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A Novel (Noumena, 1)
Ellis, Lindsay
read on July 18, 2021

It's very interesting to read (more or less on accident) two books back-to-back about humanity's first contact with aliens. The Weir book was super compelling, driven by interesting puzzles, and a rational, science-based reasoning throughout. This book was... none of that. This was awful. It wasn't laughably bad. The writing was... serviceable, maybe? It's just, it was deeply incurious. The characters in the book don't react the way that I guess I would think most people would. Maybe I'm wrong?

These characters are so internally driven that when they make first contact, the narrative stays all about them. How does this thing affect me? How can I use it to achieve my same, pre-contact goals? I was bored, honestly. Many times I almost gave up, even though it's a fairly fast-paced book, and I burned through most of it at 1.5x speed just to get on with things.

I didn't like it. Great cover though.

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Winning and Losing in One-Click America
MacGillis, Alec
read on June 4, 2021

An absolute damnation of Amazon. Totally different focus than Brad Stone's books, MacGillis makes no effort at all to understand Amazon the company, but instead focuses only on its actions and the effects they have on lives and communities across the country. 

The comparisons he makes to Bethlehem Steel, and the robber-barron monopolist pigs of that era, are precise and perfectly appropriate. The pervasive theme throughout, as MacGillis jumps around telling detailed stories and histories from a variety of main characters, is just how invisible individual people and communities are to Amazon. Amazon isn't malevolent in any particularly active sense. It isn't an evil empire trying to further an evil cause, exactly. It's just growing. And it grows at any cost. And it's absolutely indifferent to the people and things that it needs to displace, remove, break, threaten, coerce, or otherwise damage and destroy in order to achieve those means. It is a perfect libertarian thought experiment, executed at scale. And it is unstoppable.

Truly, truly depressing.

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A Novel
Weir, Andy
read on June 27, 2021

A very fun sci-fi read. This was actually very similar to The Martian, in that a lot of the dialogue was the internal thoughts of a single, isolated man. It was quite good, and I'm looking forward to the inevitable movie. Two interesting bits popped out for me:

  • The premise here is that humans send a mission to a nearby star to investigate an existential crisis back at home. Near the star they discover an alien race with similar technology who is attempting the same thing. There is interesting discussion about why the two different species would be so similar in terms of technological evolution, and the theory is that they are sort of in a 'goldilocks' zone where each had sufficient tech to be able to launch such a mission, but were to so advanced as to not even have to worry about it (i.e., a more advanced civilization likely wouldn't be facing the existential crisis at all). This was sort of an interstellar version of the anthropic principal.
  • Second, there was similar discussion about why the two species were roughly of the same intelligence. While this is partially explained by the above, they also theorized that intelligence evolves as a solution to hunt / survive, and so will only do so up until a species is smart enough to survive. This is generally limited by the speed necessary to capture / kill / dodge / escape; that is, the speed at which large matter can interact, which is more or less driven by friction and gravity. That is - planets with less gravity would generally have much slower motion, and so would produce a less intelligent apex species. Not sure this is all the way thought out but it was very interesting and I hadn't heard of it before.
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A Novel
Robinson, Kim Stanley
read on May 26, 2021

I think a lot of climate change articles I've read do a poor job of contextualizing the actual impact of climate change. They will say things like "the polar ice caps are melting at X cubic meters per day", or "sea level will rise by Y inches by 2050", or even "average temperatures will go up globally by Z degrees", but I hadn't really seen something that describes what impact that will really have on the world. What will that make my life like? Or other peoples lives? What will be the inevitable sociopolitical consequences of this?

This book addresses those questions head on, in interesting ways. For me I guess the most interesting were:

  • The general physiological impact that it will have on people, particularly those who survive famines / heat waves, etc.
  • The non-centralized approach to solving climate change - each nation addresses the issue independently, somewhat proportional to their population's impact from climate change.
  • The effect of terrorism post tipping point - particularly targeting carbon profiteers or those who still use carbon-heavy processes (planes)
  • The general ingenuity of addressing the problem from so many angles.
  • Really liked the plot line around carbon coins - a crypto currency backed by carbon sequestration, and supported by G8 federal banks.

It's a long book, probably too long, but it really does a great job describing the world we're quickly running towards. At times its rightfully terrifying.

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Elliott, Alicia
read on May 26, 2021

This is billed as a collection of essays, but that doesn't do it justice. It's not quite an autobiography either, nor is it memoir. But it is an absolute tour de force. Elliot's perspective and lived experience is deeply powerful, even to someone like myself who frankly had so little overlap or sympathy, though that of course made it all the more urgent of a read. Some of it was very uncomfortable. Some of it I didn't 'agree' with (to whatever extent one can disagree with this kind of writing, which is not explicitly persuasive but obviously does persuade). But all of it felt deeply essential, and raw, and authentic. The writing is just absolutely fantastic. Really, spectacularly good.

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A Novel
Mengiste, Maaza
read on January 3, 2021

A fine fiction book, but this didn't really move me one way or the other. It had split narratives, employed a bit oddly, where I didn't care much at all about the B-story and so ignored it a bit, and then sooner or later the whole thing sort of shifted to the B-story, which was a bummer.

