Monday, January 23, 2023

Second Group of Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: January 15 - Present

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 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.

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.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2022

Reading Period: June 20 - August 12

1. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab


    An easy future recommendation for anyone with a heart. Kind of tragic and heartbreaking, but also bittersweet and beautiful. I had a few issues with the book, most centered around probably the weirdest relationship put to print, but the writing quality and the underlying themes were superb. I listened to this as an audiobook but wished the entire time I had the print version so that I could highlight passages. Overall, this is a book that will probably inspire me in a lot of subtle ways going forward. 

2. The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker


   This books is an incredible work of absolute genius, but also a complete slog full of outdated pseudoscience. I would say about 25% of this book is completely outdated and useless, 50% is just boring, and the remaining 25% is so incredibly profound that I'm pretty sure my entire worldview has drastically changed. Ernest builds off the work of psychoanalyst giants (Freud, Jung, Rank) in order to explore the human psyche, and much of the book is dedicated to rehashing the work of these psychoanalysts. Unfortunately, Ernest worships Freud and believes that all of human knowledge has been revealed (circa 1973), which is as sad as it is hilarious. Here comes the bombshell: Freud was wrong. It is not sexuality that humans repress and sexual thoughts that explain human behavior. Rather, it is the repression of death. The repression of the horrifying fact that we are all here on this planet for some reason, we are all going to die, and none of us have the slightest clue why. Humans build their entire psychological frame around this denial of death, and this repression explains the underlying motivations behind everything we do.

    "Man is split literally in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with." This is the key problem facing humanity. We are aware that we are special, but we are also dumb animals who will die. This begs the question, "what kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?" Unfortunately, there is no way out of this problem. A terrible, horrifying problem. "This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression - and with all this yet to die." So, the question is, how do we get around this? How do humans live their lives given the cosmic insignificance so clearly bestowed upon us? There only solution is illusion. Humans must represses the horrifying insignificance of their animal existence if they are to function normally.

    "The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way." This is the key idea of the book. Without repression, we are paralyzed, useless. We are trembling animals gifted with the knowledge of our upcoming non-existence, and we have imperfect bodies that remind us constantly of our mortality. "The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. Otherwise he would be crippled for action." Ernest coins the terms "the immediate man." An immediate man is someone who narrows their mind and keeps it on small problems in order to live a normal life. This is a "man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports can or works his electric toothbrush." Every productive member of society is an immediate man. We only differ in terms of the layers of illusion we project over the world around us. There is, according to Ernest, really no other way to live.

    Live on earth is truly horrifying. "Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures." Humans are not at all immune from this cycle of suffering and death. We are decaying flesh and bone headed rapidly towards the graveyard. As animals driven towards survival, the only way to not shrivel up and die crying in a corner is to completely avoid thinking about this fact. Alright, well what does this tell us about psychology? A whole lot, apparently. The drive to procreate, to write a book, to become famous, to make an impact. All a drive towards the unattainable, towards immortality. "People hunger for immortality and get it where they can." Some through religion, some through family, some through a  pursuit of love. Thankfully, Ernest admits psychoanalysis provides no answers. "All the analysis in the world doesn't allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph." 

    So then, what are we to gain from reading this book? We know that human psychology is driven by a repression of death, and we know that most people completely deny their mortifying situation as eventual worm-food. Also, we know that everyone tries to achieve immortality in various ways, all probably hopeless. So what do we do Ernest? In a tremendous flourish, Ernest gives absolutely no answers. He admits the hopelessness of our situation. He suggests that maybe we turn to religion, or try to repress the terrible knowledge we now have some other way. Really anything to get our minds off the topic. Even though it's all useless. There's not really another way to live your life in any sort of un-terrifying way. This book pulls back the curtain on humanity, and exposes it's greatest, most horrifying secret right on center stage. Then, the book ends without providing any answer to our fundamental problem. Instead, it suggests that we draw the curtain back over the stage, less we lose our minds. Magnificent.

3. Dawnshard, by Brandon Sanderson


    He really cannot write a bad story. It's honestly kind of frustrating.

