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.


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.

Lions, Mirrors and Reading

A couple of articles I came across provide insight into the development of our ability to read. Not only are some novel explanations put forward, but it comes at a time when one of my daughters has experienced what is described. Examples of how evolution can explain seemingly impossible developments in human are always interesting to me. As is often the case, an adaption suited for one thing is "hijacked" and put to use for something else. What I've seen in my household is how my daughters will often flip letters ("b" and "d", for example) when writing, and it takes months or longer for them to get the correct positioning down. In the Economist, new research has found that:

Learning to read requires the brain’s visual system to undergo profound changes, including unlearning the ancient ability to recognise an object and its mirror image as identical...[and] skills acquired relatively recently in people’s evolutionary past must have piggybacked on regions in the brain that originally evolved for other purposes, since there has not been time for dedicated neural systems to develop from scratch.

Since writing has only been around for 5-10,000 years, there hasn't been enough time to evolve an adaptation for reading. I recall that the shortest known adaptation is lactose tolerance in adults, which I think started in Europe and has been spreading since then. My kids (and all early writers) are unlearning an evolved survival response that allows them to distinguish between reflections from real objects. Again, from the Economist:

Dr Dehaene thinks that the VWFA (Visual Word Form Area) may be responsible for the ability of some primates to recognise themselves in a mirror, or to recognise a tiger even if it is seen only in reflection—thus conferring an important survival benefit. That it is also crucial for reading might explain why children make a type of error he calls “early mirror reading”. It was thought that only dyslexic children were prone to confusing “b” and “d”, and “p” and “q”, and occasionally writing their names back-to-front, but Dr Dehaene has found that all children make this error."

In a recent New Yorker article ("A Man of Letters" June 28, 2010), Oliver Sacks describes a case where damage caused by a stroke in a patient revealed the connections between many areas of the human body that allow us to see and read:

Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms–it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words, but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion. The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections–a network peculiar, it seems, to the human brain.

Sacks describes how our evolved capacity for rapidly recognizing objects by their shapes, even when we haven't fully processed what we're looking at, is at the core of reading. Type designers recognized this in the 1950s when working on the US Interstate: people recognized mixed-case words much faster than upper-case words because they could more easily discriminate the shape. Sacks cites research showing a limited range of shapes and combinations humans use to create alphabets of any kind, and their tight relationship to the kinds of topographies humans innately recognize. While we may think the alphabets of the world to be very diverse, they are actually limited and tied to closely to our evolved abilities.

I'm sure there are more important takeaways from this than to carefully consider when to use type treatments (any good designer should know this), but I'm always happy to find connections like this that link personal and professional interests with real-life experience.

A Real Nudge

William Poundstone unravels a great example of how businesses use "nudges" to direct user (customer) behavior to make choices they otherwise might not.

"Puzzles, anchors, stars, and plowhorses; those are a few of the terms consultants now use when assembling a menu (which is as much an advertisement as anything else). “A star is a popular, high-profit item—in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make,” Poundstone explains. “A puzzle is high-profit but unpopular; a plowhorse is the opposite, popular yet unprofitable. Consultants try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look.”

More at: http://nymag.com/restaurants/features/62498/#ixzz0ZgvsUHUB

Behavioral Economics and User Experience

A short but interesting article in the WSJ goes into the use of "nudges" and social pressure to encourage people to modify their behavior. The basic idea is that people don't always behave rationally or in their best self-interest. While this wasn't big news to the rest of the world, apparently it is for many mainstream economists, who continue (or did, until recently) to believe that markets are always efficient because people will always carefully weigh choices and make the best one. One of the bits that stood out for me was the theme of social pressure being used to modify electrical use in Sacramento. By making neighbor's power use known, utility customers will actually lower theirs to meet or beat their neighbor's. When we think people are watching us, our behavior is quite different, it turns out. A lot of this is covered in "Nudge", a great read on the subject.

This kind of feedback, along with ordering choices and playing off people's tendencies to overvalue free things, can be useful tools in designing user experiences. We've been exploring this at Chartbeat (betaworks), and I've been wanting to leverage this more in fund-raising at my children's school (where we already have had some success using social media).

Pre-emptive Help

I've been an Amazon user for almost 14 years now, starting with books and moving on to just about everything else they sell. For the last couple of years I've downloaded MP3s (initially just to avoid Apple's DRM, but now because I can find music much more easily). Every time, though I have had to download and install a new copy of their MP3 downloader (nicely done for what it does, by the way). screen-shot-2009-10-28-at-102830-am

The number of times I've bailed on downloading music is much higher than the number of copies of this that are in my Downloads folder (and I've deleted a few copies over time as well).

Today, though, Amazon did something new, which they always do in their subtle, tweakish way. Just below the confirmation message, they offered several answers to what they must know to be common problems. One of them, it immediately occurred to me, was mine.


Even though I'm pretty good with computers and such, for some reason I had never thought to associate the Amazon file type with the appropriate application in my browser. It's something I've done in the past, but not in this case. Anyway, a couple of clicks later, I think I've solved my problem.

The reminder for me is to keep on iterating on everything I put out there. Small adjustments can make a massive change, while massive changes may just introduce more inadequacies to be cleaned up later.

