Friday, May 12, 2023

Fifth Group of Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: May 10 - Present

1. Persepolis (P), by Marjane Satrapi


    An easy 10/10. A graphic novel autobiography of Marjane's upbringing in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Emotional, gripping, and beautiful. I am absolutely reading the sequel.

2. Wraiths of the Broken Land (P), by S. Craig Zahler

    "It looks like your belly has room for scorpions."

    Well, definitely the most disturbing book I have ever read. I just got done with binging Craig's three movies, the most notable being "Bone Tomahawk." I really have no idea why I am so drawn to his films. Obviously the over the top violence provides the aesthetic of astonishment, but I actually think that the storytelling itself is pretty good. Not amazing, and there are plenty of dialogue challenges, but for some reason I am totally engaged. Craig has written two books, so I decided to read the second one. The book was enjoyable and grotesque, but he simply doesn't have the writing prowess to take the narrative to the next level. Here is an example quote, detailing the current character development of the main character, Nathaniel: "he was a corporeal shell that lived in the present, divorced from his former identity, obeying the threats of an evil gunfighter." There is just some amateurish quality to calling Long Clay, a compelling antihero gunslinger, the word "evil." 

    The story is gritty enough to be in a league of its own, but I really wonder what this novel would look like with better writing and better defined character motivations. It would probably be incredible.

3. Meditations (P), by Marcus Aurelius


    This book is full of wisdom and elegance. It is astounding that Marcus was the most powerful person on the planet and still managed to have a legacy as a philosopher. This book is full of simple themes (don't fear death, don't care what others think of you, be rational and avoid outburst of emotion, and focus your life on living virtuously), and there are plenty of awesome quotes: "it never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." Despite our technological progress, the wisdom of the ancients applies to modern life as much as it ever did. One of the problems I usually have with stoicism is the idea of "taking everything on the chin" and living your current role to your best ability, and not striving for large change. "People who feel hurt and resentment: picture them as the pig at the sacrifice, kicking and squealing all the way. Like the man alone in his bed, silently weeping over the chains that bind us. That everything has to submit. But only rational beings can do so voluntarily." I think there is some sort of revolutionary blood in me that refuses to accept my situation and that of others. Controlling how you feel about your situation is strength, but I don't think that accepting it is.

4. The Manual (P), by Epictetus

    I wanted to read a book every day for a week (this was day #7 and book #11) so I added this short collection of Epictetus wisdom for the last day. I'll probably go back to some longer novels and harder material after this little experiment. I think Epictetus is my main man for Stoicism. His thoughts: if it falls outside of your control, let it go. Treat everything as borrowed from creation (even loved ones), soon to be returned. Give up friends who are bad influences, give up material desires, and be prepared to face ridicule. Better to be poor and virtuous than rich and filled with fear and guilt. Even if you set out to gain power to help others, you risk being corrupted along the way. Instead of seeking riches, build the sort of character that attracts loyal and honest friends. Epictetus also drops some absolute dimes in terms of quotes.

"Some young women confuse their self-worth with their ability to attract the attention of men, and so put all their energies into makeup, clothing, and jewelry. If only they realized that virtue, honor, and self-respect are the marks of true beauty." 

"Continually remind yourself that you are a mortal being, and someday will die. This will inspire you not to waste precious time in fruitless activities, like stewing over grievances and striving after possessions."

5. Sky Raiders (P), by Brandon Mull


    My younger brother's favorite series. Given that I made him read The Stormlight Archive, I figured I owed him this. YA fantasy with pretty cool worldbuilding. Reading YA is quite a breath of fresh air, it makes you feel like a superstar reader. Plus seeing these worlds through the lens of an eleven year old is quite nostalgic and cute. Makes me miss Percy Jackson!

6. Antifragile (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    Well, I did it. I read every one of Nassim's books. I am going to quote my first review of one of his books, Black Swan: "I hate single-idea books that are four hundred pages, I think it is a crime against the reading community to write such a book. Nicholas has committed this crime, creating an absolute slog of a book filled with incoherent thoughts and random attacks on imaginary critics." This applies to every one of his books without question. What I didn't realize at the time was the power of audiobooks. The utility I get from running on a trail counterbalances my annoyance with the frequent mention in my ears of sweaty, incoherent Italians. Yes, 80% of what Nassim says is redundant nonsense. His take in this book that no real innovation comes from science and academics was laughable (ever heard of the atomic bomb or index funds?) However, the mind of a egotistical contrarian will occasionally spew an interesting thought. Reading the entire Incerto changed my outlook in a positive way, and for that I will say that despite the slog it was worth it.

7. The Holy Bible (P), by God?


    One of my life goals was to read the Bible. It took me ten years, but I finally read every single word. I am not joking when I say reading this my greatest reading accomplishment. I am sure that some small minority of Christians have read all or most of it (no one that I know has read the entire print version), but I am more impressed given that I am not religious (was raised Catholic but have been agnostic since early high school). It took quite a bit of effort and a lot of fighting through boredom. Overall, it was worth it. I have a greater grasp on the religion than ever before, to a point where I finally feel like I understand the entire picture. Christianity is something that I could discuss for days on end. I will try to keep this post short, focusing on quotes/stories.

Old Testament:

    Full of insane stories and plenty of mass murder and horrific death. "And the king asked her, 'what is your trouble?' She answered, 'this woman said to me, "give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow." So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, "give your son, that we may eat him." But she has hidden her son.' (2 Kings 6:28). Crazy stuff. There's also my favorite insult of all time. "And when Joram saw Jehu, he said, 'is it peace, Jehu?' He answered, 'what peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many'" (2 Kings 9:22). The Pentateuch (first five books) has the most ridiculous stories and is way more  "eye for eye" and "send a plague that kills everyone" than the latter part of the old testament. It is interesting that I found some stories more believable (Moses parting the red sea, the burning bush, Jonah being eaten by a whale) simply because of my early indoctrination. Reading new stories (a donkey talking (Numbers 22), Daniel literally slaying a dragon by feeding it cakes made of fat and hair (Daniel 14)) was shocking. Did you know that that was why Daniel was sent to the lion's den? If you would have asked me growing up if I believed that Daniel escaped the lion's den by praying, I would have been certain. But if you would have asked me if I believed he was put there for using cakes to explode a dragon, I would have had some doubts. This cherry picking is common, certainty about the uncertain and faith only when convenient. Another reason why everyone of faith should read the Bible. 

    Looking back at these 39 books, I liked Proverbs the best. There was some bad: "do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol" (Proverbs 23:13). But there was also plenty of good: "a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). The Bible in general is way more poetic than you would expect. Without the religious relevance it would be a worthless read, but the diversity of the books makes it at least more interesting.

New Testament:

    These 27 books are thoroughly misunderstood. Jesus was not a hippie. He was far from a good-natured pacifist who came to the Earth to spread peace and love. Jesus was something entirely new, entirely different. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:34). 

    Jesus was a fire and brimstone preacher who demanded allegiance and sacrifice. The old testament says pretty much nothing about Hell. Jesus brings eternal suffering to the forefront. The old testament rules were more lax. Under Jesus, you can now sin even just by thinking impure thoughts: "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Jesus was a radical. Time and time again he rallies against the rich, saying that the only way to achieve eternal life and avoid eternal suffering is to "sell your possessions, and give to the needy" (Luke 12:33). He is clear that " cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). This makes the materialism and greed of most Christians even more astounding. I have said it before and will say it again, but the most ignored quote in human history is: "again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Jesus also continues the tradition of being anti-divorce, another command from God himself that we all choose to ignore: "but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31).

