Lifehack: How to Read More Books

So on New Year’s Day I randomly decided that I would try some resolutions. Normally, I don’t make resolutions or, if I do, I give up before the end of January (like everyone else). And this year, I made an outrageously bold one: Read 52 books. I’m sure reading one book per week isn’t that big of a resolution for many people, but I read fairly slowly. And my consumption of books is feast or famine. I managed to read a bunch of books last summer, but haven’t really read much since then. So I took a swing and so far, I’m #crushing it. In about 6 weeks, I’ve logged 11 books.

How did I double a reading pace that I thought was going to be a long shot to even maintain?

Cheating (of course)

Well, I mean, it’s not really cheating. It’s just audiobooks. My library has audiobooks that I can download onto my phone through the OverDrive app. I like it because it’s as easy listening to podcasts but after I’m done I get to feel like I’m a well-read person.

Sidenote: If your library doesn’t have audiobooks through a service like OverDrive you can always try Audible through Amazon (you’ll get two free audiobooks) and then keep it around and pay for it if you like it.

Ok, so listening to audiobooks seems like a pretty dumb lifehack (which isn’t saying much because most lifehacks are pretty dumb), but my real secret has been playing the audiobooks at 1.5, 1.75, and occasionally 2 times the speed of the recording. Why waste 10 hours listening to an audiobook when you can do the same in 5-7 hours? Audiobooks are generally read to emphasize clarity — which translates to most of the talking being slower than natural conversation, so it’s not a huge jump up to 1.25x or 1.5x normal speed. Once you’re there you become accustom to the faster speed and find yourself working your way up.

Now I find most audiobooks at regular speed sound painfully slow. I’ve noticed people talk faster in podcasts (probably because they’re talking more naturally), but after a few weeks I’m now cranking those up to 1.5x the normal speed.

So if you want to read more, don’t. Listen more. And listen faster.

And now for Brian’s Books (which is also the name of a bookstore where I grew up — no relation)

Nonfiction
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakaeur
Missoula by Jon Krakaeur
Read all his other stuff if you haven’t already
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

Funny and Memoirish
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Books that I read last year so they don’t count but are good and straddle the line between Nonfiction and Funny and Memoirish
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Self-Improvement and Self-Improvement-adjacent
Spark Joy by Marie Kondo
Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett
Joy on Demand by Chade-Meng Tan
The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo

An Easy Way to Map Data in R with Plotly

A couple of years ago, I wrote The complete n00bs guide to mapping in R, my first adventure into R. While that tutorial still holds up, if you’re looking to make a state-level Choropleth Map, there really isn’t anything easier than working with Ploty in R.

Once you get R and RStudio installed and set up, there’s only a few steps that you need to take. If you have a spreadsheet or can make one easily enough of state-level data, like this ranking of mental health and access in the USA by states , you only need a couple of lines of code (minus all the comments that follow the #s).

Let’s start by getting plotly set up.
install.packages("plotly") #installs the Plotly library for R
library("plotly") #tells R you want to use the Plotly library package

I just made a CSV file by copying the information from the website. One column was “state” and the other was “rank.” Because the data was which state and its rankings it was simple. Warning: In this case, the states do need to be copied as postal abbreviations for this to work. Plotly can also do countries. Check out their documentation for the changes you’ll need to make.

Import your spreadsheet and give it a name to use in R
mh<- read.csv("C:\\Users\\Documents\\mentalhealth.csv", header = TRUE, sep = ",")

And we're ready to plot it!
plot_ly(type="choropleth", locations=mh$state, locationmode="USA-states", z=mh$rank) %>% layout(geo=list(scope="usa"), )

Boom!
And did I mention it's interactive!

A map of the US with the states shaded in colors ranging from dark blue to yellow
Click for a full size map

Another Example
Because plotly makes the mapping so simple, I finally got around to looking at the geographic distribution of the All-America City Award. It started in 1949 and the city I grew up in (Grand Rapids, MI) was one of the inaugural winners in 1949. Since finding out about the award, I was curious if there was any states that did particularly well. However, it was one of those curiosities that was never really worth the effort. Until Plotly made it super easy!

