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2014 book stats
12 books started
12 books finished
5,922 pages read
100% digital
12% fiction
7% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
Paths, Dangers, Strategies
Nick Bostrom
read on November 1, 2014

This is probably the most disappointing book of the year. It's not bad, it's just really unpleasant to read. I expected it to be fantastic, given the below:

  • Great premise: That advanced machine intelligence is coming, and that we may not be able to control it once created.
  • Great author: Bostrom was early to the 'Matrix' style argument that we are likely already living inside a computer simulation.
  • Great cover. I mean, right?

Anyway, with all that going for it, the book is barely tolerable. Bostrom's prose and general narrative is epically boring. This book became a massive roadblock in my usual reading volume just because I avoided finishing it for so long - seemed like such a waste of time. It wasn't all bad though. There were several things I did like:

  • First, Bostrom makes a clear argument that superintelligence (which he defines very formally over many pages but which I can here sufficiently define just as completely by saying "something very, very much smarter than human beings") is coming, probably inevitably. Humans are making progress at genetically selecting embryos to be smarter. We're also getting really good at scanning/mapping/recreating biological brains digitally, which we would then be able to improve upon. And lastly, it looks like we might actually be getting somewhere with artificial intelligence software. Those three things combined make it pretty much inevitable that we will be able to build/design superintelligent agents in anywhere from 50 to a few hundred years. (Bostrom also makes a compelling, if not obvious, case that this will happen sooner than we think due to the snowballing effect of building things that are more intelligent than the builder).
  • At one point, Bostrom characterizes humanity's defining characteristic not to be our intelligence, but our unique(ish) ability to preserve knowledge across generations. I thought this was interesting. 
  • Bostrom describes (but, I don't recall if he names) a broad set of real-world problems that behave very much like jigsaw puzzles; often the beginning of problems can be easy to solve because you know the constraints, and the end of problems can be easy to solve because you have a clear goal and can easily see what is still required to be done (and how) before it is achieved. It is the middle portion of problems that are hard. Those are the ambiguous times where you don't really know how to move forward, or what strategy can be used to make progress. I'm not sure this comparison does anything helpful in terms of helping a person actually solve problems, but it was interesting.
  • Bostrom points out that humans (unsurprisingly) have a very anthropocentric understanding of general intelligence. The same way we think of "cold" as being around 0 degrees, and "hot" as being around 100 degrees, we think of "unintelligent" to be a toddler, and "very intelligent" to be a rocket surgeon. There is no reason for this to be so. I mean, it's useful for us to think of things that way, since that is what is relevant to our usual lives, but we need to understand that "intelligence" can run a gamut much wider than our typical understanding. Humans are likely to lump everything dumber than a toddler into "stupid" and therefore fail to see or appreciate when significant progress is being made in artificial intelligence. For example, if we pretend that the complete range of all possible intelligence went from 0 to 100, human intelligence (toddler to Rainman) might be from 31 to 36 on that scale. Because of that, we often may fail to appreciate when we're able to increase robotic/artificial intelligence from 10 to 12 on that scale, because in our view such an advancement is still from "completely unintelligent" to "completely unintelligent". And in that same spirit, once we do start making significant progress in this feild, that progress may come very, very quickly. We may take 20 years to go from 0 to 10 on the scale, then 20 years to go from 10 to 20 on the scale, then 20 more years to go from 20 to 30. At that point (arguably, right about now) we'll feel like we're "finally" making progress. Then, in the next 20 years we may go from 30 to 40! (And keep in mind, once we're past the "36" Einstein point, it stands to reason that the robots themselves would start speeding this progress up). In the 20 years after that we could go from 40 to 50+, maybe 60, maybe 80! Anyway, point being this could explode quickly.

Unfortunately, these interesting tidbits are the exception, not the rule. I have no idea who the audience of the book is supposed to be. Engineers working on advanced AI maybe? The book reads like a self aggrandizing "look at all the stuff I'm already thinking about, I'm way ahead of you guys", without actually being useful in explaining how to build an advanced AI. I'm glad this book exists, and I'm sure someone will adore it, and I'm sure it will encourage more research, curiosity, and attention to this field, but I can't recommend this to real human beings that I know.

