Book Review #27: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 is about fire fighters of the future who do not actually fight fires, but seek and destroy books. In this future society where books are illegal, everyone is sedated by mass media on television. But living within the docile crowd of ignorant masses are small pockets of underground, literate intellectuals. Fahrenheit 451 is about a fire fighter protagonist, Guy Montag, joining the literate underground and being awakened to the truth.

Recently I am fascinated by classics like this, 1984 and Brave New World. Each of these describe a dystopian future with many prescient details. Times change, but in so many ways, the struggle remains the same. The individual spirit fighting against the machine designed to crush it.

The postscript of Fahrenheit 451 eloquently describes the contemporary significance of the book:

“Sixty years out, Fahrenheit 451 has come to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

Modern Day Parallels

Mechanical HoundFahrenheit 451 was written over a period of three years, beginning in 1950. At the time televisions were not common yet Ray Bradbury’s vision of the future of media is startlingly prescient. In 2015 we are on the cusp of entering into a new era of immersion, with consumer virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift coming soon. But even 60 years ago, there were signs that literature was going to be blown away by visual media like movies and television.

One of my favorite literary devices in the book is the mechanical hound: an eight legged autonomous robot designed to hunt and kill fugitives. It is a terrifying symbol of the technological superiority that the ruling class has over would-be rebels like Guy. Its modern equivalent is certainly the drone, quietly patrolling the skies like a mechanical hawk.

Favorite Passages

Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. “Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.” He dropped the book.

Do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy disks, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

He turned and the Mechanical Hound was there. It was half across the lawn, coming from the shadows, moving with such drifting ease that it was like a single solid cloud of black-gray smoke blown at him in silence.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.


This book is daring, subversive, and scary. It correctly predicts advances of future media with startling accuracy. The seashell that everyone walks around listening to in the book works exactly like an iPod. Eliminates the outside world allowing listeners to only hear things which validate and comfort their own beliefs. Guy Montag’s wife Mildred is constantly fixated on a television which occupies an entire wall in their house. I have that in my living room.

This book was written to say: this is what the future looks like, if you let it. In my opinion, there was no stopping these developments. As a society we will take the red pill and go further into the rabbit hole of technological immersion, with little resistance. We each have a personal responsibility to acknowledge and cultivate our own individuality by educating ourselves.

One of the touching messages in this book is that literature has “stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.” This is an inspiring way to think about the texture created by the knowledge and experience captured in literature. It rightly challenges the idea that I have long held that reading literature is not as as worthwhile as non-fiction. The highest degree of human expression is not fueled only by knowledge but by passion and the individual spirit which challenges the status quo and to a degree rejects orthodoxy.

As Guy Montag says: “Burn them or they’ll burn you”


4.5 Stars

Fahrenheit 451 on Amazon

Published on October 6, 2015

24 Hours in Changsha

Last week I went to Changsha to play at a music festival called Xiangjiang. A short trip of just 24 hours in the Hunan capital city. Some photos from the afternoon and evening there.

Chongqing Fall 2015 (3 of 146)

Chongqing Fall 2015 (2 of 146)

Chongqing Fall 2015 (1 of 146)

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Chongqing Fall 2015 (6 of 146)

Published on October 5, 2015

Recent Photos from Chongqing

Chongqing Fall 2015 (134 of 146)

Chongqing Fall 2015 (146 of 146)

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Chongqing Fall 2015 (64 of 146)

See more Chongqing Fall 2015 Photos
Published on October 5, 2015

Moodnotes: Undercover Behavior Therapy

Moodnotes is a mood tracking app available on the App Store which has a very interesting twist. It’s made by an American design studio called ustwo which normally “works with big brands to solve huge problems”. On the side, it also makes some of the most well designed apps available on the iPhone, first the seminal mobile game Monument Valley and now this app, Moodnotes.

First of all, journaling is an excellent habit to adopt. It allows you to get used to not only writing, but also crystallizing thoughts into written word which isn’t always easy. The benefits of journaling are as well documented as they are numerous, which is why famously productive people often recommend recording your thoughts on a regular basis. But what Moodnotes does takes it one step beyond just chronicling your mood, with a unique feature that’s designed to not only receive input from the user, but to promote mental well-being through the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT. Here’s how it works.

Mood Notes app

How Moodnotes Uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Designed by two clinical psychologists, Moodnotes is made to cultivate the habit of healthy thinking. It means looking at challenges and situations in a productive and constructive light, which makes overcoming them more easy and more likely. Each day the app prompts you to record some information about what you’re doing and how you feel about it. You can go into as much detail as you like, but what happens is that Moodnotes responds to your mood and offers guidance.

If you indicate that you’re exhausted or frustrated, Moodnotes will identify potential traps of negative thought that you may have fallen into. I was amazed to discover how accurate many of the traps of negative thinking I had fallen into myself. Along with these are suggestions on how to re-contextualize challenges that you face and to view things from a more constructive angle.