    People somehow think that the old testament is fire and brimstone and the new testament is sunshine and rainbows. There is plenty in the new testament not to like. Commands to be a good slave (Colossians 3:22) and in-your-face examples of the extreme misogynistic views held by the Catholic church, even to this day: "the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for them to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14:34). Read that again. Then laugh, then get a little sad. Then read that quote again. Then look me in the eyes and tell me again why women can't be priests? Also, there is nothing in this book about priests being tied to vows of chastity. The whole "priests are married to the church and thus cannot have a family" is something invented way after the Bible by the church. From my reading it seems that men of the holy order were expected to have families and especially wives (1 Timothy 3:2). Again, another reason that it is important to read the Bible. An added bonus is I can now argue with my vegetarian friends "one believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables" (Romans 14:2).

    Just as with the old testament, I found the same sort of cognitive dissonance pop up when reading the new testament. It seems my early indoctrination into the faith made some stories familiar and more "believable," but other stories frightened the small Catholic-inclined part of my brain. Jesus was raised from the dead, sure, but after he was crucified was it really true that a bunch of dead corpses dug out of their graves and walked around? (Matthew 27:51). There are plenty of contradictions in the bible (the whole feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread story is repeated constantly with large differences). Also, it is really only the gospel of John that adds such close ties between Jesus and God: "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). I actually think that without this gospel ("I am the way, the truth, and the life" etc.) the Christians five hundred years later probably would not have settled on the eventual decision that Jesus was God. Again, this decision was not at all obvious after finishing the Bible. Most of Christian beliefs stem from the decisions of a powerful group of often corrupt individuals that claimed for thousands of years to have a direct line to God (The Church), and not from the Bible.  

    One last note on this religion. Jesus makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is high: "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). You have to love God more than anything else. You have to renounce everything, give it all up. Desires, passions, relationships. All are meaningless when compared to the glory of God. You will very likely need to live a life in extreme poverty, due to your generosity. You turn the other cheek, you do not fight back. You live in fear of God and in fear of eternal punishment. You police your thoughts ruthlessly, as even sinful thoughts are a sin. You do not get divorced. You abstain from excess. You live your life as a disciple, a martyr. This is not an easy religion, not one that will make your friends or get you accolades. This is a religion that ends in prediction, with the book of Revelation. An extremely metal ending, honestly, full of fantastical imagery and a terrifying war between angels and demons. The second coming of Jesus Christ is coming soon, which means plagues and death await. This arrival will spur mass suffering and throw many people into the screaming terror of eternal hellfire.

    Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart. It is not a religion for people who value their families over the Word. It is not a religion for people that go to church twice a year. It is not a religion for the rich. What is it? It  is a religion of martyrs. It is a religion for people who would die for the cause at a moment's notice. It is a religion centered around the idea of human sacrifice, starting with the example of Jesus Christ on the cross. He showed us the Way. His bloody body stretched out on the cross is the central theme, the path forward. To achieve eternal life, you will need to go to the same lengths of sacrifice. You will need to renounce everything and live a life of pure piety. There were once Japanese monks who would spend hours with a spiked metal rope, whipping themselves on the back to exhaustion. These monks, heads turned towards heaven and bodies bleeding on the stone floor, understood more about the core of this religion than any of us.

8. High Output Management, by Andrew Grove


    This book is widely read and highly reviewed, but I didn't learn anything new from it. Maybe it was revolutionary in the 80's, but I am suspecting that once you have read one business book, you have read them all. Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things remain the only two business books that I found compelling.

9. The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston


    A terrifying non-fiction book, certainly on the same level as many of the nuclear books I read at the end of last year. This book is about the Ebola, a terrifying virus with a 50 - 90% kill rate that makes you bleed out of your eyeballs and causes your skin to fall off. Generally it kills you within seven days, and then your body promptly degenerates into a disgusting heap of flesh and blood. Did I mention it mutates and has occasionally gone airborne? The first half of this book is iconic. The descriptions of Ebola deaths are insane, and I am convinced that dying from such a virus is much worse than dying from radiation poising. This book is full of dramatic tension, and Richard is clearly a masterful writer. The last third of the book is nothing special, but the book taken as a whole is still near perfection. A must-read.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: April 19 - May 10

1. The Coddling of the American Mind (A), by Jonathan Haidt


    I don't think that this was a good book. The ideas are somewhat solid: coddling children doesn't prepare them for real life, college campuses are no longer places of free and fair debate, woke culture can sometimes be legitimately bad. However, I didn't like the execution. The book was fairly boring and massively anecdotal. The leaps in logic were pretty absurd. For some chapters, it is like the author simply had an idea (hey, children don't play outside as much as they used to) and determined that this revelation somehow explains current society. Also, this book is pretty much just about universities being regressively leftist and stifling free speech out of cowardice. I feel like it should have stuck to the "coddling of the American university" stuff, which it did well, and avoided trying to make the actions of a few thousand upper class students speak for the thoughts and beliefs of four hundred million American people. 

    Tim Urban did it better. "What's Our Problem" is legitimately better in every way, and I wonder if the existence of that book now makes this one irrelevant. Also, I am not convinced by this idea that the world is more closed minded and hostile now. Every generation says that the newest generation is full of spoiled brats who can't think for themselves and are poisoned by the newest technology. Every generation says that "we used to all get along, not sure what happened to all of you." Political parties never fought fair, and were never not massively hypocritical. It will be really difficult for Jonathan to avoid the comparison to "Old Man Yells at Cloud," and rightfully so.

2. Between the World and Me (A), by Ta-Nehisi Coates


    Masterful. I am pretty astounded at Ta-Nehisi's writing ability. Even offhand remarks come off as supremely powerful: "every girl I've ever loved was a bridge to somewhere else." His line "the same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto" is such an awesome consolidation of ideas that I stopped the audiobook to think. I wish he said "white lines" when referring to Prince but the point still stands. This book was just really, really good. It is awesome to get a unique perspective in such a format.

3. Fooled by Randomness (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    I would consider myself both a Nassim lover and a Nassim hater. I think he is the most bombastic, annoying, arrogant, predictable writer that I have come across. At least, that covers 80% of the material he puts out. However, and what is most annoying, the other 20% of his content (spread very unevenly through his books) is legitimately brilliant. This is immensely frustrating, but I wonder  if that glimpse of brilliance can only come from such an unusual character. Every book that goes by I get more used to his style and better at ignoring the 80%. This is my favorite book by him so far. Basically, he makes the claim that everything (the stock market, our lives, historical events) is far more random than we think. Predicting anything with certainty is basically useless, especially predicting events in the past (hindsight bias and survivorship bias are incredibly persuasive). This may not sound revolutionary, but it is actually incredibly unique. I know very few people who truly view events through this lens. Regardless, believing in a straight, logical line of cause and effect is bound to cause much confusion and trauma over your lifespan.

4. Tress of the Emerald Sea (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    For every Sanderson novel I may just keep commenting: "the man does not miss." Such a great, beautiful, whimsical read. It is insane that he can pump out a fantasy tale better and more unique than "Stardust" in only a couple of months. The man could hardly be more talented.

5. The Fall (A), by Albert Camus


    As a massive Emil Cioran fan I walked into this book heavily biased. Emil mentioned that Camus was pompous and arrogant, despite not being particularly talented. So, I was not expecting much. Then I realized that most existential philosophy is pretty similar and that I massively enjoy every bit of it. This is one I'd like to go through again in a few years, as some of the quotes were pretty powerful. When the narrator is discussing women, he says "I loved them, according to the hallowed expression which amounts to saying that I never loved any of them." Simple stuff like this made the book quite great. I'll probably read another book of his this year as a result.

6. The Bed of Procrustes (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    This collection of aphorisms seems like some sort of cash grab (apparently Nassim got a $4 million dollar advance in order to write this book). It was pretty short and nothing was super novel. The same tired Nassim themes (Harvard people = dumb, MBA people = dumb, economists = should be killed in the streets, deadlifting = super cool, fat greasy New Jersey people who mumble their words = even cooler) made up 90% of the content. His general philosophy is a bit condensed here "both markets and models are extremely stupid," so I guess someone might get value out of this as an introduction. If you are familiar with his work I would recommend skipping.

