Books of 2019
Before we get started: reading books does not make you a better person, and it doesn’t necessarily make you smarter. Reading is just a form of entertainment, and a reading habit isn’t superior to a movie-watching or exercising habit. I choose to spend my free time reading, but I don’t judge people who choose otherwise. So, this article in no way implies “you should read more books”; I think you should do whatever you want in your extra hours as long as it doesn’t hurt others and you enjoy the experience.
That being said, for me, the best books offer an ideal blend between entertainment, learning new things, and having your opinions challenged. To get my thoughts in order on the books I read in 2019, and perhaps to help you find a book, below are the 136 books (127 non-fiction and 9 fiction) I read in 2019. (The numerical ratings are here: Google Sheet)
But first, a brief introduction to answer common questions I get.
An unhealthy tendency to take things to the extreme. A one-book-a-week goal became two a week, which became reading as many books as possible.
Audiobooks while exercising and print reading before bed.
(3 hours of exercise per day * 365 days) /10 hours per audiobook ~ 100 books
(1 hour of reading per day * 365 days) / 10 hours per book ~ 36 books
Total hours ~ 136 (about 57 complete days)
Total pages ~ 55000 (average of 400 pages per book)
Should you read 136 books in a year?
Definitely no. The ideal number of books per year is higher than one but way less than 136. After a while, the books start to run together, leading to a diminishing return for each additional book. Moreover, you realize that many books say a similar thing with different words, particularly those by the same author.
How much did reading 136 books cost?
$0. There are massive repositories of free print and digital books called libraries (well you fund them through taxes). Use them!
What did you learn?
Here’s my attempt to compress 55,000 pages into 6 general lessons (expect a more comprehensive article on these lessons later):
- Modern human society is non-zero-sum; one person’s gain does not require another’s loss. In a well-functioning economy, when one person benefits, everyone benefits. This leads to the conclusion that helping others helps ourselves and, once we’ve reached a high level of success, we should turn around to help the next person up the ladder. Books: The Moral Animal, The Life You Can Save, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
- Innate talent has a small effect on final outcomes in most human endeavors. Instead, we can increase our chances of positive results (though not guarantee them) through extensive practice over years or decades. High achievement does not mean doing the right thing once or being born with specific skills, it requires repeatedly making the correct choice in small everyday decisions thousands of times for years. Humans are able to master new skills, change their habits, or rise to the top of a field, but it takes an extraordinary amount of deliberate training. Books: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
- There is no inherent meaning in life waiting to be revealed. To live a purposeful existence, we have to find an objective larger than ourselves — be it science, philanthropy, religion, capitalism — and work with like-minded people towards our shared goals. We must construct our own meaning and guiding principles. Books: Man’s Search for Meaning, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Principles, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
- Natural things — hatred of outsiders, violence, starvation, disease, short lives, poverty — are not always good. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements — long lives, the triumph over famine through GMOs, scientific collaboration, helping people on the other side of the world we’ll never see, eradication of diseases, peaceful relations countries — have come by pushing back against our genetic programming. The argument that natural is better than human-engineered is lazy and often false. Books: The Moral Animal, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
- Technology can have a negative or positive effect depending on how it’s used. The past decades have revealed several of the drawbacks including a decrease in social capital, increasing isolation, increasing rates of mental illness (maybe due to tech), addiction to devices designed to hijack our biological drives, the spread of misinformation used to justify hate crimes, increasing inequality, and echo chambers leading to extremism. We need to stop unquestioningly adopting new tech into our lives and evaluate our relationship to our devices so they do not replace real life. Books: Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking, and Watching, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, Team Human
- To understand our thoughts and behaviors we need to look beyond our environment and at our genetic background. Humans are not born as genetically identical blank slates, and although genetics is not destiny, our genes play a significant role in every decision we make. Evolution has produced brains and bodies designed to succeed in our evolutionary environment, which was vastly different than the modern world. We can use evolutionary biology to understand our natural inclinations and when we should go against them. The Moral Animal, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know
How do you rate books?
Nonfiction books are rated on three criteria:
- Relevance (35%): is the book pertinent to me personally and to our current society? Relevance is a measure of how much a book can help us navigate through current individual/societal difficulties and is time and situation-dependent. The highest-scoring book in this category was Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking, and Watching because I am on a campaign to improve my relationship with technology.
- Impact (35%): how much does the book change my actions and worldview? The highest scoring books have moved me to direct action or changed my outlook. The highest-scoring book in this category was The Life You Can Save (free here) because it convinced me to immediately sign a pledge donating 1% of my yearly income to charity (GiveDirectly which sends money directly to poor families).
- Readability (30%): does the book present its thesis and supporting evidence in compelling and clear language? The best books in this category are engrossing and present complex subjects as understandable (without oversimplification); readability is a combination of interestingness and clarity. The highest-scoring book in this category was The Evolution of Everything.
What was your favorite and least favorite book?
Overall, the highest-scoring book was The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. This book examines how our evolutionary environment shaped our genes, which subsequently impact our current thoughts and actions. We also learn how altruism could have emerged through Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as being nice to others may have increased our own chances of reproductive success by means of reciprocal altruism. The conclusion is that we have the capacity for morality, but in most cases, using it requires overcoming our impulses through conscious reasoning.
The lowest-scoring book and the only book I would not recommend is The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. This book is a jumble of self-help pseudo wisdom and business jargon with the objective of guiding the reader to develop a direct-to-consumer business selling snake oil that runs itself, leaving you, the CEO, with only 4 hours of work per week. Ferriss is trying to convince readers (meaning sell more books) by deluding them with the fantasy that high levels of material success and happiness can be achieved with low levels of effort, a fiction that thankfully, we know better than to buy.
Where is the fiction?
Fiction books, nine this year, are at the bottom. It’s difficult for fiction to hold my attention because the real world is filled with so many fascinating stories that there is not a need to make them up. Nonetheless, the best fiction can explore deep questions with direct relevance to our condition.
Fiction books are rated on:
Thought-provoking (50%): does this book pursue interesting ideas in addition to the main storyline? The best books can deeply explore themes from science to philosophy to economics. The highest-scoring book in this category was Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
Engrossing (50%): how well does the book hold a reader’s attention and draw them into the story? The best books are difficult to put down and have a coherent plot with relatable characters. The highest-scoring book in this category was The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.
How do you decide what to read next?
Books mentioned in other books, books mentioned on podcasts, books cited in Wikipedia articles, books recommended by friends, books recommended in newsletters, whatever books I can find at the library, books in other books’ bibliography, or books featured on the front page of a library site. In simple terms, there is no string of coherence in my reading, a situation that helps avoid overload on any topic.
How many books will you read in 2020?
There’s no goal, but I expect it to be much lower as I’ll be focusing on quality. A dedication to pursuing one stat (like the number of books) can have a negative impact on other aspects of your endeavor. Books have always been a source of knowledge and adventure for me, and I don’t want to turn reading into another figure to maximize.
1–10. The Best of the Best
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
- A significant portion of our behavior and thoughts are dictated not by learned actions (behaviorism) but by our genes, which evolution designed to maximize our chances of survival in the evolutionary environment. Many of our cultural, religious, and political practices only make sense through the lens of evolution by natural selection.
- Morality and altruism (helping others) are not social constructions but exist in human DNA, although they often are not our first impulses. When we examine seemingly selfless acts, we find drives that increase the chance our genes are passed on; this means that altruistic actions benefit the receiver plus the giver and that all humans have the capacity for moral actions.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- Our actions are not the product of conscious thought, but of unconscious patterns — habits — that we’ve acquired from our genes and environment. It is these unthinking habits, manifested thousands of times per day, that determine whether we reach our objectives and lead a rewarding life.
- Habit change is difficult but possible by re-wiring the cue-action-reward loop that drives behaviors. Often, it’s not possible to entirely rid ourselves of a bad habit but we can replace the behavior with a better one.
Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking, and Watching by Adam Alter
- Our devices are so effective at addicting us — and yes, we do suffer from technological addiction — because they were designed to take advantage of our natural desires for rewards, social approval, continual progress, convenience, and distraction. Some of the smartest engineers in the world have expended considerable effort in engineering these addiction machines to ensure we never put them down.
- When we understand what draws us to technology, we can put up barriers that prevent us from being exploited and losing control of our attention. With the proper structure, technology can be a “bicycle for the mind,” making us more efficient without taking time away from human interaction.
The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer (download audio or print book)
- Those of us in the developed world, with our incredibly high standards of living (higher than even the wealthiest people in the world 100 years ago), have an ethical obligation to help those in the developing world. When we lift the level of health and wealth in impoverished nations, we benefit everyone around the world by letting more people contribute to the world economy.
- Public and private aid has a demonstrable positive impact, nonetheless, choose where to donate wisely as some charities are 1000+ times as effective as others. In the past 30 years, we’ve raised over 1 billion people from extreme poverty which should give us optimism that by continuing to give a small portion of our wealth, we can vastly improve the human condition.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathon Haidt
- The three untruths promulgated by American colleges — exposure to challenging ideas is damaging, feeling upset by an idea or opinion is a valid reason to discount it, and an “us versus them” identity-based worldview — are detrimental to students’ future ability to succeed in a world requiring resiliency and compromise.
- Treating students as if they are fragile may be well-meaning, but it stifles free speech and encourages everyone to adopt the same narrow, inoffensive worldview. The solution to hate speech is not to ban it from campuses, but to debate it in the open and let students reject derogatory speech through their own reasoning.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
- Even in extreme suffering, like the author’s time in a concentration camp during WWII, we can find meaning in life by striving towards a purpose outside ourselves. Everything can be taken from us except the freedom to decide our attitude, which in turn affects how we react to our external situation.
- Everyone must find their own meaning in existence, and for Frankl, meaning comes from maintaining courage in the face of suffering, working towards a larger purpose, and loving one’s fellow humans. We should aspire to find our own purpose that will outlive us and pursue it with other people to build a meaningful life.
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway
- The same tactics, and in some cases the same exact scientists, used to argue for the safety (or even benefits) of cigarettes were employed to argue against taking action on environmental protection, consumer protection, and now global warming. As a tool, science can be used for nefarious purposes — profit at the cost of human and environmental health — as easily as for the collective benefit.
- Although it may take decades, eventually, the health of people and the environment has won out in most cases when the political consensus converges on action — examples include banning CFCs to protect the ozone layer, banning DDT to protect vulnerable wildlife, and passing clean air legislation which has significantly improved air quality. Advocates on the side of the common good must be willing to endure until the weight of scientific evidence and the economic and health arguments can persuade governments to act in the best interests of environmental health.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
- Excellence in many fields — sports, intellectual, musical — is achieved not through talent acquired at birth but through deliberate practice. Deliberate practice involves complete concentration, well-defined objectives, rapid feedback, and gradually increasing difficulty, similar to a state of flow
- How we practice is as essential as the quantity of practice, with deliberate practice the most effective framework. Humans can learn a wide variety of physical and mental skills, but, to achieve world-class performance takes decades of deliberate training.
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles Mann
- An exposition of two competing approaches to solving one of humanity’s most massive problems: ensuring we have enough food to feed everyone. The techno-optimists are led by Norman Borlaug and believe in developing technology to solve problems while the environmentalists, led by William Vogt, want to use only natural approaches.
- The techno-optimists triumphed decisively, with the breakthroughs developed by Borlaug and others driving the Green Revolution, vastly increasing crop yields to the point where natural famine has been erased from the Earth. The success of technical approaches to large-scale problems should inform our strategies as we combat a new global problem, climate change.
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson
- Perceived physical limits are almost always mental barriers erected by our brains. Through training — including mental training while exercising — we can learn to push past mental walls and do far more than we thought possible.
- Endurance is a trained skill, not an innate talent and the best endurance athletes are not born but made. Endurance athletes are not another species of humans, only normal people who deliberately trained to expand humanity’s physical limits.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
- Sleep has a positive effect on nearly every mental and physical aspect of the human body. Sleeping better won’t solve all our problems, but it will allow us to function much closer to our full potential.
- We should make sleeping the right amount — which varies between individuals — a non-negotiable part of our day. Cheating on sleep to get more done is a counterproductive strategy.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam
- Since the 1950s in America, communities — groups of people getting together in person for a shared interest — have markedly declined, leading to social problems such as increased partisanship and rising rates of mental illness.
- Modern life is not conducive to growing or joining tight-knit communities, but we can push back by spending less time isolated with technology and more time spent interacting with people towards a common purpose. A stronger social community benefits people, both mentally and physically.
Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff
- Technologies such as the computer and the Internet, which were once seen as potential connectors of humans, have instead isolated us with algorithms increasing dictating the content we see/watch/hear.
- To push back against the de-humanizing effect of social media and smartphones, we need to connect and cooperate, acting as teams instead of individuals. We can use the same technology to unite people behind a common purpose (think of the Arab Spring or the global student strikes for climate change action); after all, humans invented these tools, and we decide how they are used.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
- Through a re-telling of a 1986 fire that destroyed the Central Library in Los Angeles, Orlean details the history of this one library and all the people who rely on its services.
- Libraries are an essential and often-underutilized resource that provides services far beyond the books on the shelves. Although they aren’t terribly exciting, libraries are still a critical part of many small towns and large cities.
Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee
- Facebook, with its aim of maximizing growth and revenue by keeping users hooked on the site, is not neutral, but instead is designed to promote the most extreme content, often with disastrous consequences.
- We need to abandon the idea that social media platforms are not responsible for the material on their site. On the individual level, we can change the default settings, so what we see is not entirely dictated by algorithms, and on the national level, we need to hold tech giants accountable for the harm they cause.
The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics by George Lakoff
- Liberals believe they can win elections by presenting data and championing programs that work in voter’s favor. In contrast, conservatives appeal to deep-seated principles like fear of outsiders, dislike of change, and trust in authority.
- Lakoff argues that liberals could do better in elections by reframing their policies in terms of principles, taking into account our neurological patterns. The argument put forth (perhaps incorrectly) is that the citizenry will not change its mind (except it has in the past) based on the merits of policies, and therefore, liberals need to change their presentation of issues.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathon Haidt
- Our beliefs come first from our immediate intuitions and only later are justified by rational thought. People’s initial reaction to ideas they disagree with is often extremely negative, and they do not take the time to consider the concept based on empirical evidence.
- There are more aspects to morality than harm and fairness traditionally associated with conservatives and liberals, respectively. We can cooperate in politics and religious fields by overcoming our natural inclination toward group behavior and engaging people who have differing viewpoints with an open mind.
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins
- An incredible story of one former NAVY seal’s path from a dead-end job to a career as a world-class ultrarunner. Individuals can change for the better, even from terrible circumstances, but it takes more than momentary motivation, it takes a commitment to a complete restructuring of one’s life.
- Motivation doesn’t work to achieve one’s goals because thoughts follow actions, not the other way around. Anyone sitting around waiting for motivation to strike is never going to reach their objectives; if you want to improve your situation, start taking small actions that, over time, lead to substantial progress.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
- Grit, “sticking with things over the long term until you master them,” is what sets high achievers apart. The defining characteristic of mastering skills is not talent, but rather, a willingness to keep practicing through difficulties.
- “Passion and perseverance for long term goals” will serve you better than switching between objectives at the first sign of a challenge.
The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley
- New ideas do not appear fully-formed from the minds of geniuses working alone. Instead, they are gradual improvements on existing concepts, involving an untold number of people.
- From politics to education to language to morality, the ideas we consider novel today are only variations on older concepts. These domains will continue to change, not in massive leaps, but in small evolutionary steps.
