right up top were two top stories from CBS and Bloomberg and two trending stories from CNN and The New York Times. That’s four opportunities to drop whatever thought was in my head and fall down the rabbit hole into the always-open-all-you-can-eat information buffet: now with unlimited breadsticks!

I’m pretty technical, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that if I scrolled all the way down on the all-the-way-to-the-left screen that had magically appeared with the most-recent iOS I’d find a faint gray “Edit” button that would let me rearrange, add and eliminate notifications on that screen.

It was too much work to limit the notifications coming at me from just one app, let alone managing notifications from all the apps on my iPhone.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of app developers: without notifications an app will wither and die from neglect. But I object to the whole “opt out” presumption of developers that turn notifications on — or make “yes gimme gimme” the “don’t think about it” option to pick — when installing an app in the first place.

I should be able to say, “Hey Siri: I don’t want notifications from the News app anymore” and have that remove everything. When I tried that, though, Siri simply opened the News app.

I think Siri has a learning disability.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently dubbed the iPhone “the thing that does everything,” which is apt.

But just because a thing can do everything doesn’t mean that it should do everything.

Shameless comment-seeking question: what do you do to eliminate distraction in your environment?

P.S. Don’t even get me started on how angry I am that Uber eliminated the “you can only track my location when I’m actively using Uber” option, so now I either have to let Uber track my iPhone 24/7/365 or I have to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Always” when I’m about to call a Uber and then remember to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Never” when I’m done. This is one of many reasons I think that Uber hates people, both its riders and its drivers. Lyft, I hasten to say, retains the “While Using” option.

SHORT: Don’t Miss REDEF Original on Truth in Advertising

From the “too long for a tweet” department:

I just finished Adam Wray‘s powerful Fashion REDEFined original article “With Great Power: Seth Matlins on how Advertising can Shift Culture for the Better.”

It’s about Seth Matlins‘ efforts to change how advertisements featuring too-skinny and Photoshopped models body shame girls and women (men too, by the way).

Here’s a useful except from Matlins:

This practice, these ads, cause and contribute to an array of mental health issues, emotional health issues, and physical health issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate. At the most extreme end they contribute to eating disorders, which in turn contribute to the death of more people than any other known mental illness, at least domestically. What we know from the data is that as kids grow up, the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves.

What we know is 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 53% becomes 78%, so roughly a 50% increase. When they’re adults, 91% of women will not like themselves, will not like something about their bodies. Women on average have 13 thoughts of self-hate every single day. We know that these ads, and ads like these, have a causal and contributory effect because of pleas from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, the Eating Disorder Coalition, and tens of thousands of doctors, mental and physical, educators, psychologists, health care providers, to say nothing of the governments of France, Israel, and Australia, who have urged advertisers to act on the links between what we consider deceptive and false ad practices and negative health consequences. And yet to date, by and large, and certainly at scale, nobody has.

I wish that the numbers in the second paragraph were stunning or surprising, but they aren’t. What they are, however, is infuriating.

My one critique of the article — and the reason for this short post — is that blame for this sort of body shaming doesn’t only lie with advertisers and marketers.

The entertainment industry also propagates unrealistic body images for females and males alike, and let’s not forget all the magazines and websites featuring photoshopped bodies on covers and internal pages.

It’s not just the ads.

As the father of a 15 year old girl and an 11 year old boy (a teen and a tween), I’m hyper-conscious of these images, but aside from trying (often vainly) to restrict their media access there’s only so much my wife and I can do.

So I celebrate Matlins’ efforts.

You don’t have to be a parent to find this article compelling, but if you ARE a parent, particularly to a teen girl, then this is required reading, folks.  It’ll be on the final.

Along these lines, high up on my “to read this summer” list is Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, although I’ll confess that I’m a bit afraid to read it, as I think I’ll feel the way I felt after seeing Schindler’s List for the first time.

