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2011 book stats
19 books started
18 books finished
7,067 pages read
100% digital
14% fiction
29% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
A History, A Theory, A Flood
James Gleick
read on December 1, 2011

This book was super interesting. The subtitle lays out the structure of the book pretty well. It starts by explaining the history of how humans transmit information. Obviously, this revolves around the development of language and communication. I particularly liked the explanation of African tribes that can communicate quickly from village to village by beating a drum. They're able to do this because their spoken language is highly tonal. In English, for instance, I can change the meaning of a sentence from a statement into a question by making it a high pitch at the end. But in this particular African language - the meaning of individual words are highly dependent on the contextual tones. Because of that - they're able to imitate language using simplified drum patterns. It's really complex, and super interesting.

The second part of the book is obviously a theory of information - and I found this to be the best part. The book talks about memes - an idea Richard Dawkins came up with in The Selfish Gene. Memes are ideas - they are information, anything with structure really. The "theory" here is that memes find ways to reproduce, to survive, in the same Darwinistic way that biological agents do. It discusses information almost as a sentient thing, something trying to survive. I really liked the comparison, and it was interesting to think about what properties allow information to be passed on. Why do we know what Mozart's music sounds like, why was that information passed along when most everything else from that time was not?

The last part, the flood, is about the internet, and how that's been an information explosion the likes of which our species has never seen, and some consequences thereof.

Fabulous book - super interesting reading, I really enjoyed it. There are parts that are a bit dry though - but definitely worth getting through.

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read on November 1, 2011

I need to know more about history. Ever since I read that Moonwalking with Einstein book and realized that the more you know the more you remember (and thus the more you're able to learn - i.e., that knowledge is a positive feedback loop), I've been trying to branch out a bit and get some more general knowledge topics under my belt. I know pretty much nothing about Asian history, so what the heck.

Good book. Well written, well researched, and fairly presented. Things I learned:

  • A lot of what we know about the Khan's is from the "Secret History" scrolls, which were found relatively recently.
  • For the last several hundred years, no one has been around Khan's region in Mongolia - the Soviet's were creeped out by it and sealed off the area to everyone - it's only now reopened.
  • The Mongolian Khans were actually really great - Genghis Khan wasn't really the ruthless horrible guy he has the bad rap of. He was legit, and a fantastic ruler.
  • Apparently he spread propaganda about how horrible and ruthless he was intentionally so that enemies would surrender.
  • The Mongolians were very civil. They had some democratic features, free religion, experimented with paper money, and were all in all extremely progressive.
  • Genghis was a military genius on his own land - and ended up conquering most of Asia (his sons grew the empire even further, pretty much all of Asia and half of Europe).
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Daniel Kahneman
read on October 1, 2011

This is required reading. I feel like no one in the world would be done a disservice by reading this book, and I have a hard time imagining anyone not enjoying it. Scratch that; not being totally enthralled by it.

I've been reading Kahneman since my undergrad days. I had the good fortune to stumble my way into writing a thesis more-or-less on behavioral economics - something I had previously not even known existed. Behavioral econ is like the missing link that actually connects all the charts and graphs that explain how people are supposed to work to the empirical way that we can measure how people actually do work. Kahneman has been on the vanguard of the topic since he pretty much invented it, and this book is a high level summary of his life's work. It is incredible. It's the most interesting parts of econ, phsycology, and neuroscience all mixed up - and the output is a really though full, accessible description of how and why people act the way they do.

I really can't say enough good things about it. It's long, but it's worth it. I don't read many books twice, but I really feel like this is an anchor I'll come back to every few years. This book really could have been titled "All The Things I'm Really Into" - but that probably would have limited marketing opportunities.

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Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis
read on October 1, 2011

Really, I would say that this book is sort of an addendum to his earlier book, The Big Short, about the US Credit Crisis. Boomerang is about the fallout of the credit crises in Europe. For the most part, it’s remarkable. It honestly reads much more like non-fiction than anything else- both because of Lewis’ approachable style and also because you just really wouldn’t ever think that the world has gotten this messed up. What’s most remarkable is just the extent to which everyone seems to be making things up as they go along. You’d think that heads-of-state would have their stuff together, but they’re all just as corrupt as the last guy.

Anyway, the book was based pretty much a collection of articles that Lewis wrote for Vanity Fair – so at times it does read more like disjoint short stories (one for each country) than as a cohesive book.