I copied the table straight from Wikipedia and stripped it down to the just the state column. A few metropolitan areas are listed with multiple state winners so split the entry giving both states their own line in the data. I also deleted Puerto Rico (sorry Puerto Rico). I then brought it the file as above.
usacities<- read.csv("C:\\Users\\Documents\\allamericanwins.csv", header = TRUE, sep = ",")

This time, I took a few extra steps. Because my data was just a list of states over and over again (Alabama, Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Wisconsin, etc), I needed to count how many times each state was in the file. R makes it easy to generate a frequency table.
table(usacities)
(I told you it was easy)

I then made a new file out of the frequency table because that's how I roll.
write.csv(table(usacities), file = "C:\\Users\\Documents\\allamericanwinsfreq.csv")

I changed the state names to postal abbreviations and add NV and UT who had zero wins, then I was ready to bring in the file and plot the map.
usa<- read.csv("C:\\Users\\Documents\\allamericanwins1.csv", header = TRUE, sep = ",") plot_ly(type="choropleth", locations=usa$state, locationmode="USA-states", z=usa$wins) %>% layout(geo=list(scope="usa"), )
I suppose I could have done this at the beginning and skipped the whole writing a new document thing but hey that's hindsight for you.

A map of the US with states shaded from dark red to light grey
Click for a full size map

It looks like the upper Midwest and and North Carolina/Virginia are the big winners of the award. Because I wanted to get an idea of how this fit with the state's populations, I did some more simple calculations (finding the difference in each state's ranking of number of times they won the award and the rank in total population. This map shows Alaska as a big winner. The Great Plains stays as a winner and this time the South is shown to be a loser when it comes to this award. New England did ok too.

A map of the US with states shaded in colors ranging from blue to red
Click for a full size map



Now go forth and create choropleth maps!

Children’s Books for Nerdy Parents

A couple of months ago, my brother Peter shared a list of his favorite baby books. Though I don’t have any kids yet, my wife Marie and I enjoy buying books for our niece and nephew (and you guessed correctly, we will be the weird aunt and uncle that always get them a book each holiday) and we wanted to share some of our favorites.

For a board books, Sandra Boynton has been our go-to author, but I’ve found there are many good options out there. We just sent our nephew Moustache Up!, a quirky little book that goes over opposites by talking about moustaches (and it comes with little moustaches to affix on the book’s characters!). Likewise, the Code Babies series is cute and a must get for new web developer parents.







Andrea Beaty and David Roberts team up for a series of well-written and beautifully illustrated books that encourage important educational foundations (like curiosity) as well as serve as an introduction to different kinds of careers.


Ada Twist, Scientist


Iggy Peck, Architect


Rosie Revere, Engineer

Some other enjoyably quirky books I’ve found include Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type — a book about farm animals going on strike and engaging in labor negotiations with the farmer and We Are in a Book! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) (I just can’t resist good media that breaks the fourth wall).









Marie added one that every history enthusiast needs to buy: Imogene’s Last Stand

Let’s just check out the first paragraph of the description on Amazon:

Meet Imogene Tripp, a plucky girl with a passion for history. As a baby, her first words were “Four score and seven years ago.” In preschool, she finger-painted a map of the Oregon Trail. So it’s not surprising that when the mayor wants to tear down the long-neglected Liddleville Historical Society to make room for a shoelace factory, Imogene is desperate to convince the town how important its history is. But even though she rides through the streets in her Paul Revere costume shouting, “The bulldozers are coming, the bulldozers are coming!” the townspeople won’t budge. What’s a history-loving kid to do?






Marie also recommends two by Hark! A Vagrant author Kate Beaton
The Princess and the Pony and King Baby.

