2017 was a good year for me in terms of books – I read 64 of them, and most were very good. I feel like an upgraded person with a treasure trove of ideas and lenses floating around in my head, and my next challenge is going to be getting better at recalling and applying what I’ve read. Themes of the year have been human behaviour and incentives, emotional health, and sci-fi. In 2018, I hope to read more economics and history.
I’m more convinced than before that the money and time invested in a good book (when read systematically) provides massive returns, that the bottleneck to reading more is speed of comprehension and retention, that I know so few things that knowing more doesn’t seem to follow a pattern of diminishing returns (yet), and that reading is one of the most efficient ways of learning these things, short of talking to expert teachers.
Reading strategically is very important – there’s nothing worse than ploughing through a dull book, whatever its prestige value. Therefore I encourage myself to abandon or skim through books, and am usually reading half a dozen books of different types at any given time, so I can switch between them by mood and environment, and maximise knowledge inflow. Some people find this strange, but it works for me.
I use an asymmetrical scale – the average book is around 1.5 stars, not 3 stars. This has the advantage of collapsing all the bad ratings to just one point, and allows me to use the rest of the scale to distinguish more finely between shades of good. Therefore, anything over 1 star means I would recommend that book.
☆ Do not read
☆☆ Mostly enjoyable with a few useful ideas; skim through
☆☆☆ Highly enjoyable with many useful ideas; skim and re-read relevant parts in depth
☆☆☆☆ Must-read if you’re interested in this topic; to be chewed and digested
☆☆☆☆☆ One of the best books I’ve read, and highly recommended to anyone
Aaron Swartz would publish yearly reviews of books, and this format is inspired by the one he chose. Also taken from him is:
Books in bold are those that were so great my heart leaps at the chance to tell you about them even now. If you only have time to read some of this, read those.
Judgement In Managerial Decision Making by Max Bazerman ☆☆☆
A dry textbook; functions well as a catalogue of the most common cognitive biases, backed by reams of evidence. I’d recommend Thinking, Fast And Slow over this.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz ☆☆☆☆
Dozens of hard won nuggets of insight into building and running a business – this is a no-nonsense account of the decisions Horowitz made in the trenches.
The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories by Ken Liu ★★★★★
My first time reading Liu – his stories haunt me still. The Paper Menagerie itself was a mesmerising origami of delicate Chinese sci-fi, but Liu achieves his most spectacular when he applies that cultured edge to his transhumanist stories; in particular, The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species was sublime, and The Waves is possibly the best short sci-fi I’ve ever read.
The Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing by Taylor Larimore, Michael LeBoeuf, Mel Lindauer ☆☆☆☆
Simple, straightforward, and sound financial advice. Smart people invest in low-cost index funds.
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton ☆☆☆
A delightful read, drawing lessons for life from Proust’s writing, which Botton excerpts with remarkable skill. It’s a shame that his own life seems to have been fairly miserable, almost as if he wanted to make the point that without suffering he could not write.
Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson ☆☆
Notes on how to run a small business.
Hatching Twitter by Nick Bolton ☆☆
Interesting for me because I work here.
How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler ☆☆☆
A good reminder that it is the rare book that is meant to be read cover to cover as written. For greater comprehension, recall, and pleasure, methodical reading is key.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison ☆☆☆☆
An honest and illuminating memoir written by a mainstream, successful doctor with bipolar disorder.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee ★★★★★
This is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. Mukherjee takes the most complex machinery known to humanity – the gene – and constructs a masterpiece of history, love, loss, and human ambition, revealing a spectacular biological landscape with a scientist’s precision and a poet’s violence. Simply magnificent.
Of all the sciences, biology is the most lawless; there are few rules to begin with, and even fewer rules that are universal. Living beings must, of course, obey the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry, but life often exists on the margins and interstices of these laws, bending them to their near-breaking limit. The universe seeks equilibriums; it prefers to disperse energy, disrupt organization, and maximize chaos. Life is designed to combat these forces. We slow down reactions, concentrate matter, and organize chemicals into compartments; we sort laundry on Wednesdays. “It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe,” James Gleick wrote. We live in the loopholes of natural laws, seeking extensions, exceptions, and excuses. The laws of nature still mark the outer boundaries of permissibility—but life, in all its idiosyncratic, mad weirdness, flourishes by reading between the lines. Even the elephant cannot violate the law of thermodynamics—although its trunk, surely, must rank as one of the most peculiar means of moving matter using energy.
