Friday, January 15 2021

After reading a few of these pop-social-science books, they really start to sound the same. It's a repetitive formula that becomes a chore to read through. Anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation...It's just a bunch of stories that the author uses to enforce a vague, sweeping generalization about how the world works. Maybe with some "studies" thrown in to add some scientific credibility to the theory as well.

Range Book Cover

Range by David Epstein falls directly into this category. I listened to Epstein's previous book, The Sports Gene, as an audiobook and I realize that it's the best way to consume books like this—passively. I find them tiring to read because you're constantly throwing away all the details of the story you just read when the author moves on to the next one.

I should've known better when I saw Malcolm Gladwell had a blurb on the front cover ("I Loved Range!"). Gladwell is the king of this style of writing.

I don't have anything against this writing style per se, but I don't enjoy reading it anymore. It's hard to denounce guys like Gladwell and Epstein for trying to explain a sociological phenomenon in a way that will be accessible to a general audience; it's easy reading and you can learn a few things too. I just think they're forgettable, boring, and too long.

The thesis of this entire book could've been explained in a blog post with basically the same impact, if not more. If I could find some blog on the internet talking about Range instead, I'd get a basic understanding of what it's about and end up with the same "knowledge" of how the world works as if I'd read all 339 pages!

...I guess I could be that blog.


Range


Mathematician Freeman Dyson1 explains what "Range" means below:

“Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,” Dyson wrote in 2009. “They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.” As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, “It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.” The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.”

— David Epstein, Range pg. 161

Dyson was concerned that modern science was overflowing with frogs, like an invasive species. Frogs have strong expertise in one specialized area and they place all their focus in this area. Birds have a more generalized knowledge of many different areas and they understand inter-connections and overall systems better. David Epstein wrote Range to explain the benefits of being a bird, and how to become one.

Epstein uses real-life examples to showcase the power of range and the pitfalls of over-specialization. From Roger Federer's late start in tennis to Van Gogh's lifetime of sucking at art, there are innumerable examples of people that have achieved great success in their fields despite having diverse backgrounds.

Then there's Tiger Woods, who was hitting golf balls when he was two years old. Sometimes hyper-specialization works too.


Parable Patchwork


Like I mentioned above, I feel like the book was probably twice as long as it needed to be. Epstein extrapolates on this "diversity = good" idea over many chapters; each one having a slightly different lesson.

One chapter is about the origins of Nintendo and how they relied on creativity instead of worrying about having the best technology. Another is focused on the "outsider advantage"—examples of people who have made important breakthroughs in a field without having expertise in the field. Chapter 5 talks about German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who used analogies from different areas of life to try to explain the planet's movement:

Kepler’s short Mars assignment (he guessed it would take eight days) turned into five years of calculations trying to describe where Mars appeared in the sky at any given moment.

— Epstein, pg. 95

Sounds like the size-of-work estimates in my sprint planning meetings.

All these stories are definitely, in some way, related to Epstein's range concept. But there was a lot of pigeonholing going on. It seems like Epstein starts with an interesting anecdote and then figures out how a lesson about range or diversity can be extrapolated from it. This sort of post-hoc rationalization is a common critique of other social-science authors like Gladwell.

The "glue" work that Epstein did to patch all these disparate stories together, so that he could present a consistent narrative, felt forced. But on the bright-side, the stories themselves were cool and I learned some interesting things. So it's not all bad.


Fly Like a Bird


Throughout Range, Epstein talks about how society is geared towards turning people into frogs, not birds. In other words, in life it's much easier to become highly-specialized at something than to develop wide-ranging knowledge and experience:

there is often no entrenched interest fighting on the side of range, or of knowledge that must be slowly acquired. All forces align to incentivize a head start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. That is a problem, because another kind of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, is necessarily slowly acquired—the kind that helps you match yourself to the right challenge in the first place.