On Meditation: a tweet drizzle in 11 brief parts

On meditation: a tweet drizzle (1) #mindful

OK, I get it. Morning mediation is important. It creates a shock absorber in my head for the day to come, gives me resources. (2) #mindful

The chattering monkeys and skittering spiders of my thoughts need taming, stilling, calming, tranquilizing (3) #mindful

Inner peace is probably beyond me, but a mind less like a New Delhi street with cars zipping any which way would be nice. (4) #mindful

But why does meditation have to be so damned BORING? My breathing just isn’t that interesting, nor are my aches and pains. (5) #mindful

Listening to music while meditating — even Gyoto Tantric chanting — seems like cheating somehow. (6) #mindful

I listen to the fridge whispering in the kitchen, the sound of my clothes rustling, house settling, birds outside waking. (7) #mindful

And then my mind skulks away from meditation into myriad chores, emails to write, what to make the kids for breakfast. (8) #mindful

Is this the project? A fight to dwell in a brief present amid a siege of thoughts? Does it get easier, effortless, soothing… (9) #mindful

Or is meditation always a struggle on the ground of the present moment between past reflection and future anticipation? (10) #mindful

End of tweet drizzle (so called because by definition something on meditation can hardly amount to a storm). (11) #mindful

The Problem with More: Coca-Cola, Electric Cars, Email, Facebook and Satisfaction

I Pac-Man chomp my way through many articles each week, digesting most with a tiny burp and leaving them to the brass-knuckled mercies of memory.  Yet two recent pieces have stuck with me: Matt Richtel’s October 10th piece in the New York Times, “In California, Electric Cars Outpace Plugs, and Sparks Fly” and Roberto A. Ferdman’s October 5th piece in the Washington Post, “How Coca-Cola has tricked everyone into drinking so much of it.

Both articles deserve close reading, but in the interests of your time, dear reader, the quick summaries are 1) in California there are now orders of magnitude more electric cars than there are charging stations, which is provoking people to behave selfishly when they need to power up their cars, and 2) an interview with the ironically-named Marion Nestle (author of a book called “Soda Politics”) charts the “valiant and deplorable” lengths to which Coca-Cola has gone to habituate people to drinking evermore of its unhealthy product over many decades and compares the company’s efforts to those of Big Tobacco.

The collision of these two articles in my mind led me to a mild, week-long experiment, which is that I don’t check Facebook or email until after 10:00am each day.  This piece is my attempt to unpack the “how the heck did I get to there from that?” of this experiment.

On the electric car dilemma, this is a crystalline example of how technology and behavior evolve in a complex dance: Darwin’s finches got nothing on Tesla, Leaf and Volt.  Since electric cars are getting on the road at a slower pace than people sign up for yet another social media service, we can get a clear look at how behavior changes over a longer period of time: oversupply of electric cars plus undersupply of charging stations equals conflict. 

<Digression> Before I go any further, confession time: if there were a support group called Facebook  Anonymous for people who can’t stop checking Facebook I probably wouldn’t join because I’d be too busy checking Facebook. 

I love Facebook.  The problem is that I love Facebook more than Facebook loves me.

I neither want to dignify my lack of social media self-discipline with the word “addiction” nor trivialize the piercing challenges addicts have with alcohol and drugs, so let me simply say that I am on Facebook (oy it’s a lot), Twitter (at least daily, way more at conferences), Google+ (yup, I’m the one) and LinkedIn (do you like me? do you like me?) too much for my own comfort and productivity when I take time out to think about it. 

The corollary behavior pattern is my over-involvement with email, which feels less like addiction and more like a punishment from God, but that’s probably just because email has been around longer and has therefore normalized itself in my sense of how the world works (see the Douglas Adams bit towards the end of this piece for more on how that works). </Digression>

Both articles are examples of The Problem with More

We want more electric cars on the road, but we didn’t think it through and now we have people arguing about who gets what access to which charging station.  It hasn’t gotten to the fight-fights-and-riots point yet, but I inferred a new form of pre-road rage is coming to California, from whence so many other technological innovations of dubious merit hail.

Coca-Cola’s profitability depends on getting more people to drink more of its products every year, and now, Marion Nestle says, a conservative estimate is that 50% of the US population drinks more than one can of soda per day, with many of those folks drinking much more— four cans plus.  Coca-Cola denies any link between its product and an obesity epidemic.

More isn’t the opposite of less: it’s the opposite of enough.

We humans, Americans particularly, have trouble with enough.  We want to earn more, go to the gym or spin class more, read more, spend more time on our hobbies, see our friends and families more, parent our children more, finish that project in the garage, be better about keeping up with the news of the world, bake bread from scratch, make our own clothes and brew our own beer.  We also want to do better at the office, get that promotion, give that conference paper, go to that networking event and turn every meeting and interaction into a miracle of productivity that leaves our colleagues breathless with gratitude because now they can go back to playing with their iPhones. 