Mood Notes app

What I’ve found through using this app every day for about a month now, is that it has increased my sense of self-awareness. I am more conscious of not only my mood, but more actively eliminate negative thoughts which often become a burden to problem solving. Which is of course what Moodnotes is all about: reducing stress and enhancing your sense of well being.

Common Thinking Traps

One of the most interesting facets of Moodnotes is the thinking traps which it describes and explains. When you’re in a bad mood and looking at obstacles in a negative light, these are frequently present, to a degree that I didn’t realize previously. Some examples of these thinking traps:

  • Fortune-telling: when we predict that things will end badly, without actually knowing the outcome
  • Black-and-white thinking: when we only look at situations as having a positive or negative outcome
  • Mind-reading: when we assume what others think of us, often that they are thinking the worst thing we can imagine
  • Over-generalization: when we use words like always and never to describe situations or events
  • Labelling: describing ourselves with a single word, often negatively, when the reality is that we are complex and cannot be summed up with a single word
  • Over-estimating danger: when we imagine that the worst-case scenario is right around the corner
  • Catastrophizing: when we only acknowledge the bad things that might happen while ignoring the good

Once you learn about these thinking traps, you start to see them a lot. In friends, family, colleagues, and likely in yourself. Understanding and identifying them is the first step to eliminating them, and Moodnotes will alert you to potential thinking traps when it detects them.


The potential benefit offered by using Moodnotes is easily great enough to justify the few moments of time a day that it asks. After about two weeks of inputting a small amount of data everyday, using Moodnotes became second nature for me, and now it houses a useful collection of mood data which I can refer to.

As with Monument Valley, Moodnotes is remarkably well designed. Unlike Monument Valley, it’s not designed to be a showpiece, but a functional tool that encourages you to develop the habit of using it on a daily basis. In use Moodnotes is a joy to interact with.

I’m happy to see that like Monument Valley, Moodnotes is routinely recommended by mainstream media like The Guardian and Wired. It’s a tool that I recommend also.

Check out Moodnotes
Published on October 5, 2015

Song of the Day #186: Loud Places

Jamie XX – Loud Places

Another song off Jamie XX’s debut studio album released earlier this year In Colour. Unlike Sleep Sound, this song was one of the singles which debuted before the release of the album (along with the stripped-down nü-rave song titled Gosh). The music video directed by Simon Halsall & JB Babenhausen is not one that I had seen until a few days ago, but it suits the song well. The confetti at 3:22 into the video is a really nice effect.

Read more about Jamie XX on Wikipedia.

Published on October 5, 2015

Song of the Day #185: Katachi

Shugo Tokumaru – Katachi

A song produced and recorded by Tokyo-based Shugo Tokumaru, a multi-instrumentalist and member of the Japanese rock band Gellers. The video is amazing and was created by Kijek/Adamski, a Polish duo which has become known for this frame-by-frame visual art style.

Published on September 29, 2015

Book Review #26: The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist ManifestoThe title of this book is deceptively simple – The Checklist Manifesto is not merely about lists. In the words of the author, “just ticking boxes is not the ultimate goal here. Embracing a culture of discipline is.”

The author of this book, Atul Gawande, is both a best selling author and an award winning surgeon who has single handedly saved thousands of lives. But not just through surgery – through policies that he has championed within the W.H.O., Harvard Medical School, and the United Nations. While working at Johns Hopkins in 2001 he created and implemented a 5-point checklist for surgeons which virtually eradicated central line infections in the ICU (which until then had been a routine complication). The checklist spread throughout medical communities across the country and then in 2008 was adopted as the Surgical Safety Checklist, also written by Gawande.

The premise of The Checklist Manifesto is that doctors, like everyone, overlook and omit steps in routine tasks. In the case of hospitals, these omission result in infections and deaths. It’s not that we don’t have the knowledge to prevent these mistakes, it’s that we are inept in their consistent application. The book describes what checklists are capable of doing, what they aren’t, and how to implement them in ways that benefit everyone from surgeons to pilots to auto mechanics.

Put more simply:

The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

Aviation, Surgery & Construction

surgeons operatingMost of the stories about implementing checklists described in the book are about medicine, since Gawande is a surgeon. And the field of medicine has become what Gawande describes as the art of managing extreme complexity, which you can see by preventable infection being a routine complication in even the best medical centers in the country.

Over 90,000 people go into Intensive Care Units every day so even a marginal reduction in the rate of complications like infections and mis-diagnoses can save many lives. Checklists designed to address those problems have vastly reduced the rate of incident in many sectors like medicine, aviation and construction.

David Lee Roth & Brown M&M’s

One memorable story in the book is about 1980’s rock star David Lee Roth. There’s a well known story of him demanding a bowl of M&M’s in his green room of every performance with all of the brown M&M’s removed. If he found a single brown M&M in the bowl, he would have a fit and refuse to perform.