4. As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen


    A super short book that is extremely motivating. The basic thesis of this book is that since man is in charge of his thoughts, he is in complete control of his life. To change your circumstances, you must be willing to change yourself. The way to change yourself is to change your thoughts and have a central purpose in life. After all, "how insignificant mere money seeking looks in comparison to a serene life." 

"Humanity surges with uncontrolled passion, is tumultuous with ungoverned grief, is blown about by anxiety and doubt only the wise man, only he whose thoughts are controlled and purified, makes the winds and the storms of the soul obey him."

5. The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer


    Is it wrong to own a yacht, given that six hundred thousand African children die every year from preventable illness? What is our moral obligation to strangers? Do we have any at all? This book asks all of these questions, and then promptly answers them. It seems clear that if one is to subscribe to utilitarianism, one should donate a large portion of their annual income to fighting poverty. Right now I see moral relativism as the only viable competitor, and, as Peter says, that is "a position that many find attractive only until they are faced with someone who is doing something really, really wrong." Not only should people donate, they should put their money to use where it can be most effective, which is not in America. The median cost of saving a life in the United States is 2.2 million. In Africa, it is between $200 and $2,000. Spending your dollars on buying books for the local library is noble, but it is a terrible misallocation of resources if your goal is to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. Overall, this book has strengthened my resolve to allocate much more of my life towards helping others, and as usual with these kind of books it would be pretty impossible to live my life the same way after reading this.

6. Strangers Drowning, by Larissa MacFarquhar


   Larissa is clearly one of the most talented writers I have ever come across, and this book is definitely one of the best books I've read. The structure of this book is very unique, and from a less talented writer, this book would be an incoherent hodgepodge of stories and ideas. In summary, this book chronicles the lives of various "do-gooders" and provides commentary on the ideas surrounding a life built around extreme altruism. Do-gooders are people who understand "that the world is filled with misery, and that most people don't really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things." Still, do-gooders devote their lives to helping strangers, at significant cost to themselves and the people around them. This book is filled with the stories of such people, and the stories are quite profound. At this point in my life, I am contemplating a lot of different decisions in regards to helping others, and each decision would take me down a very different path. This book chronicles the various paths that others took, and I believe I've learned an incredible amount from each story. Thanks for saving me lots of time Larissa!

    This books ends up being fairly critical of effective altruism. When confronted with Peter Singer's drowning child argument, Larissa mentions the quote, "a strict utilitarian would not rescue the child from the shallow pond at all: he would leave the child to drown, sell his unmuddied clothes, and donate the proceeds to a charity that could save more than one child with the money." I found this hilarious, as I have wondered if following strict utilitarianism would require every average-intelligence individual to proustite themselves to the world in order to donate to the fight against malaria. Larissa thoroughly shows that the life of a saint, where an individual donates their entire life to helping others, is pretty much the exact opposite of the life of a human. You must be single-mindedly devoted to others, and in order to do so you must cut out every part of your life that is any way enjoyable. Good luck trying to sleep when you are somewhat responsible for the next mass starvation in Africa. Good luck with your personal mental health, as you live in a world where "all effort is insufficient, all glory transient, all solutions inadequate to the challenge, all aid insufficient to the need." Do-gooders have opened themselves up to the continuous, unbearable knowledge that the world is full of horrendous suffering, and they realize, unfortunately, that they have little power to change anything. In an interesting parallel to The Denial of Death, Larissa says that do-gooders need to put up illusions in order to function, as "any do-gooder who is not dead or irredeemable jaundiced by the age of thirty has learned to acquire a degree of blindness in order to get by."

    One of the interesting discussions in this book is regarding the idea that helping others is selfish. This is an conversation point that I hear all the time. Apparently, Josh only helps others because it makes Josh feel good to do so. I was never sure how to respond to this line of logic, because it seems a bit ridiculous. People only do things because they want to do them, so even helping others is selfish, because you wanted to help others. I'm not quite sure if you can argue against this, but it seems pretty clear this is generally used as an excuse to not help others. Larissa mentions that "what was more likely to discourage altruism than the suspicion that it was all really selfishness? If doing the difficult  altruistic thing was just another form of selfishness, just another way to make yourself feel good, well, there were many easier and more pleasant ways to do that." Many people use philanthropy to feel important and holier-than-thou, but this is not an excuse to refuse to help others! This book spends the same amount of time attacking altruism as it does defending altruism, but it is clear that Larissa believes that saintliness is still needed in this world. "Trying to help is at best useless and at worst damaging; but to stop trying to help is to give up on humanity. Humanitarians are condescending hypocrites, but they are the best of us."

7. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch


    This book was incredibly moving. It chronicles the Rwandan Genocide in great detail, and the author provides a lot of helpful backstory and analysis. Funny enough, the author of this book is the husband of the author of "Stranger's Drowning," which was the last book I read. This married couple might be the single greatest writing couple to ever grace this planet. There were times were I felt I should probably pause the audiobook because of how stunning and depressing the narrative was. This book was completely heartbreaking, but it was also informative about the dark side of humanity. It will be hard for me to look at another person the same, as it is clear that everyone is capable of extreme violence and incredible evil. Also, fuck the French. That wicked and immoral group of cowards had such a strong hand in perpetrating this genocide that they should be expelled from any human rights councils, and I hope they burn in hell along with the less-educated demons that cut down innocent school children with machetes. 

    One of the genocide survivors states that books are good, because at least they end. However, I'm glad that Rwanda's story hasn't ended. I hope that the Rwandan people get a chance to live fully and thrive after so much needless pain. If the past twenty five years have been any indicator, they will.

8. Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio


    Not a good book. This massive book could have been a two page essay and it would have had the same effect. None of Ray's ideas are original or insightful, except his take on radical transparency which again could be explained in a paragraph. Thankfully I listed to this as an audiobook at 1.5x speed, just to get through it. Mindless repetition, cringeworthy management practices, and a strong tone of hubris plague this book and make it one of my least favorite of the year.

9. More Money Than God, by Sebastian Mallaby


    This book chronicles the history of the hedge fund industry. Overall, it is a really, really good book. As usual, I'm extremely impressed by the ingenuity of macro traders like Soros and Druckenmiller, and I'm skeptical of the success of someone like Paul Tudor Jones, who "told one interviewer, apparently in all sincerity, 'I attribute a lot of my own success to the Elliott Wave approach.'" Overall, Sebastian is very defensive of hedge funds, and his central conclusion at the end of the book is simple: 

    "In sum, hedge funds do not appear to be especially prone to insider trading or fraud. They offer a partial answer to the too-big-to-fail problem. They deliver value to investors. And they are more likely to blunt trends than other types of investment vehicle."

    Unfortunately, Sebastian provides virtually no support for this first claim. He says things throughout the book that sound like "Fund XYZ does not use leverage and pursues a merger arbitrage strategy. This is a very crowed space and there is a lot of competition. The fund had a 40% return in Year 1, a 58% return in Year 2, and a 48% return in Year 3. Also guys don't worry the fund managers didn't insider trade." It is pretty comical how willfully ignorant Sebastian seems to be. People cheat in all walks of life for very small potential payouts. The idea that there are not a lot of cheaters in a virtually unregulated, ultra-competitive industry where cheating can lead to literally billions of dollars of pure profit is comical. I think Sebastian does provide some good support for the rest of the points above, but I still think that this conclusion is one of the hottest finance takes ever put to print. This doesn't detract from the book, and I think I can be strong-willed enough to not downgrade a good just because I disagree with the author's viewpoint. This book will still go down as one of the most informative finance books I've ever read.

10. On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca


    "It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it." This is really the main point of this book, and as expected I really enjoyed it. The wisdom contained in Seneca's writing is timeless, with quotes like "what foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!" Amen, brother. I'm glad for more confirmation that my excessive spending at bars and restaurants is justified.

    "No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from far-reaching hopes; some men, indeed, even arrange for things that lie beyond life - huge masses of tombs and dedications of public works and gifts for their funeral-pyres and ostentatious funerals. But, in very truth, the funerals of such men ought to be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived but the tiniest span."

