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2023 Holiday Newsletter

This is installment #7 of my annual newsletter (previous years 20222021202020192018, and 2017).

As usual, I hope you find a good thing or three.

Happy reading, watching, listening, and holidaying!

Three Things

Speaking of three things. I’m surfacing three things that are likely off most people’s radar and that I’ve kept returning to throughout the year.

  1. Watch Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself on Hulu. Get a trial if you need to. It’ll rock your world. Don’t look it up!
  2. Read Toggles suck! by Joel Holmberg. It will change how you view many UIs. Especially those godawful cookie toggles.
  3. Listen to the LVMH episode of the Acquired podcast. It’s a long episode on the conglomerate that’s changed the luxury sector. More interesting than you’d think. They distinguish between premium, and even super-premium, where you pay more to get more utility, and luxury, where the price is disconnected from the utility. Luxury is a signal that the buyer transcends utility.

Big Idea

My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that I spent significant time with people I love for more than 100 days this year. (In addition to spending nearly every day with Anna.) I’m surprised by the number. It’s larger than I thought, yet I want it to be even larger.

I relish spending time alone (how else do you think I’d read all these things?), but thinking back, I realize that nearly all my happiest moments were with people. And for the memorable solo moments, they certainly weren’t at home! So this year, I made a conscious effort to both create and say yes to situations where I would spend more time with friends and family.

At the beginning of the year, Anna and I planned to have a weekly dinner with a cast of friends, with rotating host duties. We kept it going for a few months. Eventually, the structure drifted even though we still had regular dinners (we have a weekly reminder to invite friends over for dinner). It’s a lovely habit I recommend. We’ll pick it back up.

We visited friends. From day trips, to weekends, to week-long trips. Friends and family visited us for similar durations. We traveled with friends, from camping weekends to long weekends, to multi-week adventures. A 3-day weekend in another city feels like we were gone for a week. Pro tip: plan some separate/solo time during longer trips.

walked and talked for a week with my dad and brother in the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. (By the way, National Parks: five stars!) My dad had been talking about visiting the Grand Canyon for as long as my brother and I could remember. It was magical to take him there instead of the other way around. If you can afford to take your family on such a trip, do it. Now.

Anna and I spent two weeks in Colorado back in October, playing outdoors, eating, drinking, and spending time with friends. But most importantly, we spent time just talking. That was some of the most meaningful time I’ve spent with someone I love. I wouldn’t be married without it.

That’s the big idea: spend time with people you love. 



A quartet of books that influenced a lot of my thinking and decisions this year:

  • Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis: It’s actually a book about René Girard’s mimetic theory. Girard’s idea is that people rely on mediators to decide what to desire. Mediators can be internal to the group (friends in high school) or external (celebrities). The issue is that these mediators can become competitors for that object of desire, creating a positive feedback loop, building up pressure, and leading to conflict. Girard posits that the primary way to release the pressure is to focus all the blame on a single entity, the scapegoat. These ideas remind me of how, in medieval Europe, lords would regularly grant debt forgiveness to release the pressure from social discontent (that’s from Debt: The First 5000 Years). I’d like to reread this book next year.
  • The Courage To Be Disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness by Ichirō Kishimi and Fumitake Koga: A lovely dialogue about Alfred Adler and Adlerian psychology. Life changing. At least, much more than the other Japanese book that’s supposed to be life-changing.
  • The Pathless Path by Paul Millerd: Are you on the default path? Mimesis applied to career choices.
  • On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks: What an incredible life. Definitely *not* on the default path!