Collected Maxims And Other Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld ☆☆☆
A lifetime’s worth of cynicisms, and a delightful read. If reading this pinches you, then it’s doing its job well.
The 48 Laws Of Power by Robert Greene ☆
Inconsistent, self-contradictory, anecdotal, charlatanical. Claims to be Machiavellian, but is merely dull and prescriptive. Redeemed, but not supported, by the numerous quotations.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius ☆☆
As a collection of private notes written by a Roman emperor – remarkably insightful and humble. As a modern day read – repetitive aphorisms, some of which are worded quite poetically:
Time is a river, a violent current of events,
Glimpsed once and already carried past us,
And another follows and is gone.”
Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis ☆☆☆
A funny introduction to why being merely human just isn’t enough (broadly, transhumanism), and a reminder that serious science (and scientists) always seem crazy at the edges.
Read for the sections on Drexler (nanotechnology), Moravec (uploading consciousness) and Alcor (cryogenics), and all the bits about stellar engineering and travel.
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama ☆☆☆☆
Obama’s fascinating memoir tells a story about identity, poverty, and hope. This is a collision of Worlds – Black, White, American, African, Rich, Poor. That this man went on to become the American president makes his journey even more compelling.
Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark ☆☆☆☆
Tegmark offers a whirlwind tour of his remarkable career, fundamental physics, and the origin of the universe, leading up to a fairly accessible explanation of his four level multiverse theory. 3/5 for the writing, but 5/5 for the science that I’ll never be able to stop thinking about.
Your Brain At Work by David Rock ☆☆
Uses the analogy of actors on a stage to talk about limited capacity for various kinds of thinking. As a tool to help you actually notice when cognitive biases are at play, this is quite useful.
However, some of the references are a bit dubious and the style is quite light.
Delusions Of Gender by Cordelia Fine ☆☆☆
Well researched skepticism about neuroscientific support for gender differences, and several concrete examples of how relatively well-known studies that claim to show gender differences get it wrong.
I later read some good counter-arguments in Scott Alexander’s Contra Grant On Exaggerated Differences.
Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton ☆☆☆☆
Clear, insightful, and packed with practical advice. A heavy duty negotiation manual that reads like a bestseller. One of those rare books that takes unobvious lessons learned by experts (in this case, through the Harvard Negotiation Project), and shows you how to meaningfully transfer them into your own life.
Required reading. We’d all be better off thinking about interests instead of positions, separating people from the problem, and using objective criteria.
Models Of My Life by Herbert Simon ☆☆☆
The surprisingly dull autobiography of a truly remarkable polymath who pioneered several important domains including AI and decision theory. An important lesson I learned from this book is that the simplest of tasks can have deep undiscovered complexity. Much of Simon’s breakthrough thinking seems to have happened as he tackled seemingly mundane administrative tasks, including coming up with the idea of bounded rationality. There are low hanging fruits of discovery everywhere for someone with a sufficiently open and creative mind.
Focusing by Eugene Gendlin ★★★★★
This book has changed my life. I use focusing all the time now, whenever I feel stuck or negatively about something, and it literally always works. It was the first of many steps towards self-understanding this year, but perhaps the most important one.
Focusing explains a method of conscious self awareness that helps you understand feelings that are weighing on you. Gendlin says that the technique is based on research that indicates that the patient’s-approach-to-therapy is a much stronger predictor of eventual recovery than the therapist or even the therapy method. He distills this approach into a simple technique that anyone can use.
The thing about therapy/self-awareness books is that either they work for you or they don’t. Personally it’s been massively helpful. Try it and see – YMMV, but at least the book is short and practical. In my experience, it’s much easier to pick it up if you have help from someone who has loads of practice – if you can’t find anyone, please message me.
For a cognitive perspective on the same underlying technique, read Anna Salamon’s post.
The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn ☆☆☆
The classic text on paradigm shifts in science. Kuhn explains the puzzle solving process of normal science, the emergence of crises because of anomalies, the “revolution” as two paradigms – old and new – compete, and the “post-revolutionary” acceptance of the new paradigm.