— Epstein, pg. 88

These incentives towards specialization start from our early childhood, as Epstein explains in Chapter 1. Parents are drawn towards stories like Tiger Woods', a child prodigy, so they believe if their child is to be successful, they must start practising as early as possible. Epstein calls this the "cult of the head start".

Epstein also spends a lot of time critiquing the education system, like how teacher's teach and how we measure aptitude. It's a problem of misaligned incentives; we want to see students succeed and get questions right on tests, but we need it to happen quickly. It leads to non-durable learning techniques:

Rather than letting students grapple with some confusion, teachers often responded to their solicitations with hint-giving that morphed a making-connections problem into a using-procedures one.

— Epstein, pg. 67

"Using procedures" means memorization, and "making connections" refers to a deeper level of understanding of the concepts that produce the right answer. It's harder, and it takes longer, to make connections and develop that sort of understanding.

I agree with Epstein that the school system doesn't provide most students with long-lasting knowledge. But mass education is an incredibly complex issue, so it's easy to critique its flaws but hard to provide any feasible solutions.

The push towards specialization continues as we approach graduation and must then choose if we want to pursue post-secondary school. When we go to college, we have to pick what we want to study and build a career out of for the next 40 years. Making that sort of decision when we're 17 is kinda crazy when you think about it.

Of course, by the time you're 10 or 15 years removed from your undergraduate studies, what you studied is often irrelevant to your current work. I don't have any numbers to back that up but so I guess take it as anecdotal evidence. Or this might be a case of the Igon Value Problem...

But the point I'm trying to re-iterate from Range is that life will be easier the more you specialize and stick to what you already know.

What the specialist misses out on is the increased perception and understanding of the world that's gained through diverse experience. You'll also learn more about yourself by diversifying, something that's hard to quantify:

Ibarra marshaled social psychology to argue persuasively that we are each made up of numerous possibilities. As she put it, “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.

— Epstein, pg. 130

It's just like going on vacation with a significant other for the first time. Being far away from your regular environment and routines with each other will be an invaluable test for the relationship. It could potentially make or break it—but it's better to know, isn't it?

In conclusion, I didn't hate Range by David Epstein. But it was too long and tiring to read. I'd recommend an audiobook version, or just find a good blog post online explaining the main concept.

Remember: If you're a frog, try to climb a tree once in awhile to check out the whole swamp. And if you're a bird, don't be afraid to swoop down and play in the mud sometimes.

1 No, this is not the guy that owns the vaccuum company, but he has invented some other wild physics concepts like the Dyson Sphere.

Rating

Non-Fiction 

Value

2/7

Interest

4/7

Writing

3/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: a doner wrap with fries, ketchup, and little cut up hot dogs in it

Tuesday, January 5 2021

Last Updated: 08-01-2021

I like stuff. Like books, clearly, but also other stuff. Here's a list of my favourite music, film, and TV from this year.


Music


Song: Hey Jo - The Districts

This also happened to be the number 1 song on my Spotify Wrapped this year. The Districts are one of my favourite bands to begin with, and they released their 4th studio album You Know I'm Not Going Anymore back in March this year. The lead single, Hey Jo, is an energetic, wild ride of a song that instantly got me pumped for the album.

The Districts have evolved on their raw, distorted sound and added crisp, intriguing production to their music, which is showcased in this 4th album. Hey Jo is perfect example of that, moving seamlessly from subdued, seething lyricism in the opening verse into crushing drums and an anthemic chorus led by lead singer Rob Grote's infectious howling.

The album was a great companion to rock out to a pandemic with, even though the pandemic also cancelled their tour and their show I had tickets to see. Hoping to see them in 2021 so I can hear this album live finally.

Album: Heaven To A Tortured Mind - Yves Tumor

I knew nothing about this artist until I heard Gospel for a New Century on Hype Machine. After that I listened to the entire album. Then I listened to it a few more times. Every time I listened to it, I gained more appreciation for it as a body of work.

