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12 books started
12 books finished
3,696 pages read
100% digital
7% fiction
18% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World
Jeremy Rifkin
read on December 1, 2016

This book was rubbish, which was super disappointing given Rifkin's reputation and influence. It sucks because I agree with many of his larger points, but couldn't tolerate his style and narrative positioning. It reads like the writing of a politician, not a serious critic or academic.  Here are some of my Kindle highlights from early on:

President Obama’s bailout package saved the banking system but did little for American families.

Regardless of agenda, partisan leanings, etc, to include a sentence like that just raises a flag for me that Rifkin isn't interested in having a serious conversation. Reasonable people can argue rationally about Obama's response to the 2008 financial crisis, but to say that it did little for American families is, at best, incredibly naive. This is logically equivalent to saying "the banking system does little for American families". I wonder what Rifkin thinks would have happened to American families had the banking system been allowed to collapse? I've never seen a serious intellectual argue this, for good reason.

The upshot of eighteen years of living off extended credit is that the United States is now a failed economy. The gross liabilities of the US financial sector, which were 21 percent of GDP in 1980, have risen steadily over the past twenty-seven years to an incredible 116 percent of GDP by 2007.31 Because the US, European, and Asian banking and financial communities are intimately intertwined, the credit crisis swept out of America and engulfed the entire global economy. Even more troubling, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that the federal government debt could equal the GDP by 2015, throwing in doubt the future prospects of the United States of America.

This is a long quote, but emblematic of what I saw repeatedly in the early chapters. The line about the gross liabilities of the US financial sector doesn't make sense at all here - why does that matter at all? Why are the liabilities of a single sector of the economy a supporting datapoint that the overall economy is a "failed state"? And why gross liabilities, rather than net? This reeks of just pulling out data for its own sake, making the argument look good, rather than actually supporting his point. Then the graph ends with the typical doom-and-gloom over US federal debt. Again, reasonable people can make good arguments either way as to how national debt affects future growth - but to just announce that it throws in doubt the future prospects of the country... I mean.. ug.

Rifkin on Obama admin's green energy programs:

We are left with a collection of pilot projects and siloed programs, none of which connects with the others to tell a compelling story of a new economic vision for the world. We’re strapped with a lot of dead-end initiatives—wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it.

Really? Nothing to show for it? I get that Rifkin is pushing for a more comprehensive energy program, but this critisism is obviously hyperbolic garbage. This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and then just burning the whole house down as well. Is there no value in half-measures? Does Rifkin think Obama had the political capital to pass more comprehensive programs and just didn't? 

Later on, speaking about globalization:

The infrastructure that emerges annihilates time and shrinks space, connecting people and markets in more diverse economic relations.


When those systems are put in place, economic activity advances, moving along a classic bell-shaped curve that ascends, peaks, plateaus, and descends in tandem with the strength of the multiplier effect established by the communications-energy matrix.

Blech. I had to stop reading here. 

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read on December 1, 2016

Another very interesting Jon Ronson book. In this one, Ronson focuses on instances of public shaming, a bit of the history behind it, as well as the efficacy. The book isn't academic though. Similar to Them, Ronson makes his case anecdotally, following several high profile public shamings (several in real time, as he was writing the book), documenting the incident and response. Two of the highest profile stories are of Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco.

I think there were two core interesting ideas. First, why do crowds do this? What is it about a public shaming that almost feels good? How has it changed with technology (particularly social media)? While Ronson doesn't zero in on the why too much, the whole time I had Jared Diamond in my head, and how he hypothesized social reputation as a kind of zero sum game.

The second core idea was: once this occurs, what are the different responses to it, and consequences of each? Why was Jonah Leher buried, but scandalized businessmen sometimes are not?

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David Gerrold
read on December 1, 2016

Once I created a world where Jesus Christ never existed. Yeshua ben Yusef went out into the desert to fast and he never came back. Never went to Jerusalem. Never got crucified. Never had followers. The twentieth century I returned to was—different. Alien. The languages were different, the clothing styles, the maps, everything. The cities were smaller; the buildings were shorter and the streets were narrower. There were fewer cars and they seemed ugly and inefficient. There were slave traders in the city that would have been New York. There were temples to Gods I didn’t recognize. Everything was wrong. I could have been on another planet. The culture was incomprehensible. 


This is a very odd book about time travel. Nothing about it was terribly novel, or very well done. I remember in college really liking Gerrold's War Against the Ctorr series, and so was a bit disappointed by this book. It's all about alternate timelines and parallel universes but eventually sort of gets too wrapped up in itself and loses its thread on reality. Would be a more interesting short story, in a way. I think the ideas about death here are more interesting than the ideas about time. 