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Reflections on Financial Crises
Timothy F. Geithner
read on September 1, 2014

This one is going to be pretty short, which is a shame, but I finished this book several weeks ago and don't have a lot of strong take-aways from it to keep here. It's far, far better than Paulson's book. I thought it was more comprehensive in explaining the underlying issues during the financial crisis, as well as the resolutions. Geithner's book is obviously much newer, and so had a lot of detail I hadn't really read about yet (from the insider's perspective) on recent Fed action, and on the European banking crisis. I would say overall that this book, paired with Too Big To Fail are probably the go-to recommended resources on the crisis.

Only thing I didn't really care for was how apologist many parts of the book came across as. Geithner was on the defensive the whole time, talking up how great Obama (and, to be fair, Bush) dealt with the situation. That part got a bit old.

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Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Lawrence Wright
read on August 1, 2014

I don't really know why any of this book surprised me, but it certainly did. I didn't know anything about Scientology before reading it, nothing at all. I liked that it had "Science" in the name, I guess, though I wasn't actually naive enough to think that it was a scientific enterprise. I remember living in Tacoma right next to a beautiful roman-style scientology church. It even had some anachronistic misspelling in it, I think it was called "CHVRCH OF SCIENTOLOGY". Anyway, Scientology always seemed a bit different to me, so I wanted to know more about it.

It turns out that scientology is crazy, in the most literal and derogatory sense of the word. It was founded by a completely crazy, deplorable man, and it was propagated, and continues to be propagated, by completely crazy and deplorable people.

All religions are crazy. Religion itself is a socially acceptable label to use whenever you want to believe something that doesn't make sense, or when you want to stop asking questions. But Scientology is unabashedly crazy. It revels in it's own crazyness.

I don't think it's helpful to me, or anyone else, to re-hash why it's so crazy - or describe the absurd things that scientologists actually believe to be true. Wright has a very obvious bias against scientology, and he doesn't pull any punches in describing their ridiculous history. Wright (convincingly) paints the organization as a predatory, for-profit cult. I'm inclined to believe every word in the book, but to be fair, he doesn't cite many sources. This particularly bothered me when he would describe scenes/events that clearly took place in private, among very few (high ranking) people. I don't feel like he was forthright about when he was speaking factually, vs when he was citing a single source (who likely had agendas of their own).

Most interesting to me were the following topics (which weren't necessarily even discussed in the book, but what I've continued thinking about in the time since finishing it).

  • What kind of person starts a religion? Having just read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich before this book, I couldn't help but think about Hubbard as a Hitler-esque persona. Not to say that Hubbard was evil, but they had similar personality traits. Singular focus on themselves and their own goals, unwavering belief that they are true born leaders of an exclusive group of people (and are leading them to salvation), willingness to lie and hurt others to advance the cause, etc.
  • Is scientology different from any other religion? This is a very controversial question, as the tax-exempt status of the organization literally depends on it. Hubbard (pre-scientology) was quoted many times of his aspirations to start a religion to make money, but it's unclear what his motives were once the ball really got rolling. To me, scientology's biggest offense is how recent it is. For whatever reason, I find crazy religious beliefs to be acceptable if they have thousand-year-old mythologies supporting them. But whats really the difference between someone claiming to have magical powers thousands of years ago, and someone claiming to have magical powers in 1970? I don't know why, but to me the difference is profound. If I meet a catholic, I think "well, that's how they were raised". But if I meet a scientologist now, I'll think "this person is an idiot". I'm not sure exactly why, or what the difference is, or if I'm right.
  • Does scientology help people? If so, is it good? (or at least acceptable?) The answer to the first question is unequivocally yes. (Not necessarily on balance, I doubt scientology provides a net societal benefit, but it definitely helps some people). The answer to the second is much harder.

Lastly, I'm not really sure what's going on with the cover here, but I find the not-so-subtle crucifix iconography to be a bit out of place. Is that just because this is a book about religion? Is it comparing scientology to christianity? Hubbard to Christ? Either way, it seems to be implying a dialogue not found in the book.

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A History of Nazi Germany
William L. Shirer
read on July 1, 2014

I have no idea why I bought this book. I think I may have seen it on sale over a year ago and picked it up randomly - and then it sat unread for so long that I forgot I even had it. I got into a bit of a book slump a few months ago and started looking through the old purchases to see what was there, found this, and decided to give it a try.