7. Train Dreams (A), by Denis Johnson


    I read Tress of Emerald Sea in basically a day. Given that it was ~500 pages, I wondered if I could dedicate similar effort to reading five ~100 page books on a random Thursday. This ended up being the second, a pretty short novella detailing a man in the 1900's who lives near a railway line and loses his wife and daughter in a wildfire. I couldn't really get into this book and I found the ending pretty empty. It reminded me of  "Steppenwolf" but without the cool philosophical parts.

8. Letters to a Young Poet (A), by Rainer Maria Rilke


    This was a pretty darn good read. I am going to say probably the most artistically beautiful and profound book I have read in a while, and it was less than 100 pages (making it even more beautiful). I really enjoy these short, romantically written novels ("Art and Fear" comes to mind). This is another that I will probably re-read.

9. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (P), by Carlo M. Cipolla


    Originally a pamphlet sent around to friends, this short book was pretty comical. Carlo gives five separate laws: we underestimate the number of stupid people, being stupid is independent of any other trait, stupid people are defined as those who damage other members of society as well as themselves (for no logical reason), non-stupid people underestimate how damaging stupid people can be, and "the stupid person is the most dangerous type of person." Carlo also uses a basic graph to demonstrate the types of people (the x axis is how much you harm/benefit yourself, the y axis is how much you harm/benefit others). This whole thing is very tongue-in-check and I would advise you not to take it seriously. I thought it was worth the read.

10. The Call of Cthulhu (P), by H.P. Lovecraft


    Rounding off my five-short-books-in-a-day day, I decided to end with a Lovecraft story. I enjoyed this for sure, probably about equally to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." There has been enough praise for Lovecraft's work over the past hundred years, so I won't waste more time explaining how good he is at writing horror. All I'll say is I am thoroughly creeped out by everything I have read of his. "Was I tottering on the brink of cosmic horrors beyond man's power to bear?" The coolest thing about his work is the connection to cosmic, all-powerful gods of terror. This lore gives the reader a unique feeling of powerlessness they fail to experience elsewhere.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Third 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: March 23 - April 19

1. What's Our Problem (P), by Tim Urban


    Tim Urban, author of the popular blog Wait But Why, massively influenced my life. His blog is the reason that I started this one, and a handful of articles on Wait But Why legitimately changed my interests. His posts on artificial intelligence, the Fermi paradox, and choosing a life partner are seriously some of the most important collections of words I have yet come across. So, I decided I owed Tim the honor of purchasing his book and reading all 746 pages. It was worth it, although I think that my expectations of the book differed greatly from the actual product. The book is pretty much only about US politics, and the majority of the pages discuss "woke" culture and the problems with current Social Justice Fundamentalism. I guess I agree with everything Tim says, and I now think that this "lower rung" type of thinking prevalent in politics is a much greater danger than I would have previously thought. Still, it's hard to not be suspicious that Tim spends too much time on Twitter, and it's easy to imagine that "high rung" politics have never really been a thing. Still, knowing how this usually works I'm sure this book will completely change my interests and the way I act, so thanks Tim!

2. The Alignment Problem (P), by Brian Christian


    This book was extremely difficult to get through. I think Brian must just be a boring writer or something. It's hard to explain why, but I think it took me over a year to read the entire book, despite this subject being the one topic in the world I am the most excited to learn about. The last three chapters of the book were really good and I learned a lot of useful information, but honestly I would not recommend this book.

3. The Rise of the Ultra Runners (A), by Finn Adharanand


    Pretty solid running book that chronicles Finn's entrance into ultrarunning and a few of his races. He comments on the sport of ultrarunning as whole, and I definitely learned a lot. Probably not as great of a read for those not interested in ultrarunning.

4. Alexander Hamilton (A), by Ron Chernow


    Funny enough, I finished pretty much this entire book (28 hour audiobook at 2x speed) during a 50 mile ultramarathon. That race and this book will forever be intertwined, and all I can say is my hate for Aaron Burr helped push me through. I loved how biased Ron was in this writing, and he did a hell of a great job writing a compelling story. The Founding Fathers have always been, in my opinion, the most talented and impactful group of intellectuals the world has ever seen. It is astounding how productive this small group of men were, and I am fascinated by the quality of their character. George Washington in particular is quite the legend. Maybe Ron embellished, but it seems that Hamilton was one of the most impactful figures in American history. His story is quite astounding, and his tragic flaws make him quite worthy of a book. His writing ranged from petty squabbles to all out wars with the pen, and the amount of drama and gossip that stemmed from "anonymous" letters written in newspapers was hilarious. My favorite bit about Hamilton was that he used a pseudonym and wrote an essay in a paper  condemning John Adams. Then, he used another pseudonym to write another essay praising the wit of the other pseudonym (himself) and further lambasting John Adams.

    This might be my favorite biography. The atmosphere of the American revolution is quite motivating, and I want to either start another revolution or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat, maybe both. The book has heroism, villainy, and some amazing insults. It gives the reader an insight into American politics from the beginning, and I learned a ton. I didn't realize how close Civil War seemed at the beginning of the US, and a lot of the actions of the founders, given what was at stake, make a lot more sense given that context. Hamilton and others were so steadfast and strong headed because they truly believed that they would be able to have a profound impact on society for generations and generations. They were right.

5. Models (P), by Mark Manson


    One of the worst books I have ever read. Absolute trash. Unbelievable. If going on dates with "dozens" of women makes you qualified to write this book (really, Mark that's it?) I guess I am way more the dating guru than this pathetic author. Being a man is not about being a sleaze-bag who manipulates women and treats people like dirt. Regardless of Mark's qualifying statements, that is  exactly what this book seeks to create. Mark's idea of a pickup line: “let’s check out the Science museum, they have an awesome exhibit on the human body." Mark's idea of how dating works "once a girl kisses you, she’s usually going to be comfortable and/or horny enough to go home with you." Mark's idea of success: "have sex with two women in the same 24-hour period: Shower in between optional." Mark's idea of how consent works "just know this: the correct answer to the “no sex” objection is always an affirmative while continuing to escalate physically." I'm embarrassed on behalf of Mark, as his short-lived legacy in this universe will consist of vomiting up a pile of worthless pseudo-dating-advice-garbage into the world and then dying.

    There is something to be said for having upstanding moral character and treating the people around you with kindness and respect. In a world full of deceivers and manipulators, being a man of honorable intentions will set you apart. If you want to attract women, be worthy of attraction. Focus on fulfilling relationships full of love and mutual respect, and avoid stooping below that line to anything else. Many years ago, I decided that my two main goals in life were to be an amazing father and to be an amazing husband. More than anything, this decision and my obsession with faithfully pursuing it has led to a life full of meaningful relationships that were a hell of a lot of fun. I don't judge men for being angry at the dating process, and I don't judge men for turning to resources like this. But I despise men who take awful advice to heart, especially when it is so hell-bent on manipulation. There are clearly better ways to live your life, ways that will lead to your long term happiness as well as the long term happiness of others. Read "The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work." Read biographies of great men who strived to uphold their moral values and make the world a better place. Meet someone worthy of your admiration and respect. Fall in love. Build an amazing partnership, something beautiful. Avoid garbage written by people like Mark.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Magical. That is how I would describe this series, a series completely in a league of its own. I totally understand the fasciation with the Harry Potter universe, and I think it deserves its spot as the most popular book series of all time. I didn't really enjoy the first half of this book, and I really wish Voldemort was more than a one-dimensional villain. Still, maybe it is the nostalgia talking but I am really glad I went through this series. I felt like a kid again, entranced in a world full of wonder and adventure.

7. Rhythm of War (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    Brandon Sanderson never misses. Still, I would probably rank this last out of the Stormlight Archive series, simply because it took me quite a while to get through. I wasn't very interested in most of the flashbacks, and there were a few plot points that I took issue with. Still, the book is very clearly a 9/10. The characters are great, the worldbuilding is phenomenal, and the last two hundred pages are impossible to put down. Classic Sanderson.

