My Favorite Things from 2021

By Trevor McKendrick 👋 - Have you read my free newsletter?

Favorite Books

A Field Guide to American Houses

One of the most important things to learning a new subject is learning the vocabulary. Without the vocabulary I can look at the forest but I’ll have no way of being able to communicate what I’m seeing without knowing the trees I’m actually looking at.

This book is that for the styles of American houses. Once you read this, you’ll know how to describe the history of and time period of any house in America.

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

60% finished with this one and it’s finally the entry point that worked for me to get into the French Revolution. I’ve also paired it with the Revolutions podcast series on the same topic. 

Now that I understand the basic structure I’m looking forward to digging into other books like The Twelve Who Ruled which go into more detail about specific events that I’ll have much stronger context for.

Rumors about half truths and conspiracies being amplified reminded me of Twitter:

“Simple proposals are transformed into formal decrees, and a whole neighborhood argues endlessly or is seized with fright over something that never took place. Though the common people have been misled a thousand times by such false announcements, they continue nevertheless to believe them.”

The Private Life of Chairman Mao 

Written by Mao’s personal doctor of over 20 years, the lesson from this book to me was that evil people are just like the rest of us. In Mao’s case, he was a peasant who was uneducated and often didn’t know the consequences of the orders he issued.

“Mao was a peasant and he had simple tastes. He dressed only when he absolutely had to and spent most of his day in bed, wearing a robe and nothing on his feet. When he did get dressed, he wore old clothes and worn-out cloth shoes, donning the “Mao suit” and leather shoes only for formal, public occasions. He had someone else—one of his bodyguards, usually—break in his new cloth shoes. The photographs showing him neatly dressed, working in his office, were staged. He conducted virtually all his business from his bedroom or from the side of his indoor pool.”

“I soon saw that Mao lacked even rudimentary knowledge of the workings of the human reproductive system. Our discussion was the first he knew of his undescended right testicle, but neither that abnormality nor his infertility made him in any sense a eunuch.”

There is No Antimemetics Division

Interesting fictional book that’s worth dipping your toe into because it’s so different. Pretty quick read too. Here’s the beginning of the Amazon description:

“An antimeme is an idea with self-censoring properties; an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it. Antimemes are real. Think of any piece of information which you wouldn't share with anybody, like passwords, taboos and dirty secrets. Or any piece of information which would be difficult to share even if you tried: complex equations, very boring passages of text, large blocks of random numbers, and dreams…”

Hail Mary

Andy Weir’s latest novel was delightful! Easy read, fun, inspiring, made me want to play a bigger role in humanity’s march towards history.

Leading

Alex Ferguson’s memoir written with Sequoia’s Michael Moritz. I’ve only dabbled in English football but even if you know (and care) nothing about sports, this is a fantastic book. Alex covers his history as a football coach, including his dominant run as head coach of Manchester United.

Fantastic book on leadership, management, “what it takes”, etc. Far better than the vast majority of “business books” on the same topic. For example, you never get quotes like this in business books:

“When winning becomes a way of life, true winners are relentless. Corny though it sounds, the very best footballers were competing against themselves to become as good as they could be. It was no accident that players like Ronaldo, Beckham, the Neville brothers, Cantona, Scholes, Giggs and Rooney would all have to be dragged off the training ground. They all just had a built-in desire to excel and improve. Gary Neville, for example, pushed himself harder because he knew that he did not possess the natural talent of some of his team-mates.”

Or:

“Most people don’t have inner conviction. Their confidence is easily shaken, they blow with the wind and can be plagued with doubts. I cannot imagine how anyone, without firm convictions and deep inner beliefs, can be an effective leader.”

Apollo 13 (audiobook)

The mission’s commander Jim Lovell wrote a book that the famous movie was eventually based on. 

I’ve listened to this book multiple times now. I always come back to it for an inspiring example of what humans can do, what’s possible, and the power of optimism. 

