Category Archives: Books

Time in the Zone

I read The Four Disciplines of Execution last year and my main takeaway was that I should build a scoreboard to track a leading indicator of whether I’m “winning” at my important goals.

For tracking my fitness, I’m using the Zones for Training app, which has a nice widget that compares the current cumulative week to the previous one. The number is just the minutes my heart rate was in an exercise zone. I have a goal, but I can also compete with how I did last week.

A dashboard of cumulative time spent in heart rate zones

Leading indicators can be more complex, but just tracking the time that I spend on the important things is enough to get started. I trust that I’ll use that time wisely.

Stopping at a Good Part

When I’m reading non-fiction, I usually progress chapter by chapter, purposefully stopping at the end of each one so that I can have time to process what I have just read. It’s a good time to write a note with my reaction to it. Today, I ended up in a very long and dense chapter and found a different kind of stopping point.

I am reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. After a while, I got to a new section in this long chapter that would have been a good place to stop, but I just kept going. About a page into it, he made a great point that I want to remember. I was excited to keep reading. But I put the book down.

I purposefully turned back a page so I have to read that part again. I know that the passage I just read is very propulsive and will make me want to read whatever follows, so I want it to be at the very beginning of the next session. It’s also keeping an open loop (in a good way) that makes me think about what I just read.

It reminds me about the way I purposefully leave a unit test broken so that I know what to do when I return to the code.

Writing Down the Bones is a Playable Book

After I wrote yesterday’s review of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, I went to my copies of The Golden Book on Writing and The Elements of Style to find out what they had to say about verbs.

As expected, they also recommend that you avoid adverbs and pick out more specific verbs. I’ve heard this advice many times and all it has resulted in is that I remove most “very”, “really” and “pretty” intensifiers before I publish. I don’t take the second step, which should have been to find better nouns and verbs. This leaves my sentences imprecise and boring. The advice failed me because it didn’t come with any instructions. They just dropped a few examples and figured you’d get the idea.

Natalie Goldberg uses one sentence to say that you should use better verbs and then spends the next few pages showing you exactly how to do that. She gives you an exercise that will train you to think up more precise verbs. More importantly, it’s kind of fun. Like a game.

It’s play.

Review: Writing Down the Bones

My memories of reading Writing Down the Bones will always be tied to the beach. I read the book over several mornings on the Gulf Coast of Sarasota. It was early enough in the morning to beat the Florida-in-August heat, but late enough to let the truck rake the sand at the shoreline. I walked to the edge of the water, put my chair in the sand with my back to the sunrise, and settled in to read the wisdom of Natalie Goldberg. When I had about 50 pages left and didn’t have enough time to go out, I put my AirPods in and played some ocean sounds while I finished it.

Writing Down the Bones is a book about writing. It’s also a book about meditation. And, like many writing books, it’s a memoir. The three themes are intertwined in short, practical chapters that will get you writing.

It was written around the same time as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, more than 30 years ago. Like Cameron, Goldberg recommends that you “practice” writing. Her timed writing exercise is a lot like Cameron’s morning pages, and since Cameron wrote a foreword for this book, I’ve imagined them as lifelong friends and cross-influencers.

The main difference in their daily practice is that Goldberg recommends that the writing be directed. Like Goldberg, I have come to the conclusion that I should try to guide my pages a little more. She has a chapter with some suggested prompts. My favorite is to start with “I remember” and then just write what comes to mind. Whenever you get stuck, just repeat “I remember” and start again. I have used this idea often since I read it.

Goldberg uses the name “writing practice” for her timed writing exercise to evoke the “practice” of meditation. She draws comparisons between writing and meditation throughout the book. A through line of work is her accepting her guru’s attempts to convince her that writing was meditation. She is a much more serious practitioner than I am, but I have meditated regularly for more than five years, so these comparisons made sense to me. I consider my morning pages a kind-of meditation.

Another chapter, “The Action of a Sentence,” is a practical way to find good verbs. First she lists 10 random nouns. Then, she picks a vocation (in this case a Chef) and lists all the verb associated with it (chop, mince, slice, cut, taste, etc). Then she matches a noun, a verb and completes the thought. As a poet, these serendipitous combinations might go right into her work. For me, just expanding the list of verbs in my mind makes it possible to avoid adverbs and make verbs exert themselves to describe the scene.

