Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Big Thing by Phyllis Korkki

A large creative project of the type Phyllis Korkki references in the title of her book The Big Thing can be hard to finish, or even start. Korkki identifies several characteristics of big things that make them challenging.
-Big things are personally meaningful. The dread of failing or falling short of a dream can keep us from crossing the finish line, or even the starting line.
-They have no deadline. It is your personal project that you get done on your own schedule.
-They are large and complex. At first, the structure of the thing you want to create may not be clear in your mind.
-They require sustained concentration and effort. It can be hard to keep going and going, especially in the face of the other challenges of taking on a big thing.

Creative projects are not just novels, movies, painting or other thing we typically think of as art. A healthy relationship, especially marriage and family, can be a creative undertaking. Other types of creative goals might lead to you to organize people and resources to make a difference in the world.

In order to find a way to complete her big thing, Korkki looked into areas that you might not find in other get-things-done type self-help books. For instance, she looked at the effects of health and sleep. Along the way she received coaching in breathing, posture and mindfulness. The bottom line is that if you’re going to have the energy, stamina and mental clarity you need to finish a major creative work, you’ll need to take care of yourself.

She also found that constraints were helpful. For her, her sense obligation help her design constraints around accountability to her editors and others. My background is engineering, so I tend to think of creativity in terms of dealing with constraints and how they can be overcome or possibly used to achieve a purpose.

Creative projects are rarely the work of one person. Korkki gives credit to her agent, her editor, and the many people at her publisher who turned her words into a book. Ego can get in the way of working with other and Korkki offers advice on how collaboration can work.

Something I found helpful was Korkki’s advice on figuring out when to let something go. Get real with yourself. Do you have the motivation, especially if you must learn and practice something new to achieve your creative goal? Are you committed to work on it regularly? Is it worth the sacrifice you’ll need to make? You may find that something else is more important to you, or that you don’t realistically have the desire to push through the obstacles that will inevitably show up. Instead of torturing yourself because of what you’re not doing, put you energy and talents into something else you want to do.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Korkki, Phyllis. The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even if You’re a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me. New York: Harper, 2016.

New & Interesting Stuff November 11, 2017

The Power Makers by Maury Klein

Maury Klein’s book The Power Makers is a history of power from the Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine to the foundations of America’s electric grid.

Unlike many historians who look at the history of electric power, Klein gives a lot of attention to steam. We haven’t had steam engines directly powering industrial plants for decades, but steam turbines are still central to the production of most electricity in the United States. Even nuclear power plants use steam turbines to run their generators, they just use the heat from nuclear reactions rather than from the combustion of coal or natural gas to boil water and heat the steam to more than a thousand degrees.

Klein gives attention to many lesser known names in the history of power. He shows that Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse had rivals other than each other, such as Elihu Thomson. Nikola Tesla is well known as the genius who invented the AC motor, but other engineers helped develop his prototype into a commercial product, such as mathematically talented engineer Benjamin Lamme. Many talented inventors tried their hands at making electric lighting and power systems better. Only some of them had the vision, business sense, good partners and luck to turn their ideas into successful products. Few of them are widely known today.

Electrification had clear, direct effects in industry and transportation. Klein discusses how it’s influence reached into other sectors of the economy. Corporate management and finance changed to meet the needs of a growing new technology. For instance, Edison General Electric was able to take advantage of a new New Jersey law that allowed corporations to own businesses in other states. Electric companies grew, expanded and consolidated through numerous mergers and acquisitions. They had a demand for capital that nearly rivaled the railroads, another transformative technology that had shortly preceded electric power.

As the availability of electricity grew, certain industries were able to grow, too. Some chemical and metals manufacturing required abundant electric power to catalyze chemical reactions or generate the high temperatures of electric furnaces. Manufacturers flocked to Niagara after a lager hydroelectric power station started operation there in 1895.

Klein brings the many thread of his story of power together by reflections on three great fairs: the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the first, a giant steam engine that powered exhibits by means of belts and pulley was a significant attraction. By the second, electricity was on display, and the White City fairground was a model for testing AC power systems. By the 1939 fair, large power utilities of the type we would recognize today were becoming common. By then it was no big deal to flip a switch or pull a lever and get power so, unlike the previous to fairs, no dignitary undertook a show of doing it; the power was on from the start.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Klein, Maury. The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

As I read Writing Down the Bones, the writing guide by Natalie Goldberg that was first published in 1984, I found myself being more courageous and honest in my writing. At least I’m more that way in the writing I do for myself.