Heaven To A Tortured Mind could be categorized as post-industrial neo-psychedelic hypnagogic pop music. I don't know what any of those things are though so I won't categorize it as such. What I do know is that Yves Tumor made some amazing music on this album. It's definitely experimental—each song features diverse instrumentals and unconventional composition. But it's also very catchy, pop-inspired music at it's core.

The album opens with it's powerful lead single Gospel for a New Century, and over the next few songs Tumor plays the role of a tortured rockstar, exploring love and loss in an emotional soundscape, culminating in a two-part crescendo of Romanticist and Dream Palette—my favourite songs on the album. Dream Palette consists of Tumor singing alongside featured vocalist Julia Cumming, frantically searching for each other among drums, fireworks, and a discordant piano, finally reaching harmony and, together, posing an essential question to themselves, and the listener:

Floating through, what feels like
A declaration of love
Our hearts are in danger
Tell me, is this fundamental love?
A feeling, you deserve
A stare you, you've seen before
Our hearts are in danger
Tell me, is this confidential love?

I don't know what it means, but it sounds really fucking cool.

Artist: Col3trane

This kid has got the Midas touch. Every song he touches turns to gold. He's got a great voice, and his rapping and lyricism are top-notch also. His sound sits somewhere in a space between the sing-rapping of Drake and the alternative R&B vibe of Miguel or Khalid. And he deserves to be a big as any of those artists within a few years.

Excited for more Col3trane in 2021, which will hopefully include a debut album.


Film


Movie: 1917

I don't have much to say about 1917 because it's simply an exhilarating cinematic experience. The movie only gets better with the quality of your audio-visual setup. I was fortunate to watch it in theatres, in IMAX, and it was incredible. If you watch it on your phone or something, it's not going to be the same experience.

The story is forgettable—it's a World War I movie about two soldiers delivering an important message across enemy lines. It's impact lies in the single-shot format utilized throughout the entire film. The camera is always focused on the two protagonists; this provides an intimate view into their world and it completely immersed me in the movie.

1917 still
it's like the WWI version of Sam and Frodo

I'm sure it took an incredible amount of direction and technical achievement to produce a movie like 1917—I've never seen another film like it. The cinematography was top-notch and I'm a sucker for good cinematography.

Documentary: No No: A Dockumentary

No No: A Dockumentary is about the life of Dock Ellis, an MLB pitcher from the 1970s, who is known for pitching a no-hitter while high on LSD. I went in assuming this would be an off-beat documentary centred around Dock's infamous game, but it turned out to be much more.

The documentary provided a surprising examination of the cultural climate in the 1960s and '70s; the politics, the racism, the hippie movement, and baseball. They did a great job capturing the world that Dock Ellis lived through during his baseball career. Dock's life also turned out to be fascinating. He was a larger-than-life personality and his life took many twists and turns. He was able to turn around a hard dependence on drugs and alcohol and become a counsellor in his life after baseball; helping adolescents and the incarcerated with their own substance use disorders. He was able reach hundreds of kids with his words and his story, changing their lives and improving his community, before his death in 2008.

No No: A Dockumentary was a great documentary about a really interesting person. It was a vibrant and playful film accompanied by a '70s inspired soundtrack—a fitting portrait for a man who never quite wanted to fit in.

Director: Bong Joon Ho

After watching Parasite, I wanted more Bong Joon Ho. During quarantine back in the spring, when my roommate and I were both spending every day at home, we decided to rip through Ho's entire filmography.

I love his original stories and willingness to approach difficult or strange topics that don't often get screen-time. He's also great at building tension and suspense in his movies; they've all been wildly entertaining so far.

My favourite, besides Parasite, was Mother. It was crazy.


TV


Limited Series: Chernobyl

Chernobyl was an amazing 5-part HBO series which came out in 2019. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series last year, so I'm clearly not alone in my praise for this show. I loved the portrayal of tension between scientific truth, bureaucracy, and politics. The nuance and realism was captured so well. The final episode is the highlight of the series, elevated by Legasov's impassioned speech at his trial. It was a remarkable example of the simultaneous power, and danger, that truth holds.