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A History
James Gleick
read on October 1, 2016

One thing I'm facinated by is the concept of revolutionary ideas that are purely intellectual. Gleick's last book, The Information, brought this particularly into focus regarding language, (as did Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel in describing the development of written language, particularly the Cheroke co-opting of latin forms). Abstract ideas like language or math don't depend necessarily on technology in order to be thought of, or made useful to humans, they can theortically just be thought of in an epiphany moment. Time Travel is apparently on of those ideas. Before reading this book I would have assumed that the idea of travelling into the past or future has been around as long as language itself. Surely there must be old myths of time travelling gods, right? Wrong. Time travel as an idea wasn't popular, or documented, prior to Orsen Wells' Time Traveller in the 1890's. That's incredible to me. Money quote:

Time travel feels like an ancient tradition, rooted in old mythologies, old as gods and dragons. It isn’t. Though the ancients imagined immortality and rebirth and lands of the dead time machines were beyond their ken. Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era. When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine, he also invented a new mode of thought. Why not before? And why now?


How strange, then, to realize that time travel, the concept, is barely a century old. The term first occurs in English in 1914—a back-formation from Wells’s “Time Traveller.” Somehow humanity got by for thousands of years without asking, What if I could travel into the future? What would the world be like? What if I could travel into the past—could I change history? The questions didn’t arise.

Gleick spends a little time actually answering those questions, but not nearly enough. (Short answer is that life just didn't move fast enough prior to the industrial revolution to really think that either the past or the future were significantly different from the present, so it just wasn't a common thought. Combine that with time zones (new after railroads) and you have a society that is much more aware of time as a concept than any before it).

More good stuff:

“Mere shadows,” Minkowski said. That was not mere poetry. He meant it almost literally. Our perceived reality is a projection, like the shadows projected by the fire in Plato’s cave. If the world—the absolute world—is a four-dimensional continuum, then all that we perceive at any instant is a slice of the whole. Our sense of time: an illusion. Nothing passes; nothing changes. The universe—the real universe, hidden from our blinkered sight—comprises the totality of these timeless, eternal world lines. “I would fain anticipate myself,” said Minkowski in Cologne, “by saying that in my opinion physical laws might find their most perfect expression as reciprocal relations between these world lines.”

This is inline with how I've come to think of the world over the last few years.

When his friend Besso died in 1955, Einstein consoled his family with words that have been quoted many times: Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. Einstein died three weeks later.

Great quote.

Sebald also asked, “In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?” This was a nice conceit: that some parts of our world, like dusty, shuttered rooms, may stand outside of time, may be cut off from time, immune to the flow.

I've often felt that isolated places somehow sit outside of time. This past weekend I was in an old electrical closet that was rarely used, in an old, pitch black space. Being inside there, I felt aware that no one had been there in quite some time. When I left that room, in a sense, was time stopping inside of it? Reading Lee Smolin (cited extensivly in this book) brought that even more in focus. Does time, or space, exist at all without a conscious being to experience it? Is everything just Schrodinger's cat?

Not sure much else good stuff was in here. Plenty of good quotes, but not sure there were really any big ideas. The book was fine, and interesting, but in a sense it is almost a literary review of time travel in pop culture. Gleick spends a lot of time, most of the book, just reviewing popular fictional works related to time travel. 

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read on September 17, 2016

Atul Gwande's book that turned me onto this one - he described it as required reading as a med student, and a powerful description of a person going through the dying process (mentally, not physically). It makes sense that there would be little good literature on the experience of dying, since those going through it are generally not in a condition to write about it, nor do they make it out the other side in order to describe it. (One recent counter example that comes to mind being Oliver Sack's essays as his condition worsened over time). Tolstoy's work is fiction, but well executed. He focuses on death, not as an abstract occurrence that happens to everyone, but as an intimate and personal affair that is experienced only (and by definition) by the individual. As they say - we all die alone. Tolstoy really digs into that loneliness. In a sense, people who are irrevocably dying share nothing in common with anyone living, even their most loved ones. No one truly empathizes with the damned. They have no future, and in so doing lose their humanity.

Some quotes:

Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych's death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard o it the complacent feeling that, "it is he who is dead and not I."


The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius - man in the abstract - was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. [...] Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it's altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die.

The book is profoundly sad - in a very obvious "meta" sort of way. Because even as I read it, and I feel sad for Ivan, and I try to intellectualize the lesson and reflect on his death, and on death in general, in the back of my head there is very much a feeling of "it is he who is dead and not I." Ivan Ilych was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, with all my thoughts and emotions.......