This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. I really loved it. I thought I knew all the broad strokes of WWII from various history classes in high school and from general pop culture knowledge - but I was way off. Primarily I was way off in that my entire experience with WWII history is colored by the fact that we won the war. It goes without saying that we won the war. In my mind I can't even imagine the outcome of the war being questionable. This book was first published in 1959, less than 15 years after the end of the war, by an American journalist stationed in Berlin who had front row seats for the whole thing. The book is the opposite of my prior pop-culture-informed knowledge - instead it is a super raw, angry, this-just-happened-and-we-were-*this*-close-to-losing account of what must be one of the worst times in our history.

Below are a few things that were either especially surprising to me or in general something that I think will stick with me.

  • The German people's attitude before the war (and across Europe and the US in general) was already very anti-semitic. The book didn't go into a lot of detail on this, but described a general atmosphere where it was commonplace to blame jews for whatever was wrong in society. They weren't being actively persecuted, but in general they were separated and already thought of a substandard class. I don't know why this comes as a surprise, since the US had very similar racial discrimination. I was just surprised by it.
  • Hitler's rise to power was incredible. First of all, he was the 8th member of the National Socialist (Nazi) party. I didn't realize that he was so involved in the conception of the party - it literally was his party, entirely of his making. Second - Hitler's rise to power was, by and large, a constitutionally legal affair. I sort of assumed that a party like the Nazi's pretty much only comes to power through a coup of some kind, but Hitler was legitimately elected, and his transformation of the country from a young democratic/parlimentary system to an outright dictatorship was done entirely through legal, constitutional means. (Plenty of propaganda and coercion as well, but he followed the letter of the law).
  • For the first 5-ish years of his rule, Hitler was globally considered a pacifist. He gave moving speeches to critical global acclaim about how war is never the answer, and that bloodshed is never the best solution. Foreign dignitaries and foreign press loved him, and he seemed like a strong leader that would peacefully stabilize the central European region (which, after WWI was still in pieces). The entire time Hitler was preaching about peace though, he was secretly and illegally building up the German army with the intention of invading Austria and Czechoslovakia. Totally crazy.
  • When he did invade those counties, they fell to him immediately. And, each time, he swore (to foreign dignitaries) that the conflict would be his final territorial claim (see Munich Agreement, "Peace in our time", etc) - even while he continued making plans to invade the rest of Europe. It wasn't until 1939's invasion of Poland that the other powers finally stepped in, and so started WWII.
  • Once WWII had all-out begun, France fell in six weeks. Hitler owned the entire continent west of Russia. Only the UK was left, and they refused to surrender. Everyone assumed that the war would be over in a matter of months - that there was no way that the little British Isle could withstand total war against the entire EU continent, without any help. But Churchill fought for years. Just, wow. What an incredible leader.

This was an incredible book, and very well written. I'd say more, but this is a super famous body of work and anyone curious about either the author, or more details about the war or the book should just google it, as my horrendous writing does it a terrible disservice.

The only bad thing I had to say about the book is it's cover. I'd love to have a physical copy of this book, but just can't abide having a giant swastika on my bookshelf. 

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Evolution, Health, and Disease
Daniel Lieberman
read on June 1, 2014

Lieberman's main idea throughout this book is that we evolved over millions of years to excel under a specific set of conditions, and over the last few hundred (thousand) years have so quickly changed our own environment and lifestyle that many of our adaptations are actually working against us, so much so that they are the cause for the worst and most prevalent ailments/diseases in modern times.

\The book is interesting all the way through, but the whole time I felt like it was one big "no duh". It's hard to imagine someone either disagreeing with the claims in the book, or even finding any of the premises or conclusions surprising. I guess it's not quite common sense, but it definitely wasn't anything bold or new or exciting. For example, calories used to be very hard to come by, so we developed intense desire for fats and sweets (high caloric foods), which we rarely had access to. Fast forward to now, and you have instant access to hyper-processed, intense calorie bombs like ice cream or soda. Obviously, this has led to a worldwide (and particularly in developed nations) epidemic of obesity and diabetes. This isn't surprising or contestable, but it is interesting, and throughout the book I ended up learning about (and paying attention to) Lieberman's description of how these diseases and body systems work (as well as more detail on how we evolved), more so than on the arguments he was trying to make.

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Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Ed Catmull
read on May 1, 2014

This book has gotten plenty of press recently, and other people have already reviewed it better than I'd be able to. Catmull is the founder of Pixar, and so he knows a thing or two about how to run an organization that can successfully innovate and be creative as a cultural norm. Many of the things he said were fantastic. But, because I don't work in a creative field, many did not really apply to me. There were still a bunch of lessons to take away here though that can be applied toward anything.

