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2013 book stats
34 books started
33 books finished
14,742 pages read
98% digital
38% fiction
21% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
Stanislaw Lem
read on December 1, 2013

This was an interesting short novel about, more or less, an alien life form that creates living personalities out of people's memories. (I.e., reanimates characters from a person's past). One thing this book did very well was make the reader wonder about what kind of consciousness or atomic makeup makes something a person. This alien re-creates the main character's long-dead wife. She seems normal in most other aspects, but has no memory of the last 10 years (including having killed herself), and doesn't understand how she got into her situation. I thought the book did a great job respectfully exploring the topic of what constitutes an identity. If it were possible to duplicate every cell in my body perfectly, would that person be me? If I could use my genetic material to create another person, would that person be me? If I had a stroke that caused me to lose my memory of the last 5 years, would I be the same person I had been before the accident?

Solaris creates a great narrative around these kinds of questions. The best passage in the book, in my opinion, is below.

"Listen", she said, "there's one other thing. Am I. . . really like. . . her?"
"You were", I said, "but now I don't know any more."
"What do you mean". . . ?
She got to her feet and looked at me with eyes wide open."You've already taken her place."
"And you're sure it's not her but me that you. . . Me?"
"Yes. You. I don't know. I'm afraid that if you were really her, I'd not be able to love you."
"Why not?"
"Because I did something terrible."
"To her?"
"Yes. When we were..."
"Don't say."
"Why not?"
"Because I want you to know that I'm not her."

The second thing Solaris does well is generally describing alien intelligence. Most sci-fi novels (I suspect, as I haven't actually read many) would apprach alien intelligence in a very anthropomorphic way. In Solaris, Lem makes it clear that we just can't understand alien intelligence, it is an altogether different thing -- it may not even appear to be 'intelligent'. 

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Ethics for a Whole World
Dalai Lama
read on December 1, 2013

I didn't really know what to expect going in, but the Dalai Lama impressed my socks off on this book. Obviously he is a deeply religious man, but the book absolutely stays true to its title. This is not a book about religion. He neither promotes his own religion nor denigrates any others. In fact, he has many, many kind things to say about the other religions, but focuses entirely on a necessarily-secular view of ethics based on compassion. Many times throughout the book, he reenforces his points with science (!), and a handful of times makes reference to the latest developments in neuroscience and makes several comments about how excited he is about the advances in that field (particularly about the insight it can give us to ourselves and our own consciousness). I could hang with this guy. This is officially my go-to answer next time I ever get asked "if you could eat dinner with one person living or dead, who would it be?"

Two quotes I thought were great:

Time and geography will always impose limits on how much wealth anyone can succeed in accruing in a single lifetime. Given this natural limit it seems wiser to set one's own limits through the exercise of contentment. In contrast, when it comes to acquiring mental riches the potential is limitless. Here, where there is no natural limit, it is appropriate not to be contented with what you have, but to constantly strive for more. Unfortunately, most of us do the exact opposite. We are never quite satisfied with what we have materially, but we tend to be thoroughly complacent about our mental riches.

and...

All pleasures based on sensory stimulation derive at some level from the satisfaction of a craving, and if we become obsessed with satisfying that craving this will eventually turn into a kind of suffering.

This guy knows what he's doing.

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Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds
Sy Montgomery
read on December 1, 2013

Birdology was a book I greatly enjoyed but that also drove me into crazy fits of frustration - it just isn't written for me. Sy Montgomery describes seven different bird families in great detail, very compellingly, and litters each chapter with fantastic little factoids making the reader genuinely want to seek out more information. It's a great book...

However for each interesting little fact or story that piqued my interest, there seemed to always be a corresponding passage that made my brain explode with frustration. Small things, but consistently, and they added up. For example:

It's obvious they [hawks] take joy in their flight.

 

He [a hawk] screamed insults into her ear and remained angry with her for a week.

These are two of but dozens of needless anthropomorphisms throughout the book. This is fine for fiction, or to drive a narrative - but if you're writing a book specifically to describe and explain the nature and behaviors of birds, you just can't do stuff like this.

...parrots who speak meaningfully are, in fact, remarkably common. On my flight from New Hampshire to visit Snowball, I happened to sit next to a man who told me about a cockatoo he knew named Mickey, also from St. Louis. Mickey was a smart bird who often opened and escaped from his own cage while his owner was out. One day the owner came home to find, to her great alarm, her Labrador retriever holding Mickey in his mouth. 'Drop the bird!' the woman screamed. 'Put Mickey down!' From within the dog's jaws, the bird cried, 'Put Mickey down!' The dog, astonished, dropped the parrot at the owner's feet.

First, you can't use anecdotal, second-hand stories to support an argument that you think is novel. Second, what's with the dog being astonished? Is the dog surprised that the thing in it's mouth made noise? Is the dog meant to understand the words "Put Mickey down" as well as the significance of a bird saying it instead of a person? On what grounds can Montgomery justify that this dog is actually astonished, and not just routinely doing what it is being told to do? And third (saving the best for last), the only purpose of this anecdote is to describe "parrots who speak meaningfully" - but it actually does the exact opposite. Speaking meaningfully would be if the owner came in and overheard Mickey shouting this on his own to the dog - or saying "Hey you dumb dog, please don't eat me", or if after the owner shouted "Put Mickey down", had Mickey said "Do as Master commands!", etc.. But the fact that the owner shouts it first, and that the parrot then *ahem* parrots it back to him, describes exactly the kind of garden variety mimicry that Montgomery thinks she is arguing against. Did no one edit this? How is it that the first person that read this didn't immediately run and tell Montgomery that she's arguing against herself?

Many scientists, however, refuse to believe that animals have any sort of consciousness; some even deny that animals feel emotions 'or suffer from pain' in a rigid adherence to Cartesian prejudices about human superiority to every other creature on earth.

This one is a bit insidious. Here she 1) declares as fact that all animals have emotions and consciousness, and 2) Invents a reason why she thinks people disagree with her. The reader is presented with the (false) binary choice that all animals have emotions and consciousness, or that animals are automatons put on this earth only to serve the superior humans. This is how Fox broadcasts "news": by twisting it into a specific shape and then serving it up in such a way that you'd have be an asshole to disagree with it. Montgomery is not an idiot. She clearly is knowledgeable and has many meaningful and interesting things to share - it's such a shame to see passages like this undermine that credibility.

My core problem here is that Montgomery doesn't draw a line between what her opinions are, and what she presents as fact. And while the book is super interesting, and engaging, and well paced, and funny, and probably mostly true, I couldn't get past some of the presentation. I couldn't help reading each anecdote and wondering if that was an objective description of an object, or if it was a very narrow and precise perspective of the object that happened to fit her narrative. I did enjoy reading this book, I'm glad this book exists and think other people would like it a lot, but it's just not compatible with how I think.

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read on November 1, 2013

In the first chapter of this incredible work, Zinn breaks down his motivations and intent behind writing A People's History; which I enjoyed so much I want to replicating in part here:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex...

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees...

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim...

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest...

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

As evidenced elsewhere on this site, I was at best marginally aware of the standard American history before reading this book. Given that Zinn circumvents the standard narrative, it's pretty fair to say that everything here was new to me. While reading this book I discovered again and again, to an embarrassing degree, how clueless I was about the foundational events that have shaped our past.

For a while I thought I'd review this book by writing all the things I learned about it down, but that really wouldn't work. Some chapters I literally felt like I was highlighting more text than I wasn't. (Plus, since Zinn is often used as a textbook for history courses, the internet seems pretty full of chapter-by-chapter summaries anyway). I think instead I'd rather just focus on the parts and themes that spoke to me the most, which were:

  • Using conflict and hardship as a system of control. Throughout the book, Zinn characterized many (all?) of the wars that we've fought as an intentional and manufactured effort of the established class to distract/unite/further oppress the lower classes. While I don't buy into that 100%, he makes compelling points with ample evidence.

Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as natural to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.

