startups, investing, and miscellaneous thoughts

Media Diet

Since there's an near infinite list of things I could read, I keep track of most of the media I consume. This is both as an accountability tool, and a way to share some of my favorite things. More about why I do this, and how I built my reading habit.

This is dominated by non-fiction books, though if something else was particularly notable, I'll include it. If this is useful to you, here are some of my favorite similar pages by others:

Fantastic Fungi  

This documentary combines wonderful cinematography (how on earth did they film mushrooms growing so well!?), science, and a compelling story. I've since researched more about several of the topic covered, such as how trees communicate through fungi-powered Mycorrhizal networks, and been eating a lot more mushrooms as well.

Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity  

Friends of mine know that I love talking and complaining about American urban development philosophy. Strong Towns is a non-profit that has written about the fragility and risks of the dominate structural growth philosophy underlying many American cities and towns. Unfortunately, the blog isn't super well structured—in my opinion—and has many ideas that are difficult to distill into a cohesive argument.

Strong Towns, the book, fixes this. It tells the story of American development, focusing on the suburban expansionary post-WW2 period, and how we've failed ourselves. At times, it's bleak: what if Detroit and Ferguson are not unique, but just early?

If you're into city planning, development, and thoughtful growth, I highly recommend this book.

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want  

We're really bad at knowing how we—ourselves—think. We're also bad at knowing how others think. What results is tribalism, where we over-estimate our ability to accurately model mental states and motivations of others.

Mindwise had many incredible perspectives and nuggets of information. If our greatest skill is to be able to understand the minds of others and ourself, it's vital that we intentionally seek to improve this ability.

The book paces well, and has great insights the whole way through. I highly recommend it.

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?  

Once I got the gist of Godlin's point, I struggled to get through this. Though, it's good. If, like me, you already see the value in avoiding “cog-based” work, there's not a whole lot that is novel. If you've optimized your skills towards being very good, but likely replaceable, you may learn a lot. In fact, this book was recommended to me by someone who changed their work-life based on some principles here.

Critically, Seth under-estimates the coordination problem of having large companies full of linchpins. And, several of his examples of linchpin-driven companies—all of which are massively successful—I happen to know are full of monotony, bureaucracy, and cog-work. So, at it's worst, it's a repetitive, motivational-blog-style treatise. At it's best, it codifies important principles on succeeding in creative work.

The Courage to Be Disliked  

In my friend circle, this book has been both recommended as one of the most impactful reads published in the past few years, and also one of the most overrated. I think I get it.

The dialogue in the English translation—and perhaps the original?—is quite contrived and, at times, condescending. It's a Socratic-style conversation between a young person and a sage-like philosopher, talking about Adlerian psychology. I learned a lot, and it's helped me reframe my actions into goals-based evaluations (What goal do I have that leads to this behavior?).

There's several overlapping ideas between Adlerian psychology and Nonviolent Communication. I recommend the print book over the audiobook due to the narration style.

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress  

For someone who believes in the transformative power of growth, technology, and culture, this book initially felt like a curmudgeon's diss of civilization. With a bit more suspension of biases, I found myself thinking deeply about the premise.

Are we significantly better off due to technology? Christopher Ryan addresses this though historical and sociological evidence, and makes a strong case that we're massively capable of deluding ourselves about how great things are now and how bad they were before technology.

This book left me feeling a bit powerless, as we can't “go back”, but has affected my views of consumption, fragility, and growth.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It  

In my opinion, this is one of the greatest books on business, and still applies well to tech businesses today. I've recommended this one for several years to founders, and read it again. If entrepreneurship is interesting to you at all, this paints a fantastic picture of how to build a business that is not dependent on you based on business design (you working on the business, rather than working on the product).

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality  

Max Tegmark has an unusual idea: reality is just a mathematical structure. This is a bold claim about reality, so to get those of us there, he walks through a journey of what we know about our universe and how we know it. More importantly, he builds to focus on what the same mathematical underpinnings we use in our universe predict about things we can't directly observe.

