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2019 book stats
19 books started
18 books finished
7,454 pages read
73% digital
30% fiction
43% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About
Bruce Perry
read on December 5, 2019

This was really good - a book a bit in the Oliver Sacks' style of one-anecdote-per-chapter, each focusing on a case when severe abuse (often from neglect rather than a more active abuse) on a child led to catastrophic consequences to their development and behaviors as an adult. Each of the cases were very interesting. I did get the slight impression that Perry had a "when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail" mentality though. I mean, it's his book, so it makes sense that the examples he used here were cherry picked as the clearest and most compelling, but he very much struck me a bit as though he though all personality disorders and/or deviant behavior stem from early childhood abuse. In terms of "nature vs nurture", he leans super hard on the nurture. When doing an evaluation (in the book), he never really thinks about running a cat scan, or inquiring about other genetic or physical predispositions. I found this odd, but again, his book. Overall, super interesting and a great companion to Sacks.

One tidbit that stuck with me: the resting heartrate of the Waco Devidian Children was 160! Wow.

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Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street: The New York Times bestseller Bill Gates calls 'the best business book I've ever read'
John Brooks
read on December 9, 2019

This was fine. That's it. It was interesting but much longer than it needed to be. I'd rather just read a few HBR cases. I put it down. It's not bad at all, just wasn't compelling for me. Perhaps I wasn't in the right headspace, but I expected much more.

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The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger
Rebecca Traister
read on November 5, 2019

Traister explores how women have been limited in their ability to express anger. For men it makes them effective and heroic, but angry women are portrayed as unhinged and hysterical. Traister explores the history here, and it is disgusting and depressing and somehow (for me) both entirely expected and yet surprisingly worse than I thought. I first heard of Traister and this book when she went on Ezra Klein's podcast. That interview aligned with Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, and frankly it would be hard to distill a more essential and comprehensive single example of what she was trying to describe. This book is raw and hard to read, and that's coming from someone with zero direct experience of ever actually having to tolerate and navigate this bullshit every day, every decision, every reaction.

I can't refute anything in this book, and am not looking for reason to do so. But Traister did have me thinking about anger as a catalyst for action, and if anger is a vice or virtue. Anger is easy, and almost always myopic and focused on the short term. Trump used anger, and stoked anger among his base, in order to win an election. I think it's correct and incredibly important to recognize how and why women & POCs have been disallowed to be angry in public and to use it as a tool - but I don't think that that injustice is necessarily evidence that it should be used more. Women should, of course, be allowed to be angry in exactly whatever capacity men are permitted to be angry. But I'm not convinced that anger should de-facto be advocated for as a driver of action. Why shouldn't we think that anger will be just as effective when used (by women) against women? That isn't to say that I think Traister is wrong about anything here - I do not think her position is that there should be more anger in the world. One cannot seriously propose a policy position that humans no longer be angry, but one can reasonably expect and hope that all people be treated equally.

I need to comment on it, because the cover to this book is horrible. So bad that it kept me from reading the book for much longer than I probably otherwise would have. I doubt Traister had anything to do with it (covers are typically entirely controlled by the publisher), but even so it seems perfectly aligned with the book, in the sense that Traister isn't here to be cute and "(doesn't) fucking care if I like it."

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Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
John Carreyrou
read on November 3, 2019

A very interesting narrative about the brief history of Theranos. The book isn't short, but was a super-fast read. I know that I saw several headlines about this when the whole thing unraveled in early 2018, but overall I was a bit struck by how little the whole event had fallen on my radar. I had never heard of Theranos before its undoing, and even then, maybe only at the highest level.

Anyway, a few points:

  • The book is quite harsh on Elizabeth Holmes (who did not cooperate/participate with it), and paints her to essentially be an entitled sociopath (psychopath?). She lies effortlessly. Carreyrou paints it in a selfish light, that she was chasing money, fame, power, etc - but it's not clear that she is willfully committing fraud. That is, I think there is some light there where she truly does believe that she's going to change the world for the better, and if she needs to crack a few eggs to do so then so be it.
  • Holmes obsession with becoming a successful startup CEO is just weird. The way she emulates Jobs is unnerving. Carreyrou speculates in the book that she purposefully spoke in a lower, "less feminine" voice in order to be taken more seriously. I mean, to give her credit, she was singularly focused on achieving success and willing to do whatever it took.
  • Theranos was just never a real company. At no point in its history could it do what it said it was doing. It was just a massive fraud from top to bottom, kept together by Holmes' total control of the organization and unwillingness to let anyone see too many moving parts at once.
  • Theranos' BOD was stacked. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Jim Mattis. Holmes had incredible connections (Clintons and Obamas as well). Yet no one had done any diligence at all on the company.
  • Especially after just finishing Catch and Kill, this book makes you appreciate whistleblowers and investigative journalism all the more. Theranos pulled no punches in trying to intimidate and punish anyone who dared be critical of them or leak to the press. They had crazy NDAs, and would sue the shit out of anyone that glanced sideways. I'm sure the company would have unwound eventually, but they tried like hell to stop it and it took incredible courage for the whistleblowers to come forward.
  • Lastly, the completely unexpected silver lining here was a story about Rupert Murdoch, of all people. Murdoch had a $125M investment in Theranos, which was reportedly the largest non-media investment of his life. Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, where Carreyrou worked and broke the story that Theranos was a fraud. Prior to publication Holmes reached out to him and asked him to kill the story, but he refused to intervene. His position was that he trusted his editors and that if there was no "there" there, then they both had nothing to worry about. In retrospect (knowing that that Theranos was a giant scam) this doesn't seem that impressive. But a priori, Theranos was a $10B tech darling with two former Secretaries of State on the board, all vehemently denying any wrongdoing. And Murdoch had $125M on the line. In stark contrast to NBC leadership in Catch and Kill, it was fantastic to see him step aside and let the cards fall. He ended up taking a total loss on his investment.
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Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
Ronan Farrow
read on October 27, 2019

