addabook home timeline gallery
signup or login
2018 book stats
23 books started
21 books finished
7,640 pages read
69% digital
57% fiction
57% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
A Memoir
Tara Westover
read on December 20, 2018

Educated might be the best book I've read - it's at least up there. It is a memoir, but many times while reading it I surprised myself by remembering that fact, after thinking to myself how rich the 'characters' in the book are, and how improbable the events seem to be. Very broadly, it is an autobiography about growing up in an extremely radical-religious / conspiratorial / abusive family, and the personal journey of escaping that orbit, getting educated, and integrating into society (and in fact, quickly excelling). Westover is clearly gifted. With no formal education whatsover (no home school, even), she manages to get into BYU, and then quickly after a Cambridge doctoral program. Her success is such a compelling story, and her imposter syndrome as she succeeds is, at some level, relatable to all.

My key thoughts/themes while reading were:

  • Morality. This seems foolish to write about a memoir (vs. a fictional story), but it was interesting to examine and re-examine her family throughout the book, making judgements on them as parents, and as people. Very often, they are awful. They're negligent, ignorant, and horribly abusive. They are a slam-dunk case of "should not be allowed to raise children" people. But, are they evil? By the end, it's clear that they're trying their best to raise kids, given their circumstances and beliefs. And it's plainly obvious that they love them. And most oddly, they are by many measures highly successful parents. They basically had nothing, and ended up with 3/6 kids getting PhDs. Show me a family that can do more with so little. 
  • Related to the above... how do I know that Tara is "right" in all this? Why is the way that she chooses to live her life better than her parents? Epistemologically - how do I know this is true? Her parents both led lives rationally consistent with their beliefs, and were very highly rewarded by it. An objective observer would say that they were highly successful. Why are they wrong to do what they've done? I don't mean only from my perspective - obviously I think they're wrong because their lifestyle is highly inconsistent with mine - but from a more objectively rigorous point of view... if an alien who didn't know what life or culture was like on Earth saw this story play out, would they take Tara's side or her parents? Part of what made the book so compelling was Tara's own struggle with this question. She's never sure that she's doing the right thing when breaking from her families norms, she just feels compelled to do it. Even by the end of the book it's not clear to me if she ever felt certain that she did the right thing. After finishing the book, one question that stuck with me was wondering why she wrote it. It's a magnificent story, but it wasn't clear at all to me what she had to gain from making such a private experience so public. The more I've thought about it, I think that this question is exactly what she's trying to answer for herself.
  • Fate. I'm not exactly sure this is the right word, but it's at least adjacent. What I'm trying to capture is, what exactly is it that ultimately motivated Tara to leave? What inconsequential event snowballed inside her until she was driven to leave the family? Why didn't she become her parent's daughter? What thin veil of circumstance separates her life from her brother Sean's? The impression I'm given is one of chaos theory - at some point in Tara's childhood something tiny happened, as small as hearing a song on the radio, that somehow led her down a road of escape. What tiny thing was it? What part does it play in our own lives?

Tara Westover has earned a permanent place on my "5 people, living or dead, that you'd have to a dinner party" list. This was really an incredible book. My single complaint about it is that I need to struggle now between this and My Absolute Darling as book of the year....

Read more, see author info, share ...
Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Rebecca Solnit
read on December 6, 2018

I read this book hoping for guidance or wisdom on how to react and maintain hope in today's political reality in the United States, despite knowing that Solnit originally wrote this in 2005 as a reaction to the Iraqi war and broadly the G.W. Bush presidency. And, from the outset, that made me hold something against it. Not because anything in the book is wrong or bad advice, but I can't in my head get past the comparison of that era to this one. It doesn't seem possible to me that any reasonable reaction or advice for that situation could be appropriate to this one.

Nothing in the book was bad, or wrong. (Well, except for the bit praising the revolution in Venezula that led to Hugo Chavez's authoritarian dismantling of that country -- that didn't age well). And, in fact, it does seem like a good reaction to an alarming-but-not-existential threat to western liberal democratic values. Solnit encourages the reader to act, shows example after example of how progress is always fought for, and is never easy. The book is a call to action.

But for me the message comes too close to the notion that 'the moral arc of history bends towards justice'. I'm strongly against the idea that liberalism and western democratic values represent some kind of absolute moral truth. There's that old saying that if every book on Earth disappeared today, in fifty thousand years humans would have recreated all the science textbooks - chemistry and physics and biology would all be rediscovered the same as they are today - but that the Bible and Quran, or the Iliad and Odyssey, etc, would be lost forever. The idea of course being that those sciences represent an absolute truth about the universe, whereas story books are only an idea. I think western democratic liberalism is only an idea, not a truth. There is no great force that has pushed us towards it, or that will keep us moving in a democratically progressive direction. What we have now is fragile, and if we lose it there is no guarantee, or even reasonable expectation, that it should return.

Read more, see author info, share ...
How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy
Carol Anderson
read on December 19, 2018

The well-researched and articulated thesis of Anderson's book is: since the end of the civil war, conservative whites have been working relentlessly to disenfranchise African American voters. Implicit in that sentence is that such efforts are ongoing, and in fact, Anderson illustrates clearly how they are actually ramping up again.

This book (for me) initially read very similarly to The Color of Law. That book was about how racist (government) housing policy prevented many generations of blacks in America from owning a home, and illustrated how despite today's improved regulatory environment around housing discrimination, the damage done w/r/t wealth accumulation was severe and its effects are absolutely ongoing. In contrast, One Person, No Vote has nothing even resembling a rosy ending. There is no "we've fixed most of it, and are ironing out the remaining issues today". Racially-motivated, lawful voter suppression is not even close to fixed, and is in fact getting worse. So here are the highlights. This is how shitty we are:

Voter ID

Different states have shit laws requiring ID to vote. I was initially sympathetic to this - I do think it's reasonable that you prove who you are in order to vote. Unfortunately, the reasonability of this claim is used as a bludgeon to make it unreasonably hard to actually vote.

