How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

The history of creation, invention, and discovery can be summed up succinctly: it involves a ton of hard work. For every great development, for every paradigm shift, for every innovation, and for every breakthrough, there were countless hours of effort. Hypotheses were tested and invalidated, prototypes created and destroyed. As much as we are enamored by so-called “strokes of genius,” the reality is much more mundane: creation takes ordinary effort and persistence. Ashton traces the developments of several historically significant innovations and shows that while we may perceive them as overnight successes, all of the people involved spent years on the problem before arriving at a remarkable result. This is a liberating reminder that you don’t need a special talent to make an impact, just perseverance.

Overall, the style of the book reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s famous books: a series of anecdotes strung together to form a compelling narrative. That said, Ashton’s citations are numerous and thorough. The book is easy to read and quick to finish. Recommend.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

That we live in a world of plenty where having too much stuff can actually be a problem is strange. That we live in a world where there are books about how to reduce the amount of stuff we have is, perhaps, stranger. But I too am susceptible to the pressures of modern society and the consumerism epidemic that seems to have fully infected daily life. Marie Kondo’s book piqued my interest as a kind of antidote to all of that.

In the simplest reading, the book describes straightforward tactics to eliminate the unnecessary crap that we tend to accumulate. For me though, the book was a call to live in the present. Kondo notes late in the book that there are two reasons we hold on to things: one, to maintain a connection to the past and two, to prepare for uncertainty in the future. But we exist in the present. No number of mementos will bring us back to past happy experiences and no amount of stockpiling will prepare us for all possible futures. Don’t let the accumulation of material things trick you into believing those things are possible.


The Girl in the Spider’s Web

An unexpected continuation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is written by David Lagercrantz, apparently with the support of Larsson’s estate but without the support of his long-time partner. Larsson’s familiar characters make a return to a plot that is at once new and entirely recognizable. Beyond that, there’s really not a whole lot to say: if you enjoyed the first three books, you’ll enjoy this one.

And while I did enjoy the book, I can’t help but feel that it lacks the electricity of the original series. I’m not familiar with Lagercrantz’ other work but this book reads more like a sequel to a Dan Brown story than something worthy of the Millennium Trilogy. The nuanced characters of the original become exaggerated caricatures of themselves who now have to save the world and while still fun, it’s ultimately just another action novel.

Recommend? Eh, no need to diminish the positive memories of the original.



Who has the right to control your attention? I ask because a friend pointed me to this Bloomberg article claiming that we will soon tire of the trendy group chat applications (namely Slack) and find them just as burdensome as email. I couldn’t disagree more. That opening question is what sets Slack and similar apps apart from email and ultimately makes them so valuable.

Many of the most successful technologies of the early 21st century have been about wresting control of our attention from the mass media broadcasters of the 20th century and returning that control to individuals. DVRs then YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, indeed the web itself and the rising use of ad blockers all empower users with fine-grain control of how their limited attention gets spent.

But one-to-one communication tools haven’t seen the same advancement. We make allowances for phone calls and emails because this type of communication requires that we give control of our attention to others. When the interruptions from these tools are few and far between, it’s easy enough to handle the distraction and return to the original task.

Unfortunately, many have taken advantage of this situation to outright steal our attention. Telemarketing and spam infuriate us because they interrupt us, yes, but also because we have such impotent mechanisms for protecting ourselves from them. We’ve applied fix after fix to make sure we only give our attention to those who actually deserve it. But caller ID, do-not-call lists, custom ringtones, visual voicemail, spam filters, message priority, mailbox rules, and VIP lists are just bandaids that don’t address the core issue: these tools were built without any real protection from attention theft. Telemarketing and spam are the most egregious examples, but we encounter varying degrees of this type distraction all the time. Whether it’s the over-sharing grandmother or the company-wide birthday emails, lengthy voicemails or reply-all storms, despite our best efforts we can’t eliminate these low quality messages because there might be something important mixed in with the mess.

This is the power of Slack: it’s a communication tool that puts control squarely in the hands of message recipients. Don’t want to be interrupted for all-hands announcements? Mute the #general channel. Don’t want to be bothered by cat videos? Don’t subscribe to the #cat-videos channel. Want to be notified every time someone mentions pandas? Add panda to your Highlight Words. Slack gives every user the tools they need to protect their attention from those who would steal it for unimportant gifs, redundant announcements, and yesterday’s news. The burden is placed on message senders to appropriately categorize their messages and the transparency of Slack channels makes it easy to see who isn’t following the rules. Is Slack perfect? No. It’s a new enough tool that there are many rough edges and unanswered questions about etiquette. One of those questions: is it appropriate to invite people to a channel without their consent? And Slack’s relatively new group messaging feature (private messages between up to 8 people) strikes me as a regression that allows message senders to bypass channels and notification settings all too easily.

Despite some shortcomings, Slack is an excellent step forward and has many other awesome features (emoji reactions are a favorite of mine). The fact that Slack protects the scarce resource that is my attention is what makes me an avid user of the product and a huge fan. Thanks for your attention.


The Partner

Some light reading from Christmas (not to disparage John Grisham, but his novels don’t exactly push the limits of the genre). The fun of this book is untangling the legal mess that has ensnared the main character. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear the mess hasn’t so much ensnared him, rather he has created this mess intentionally through his own meticulous planning.

Unfortunately, it’s an awful lot of planning that leads to a frustratingly unsatisfying ending. Recommend? Meh.


The Martian

This XKCD sums the whole thing up perfectly:

“You know the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘We have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table full of parts or the astronauts will all die?’


The Martian is for people who wish the whole movie had just been more of that scene.”

Not sure I can do better than that. Ultimately, The Martian is a fun, light read with a whole bunch of interesting science mixed in. Weir’s writing style works really well for the portrayal of the main character (though other characters are a tad weaker). Overall: highly recommend.

Oh, and the movie is good too! But the book is better.