This is not a hopeful book. I thought that it was primarily about the Harvey Weinstein allegations that Farrow broke last year in the New Yorker - and it sort of is, tangentially. I would say there are several focuses of the book:

  • Retelling the Weinstein story, and what a criminal shitbag he is.
  • The narrative around Farrow's investigation of that story, which he was originally doing at NBC but which NBC slow-played for months before eventually killing on the basis of not being newsworthy enough. (Farrow subsequently shopped it to The New Yorker, which took it up immediately, and for which Farrow was awarded the Pulitzer prize).
  • Of course, it was revealed the Weinstein had back-channels with NBC management, whom he was encouraging to kill the story.
  • NBC itself had a culture of not giving a shit about women, or allegations of rape or misconduct, particularly when such allegations were made against personalities that were making the network money.
  • Farrow alleges, convincingly, that NBC killed his Weinstein story primarily because they did not want to encourage the skeletons coming out of their own closet - primarily that they had been willfully enabling Matt Lauer to harass and rape pretty much whoever he wanted for years.

Its a great book, told very well. I think that Farrow particularly does a good job empathizing with the victims, describing the effect that these events had on their lives. The guilt and shame of being victimized, the powerlessness to do anything about it, the uncertainty of its effects on their professional future, etc.

It also provides an interesting window into power structures, and understanding what power does to a person (or perhaps, in describing the kind of person who is attracted to such power). I often thought back to The Psychopath Test - I'd put very good money that Weinstein and Lauer are indeed psychopathic to some extent.

Anyway, it's a kick in the ass and should be read by everyone, but its terribly hard not to feel like shit afterwords. To date, none of these people have gone to jail or faced what I would call consequences of any meaningful significance, and it seems increasingly unlikely that any of them will. I'm obviously glad the book was written, and is getting the attention that it is, but it seems like such a tiny, tiny step in the right direction. Ugh.

 

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A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
read on October 23, 2019

Great book that pokes around a lot of corners of US history that I hadn't known about before. Immerwahr looks at US colonial/empiric history and tries to explain how and why it developed as it did. Unsurprisingly, the general theme is that the US has tended to do whatever is most beneficial to the interests of its white ruling class - and that incidentally those interests over the last 100 years have had less and less to do with the occupation of foreign territory. I thought a lot of the history was really interesting, especially having just returned from a trip to Singapore and gotten a taste there of recent colonial impact. I remain fascinated by the territory to statehood process, and why that succeeded for places like Hawaii and Alaska but not Guam or Phillipeans or Puerto Rico. 

A few random notes:

  • Pearl harbor (Dec 7, 1941) was actually a small part of the coordinated attack that took place that day by the Japanese against UK and US territories. Also attacked Guam, Midway, Phillipeans, Malaya, Singapore. For most, the Japanese subsequently occupied those places as well. Hawaii wasn't even a state at this time, and it was a legit political question whether/how to frame it as an attack against America.
  • Cherokee Nation was an actual nation for some time, with a president! They tried to send senators to US congress but surprise the white dudes weren't having it.
  • American expansionist empire started with a few islands off of Peru in effort to collect bird droppings (guano) to use as fertilizer in mainland. These acquisitions fueled American agriculture for decades.
  • The expansionary trilemma: In order to expand US territory (on and offshore), Americans needed to pick two of three values: empiricism, republicanism, and white supremecay. The fact is, no one wanted to expand outward if it meant taking in non-white people and equal American citizens. But Roosevelt had such a boner for Daniel Boone's mythology that they pressed on with Empiricism regardless, and just never gave the people in territories any rights. I.e., we abandoned republicanism in deference to the other two values. That remains the case today. 4 million people (primarily on Puerto Rico, Guam, USVI) are natural American citizens, but can't vote and have no representation in congress.  
  • The SCOTUS "Insular Cases" at turn of the 20th century ruled that the US constitution only applies to US states - not territories. This is still considered good law, but speaks volumes that this precedent was set by the same SCOTUS that ruled Plessy v Ferguson.
  • After the Phillipean war in the early 1900's (America's longest war until Afganistan), there was less energy for further imperialist expansion. This is primarily because it was replaced with Dollar Imperialism, where instead of taking over an area and assuming the overheard that comes with management of the unwanted (i.e., non-white) people, the USGov could make treaties so as to essentially have economic control of an area without all the baggage.
  • WW2 in Phillipeans was most destructive event to ever occur on us soil.  1.6m Phillipeans (US nationals) killed.
  • No US president said the word "global" until FDR after WW2. It wasn’t common vernacular until then, as the idea of global anything just didn't make sense.
  • Interesting discussion of colonialism in terms of raw materials. E.g., the US was out of rubber in 30's FDR imposes a nationwide 35mph speed limit in order to conserve tires, and desperatly needed to trade for it. This rubber trade had driven a lot of prior European expansion into Africa and APAC. (Hitler invested massively in German petrochemical companies in order to produce synthetics to replace the raw materials that Germany didn't control). In the early 40s the US cracked it and found how to synthesize rubber. Immediately after, 90% of all us rubber was synthetic. Like guano earlier, once this was figured out, no longer needed to trade or colonize for.
    • Plastic blew the doors open in this regard. Funny that very first plastic was to replace ivory billiard balls. WW2 drove plastic R&D into overdrive, as we needed all kinds of substitute synthetics.
  • US today has ~800 offshore military bases. All other countries combined have ~30. US today has ~4M naturalized citizens of this country living in Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, etc - who can't vote and have no representation in congress.

Did colonialism and Empire ever end? Immerwahr argues no, and that it only slightly changed. Tech developments during the 1900's rendered old-school colonialism less relevant. The airplane, e.g., made it no longer necessary to control huge swaths of land, and drove colonialism to become more pointilist. Same with the telegraph, and then radio and satellites. Post WW2 globalism shattered the need - particularly the spread of English globally, and US-led standards across industry.

 

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A Novel
Olga Tokarczuk
read on September 3, 2019

This book came exceptionally well reviewed from Bookmarks, but not quite deservedly so in my opinion. It's good, fine. I appreciated the writing style (translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarcczuk has a unique, poetic voice), but never quite connected with the narrative in the sense that I needed to read more. It filled the time while relaxing in Singapore, and on the flight back, but I don't expect to think about it much in the future.

I did surprisingly appreciate the focus on astrology, and found the main character (an astrology devotee) surprisingly likable despite that affliction. If anything, I didn't quite grasp onto the threads of "does free will exist - was she destined to live out this narrative in this way?" insomuch as I was thinking "is this women in fact insane, and is her obsession with astrology proof-positive?". The astrology is strong evidence in favor, but her awareness and empathy towards all living things was a strong counterpoint that no, it's just the rest of us that are monsters.

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A novel
Tommy Orange
read on August 20, 2019

Reading this book was interesting insofar as it made me really realize how little I empathize with Native Americans, and particularly how little I really think about the current condition of Native Americans and their cultural preservation as apart from the condition and overall well being of Americans as a whole. That is, I more frequently think about Natives in a strictly historical context - something that happened exclusively in the past - not something that is happening today.

There There doesn't explicitly focus on historical injustices - it highlights the stories of some 20-or-so Native Americans through an interconnected narrative, but it is (naturally) impossible to present their lives without seeing the consequences our history has wrought. I actually enjoyed the few interludes best, where the author speaks directly, rather through the narrative of the characters.

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like "sore losers" and "move on already," "quit playing the blame game." But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they're winning when they say "Get over it." This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that's how you know you're on board the ship that serves hors d'oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who've never even heard of the words hors d'oeuvres or fluff.

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The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Steven Pinker
read on July 21, 2019

Reading this book is, by and large, an exercise in frustration. I've never been more upset or annoyed while reading arguments and data that I mainly agree with. Pinker is such an asshole that even when I agree with him I'm upset about it. There is 570+ pages of data, the great majority of which I suspect is honestly gathered and presented, but the editorializing around the data is so inane and fragrantly, obnoxiously stupid that it really raised my heart rate to read a lot of it.

His 570+ pages pretty much breaks down to this:

  • For the last 10,000 years, including and especially the last ~300 years, the world has been getting better by every single measurement available to us.
  • This is attributed to the continued expansion of (lower case) liberal/progressive ideals, epitomized by the European Enlightenment movement. These ideals are Reason and Humanism.
  • There is no reason to suspect that these trends will stop.
  • Ergo, keep calm and carry on.

I really cannot believe that Bill Gates called this his favorite book of all time. I had three major issues with the book.

What is good?