Filled with nuances and examples, this will convince you that scientific progress has never been smooth, nor purely additive, regardless of the impression textbooks give. Worth reading despite the overly philosophical flavour.
Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman ★★★★★
The brain is a wet bag of tissues that evolved in a pitiless race for efficiency, and had to cut all kinds of corners to survive. It is the only known tool in the universe that can think, and Kahneman shows us beyond a doubt that it’s constantly approximating, constantly guessing, constantly deciding, and that most of this is happening at a fast, unconscious level.
This is the book that convinced me that “I” have very little control over thoughts arising in my head, almost none at all. And so the scarce executive control I do appear to have is very valuable, and should be treated as a highly limited resource.
The ideas and biases explained here form the basis for a lot of the thinking in applied rationality. We all think fast, but progress happens when we think slow.
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal ☆
Probably somewhat accurate, but skims through dozens of ideas related to willpower and barely examines any of them in depth, choosing to be prescriptive instead.
Quiet by Susan Cain ☆☆☆
Well-researched overview of many different advances made in sociology, psychology, and neurobiology about “introversion”. Filled with references for every claim, and practical advice for what to do when overwhelmed by noise. Worth reading for anyone who feels tired at the endless chatter in the world.
A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers. — Charles Darwin
Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner ☆☆☆☆
Simply must-read for anyone interested in getting better at predicting the future. Draws on lessons learned from the 20-year long Good Judgement Project, where laypeople with extraordinary forecasting ability – superforecasters – outperformed even government analysts with access to classified data.
All models are wrong but some are useful – George Box
This idea is astonishingly powerful – especially once you realise give up the concept of a “correct” belief and start looking at all your beliefs as wrong-but-useful to various degrees.
The strongest predictor of rising into the ranks of superforecasters is perpetual beta, the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement. It is roughly three times as powerful a predictor as its closest rival, intelligence. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, superforecasting appears to be roughly 75% perspiration, 25% inspiration.
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright ☆☆☆☆
The evolution of human beings has consisted largely of adaptation to one another.
Wright shines the hard light of evolutionary biology on our social and moral behaviours. An absorbing account of how evolutionary pressures can create the vast, complex social fabric we find ourselves entangled in today, and a great introduction to evolutionary sociology.
All told, then, institutionalized monogamy, though often viewed as a big victory for egalitarianism and for women, is emphatically not egalitarian in its effects on women. Polygyny would much more evenly distribute the assets of males among them. It is easy—and wise—for beautiful, vivacious wives of charming, athletic corporate titans to dismiss polygyny as a violation of the basic rights of women. But married women living in poverty—or women without a husband or child, and desirous of both—could be excused for wondering just which women’s rights are protected by monogamy. The only underprivileged citizens who should favor monogamy are men. It is what gives them access to a supply of women that would otherwise drift up the social scale …
… this is perhaps the best argument for monogamous marriage, with its egalitarian effects on men: inequality among males is more socially destructive—in ways that harm women and men—than inequality among women. A polygynous nation, in which large numbers of low-income men remain mateless, is not the kind of country many of us would want to live in.
Permutation City by Greg Egan ★★★★★
Starting from the premise that human minds can be scanned and run as simulations, this book went on to blow my mind, multiple times. This is a thrilling trans-humanist glimpse of the world our children’s children will make their own.
Hypothetical light rays were being traced backwards from individual rod and cone cells on his simulated retinas, and projected out into the virtual environment to determine exactly what needed to be computed: a lot of detail near the centre of his vision, much less towards the periphery. Objects out of sight didn’t ‘vanish’ entirely, if they influenced the ambient light, but Paul knew that the calculations would rarely be pursued beyond the crudest first-order approximations: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights reduced to an average reflectance value, a single grey rectangle – because once his back was turned, any more detail would have been wasted.
In twelve short real-time years as a Copy, he’d tried to explore every possibility, map out every consequence of what he’d become. He’d transformed his surroundings, his body, his personality, his perceptions – but he’d always owned the experience himself. The tricks he’d played on his memory had added, never erased – and whatever changes he’d been through, there was always only one person, in the end, taking responsibility, picking up the pieces. One witness, unifying it all. The truth was, the thought of finally surrendering that unity made him dizzy with fear. It was the last vestige of his delusion of humanity. The last big lie. And as Daniel Lebesgue, founder of Solipsist Nation, had written: ‘My goal is to take everything which might be revered as quintessentially human … and grind it into dust.’
