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The River of Doubt

July 09, 2018

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard is a remarkable account of Theodore Roosevelt's epic journey through uncharted territory in the Amazon.

I am a fan of anything that tests the limits of the human being and the journey that Roosevelt and his crew that he assembled undertook down the River of Doubt was one of the most incredible tests of the human spirit that I've ever heard of.

The stretch of the Amazon that the men set out to conquer was filled with so many obstacles. The men had to conquer intense whitewater rapids nearly every step of the way. They lost most of their boats and provisions to the difficulty of the rapids alone and were forced to build their own canoes. Losing provisions forced them to suffer through near starvation. They also had to worry about the native Indians of the jungle attacking them at any moment. The wildlife in the River of Doubt was no help either. If the men fell in the water, there was potential for piranhas to rip apart their limbs. At one point in the jounrey, Roosevelt cut his leg when he fell in the water, and was brought to the brink of suicide over the latter part of the expedition due to the infection he got from having the open wound. One of the men drowned on the journey, one of them killed another man and then was abandoned by the crew.

The stress of the journey led the men to intense despair. Roosevelt wrote in his diary, "Under such conditions, whatever is evil in man's nature comes to the front." Nothing like seeking out a good struggle to see what you're truly made of.

Map of the journey.

River of doubt

Theodore Roosevelt and crew.

Roosevelt and crew

Man's Search For Meaning

July 20, 2018

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is a fantastic testament to the mental powers of a human being. It's all about Viktor Frankl's perspective and how he mentally navigated the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. When you read about what prisoners went through, and how they were subject to unimaginable suffering, it makes you wonder what kept the prisoners going.

Viktor Frankl's attitude, that he gained only by going through the suffering that he went through, is so important to understand and try to put into practice. If you'd like more details on the actual day-to-day experiences of the prisoners, I suggest reading this book. For now, I'd like to mention the most inspiring takeaway for me, which comes near the end when Frankl begins to go into what it means to live a life. He begins on page 76 with a quote from Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Then he goes on in the next two paragraphs to lay out one of the most beautiful outlooks on life.

"What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life--daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. "Life" does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man's destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response...

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden."

Frankl proves to be very inspiring and positive in the face of his tremendously horrific reality. In reading his book, I take it that we should disregard trying to define a meaning to life. We should rather take a deep look at our situations and accept them as our own. Once we do this, we carry on and we bear the burden of our existence. We let life be meaning in itself and in doing so, life shows us the meaning of our life.

Frankl

Fundamentals of Design

August 09, 2018

I'm only 3 chapters in to a book called "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald A. Norman and have already learned some interesting things about design. I'd recommend the book for anybody who wants to be a better designer, or even for anybody who just wants to understand humans and how we interact with the devices we design. I'll explain the two best takeaways from the book so far.

Norman describes 4 principles of design: visibility, a good conceptual model, good mappings, and feedback. Visibility means that by simply looking, the user can tell the state of the device and the alternatives for action. The second principle, a good conceptual model, is provided by the designer with consistency in the presentation of operations and results in a coherent, consistent system image. Good mappings means that it is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their affects, and between the system state and what is visible. Lastly, feedback means that the user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of actions. Just having those principles in mind when you're designing your products and services will by itself improve your results.

Another helpful resource from Norman's book are a set of 7 design questions you can ask yourself. They are as follows. How easily one can: Determine the function of the device? Tell what actions are possible? Determine mapping from intention to physical movement? Perform the action? Tell if system is in desired state? Determine mapping from system state to interpretation? Tell what state the system is in? Ask yourself these questions when wondering if you have designed a good product and you will find ways to improve it.

Lastly, I'd like to share this passage from p.74 in the book, when Donald Norman predicted the smart phone. It's in a section of the book where he is talking about external memory and reminder systems, and how they play a role in usability. The passage is as follows:

"Would you like a pocket-size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful... It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability... What I ask for is not unreasonable. The technology I need is available today. It's just that the full package has never been put together... But it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten."

This book was published in 1988.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Owning Nothing

November 10, 2018

I'm just starting part II of Solzhenitsyn's account of life in the gulag, Soviet forced labor camps from 1918-1956. It's terrifying and horrible what these people endured, according to Solzhenitsyn. I recommend the book for anybody interested in history and politics. I myself enjoy reading these type of books for a few reasons. First, I am interested in understanding what could cause something so horrific to happen and how it could go on for so long. I am interested in humans. Second, I am extremely inspired by people that are forced to endure such a terrifying reality and still manage to find a meaning to it all. There is nothing more inspiring to me than this. Somebody who faces something that's unimaginable and uses their human brain to devise a method of handling it and moving through it. The following passage is taken from a piece of Solzhenitsyn's book in which he is describing the conditions of some of the ships that were used to transfer prisoners to the labor camps. It nearly brought me to tears.

"But it is better still to stop as soon as possible being a sucker-that ridiculous greenhorn, that prey, that victim. You will never return to your former world. And the sooner you get used to being without your near and dear ones, and the sooner they get used to being without you, the better it will be. And the easier!

And keep as few things as possible, so that you don't have to fear for them. Don't take a suitcase for the convoy guard to crush at the door of the car (when there are twenty-five people in a compartment, what else could he figure out to do with it?). And don't wear new boots, and don't wear fashionable oxfords, and don't wear a woolen suit: these things are going to be stolen, taken away, swept aside, or switched, either in the Stolypin car, or in the Black Maria, or in the transit prison. Give them up without a struggle-because otherwise the humiliation will poison your heart. They will take them away from you in a fight, and trying to hold onto your property will only leave you with a bloodied mouth. All those brazen snouts, those jeering manners, those two-legged dregs, are repulsive to you. But by owning things and trembling about their fate aren't you forfeiting the rare opportunity of observing and understanding? And do you think that the freebooters, the pirates, the great privateers, painted in such lively colors by Kipling and Gumilyev, were not simply these same blatnye, these same thieves? That's just what they were. Fascinating in romantic literary portraits, why are they so repulsive to you here?