Pinker does not appropriatly ground the book in a moral foundation of good vs bad. How do we know that things are getting better if we don't formally define this? Who are they getting better for? He doesn't ignore this topic entirely - particularly around a discussion of inequality, he does address the conceptual value of good for few vs good for many. But he never takes this head on. One of the first chapters is about life expectancy; for most of human history life expectancy has been around 30 years. Today it's in the mid-70s and still rising. He claims this is good, but does not build a foundation upon which to defend that claim. Sure, I personally don't want to die soon, but I sure as shit don't want everyone else to live forever either. Why is longevity objectively good? Is Pinker's barometer for success just total mass of human consciousness? Is exploding population objectively good? I often think back to The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, especially around discussions like this one, and wonder what would happen if humans discovered a free source of infinite energy here on Earth? Pinker's arguments in this book suggest it would be a massive win. I'm not convinced.

Survivorship bias

All Pinker's charts are well and good, but it's hard to see this book being written any other way. Assuming they had the data available, someone could have written a very similar book in 1700. At that time, all the metrics that all the educated people cared about were also getting better. But we can all agree today that 1700 was a shit show, right? I mean, doesn't it without saying that for the people alive in the world today, on average, things are going better than ever? All the other people are dead! There was no chart in this book about how ivory billed woodpeckers or Native Americans are doing better than ever before. History is written by the winners, and Pinker is the winner. His obliviousness to this is maddening.

Existential Threats

Not surprisingly, Pinker is hyper myopic about how awesome the future is going to be, and completely brushes off any existential threats to our species, Fermi be damned. Pinker is an idiot on climate change. He seems to say that everything is getting better, and that we're right on the cusp of solving it - but given that it is a existential problem, I'm not sure this is a gamble to be optimistic about. How much genetic diversity will be permanently lost because of us, and how morally reprehensible is that? I appreciate that Pinker seems focused on actual, plausible solutions, but he should respect this problem much more than he does.

Two Interesting Ideas

I did like two topics that came up in the book. First, in a few places Pinker dances around ideas of path determination. I.e., are the shitty parts of our history necessary to get to where we are today? Is religion (and religious war) a pre-requisite to enlightenment? Was feudalism necessary to get to capitalism? Is human slavery necessary to get to more widespread economic freedom? Pinker never touches this directly, but it is an interesting subtext that I'd love to see a more capable author discuss. Second, Pinker references several interesting papers from DM Kahan that remind me of Haidt and that I'd like to check out.

Quotes

Most annoyingly, the conclusion of all of this (while never stated explicitly) is: carry on. Stop Worrying. We're doing great. Things are getting better. Things will keep getting better. He reinforces this idea by condescendingly dismissing arguments that would say otherwise. For example:

Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief.

No, you asshole. One can be simultaneously aware of conditions in the past being horrible, as well as things today being bad. Just because we effectively enslaved and murdered the poor in the past doesn't mean today we're doing awesome. Or:

The left tends to be sympathetic to yet another movement that subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem. The romantic Green movement sees the human capture of energy not as a way of resisting entropy and enhancing human flourishing but as a heinous crime against nature, which will exact a dreadful justice in the form of resource wares, poisoned air and water, and civilization-ending climate change. Our on salvation is to repent, repudiate technology and economic growth, and revert to a simpler and more natural way of life.

Here's another bullshit sarcastic comment:

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don't need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space.

Another, though, interesting:

A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled life spans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts.

This is just the worst:

The epitome of environmental insults is the oil spill from tanker ships... and few people are aware that seaborne oil transport has become vastly safer. Figure 10-5 shows that the annual number of oil spills has fallen from more than a hundred in 1973 to just five in 2016. The graph also shows that even as less oil was spilled, more oil was shipped; the crossing curves provide additional evidence that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth.

A free market schmuck. I mean, the below is just so willfully ignorant of the other social-economic factors at play (incumbency, barriers to entry, etc). 

An energy source that is cheaper, denser, and cleaner than fossil fuels would sell itself.

On progress on racism and equal rights:

Contrary to the fear that the rise of Trump reflects (or emboldens) prejudice, the curves continue their decline through his period of notoriety in 2015-2016 and inauguration in early 2017.

On social media:

Users of social media have more close friends, express more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved. And notwithstanding the rumor that they are drawn into an anxious competition to keep up with the furious rate of enjoyable activities of their digital faux-friends, social media users do not report higher levels of stress than non-users.

On existential threats:

The fundamental fact of the nuclear age is that no atomic weapon has been used since Nagasaki.

Generally, I really enjoy reading smart people I disagree with. It's a very helpful practice to try to understand, in good faith, why other people think different things than you. Pinker really burns that theory to the ground. Pinker writes as though he is trolling liberalism. Ostensibly he defends liberal values, but then he shits all over them with horrid, broken logic masked as intellectualism. Ug. I often really got angry at him, and the book was terribly frustrating to read.

While finding quotes and notes for my own review I came across this in Current Affairs, which is the best analysis of Pinker I've ever read, and I agree with pretty much every word.

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm never wasting another minute of my attention on Pinker.

