Books [|||] 2020
Fun books this year! Hope you find something you like too!
Below I copied over my reviews in chronological order from Goodreads so they are easy to see in one place. Two 10/10s this year — one about drugs and another about capitalism xD
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
by David Graeber
Illuminating, provocative and brilliant! I just loved reading this book for connecting so many different concepts on so many levels, while being thoughtful and proactive with the possible critique.
In general, I had a very hard time disagreeing with anything in the book. I am too surprised we don’t talk about these things more often — the book by the way might as well be called “Failure modes of the modern capitalism”, as it touches on much more than on jobs — it concerns with our societal structures and human happiness.
I do of course think Graeber takes it a bit too far, being an anarchist, but the overall thread is impeccable, and the arguments for UBI are also on point in this framework of bullshit jobs / working as means to prove one’s worth ethics.
There are just so many aspects I want to highlight, but I’d probably just encourage anyone to read, with a critical eye, especially if you are a teacher, nurse or someone else in the caring sector.
I think as a society we will have to start these conversations soon as the current system does not have much squeeze left.
High Output Management
by Andrew S. Grove
Highly logical, practical and straight forward manual for managers and founders.
I’d recommend this book for any manager, founder or a person that is being managed, just because Grove does a really good job explaining the reasoning behind essential management functions and particular details to pay attention to. I find the middle sections of the book a bit tedious — but you can always skip those.
Working at a big-5 tech company I see almost 100% of the advice from this book availably institutionalized which means a lot of really smart people agree with it. Read to glean into why:
Why hold regular 1:1s?
How to write and how to deliver a performance review?
How to increase productivity (training and motivation)?
How to conduct an general interview?
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
by Ben Horowitz
Great book how to think about hard problems in business/management. I really liked the honesty and clear thinking on the issues — acknowledging that there are usually no easy recipes — everything is a tradeoff, so it comes down to reading the tradeoff correctly and making a call.
Audiobook format was pretty good to listen to. Though I’d love to make a bunch of notes in this book.
I won’t say it’s the most exciting book ever, but it’s definitely useful for a relevant reader.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power
by Daniel Yergin
Very mixed feelings about this book: fantastic compilation, great details and all; some storylines are so well done — reading about Rockefeller was like reading a novel with a bunch of characters rallying in an epic story; then somewhere in the mid book Yergin just drags on and on with the details that kind of seem irrelevant.
Book also lacks some more systematic comparisons of facts: production, prices etc. Authors often resorts to “the biggest field”, but it’s hard to keep track of those throughout the book.
That said, not only had I have a great time reading this book, I also feel like a gained an invaluable insight into the world politics and economics, since so much of it was driven by oil. I think it also allows to predict things to come, because it’s clear that the oil is here to stay in the foreseeable future.
Economic Facts and Fallacies
by Thomas Sowell
Pragmatic, sober, at times illuminating but in time feels almost disingenuous.
Sowell does extremely well bringing the cold headed analysis to emotionally charged issues of discrimination, racism, gender fallacies and “third world” fallacies. I won’t even try to repeat it because saying anything around these topics out loud can very quickly get a negative light — so charged are these, at least in the US. Yet it’s precisely because they are so charged there is so little good analysis of the root causes and what could be done to fix it. This book is a rare exception.
That’s for sober and pragmatic. Why illuminating? Well, have you thought about the “open space” areas and “preservation areas” in the counties as a land/property grab via political means by people who don’t actually pay for it? So basically, Sowell argues, communities found a way to bypass the property rights and acquire land without paying for it, while increasing the value of their land as a byproduct. There were some interesting perspectives on how to analyze why things happen the way they do in academic world — it’s not something we are used to — so it was very illuminating.
Finally, disingenuous. I could not help but feel like in many analyses Sowell just decided to omit talking about the tradeoffs. While highlighting the hidden costs masterfully, he completely ignored the hidden benefits, usually manifesting themselves as prevented tragedy of commons, or the positive externalities. For example, his tirade on open spaces and preservation areas completely missed the point that it actually creates the communities that are desired and increases the quality of life for those who got in, and in a world of open competition that’s good since everyone can do that. Or in academia, Sowell ignored the fact that all those taxpayers and donors money “wasted” because universities are non profit driven and are not accountable to the stakeholders actually generate a lot of competitiveness, including the prestige and leading edge research.
In short, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the mostly US economics and politics a bit deeper than a coach commentator, regardless of the political views the reader will find some fresh angles.
Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind-Active Drugs
by Andrew Weil
Wow — the last time I finished a book in two days must have been more than 10 years ago :)
It’s absolutely great. I first heard Andrew on the “Tim Ferriss show” podcast, where his reasonableness over his wild experiences just blew my mind, and there he recommended this book, which I bought and ignored because it looks old…
All the more for a treat I was in! The book reads super easily — in fact, right off the bat authors say they intend it to be readable by the teenagers who often have to confront all the uncertainties around the drugs without any reliable source of information. And good information helps to make better choices!
I don’t want to spoil too much, I’d recommend this book to absolutely everyone! Below I’d just provide some topics that this book brings as a more general theme.
1. “High” state is produced by our own brain. Drugs just trigger it, or give us an excuse to notice. You don’t have to use drugs — every person can find highs in different things: surfing, signing, meditating… Drugs could be valuable in certain situations though; additionally they can make it easier unlock what’s possible inside your brain.
2. Drugs are neither good nor bad; it’s the abuse that’s bad. One can abuse legal or illegal drugs — legality does not make them any less harmful. Many a drug got a very bad rep not because of its chemical properties but because of the typical users. Some of the really bad drugs are tolerated because only wealthy and responsible adults can afford it.
3. Obviously, don’t smoke cigarettes — that’s just stupid, there are better drugs :)
4. Some drugs cause addiction, chemically (withdrawal symptoms, e.g. heroin). Some other don’t (e.g. marijuana). Even though anything could lead to a dependence: pot, TV, reading. While it’s hard to break the dependence, we are free to to choose our dependencies, and usually can easily substitute one for another.
And heaps more of really interesting thoughts, on top of the thorough description of every specific drug, legal or not, that you’ve ever heard of!
6. Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Anthony de Mello
8 out of 10
Undoubtedly thought provoking this book may be either overwhelming, insightful, or life-changing, depending on your current state.
I’d recommend to anyone, just keep an open mind and see what resonates with you personally.
Perhaps the most important lesson I drawn, or maybe rather re-confirmed, is that the happiness is really a default human state, ergo to increase happiness usually you don’t to *get* anything, you need to *get rid of* some things, which is a bit contrary to our western cultural doctrine that encourages, or even demands, the ever increasing productivity/success/possessions etc. So true.
Another awesome insight is explanation of awareness. Concisely: things (e.g. feelings) you are aware of you can control, feelings you are *unaware* of — control you! It’s very simple. That’s what many meditations/mindfullness/fill the blank activities are all about — just paying attention to what’s going on inside “self” to *understand*. There is no actual need to change — the beauty of it all — you only need to understand — which will allow to *act*, instead of *re-acting*.
An obvious tool to practice is see “self” as an external observer — which is something super useful in and of itself — practicing the separation of “I” and “me”, that also allows to more easily put yourself into other’s shoes which is useful to decipher any social situation.
As usual with books with some agenda, authors kind of take it to the extreme, which is fair, but means you have to be critical. For me personally, I didn’t find a satisfactory explanation on how to reconcile “be happy by not doing anything and tuning in with the cosmos” with others’ fair “find your ultimate calling (vocation) to become what you are capable of becoming, everything else is superficial”
Given how short and unconventional the book is — it’s totally worth a read!
Discrimination and Disparities
by Thomas Sowell
Rational, logical and wry this book is a must in 2020.
This is not your typical rant and empty rhetoric; instead you are getting a well researched, scholarly level toolkit of how to think about disparities and discrimination, starting with the base assumptions and definitions, then checking the hypotheses against the facts, and then debunking some popular myths and resulted bad policies that hurt those very people it claims to benefit. As Sowell pointed out, “we should judge the policy by its result, not by its intentions”.
I don’t want to spoil it for you with the quotes, just trust be that it’s surprisingly easy to read (or listen to — well narrated), and it’s not very long either.
As a bonus, this comes from a person who actually has lived through many a decade of economic and social changes, and thus they’ve seen the history repeating itself several times over.
Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy
by Mo Gawdat
Solid overview of the human biases and shortcomings and how understanding them can help to pave the road to happiness. I enjoyed the engineer style discussions in the book, author took care to proceed in logical and practical steps, considering the possible objections along the way.
Mo borrows (or arrives at) many of the classic concepts from religions, spirituality teachings and awareness techniques, but in a much less mysterious language, which makes it much easier to absorb for some as you don’t need to believe, but can actually see why it’s true. With that also comes the power to adjust — for example some things author takes too far for my taste, but since the logic is crystal clear, I can easily reject this and that and adjust to my own needs. So basically a good human happiness manual, can recommend to anyone!