Chernobyl still
we get it you vape bro

Show: Ted Lasso

As we all know, 2020 was an absolute dumpster fire of a year. Even though watching World War I movies and shows about nuclear disasters is fun, sometimes you just want to watch something a little more lighthearted. Ted Lasso started out as a series of commercials for NBC to promote their coverage of the English Premier League a few years ago, with Ted Lasso played by Jason Sudeikis. It was picked up last year by Apple TV and made into an entire show with basically the same premise (just with a lot more Apple products in it now).

Despite the show's bastardized origins as a commercial piece of garbage, it's actually really funny. It's easy to watch and cheerful, and Sudeikis does a great job at playing the most warmhearted and genuine character I've ever seen on TV.

I highly recommend watching it for anyone dealing with sadness, stress, ill-health, poverty, hemorrhoids, autocratic dictatorships, religious persecution, or existential crises stemming from the threat of super-intelligent AI robots taking over the world.

Or just if you're bored.

Episode: 407 Proxy Authentication Required - Mr. Robot

This was an absolutely jaw-dropping 56 minutes of pure emotion.

Mr. Robot has probably been my favourite show over the last 5 years and this final season was a treat to watch. Director Sam Esmail has focused on cinematic excellence throughout the series and he hasn't been afraid to experiment with interesting ways of telling Elliot's story. From single-shot episodes to '80s sitcom parodies, Esmail's creativity is why I fell in love with this show. This episode was aired in its entirety with no commercial breaks, something I'm sure Esmail had to pay for, reflecting his commitment to artistic integrity in his work, and Mr. Robot in particular.

Mr. Robot still

407 Proxy Authentication Required is delivered like a Shakespearean play. It actually has title cards breaking it up into 5 acts. The theatrical tone is amplified by the original musical score (produced just for this episode) and the cinematic aspect ratio. From the acting, to the cinematography, to the story, it's a flawlessly executed episode of television.

The episode also contains probably the biggest story reveal of the entire show, revolving around a crucial detail of Elliot's life. It's a tragic and powerful moment that was delivered with an incredible performance by Rami Malek.

Watching 407 Proxy Authentication Required was incredible and made watching the entire Mr. Robot series worthwhile, even though it was already.

Wednesday, December 23 2020

Last Updated: 03-01-2021

I was in riding in a car with a couple friends recently. One of them was talking about a book she just finished called American Psycho and how much she hated it. I've heard of it, as well as the movie, but I've never read or watched either. She described how it was a waste of time, and boring, because the narrator would spend pages upon pages describing every minutia and going into obscene amounts of detail about things ("He talked about about ONE suit for five pages straight!"). The narrator may also be a serial killer apparently.

What my friend was describing sounded incredibly similar to the book I was reading at the time: The Mezzanine. I told her it could be worse, my protagonist doesn't even have any interesting traits like being a psychopathic serial killer...he's just an office worker that describes his consumer preferences for ear plugs over multiple pages instead:

I used Flents Silaflex silicone earplugs. Only since 1982 or so have these superb plugs been generally available, at least in the stores I visit. Before that I used the old Flents stopples, in the orange box—they were made of cotton impregnated with wax, and they were huge: you had to cut them in half with a pair of scissors to get a shape that would stay put when you worked it in place, and they left your fingers greasy with pink paraffin. They revolted L., who used to store any I left on her bedside windowsill in an empty pastilles canister with a rural scene on it—and I don’t blame her. Then a company called McKeon Products began to be a force in the market, offering Mack’s Pillow Soft® earplugs[...]

— Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine, pg. 15

It keeps going but you get the point.


Life of Howie


The Mezzanine is one of the most unique books I've ever read. It reminded me of David Foster Wallace's writing somewhat, and not just because of the extensive use of footnotes. It's kinda like if you paused the plot of a David Foster Wallace novel for 135 pages, you'd get The Mezzanine.