 

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Heike Geissler
read on July 30, 2019

I suspect, but don't really recall, that I first heard about this book in The New Yorker, and I was much looking forward to "a labor memoir for the Amazon era." Amazon has taken its lumps over the last decade, particularly from investigative pieces from Mother Jones, for having horrible working conditions in FCs (i.e., grossly negligent and deadly, allegedly). I've read those articles, but was interested in hearing a longer form account of the experience of working there.

Surprisingly, I didn't find too much here. Seasonal Associate is not an expose about inhumane working conditions at Amazon in particular, I think it was more a criticism of blue-collar unspecialized labor more broadly. I'm not making excuses for Amazon - Geissler's experience sounded terrible. She is more or less dehumanized, turned into a commodity cog in a large machine, and pushed to be as efficient as possible. She does not receive any special comforts, and is generally reminded at every turn (implicitly and explicitly) that she is replaceable. The book is a (lightly fictionalized) chronicle of trying to keep her sanity in such an environment; the little things that she thinks about during the work day, the workplace gossip she invents (not being able to have long/meaningful interactions with other employees), small acts of resistance against the corporation in order to feel like something greater than she's been made to be, and observations of general corporate ineptitude and inefficiency.

Geissler doesn't excoriate Amazon here. I wouldn't even say she attacks Amazon. This is no Mother Jones. Geissler doesn't place blame on Amazon for the way things are, rather, she acknowledges that this just is the way things are, and laments it. This is what it's like doing menial labor in the 21st century. This is how far we've come, this is what we're worth.

You thread the locker key onto a ribbon and hang it around your neck. You carry the luminous vest in one hand, not putting it on right away. That's your sign of not belonging, a small luxury that interests no one, an act for which you'll soon have no time.

Anything you could possibly want from this company, you'd have to tell the company's customers and make them understand. You'd have to win the company's customers over to your side to get paid for the training day, but just you try getting hold of them all.

Anyway, 75 percent of the customers would probably respond to your request to get paid for the training day with: Why? I didn't get paid for my training day either.

The opening of the book, below, is stone-cold. It really is the essence boiled all the way down.

Is all this a matter of life and death? I'll say no for the moment and come back to the question later. At that point, I'll say: Not directly, but in a way yes. It's a matter of how far death is allowed into our lives. To be precise: compared to that which kills us, death is nothing but an innocent waif. Or: death, compared to that which kills us, is a gentleman with good manners and a shy look in his eye.

 

From now on, that which kills us is your constant companion; that much I can say.

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Madeline Miller
read on June 5, 2019

This was fine. I'm not terribly familiar with Greek mythology - I was likely assigned Homer in high school, but don't think I ever actually read beyond the Spark Notes synopses. I'm generally familiar with some of the bigger gods, as well as some of the more famous stories around the Trojan War, but that's about it. My understanding is that Miller has chosen Circe, something of a bit player in the larger tableau of the mythology, and built out a proper biography for her. Unfortunately for me, I have no real understanding of what is canonical and what Miller's additions were - which I assume lead to a lack of appreciation.

Regardless, the prose in the book was delightful. Miller's language was detailed and evoked the style of Greek poetry without losing me with run on sentences. The book was very enjoyable, but I don't suspect I'll remember too much. Even now, a few weeks later, large pieces already seem to be missing.

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A Journey Through the Madness Industry
Jon Ronson
read on May 15, 2019

Ronson's schtick is writing about interesting, different people - a kind of laymans Oliver Sacks. But what he does exceedingly well is to go a step further than just a clinical analysis of an individual (though, he does this well also). Ronson's strength is how he puts these unique people in context of society, and describe the effect they have on others at large.

In The Psychopath Test, Ronson starts by exploring the nature and some history of psychopathy, with the obvious extreme examples in mass murderers, serial killers, etc. But the book quickly pivots to an exploration of more functional psychopaths - the CEOs, the bankers, the titans of politics and industry, military leaders, and how the mental conditions traditionally tied to psychopathy lead to success in those other contexts, and how psychopathy more broadly has changed society at large. The driving force in the book is Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, which Ronson uses somewhat humorously to examine himself and seemingly everyone else he meets. The highlight for me was his interview with Al Dunlap of Sunbeam infamy.

This ultimately leads to its own undoing. Ronson scrutinizes this method of diagnosis-via-checklist and briefly explores other ways that the practice generally leads to other terrible consequences - e.g., how so many children are now classified as bipolar, or ADHD, etc. 

Ronson's humor, borne mainly from his own crippling internal anxiety (either that he himself is a psychopath, or that he is doing something terrible by labeling others as such) is great. His genuine fascination with eccentric people is compelling. I always enjoy his books, though this one came in several notches below Them. Oddly, this is the first Ronson book I ever wanted to read - it's incredible cover put it on my wishlist right as it was published, but it took me a decade to finally get to it.

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Rebecca Makkai
read on April 6, 2019

This book was profoundly sad and eye opening. I knew that AIDS was a crisis in a strictly academic sense. Which, I don't mean to make sound like I was well-informed academically about it, I absolutely wasn't, but I mean that I knew it was bad, I knew that it started in the 80's and that for a long time was a death sentence, and I knew it particularly affected homosexual communities (particularly early on). But I had never in my life given any thought at all to what the experience of living in that time, in those communities was like.