  • The next thing for me was in general the atrocities we committed against Native Americans for the last, well, 300 years. I knew Americans certainly hadn't gone out of their way to make things easy for them, but my general impression was that Native Americans just sort of went away over time. Clearly it wasn't something I had ever given very much thought to and it was appalling to realize the truth, that we have systematically been committing genocide against that race since colonial times. I thought it was particularly disgusting the way we repeatedly made treaties and promises to different tribes, and then broke them without hesitation. I mean, the president of the United States would sign a document saying that such-and-such tribe could have X many acres of land in perpetuity, and then as soon as it was even remotely inconvenient to white settlers, we just tore up the treaty and ran the Indians off the land.
  • I think it can be logically (though not necessarily morally) argued that removing the Native Americans was just the cost of doing business, and a necessary sacrifice on the way towards building the most economically productive nation in the history of the world. But the manner in which we went about it, with lies on top of lies on top of lies, about how we were great partners and just need them to move west 'just this one last time' was/is disgusting and shameful. (And, I'll mention, it is not yet over.)
  • My last great takeaway was just getting an overall better understanding of the class struggles between the revolutionary war and WWI. I didn't know too much about early American history outside of slavery and WWI, but (unsurprisingly) there was an awful lot going on. It was interesting to get more color on the growing manufacturing and industrial industries and the fights for unionization. I've never been a fan of modern-day unions, and I always sat on the excuse that they were probably appropriate at some point in the past, but no longer. It was quite a thing to read indeed just how appropriate and necessary they were in the past 200 years.
  • Overall the books as fantastic, and should be required reading for every high schooler in the country. It wasn't perfect though - towards the end I really felt like Zinn got way too preachy, and I felt like he forgot that his perspective is not the only one. What I liked so much about the beginning of the book (his mission to tell the untold stories) turned into, ironically, a denunciation of everything else. He seemed to forget or disregard that the lines between good and bad are not always clear, especially during the moment. It's easy from our perspective now as the undisputed dominant world power to look back with disgust at some of our historical actions - but it does the audience a disservice to condemn those events without considering the implications of having gone with the alternative. Most disturbingly, Zinn advocates several times for what I would consider ridiculously radical policy changes (e.g., a 90% flat tax on the wealthy), without substantially defending those policies or their implications.

Again though, a fantastic and enlightening book.

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Bret Easton Ellis
read on November 25, 2013

Another horrible fiction book. This one is pretty famous too, I definitely don't see what the big deal is. This book has exactly two different kinds of chapters. 1) Chapters that are surprisingly long and intolerably boring, where the main character, Patrick Bateman, describes what everyone around him is wearing, where they are going to dinner, and then something about Les Miserable, all using exclusively run-on sentences. And 2) Chapters where Patrick Bateman murders prostitutes in the most grotesque, explicit, horrifying ways I've ever seen written down. Oh, I forgot, there are also two chapters where Bateman reviews the entire discographies of musicians he likes: Whitney Huston, and Huey Lewis & The News.

The book succeeds only in that I'm totally convinced that this dude is a 100% crazy sociopath, but it fails miserably as a compelling narrative. I only made it all the way to the end in the dim hope that it would redeem itself with some crazy twist. What a waste of time. Below is an excerpt that pretty much sums up the experience of reading this book. Try to make it all the way to the bottom without killing yourself. Seriously, I didn't make this up, this was just a fairly random quote. There are hundreds more just like it.

Plus there are four women at the table opposite ours, all great-looking, blond, big tits: one is wearing a chemise dress in double-faced wool by Calvin Klein, another is wearing a wool knit dress and jacket with silk faille bonding by Geoffrey Beene, another is wearing a symmetrical skirt of pleated tulle and an embroidered velvet bustier by, I think, Christian Lacroix plus high-heeled shoes by Sidonie Larizzi, and the last one is wearing a black strapless sequined gown under a wool crepe tailored jacket by Bill Blass. Now the Shirelles are coming out of the speakers, Dancing in the Street, and the sound system plus the acoustics, because of the restaurant's high ceiling, are so loud that we have to practically scream out our order to the hardbody waitress' who is wearing a bicolored suit of wool grain with passementerie trim by Myrone de Premonville and velvet ankle boots and who, I'm fairly sure, is flirting with me: laughs sexily when I order, as an appetizer, the monkfish and squid ceviche with golden caviar; gives me a stare so steamy, so penetrating when I order the gravlax potpie with green tomatillo sauce I have to look back at the pink Bellini in the tall champagne flute with a concerned, deadly serious expression so as not to let her think I'm too interested.

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Steven L. Peck
read on November 20, 2013

While less than 10% as long as my last fiction book 1Q84, this book as at least 10 times better. More than that. A Short Stay in Hell is phenomenal. Crazy good. I'm not sure where you draw the line between "short book" and "short story" - but I've never really been into either. I always felt (though not from any experience) that short stories wouldn't be engaging enough, or develop enough character or motivations for me to really get on board. Well, I guess I was wrong. This is the best book I've read in a long time, fiction or not.

This book explores the concept of infinity and immortality in interesting ways, from the perspective of a man that has died and is now trapped in (an otherwise very pleasant) "hell", consisting of few other people and a nearly infinite amount of gibberish books, of which he must find a single one, unique to him. The themes I enjoyed:

  • Religion - I like the cute discussion of the "one true religion" being something no one has ever heard of, highlighting the absurdity of our popular beliefs. (I'll note that since having read this book I feel like I commonly encounter Zoroastrianism in other contexts, so maybe jumped the gun on "no one has ever heard of" there). The book was an interesting satire on the nature of what we believe, and why we believe it. Despite religious being very real in the book (they are all in hell, after all), the book subtly also drives home that religion is entirely a human fabrication, a natural consequence of a doomed people seeking a purpose.
  • Physics - Here I just enjoyed the interesting depictions of ordinary items at cosmic scale. If a book is 410 pages long, with 80 lines per page, and 40 characters per page, and each character is one of ~40 (roman alphabet + punctuation), how many possible books are there? How much space would that take up? I've run across similar questions in other physics books when exploring the idea of a unique 'multiverse' for every possible combination of data in our universe. This is a microsim of that, but an interesting example of exploring how quickly exponential equations scale.
  • Purpose of Life / Happiness - The Hell described in the book is actually very comfortable. Everyone speaks english, can move around comfortably, can meet other people, can eat whatever they desire, can fall in love, have sex, etc. They can pretty much do whatever they want... except their entire environment (including their physical bodies, though not their memories) is "reset" every night. I.e., they cannot build anything. Every morning they wake up to the same environment, trapped in a giant library. Why would you be unhappy here? With the fear of death removed from life, what is there to live for? What is there to aspire to? Do we require progression to be happy? Is that the only thing that can even make us happy? If so, why?
  • The Infinite Nature of Time - There is a line early on in the book where one of the characters asks if they're going to be in hell for eternity, and one of the demons in charge laughs at him, and ridiculous his notion of eternity. He goes on to say that hell is not eternal, it is a temporary punishment, and that after hell each person will enjoy an eternity in heaven where they'll someday look back at their tiny stay in hell and laugh. The main character then spends billions of billions of years in hell. The interesting part is that I think the demon was telling the truth. What does that say about life? No matter what you believe, we'll all be dead soon and then we'll (well, presumably) either spend eternity in some imaginary heaven, or nowhere. Either way, there is an eternity of some other experience/nil awaiting us. What does that say about our time now? What is 80/∞?
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My Month of Madness
Susannah Cahalan
read on November 1, 2013

Brain of Fire is a remarkable first person account of Susannah Cahalan's months-long battle with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a very recently identified auto-immune disease where a person's body attacks their brain. This book is a trained journalist's honest and objective description of the manic, psychotic, and hallucinogenic symptoms of having one's brain distort and swell. In short, it is the exact opposite of Proof of Heaven.

I loved this book because Cahalan does such a fantastic job of impressing on the reader how fragile our perception of reality is, and how subjectively that perception is driven by our brain. The very slightest imbalance or environmental change to our brain can cause, as she horribly experienced and described: wild visions, crazy mood swings, horrible seizures, memory loss, memory fabrication, etc. During this time Cahalan turns into a completely different person, with only small slivers of her original personality coming through. Even now, after making what her doctors consider a full recovery, she remains insecure about whether or not she really is the same old Susannah.

