This Year I Read 88 Books And Wrote 1

As 2015 started I made a goal to read 50 books by the end of the year.

This, like all great goals, was very stupid and certainly foolish. I have a very demanding job, four young children, and a very structured imaginary marathon-training program.

I set this goal for two reasons:

  • My daughter was in the 2nd grade and starting to read more and I wanted to throw some fuel on that fire.
  • I found that reading relaxed me more than any other activity – there aren’t any notifications when you read and I found it quieted my mind.

I started out with the following goals:

  • I would read 50 books, with the definition of “book” sort of up to me.
  • I would prefer books that I already owned.
  • If somebody gave me a book, I had to read that book this year.
  • If I sneered about a book or rolled by eyes then I *had* to read it next.
  • I would try to not read “fancy” books; no judgment.
  • I could re-read a book only if I hadn’t read the book in the last 5 years.


I ended up reading a lot of books – more than expected. I didn’t stop working or paying attention to my kids, but instead replaced time spent doing the following with reading:

  • Taking breaks at work
  • Reading stuff on the internet of little value (i.e. most things on the internet)
  • Watching TV
  • Doing nothing while waiting on something (like in a waiting room)

I ended up exploring my local library and a local used bookstore due to the sheer volume of books I ended up purchasing.

More Interesting Results

The most interesting thing about my reading this year was that I ended up writing a book as well. By not judging the types of books I was reading I found deep veins of silly books that I liked so much I decided to take a run at writing one in the same style. The nice thing about reading is that you can surround yourself with people that you like; this isn’t always possible in the real world.


Here is a list of all the books I read with a one sentence snarky review of each.

My top 5 recommended:

  • Hyperbole and a Half – one of the best books I read this year.
  • The First Bad Man – what do you say to a book like this?  What the hell?  I don’t want this weird story to end?  I can’t describe this book but I have now read everything Miranda July has ever written and will buy everything she writes in the future forever.
  • Creativity, Inc. – great read, good story, remarkable transparency and teaching
  • The Stench of Honolulu – funniest book I have read this year.
  • What in God’s Name – Simon Rich is a delight, and I enjoyed this one greatly especially the parts with God working to open a restaurant.

Short Story Collections & Classics

Elmore Leonard & Westerns

  • The Bounty Hunters & Glitz & Freaky Deaky – if you have never read any Elmore Leonard you should start now.  Any “hip dialogue” in a modern movie has been influenced by his realistic gritty style.
  • Galloway – picked up at a used books store and is #12 in a series; good mindless entertainment.  The good guys win (SPOILER ALERT)
  • The Last Kind Words Saloon – real story of Wyatt Earp which is different than all the crappy movies you have seen about it.
  • No Country for Old Men – held up against the movie which is impressive.

Ernest Hemingway

Books about Creating Things


I don’t know what this is


  • The Screwtape Letters – Masterpiece.  Should be re-read by me every few years.
  • Stuff Christians Like – hard to finish.  Talk about niche.
  • Scary Close – Donald Miller is one of those guys that is so thoughtful you hope that he has the same struggles as you do so that can can impart wisdom.


Business and Practical Advice

  • The Ultimate Guide to Remote Working – pretty good resource, very interesting that they include their annoyances and issues with traditional office space.  People rarely think about just how terrible the typical setup really is until they start working from home.
  • Smart Money, Smart Kids – If I do 50% of what is in this book with my 4 kids they will all be just fine financially.
  • A Brief History of Walt Disney – if you aren’t inspired by Disney what are you even doing.
  • What If? – Great interesting read.
  • The Myths of Innovation – Very interesting book with clear conclusions around creative output and structure.  Good think piece.
  • Mindfire – Good edit of Scott’s posts; one of my favorite authors.
  • Focus – I enjoy Leo’s blog Zen Habits and this was in the same vein.
  • Lean In – Great resource; should be read by all people in the workplace.  These books are normally so boring you just read them because you feel like you have to, but this one was full of interesting personal stories and a good forward-moving narrative with clear actions for us all to take.
  • AngularJS – just finishing this one up; technology I used at work.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – I hate business books but this was pretty solid.

Miranda July

  • It Chooses You – man this was so freaking good and real. Whenever somebody says that a writer has a ‘strong voice’ I think of July. I’m going to read everything she has ever written, she works in multiple formats so see her movies too, but probably not any sculptures etc. by her.
  • The First Bad Man – what do you say to a book like this?  What the hell?  I don’t want this weird story to end?  I can’t describe this book but I have now read everything Miranda July has ever written and will buy everything she writes in the future forever.