8. Irreversible Damage (A), by Abigail Shrier


    Reading this book, given the current political climate, made me feel subversive and rebellious. If the subtitle of a book you are reading is "the Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters" you almost don't want to add it to your Goodreads for fear of potential backlash. Overall, I think the conversation around "gender affirming surgery" for minors is actually pretty important. We probably shouldn't let minors make life-altering decisions and we probably should have protected spaces for biological women (prisons are the obvious example that you can't really argue against). I am not quite sure I agree that there is a transgender craze in America that is sweeping up young women, but that is simply because I have no relevant exposure. I understand Abigail's stance against puberty blockers, but honestly if you feel from birth that you were born in the wrong body I can't see why we should make you endure puberty. If you are 18, even if you are misguided, you should have full say over what you do with your body. Still, society should absolutely make you wait until then. 

    It is sad and disturbing that many doctors have turned into service providers, simply bending to the will of a small minority of people with radical beliefs about gender. I think the nod towards how the medical profession helped create the opioid crisis was important, it is clear on mass that they don't really have their patient's best interest at heart. Abigail is incredibly biased, but I think this conversation is really important. If non-binary people are getting hysterectomies, that is cause for concern. If young girls that like engineering and sports are led to believe that liking traditionally masculine things makes them a boy, that is cause for concern. Too often liberals take traditional gender roles seriously and invalidate their own beliefs as a result (explain how there are 72 genders but also that this young girl is definitely a boy and needs surgery otherwise they will kill themselves). If you are a man, you can love wearing makeup, like fashion, and have sex with other men. This doesn't make you any less of a man, and it doesn't make you necessarily a woman. Many progressives are extremely regressive when it comes to gender identity, and seem to cling to centuries old rigid gender roles as gospel. I have no problem with people transitioning, and we should treat everyone with respect. But we should also be mature enough to have difficult debates about books such as this one.

9. The Hundred-Page Machine Learning Book (P), by Andriy Burkov


    "All models are wrong, but some are useful." A great quote at the header of every chapter.

    Every time I read a book about machine learning I wonder if I should just give up and stick to working in finance for the rest of my life. This book was very good, and I really liked that it was short enough to actually read without getting massively frustrated (looking at you, Deep Learning). I don't think my technical knowledge was sufficient to understand a lot of the algorithms mentioned, but I am still glad I read it.

10. Skin in the Game (A), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


    Well, I learned that Nassim's books are 100x easier to get through if you do an audiobook instead of a print version. As usual, this is a pretty mean spirited book with a lot of irrelevant, useless information. Nassim loves harping on his usual, trite thoughts (economists are bad, ivy league people are bad, Nassim is a genius). I wonder if, like many people, he is just still salty to this day that he didn't get into Harvard. Regardless, the core idea of "skin in the game" is actually massively useful and makes the book worth a read. People should have better incentives, and we shouldn't let bankers and politicians get only upside regardless of their behavior. As an individual, you will live a better and more fulfilling life if you are a risk-seeker that finds opportunities that could expose you to both massive gains and massive losses. 

    Nassim would be legitimately insufferable to hang out with. I swear if he would have mentioned deadlifting one more time, I might have burned the book. He assumes that the world is entirely fair and meritocratic. A classic take from someone with self-proclaimed "f-you" money. He said that he would rather trust a fat Italian doctor without a medical license to do a surgery than an established Harvard M.D. His rationale is that the gruff, incomprehensible Italian doctor would have to have overcome more obstacles to get into his position and thus would probably be better at surgery. I wonder if Nassim lives his life this way. Given how brilliant 10% of the book is, I wonder what Nassim's legacy would be if he had the personality of one of the upstanding intellectuals he criticizes, instead of that of a toddler. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Second 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: January 15 - March 23

1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Probably my favorite one in the series so far, definitely liking the more mature tone. These books do feel very unique, not sure if it's hindsight bias, but in my opinion a young adult story this engaging and comprehensive is really only paralleled in the Percy Jackson series.

2. Anatomy of the State (P), by Murray Rothbard


    Murray's antigovernmental outlook is very interesting. "The state is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion." Once you admit to this definition, it is hard to view the state in a positive light, regardless of formation (democratic or dictatorship). Also, one interesting aspect of a democratic state is that "any given rule implies majority acceptance," since it can be claimed that "the people are the government." Various levels of minority abuse become permissible  under this system. In order to gain power, a democratically-elected state will seek to "deprecate the individual and exalt the collectivity of society." As someone extremely persuaded by arguments in favor of the collective whole, it is good to be aware of the dangers.

3. Die with Zero (A), by Bill Perkins


    Finally, a book written about my personal Reverse Retirement strategy! I pretty much agree with everything Bill has to say, and I think that people in high-earning professions generally discount the value of their youth and waste much of their life. Good to have my ideas reinforced. Not for the risk-averse!

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Harry kind of sucks in this one, but it was still a good book nonetheless. Hermione is by far my favorite character, and it amuses me that every book ends with Draco getting roughed up. I'm excited to continue the series.

5. Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink


    Boring, repetitive book with no useful information. Basically the extension of some silly business consulting company founded by Jocko and some other Navy Seals. I'm sure Jocko is taking lots of money from ignorant CEO's who love the phrase "trained by Navy Seals," but there is little to no value in reading this book.

6. The Moral Animal (A), by Robert Wright


    Incredibly interesting read, has the potential to be one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. Evolutionary psychology was not an area of study that ever interested me, but Robert has thoroughly convinced me that seeing the world through any other lens is incomplete. In terms of potential life-impact, this book ranks high. The biggest downside of the book is that Robert spends a significant amount of it discussing the life of Darwin, easily the least interesting aspect of the history of evolution. He uses this biographical information to frame the discussion of evolution, but I don't believe the depth is at all necessary (what do Darwin's marriage choices really have to do with marriage as an institution?). I was frustrated by this, but equally enthralled by Roberts view on human nature. Once you concede that evolution is true (which it is), and that there isn't another discernable force guiding human behavior, there are some scary and problematic-sounding conclusions that materialize. Nihilism, determinism, and cultural relativism obviously spring to mind, and unfortunately Robert cannot really dismiss any of these. Humans may be the only species capable of "moral reflection," but what does that mean if our actions are shaped primarily by genetics and cultural experience? Thankfully, Robert makes it clear that believing in evolution and endorsing the values created by evolution are far different things. Unfortunately, this confusion is widespread, and on each political extreme can lead to a lot of suffering and waste.

    The real problem is, evolutionary psychology explains pretty much everything. Other competing theories are nowhere near as compelling, and all of them must bow to the internal drives laid out by millions of years of "survival of the fittest." Why do humans seek status? Why do people cheat on their partners? Why do people care much more about their children than they do strangers? Why aren't more people satisfied with their lives? Robert, as well as every evolutionary psychologist I've read, overfits evolution as an explanation to everything. Still, it so useful an explanation that I'll forgive the claim that evolution explains 100% of human behavior for the 10% overreach. Robert's discussion of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy was especially interesting, and the chapters on evolutionary ethics alone made the book worth the read. There were a few quotes from the book I really liked, such as "character is power. In a much higher sense that knowledge is power." Viewing these same quotes through the lens of evolutionary psychology, they become a bit more depressing. I guess if you repeatedly ask the question "why," there can't really be a positive outcome.

    Robert's previous book, "Why Buddhism is True," has one of my favorite quotes of all time: "ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them." From an evolutionary perspective, humans were not designed for happiness. They were designed to survive, reproduce, and take care of young. Everything else is a side effect, and as an individual we cannot dwell on the flaws in our neurochemistry. Paradoxically, maybe one of the most powerful steps towards happiness is realizing that we are not destined for it. An understanding of evolution and its impact may make life seem bleak, a monotonous cycle of life and death with no real purpose. However, maybe it is only through this understanding that our species can break the wheel in favor of true moral progress.