  • Voter ID requirements are different in each state.
  • Very specific forms of ID are required/accepted in each. In some states, a driver's license (the overwhelmingly most popular form of ID) from outside states is not accepted. This is such bullshit that I can't think about it for too long without spinning out.
  • To get an ID, you need to go to a DMV. So, e.g.,:

Governor Scott Walker made sure of that. The Republican had curtailed the operating hours or removed many of the DMVs in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s black population lived, and in the Navy veteran’s university town of Madison.

The NAACP and ACLU noted, for example, that a birth certificate was necessary to get a driver’s license, but in an obvious “Catch-22 of classic proportions” in Marion County, where more than two hundred thousand of the state’s black population lived, the health department required a driver’s license as proof of identification to get a copy of a birth certificate.

With more than 80 percent of Texas urbanized, and Dallas now a Democratic stronghold, Houston overwhelmingly minority, and San Antonio as well, it was clear that the burgeoning Latino and African American population had the ability to turn a red state not just purple, but blue.97 Texas’s answer was S.B. 14, passed a mere two hours after the Shelby County v. Holder decision came down. The law skewed acceptable government-issued photo IDs to those “which white people are more likely to carry,” such as gun licenses. It made driver’s licenses the virtual holy grail of IDs because nearly one-third of the state’s counties, including some of those that are heavily minority, do not have DMVs. Republican legislators recognized that it would require some citizens to travel up to 250 miles round-trip to obtain a license, but the lawmakers decided to remove language from S.B. 14 that would have reimbursed those who had to make that poll tax–like trip. In fact, one of the state’s lawyers “brushed aside geographical obstacles as the ‘reality to life of choosing to live in that part of Texas.’

Voter Roll Purging

IF (this is a really big if) you can get past the idea that people need to register to vote at all, then it becomes reasonable that a state should have an ability to remove people from the voter roll over time. After 100 years you don't want to have the names of every single person who ever registered in the state still on the list. Obviously, it doesn't scale, so there must be a method to remove dead/emigrated people, right?

  • In many states, they just remove people who don't vote 'frequently', at the discretion of the secretary of state. (This dovetails wonderfully with efforts that make it hard for people to vote at all, see above).
  • If your registered name doesn't match your gov ID name perfectly, you get removed. Guess how often this happens to "John" vs non-English names?
African Americans, who were one-third of the applicants, accounted for 64 percent of the tens of thousands of voter registrations that Georgia’s secretary of state canceled or “placed in ‘pending status’” for data mismatches between 2013 and 2016. Meanwhile, “Asian-Americans and Latinos were more than six times as likely as white voters to have their applications halted.”

His most devastating weapon to date, however, has been Interstate Crosscheck, which he has nurtured and promoted as an important device to eliminate voter fraud from the American political landscape. The program is supposed to root out those who are registered to vote in two different states as part of “a national move to bring more integrity to the voter rolls” and provide a solution to “registration systems [that] cannot keep up with a society of voters who move from state to state.” It works through an alliance of twenty-seven states, which sends voter information to Arkansas to upload. Kobach’s Kansas then pulls and runs the data for every member of the consortium, searching for comparisons “of registered voters to weed out duplicates.”

...

Arizona purged almost 271,000 voters. Michigan removed nearly 450,000 voters, and North Carolina managed to eliminate close to 600,000 from the system. The staggering numbers fueled the narrative of massive, rampant voter fraud.

...

Not all states require the same information that Crosscheck uses to purge the rolls. Social security numbers, for example, are rarely used. Ohio doesn’t bother with a person’s middle name either. Suffixes rarely make it in, as well. As a result, it believes that James Willie Brown is the same voter as James Arthur Brown, as James Clifford Brown, as James Lynn Brown. The possibility for error is exponential.

...

Minorities in America tend to have common or shared last names.

...

researchers at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania discovered that Crosscheck has an error rate of more than 99 percent.

Shit Voting Practices

Unfortunately, the assault on democracy is not only about the way congressional and legislative district lines are drawn. The undermining of democracy is also achieved in the way long, seemingly interminable lines at the voting booth have been artificially created. We’ve seen the results: A five-hour wait in Maricopa County, Arizona. A line with four thousand people stretching for one quarter mile in Cincinnati. Lines in Miami-Dade County, Florida, bending beyond the photographer’s lens and melding into the horizon.

...

this is a burden that is disproportionately borne in order to exercise that fundamental right to vote. In 2012, on average, blacks had to wait in line twice as long as whites. In the “10 Florida precincts with the longest delays … almost 70 percent of voters were Latino or black.” Nationwide, in the 2012 election, whites who lived in white neighborhoods had the shortest wait times of all citizens—just seven minutes.

...

In Ohio, for example, the secretary of state allocates only one polling station per county for early voting. On the surface, that gives the aura of fairness and equity. But all counties are not equal. Pickaway County has fewer than sixty thousand residents total.95 Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, however, has a population of more than eight hundred thousand.96 Yet despite this seismic disparity, each had only one early voting polling place available. There were, obviously, no lines in Pickaway County, home to Circleville. Hamilton County, however, in trying to squeeze a population of that magnitude through only one facility, had a line that stretched a quarter mile.

...

North Carolina, in a “subtler maneuver” than the gerrymandering and voter ID laws that landed the state in court, “moved the location of almost one-third of the state’s early voting sites,” which then “significantly increased the distance African Americans have to travel to vote early, while leaving white voters largely unaffected.” This was deliberate.

 

Gerrymandering

Ahh yes, the evergreen practice of allowing the elected officials who seek more power to determine who is allowed to vote for them. This is a well documented pile of horse shit, so I'll keep it light.

Before the redistricting, Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was composed of eleven Republicans and ten Democrats. The Census-driven reduction of two seats did not lead to an eleven-to-eight ratio, however, but one that would yield thirteen or fourteen Republicans out of a total of nineteen seats.

Indeed, after the high-powered gerrymandering, “more Americans lived in areas with uncontested elections than … before.” And when there is a competition, it usually isn’t much. Only 4.9 percent live in districts where the margin of difference between the winner and loser was 5 percent or less.