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari
- A history of the disastrous war on drugs, from Prohibition to the modern-day with a significant focus on what causes addiction and how it can be effectively treated.
- In many cases, criminalizing drugs does not reduce usage and increases abuse. The most progressive countries have decriminalized most or all drugs, provide safe places for users to use, and treat addicts as humans, trying to rehabilitate them instead of locking them up; not surprisingly, these methods have generally led to more positive outcomes.
Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West
- Many aspects of the natural and man-made world do not follow linear relationships. Instead, they scale slower than linearly — sublinearly — or, faster than linearly — superlinearly.
- Data for data’s sake is not useful; we need a framework for understanding the “big data” we now gather. One frame to examine this data through is scaling laws that describe how inorganic and organic entities develop.
Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre
- In the near future, drones will operate entirely on their own, and computers will be making the final call to end human lives on the battlefield. Scharre argues that we always need human judgment in life or death decisions, illustrating several situations where humans overruled computers and prevented disaster.
- There are acceptable uses of autonomy in war and deployed responsibly, artificial intelligence could reduce human war casualties. An international ban on autonomous weapons is unlikely, meaning we need policies in place now to ensure AI makes war less horrible, and we keep humans in the decision loop.
WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly
- A comprehensive guide to the business and technology paradigms that O’Reilly believes will dominate in the coming decades. We often feel powerless in the face of change, but, as pointed out, humans are the drivers of that change, which means we can use tools to create the future we want.
- Humans are naturally talented problem-solvers, and, fortunately, we are not about to run out of problems anytime soon. Moreover, we should not let unfounded fears — robots taking humans jobs — restrain responsible technological progress.
All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
- An engrossing account of the Watergate investigation that eventually ousted Nixon from the presidency. Told by the instrumental journalists in the case, we get the full story of how the links — often through money — were traced back to the upper levels of government and, ultimately, the president.
- This book is a good reminder that given enough time, almost all unethical behavior will see the light of day an idea we’ve seen repeatedly over the past several years. However, the process of uncovering impeachable acts is not instantaneous, and the best approach is to proceed slowly, gather all the facts, talk to as many people as possible, and build a rock-solid case.
How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff
- The same dataset can be used to prove opposite points merely by manipulating the presentation of the data. Knowledge of how this manipulation is done is the best defense against it.
- Those who don’t understand how to interpret graphs will continue to be taken advantage of by those who design them to achieve their own ends. The age of “Big Data” has not changed this dichotomy; the only difference now is there’s more data to manipulate.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathon Haidt
- Fulfillment comes not solely from other people and not solely from within ourselves but from finding an equilibrium between the two. Our sense of purpose and our relationships with others largely determine if we lead a personally meaningful life.
- We need to employ the perspectives of both ancient cultures and modern science. Above all, we need to find a purpose, either religious or secular, for our existence and interact with people who share this purpose.
Principles by Ray Dalio
- In life and business, adhering to a strict set of overarching rules — principles — can increase chances of success by aligning actions with these principles.
- One of the most important principles is an openness to receiving criticism and learning from it to avoid making the same mistakes. To put this into action, foster an environment of transparency, where feedback is seen not as a personal attack, but as a tool for achieving better outcomes.
Dispatches by Micael Herr
- A collection of stories from a journalist in the Vietnam War which exposes the experiences of the ordinary troops on the ground. Herr captures the combination of terror, humor, mayhem, and insanity that characterized the disaster of the Vietnam War.
- If anyone is under the impression that war is noble and improves men, this book will dispell that notion with pictures of pure tragedy. Journalism and stories about past wars remind us that “war is hell,” and we must avoid this needless suffering; let the better angels of our nature prevail.
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
- The microbes within — and on — us play a significant role in both our physical and mental health. Our tendency to view all germs as negative and our obsession for cleanliness could be harming our microbiome and, subsequently, our health.
- We still don’t understand the full impact of our microbes and how to actively cultivate a healthy microbiome. However, there are steps we can take, such as eating a diverse diet with lots of fiber, avoiding antibiotics when possible, and exposing ourselves to helpful germs (the Hygiene Hypothesis posits that a decreased exposure to allergens makes us more susceptible to allergies) can help our microbes work for our good.
The Fifth Risk by Micahel Lewis
- An investigation into the disastrous political appointments of President Trump in the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. The government (which does far more than we ever imagine) depends on thousands of capable individuals to function, and the current President has created a potential disaster by appointing people with no idea how their department works.
- The Federal Government performs many critical functions, from keeping our air and water clean to forecasting severe weather. These functions should be completely non-partisan, with appointments made only on merit.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane
- A detailed exploration of the world beneath our feet, from caves to sinkholes to underground laboratories that links the underworld to concepts like humans timescales in relation to geological time and our relation to nature.
- The book features incredible stories of underground adventures, but it also goes further by investigating how humans interact with and perceive the natural world, reminding us the Earth exists on much longer eras of time than us.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Lowley
- American history textbooks tell an extremely distorted story of the United States, entirely avoiding any negative actions of our leaders/country, glorifying outright indecent people, and neglecting the stories of native inhabitants.
- This portrayal of history discourages critical thinking among students and encourages a good vs. bad dichotomy of history. Instead, we should present multiple perspectives on history and not avoid the evil actions of past figures in the process, allowing students to think through the ethics of past decisions and imagine alternative scenarios.
Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio
- Emotion plays as large a role in making positive decisions as rationality. People lacking emotion make poor choices and suffer from choice paralysis.
- Reason is a powerful tool, but rationality alone cannot effectively guide us through societies composed of humans. Instead of portraying reason as only right and emotion as only bad, we should work to develop both faculties and deploy them appropriately.
The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli
- A documentation of 99 common decision-making bias and mistakes. Understanding our shortcomings is the first step towards addressing them.
- Making better decisions does not require new tools or methods, only an understanding of our biases and conscious avoidance of them. For instance, we can push back against the confirmation bias by seeking out evidence that contradicts our firmly held opinions.
Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurelien Geron
- The perfect blend between machine learning theory and practice (with Python code). Hands-On ML covers the basics up through deep learning.
- Hands-On ML is the first choice for anyone who wants to go beyond surface-level knowledge and start developing machine learning systems.
Letters to A Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
- A series of letters by the late journalist and social critic covering a number of topics centered around the theme of developing and disseminating dissident positions.
- Doubtless, this book will provoke some readers, but considering differing viewpoints is an exercise that would do us all good.
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis
- Instead of encountering resource shortages and mass starvations with increasing human population, as predicted many times, the average human living now is better off than at any point in time. There is no indication this trend will slow as the planet nears 10 billion people.
- Technology is an effective resource multiplier because it allows us to find more natural resources and to use them more efficiently. The continued development of technology, aided by more people, may ensure that we never run out of energy, food, and livable area and that human life continues to get better.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reduce Global Warming by Paul Hawken
- A comprehensive documentation of the 100 most promising strategies we can use right now to address global warming. For the most part, we don’t need new technologies to conquer climate change; we need the public and political will to put them in use.
- A welcome contrast to the many books listing the perils of climate change without offering any solutions.
The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis
- A part of Lewis’s larger work, The Fifth Risk, which documented Trump’s transition to the presidency and the risks of having important government positions staffed by people who do not know how the government functions. The book focuses on the National Weather Service, the organization providing critical weather and climate data to the American public.
- As is his style, Lewis presents a complex (and some may say boring) topic in a captivating manner, this time holding the government accountable and bringing notice abuse of power when industry leaders are appointed to head public agencies. Government positions are often thankless with little publicity, but we need to commemorate the thousands of people working for the American (and worldwide) public and ensure the National Weather Service (and other government agencies) work for the common good.
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins
- Knowing how natural phenomena, such as the development of a child, work through a scientific lens does not diminish our appreciation of them. Instead, it can heighten our awe at the incredible ways nature solves problems.