7. Life 3.0 (A), by Max Tegmark


    I don't think I have ever re-read a book. So, it was strange of me to start reading Superintelligence again, and I now understand the value in re-reading. I plan to re-read a few other of my favorites this year, but I will not include them on this blog and they will not count towards my yearly reading goals. I decided to listen to Life 3.0 as well, as the themes are apparently very similar. Max is a sharp guy, and he lays out a very similar story to Bostrom. He is quite a bit more optimistic, and he also veers way off track at various points. Max is a bit of a futurist, and he scatters in some random thoughts about space colonization and nanobots. This can make the book feel distracted, and I'm not quite sure that I would recommend the book as a whole.

    However, the introduction is really, really good. It outlines a fictional story about Prometheus, a superintelligence that is developed in a realistic way and takes over the world. Funny enough, I've had a lot of similar thoughts, and it is almost uncanny that my "plan" to take over the world was very similar to the plan of the Omega team. I'm not sure how inevitable this outcome is, but it is still quite terrifying. I would recommend reading this introduction, and then reading Superintelligence. Still, as this is such a massive area of interest of mine, I'm glad I read the book.

8. Being Mortal (A), by Atul Gawande


    Definitely a great read. I've always been fascinated by the somewhat large problem that is our inevitable death, and Atul, a doctor, provides his perspective on the issue. For the most part, he discusses end of life care and the failures of our current system. I agree with all of his points, despite not having nearly as much experience. Atul criticizes the fact that the medical system has gripped society as the sole caretaker of the elderly. This system is obsessed with keeping "patients" alive and disregards what it means to live a good life. The system is overly optimistic, disregards the dignity of the patients, and rarely prepares families for the inevitability of death. Families oftentimes stay in default mode, ensuring that their loved ones live the longest possible life, oftentimes at the expense of their loved one's true wishes and happiness. Atul also discusses nursing homes and the benefits of assisted living. And wow, this book has really made me want to write a will. Overall, Atul has given me quite a bit to think about. It's hard to not be depressed after listening to Atul's personal tragedies, and I will say that the concept of growing old, frail, and helpless is "no bueno." Unfortunately, I don't have much of a choice. None of us do. The best we can do is plan, and I am now absolutely convinced that we all need a plan.

9. AI Superpowers (A), by Kai-Fu Lee


    Kai-Fu gives a very good overview of the current AI capabilities in China, and he explains in details where he thinks the future of AI is headed. Kai-Fu is very optimistic about the future impact of transformative AI, and he doesn't see China and the US as competitors, but rather as potential collaborators in developing this technology for the greater good. It seems the only thing he is really scared of is job displacement. Overall, I am very glad to have read this. I had zero background knowledge of the Chinese AI industry, and now I have a very rudimentary understanding. It is interesting to note that China has way more data than the US, a massively important metric that may determine the winner of the race to AGI. It is strange to think that enforcing actual human rights puts the US at a massive disadvantage in this race.

10. The Checklist Manifesto (A), by Atul Gawande


    Atul goes through his reasoning on why checklists are so important, and he gives lots of historical examples of times checklists saved lives and prevented disasters. I agree with his conclusion, but this could have been and essay and was probably not worth the read. 

Sunday, January 1, 2023

First 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: January 1 - January 15

1. Atomic Habits (P), by James Clear


    Extraordinary book full of life-altering knowledge. If you can control your habits, you can control your life. The useful advice per word ratio is higher in this book than probably any other. I definitely agree with James's assessment that discipline and delaying gratification are the keys to success. I found the idea of habit stacking interesting, and James's claim that "identifying" as a particular attribute is very interesting. Someone who claims to be "trying to quit smoking" and someone who "doesn't smoke" have very different identities, with the latter being a much more powerful guard against bad habits. I've thoroughly benefited from this simple change, to a surprising degree of success. I would recommend this book to everyone.

2. Why Buddhism is True (P), by Robert Wright


    Robert's background in evolutionary psychology makes this an especially interesting read. Evolutionary psychologists have an annoying habit of over-subscribing natural selection as an intelligent-design level explanation for all of human behavior. Robert does this, and takes it a step further and uses natural selection to try to justify the "truth" behind Buddhist practices, specifically the "non-self" and mindfulness mediation. I don't think Robert ever manages to climb out of the "the self is an illusion" holes he digs for himself, but he does make a convincing case for implementing meditation into everyday life. "Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them." Being aware of your thoughts paradoxically gives you the ability to let go of the unhealthy ones. I was thoroughly convinced by Robert's points regarding the importance of mindfulness, and I will hopefully start implementing these practices into my own life.

    It is easy to be swept away by the mysticism of Eastern Philosophy as a Westerner. Western religions have plenty of known flaws, and novelty is always attractive. Robert's constant mention of meditation retreats set off some alarm bells, but thankfully it seems he is level headed about the flaws of Buddhism. He claims that "most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don't meditate." He also states in a footnote that "scholars of Buddhism have long pondered the question of whether a likely, and perhaps logical, culmination of Buddhist practice is an extreme form of nihilism, a refusal to attribute value to anything." This second point was on my mind for the duration of the book. It would be very easy to use Buddhism as a noble justification for inaction. The goal is to get rid of your desires? What about the desire to help others who are needlessly suffering? There could be three, wholly legitimate Buddhist responses to this. Oh don't worry, the world around you isn't really "real." Oh don't worry, you need to focus on yourself and achieve enlightenment before you focus on anybody else, it's really not your responsibility. Oh don't worry, they were probably a bad person in a previous life and are probably being justly punished. Inaction is scary, but even more terrifying is the concept of enlightenment. A totally unfalsifiable gateway towards religious power is ripe for abuse. Power corrupts, and various sexual abuse scandals within Buddhism show that organized religion, regardless of origin, needs to be viewed with a "ungodly" amount of cynicism.

     Robert claims that "I wouldn't want to travel so far down the path toward nirvana that I was drained of fighting spirit. If full-on enlightenment means you quit making value judgements of any kind and quit pushing for change, then count me out." A Buddhist monk in this book raises a similar point, stating that "one might come away with the idea that the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to become a completely unemotional, emotionally flat, emotionally deprived automation." So, is there a difference between an enlightened Buddhist and a vegetable? In order for Buddhism to be palpable, I think it has to be treated as any other religion. Westerners pick and choose their favorite parts of Christianity to run with, I don't see why we shouldn't pick the "best" parts of Buddhism and discard the rest. Let's admit that no one has all the answers, and remain extremely skeptical of any religious "leaders." As the Buddhist saying goes, "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." We should admit that Buddhism is either a religion (who is pulling the reincarnation strings?) or nihilistic (who cares if you're enlightened if we're going to die anyway) and that there can't really be a "middle way." We should spend way more time reflecting on our actions, and try to use mindfulness to curb our worse impulses. One of the most disturbing remarks in the book came from one of Robert's religious teachers, who claimed that Robert would likely have to choose between enlightenment for himself and enlightenment for others (via writing this book). We should banish this type of thinking from the face of the earth.

3. We Should All be Feminists (P), by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


    "My own definition (of) a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better." Well Chimamanda, hard to argue with that. The fact that a majority of women feel unsafe walking alone at night, and justifiably so, means there is a massive problem. "Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change." Amen to that. Short book, but worth the reminder.

4. Legend (P), by Marie Lu


    Pretty solid young adult dystopian novel, brings me back to my Hunger Games/Divergent days. It's a bit cookie cutter, but if you're looking for a vacation read this could be it.

5. A Short History of Decay (P), by Emil Cioran


    This one took me quite a while to finish, still some great quotes but a bit slow for my taste. Emil has some hilarious insights. He says that true sacrifice for Jesus would require no resuscitation, and no followers after the fact. He claims God has to exist, otherwise it would be too absurd to think that people waste their lives getting out of bed to worship. Emil believes that indifference is the only non-insane way of life in a world that lacks meaning. I kind of like his claim that Nero burning Rome was a beautiful work of art, as it was apparently a homage to the Iliad. Everyone is useless, why haven't we all killed ourselves? Why should we do anything, given that "every action is senseless in infinity?" Eternal life either is or it isn't, so we should either spend our lives partying or praying, anything in-between is insanity. "Normally it should confront us with the one choice possible: the convent or the cabaret."