  • On people: "Always take a chance on better". It's dumb that this would be a surprising, but I've hesitated before on hiring people because I knew they were smarter/better than me, out of fear that they would get promoted first, etc. It's a stupid thing, and it goes without saying that you should never do that - that you should in fact surround yourself with as many people that are smarter than you as you can - but it's hard to live by. Catmull explains it nicely, and even does justice to the 'self-preservation' inclination.
  • Fail early, fail often, fail quickly. Most of all, embrace some failure as a cultural norm. Do not fear failures, especially small ones. Not failing mean's you're not pushing yourself, not taking risks, not moving quickly, etc. But worse than that, it can mean you miss huge opportunities at efficiency and process improvements, because people may be too afraid to 'improve' something with any solution that doesn't cover 100% of use cases. Catmull talks about failure at length - my comments here are not even close to exhaustive.
  • Pixar University. Catmull describes how early on they wanted to send a bunch of technical people to art classes thinking that an appreciation of basic drawing would help them professionally. It didn't. But what they did find was that the classes significantly helped people communicate cross functionally. Specifically, when everyone becomes a beginner at something (drawing, ballet, any 101 class) then professional hierarchy falls apart. Analysts chat with VPs, no problemo. Then the class ends and people are left with deep contacts in a bunch of random departments. Brilliant.

I think this really is the kind of management book that I would want to return to every couple years.

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A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis
read on April 1, 2014

Flash Boys is Michael Lewis's version of Patterson's Dark Pools. It is equally terrifying, but in Lewis's typical populist flair. Lewis is such a successful author partly because he can take a topic like this and really humanize it, he crafts a narrative around the idea, and he drives home the one narrow slice of the story that he wants to tell. That isn't to say that any of it is wrong, I just dislike being force-fed. Something I think Patterson captured well in his own book, and which Lewis fails at, is how high frequency trading is being driven by the system itself. It is a consequence of technological progression, not an evil scheme. That isn't to say it's good, or healthy... obviously it causes volatility, and it opens the door to nefarious practices (which Lewis is happy to highlight extensively). But the point is that the intention isn't evil. Banks can't NOT take part in HFT. To me, that's the truly interesting story - not the Mr-Nice-Guy RBS Banker who wants to save the world because it's by-golly just the right thing to do.

I like this book. It's easy and fun and interesting and more than anything it's popular, so its getting a pretty wide bucket of people thinking about investing and computers and how the system works and where it's all heading, all for the first time - I like that a lot. But as far as getting an objective and slightly more holistic (or at least, less biased) view of HFT, I very much prefer Dark Pools.

Totally off topic, but there was one passage I really liked about why Russians were such good computer programmers. The argument was that in the '50's and '60's Russia was a mess, and any time spent actually using a computer was heavily rationed. So programmers had to learn to write their entire programs by hand, on paper. Then when they actually got to use the computer, they just typed it all up and ran the code. I can't imagine the kind of mental focus, foresight, and discipline it would take to be able to write any moderately complex code out by hand. But wow - take someone like that and give them a laptop, and just imagine what they could do. (Spoiler: I guess they could write out algorithms that trade securities each microsecond according to millions of individual and mutually dependent parameters.)

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Andy Weir
read on April 1, 2014

Just look at that cover! I took one look at it and knew it was worth reading. Okay - that's not entirely true - I knew it would be a gamble, but I certainly had high hopes. I'm a sucker for a great cover. And you know what? This book was awesome! It's a ton of fun. It's paced better than a Dan Brown novel, and you don't feel dirty or stupid for reading it. I don't know what else to say without ending up writing a synopsis of the book. I mean, it's about an astronaut that gets stuck on Mars, not much else to say there. It reads like a movie script - but think Apollo 13, not Armageddon. I don't know if any of the stuff I learned about Mars was true, or if the book even accurately describes the Martian environment or NASA protocol, etc., but it's a blast of a novel.

