Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Sixth 10 Books I Read in 2023

 Reading Period: June 4 - July 21

1. The Demon in the Freezer (A), by Richard Preston

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/198505.The_Demon_in_the_Freezer

    A bit disjointed and not quite as terrifying as The Hot Zone, but still quite terrifying. Richard now takes us through Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases in human history. Unlike Ebola, which is actually terrifying in its natural state, the worry of Smallpox is that it could be weaponized by a bad actor intent on murdering millions or even billions of humans. Humanity eradicated Smallpox in 1980, one of humanity's greatest accomplishments. Yet, it is still around in various freezers. There is quite the interesting political battle mentioned in the book. The world had a chance to band together and completely destroy the disease (and probably would have in the early 90's), but in the late 90's the world powers changed course and decided to keep Smallpox around for lab experiments. A controversial stance, one that I am not qualified to have a real opinion on (but why the actual hell would you not kill it with prejudice?). The book discuss the Soviet bioweapons program, current capabilities of weaponized Smallpox, and Anthrax, another scary pathogen. At the end, I am left with only one thought: why are Australian researchers publishing research that shows how to create versions of Smallpox completely resistant to vaccination? Seriously, what are they doing over there? How is this sort of research allowed to enter the public domain? Will open source kill us all?

    Despite being one of the most likely existential risks to humanity, I am simply not knowledgeable enough about biology to have a real take on the danger of chemically engineered pandemics. Still, reading about the topic has been fascinating, and I will likely dive further in with some other authors.

2. Bullshit Jobs (A), by David Graeber

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34466958-bullshit-jobs

    A bullshit job is a job that contributes nothing to society, and even the employee believes that his or her job is bullshit. A lot of jobs are meaningless paper pushing or manual office work that could be easily automated. Some people spend a majority of their workday checking boxes on forms or providing temporary fixes to problems that could be fixed permanently with little effort. Stunningly, according to a poll done in the UK in 2015, 40% of workers believe that their jobs are bullshit.

    David presents some interesting ideas about the role of work in human happiness and why so many bullshit jobs persist. When a politician says "this new healthcare reform will create ten thousand new jobs," it is probably the case that every single one of those jobs is bullshit. More red tape creates more bullshit, meaningless jobs. The effect of having a bullshit job is interesting. Even if you are paid well, having a job that lacks any sort of positive impact is frustratingly boring, and many people quit due to the toll such meaninglessness takes on their mental health. David ends the book with his anarchist views and a discussion of UBI, but I don't find his takes well informed or particularly convincing. Probably not worth reading the book, but the article that the book is based on is short and will give you David's most important points.

3. Hiroshima (A), by John Hersey

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27323.Hiroshima

    A series of true stories about Japanese citizens during and after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. These slice-of-life examples detail normal people dealing with an event of harrowing violence. I found the end of Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb, specifically the Hiroshima chapters, to be far more horrific and compelling.

4. Foster (A), by Claire Keegan

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8143909-foster

    This sort of book is just not meant for me. I should have learned with Train Dreams, but any audiobook written in a serious tone that is about some relatively boring, fictional event (this one about a young girl who spends some time living with relatives) is just not something I can enjoy. I am sure some people will find it moving, but its scale is simply too small for my taste.

5. Know My Name (A), by Chanel Miller

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50196744-know-my-name

    Rapists should be sent in front of a firing squad, the triggers pulled relentlessly until morning. Only then will the legal system be made whole, equitable. Only then will the pendulum of justice begin to swing, as until then it will have been restrained, tied up to the side by a rope. This rope is etched deep with markings from a black pen, markings that, if you look closely, repeat the sentence "relentless male violence" over and over again. The rope has been there for so long that we have gotten used to it. But it doesn't have to be. We could untie it, if we really wanted to.

    Male violence against women has been a mainstay throughout human history, rivaled in duration only by one thing: the absence of consequences for male violence against women. The human brain easily gets desensitized to frequent events. If a man only gets seventy days in jail for beating a woman near to death, it is because of the frequency of the event, not the morality. If sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and then fleeing the scene only lands a man three months in jail, it is due to the frequency of the event. It is due to the comparison of this event to other crimes, crimes of greater "magnitude" in the eyes of the judge and the parole board. Crimes that they hear every day in court. Crimes all too common, all too normalized. Crimes that are not adequately punished. Chanel's legal story, while heartbreaking and entirely unjust, results in an almost unheard of outcome: a guilty verdict. It results in actual accountability: a rapist who is despised by the nation and near-universally condemned. Unfortunately, he is on this pedestal alone. There are hundreds of thousands of rapes in the United States every year. Hundreds of thousands of rapists. The standard outcome of these horrific crimes is not accountability, but emptiness. It is women and girls tossed to the curb by a broken system, by a culture that refuses to take ownership. It is largely men, but women too, who protect this system of injustice by their weak and whiny protests. By their desire for ignorance, by their illusion of safety. By hero worship, and by family ties. I hope that when humanity looks back at this time in human history, we look back in shame. I hope we look back at the statistic of "one hundred thousand rapes a year" and vomit. Nothing else is reasonable.