I especially liked the last part of the book, where she considers how her disease gave her symptoms straight out of the movie The Exorcist. (In fact, her family can no longer watch that movie as it reminds them too much of her while in the hospital). Cahalan wonders explicitly how many people throughout history have been burned as possessed demons, when all they needed were steroids and some fresh blood plasma. Indeed, it was terrifying to learn that her specific condition was only identified in 2007, and took many, many doctors several weeks of dedicated in-patient effort to eventually diagnose.

This really sounded like a nightmare scenario for a 24 year old women (!). But it was a fantastic read, and I'm so happy that she was able to share her story in such a way. Our brains are incredible organs. I've read many books below that say as much, and even the Oliver Sachs book discussed incredible individual cases (in a super sterile, medical, third person perspective), but Calahan's first hand story humanizes the brain's power in an elegant and humbling way.

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How Algorithms Took Over Our Markets, Our Jobs, and the World
Christopher Steiner
read on November 1, 2013

This was a fun, accessible and engaging account of how algorithms and computers are changing the world. It was broad, not deep. The book discussed the origins of algorithms (which the author uses fairly interchangeably with 'computer programming' in general), and then discussed the myriad ways that are taking over pretty much every industry and application of modern life. The examples were fun, but not too surprising (healthcare, dating, finance). I'm really not sure who the target audience of the book is. I figure anyone with any knowledge of computer science would already know most of this stuff, and anyone without knowledge of computer science would really never pickup a book with this title/subtitle/cover. Anyway, for me two things stuck out:

The first was I was a bit surprised with how much historical innovation starts on Wall Street. Even early bankers (interesting example of Rothschild knowing results of Waterloo battle well before British Gov, due to his bond arbitrage strategy and message pigeons). A surprising amount of computer tech was either developed or significantly enhanced by Wall Streeters trying to build an edge in trading speed/strategy.

The second thing wasn't so much a lesson from the book, but more so a reminder to get my butt in gear to learn some computer programming. Steiner makes it very clear that the jobs of the future (if not already the present) will primarily belong to those who can best interface with, and take advantage of, and most of all further develop, our burgeoning technology. We have a very far way yet to go in these fields, and there is much yet to learn and accomplish. While I've likely missed the boat on mastering computer science, I'm not yet too old to pick up a little programming know-how, and it will clearly pay dividends.

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Haruki Murakami
read on October 1, 2013

Probably the longest book I've read in years, if not ever. I just finished this tonight and already don't know what happened or why I should care. It was very entertaining, but I felt disappointed with the ending. The author left a lot unresolved. That, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a great quote in the book (a real quote, I believe) by Chekov, that says "once a gun has been introduced into a story, it must be fired." Well, the gun in 1Q84 is never fired. And I'm fine with that, with the literal gun never being used. But Murakami has a lot of figurative guns in this story - a whole bunch - and those are never fired either. Entire characters with complex motivations and back stories never seem totally filled out. Rather, they just sort of drop off. I don't know, hard to justify this as time well spent. That said, I think this book won a bunch of awards... and I'm the first person to admit I don't know a thing about fiction... so maybe I just didn't get it.

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Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Brad Stone
read on October 1, 2013

Mike Daisey's book on Amazon was horrible, so when I saw Brad Stone had one coming out (and previewed in a great Bloomberg article), I knew this was my shot at a great Amazon book, and wasn't disappointed. This book drove home the following few points:

  • Amazon is built in Jeff's image. The leadership principals, management style, pace, and culture all reflect his personality and priorities. These are things that I had been experiencing for the last few years (in terms of culture, metrics I'm held against, etc), and it was interesting to see how much Jeff himself drove them.
  • Jeff is brilliant. He is almost always right. And when he's wrong, he realizes it quickly and flips his position completely. This was something Steve Jobs was famous for, but it's always mentioned negatively, as though it's a character flaw. Steve (and Jeff, apparently) would passionately argue his position, screaming at people why they were wrong - and then, when finally convinced otherwise, Steve would flip 100%, and start yelling at people about how this idea (and by that point, "his" idea) was the correct one. Jeff once made a fantastic comment about this attribute, and highlighted that while it's an incredibly powerful trait to have (to quickly realize your mistakes and switch your position) it's one that politicians can never make, or their career would be over. I thought that was really insightful and interesting. The potentially best character trait that allows a leader to effectively lead an organization in a dynamic environment is exactly the trait that we select against in the people we elect to run our country. Crazy.

Anyway, great book - very interesting and the narrative moves fast. The only negative I could give it is that it's clear that this story hasn't ended, Amazon (and Jeff) are just now hitting their stride, so it feels like the book ends abruptly. I'd love to read a followup by Stone in ten or twenty more years.


I like the cover quite a bit, it encapsulates the book really well. Jeff is hidden back there behind the scenes looking intimidating, while the Amazon brand is front and center, all smiles. Well done.

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And Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks
read on October 1, 2013

This book is a series of stories about people with abnormal neurological conditions. It's incredibly interesting. Primarily, it serves for me as a reminder that everything, everything, everything happens inside our brains. It's remarkably easy to go through life thinking that the world is a concrete, fixed thing. It's easy to think that it is exactly what we see, smell, taste, hear and touch. But that's only what our brains subjectively experience it as. In How The Mind Works, Pinker wrote extensively about how everything we see is essentially a hallucination - our brain "sees" shapes and figures and then fills in the rest with whatever it thinks is actually there. This book is a reminder that our brain does that with every sense we have, and that the smallest neural abnormality can turn a person's experience of the world completely upside down.

What then, is the world actually like?

Most interesting chapters/abnormalities:

  • The book's namesake, a man with prosopagnosia who could not recognize things as a whole. He could see an eye, or a nose, but couldn't recognize that those things were part of a face. Goes without saying he couldn't recognize people, or even know that people were people at all.
  • A man who drank himself into a Memento-esque condition, unable to form new memories.
  • A women who woke up one day having lost her sense of proprioception - the ability to know where one's body physically is. Without looking, she would have no idea where her legs, arms, fingers, etc. were, and was effectively unable to use them.
  • Several people who wake up one day thinking that their appendages aren't their own. These people, who were otherwise healthy and normal, wake up convinced that someone else's leg is attached to their body. So weird.
  • A healthy man who once dreamt he was a dog, with an incredibly heightened sense of smell. Upon waking up, he found he still had that heightened sense. He could literally walk into a crowded room blindfolded and be able to identify dozens of people inside just based on smell. 
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Jonathan Safran Foer
read on September 1, 2013

Most of this book was sadly, very predictable. Foer condemns the way we treat animals. At one point he brings up turkeys in particular, calling out that farm turkeys are a specially bred species that we've tweaked to grow full size in 39 days (early turkey adolescence) - these things are so mutated and deformed (from us selecting turkeys with huge breasts, thighs, etc) that they literally can't survive on their own. They can't fly or hop, they can barely move. They would die from exposure if left alone. Many are "born" dead - and many more die from abnormalities/sickness, and then even more die from more horrific reasons, like being trampled, suffocating under other turkeys, etc. Foer makes this sound disgusting, but that's cheap. It's cheap to take advantage of the repulsive gut reaction that most people will have when they hear this. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but it's cheap to just rely on that and not dig in to the more complicated issues.

Isn't the holy grail of protein farming the ability for us to just outright clone animal muscle? What if we could just grow turkey breast in a lab? It's being worked on, and we're almost there. And while many folks have many reasons to be terrified of 100% bioengineered food, no one reputable seems to be calling that unethical, or immoral. But why? What's the difference between turkey parts we grow in a chemistry lab and turkey parts we grow on a turkey? Arguably it's the idea of consciousness, but I'm not sure I buy that. (And Foer doesn't really bother to approach it). Foer himself seems to admit that these farmed turkeys are barely even conscious in the first place... hell, they're only alive for 39 days. And if consciousness is what makes this immoral and disgusting, why is that so? Why does consciousness, in whatever capacity that these turkeys seem to have it, matter? And why would it matter above the needs of conscious humans? I mean - we have 7 billion people on Earth. Is it ethically wrong to propagate this synthetic species of turkey in order to feed them? (Or, even, just to allow them to live more comfortably?)