This is where the myth of multitasking comes from.

Corporations have an even harder time — way harder — with enough.  Public companies need more, lots more, to satisfy investors.  Companies that are OK with enough get trivialized as “lifestyle businesses.”

We humans want more, so we squeeze more stuff in — both new stuff and more of the old stuff; corporations need us to squeeze more stuff in — preferably their stuff — in order to make the Street happy.

When corporations like Coca-Cola run up against limits in their customer base — that is, 50% of Americans do not drink soda — they need to get their existing customers, the other 50%, to drink more soda even though it’s unhealthy.  Faced with this question, soft drink companies dodge either by focusing on how people don’t exercise enough or on how they have other products (diet soda, water) that aren’t as bad for people— this is a “guns don’t kill people, bullets do” argument.

It’s when we come to the issue of satisfaction that things get murky.  If you know a little Latin, then you’ll already know that the word “satisfaction” literally means “to be made enough” from the combination of satis and facere

Our workaday understanding of satisfaction is the “Ahhhh” of the first gulp of an icy Coke on a blistering summer day when you’ve just finished doing something sweaty.  This is a transfixing moment: time stops.  You enter what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state where your attention is 100% focused.  For that one moment you need nothing else: you have been made enough.

Coca-Cola has built its formidable brand upon the rock of moments like this one.  Just think about its current slogan: “Open Happiness.”

The problem is that there aren’t enough transfixing moments for Coca-Cola to be profitable, so the company sells satisfaction but then delivers routine, it promises magic but provides habit bordering on addiction.  What psychologists call a Hedonic Set Point tells us that the second or third or fourth or fifth can of Coke can’t possibly create a moment like the first, but once you’re in the habit of associating thirst with Coke (rather than, say, water), you’re unlikely to stop.

Which brings me back to Facebook.  When we dive or dip into Facebook the potential for magic always exists: the old friend’s new baby, the new friend’s witty comparison, the frisson when you realize that two people whom you know also know each other.  But more often than not it’s click-bait, bad jokes or that day’s lunch pic by the perennial over-poster.

I have 1,528 connections on Facebook.  I’m an overachiever since the average number, last I heard, was 140 (close to Dunbar’s number), but even though I have 10X the usual number of connections Facebook needs me to add even more in order to increase the number of interactions happening within its user base, so it can sell more advertisements. 

As with Coke, more Facebook “friends” does not mean that I’m going to find my experience with Facebook more satisfying— it just means that there will be more of it.  There are enough magical Facebook moments to keep people coming back, but paradoxically the more you come back the less often you’ll find that magical moment because Facebook has become routine. 

<Digression> There’s another Facebook Problem with More, which is that Facebook presumes that any interaction I have with any person is an indelible mark of my interest in that person’s actions.  If my friend Tim posts a cute picture of his dog, and if I make the mistake of interacting with that picture (a like, a comment), then the all-seeing Facebook algorithm concludes that I want to see more stuff from Tim. 

But what if I’ve scratched my Tim itch?  What if I have satisfied my craving for information about Tim for the next few months and no longer feel the need to see his dog posts?  This never occurs to Facebook, which means that I then have to dive into the settings on one of Tim’s posts to turn down the gain or stop following him altogether, which is a homework assignment for I class I never decided to take. </Digression>

I’m confident that the satisfaction shape of having a lot of Facebook friends looks like this:


chart

So the more friends you have the less satisfaction you’ll feel, and you’ll work harder to get those moments of satisfaction… which benefits Facebook on the surface because it generates more advertising inventory for them but at a plummeting quality.

Since I’m polite, I don’t want to unfriend a bunch of people on Facebook.  And since Facebook’s filters suck ass — I can’t intuitively say, “more from THOSE 150 people, please” — the only thing I can do is limit the time I spend on Facebook in the hope that by making it less a chronic part of my day I’ll be able to notice more when the magic moments occur, and incidentally I’ll have more time to focus on my new bread-making hobby. 

Hence this week’s experiment. 

