The Best Books I Read In 2022

This is my annual book review. See prior versions here: 2021, 2020201920162015, and all time. For the full list of books I read this year, visit my Goodreads account.

I read 22 books in 2022, nearly all non-fiction. My reading process is still akin to the process I described in the 2020 review. I read primarily on Kindle, so I can export highlights to Readwise, an app that sends me a daily summary of Kindle highlights, serving me insights from books I’ve previously read. After I finish a book, I write a summary and post it to Goodreads. If a book is particularly insightful, I’ll write down some facts that I add to Anki, an app for spaced repetition, to increase knowledge retention.

Here are my six favorite books of 2022:

The Wizard and the Prophet

This book was recommended to me by Seth Godin. It highlights two archetypal approaches to sustainability. The wizard believes technology and innovation will save humanity—think solar panels, battery-powered flight, and genetically-engineered crops. The prophet, in contrast, believes that the only way to stay within planetary boundaries is to consume less. The author, Charles C. Mann, sketches out these archetypes by telling the history of agriculture, energy, water, and materials in the 20th century.

While I’ve been thinking about sustainability for the last 15 years, this book provided a new lens to look at the issues I work on. I especially enjoyed learning more about sustainability in agriculture, including the history of the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased the production of food and is seen by some as humanity’s greatest innovation.

To me, a hallmark of a good book is that I think and talk about it often after finishing it. That was certainly the case for The Wizard and The Prophet. I used the framework of wizard versus prophet in many conversations this year. While in my daily work I am primarily a wizard, in truth, both sides of the spectrum have merit. (Take, for example, hydroelectric dams: on the one hand, they produce zero-carbon power, a necessity to mitigate climate change; on the other, they block salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream to their mating grounds.)  

I read two books on related topics. Vaclav Smil’s How We Got Here covers similar ground but from a more factual perspective. I haven’t finished it but may include it in next year’s list. Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is a fantasy fiction book that uses a similar polarity between a wizard and a prophet (which she calls witch). I’d highly recommend all three books.  

From Silk to Silicon

I enjoy books that include multiple biographies. They offer a lower time investment than reading a full book on a single individual and lead me to learn about people I wouldn’t have otherwise read a book about, thereby expanding my “known unknowns”. As examples, Doris Kearns Goodwin Leadership tells the story of four U.S. Presidents and James Martin’s My Life with the Saints gives a brief introduction to more than a dozen Christian saints.

In From Silk to Silicon, Jeffrey Garten tells the story of globalization through the lives of ten individuals, from Genghis Khan to Andy Grove. I enjoyed most chapters of this book, but I especially enjoyed the chapter on Jean Monnet and the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC), a precursor to the European Union, and the chapter on Cyrus Field, the entrepreneur who first connected Europe and the U.S. by telegraph by laying an oceanic telegraph cable.

The Founders

In what appears to be a great basis for a Netflix series (akin to Succession or WeCrashed), the Founders covers the founding story of Paypal. As an entrepreneur, reading about the pace set by the Paypal founders was exhilarating. For example, I loved reading a passage in which Mike Moritz, a legendary investor at Sequoia, sends a candidate to Elon Musk. Musk conducts a phone screen. The candidate closes by saying, “I’d love to visit you next time I’m in the Bay”, to which Musk responds, “No. You need to fly here tomorrow.” He speaks with Musk for a few hours late that night and signs his offer the next morning at 8am. Incredible. There are many such stories in the book, and I’d recommend it to any tech entrepreneur.

The Choice

In this gripping book, Dr. Edith Eger tells the story of how she survived the Holocaust (including Auschwitz), the imprint this experience left on her, and how she healed herself over the course of her life. The book’s main purpose is to help readers “escape the prisons of our own minds”.

As Philip Zimbardo puts it in the foreword: “Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.”

The author’s story and the book’s main message (don’t ask “why me?” but “what now?”) resemble that of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a lifelong mentor to and friend of Eger.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a teaching professor of biology at SUNY and a member of an indigenous American tribe—the Potawatomi Nation. Her writing flows from the pages like water. It’s some of the most beautiful I’ve read. Each chapter of this book tells a short story about Kimmerer’s relationship to nature. I especially loved the chapter Three Sisters, in which she describes the symbiosis between corn, squash, and beans. The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb up to the sun. The squash covers the ground, reducing the evaporation of water from the soil. The beans fix nitrogen, providing critical nutrients to the other two crops. Planting these three crops together forms a truly regenerative process. I read this before going to bed, planning to read a few pages, and inadvertently reading a chapter (or two) because the writing is so soothing.

The Beginning of Infinity

This book isn’t an easy read, but it’s very rewarding. David Deutsch is an Oxford physics professor. At its core, the book makes an argument for unbounded human progress, so long as we rely on the philosophy of fallibility: the belief that problems will arise, but that they are soluble, and that we ought to always look for errors in our thinking and then correct them. Deutsch covers much ground, explaining for example why the Roman numerals were a bounded system but the decimal system is not, and why the Athenians were better positioned than the Spartans when it relates to learning and improving.