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A True Story About the Birth of Tyranny in North Korea
Blaine Harden
read on August 8, 2016

A great book I read in 2016 but did not have time to properly review, and so have forgotten too much of to do an adequate job. That said, I think this is one I'll return to soon, as I recall it gave a great overview of Korean history: war with Japan, WW2, the US, etc.

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How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World
Russell Gold
read on May 11, 2016

Great book about the oil industry and particularly fracking. I liked it a lot, but unfortunatly didn't take good notes while listening and put off writing about it for too long. I don't remember much more than you'd be able to look up on wikipedia at this point.

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Elizabeth Warren
read on March 11, 2016

I don't have an awful lot to say about this book. I went into it wanting to know more about Elizabeth Warren, and I was also curious what a political marketing book would be like. This delivered in both categories. Warren's bonafides as a defender of the common man were pushed pretty hard, though honestly I was surprised at her history advocating for consumer finance protections, particularly during the financial collapse of 2008.

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The Fates of Human Societies
Jared M. Diamond
read on February 1, 2016

Much ink has already been spilled about this book, and searching for reviews and opinions online leads to very polarizing results. There's a lot about this book that I didn't like, a lot of places where the logic didn't quite add up, and for me it happened enough that I'm pretty squarely in the "skeptical" camp regarding Diamond overall. I don't buy into every detail here, but I think he does largely get the story right. That story being that Eurasian people were the first to colonize the planet only because of geographical conditions in Eurasia that led them to develop civilizations (guns, germs, steel) before other cultures were able to do so. This is in contrast to any kind of theory that Europeans were smarter, more apt or able, destined, or simply lucky. Diamond argues that what happened simply couldn't have happened any other way, given the initial endowment.

And that's what I like. I don't necessarily agree with every point, but I appreciate that Diamond is creating a theory of history, rather than simply telling a story. He's not describing what happened, he's describing the theory behind it. He's approaching it scientifically, insofar as one is able to without the benefit of falsifiable hypotheses. It could not have happened another way.

There is simply no way indigenous Australians could have ever colonized the world first; regardless of ingenuity, they simply didn't have the resources. This is obvious, and yet, somehow controversial.

Anyway, some quotes.

Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.


Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been more or less domesticated. Even of these several hundred crops, most provide minor supplements to our diet and would not by themselves have sufficed to support the rise of civilizations. A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s annual tonnage of all crops. Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone now account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world’s human populations. With so few major crops in the world, all of them domesticated thousands of years ago, it’s less surprising that many areas of the world had no wild native plants at all of outstanding potential. Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating.

I don't buy this logic at all, it rings of survivorship bias to me. Of course the most important crops we eat today are the ones that were domesticated long ago. That goes without saying. But that isn't evidence that no other plants could have been domesticated back then as well, or that if having done so, they wouldn't be more productive today.

Australia and the Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions—possibly because the mammals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting skills were already highly developed.

I feel like here you could argue that a more intelligent people would have had the foresight to domesticate these docile megafauna, but that's neither for nor against Diamond's case.

Finally, a higher percentage of the surviving candidates proved suitable for domestication on Eurasia than on the other continents. An examination of the candidates that were never domesticated, such as Africa’s big herd-forming mammals, reveals particular reasons that disqualified each of them.

Similar to the quote above with plants, Diamond seems to argue that horses were more domesticatable than zebras by showing how modern horses and modern zebras differ. Well of course they do, the horses have been domesticated. Had anyone actually succeeded in domesticating zebras, then zebras would be quite different. Diamond never looks at what cows or pigs or sheep were like before they were domesticated. Why can we assume they were easy to domesticate? I'm sure there are answers to this, and I think Diamond tried to address it, but he never convinced me.

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the syllabary devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers’ debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed. Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatisfied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more. Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words—what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel. As one source of the signs themselves Sequoyah’s syllabary is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah’s signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers. Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even principles from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously.

How awesome is this? I'm fascinated by the epiphany moment here. Imagine what it's like to just realize that words can be written down. Could there still exist leaps forward like this that require no significant new technology - just a new perspective?

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Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott
read on January 1, 2016

Great book about writing, and reading, and in general on paying attention to the world. This is a great book that has gotten me excited about reading some fiction again. And, also, about getting better about writing as well. I get the feeling I'll listen to this one again in the future. Most of the advice actually seems pretty obvious; write every day, observe the world around you, create a commonplace book to draw from in the future, focus on small goals (step by step, bird by bird). So, it's isn't necessarily the substance that made this book, but the delivery. The, uh, the writing I guess.