I've gone on for too long. This is too many quotes, and sadly only about 10% of what I highlighted in my kindle while reading. To read this book is to be disgusted with our nation, and disappointed with its people. To read this book while watching, in real time, Stacy Abrams "lose" the gubernatorial election in Alabama to a super racist shitbag who was also the AL secretary of state, and who actively did all of this quoted bullshit in order to eke out a "win" was unbearable.

I don't know what the end game here is. I don't understand what the GOP thinks is going to happen, by not allowing minorities to be represented, while 1) income inequality rises significantly, 2) 'minority' populations grow faster than whites. This is obviously, painfully obviously, going to end badly.

Other

I appreciated:

Based on research out of Stanford, the activists knew that the message wasn’t to ask whether someone was going to vote; the point was to define the person as a voter because a “voter is who you are” whereas “voting can be a task competing with lots of other ones.” The volunteers were, therefore, instructed to use “HIGH VOTER TURNOUT LANGUAGE AND ASK HIGH VOTER TURNOUT QUESTIONS LIKE: ‘I know you’re a reliable/consistent voter’ and ‘We rely on reliable voters like you’ and ‘What time of day are you going to vote?’

And lastly, this is a bit of a tangent, but I definitely stopped when I read:

What ruined the U.S.’s credibility, the Soviets gleefully claimed, was that people who “dream of nooses and dynamite … who throw rocks at defenseless Negro children—these gentlemen have the audacity to talk about ‘democracy’ and speak as supporters of ‘freedom.’” Don’t be fooled, the Kremlin warned—the U.S. goal was to export Jim Crow, not democracy. “American racism and its savage practice of cruel persecution and abuse of minorities is … the true nature of the American ‘democracy’ which the United States is trying to foist on other countries and peoples.”

The US was so scared of the USSR during the cold war, and so desperate to win it, or to appear to be winning it, that Anderson alleges here that a driving force of the civil rights movement was not in fact a repudiation of our disgusting history and practice and culture of racism and hate for moral reasons, but only (or primarily, or even only partially) for political reasons. The country needed to appear to be united, and peaceful, in order to credibly show that democracy and capitalism (and lets face it, mainly just capitalism) were better than authoritarian communism.

Truly, we are pathetic.

Read more, see author info, share ...
Neapolitan Novels, Book One
Elena Ferrante
read on November 23, 2018

I initially heard about these books on Kottke, and feel like every few months I'd see another passing reference to how solid this book (and series) about female relationships and coming-of-age is. I enjoyed it a lot. Though I need to say, this is one that I felt was underserved by the audiobook. I'm not sure why, but I found myself very easily losing attention to it, and would often need to jump back a minute or two. Though for whatever reason I'm not sure, because I don't think the book is boring, or that reading the physical copy wouldn't hold my attention.

This book is a story about two girls as they grow up, told from their perspective. I don't often read books about children, so this may not be very insightful, but (similar to It) I very much enjoyed the limited perspective of the child, and how isolated it was from the 'adult world'. Growing up in Italy in the 1950's, the children have almost no notion of fascism, or of WWII, or of the struggles their parents must face trying to raise children in such a time and place. Tiny elements of these seep through to the reader, but it is deftly done.

Elena and Lila are both incredible characters, and their friendship and various personal hardships and development was powerful to read. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series - though I'm going to try not to rush it.

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

Lastly, I want to leave this link from The New Yorker which is just way better than anything I would write here, and also begins with an interesting piece about "Ferrante" herself, which I've copied into the author bio.

Read more, see author info, share ...
read on October 1, 2018

I tried, I really did. But I couldn't get there.

Read more, see author info, share ...
Celeste Ng
read on October 11, 2018

Sometimes at work I think about how almost every single problem I have, and frankly almost everything I do there, is just an effort to reduce friction in communication. Obviously "meetings" are just an effort to communicate, so is email, so is conversation - but even when I'm "working", what I'm really doing is trying to figure out how to do something, or how something works - things that other people, somewhere, already know. Sometimes I marvel at how much we could increase overall productivity by just making very small incremental improvements to communication. If we could reduce the friction, and increase the accuracy, of information exchange, such that we just "knew" what other people know - boy oh boy.

I was reminded by that a lot while reading this book. Little Fires Everywhere is fantastic. It's exceptionally well written, has great characters, and has a plot that really keeps you coming back for more - I went through this book very quickly. What it really excels at though is showing several sides to each situation. Every moral conflict in the book is first told from one perspective (letting the reader get on that character's 'side', as it were), and then re-spun and told from the other character's perspective, and you're made to feel like a schmuck and now realize that in fact, character #2 is 'correct', etc. It's very deftly done. At the end, you're left with many complex characters, whose motivations you understand, and all of whom you can empathize with quite well.

But the fact of it is, they're all good characters. No one is evil in this book. Some folks are unlikable, but in pity-able ways. This is really a book full of good people, with good intentions, who are, by all measures, trying to do good things. I'm left thinking that if they could all reduce the friction of their communication - if they just knew what the intentions and motivations of the other characters were, if they just talked to each other more - then they would have all avoided so much pain.

And really, in that way, the book is quite sad. It shows so explicitly how we can all have the best of intentions, and still be capable of hurting each other so much.

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Tayari Jones
read on October 24, 2018

This one was painful to listen to. Phenomenally well told story, with particular focus on how one's entire life can ride on so little luck, on just one moment going sideways.

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Zadie Smith
read on September 20, 2018

I may not be experienced enough in reading fiction, but this one didn't do it for me. Not that I necessarily disliked anything here -- I thought it was a well written book, and sometimes quite engaging -- but I really have no takeaways. Nothing really moved me, I don't feel particularly more empathetic of the biracial experience, or with income inequality issues, or with any of the topics that are Smith seems to graze by but never really attack head on. I'm genuine in my first sentence up there. I've read other reviews of this book, and they are overwhelmingly effusive.  I've seen this book on many 'best-of' lists, or editor's picks, etc, and I just don't get it. In The Guardian, Tayei Selasi says of this book: "Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?" See, now that does sound like a good book. But I just didn't get any of it. Maybe I'm too dense, or maybe I was too sleepy reading this before bed, but the whole thing came off very forgettable.