Books that were intended for children

  • Lauren Ipsum – cute, but probably funnier to adults who work in the field than actual children.  The end where they go back and explain everything is better, so if you read with that in mind it would be a better exercise.
  • Esio Trot – I read a few Dahl’s this year so one is representative of that; good cute little book.


Yeah, sure

I have written a book ( yeah sure ) which is available for sale now.

It contains pieces that have been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Feathertale Review, and Reader’s Digest along with 100+ pages of new material never seen outside of the walls of my office and the IHOP bathroom wall off Exit 7 by your uncle’s house (No: the other uncle).

Check it out on Amazon or Gumroad (if you want non-Kindle formats).

If you want a paper copy have a friend read it to you and write down everything they say.

Close to the Machine

The Computer Industry – specifically Software Development – is not at all a nostalgic profession; we regularly rebuild entire cities ignoring the lessons of past builders because the types of bricks have changed.

As part of a personal challenge to read a book a week this year I stumbled upon Ellen Ullman and Close to the Machine and found myself nodding my head with every page. The book was published in 1997 which was an age ago in my industry and her insight on working from home as a consultant rings quite true to my experience.

First, life as a remote worker:

In the afternoons, I see us virtuals emerge blinking into the sunlight. In the dead hours after 3 PM, we haunt cafes and local restaurants. We run into each other at the FedEx drop-box or the copy shop. They, like me, have a freshly laundered look, just come out of pajamas or sweat pants, just showered and dressed.

I recognize my virtual colleagues by their overattention to little interactions with waiters and cashiers, a supersensitivity that has come from too much time spent alone. We’ve been in a machine-mediated world—computers and e-mail, phones and faxes—and suddenly we’re in a world where people lumber up and down the steps of buses, walk in and out of stores, have actual in-person conversations. All this has been going on while I was in another universe: that’s what comes to us with a force like the too-bright sun or a stiff wind off the bay. We do our business, drop off the overnight packet, clip together the xeroxes, and hurry home.

On the day to day life of working alone:

Living a virtual life is an art. Like all arts, virtuality is neither consistent nor reliable. It takes a certain firmness of will, and a measure of inspiration, to get up each and every day and make up your existence from scratch. As every artist knows, every writer and homebound mother, if you are not careful, your day—without boundaries as it is—can just leak away. Sundown can find all your efforts puddled around you, everything underway, nothing accomplished.

And finally on the role of the programmer class in overall society:

In this sense, we virtual workers are everyone’s future. We wander from job to job, and now it’s hard for anyone to stay put anymore. Our job commitments are contractual, contingent, impermanent, and this model of insecure life is spreading outward from us. I may be wrong, but I have this idea that we programmers the world’s canaries. We spend our time alone in front of monitors; no look up at any office building, look into living-room windows at night: so many people sitting alone in front of monitors. We lead machine-centered lives; now everyone’s life is full of automated tellers, portable phones, pagers, keyboards, mice. We live in a contest of the fittest, where the most knowledgeable and skillful win and the rest are discarded; and this is the working life that waits for everybody. Everyone agrees: be a knowledge worker or be left behind. Technical people, consultants, contract programmers: we are going first. We fly down and down, closer and closer to the virtualized life, and where we go the world follows.

If the above sounds interesting I’d recommend Close to the Machine, but I believe that her true masterpiece is The Bug which is a wonderfully insightful look at the horror of debugging. and the darkest sides of team dynamics.

You Need a Don’t Do List

Most people agree that a “to do list” is a great way to track work tasks whether it be shopping lists or work lists or people that you need to tickle this week. But for most workers, especially those that work from home, you also need a Don’t Do List.

This is a simple list of behaviors that you know can ruin your workday. In addition to the obvious things like ‘Watch TV’ or ‘Open up without a plan’ there are some more subtle ‘don’t do’ items that you need to identify and make a plan to avoid.

But first let’s list the relatively obvious ones for a telecommuter:

Don’t Do:

  • Watch TV during the workday (even at lunch)
  • Play video games.
  • Browse reddit,,,,
  • Snack when you aren’t hungry.
  • Check your email. (Stop and acknowledge that checking email is essentially saying “I want more work and stress now”)

Now the more subtle emotional ones:

Don’t Do:

  • Get discouraged.
  • Prefer fake work.
  • Avoid the really hard important tasks.
  • Respond too quickly to an email that frustrated you.
  • Panic.