    Now, back to the book. Chanel Miller is a hero. She is probably the bravest, most admirable person to ever write a memoir. I am astounded by her writing ability. I have never read a more powerful, moving book. Chanel's legacy is cemented, eternal. Her voice is a commanding tone of strength and elegance. I hope my daughters grow up to be like her. I hope that I, too, grow up to be like her. I hope that this book becomes required reading. Across the world, I hope that we gradually begin to loosen the knot. I hope that, for the first time in history, the pendulum begins to swing.

6. Small Things Like These (P), by Claire Keegan

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58662236-small-things-like-these

    I liked this book quite a bit better than Foster. I identified with the main character, Furlong, and theme of the book could not be more applicable (what do you owe the world, should you help others?). Claire is a really good writer, although I still can not entirely get over the small scale of the novel. This is probably what makes it beautiful, but I find less value in such a setting. Here are some good quotes:

    "Was it possible to carry on along though all the years, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?"

    "The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the net door, but the worst that could have happened was already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been - which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life."

7. The Singularity is Near (A), by Ray Kurzweil

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/83518.The_Singularity_is_Near

    I can't tell if Ray is a genius who will correctly foreshadow many future events, or if he is a crackpot. He is probably a bit of both. This book was written in 2004, which is quite incredible given that some of his predictions have shown promise (drones bringing packages, AI rapidly advancing). Many of his other predictions have been flat out wrong (most of them). Maybe I am out of the loop on nanobot technology, but his bullishness seems completely misguided as of twenty years later. Overall, this book is way too long and repetitive. Really the most intriguing idea is the technological singularity: a time period that is formed by the rapid compounding of exponential advances in technology. Superintelligence is sort of a proxy for this, as the development of such intelligence and power could create a world that we could not comprehend with our feeble little brains. 

    I am not quite certain of an eventual singularity, but Ray is probably right about the development of transformative AI this century. However, his optimism is horrifying. I cringe at thought leaders who assume things will go well by default, and Ray is the poster-boy for naïve optimism. He occasionally cedes that we should be careful, but he has no useful ideas about what safety looks like. His discussion of technology drips with survivorship bias. 

    I liked Ray's discussion of death because it rings exactly true to me (death is bad, we are culturally programmed to disagree simply as a rationalization/coping mechanism). His discussion of god was ridiculously cringeworthy. Ray 2004: "yes I believe in god, as god is the universe." Regular person: "but does god judge humans over moral laws he created?" Ray 2004, malfunctioning: "god is the friends we made along the way. I define him as whatever wishy-washy nonsense I can just to appear intellectual superior despite only coming off as totally annoying. I will refuse to answer any question directly because I enjoy being a jackass." I really didn't like the aspects of Ray's personality that shone through in this book. I didn't like that he invented conversations with others in order to bestow upon us examples of his intelligence. But, his ideas were at least interesting. Most people should skip this book, but it provided some value to me. Now I have to figure out what the heck is going on with nanobots.

8. Exhalation (P), by Ted Chiang

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41160292-exhalation

    There could hardly be a book more up my alley. This collection of science fiction short stories packs quite the philosophical punch, as every single story is thought provoking. Ted is a masterful writer, and I could not be more appreciative of the conciseness of every story. I think that science fiction with a philosophical bent is my favorite genre. Mostly because every time I read something as good as this (or Replay), I get angry. I am mad at the fact that I did not write such a narrative, given that I know that I could. Given that the thoughts being displayed are my own thoughts, just a more advanced and thought-through version. Jealously is the greatest form of flattery.

"People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable Lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we've all encountered: the idea that free will doesn't exist. It just wasn't harmful until you believed it."

9. A Whole Life (A), by Robert Seethaler

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28598101-a-whole-life

    I like books about a man who lives a fairly boring life and then dies. I can't fully explain why, I suppose there is something existentially beautiful about such a book, but in all honestly I think I just like stories that are fully closed and complete. Maybe that's why the early death of someone is so tragic, because we really hate stories that don't have an ending. Plot points that are never resolved, a mystery box thrown into the fire. Humans are such curious creatures, and the slightest air of unsolved mystery can drive a man insane. This book is very, tragically simple. But I liked it, in the same way that I liked Stoner. Probably not worth the read, unless you're into that sort of thing.

10. The Hobbit (A), by J.R.R. Tolkien

Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5907.The_Hobbit

    It is quite fascinating to me how much this book differs from the blockbuster movie trilogy. I think stretching this short fantasy book into nine hours of cinematic battles is some sort of crime. However, what I find most interesting is how fairy-tale-esque this book is. Full of songs, whimsical characters, and pretty interesting worldbuilding. In all honestly, I don't see this book as particularly revolutionary. I assume that it because it has since been relentlessly copied to death, but there's nothing really deep lurking under the surface. Sure, I rooted for Bilbo, but there weren't really any stakes, nothing to really worry about. The epic fantasy section is surely in the subsequent series LOTR, but I'm beginning to wonder if I really missed out.