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, by Toby Ord
"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.