"Clothes get between us and nothingness. Look at your body in a mirror; you will realize that you are mortal; run your fingers over your ribs as though across a guitar, and you will see how close you are to the grave. It is because we are dressed that we entertain immortality; how can we die when we wear a necktie?"

"Health: decisive weapon against religion."

"Each suffering, except ours, seems to us legitimate or absurdly intelligible; otherwise, mourning would be the unique constant in the versatility of our sentiments."

6. On the Heights of Despair (P), by Emil Cioran


    "Tears do not burn expect in solitude. Those who ask to be surrounded by friends when they die do so out of fear and inability to live their final moments alone. They want to forget death at the moment of death. They lack infinite heroism. Why don't they lock their door and suffer those maddening sensations with a lucidity and a fear beyond all limits?" 

    This book punches you in the face. Probably the most depressing book ever published. "How could I still speak of beauty, and make esthetic remarks, when I am so sad, sad unto death?" Someone give this guy a hug, or some melatonin. "But I never cried, because my tears have always turned into thoughts. And my thoughts are as bitter as tears." Emil embellishes a bit in this book, but his lyrical ability and the horribly depressing content make this his most impressive work. Poetry isn't the right word, but it is brilliant regardless. "What does it matter whether our tears come from pleasure or pain?" 

    Emil is right to state that most people have nothing to say about death. Silence or terror, the only options. So what is this book about? Well for one, depression and insomnia. "On the heights of despair, nobody has the right to sleep." Not the lukewarm modern insomnia caused by the human brain's chemical inadequacy. But the hardcore, philosophical depression reserved to the unlucky few like Emil, who lack any semblance of ignorance.  I am making this hierarchal claim, not Emil. "Who is more unhappy? He who feels his own loneliness or he who feels the loneliness of the world? Impossible to tell." This book, overall, is making the case for inaction. "Why do men insist on achieving something? Would it not be better if they stood still under the sun in calm and silent immobility? What is there to accomplish? Why so much effort and ambition? Man has forgotten the meaning of silence."

    Life has no meaning, and it never will. And, Emil is not happy about it. "I am displeased with everything. If they made me God, I would immediately resign." "Why am I on this Earth... What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and esthetic ideals? It's all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone." There is no "valid justification for suffering," and once this is realized life becomes terror. If that wasn't enough, given eternity, life is irrelevant. "Meaning is conceivable only in a finite world, where one can reach something, where there are limits to stop our regression, clear points of reference, where history moves toward a goal envisioned by the theory of progress." I agree with him, it seems that eternity is the only thing that should matter. Our history is meaningless in its wake. Personally, reflecting on Buddhism after reading this is interesting. "When you come to a point where you want to live like a plant, fully unconscious, then you have come to despair of humanity."

    Short quotes:

"I can't understand why people do not commit suicide during orgasm, why they don't think survival commonplace and vulgar. Such an intense though brief quiver should reduce us to ashes in seconds. But if it does not kill us, we should kill ourselves."

"The complexity of absolute despair is infinitely greater than that of absolute joy." 

"I have no ideas, only obsessions. Anybody can have ideas. Ideas have never caused anybody's downfall."

    Massive quote:

"How is suffering rather than pleasure going to make me immortal? From a purely objective point of view, is there any significant difference between one man's agony and another's pleasure? Whether you suffer or not, nothingness will swallow you forever. There is no objective road to eternity, only a subjective feeling experienced at irregular moments in time. Nothing created by man will endure. Why this intoxication with moral illusions when there are other illusions even more beautiful? Those who speak of moral salvation in the face of eternity refer to the moral action's indefinite echo in time, its unlimited resonance. Nothing could be less true, since so-called virtuous men are actually cowards who will disappear from the world's consciousness faster than those who have wallowed in pleasure. And even so, supposing the opposite were true, would a dozen or more years really count? Any unsatisfied pleasure is a loss of life. I shall not be the one to preach against pleasure, orgy, and excess in the name of suffering. Let the mediocre speak of the consequences of pleasure: are not those of suffering even greater? Only the mediocre want to die of old age. Suffer, then, drink pleasure to its last dregs, cry or laugh, scream in despair or with joy, sing about death or love, for nothing will endure! Morality can only make life a long series of missed opportunities!"

7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (A), by J.K. Rowling


    I had previously planned to live my entire life without reading the Harry Potter books. Alas, as a man of weak will I finally caved. Great book, a bit juvenile but as expected based on reviews. Definitely triggered a lot of childhood nostalgia from my memories of the movies. 

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (A), by J.K. Rowling


    Honestly, I didn't like this one quite as much as the last. It was a bit middle-school-ish, and I don't think the plot was particularly interesting. Still, lots of childhood nostalgia and you have to admire the characters.

9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (A), by J.K. Rowling


    I really liked this one! The time turner plot is a classic, although I think it was better executed in the movie. Regardless, the actual storytelling of this book was definitely the best so far, and I'm much more excited to continue the series.

10. I'm Glad My Mom Died (A), by Jennette McCurdy

    Holy vulnerable! Wow, in this memoir Jennette really doesn't pull any punches. I would say this book's content is pretty much the exact opposite of my reading preference, but I still managed to make it through quickly. Memorable book for sure.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Sixth 10 Books I Read in 2022

Reading Period: October 10 - December 31

1. What We Owe the Future (A), by William MacAskill


    Yet another Effective Altruism (audio) book, this one focused on longtermism, the concept that future, unborn generations are extremely morally important. Given that humanity is so young, it follows that there could be trillions of humans after us. The lives of these trillions of humans will be greatly influenced by the choices society makes today, and because some events (artificial intelligence, nuclear war, chemically engineered pandemics) can make this future non-existent, we should expend extra effort to ensure that future generations are given the chance to live and thrive. A lot of this book overlaps with other books I've read this year, but obviously I agree with most of William's points and am strongly convinced by the overall cause. One new topic that William brings up is economic stagnation. William discusses how stagnation can happen, and lays out a pretty convincing argument that this sort of stagnation could be extremely harmful to our long term future. Overall, persuasive book that has given me a lot to think about.

2. The Art of Living (P), by Epictetus


    Stoic philosophy at its best. Virtue ethics is way less stressful than all this overbearing utilitarian stuff I've been waist deep in this year. I'm quite convinced a life focused on internal character and virtue would lead to the most personal happiness and probably the greatest amount of spiritual success. The points that resonated with me the most: focus only on things that are within your control, never depend on the admiration of others, mindset is everything.

"First, say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do"

"Arrogance is the banal mask for cowardice; but far more important, it is the most potent impediment to the flourishing life."

"You can only be one person - either a good person or a bad person. You have two essential choices."

3. The End is Always Near (A), by Dan Carlin


    This audiobook was disappointing, as it jumps around to various unconnected topics (raising children, nuclear war, ancient Rome) and lacks a coherent narrative. The title is misleading, and it seems clear that I was looking for something else. 

4. Midnight in Chernobyl (A), by Adam Higginbotham


    Legitimately terrifying. Easily one of the best non-fiction books I've read all year. I strongly recommend this audiobook, but maybe readers should wait for a time period when nuclear war is a bit less likely. Also, none of this changes my aggressively confident pro-nuclear power stance.

5. The Making of the Atomic Bomb (A), by Richard Rhodes


    Very clearly the best non-fiction book I've read. The level of detail in this book was astounding, and I learned an incredible amount about physics and history during this thirty-seven hour audiobook. The first part of the book is almost entirely focused on nuclear physics, its development and progression throughout the early 20th century. The next part chronicles the beginnings of the Manhattan project, including detailed biographies of the important members involved. The third part is the shortest, an account of the Trinity test and the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The final act of the book was horrifying, and it will be impossible to unsee the images of nuclear consequences that Richard forced into my brain.