Because Marie was an English major, she thinks reading is important or something and has more suggestions that I’ve listed below. (Though an English major, she also majored in History, which is why I married her). [Editor’s note: This sentence was updated for grammar at the request of the author’s wife]

Math

Stem Women

Social Studies

Literature




Now if you’re not into books and/or you don’t actually like the person who has a young child, you’ll want to buy them a Code-a-pillar. It’s great fun for the child. It’s bright and colorful and teaches the kind of thinking that you need to code. It’s also loud. Really loud (in a fun way though!). And their kid will want to have the Code-a-pillar move loudly across the floor all the time.

Consider it educational revenge for that parent you don’t like, but whose kid you have no beef with.

Try to shop your local independent bookstore. They’re good things to have in the community and you should support them! But if you click on one of the links above and order an item, Brian might get a small kickback from Amazon. Consider it selling out if you must, but someone has to pay for all the books Brian buys.

What Three Months of Reading Business Books Taught Me

Over the last few months I read a bunch of books, mostly business-related. Here’s the business-y ones:

So what did I learn? Three months of reading business books taught me that I love reading books by white men.

Wait, what?

I like to think I’m sensitive to issues of race and gender. I need to double check this.

Let’s run through my list. The authors are: white, white, white, white, white, white, white. Shit.

Let’s look at gender. They’re written by a man, edited by a woman, written by a man with a female co-author, written by men, men, men, and a man. Shit.

Well, I didn’t exclusively review business books. What about the other things? Two books and a podcast. Three male authors. Two white. The books I had noted to read in the future? Written by white dudes.

Shit.

I made an all male panel.

Maybe it’s “the system’s” fault. The publishing industry favors men and discriminates against women. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white.

Sure, there are systemic issues, but it’s easy to ignore race and gender as a white man. I can peruse the bookstore, only pick up books by Adam, Ed, Don, Jake, Stephen, and Chris and pretend like this is normal.

Simply put, I did not value diversity when deciding what to read next. Sure I can rationalize it: “Oh, I didn’t put much thought into what I was reading” or “I just picked what looked interesting” But I didn’t pick these books at random. If it had been random, I would’ve had more non-white authors and read more books written by women.

If I had tried for one minute, I could have found books written by people other than white dudes just as easily:

What did three months of reading mostly business books teach me?

Race and gender are always there, whether I pay attention or not. If you don’t value diversity, you’ll never get any.

Depression and Graduate School

Is depression in graduate school common?
Yes.

I’ve recounted my struggles with depression while in graduate school in an essay, Depression and Graduate School.

If you’re dealing with chronic unhappiness, consider seeking out professional help. If you’re a graduate student there are likely free or low cost resources on campus.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or considering harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

J.J. Abrams. Sir Richard Branson. Arianna Huffinton. Sheryl Sandberg. Peter Thiel. The blurbs on the back cover of Originals are impressive. The list of awards the book has won is impressive. Adam Grant’s research is impressive. But for a book on originality and creativity, Originals is shockingly formulaic and derivative. If you’re dying to get an overview of management psychology, read this book. Otherwise, the irony of the author constantly quoting other people’s work on how to be an original thinker will drive you crazy. The formulaic, academic structure compounds this bland writing style to create a book on originality that is lacking in creative inspiration.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (7)

The book covers a wide breadth of examples. Too wide. There’s something that didn’t quite sit well when Grant moved from Skype on one page to youth activists seeking to use nonviolence to overthrow a dictator on another. It’s jarring to jump from business case study to autobiography to psychological study to real world experience. And the way they’re all jumbled up makes it seem as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement are just another case study you read about in business school.

I want to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize. In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quoe, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. (16)

I know I’m being harsh, perhaps even overly harsh. The book isn’t bad. But it could have been so much better. The idea is stellar. The execution is average. There is solid advice in the book. Go to a bookstore read the “actions for impact” section. It’s an appendix that summarizes the main points in list format and it’ll tell you everything you need to know from the book. I was left with a bunch of interesting tidbits, but to dive into the fascinating stories I’ll need to look up the original research that this book only samples.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World


Next time: What Three Months of Reading Business Books Taught Me

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly. (35)

There’s a pervasive myth of the genius creative person. Breakthrough inventions, great pieces of writings, and works of art seem to come out of thin air. Created by an inventor, writer, or artist that stumbled upon the right inspiration at the right time. Anyone who has done creative work for a long period of time, knows this isn’t the case. Manage Your Day-to-Day gathers a number of successful writers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and others who make creative work into their career, to share the wisdom of becoming more productive, encouraging creativity, and making a living out of work they enjoy.