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How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships
Christopher Ryan
read on September 1, 2011

This book was truly bad. Which is such a shame, because from everything on the cover, (not to mention all the glowing praise and fantastic reviews) it really seems like something I would really enjoy. It's a scientific look at human sexuality - how we think it evolved the way it did, the implications of that on our behavior, etc etc. The book is well researched and put together, but the authors just didn't make me care. I don't think I even finished it. I can't really say why not - it's a great book, just boring as hell. I'd like to say I'll give it another try sometime - but honestly I doubt it would go any better. I'd love to see a cliffs notes version I guess - all the points distilled down to a few laminated index cards, because this thing just didn't do it for me.

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Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick
read on September 1, 2011

Wow! I had absolutely no idea what was going on in North Korea. Embarrassingly so. Seriously. My impression was that N. Korea was just more or less down on it's luck, with an eccentric communist leader that didn't let his people watch TV. Uh - wrong. [This is why I need to start reading fewer finance books]. It's pretty much 1938 Germany over there. It's a humanitarian tragedy. It's a mess. I can't believe I was so oblivious to this.

Anyway - this is a really fantastic book that tells the story of what's going on in North Korea, based on interviews from the lucky few that have made it out. It's amazing in that it leaves you not really knowing what to think. What's the way out in a situation like this? The North Korean people absolutely, genuinely, love the Dear Leader - despite his having starved millions of them to death.

It's utterly compelling, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone that wants to be less of an idiot.

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read on September 1, 2011

This is a fantastic book to read to try and get an understanding of how fundamentally different people much, much smarter than yourself are. Feynman is brilliant, and it's just fascinating to see how that brilliance (and eccentricity) shows itself through the different parts of his life. Hilariously funny as well, and not technical at all - anyone would be able to enjoy this, (he barely talks at all about physics/math etc), get ready to be depressed at how unambitious and underachieving your life is though.

Some of my favorite parts:

  • Feynman used to have lucid dreams. But instead of just having fun and enjoying them, he would actually carry out experiments during his dreams to try and figure out the nature of the senses and how his brain worked. Who else would ever do that?! His experiments were remarkably thoughtful as well - during his dreams!
  • He had a great passage in their where he tried to describe frustrations with other people - in that it seemed to him like other people seem to "learn" by rote, rather than by genuine understanding - which leaves them unable to apply their knowledge to novel situations. "Their knowledge is so fragile." Ug - humiliating in it's accuracy. Feynman works to understand everything on a basis of first principals - to really understand, to understand the foundations of the topic before moving on to anything else. Inspiring.
  • More than anything, Feynman's fearlessness at trying new things was impressive. He wanted to know more about how bloodhounds could smell so well - so he actually started smelling things himself, and doing experiments and actual, dedicated practice at trying to improve and refine his sense of smell - and it worked! Well!
  • Another example - he wanted to know how ants always knew where they were going, and what determined their paths. So he would follow them around for hours with colored pencils, drawing their paths all over his house - using different colors for different ants and different shades for each new time they followed the same path - and he actually determines some really interesting conclusions about how the kinds of paths ants make, and how they must track each other.
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The Future of the Last Wild Food
Paul Greenberg
read on September 1, 2011

I read this book months ago, and didn't take any notes, which is a shame because it had a whole bunch of really interesting information about fish (obviously) and the way that the fishing industry has changed in just the last thirty years or so. It spent a while talking about the dangers of overfishing, and reasons why it's so hard to police the problem (i.e., international waters). Another big point was the discussion of the trade-off of farmed vs wild fish. Farmed can be a great idea since it sort of domesticates fish and allows us to efficiently grow/catch/serve them - but the interesting bit is that those populations very quickly evolve into their own branch of the species, often much less suited for the wild than their actual wild brethren… and when the farmed fish inevitably escape the hatchery they can end up really gumming up the gene pool with the wild fish. What seems like a sustainable shortcut solution really isn't, and needs to be controlled much more carefully than it currently is.

Also, I liked the idea the book brought up that fish are extremely efficient. I don't have the figures, but Greenberg looks at each species and breaks down how many calories we need to feed fish in order to get one calorie of fish meat. With most animals the number is some tiny fraction - but with some fish that number very nearly approaches one. I.e., fish are super important and we probably shouldn't screw this up.

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A Novel
Brady Udall
read on August 1, 2011

Another foray into fiction. I saw this book at Powell's in Portland being advertises as the the next great American novel - and something something not since Huck Finn etc etc good book…

Eh. It's okay I guess. It was fun to read, and the characters were very relatable and well developed, but it's hard for me to get so excited over fiction. I'll say this about it though - I think the older you are, and the more experience you have in life, the more you're going to like this book. And, certainly, if you're heavy into fiction, then I think you're likely to appreciate this one. But if you're like me, only a casual fiction reader not really looking for nuance and subtle character development, there are better ways to spend 20 hours.