Friday, May 20, 2022

Third 10 Books I Read in 2022

  Reading Period: May 13 - June 20

1. One of Us is Lying, by Karen McManus


    In an effort to expand my reading horizons, I decided to read this high school murder mystery book. Honestly, it wasn't half bad. It was a bit more young-adult than I expected, but it was very engaging. I kind of wished it had ended differently, and the story could have used a few more twists and turns. Still, this book make me realize I don't need to ever watch TV again, as even the trashy high school TV dramas can be replaced by more interesting and thorough books of a similar genre. 

2. Verity, by Colleen Hoover


       This book was soooooo messed up. I'm astonished that Colleen is traditionally a romance writer, given that she probably scarred me for life with some of the scenes in this novel. Given the disturbing subject matter and aggressive sex scenes, I would never recommend this book to anyone. Still, I have to say that Colleen did a phenomenal job in accomplishing whatever the heck this book was meant to accomplish. Bravo Colleen, bravo. There were plenty of flaws with this book, but I tried not to take it too seriously and treat it as I would any horror movie. Far from the type of book I enjoy, but any book that I read in a single day deserves some respect.

3. Beach Read, by Emily Henry


    My first ever romance novel. There were some obvious flaws that I'm guessing are very common to the genre. Emily seems to "tell instead of show" character attributes and character development, and she gives the same descriptions for the main characters at a frustrating frequency (Gus's crooked smile is mentioned every two pages). These would have made me angrier if the rest of the book wasn't so shockingly good. It was heartfelt, funny, and overall just a cute story. I read this in a couple of days and I'd recommend as a solid vacation read.

4. It Ends with Us, by Colleen Hoover


    Absolutely unsure how I feel about this book. On one hand, I hated the beginning and almost did not finish, due to how much I despised the characters and the writing. I also had plenty of gripes with the ending. On the other hand, this book was totally heartbreaking and could very well be a masterpiece. My current take is that Colleen isn't a fantastic writer, and she's pretty bad at writing characters. I actually think that overall she's just kind of a bad writer. All of her characters are completely flat and unlikeable. However, she's a pretty fantastic storyteller. This is probably the saddest book I've ever read, and it was also one of the most gripping. That is a hard combination to pull off, especially given the disturbing realism of the subject matter (domestic abuse). I think this will be my last book of hers, as I really didn't like her romance writing (read like bad fanfiction), but I'm glad I took the plunge.

5. People We Meet on Vacation, by Emily Henry


    Honestly, this was just another enjoyable, easy read. Probably not as good as Beach Read since it lacked any real emotional weight, but the characters were extremely likeable and very charismatic. Emily has a great sense of humor and writes banter very well. This might be my last romance for a while; I think the detour was informative.

6. Lightning, by Dean Koontz


    I wouldn't be surprised if Dean wrote this in a single weekend. Really not that great of a book with pretty much every aspect (plot, characters, writing quality) all lacking. Also as a huge fan of time travel, the way it was designed in this book was extremely stupid.

7. Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer


    This is one of those books I wish I never read. Not because it is not good, but because now I have to contemplate every decision I've made and potentially completely change my lifestyle. This book (audiobook version) is about animal rights, and it is essentially a defense of the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle on purely the basis of preventing animal suffering. There are three main reasons to go vegetarian: personal health, environmental concerns, and animal suffering. The first two have never swayed me at all. Cutting out potential food options places constraints on your personal nutrition optimization, so while it may force you to eat more vegetables, it cannot by nature be healthier than a balanced diet where you can pick and choose from more available options. The environment is in a tough spot, but refusing to eat meat is pretty much an empty gesture for climate concerns. There is already a ton of attention on climate, and it's pretty silly to think that your personal decisions (not showering to save water) has any effect whatsoever. Now we get into animal suffering. I used to brush this off, and I definitely have lived with some strong cognitive dissonance. I love to eat meat. Eating meat is truly one of my favorite things to do. Eating meat is seriously one of the best parts of being alive. But it may be like really, really unethical in a lot of circumstances. Shit.