Some quotes that I did like...

Whenever I spotted him in my reluctant daily walk around the village ... Fern would be locked in an intense discussion with men and women of every age and circumstance, crouching by them as they ate, jogging next to the donkey-drawn carts, always listening, learning, asking for more details, assuming nothing until he was told it. I compared all of this to my own way of being. Keeping to my dank room as much as possible, talking to no one if I could help it, reading books about the region by the light of a head-torch, and feeling a homicidal fury, adolescent in nature, towards the IMF and the World Bank, the Dutch who'd bought the slaves, the local chiefs who'd sold them, and the many other distant mental abstractions to which I could do no practical damage.

and,

"So, you see, a lot of money will be saved there, for sure," she said, and folded her hands in her lap to formally mark the end of this thought, and I did not contest her. But I could see she wanted to talk, that her pat phrases were like lids dancing on top of bubbling cooking pots, and all I had to do was sit patiently and wait for her to boil over.

Read more, see author info, share ...
Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande
read on September 18, 2018

Being Mortal is probably one of the most important books I'll ever read. It's not so much a narrative (though, there are a series of personal stories throughout that are very compelling), but moreso it's a wakeup call that hard conversations are unbelievably necessary. The book is broadly about the American experience of growing old and dying. I actually read it for the first time a few years ago after seeing a review in a newspaper article. I thought it was powerful then, but somehow it didn't make it into these reviews. I hope I'll read it several more times in my life. [As a brief aside, I'm incredibly happy and proud that he got the job as CEO of the Amzn/Berkshire/JPM healthcare initiative, and I'm very excited to see what comes of his work there].

The driving force of the book is the end of the subtitle: 'what matters in the end'. Gawande describes the process of aging, and particularly the evolution of how American's have treated the elderly. The first half of the book is about nursing homes, why they're so often feared and disliked, and the kinds of things that make them more tolerable, and borderline even enjoyable. (No surprise; autonomy, purpose, being around other living things [animals, plants]). Gawande espouses Assisted Living over nursing homes, though concedes that the term has been co-opted and is no longer necessarily safe. This was all very interesting.

The second half of the book is about the process of dying itself. About how in America in particular, we have a healthcare system that almost doesn't allow people to die with dignity. Doctors aren't trained to let people die, they only know how to offer potential solutions.

We've created a multi-trillion dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of a littery tickets. And have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan. But, hope is our plan.

Doctors will only explain what possible treatments exist in order to potentially help; and not necessarily meaningfully help. The purpose of doctors is to allow you to live the life you want to live. But to doctors, their purpose is to cure disease/ailments. These do not always align, particularly when one is no longer possible. Doctors seem to err on the side of aggressively trying to stop a sickness, even if it means increasing the likelihood of the patient spending their last days suffering in a hospital - something that overwhelmingly, most people would not prefer, even if it meant living a shorter life. People have awful deaths in the US, simply because we're pushed - by doctors, by family, by people with good intentions but without understanding and true empathy - to fight to the bitter end. Death used to happen at home. Death used to be peaceful.

A study led by the sociologist Nicholas Christakis asked the doctors of almost 500 terminally ill patients to estimate how long they thought their patient would survive, and then, followed the patients. 63% of doctors overestimated their patients' survival time. Just 17% underestimated it. The average estimate was 530% too high. And the better the doctors knew their patients, the more likely they were to err.

Gawande suggests the following questions to discuss with someone - preferably before they're terminally ill - but better then than never:

  • What are you biggest fears and concerns?
  • What goals are most important to you?
  • What trade-offs are you willing to make, and which aren't you? 

When you've had this conversation properly, you stand a much better chance to make decisions for yourself and your family that you actually want, that you won't regret.

As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology can sustain our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence. Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure who the dying even are?

Read more, see author info, share ...
Maggie Nelson
read on September 27, 2018

While I think this was a good book - unfortunately, it was not a very good book to listen to. Maggie Nelson is a legit good writer, and the book is so littered with quotes and references that it became very difficult when listening to know when you were inside of a quote and when you weren't. The language in this book is really meant to be savored slowly, read and re-read - many sections are almost poetic in their brevity and impact, such that, when cruising through the audiobook, much is lost.

The book itself is about a personal relationship, and framed by personal events (pregnancy), but Nelson uses this as a structure to explore relationship through transformation. While Nelson is pregnant, her partner is undergoing FTM surgery/therapy, and these transformations provide different perspectives on normality and perceived experience that were very interesting.

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Barbara Kingsolver
read on August 22, 2018

Kingsolver is always fantastic. I really enjoyed this book, it is solid fiction; fun to read, engaging, with great characters. The story ducks and weaves around a half-dozen or so key characters in small-town Appalachia, which all begin independent and of course get very connected by the end. The events within the story obliquely and sometimes explicitly revolve around a life-and-death theme, reminding you that one is always necessary for the other.

I'll admit that it was not particularly masterful or ambitious. This was Kingsolver's followup book after The Poisenwood Bible, and this feels like a safe layup compared to that book. I question what events/themes/lessons would stick with me over time, but not every book needs to be life-changing, particularly fiction. This was fun to read and generally made me happy. I suppose that's enough.

Kingsolver herself commented on her reasons for writing the book, which were:

Specifically, I wished I could explain a handful of important ecological principles: speciation and natural selection, the keystone predator, genetic diversity and resilience, and the Volterra principle, which (for instance) shows mathematically why spraying a field with pesticides actually will increase the number of pests in the next generation.  These principles profoundly shape the world around us, in which we hope to survive.

Scientific illiteracy is something that worries me every day.  At least half the population of this country has not been educated to understand basic, thoroughly documented phenomena like climate change, or even to grasp evolution through natural selection, which has now been the cornerstone of all biological sciences for two centuries.  When a population this uninformed tries to steer environmental policy, it’s like asking a five-year-old to drive the car: we might fully expect calamity.

This certainly makes me appreciate it a bit more, though I suppose I'm happy to say that such a focus was overlooked by me as "this book is describing how the world works" and not "huh, this is a new and interesting point of view!".