    "Nuclear weapons ensure the destruction of any participating nations, unless war itself is abolished." Richard's unbiased commentary, generally displayed through the lens of quotes from physicists, was also terrifying. The nuclear bomb is likely mankind's most important invention to date, as it is likely humankind's most probable means of destruction. Paradoxes abound. The bomb forces peace between world superpowers, but if that peace is breached even slightly, the human race is potentially exterminated. The Manhattan project's scientists, upon liberating the power of the atom, were excessively burdened by the idea of billions of innocent deaths. This mental burden should be shared by us all, if we are to avoid annihilation.

6. Noble House (A), by James Clavell


    Insanely good story. James might be one of the most compelling writers I have ever come across. His ability to weave interesting narratives together without losing the reader's interest is impressive. This book was super long, the audiobook being around fifty-eight hours in total. A few of the side plots could have been shortened, or at least tied up better. Still, incredible work of fiction.

7. Shogun (A), by James Clavell


    Well, for sure one of my favorite stories ever. James has quite an incredible writing ability. The characters, the plot twists, the drama, all were extraordinary. The reader feels transported to 1600s Japan, and it is a compelling enough journey to warrant fifty-four hours of listening. Contrasting this with Noble House is difficult, as both were incredible, but Shogun feels more straightforward and contained. I need a quick break from The Asian Saga, but I will return!

8. West with the Night (A), by Beryl Markham


    I'm definitely not the type of person usually interested in memoirs, but still, this book was incredibly well done. Beryl has quite the unique background, and her prose is legitimately fantastic. Her writing quality is likely the best I have come across, a beautiful display of talent. I would read the book again, just to marvel at Beryl's writing ability.

9. Can't Hurt Me (A), by David Goggins


      I discovered David a few years ago on a podcast, but at first I didn't like him. He is not the kind of guy you want to grab a beer with, and it was clear at the time he was more of an individual achievement guy, not someone you'd probably want to have as a friend or on your team. Also, his accomplishments seemed tainted by his stupidity. Running one hundred miles without training is impressive, but most of the impressiveness is trumped by its stupidity. I never liked people who bragged about doing impressive things the wrong way, as if I should be doubly impressed by someone's marathon time given they didn't train and tore an ligament during the race. To me those stories are always masochistic and immature, whereas intelligent, diligent training is worth much more of my respect.

    My first impression of David Goggins was very wrong. His mindset is powerful, and once I learned of his background in detail my impression of him completely changed. His upbringing was extremely challenging, yet he turned his life around and became a Navy Seal. He transitioned to ultrarunning, and later broke the 24-hour pullup record. His accomplishments are impressive, but to be honest nothing particularly special. There are a lot of books about impressive people. His attitude, however, is what sets him apart from the rest. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, stop being so soft, stop whining. Push your self. Things are going bad in your life, and a lot of that blame falls on you. Fix it. Get after it. Wake up at 5am every morning and do 300 push ups. David Goggins says these sort of things, but laced with enough wild profanity and extreme personal stories, you can't help but start to be convinced by all of it.

10. The Doomsday Machine (P), by Daniel Ellsberg


    For my last book of the year, I decided to cap off my exploration into nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This book was very insightful, as Daniel was previously very involved in the US government's nuclear war planning, as a consultant for the RAND corporation. His experience during this time is fascinating, and he discusses issues with the US nuclear plan that are quite horrifying. The first half of the book details his RAND experience, and the second half discusses his thoughts on the nuclear system as a whole. My craziest takeaway from the original US nuclear plan was that if the US were attacked by Russia, we would immediately nuke both Russia AND China, regardless of China's involvement. Better dead than red I guess? I'm glad Daniel was able to completely revise that plan. Many of the questions Daniel prompts are very interesting. In order to avoid a decapitation attempt, where Washington is blown up in order to prevent a retaliatory strike on Russia, delegation of nuclear authority is necessary. This delegation is fraught with risks (i.e. Dr. Strangelove). The US and Russia both admit to essentially having Doomsday machines, as a nuclear first-strike by either party prompts a near-automated full retaliation by the other party. This opens up the very possibility of false alarms triggering the end of the civilization (which have nearly happened enough to be a trend), and it seems that a apocalyptical terrorist organization could nuke Washington or Moscow and probably trigger the end of mankind.

    This book is terrifying, but it also brings up important, educated points that I hadn't considered previously. People argue about the ethics of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, but they generally ignore the fact that we were scorching Japan with firebombs, killing between half million and a million civilians in total. One hundred thousand Japanese were burned alive in Tokyo in a single night of firebombing, twenty to forty thousand more deaths than at Nagasaki. The method became different, but the death toll was more or less the same. Daniel provides the history of bombing innocent civilians, and makes it clear where he falls on the issue. One haunting quote by American military general Curtis LeMay reads, "we're at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed? Crank her up. Let's go." The scariest part to me, is that this is a somewhat convincing take. How many Germans civilians would you kill to save the lives of a million US troops? Two million? Ten million? How many Germans families would you reduce to ash to shorten the war by six months? If doing so would spare six million additional Jews from the concentration camps? Would the answer "all of them" be immoral?

    This book, unfortunately, is not perfect. There is quite a bit of revisionist history, and Daniel is very susceptible to hindsight bias. The biggest glaring flaw of the book is that his experience is outdated, with him admitting as much in the early chapters. Daniel is fifty years late from being truly clued into the US nuclear system, so he is pretty much unable to draw any sort of tangible solutions to the questions he proposes. Regardless, Daniel's disagreement with current US nuclear policy is interesting. He believes that "any threat of first use of a nuclear weapon is a terrorist threat," and he is strongly in favor of disarmament, with the eventual goal being a worldwide ban of nuclear weapons. I am somewhat convinced by these points, but the realist in me assumes that humanity will continue on its current path, forever on the "brink" of nuclear annihilation. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is quoted as saying "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost." I have hope that humanity's future political and military leaders will avoid existential disaster, however probable it might be. Not faith, but hope. It seems that is all we can ask for.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Fifth 10 Books I Read in 2022

Reading Period: August 12 - October 10

1. The Power Law (P), by Sebastian Mallaby


    I'm extremely impressed with how great of a writer Sebastian is. This book chronicles the history of venture capital, and somehow it ended up being just as fascinating as More Money Than God. Some venture capitalists, such as Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, are power players. Son once walked into Yahoo's office pre-IPO and demanded that Yahoo let him invest $100 million in exchange for 40% of the company. When Yahoo refused, he asked them to write down the name of their largest competitors. Then Son said, essentially, "if you don't let me invest in you, I'll invest $100 million in one of your largest competitors, and I'll kill you." After some frantic deliberation, Yahoo had no choice but to agree. Most of the business stories in the book are relentlessly informative and entertaining. I'd say this is probably the best business history book I've read, and I really hope Sebastian writes more.

    Entrepreneurship is extremely difficult. 75% of venture-backed entrepreneurs leave their failed business with no money to show for it. Most startups fail, and many fail fast. Venture capital capitalizes on the power law, the idea that "the rewards for success will be massively greater than the costs of honorable setbacks." It takes only one investment in Google or Facebook to generate 95% of the returns for a venture portfolio, so the purpose of a good VC is to scout out potential diamonds in the rough, and possibly guide these diamonds towards greatness. Belief in wacky, off-the-reservation founders is usually required, as "there is no glory in projects that will probably succeed, for these by definition won't transform the human predicament."

    There is a ton of discussion about how venture capital success is generally path dependent, and reputational effects and lucky network connections are generally what has led to success in the Valley. Still, Sebastian defends venture capital and backs up the fact that "luck favors the prepared mind." I'm far removed enough from the space that I don't have enough data to dispute the luck vs skill claims made in the book, but I do have to say I wholeheartedly agree with the quote: "Blitzscaling isn't really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy." Overall I really have nothing negative to say about the book. Please Sebastian, keep writing!