- There is no need to resort to magical explanations for processes we do not yet understand. With enough study under the self-correcting mechanism of science, we can explain the most remarkable parts of life on Earth (and beyond).
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
- A detailed account of the most famous brothers in America and how they were able to build the first controlled airplane without the backing of any major institution. The Wright brothers combined previous findings with hard-earned observations, gradually iterating until they achieved flight.
- McCullough describes the Wright brothers as representing the peak of American ingenuity using their wits to solve a problem that had vexed humans for hundreds of years. Yet, even the Wright brothers built on previous knowledge and benefited from correspondence with contemporaries, indicating the importance of collaboration to science and engineering.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The state of flow — a blissful, complete focus on a task — is one of the most enjoyable and productive experiences for humans.
- We can cultivate flow states by clarifying goals, receiving immediate feedback, removing distractions, concentrating solely on the task, balancing challenges with abilities, and doing work we intrinsically enjoy.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig
- There are two competing approaches to life, the “romantic” who dreams for the best, and the “classical” who takes action and employs problem-solving skills to work for the best. Neither viewpoint can be said to be superior because we need both romantics who can dream and add color to the world and the classicists who can rationally address issues.
- Leading a fulfilling existence requires balancing hard reason with irrational romanticism. We have much to learn from creativity and intuition in addition to what we learn from science and logic.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
- The field of science is the best tool we have for understanding the world as it really is and subsequently figuring out how to use the rules of nature to improve our lives. The critical aspect of science is its self-correcting mechanism: scientists continuously try to prove themselves and others wrong, using data to tune our models of the world.
- We use science and rationality to overcome harmful superstitions that hold back human progress. At the same time, we need to stop the commandeering of science to justify atrocities and promote the responsible, beneficial uses of this tool.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant
- While most people are content to fall in line, a few people find new ideas, build a coalition, and implement the innovation.
- Originality is a trait that can be encouraged in children by teachers and in employees by business culture. Dissenters should not be silenced but allowed to speak with ideas debated based on their merits and available evidence.
Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg
- Meaningful action on climate change must involve both governments and private companies. Pursuing sustainability is not in opposition to a business’s bottom line.
- From both an environmentalist (Pope) and businessman/mayor (Bloomberg) perspective, climate change is the most significant issue facing humanity. Nonetheless, there is a reason for optimism, as evidenced by several examples of programs that have been successfully implemented.
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton
- Starting about 250 years ago, regions of the world began progressing at an unprecedented rate, which led to the improvement of the human condition but also vast inequalities between countries and continents.
- The lifting of billions of people from poverty in China and India over the past three decades offers optimistic evidence that countries can rapidly improve the wealth and, subsequently, the health of their citizens. Instead of increasing foreign aid, wealthy countries should be focused on removing trade barriers and establishing markets in less well-developed countries.
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson
- There are no longer shared nationwide media channels as there were in the early days of radio and television. Instead, tv, podcasts, music, movies, news, etc. have fragmented into specific niches.
- Rather than trying to appeal to a non-existent mainstream, content producers should sell a large number of different products to these niches. One example is Amazon, which removed the physical store to sell almost anything online; each product may have low volume, but collectively, the total revenue is immense.
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
- The best personal description of what it’s like to suffer from depression. This book is a must-read for anyone with the illness or anyone who knows someone with a mental illness (that would be all of us) because it explains the seemingly inexplicable behavior of someone with depression from the inside.
- Treating mental illness can be a life-long process, but getting better is possible. The more we understand about mental illness, the easier it is to talk about it, and consequently, the more receptive sufferers will be to getting help.
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norenberg
- By almost every objective measure, humans around the world are better off now than ever before. In contrast to claims of doom, we are living in a Golden Age.
- Globalization, which allows for division of labor, and free trade, which allows countries to compete on a level playing field, are responsible for the progress.
Conformity: The Power of Social Influences by Cass Sunstein
- The human drive to conform to group norms and views is exceptionally powerful. We even suppress what we think is right to avoid going in the opposite direction of the crowd.
- Dissenters should be welcomed in groups because they provide a mechanism for correcting a group’s beliefs. Also, dissenters can reduce extremism, encourage more diverse thought (which leads to better solutions), and foster debates.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Through trial and error, salespeople and marketers have developed effective methods for convincing people to act in a specific manner. The psychological research on influence has followed the practice.
- Being aware of the persuasion hooks — reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus — can make us more effective sellers (please use these in an ethical manner) and decreases the chances we’ll be convinced to make choices against our own interests.
An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
- Seven tales of medical cases involving patients with neurological conditions. Sacks discusses the difficulties faced by these individuals and how they tried to adapt.
- Even with extreme neurological illnesses, people are able to lead successful lives. In some cases, the patients developed abilities far beyond neurologically “well” individuals in specific domains, suggesting that “normal” individuals have remarkable capabilities that remain undiscovered in the brain.
Life Inc: How the World became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff
- Corporations have gone from being a fictional entity to a central place in American society, from the branding of individuals to the privatization of many industries.
- The corporatization of American life has disconnected us from one another and portrays people as mere economic machines from which to extract value. We need to return to a human-scale economy where people are treated justly, and workers are rewarded for cooperation.
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu
- Past communication technologies — radio and television — have started off as diffuse networks and then consolidated with control in the hands of a few large corporations. The internet also started out de-centralized, but the recent growth of large tech companies suggests it may be on the same arc.
- While large corporations and monopolies can have some advantages, such as increased efficiency, they also can harm innovation by destroying any nascent technology threatening to disrupt their business. To keep the Internet a tool for the free exchange of information, we should stop ceding control of our digital lives to the same few companies and use open-source tools favoring open access.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
- An engaging autobiography of Mrs. Obama’s life, up through her two terms as First Lady. Mrs. Obama has a direct writing style and avoids the common autobiographical tendency to focus on the successes.
- The first lady has to make as many sacrifices as the President, and Mrs. Obama deserves commendation for her unfailing support of Barack. I desperately hope we’ll see Mrs. Obama back in the White House.
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
- There are two ways to manipulate humans, manipulation, and inspiration. Manipulation may work in the short term, but in the long run, inspiration is more effective and sustainable.
- People need to first understand the why (purpose) behind a task before delving into what (outcome) and how (processes). A sense of purpose is a powerful motivator because it helps people see how their work fits into a greater effort.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
- A self-help book aimed at insecure people overly concerned with pleasing others at the cost of their own well-being. The basic idea is clear: we should care less about what others think of us and care less about breaking arbitrary social norms.
- We have a limited amount of attention to use, and we should spend that on the things that matter to us; the idea is not to be indifferent, but to expend effort only the activities that we either enjoy or that help us towards our goals. We should strive to be different because many of the rules everyone follows without question are designed to keep us in line and prevent original ways of thinking.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
- Communication between humans is an intricate skill, which none of us have yet mastered. We have difficulty holding real conversations with others, where both parties understand the other, and this leads to severe errors.
- Humans “default to the truth,” meaning we assume people are telling the truth, which allows us to be easily taken advantage of by people who seem to be well-meaning. Defaulting to truth is more comfortable than maintaining continuous skepticism, but the cost of this convenience is susceptibility to being fooled.
Lying by Sam Harris
- In any situation, lying is unacceptable and results in worse outcomes for both the liar and the audience. Telling the truth causes short term pain, but better relationships in the long run.
- We should never lie, either through commission, by deliberately telling a falsehood, or by omission, failing to point out an issue. Pointing out a problem, even if uncomfortable, is the only way to start to address it.
No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs by Naomi Klein
- We no longer purchase products, but brands and a “lifestyle” promulgated by marketing. Advertising no longer is about the intrinsic qualities of a product, but the person we can become by buying new clothes, a new car, new tech, etc.
- Corporations have taken advantage of the shift to brand-based marketing by lowering the quality of products and shifting production overseas. The result is harsh working conditions in developing countries, which companies like Nike do their best to conceal.