    Singer makes quite a lot of bad arguments in this book. For some reason, he treats all suffering across species as entirely equal. For example, he claims that deer are likely more sensitive to pain than a human infant is, so all else equal we should save a deer from getting hit by a car over a human infant. I feel like this is the trolley problem but for really, really weird utilitarian philosophers. Peter also doesn't treat sentience as a scale at all, but rather has this strange argument he calls "the least common denominator." His theory is that since there are some humans who are dumber than chimpanzees, we should treat these groups as morally equivalent (otherwise, we would have to concede that eating and experimenting on mentally retarded people is no worse than eating and experimenting on chimpanzees). This is a laddered argument, so since some pigs are smarter than some chimpanzees, and since some rats are smarter than some pigs, well, you see where that goes. The problem is, this is a stupid philosophical argument to base your ideas on. What if we kill all the stupid people? Does that then give us license to treat a lower animal horribly since there is no least common denominator tying the groups together? In addition, does this line end anywhere? Peter actually does draw the line, he draws it at plants. The line isn't at shellfish, since we can't really be 100% sure that oysters don't feel pain (but we can for plants?). Also, I have some friends dumber than your average oyster, so I guess eating an oyster is pretty much as equally bad as eating one of my friends.

    The problem with this step down function and the idea that (pain in mouse) = (pain in human) is that it makes it pretty unclear how to do anything in life. In regards to ending animal testing for HIV cures, Peter suggests that people in the gay community are "begging" to be test subjects for new medications, as if that somehow invalidates the dangers of skipping animal trials. He claims over and over again that we can't really infer anything from animal trials, since animals are different than humans (someone tell the scientists!). He seems to suggest that we either stop all forms of animal experimentation or skip directly to human trials, and that animal research really hasn't led to any scientific breakthroughs. I feel like his take on this entire subject is just really uneducated. In regards to eating animals for food, Peter solely focuses on pain, which is not really a utilitarian position (pain + pleasure = utility). So if a cow lives a rockin' twenty years and then dies by the guillotine, Peter is still pretty against the whole thing. Rapid fire bad arguments and responses real quick: "meat isn't essential, therefore it is ignorant to eat it" - showers aren't essential, "Ghandi was a vegetarian and he lived until 80" - a grandma smoked and lived to 100, "small, rural fishing villages aren't making as much money due to Big Fishing" -so, stop eating fish entirely?, "not eating meat but still eating dairy products is just as bad" - probably not.

    Now lets talk about the good arguments. "Unnecessary animal suffering is bad" - true, "we don't need to eat meat, and could have a healthy life and environment without the meat industry" - true, "a lot of times, factory farming is completely terrible and we will probably look back on the industry in 200 years as one of the biggest injustices of our time" - dang, probably true. Honestly, the most important part of this book was the thorough walkthrough of factory farms and the detailed descriptions of exactly how different animals suffer throughout the industry. If you believe that animals can suffer and that suffering is bad, it is really hard to finish this book with out some sort of worldview change. I am less convinced that I will be totally cool with eating pigs, cows, and even chickens that live their lives in pretty clear misery. In fact, I'm pretty sure that we need to draw the line somewhere further than where it is at currently. Now, it's just a matter of where.


8. Edgedancer, by Brandon Sanderson


    Pretty straightforward and short audiobook that I finished in a day. Given how much I hated the character of Lift in Words of Radiance, I'm impressed that Brandon transformed the character into someone actually tolerable. I'm glad for the additional context, and it is abundantly clear that this guy is one of the best storytellers of our time. Pretty glad I got this out of the way as I've been dreading reading this book for quite a while.

9. Normal People, by Sally Rooney


    I really don't know what I was supposed to learn from this book. Boring plot, dreadful writing, and terrible ending. One of the most frustrating tropes in storytelling is the "miscommunication" trope, where all of the story's problems can be solved by two characters communicating in a way that isn't completely idiotic. Needless pain and suffering is caused by the main characters refusing to have even one sentence of legible communication. The only positive of this book was the unique writing style. Pretty much everything else deserves criticism.

10. Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson


    Brandon Sanderson does not miss. I cannot for the life of me understand how he writes these books. He is undoubtedly a genius, and his storytelling ability is unparalleled. I think the other Stormlight Archive books edge this one out slightly, but honestly it is tough to compare. The character development of Shallan wasn't my favorite, and it is clear that Kaladin's story has for the most part been told. Still, Dalinar's character arc in this book was likely the most compelling of the series. Frankly, it was beautiful. The worst part about reading these masterpieces is that it makes it so much harder to feel confident writing anything. It's almost like watching an insane guitar performance and then recording yourself struggling through Hotel California. At some point it's not inspirational, it's defeating. Masterclass work.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Second 10 Books I Read in 2022

 Reading Period: February 28 - May 13

1. The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald


    After a few crushing months at work, I decided that I needed to finally get back to reading. I figured I'd start with a quick audiobook in order to start the reading binge. The Great Gatsby was pretty good. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and I'm glad it was so short. Scott is a great writer, his prose actually quite beautiful. I found myself disliking all the characters and the story was very cookie cutter, but it's hard to judge a 100 year old novel based on the story enhancements we've made over time. Worth the read.

2. San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, by Michael Shellenberger


    To be honest, I read this story entirely out of a strong desire for confirmation bias. Michael did not disappoint. He states that while poverty and high rent costs contribute to homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction are the central causes of our current homeless crisis. Housing first and harm reduction initiatives a lot of times do more harm than good, and liberal political leaders do a great disservice to the entire population (including the homeless) by playing dumb on these issues. This book was extremely informative. Every argument was backed up with facts and figures, and it is clear Michael did a ton of research. It is worth reading mostly to disengage all the false narratives that are floating around in one's head. For example, nonviolent drug offenders make up 4% of the population in American prisons. Most people, including me, would have guessed way higher. 

    I've never been in favor of the legalization of fentanyl, meth, or heroin, but a lot of my liberal friends disagree. I've heard them say things like "well if it was legal and regulated, less people would die from it." This seems like such a irrational take that I am usually awestruck and unable to respond in a non-condescending way. Michael makes an argument that I love. He says the following:

"If it is really true that the problem is contaminants, that opioids are not being made and distributed under tight regulation by legal manufacturers, then no one would ever have died from OxyContin. It is weird to me to hear people who think of themselves as leftists slinging a line that the most shameless corporate attorney for Purdue Pharma would be embarrassed to raise in court."

     This book is by no means perfect. There's some filler, and some of it is pretty strange. I'm not sure why he kept bringing up Victor Frankl and Michel Foucault, it didn't fit at all. There's also a paragraph that is just straight up repeated. I've never seen that before in a book, especially one that isn't otherwise sloppy. Regardless, I'm glad I read this book. It was interesting to get a take on the homelessness crisis that cuts against the traditional narrative.

3. Chaos Monkeys, by Antonio Garcia Martinez


    The author is really annoying, but some of the storylines in this book are interesting. It gets pretty into the technical details about Facebook's advertising department, and the reader will likely learn a bit  about online ads in general. Still, this is a pretty longwinded book about Antonio and his personal takes on life. I'm glad I listed to the audiobook, as I don't think I could have gotten through the print. 

    Antonio is a barely successful start up founder who became a project manager at Facebook. His start up only worked out because he lied to investors and then sold before his team had to produce anything really useful. His work at Facebook was essentially him fighting tooth an nail for a product that Facebook didn't end up using. Then he gets fired, and the book ends. He seems like a horrible person to work with and an even worse person to hang out with. I'm not entirely sure why other people I know liked this book so much, I really don't think it's worth the read. One funny part is Antonio says something to the effect of "what you call music, I call noise. My ideal Saturday is drinking *(insert fancy wine) and reading *(insert French author)." The ego on this guy is unreal, especially for someone without any of the success most people who write books about startups have.

4. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity


 "To the hundred billion people before us, who fashioned our civilization. To the seven billion now alive, whose actions may determine its fate. To the trillions to come, whose existence lies in the balance."

    I was destined to read this book. There really is not a single other book on the planet that was more meant for me, more tailored to my exact interests, hopes, and fears. Toby outlines the major existential risks facing humanity (nuclear war, weaponized viruses, unaligned artificial intelligence, etc.) and provides a wealth of information regarding each one. He then discusses what we can do to mitigate these risks and why we have a moral obligation to do so. This book is so big-picture and important that it may very well be unethical to read this book and not change your life substantially. It may be immoral not to hand this book out on street corners, while shouting the gospel of Ord at uncomfortable onlookers. Regardless, it will take a lot for me to not quit my job and begin following the Word.

5. Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill


    Effective Altruism is an extremely attractive philosophy. Taking a rigorous and scientific approach to making the world a better place is very novel idea. There are some requirements, many of which are uncomfortable and fairly subjective. First, you must be a complete utilitarian. You must believe that every life is equivalent, and that we have a moral obligation to help out others that are less fortunate. This logic extends, so you must agree that donating $1,000 to fight poverty in the United States is much "worse" than donating $1,000 to fight poverty in Kenya, because that money will go much further to helping people overall if it is deployed in Kenya. Second, you must be able to make value judgements, and you must believe that you have the moral authority to claim that some causes are better than others. Curing blindness in an infant is better than curing Alzheimer's in an adult. There a plenty of criticisms of utilitarianism, all of which are well documented by philosophers over the generations. Regardless, Effective Altruism seems like a very beneficial way to structure your charitable giving, if not your entire life. 

    Effective Altruism is extremely intuitive, and it allows you to cut through the over-choice paralysis surrounding giving. Most importantly, it shames you for not doing more. This shame no doubt makes the reader uncomfortable, and motivated reasoning strikes hard. I found myself making excuses when listening to the audiobook, all the while noticing I completely agreed with William's points. This book made me realize how selfish I have been my entire life, and I feel motivated to be better. I donated to charity for the first time in years immediately after finishing. This book certainly has the potential to be one of the most impactful books I've read.

6. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by Eric Jorgenson


    Pretty decent book detailing the thoughts and ideas of AngelList founder Naval Ravikant. Eric covers Naval's thoughts about wealth creation and happiness. Overall, a lot of the ideas in the books are pretty useful and interesting. However, there is quite a bit of repetition and redundancy, as most of the book's information comes from various Naval tweets that have overlapping ideas. Also, there's really no focus on helping others or being a good friend/father/citizen, it's really a focus on personal happiness and becoming rich. I listened to this entire audiobook during a 20 mile run, so to be honest I was a bit delirious and might have missed some stuff. The central ideas (develop specialized knowledge, use leverage instead of just working more hours, rigorously defend your time) are not new to me, but if they were I'd probably rank this book higher.

7. The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef


    A solid audiobook detailing the scout mindset, an approach to thinking that focuses on rationality and humility in decision making. A lot of the ideas are borrowed from other sources (Thinking Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, etc), but I still enjoyed this book and it was a quick read. It is very clear that I generally don't operate under this approach, and reading this book is a bit of a wake up call.

8. 80,000 Hours, by Benjamin Todd


    Continuing on my Effective Altruism binge, I decided to read the companion book to "Doing Good  Better." Essentially, this is by the other cofounder of the website 80,000 hours, a website focused on doing good and helping humanity with your career. This book isn't that good, it's more akin to a collection of website articles and uncertain musings about career paths than a useful, coherent take on career advice. I was pretty disappointed with the writing quality and didn't really gain much upon reading. I think "Doing Good Better" is leagues better, with "The Precipice" being in a class of its own. Still, this is an interesting community that I will likely continue to explore over the coming months.

9. Human Compatible, by Stuart Russell


    A very interesting audiobook for sure, but if you agree with all of the conclusions already (AI superintelligence is likely to occur, it's very hard to align the interests of an AI with humans, and we're probably screwed) then it's not a must-read. Stuart is one of the most distinguished experts in the field, and his non-technical breakdown of the AI problem is interesting. However, there is a section of the book where Stuart lists quotes from people in the AI community and then proceeds to "take them down" with facts and logic. This felt a bit childish and most of the opposing quotes were obvious strawmen. Still, most of the book was informative. Unfortunately, I am terrified of AI and this book did nothing but fan the flames. Ignorance really is bliss. Still, we can't solve the most important problem in the history of humanity by burying our heads in the sand!

10. Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou


    Such a solid book. Probably at the top of my recommendations list simply because anyone, regardless of background, will find the story of Elizabeth Holmes absolutely fascinating. This book was extremely well researched and impossible to put down. A delightful display of good journalism and high stakes.