The best part of the book is actually written by someone else, a PETA member, as a counterpoint to another side letter written by a (pro-meat, duh) farmer. The PETA guy gets the closest to arguing the philosophical points, comparing the meat industry to colonial-era plantation slavery. (He also makes fantastic points about the sustainability effects of dealing with our over-populated planet). I don't think the slavery argument stands up here, but it was refreshing to finally hear someone try to get to the root of the issue.

I certainly don't have the answer to all this. I think it's a complicated philosophical question, and I doubt there really is a right or a wrong answer, though it's absolutely worth debating. But that's the question Foer needs to be asking here, and never does. Instead, he takes the lazy route of just describing factory farms in ways that any reasonable person would find repulsive.

...Still though, I've found it hard to get some of it out of my head, and I've thought twice about some of my orders when at cheap-o meat places.

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The Story of a Nation
Mark Kurlansky
read on August 1, 2013

We're going back to Donostia in a couple weeks, and I thought it would make sense to check out some history from the region. It always comes back to Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einsteinobservation that the more you know, the more you remember. I thought it was great - though a little bias toward the Basques (which was also reflected in reviews of the book elsewhere). Still, as usual with books like this, I was pretty surprised with the magnitude of things I was totally unaware of. Anyway, a few of the things I managed to remember...

  • Basque folks have the highest (by a lot) concentration of type-O (RH negative) blood in the world. Because of blood type mismatches, babies without similar characteristics are often miscarried (or at least were, pre WWII before modern medicine), which acted as a natural way to preserve this very pure bloodline.
  • There's a tree in Guernika of immense cultural importance that has stood for hundreds of years. I want to go see it in person. It looks pretty epic.
  • The USA gave soft support to Basque nationalists (who, fought against Franco and Hitler in WWII) but then the USA betrayed them during cold war, when Franco came out as anti-communist.
  • Franco ran a fascist regime until the mid 1970s - holy crap. I "kinda/sorta" knew that - I mean, had I seen that on a multiple choice question I think I would have gotten the right answer... but had I had to write an essay about "Which current eurozone country had a radical fascist dictator until the mid 1970s and an unstable government pretty much until you finished high school?" .. well ... let's just say the odds wouldn't have been in my favor.
  • ETA seems like a very interesting organization, I'd really like to know more about them. This book seemed very pro-Basque, (and pro-ETA), so I'd certainly be interested in hearing the other side. Obviously it's a really complicated situation. ETA killed people... though they also seemed pretty instrumental to ending the Franco regime... and since the late '90s have vowed against using violence to affect change.
  • To be considered a Basque citizen, you don't need any heritage or bloodlines from the region. To be Basque is simply to be fluent in both their language and culture. I love that.
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Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
David K. Randall
read on August 1, 2013

Light lifting. This was like a Malcolm Gladwell book on sleep - but not as well written. Not to say it was bad - I certainly enjoyed it - but this was more like 10 sequential magazine articles than it was a book. It just barely skims the surface of many topics, hits the talking points, and moves on. I'd really like something a lot deeper, but can't complain too much about this offering. I don't think there was anything here I hadn't seen before - but worth calling out:

  • No one really knows why we need sleep, but it seems to be particularly related to relaxing the prefrontal cortex.
  • Discussed the idea (which came up in How The Mind Works) about the purpose of dreams being to prepare our brains for bad/novel scenarios. Dreams are essentially 'practice' mode for our brains, so that when we experience novel situations in life we'll be better prepared.
  • There seems to be evidence that without artificial light, it seems like humans naturally sleep twice a day: 1st sleep, then an hour or so awake, and then 2nd sleep. There's evidence that most people actually did this regularly until just a few hundred years ago.
  • Teenagers circadian rhythms make them want to sleep from 12-8, whereas older folks (50+) tend to want to sleep from 9-4. Theory is this was evolutionarily advantageous so that families/groups of humans would always have someone "on shift" looking out for danger. I love this. What an elegant solution to a legitimate, if totally obsolete, problem.
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From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe
Lee Smolin
read on August 1, 2013

I need to revisit this book again later. I didn't have the time, focus, or energy to do it justice. The central idea is that time is the only immutable, constant force in the universe. Time moves in one direction, and has a beginning and an end, and every single other thing varies; e.g., all the "constants" of physics are not constant at all.

Everything about this book should appeal to me, but none of it did. I think it was over my head, and I got rather bored with it. I'm really not sure what the problem was, but it was pretty disappointing. I'm not ready to say it's a bad book - I don't think it is, but I couldn't really recommend it, yet. I'll give it another shot someday when I'm ready to take it more seriously.

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How We Know Animals Think and Feel
Virginia Morell
read on July 1, 2013

Animal Wise is a journalist's investigative research into the minds of animals - how they act, learn, solve problems, and how they think. It was interesting, though I expected it to go a bit deeper into whatever the nature of consciousness is. Similar to Biocentrism, seems a bit odd to write an entire book that revolves around the nature of consciousness without really exploring what we think that means. Morell gets around that by focusing instead on the terminology "do/how animals think?" rather than "are animals conscious?", which is a somewhat meaningful distinction, but still... I feel like you shouldn't start conversations about animal emotions if you're not prepared to take a stance on what exactly you think consciousness and free will are.

Anyway, turns out animals are quite a bit more intelligent than I thought... or... at least they're very intelligent in ways I didn't realize. Dolphins especially, which seem to roam around in gangs, and communicate well enough with each other to pretty much say "let's go beat up those other dudes over there and take their women!". Dolphins just barely come short of being able to communicate outright with humans. They're fantastic learners, and can put the patters we give them together in meaningful ways.

Elephants are super smart too, and driven by an elder matriarch who, as far as we can tell, guides the herd based on her judgements and extensive memories and experience, rather than on any kind of genetic instincts.

Speaking of elephants, Morell briefly touched on animal's brain sizes (and I think how, as a % of body weight, a dolphins brain is the biggest after humans) - but I would have liked more discussion as to the different biologies of animal brains. I've seen compelling evidence before that the size of a neocortex matters greatly as far as what you're able to learn, etc - so why wouldn't an elephant (or whale, or anything with a massive brain) be any smarter? [Potentially those animals don't actually have massive brains, I'm not sure, but it seems improbable that human brains are the largest by mass].

I don't really think the book had much of an agenda. I say that in a good way. It wasn't really about 'hey, maybe it's immoral to eat animals' or anything like that. I think it allowed the reader to make those kinds of conclusions if they wanted to, and it certainly provided evidence or encouragement for that kind of a response, but I don't really think that's what Morell was going for. I think the idea was more along the lines of 'hey, maybe more people should be taking a closer look at this, because there's a lot here that we don't understand and could stand to learn from'. Anyway, I really enjoyed it.

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How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe
Robert Lanza
read on July 1, 2013

This book starts off very strong but then totally goes off the rails. After the first quarter I was ready to recommend it to friends, but now, not so much. The main idea here is that the universe is not anything like the standard physical model that we all more-or-less understand it to be. The universe isn't a thing that exists, but rather it's a framework that is created by our conscious mind. The first 80% of this I can actually buy. Lanza actually kicks things off in a really accessible way talking about how what we see and hear doesn't actually exist the way that we perceive them to. Those things are just sensations based on a very narrow and particular set of circumstances (vibrations from 20-20K decibels, light in 400-800nm wavelengths). While these sensations are (by definition) observable elements of the universe, they are an extremely narrow band in terms of what might be observable overall, to beings with other senses. It's crazy to think that we observe the universe as it is. Our senses evolved to help us find bananas, basically - not to observe the nature of the universe. 

Most of the ideas were very interesting, and merited good discussion. For me, I lost it because 1) every third chapter or so covers his past and personal life experiences, and has absolutely nothing to do with the message of the book at all - and 2) by the end of the book he's arguing that biocentrism is the only possible right answer, which seems... closed-minded.