I reread books like this every so often, so I am sure I’ll read it again in a few years. But, right now, I’m going through the book again and trying to figure out how I will keep it fresh in my mind as I continue to write. I was too enthralled to take good notes the first time.

Perhaps it’s a book I just need to consult more often. Pulling it off the shelf when I need a boost. Or maybe it will be my perennial beach read—with me when the waves remind me to flip through it again.

Book Recommendation: Make it Stick

I read Make it Stick last year, and it’s the book that made the biggest impact on me in 2022. It’s about the “science of successful learning”, and is co-written by researchers in the field who based it on their work studying how we learn.

The core idea is that you must use “retrieval” in various forms to learn a subject. This means that you practice remembering and applying the material instead of re-reading it. Some of the suggestions are:

  1. Practice remembering with flash cards that are spaced, interleaved, and varied
  2. Generate your own answers to problems before learning the technique
  3. Elaborate on material by writing original text that draws from the material
  4. Reflect on your learning sessions by writing a meta description of the material and your relationship to it (e.g. where you struggle, how it’s going)
  5. Calibrate your knowledge with objective third-party sources

I had been primed to accept its suggestions because I was introduced to some of them already. I discovered the book in a video YouTube recommended to me because I watch videos about these topics often.

I learned about Spaced Repetition (using flash cards) a few years ago and have been using it nearly daily since then. I spoke about it at length in Episode 14 of my podcast. While reading this book, I created cards in my Anki deck to help me remember its core ideas. When those cards come up, they test my memory, but also remind me to use the practices.

The “Elaboration” suggestion is very much like Smart Notes, which I learned from How to take Smart Notes. I am writing this review to use “Elaboration” to help me remember its lessons.

And I’m a big believer in Calibration, so I wrote problem sets for beginning programmers trying to learn Swift.

But even with that background, I enjoyed the more expert coverage of the topics with more details on why these techniques work. Since I have been doing many of them for years, I was able to come to it with less skepticism.

An interesting side-note is that they use the techniques they suggest in the structure of the book, but they are limited by what you can do in a static text. If you are interested in this idea taken to a logical extreme, I would recommend reading Quantum Country, which embeds interactive flash cards in the text.

If you struggle in retaining material or need to learn a complex subject, I would certainly give this book a read and try to incorporate its suggestions into your process.

Review: How to Make Feeling Good Your Priority

My running coach, Holly, published a book last month called How to Make Feeling Good a Priority. The book is part advice and part memoir (as she learns and applies her advice to herself and clients). I am lucky to be a client and have heard much of this from her, but having it all in one place helped me see how it wasn’t just for running.

Holly is a serial marathoner (27 so far) and I have done two under her coaching (and training for a third). We often talk about how to make adjustments during training and during a race to prioritize feeling good. This book is about doing that outside of running—a connection I didn’t make.

There are many lessons, but the one that stuck with me is turning “I can’t” into “How can I?”. I have written about habit triggers before—how you can control your own behavior, in part, by controlling the triggers that prompt that behavior. Anchoring a problem-solving mindset to “I can’t” comes up surprisingly often.

So much of the book is about shrinking the impact of bad feelings and increasing the effect of good ones. There are a lot of actionable tips and strategies.

I can’t say that I related to everything, but a lot of it resonated with me. Her chapter on the Law of Attraction (which always seemed like mysticism to me) resonated with my beliefs about tapping into randomness. I have come to see “attraction” as “focussing”/”awareness”—I don’t think you attracted the thing you wanted, but I do think you were more likely to notice it. And mentioning it to others helps them notice it for you too.

Knowing Holly, I see her personality on the page. She’s a positive person, always trying to find ways to solve the issues I bring up with her. Under her training, I have very rarely missed a workout and I haven’t had an injury—the rest takes care of itself. After reading her book, I do think that her concept of the “runner’s mindset” can be applied to the rest of my life too.

Review of The Practice by Seth Godin

I started this blog in December 2003. Up to 2020, I made an average of 9 posts per year, with a high of 38 posts in 2008 and had several years with none.

During this time, I wrote a book, wrote on App-o-Mat and for Smashing, and so generally, I’m at peace with my writing output. Honestly, though, I had intended to write a lot more. I just never did it.

I finished reading The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin in early January. It’s essentially 219 short, blog-like chapters making the argument that you can choose to ship every day.

Here’s my review.