The Best Books I Read In 2021

In 2021, I read 25 books, roughly one every two weeks, mostly non-fiction. In this blog, I share some of my favorites, like I’ve done in previous years (2020, 2019, 2016, 2015, and all time.) If you want to see all the books I read this year, check out my Goodreads account

What does it mean for me to consider a book great? I’ve come to see it mostly means that the book’s message resonated with me, finding me at the right time. To help you decide if you should pick up any of the books below, I’ve added a few sentences on why I found each book helpful. 

Eight Dates

This was the most useful book I read this year. Written by relationship psychologists John and Julie Gottman, it’s a workbook meant to deepen connection with your romantic partner. It provides recipes for eight distinct dates, each covered in a separate chapter. Each chapter goes into a certain topic — e.g. sexuality, money, family, values — and provides a set of questions and prompts that help you and your partner have an intimate conversation. While the book itself or the topics weren’t particularly surprising, doing the eight dates was transformative. I gave copies to at least 5 other couples and would highly recommend it.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

This was another book that impacted my day-to-day life. It’s a cookbook that’s not a list of recipes. Instead, it dives into the physics and chemistry of cooking, using a four-part framework: salt, fat, acid, and heat. The book helped me better understand what was happening to the food I was preparing. For example, why to add vinegar to water before poaching eggs (it helps the proteins coagulate), why to add mustard to dressings (oil and vinegar don’t go together, so you need an emulsifier), and why to add wait until frying oil is hot before adding foods to the pan (frying oil is not meant for seasoning but texture). 

The Gene

This is a sweeping tome that summarizes the last century or so of progress in understanding how genetic information determines who we are. It’s written beautifully by Sidhhartha Mukherjee, who won a Pullitzer for his book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.

I am fascinated by past and expected progress in biology. This book explains biology’s progress through the lens of the progress made by different scientists, starting with Mendel and Darwin. At nearly 500 dense pages it requires attentive reading, but I found it to be absolutely worthwhile. The final few chapters consider the ethical impact of gene editing, in which Mukherjee takes the zoomed-out view that I enjoy in the writing of writers like Yuval Noah Harari or Jared Diamond. 

The Book of Joy 

This beautiful book captures a week-long dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the topic of Joy. Both men inspire me: their zest for life, their ability to laugh in the face of hardship, and their unbounded compassion. 

I listened to this as an audiobook. While the Audible version is not a true recording of the conversation, it had good voice actors. You can easily listen to this book piecemeal, which makes it a good book to digest on the go. 

Ministry for the Future 

This is the best novel I read this year. Written by a science fiction author, this book is all about the possible disastrous impact of climate change and what might be done to drive action sooner. The author, Kim Stanley Robinson, introduces a variety of intriguing technology and policy ideas. For example, could we halt the speed of glacial melt by removing meltwater stuck between the Antarctic rock bed and the glaciers? Can central banks play a role in accelerating carbon sequestration? This is a must-read for anyone working on climate change. 

E-Myth Revisited

This was the best business book I read this year. In it, Michael Gerber explains how to build a large, scalable enterprise. The first part of the book suggests each founder embodies three roles: an Entrepreneur, a Manager, and a Technician. Gerber explains that all founders have to play the role of Technician in a company’s early days, but then fail to let go of this role as a company grows, which hinders further growth. He shows people how to let go, learning to work *on* the business, not *in* the business. This mental shift strongly resonated and I found practical wisdom in the lessons described.

2022 Plans

I’m always looking for books that can transform. What books have most influenced you? Please leave a comment or send me an email. Thank you!

The Best Books I Read In 2020

I read 25 books in 2020. I made a few changes to my reading process, meant to increase retention and stimulate new ideas.

First, I have started to use Readwise. Once you give it access to your Kindle, Readwise will send you a daily selection of your personal Kindle highlights. It’s a joy to revise quotes from books read years ago. Often, I read an interesting highlight and open up the book in the Kindle app to read a few pages or a chapter. I also love the Readwise app—it allows you to add highlights from print books using your camera. You can also sync Readwise with Instapaper or Feedly, if you use those for reading and highlighting articles.

Second, I have started to synthesize key points I’d like to remember by writing down questions. I then add these questions and answers to Anki, a flashcard application that “makes remembering things easy”. Anki uses spaced repetition, a technique to determine when a certain flashcard should be resurfaced to maximize recall. This setup was inspired by Michael Nielsen’s article Augmenting Long-Term Memory.

Third, I have started to post short reviews of books to Goodreads. This was prompted by a conversation with a close friend, who simply sent me a link to his Goodreads account when I asked him about his favorite books. This allowed me to see all books he’d read, including his ratings. Check out my Goodreads to see what I’ve been reading.

On to my top reads of the year.

Leadership in Turbulent Times

This was one of my favorite books of the year. Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles the ascent to power of four US Presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Francis Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and Lyndon Johnson. It was fascinating to learn about the types of leadership these men displayed and to reflect which resonated. I liked Lincoln’s use of stories and parables. FDR’s aspirational leadership also resonated—setting forth a big, bold idea and then letting others solve it. For those interested in US history not ready to read four separate biographies, I highly recommend this book.