To get anywhere close to explaining his ultimate theory, he spends sufficient time explaining the cosmos, with successes and failures of previous theories, so even a non-academic can understand where multiverses came about.

Part “introduction to the cosmos”, part memoir, part philosophy, Tegmark's journey is brilliant and enjoyable. The most meaningful portion for me was a metaphor he offered for life. I'll write more about this later.

Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It  

Confession: I held off reading this one for several months because of the title. I assumed it was some sort of exposé on VC, or perhaps “history of A18Z”. I was entirely wrong: this book provides the background, incentives, and purpose of venture capital and starting a VC-funded company. It covers everything from governance, term sheets, equity splits, board member duties (and legal obligations), and a lot more.

The chapter on Term Sheets is worth the book alone. Despite living a short drive from Sand Hill for the past 7 years, I've never seen something written that's so clear. All founders interested in VC should be aware how deals are negotiated, what the terms mean, and how it'll affect them.

It's also provides a great insight into VC incentives. How are they paid? What do their LPs want? This, and a lot more. I can't recommend this book enough to anyone interested in raising venture capital.

Dealt  

Richard Turner is one of the most brilliant card mechanics that has ever lived. My wife and I watched this documentary covering his fascinating life and the challenges he has faced, and loved it.

As a kid, I loved card magic. I collected special decks, pamphlets from experienced magicians, and books detailing advanced techniques. Almost 15 years ago, I watched Richard Turner's instructional DVDs Fans, Flourishes, and False Shuffles and The Cheat, and was blown away by his skills.

This documentary is a human story, far more than a magic or card story. He's one of the greatest due to sheer dedication and obsession: he practices card mechanic skills nearly every waking hour. If you like learning about the lives of fascinating people, even if card magic is not your thing, you'll probably like this one.

Why Evolution is True  

Frankly, it's hard to find balance on many issues that directly support or reject specific world-views. Evolution is a prime example. Nearly all scientists feel there is sufficient evidence for natural selection and evolution—including in humans—as the explanation of species breadth we see today. However, only 9% of white evangelicals agree. Even more surprising, each side is highly confident in their conclusion. They have arguments supporting their view, but it seems that neither side fully understands the other.

The result is a lot of talk past each other. Evolution is complicated and the evidence is nuanced. It's easy to construct a straw man argument that misinterprets the opposing position and then proceed to tear it down. Instead, if we genuinely are interested in truth, we must steel man arguments.

If you're interested in understanding evolution, either because you don't have a firm grasp of what arguments are being made—and more importantly, why people believe them—or because you think scientists are misguided, Why Evolution is True is the best book I've come across to clearly outline the central claims and supporting evidence. Coyne covers precisely what scientists mean by “evolution” and “natural selection”, falsifiable and verifiable claims that have been made, what we would find that might discredit the theory, and what we have found after hypotheses were made. Throughout the book, he reviews battery of evidence we've found, spanning geology, genetics, the fossil record, biology, and more. I learned a ton.

Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society  

If you believe that markets are the most efficient way to allocate resources, what if their breadth was extended to be far beyond how they're used today? Posner and Weyl play with this concept, and deliver proposals outside the current political axis, leaving people of nearly every political persuasion both interested and aghast.

I'll focus on the proposal they get the most attention for, regarding property ownership. They offer an economic system that would implement a wealth tax, levied on all personal property valued at whatever you publicly declare its value to be. Except, anyone can immediately take ownership of anything of yours by exceeding your named price. This incentivizes accurate valuations, and encourages the optimal use of resources. If you undervalue property because you're underutilizing it, someone else can quite easily arbitrage this spread.

This is one of four radical ideas they present using markets. The others involve voting, immigration, corporate control, and data ownership.

Here's the generous interpretation: their book is an interesting philosophy of economics, rather than literal ideas that could be adopted wholesale. That interpretation fueled many interesting hypothetical discussions I've had recently. However, for me—a fairly layperson—there's significant flaws with many of them, but they're interesting to think about and guide how we build our future.