The Mezzanine book cover

There was no plot in this book, and you could argue that the entirety of the book takes place within a single escalator ride. The book begins with our narrator starting his escalator ride, and it ends with him stepping off that same escalator ride—everything else is tangential thinking emanating from his consciousness in these moments.

This stream-of-consciousness is a wild ride to be on. The narrator, who's name is Howie, is an extremely neurotic, introspective young man grappling with the tedium of a standard white-collar career and the gradual realization that he isn't very special and won't amount to anything great in life.

The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by blue glows of algebra and abstraction.

— Baker, pg. 15

Howie's penchant for nostalgia and reflections on his young life are recurring subjects in his thoughts. He seems reminiscent of these early years and I get a sense that he misses them and the way things used to be. But, at the same time, Howie also seems wholly devoted to his life of adulthood and its routine nature.

Howie has an interest in mechanical systems and the ingenuity that has gone into their designs. From escalators, to staplers, to milk cartons, Howie describes the clever aspects of their design with a sense of genuine appreciation and excitement:

the radiant idea that you tore apart one of the triangular eaves of the carton, pushing its wing flaps back, using the stiffness of its own glued seam against itself, forcing the seal inside out, without ever having to touch it, into a diamond-shaped opening which became an ideal pourer, a better pourer than a circular bottle opening or a pitcher’s mouth because you could create a very fine stream of milk very simply, letting it bend over that leading corner, something I appreciated as I was perfecting my ability to pour my own glass of milk or make my own bowl of cereal—the radiant idea filled me with jealousy and satisfaction.

— Baker, pg. 28

Howie likes to see his own life as a system as well—a conveyor belt of recurring days filled with work, lunch hours, driving, and everything in between. He takes pride in being the operator of this personal existence factory; a master of his domain, always looking for ways to cut costs and streamline processes. Like when he figured out how to apply deodorant while fully clothed, Howie appreciates the little things in life. I think that's great.


y tho


This book felt like the 1980s version of this video:

From the novel's synopsis and the blurbs included on the book's jacket, it's apparent that The Mezzanine is supposed to be funny. I mean, in a way it is funny— but it seemed like the joke was on me. Reading about shoelace abrasion theories for multiple pages in a row felt like I was being pranked somehow.

If I cast aside my pessimism over the pointlessness of the novel, I admit that it was really well written. The humour stems from the dazzlingly sharp focus that Baker applies to the banality of modern life. His descriptions of the ordinary, putting into words the small things we all recognize but never materialize in our heads, are clever and refreshing. It's similar to the observational humour used by comedians like Seinfeld; they re-frame our perception on certain aspects of life by describing them in a unique way.

The best description I've found for what the fuck is going on in this book is, obviously, in it's Wikipedia article:

The substance of the novel, however, is taken up with the thoughts that run through a person's mind in any given few moments, and the ideas that might result if he or she were given the time to think these thoughts through to their conclusions.

— Wikipedia, "The Mezzanine" (link)

This makes the most sense to me and it really explains what Nicholson was trying to accomplish with The Mezzanine. It's an exploration of the infinitude of thoughts and half-formed ideas that float through our consciousness throughout the day. In a way, it's a celebration of the human mind and its marvellous complexity.

I enjoyed reading The Mezzanine, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone. I felt like I was getting pranked and I chose to read it on my own volition—I'm not trying to lose any friends because of a book recommendation. But maybe if you're looking for something of a different flavour, and you've grown sick of all the plot and character development in those ordinaryyyyy books, then maybe give The Mezzanine a shot. It's only 135 pages.

I guess part of why I'm not too upset about it is because I read the entire thing while sitting on the toilet. So it wasn't time wasted, just time spent.

Rating

Fiction 

Imagery

5/7

Entertainment

2/7

Writing

4/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: street hot dog with pickles and ketchup (that's a sandwich right?)

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