A closing irony: In addition to publishing this on my blog and on Medium, I’ll also post a link on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes from Bergen 4: the world is less virtual than we think

It’s 8:30am as I begin writing this post.  Just minutes ago Kathi and our son trotted off towards the University of Bergen, where she’ll drop him off for his last day at Nygard Skole — the Norwegian immersion program he’s attended this year — before going to her last day at the University.  My daughter shook a leg in a perpendicular direction to her last day at Rothaugen, where she has been in an immersion class embedded in the local junior high. 

Our adventure is ending: my kids have been in 10 countries in 10 months: USA, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany and Italy.  They are closer to being world citizens now, and the travel bug has bitten them.  I wait with fascination to watch them readjust to life in our small town south of Portland after being able to jet off to Rome for a weekend.

Now, I sit on the couch with the kitchen ravages of the morning waiting for me to order them, after which I’ll return to packing, organizing, scanning, pruning and getting ready for our crack-of-dawn departure back to America on Monday. 

Home.  We’re going home, first to visit family and friends in Los Angeles, then up to Portland a few days later.

Already, our 4-story, narrow, weird little 400-year-old house doesn’t look like us.  The books are gone, and a Berens without books is extraterrestrial.  We shipped six boxes yesterday, and this was after I schlepped an extra suitcase and bag of books to New York  with me a few weeks ago on a business trip to UPS westward at lower cost.

Other changes: the quintet resumed being our standard Berens quartet when Jordan, our beloved nanny who also works for me in the business, left on her European walkabout while I was in New York.  The house got a bit quieter. 

We measure in wake-ups: how many more times will we wake up in Bergen?  The answer as of now is three: Saturday, Sunday, Monday wheels up.  Our year-long presence falls from the house fast as an oak shakes off last leaves at autumn’s end… even though Norwegian summer is just starting to peek through the clouds here.

We have so much stuff, even in this pared down year.  We’ll travel to Los Angeles with straining duffles and carryons.  Despite buying digital books and music, being careful about what we acquire, scanning papers and then disposing of the originals… we’re still fleshy beings in a world of plastic, cloth, wood and concrete.  Friends are adopting our houseplants.  We’ve given outgrown clothes to charity.  Still we have to manage things.  Many things.

So the world is a lot less virtual than we think it is, and not just in the sense of “gosh, what a lot of stuff we have.”

When we moved to Bergen back in August I knew I’d be far away, but I thought that with Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Skype and Google Hangouts and email and a Vonage/VOIP phone things would chug along. 

In many ways, they did.  Facebook and Twitter helped me to keep an ambient awareness of what was happening with friends, and vice versa.  Many people have told me how they’ve enjoyed watching our European adventure unfold in picture after picture on Facebook.

But a chasm lies between recent-time Facebook updates and live conversations with family, friends and business associates.  Distance shatters immediacy, and the nine-hour time difference between Bergen and Portland is even harder to bridge than the geography.  Numberless times I’ve had to sacrifice either a meeting with business partners or dinner with the family because 9am in California is 6pm in Norway.  The numbers never added up.

After a while, I got used to the distance and forgot how different live could be.

Then, in May, I went back to Brown University for the first time for my 25th college reunion to renew acquaintance with classmates and campus.  I stayed in the dorms, which are no habitat for middle-aged bodies— each morning, the bleary shuffle from dorm to bathroom by coffee-deprived grownups (myself included) was near-slapstick comedy.  We all wandered the campus in endless combinations, trading lifetimes of anecdotes.  Often, I couldn’t recognize an older friend by looking, but when we walked, when the unchanged voice came from next to me, the years fell away.

After the reunion I went down to New York for a week of conferences.  Handshakes, hugs, smiles, meals shared, beer bottles clinked, knowing expressions traded, walks in the June sunlight: these things change, deepen and amplify interaction more than mere adverbs can capture.    

I shouldn’t be surprised by this: I’ve spent more than a decade programming conferences that exist because real relationships require real presence to start, bloom and mature.  The highest bandwidth signal we have is when we’re sitting across a table from others, feeling their bodies shift the air, hearing the crinkle of their clothes as well as their voices, noticing the new haircut, new age line, new cadence or habitual word choice.  Those things aren’t noise: they compose a richer signal.

The world is a lot less virtual than we think.

The dishes await, as do more boxes.  Tonight, friends visit.  More packing over the weekend, a last trek up Fløyen to say goodbye to the fjord on Sunday. 