Stillness Is the Key  

I'm a Ryan Holiday fan, have received a ton of value from other books of his, such as Trust Me I'm Lying. So, I had this one pre-ordered since it was announced. Stoicism, virtue ethics, and meditation? I'm in.

Each of us has access to more information than we could reasonably use. We tell ourselves that it's part of our job, that we have to be “on top of things,” and so we give up precious time to news reports, meetings, and other forms of feedback… We must stop this.

“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key

Unfortunately, it did none of these well. It starts well, with several brilliant quotes, and it often dips into great insights. Some of my favorite chapters include thoughtful historical stories of leaders who valued stillness in hard situations. As a whole, though, it never came together into a cohesive unit.

Past half way, it seems to fall apart. The chapters are full of appeals to the bandwagon — if lots of smart people did X, then X is worth doing. His understanding of history is incomplete, which only tripped my detector when I realized that many historical counterexamples to his point were oddly left out. Furthermore, the structure of the book left overlapping ideas in disjoint sections to fit the “mind”, “spirit”, “body” form he chose.

If you're new to Stoicism, you'll pick up a lot. However, I'd recommend starting with the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  

Yuval Noah Harari narrates the history of human kind, starting from pre-history with many types of sapiens roaming the world, to modern days. Large popular works often make for wide targets of criticism—which you'd see about Sapiens if you looked around. There's a lot to be critical of, but for me—uneducated in much of the anthropology and sociology underpinnings—there's also a lot to take away. Frankly, many of the vocal criticisms miss the point. Harari's greatest flaw is how he narrates as if detached from what he speaks about, as an unaffiliated observer reporting facts and observations; however, he frequently mixes well-agreed history with his opinions.

Taking a step back, his story telling led to many new revelations for me, even though many of the facts weren't all that surprising. For example, in the beginning he talks of human's ability to believe and live by fictions; we build our whole society based on them. Money, companies, countries, society, equality, rights, etc. are all constructs that we join together to believe. We're the only species that does this.

I learned a lot, and enjoyed the read. If you're willing to keep a skeptical mind and understand that much of this is Harari's own opinions, you'll likely enjoy it as well.

How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease  

Spoiler: eat plants. I love this book, and am frustrated by it. Lots to love: Dr. Greger is motivated to help people be healthy and live longer; there's nothing else. The first part of the book looks at all the top modern killers (heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, …), and gives evidence supporting plant-based diets. It's very well cited, and he's quite intelligent. Just like when reading Keto books, there's almost this underlying conspiratorial overlay on much of the evidence. Our science is largely funded by the food industry, who are in charge of informing policymakers of latest science. So, we end up with monoculture foods, sickly animals, and sugar-packed diets. The latter part of the book was more enjoyable for me, because it gave practical advice. I've increased my berry, spice (especially turmeric), and flexseed consumption based on the evidence he cites.

Frustrated: the science is cherry picked to form the larger point: you should be vegan, or at least vegetarian. I don't think it's wrong, but feels incomplete. If he disagrees with other modern research, such as with saturated fat consumption or the role of dietary cholesterol in blood cholesterol, he should have confronted it directly. Instead, it's just assumed that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are awful. Absolute vs relative risk is frequently ignored for many risk factors. The chapter on diabetes spends more time talking about saturated fat than sugar. So, lots to learn from, but feels a bit dogmatic.

High Growth Handbook  

There's plenty of writing about how to start a company, but how do you take a company from early product-market fit to hypergrowth? It turns out, not many people have done this. Leading fast growing companies is a still earned through experience, with few people having the opportunity to have done this. A lot of this knowledge has been passed on through coaching and mentorship.

This book is a reference, mostly useful when growth situations come up and you need help. The syllabus covers every area that a leader would need to become proficient at: communication, hiring, delegation, marketing, raising capital, and acquisition. I'm keeping this close, and am thankful Elad compiled such a great resource.