The Spy & the Traitor

The story of how one of Great Britain’s most valuable Soviet spies was able to send invaluable information and ultimately escape death by fleeing the country. 

In the Company of Giants

Interviews with top founders of world famous tech companies. My favorite interview was with T.J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor. He’d very likely get cancelled today but his unflinching ability to speak reality is fantastic.

Dead Wake

Erik Larson’s book on the sinking of the Lusitania by German Uboats. Erik is my latest “must read” author. One of my favorite books from 2020 was his The Splendid and The Vile, covering the first year of World War II.

See also Erik’s The Garden of Beasts, about the American Ambassador to Germany and his family in 1933.

Rise and Kill First

The history of Israel’s Mossad and its many targeted assassinations. If I had to recommend a single book on this list it’s probably this one. The Mossad is already an interesting organization that relatively little is known about. But what makes this especially worthwhile is how deeply sourced the author is on both sides of each story. He would somehow know intricate details on, say, the size of the room and who was there and why and other things that only people on the side of the losing team would know. 

A Land So Strange

Cabeza de Vaca’s journey from Spain trying to colonize Florida gone terrible wrong. Him and his group end up wandering the Americas for some 7 years before finding their civilization again.

Our Man

A biography on Richard Holbrooke, a guy who did interesting things (e.g. helped negotiate the end of the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan Wars) but who ultimately never remotely made it to the top, and whose name I’m sure you don’t recognize. Part of why reading about his life is worthwhile is because you see the sacrifices he made to try and “accomplish things”… like he was usually an asshole that many people wouldn’t stand, and he was that way because he thought he needed to be, and yet he never accomplished the top goals he desired.

The Choice

Edith Eger’s memoir of Aushwitz, and surviving being a survivor. She was a student of Viktor Frankl, and I enjoyed her version of how to thrive after going through serious trauma:

“There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. This is life. And this is victimization. It comes from the outside. It’s the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital. 

In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind—a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.”

Favorite Podcast Episodes

Ignore your limits (podcast)

From the My First Million podcast - if you ever want to be reminded to get off your ass, be creative, try hard things…

This one they talk about how most fears are kind of ridiculous if you can just get the rational part of your brain to say them outloud…

Interview with Aella on escort work, rationalism, her Twitter polls, etc. (transcript)

Exactly what the title says. A deep dive into a world that’s under explored.

The Tyler Cowen production function (podcast)

Tyler reads super quickly and is able to leverage that into a very positive production function.

He also writes every day, religiously, without fail.

Tim Ferriss interview with Balaji (podcast + transcript)

Balaji had an amazing year of influence. This is one of the best summaries of his latest thinking. Some quotes:

“Product is merit, distribution is connections”

“If code scripts machines, media scripts human beings”

“The answer is not to tell these [professional] journalists, “Hey, go in journalism better,” or, “Hey, you’re doing a good job. This guy’s doing a bad job.” I think that’s been tried for a very long time. I think the answer is radical decentralization in several ways. One critical way is everyone is a journalist. So citizen journalism, as opposed to corporate journalism.”

On how he’d invest if he were trying to maximize financial returns:

“If I was given $100,000 or a $100 million, what do I do with that? .... So the dumbest thing, but that I think is the most obvious thing to do, is put half into Bitcoin, half into Ether.” 

Ryan Petersen on Invest Like the Best (podcast)

Ryan’s the founder/CEO of Flexport, pro-America, and an all around good dude. 

Some of my favorite conversations with entrepreneurs are where they know their industry cold, including all the economics, where the money’s made, etc. There was tons of this type of talk.

Strange Truths w/ Mike Solana (podcast)

Mike goes into detail on how he changed from left wing to where he stands today. If you’ve ever wanted to scream at Mike for his tweets, this is a great example of how listening to someone quickly humanizes them. 