That is where it starts. Better writing comes from the practice of writing. Goldberg recommends timed writing as a practice. Set the amount of time you plan to write, even if it is as short as 10 minutes, and write as fast and freely as you can.

I’ve been doing something similar for a while. What helped me break through to more scary and fruitful territory is Goldberg’s advice to write a little more. If you feel you’ve written all you can about something, write a little more. I found it pushed me to write down thoughts and feelings I didn’t want to admit I had. I don’t know that these confessions to myself had made me a better writer, but when I break through I feel like I may be able to deal with something I’ve been avoiding.

In both of these practices, writing is a kind of meditation, which Goldberg discusses in several of the book’s short chapters. She draws on Buddhist practices such as meditation throughout the book.

Her Buddhist practices also involve being present, which she suggests is helpful for writers. Be present in your everyday life and in your writing. Be attentive, listen, and you will fill your mind with the wonderful things. These become specific details that ground your writing in real life. Instead of writing about something, you can write what is; your readers will conjure up on their own the emotions associated with the experience you capture in your words.

“Whatever is in front of you is your life, so please take care of it,” Natalie Goldberg, Afterward to Writing Down the Bones

Goldberg believes writing should be tied to the rest of your life. Whatever you’re doing, you’re a writer, and even though you can and should give your full attention to the person or task in front of you, the writing mind is still being primed for its work. And writing is work; it requires effort. Like any worthwhile thing, you get out of it what you put into it. Writing is a process and it needs to be approached with joy, honesty and patience if it is to bear fruit.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 2nd ed. Boston: Shambala, 2005.

Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat

Mo Gawdat, an executive and software engineer at Google, has been curious about happiness for years. When his son died suddenly, he took inspiration from the happy young man he lost to get his thought together on the subject and produce Solve for Happy.

To Gawdat, happiness isn’t something we gain, it’s something we lose or bury. Happiness his how we would normally feel, what he calls our “default state,” but we let all manner of thoughts make us unhappy.

What buries our native happiness? It’s the suffering we experience when the events of our life do not meet expectations. Gawdat illustrates this in his book with a balance with the events on one side and expectations on the other.

Donte be quick to blame unhappiness on the events of life. Gawdat points the finger at expectations.

Our expectations are often out of touch with reality. We suffer under misperceptions, illusions, blind spots and lies we tell ourselves. Gawdat identifies 13 such issues and challenges them. As long as you cling to beliefs and biases that lead to false expectations, you’ll suffer.

Experiencing the greatest joy involves embracing the truth. Gawdat describes five things he believes to be true that lead to joy.

I’m reminded of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. Dr. Peck calls for a devotion to truth. Like Gawdat, Peck believed that every life has some pain, but a lot of additional, unnecessary pain is caused when we refuse to deal with reality.

I think there is a lot to be said for Gawdat’s overall concept. I can see in myself and others a lot of pain and disappointment that has its roots in false expectations, refusal to deal with reality and the avoidance of the hard (but rewarding) work of living and growing as a person. I don’t agree with every detail of Gawdat’s book, but don’t think you have to in order to gain useful insights from it.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Gawdat, Mo. Solve for Happy: Engineering Your Path to Joy. New York: North Star Way, 2017.

Unfu*k Yourself by Gary John Bishop

Gary John Bishop offers straightforward, and sometimes rudely stated, advice on getting your life together in Unfu*k Yourself. If you’re drawn in by the title of the of the book, you may feel your life is screwed up. Bishop suggests it is very likely your own fault, but you have the power to do something about it.
 “You have the life your willing to put up with,” Gary John Bishop, Unfu*k Yourself

It starts in your head. Thousands of thoughts flow through your mind every day and many of them are nonsense. Instead of reacting to crazy-making thoughts and feelings, let them go. You can learn to choose the thoughts you pay attention to.

Even so, our head can get in the way. The blessing and curse of our minds is that they are really good at moving us toward what we want. Subconsciously we all want security. Unfortunately, our subconscious minds can have some messed up ideas about what security is and how to achieve it. We achieve security with great success even if it makes us miserable.

Fortunately, we can train our minds to achieve a different success. We can learn to let go of thought that drive our self-defeating behavior.

We can reinforce our changing habits of thought by taking action. Rather than getting wrapped up on our own heads a fighting thoughts and feelings that come from our imaginations, we an face reality and do things that might actually make life better. Action is both the cure for self-defeating thoughts and the way to handle real problems.