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Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Edward Dolnick
read on July 1, 2011

Fantastic, really great book about the scientific revolution - and particularly about Isaac Newton. It's gives a lot of great historical context to his life, and then turns into a biography of Newton and goes over all his scientific accomplishments and the impact they had on the world at the time. Really well written, and very accessible. I'm sure the book would appeal more to science nerds than anyone else, but you certainly don't need to be a nerd to enjoy it.

Highlights for me were learning about The Royal Society in England (first science club ever), the true impact and scale of the black death, and learning that Newton and another guy independently both discovered calculus at the same time, but Newton got all the credit.

Also - I listened to this on Audiobook, narrated by Alan Sklarr, and it was incredible. It's like having Optimus Prime read you a story. Wow.

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The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Joshua Foer
read on May 1, 2011

Ug. Too far behind to write what this book deserves. This is probably my fave book of this year. It's all about how how memory works. In short - humans evolved to have fantastic memory and comprehension regarding spacial relationships. For instance, walk through a building or a strangers home and after one minute you're very familiar with the surroundings. A week later you could probably still describe the area, layout, decoration, etc, fairly well. But lists of information are new to humans, so we're terrible at remembering them.

The book describes a technique called a 'memory palace' - where you literally construct a virtual space inside your head, and then imagine whatever information you want as objects in that space. I tried it, it works.

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How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good
David J. Linden
read on May 1, 2011

Read this book over the summer and didn't write about it until a few months later, so I've forgotten most of it. It was definitely a great book, about the neurological pathways in your brain and about the biology behind things like addiction and happiness. I definitely would recommend it.

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The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Mary Roach
read on April 15, 2011

Eh. This book is about the odd and (conventionally) unexpected things that need to be considered before sending humans into space. It was pretty fascinating at times. For instance, I had no idea just how much skin we slough off every day! In a zero gravity environment where you aren't able to bathe, dead skin just kind of stays on you - she told this one story where I guy was in space for a few weeks, came back to Earth and took a shower, and said that the skin came off his arm and hand like a glove. Gross. Anyway, very interesting book, but the pacing was a bit odd.

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A Cube Dweller's Tale
Mike Daisey
read on April 9, 2011

I haven't read any books about Amazon ever, but I really wanted to for a while. I'd love to have some insight into how the company works, what the senior execs are like, what the vibe was during the early days, etc.

This book was none of that. It was pretty terrible. Imagine if Andy Richter got stoned, had zero motivation, ambition, or education, and then got a job at Amazon in customer service - and then wrote a book about how much it sucked there. Yeah, of course it sucked there - when you're a loser deadbeat your job is going to suck. Daisey doesn't really try to hide this - he introduces himself as a loser deadbeat, but still.

To be fair, I think Daisey is just going for humor anyway, and at times the book is indeed pretty funny. But it's distractingly hyperbolic and disparaging. He really pushes the cult-ish feel of the early days, but just makes it sound crazy. It's an interesting look at his life, and how his head works, but it's really not a fair look at Amazon at all. I'm quite surprised, and frankly disappointed that he lasted there as long as he did.

Edit: No surprise to me that Daisey's career has since cratered after it turned out he lies in order to craft more compelling stories.

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Suzanne Collins
read on March 1, 2011

Honestly, I read these books because I loved the strong branding and iconography that the three different covers (all by Tim O'Brien) established. They were well designed, simple, and consistent. (Unfortunately though, I think they missed on the typeface. They seemed to have been shooting for a Soviet era "big brother" oppressive font, but I think they ended up with a varsity letter jacket instead. A real missed opportunity, but the mockingjay icon still shines alone). I really appreciated that, and decided it was time to get into some non-fiction anyway.

I don't have much to say about the actual story. There were a few things that stuck out for me:

  • Collins used the word "tremulous" to describe the sound of one of the character's voices, which I really thought was fantastic. It isn't that uncommon of a word, but for some reason it felt perfectly used.
  • There is a scene I really liked at a luxurious party at 'the capital', where the characters eat until they're totally full, then pop a little pill and jump into the bathroom to vomit. Then, like it's no big deal, they go back out to the party to refill. It was just a great way to describe a culture of excess to have people go to eating parties and essentially have several different stomach-fulls of food.
  • I feel like the end of the series is a huge missed opportunity. The books did a really good job, to me at least, of having a somewhat ambiguous sense of morality. While it's clear by the end of the third book that the Capital has been corrupt and immoral, their original motivations were not evil, and by the end of it there is almost a sense of pity for them. The book clearly shows how power corrupts people, and how quick the revolutionary party is willing to oppress those who previously oppressed them. I wish that instead of teasing this idea, that Collins had jumped all the way into it. The last book ends with the hero (Katniss) more-or-less stopping both factions (the originally oppressive Capital, as well as the abusing-their-newfound-power Revolutionaries). I wish instead that the Revolutionaries had won outright, and that we could have seen the disgusting descent back into oppressive dystopia that their power caused. The book should have ended exactly where it began, but with the tables turned. Instead, it ended with a typical good-triumphs-over-evil, happily-ever-after vibe. That probably made it a bigger commercial success, but I really wish Collins would have wholly embraced the moral ambiguity perspective and given it the sad ending instead.
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The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History
Gregory Zuckerman
read on February 1, 2011