It is 30 days since I finished reading The Practice, and I have shipped 30 blog posts and an update to one of my apps. Will I keep this up? I have evidence and confidence that I will, mostly because I buy his argument that I can just do it, and doing it will improve my writing. It’s a practice only if I practice it. It’s an infinite game.

The Practice helped me understand “the why” to shipping daily, and that’s enough for me. Doing it with this mindset has made me realize that it’s actually not that hard.

That’s it. That’s the review. I read the book. It changed by behavior.

I have a lot more to say about my practice, but to add more info to prior posts, my daily Big 3 almost always includes writing a post, and a time-block is reserved for it. I chose my yearly theme, Hone, because it’s about improvement via repetition. I put “Practice” on my Habit Totem so that I am reminded to do it constantly.

Soundtracks for Books

When you read, your visual senses are completely flooded. You should also be engaging in Slow Thinking (System II type thinking) as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is self-aware, effortful thinking.

You are generally not capable of directing slow thinking at two tasks, which is why you shouldn’t text and drive. And it’s why you can’t read and listen to a podcast.

But what if you could listen to something? What ever the book is for, could your audio senses augment what you are reading?

I am not just talking about an embedded audio clip. To listen to that, you’d stop reading. I am talking about a book’s soundtrack.

In a movie, the soundtrack is integrated to provide a deeper experience. Sometimes it’s meant to be as prominent as the foreground, and other times, it might not be consciously noticed.

Movie visuals and audio are synchronized. So, to do this, the reading device would need to know exactly what you were reading at any point. In this sense, it’s more like a video game soundtrack, which is also synchronized, but has to follow the player’s actions.

Let’s assume that’s possible. Given a book device that knows exactly what you are reading at any point and can produce sound, here are things it could do:

  1. If you stop and stare at a word or phrase that is jargon the book defined, it quickly reminds you of the definition.
  2. Like Peter and the Wolf, we could assign small musical themes to the major ideas of the book. When you are reading something that is related to one of those ideas, the theme would play.
  3. It could use generated sound or music that goes from calm to more of crescendo as you progress through a chapter, giving you a sense of how close you are to the next break. For example, rainfall that becomes more of a storm—an audio progress bar.
  4. I think fiction would use this more for entertainment/art, but one exception is trying to read Shakespeare. I remember the left-hand side page having contextual information for the script on the right-hand side—maybe the context could be delivered aurally while you read.

If we could do this, it would drive book design to take sound into account (rather than it just be guessed at by a device) and eventually evolve the medium further away from text-only books.

Playable, not Gamified

In Playing a Book, I said:

You don’t read a programming book, you play one. I mean play, like playing a game. In a game, you progress through levels by learning and applying skills. At the end of the level, you play against a boss that you have to beat to progress.

I want to clarify that I don’t mean “Gamification”. I don’t want a book to seem like a game—I want it to literally be a game.

In a gamified book, you would just write the book as normal and then give the user a badge when they complete a chapter. Or maybe you’d assign points to various things.

The distinction I am trying to draw is that playability is something you start with to drive your design. Gamification is something you slap on at the end.

Programming Tutorials Should be Vaguer

The basic template for programming tutorials is:

  1. An introduction with a motivating example
  2. Step-by-step how-to style instructions with code
  3. Conclusion

But, if the way to learn programming is to write programs, this template breaks down at step 2. At the end of the tutorial, you have working code, but since your brain was engaged in reading and typing (or copying), it’s hard to absorb the information. I know that when I have “done” tutorials, I didn’t really learn the material in a way where I could do it on my own later.

So, perhaps tutorials shouldn’t give you all of the code, but instead provide enough information for you to write it yourself.

For example, here’s a code sample from a tutorial I wrote about GameplayKit:

enum GameOutcome: String {
    case win
    case reset

Instead of showing this, I could have written: “Declare a string-based enum named GameOutcome with two cases: win and reset.” There could have been a button that revealed the code.

Another way would be to use Steve McConnell’s coding technique from Code Complete. He suggests writing the comments first and then writing the code beneath (and between the comment lines), so like this:

// GameOutcome is an enum of the possible final states: win and reset.
// It needs to be a String-based enum because we use the
// raw value in GameplayKit methods that take an AnyObject.

This really only works for very simple code (I know because I tried to write the above example for more complex samples and couldn’t). A tutorial like this would get the reader playing instead of reading and help them practice composing code instead of copying it.