Monday, January 23, 2023

Second 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: January 15 - March 23

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

5. Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink


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

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


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

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

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

7. Life 3.0 (A), by Max Tegmark


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

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

8. Being Mortal (A), by Atul Gawande


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

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


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

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


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

Sunday, January 1, 2023

First 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: January 1 - January 15

1. Atomic Habits (P), by James Clear


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

4. Legend (P), by Marie Lu


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

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


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

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

"Health: decisive weapon against religion."

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

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


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

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

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

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

    Short quotes:

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

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

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

    Massive quote:

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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