“The most successful creative minds consistently lay the ground work for ideas to germinate and evolve. They are always refining their personal approach to hijacking the brain’s neural pathways, developing a tool kit of tricks to spark the mind like flint on steel.” (184)

The book is written in easily digestible chunks of writing. Each author writes only a few pages, making this book great for people who like to read a little at a time. In fact, the book is likely more effective if read over a long period of time. Read in one straight shot, the advice starts to get a bit repetitive. Not as a mistake, but because managing time has a few very key points that most of the authors agree upon.

    Don’t wait for inspiration to start working
    Do lots of work regularly, everyday if possible
    Minimize email, social media, and other distractions
    Be mindful of your time and activities

The editors carefully crafted the design of the book, interspersing relevant quotes and summarizing the main points of each author before moving onto another section. Physically small with a durable plastic cover, the book is perfect for traveling as well as sitting on a work desk or nightstand for inspiration.

“Truly great creative achievements require hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work, and we have to make time every single day to put in those hours. Routines help us do this by setting expectations about availability, aligning our workflow with our energy levels, and getting our minds into a regular rhythm of creating.” (23)

“For a long time I wasn’t doing certain projects, but I thought I would love to do them if I had the time. Then, when I had the time, I avoided doing them because of all the other stuff that I still needed to do, like e-mail. And it’s just so much easier to do e-mail than to actually sit down and think.” (197)

The ultimate advantage of Manage Your Day-to-Day is the ease in which you can return to the advice. Feeling stuck? Read a few pages on jump-starting your work. Need inspiration? Browse a few of the quotes before getting down to work. An ease read that you can return to again and again, this book is well worth your time if you are working on any long term creative activities.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind


Next time: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Between the World and Me

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.
Between the World and Me (103)



Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a powerful, raw, letter to his son about his life and coming of age, the horrors of systemic racism and police brutality, and being black in America. A mix of memoir, history, and fatherly advice, Coates is completely honest as he writes to his son. He talks about the women he dated in college and smoking weed with his future wife. He talks about his college friend who was unjustly murdered by police. He talks about slavery and racism.

“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” (107)

Reading Coates gives someone like me (a white male with basically every other form of privilege) a brief glimpse on what my privilege truly means.

“…there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in the wooded backyards with streams and glens.” (20)

Though I can’t really understand what it is like to grow up black in America, Coates tells the story of his life in a unique and compelling way. Publishing Between the World and Me, Coates intended his letter for the American public, but even when making an important point about how racism affects children, he frames it in a way where he is truly talking to his son. To Coates, the reader is a welcomed eavesdropper.

“I am sure that you have had to deal with the occasional roughneck on the subway or in the park, but when I was your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise numbers, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not— all of which is to day that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body…I think I was always, somehow aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.” (24)

In many respects, Coates is giving his son the talk about being a black in America. It’s no coincidence then that his focus is on the ways in which society (mis)treats the black body.

“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” (71)

However, Coates also gives the story of his own coming of age, with a particular focus on his intellectual development. As a historian, I identified with his first encounters with the complexities of learning about the past. As a writer, Coates describes it beautifully:

“I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” (48)

Coates’s experiences with education and learning underscore the stark differences of growing up black in the United States. Experiences that I never encountered. Experiences that it is important for me to hear.

“I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them.” (26)

The cover of my copy quotes Toni Morrison as saying “This is required reading.” And it should be. Everyone should read Between the World and Me. It is insightful, powerful, and raw. Coates shines as a father, intellectual, and writer.