I guess the only disappointing thing about the book are the last several chapters where the authors is trying to cook some numbers to “prove” that it’s more likely that this universe has a designer. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, there is no way to prove anything in that area, so it all boils down to the belief. Author’s belief in the grand design and the after life seems like a denial of his personal tragedy to me, and however understandable it might be, to me it undermines the book quite a bit.
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
by Richard Dawkins
Solid refresher on biology, chemistry, embryology, and evolution. The things you already knew but organized neatly with great use of metaphors — would recommend this book for young parents trying to answer kids’ questions.
For a more eye opening stuff check out Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” book, which is just fascinating!
The style of writing is perfect — very easy and fun to read.
Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook
by Anthony Robbins
Basic financial literacy made easy and inspirational :)
I would recommend this book to anyone who is scared to take charge with their own finances (and probably think it’s complicated — it is, but one does not really need to know much to get ahead).
Knowledge And Decisions
by Thomas Sowell
10 out of 10
One of the best books I’ve ever read! It’s like an econ & law 101 for decision making, figuring out politics and understanding what’s going on in the world, and specifically America. This book goes over the fundamentals, leaving (mostly) the judgements to the reader.
At times, reading the pages of this book gave me direct answers for the questions I have had in the recent years due to the recent events — the playbook did not change, evidently, since 1980s. That’s just fascinating how relevant the themes covered there are.
Now, be warned, it’s not an entertainment book — while it’s written in a simple language and with a nice style, you just can’t read it too quickly because it takes a lot of some mental power to process the material (of course depending on your starting level). The good thing though is that you really don’t need to finish, or even read from the beginning — chapters are fairly self contained, and you’ll get the return by even just reading one.
Now to the substance. The basic idea that Sowell advocates is: let’s no be blinded by the agenda when talking about the decision making. Let’s not be fooled by the programs/institutions named by their “hoped for” results — e.g. program for “affordable housing” does not automatically lead to the outcomes that the name of the program hopes for — just like a starting entrepreneur can’t have a guarantee that their “for profit” business will actually earn any profits — we should look at the empirical evidence when making the decisions.
Another thread is about how the processes help to build a sustainable organizations. Specifically, how the constitution, with its separation of concerns, outlines *who* should make decisions of what kind and under what incentives and constraints. Then, Sowell goes into detail on how this principle had been muddled over the 20th century, and to what effect. One particular phenomenon is the “Affirmative Action”, which makes helps to explain so many things we observe happening today.
Finally, there is a large section on the role of “intellectuals” in the politics. I find this bit the most controversial, but it’s still fascinating to read about. Basically, Sowell argues that intellectuals have historically favored the centralized governments and accumulation of power, which led to the biggest catastrophes in history (fall of Roman Empire, French revolution, Nazi and Communist regimes). Furthermore, intellectuals typically ignore the critique by dismissing it and don’t engage in testing of the hypotheses — in other words, they come up with “solutions” to “problems” based on whatever ideology happens to be in vogue at the time — be it the racism at the beginning of the century, or the “social justice” of the more recent times. Sowell points out the “more justice for all” is a contradictory term, as increase in justice in one domain reduces it in the other — the perfect justice is a tyranny — the real question is what’s the best tradeoff and when the efforts for “more justice” lead to diminishing or even negative returns?
In the summary of the book, Sowell praises the very modern inventions — free market economy and a constitutional democracy — as the tools that by design assume the humans are only humans, and that the only rational expectations from them is the greed, sin, and strive for power and money. However, both market economy and constitutional democracy create such a structure of incentives and constrains that the very greed and strive for power acts as the system of checks and balances that ultimately leads to the sustained superior outcomes. In other words, we wouldn’t need the government, were we the angels, and we would not need the constitution, were we governed by angels. Alas, neither is the case.
The only downside of this book, in my view, is that Sowell completely ignores the good parts of the government policies, intellectuals etc, which makes him appear biased — he does not event attempt to analyze which attempts have brought a positive change, and why. That said, I believe the readers are capable of doing that for themselves, while thinking about more fundamental topics covered in this book is too often completely obscured by the modern (mis)information.
by David Kwong
Fun and easy book that blends the principles from magic with those from psychology and business. The book is full of interesting facts, memos, stories and research findings, as well as pointers on where to start with magic.
by Jean-Paul Sartre
Somewhat hard to read, only in the second half of the book Sartre gets to the crux of thesis: what’s the point of existence? Is humanism really the answer?
I enjoyed the early 20th century France, interesting ideas and nuanced debate presented in the book, but I did not enjoy the style that much — perhaps it was lost in translation.
Overall, I’d probably recommend to read a summary or commentary on this book instead of the book itself :)
14 books, ~4600 pages