2015 Reading List

Regrettably another year goes by in which I've read more books than I've posted posts to this site. That said, some awesome fiction, non-fiction and biographies. Non-fiction

The Wright Brothers By David McCullough - great read for anyone interested in product development. The cool intensity with which these men worked to kickstart manned flight is inspiring. Also worth noting the backdrop within which they worked.

Between The World And Me Ta-Nehisi Coates - a critical and heart-rending letter from a father to his son, I found this very moving. I hope to see this as required reading in schools.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End Gawande, Atul - thoughtful and sobering look at end of life and how our society (mis)manages it.

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution DuVal, Kathleen - only got about 1/3 through this, but intend to keep at it.

Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation. Polk, William R. - I read this along with my daughter for her class, and found it really engrossing. American and Western foreign policy can be deeply shameful.

One Summer: America, 1927 Bryson, Bill - I couldn't finish this. Interesting, but highly repetitive and loaded with random trivia that ended up occluding the main theme.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Harari, Yuval Noah - I absolutely was riveted for the first 2/3 of this unusual history of mankind. The last 1/3 really let me down, though.

Fiction

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Lagercrantz, David - more tightly written than anything Stieg Larsson wrote.

H Is For Hawk Macdonald, Helen - deeply interesting and funny at times.

Fortune Smiles: Stories Johnson, Adam - intense and disturbing stories.

The Water Knife: A novel Bacigalupi, Paolo

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A novel Flanagan, Richard - Intense novel of POWS captured by Japan in WW2. Beautifully written, with a love story to boot.

I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller Hayes, Terry - perfect for the beach with a beer in hand.

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance VanderMeer, Jeff

The Martian Weir, Andy - Super fast and fun read, but definitely not a great work of fiction.

 

Notable Articles

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration Ta-Nehisi Coates was on fire this year. Very important read.

Design Thinking Comes of Age

Paradigms Lost Excellent essay on how to properly look at science.

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change — Matter — Medium

The end of capitalism has begun Quick overview of what the post-captalist era is looking like.

Interaction Design and Sci-Fi

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Prof. Robert Thomas' Collaborative Design For Innovation class at Georgetown University. The curriculum is fantastic - something I could keep studying for a long time - and Robert and his class were welcoming and attentive. Afterwards, one of the students I was speaking with noted that I had listed a number of fiction - science fiction in particular  - works in my annual reading list, and asked why. At the very core of their practice, designers are clearly tasked with imagining the future state of a product or service. Herb Simon said that "The process of design is a continual cycle of generating alternatives and testing to evaluate them." I've always had a fondness for speculative fiction, and it informs my ability to create and iterate solutions by training my mind to think beyond present realities and imagine different ways of doing things, big and small. When I was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age was required reading. One of the greatest science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, was also credited with inventing a number of significant scientific breakthroughs. In much the same way, I enjoy traveling to different countries where I can experience a significant culture shock.

I highly recommend that designers read science fiction periodically. It doesn't need to be stereotypical rockets-and-lasers stuff, either: there's quite a bit of work being produced today that is excellent. I came across a few readings related to this that might be worth digging into for more inspiration:

Why Todays Inventors Need To Read More Science Fiction and mentioned in there is Sophia Bruekner's class on scifi 

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction

2014 Reading List

A good year for fiction, especially of the science variety. I thoroughly enjoyed The Moor's Account based on both the concept of the book as well as the story itself. I especially enjoy how Ian McEwan paints his characters, and The Children Act did not let me down. The Sixth Extinction was less in depth and more accessible than Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker articles, but the breadth captures the scope of the disaster humans are making of the planet. The Serial podcast was memorable for its storytelling, although it ended up putting a big dent in my reading time. Fiction

The Children Act Ian McEwan

The Son Philipp Meyer

All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr

The Moor's Account Laila Lalami

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber

J Howard Jacobson

Gone Girl Gillian Flynn

Tenth of December George Saunders

On Such a Full Sea Chang-Rae Lee

Train Dreams: A Novella Denis Johnson

 

