Friday, November 3, 2023

Tenth 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: October 23 - November 30

1. Training Essentials for Ultrarunning (A), by Jason Koop


    Solid overview of ultramarathon training tips. Jason is clearly an expert in the field, and I think he is probably right in that runners should see ultrarunning in the same light as they view any other sport. Sure, the numbers are big and scary, but athletes still need to be rigorous planners and focus heavily on recovery. I plan to use some of Jason's advice in my upcoming endeavors, as I am sure it will be useful.

2. The Haunting of Hill House (A), by Shirley Jackson


    After watching the television series, I decided to give the book a try. Overall, I think it was pretty much what I expected. Not the scariest story that I've ever read, but there were some creepy moments that probably made it worth the read. The horror genre as a whole has probably progressed in a much more existential and violent fashion since this book was published, so it's possible that this book was worth all the hype at the time.

3. Glock (A), by Paul Barrett


    Well, if you are interested in this history of the Glock, this book is for you. I'm sort of navigating my way through this strange genre of firearm history, and this was a pretty solid addition. The book is very detailed and well researched, but I would skip unless you like this particular niche.

4. The Gun (A), by C.J. Chivers


    Very intriguing book that chronicles the making of the first automatic firearms and follows through to the impact of small arms in modern day conflicts. The AK-47 is the real standout of the book, with probably half of the book chronicling the history and impact of the AK. This book is just as niche as Glock, but I found the knowledge way more applicable and interesting. Probably my last book about guns, although I did enjoy this short detour.

5. Between Two Fires (A), by Christopher Buehlman


    Metal. That is the best word I can think of describes this book. Angels and demons fight over the fate of humanity, while a knight and a little girl cross the plague-ridden countryside on a quest to turn the tide of the war. It's a little strange to see Christian mythology transformed in such a way, and there are certainly horrifying, dark scenes that I will probably remember for a long time. Do not read if you are very Christian or easily offended. If you are ready for some twisted, medieval ass-kicking, I suggest you take the day off, turn up the death metal on your stereo, and strap in.

6. Going Infinite (A), by Michael Lewis


    I sort of agree with the critics that Michael missed the point here. First off, it is not clear to me at any point in the book that Sam Bankman-Fried, known as SBF, is intelligent. Sure, he was apparently a somewhat successful trader at Jane Street (despite posting a $300 million loss), but what separates him from another weird, autistic oddball who goes to MIT and gets an entry level job quant trading? SBF being a sour, pessimistic weirdo who sleeps on a bean bag chair does not make him a genius, regardless of the temporary dollars to his name (which appear to have been gained through a delicate mix of luck and fraud). In terms of being a tycoon, what exactly was so great about his crypto strategy or his business execution? After picking up pennies through arbitrage, it seems that the inefficiencies of the crypto market largely disappeared and Alameda research struggled immensely. FTX was clearly a failed company, a point that Michael totally missed. The lack of accounting, compliance, and safety infrastructure at such a company is more than incompetence, it is a straight up unethical breach of fiduciary duty. Sure, people gave him money. They did this despite him playing video games all day (instead of doing anything actually useful to protect his investors), but getting away with this does not make him smart, it just means that VC's are dumb.

    I am an effective altruist. I go to conferences, I've met a lot of people in the space, and thinking about EA topics takes up an astounding amount of my time. I've had lengthy conversations with Jane Street employees who have met Sam, and I've met amazing individuals who actually have made an awesome impact on the world. Frankly, it's a community that constantly inspires me and motivates me to be a better person.

    Sam, all things considered, was probably the least effective altruist that has ever existed. In addition to severely harming the movement, he was very clearly not "effective" at prioritizing or doing a simple "expected value" calculation, despite Michael's constant insistence that SBF only thought in these terms. The sheer amount of money spent on ridiculous, unplanned real estate alone, money that could have saved many lives, points to this fact. The idea that FTX should not have a robust and complete accounting system is far from "effective" or "intelligent." The thought that Sam somehow did not play an instrumental part in stealing customer funds to try to double down on getting back in the green on trading profits, shows very clearly that he was more than just naïve. Personally, I am of the opinion that Sam was a known liar and scam artist who contributed great harm to society. Maybe his justification was actually to one day (but when? Like seriously when was he going to do all of the good?) donate his empire, but as Michael points out, there were clearly ways he could have done so (Alameda borrowing, risk controls, etc.) without leaving himself exposed to such incredible downside risk. 

