audio book: The Martian

This XKCD cartoon first made me interested in the book.

I was wondering whether or not to keep my Audible subscription, and this book popped up on the recommended list. Maybe I’d been spending too much time thinking about left-brain puzzles, but I really enjoyed this book: the structure is fairly predictable, but the author places you in the middle of these situations, in the mindset of people who work so hard to fix them.

If you have an engineering bent, and don’t mind some cursing, it’s worth a listen / read.

Audible: I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan

Audible: I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan [a fictional autobiography from, and read by, Steve Coogan’s character Alan Partridge).

If you’re at all familiar with the work of Alan Partridge, you’ll know what to expect here. A man so narcissistic that he can narrate the birth of his son, and insert anecdotes about how his parking was running out, and so it was a bit inconvenient.

Crass in places, it is nonetheless a very funny listen. Points to Audible for putting it in their “guaranteed good listen” collection.

The problem with an Audible book is the impossibilty of highlighting. This book has a lot of phrases I’d like to revisit, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to mark phrases (there are bookmarks, but it’s not quite the same thing).

book: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Even though I read the sequel when I was a child, I’d never actually read the more famous prequel. As it turns out, it probably only takes about an hour to read in its entirety – it’s a very short, dark, child-friendly tale, hard to read without hearing the songs and picturing the visuals of the film.

Dahl rants against TV in a long poem (sung by the Oompa-Loompas) in a way that is even more poignant in the age of constant internet distraction. Recommended.

book: the magic pudding

Book: The Magic Pudding

When I was in infants school, there was a 4-volume illustrated series about the Magic Pudding, but volume (aka ‘slice’) two was always on the book repair shelf, and couldn’t be read. It turns out that Kel had a copy of this book, so over the weekend I read it aloud to the kids.

I remember it being about a pudding that kept replenishing itself and can, on request, change flavours. In reality, it seems more about a pair of anti-heroes meeting up with someone with great skill in oratory, and their pugilstic ways.

The kids found it funny, and seemed untroubled by the archaic language and occasionally violent ways of the main characters. Being a pudding thief, it would seem, is a way to earn a certain amount of vigilante justice.

book: gospel patrons

Gospel Patrons book cover

Book: Gospel Patrons – history remembers the people who changed the world, but tends to gloss over how they were able to do the things for which they’re remembered. John Rinehart in this work makes the case for taking seriously the notion of financial support for endeavours to spread the Christian message. It’s a quick read, but tells the story of people who took personal risks just to support what was being done in different parts of the world. 

book: what’s happening to our girls?

Book: What’s happening to our girls?

A book for parents to think about the changes in culture and society as it affects their children,  since they were children themselves. It’s not a positive picture: lots of challenges with girls growing up too soon, with too little a sense of self-worth.

A good starting point, but you’ll need to look further than the book itself for what to do about it.

book: Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential

Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential

On a parenting course, this book was recommended: it makes the distinction between two kinds of mindsets, and explains how to move from one to the other. On the one hand, the fixed mindset – where your response to failure is to blame yourself, and avoid the situation that led to the failure. On the other hand, the growth mindset, where failure is a chance to learn, and expand what you’re capable of doing.

There’s a mix in the book of content: some is helpful in raising children with a growth mindset, the rest is targeted at developing your own mindset. Full of practical examples, it’s worth a read.

book: the laws of simplicity

Book: The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

John Maeda has worked in industry, and more recently as a design teacher at MIT. I grabbed this book from the library from a recommendation from the Boagworld podcast. It’s a short read (only 100 pages) but provides a helpful framework for thinking about how to reduce the complexity in a design project.

There are ten laws in the book, and a postscript:

1 reduce (she – shrink, hide, embody)
2 organise
3 time (savings feel like simplicity)

4 learn (brain – basics, repeat, avoid, inspire, never)
5 differences
6 context

7 emotion
8 trust
9 failure

10. The one: away/open/power

Insecurity: Be neither too insecure to start something, nor so secure that you don’t recognise your failures.

Maeda puts a lot of himself and his experiences into the book, and it’s richer for it. The sense of (8) trust leading to simplicity, for example, is illustrated through the notion of a sushi master, to whom you entrust your meal, and receive a beautifully tailored experience without having to make difficult choices.

It seems a book that’s worth spending an hour reading, and some further time considering how to simplify those things we create.

book: the filter bubble: what the Internet is hiding from you

Book: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (2011)

Being surrounded by vast expanses of content is so commonplace now that we are no longer amazed by it.

If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?”

“I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in to arguments with strangers.” (source)

Craig Detweiler said in a CPX podcast this week that the idea of searching for answers has changed – the expectation is now that we will find whatever we’re looking for, in moments.

In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser (since writing the book he’s become the CEO of Upworthy) writes about the unasked questions that surround this access to information. In his TED talk “Beware online filter bubbles” he gives an overview, but in the book there’s more of a deep dive into his thinking.

Google (and other search engines, with the exception of duckduckgo) made the switch to personalised search, and from there, different people no longer saw the same search results. Google filters the results of searches based on indications of what your past activity reveals as your preferences. 

In some way, this is a positive: the information you receive is more relevant to your interest. In other ways, this is a negative – your own biases can be reinforced, rather than challenged.

This filter bubble doesn’t stop at search. Social media sites (Facebook being the largest is the easiest target, but even twitter is moving in this direction) choose which updates will be most likely to keep you on the site, based on a range of criteria.

When you’re making purchases online, careful note is taken of your behaviour: which pitches and discounts you respond to, to create a “persuasion profile” that helps retailers the next time you try and make a purchase in another category.

It’s easier for large companies to track behaviour online across a range of websites (via ad networks, share this buttons and the like), and build more and more detailed profiles.

Pariser argues that this is happening even in the political space, where voters are also profiled: in the US, Google ran a “find your nearby polling place” microsite: a way to provide a service, sell political advertising, or to help augments its user profiles with their political affiliation and likelihood of voting? The opaque nature of multinational companies makes it hard to tell.

In the final chapter Pariser presents a range of actions that companies and the public can take to be able to break out of the filter bubble and explore a wider set of interests: to have the option of not being tracked, to lobby governments around privacy regulations, and having a central government agency (again in the US) to oversee privacy.

Has much changed in the three years since the first edition of this book was published? Certainly. There is more public understanding of the level of tracking that goes on in daily life. But there is also more acceptance of this – a collective shrugging of the shoulders that this is how the world is now, and we’re heading on an inevitable trend line away from personal privacy. 

This well-researched deep dive into thinking about the consequences of trusting our decisions to an algorithm is still worth reading.

book: Contagious: Why things catch on

Book: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger has put together a highly readable series of insights around what makes people share ideas, packed with examples. The acronym of the book’s ideas is STEPPS.

  • Social Currency – insider knowledge you can introduce to your social circle.
  • Triggers – part of the idea is closely tied to some repeating event, so it is brought to mind on a regular basis
  • Emotion – emotions that trigger the adrenal system (anger, laughter) are better than those that leave the reader passive
  • Public – transferring private behaviour (like voting, competition entries) into the public eye
  • Practical Value – explaining how to accomplish a task
  • Stories – people more easily share ideas that are tied to stories, but make sure the story you’re constructed is closely tied to the brand or concept you’re sharing about

If you’re trying to create a piece of media that you’re hoping will be widely shared, it’s worth considering each of the STEPPS in turn to see if you can make your idea more contagious.