As the title of the book, it is part of the trend in self-help to use tough talk and crude language. I don’t know that I need that to get a kick in the pants. However, I appreciate writing that uses simple language and gets to the point; Bishop does that.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Bishop, Gary John. Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

100 Ways to Happiness by Timothy Sharp

What if happiness is something you could practice? You co do certain things and those actions would lead to and support happiness. I’m simplifying, but that is the basic premise of psychologist Timothy J. Sharp in 100 Ways to Happiness.

Practice and doing are the aim of the book, so Sharp does not dwell on theory. Of course, many people want to bring more happiness into the lives they have. Only a few of them want to delve into psychology, and there are plenty of other books they can read.

The book is divided into five main sections. It seems to me that this is intended to help people get to the area where they want to increase happiness most and pick up the others later. You can read this book out of sequence. Each section stands on its own and so do many of the short chapters.

I do not mean to imply that the book is shallow. It is not easy to condense a topic into a few pages; most of the chapters are two pages long. I was impressed that Sharp could provide clear, action-oriented summaries of subjects that other books would take many pages to explain. The point is to do something. Instead of thinking about how to be happy, pick a tip that resonates with you and do it. Work on it until it becomes a habit and then work on another.

Some of Sharps tips that resonated with me are:
-Make time to regularly do something you enjoy.
-Make small changes. When you make a small change stick, you can start another. They add up to big changes.
-Practice gratitude. I’m convinced that a grateful attitude is immensely important for a joyful life.
-Move more and take care of your body. Feeling good, rested and healthy contributes to feeling happy.
-Build good relationships. That means making the best of the intimate relationships you have and making friends with positive people who can encourage you to live a happier life.
-Know your values and take action consistent with them.
-Challenge your thoughts and feelings. Are they true? Are they helpful?
-Use your imagination. Sharp suggest several simple ways you can visualize the life you want.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Sharp, Timothy J. 100 Ways to Happiness: A Guide for Busy People. New York: MJF Books, 2008.

New & Interesting Stuff July 29, 2017

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck

Spiritual growth is the heart of mental health as described by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled. The path of growth Peck describes is not often taken because it involves pain, discipline and stretching. The rewards of this life are great, but they are obtained through effort.

People forgo growth, and sometime develop mental problems, because they refuse to accept a difficult fact: life is hard. Unfortunately, they often put themselves through a lot of extra pain for a longer period than they might have suffered if they would accept and deal with challenges in the first place.

Later in the book, Peck characterizes this as a kind of laziness. It is refusal to extend oneself and put effort into mastering life. The extension of oneself for the purpose of spiritual growth (your own or another’s) is the essence of love in Peck’s view. Laziness is the opposite of love.

Love is one of the main elements of spiritual growth. This love is not primarily emotion. It is commitment. It is respect for others and the distinction of others as unique individuals. It it is the effort one puts into growing and helping others to grow.

Emotions are important. They are fuel for action. To be effective in supporting growth, emotions must be disciplined.

“Passion is feeling of great depth. The fact that a feeling is uncontrolled is no indication that it is in any way deeper than a feeling that is disciplined.” M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Discipline is another major practice for growth. Discipline is not beating up on yourself. It is accepting responsibility for your life and dealing with reality. It is the practice of giving up things for the purpose of taking hold of more valuable things. Proper discipline is not rigid but it helps us to be flexible and enlarge ourselves.

Love and discipline work together. As Peck frames it, successful psychotherapy occurs when a patient is ready to discipline himself and a therapist can create a relationship of love that supports that discipline.

This is just the beginning of growth. In the latter chapter of the book, Peck shifts to other elements, particularly religion. For Peck, religion is your conception is your conception of how the world works. Even a scientific worldview is a religion.

Religion is also where we can grapple with mystery, especially the mystery of grace, which is important to growth. Peck sees grace in many areas, such as serendipity and the strange knowingness of our unconscious minds.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. New York: Touchstone, 1978.

Move by Rosabeth Moss Canter

The major elements of America’s transportation infrastructure and policy frameworks are six decades old (or older in the case rail). We haven’t even kept up with the maintenance since then. In addition to taking care of what we have, we need to adapt to the changes in technology, culture and the economy that have occurred. Our policies haven’t been keeping up.

In Move, Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explores how we got here and how we can move forward. We got here by adopting a defense-oriented policy that emphasized cars (especially interstate highways) and air travel, largely ignoring rail, public transit and intermodal development.