Between the World and Me


Next time: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Baby Books

My brother Peter and his wife have an adorable 14 month-year-old and we’re constantly getting her books. Thankfully, they love reading to her. Peter wrote up the following introduction and compiled the lists below (while at Med School!). It gave me lots of ideas for the next holiday…

Building Your Baby’s Library
Story telling is one of the great cultural universals, a part of the human condition wherein ones role evolves within a lifetime. Perhaps the most important form of storytelling today is reading with children. Reading, particularly goodnight stories, to your young child is a bonding experience that creates a positive bedtime ritual, but more benefits are becoming clear. Starting with books the day they leave the womb is shown to improve language, literacy, and overall cognitive development, prompting pediatricians to prescribe a daily dose of books and initiatives such as Head Start and Reach Out and Read. If you are beginning this journey with your baby, read this resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For those lost on where to start building their baby’s library, or for those that don’t want to show up to the next baby shower with the third Where the Wild Things Are gift that day, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite baby books.

*Denotes a Caldecott recipient

Classics
The Snowy Day Ezra Jack Keats, 1962*
The Little Island Leonard Weisgard, 1947*
The Story of Ferdinand Munro Leaf, 1936
MadelineLudwig Bemelmans, 1939
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” in The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling, 1894
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel Virginia Lee Burton, 1939
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin Jr., 1967
The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses Paul Globe, 1979*
The Berenstain Bears (series) Stan & Jan Berenstain, 1962
Just Me and My Dad (Little Critter Series) Mercer Mayer, 1977
A Fish Out of Water Helen Palmer, 1961

New Classics
“More More More,” Said the Baby Vera B. Williams, 1997*
Zen Shorts Jon Muth, 2005*
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Bill Martin Jr., 1989
Barnyard Dance! Sandra Boynton, 1993
This Is Not My Hat Jon Klassen, 2012*
Prince Peter and the Teddy Bear, David McKee, 1997
Stone Soup Marcia Brown, 1997*

Bedtime Stories
Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brown, 1947
Sleep Like a Tiger Pamela Zagarenski, 2012*
Night-Night, Forest Friends Annie Bach, 2013
Good Night Lake Adam Gamble, 2008

Too Bizarre, Surreal For Parents (Perfect for Kids)
In the Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak, 1970*
Histoire de Babar Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
George and Martha James Marshall, 1974



Next time: Between the World and Me

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Revisionist History

From the Vietnam War to inequality in higher education to free throw shooting in the NBA, Malcolm Gladwell tells a compelling story in each podcast while teasing out the deeper meaning. Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History allows him to explore shorter story arcs that might not otherwise make it to a larger audience. Each podcast features a well told story entertaining enough to keep your attention, but simple enough to listen to while doing another activity – I found the podcast to be a good accompaniment to mowing the lawn and working out.

I think too often we make up our minds about something that happened and then we move on without pausing to ask, “Wait a minute – is that actually what happened? Do we really understand it?” The Lady Vanishes

Gladwell is at his best during his three-part examination of opportunity in America. Though he finds a dysfunctional system that prioritizes food over financial aid and growing endowments over raising opportunity, it’s a deeply important story.

There’s only one solution. If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall. Because every time you support a school that spends its money on amazing food, every time you cast a vote in favor of eggplant Parmesan pancakes and lobster bakes and venison during deer season. You’re making it harder and harder for someone like Catherine Hill [President of Vassar] to create opportunities for poor kids. Suck it up and go to Vassar. Send a message to the Bowdoins of the world about what really matters.

But Gladwell isn’t just moralizing. He’s examining the way the world works and the competing ways we view it. This theme of looking more closely at these stories allows him to move directly from this powerful arc on unequal access to opportunity to the nature of creative genius as examined through the song Hallelujah. Passionate and invested, Gladwell seems truly interested in his stories and the ideas they bring to life – making the podcast even more enjoyable listening.

Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History

Next time: Baby Books reviewed by a special guest!

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com