Non-Fiction How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World Steven Johnson

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Elizabeth Kolbert

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential (unfinished) Tom Kelley

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town Beth Macy

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks Ken Jennings

Podcasts Serial

Notable Articles

The Case For Reparations -  Ta-Nehisi Coates Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong About Islam How Fossilized Ideas Live on Even in Science – Andrew Crumey How To Get Beyond The Parasite Economy - Eric Garland Silicon Valley's Youth Problem - Yiren Lu The Mammoth Cometh The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

 

Book Review: The World Without Us

One of the pleasures of holiday breaks is the opportunity to read an entire book in a short period of time. Many books I have read were consumed in fits and starts, at night or on the subway. Over the winter 2008-09 break I had the pleasure to read The World Without Us, which came recommended by my friend Yetsuh. I recall when it came out that it would fit neatly into the kind of pop-science writing I enjoy, but for some reason never picked up a copy until I was shopping for presents in the local book store (one for me, one for them). To start, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well-written and well-researched, but I most enjoyed the central device of the book, which is an Earth where humans have instantly and completely disappeared. The author Alan Weisman uses this to deliver a not-altogether uplifting picture of the destructive impact we have on our planet. He moves from the obvious constructed world to the less noticed, but perhaps more consequential, environments of the undersea and forests, then ancient civilzations (for the latter, Jared Diamond goes into equally sobering depth).

The author's technique of zooming into and out of a problem to gain perspective reminded me of methods I use to do the same in approaching design problems. He does this literally by discussing microbes around us to space vehicles we've sent out, as well as moving rapidly through time to cover the impact of mankind in prehistory. The section on plastics and their utter foreign-ness to our planet was deeply disturbing.

Over time I've read most of what's in this book, I've never seen it all put together in a way that reveals so many connections. For example, I've heard theories about why megafuana in North America disappeared abruptly about 13,000 years ago. Speculation is that humans migrating from Asia easily slaughtered giant sloths, mammoths and camels that weren't used to them. Weisman goes further and suggests that African megafuana still exist because they evolved with humans over millenia, and this might be their only hope for survival. Weisman traces the diaspora of humans to the point of their tragic re-introduction to their ancestors in Africa in one particularly moving passage.

At the end few remedies are offered outside of the premise of the book, but this is powerful enough to make one realize the scope of work that must be done to salvage what's left. It's clear that life will continue on without humans, and will in many ways be better off without us. As a designer, I have some choices in the life cycle of products, but it is as a consumer and citizen that I can have the biggest impact.

Differences of Degree vs. Differences of Kind

Just wanted to jot down a principle I've come across a couple places and tends to explain a lot of the erroneous (although often well-intentioned) paths we go down: people often mistake (or elevate) differences of degree for difference of kind. From the NYTimes Magazine, an article on gender-based education covers the merits and demerits of single-gender classrooms. In it, an example:

One reason for this, Giedd says, is that when it comes to education, gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds. Giedd puts the research on brain differences in perspective by using the analogy of height. “On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

Also, in Clay Shirky's recent (and excellent) book, he discussess this as well. I come back to the idea of what fantastic differentiators we are as human beings, sometimes to our detriment. We focus far more on what makes us different (skin color, religion, culture, language, etc.) when we're vastly more alike than not.

Affecting Human Behavior While Preserving Choice

I came across this today - this is an area of interest to me, which is how to get people to make better choices without limiting their options. This book which deals with the mechanisms behind this, namely how to offer choices to people but to "nudge" them to make the best choice: http://www.nudges.org/
Things like getting people to opt out, instead of opt in, to 401k plans, or using dashboard indicators to let people when to shift gears in a car to get better mileage. The authors apparently discuss product placement, etc., and the psychology behind this.
As an extension, a couple of Harvard researchers have built a site based upon principals they've studied (and appear in a book): http://stickk.com/ Seems very nicely done, and follows many of the principals discussed in the book.