January Reads

My goal is to share a few book notes every month. I like to quote, markup and refer back to books, so selfishly, this helps me remember what I read. It’s generally a mix of non-fiction and fiction. If you find it useful, let me know!

The Design of Everyday Things

Donald A. Norman

DOET

There are lots of ways for a designer to deal with error. The critical thing, however, is to approach the topic with the proper philosophy. The designer shouldn’t think of a simple dichotomy between errors and correct behaviour; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as a cooperative endeavour between person and machine, one in which misconceptions can arise on either side.

Over the holidays, I re-read the first design book I ever bought. My copy is from 1999 – I’m almost at 20 years of studying design! And I still feel like I’m learning :) The Design of Everyday Things is one of the foundational texts in the UX world, even though the examples are old and dated. The principles stand the test of time – affordances, constraints, visibility, mapping, feedback and designing are still critical to think about. This classic book reminds me why I do what I do, and I’m grateful that I’m still in this field and learning everyday.

Letters from a Stoic

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Translation by Robin Campbell

LettersStoic

There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Letters from a Stoic is a compilation of letters Seneca wrote about 2,000 years ago to a friend. Seneca is considered one of the key figures in the Stoic school of philosophy, along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Seneca wrote most of these letters towards the end of his life, while he was ill and resting in his country home. The letters are reflective and delve into topics that are remarkably still relevant today – things like health, learning, travel, gossip, work and dealing with people. Who doesn’t deal with some of these things every day? Some ideas, such as Seneca’s attitudes towards women, I had to laugh at, and be grateful for how far we’ve come with those ideas. Stoicism is a personal philosophy, and the way I interpret it, it’s a guide for how to be a more thoughtful, reasoned and patient person. There are a ton of gems and good quotes in this book, and is a comforting way to end a long day.

Pachinko

Min Jin Lee

Pachinko

Busan seemed like another life compared to Osaka; Yeongdo, their little rocky island, stayed impossibly fresh and sunny in her memory, though she hadn’t been back in twenty years…Even the memory of the moon and stars in Korea seemed different than the cold moon here; no matter how much people complained about how bad things were back home, it was difficult for Sunja to imagine anything but the bright, sturdy house that her father had taken care of so well by the green, glassy sea…When she was there, she had not loved it enough.

This novel follows four generations of a Korean family who migrate to Japan, and highlights their joys, sorrows and regrets. It’s based on a time period in history that I didn’t know much about before reading this. In the 1920s, many Koreans moved (some by force) to Japan as the Japanese started taking over their country. Sunja is the matriarch of the family in the novel, and although the novel changes points of view throughout, I enjoyed seeing the world through her eyes the most. The pull of home gets stronger for her as the novel progresses, although by the end, most of her life is spent outside of the place she’s born. The characters are a mix of powerful, independent, stubborn, meek and accepting people which adds to the complexity and layers that I found enjoyable to navigate.

Bonus: Great interview with the author on The Gist podcast.

A Visit from the Good Squad

Jennifer Egan

GoonSquad

There was a pause, during which Sasha was keenly aware of Coz behind her, waiting. She wanted badly to please him, to say something like It was a turning point; everything feels different now, or I called Lizzie and we made up finally, or I’ve picked up the harp again, or just I’m changing I’m changing I’m changing: I’ve changed! Redemption, transformation — God how she wanted these things. Every day, every minute. Didn’t everyone?

I picked up this novel because of an unusual feature – the last 20% of the book is a PowerPoint presentation. Who writes a book of fiction and includes a deck at the end?! Crazy.

The book’s format is the best thing about it. The chapters are designed to follow different characters, and one small detail of one chapter is picked up and explored from a different point of view in a future chapter. The timeline jumps as well, sometimes forward and sometimes back, but by the end we’re at the near-future. It’s a combination of comedy, science fiction, drama with an undertone of punk music. A fun hybrid read.

The Art of Being Bored

Book-Manoush-Bored-Brilliant

Manoush Zomorodi is the author of a new book Bored and Brilliant and had a great interview on the Think Again podcast last week.

Much of the conversation centred on how we distract ourselves with screens to avoid being bored. Of course social media came up, and she pinpointed for me why I also feel so averse to checking it constantly. She said she feels ‘emotionally overwhelmed’ when she looks at Instagram.

It totally hit home for me – I feel overwhelmed and disoriented after scanning through feeds as well. Of course, everyone is different and some people find social tools relaxing and engaging, but I think I’m closer to Manoush’s outlook on this. At the end of the day, as cliche as it is, it’s about values and where you want to spend your time to have a meaningful life. For me, it’s less online and more face-to-face.

I recommend you listen to the whole podcast! It’s a great episode that goes beyond social media complaints, and includes a good discussion on the research behind why we need to daydream to make sense of the world.

Stoic quote of the week: Conviction, courage and confidence

I spin at 6:30 in the morning a couple times a week, and it’s a tough slog. It requires pre-planning the night before, waking up in the dark and cold, getting past the fatigue, and after class I’m pressured to hustle to work. Lately it’s been hard to convince myself to do it.

One of my spin instructors often says: all you need is to show up and have conviction, courage and confidence! The rest will come.

So true, and today it was reinforced for me with this quote:

For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Book Review: Datacylsm Who We Are

Dataclysm Paperback Cover

Dataclysm: Who We Are explores how we interact online through data. It’s about who we are, at a macro scale.

Christian Rudder is a co-founder of OKcupid, but he uses data from the online giants – Facebook, Twitter, Google, and yes OKCupid – to share how we behave online. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Flipping through this book, the red data, charts, and graphs stand out immediately. This book is for all the Tufte nerds out there (myself included)!

Dataclysm Example Graphs

Rudder delves into the better sides of ourselves, and the not so pretty sides. Race, politics, love, it’s all exposed here.

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Book Review: Far & Away

“Travellers venture forth because they want to experience a place, not just see it.”

In Far & Away, Andrew Solomon collects his essays and reporting from seven continents and 24 countries, over the period of 25 years. He tends to travel to countries when they are going through dramatic change, upheaval, or modernization.

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Solomon visits South Africa after apartheid, Russia before and after the breakup of the USSR, China over the period of a decade, Rio in the years leading up the Olympics, Mongolia as nomads try to keep their way of life, and Myanmar after limited democratic elections.

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A World Without Work

We all have those days – days when we dread going into work. But what would happen if work actually went away? That’s the topic of a recent article from the Atlantic: A World Without Work.

It’s a bit of a fear-mongering piece mixed with some thoughtful commentary on technological progress:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

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Design Explosions: Office Mobile

I’m a big fan of the Design Explosions series, and the latest one doesn’t disappoint.

The focus is on designing the mobile apps for the Microsoft Office core suite: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Office Mobile Apps

Part of me wants to curl up in the fetal position thinking about leading that job – these guys are brave souls!

I highly recommend taking the time to read this article if you work on a product team, no matter what role you play.

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Daily Rituals

I struggle with schedules. It feels good to plan a daily schedule, but for me, it quickly falls apart in reality. I start to resent the structure after a while, and feel hostage to it. I don’t want to get up precisely at the same time everyday! What if I need a nap? What if I want to go for a long walk because it’s sunny today?

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