Makkai conveys the humanist experience of AIDS in a deeply affecting way. Particularly, the crossroads of the gay experience when, at a time in history where (really for the first time) it is becoming just tolerable to exist, to be out, to live and love and actually be optimistic about a future where you aren't ashamed of who you are - right then - a horrible virus begins arbitrarily infecting and killing everyone you know. What is that like? How did that feel at the time, before anyone understood the disease? Before there was any practical treatment for it? What is the experience of being positive? Of loving someone who is? Of surviving?

It's hard to read, and I'm ashamed to have never really thought about societal impact that AIDS had. This is a beautiful book, written perfectly. 

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Michelle Obama
read on April 17, 2019

I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."

Can you imagine any other person writing that line about the White House? I mean, damn.

Becoming is really two books. The first is about Michelle Obama's lower-middle-class upbringing, and her path up through Ivy League undergrad and then law schools, and ending up as an IP lawyer. I was honestly a bit surprised at her starting point - I figured anyone going to Princeton and then Harvard was either rich or connected, but she just worked her ass off and got into incredible debt. Her internal struggle with the IP work was interesting too. She never got into the details on the finances - but it was clear that when she left her good-money lawfirm job to go work at city hall, that she had a whole lot of debt left and was taking a big risk in order to do more fulfilling work.

The second part of the book is about Barack and politics. Here, I was surprised at how consistently and explicitly she's disliked politics. From the beginning she didn't want Barack to do it, and thought that together they could create more positive change in other areas (via private or non-profit work). She never admits to being wrong about this, and while she's obviously very proud of the work that both she and Barack did while in office, I wonder if she suspects that she was right the whole time (particularly now, as much of their work is undone by the current administration).

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot. It does a good job describing the almost-overnight transition from normal person to 1st family, as well as the trappings of the White House itself. (E.g., when living there it's a huge secret service hassle to even get outside, or even get fresh air at all).

I also thought it was interesting that Obama is an outspoken feminist, but has adhered to very stereotypical gendered roles. She is hyper-focused on her role as a mother and largely abandoned her personal career and interests in order for her husband to do what he wanted. Whereas, her description of Barack is certainly one of a loving husband and father, but one who (with very small exceptions) always prioritized his career and constituents above his own family. She was often frustrated by this, but didn't go into as much detail on the topic as I would have been interested to read.

More than anything, Obama presents herself and her husband as overwhelmingly decent people - highly intelligent and ambitious - good people who overcame massive odds and yet are directing their passion and energy at trying to make the world a better place for all. It was terribly sad to read, because juxtaposed against the current administration and headlines of the day, you long for a return to this kind of normalcy where leaders are admired for their intelligence and decency, even if you disagree with their particular politics. But here also lies the biggest fault of the book. I understand this is the personal memoir of the First Lady and not a political discourse, but no discussion of the Obama administration - even from this perspective - seems complete without some kind of reconciliation on how we got from there to here. What happened in 2015/2016 that sent us so off-course? I tend to flip-flop on how much I think the outgoing administration could have done, and who holds responsibility. There are many defensible interpretations. But Obama's read of the situation is entirely in the vein of "and then this surprising exogenous event happened", rather than "and then we totally dropped the ball", which makes sense, but is too incomplete.

 

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The Bankers Who Broke the World
Liaquat Ahamed
read on April 27, 2019

This book is a history of modern monetary policy, from about 1900 to 1950. Prior to this time, there really wasn't much monetary policy at all. Coinage and notes existed, but almost always only to the extent that they were backed by some physical commodity in reserve, most commonly gold. This is insane, but generally worked for a few reasons. First, because economic growth coincidentally tended to track well with the amount of gold that was being mined, expanding the money supply as the economy grew; and second, because people at that time just needed to believe that money needed physical backing. You can make all the academic arguments you want about the necessity of the gold standard - but at the end of the day no bank or government would have been taken seriously on the world stage without it. There simply was not no historical precedent for a currency without backing to garner trust and hold value. Un-backed currency was seen as a license to inflate, the last ditch effort of despots clinging to power.