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff
- By putting growth above workers’ well-being — and above all other considerations — the digital economy is harming the average worker while making a few individuals extremely wealthy. Some of the symptoms of the growth above all else mindset are increasing inequality, higher education and healthcare costs, and job insecurity; for the most part, tech leaders are out of touch with the struggles of middle and lower class citizens.
- Instead of prioritizing short-term growth, companies should work to improve the condition of workers and create sustainable business models. On the government side, we need legislation that favors labor over capital through concepts like progressive taxation, a livable minimum wage, education that better prepares students for this century, and more significant public investment.
Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson
- The best examination of the history of coding and the culture — both positives and negatives — that still pervades computer programming. Thompson explores the mindset that drives programming and some of the interesting personalities in the field while dispelling the idea of a super-intelligent programmer.
- Coding may seem like a dark art, but, in reality, it’s another human enterprise, with all the attendant shortcomings. Rather than extracting all the humanity from computer programming, we need to imbue coders with a greater — and more diverse — knowledge of how code impacts humans.
Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction by Steve McConnell
- A set of software engineering best practices can vastly improve code quality, reducing time spent debugging, and building more robust applications. Rather than moving fast and breaking code, we should slow down and concentrate on implementing these best practices.
- Writing quality code actually reduces development time, because most of the time spent on a software project is in re-work. Reduce complexity, write code for people, follow a well-defined process, concentrate on the what instead of the how, work at the highest level of abstraction possible, iterate, and adopt standards to become a more effective software engineer.
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley
- Our genes shape many of our thoughts and behaviors, even when we think we’re making conscious decisions. However, genes don’t mean destiny, and, if we understand their influence, we can work to counteract the innate negative behaviors and encourage those that help us.
- As we gain the ability to select children’s genes, we need to avoid the mistakes of the past and ensure gene selection is used responsibly. We don’t yet know what that means, but it’s better to have regulations in place before the technology is widespread.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
- The story of the working partnership between Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, which led to fundamentals in behavioral economics, including prospect theory and numerous heuristics/biases.
- The relationship was productive while it lasted because both Kahnemann and Tversky questioned traditional economic and psychological assumptions. Nonetheless, differences between the two men and a breakdown in communications eventually eroded the partnership.
The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese
- A speculation on the fourth age of humanity driven by artificial intelligence and robots following the first age of language, the second age of cities and agriculture, and the third age of writing and shared currencies. Reese believes robots and AI are distinctly more transformative than previous incremental technological advances, with both drawbacks and benefits.
- Overall, Reese takes a measured view on the fourth age, predicting neither dystopic or a utopia, but continued improvement in our standards. If the past three ages are taken as data points, we have a strong reason to believe further technical advances will lead to greater human flourishing.
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be as effective if not more so than medication for depression and anxiety. In this practical handbook, Burns walks us through how cognitive distortions influence our thoughts and how we can use CBT to counter these distortions.
- External events have no polarity; it is only our mindset that colors events as negative or positive. If we can overcome our initial distortions of reality, by naming the distortion and outlining why it is false, we can stop perceiving every event as unfavorable.
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives by Tim Hartford
- We are taught to prize perfection and cleanliness, yet that attitude can be stifling to creativity. Embracing some degree of disorder can help us create new ideas and find novel solutions to problems.
- Human life is inherently messy because of irrational behavior and emotions, so navigating society requires accepting a high degree of flexibility. Being fine with imperfection can make us more creative and more resilient, better able to deal with unexpected developments.
The Common Good by Robert Reich
- For the past fifty years, America has been going through a period of increasing individualism, resulting in the erosion of any uniting principles for the people.
- A well-functioning society or nation needs a set of fundamental tenets (a common good) that encourages citizens to work together and make decisions that benefit society instead of only themselves.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
- Through wanton habitat destruction, humans are causing a sixth mass extinction of flora and fauna (the first five extinctions were from natural causes). This is a highly readable account that makes the toll on human behavior immediately clear.
- Kolbert’s book is rightfully pessimistic and shows that human actions have already been detrimentally impacting ecosystems. Climate change is only one of many consequences of our activity, and hopefully, this book can serve as a Silent Spring for preserving natural ecosystems.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
- The story of the black, female engineers who played a vital role by carrying out calculations in World War Two and the early days of NASA. These women labored through segregation and have mostly gone unrecognized, a travesty this book plays a small part in rectifying.
- It’s easy to forget how easy some of us have it now, and the extreme lengths other people have gone through in the past for the good of their country. These women did everything they could to help the Allies and later put men into space, and they deserve to have their story told and celebrated.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
- The astounding real-life story of a girl who was shot by a terrorist group — and survived — for promoting education in Pakistan. The book is a powerful reminder that around the world, people don’t have access to many necessities — such as education — that we take for granted.
- Rather than directly fight against the Taliban, Malala has taken a far more effective approach in writing a book that has reached millions of people around the world. She is a role model for anyone standing up for the betterment of people, whether through education or any other means.
The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak
- The story of how astronomers discovered there are many galaxies in the universe and that the universe itself is expanding. We are taken behind the scientific facts into the lives of the scientists — which all their failings and quirks — revealing that science is a very human endeavor.
- Discovering the immense size of the universe and that the universe is expanding was a watershed moment in human history as we discovered just how insignificant we are on a cosmic scale. Nonetheless, we should not be pessimistic about our size but inspired that we mere humans have found out these incredible facts and continue to expand our knowledge.
The Social Animal by David Brooks
- Individual decision-making may seem like conscious choices, but it’s a product of both our evolutionary past and our social environment.
- By bringing together findings from sociology, evolutionary biology, and psychology, we can piece together a model of human behavior.
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
- Despite the title, this book is not asserting that Buddhism is the one true religion; instead, the premise is that the core idea of Buddhism, that human life is suffering, and we can use meditation to understand and accept this reality. Meditation does not solve our problems, but it does have benefits that have been helping humans cope with life for thousands of years.
- Meditation can be a secular practice, and everyone can benefit from a greater awareness of their condition. When we can take a step back and observe our emotions, we can minimize misunderstandings like the Fundamental Attribution Error — attributing harmful intentions to others instead of realizing behavior may be a result of the situation — and be more compassionate to our fellow humans.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich
- In this travelogue of New York City, Helmreich details the diverse neighborhoods and people that make NYC a wonderful place to live.
- Many trends show up in the stories Helmreich collects, such as the decline in crime, increasing rents due to wealthy people moving to the city, and shifting ethnic communities. These trends are mostly for the better, and NYC has never been a better place to live or walk than now.
The Life and Death of Smallpox by Ian and Jennifer Glynn
- The story of smallpox, from the horrors it inflicted, to the eventual eradication of the disease through a worldwide campaign that triumphed in 1980. The removal of a disease from the human population is one of our most impressive achievements and a success everyone should know about.
- Eradicating smallpox took a massive scientific, medical, and political campaign requiring worldwide cooperation. This effort could form the basis of worldwide cooperative action towards sustainability.
NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette by Nathan Pyle
- A practical guide for navigating the often bewildering landscape of NYC. I would recommend this to anyone traveling to NYC for the first time.
- Pretty much anything is acceptable in New York as long as you are not getting in someone else’s way.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
- A book of stories about patients suffering from hallucinations and other mind-altering experiences and what these may tell us about the human brain.
- Hallucinations generally are viewed negatively in public, but they can happen to anyone (mental illness or drugs are not required) and are not a symptom of madness, but a common effect produced by human brains.
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari
- Depression may be as much a social disease as one caused by imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain. Medicine plays a crucial role in treating mental illnesses, but so does create the right social environment, with high levels of interaction in a supportive community.
- Many of the same forces tearing down communities — suburbanization and technological isolation — may be causing the increase in mental illness seen across the United States. Treating mental health is difficult, but we need to be more compassionate towards sufferers and look for social improvements in addition to medication to address the biological component of depression.