I particularly liked the ideas he had about time - it just being a structure for how humans observe change, and not necessarily the two dimensional march forward that we seem to perceive it as. He said time was like playing a record. The entire record exists the whole time, but you can only hear/experience it one note at a time. That's not an easy concept to wrap your head around - and annoyingly it's pretty much an impossible one to try to prove or discuss with others, but I think it's an interesting concept, and I've been thinking about it lately. It's just interesting to think about the entire continuum of time existing all at once. I think it actually makes life much more salient. What if every decision you made, every single action you ever take, doesn't just affect the present... but what if it's written in stone, forever? What if the record gets played over and over? It's just kind of odd. (And, well, you'd need to get over the fact that if this actually were a record, almost by definition free will would need to be an illusion). Anyway, I've always thought of life as an orchestra performance. Something that happens once, live. thinking of it as a record kind of changes things.

Lastly, for a book entirely centered around consciousness, he never bothered to define it! That drove me crazy. Are cats conscious? Are cows? Ants? Plants? Rivers?

Lanza outlines his case throughout the book using his following principals, which also act as a good summary.

  1. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness, an external reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space, but this is meaningless because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.
  2. Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.
  3. The behavior of subatomic particles indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they, at best, exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.
  4. Without consciousness, matter dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded conciousness only could have existed in a probability state.
  5. The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine tuned for life, which makes perfect sense, as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The universe is simply the complete spacio-temporal logic of the self.
  6. Time does not have a real existence outside of animal sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.
  7. Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.
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The History of the CIA
Tim Weiner
read on July 1, 2013

It's criminal how much formal education I have, and how little basic American history I know. This book helped fill some of those gaping chasms. The book was as interesting as it was horrifying, for both our institutional ineptitude at intelligence, as well as for our total disregard of sovereign rights and international agreements. It seems like for 70 years our intelligence agency has been remarkably short sighted, and the volume and severity of times that has come back around to bite us is unbelievable.

Anyway, here are some of my notes while reading it. X

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis was TERRIFYING. There were 99 nukes, each 70x more powerful than Hiroshima, sitting in Cuba. These things were aimed at US and had 2200 mile range - meaning they could nuke any city in the country (less Seattle). CMC only ended because Khrushchev proposed a deal where we'd need to disarm and remove our nukes in Turkey (aimed at Moscow), and we accepted. JFK took a ton of credit for having somehow negotiated a peaceful resolution to an impossible situation - but all that really happened is Russia sent out an olive branch and we grabbed it. USA did pretty much nothing right this whole time, and came unbelievably close to invading Cuba and starting WWIII. Absolutely terrifying.
  • It was pretty surprising how little each US President, (and each new CIA director), actually knows about what the CIA is up to. Very often the POTUS is left in the dark as long as possible, and almost always future Presidents are left totally the dark, if not outright lied to.
  • We tried assassinating Castro.. we sponsored dozens of coup's.. some successful, some not. Most foreign policy disasters (Vietnam, Iraq) seem to be because we blew it on some covert coup attempt, or some other pyramid of lies. (For instance, in 'Nam we started the war on the premise that the VC shot at some of our boats in the area, but that was actually misreported by the CIA, they were never there!).
  • 1960's threat of communism was strikingly similar to 2000's threat of radical islam. Both cases produced a mountain of lies and limitation/infringement of citizens rights, all in the name of national security. (And, to be somewhat fair, at the time it's never immediately obvious if such a trade-off is necessarily bad. I mean, the commie threat was legit scary, as per above). But it's alarming how recycled and manufactured the threat seems.
  • It was surprising to me how overtly the US tries to control the world. We have a 50 year history of literally killing (or funding the assassination/coup of) democratically elected leaders because we don't agree with their policy. Pretty easy to understand why we're hated. Obviously this shows how ridiculously naive I am - I've always known the US to have this reputation, but hadn't actually known why.
  • ... following from the last note: the book raises interesting ethical questions about what is/isn't okay in foreign policy. Is it ethical for the USG to subsidize printing educational materials in a foreign country (e.g., could the US distribute John Locke books in Venezuela)? Is that propaganda? Is it okay to fund radio stations that promote the scientific method? TV? Contribute to campaigns? Where does the line get drawn? I hadn't really thought about it in too much depth before - probably something I should figure out.
  • Toward the end of the book, Weiner talks about (via quotes from former CIA directors) about the trouble the CIA has recruiting. The primary problem was framed as how hard it is to find people that are comfortable living a lie, that can totally own it and wrap their entire selves into it. Apparently that's harder to come across these days. Not sure if that's good or bad.
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Herman Koch
read on June 1, 2013

Wow, this was an excellent book. Fantastically written, and amazingly translated. (Actually, it's possible that only one of those things are true). This book had compelling characters with very surprising developments. It was thought provoking. Most of all, it was just fantastically well written. The structure that the "dinner" framework provides is well executed. I'm not sure what else to say about it: a great book for aspiring writers.

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Steven Pinker
read on June 1, 2013

This book is loooooong, and dense, and relatively often strays off topic; I feel like it would benefit from a more aggressive editor. That said, it's quite comprehensive. I wouldn't recommend it to someone as a first read on the topic though, because they'd never be motivated enough to make it through to the end. The first three quarters of the book are largely pretty slow, with a couple bright spots mixed in. The end is pretty great though.

  • Pinker has a really great explanation of how we see, and specifically he describes very well how our brain sort of tricks us into seeing. I'd read before that we don't exactly "see" anything, in the literal sense. We have this general feeling that we observe the universe in it's true state - that what we see is what exists - but that's a fantasy, it's totally wrong. Pinker explains this in a much more accessible way than I've seen before, and it's quite interesting. He describes the different heuristics the brain uses to sense shapes, edges, people, motion, etc, and that how our visual interpretation of the world is much closer to a complete hallucination than it is to observing the actual state of things.
  • Theres an interesting discussion about grief being the opposite of love. He describes grief as a 'doomsday machine' - a horrible circumstance to be in that doesn't actually do you any good while you're experiencing it, but whose very existence allows for love and commitment to exist.It was an interesting perspective. Much later in the book he also describes friendship as a kind of positive feedback loop as well, where each friend owes the other a favor, and because of that favor each friend is incentivized to keep that person around, which means they help each other out, which means they do each other more favors, etc. etc.
  • The last quarter or so of the book focuses a lot on neurological and evolutionary differences between men and women, and how so much depends on the adaptation that females generate eggs, and carry a child. For instance, it discusses differences in infidelity reactions (jealousy) - all stemming from the fact that a women knows that a baby is hers, but men can never be certain. So in that case infidelity is a much greater threat to a man, since he may spend significant resources raising genes that aren't his. Or another one is how men react much differently to seeing naked women - evolutionarily, that presents an opportunity. Whereas a women seeing a naked man, evolutionarily, represents an enormous threat. Unfortunately, the discussion doesn't branch out very much beyond the obvious sexual ones. It would have been much more interesting to discuss other consequences of those differences (e.g., women being generally more risk averse than men, having higher personal discount rates, etc.)
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A Novel
Chad Harbach
read on May 1, 2013

This was pretty much, if not entirely, a waste of time. The book is on a lot of best-of-2012 lists, which I really don't understand. I'm not exactly target demo for a lot of these fiction books, but I really don't see what the draw was here. The characters were surprisingly one dimensional. They all seemed to go through pretty predictable development arcs, but those arcs didn't even really lead anywhere.

Tangent: I think the reason we enjoy art, and especially narrative driven art like books and movies, is at least partly because of the idea that through empathy you can prepare your brain to understand complex, novel situations, without having to actually experience them yourselves. Death, love, betrayal, etc are all very hard things to get "right", and costly to endure. But if you're able to experience those things through art (or dreams), you're presumably better off for when they inevitably happen to you. This idea was well developed and supported in How The Mind Works.

This book prepared me for nothing. It was marginally entertaining to read, but I'm truly no better for it. The cover is a different story though! Not many designers are able to actually pull off all-typography covers, but I think this one looks nice and even captures some of the spirit of the book. Well done.