The Secret of Our Success

Recommended in Matt Clifford’s splendid newsletter, this is a far-reaching book about humans. In it, Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, makes the case that what sets humans apart is our propensity for cultural learning. In contrast to other species, most of what we learn to survive is not encoded in our genes—it is learnt by studying other individuals once we’re born. Stitching together decades of field research, this book is full of fascinating facts, such as why orcas have menopause; how blue and green eyes developed as the result of an agriculture revolution; and how a tribe of aboriginals was able to find a watering hole hundreds of miles away by singing an ancient song. If you loved Harari’s Sapiens, this is a must read.

7 Powers

After reading Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, I was hungry for more. Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, writes in the foreword that this is the only strategy book he takes seriously. In the book, Helmer identifies seven forces that can provide a company with a strategic position. These range from well-known forces—such as economies of scale—to lesser-known forces—such as counter-positioning. Helmer illustrates each power through examples from his career as an investor, using anecdotes about companies like Intel, Kodak, Vanguard, Tiffany’s, and Toyota. I often try to apply Helmer’s 7 forces framework.

Scary Close

Recommended by an old friend, this book by Don Miller is about intimacy and vulnerability. Miller tells the story of how he learned to build true relationships. It’s a deeply resonating personal tale about what it takes to be vulnerable. In one especially powerful chapter, Miller explains that often our professional identity is shaped by early childhood experiences. One person notices something that we are good at and expresses their appreciation. Since we desperately want to feel seen, that early appreciation leads us to excel in the activity, turning it into part of our identity.


A Pullitzer Prize winner, The Overstory is all about trees. The book starts with seven separate stories that are woven together over the course of the book into a single quest about halting deforestation and logging. The book is beautifully written. I especially loved the lessons about trees and plants. Reactions to this book by my friends are mixed—some think it’s boring and too slow, others love it. If you’re curious to learn more about trees and enjoy a well-written and long novel, I’d give it a go.


A collection of short science fiction stories written by Chinese-American author Ted Chiang, the stories in this book will certainly blow your mind. If you read and enjoyed Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (which I also read this year), I’d highly recommend this book. For a more detailed review, see this New Yorker article.

What books have you most enjoyed this year? I’d love to hear from you.

The Best Books I read in 2019

I actively made time to read this year, which allowed me to finish about a book a week. Here is my top 5 of the year.

If you are looking for more recommendations, I would highly recommend perusing Steward Brand’s list and Brian Eno’s list of books most essential for sustaining humanity; Patrick Collison’s bookshelf; and some of the books recommended by Charlie Munger.

The Weather Machine, by Andrew Blum

In this short, riveting book, Blum sheds light on the history of weather forecasting. He opens the book with an anecdote on how the first leaps in weather forecasting were made with the advent of steam-powered trains and later the telegraph, enabling information about the weather to travel faster than the weather itself. In the book, Blum details the history of weather satellites; the weather models run on supercomputers; and the strategic alliances between most global nations to freely exchange data from weather satellites—a practice now coming under pressure. This New Yorker article provides a helpful review.

The Power Brokers, by Jeremiah Lambert

Similar to The Weather Machine, I picked up The Power Brokers because it is connected to our business. The Power Brokers tells the roughly 150-year long history of the U.S. electricity system through the lens of seven historic characters—Sam Insull, David Lilienthal, Don Hodel, Paul Joskow, Ken Lay, Amory Lovins, Jim Rogers. Although I was familiar with most of this history before reading the book, the author did a stellar job at providing an engrossing, fact-packed narrative. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Paul Joskow, which details the shift from vertically integrated utilities to wholesale power markets with competitive generation and retail and the corresponding rise of ISOs and RTOs. Another great book on energy I read this year was Russell Gold’s “Superpower”, a biography of Michael Skelly, the co-founder of Clean Line Energy Partners. I found Skelly’s story inspiring yet disturbing, illuminating the challenges of building high-voltage power transmission across state borders.

The Secret Network of Nature, by Peter Wohlleben

This book is part of a trilogy that was made famous by the New York Times. In it, the German forester Wohlleben describes in vivid detail the astonishing connections that are bountiful in nature. Drawing his examples primarily from German forests, an ecosystem I am familiar with, Wohlleben fills page after page with jaw-dropping anecdotes about the complex relationships in forests. For example, did you know that some types of ants derive the majority of their nutrition from aphids, small sap-sucking insects that produce honeydew from deciduous trees? This is a wonderful book to bring along for a weekend in nature and can easily be read one chapter at a time. In the same spirit of this book, I would recommend Patagonia’s documentary Treeline, which tells the story of trees on our planet.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Related to Peter Wohlleben’s book, this is the only fiction entry on this list. The story is set on the planet of New Tahiti, many centuries into the future. The story centers around a human race with interstellar presence using other planets to harvest resources, since Earth itself has been plundered. On New Tahiti, a planet covered entirely by forest, humans encounter a seemingly weak race of animals roughly half the size of humans, so-called Athseans. Humans force the Athseans into indentured servitude to help log the forests. Events take a turn after humans destroy most of the forest on this planet and the Athseans start a violent resistance. This story is a cautionary tale for how things can go awfully wrong when a species operates from a destructive, self-centered, disconnected perspective.