Other notes:

  • "An petite coup de whiskey". In August 1927 NY Fed president Strong agreed to reduce US interest rates by 0.5% (down to 3%) in an attempt to stabilize and value of the British pound, which had stagnated due to their gold peg. Strong said that in doing so, he'd give a shot of whiskey to the US stock market, which was already doing gangbusters. Indeed, that same month the market quickly grew, and 6 months later Strong reversed the decision. However, the 6 month relaxation in rates is widely credited as the match that sparked the US bubble, whose popping in 1929 led to the Great Depression.
  • Coolidge was heavy into pumping up the market during his administration. He left in early 1929, and Hoover inherited a bubble. Hoover was a known skeptic and had publicly said that market was in a bubble. Once POTUS, he didn't know how to responsibly communicate the same without ending up being the fall guy who undermined market confidence. Poor guy. Coolidge sounds like a real asshole, and Hoover was hemmed in by the prior policy. When disaster hit, Hoover didn't have the the political support nor the instinct and fortitude to a) go off gold and b) shut down banks to stop runs. Doing neither, he oversaw the Depression.
  • Americans tried to bleed Germany w/reparations. We pushed the hard, and refused to grant debt forgivness to them or to our other debtors (UK, France), who respectively needed to bleed Germany in order to pay us. Had we just written this off, their depression, and thus WW2 would likely have been avoided. In the end, we never got what we want anyway - total reparations paid was only about 4 of 32B dollars.
  • Generally, central bankers did not perform the basic functions we think of today as central banking. They pushed to remain on the gold standard, and fought deflationary economic depressions with austerity. All the while, Keynes was screaming into the void that they were doing it wrong.
  • The US left the gold standard in 1933 to stop deflation and get out of the great depression. [Note that the US Treasury did continue converting USD to gold upon request for other nations until the early 70's. I would have appreciated a distinction in this book about to what extent that obligation continuing to hamstring us to gold, but it was not discussed in the book].
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Poverty and Profit in the American City
Matthew Desmond
read on February 28, 2019

This was a really great book, not only about poverty, but about the relationship between the rich and the poor. About how poverty is a way of life, not a metric, or a temporary condition. The book tracks several families and people in Milwakee in the early 2010s, but there's nothing about it that wouldn't be true everywhere. The real strength of the book is Desmond's empathy. The book is a collection of stories that he's put together over years of living with the poor, and his reporting from their perspective is effective in ways I didn't expect.

For me there were a few key understandings.

Residential stability is the bedrock of most other forms of stability and well-being. Where you live, and the stability of that situation, generally determines where you can work, and the income that you have access to. This is especially true for the poor, who have unreliable transportation, or rely on public transportation. It determines who your friends are - not only in terms of who you is generally around you, but it alters your ability and desire to invest in those relationships. If you might be moving at any moment, there is less reason to meet your neighbors, to clean up the neighborhood, to invest in and maintain your community. This lack of community investment is devastating - it makes a huge difference in the neighborhood once a certain critical mass of people have this "no investment" mentality. It is especially hard on children, who will be removed entirely from their friend group, their schools, etc. Unplanned moves will set children back severely in their education and social development, which obviously does not prepare them for success later on.

The people in this book experience poverty as a permanent condition. They are not hopeful that they will someday escape it, or that they will be wealthy or even middle class. They typically come from poverty, and are surrounded by poverty, and simply don't seem to waste energy thinking that it can be any other way for them. This leads them to act in ways that are frustratingly short-sighted, like blowing a month of food stamps on a lobster dinner, or refusing to sell your jewelry to avoid an eviction. When you know that you're going to be poor for the rest of your life - why bother saving? Why not enjoy an indulgence on the few opportunities you have to enjoy them? This is, of course, a self fulfilling prophecy, but Desmond describes it with such empathy that it really hits home.

A few more notes:

  • SSI (welfare) has a resource limit of $2,000 - meaning that if you have more than that much in your bank account, SSI will stop paying. Huge effing surprise that this incentivizes the poor not to save money. Desmond tells stories in the book where, upon coming by some unexpected cash it is immediately spent on layaway items, which are viewed as "savings", because in the bank account cash is literally a liability. While I'm sure this resource limit was well intentioned, holy hell is that dumb.
  • I was blown away by the Milwakee real estate market, post financial collapse (~2009). Desmond tracks a landlord who buys entire homes in poor neighborhoods for less than $10,000 or $20,000 routinely. She would then repair them for ~$2,000 more, and rent them out for $800/mo. No kidding. She would have a full mortgage repaid, using only rent cashflow, in under 2 years. After that it's 100% cashflow profit. That is insane. The cost, of course, is that you're dealing with awful neighborhoods, and very poor tenants. High eviction rates, high wear-and-tear, etc. But still. Slum-lording is disgustingly profitable. 
  • If police are called to an address too many times, they'll issue a nuisance order to the homeowner. This will cost the landlord money, who will then either raise rents or evict the "problem" tenant. (Even if the source of the disturbance wasn't the tenant themselves). This, of course, leads to poor tenants (particularly women in abusive relationships) never calling the police and getting help, because they know that there is a real chance of eviction if they do.

 

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What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Michael Pollan
read on February 14, 2019

I loved this book. I don't have a lot of experience reading books about drugs, but my suspicion in doing so would be that the author of any such book has had their lives so influenced by it that they've lost any objective perspective on things - that the book would be more of a confabulated defense of their own lives. I've not read Pollan before, but I really enjoyed his perspective throughout the book. He had never tried psychedelics, and didn't even feel strongly that he should, he just saw a lot of discussion and growing interest in this topic, and was genuinely curious to learn more about it - and in that process, ended up trying 3 different drugs (in safe, controlled ways, for the most part). His curiosity and skepticism are great, and the effect of the book is to really be on a journey with him, rather than just reading an essay. It's very interesting, and I suspect I'll be returning to it someday.