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Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
Nick Lane
read on April 1, 2013

I couldn't do it. I put this on my list after Bill Gates said such nice things about it. But damn is this book boring. I did it on audiobook and it was just unworkable. I've never had something put me to sleep faster. I literally had to stop listening to it while driving because it made me so tired. Emily was having trouble sleeping once and specifically requested that I play this book to her her get to sleep. This is not a joke. 

All I really got out of this is that Lane thinks that the origins of life are from super hot vents at the bottom of the ocean.

I didn't finish the book. Just so dry.

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How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
Steven Levy
read on April 1, 2013

I have had this book on my list for a long time. I first heard about it a year or so ago, when it was released, and it was pretty well acclaimed. I've long wanted to know a bit more about Google, and I think the only reason it took so long for this to finally make the cut is because the cover is so horrible. Sometimes books get different covers when they're released in different markets, and I actually searched for for an alternate to use because this one is so bad. Ug.

Anyway, I'm glad I did make it through. The whole thing was well written and engaging. It truly does seem like a unique company, being run by very unique founders. Highlights:

  • Google had a very bespoke IPO - I didn't even know you could really do that. Their S-1 was hilarious, where they made all kinds of unusual statements (like the famous 'don't be evil' motto - that's an odd thing to tell your investors) and especially a sentence declaring that they may do some things that lose money, only because they believe that doing them will make the world a better place. They also ran the IPO as a dutch auction, a process they felt would be the most fair to retail investors. They outright declared that they will always only disclose the minimum information required by law to their investors... ! Hilarious right? Maybe best of all, they setup the company with two classes of shares. Class A is common equity where 1 share = 1 vote. Class B shares have 10x voting power, and are convertible to Class A at any time. Larry and Sergey loaded themselves up on Class B, giving them perpetual control of the company - years later Zuckerberg did the same thing.
  • Larry and Sergey are BIG into brain science. I had no idea. Their vision of Google is implanting a chip in your brain, so that you'll just 'know' things. I'm 100% on-board with this; but Google is probably the creepiest, worst company I'd want actually doing it. Still - this is a long, long way off, but I'm happy that there is serious private research being done on it - very interesting.
  • Larry and Sergey were both brought up in Montessori schools. I had no idea what those were, but apparently they're an institution that emphasizes learning through experimentation and individual effort, never by rote. I'm totally down with this, and was glad to learn about it. On the one hand it would produce people like these guys, who are insatiably curious and never even consider backing off of an exciting idea just because it's unconventional or because it's off the beaten path. We need people like that. But on the flip side, I could see the same kind of upbringing lead to creating someone like Kanye West - an outrageously egomaniacal, self-entitled asshole who does whatever the hell they want, with total disregard for authority, order, and conventional manners. I guess it's a pretty thin line between the two.


Unfortunately, the book didn't answer the one resounding question I've always had about Google: "Seriously, how do they make money? Like, for real?" Look, I've seen the income statement, I understand it's all advertising. The part I don't understand is how horrible those ads are. In the last ten years I'd be blown away if I ever clicked on more than 3 of them, and 2 of those were probably on accident. Google ads (adsense/adwords - not referring to doubleclick display ads) are HORRIBLE. Really, really bad. And Youtube? The little ads that stick up during videos get closed immediately 100% of the time. ALWAYS. Gmail ads? I've never clicked them. Ever. Not once, not even by accident. Google is horrible at advertising. Again, I'm saying this as someone with taste looking at their actual ads, not looking at their balance sheet. And I just don't understand. I really don't know where the money is coming from. Either the music is just going to stop for them one of these days when advertisers realized that Google isn't doing shit for them, or I just really don't get it.

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A Novel
Neal Stephenson
read on March 1, 2013

Fiction books are like getting drunk. Before you start, it seems like it might be a good idea. You owe it to yourself, right? It sounds so appealing - just relax, lean back, and have some fun. Stop concentrating. Take your mind off things. Then, once you get going, you can't stop. You're hooked, you crave more. At its peak, you think, "this is awesome - why don't I do this more often? I need to loosen up more!". Now it's the next day. I'm done with the book, and I just feel like an idiot. What did I gain from this book? What do I have to show for all the time I spent reading it? Nothing at all. In less than a month I'll have forgotten every word. Even the cover sucks.

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A Novel
Stephen King
read on March 1, 2013

Probably six months ago, around Halloween, I saw this book on a listiscle of "scariest books you'll ever read". I lost the link, but the jist of it was that this book was not only frightening, but a very well put together peice of literature. At the time I think I was slogging through Zinn's People's History - so I was very much in the mood for some engrossing long form fiction, and I was intrigued by the idea of being scared from reading. I saw this movie when I was probably 8 or 10 years old, and I remember it absolutely terrified me for years. I didn't remember any of the plot, but I was scared of clowns through high school. 'It' to me, had defined my paradigm of fear. Add to all that that almost 1,000 5 star reviews on Amazon and I was sold. I was even excited about the preposterous length: 1,400 pages! I imagined reading this book to be some mini vacation I could go on every night. I looked forward to it for months, and then spent a couple months actually reading the book. And the result?

It is the worst work of fiction I have ever read. It is horrible in ways that are non-random. That is to say, I feel as though it were actually designed to disappoint me to the maximum effect. Here's why:

  • Because it's mainly pretty good. This seems like an odd thing to hold against this book, but it's true. If the book were trash from beginning to end, well, that would be a bummer, but that's all. (Plus, I probably would have just bailed on it after a few hundred bad pages). But for many of the first thousand or so pages, King writes a very compelling narrative, with relatable characters, and a cogent style. I typically don't like books where each chapter takes place in a different time, but King really pulled it off here. I was always curious to read more, and having two stories that take place 28 years apart was handled very well. The characters are diverse enough that everyone can find one to sympathize with, and many of the themes were very well done. Obviously It was fear, but King did well at personifying fear a bit differently for each child, and digging below the surface into where fear comes from, what motivates it, etc. King's exploration of childhood in general was well done, I liked the way he illustrated their world and their problems, almost as an invisible world "below" the adults. It was very well put together.
  • This book is not scary. Like I said at the top, I haven't been scared by books before, so I can't offer much analysis here except to say that I felt like I was sold a certain bill of goods, and it didn't deliver in this regard. I read this book over several months, exclusively at night, in bed, in the pitch dark, and I had exactly one dream about a clown murdering me. Not impressed.
  • The book consists of eight main characters: seven boys and one girl, Beverly. Each of the boys has a unique character; strengths, weaknesses, a colorful history, motivations, aspirations, etc. Beverly has nothing. Her "character" is that she's a girl. She's like Wendy Koopa, or Smurfette. Every single interaction of hers, or mention that she gets, or conversation she has, is to drive one of the boy's stories forward. She pretty much exists only so that the boys have someone to have a crush on. Apparently this isn't a rare thing, but for me to notice it means it must have been especially bad. Honestly, I thought it was jarringly conspicuous, and I found it very difficult to believe that the rest of the book could be well written when this one character was treated so one dimensionally.
  • The ending is horrible. Epically bad. The last 200 pages of this book are insultingly awful. It's like King just gave up and turned the writing duties over to a small child. No, worse. It's the kind of bad that can only be done on purpose, not happenstance, not even ineptitude. This was malice. IT goes from being the physical manifestation of insecurity and fear, represented by an entire town ... to being a space alien. I'm not kidding. Pennywise is a space alien trying who's pretty much just trying to impress (or destroy?) a galaxy sized turtle. Yes, turtle. A space turtle. A turtle from outer space. I just, I don't know what to say. The book morphs from this great metaphor about fear into a literal battle between a space clown and a galaxy turtle.
  • No really, the ending is horrible. Even if you can get over the space turtle and the ridiculously abstract metaphysical finale, it's Beverly that nails the coffin shut. Remember how her entire character was defined by her gender? Well, in the final battle with IT, each of the children contribute to defeating IT in their own way. (For instance, the kid with asthma sprays IT with his inhaler, etc). Well, Beverly doesn't do anything, she stays in the shadows and lets the boys do all the work. Her non-action is terribly conspicuous, but not surprising given how King treated her the rest of the book. Here's the mind blowing part: After they defeat IT, they're trying to get out of his labyrinthian lair and get lost, and Beverly finally springs into action. Her contribution is: To have sex with all seven of them, consecutively, in front of all of them, in order to bring them together as a group and give them the focus to escape. She's eleven. I'm not kidding. And even if you can get past how ridiculously uncomfortable it is to read about this eleven year old girl describing how the 5th boy was larger than the rest and stretching out her uterus but oh-my-god in a way that felt so good (!!! - not making this up) - the mind blowing part is just how unnecessary it is. This scene comes out of nowhere. Nowhere. It isn't important in any way to any other scene. It doesn't tie out to anything else. If someone tore those couple pages out entirely, no one would ever notice. I really, I still don't know what to say.