Bound By Oath (podcast series)

This is a recommendation of an entire podcast, not a specific episode. 

The current season of Bound By Oath explains why it’s so hard to sue government officials who violate the constitution. 

Brian Armstrong on Invest like the Best (podcast)

“Action produces information”

Favorite Articles

Technology to come in the 2020s (article)

Eli Dourado’s early 2020 post on what to look forward to and hope for in this decade. You could make a career out of any paragraph on this list - life extension, space, energy, and more.

Mark Zuckerberg & Kevin Systrom emails about the Instagram acquisition (PDF)

Fun inside look at the acquisition conversation - my favorite parts:

  • Mark is very clear to Kevin in where he stands, what he needs information wise, asking Kevin to clarify, etc. 
  • The emails going from long & strategic to short & casual is interesting. It happens almost immediately after they meet in person - who knows how much of an impact that really had but I’m 100% confident it helped
  • Mark had an extremely clear vision of how he saw Instagram fitting into 

Scott Alexander returned (article)

Scott’s post earlier this year announcing his return.

My friend Jason Crawford from Roots of Progress did a Twitter thread about Scott’s return that’s worth reading. 

One part that describes what makes him so good: “Scott asks big questions across a wide variety of domains and doesn't rest until he has clear answers. No, he doesn't rest until he can explain those answers to you lucidly. No, wait, he doesn't rest until he can do that and also make you laugh out loud.”

Some of his best work you could start with:

I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup - probably the most important piece you can read during our current political times

Beware the Man of One Study - in which Scott describes why I find e.g. nutrition to be a fuzzy science at best

Book Review: Albion’s Seed - Scott’s book reviews are often better than the books themselves. After reading this review you might think about the book every day…

How People Learn to Become Resilient (article)

I’ve said before that if I could create a billboard that the entire world would see the message I’d put on it would be “focus on what you can control.”

It turns out that people who are resilient have a strong internal locus of control, i.e. they believe that they, not their environment, determine their achievements.

Charter Cities reading list

Exhaustive list of what to read if you’re into new cities.

How Discount Brokerages Make Money (article)

If you’ve ever read that high frequency traders are “front running” retail investors you need to read this to be corrected. Payment for order flow isn’t nearly the scam you think it is.

What’s your moonshot? (3 min video)

Whatever you’re planning to do with your work life, consider aiming a little higher. The point isn’t to be Elon Musk - the point is to do the best thing that you personally are capable of. 

Patrick McKenzie had a great line that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: “Give yourself permission to work on things that are harder than you think is reasonable”

Polygamy is coming (article)

I’ve always said that gay marriage advocates & polygamists should be on the same team - they’re both advocating for new norms for marriage beyond the heterosexual + monogamist default. 

This finally seems to be happening - polygamy advocates are riding on the coattails of the success of the gay marriage movement, and polygamy is slowly beginning to be normalized.

For example, in 2020 Utah made polygamy as illegal as parking on the wrong side of the street. All you get now for having multiple spouses is a citation (That this went basically unnoticed is another sign of how loud a year 2020 was.)

And multiple towns in Massachusetts, including Cambridge, also recognize multi-partner relationships.

How to get yourself out of a funk (article)

A great list, here’s a few that resonated with me: 

  • Exercise
  • Time with friends/family 
  • Think small
  • Get inspired

Speaking of which, does anyone else have random videos/books/stories that inspire them? Mine is watching American Pharoah win the Triple Crown in 2015. I’m not into horses and know literally nothing about the sport, but something about being the one to end that 37 year dry streak gets me going… 

The Cult of Done Manifesto (article)

An oldie but goodie that I refound this year. You can read the background at the link - here’s the whole thing:

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

If you’re trying to improve something, try taking away things instead of adding (article)

“A series of problem-solving experiments reveal that people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them, even when removing features is more efficient.”