Everyone’s personal don’t do list is different and will shift over time. There was a time when I could work and listen to podcasts but then I realized it got to be too distracting, so it moved from my bag of tricks into my don’t do list.

Some items you can’t avoid doing altogether but have to manage as ongoing tensions. One of these for me is distractions caused by my family. I know that each day at least once I will be taken away from my normal level of concentration (that of a tiger watching the zookeeper put the string on a piece of raw beef) by some noise of a kid picking the lock to my office to use my printer or a kid throwing mud at my office window.

So my “don’t do” list is simply to not let this stuff bother me. I mitigate this risk with my attitude.  All other items I simply put in a box to do be done later; I don’t do them so that I can get the real work done consistently.


I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Fake Work

We have all been there – you are busy all day but as the day ends you still haven’t done The One Thing that you really should have finished today. What were you doing all day? Fake work. You fell into the trap of fake work.

From Paul Graham’s post on Self Indulgence:

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

Characteristics of Fake Work

  • Its easier than real work (this is why we prefer it)
  • It isn’t obvious to people that you are doing it (fake work is rarely publishable / shippable)
  • It doesn’t pass the following gauntlet of tests:
    1. If I did this all day how would I feel at the end of the day? Does it feel good in the short-term only?
    2. Can I justify it to a coworker? (“Well these files need to be organized by color name in Spanish so that we can get to them rapidamente next time”)
    3. Is this defensive or offensive?

Some examples

  • Your computer says it needs to restart, and you restart it shortly after. “When it restarts I might as well see if any apps need updating as well on my phone”.
  • You know the hotkey for your “get new email” in your email client. (I mean really)
  • Organizing your todo list.
  • Refactoring code is non complex ways.
  • Trying out a new writing application or messing around with new fonts.
  • Organizing your email.
  • Reading blog posts, especially those mildly related to The Important Task That Must Be Done.
  • Over-formatting presentations, spreadsheets, etc.
  • Cleaning your office.


There are times that you need to read blog posts or clean your office. In fact one of my favorite productivity hacks is to do *something* when I’m feeling procrastination creeping up on me. I will intentionally clean my office as a break with the intention of returning to full strength afterwards. The trick is to not let doing *something* ruin doing the *one most important thing* that must be done.

Final Note

The main issue with fake work is that you could be working on the right things in the wrong place. Do you care about the problem? Are you digging in the right place? This is a complex personal question, but make sure you have an answer.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Review of Ghost of my Father By Scott Berkun

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read The Ghost Of My Father after I bought it.

When I follow authors blindly I tend to read a series of very similar books so I’ve shied away from it recently. But I read Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, and The Year Without Pants and loved the way his clear thinking came through on such diverse topics. I was also interested to see how he would handle something as messy as relationships and family dynamics.  I have a direct interest in writer’s that go deeply personal as well; it is courageous to me.

So I backed his Kickstarter at the minimum level but not without fear that I’d never actually read it.

My fears were:

  • Reading the book would be sad so I would never read it; much like you are never in the “mood” to watch Schindler’s List.
  • It would be like reading someone’s personal journal; memoirs sometimes feel like they are written for people close by and not for you.
  • That it would be irrelevant to me as I don’t have the same type of relationship with my father (no family is perfect of course).
  • That the book was about actual ghosts and the whole thing was a big pump fake; I hate horror stories.

I was pleasantly surprised that the ghosts were not real. There were certainly moments in the book that were quite sad; to watch a family tear apart from old settled tensions is painful even if you don’t know them. The timeline and writing was crisp and easy to follow as a reader (this is quite an accomplishment with this type of book in my view – the book jumped back and forth through time but built to a conclusion steadily).

