In the hundreds of millions of years of the history of mammals, humans play a very short part. So a book about mammals ought not dwell on us too much.
That’s the case with The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by paleontologist Stephen L. Brusatte, who rose to prominence with a similarly titled booked on dinosaurs. The book is fun but serious, with a very long and detailed accounting of what brought us to today. Get the book. (Image courtesy of this piece on mammal development after the asteroid-fuelled death of the dinosaurs)
Americans have a long established belief in a right to privacy — even as that right has been outshined by others.
The right to know is prominently American, with its relationship to the Freedom of the Press. The 20th century was “the era of the journalist,” according to James Reston, a one-time New York Times executive editor, who led the publication of the Pentagon papers and died in 1995.
Today, the right to be forgotten is a prominent trend emanating from Europe. But the right to privacy relates to both and much more. It’s important to understand it.
So goes Seek and Hide, a new book by academic Amy Gajda. It is thorough and compelling, rich with court law and the stories that help describe our cultural relationship to privacy. Go buy a copy. (New Yorker coverage here)
Long before the change happens, people start by talking.
That’s how community organizing really happens. Before intersectionality or the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Civil Rights movement, or even before the recent explosion of the alt-right, somewhere people quietly come together to form a movement. What do those moments have in common?
That’s the focus of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, a new book by Gal Beckerman, a books editor for the Atlantic and formerly The New York Times. (Find a review in the Washington Post)
Below, find notes for my future review — and watch an interview Beckerman did with Sewall Chan, who spoke at the 2020 edition of an annual journalism conference I host.
No time management system can save you if you won’t save yourself.
Our human capabilities are powerless against software, global scale and machine learning. We can’t keep up. It’s the “efficiency trap” — the more effective we get, the more others rely on us. Time management, then, isn’t about getting more done but rather it’s about deciding what not to do and how to be at peace with our decisions.
The average human lifespan today is about 4,000 weeks — which gives the book its title and its purpose. After spending much of his career chasing each productivity hack, the author came to a newfound philosophy. Late in the book he describes it as his “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy”: recognizing our futility in the universe is a prerequisite for sustaining a balanced life.
High-achievers can still work hard and do great work. He writes about how. More than anything though the book argues we need the right foundation before we ever chase “inbox zero.” As a productivity nerd myself, I enjoyed the book and got lots from it. It is far less tactical and so may not resolve what some want out of a time management book, but it succeeds at adding something new to the conversation.
Empires rise and fall in predictable ways that follow long-established patterns.
An emerging power invests heavily in education, infrastructure and trade to create wealth, which it protects by strengthening its military. Elsewhere the current leading power grows decadent with rising wealth inequality, in-fighting and fading investments until the emerging power confronts it – and wins. War and revolution start the cycle anew.
That’s among the biggest themes from the high profile 2020 book from Ray Dalio, the founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds: Principles For Dealing With The Changing World Order Why Nations Succeed And Fail. It’s part of the “principles” series that includes extensive independent research that Dalio’s team maintains here. He intends to look at the longest historical period possible to find patterns that can inform what happens next.
Most pressingly, he argues we’re at the late stage of the American empire, when the United States will continue to decline from its role as the world’s global hegemony and cede that position to China. I’ve been disappointed that much of his coverage has not challenged him on what seems a very big conflict of interest: Dalio is heavily invested in China, an authoritarian country that does not protect criticism, and he has been careful to avoid criticizing the party. In short, the book’s biggest flaws may be that he pulls his punches against China. Still, by using his own determinants and data, he paints a stark picture of unassailable patterns over the last 500 years up until today that looks like this:
Below I share my notes from reading the book for my future reference.
We operate with limited information and are outcomes are heavily influenced by others with varied priorities. That’s the setup for the 2018 book Thinking in Bets by poker player Annie Duke. She was near to several poker scandals but has since focused on decision science — with her poker past as an effective storytelling device.
It was popular in business circles. The book is effective in conveying a clear overall point and synthesizing relevant research. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.
Habits work in three steps: the cue, the routine and the reward.
To change a habit, swap out the routine — because the cue and the reward are apparently already successful. That’s a big theme from Power of Habit, the 2012 bestseller by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg. I’m personally interested in the habit of habits so this book was long on my list to read — then a friend encouraged me to read it since it related to a project of ours. And so here I am.
Below I have a few notes for me to return to in the future.
Free speech has a long history. Long enough that we know the pitfalls so well that they have nicknames.
There’s Milton’s Curse to describe the tendency for emerging leaders to defend free speech, only to walk backward once they are in power. More recently, we added the Streisand Effect, nicknamed after Barbara Streisand’s failed 2003 attempt to keep photos of her Malibu home off the internet. Her failed resistance generated far more attention.
This long, fragile and volatile path for free speech is the focus of the new book Free Speech A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama. It is thorough, important and enjoyable. I recommend it. Below are my notes for my future research purposes.
Allyship is not an identity, but a lifelong process.
In twisted and complex American race relations, that amounts to a controversial stance. The last several years have been especially polarizing and yet somehow also clarifying and therefore productive.
For my work, myself and my community, I try to follow closely contributions to disentangling these systems. That’s why I picked up a copy of Me & White Supremacy, the 2021 book by Layla Saad. The book is structured as a kind of work book with journal prompts scheduled to run as a “28-day challenge.”
It also reads like an effective review of current recommendations on what Angela Davis famously called “anti-racism.” Whether you’re new to the conversation, or a professional that strives to keep engaged with the conversation, I recommend it. Below, I share my notes to review in the future.