Undone  

It's a sci-fi, fantasy, and murder mystery animated show, rolled into one. It tackles time travel, mental illness, and reality. Go in fresh — don't read any reviews or commentary, and commit to the whole season. The whole series is less than 3 hours, and comes into its own towards the end.

The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different  

Our culture optimizes for “the average”. This isn't saying we encourage everyone to be average, but we measure from the average. This breaks down when a measure is “jagged”. Consider people of different sizes, and you're tasked to sort them from smallest to biggest. Do you do it by height? Well, this would rank a 1.5m tall obese person as “smaller” than a 1.6m very thin person. By weight? This has the same problem. As it turns out, “size” is jagged. This may seem silly, but we do the exact same thing with intelligence tests, clothing, standardized tests, and even norms. There is no “ideal” beauty measure or “smartest” intelligence measure, we measure nearly everything as if there were smooth metrics. No one is actually “average”.

The book is a fun read and isn't long. Once you wrap your mind around the idea, however, it's a bit repetitive.

The Personalized Diet: The Pioneering Program to Lose Weight and Prevent Disease  

An inspiration for Levels, but could be a lot shorter. The universal best diet doesn't exist because people respond differently to foods. The best way to find out how you respond is to measure it. Unfortunately, the end of the book, with the actual protocol, is disappointing. They recommend using a finger prick, and taking a few point measurements after meals. From my own experience wearing a continuous glucose monitor, this is far too noisy.

Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again  

Another health book during my research for my new startup. It won't surprise many technologists that ML is changing healthcare. Topol introduces us to the future of medicine: how humans will work with machines to provide better healthcare. He talks about what assumptions we should be careful of when designing AI health systems, and what the future may look like. He's critical of shallow medicine, which he claims most healthcare practitioners currently offer. Instead, he sees a future where full patient context can be used to provide personalized, targeted care.

Free Will  

I've appreciated a lot of what Sam Harris has created (such as Waking Up, and especially his meditation app of the same name), so wasn't unfamiliar with his arguments. This one's short, and is okay. His arguments are not the most intellectually rigorous, but I'm not sure that was his intention. Rather than an exploration of determinism, his goal is to show that if you look closely for “the one who thinks,” it disappears. Thoughts appear in consciousness, and the autonomy we believe we have is an illusion — in fact, the illusion isn't even there. If you haven't explored this, it's a hard concept to grasp. If this sounds like gobbledygook, you'll likely get little from this book. Much of the content in Free Will overlaps with his meditation app, and I'd recommend that instead to approach these ideas.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters  

We're social beings, and wonderful things happen when we gather. Great gatherings, though, don't happen by accident. They have intentionality behind who is and isn't invited, what we gather for, how long we are together, how we conclude, and how we'll remember the time together. Parker is a virtuoso at human gatherings, and shares her wisdom on how to gather well. Read this if: you are interested in hosting others, and want your gathering to be meaningful and memorable.

Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law  

Preet Bharara writes about justice: what is it, how do we protect it, why should we protect it, and how do we fail? It's both the story of his career as the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, but also about the world we live in. How do we effectively deliver and fight for justice? How do our leaders affect its grasp?

“[T]he rule of law” and “due process” and “presumed innocent” seem to do service these days more as political slogans than as bedrock principles… It seems preferred these days to demonize one's opponents rather than engage them, to bludgeon critics rather than win them over. There is a creeping contempt for truth and expertise… And the concept of justice seems turned on its head—holding different meaning depending on whether you are a political adversary or ally.

We're not left with too many solutions, and at times it's worrying. I have deep appreciation for the leadership we've had in our government, and how important it is.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion  

This is actually the second time I tried to read this, and the first where I succeeded. Previously, I found the philosophical diatribes encouraging my mind to wander — which is ironic, given the context. This time, I enjoyed it. From first principles, what is spirituality? How do people around the world—with different and contradictory beliefs—have spiritual experiences? Where do feelings of “oneness” come from?