Brown M&M'sThe story is often interpreted as Roth being a wacky, self-absorbed superstar but Gawande argues that it is misunderstood: David Lee Roth had a list. He put the bizarre M&M clause in his performance rider to reveal which promoters are not attentive. The thinking is that if the promoter can’t get the M&M’s right, what other mistakes are being made? Maybe there were other details missed, like weight requirements of the stage rig which could cause a dangerous collapse.

Favorite Passages

The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Did the managers sell all their shares? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?).

We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us— those we aspire to be— handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.

The checklist cannot be lengthy. A rule of thumb some use is to keep it to between five and nine items, which is the limit of working memory.

We need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. And there is such a strategy— though it will seem almost ridiculous in its simplicity, maybe even crazy to those of us who have spent years carefully developing ever more advanced skills and technologies. It is a checklist.

You want people to make sure to get the stupid stuff right. Yet you also want to leave room for craft and judgment and the ability to respond to unexpected difficulties that arise along the way.


The subject of checklists seems dry on the surface, but the psychology of its effectiveness is described in fascinating detail in this book. I’m already keeping daily task lists, but this has made me consider how I can re-think a lot of multi-step processes. Things like writing, recording podcasts, and completing a wide range of work tasks. I recommend this book, and based on how good this book was, am seriously considering reading Gawande’s other award-winning book: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.


4.5 Stars

The Checklist Manifesto on Amazon

Published on September 26, 2015

The Strategically Lazy Morning Routine

I recently read a blog post about the fruits of being strategically lazy (podcast here by the same author). I thought it was a brilliant idea and suddenly realized that I have aspired to be strategically lazy for a long time. A good example of this is the morning routine which I’ve adopted, which I will call the strategically lazy morning routine. Here is the rough breakdown in reverse:

To be lazy

I want to wake up at the last possible minute. It’s not just because I love sleep, but also because I relish the challenge of efficiently completing a series of tasks in rapid-fire succession.

To be strategic

I want to complete a comprehensive set of tasks in the shortest amont of time possible. In order to do this I will need to carefully select the most important tasks which are relevant to my personal goals, and then to arrange them in the most efficient way possible.

The strategically lazy morning routine

The strategically lazy morning routineI shoot for a 9:30am arrival in my office, which is about 25 minutes away from my apartment, whether I take the subway or hail an Uber. I plan to leave by 9am, giving myself five minutes for unexpected delays, which means for a 20-minute routine I will be out of bed by 8:40am at the latest. As described above, I usually wait until the last possible minute.

The list of tasks below is pretty long. On my daily task list, it’s six items, which is almost 50% of the daily habits that I seek to hit. So this 20-minute window is without a doubt the most important small block of the day.

  1. Sleep Cycle goes off at 8:40am after having analyzed my sleep patterns for the night
  2. Make my bed before doing anything. This one is a huge psychological win
  3. Do 15 pushups. This brings you to full alertness immediately, which makes subsequent steps more manageable. I can do more pushups but I just want something to wake me up, and to not be struggling at my bedside moments after reaching consciousness.
  4. Get dressed and put on my watch. Sometimes I will have places the clothes I intend to wear on my drawer. Other times not.
  5. Step onto a scale and measure my weight. Record it in the Health app on my iPhone. As Peter Drucker famously said: What gets measured gets managed.
  6. Take supplements: Fish Oil and Vitamin D. These are fantastic general purpose supplements that can benefit everyone. When I take the supplements I will set a timer on my watch for an hour. After the hour is up, then I can drink coffee without it neutralizing the supplements. For researching supplements, is an excellent and unbiased source which I recommend.
  7. Floss. Once you get into the habit, it becomes automatic and takes about one minute. Good for the health of your teeth, your gums, and possibly even your heart.
  8. Brush with an electric toothbrush of the Oral-B variety. An automatic timer in the brush tells you when you can stop brushing.
  9. Make a super-quick protein shake with milk, a banana, protein powder, and ground oatmeal. The oatmeal is pre-ground with a coffee grinder and stored in a special container which makes preparing this even faster. Optionally I will add yogurt or seasonal fruits like strawberries or blueberries. Takes about 4 minutes to prepare.
  10. Grab my bag, which is already packed, and head out the door. Either walk to the subway station nearby or hail an Uber to pick me up outside.

Note: if you don’t take supplements in the morning and you’re a coffee drinker, preparing coffee at home is a great idea and can be done quickly with excellent quality using an Aeropress. More on that here: Morning Routine with the Aeropress.

The routine is not just to get a bunch of things done, although that alone is worth it. It’s to face the rest of your day with the confidence that you’ve already achieved, setting the stage for more achievements.

Published on September 25, 2015