Unequivocally the worst ending to anything I've read.

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Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt
read on February 1, 2013

This is another book by Jonathan Haidt, whose first book The Happiness Hypothesis, was pretty solid. I saw this book at a Barnes and Noble in North Beach CA and from the cover knew I'd have to read it (not the cover shown here...). This book seems like a logical sequel to his first. Haidt continues his metaphor that the brain is like a rider on an elephant - where reason is a jockey atop an elephant, looking around and trying to rationally decide where to lead it - an then the elephant (intuition, morality) is the actual thing doing the walking, and for the most part it goes wherever it damn well pleases. I think he expands this metaphor a bit from the prior book, and then goes on to build out a really solid foundational theory of morality. His premise is pretty much that we all understand morality in very similar ways, but we (through nature/nurture) end up expressing those morals in different ways. It's a well organized book, and while I don't really read very much about morality, a lot of the ideas here were new to me.

There was a fair amount of unsurprising discussion about how easily people justify what they (their elephant) want to believe. Haidt frames this as "can/must". When you want to believe something, you ask yourself "Can I believe it?". When you want to disagree with something you ask yourself "Must I believe it?". In both cases, you only need one piece of evidence to be satisfied.

My favorite quote from the book was pretty early on. Haidt spends the first half of the book talking about reason vs. intuition, and then the second half discussing the implications of those on politics and religion. On reason, Haidt had several thoughts that I've never come across before, and liked very much. I thought the below was fantastic:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.

... I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning; for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgements, but they're often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any individual's ability to reason.

... each individual reasoner is really good at one thing, finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth seeking reasoning; particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning power to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

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How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines
Jeff Hawkins
read on February 1, 2013

Getting right to it, Jeff Hawkins seems like a snob - it was hard to get over that. I spent most of the first half of the book looking for reasons to disagree with him, just because he seems like the kind of guy you'd really hate to get stuck in an elevator with. I'll bet him and Nasim Taleb would get along just great. Anyway, despite my best (and his own) efforts, Hawkins doesn't offer too much to disagree with. I expected this book to actually disagree with Kurzweil's take on electronic intelligence, and I think Hawkins would say that it does - but frankly, I don't. I think they're both largely saying the same thing, but Hawkins is trying to make distinctions which really don't matter that much. For instance, he spends a terribly long amount of time talking about how physical computer hardware isn't like the brain, how the analogy that folks like Kurzweil is wrong. Yeah, duh. Who cares? That doesn't say anything about our ability to recreate intelligence in software systems. Hawkins is just trying to stir the pot. Whatever. There are four things I specifically wanted to call out:

  • First, Hawkins really digs into the "Chinese Room" metaphor/thought experiment. This, roughly, tries to figure out if machine translation is intelligent. If you had a Chinese guy in one room, and an English-only speaker in the other, and the Chinese guy communicated with the English guy only by passing him (through a slot in the wall) papers with Chinese writings on them - and the English guy had no idea what they meant, but was able to look them up in a huge manual that told him exactly what to write back on new sheets of paper, such that when the Chinese guy read the Chinese writing that the English guy and his manuals had created the Chinese guy was sufficiently convinced that the person on the other side spoke Chinese - would you then consider the English guy to "understand" Chinese? If not the guy, did the manuals understand Chinese? Did the whole system (the man and the room, etc)? During which part of the process was their intelligence? What is the nature of intelligence? Et cetera. These were interesting things to think about - which I'm actually not done thinking about.
  • Back in Moonwalking With Einstein Joshua Foer wrote that how much you remember of a new experience is a function of how much you already know. This is because you remember things in context, so you need to have a contextual framework to stick things onto in your head. This made perfect intuitive sense to me when I read it, but it also was something I had never thought of or realized and I thought it was profoundly important, and it very much changed my reading habits and motivated me to start researching a much broader scope of general knowledge, so as to increase my general retention of information throughout life. Hawkins argues the exact opposite. Hawkins builds out a framework for the brain wherein only novel events actually make it all the way through a complex hierarchy and into your hippocampus to be stored as long term memory. In fact, he argues (anecdotally, and seemingly in jest, but not entirely) that part of the reason you remember less as you age is because so many fewer things are novel. Your brain already knows most of what you experience, so it doesn't make it up the pyramid to the hippocampus. I have no idea if there is merit to this, but it was interesting to see two theories about that same thing that are so diametrically opposed, yet both make such good intuitive sense. I'm certainly rooting for Foer.
  • Hawkins brings up synesthesia, an incredible sounding brain disorder where your senses overlap. Folks with this condition may think that a certain taste is red, or that a certain word is rough and brittle. They just cross their senses in ways that don't make any sense at all to normal people, but make perfect sense to them. I've read about this before in other books but was happy to see it pop up again here and wanted to record it. I'm sure this can be a difficult and possibly debilitating disorder to live with, but some part of me is happy it exists. I like the idea that there are people out there who experience classical music as green, and think that rock music tastes like mustard. I can't explain why, but I with all due respect I feel like overall we're better for it, to have those folks around.
  • Hawkins proposes that the core nature of intelligence is the ability to predict the future. He proposes this like it's his own theorem, like he owns the rights to this idea. Towards the beginning of the book, he asks the reader what they think the nature of intelligence is - and without skipping a beat I thought to myself "ability to predict the future". Now look, I'm fairly certain that that is something I've come across in other neuroscience books before, I'm not trying to take credit - but I haven't read any of his books before. I just thought it was a jackass thing to try and claim that idea for himself.
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Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
Oliver Burkeman
read on February 1, 2013

The main idea in this book is pretty much that optimism is overrated. Not entirely useless, but overrated. Rather than presenting a coherent logical case for any main thesis though, Burkeman uses the book to skip around exploring different ideas where negativity and skepticism and stoicism can be useful tools. There are a few things in this book that I wasn't a huge fan of, or possibly didn't really understand, though I did appreciate the philosophical discussion and Buddhist overtones. Most of the book was great - a few things that stuck out:

  • Apparently, suicide is more correlated with perfectionism than hopelessness. This seems like a stretch to me - I feel like suicide would be correlated with depression, an actual mental condition - but still, interesting to consider how sad striving for perfection and always falling short can make a person.
    I like the subway challenge (saying nonsensical things to strangers you'll never see again in the subway). Seemingly horrible things like that are often not nearly as bad as they seem.
  • Burkeman at one point brought up the free will discussion / split brain experiments / confabulation that I've seen so many times before. I just wouldn't have expected that to show up here.
  • Burkeman goes to a vipassana meditation camp for a week, where no one does any talking the whole time. It sounds awesome, and his description of "vipassana vendetta" is fascinating, and totally believable. Ties into things I've read before about confabulation and your brain just grasping at straws, trying to give narrative and meaning to things that have neither. I first read about vipassana maybe five or so years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since, I would love to go to a seminar like this someday.
  • Strong and lengthy argument that understanding impermanence typically leads to increased happiness and satisfaction with the current situation. Things get a little 'Fight Club' (Raymond K Hessel), but coming to terms with knowing that you will be dead soon, and that you will, at some point, lose everything you have, helps you appreciate the present. I thought Burkeman presented this topic pretty well, and it left a pretty good impression on me. In the month or so since finishing the book, I feel like I've been more thoughtful of impermanence and appreciative of what I have. I think I'd like to explore that topic further, later on.
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Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper
Howard E. Wasdin
read on February 1, 2013

This was a pretty self-indulgent read, not much practical stuff to learn here but it was exciting to hear the memoirs of someone in one of the most exclusive, elite military groups in the world. It was crazy to hear the training they go through, and I was interested in learning more about the kind of person you need to be for that to be appealing, and to be successful at it. I like trying to think about the things that makes this sort of person tick. Why was Wasdin so driven to be in the SEALs? By the end of it, I'm pretty sure it didn't have too much to do with patriotism (not to say he isn't a patriot), but more to do with some unyielding drive to be the best. Anyway, it was surprisingly interesting, especially the inside perspective he had on the Somalian conflict.