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Sarah Perry
read on August 26, 2018

I couldn't get there. This was a mildly interesting vacation read. Nice cover, good enough story. My strongest memory of this book isn't anything about the book itself - but that I was reading it while sitting on Canon Beach looking at Haystack rock. As soon as I got home I stopped.

Read more, see author info, share ...
The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
Tressie McMillan Cottom
read on August 26, 2018

This book came and went so quickly, and with so little impact on me, that I almost forgot to write it up here. It was was a fine book, and by and large I agreed with every word of it - but I didn't find a lick of it surprising at all, which just made it broadly pretty uninteresting.

The main points are:

  1. For-profit schools are a horrible scam. They (obviously) aren't structured with the student's best interests in mind, and so don't serve the students well. They've exploded in size / impact / popularity in the last few decades, particularly as the financial markets and securitization really flourished. (Though, their business model is not really like securitization, other than the two share in common the reckless disregard for the system they are meant to be improving).
  2. The students themselves aren't stupid. It's not like they're all dumb and can't see what's going on. But the fact is that they're often in tough circumstances, facing competitive job markets, and having some kind of credentials - regardless of the quality for the education supporting them - is a valuable differentiator. It is, unfortunately, a signal - not necessarily that one candidate is more qualified than the other, but that one candidate cares more than the other, is willing to buckle down more that the other, is more financially stable than the other, etc. I.e., if you can spend $50 on a piece of paper, you probably have your shit together more than someone who can't.
  3. In addition to this, these companies use awful predatory practices to drive these points home, and bilk as much as they can from folks right on the margin. Cottom's direct experience here was interesting, though again not surprising. Really disgusting what these companies will do. (E.g., they give kickbacks to local companies that hire their graduates in order to boost their "hire rate" numbers - and then after a short period the company will fire the student (to hire new ones).

All of this was disgusting, and I was disgusted reading it, but it really just was right down the middle of what I expected this industry to be. I also found Cotton's writing style a bit patronizing. I don't have any specific examples, but several times felt like she was just one step shy of sounding the words out for me, which just made the experience seem more unpleasant. 

Overall, a good book with good information in it, but not something I could really someone else spend their time reading.

 

 

Read more, see author info, share ...
How to Get Things Right
Atul Gawande
read on June 2, 2018

I think, but am no longer certain, that I came upon a reference to this book while reading Tim Geithner's memoir on the financial crisis, as a system of managing complexity.

This is an interesting, short read. This is a bit of a tangent but I'm fascinated with things that are just ideas (versus a physical / tech / engineering advancement) that can be a productive enhancement. Recently I've been thinking about blockchains and encryption and those are literally just ideas written down and made manifest through software, but that have an incredible economic impact on the world. Checklists are a bit similar - you wouldn't think that using a checklist can make such a profound increase in results, across so many industries, but here we are.

Some notes:

  • Thesis of the book is: when facing difficult, but well-defined and well-understood problems, centralizing power via highly directive checklists are the best way to go. However, when facing non-routine, novel, highly complex problems, you need to decentralize power entirely, allowing all team members to opine and contribute toward final solution.
  • Example of the latter as Wal-Mart's response to Katrina, where Wal-Mart mobilized effectivly and provided better a better humanitarian response in the US South than FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the storm. 
    • ... [the Wal-Mart CEO] issued a simple edict. "This company will respond to the level of this disaster. A lot of you [local store managers] are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing." ... Acting on their own authority, Wal-Mart's store managers began distributing diapers, water, baby formula, and ice to residents. Where FEMA still hadn't figured out how to requisition supplies, the managers fashioned crude paper-slip credit systems for first responders, providing them with food, sleeping bags, toiletries, and also, where available, rescue equipment. The assistant manager of a Wal-Mart store engulfed by a thirty-foot storm surge ran a bulldozer through the store, loaded it with any items she could salvage, and gave them all away in the parking lot. When a local hospital told her it was running short of drugs, she went back in and broke into the store's pharmacy - and was lauded by upper management for it.
  • After Guwande makes a safe-surgery checklist for the WHO, he sees that using it reduces surgery complication rates by 36 percent, and deaths by 47 percent. This is at the best hospitals in the world. All from just running through a list of 20 or so things every time, making sure that the full team knows that the routine stuff is done, and allowing a moment of decentralized power, where teams meet on a first name basis and are empowered to bring up any concerns they have, regardless of role power. Insane.
Read more, see author info, share ...
What Killer Whales Can Teach Us
David Neiwert
read on June 19, 2018

I read this book quickly over the summer, inspired by a trip out to the San Juan islands where we searched for, and eventually found, Orcas. I don't have much to say now, other than:

  • Orcas are incredible. They are smart, social creates with unique cultures. We could do well to understand them much better. They are ancient.
  • For 50 years we have tortured them, putting them in tanks hardly larger than their own bodies, to entertain us for profit.
  • The ones we haven't tortured, we are eradicating via environmental damage. We've completely ruined their main food source (salmon), and tanker traffic in the Pacific Northwest is additionally highly disruptive and dangerous. We are making no significant efforts to stem any of this impact.

So yeah, overall pretty depressing book about how callous and ignorant humans are, and how we're going to terminate this wonderful species for no real reason.

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Brief History of Tomorrow
Yuval Noah Harari
read on June 5, 2018

This was a fascinating book, which made very interesting points beyond the headline thesis that Harari thinks humans are moving towards developing a high-inequality super-species. Some bullets:

  • Max Plank quote: "Science advances one funeral at a time."
  • Very light, but interesting discussion on how society will change when people live longer. In contrast to the quote above, Harari comments on the rather obvious conclusion that as some people are able to extent their lives, income inequality will skyrocket, and innovation will broadly slow down.

For thousands of years, the scientific road to growth was blocked because people belived that old scriptures and ancient traditions already contained all the important knowledge the world had to offer. A corporation that believed all the oil fields in the world had already been discovered would not spend time and energy searching for oil. Similarly, a human culture that already beleived it knew everything worth knowing would not bother seraching for new knowledge. This was the position of most premodern  human civilizations. However, the scientific revolution freed humankind from this conviction. The greatest scientific discovery, was the discovery of ignorance.