I had no idea that Italy invaded Ethiopia during WWII though, that was really something.

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A Novel
Marlon James
read on December 24, 2020

I made it halfway through this before calling it. The half I read wasn't bad, per say, it just has a terribly steep learning curve. The book follows maybe ~10ish main characters, and each chapter is told from their first person perspective. Most of the stories don't directly relate to one another, at least for the first quarter of the book or so, and so every single chapter is like starting anew. Additionally, the writing style isn't very expository - it's the kind of book that just drops you into the action, and you need to figure out the context and history yourself, which is generally fine but harder to do when you're mentally juggling 10 different characters. Add to that that most of the characters are Jamaican, and written using borderline nonsensically heavy accents. I often had to re-read sentences several times to even figure out what what trying to be said.

Anyway - the first 20% of the book was a hard slog. I had started it earlier in the year and bailed because it was so slow-going. I picked it back up in December and made good progress. By the halfway point I had all the characters pretty well figured out, and was making good progress with the accents. But then I hit Part II, where all new characters are introduced, and the whole learning curve started over, and I just didn't have the patience for it again. This might be a great book, I'd certainly believe anyone who said they loved it. But you really need to fight for it and I didn't have it in me.

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Maria Popova
read on December 31, 2020

I've known about Brain Pickings for a very long time, well over a decade. I've occasionally dipped in and out, but never been a frequent reader of the blog. I'm not certain why, possibly because it was so overwhelmingly well done that it's intimidating just to read. When I read a book, I may have a couple disjointed thoughts about it. But when Maria Popova reads a book, she writes incredible essays about them, often illustrated, and always linking heavily to other contextual items - contemporary or adjacent works - that she's read and reviewed before. Reading Brain Pickings makes me feel like a bad reader myself. That said, Brain Pickings is easily the single biggest influence I had on making this site. The platonic ideal of Addabook has always been to provide a platform to democratize Brain Pickings quality personal write-ups of books. Obviously Addabook falls very far short of that. Both technically in terms of design and appearance, but primarily, of course, because Brain Pickings relies on the incredible genius and wonderful, passionate writing of Popova.

When I saw Popova wrote a book last year, which it's unique cover, I knew I would read it eventually. I purposefully stayed away from learning anything about it, and since I'm not that frequent a reader of Brain Pickings itself, all of the content was entirely new to me. And wow, what an experience.

Here is how Maria Popova summarized her book, Figuring.

Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

 

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

As a matter of summarizing the book, she's done it far better than I could ever. Though on her own personal bio she boils it down to "a very long, very yellow book" which I adore as well.

I'll just call out two additional comments:

First, I loved how well Popova interconnected the histories of these individuals throughout the book. Too often history is told from a single perspective, or focused on a single character, and the greater context of each person and their actions in the rest of the world, and onto other people, is lost. Popova just does a masterful job illustrating the surrounding context in each person's life, and connections to the other focal characters, without being awkwardly explicit about it. The book bounces around telling the stories of maybe a dozen different people through history, but it never feels disjointed or anthological — it reads as a single threaded story all the way through. It's an incredible literary achievement that works so well it is almost unnoticed.

Second, I'm just embarrassed to have not known of almost literally any of these incredible people before. Pretty much just Emily Dickinson had previously been on my radar. These women are incredible. Their achievements are unbelievable. Their accomplishments to science, art, and culture are inarguable. How are they not all household names? (Unsurprisingly, almost 100% of the contemporary men that these women worked with would be recognizable to any middle schooler).

This book was absolutely incredible. Certainly the best book I've read in a long time, but additionally just an incredible achievement of intellectualism and art. A wonderful pleasure to read, easily my book of year.

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An Essay in 40 Questions
Valeria Luiselli
read on December 24, 2020

This was an interesting essay on the immigration crisis in Central America, and more specifically how the US is reacting to it. The book focuses on child immigrants who are generally fleeing CA countries (south of Mexico), primarily from gang violence. Luiselli very briefly tells a few stories of the travel experience across Mexico (coyotes hired to help ferry children across the region, riding la bestia across Mexico alone), and then the experience in the USA. Generally, in the US children immediately turn themselves in to border patrol (rather than risk dying in the southwest desert). They are put into ICE boxes, then usually joined with a guardian, and then await immigration trial. The bulk of the essay has to do with the hardship that these children face during these trials, and how difficult it often is for them to secure a lawyer in the US willing to defend them (often for free), particularly if they can't produce physical evidence of the violence they are trying to flee from (e.g. a police report from their home country, which most cannot). Luiselli and her daughter are volunteer translators for the children.

Obviously, this isn't anywhere near comprehensive either as a description of current immigration practices, or of the immigrant experience. It isn't meant to be. Nor does it propose any kind of policy prescription. But it is a compelling and deeply human set of anecdotes that clearly illustrate the problem.

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Cixin Liu
read on November 14, 2020

Really, just a terrible book about nothing. I don't even know how to criticize it. This book has a lot of very interesting setups that just go nowhere. Almost every single mystery or problem that's presented in the book is resolved in a hilariously unsatisfying way. It almost feels inspired by mad libs. 