The New Paradigm Handbook, by Dani Katz

This short book—you can read the entire thing in two hours—was one of the books with the most immediate impact on me this year. Gifted to me by a dear friend, this book makes the case for the use of very direct language. Katz convincingly demonstrates how simple changes in how we speak, write, and think can drastically influence what we manifest.



How I learned to edit DNA in less than a day


In the movie GATTACA, Ethan Hawke’s parents visit a doctor’s office to choose the embryo of their second child. They have a choice between four babies—two boys, two girls—each of which has been engineered to perfection. As the doctor says: “[These embryos have] no predispositions to any major inheritable diseases. All that remains is to select the most compatible candidate.”

Gattaca_Visit_To_Doctor_OffidceScreenshot from GATTACA

GATTACA was produced in 1997. Although we can’t yet choose our child’s intelligence by modifying its embryo, gene editing has come a long way since. We have sequenced the entire human genome. We have discovered how to write biological material like software.

I expect biological engineering to be one of the most important technological advances in my lifetime, so I wanted to learn how it works in practice.

Fortunately for me, New York City has a community biolab called Genspace. Community biolabs are labs at which ordinary citizens can learn about and work on biotechnology. After taking an introductory course in biotechnology in November 2017, I signed up for a course in gene editing this February. The technique we would use is called CRISPR-Cas9.

What is CRISPR–Cas9?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing technology inspired by nature. CRISPRs—short strips of genetic code—are part of a defense method that bacteria have developed to protect themselves from intruding viruses. When a virus intrudes into a bacterial cell, a protein inside the bacterial cell can identify the virus (using CRISPRs) and cut it in two, disabling the virus.

In 2012, scientists at UC Berkeley first successfully modified this method to target a custom, programmed gene sequence. In 5 years since, CRISPR has proliferated, so much so that you can buy do-it-yourself CRISPR kits online.

The first two minutes of this video by MIT explain the mechanism well.

What did I do in my course?

The goal of the course was to modify yeast’s DNA. Yeast naturally looks white; we had to color it red and make it green fluorescent under ultraviolet light.

This metamorphosis consisted of two steps. First, we had to disable the gene that made the yeast look white (if this gene was not expressed, the yeast would look red instead). Second, we had to add new DNA to the yeast that would make it green fluorescent. CRISPR-Cas9 can do both—disable existing genes by cutting them and inserting new genes by adding new nucleotides.

To do this, I must have been a biology expert, right? Far from it. I took 3 years of high school bio and never did serious lab work. I did not take any biology after the age of 14—I could barely remember that animal cells have a nucleus and bacterial cells don’t. Now I was going to modify the DNA of a living organism? Yes.

So how would I turn our standard white yeast into a red-and-green, disco-loving creature?

White to Red

White_to_RedOur goal was to turn yeast from its natural white color (left) to red (right). Photo courtesy of Will Shindel, Genspace’s instructor.

We had to cut the gene that turns the yeast white. The cutting of DNA is done by the Cas9 protein. This protein must be instructed to go after the right target—in this case, the yeast’s gene that gives it its white color. To instruct the Cas9 protein (think of this as the scissors) we had to add a piece of guide RNA. Guide RNA is like a barcode: it tells the Cas9 protein what sequence of DNA to look for, and once it finds it, the Cas9 protein will make the cut. So, in addition to the Cas9 protein (the scissors), we had to add guide RNA (the barcode).

Minutes 1:50 to 2:50 of the same MIT video explain this process of cutting existing genes using Cas9 proteins (scissors) tailored with guide RNA (barcodes).

Using CRISPR-Cas9, you can now modify this process to go after any genetic code you like by modifying the barcode.

Amazon meets Biotech

CRISPR_directScreenshot of CRISPRdirect, a website that helps you to identify the guide RNA sequence with the highest likelihood of cutting your gene successfully.

How do you create the barcode? This part is fascinating. You simply search on Google for the gene of the organism you want to modify—in our case, the gene in yeast that gives it its white color. (The gene is called ADE2). You then download the gene’s DNA code—a series of letters A, T, C, and G—and paste it into Snapgene, a simple program that helps you read the DNA more easily. You then past the DNA code into CRISPRdirect, to identify the guide RNA (the barcode) with the highest likelihood of cutting the DNA properly, and then order the guide RNA (the barcode) using a website like IDT. At that instant, machines will start whizzing hundreds of miles away to synthesize the genetic code that you just submitted through a form on a website. The RNA is delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours.


Introducing the scissors and the barcode was enough to disable the yeast’s red color. But changing white to red was only half our goal.

Special Effects, Please

The second step was to make the yeast glow bright green. To do this, we had to add extra genetic materials.

After the Cas9 protein (scissors) cut the yeast’s DNA at the site instructed by the guide RNA (barcode), the yeast’s DNA two strands (double helix, remember?) will naturally try to heal. This is when you can introduce new genetic material into the DNA.

The trick is to hide the new, foreign DNA in other genetic materials that the yeast recognizes as naturally occurring. It’s a bit like hiding your dog’s medicine inside his food, hoping that he will eat the medicine unknowingly by finishing his food.