 

  • Harari encapsulates social progress through time as such: Modernity is the exchange of meaning for power. This is still the case now; consciousness, free will, personal experience, brains, etc. Most poorly-understood phenomenon are still ascribed special (and often supernatural) meaning. As we progress, we will give away that meaning in exchange for more power. Once we understand more complex systems, these lose their meaning, but through our new understanding we can control them.
  • Part 3 is facinating. Narrative vs Experiential self. Peak/end average rule. Also references free will and illusion of self identity.
  • Idea that liberalism (dominance of individual liberties, expressed as democracy, capitalism) is a consequence of technology. In the 1700's, post industrial revolution, individuals came to matter more and more in the economy and on the battlefield. Because individual work is valuable, and became increasingly valuable, it came to make sense to give individuals democratic representation. How should we think about this as the 21st century unfolds, and individuals become increasingly less valuable as they are replace (in both the economy and military) by machines and algorithms? What new social philosophies (and/or religions) will replace liberalism? Is liberalism doomed? Interestingly, this book was published in 2016, just as the liberal world order fell.
  • Harari describes humanity and social structures in ways I haven't really seen before, and thought made a lot of sense - using religion as a term not necessarily about humans agreeing to worship a same god, but rather humans agreeing about how they want to organize themselves socially. He argues that 'humanism' itself is a religion in that it is an organizing principal around which individual experiences are the thing that matters, and that humanism will soon give way to Dataism, where personal experience is meaningless, and all that matters is the information attributable to that experience, and how that information is shared.

 

 

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Richard Rothstein
read on April 10, 2018

Rothstein's goal in The Color of Law is incredibly precise: to show how and why, since the ratification of the 14th amendment following the US civil war, racial segregation in US housing has not been de facto (reflecting the natural and free-market preferences of the people), but rather de jure (a consequence of unconstitutional US law and social policy). Rothstein is effective in doing this, and the book is a disgusting reflection of a sordid US history and present.

  • "Blockbusting" used to be a common practice, where (white) speculators would sell a white-neighborhood home to a black family, then scaremonger the remaining homeowners of a pending "Negro invasion" into selling their homes at highly below market rates (they would basically race each other out of the neighborhood). The speculators would buy the homes directly, and then turn around and sell them to black families at above-market rates, since housing was so highly demanded by blacks, and so poorly supplied. These blockbusters would literally hire black people and pay them to loiter in the neighborhood and cause trouble. This was not illegal.
  • Until about the 1950's the FHA/VA would not insure mortgages to blacks (full stop), nor to whites when buying homes in predominantly black communities. This blew my mind. It's hard to imagine how a court could not interpret this as a violation of the 14th amendment. This single item made it almost impossible for black families to own homes in the US until the 1950's. Not only did this policy segregate races into distinct neighborhoods, but it blocked blacks from accumulating wealth via home equity.
    • As a tangent, I was surprised to learn how hard it was even for whites to own homes during this time, even through the 30s. Mortgages used to be 50% down, interest only payments, with lump sum due 5-7 years later. This began to change with the FHA in the 30s/40s, and really changed during the 80s with Louis Ranieri. For all its downsides, mortgage securitization was, at a time, a very good thing.
  • City zoning ordinances allowed the outright blocking of black home ownership/rentals by zone. In black-zoned areas, cities also allowed industrial zoning, garbage dumps, bars, brothels, etc. They also allowed super high density and lot subdivision in black-zoned areas, leading to overpopulated slums, whereas white-zoned areas were single-family only.
  • Housing covenants (private agreements, similar to HOAs today) strictly limited POCs from owning or residing in homes, except as servants. This limited who you could even re-sell your home to.

Reading this book makes it so clear how little we've done since the civil war, and how far we still have to go. 

Read more, see author info, share ...
The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance
Jeff VanderMeer
read on March 3, 2018

All three of these books have fantastic covers, and the one for the full trilogy, shown here, is amazing. The series explores a biological phenomenon vs a system of control - this is remarkably well illustrated here, and I just adore the lack of all text (though, it is admittedly grandiose). "Area X" is itself a terrible name, so this is a really spectacular treatment. The US individual book covers were pretty good as well, but the UK versions are spectacular.

I started reading Area X about three years ago, while still living in Luxembourg. I really enjoyed the first few chapters, but knowing I was signing myself up for a three book marathon, I decided to bail and focus on more European history books that would give me better perspective of my limited time there. During those three years, the first few chapters of Annihilation stuck with me. The writing style was good, and the book was an interesting blend of mystery and biology. I wondered for years how things would turn out, what the nature of the tower would be, the writing on the wall, etc, etc.

Turns out, the whole thing was a mess. Annihilation was pretty good, but mainly in that it setup a lot of great plot points and mystery and intrigue that were just never and/or poorly executed on. It's goodness is actively undone by books 2 and 3. Authority (book 2) was garbage. Really bad. Reminded me of the (third?) book of War Against the Ctorr, where the writing style and characters are totally different, and it just absolutely kills the momentum built up earlier in the series. I was fine with the idea - in fact I really liked the concept, but the execution was off. Acceptance (book 3) was just a zero. It was very neutral, didn't answer anything, no big questions or big answers, and didn't really make me care more or less about anything. It seemed very much detached from the first book, and sprawled out in ways that weren't interesting. There was just never any payoff on the things that book 1 had gotten me vested in. Everything just moves on.

Overall, a big waste of time. I like sci-fi for its opportunity to pose big questions, thought experiments, etc. These books, particularly 2 and 3, don't execute well in any regard but the covers. I think Annihilation is itself a great stand-alone book, but it's really soured by the followups.