Some other thoughts/notes:

  • "Noetic quality" is the term used for the conviction that a physcadelic trip is a genuine revelation of truth, and not just a random hallucination like a dream. All acid trips tend to have this effect.
  • Some light discussion on the nature of consciousness. Is it a phenomenon created in the brain, or is it something that exists in the universe, and that brains are like radio antennas that just pick up a consciousness signal? Pollan didn't dig too deep on this, but it was interesting.
  • Native S. American word for mushrooms was 'flesh of the gods', a direct challenge to christian sacrament. "It took an act of faith to believe that eating the bread and wine of the Eucharist gave the worshiper access to the divine, an access that had to be mediated by a priest and the church liturgy. Compare that with the Aztec sacrament, a psychoactive mushroom that granted anyone who ate it direct, unmediated access to the divine". 
  • Psychedelic compounds (mushrooms and then LSD) were discovered in the late 50's. Other than a small group in central America, no other humans had experienced these drugs before. The effect of them is primarily one that reduces/dissolves the sense of ego and individuality, and leads to a more harmonious feeling with others. At the time, the US Gov was instituting a draft to get young people to go fight and die in a proxy war that they really didn't care about. These drugs were extremely dangerous to that effort, and its pretty clear that they were banned only on this basis - not for any material concerns about the effect they had/have on individual health. They are dangerous to society.
  • In the last 20 years, and especially the last 10 or so, these drugs have re-entered the mainstream in academic circles, and have been undergoing a lot of human testing. In particular, they have been extremely helpful for terminally ill patients to accept their prognosis and live out their remaining time with a sense of happiness and purpose.
  • There is a series of brain functions/activity that is typically firing for all humans called the Default Mode Network. While under psilocibin/LSD that activity tends to quite down. The same is true of advanced mediators.
  • The term psychedelic was coined by Humphy Osmond, in a letter to Aldous Huxley. They were trying to name these drugs using novel words inserted into poems, and Osmond landed on: "To fall in hell or soar Angelic, You'll need a pinch of psychedelic." The word is a portmanteau of "mind manifesting" in Greek.
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A Novel
Barbara Kingsolver
read on February 15, 2019

Kingsolver tried to tackle a lot with this book: fate, luck, poverty, journalism, truth, propoganda, capitalism, racism, populism, politics, sexism, to name a few. I think she does a great job, and for the most part its a good book. It follows two narratives that never directly interact (they take place 100 years apart), but which rhyme thematically.

For me the biggest impact were the events and conversations around climate change. Too often, and quite unfortunately, climate change is politicized and made to seem like a partisan issue. R's challenge that it exists, or that it is a problem, and D's insist that it exists, and that we must act to stop it. This is an easy story, and makes the issue appear two dimensional. In a few different parts of this book, Kingsolver really challenges that, and illustrates climate change as a problem that is orthogonal to the R and D tug-of-war. At one point Willa is speaking to Tig (her daughter), and describing herself in this light, as a progressive and very much opposed to her Trumpian father-in-law. But Tig very deftly exposes Willa as still being part of the problem. Willa is highly progressive, but still thinks climate change is something that other people need to solve. She seems to think that because she acknowledges that it's a problem, that she has done her part. But she still wants her own house, on her own land. Though she would never admit it, she wants the solution to climate change to be something that doesn't impact her, or even inconvenience her. Most succinctly, Tig summarizes Willa's position as "wanting your kids to have more than you did". This is, of course, what every parent has always wanted for every child since time immemorial. But put in this context, so flatly, it becomes plainly obvious how literally unscalable such desires are. 

Yes, Trumpian policies are an enormous step backwards. But hating Trump isn't enough, and it is in fact an irrelevant distraction. No one wants to be told that their good intentions are ruining the world, but Kingsolver does it. 

I don't know if that's what anyone else would get out of this book - there are a lot of different themes throughout. But this, along with the wonderful descriptions of Cuba, are what made the most impact for me.

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Steven L. Peck
read on January 14, 2019

This was a very interesting book, and very original, but ultimately a swing and a miss for me. The story centers around an uneducated man named Hyrum, and the various mysteries and odd events that happen around and to him.

I traded off reading this while also reading Educated, which may have been to my detriment, as I felt that the themes here were actually quite similar. Moab is a narrative constructed to investigate truth. What is true, how do we know that it is true? How do different people react to new information, and how is that contextualized into their existing worldview in order to determine truth? The narrative style - told through a series of journals and historical archives, by an unnamed historian - is interesting. I very much didn't like it at the beginning, but it eventually grew on me.

Overall, the more subtle lessons in introspective truth-finding here were outmatched - or at least outshone - by their counterparts in Educated. Moab was interesting and unique, but not something I expect I'll remember very much at all in the future.

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