The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio
- Human intelligence arises not only from our logical faculties but also from our feelings, which motivate reasoning. Feelings (also called affect) encompass emotions like fear or love, as well as drives to pass on our genes and seek membership in a group.
- Our reasoning begins with motivation from our effect, which then guides its course and provides feedback that drives actions towards our overall well-being (which makes us more likely to pass on our genes). Neuroscience should not neglect feelings and concentrate solely on rationality because our higher-order thoughts are not possible without the lower level emotions and drives.
Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America by Jennifer Price
- A collection of essays detailing how historical and modern Americans have interacted with nature. Topics range from the extinction of the passenger pigeon to the successful effort to get women to stop wearing stuffed birds as hats, to the modern use of nature by companies to sell goods.
- Modern Americans celebrate nature not out of true love of the outdoors, but for self-serving purposes such as appearing sustainable. Natural areas should be conserved, and Americans should try to spend more time actually appreciating these areas in person, instead of idolizing nature through tv or in stores.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
- The story of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a company trying to develop a painless diagnostic blood test that raised billions of dollars and ultimately failed with Holmes indicted for fraud. This real-life tale is a necessary call for a more significant investigation of the claims of tech companies and avoiding placing too much credence in a charismatic leader.
- We should carefully scrutinize the actions/words of founders (this would have been a good idea for Uber and WeWork) and make sure the science being touted is sound before placing any value in a startup. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (Carl Sagan) to prove, but investors, to their detriment, avoided due diligence and were duped as a result.
Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun
- A collection of stories about Berkun’s experiences as a public speaker interspersed with lessons for effective presentations. Most of the lessons are mundane and nothing new, but nonetheless, people still find it incredibly hard to speak well in public and approach it with acute anxiety.
- The most important message is that to get good at public speaking, you need to spend a lot of time speaking in public. The most effective method for a successful presentation is to prepare thoroughly and practice speaking to an audience.
Mozilla 2019 Internet Health Report by Mozilla Foundation https://internethealthreport.org/2019/
- A report compiled by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation on the state of the Internet in 2019. As expected, there are bright spots — such as increased access to the internet around the world — and areas for improvement — like making AI work for the greatest number of people and preventing the spread of misinformation.
- There are numerous steps individuals can take, from running a relay for Tor to contributing to Wikimedia, to donating one’s voice to the Common Voice project to help improve the web. A decentralized, open, inclusive, private, and secure internet is a healthier place to be online.
Classic Computer Science Problems in Python by David Kopec
- An enjoyable walk-through of several well-established problems in computer science with solutions implemented in Python. This textbook is helpful both for getting a better command of the Python language and learning how to think like a computer scientist when approaching problems.
- Solving computer science problems requires breaking the overall goal down into individual steps and then figuring out how to combine them. There are repeated design patterns, such as divide and conquer dynamic programming, and backtracking, that can be adapted to multiple algorithms.
Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report 2018 by United Nations https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/progress-report/
- Every year, the United Nations publishes a progress report on 17 sustainable development objectives. The report has both favorable — decreasing poverty rates — and negative — warmer temperatures and increases in CO2 concentrations — developments to report.
- These goals are worth pursuing because they describe the broader issues facing humanity and not the petty minor events covered by the relentless news cycle. On a global scale, progress is generally in the right direction, but significant action is needed to ensure the human population can grow, and living standards can rise without catastrophic effects to the Earth.
The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Being an effective leader requires making numerous tradeoffs. For instance, a commander must balance affection for his/her troops with the sternness to push them when needed.
- Great leaders enable their team members to be more successful while also taking ownership of all aspects of the “mission.” When necessary, underperforming team members must be removed for the benefit of the entire team.
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
- A collection of essays on all manner of topics. This book is long, but there’s a lot to be learned from Hitchens’s life experiences (including many contrarian opinions).
- It’s clear Hitchens got as much out of life as he could and wasn’t afraid to start an argument when he saw an injustice to oppose. All of us should strive to live this fully and be equally open to engaging even influential figures in debates when we see hypocrisy and detrimental policy.
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
- The autobiography of the founder of Nike, from selling shoes out of the back of a car to one of the most profitable companies in the world. Knight is generally forthcoming, including admitting to lying and manipulation to build up Nike.
- It’s evident that unethical behavior played a substantial role in the foundation of Nike in addition to many other successful companies (SpaceX, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon). Society has rewarded these men for the ends of their often cruel and manipulative behavior, but I wonder how public reception of them would differ had their companies floundered.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
- The story of brothers that committed murder inspired by their Mormon faith and the belief they were doing the work of God. Krakauer also chronicles the entire history of the Mormon faith and the numerous atrocities (as with every other religion) committed in its name.
- Religion can bring people together and inspire them to work towards a common cause; however, when that cause is violence, religion is used as a tool for justifying atrocities. Radicalism in any realm is dangerous, and religions need to do a better job of extinguishing any extreme elements.
Monocle Travel Guide Series: New York by Monocle
- A helpful travel guide on the best attractions and amenities in New York City
- There’s not a lot of new material here for natives, but it’s a good guide book for visitors and those of us new to the city.
Think Complexity: Complexity Science and Computational Modeling by Allen Downey
- A highly readable computer science textbook covering data structures, algorithms, computational modeling, Bayesian methods, and graph methods (among others). The book implements solutions in Python at an intermediate level.
- There are interesting lessons on discrete models, but I found it hard to see the connection to real-life systems. Overall, for a free textbook, this is worth at least a skim, and if you follow the exercises, you can learn about complexity science and intermediate-level Python programming.
The Wave by Susan Casey
- An exposition of big-wave surfers interspersed with scientific chapters on the dangers of the ocean and how these problems will be exacerbated by climate change. The surfing passages are captivating, and the scientific parts provide a chronicle of the teams trying to understand waves.
- The book provides an intriguing contrast: on the one hand, are surfers flying around the world to surf the largest waves and, on the other, are scientists laboring away in obscurity to better help humans adapt to the more extreme weather caused by our relentless burning of fossil fuels.
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- The autobiography of Mandela’s life covering his early youth, education, political activism, to his 27 years in prison for trying to change the apartheid (separation of races) government. (after release, he was elected President of South Africa.)
- Mandela’s story is worth reading as it shows how far people are willing to go when they believe they are working for a just cause, such as equality. Mandela was not perfect, but the world is a better place through his perseverance and activism; the least you can do is read his story.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
- An autobiographical narrative of one women’s quest to do something purported (either by folk wisdom or scientific studies) to make people happier every day. The project did succeed, but it wasn’t so much the activities themselves that brought joy as allowing one’s self to feel happy.
- Being happier is not a matter of doing wonderful things every day but changing our attitude, as our perception of events is what colors them as good or bad in our minds, and not the content of the event. Happiness is more of a mindset than a list of activities.
Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright
- The tale of Jho Low, a Malaysian socialite who worked his way up economic and social ladders in part by throwing massive parties and cultivating relationships with businesspeople and celebrities. Through his scheming, Low was able to steal $4.5 billion from a sovereign wealth fund funded by the Malaysian government.
- As Low began his ascent, he faked wealth and status until he had swindled enough to purchase the symbols of wealth. A fascinating read demonstrating how easily people are fooled by the appearance of fortune and the back doors opened by corrupt public officials and financial institutions that looked the other way for their own profit.
Effective Python: 59 Specific Ways to Write Better Python by Brett Slatkin
- A guide to several dozen strategies for solving common problems in Python and best practices that take full advantage of the language.
- Even experienced Python programmers can benefit from studying different approaches to solving problems. As a programmer, it’s helpful to remain humble, admit you’re probably not writing optimal code, and continuously try to improve by reading other’s code solutions.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
- Women face considerable obstacles in the workplace that I had never seen. Sandberg offers specific recommendations to women for pushing past these barriers and advancing one’s career.
