Book review. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

TL;DR: a nice popular science book that covers many aspects of the modern science

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a popular science book. I didn’t learn anything fundamental out of this book, but it was worth reading. I was particularly impressed by the intrigues, lies, and manipulations behind so many scientific discoveries and discoverers. 

The main “selling point” of this book is that it answers the question, “how do the scientists know what they know”? How, for example, do we know the age of Earth or the skin color of the dinosaurs? The author indeed provides some insight. However, because the book tries to talk about “nearly everything,” the answer isn’t focused enough. Simon Singh’s book “Big Bang” concentrates on the cosmology and provides a better insight into the question of “how do we know what we know.” 

Interesting takeaways and highlights

  • Of the problem that our Universe is unlikely to be created by chance: “Although the creation of Universe is very unlikely, nobody knows about failed attempts.”
  • The Universe is unlimited but finite (think of a circle)
  • Developments in chemistry were the driving force of the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, chemistry wasn’t recognized as a scientific field in its own for several decades

The bottom line: Read if you have time 3.5/5. 

A tangible productivity tool (and a book review)

One month ago, I stumbled upon a book called “Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life” by Jim Benson (all the book links use my affiliate code). Never before, I saw a more significant discrepancy between the value that the book gave me and its actual content. 

Even before finishing the first chapter of this book, I realized that I wanted to incorporate “personal kanban” into my productivity system. The problem was that the entire book could be summarized by a blog post or by a Youtube video (such as this one). The rest of the book contains endless repetitions and praises. I recommend not reading this book, even though it strongly affected the way I work

So, what is Personal Kanban anyhow? Kanban is a productivity approach that puts all the tasks in front of a person on a whiteboard. Usually, Kanban boards are physical boards with post-it notes, but software Kanban boards are also widely known (Trello is one of them). Following are the claims that Jim Benson makes in his book that resonated with me

  • Many productivity approaches view personal and professional life separately. The reality is that these two aspects of our lives are not separate at all. Therefore, a productivity method needs to combine them.
  • Having all the critical tasks in front of your eyes helps to get the global picture. It also helps to group the tasks according to their contexts. 
  • The act of moving notes from one place to another gives valuable tangible feedback. This feedback has many psychological benefits.
  • One should limit the number of work-in-progress tasks.
  • There are three different types of “productivity.” You are Productive when you work hard. You are Efficient when your work is actually getting done. Finally, you are Effective when you do the right job at the right time, and can repeat this process if needed. 

I’m a long user of a productivity method that I adopted from Mark Forster. You may read about my process here. Having read Personal Kanban, I decided to combine it with my approach. According to the plan, I have more significant tasks on my Kanban board, which I use to make daily, weekly, and long-term plans. For the day-to-day (and hour-to-hour) taks, I still use my notebooks. 

Initially, I used my whiteboard for this purpose, but something wasn’t right about it.

Having my Kanban on my home office whiteboard had two significant drawbacks. First, the whiteboard isn’t with me all the time. And what is the point of putting your tasks on board if you can’t see it? Secondly, listing everything on a whiteboard has some privacy issues. After some thoughts, I decided to migrate the Kanban to my notebook.

In this notebook, I have two spreads. The first spread is used for the backlog, and “this week” taks. The second spread has the “today,” “doing,” “wait,” and “done” columns. The fact that the notebook is smaller than the whiteboard turned out to be a useful feature. This physical limitation limits the number of tasks I put on my “today” and “doing” lists. 

I organize the tasks at the beginning of my working day. The rest of the system remains unchanged. After more than a month, I’m happy with this new tangible productivity method.

Book review. The War of Art by S. Pressfield

TL;DR: This is a long motivational book that is “too spiritual” for the cynic materialist that I am.

The War of Art by [Pressfield, Steven]

The War of Art is a strange book. I read it because “everybody” recommended it. This is what Derek Sivers’ book recommendation page says about this book

Have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what “Resistance” is.

As a known procrastinator, I was intrigued and started reading. In the beginning, the book was pretty promising. The first (and, I think, the biggest) part of the book is about “Resistance” — the force behind the procrastination. I immediately noticed that almost every sentence in this chapter could serve a motivational poster. For example

  • It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
  • The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight.
  • The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Individually, each sentence makes sense, but their concentration was a bit too much for me. The way Pressfield talks about Resistance resembles the way Jewish preachers talk about Yetzer Hara: it sits everywhere, waiting for you to fail. I’ tdon’t like this approach.

The next chapters were even harder for me to digest. Pressfield started talking about Muses, gods, prayers, and other “spiritual” stuff; I almost gave up. But I fought the Resistance and finished the book.

My main takeaways:

  • Resistance is real
  • It’s a problem
  • The more critical the task is, the stronger is the Resistance. OK, I kind of agree with this. Pressfield continues to something do not agree with: thus (according to the author), we can measure the importance of a task by the Resistance it creates.
  • Justifying not pursuing a task by commitments to the family, job, etc. is a form of Resistance.
  • The Pro does stuff.
  • The Artist is a Pro (see above) who does stuff even if nobody cares.