Even though they might be obvious the book provided lessons for me as a father of four:

  • Fathers are important and the confidence (even interest) of a father in his children is crucial.
  • Keep communication open and honest; it will be painful but is the only way to move forward.
  • ‘Checking out’ or starting a feud is not really possible in a family; they will always be there and it causes pain on all sides as long as it lasts.
  • People’s weaknesses depend on others weaknesses.
  • Sarcasm’s effects on children is hit or miss; it tends to hurt more so deploy it carefully.
  • Stay away from Australia. (Not really)

I am quite glad that I read The Ghost Of My Father and feel like it will be a book that makes an impact; I will continue digesting it over time I am sure.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Beginner’s Guide to Working from Home

Here is my quick and dirty guide for someone who has just started working from home (or remotely or telecommute, etc.). These tips are in order of importance; first up:

Give yourself a month before making big changes

I’d suggest giving yourself a month-long trial period in which you carefully note how it is going and don’t make huge changes to your normal workflow. If you get dressed up for work I’d do that the first week at home. If you don’t have a TV in your office at work then don’t put one in your home office; if you don’t typically work standing up I wouldn’t jump into this hardcore at first, etc. Just working from home will be change enough and you can play with the increased flexibility and extra time once you prove that you can still be effective. One of the benefits of working from home is that you can do crazy things that aren’t socially acceptable at some offices that actually increase your effectiveness (naps, listen to music loudly, working outside, wearing what you want to wear, exercising at odd times, not shaving, wearing an eye patch, etc.). Save these for later.

Separate work from home

Keep set hours that work for you to prevent checking email at 8PM and other forms of sad insanity.  Build a separate office space. Take time in the morning and the afternoon to perform silly little routines that remind your body and mind that you are switching modes (like changing shoes Mr. Rogers style or moon-walking from your home office into your living room):

Proper Re-entry: How To End Your Day

Set expectations with your family (or anybody you live with)

Working from home puts a bit of stress on others if they are home at all during the day. Let them know what to expect:

Managing Your Significant Other When Working from Home

Realize that you need structure

Even if your role has a lot of creative alone time you will find you need more structure to your day as the natural bookends of in-person conversations and your commute leave a vacuum. Try different techniques to track what you are doing until you find some system that gets you moving and keeps you there even if you are a bit more disconnected physically. I recommend starting with the Pomodoro Technique and also tracking what you did each day with iDoneThis.

Keep from going insane


Try to work some from your office, a co-working spot, or at a coffeeshop where you know a few people. Generally track your level of insanity; take breaks; talk to people; go eat lunch, and have fun.

How to work from home without going insane (purple monkey dishwasher)

Good Luck.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Thought Experiment: How working from home might change the world (a little bit)

Bv-HqX0IgAARocQIn 2010 only 4.3% of the US workforce worked at home the majority of the time; that number is now up between 47% and 180% depending on which survey you read (and whether you include the self-employed, government workers, or cats)

Let’s just imagine for a few moments that 25% of the current US workforce started working from home full-time. How would that change the things?

  • People who work from home drive significantly less. (I have been trying for years to get rid of our second car and we are almost able to – if we had about 80 less kids I would be able to)  Effects: less gas usage, better environment, less Hyundais.
  • People who work from home wear the clothes they want to wear and shoes that are comfortable and do little dry cleaning. (Apart from my mariachi outfit I haven’t been in a dry cleaners for years)  Effects: I’m not sure what is going to be on the end of every sad shopping mall if there aren’t any dry cleaners.
  • People who work from home are more involved in their children’s day-to-day lives. (The “mystery reader” isn’t as much of a mystery sometimes at school – its one of the “work from home” losers who stumble in having just taking a shower for the first time in this daylight savings period)  Effect: better kids, more showers.
  • People who work from home stay within their communities more which can lead to great things like more volunteering, less hollow suburbs, more active local government involvement as well as scary things like a desire to run for HOA president or letter-writing campaigns about how there isn’t a Whole Foods nearby)(On a personal level this has caused me to shop at more local businesses and move away from chains [not gold chains – I will wear those 4 life])  Effect: all sorts of great things.
  • People who work from home commit (less) workplace harassment and workplace violence.
  • People who work from home do not use “business level” office supplies but use their personal computers, phones, printers, pens, toilet paper, coffee, etc. (We do not need those Cisco phones that look like they cost $800 each and handle 8-way calling, have 5 active lines, and look like they were designed by someone with a grey-tone fetish)  Effects: people who sell expensive toilet paper go out of business.
  • People who work from home do look for “offsite” locations to work and thus frequent coffeeshops, restaurants, and essentially any place with a table, a chair, and free wifi to the point of direct absurdity. (Note to funeral homes: please never offer free Wifi)  Effect: More Dunkin’ Donuts.