Diaspora by Greg Egan ☆☆☆☆☆
Another stunning masterpiece of hard transhumanist sci-fi. I finished this book in a couple of breathless reads, and had goosebumps throughout. Books like this, and Permutation City, have made me see the far future as a vastness of experience, and see the fundamental fabric of the universe as beautiful beyond all measure. Sci-fi is about big ideas – this is Egan at his best.
The only way to grasp a mathematical concept was to see it in a multitude of different contexts, think through dozens of specific examples, and find at least two or three metaphors to power intuitive speculations. Curvature means the angles of a triangle might not add up to 180 degrees. Curvature means you have to stretch or shrink a plane non-uniformly to make it wrap a surface. Curvature means no room for parallel lines – or room for far more than Euclid ever dreamt of. Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.
But there were risks, too, in doing nothing. Once a psychoblast became self-aware, it was granted citizenship, and intervention without consent became impossible. This was not a matter of mere custom or law; the principle was built into the deepest level of the polis. A citizen who spiralled down into insanity could spend teratau in a state of confusion and pain, with a mind too damaged to authorise help, or even to choose extinction. That was the price of autonomy: an inalienable right to madness and suffering, inseparable from the right to solitude and peace.
Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan ☆☆☆☆
A diamond-hard sci-fi thriller. If you’re like me and don’t have several PhDs, just look up the text online as you’re reading. It’s so worth it.
After a few years of heightened exposure to the possibility of simply walking away from the town and its self-appointed cultural guardians, no one was interested in being bullied into conformity any more. It was the kind of behaviour that could only occur when people had been trapped for thousands of years, staring at the same sights, fetishising everything around them, spiralling down towards the full-blown insanity of religion. You didn’t need gates and barbed wire to make a prison. Familiarity could pin you to the ground far more efficiently.
Yann replied affably, ‘My earliest memories are of CP4 – that’s a Kähler manifold that looks locally like a vector space with four complex dimensions, though the global topology’s quite different. But I didn’t really grow up there; I was moved around a lot when I was young, to keep my perceptions flexible. I only used to spend time in anything remotely like this’ – he motioned at the surrounding, more-or-less-Euclidean space – ‘for certain special kinds of physics problems. And even most Newtonian mechanics is easier to grasp in a symplectic manifold; having a separate, visible coordinate for the position and momentum of every degree of freedom makes things much clearer than when you cram everything together in a single, three-dimensional space.’
Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life And Work by Chip Heath, Dan Heath ☆☆☆
Practical advice for how to effectively avoid the most common types of biases – I use the ideas from this book all the time.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran ☆☆☆
Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat ☆
What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro, Marvin Karlins ☆☆
Some useful ideas for understanding body language, including establishing baseline behaviours. Didn’t get as much out of it as I’d hoped though – turns out that reading body language is hard, requires constant practice, and some amount of innate talent.
Daniel’s Running Formula by Jack Daniels ☆☆☆☆
Great book that comprehensively explains the physiology of running and provides training plans at different ability levels.
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ☆☆☆☆
A book full of contrarian ideas, foremost among them that freak events happen far more often than a normal distribution would suggest, implying that our world is more chaotic than we think. Taleb’s writing misses the mark a few times, but he gets it right far more often. Must-read if you care about system or institution design.
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge ☆☆☆
Dense space opera with loads of action and big ideas. Loved the Zones of Thought, but would’ve liked to see more of the Powers.
Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ☆☆
A very important book that explains the ways in which our internal reward mechanisms function. Indispensable for designing sustainable improvements to your life and habits. However, I disliked the meaning Csikszentmihalyi kept attaching to these mechanisms.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand ☆☆☆
A shining example of a book that is wrong but useful. This is really a thinly veiled argument for Rand’s ideology – Objectivism – that does poorly at being a novel. Nevertheless, it makes a strong case against doing things for “the common good” because it produces bad outcomes, and has made me wary of appealing to the communal spirit over self interest as a first resort.