The path forward has several elements. First is a focus on mobility. Transportation infrastructure is a technical, bureaucratic realm of deep silos. Mobility changes the focus to moving people and products around communities and the nation in whatever ways make sense. Physical mobility and economic mobility are tied, and if we want to strengthen our economic leadership on the world stage, we need to break down internal policy barriers to advancing the way people move.

That means developing a national strategy. Of course, a rigid approach won’t work because we have varied nation. However, national priorities and frameworks can make room for regional priorities, adaption and leadership.

Money is always in issue. There are potentials in public-private partnership (PPP), and that can be arranged in many ways. America has a world-leading freight rail system that has very limited public investment. Airports are generally owned by governments, and attempts to privatize them have meet a cool response from possible investors. However, there are examples of successful PPPs in which there is something for everybody.

I already mentioned that technology has come a long way in the past several decades, especially in the realm of communication and data analysis. Some transportation industries, such as airlines, are taking advantage of the opportunities in new technology, while other are lagging. There are many ways our transportation system can be smarter, and we need sensible ways of incorporating technology in ways that are safe without losing out on the benefits through unnecessary delays.

This requires leadership and vision, especially in government. Politicians are often motivated by short-term wins, but mobility is a long-term investment. We need leaders who can see passed the next election and the boundaries of party.

Finally, citizen engagement is important. Plans can quickly fail if the people who are going to use, pay for and otherwise feel the ultimate effects of new transportation policies and infrastructure are not informed, involved and empowered to take action that works for them.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Reposition Yourself by T. D. Jakes

We’re not always where we want to be in life, but we can make it better if we’re willing to change. Megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes offers advice on making positive change in his book Reposition Yourself.

To make a change, you need to face the truth. For most of us, a hard truth is that we have a lot to do with our problems. We bring ourselves to an unhappy, unfulfilled state through our own apathy, lack of passion, settling for less than our best, passivity, poor money management and lukewarm relationship with God.

Another hard truth is that life is unfair. Bad stuff happens to all of us, and to some more than others. Success demands perseverance and flexibility.

People who successfully change take effective action. They are attentive to their situation and to themselves, developing a strong sense of their gifts and purpose. They are intentional, setting definite goals and putting themselves in environments and around people who support what they want to achieve. Thee have a plan, recognizing that it is inevitable that things will that they will face setbacks, but a delay in achieving their goals does not mean they will be denied success.

Humility is another key to successful change, though I don’t recall Jakes putting it so bluntly. Humility begins with recognition that we need God; we need the cleansing and power we can only receive through Jesus Christ. Our humility is grown through gratitude. In thanksgiving we appreciate what we have, learn contentment, and gain strength from our struggles. Humility also protects us from the pitfalls of success such as excessive self-reliance, neglect of important relationships or becoming coopted for the agendas of others.

Along the way to way, it is good to make some money. Money gives you options. Jakes offers some advice on managing money so you can make yours grow and have more freedom.

Jakes, T. D. Reposition Yourself: Living Life without Limits. New York: Atria, 2007.

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

The body of a young woman, Elma Sands, was found in a well outside of Manhattan on the second day of 1800. A carpenter who boarded in her family’s house, some suggested he was her secret lover, was immediately accused. The case led to one of the first sensationalized, broadly followed murder trials in the young United States. Paul Collins recounts the events in Duel with the Devil.

The carpenter, Levi Weeks, might well have been convicted of the crime had he not had a legal dream team with the competence to show the weakness of the prosecution case and suggest an alternate explanation for Sand’s death. That is one of the interesting things about his trial. His defense team consisted of political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr along with their fellow Revolutionary War veteran Brockhurst Livingston.

The political and legal elite of New York state, and especially Manhattan, of those days was close knit and often resulted in odd combinations. Hamilton and Burr were both in debt to Weeks’ brother Ezra, a prominent builder, which may explain their participation.

Weeks was found not guilty after what was considered a very long trial for the time, mainly due to the great number of prosecution witnesses. Sands’ murder was never properly solved.

She was probably killed by another roomer in her house, Richard Croucher. He had fled England to escape the insane asylum after his behavior led him trouble and criminal charges. Shortly after Weeks’ trial, he was convicted of raping his 13-year old stepdaughter. He was released after three years on the agreement that he would leave the country. He went to Virginia instead, where he fleeced the merchants of Richmond. It appears he eventually made his way back to England, where he continued criminality led to his execution.