This might be it for the crisis books. If I don't get tired of them soon I may just run out of books to read... Anyway, this one was great. It was almost entirely like Michael Lewis' The Big Short, but much better. I think I liked it more because it only briefly mentions Michael Burry, the extremely unlikable bi-polar asbergurs guy that also shorted mortgages. Ug, what a pill he was.

Anyway, this book (as you can deduce from the unnecessarily long subtitle) focused mainly on John Paulson, a hedge fund manager that bet the farm on the coming mortgage crisis. I'm not sure if it's all worth repeating here, but the story of how he came up with his trade is pretty compelling and Zuckerman turns it into a great narrative. Much like The Quants, throughout reading this book you can tell that there is something different about Paulson - some insane drive and ambition and intellect that makes it so clear that he pretty much deserves his billions, and everything else coming to him. He seems like a genius, in an effortless sort of way, but still works his ass off. A guy that makes a billion dollars and still comes into work the next day. 

Lastly, I'll just say that the book finishes up with a discussion of what he thinks his next trade will be - and he bluntly proclaims that he's all-in gold, that the dollar has been weakened by the fed and he sees a rush to gold in the coming year. I had to laugh, since about a month ago I began shorting it...

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The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
Russell Shorto
read on February 1, 2011

Emily and I were planning a trip to New York, so I decided it would be helpful, or at least interesting, to have some historical context for the place that we were about to visit.

While I'm not really sure how much of it I retained, this book was really interested. I'm somewhat embarrased to say it's some of the only "history" I've read since about, well, high school, and it was much more engaging than I expected.

The main takaway for me was (duh) that NY was colonized by the Dutch looong before the British came to Jamestown. The Dutch had setup quite a robust little trading post. There were loads of fun stories that related directly to modern day events/locations; for instance, Wall St was named so because that road actually used to be the outer wall of the colony.

Anyway, I'm definitely more interested in the history genre now, and without a doubt the knowledge I picked up here defintely enriched the NY trip. Success!

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The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
Bethany McLean
read on February 1, 2011

Another financial crisis book... what can I say? This book was a lot like the other ones I've read, nothing groundbreaking, but enjoyable. It was written by journalists, which made it very readable, but they also dumbed it down quite a bit.

Really, I'm not sure this book brought anything new to the table at all. Same discussion about CDS's, CDO's, CDO-squareds, etc. Same discussion about the recklessness of the NRSRO's, the blindness of AIG, the helplessness of the SEC, FDIC, Fed, Treasury, etc. Same discussion about how this was essentially caused by the dems fifteen years ago- pushing hard to get more "average Americans" into owning homes and encouraging the GSE's to buy up shitty loans.

Eh. If I were a high school finance teacher I'd assign this to the kiddos. I'm not sure what else to say. I finished reading it about two weeks before sitting down to write this, and hardly remember anything unique about it. That about speaks for itself.

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A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukherjee
read on January 1, 2011

Despite cancer being the number two cause of death in the USA, and even despite knowing personal friends and family members who have had cancer and died of cancer, I knew amazingly little about cancer before reading this book. I didn't even know what chemotherapy actually was, just that it makes people feel like hell as their hair falls out.

Chemotherapy is just that - chemicals either injected or ingested, meant to kill the cancer. It is literally poison. It kills cancer by killing everything, pretty much. The idea in a nutshell is to get as close as you can to poisoning a person to death, and hope that they survive and that the cancer doesn't. Hell, it was discovered by trail and error! A bunch of leukemia kids with zero hope of survival were just fed dozens of different poisons on a hunch that something interesting might happen to them. Almost everybody died - but over thirty years of mixing and matching the chemicals, we've ended up with a crazy amalgam that stands a chance of stopping cancer.

The book covered quite a bit - and despite trying to have a happy ending, it was pretty depressing. Pretty much, we're all going to get cancer and die from it eventually. Still, it was a great narrative, and a great look at the history of the disease.

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