- From my perspective, this work is critical because it made me aware of the difficulties that hold back women. Many of these are not the result of conscious actions, but men need to step up and support women in the workplace as these issues will not be solved by inaction.
Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank
- The Democratic Party has gone from supporting the interests of ordinary people to an advocate for the professional, wealthy class. This was one of the factors in the working-class revolt of the most recent presidential election.
- Traditional liberal goals of equality, social justice, increased opportunity, and better conditions for workers have taken a back seat to rhetoric favoring college-educated voters along the coasts. Far from reducing inequality, this worldview will only increase it, further elevating those already at the top.
Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity by Jamie Metzl
- Genetic engineering — selecting and altering human DNA for desired traits — is an inevitability. This technology could represent a significant step forward for humanity, but it also raises ethical issues about engineering humans, issues that currently are not being discussed.
- With genetic engineering (and other potentially harmful technologies such as artificial intelligence), we should take a proactive approach instead of developing laws retroactively. Given the worldwide practice of modern science and the implications for all people, the best approach would be international standards that define the allowable limits to genetic engineering.
Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Tony Mendez and Matt Baglio
- The thrilling story of the rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crises where 50 diplomats at the American embassy were held hostage for over 400 days. These six Americans escaped with the help of the CIA, which disguised the six as a film crew and flew them out of the country.
- If you’ve seen the movie, the book may seem less exciting in comparison; however, it’s still an engrossing read because of the look into the details of how the plan was formed (the book was written by one of the CIA officers). It’s always fascinating to me that real spy activity did happen and makes me wonder how many operations are on right now with no public knowledge.
Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
- Debt is not an adverse condition; rather, it’s a natural occurrence from our human social economies. The ideas behind debt extend far beyond the economy to realms such as marriage, friendship, government, and other social institutions, and it’s only the introduction of state-sponsored violence that debts have been firmly enforced.
- Fundamentally, debt is a form of trade, with current items or services given in exchange for future expected repayment. Markets and debt can arise even without government infrastructure as humans will develop systems of exchange.
Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
- The tales of several patients who were “locked-in” by disease and then “released” decades later with the drug L-DOPA.
- The fascinating part of the story is these were considered incurable patients until a new drug was discovered that let them lead positive lives; medicine doesn’t always get things right, but it can make an incredible difference when it does. It makes one wonder what incurable diseases now will decades hence be treated with a simple drug.
The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War by A.J. Baime
- The transition of America’s factories from producing consumer goods (such as automobiles) to military equipment (such as planes) in World War Two is the most impressive industrial achievement ever. This shift required the full commitment of both government and business with both benefitting from the cooperation.
- Companies can be persuaded to mobilize for the public good, but only when the stakes are so high that failure would mean the end of the business. If industry could go to such great lengths to help in World War Two (and set themselves up for immense profit in the aftermath) a similar effort should be possible for transitioning the United States (and the world) to renewable energy; anyone who does not believe the shift is possible should read this story of American industry.
Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson
- The first autobiography (among several others) of Richard Branson, covering his numerous business successes (and some failures) along with personal stories. Branson is a genuinely unique business leader, combining extreme activities with multi-billion-dollar businesses.
- Some may see Branson as a showman but based on this book, his antics are a result of his genuine desire for adventure and belief in building unique businesses. Branson truly lives life to the utmost, taking (perhaps unnecessary) risks with his activities and businesses; perhaps it is this adventure-seeking behavior that led to his success, or maybe his success is in spite of his rambunctious habits.
Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelley Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
- An illustrated catalog of science and technological advances that could significantly influence our lives — for worse or better depending on how we act.
- This book is a fun — although not in-depth — look at some technologies that everyone might be talking about a decade from now. On the other hand, given our complete lack of success in predicting the future, not a single one of these may work out.
12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
- Without the meaning provided by religion or a larger purpose, many people struggle to find the motivation to get through everyday life. The result is increasing rates of mental illness and unfulfilled people moving numbly through their lives.
- Peterson has a solution for the lack of meaning in the form of 12 rules, heavily influenced by Christianity, supposed to help individuals live in pursuit of a higher objective. At times, this book reads like a slow stream of consciousness in need of serious editing, but there is enough substance to make it worth reading and debating.
NYC 80 X 50 Plan for 80% Reduction of GHG by 2050 by New York City https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/sustainability/downloads/pdf/publications/New%20York%20City's%20Roadmap%20to%2080%20x%2050_20160926_FOR%20WEB.pdf
- The official New York City plan for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% (with a baseline of 2005) by 2050. (New York State has since passed a law calling for net-zero carbon statewide by 2050.)
- Detailed plans such as 80 x 50 seem much more useful than vague promises or another paper proclaiming the adverse effects of climate change 100 years hence. I’m not sure NYC will follow the exact projections in this strategy, but, given the prevailing trends, the 80% reduction (or the more ambitious net-zero carbon) seems feasible.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
- A memoir of a female pilot in Kenya chronicling her various adventures training racehorses and flying around Africa.
- An exciting account of a full life, one told from a different perspective than the vast majority of adventure works.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Western World by Jack Weatherford
- A comprehensive narrative of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, covering not only the military conquests, but the cultural, economic, religious, and trade impacts of the Mongols. Weatherford’s book takes a generally positive view of the Khans, highlighting the advances supposedly made under Mongol rule such as increased trade infrastructure, greater tolerance, higher literacy rates, and consensus-based ruling systems.
- History is never objective, and Weatherford’s thesis that the Mongols formed the basis of many Western practices, influences his interpretation of sources. This book makes a strong case that the Mongols modernized politics, culture, and the economy, but it should be balanced with a different perspective and sources.
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant
- How we interact with others determines our career success. Grant describes three approaches to dealing with others: takers, who aim to get as much from others as possible, givers, who benefit others without expecting anything in return, and matchers, who strike a balance between contributing and extracting.
- Givers, the rarest individuals, despite not expecting anything in return for their efforts, are rewarded in a collaborative environment where information travels quickly through networks of people. One of the most effective methods to build a professional network is to help out lots of people, who, in turn, will reciprocate connecting givers with others.
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax
- As we come to rely increasingly on digital devices, some companies and individuals are pushing back by prioritizing quality and unique physical objects. Those who can afford to are minimizing the role of tech in their lives and embracing “archaic” forms such as vinyl, paper, file, and board games.
- The problem with this premise is it holds for only a tiny percentage of the wealthiest individuals in developed countries who can afford the higher price commanded by boutique analog products. The vast majority of humanity will continue to adopt more technology when it makes their lives easier, healthier, and more prosperous.
When Godel Walked with Einstein: Excursions to the Edge of Thought by Jim Holt
- A collection of essays on science, mathematics, and philosophy addressing fundamental questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?”
- If you’re up for the challenge of understanding these essays (I definitely didn’t comprehend all of them), you will be treated some thought-provoking pieces. This book will especially appeal to those interested in how science intersects with philosophy (namely metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics) and the past figures who have wrestled with these concepts.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
- The tale of Teddy Roosevelt’s trip down the “River of Doubt” in the Amazon and the numerous obstacles — whitewater, starvation, diseases — he and his crew encountered. Roosevelt took the trip as his way of working through his 1912 presidential election defeat, a typical reaction from a man who always sought challenges.
- The narrative is engrossing and chronicles some of the darkest times in Roosevelt’s life — he considered suicide on the trip when he thought he was too sick to make it — making for a great adventure story and a look into Roosevelt’s character.
Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game That Changed Everything by Daniel Goldberg and Jennifer Hawkins
- The story of Minecraft detailing the author’s life and inspiration and continuing through the incredible success of the game.
- Persson never set out to make a fortune; instead, he was driven by his ideals and made his game open for others to adapt and improve. He has handled the influx of money and popularity well, allowing for the continued success of the game.