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Adventures with Extremists
Jon Ronson
read on January 1, 2016

I expected this to just be a description of many different extremist groups. And at the base level, it is. Ronson hangs out with extreme islamists, gun crazy isolationists, white supremacists, etc. The narrative loosely revolves around an investigation into the Bilderberg group, which many of these extremist groups seem to believe are a secret organization running the world. He spends a lot of time with these people, getting to know then, describing their beliefs. He never excuses them. He never says that it's okay to share their opinion, and never describes their positions in a sympathetic way that would encourage others to follow on. But he also doesn't ever call them stupid, or make fun of them.

But, somehow, he does get the reader to build a sense of empathy for these people. At various points in the book, it starts looking pretty convincing that these Builderbergers do actually secretly run the world. The brilliance of the book is in how well it demonstrates how different people can come to different information based on the same evidence. It's very well done. It also sheds some interesting light on the people who actually do run the world, the Bilderbergers and their ilk. I often wonder how at what point in my life impostor syndrome would run out, and I'd actually become a real adult that knows what I'm doing. By the end of the book, I think Ronson does a fine job of showing how no one, not even presidents, really have an idea what the hell is going on.

I dug it. I feel like everyone is a bit better off reading this book.

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read on January 1, 2016

Epstein starts off on the right foot. He kicks things off by defining his normative morality as being humanitarian – putting human “well being” above all else. He contrasts this with a needlessly disparaging caricature of his opposition as defining their morality as putting the environment above human needs, and that their normative “good” as a state of nature unchanged by humans. Later in the book he refers to these positions as humanist vs anti-humanist. It is disappointing, because so many good conversations could be had here. I’ve often wondered myself where I sit on this spectrum. For instance, environmentalists often decry invasive species as bad – but why? I understand they can change the local ecology dramatically, and it’s especially questionable when it’s a direct result of human interaction that causes it – but why is it necessarily bad? Is it only dangerous in that small ecological changes can cause unexpected and disproportionately larger changes over time? Is it bad only in the sense that it may disrupt human health or prosperity in the long term? Is it immoral for human activity to reduce the number of wolves, even if it increases the number of elk? Is it immoral to kill plants cause human suffering or inconvenience? Even if there’s no risk of extinction, is it immoral to needlessly chop down a tree? To kill a bear? Is morality only concerned with the suffering we inflict on other conscious creatures? Is any loss of genetic diversity immoral?

I don’t know exactly where I stand on many of those questions, and I don’t think Epstein does either. Epstein continuously pushes the idea that industrial progress (fueled by fossil fuels) has been unambiguously good because life expectancy and average income are up. He gives examples where there are hospitals in Africa that can't keep people healthy/alive because of intermittent power reliability, and says that cheaper energy would solve that. the problem is, he completely ignores the socioeconomic factors here. Is the problem that we don't have enough energy in the world today, or is the problem that we're not distributing it fairly?

Ever since reading the Traffic book, I've been more aware of processes that continuously exist on the margin. In that book the examples were that traffic never actually decreases when roads are expanded, just more people start to drive. Or similarly, as cars get safer road deaths don't actually decrease, people just feel justified driving faster. Back to energy, I wonder what Epstein sees as an ideal long term state of the world? If we can imagine that human beings invent some kind of perfectly free, perfectly clean, perfectly portable energy, what would actually happen? He seems to think this would be unambiguously good, but I have my doubts. Certainly a lot of good would come from it, but you're kidding yourself if you think that in that scenario everyone on Earth would somehow have access to an equal proportion. In this extreme scenario, it's clear to me that people would just keep having babies until the next limiting factor is met, be it in physical space, or sanitation, or water, etc. If we had infinite energy population would skyrocket until those living on the margin could just barely survive. In absolute terms, the amount of human suffering would go through the roof, and we'd completely destroy the Earth in the process. Is that morally good? Epstein says yes. And that says nothing about the current, actually-happening, world conditions caused by fossil fuels. For instance, look at the political regimes propped up by oil reserves. Is it moral to economically support dictators and theocrats? Epstein never considers it.

This was a horrible book. Almost everything in it is as wrong as it can be, and it's not even satisfying or consistent within its own terms. However, it did make me spend some time thinking about what the right questions, and the right answers are for myself. Most disappointingly though, is I don't think it helped me at all in terms of understanding how to argue with someone that believes this. Epstein isn't a retarded, or even uneducated person. He knows what externalities are. I'm sure he's aware of behavioral economics. I mean, it's trivially easy to disprove classical assumption-based econ as a reflection of real markets and market participants. So I'm left feeling as though I just read a religious text, entirely faith based. Is there a rational argument, or dataset, that could possibly get Epstein to consider another policy? I don't think so.

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