Read more, see author info, share ...
Naomi Alderman
read on February 10, 2018

This was a great book. Alderman did a great job communicating (often satirizing) the power imbalance between men and women today. The second chapter of the book nails this when a women shocks a man, probably for fun, as they are making out. The man feels totally vulnerable and betrayed - yet blames himself for getting into that situation, telling himself she probably didn't mean it, and refusing to tell others for fear of not being believed. These are super straightforward parables (parables?), but their obviousness does not make them any less effective. Most examples are more subtle, and it is disappointing and surprising how things you didn't realize were sexist become obviously sexist once the genders are switched. This is a perfect high-school-reading-list-book, if not for the graphic rape and torture scenes...

Back when I read the Hunger Games I was deeply disappointed with the ending. In The Power, Alderman executes the ending that I wished the Hunger Games (and most other generic fiction titles) had the gumption to do. Alderman demonstrates well how power changes people, and ultimately, corrupts. The power of the book is in showing that if women had physical dominance over men, that the world would actually be very similar, if not identical, to how it is today - but with gender's reversed. The conclusion is speculative, but its interesting to remove gender from sexism and view it exclusively as a power imbalance. And as a work of fiction, it's highly refreshing to have such moral ambiguity in the protagonists.

 

 

 

Read more, see author info, share ...
The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
Sam Quinones
read on February 15, 2018

Having moved back to the USA, I've got a backlist of books and topics that I want to get more educated on.  US history and social studies are broadly at the top of it, though I suspect I'll be reading much more fiction this year as well. (Hopefully, I'll be able to slide in a bit of European history as well, for old time's sake). "The Opioid Crisis" is something I've seen reference to for years, but has really ramped up the last 5 or so (mainly during the 2016 US election, as one of the only substantial topics that got attention prior to the cycle going full circus). Since I don't know anyone addicted to opioids, I had no context for this at all. Was it really as big a deal as I was hearing? If so, where? And why?

Turns out: Yes, everywhere, all the most obvious reasons. My interpretation of the key drivers are below, though the book isn't really framed this way.

  1. Purdue Pharma is an immoral dumpster fire operating in a capitalist system without regulation.
    1. Basically, this company created an opiate (Oxycontin) that they claimed was impossible to get addicted to, because of its patented slow-release system. Purdue pushed this claim super hard, and despite zero scientific evidence supporting it (famously there was a single 1-paragraph op-ed that supported this fact, which was [unbeknown by the author] cited as evidence for decades), it was accepted as gospel in the medical community. Anytime they got even a whiff of someone saying Oxy was addictive they would sue for defamation.
    2.  Nevermind that Oxy actually was easier to abuse that valium, because if you just dissolve the coating in water, or crush the pill and snort it, you can get the full hit of opium at once. (Valium and other opiates were mixed with other meds, like aspirin, which diluted the opium).
    3. Purdue lied about this for decades, and spent millions advertising Oxy to doctors, flying them out to expensive retreats, etc, getting them to prescribe it, which got people addicted to it.
    4. Purdue aggressively lobbied and advertised to enforce the growing idea that painlessness is a human right. Over decades, this changed perspective doctors had when treating patients, making sure to address pain first, and creating unrealistic expectations about recovery experiences.
  2. American health insurance systems are horrible, and don't incentivize recovery.
    1. Doctors were highly incentivized to just prescribe pain meds rather than actually heal patients (via diet, exercise, etc). They want to crank through as many patients as possible. Because Oxy was classified as a schedule 2 narcotic, you could only legally prescribe one month of pills at a time. For doctors, this effectively created a subscription based income stream. Prescribing Oxy meant that you'd have someone in your waiting room once a month - literally addicted to you. That person would need to pay $250, at least, for the appointment, (received either in cash from the addict or if applicable, the patient's health insurance - eventually these docs went all cash, because given their market demand, they didn't need to bother with insurance). This, of course, ultimately led to "pill mills" in the mideast, where doctors would see hundreds of patients per day, literally for only 30 seconds each, only to "evaluate" them and prescribe another month of Oxy. It was a racket. Only the least scrupulous doctors did it first, but after creating so much incentive for them to do it, no one should be surprised, and eventually most doctors did it. These doctors had thousands of patients, thousands of people they pushed Oxy on. And of course, when the addicts ran out of money for pills, their only choice was black tar heroin.
    2. Patients that qualified for medicaid could purchase monthly pills for a $3 medicaid copay. The pills they received cost the medicaid system $1,000 (which was paid to Purdue Pharma, courtesy of US taxpayers). The street value of the pills was $10,000. Imagine a system where, for a $3 copay, you can obtain a product worth $10,000, that customers are literally addicted to and dying to have. Who can be surprised at how terribly this would blow up?
  3. Other American institutions fueled it;
    1. Middle-class white families were too ashamed to discuss publicly what was happening. When their children died from heroin overdoses, they would tell friends and family that it was a car accident, or heart attack, or whatever made-up story. There are some remarkable passages in the book describing funerals where word gets out that it was a drug overdose, and all at once all the parents realize that they all have the same problem.
    2. In 2.2., above, people needed money to buy drugs from pill sellers, but didn't have cash. So they would steal from Walmart and pay with stolen goods. Or they would steal and then return the items without a receipt for store credit, and then trade store credit coupons (at ~50% face value) for pills. Eventually, Walmart started requiring a receipt even for store credit - so addicts hung out in parking lots looking for discarded receipts, and after finding them would steal whatever had been bought on that receipt. Hilarious story about how someone would go to the children's area of Walmart and grab the biggest box play-pen or slide or whatever, and just empty the box, and then wheel it around the store filling it full of DVD players - and then roll through checkout and just scan the box for the $20 slide and walk out the door. Nuts. Anyway, point being that Walmart employees were both oblivious and also totally un-vested in caring about this. They're making minimum wage and don't give a crap if stuff is stolen, and certainly aren't about to get in the way of a desperate addict. Whereas, if the US had smaller mom-and-pop stores that were locally owned and had more visibility, it would have been much harder to pull off such theft. Walmart became a de-facto midwest money laundering operation for pill addicts.
  4. (Distant fourth) Mexicans went to the central US and setup super efficient black tar heroin sales operations. They would deliver the drugs to users. They would be clean, and organized. They drove around with only a few small heroin balloons in their mouths that they would swallow if pulled over. They weren't greedy, and they weren't violent, and because of that it was about a decade before police realized the extent of the problem.