Facial Recognition

Wired Science has a short discussion about how humans recognize and process facial characteristics and why we sometimes stare at people with facial deformities. An evolutionary response causes our brain to momentarily stumble when we see people that don't have symmetrical features:

To decide, your eyes sweep over the person’s face, retrieving only parts, mainly just his nose and eyes. Your brain will then try to assemble those pieces into a configuration that you know something about.

When the pieces you supply match nothing in the gallery of known facial expressions, when you encounter a person whose nose, mouth or eyes are distorted in a way you have never encountered before, you instinctively lock on. Your gaze remains riveted, and your brain stays tuned for further information.

“When a face is distorted, we have no pattern to match that,” Rosenberg said. “All primates show this [staring] at something very different, something they have not evolved to see. They need to investigate further. ‘Are they one of us or not?’ In other species, when an animal looks very different, they get rejected.”

Some of this response might be applicable to interface design, one would think. How do we respond to interfaces that aren't symmetrical or don't fit a recognizable pattern? Are the same processes at work? Some studies show interfaces that are better designed are percieved as more usable than funtionally identical, but poorly designed ones.

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.

Visual Perception

From the New Yorker 6/30/08:

The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.

I'm reminded of a Visual Anthropology class I took, where we were discussing tribes who had little or no contact with Westerners. A group in New Guinea (I think) was shown a photograph, but it didn't register at all what it was (a photograph of the tribe). Later, when shown a film of the tribe, they got - a very visceral reaction.

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.

Ideation and Invention

In grad school, we talked a lot about invention. Invention is distinct from discovery and the scientific method in that it is a process of combination rather than unique observation or singular insight. This helps mark the distinction between designers and scientists - the latter is about finding a single truth, while the former can accomplish multiple solutions through a more inductive process. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about invention in the New Yorker and one of the takeaways was his distinction between invention in the artistic (or cultural) realm and the scientific realm. He notes that artistic invention is truly invention in that it is the unique creation of an individual, while scientific inventions happen in a cloud (or, that most inventions are destined to be discovered eventually). By this, he means that a scientific invention is the product of previous accomplishments as well as (and this is important) the fact that almost all "inventions" have been duplicated simultaneously or even previously. Many times, the wrong inventor is credited when in fact someone else - completely independently - has developed the same solution.

It seems the definition of invention needs clarity, since the common perception of how solutions are discovered is more aligned to the archetype of the solitary genius than someone working within a community and era. Gladwell mentions this as well, reporting that Robert Merton researched the subject and posited that geniuses do the work of many people (30+). This doesn't diminish their accomplishments, in fact it shows how brilliant they are that 30 other people might discover the same thing it took only one person to

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.

Physics Lessons Online at MIT

In his lectures at ocw.mit.edu, Professor Lewin beats a student with cat fur to demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet, nerd safari garb, and he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

Giving Users Feedback and Control Over Energy Usage

This is a classic feedback loop - just like giving people a scale will help them lose weight, this study gave people feedback and the ability to particiapate in the energy market, and it lowered energy usage.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/10/technology/10energy.html

10 Healthy Brain Habits

  1. Learn what is the "It" in "Use It or Lose It". A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain's beauty as a living and constantly-developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses.
  2. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don't need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don't stuff yourself with the "bad stuff".
  3. Remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: physical exercise enhances neurogenesis.
  4. Practice positive, future-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to every new day in a constructive way. Stress and anxiety, no matter whether induced by external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and prevents the creation of new ones. You can think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons.
  5. Thrive on Learning and Mental Challenges. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. "Use It or Lose It" does not mean "do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567". It means, "challenge your brain often with fundamentally new activities."
  6. We are (as far as we know) the only self-directed organisms in this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from college, keep learning. The brain keeps developing, no matter your age, and it reflects what you do with it.
  7. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.
  8. Don't Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbor, not to this blogger... Make your own decisions, and mistakes. And learn from them. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbor's.
  9. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We are "social animals", and need social interaction. Which, by the way, is why the Baby Einstein series has been shown not to be the panacea for children development.
  10. Laugh. Often. Especially to cognitively complex humor, full of twists and surprises. Better, try to become the next Jon Stewart, and create your own unique humor.Keep in mind that what counts is not reading this article-or any other one-, but practicing a bit every day until small steps snowball into unstoppable, internalized habits...so, pick your next battle and try to start improving at least one of these 10 habits during the holidays!

Have to say, I found #4 to especially relevant. Its pretty easy to fall into negative thinking/imagery and have that become hard-wired. 

How the brain discriminates

I'm fascinated with human behavior, and in particular how people are constantly looking for differences in the world around them. I don't know if this is an evolutionary response (fight or flight), or is something else. This is a powerful response that allows us to quickly assess what is going on around us, but it does have a down side. I think because it is so powerful, we have the capacity to amplify distinctions that aren't meaningful. This leads to "the battle of the sexes", India and Pakistan, etc. A recent Harvard study looks at neural patterns when people encounter others who are similar and dissimilar to them. "How does the brain differentiate those who are similar to us from those who are different? Does it analyze differences in skin color, language, religion, height, eye color, foot size? Does it discriminate cat versus dog lovers, Pepsi versus Coke drinkers, Shiite versus Sunni, Crips versus Bloods?"


I wonder if we can overcome this through training (education)?