Thursday, April 20, 2023

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: April 19 - May 10

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

5. The Fall (A), by Albert Camus


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

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


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

7. Train Dreams (A), by Denis Johnson


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Third 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: March 23 - April 19

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


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

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


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

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


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

4. Alexander Hamilton (A), by Ron Chernow


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

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

5. Models (P), by Mark Manson


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

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

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


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

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


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

8. Irreversible Damage (A), by Abigail Shrier


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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