I can't really imagine how this made it onto Obama's list of recommended books, or how apparently it's going to be a Netflix series soon.

The one thing I did like was the premise that the people of Earth figured out that an alien armada was coming to destroy them, but that it would take 400 years to get here. The story revolves around the first generation of scientists who made that discovery, and there are very brief good sections of the book with how the struggle with the responsibility of saving the future, knowing that whatever effort made in their present won't actually affect their own lives. However, this thread really doesn't go anywhere. An awful book.

 

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How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay
Emmanuel Saez
read on October 29, 2020

It's been quite a year. After the last series of books, and given current events, I've been selfishly looking forward to a book more about brass tacks, as it were. Numbers and policy that I can understand from an "economics" perspective (i.e., equations and graphs), vs an "IPE" perspective (behavior and justice). But I should have known better than to think that any problem in the USA wouldn't trace back to social injustice, and here we go right on page 27.

As in the North, there were variations in tax policy among various states, but in general taxes in the South were more regressive. ... A fear haunted the slaveholders of the SouthL that non-slaveholding majorities would use taxation to undermine -- and eventually abolish -- the "peculiar institution". They particularly feared wealth taxation: at a time when 40% of the population in Souther states was considered property, property taxes were an existential threat for slaveholding planters. They fought such taxes tirelessly, and for two centuries wielded their power to keep taxes and public institutions archaic.

Early in the book there is a primer on the general types of taxes people pay, which I found very helpful. They are (in order of proportion of total tax):

  • Individual Income Taxes: This is what people generally think of as "taxes", and this is specifically (and exclusively) what Republicans refer to when they say that half the country doesn't pay taxes. This tax amounts to about 1/3 of total tax. This tax includes tax on wages, interest, dividents, capital gains, etc. About 63% of national income is taxed via the income tax. The rest is exempt (e.g., dividends/interest earned in tax-free retirement accounts). The income tax is progressive, though much less so today than historically. All but 7 states (including WA) have additional state income taxes, as do some individual cities.
  • Payroll Taxes: Aka social security & medicare taxes. Today SS is taxed as 12.4% of wages, for all wages up to $132,900 per year. Then it drops to zero for wages after that. This is insanely regressive. Medicare taxes are 2.9% of wages, with no cap. Note that employers functionally pay half of these taxes (you only see a 6.2% and 1.45% tax on your paycheck, respectively), but it is a direct cost for employers that otherwise could be paid as a wage. These taxes combined started out small, but now account for almost the same portion of total tax as income taxes, which has been a driver in the regressive tax shift in recent decades.
  • Consumption Taxes: This is about 50% sales taxes, and 50% license taxes (car tabs, etc).
  • Capital Taxes: This covers corporate income tax, property tax, and estate taxes. 

Other thoughts from the book:

  • Saez/Zucman say (p134) that the optimal highest marginal tax rate on the rich is around 75%. Apparently, a (un-cited) "body of work" suggests that that rate optimizes the total tax revenue collected. E.g., the lost revenue from reduced income is offset exactly by the increased revenue of the higher rate.
  • The authors advocate for a wealth tax, but I did not find their arguments for it convincing. I say that as someone desperate to tax the rich more. I just don't really like that there isn't a clean valuation system (I don't think the marginal value of the last share sold is representative of the overall value of the firm), particularly for illiquid assets. The authors put forward a system where the wealth tax can be paid using a portion of the wealth itself (e.g., shares in your private company), but now it just feels like theft. I don't know, I don't like it.

I loved, loved, loved their no-nonsense description for why we should tax the rich:

Extreme wealth, like carbon emissions, imposes a negative externality on the rest of us. The point of taxing carbon is not to raise revenue but to reduce carbon emissions. The same goes for high tax rates on the very highest incomes: They are not aimed at funding government programs in the long run. They are aimed at reducing the income of the ultra-wealthy. They prevent or impede the various forms of rent extrction associated with extreme and entrenched wealth and with the reality of the market economy in unequal sociaties. What's the point of ... earning millions by creating zero-sum financial products, of spiking the price of patented drugs, when out of any extra dollar earned, 90 cents will go to the IRS?When in place, quasi-confiscatory tax rates redistribute economic power, equalize the distribution of pre-tax income, and make the marketplace more competitive.

I'm not a tax wonk so don't have great perspective on how rare this may be, but it's soooo refreshing to see someone just say this out loud. This continues to drive me crazy w/r/t carbon taxes, where politicians need to instead sell them as "carbon pricing" or as productive revenue generating programs. I recall texting campaigns for carbon taxes in WA, where people voted no because they didn't like what the money would be spent on. AGGGH. Who cares what it's spent on?! Likewise, we spend a lot of energy hand-holding ignorant people into ideas that taxes are tied to valid programs, or the idea that we want want to punish the rich, but just want them to pay their fair share, etc. But that's not true! We should tax the rich for the single purpose of disincentivizing the rich. We want fewer rich people. I understand that this is politically poisonous to say - but damn is it nice to finally read.

Lastly, there is an accompanying website that is just fantastic: https://taxjusticenow.org/

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