2. Poor Economics (A), by Abhijit Banerjee


    This audiobook was pretty hard to get through, even though the subject matter should be right up my alley. It was unfortunately pretty boring and longwinded, and this does seem to be a case of interesting and novel data with a very lackluster presentation. It was interesting to hear that if you give money to the world's poorest people, who have a calorie deficient and are undergoing signs of starvation, they choose to buy better tasting food instead of more food. Also, the economics of malaria nets was interesting to learn about (does making people pay for nets incentivize them to use them more than if you give them out for free?). Still, I feel like this would have been a better book if written by most other nonfiction authors.

3. Why We Sleep (A), by Matthew Walker


  This wasn't even informative, it was just a soap box for Matthew to pontificate on his superiority. Pretty terrible book. The audiobook literally would put me to sleep and it was three hundred pages too long. Most paragraphs went like this: "jocks in college would tell me that they don't sleep a lot. I would counter back 'well actually... sleeping less gives you a smaller testosterone count than if you sleep more, so you have less testosterone than me. Checkmate jocks.'" I find it baffling that Matthew has so many of these put-downs in his book, it's so childish and I wonder if he just invents these interactions in his head. Yes, I am motivated to sleep more as a result of Matthew's fear-mongering. For that I will give the book props. But still, I wouldn't recommend this book simply because of the author's narcissism.

4. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (A), by John Mark Comer


    I am at a busy enough point in my life where it seems audiobooks are my only option. Funny enough, I listened to this one at 1.5x speed. John's main thesis here is essentially what the title says: destroying your desire to hurry through everything is vital to spiritual growth and success. There were a ton of religious ties to this book, as John is a megachurch pastor (but a cool one), but the basic arguments for digital minimalism and anti-consumerism are still very valid. John definitely cherry picks anecdotes and this is far from a scientific thesis, but it was still an enjoyable read.

5. The 48 Laws of Power (A), by Robert Greene


     The biggest problem with this book is not that it is immoral, but rather that it is essentially useless. Slogging through a twenty-four hour audiobook on how to get ahead through scheming and manipulation should at least have some payoff. Unfortunately, the evidence backing up Robert's claims is completely cherry-picked, anecdotal rubbish. Most of the stories are actually interesting, and reading about con-artists or backstabbing Roman senators made the book somewhat bearable. But trying to read into any lessons from these anecdotes is probably less useful and more harmful to your life than reading your daily horoscope. Each "law" of power is cushioned by various warnings and "reversals" of the law, to a point where it seems entirely subjective when you should choose one path versus another. This not only makes the book useless as a tool that you can use to gain power, it also means that you don't get insight into powerful people and their strategies, which is why I read the book in the first place.

    For some reason, this book takes itself seriously. This is incredibly moronic, as anyone with an intelligence of a monkey will cringe at various points in the book. Robert claims that martyrdom can be a good strategy to gain power, but that usually you should avoid death and find someone else to take the fall for you. What? What is the point of any of this? What is the point of being a "martyr", given that you die and lose your influence? The mistress who gains status by bedding the king gains status, that is true. But then she dies. What was the point?  Pretty much every person used as a role model in this book is an incredibly horrible person. Robert used enough examples of Mao and Genghis Khan that I swear he should have just rounded it out with Hitler at the end. Most of these "powerful" people were incredibly lucky, and most were incredibly stupid. The stories that show this aren't mentioned in the book. Honestly, if you meet someone who takes this book as gospel, you should probably lock them in a cage. I've met one, and it was a very cringeworthy experience. One last point. The world would have been better off without 99% of the people mentioned in this book. Take that into consideration before following their example.

6. Book Lovers (P), by Emily Henry


    Emily is a really good writer, but unfortunately I could not get into this book. Despite reading her other books in the span of days, this one I slogged through over months. I don't think her characters are relatable or even likeable, and if loving New York is a personality, I hate it. Definitely a pretty weak showing all around. One quote I need to mention is: "Tala regaled us with a tale that is either the nonsense ramblings of a toddler or a faithful retelling of a Kafka novel." This confused me, since aren't these the same thing?

Another notable quote:

"Of course you don't have a life. None of us do. There's always something too good to read"

7. Steppenwolf (A), by Herman Hesse


    What a god-damn trip this book was. Crazy stuff, probably what tripping on acid feels like, but in like a cool, literary sense. Herman has such incredible prose and his storytelling is wildly compelling, despite really none of it making any sense. This was an audiobook for me, which as usual I regret if the book is good and appreciate if the book is bad. Unfortunately, this was really good. Not to Siddhartha levels or anything, but I'm glad to have had the experience.

8. The Richest Man in Babylon (A), by George Clason


    Pretty short audiobook, but not really that informative. Personal finance isn't very complicated, and this book spends quite a bit of narrative time explaining very simple rules (save 10% of your income, don't go into debt that you can't manage). I didn't really like the storytelling aspect and slavery references, pretty outdated altogether.

9. The Prophet (P), by Kahil Gibran


    A short poetry collection that is totally worth the read. Beautiful prose, interesting reflections, and very short. I highlighted much of this book, and below are my favorite quotes.

"You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give."

"And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the over-prudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?"

"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

"For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."

10. Apocalypse Never (P), by Michael Schellenberger


     Again, it is surely confirmation bias that leads me to enjoy Michael's books so much. I agree with pretty much every main idea Michael presents, and I like that he calls out the rampant hypocrisy of the traditional environmentalist. This book isn't particularly well written, but its content is very engaging. Michael picks some stupid far-reaching environmental empty gesture, such as banning straws, and provides data that shows that the rational intuition is correct. "When you consider that just 0.03 percent of the nine million tons of plastic waste that ends up in oceans every year is composed of straws, banning them seems like a profoundly small thing." Vegetarianism takes a similar hit: "if every American became vegetarian, U.S. emissions would  drop by just 5 percent." This book fits in very well with the effective altruism books I read earlier in the year. The takeaway of this book is something exceedingly obvious: nuclear energy is the key to combating climate change. It is safe, carbon neutral, and ridiculously efficient. "Had Germany invested $580 billion into new nuclear power plants instead of renewables like solar and wind farms, it would be generating 100 percent of its electricity from zero-emission sources and have sufficient zero-carbon electricity to power all of its cars and light trucks, as well." I've always been infuriated by environmentalists who advocate against nuclear power. As Michael says, these people claim climate change is apocalyptic and then turn around and rule out the most obvious way of combating it. 

    The opening of this book is spent disproving the idea that climate change will "kill us all." This seems to be a major claim of half of the political landscape. Michael points out how harmful this nonsense is, and he claims that this "fear-mongering" makes data-backed environmental advocacy much harder. This book made me hate the Sierra Club. Their campaign against nuclear power has lead to the perpetuation of fossil fuels on a scale envied by the greatest climate-deniers. Air pollution caused by coal power has shortened millions of lives, solar panels produce tremendous waste and are rarely recycled (cheaper to just make new ones), and wind turbines apparently kill a ton of birds and bats. Ok, I don't really care about birds, or bats, but Michael is pretty pissed. "If the United States were to try to generate all of the energy it uses with renewables, 25 to 50 percent of all land in the United States would be required. By contrast, today's energy system requires just 0.5% of land in the United States." I'm not totally I sure I agree with all of Michael's claims. He claims that economic progress should be our main goal (even if in the short run it hurts the environment), and he discounts vegetarianism pretty easily. Still, I think he is spot on to point out the conflicts of interest at work in the current energy landscape.

    Out of everything in this book, the most compelling take is that the key problem with the current climate discussion is the romantic "appeal-to-nature" fallacy. People assume that because renewables sound more natural and less "scary" than uranium, they should be used to replace our current infrastructure. We need to look no farther than the mentally deficient German political class to see how this works in practice.