My daughter designed my perfect home office in Minecraft

Children notice more than you think. It has been a difficult two weeks with the kids out of school  due to “snow” and a winter break so the work/life harmony is a bit more chaotic than normal. I have gotten frustrated with them at times (especially yesterday when I found all four in my office looting it slowly).

My (middle) daughter (who is 5) must have picked up on this because last night showed me a home office that she made for me in Minecraft so I can “get quiet when you talk to people and type and read stuff”.  So it turns out she knows the nature of my work (which is just typing and reading I guess).  She also knows that I need:

  • Quiet.
  • Space close to but far away from the family.

Its in a flat world and the office is at the top of a tower with a lobby that you enter first:



You then “say your name to the guard and they let you in or kick you out” (when she showed it to me the guard had a large sword just in case there was trouble):




If you are granted entrance you have to climb (she says you aren’t allowed to fly there) to get to the office itself:


Its quite a climb to the top:


Up in the office I have some bookshelves:


A computer with plenty of light nearby:


And a great view:


outsideIt is amazing to me that she was perceptive enough to realize what I wanted and took the time to build it.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; signup if you want to know when it is complete.

Staying Productive: Take Real Breaks and Keep away from Ace of Base

My productivity tip of the day is pretty simple and exists in two parts:

Take real breaks; and always know when you are on a break.

Know when you are on a break

If you are building a chair its pretty obvious when you aren’t building the chair. Like if you look down and you aren’t in your workshop or near any wood then you probably are taking a break.

On a computer it isn’t that obvious. You can be working along and suddenly find yourself on the Wikipedia page for Ace of Base and not remember what brought you there. You were tired or hit a wall of fear or doubt or boredom and just opened up your web browser. You were on a mental break unintentionally. Instead plan your breaks ahead of time and push through these times. Use Pomodoro or whatever flavor of GTD or focus techniques that you like to keep working when you are working.

Take a Real Break

Well then what’s a real break?

The goal of a break is for you to not work for a bit and come back fresh to work more after.  Its a small investment for clarity and endurance.

A real break:

  1. Is away from the computer screen (or the loom if you work with a loom)
  2. In some way takes your mind away from the immediate.
  3. Occupies your mind in some other way.
  4. Is of a length where you can come back and keep working easily.

Away from computer screen

Your eyes get tired, your liver gets tired, everything gets tired. Time away from the screen resolves this quickly.  (Not the liver part)

Takes your mind away from immediate

I would not recommend thinking of work-related things as taking a break. Reading a technical blog while you take a break from computer programming is not as good as reading a magazine or skeet-shooting on your break. Do something different.

Occupies your mind

There is this myth that you can “veg-out” in front of the TV to unwind, but this does not really work. Working on your own is all about maintaining a productive momentum so I would recommend doing something with your mind (like reading or a puzzle or equivalent) or completely not using your mind like walking or taking a shower rather than doing something passive like TV watching.

Is of the right length

This varies per person, time of day, and moon cycle but for me this is typically 10 – 30 minutes.

With those criteria here are some examples of bad breaks:

  • Building a barn. (takes too long even with help from the other villagers)
  • Going to see all the Twilight movies. (too long; also they must be terrible)
  • Opening up a new tab and randomly growing reddit or equivalent. (does not actively engage your mind, is at computer)
  • Watching YouTube videos at random. (at computer, soul-crushing)
  • Getting into fights about stuff over the Internet. (at computer, does not occupy your mind)

Here are some example of good breaks:

  • Going for a walk.
  • Washing all the dishes in the sink.
  • Drawing a small picture of a tree with a money in it. The monkey has a telescope and is looking at you.
  • Smoking a cigarette. (unfortunately)
  • Brewing and then drinking tea.

My personal favorite technique

I am literate.


My personal favorite break technique is to read one “American-style” short story. These are typically 20 pages long and establish a character or idea in that length. They take about 30 minutes to read and completely take your mind away from whatever you are doing. I read them away from my computer but near it (sometimes it is necessary for me to keep headphones on in case there is an emergency). This technique clears all my requirements above and has lead me to read all sorts of great stories. By the time I’m done I am “back”, my mind and eyes are rested, and I am ready to work.

*I know that the term “veg-out” means act-like-a-vegetable and not move, but it blocks the term from being used when you eat a huge salad.  Barbecue Ribs don’t move either, it should be “Rib-out” because they don’t move and you don’t move after them.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

One man trying to bring high fashion back into computer programming.