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A Novel
Robert J. Sawyer
read on April 1, 2014

Along with A Short Stay In Hell, this is the best possible fiction book I'm pretty much ever likely to read. It's just fantastic. It's fun and well driven and it made me think twice about a few core things. I especially liked the non-religious perspective it took. The book entirely divorces the idea of religion from the existence of a god. God exists or it doesn't, but religion is a man-made phenomenon. That isn't to say that the book entirely espouses deism either, or the idea that God must not care or even know about individual people, just that it certainly explores that option. Anyway, a great book. A few notes of tidbits I enjoyed:

  • There was a lot of talk of why Earth hasn't been visited by aliens (until ow, in the book), and the general answer being that there is remarkably little time (on a cosmological scale) in between when a civilization is advanced enough to emit any kind of signal (radio, space travel) that it exists, and the time that it develops and uses weapons powerful enough to extinguish it.
  • Related to the above, which I'd heard before, Sawyer introduced a second option: that civilizations transcend into digital-esque immortal consciousnesses (i.e., go live in The Matrix) forever.
  • At one point God was hypothesized as an emergent, non-biological intelligence the resulted from the big bang.
  • God hypothesized as a Schrodinger-like character that observes us, and by doing so causes us to exist. And not only that, but that he chooses a particular path to observe."
  • When Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, it did so by seeing all the possible positions the chess pieces might have, not just at the next turn, but also at the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. If God existed, did he see all the possible next moves for all his playing pieces?"
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The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
Michio Kaku
read on March 1, 2014

One of the words I think I overuse when describing a lot of these books is "accessible", but it's the first thing I thought of when sitting down to write this. Kaku is a great writer, and he's put together a super interesting, relatively dumbed down, mass market description of where things are in neuroscience. Kaku is actually a physicist, which gave him an interesting perspective. He approached most of these questions in those terms, judging whether or not many future expectations in brain science would be possible, not based on our understanding of the brain, but on our understanding of the laws of physics.

One thing I liked in particular was Kaku's definition of consciousness: "The process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters [such as temperature, space and time] in order to accomplish a goal [such as finding shelter, mates or food]". He actually goes on to quantify the experience of consciousness as well. I really liked this pragmatic approach, and helped me wrap a little bit more of my head around the experience of being conscious.

The book had lots of short little mentions of interesting experiments currently under way. My favorites would be the mind-melded mice (mice whose brains are hooked up via the internet), and the folks over at the Gallant Lab in Berkeley, who are making surprisingly (disturbingly?) good progress at being able to visualize a persons dreams (and therefore, thoughts).

Best of all, the book explicitly confronts the reader with a lot of uncomfortable questions. How will the world react to the ability to mind read? To create cloned selves? To remotely power a surrogate body? To live forever?

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My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
Lawrence Anthony
read on February 1, 2014

I had the impression that this book was going to be about a man that learns to communicate with elephants. I don't really know why I thought that, I guess that's what you get when you don't go beyond just the cover of the book. The book ended up being a touching description of life with the wild in the African bush. It's fantastically written, and more than once I found myself on Google looking up Anthony's Thula Thula wildlife reserve and pricing out a trip. That's really the strongest endorsement I can give the book, since Africa used to be on my strict no-fly list. Lawrence seems like a fantastic guy, continuously putting his life on the line to protect the African wildlife. More than anything, the book is an expression of his deep respect for both the wildlife and the geographic region. I was surprised and interested at the small amount of tribal politics that Anthony describes in his region as well. This is the kind of guy I wouldn't mind getting stuck in an elevator with. I feel like we could hang.

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Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition
Oliver Sacks
read on February 1, 2014

Musicophilia reads almost exactly like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks has decades of experience dealing with people that have particular neurological deficiencies, and he put together a collection of stories about those particularly related to music. (Several, in fact, are repeated from the Hat book). I have the same positive and negative thoughts on this book as I had on the other. It's very interesting, but not terribly accessible, and not super exciting. I often had to talk myself into getting back into it, just because I knew it was good for me, and to allow myself to get on to another book. The thing I remember most a month later is:

  • Some people have perfect pitch. This means that they can perfectly identify the pitch of any noise/frequency. For instance, they can tell you that a car door that just closed made a D flat. Everyone's heard of "perfect pitch" (and the corollary tone deaf), but Sacks described it very well. Particularly, he had descriptions of the sensation from people that had perfect pitch, and to them it's pretty much impossible to understand not having it. It would be like trying to describe color to someone who only saw black and white. Or if you showed me a red flash card, then took it away, and asked me what color the flash card was. And why not? I mean, it makes perfect sense that someone be able to identify a noise, right? Anyway, I liked this. Not surprisingly, people that are blind, as well as people that grow up speaking tonal languages natively (a language where the meaning of the word changes depending on the pitch/tone of it) are much more likely to have perfect pitch.
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