    Risk management is probably the most important part of being a good trader. Clearly, SBF will go down in history as one of the worst, despite a totally stacked deck. I am seriously astounded that Alameda lost so much money despite a scorching hot bull market in where SBF could sell vaporware and borrow infinite money from customers. 

    Overall, I don't think that this book was particularly good. It was clearly rushed, with the first half written before the scandal and the second half written in a half-baked attempt to bring the story to the present day. I would have enjoyed a much deeper conversation on the fiduciary duty that a business owner has to his or her clients, a discussion of how exactly SBF fit into the EA narrative, and a more complex look into where the client money actually went (instead of Michael's halfhearted accounting). Oh well, maybe another book will do the story justice.

7. Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell (P), by Brandon Sanderson


    Not my favorite Brandon Sanderson book, but certainly not bad. A lot more disturbing than his other books, and the horror element really threw me for a loop. I think the story and characters were still pretty good, but I don't think it's really comparable to his other books or novellas. The Emperor's Soul is still his best novella by a pretty wide margin.

8. Utilitarianism (P), by John Stuart Mill


    Pretty interesting read, especially given my Effective Altruist bent. John states the utilitarian line: good things promote happiness and bad things promote the opposite of happiness. Then, he digs in much deeper and makes some important contributions to the philosophy. For the most part, this book is John explaining how consequentialism is the backbone of most moral philosophies. He states that being virtuous has a strong utilitarian backing and explanation, but the utilitarian position simply takes it one step further and states that there are important things besides virtue. I've always felt that utilitarianism and individual liberty were dissimilar, and I felt that my personal "gluing" of them together required some stroke of brilliance in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. Well, turns out John is sort of a legend in both camps and a staunch defender of both.

    John states "to have a right, then, is I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why it ought, I can give him no other reason than general utility." His point is that without individual rights, the human experience cannot possibly be one of happiness and flourishing. If we can be deprived of our happiness and freedom at any moment, what is it worth? John states that individual rights are a "security no human being can possibly do without; on it we depend for all our immunity from evil". Basically, a world where everyone uses their own personal utilitarian calculus and tramples over each other to reach the "greater good" is a horrifying place, and the optimal society is likely one that champions individual rights and freedoms, but does so in the name of the greater good. What irony! 

    Probably my favorite contribution of John to utilitarianism is his distinction between beings with different mental faculties. He says that "a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type, but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he fells to be a lower grade of existence." The better wording of this is as follows: "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their  own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

    I think most Effective Altruists choose to ignore this to too large of a degree. It is clear to me that there is some sort of intrinsic "utility" to higher level forms of thinking. Call this what you want, elegance, beauty, artistic brilliance, deep romance, etc., but some form of "intelligence" tips the calculation between happy pig and sad human. "Happiness" as a measure and even "well-being" are sort of over-rated, in my opinion, and I wish I had a greater read on how to calculate that missing part of the equation. We, as humans, know this intrinsically. Sure, we can shut off all of our curiosity and inject Soma into our veins 24/7, but some part of that is convinced that this world would be suboptimal. For others, but for us as well. Figuring out why is the essential struggle of the utilitarian movement
    John states that "next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory, is want of mental cultivation." He claims that our inability to satisfy our curiosity and fill in our gaps of knowledge leads to a sort of mental unhappiness. I found this really relevant to my life, as I definitely have chosen to take the trade of thinking and stressing about events outside my control (AI alignment, nuclear war, other EA stuff) quite constantly, instead of just chilling out and enjoying my time with video games and fiction books. Still, I don't regret this trade, and I don't think I'll ever fall onto the side of relaxation and bliss. Happiness, in my opinion, is a silly target to have. I feel like I would live another wasteful life if I didn't try to do a lot of good with the one life I have, regardless if I could have been "happier" otherwise. Thinking about the hardest and most distressing topics is something I probably do too much of, but I don't see another path forward. We recognize we could maybe be happier if we were ignorant, but choose not to, for the benefit of others. That is the true struggle, and the true beauty, of being a utilitarian.

9. The Most Dangerous Game (P), by Richard Connell


    Pretty short book, detailing a stranded sailor who is hunted by a murderous Russian on a deserted island. Better than I expected, and worth the hour or less read for sure.

10. Nothing Personal (A), by James Baldwin

    I really like James's writing. This is his shortest book, and my main problem was actually more related to the reader of the audiobook than anything else. The narrator talked at length about how James's writing relates to modern events like the election of Trump and white supremacy. Which is fine, it's just not really what I signed up to listen to. I'd rather have stuck to the nuanced and elegant takes that James delivers.

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