Harris explores spirituality building from observations that we can analyze ourselves. It isn't easy though: looking at the nature of consciousness is difficult, to say the least. And for my Western mind, adopting the illusion of self took self-exploration and observation, rather than through logical arguments. Read this if: you're interested in Buddhist ideas, but do not care for the dogma attached.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear  

This book is delightful. I struggle with creativity: it hasn't previously felt accessible, and never productive. Gilbert thinks that's ridiculous.

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.”

Read this if: you want to be more creative, or don't think you can be.

Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert's Guide to Making Connections That Count  

I'm a bit torn on this one. The advice inside is likely quite useful for many people, advocating for a modern interpretation of “networking”. However, at least among people I work with, much of the advice is well-known and not surprising. Read this if: you find the concept of networking pointless or overwhelming. There are incredible benefits to building a wide, diverse network.

Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day  

This doesn't have a unified philosophy on productivity. It's a book with a ton of tactics on focusing and working more effectively. However, it's far too long, and felt like a grab-bag of all the tips and tricks the authors could come up with around productivity. Don't go on Facebook, focus on one thing, avoid the news, exercise, don't drink too much coffee, hang out with friends, etc.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win  

Jocko and Leif advocate for better leadership through “extreme” ownership: taking ownership of outcomes, no matter who is directly at fault. It's a pleasant read, mixing practical “real world” advice with war stories. The crux, however, could have been delivered in a blog post. You'll be a far more effective leader when you take full ownership of everything under your purview.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End  

Gawande considers aging and the slow process of modern death. Told alongside the story of his own father's death, he asks deep questions about mortality, end of life care, and autonomy. In an age of copious medical options, he advocates for a more holistic perspective on aging. He advocates for simple things, such as focusing on quality of life—which paradoxically often extends life, more than aggressive disease management. The book takes courage, especially if you have loved ones going through end of life care.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts  

Annie Duke, renowned poker player, writes about applying poker thinking to life. Specifically, separating outcomes from expected value, and making choices with incomplete information. If you've played a lot of poker—or, traded in financial markets—there's not too much surprising here.

In terms of applicable value, the lesson is fairly short, and could have been a blog post. Seek contrarian opinions and evidence against your biases. Don't blame negative outcomes on bad luck or necessarily bad decision making: the outcome only has a loose connection to the quality of the decision. Review decisions with other smart, experienced people.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  

This book changed the way I thought about morals, beliefs, and communication. Presented as a philosophy of morals—such as surveying the different types of morals we see in cultures—this book craft-fully made me think about my own moral compass. What do I value? Where do I place my values?

We make decisions without critical thinking, and are masters at explaining our decisions with rationality. We have this (shared) illusion that our beliefs are based in rationality, and thus when we disagree, we hit roadblocks. How can they possibly believe that? There is a solution, however; it may be why conservative talking points convince more people than liberal ones. Read this if: you're often frustrated how others place their values, and you want to learn empathy towards them.

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator  

An appropriate start to my media diet. This book isn't nearly as conspiratorial as you'd think. Rather, it's a study of incentives: how are different forms of media incentivized? I deeply respect the work that good journalists do, but unfortunately, that's not what pays the bills for the news outlets. Since subscriptions are down, we're in a feedback cycle where poorly-researched, quickly-written hype pieces get more attention than actually impacting journalism. Read this if: you're curious about reducing media consumption.

Ratings

These are entirely subjective, and roughly try to capture the personal enjoyment and usefulness to me, and how likely I'd recommend it to others. Don't read too much into this unless you love my judgement. Rough guidelines:
  • A: Top quartile. Changed the way I think about something, or was quite enjoyable the whole way through.
  • B: Above average. I was able to take away several useful things.
  • C: Likely wouldn't consume again. May have value, but not a great time investment.
  • F: Wouldn't consume again, didn't really get much of value.