The Spy and The Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
- The captivating story of Oleg Gordievsky, a British MI6 spy who spent 11 years as a double agent in the KGB, the Soviet Union intelligence agency. Gordievsky was motivated to work against the communist system from the inside, and, was successfully exfiltrated from the Soviet Union when he was betrayed by a CIA officer (Aldrich Ames).
- A fascinating look into how the British and Soviet Union intelligence services recruited agents and placed them in enemy territory. Spies actually exist in real life, and this is one of the more incredible stories known to the public.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
- What we feared was government control of the media with the “truth” deliberately kept hidden when it didn’t agree with the party line. Instead, we got unlimited media where the truth is lost in a sea of content.
- Larger quantities of information do not by themselves empower citizens. The problem has shifted from finding enough data to filtering through the data to extract meaning.
121–127. Caution (Avoid 127)
The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications by David Deutsch
- A treatise on the author’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, which arrives at the concept of a multiverse: an infinite number of universes parallel to our own.
- Deutsch weaves together quantum mechanisms, epistemology (the study of a theory of knowledge), computation (including quantum computation), and evolution into a theory of everything. If you can comprehend it, Deutch’s theory of everything is quite compelling; instead of reducing everything to a particle physics model, he combines four distinct strands that allow us to understand reality.
The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal by Evan Ratliff
- A chronicle of the effort to find Paul Le Roux, a programmer who turned to crime and eventually led a worldwide operation.
- The DEA spent five years hunting down Le Roux, but justice eventually prevailed with his capture and turning against his associates.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Keane
- A catalog of exciting stories about the elements on the Periodic Table. The book dispels the idea that chemistry is the “stamp collecting” of science.
- The common theme throughout the book is that science is still very much a human enterprise. Behind every discovery and seemingly dry fact in science is immense human effort, and the full range of emotions from tragedy to elation.
Out There: A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious) by Michael Wall
- A whimsical journey through the frontiers of “space” topics from the classic questions about extraterrestrial life to the possibility of faster than light travel.
- Not a rigorous book, but it provides starting points for anyone interested in the more ludicrous ideas in science (which just might prove right).
Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane
- The memoirs of a NASA astronaut who traveled into space several times. The book details early life, application and selection into NASA, and time as an astronaut.
- The sexism and immaturity of the supposedly upstanding NASA astronauts was dismaying and significantly lowered my perception of male astronauts. Mullane was a disgraceful individual because of his chauvinistic antics, and I would think the character standards for astronauts would be much higher.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
- A collection of essays on the 1990s pop culture covering esoteric topics with no common thread.
- This book is probably only relevant to someone in their teens or early 20s during the 1990s, otherwise, it’s one to avoid.
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
- A completely illogical mishmash of self-help and business advice with the goal of showing readers how to set up a direct-to-consumer company that runs itself, allowing you to work 4 hours or less a week from a beach somewhere in the Caribbean. The number of absurd statements, exaggerations, and outright lies — not to mention endless self-promotion — makes this book unreadable.
- No one should believe that setting up the business Ferriss describes is a good plan, let alone possible; Ferriss himself likely worked 80 hour weeks to make his company succeed and continues to work incredibly hard on his podcast and books. There are no secrets for success revealed in this book (because none exist), only a stream of incomprehensible jargon designed to sound just profound enough to fool people into reading this book.
1–9. The Best of the Best and All the Rest
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
- An epic sci-fi work set in a world where the intellectuals have isolated themselves from the commoners in monasteries to keep their scientific work protected. The protagonist must journey outside his monastery when a mysterious cosmic event threatens the Earth.
- Stephenson is known for writing massive books filled with scientific, philosophical, economic, and cultural undertones, and this book is no exception. This adventure gets a high recommendation for both the story and the exploration of themes from quantum mechanics to realism.
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
- A drama set in New York (which might have skewed my rating) about the decline of a high-status trader, Sherman, after his car hits a black teenager while Sherman is driving his mistress home. Wolfe’s novel touches on themes of ambition, social status, politics, and racism intertwined through one of the best portrayals of 1980s New York and the excesses of Wall Street.
- Wolfe has an exceptional ability to create realistic characters with all the flaws of normal humans, and there is no “hero” just as there are no perfect heroes in the real world. The story itself is gripping and displays many of the same battles we are still going through today without passing judgment.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
- A sci-fi work with a female protagonist who works as a brand consultant (see has an acute sensitivity to corporate logos) and is sent on a worldwide quest to find the meaning behind film clips uploaded anonymously online. The plot moved along quickly, and the book is a lot more interesting than the premise suggests.
- As with Neal Stephenson, Gibson tackles many themes in his novels, with this one covering the human tendency to find patterns and how brand names have pervaded our consciousness. I like books that make you think, not only about the plot, but also about broader questions we grapple with, and this book passes.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- The classic work of historical fiction set in London and Paris amidst the insanity of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. The plot involves an imprisoned doctor, his rescue by his daughter, a trial of the daughter’s husband, and a rescue mission into France in the aftermath of the Revolution.
- The novel touches on multiple themes — social justice, second chances, good and evil — but I found the story uninteresting and the themes hard to decipher. Perhaps this is a book worth re-reading, but this time, I did not get much in the way of enjoyment or exploration of more profound questions.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
- A classic fantasy, satire, work about the devil’s visit to the Soviet Union and the persecution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which eventually link together. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but it touches on themes of good and evil, bravery and cowardice, and authority’s control of truth in addition to containing allusions to classic myths and other works of literature.
- There were way too many themes and allusions in this book to understand even a small percentage of them on a first read. Often, the initial read of a “classic” is difficult for me, but after a few years to process it and after a second reading, it starts to make more sense and reveals the themes which the best fiction explores.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- A thriller about a female computer hacker with a dark past and a publisher of a political magazine who works together to solve an unresolved case. The plot moves along rapidly, but be warned that it gets exceptionally discomforting in parts and is not an overall uplifting story.
- As someone not usually into thrillers, I found this one fascinating and really “could not put it down” for several days. I’m undecided about reading the rest of the series; on the one hand, the dark sections were too much; on the other, the story is gripping, and the protagonists, though deeply flawed, are likable.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
- A sci-fi work about a young woman who earns her dream job at a new technology company and becomes wholly immersed in the cult of the company. As she rises through the company, she is transformed, leaving behind her family and friends in pursuit of greater social validation.
- The book takes some of the negative parts of large tech companies — creating a cult-like workplace and encouraging employees to overwork — and exaggerates them, leading to a chilling vision of a future tech workplace. While I don’t think this vision will come to pass, this book made me re-think my values around the career/well-being balance and made me question if our unquestioning adoption of social media is beneficial for our society.
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
- A fantasy story about a traveler who can move between different Londons and must return a powerful relic to the dark London before it destroys the others.
- This is an average fantasy work that did not quite capture my attention, and I’m neutral on a recommendation.
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
- A vampire tale from the author of A Song of Fire and Ice that takes place mainly on riverboats in 19th century America.
- I’m not much into vampires and would recommend giving this a pass unless you have a strong liking for dark, fantasy, vampire stories.
That’s another year of reading, learning, being challenged, and being entertained in the books (here’s last year’s article if you want more). The main lessons from 2019 were:
- Helping others benefits ourselves and we have an obligation to help those in need.
- How we practice and for how long we train has a more significant impact on final outcomes in a pursuit than does our natural talent.
- Life has no inherent meaning, and we need to build our own meaningful existence.
- Natural things are not always better and in many cases, we need to push back against our genes to achieve progress.
- The effects of technology can be either negative or positive and we need to make sure the balance remains on the positive side.
- If we want to comprehend and change our thoughts or behavior, we need to understand how evolution through natural selection shaped our body and brain.
2020 will be another full year of books with an emphasis not on the sheer number, but on the quality of books read.
Comments and constructive criticism are welcome. Reach me in the responses or on Twitter @koehrsen_will.