Book Impressions — 2019-Q4

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

A re-read of this classic book that my friend gave me a while ago. I was looking for something lighter to read on my bookshelf (which is made up of a mix of many non-fiction books that I have and haven’t read but very few fictions books), and I came across this one. It’s a short, light and easy read, kind of nice from the heavier biography (the one below) that I was reading at the time.

It’s a story about a young man in college with a very special professor, Morrie, who teaches him about life. After college, he drifts apart from that professor and goes on to face the world and all its challenges. Many years later, by happenstance, he reunites with his old professor, who is dying, to take the most important “class” of his life. Through their Tuesday meetings, they talk about the human experience: family, money, love, marriage, forgiveness and, of course, death.

It’s a nice little read to remind us of the important things in life and to not get too focused on the things that aren’t so important like material success. At first, I was a bit turned off because the book was slightly preachy and also a bit too simple (or maybe too direct?) in the way that Morrie explains these concepts. That is until I realized that it’s actually a true story! I just assumed that this was fiction but the events in the book actually took place between Morrie and the author.

Even if you’re not explicitly into reading about these topics I’d recommend this book. It’s always good to have a reminder to cherish the important things around you, and this one is a cute little book that serves this purpose. It’s an easy read and serves as a nice break between heavier stuff.

Models of My Life by Herbert A. Simon

This was another re-read of an autobiography I picked up a while back about a polymath named Herbert A. Simon. He was simultaneously a Nobel Prize winner, Turing Award winner (the equivalent to Nobel Prize in computer science) and one of my personal intellectual heroes. My technical blog is named after one of his big contributions to economic thought (“Bounded Rationality”), and I found that I could relate to so many of the things that he went through in life from academic research and teaching to bigger topics like career choices and even love interests. Here are some random thoughts about the book.

  • Being in the AI field, it was illuminating hearing about the story from the beginning. Simon was one of the original participants at the “Dartmouth Workshop”, which is usually attributed as the first AI conference. Hearing about all the different characters (and opinions) about how to approach AI was fascinating. So many “old” techniques were being discovered at the time such as early search algorithms and linear programming. Interestingly, Simon was a big advocate of trying to understand models of how the human mind works, and I believe he would likely be a big critic of how modern day deep learning eschews (or at least ignores) this original goal of AI.
  • Simon was really a polymath. His original field of study was political science, however, he quickly moved into higher level maths to, at first, study economics, then computer science and AI. He, of course, learned to program early on and contributed to some of the early advances in AI. On top of that, he was a polyglot (which included basic Chinese) and frequently read famous texts in their original languages.
  • Simon himself was very much an empirical scientist. He describes himself as an economist or sociologist by training but more like an engineer in spirit — a man after my own heart. His keen focus on always the empirical (particularly in the face of messiness) is inspiring, especially at a time when economics (and other disciplines) was moving into more seductive theoretical areas. Finding a model that actually matches reality was always more important to him than finding a (mathematically) beautiful one.
  • On teaching:
    • “I learned that there is no use lecturing to a class unless the class is listening. And they will only listen if you are saying something that they think they can understand and that seems relevant. They will listen better if you talk LOUDLY. If you pace up and down, you can tell from their moving heads whether they are following you (like the crowd at a tennis match).”
    • “Teaching is not entertainment, but it is unlikely to be successful unless it is entertaining (the more respectable word would be interesting).”
    • “Coverage of subject matter is a snare and a delusion. You begin where the students are prepared to begin; and you carry them as far as you can without losing them. Whether that takes you to the end of the specified curriculum, half as far, or twice as far, is irrelevant.”
    • “You start every class by giving students the opportunity (or better, the obligation) to ask questions about their reading, about previous sessions, or about anything.”
    • “Students don’t learn by being lectured at, anyways; they learn by thinking hard, solving problems, dissecting proofs… Enlightenments, like accidents, happen only to prepared minds. If students have thought about something, you can discuss it profitably in class; without the preparation, it is just a bull session.”
  • On research:
    • “There has been failure after failure of interdisciplinary ‘teams’ to integrate anything… except to the extent that individual team members became interdisciplinary. I would not give a dollar to assist a typical political scientist to collaborate with a typical economist unless each one of them gave me a sworn statement that he would study seriously and not in a dilettante’s way the discipline of the other for at least a year.”
    • On research: “Push across the front; when you find a soft spot, wherever it may be, pour your reserves through and keep going. Research, groping through the uncertain and then unforeseeable, must be flexible to grasp and exploit every sign of progress.”
    • “Doability and significance are always good bases for choosing research problems. We want a problem whose answer has interest and value, but only if we have some ideas for approaching it.”
    • “I soon learned that one wins awards mainly for winning awards… Once one becomes sufficiently well known, one’s name surfaces automatically as soon as an award committee assembles.”
    • “The true line is not between “hard” natural science and “soft” social sciences, but between precise science limited to highly abstract and simple phenomena in the laboratory and inexact science and technology dealing with complex problems in the real world.”
  • One of the recurring themes in the book was the metaphor of a maze. He often viewed his life as a series of decision points in a maze that “led” him to where he ended up. He’s careful not to conflate his ingenuity or talent as the reason why he made the correct “turn”, rather more of an observation that success (or failure) is usually more of a matter of circumstance (the maze) combined with a series of conscious and unconscious decisions where you can never really know the exact outcome. For Simon, he reflects that most of his success has been a matter of circumstance rather than following a big plan, and that he’s had few big decision points in his life, most of which were not very difficult decisions for him. In retrospect, I feel like my life has followed a similar path. There have only been a few instances where I think I could have taken a very large divergent path but that’s a story for another time.