The book is entirely apolitical, but overall this was highly educational and a disgusting expose of how screwed up core American institutions are. Advocates against heavy-handed government regulation are always quick to point out how burdensome red tape can deter innovation, be bad for jobs, etc, etc, etc, but seem blind to the tens of thousands of lives lost and ruined for generations to come due to entirely avoidable crises like this one.

Additional reference:

WaPo Article 2018

Read more, see author info, share ...
The Volkswagen Scandal
Jack Ewing
read on January 21, 2018

The Volkswagen Scandal can be broadly broken into four parts, each worse than the last:

  1. The manufacture of diesel engines that did not meet EPA standards according to US law (these engines emitted up to 35x the legal limit of highly toxic nitrous oxide gas).
  2. The intentional design and implementation of a "defeat device" that would temporarily lower engine performance (and resulting emission levels) when it was detected that the car was being tested for emissions. This device allowed the diesel cars in 1) to pass inspection and be sold in the USA. The sole purpose and intention of the device was to evade US law.
  3. The  egregious marketing of these cars as "clean diesel", and as environmentally responsible.
  4. Upon discovery of the deception, the systemic denial, obstruction, and attempted cover-up of VW management.

The book digs into the details of what happened, but all of it was pretty cleanly summarized in the Statement of Facts that VW eventually had to cop to. It really was a disgusting corruption, and I'm convinced from reading it that I'll never buy a VW/subsidiary car. Some of the more interesting discussion in the book was theorizing what led to such corruption... what led so many people to act so terribly? In most cases you can pretty easily trace a straight line from an outcome like this back to a system of incentives that caused it (e.g., stock bonues, sales targets, etc). That's partially the case here - but there was nothing particularly unique about VW in this respect as from other car companies. Everyone has stock bonuses and sales targets - everyone would love to lie and juice results and get away with it. But VW somehow had/has a really poison corporate culture that doesn't respect the law, or didn't fear being caught. I wish the book had focused a bit more on that, and sought to understand better the first-principals that led to the eventual result. How did the culture get so tolerant of that? How can those lessons be applied broadly to other orgs? Ewing gives some brief thoughts here, with comments around the concentrated control of VW by very few family shareholders, and no diversity on their board at all. A great jumping-off point for a discussion that never fully developed.

Other items:

  • Quite surprised the emissions standards in the EU were looser than the US. While VW was definitely against the spirit of the law in the EU, they never explicitly broke the letter. In the EU, car manufacturer's are allowed to over-emit pollutants when they determine, in their sole opinion, that they're doing so to "protect the engine".
  • Big surprise: no one has gone to jail, all the executives got giant bonuses, the stock has totally recovered (and then some). I.e., nothing at all has changed.
Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Andy Weir
read on January 12, 2018

Meh. This book was super vanilla. I've been reading fantastic fiction lately, which really makes the flaws in this book stand out. It's super predictable, the characters are shallow, they don't develop at all, and the writing is just very ... normal? I don’t know - nothing really stood out here at all. I’m sure they’ll make this into a movie eventually, and by the time it comes out I’ll have forgotten everything about it.

I don’t really remember The Martian well enough to do a fair comparison, but I seem to remember the writing in that book being a bit more creative and unusual.

This was dissapointing.

Read more, see author info, share ...
A Novel
Gabriel Tallent
read on January 12, 2018

This book is so well written that me trying to say anything about it is just foolish.

I am a girl things go badly for. 

It is about damaged people. 

You are supposed to come to the door and believe that hell awaits just on the other side, believe that this house is full of nightmares; every personal demon you have, every worst fear. That’s what you stalk through this house. That’s what waits for you down the hallway. Your worst fucking nightmare. Not a cardboard cutout. Practice conviction, kibble, strip yourself of hesitation and doubt, train yourself to an absolute singularity of purpose, and if you ever have to step through a door into your own personal hell, you will have a shot, a shot at survival.

At times it is very dark, and sad, and depressing, and sometimes it's very uncomfortable to read. But it's also inspiring and happy and joyful and uplifting.

She switchbacks through myrtles and rusty fronds. She comes into the rocky creek and wades up it, her feet numb with cold. The trees rise blackly into the star-glittered vault. She thinks, I will go back now. Back to my room. I have promised and promised and promised and he cannot bear to lose me. To the east, the stream shines glassy from out the riotous dark. She stands breathing, taking in the silence for a very long time. Then she goes.

The prose is unbelievable. 

Turtle climbs out of slaughterhouse gulch and comes into a forest of bishop pine and huckleberries, deciphering them in the darkness by the wax of the leaves and the brittle mess of their sprawl, the dawn still hours away. At times she breaks from the woods into moonlit open places filled with rhododendron, their flowers pink and ghostly in the dark, their leaves leathery and prehistoric. There is a part of Turtle that she keeps shut up and private, that she attends to with only a diffuse and uncritical attention, and when Martin advances on this part of herself, she plays him a game of tit for tat, retreating wordlessly and almost without regard to consequences; her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him — and there are silent, lonely moments when this part of her seems to open like some night-blooming flower, drinking in the cold of the air, and she loves this moment, and loving it, she is ashamed, because she loves him, too, and she should not thrill this way, should not thrill to his absence, should not need to be alone, but she takes this time by herself anyway, hating herself and needing it, and it feels so good to follow these trackless ways through the huckleberries and the rhododendrons.

This is the best novel I've ever read.  I never wanted to stop reading it. Not necessarily because it's gripping, or because I wanted to know what happened next, but because the act of reading it was so effortless and compelling and rewarding. The best way I can describe it is that most of the time reading feels like my brain is pulling words out of the book, doing work to lift them from the pages and into my brain for processing and comprehension. Reading My Absolute Darling had the effect of the words being siphoned out of the book and directly into my head - once it was started, gravity did all of the of the work. If anything, the work for me became a struggle of making enough room in my head for the words to fit, faster and faster and faster until the book was done.

Read more, see author info, share ...