We wanted to add new material to code for our green fluorescent gene. This material was a series of 1510 nucleotides. (Nucleotides are single molecules that humans codify by the letters A, C, G, or T, which stands for the molecules Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine.) To both ends of the new gene that would lead to green fluorescence, we added DNA that matched both sides of the cut in yeast’s DNA. Normally, after a cut, the two strands of yeast DNA will naturally heal back in their own place, as explained in the previous video. However, when enough “repair material” is present in the yeast’s cell, the yeast’s DNA will heal instead by connecting with this new repair material. As a consequence, you have now successfully inserted a little bit of new DNA into the yeast’s original code.

Repair_TemplateThe blue, double strand is the original DNA; the purple, single strand of DNA is the inserted genetic material. This screenshot shows how the purple, new DNA is being connected with the outermost 4 base pairs onto the blue, original DNA.

In my mind, I compare this mechanism to how magnets work. The naturally recognized pieces of DNA that you add to both sides of the newly introduced gene (green fluorescent, in our case) are like magnets. These magnets were chosen to have a strong attraction to both sides of the cut of the original DNA. When the green fluorescent gene with magnets on both sides comes close to the original DNA cut by CRISPR-Cas9, the magnets on the side of the green fluorescent gene connect with both sides of the original DNA’s cut, and as a result, the updated yeast’s DNA now has a line of code that makes it green fluorescent.

Minutes 2:50 onward of the same MIT video explain the process of inserting new genetic materials into existing genes well.


A week after we added the cutting sequence (to cut the yeast’s ADE2 gene that made it look white) and the DNA that would make the yeast green fluorescent to the yeast, we returned to the lab to look at our results.

Our yeast colonies had replicated, and most samples showed red yeast instead of white yeast. Unfortunately, none of the colonies turned green fluorescent under UV light (despite what the image below seems to show—if the green fluorescent gene would have been adopted, the yeast colonies would have shown much greener).

Petri_Dishes_CRISPRPetri dishes with yeast colonies under UV light. The petri dish top-center and bottom-right show mold growth (this is contamination).

A possible reason why the green fluorescent gene was not integrated was that the ADE2 genes were indeed broken (hence the shift from white to red), but that they reconnected with a different sequence, and that therefore the green fluorescent protein (GFP) was not adopted.

Accessible Science

Now that I have edited live genes, what are my reflections?

It’s hard to believe that somebody with no deep background in biology can understand and learn how to edit DNA in less than a day. I don’t suggest that I have mastered the discipline—far from it, of course—but I have learned how to practice the basics.

The technologies used to modify DNA are relatively simple too. The tools used are relatively simple—either pipettes, to dose liquids, or devices that spin, heat, or cool the genetic material.

Will We Edit Human Embryos Soon?  

Chinese researchers have started to edit human embryos. And last summer, the United States followed suit, with the first American editing of a human embryo (using CRISPR-Cas9), see the video below. Like in GATTACA, will all babies soon be edited?


In the short term, I don’t think so. Our understanding of the human genome is too limited. We know how some genes code for some features, but we are far away from knowing what genes make you smart, tall, or strong. 23 and me, a service that synthesizes your DNA for $199, will tell you if your urine will smell after you eat asparagus, or if you’re likely to grow bald, but it will not tell you your IQ or whether you’re good at public speaking.

Our understanding of human genes is expanding rapidly though. Almost every issue of New Scientist reports on the discovery of a new gene. Stephen Hsu, VP of Research at Michigan State University, recently led a study that can predict the height a person will be within a 3 centimeter range based on the person’s DNA.

So as we learn more about genes, will we allow “editing” of humans?

I think the answer is yes. If you are the parent of a child that will be born with a terrible, hereditary disease, and it is possible to save your child from that suffering, would you not?

Even if some countries don’t allow it, others will. Wealthy people who care about giving their children the best possible genes will go to the countries that allow for gene editing and use the technique to modify their embryos.

Initially this will be done only to disable hereditary diseases. But what about modifying genes to upgrade ourselves: making our children more intelligent, better-looking, or stronger?

That will happen too. Practices will spring up in which the ultra-wealthy can “upgrade” their embryos. Some people will choose to do this, because the surest way to feel you’re leaving something for future generations is to improve the chances of your offspring being successful.

If you’re in that position, what would you do?


Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village


By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life


As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.


Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community


At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive


We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

From Aspen to NYC: reflections from 3 years in Colorado

Two weeks ago I moved from Colorado to New York City. I lived in the Aspen area for almost three years. Originally, I moved to Old Snowmass to work with Amory Lovins. I stayed for the beautiful mountains and the inspiring work and colleagues.

As I spend my first weeks walking the streets of New York, I wanted to capture some of my observations about the shift in my surroundings. (A post of lessons from working with Amory Lovins will follow soon!)


View of Manhattan from Queens

Connection to nature

Three years in Colorado have made me feel very connected to nature. Whether I’m out hiking alone or “skinning” up a mountain with friends on our way to a hut—being in nature makes me happy. I have always appreciated being outside, but Colorado has strongly increased that appreciation. As I meet new people in NYC, I even find myself describing my identity through all my past and future outdoor trips.

