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11 books started
9 books finished
3,544 pages read
100% digital
18% fiction
49% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
Carlo Rovelli
read on May 2, 2020

Appreciate that the discussion about the nature of time inevitably becomes about the nature of the self. The two are directly linked. That is, in what sense is time only a cognitive (and so subjective) measure between two events? What is a self, if different than a collection of memories?

This was a very interesting and accessible book. It stayed non-technical, but in places that was a huge handicap, e.g. when Rovelli referred to time being a "blurring" of reality. 

In the end, all I really got out of this was an interesting reminder that time isn't what we think it is, and that the self isn't what we think it is - but that we don't really know what either are... yet.

 

 

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How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change
Eitan Hersh
read on May 15, 2020

Politics is for Power is a study of the current trend towards what Hersh coins 'political hobbyism', wherein people who identify as highly political and in fact think that they are highly political and participating politically in a civic sense, when they are in fact doing nothing of substance. Which is a fancy way to say that there are more people than ever who post on facebook about their political opinions, but fewer than ever who are legitimately able to convert those opinions into political power. More people than ever are treating politics as a sport - something that they might be passionate about and consume a lot of their life, but where they only observe it, not affect it. His thesis, and the namesake of the book, is that the purpose of politics is to gain political power. That's it. And gaining political power isn't done on facebook. It's done in your neighborhood, talking to peers and coworkers, and organizing locally - more-often-than-not it is done in the service of driving change at the local level. You shouldn't organize your neighborhood to vote for national campagins, but for local ones. What's happening in city hall? On the county board? Who are the local judges, or state reps? As a matter of fact it is those positions that affect your life (almost always moreso than national politics) and also it is those positions over which your local organizing can have material affect (again, in contract to national politics).

I liked the book a lot. A few bullets:

  • Surprisingly to me, is the college educated demographic who claim to be politically engaged who are the most likely to engage primarily or only in political hobbyism. They are also more likely to respond/(lie) in surveys that they are frequent voters, when they in fact are not. Presumably this is because their high engagement in hobbyism placates their desire to actually be engaged. They feel as thought they are accomplishing something in their hobbyism, to a level that they claim to vote more than they actually do. Hobbyism is counterproductive in other obvious ways, but this was nuts.
  • Hersh discusses "shallow hobbies"; Meaning, if you died today and no one related to your hobby ever asked what happened to you, it is a shallow hobby. In particular, if you're only political engagement is shallow in this sense, it is in fact just hobbyism and nothing more.
  • Hersh spoke a bit about the 'deep canvassing', the practice/strategy of door-to-door canvassing with the strategy of just engaging in meaningful conversation with people, rather than blasting through a rote script for a particular candidate.

 

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The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson
read on April 15, 2020

An incredible and sobering biographical exploration of The Great Migration and Jim Crow America. This is a long book that never feels long. It feels urgent and necessary, today more than ever. I'm ashamed that as a white man in my mid thirties I've never really come to terms with exactly how recent slavery was. It feels (again, to me) like something long past. Pre-photographs long ago. This book is a stunning coming-to-terms with how close it is, in fact, to today. Not necessarily in years, but in time measured by change. I've read a decent amount of American history, and plenty on racism, but was really struck by how ignorant I still am.

I'm not going to write any more because Jill Lepore nailed it in The New Yorker. 

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The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
Carol Anderson
read on February 6, 2020

This book is a very high level introduction to racism against African-Americans in the USA. It covers a lot of history, primarily hitting the most important notes at a high level. The book is relatively short, and so necessarily doesn't go into deep detail on most topics. The key items covered, and my takeaways, were:

  • After the Civil War, Andrew Johnson pardoned most of the CSA leadership/cabinet. They were reinstated as political leaders and reps in their respective (Union) states, and returned to DC to govern. They remained in charge of their states, and set the policies of the newly freed slaves. Incredible. I had no idea that this happened. This is as though instead of the Nuremberg trials, if we had just put the Nazi's in charge of southern Germany in some obtuse attempt to reunite Europe. This single fact was by far my most important takeaway from the book - something I didn't know and am left dying to know more about. I just cannot fathom how this was viewed as a legitimate course of action, or how it is remembered/taught historically as anything less than a victory for the CSA. Unreal. This also puts current confederate monuments, rebel flags, etc, in an entirely different context for me. Absolutely disgusting.
  • I didn't realize what a shitbag president Andrew Jonhson was. But his history is a kind of interesting bizzaro universe compared to our current one. Johnson was a bad, racist Democrat president kept in-check by a well functioning Republican majority in congress. Congress would pass bills protecting freed slaves, Johnson veto'd, congress overrode. They passed many laws to keep Johnson in check. When he broke them, they impeached him. He avoided conviction/removal by a single vote. Ostensibly the only thing seperating today from 1865 is today's Republican controlled senate. Otherwise, I suspect the last 3 years would have looked almost exactly like the late 1860's.
  • Plessi v Furgeson set precedent of separate but equal, but the south hardly even tried to maintain the "equal" standard. This is obvious, but the datapoints given in the book are illuminating. E.g., until the 1960s southern schools spent 2x-10x per capita on white schools. 
  • Anderson covers redlining briefly.
  • Then after Brown v Board came the disenfranchisement. Poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. In 1960 more than 98% of eligible blacks were registered. And gerrymandering. This is a high level overview of Anderson's One Person, No Vote.
  • In the 50s the Georgia legislature passed a resolution to repeal the 13/14/15th amendments, and impeach SCOTUS judges. In 1956 GA changed its state flag to substantially be the Confederate battle flag, specifically to send the message that, as they died for slavery, they would die to protect segregation and Jim Crow. The flag wasn't changed until 2001. Mississippi still has a prominent confederate battle flag in their flag. Particularly given the first bullet point, I honestly don't see how this is a single degree different than putting swastikas on flags.
  • see Sothern Manifesto
  • Some detail, but not much, on Nixon's Southern Strategy, that purposefully stoked and exploited racial resentment as an election strategy in the 1960's. It was so transparent that in 2005 the RNC chairman formally apologized to the NAACP for this.
  • Lastly, discussed the Reagan contra scandal. Apparently the US funded contra aid by allowing cocaine sales in USA via gangs. Primarily impacted blacks, by design. Then Reagan gave sanctimonious speech about drugs, started war on drugs, and imprisoned primarily blacks. 

 

 

 

 

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A Novel
Sally Rooney
read on February 1, 2020

I haven't much to say on this one because I read it several months prior to getting around to logging it. It was quite good. I listened to it on audiobook and really loved the narrarator's Irish accents. I'm blown away that Rooney was born in 1991. 

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The Logic of Misogyny
Kate Manne
read on January 15, 2020

Manne is a trained philosopher and professor of philosophy, and the "logic" in this title is no joke. While I would consider this book "approachable" in terms of formal philosophic texts, it is quite dense and dry compared to something like Traister.

Manne's central thesis here is that misogyny is incorrectly often thought of as the action or quality of a specific individual who hates all (or even most) women. She argues that this is way too narrow and naive a view, and that this view in fact would be almost impossible to find real examples of. Rather, she argues that misogyny is not individual behavior, nor is it “a plight spread by a few bad apples”, but rather an emergent property of a society that was built around male dominance, and that misogyny is expressed as any action participants (male or female) take that serves to control/police those who would challenge said dominance. 

For example, if women hold subservient roles (caring wife, good waitress, etc) men will love women. We need a definition of misogyny that identifies this. In such a purely misogynistic society, where women ‘know their place’ as it were, there would be few indicators of the naive conception of misogyny. That is, men would love those women, domestic violence would be zero (either because violence itself wouldn't occur, since women are playing their role -- or because violence against women wouldn't even be thought of as violence) , and Pinker would likely write a book about how we’ve made progress!

Another example she briefly brings up, but that I hadn't thought about as clearly as she put it, is how homophobia is misogynist in that it is an attack on masculine norms vs feminine ones. By enforcing what a man is, it’s clear about what a women is allowed to be. 

On the difference between misogyny and sexism: "sexism wears a lab coat, where misogyny goes on witch hunts." Which is to say, sexism tries to point out a difference between men and women (accurate or not), but misogyny is concerned with identifying good women vs bad ones. They are obviously related, but this framing put things in a way I hadn't thought of before.

Anyway, this was a great book, but I didn't have the endurance to get through it - particularly as an audiobook. The subject matter is obviously quite heavy, but Manne's very formal approach here is hard to muster. I knew it was time to turn it off when she starting talking about "quasi contra-positive morale psychological claims".

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Vladimir Nabokov
read on January 28, 2020

The language used throughout this book was tremendous. (Picnic, Lightning). What sticks with me now, writing this months after having finished the book, were the very brief glimpses of Lolita's suffering that shone through. Really quite haunting.

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And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About
Bruce Perry
read on December 5, 2019

This was really good - a book a bit in the Oliver Sacks' style of one-anecdote-per-chapter, each focusing on a case when severe abuse (often from neglect rather than a more active abuse) on a child led to catastrophic consequences to their development and behaviors as an adult. Each of the cases were very interesting. I did get the slight impression that Perry had a "when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail" mentality though. I mean, it's his book, so it makes sense that the examples he used here were cherry picked as the clearest and most compelling, but he very much struck me a bit as though he though all personality disorders and/or deviant behavior stem from early childhood abuse. In terms of "nature vs nurture", he leans super hard on the nurture. When doing an evaluation (in the book), he never really thinks about running a cat scan, or inquiring about other genetic or physical predispositions. I found this odd, but again, his book. Overall, super interesting and a great companion to Sacks.

One tidbit that stuck with me: the resting heartrate of the Waco Devidian Children was 160! Wow.

