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. 

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