Luckily, I moved in with friends who share this deep appreciation for nature. Brendan Coffey, who generously offered me a room, mentioned during our first evening together that he wants to spend at least one day each weekend outside the city. What else could I wish for? I’m excited about upcoming expeditions to the Catskills, the Berkshires, and the Hamptons. That said, I will miss waking up with the sunrise, looking out over Mount Daly, Capitol Peak, and Mount Sopris as I make my breakfast.


View from my Old Snowmass house, which friends jokingly called “the house in the sky”

Interestingly, I notice that New York’s cityscapes convey a certain beauty too, particularly during early morning or late afternoon light.

Local community

I struggled to connect with a diverse network of people in Aspen, the way I had in Cambridge or Amsterdam. In NYC, this is changing noticeably—I am invited to countless interesting gatherings, and find myself lying in bed at night thinking about the wide array of people I met that day.

There is, however, a beauty to living in a small mountain town: you start to know everyone around you, at least by face or name. I knew most people I went to a yoga class with, I knew the local grocer, and I knew the barber. Living in a small community makes you feel that you’re there for one another other.

That said, I think building connection to your local community is possible in NYC too. It just requires a concerted effort. On a Sunday trip to Beacon, a small town about an hour outside of New York, I was inspired by a friend who introduced himself to employees at the local bakery, bike shop, and art studio. I notice that I can get to know strangers in NYC too, if I smile, ask for and listen to their personal story, and share some of mine.

Two key reasons I wanted to move to New York were to build community and to be part of a diverse, multicultural city. Both desires are already being fulfilled. Together with Brendan, I started a “Curious Conversations Club”—a monthly gathering with a group of friends to dive deep into a book or documentary discussing an important topic. To grow my contribution to a diverse, multicultural city, I plan to start actively volunteering for local causes.


Recent “three magi” dinner in Amsterdam, organized with Tim Manschot. This is exactly what I hope to create more of in NYC.

Life’s rhythm

One blessing of living in the Colorado Rockies is the very limited distraction around you. You can focus your days on just a few core activities. In NYC, you end up spending more time thinking planning your transport or choosing from an endless menu of food options.

However, I notice that it’s actually easier than expected to live a focused life in NYC. I am fortunate that my home is a 15-minute walk from the office. By having breakfast at home and lunch at the office, I don’t need to consider food options much. Regular exercise and daily walks also improve my ability to focus.

Also, being “alone in the mountains” may make it easier to focus, but I find that to be most productive, and to have more creative ideas, the brain also needs a lot of input. Exactly this is what I find in NYC. Following Stephen Johnson’s notion that good ideas come from lively interactions and bringing together diverse experiences, life in a big city may end up being more productive than life in a small mountain town.


This is what I’ll miss most…

A time for everything

I am stoked to be in NYC. I can’t wait to nurture deep friendships with the people around me, and I love exploring this amazing city. At the same time, I feel grateful for having spent three years in some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.

Very few people live in a place like Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley in their mid twenties. Colorado has given me a deep (I’d like to think lifelong) appreciation for the outdoors, and the mountains have helped me become more patient and feel at peace internally.

As Amory likes to joke: “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end yet!”


Where have you lived? What city or town do you remember most fondly? Do you want to spend the rest of your life in cities or in small towns? How do you choose where you want to live? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

The Best Books I read in 2016

Good books are a joy to read; great books make you a better person. Of the books I read in 2016, I would nominate the six below as good or even great.

Per book, I explain how it influenced my life, so that you can decide which are worth your time. If you’re interested in more book recommendations, have a look at “Books that Influenced my Life” and “The Best Books I read in 2015”.

What’s the best book you read this year? What’s the best book you ever read? Please share a book recommendation in the comments below.


1. Dune, by Frank Herbert

Frequently ranked as “best science fiction book of all times”, this story about a battle between extra-planetary noble houses trying to take control of a desert planet Arrakis is a page-turner. I finished this book in a week, spending many nights reading till deep in the night. The book is well-written and rich in narrative, touching on topics diverse as how to start new religions; how to manage international (or interstellar) relations; and how to preserve water in deserts. It’s a tale as rich as Star Wars, so good that I’d be happy to re-read it soon.

2. Road to Character, by David Brooks

People who have cultivated a deep and applied compassion inspire me. One of the best books I read in 2015 was My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, which profiles a dozen or so saints in a chapter each. NYT-columnist David Brook’s Road to Character is similar in structure.

David Brooks observes that in today’s Western societies, our media admire people who show grit, persistence, boldness, and courage. Think of famous entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and pop stars. However, when we look at the people who are most admired upon their deathbed, these are people who show a different set of virtues. Brooks contrasts today’s résumé virtues against eternal eulogy virtues, dedicating the book to profiling eight people who lived in the last two millennia—from St. Augustine to President Eisenhower—in the hope that it may inspire us all to be better. As Brooks writes in his introduction:

“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner coherence. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

Reading through the book, I found myself underlining constantly, making notes in the margins on almost every page. Re-reading my notes made it clear how much space we have to grow. This is a book I want to continue to return to, to remind myself how much work it takes to be a good person.