Book review. Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal is known for his book “Hooked” in which he teaches how to create addictive products. In his new book “Indistractable“, Nir teaches how to live in the world full of addictive products. The book itself isn’t bad. It provides interesting information and, more importantly, practical tips and action items. Nir covers topics such as digital distraction, productivity and procrastination.

Indistractable Control Your Attention Choose Your Life Nir Eyal 3D cover

I liked the fact that the author “gives permission” to spend time on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube etc, as long as it is what you planned to do. Paraphrasing Nir, distraction isn’t distraction unless you know what it distracts you from. In other words, anything you do is a potential distraction unless you know what, why and when you are doing it.

My biggest problem with this book is that I already knew almost everything that Nir wrote. Maybe I already read too many similar books and articles, maybe I’m just that smart (not really) but for me, most of Indistractable wasn’t valuable.

Until I got to the chapter that deals with raising children (“Part 6, how to raise indistractable children”). I have to admit, when it comes to speaking about raising kids in the digital era, Nir is a refreshing voice. He doesn’t join the global hysteria of “the screens make zombies of our kids”. Moreover, Nir brings a nice collection of hysterical prophecies from the 15th, 18th and 20th centuries in which “experts” warned about the bad influence new inventions (such as printed books, affordable education, radio) had on the kids.

Another nice touch is the fact that each chapter has a short summary that consists of three-four bullet points. Even nicer is the fact that Nir copied all the “Remember this” lists at the end of the book, which is very kind of him.

The Bottom line. 4/5. Read.

Book review: The Formula by A. L Barabasi

The bottom line: read it but use your best judgement 4/5

I recently completed reading “The Formula. The Universal Laws of Success” by Albert-László Barabási. Barabási is a network science professor who co-authored the “preferential attachment” paper (a.k.a. the Barabási-Albert model). People who follow him closely are ether vivid fabs or haters accusing him of nonsense science.

For several years, A-L Barabási is talking and writing about the “science of success” (yeah, I can hear some of my colleagues laughing right now). Recently, he summarized the research in this area in an easy-to-read book with the promising title “The Formula. The Universal Laws of Success.” The main takeaways that I took from this book are:

  • Success is about us, not about you. In other words, it doesn’t matter how hard you work and how good your work is, if “we” (i.e., the public) don’t know about it, or don’t see it, or attribute it to someone else.
  • Be known for your expertise. Talk passionately about your job. The people who talk about an idea will get the credit for it. Consider the following example from the book. Let’s say, prof. Barabasi and the Pope write a joint scientific paper. If the article is about network science, it will be perceived as if the Pope helped Barabasi with writing an essay. If, on the other hand, if it is a theosophical book, we will immediately assume that the Pope was the leading force behind it.
  • It doesn’t matter how old you are; the success can come to you at any age. It is a well-known fact that most successful people broke into success at a young age. What Barabási claims is that the reason for that is not a form of ageism but the fact that the older people try less. According to this claim, as long as you are creative and work hard, your most significant success is ahead of you.
  • Persistence pays. This is another claim that Barabasi makes in his book. It is related to the previous one but is based on a different set of observations (did you know that Harry Potter was rejected twelve times before it was published?). I must say that I’m very skeptical about this one. Right now, I don’t have the time to explain my reasons, and I promise to write a dedicated post.

Keep in mind that the author uses academic success (the Nobel prize, citation index, etc.) as the metric for most of his conclusions. This limitation doesn’t bother him, after all, Barabási is a full-time University professor, but most of us should add another grain of salt to the conclusions. 

Overall, if you find yourself thinking about your professional future, or if you are looking for a good career advice, I recommend reading this book. 

Never read reviews before reading a book (except for this one). On “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Several people suggested that I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“. That is why, when I got my new Kindle, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” was the first book I bought.
Richard Feynman was a trained theoretical physics who co-won the Nobel Prize. From reading the book, I discovered that Feynman was also a drummer, a painter, an expert on Native American mathematics, safecracker, a samba player, and an educator. The more I read this book, the more astonished I was about Feynman’s personality and his story.

When I was half the way through the book, I decided to read the Amazone reviews. When reading reviews, I tend to look for the one- and two- stars, to seed my critical thinking. I wish I haven’t done that. The reviewers were talking about how arrogant and self-bragging man Feynman was, and how it must have been terrible to work with him. I almost stopped reading the book after being exposed to those reviews.

Admittedly, Richard Feynman never missed an opportunity to brag about himself and to emphasize how many achievements he made without meaning to do so, almost by accident. Every once in a while, he mentioned many people who were much better than him in that particular field that managed to conquer. I call this pattern a self-bragging modesty, and it is a pattern typical of many successful people. Nevertheless, given all his achievements, I think that Feynman deserves the right to be self-bragging. Being proud of your accomplishments isn’t arrogance, and is a natural thing to do. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is fun to read, is very informative and inspirational. I think that everyone who calls themselves a scientist or considers being a scientist should read this book.

P.S. After completing the book, I took some time to watch several Feynman’s lectures on YouTube. It turned out that besides being a good physicist, Feynman was also a great teacher.