The eldest judge leaned forward across the table and his voice became suavely derisive: “You speak as if you were fighting for some sort of principle, Mr. Rearden, but what you’re actually fighting for is only your property, isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course. I am fighting for my property. Do you know the kind of principle that represents?”
“You pose as a champion of freedom, but it’s only the freedom to make money that you’re after.”
“Yes, of course. All I want is the freedom to make money. Do you know what that freedom implies?”
“Surely, Mr. Rearden, you wouldn’t want your attitude to be misunderstood. You wouldn’t want to give support to the widespread impression that you are a man devoid of social conscience, who feels no concern for the welfare of his fellows and works for nothing but his own profit.”
“I work for nothing but my own profit. I earn it.”
The Gervais Principle by Venkatesh G. Rao ☆☆☆
Deeply cynical and immensely entertaining, Rao draws philosophical lessons from one of my favourite shows, The Office.
A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows, it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction, rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself, and anything of value is recycled by the Sociopaths, according to meta-firm logic.
Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor E. Frankl ☆☆☆☆
A psychiatrist’s memoir of life in concentration camps. Written with astonishing clarity and honesty, in the face of unimaginable despair.
Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang ☆☆☆
Story Of Your Life (story #4) is a haunting masterpiece that I think about all the time. Surprisingly, the film adaptation, Arrival, is equally evocative. The rest of the book is interesting too, but not at the same level.
‘A non-zero-sum game.’
‘What?’ You’ll reverse course, heading back from your bedroom.
‘When both sides can win: I just remembered, it’s called a non-zero-sum game.’
‘That’s it!’ you’ll say, writing it down on your notebook. ‘Thanks, Mom!’
‘I guess I knew it after all,’ I’ll say. ‘All those years with your father, some of it must have rubbed off.’
‘I knew you’d know it,’ you’ll say. You’ll give me a sudden, brief hug, and your hair will smell of apples. ‘You’re the best.’
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg ★★★★★
Simply the best book I’ve ever read on how to connect with other humans, and even yourself. Applying the principles in this book has massively changed my communication style in many situations, especially difficult ones, and the effects (on others and myself) are immediately apparent. Simple, clear, and filled with real-world examples, this is a must-read gem of a book.
Suppose a mother comes to us, saying, “My child is impossible. No matter what I tell him to do, he doesn’t listen.” We might reflect her feelings and needs by saying, “It sounds like you’re feeling desperate and would like to find some way of connecting with your son.” Such a paraphrase often encourages a person to look within. If we have accurately reflected her statement, the mother might touch upon other feelings: “Maybe it’s my fault. I’m always yelling at him.” As the listener, we would continue to stay with the feelings and needs being expressed and say, for example, “Are you feeling guilty because you would have liked to have been more understanding of him than you have been at times?” If the mother continues to sense understanding in our reflection, she might move further into her feelings and declare, “I’m just a failure as a mother.” We continue to remain with the feelings and needs being expressed: “So you’re feeling discouraged and want to relate differently to him?” We persist in this manner until the person has exhausted all her feelings surrounding this issue. When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves.
Mister Fred by Jill Pinkwater ☆☆☆
A delightful lesson in effective pedagogy.
Impro: Improvisation And The Theatre by Keith Johnstone ☆☆☆☆
A masterclass in observation and social status dynamics, conducted with an artist’s horror for the dull and systematic. The later half focuses on the details of improvisation itself, and its lessons are less universal.
You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say ‘Look! I’m not claiming any more space than I’m entitled to’, and they hold themselves very straight as if saying ‘But I’m not submissive either!’ If someone points a camera at you you’re in danger of having your status exposed, so you either clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive. In formal group photographs it’s normal to see people guarding their status. You get quite different effects when people don’t know they’re being photographed.
Open Heart by Dalai Lama XIV ☆☆☆☆
A simple, clear, and beautiful guide to meditation and compassion in the modern world.
The process by which we transform our more instinctual attitude to life, that state of mind which seeks only to satisfy desire and avoid discomforts, is what we mean when we use the word meditation. We tend to be controlled by our mind, following it along its self-centered path. Meditation is the process whereby we gain control over the mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction. Meditation may be thought of as a technique by which we diminish the force of old thought habits and develop new ones. We thereby protect ourselves from engaging in actions of mind, word, or deed that lead to our suffering.