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A Novel
John Kenney
read on February 1, 2013

I went off on a kick of several fiction books recently, and got exactly what I expected. This one was okay enough. It was pretty funny, and there were a few particularly well written passages that I enjoyed, but those spots came much less often than during a Barbara Kingsolver novel.

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Barbara Kingsolver
read on January 1, 2013

Kingsolver is a fantastic author. She puts together incredibly believable and memorable characters, and compelling narratives. This was a very well put together novel - I had seen some initial press about it being about climate change, and I kind of expected it to be a liberal scolding on the subject. Instead, it was an eye opening look into the other side - painting climate change challenges from perspective of southern farming family with more pressing problems to deal with.

Anyway, it was obviously fiction, so I don't have any takeaway's or anything, but the book was a pleasure to read from top to bottom, and I'd recommend it strongly to anyone, regardless of their position, if any, on climate change.

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The Secret of Human Thought Revealed
Ray Kurzweil
read on January 1, 2013

Wow, this was a good one.. Several times along the way I had to stop reading this so I could just sit and think about the implications of it. This book puts human intelligence into a very tangible context, taking almost all of the mystic out of it and boiling it down to a formal model that we can work to replicate and improve with technology. I don't yet know enough about this all to really challenge the claims, or enough to judge their plausibility for myself - but if just half of what's in this book is true, the next 100 years are going to be the most turbulent in the history of our species. Kurzweil compellingly argues that it's possible to replicate a brain with computers, and that once we do it will quickly become possible to essentially make ourselves super smart and immortal - oh, and we'll all be machines. Good times. A few memorable points:

  • Interesting observation about how brains recognize visual information - we "sparse code" it, meaning that our eyes/brains reduce the information to the least amount necessary. When we "see" something, we're really only literally observing a few characteristics of the object - the edges, the shading, etc. Then our brains "fill in" the rest with whatever pattern we expect to be there. This is far less cognitively expensive for us than than to actually try to notice every little detail of everything, all the time.
  • Great discussion towards the end of the book about free will, with many compelling examples of confabulation in split-brain patients. It's very clear that our actions are not always as determined as we think they are, rather, we "decide" at some point, often unconsciously/intuitively, and then our brains are fantastic machines at giving that decision a narrative. Thus, we don't critically reason, and then make a decision. We make the decision, and then use reason to justify having done so. This is super creepy stuff, but compelling.
  • In discussing the implications of advancements in artificial intelligence, Kurzweil spends some good time discussing his thoughts on the nature of consciousness. He reasonably assumes that we will soon have such sufficient AI as to be able to create beings with personalities (think Transformers or I, Robot) and asserts that such empathetic characters, despite being non-biological, are conscious. "If you do accept the leap of faith that a non-biological entity that is convincing in it's reactions to qualia is actually conscious, then consider what that implies. Namely, that consciousness is an emergent property of the overall pattern of an entity, not the substrate it runs on."
  • Scientists are working on an artificial hippocampus, which is the part of your brain the recognizes novel events and stores them to memory. In rats, they've been able to insert the artificial hippocampus (with an on/off switch) into a rats brain, replacing the original one. When they turn the switch on, the rats gain "knowledge" stored in the artificial hippocampus, when they turn it off, the rat loses the knowledge. Similarly, instead of replacement, when they load up a rat with an "extra" hippocampus, it learns tasks much faster. The implications here for human brain augmentation are amazingly powerful. Not only is the "I know Kung Fu" scene in The Matrix totally possible, but this really made me expand what I considered bionics and brain activity to be. I have often thought about what people would be like with larger brains, or what a biological superior to humans would be (for instance, in the same way we're superior to cats). The answer is obvious - instant learning. Unlimited working memory. It's not x-ray vision or jax-arms like you'd see in comic books, but it will be many-order-of-magnitude increases in intelligence that mark the transformation. This is not science fiction. It's happening right now. Honestly, how long until we're immortal?
  • Most of the book I was reminded that, in all likelihood, we are already living in a computer civilization.
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The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
Chrystia Freeland
read on January 1, 2013

For me, the most interesting part of this book was the discussion of the new super-wealthy. Not necessarily how they lived, or how/why they were so much wealthier than the plain-old-regular rich people just under them, but how globalization has really changed the way that these people get rich. It compares our current economic environment globally with the industrial revolution and the gilded age, and makes a strong case that the growing global (and American) income inequality gap is a bad thing.

Particularly interesting was a great argument for how as historical income inequality rises, social mobility falls. The successful class creates artificial moats to protect themselves, stifles innovation and always leads to economic failure. The example of La Cerrata in Venice was very interesting - I'd like to read more on that but a quick search came up pretty empty.

There were two fantastic quotes that I flagged. The first one is Thomas Jefferson:

We have no paupers, the great mass of our population is of laborers. Our rich, who can live without labor, whether manual or professional, being few and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class posses property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are able to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. The wealthy on the other hand, and those of their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?

And then 100 or so years later, from Mark Twain:

In America, nearly every man has his dream, his pet scheme, whereby he is to advance himself socially or pecuniarily. It is a characteristic that is both bad and good, for both the individual and the nation. Good, because it allows neither to stand still, but drives both forever on toward some point or other which is ahead - not behind, nor at one's side. Bad, because the chosen point is often badly chosen, and then the individual is racked. The aggregations of such cases affects the nation, and so is bad for the nation. Still, it is a trait which is of course better for people to have, and sometimes suffer from, than to be without.

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The Art and Science of Delay
Frank Partnoy
read on January 1, 2013

This book describes many different scenarios and effects of waiting that are typically pretty interesting. The book is a decent narrative, and I think there is an effort to make an overarching point about a person's ability to wait - but I wasn't totally sold on it. Obviously waiting is often good - but it goes without saying that you can wait too long sometimes - and the book makes a clumsy attempt at teasing that out that I didn't really buy into. That said, there was plenty of interesting stuff. Some highlights:

  • Interesting discussion of ideal apology times. For serious issues, max effect has a bell-curve like pattern over time. The more serious the issue, the more elongated the curve. That is, a small infraction means apologize immediately - whereas for a more egregious one you should wait some time, showing that you've really thought about it. This seems more or less intuitive but the data and argument in the book is well done.
  • Great explanation of people's own personal discount rates. $50 today vs $60 in a week - against $50 in 52 weeks and $60 in 53 weeks. The question in both cases is essentially, is it worth waiting one week for ten dollars? Most people would take $50 today in the first choice, but $60 in 53 weeks in the second choice. This illustrates an irrational (in homo-economicus terms) personal discount rate that declines over time. People construct pretty detailed surveys that can very accurately map a person's discount slope over time. Unsurprisingly, having low short term discount rates is highly correlated to successful people. More surprising is that such correlations are stronger than any other typical 'success' variables - e.g., wealth, IQ, education level. There were two sub-points here that blew me away.
    • Similar experiments have been conducted with several different animals as well, and similar effects can be seen. Particularly, while they have different discount rates than average humans [theirs are quite a bit higher because they have small working memory and limited ability to think about the future], the slopes of their discount rates are the same as ours.
    • There is strong and growing research showing that this 'ability to wait' general characteristic is genetic. It's not some willpower or character/upbringing stuff. There is a famous '2 marshmallow' research problem the tests for the characteristic in very young toddlers - and those that perform well early on have far more success in life. There is evidence that the characteristic comes from your heart's ability to speed up and slow down quickly.
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