You only know it’s an adventure when it’s over.

We’re going home.

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

Vonage = a Practical Tip when Moving Abroad (Notes from Bergen)

From the “Department of Things I Wish I’d Taken Care of Faster” Department…

Executive Summary of this post: if you’re moving out of your home country, then get a VOIP line that lets your relatives call as if you’re down the street.

The Story: Before we left Oregon at the end of last summer for our school year in Norway, I asked Vonage — I’ve been a customer for years — to upgrade our ancient box to the new model that has a more nimble power source that can work just about anywhere in the world.  They did.

Then we got to Bergen and the wifi in our rental house sucked.  I worked with our landlord over the next few months, raising the bandwidth, replacing the physical modem/router, adding a repeater, and eventually more than one person could be online at a time.

During those months, we used Skype to stay in touch with family, colleagues and friends, and I love Skype.  As a Skype Premium subscriber, I can use Skype to call any telephone in the USA as part of my membership… all for just $7 per month.  It’s wonderful.

But it’s hard for my parents and in-laws to use Skype to call us.  It’s also hard to pass a computer around the way you can pass a cordless phone around.

A “figure out the Vonage line” reminder kept popping up in my To Do list, and eventually I dragged out the wireless phones that our landlord had abandoned using years ago.

Early experiments yielded a dial tone but only for a few seconds.  I deduced that the rechargeable batteries inside the handsets were fried, trotted off to Clas Ohlson (the everything store here in Bergen), switched out the batteries, and SHAZAM! we had a phone with an Oregon number with a handset in the kitchen just like at our home in the USA.

It’s a slight exaggeration to call the impact of this phone “transformative,” but only slight.

My parents and in-laws are now just a quick call away, and we’re not tethered to the laptop when we talk with them.  Chatting is now more casual, and we feel closer.  My niece’s 91-year-old grandmother will never figure out Skype, so it’s great for her to be able to call directly, too.

Moreover, the base of the Vonage box is wired directly into the modem, and then the phone base is wired directly into the Vonage box, and then the phone base uses a different set of frequencies.  The result is that if I’m talking on the Vonage phone then another person can stream a video or talk via Skype or Facebook Messenger without the bandwidth battle screwing up everything.

If you have super-strong wifi in your home (we don’t here in our 400-year-old retrofitted and extremely vertical house), then there are other options than Vonage.  Skype has a series of phones, for example, and my friend Shelly Palmer just profiled a coming-real-soon service from Cablevision called “Freewheel” that combines wifi and smartphones in a cheap way that might work just as well.

If you’re moving abroad for more than a month, Vonage is a great solution for bring home just a little closer.

Applications vs. Appliances

Although this post is mostly a how and why exercise, on the more theoretical side the physical presence of a phone in the kitchen has taken up a nice little slice of cognitive space for the family.

When all activities go through the same screens or suite of screens (phones, tablets, laptops), then no particular activity rises to the surface of consciousness.  Having a dedicated device for voice communications focuses our attention on voice communications because the appliance extrudes into our meat-space environment.

For example (and hilariously), when I was at the supermarket and had a question about something on the list and couldn’t raise anybody on Instant Messenger, I used Skype Out to call the Vonage line.  In other words, standing just blocks from a fjord I used a Skype number virtually in Beverly Hills to call a Vonage number virtually in Portland.  My not-virtual family members flipped out because they’d never heard that phone ring before, but they answered the phone when they’d ignored all the screens.

There’s a growing body of thought about “the voice as app” over the last few months (Shelly talks about it eloquently), but I’m talking about something different: having an appliance for an activity rather than an application.

Applications sink below the surface of awareness in everything-devices.  Appliances remind us of their existence simply by taking up space.

Daniel J. Levitin — in the “Organizing our Homes” chapter of his remarkable book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — talks about how in an ideal world we’d have one computer for work, one for hobbies, one for taxes and the like.

In other words, we’d sort activities by appliances rather than by programs because as we move from appliance to appliance (rather than from application to application on one device) our brains refocus, recharge and reengage.

In our ever more-virtual, more-digital world, there is a powerful efficacy in dumb old matter: taking notes on paper, talking on a phone, reading a pulp-and-ink book (a “book book” as my friend Peter Horan says).

Turns out, the old AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials were right.