Understand them too! To them prison is their native home. No matter how fondly the government treats them, no matter how it softens their punishments, no matter how often it amnesties them, their inner destiny brings them back again and again. Was not the first word in the legislation of the Archipelago for them? In our country, the right to own private property was at one time just as effectively banished out in freedom too. (And then those who had banished it began to enjoy possessing things.) So why should it be tolerated in prison? You were too slow about it; you didn't eat up your fat bacon; you didn't share your sugar and tobacco with your friends. And so now the thieves empty your bindle in order to correct your moral error. Having given you their pitiful worn-out boots in exchange for your fashionable ones, their soiled coveralls in return for your sweater, they won't keep these things for long: your boots were merely something to lose and win back five times at cards, and they'll hawk your sweater the very next day for a liter of vodka and a round of salami. They, too, will have nothing left of them in one day's time-just like you. This is the principle of the second law of thermodynamics: all differences tend to level out, to disappear....

Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can't we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can't we understand that with property we destroy our soul?

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday. Look around you-there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn't make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you'll hear. Thin strands of human lives stretch from island to island of the Archipelago. They intertwine, touch one another for one night only in just such a clickety-clacking half-dark car as this and then separate once and for all. Put your ear to their quiet humming and the steady clickety-clack beneath the car. After all, it is the spinning wheel of life that is clicking and clacking away there."

Everybody Is Wrong About God Review

December 02, 2018

I just finished reading a book titled "Everybody Is Wrong About God" by James Lindsay in which the author argues that it is necessary as a society to move towards a post-theistic world and to find a new way to understand what it means to believe in "God". I found some of the points being made in this book to be quite interesting. Lindsay is saying that theism itself doesn't make sense, and is based on mythology. He argues that theism is not really a worldview because it looks to fantasy as a method of attempting to characterize and cope with life, death and many of the realities that come along with being a human being. He also argues that since theism makes no sense, then its counterpoint - atheism - also makes no sense and is ridiculous and likely to be harmful to the ultimate goal of leaving God behind as a society. The post-theistic world Lindsay conjures up consists of us learning to meet all of our psychological and social needs without religion and without a belief in a mythological God.

This a short read and I do recommend it for anybody interested in thinking more about God, religion and truth. I myself have more thinking to do, but it does seem like a logical argument that the author makes. It seems that religion offers some benefit for us, but also divides us and turns us against each other. It makes us more ideological. Anything that will help us come together as a whole, I'm all for. A post-theistic world seems to be an interesting vision to think about in this regard. I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from the book, in which the author is describing how we can find purpose in our lives in the absence of any belief in religion or God:

"Our efforts matter because in the light of this collection of facts, harsh and unpleasant as they may be, shines a fantastic opportunity. We can make our lives sparkle, and we can help those we love to do the same. For no matter how many hours of our lives will be spent in despair--and on some level it isn't absurd to measure it in hours since, at present, only the rarest handful among us will live so many as a million of them--we must also know that we possess the capacity to make those we love, including ourselves, tremendously happy in many others. We have the opportunities for love, for support, for help, for good work, and for kindness in every moment, and so realizing our finiteness is a nearly perfect road to understanding the best avenues for human purpose because those moments are the ones that, as they say, truly make life worth living."

Tent Life In Siberia

January 04, 2019

This book, written by George Kennan, is an awesome account of Kennan's exploration through the Siberian wilderness. Kennan and a small group of explorers, funded by the Russo-American Telegraph Company, set out to do the seemingly impossible - telegraphically connect the United States and Europe via land lines running through the Bering Straits and Siberia. Kennan relates the experience with humor, wit, intelligence and insight. It's a fascinating journey through difficult struggles that sheds some light on how beneficial challenging circumstances can be and what we can learn from exploring new territory - metaphorically and literally.

The beginning of the book details the boat ride that Kennan and the explorers took from San Francisco to Siberia. They were journeying through overcast skies with very limited visibility, essentially having no idea where they were, for over a month until they finally saw land. Once on land, they traveled through the Siberian wilderness in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes 60 degrees below zero. They camped out and crossed rivers. They encountered uncivilized people, far removed from any society. They stayed with them at times and learned about their culture and way of life.

Having read the book around the holidays, one of my favorite parts was when Kennan was describing a group of settled inhabitants in Anadyrsk that they happened to be around during the holidays.

"Throughout the holidays the whole population did nothing but pay visits, give tea parties, and amuse themselves with dancing, sleigh-riding, and playing ball. Every evening between Christmas and New Year, bands of masqueraders dressed in fantastic costumes went around with music to all the houses in the village and treated the inmates to songs and dances. The inhabitants of these little Russian settlements in Northeastern Siberia are the most careless, warm-hearted, hospitable people in the world, and their social life, rude as it is, partakes of all these characteristics. There is no ceremony or affectation, no putting on of style by any particular class. All mingle unreservedly together and treat each other with the most affectionate cordiality, the men often kissing one another when they meet and part, as if they were brothers. Their isolation from all the rest of the world seems to have bound them together with ties of mutual sympathy and dependence, and banished all feelings of envy, jealousy, and petty selfishness."