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Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street: The New York Times bestseller Bill Gates calls 'the best business book I've ever read'
John Brooks
read on December 9, 2019

This was fine. That's it. It was interesting but much longer than it needed to be. I'd rather just read a few HBR cases. I put it down. It's not bad at all, just wasn't compelling for me. Perhaps I wasn't in the right headspace, but I expected much more.

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The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger
Rebecca Traister
read on November 5, 2019

Traister explores how women have been limited in their ability to express anger. For men it makes them effective and heroic, but angry women are portrayed as unhinged and hysterical. Traister explores the history here, and it is disgusting and depressing and somehow (for me) both entirely expected and yet surprisingly worse than I thought. I first heard of Traister and this book when she went on Ezra Klein's podcast. That interview aligned with Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, and frankly it would be hard to distill a more essential and comprehensive single example of what she was trying to describe. This book is raw and hard to read, and that's coming from someone with zero direct experience of ever actually having to tolerate and navigate this bullshit every day, every decision, every reaction.

I can't refute anything in this book, and am not looking for reason to do so. But Traister did have me thinking about anger as a catalyst for action, and if anger is a vice or virtue. Anger is easy, and almost always myopic and focused on the short term. Trump used anger, and stoked anger among his base, in order to win an election. I think it's correct and incredibly important to recognize how and why women & POCs have been disallowed to be angry in public and to use it as a tool - but I don't think that that injustice is necessarily evidence that it should be used more. Women should, of course, be allowed to be angry in exactly whatever capacity men are permitted to be angry. But I'm not convinced that anger should de-facto be advocated for as a driver of action. Why shouldn't we think that anger will be just as effective when used (by women) against women? That isn't to say that I think Traister is wrong about anything here - I do not think her position is that there should be more anger in the world. One cannot seriously propose a policy position that humans no longer be angry, but one can reasonably expect and hope that all people be treated equally.

I need to comment on it, because the cover to this book is horrible. So bad that it kept me from reading the book for much longer than I probably otherwise would have. I doubt Traister had anything to do with it (covers are typically entirely controlled by the publisher), but even so it seems perfectly aligned with the book, in the sense that Traister isn't here to be cute and "(doesn't) fucking care if I like it."

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Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
John Carreyrou
read on November 3, 2019

A very interesting narrative about the brief history of Theranos. The book isn't short, but was a super-fast read. I know that I saw several headlines about this when the whole thing unraveled in early 2018, but overall I was a bit struck by how little the whole event had fallen on my radar. I had never heard of Theranos before its undoing, and even then, maybe only at the highest level.

Anyway, a few points:

  • The book is quite harsh on Elizabeth Holmes (who did not cooperate/participate with it), and paints her to essentially be an entitled sociopath (psychopath?). She lies effortlessly. Carreyrou paints it in a selfish light, that she was chasing money, fame, power, etc - but it's not clear that she is willfully committing fraud. That is, I think there is some light there where she truly does believe that she's going to change the world for the better, and if she needs to crack a few eggs to do so then so be it.
  • Holmes obsession with becoming a successful startup CEO is just weird. The way she emulates Jobs is unnerving. Carreyrou speculates in the book that she purposefully spoke in a lower, "less feminine" voice in order to be taken more seriously. I mean, to give her credit, she was singularly focused on achieving success and willing to do whatever it took.
  • Theranos was just never a real company. At no point in its history could it do what it said it was doing. It was just a massive fraud from top to bottom, kept together by Holmes' total control of the organization and unwillingness to let anyone see too many moving parts at once.
  • Theranos' BOD was stacked. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Jim Mattis. Holmes had incredible connections (Clintons and Obamas as well). Yet no one had done any diligence at all on the company.
  • Especially after just finishing Catch and Kill, this book makes you appreciate whistleblowers and investigative journalism all the more. Theranos pulled no punches in trying to intimidate and punish anyone who dared be critical of them or leak to the press. They had crazy NDAs, and would sue the shit out of anyone that glanced sideways. I'm sure the company would have unwound eventually, but they tried like hell to stop it and it took incredible courage for the whistleblowers to come forward.
  • Lastly, the completely unexpected silver lining here was a story about Rupert Murdoch, of all people. Murdoch had a $125M investment in Theranos, which was reportedly the largest non-media investment of his life. Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, where Carreyrou worked and broke the story that Theranos was a fraud. Prior to publication Holmes reached out to him and asked him to kill the story, but he refused to intervene. His position was that he trusted his editors and that if there was no "there" there, then they both had nothing to worry about. In retrospect (knowing that that Theranos was a giant scam) this doesn't seem that impressive. But a priori, Theranos was a $10B tech darling with two former Secretaries of State on the board, all vehemently denying any wrongdoing. And Murdoch had $125M on the line. In stark contrast to NBC leadership in Catch and Kill, it was fantastic to see him step aside and let the cards fall. He ended up taking a total loss on his investment.
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