Other good books I read:

  • The Art of Clear Thinking by Hasard Lee: Yes, another military book about decision-making. But having to make life-or-death decisions at MACH 1.6 requires a few handy tricks useful in other, more mundane situations. I appreciated the techniques and heuristics for reducing uncertainty. Thanks to him, I finally have a sense of what Fahrenheit temperatures mean! I loved the last insight of the book: for life decisions, go for the riskiest one when there are multiple equal options. It’ll give the greatest return.
  • The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann: Mann paints the spectrum between the techno-optimist wizards and the system-thinking prophets. It’s a balanced book, not taking sides, presenting how the two extremes have approached challenges with food, fresh water, energy, and climate change. It’s a fantastic read. In no small part thanks to the story of the *incredibly hardworking* and impactful proto-wizard Norman Borlaug and the ecologist William Vogt.
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein: Everything is fine. It’s ok, even great, to be a generalist. Instead of saying, “Here’s what I want to be,” say, “Here’s what I want to learn.”
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett: One of the o.g. noir novels. We listened to the audiobook narrated by the incredible William Dufris.
  • Beneath her Skin by C. S. Porter: We walked into a bookstore in Lunenberg, NS, and asked if they had a murder mystery that took place ‘round these parts. They did! The writing is blunt, but the story, the place, and the pace are top-notch. A great summer read.
  • The 2-Hour Cocktail Party by Nick Gray: A focused version of the The Art of Gathering. I’ve yet to put the ideas into practice.
  • The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilgnerby Arno Ilgner: A mindfulness and philosophy book disguised as a climbing book. It’s great.
  • Castaways by Pablo Monforte and Laura Pérez: A sad love story that brought back teenage memories. Great art and interesting jumps through two timelines. Disappointing, choppy English translation.


My favorite piece of writing this year is The Maintenance Race by Stewart Brand: the story of 3 men who participated in the first round-the-world solo yacht race. An adventure story full of important lessons. Reminds me of

What Happens to All the Stuff We Return? is a follow-up of sorts to Free Returns Are Complicated, Laborious, and Gross by Amanda Mull, which I linked to in 2022. It’s an interesting, scary, and funny piece. A few highlights:

  • “Wardrobing” is renting an outfit for a fancy party and returning it afterward, stains and all.
  • Most returns used to be D.I.F., which stands for “destroy in field.” It’s pitched as a way to “protect your organization’s reputation and focus on the future”.
  • Almost 20% of online purchases are returned. It can go up to 40% for apparel.
  • You know, these free Casper mattress returns? The cost of that flexibility increases the price by 8–9%.
  • Good quote: “The rise of online shopping has been very good for people who build immense, low, flat-roofed metal structures.”

Other good reads:


Around Christmas 2022, we decided to try to watch all the James Bond movies before the end of 2023. We’ve watched 17. There are 25. None of the first 16 is very good, even just good. I can barely recall any particular movie. Goldfinger (1964), the 3rd one, creates the prototypical Bond movie, which is interesting to see. GoldenEye (1995) is the first “modern” Bond I consider enjoyable to watch. It’s also the funniest one so far.


Other than all those Bond movies, I watched:

  • Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023): Extraordinary. Even better than Into the Spider-Verse. Anna leaned over to me halfway through the movie and said, “It’s so good!” The film ended and I said “No way!” out loud. The dad next to us leaned forward, his mouth open, in disbelief.
  • Saltburn (2023): Beautiful, funny, enveloping, awkward, shocking. Still trying to decide whether or not I liked it.
  • Whiplash (2014): Over-the-top, but fantastic acting and music about a young man who wants to become the best drummer there’s ever been.
  • Tár (2022): Haunting movie about power and music. Not really the point, but there’s some beautiful architecture.
  • The Menu (2022): I didn’t know what I got us into when we started. More… shocking than I thought. Hit uncomfortably close to home.
  • Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (2023): A surprisingly poignant war story.
  • Code8 (2019): A good sci-fi movie on a tight budget.
  • Nobody (2021): My kind of airplane movie, but I watched it while cooking and doing the dishes.
  • Joy Ride (2023): Meh. Too sketch-comedy for my taste. But the climax scene was poignant nonetheless.
  • See How They Run (2022): Bad. Tries hard and fails to be a Wes Anderson whodunit.