This is the kind of hack to success you’ll never see implemented because of all the reasons you see at the bottom of the article (e.g. addition is rewarded more, a culture of subtraction is required, adding things is sexier, etc.)

Which means you can use it right now to your advantage to be successful.

Slate Star Codex review of the 12 Rules for Life (article)

Scott Alexander says that after reading the book “I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.”

You Should Probably Be More Extroverted (article)

“Here are just a few examples of what happens when you talk to people simply because it’s an enjoyable thing to do.”

A Brief Practical Guide to Being an Infinite Player (article)

Finite & Infinite Games is an amazing book, but it’s so abstract. What are some specific things one can do to live an infinite life?

The Network State (article)

A broad interview that’s hard to summarize, but builds from the bottom up why the network is the modern societal organizing entity. 

The Network State is quickly becoming more powerful than the state. We already see examples of this from Covid: the organizations that delivered our food, created the vaccines, and let us talk to each other were forms of networks. Meanwhile the state struggled to deliver mail.

Notes on living in Los Angeles (article)

I was born and raised in LA (the “land of a thousand suburbs” as I call it) and this is totally and completely spot on. 

LA doesn’t tell you who to be, and there is no specific “LA experience”. You just show up as you are and try to have a good time. 

Also this sentence: “The average walking experience is poor, but the peak walking experience is marvelous.”

Nike’s end of men (article)

The shift in Nike’s advertising over the last 1-2 decades. 

An Indian grad student’s impressions 2 months into living in America (article)

“When I first I landed at the Newark airport, I was shocked to hear every announcement made in English, and then repeated in Spanish. 

I always knew that there’s a huge Hispanic population in the States; I just had no idea of the hugeness. Spanish seems to be almost sort of like a second official language here.

And:

“I don’t know how many people will agree, but striking up a conversation with an American stranger is much easier than it is with an Indian stranger. Americans just seem to have that natural conversational flow - I would say that talking is the one thing they're definitively better at than Indians”

Favorite Tweets

Paul Graham

“To-do list:

<overdue mundane thing>!!!

<mundane thing>

<ambitious plan>

<mundane thing>

<mundane thing>”

Garry Tan

“The ideal stance for a good startup advisor is actually short term pessimist, long term optimist

Short term optimism that is false leads founders astray: It's like unintentional palliative care. If you say it's OK and it's not, your startup will fucking go in the ground."

Incredible thread on obesity (twitter)

“The study of obesity is the study of mysteries.”

A continuously updated thread that started in early July. It’s great because the author uses plain language to summarize complicated studies, doesn’t make definitive statements, and is clearly interested in finding the truth, wherever that ends up taking them.

Tim Urban

It sucks jumping in a cold pool but once you’re in it’s fine. Same pattern applies to:

-Getting started with work each day

-Having a hard conversation with a friend

-Singing in front of people

-Breaking up with someone

Most of the time, jumping in is the hardest part.

How to DM your heroes when they follow you (tweets)

”1. Specific proof-of-work: “I’ve been a fan of your work and writing since the livejournal days”

2. Share sth specific about yourself, their influence on you: “your work shaped the way I now do X”

3. Ask easy-to-answer specific Q”

Lots more in the thread.

Favorite Quote

Heather Havrilesky on crushes:

Lately I'm convinced that 99% of crushes are just ambition that doesn't know where to land or what shape to take. Sadly, women in particular often struggle to give a voice and a shape to their ambition. Many of us don't identify with being driven and ambitious. We struggle to connect with the idea of success because it has no human face. So we tell ourselves we're in love when really WE JUST WANT MORE FROM LIFE.

Do you want to be in love with your crush, or do you want to BE your crush? Do you want to fantasize, or you want to create something fantastical? Do you want to ask for approval, or do you want to learn how to great yourself permission to live out loud, to be bigger, to take up more space, to celebrate who you are? Maybe your crush is just a symbol of the life you want. Maybe it's time to stop chasing the crush, and chase the life instead.


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