3. The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander

This book will make you shine like a lightbulb! In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, a social worker and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, share their philosophy of a life full of possibility. In each chapter, they illustrate a helpful maxim with lively stories. One example stands out: Ben Zander explains how he publicly announces at the start of a new class that each student will get an A, under one condition: they must write a letter to themselves, imagining they have finished the class, explaining what it is that made them deserve an A. By doing so, you can unleash the power of possibility and responsibility.

I first read this book in print, and later downloaded it as an audiobook. I’d listen to (part of) a chapter each morning on my way to work, which would often have a profound impact on how I’d go through my day. Highly recommended!

4. Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings young people of different religions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. I picked up his autobiography in Chicago this fall, after noticing the title years ago on my friend Ted Gonder’s booklist.

Patel’s short, highly readable biography filled me with inspiration about starting organizations that matter. Patel opened my mind to the reasons why youth are easily attracted to religious extremism, because it offers a clear path to a life mission and social status, things that every teenager craves for. He then suggests that the way to address religious extremism at its root is to offer young people alternative paths to meaning and social status, which he tries to do with his organization.

5. Structures (or Why Things Don’t Fall Down), by J.E. Gordon

Giles Holt recommended this lovely book. Reading Structures was a déjà vu back to my undergraduate civil engineering classes. Gordon, a very witty British professor, will make you learn something new on each page, such as how our quads compare to car springs, why birds have feathers on their wings, or why a piece of paper rips apart more easily once it has an initial cut. He strips structural engineering of its confusing terms, communicating it in vivid and witty prose through clear examples.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is curious to learn more about their physical environment (if you like this book, also consider Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on physics or Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life on cell biology). Although neither Structures nor Dune directly led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, they both brought many new perspectives and were absolutely a joy to read.

6. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight

I picked up Phil Knight’s autobiography three days ago and finished it this morning. This story, about the origins of Nike, reads like a high-speed train. Phil Knight, Nike’s cofounder, explains in detail and without much ego how he started to import Onitsuka Tigers from Japan, building a scrappy business from scratch in a time when venture capital, minimum viable product, and A/B testing did not exist. Knight’s story left me with a sense of the importance of having courage in your endeavors, and pursuing your crazy idea.

I already have a few must-read books on my list for next year: Value Investing by Guy Pierce, Gene by Siddharth Mukerjee, and Tolstoy by Henri Troyat. I will remind myself to read the classics. Which books should I add?

A Path to Enlightenment: Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat


I just returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the California Vipassana Center (CVC), in the style of S.N. Goenka. For 10 days, I took a vow of silence, meditating for 10 hours each day, starting my first daily meditation at 4.30am and ending the last at 9pm. It was without doubt the most formative experience for me this year. Why? Please read on.

The concept: an Art of Living

Vipassana is a meditation technique rediscovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. The technique was developed as “a universal remedy for universal ills”. Does that sound a little lofty? Let me explain.

Your mind has a habit to respond to external objects with craving or aversion. These cravings and aversions create suffering. For example, when you see a delicious pastry while standing in line at the coffee shop, but a customer ahead of you orders the last one, you suffer. When you miss the bus and are condemned to wait for the next one, while feeling miserable about the cold weather, you suffer.

Vipassana is a technique to unlearn these cravings and aversions, by accepting reality as it is. In Vipassana, you use the mind to observe sensations on the body without reacting to them. If, after sitting cross-legged for half an hour, you feel pain in your right thigh, you do not respond by moving your leg. Rather, you objectively observe, “Ah, I sense pain in my upper right leg”, and investigate the sensation further (e.g., do you feel heat, pulsation, or perspiration?) in equanimity, without moving your leg.

By training the mind to not automatically respond to sensations, but to observe them in equanimity, you can unlearn the habit that causes human suffering.These 10-day courses are meant to establish and deepen one’s daily practice. It certainly takes many years, if not lives, to fully liberate the mind. However, a steady daily practice can get you very far.

The technique: Mastery of the Mind and Equanimous Awareness

The first three days of the retreat are used to increase one’s awareness by focusing on the sensation of breath, using a technique called anapana breathing. On the first day, you focus on sensations in the entire area of the nose. You gradually reduce the area of focus to only the entrance to the nostrils, with the purpose of sharpening the mind’s ability to detect sensations.

Then, after you have trained the mind to notice sensations on an area the size of a few fingertips, you are introduced to the technique of Vipassana. Essentially, Vipassana consists of different ways of “scanning” your body for different sensations, and observing these sensations in equanimity.

The first days of practicing Vipassana you will notice only gross sensations, such as a pain in the upper leg, or the movement of your lungs due to incoming or outgoing breath. Within a few days, your awareness sharpens to experience sensations on every tiny part of the body.

My experience

Ten days without speaking is a fantastic experience. Taking a vow of silence enables you not to focus any attention on others, which is where we normally spend most of our awareness. This creates a whole new reality. You can fully focus on the taste of your food, the touch of your feet on the ground, or the sensations on your skin. Silence becomes sacred.

The mind is incredibly active. Ten days without speaking does not feel like ten days of silence. Your mind is filled with internal monologue. Especially in the first days, hundreds of ideas pop up. And it’s not just the volume of ideas—the type of thoughts is fascinating, too. I had elaborate memories of my time as a teenager and student that I had not thought about for more than five or ten years.