  • The Climb (2023) on HBO: Starts slow and uncertain. But then it’s heartwarming how everyone, from the participants to Chris Sharma, gets into it. A lovely example of humans being great for each other, even when competing. The places they climb are stunning.
  • I continue my quest to watch all of The West Wing, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Short videos

Podcasts Episodes (or short series)

  • Sporkful - Mission Impastable: Compelling short series about Dan Pashman’s dream of making a new pasta shape. My brother bought me boxes of them, cascatellis. They’re fun, chewy, and tasty. Central Market sells them in Austin.
  • Reviewing Cynefin - weaving sense making into the fabric of our world with Dave Snowden on XAgility Podcast: In a complex system, you cannot change the humans and you cannot change the components. You must change the interactions. That means changing the mechanisms, when and how humans interact together, so their behaviors change to adapt to the new system. One example Snowden offers is changing who your teenage kid interacts with friends instead of defining how they should be.
  • PJ Vogt (previously of Reply All) had a frank and intelligent discussion about attention with Ezra Klein. Klein shared a good line from Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Why not communicate with the few people with the context to understand us instead of thousands who don’t? Pairs well with a reread of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
  • Jim Collins: Keeping the Flywheel in Motion on The Knowledge Project
  • A Good Circle on Revisionist History: A story around the fact that many universities are getting richer *while* the cost of admission is increasing. For example, Princeton made $3.8 billion in investment income last year but spent $2 billion on its operating income. It could let everyone in for free, but they keep asking people for tuition. In contrast, Hope College has decided to let students in for free as long as they commit to giving to the school after graduation. It’s an inspiring story of giving and giving back.
  • Lesley Sim on Skill Acceleration in Ultimate on the Commonplace Expertise Podcast: It’s arguably about coaching ultimate, but it’s an impressive demonstration of combining ideas from different fields to achieve results. She uses click training, a form of positive reinforcement common in animal training, to train her frisbee team out of bad habits. To stop players from making “lazy throws,” she blew a whistle to positively reinforce every time their hand was below their knee when throwing. The lazy throws disappeared after a few practices and never returned. There’s a version of this technique called TAGteach. She also discusses reframing difficult, multi-faceted problems in terms of simple ones. For example, her team often lost possession of the disc because they couldn’t make a pass before the end of the 10-second limit. Addressing the root causes would need coaching cutter to be ready faster, handlers to have a better vision of the game, and everyone to communicate better. Instead, she substituted these hard problems for a simple one: she made them play with a 6-second limit. Another example is that she wanted her players to make better throws. Instead of doing complicated throwing clinics, she had asked them to complete 100 throws in three minutes. Players had no choice but to get faster and more accurate. This is an interesting lesson about applying constraints in the right places and delegating problems, not solutions.


It was a “slow” year. I listened to 10k tracks (5,500 uniques) for 41,292 minutes (688h) of music by about 2,160 artists (says Spotify). Lambert, The Flashbulb, GoGo Penguin, Hauschka, and Stimming were the five artists I listened to the most. There’s a playlist of my favorite songs(24h) and my favorite albums (41h).

I gather from the Spotify data that this year I did deep work (or work I dreaded). I have used the same *Work and Write* playlist since 2015. It’s mainly solo piano, jazz piano trios, and light electronica. It has a nearly 100% success rate of putting me in flow. I’ve been dilligent at protecting it: I stop listening to it when I drift and start doing non deep work. I recommend this hack!

On week 31 (thanks Danes!) I started creating weekly playlists of songs I liked and publishing them on my blog. There’s an RSS feed for that. What I’d like to do next is automatically create thematically similar covers, but all unique, for the year using generative art techniques. Something *like* NFTs, but definitely not NFTs.

Now for specific recommendations.

I discovered I liked (some) hyperpop, “a maximalist or exaggerated take on popular music,” says Wikipedia. Underscores is a good example. An even better example is this set by 100 gecs at Boiler Room in L.A.. It’s all. over. the. place. But it’s so much of fun. Check out 59:00 for a glimpse of how wild it is. And do read the comments. Speaking of 100 gecs was mesmerized by Acai playing the 10,000 gecs album on Clone Hero Drums. Wut.