True Names by Vernor Vinge ☆☆☆☆
An early exploration of the possibilities of cyberspace, described in vivid metaphor.
Between the ancestral origins of the human race and the vision of an evolved being as far above ourselves as we tower above our simian cousins, a long sloping curve rises from the Serengeti plains, reaching its asymptote at a defining moment, where it tunnels off into infinity. This – as far back as Nietzsche, or even Francis Bacon – has been the secular vision of a human destiny, a teleology made up in equal parts of optimistic projection and wish fulfillment.
Axiomatic by Greg Egan ☆☆☆☆
A collection of sci-fi short stories. Beautiful.
I believe we’ve lost nothing; rather, we’ve gained the only freedom we ever lacked: who we are is now shaped by the future, as well as the past. Our lives resonate like plucked strings, standing waves formed by the collision of information flowing back and forth in time.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, Ken Liu (Translator) ☆☆☆
Exquisitely crafted sci-fi set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Unsong by Scott Alexander ☆☆☆☆
Devastatingly clever “Kaballah-punk adventure”. Read Gwern’s excellent review.
The Smartest Guys In The Room by Bethany McLean, Peter Elkind ☆☆☆
The nitty-gritty details behind exactly how the highly credentialed executives at Enron convinced everybody, including themselves, of how profitable the path they were leading Enron down was, right until they bankrupted the company. A fascinating study of greed, ambition, and corporate finance.
The Trial by Franz Kafka ☆☆
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green ☆☆☆☆
Raw and deeply touching.
Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance ☆☆☆
The remarkable story of the man making the world we will live in.
Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky ★★★★★
Yudkowsky has less re-shaped my thinking and worldview as much as taught me how to think and see, and in this book he manages to achieve this feat all over again. A spectacular crash course in applied microeconomics, epistemology, and game theory, written with razor-sharp clarity. Messy, irreverent, contrarian, and explosively accurate, this is how I wish all knowledge was taught.
There’s a toolbox of reusable concepts for analyzing systems I would call “inadequate”—the causes of civilizational failure, some of which correspond to local opportunities to do better yourself. I shall, somewhat arbitrarily, sort these concepts into three larger categories:
- Cases where the decision lies in the hands of people who would gain little personally, or lose out personally, if they did what was necessary to help someone else;
- Cases where decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make decisions, even though someone else has that information
- Systems that are broken in multiple places so that no one actor can make them better, even though, in principle, some magically coordinated action could move to a new stable state.
Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson ☆☆
Aaronson has a breezy and lucid explanation style reminiscent of Feynman, and I found his first few chapters on set theory and basic complexity riveting. I wasn’t able to understand 80% of the book though – he starts off by explaining what numbers are and then very quickly assumes you already know quantum mechanics. I found the qualitative conclusions interesting anyway – a testament to his engaging prose.
Worth reading if you’ve studied QM, early sections are enjoyable even with only undergrad level maths.
Also see Gwern’s excellent review.
Relentless by Tim Grover ☆
The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa, Matthew Immergut, Jeremy Graves ☆☆☆☆
The clearest explanation I’ve seen for what meditation is, how to start, and how to improve. Effective in getting me to actually do it. Recommended if textbooks work well for you.
The Player Of Games by Ian M. Banks ☆☆☆☆
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn ☆☆☆
How to cultivate mindfulness in daily life.
A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge ☆☆☆☆
The prequel to A Fire Upon The Deep, Vinge outdoes himself. Set in the Zones Of Thought universe, he straddles the line between world building and character development almost perfectly. This book is utterly fascinating not because of the advanced technology, but because of the struggles that keep us pinned down as humans.
Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ☆
The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson ☆☆☆☆
An important book about self-deception, social signalling, and evolutionary psychology, that actually presents more new ideas than I expected, and is filled with data to back up these claims. Here are contrarian ideas which, if applied widely to the defence of humanity’s goals, would dramatically increase our effectiveness as a species.
On Palestine by Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé ☆☆
Deals comprehensively with one state vs two state, and holds no punches about Israeli atrocities and genocide. However the dialogue style will probably appeal more to scholars of the issue; I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. ‘Part II: Reflections’ was broader and hence more interesting, especially Chomsky’s 2014 address to the UNGA, which is worth reading in its entirety.