Because you agree not to read or write during the course, you can’t write down any of your ideas. This is an interesting exercise in itself. In everyday life, I have developed a strong habit to capture every idea or to-do in a physical or virtual notebook. To respond in equanimity to these ideas, I had to let go of attachment, believing that the truly important ideas would come back to me at a later point. I had to remind myself that I came here to practice Vipassana, not to think about other things, and let the idea float away (by focusing my awareness on my breath of sensations).

Cultivating awareness and equanimity is possibly the most important path one can embark on. When “Noble Silence” was lifted on the 10th day of the course, my first long conversation was with Jerry, a businessman from Vancouver, Canada. Jerry told me that he participated in his first Vipassana retreat 42 years ago in India, and had done more than 60 retreats since. Jerry—a successful businessman, with a happy family, in good health—said that his daily Vipassana practice was the most important gift in his life.

I don’t think that Jerry’s statement was an exaggeration. Vipassana is part of the path of Dhamma. According to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Vipassana should be combined with a virtuous life (right speech, action, and livelihood) and increased awareness (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). To me, it is only logical that committing to live a virtuous life, to further develop one’s awareness, and to continue to develop wisdom by equinamously observing the senses will have a profound impact on a human life.

The people who most inspire me—whether historic characters who I have learned about through books, or individuals who I have had the good fortune to become friends with—live a life of high morality. They practice selfless service. They realize they are flawed, and work on those flows. They actively work to reduce their sense of ego, self-importance. I think that Vipassana can help me cultivate these characteristics. That does not mean I think it’s the only way (I know people who find practical inspirations in many other techniques, religious and non-religious) or that it’s fully complete (for example, I think daily readings about virtuous exemplars may further benefit our compassion actions), but it is a technique that resonates with me now, that has clear merits, and that I can practice.

Taking a Vipassana course was not easy, but it was so worth the effort. In the last week and a half, I have been offered a concise view of the good life, and more uniquely, a specific path to develop that good life, step by step.

I look forward to grow on this path. I have committed to sitting twice a day for the next year, and I will sign up for a follow-up course in 2017 this week. Please let me know if you’re interested to join, or if you have any questions.


There is much more to share that I do not cover in the post above. For example, the retreat is made possible entirely by donations: teachers and all kitchen staff volunteer their time and expenses for lodging and meals are paid for by previous donations. This means that anyone, no matter what economic status, can join, which I found to be very refreshing. This is not a wealthy person’s escape.

Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer


Last Friday, I helped to install a solar photovoltaic array of more than 500 solar panels. The array will provide 35-40 low-income households with clean, affordable electricity—enabling savings of up to $500 per household per year. The installation was organized by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that brings together community partners, volunteers, and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families.

On a crisp Friday morning, under a cloudless Colorado sky, approximately 40 of us gathered for a short safety instruction. The solar array was to be installed in the back yard of Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA), a small electricity company that serves about 25,000 customers in Northwest Colorado, employing more than 60 people to do so. Many of the volunteers were Yampa Valley employees: my team of six included two linemen, a woman from Yampa Valley’s HR department and a woman from the finance department.

Volunteering reminds you that to give is to receive. Since Friday, I have had multiple moments in which I realized how much I got out of a day of volunteering. Upon reflection, here are three reasons why volunteering can be so fulfilling.

First, volunteering can give you a peek into other peoples’ lives. Someone in my installation crew had been fixing distribution wires for 16 years. Sixteen years! Others had lived in Steamboat Springs their entire lives. Many of us—whether you work as a software engineer, a consultant, or lawyer—live in a tiny bubble. By volunteering, you are exposed to different views of reality. This is further amplified when you volunteer in a developing country, yet even when you volunteer in your municipality, you will likely encounter foreign views.

Second, you can learn new things by volunteering. Related to the previous point, the exposure to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet can teach you something. It can expand your “unknown unknown”: the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Steve, a lineman at YVEA, told me how his crew inserts a liquid into underground distribution-grid lines that will solidify, protecting underground wires from corrosion and improving their insulation. This can extend lifetime by as much as 10 years. Similarly, I learned that solar PV modules need a “WEEB” that penetrates the structure, to ground the panel in case of a short-circuit or lightning strike.

A colleague put it beautifully: “I always learn more from volunteering in other parts of the world than I can ever teach.”

Third, it’s truly fulfilling to build things by hand. At the end of the day, my crew and I had installed about 100 solar PV modules. To see a structure materialize over the course of a day, to spend a day working in the sun, to feel your muscles when you lay down at night—these are blessings for someone who spends most working days in an office.

If you want to try installing solar yourself, GRID Alternatives has opportunities around the United States. Visit GRID’s website to find specific opportunities. GRID will have a big “solarthon” in Fort Collins, Colorado October 20-22nd. Contact Allison Moe amoe [at] gridalternatives [dot] org for more info or to sign up!


When was the last time you volunteered? In what capacity? Do you have, or did you ever have, a regular volunteering practice? How does it feed you? What is difficult? 

Thanks to Tom Figel and Allison Moe for creating this opportunity, and for all GRID Alternative staff for committing to do good work. Thanks to Laurie Guevara-Stone for reading an earlier version of this post and providing a quote.