Simon’s autobiography is precisely the type of biography that I like to read, sprinkled with wisdom and insight into his life. Although, not every chapter was as interesting as the next (e.g. his early childhood), I thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography and would definitely recommend it to anyone’s whose interests intersect the topics above.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This was a management book recommended to me by a friend. I took it on a short vacation and finished it in a week or so. It has a lot of great ideas about management. First Scott’s credentials: she worked at Google and Apple, learning from the great managers such as Sheryl Sandberg and Tim Cook. She led a large organization at Google and then moved on to lead Apple’s management training program. My big takeaways from the book are three points:

  • Be Centred: To be a good manager, you need to have your own life together. If you’re burnt out, personal life is a mess or have health issues, there’s no way you can even begin to be a good manager. The first step to being a good manger is making sure your outside-of-work life is in order so that when you come to work you can focus on work.
  • Care Personally: This is a prerequisite to building trusting relationships: to care personally about your employees (and everyone else you interact with)! If you don’t have trust with your team, how can you ever hope to help them achieve excellence? Caring personally doesn’t mean all the superficial things that usually come to mind but rather, genuinely caring about them as a person, including the crazy things that may be going on in their personal life.
  • Candid Feedback: Building trust is only half the story, to helps your team excel, you need to be able to tell them honestly when they’re doing well, and, just as importantly, when they’re not. The latter is the hardest part for all managers (me included), and can only really be effective if the other side is actually willing to listen. This is exactly why you need to build trust or else candid feedback is useless.

These are the big ideas in the book but of course there’s a lot more. There are many more anecdotes to give you a better intuition about what these three points mean, as well as more tactical things you can do in situations like 1-1s, meetings, performance reviews and even socials. I don’t think there will ever be “one” book on management, but this one definitely has a lot of really good ideas, and you’d probably be missing something if you didn’t at least skim through this one.

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Ultralearning is a term (as far as I can tell) made up by Young to describe learning a new topic or skill incredibly fast usually by self-directed learning utilizing a common toolkit of methods. His claim to fame is the MIT Challenge where he successfully completed (approximately) the MIT computer science undergrad curriculum in about a year. Other accomplishments were that he learned four languages to a roughly intermediate level within a year (including Chinese and Korean), and also learned to sketch faces pretty well within a month (without any prior art training).

The book itself is pretty typical for these types of books: chalk full on anecdotes in between the clearly labelled ideas of how to learn really fast. Most of the anecdotes weren’t really that interesting to me since they were either about people who were extreme outliers (like himself) who dedicate all their time to learning or mythical figures like Richard Feynman. It’s difficult to relate to either of these two situations because I’m not in those categories.

However, the really great part of the book was all of the strategies and tactics on how to learn. This was particularly inspiring because I’ve more recently (as an adult at least) gone through struggles learning two new skills: music (guitar and singing) and Chinese. After graduate school, I started learning both of these in earnest and it has been a challenge. I’ve made decent progress with some great teachers but much of the real progress comes from work you do outside of the lesson. Having thought of ways to improve the efficiency of learning, I’ve stumbled upon a few of the techniques mentioned in this book. It also gave me a few extra ideas on how I could accelerate the learning. Here are some interesting ones:

  • Meta-learning: Researching the most effective ways to learn how to learn a skill/topic
  • Tactics to deal with procrastination or finding time to learn
  • Directly practicing the skill you want to learn (e.g. focus directly on practicing speaking a language if that’s your goal, not reading/writing)
  • Spaced repetition
  • Focused practice — identify and drill your weaknesses (related to importance of good feedback)
  • Intuition is build through deep work on problems where you have time to “struggle”
  • Utilize experimentation and the scientific method once you start to enter mastery territory

I’ve actually picked up many of these things at one point or another to varying degrees. The one thing that I have not be doing well is the directness aspect, I usually favor the practicing techniques that are either convenient or familiar, which I have learned usually plateaus my learning relatively quickly. That’s why it’s good to read sources like this: to get new ideas about how to learn so that you can do it more efficiently.

Overall, I’d recommend skimming this book and looking out for new ideas about how to learn faster. I doubt many people will attempt some of the more extreme learning challenges but I’m sure most people will find a hint or two on how to improve their learning.