Hamilton and Burr famously faced declines. They dueled and Hamilton died from the wound he received. Their co-counsel fared better; Livingston went on to serve as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Weeks left Manhattan. We worked his way west and became a successful builder in Natchez.

Collins’ book reads almost like a novel. It is interesting, quick-reading history.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Collins, Paul. Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. New York: Crown, 2013.

Learn Better by Ulrich Boser

Learning is not easy. It takes effort. Too often, people squander their effort on ineffective activities. Ulrich Boser seeks to correct this by describing effective, research-based learning techniques in Learn Better.

Learning begins with value. You won’t put effort into learning something you don’t care about. When I was in third grade, I found very little value in memorizing how to spell words or recite multiplication tables. When my teacher tied my performance on multiplication tables to my attendance of recess, something I valued quite a bit, I found the will to exert myself.

“Motivation is the first step in acquiring any sort of skill,” Ulrich Boser, Learn Better

Once you’ve squared away the motivation, you can get on with the doing of learing. Learing is at heart doing. It is a mental activity, though it is often paired with, supported by, or supportive of physical activity. If you’re actually learning, you’re probably experience some struggle and feel like your pushing yourself a little, but not so much that you’re lost.

In a sense, Boser’s book is organized around different types of doing appropriate for different stages of learning. In the early stages of learning, you decide what you want to learn and plan you learning process. When you have a foundation, you can concentrate on improvement. As your skills improve, you can shift to deepening your knowledge and exploring more complex applications. The best experts add to this a strong sense of the patterns and connections. From beginning to end, learning requires humility, and the people who sustain and grow mastery over time evaluate their knowledge and reflect on what they are doing.

The book is full of ideas you can use. For instance, I created for myself a simple process of spaced-out learning to polish some skills I wanted to improve at work. When I started writing reviews and summaries of books, even before I started this blog, it was because I found I could remember the major points better if I summarized them in my own words, even if I did not return to my notes. I was using form of retrieval practice, which is one of several techniques Boser describes.

Though Boser draws on research, the book is intended for a broad audience. If you’re looking to improve your own learning or for ways your children or employees can get more out of their learning efforts, you’re likely to find something you can understand and use in Learn Better.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Boser, Ulrich. Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything. New York: Rodale, 2017.

The Holy Bible

It is hard to do the Bible justice in a few pages. In this review, I’ll only attempt to provide an outline. In particular I’ll discuss
-the major themes of the book,
-its major division, and
-the types of literature you’ll find in it.


The primary theme of the Bible is the relationship between God and man. It’s a broken relationship. The authors of the various books address this in many ways. A couple of metaphors they use that I find particularly compelling are that of a marriage or a parent-child relationship. In these analogies, mankind is depicted as a cheating wife or a child who has run away to a destructive life. God is depicted as the faithful, loving husband or father who is reaching out to redeem, rescue and reconcile the one he loves.

God’s character is on display throughout the Bible. He is just and righteous, and his character is the foundation of morality. He also has great love and mercy. Fortunately, all of these traits are perfectly harmonized in God and shown to man in Jesus Christ. For those who have faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit works from within to recreate this character in them.


The major divisions of the Bible are the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament was written before the coming of Christ. It describes the fall of mankind into sin and God’s work to reconcile mankind to Himself with a focus on how this occurs in the formation (and eventual fall) of ancient Israel. The New Testament describes the coming of Christ and the establishment of the church, which is a fulfillment of the promises of God described in the Old Testament.

The major division of the Old Testament are
-writings, and
The historical books describe the history of man as a moral being, beginning with the fall into sin, and the God’s plan to save man worked out over time. As this plan unfolds, the history increasingly focuses on the Israelite kingdom. The writing are a set of poetic books. The prophets focus on a period of time leading to the ultimate decline of ancient Israel and predict the coming for Christ.

The New Testament can be roughly divided into
-the gospels, and
-the epistles.
The gospels describe the life of Christ and (in the related book of Acts) the establishment of the church. The epistles are message to the church that often deal with the practicalities of living the life Christ called his believers to live.


The Bible is an assembly of many books, and there are many types of literature in each book. While the highly symbolic language of parts of the Bible get a lot of attention in some circles, most of it is written in a straightforward style. For instance, a lot of the Old Testament is historical narrative and a lot of the New Testament is letters from the apostles to the churches. Poetry is also commonly used. When reading the Bible, it’s important to know if the part your reading is a narration of events, a parable, a poem, or some other literary form.

The Holy Bible. New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982.