Books [|||] 2021

What captured your imagination this year? For me, I was reminded how much I like history (even though I really did not enjoy it in school!) and stories about real people — see Double Helix (10/10), stories in The Quest, or story of David Goggins (the second 10/10 this year). Here are the books I enjoyed this year and a short recommendation summary for each.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century
by
Yuval Noah Harari
8/10

I really enjoyed this book — lots of novel discussions and as always great summaries for the current trends and stories. If you liked the Sapiens, you will like this one too.

The major dislike for me was the chapters on ML and algorithms. While I agree with the general premise I think Harari is too far away from the field which clouds his armageddon-like predictions — ML and AI are simply tools which can optimize a given function, that’s it. I really can’t see how and when they can evolve to anything else.

Most of the other “lessons” are quite interesting though. Chapters on Liberty, Equality and Community are great summaries on what humans believe in and why.

The chapter on terrorism is great — I wish this was shown on the news channel just so everyone understands how it works.

I found the chapter on Justice to be instructional. I’m always astounded by people’s outrage which is usually based on some random stories rather than statistical data. But that’s in fact how most people think — we don’t like to be in doubt — we really enjoy moral certainty and rarely pay attention that it’s usually based on some fake story or another.

Overall, clear and concise book which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand reality better.

This book is complemented well by the Tim Ferris’ episode with Harari.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
by David Epstein
8/10

Fun, instructive, and helpful!

This book really rang something familiar to me: ever felt like you are behind someone who started earlier? Recently, our society came to view a head start and early specialization as an obvious advantage to one’s future success. And while I’ve been lucky to be taught in university that underscored the *range* of concepts they were teaching us while emphasizing that “you are here not to get practical skills — go to a trade school for that — you are here to learn how to learn”, still at times I felt behind someone specialized and extremely focused.

Well, this book makes a great case to illustrate that breadth and range often lead to a longer lasting success and bigger impact, and though obviously we need both kinds of people — those who specializes narrowly and those who go just a little bit but in many fields to build bridges at the interfaces — its the latter who would be at advantage in the 21st century where the communications eliminated the barriers and made the best knowledge accessible to anyone.

I really liked the style of the book, mixing examples from sports, science, arts, and other fields to weave the narrative while acknowledging how the status quo fits in, e.g. grit and perseverance.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who struggle to find their path and/or feel behind.

Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
by Albert Einstein
8/10

It took me 3 years to finish these 65 pages… :)

The book starts with “what is truth vs. hypothesis”, then “here is how you measure distance — with a fixed rigid rod”, and then the next second there is already Lorentz transformation and Minkowski four dimensional space time…

So while this book contents is definitely not very accessible for a general audience, it was really interesting to see the train of thought that helped Einstein to come up with the theory: he writes about how the base theories (Newton’s physics and Maxwell’s thermodynamics) and experimental results (non-additivity of speed of light etc) had been available for tens of years, and they were clearly incompatible with one another, yet no one could figure out how to reconcile them. The maths had been available for even longer — mathematicians had invented all the tools required long ago — just for fun, they had no real use for it, until Einstein came in that is.

And so Einstein was like “alright, so we have these incompatible theories, but both theories seem to be airtight, so let’s check our assumptions instead”. Take time for example. What does it even mean that two events happen “at the same time”? According to whom? If you stay stationary in between points A and B, and both A and B emit a light signal “at the same time”, you would received them simultaneously, because signal travels with the speed of light. Now if instead of being stationary you are moving with a speed v towards point B, you’ll obviously receive the signal from B before you would receive the signal from point A. Now then: did A and B send the signal at the same time? The point is that time is really only defined in a reference to a system of coordinates, it’s not independent as was previously assumed.

Same with the distance — distance depends on the speed. Something that travels with a speed of light has zero length. Wait what?

Anyway, to comprehend the theory fully you have to be quite advanced in maths and abstract thinking, but even without it, it’s pretty fascinating to consider the examples Einstein brings up. Also it exemplifies the power of analogies and critical thinking on something so intimate as the laws of the universe.

Thus I’d recommend this book to anyone (age really does not matter — you won’t get it fully either way) — just don’t stress out about the parts you can’t really follow ;)

A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin
by Simon Jenkins
9/10

Just could not stop reading this book! Fascinating!

In school, I absolutely hated the history. Maybe it was the dry texts, or the teacher that was looking for only memorizing the material. In university, I loved it for its cause-and-effect analysis. This book takes another approach: it simply enumerates the events that happened, with a bit of emotional background and wry comments, and mostly leaves the reader to make their own conclusions.

Because it’s so condensed for so many events, it reads like a detective novel — you just can’t stop craving for what happens next (even though you well know what will). This book is written by a journalist, so the style would be enjoyable by any audience.

For me personally I found it very illustrative for the common threads of what was happening in Europe for the last 3 thousands of years. What history teaches us that we don’t remember the history and bound to repeat the same mistakes. And so it is in the now 30s of the 21st century it seems like the memories of past horrors have died down and the new generation of summer children are taking ever larger fraction of voting base which I guess we will see where this would lead. Given the history, I’m not at all optimistic.

All in all, fantastic book, obviously with some shortcomings stemming from trying to fit three thousands of years into three hundred pages, yet illuminating and surprisingly funny.

Six Easy Pieces
by Richard P. Feynman
9/10

Fun little book that I’d recommend to kids who find physics in school boring (like I did).

Feynman’s wry style, jokes and analogies makes it easier to follow and appreciate. Most importantly though, he manages to get an aerial view of sciences and explain the relationships and why it matters.

The six chapters selected are indeed mostly super easy — no maths involved — and could be read and understood by a sufficiently smart 9 year old.

I think this makes it a perfect gift to a kid — if they like this book — they will be hooked on physics, or at least won’t suck at it in school; if they don’t — then perhaps there is no hope and other areas should be pursued.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces
by Richard P. Feynman
8/10

A solid continuation of the Six Easy Pieces. Very similar wry and exciting style, but with quite a bit more math and complexity. Still reads easily — you can even just skip the notations, though is Feynman points out lots of progress in physics comes from using better notations. Great book to expand your horizons and question the assumed notions.

Mastery
by Robert Greene
7/10

A collection of stories of masters from different walks of life, and an attempt to summarize what they all have in common — which is sort of obvious: find your vocation, dedicate yourself to it, go through several years of apprenticeship to learn from the masters, once you’ve got it — move one to broaden the horizon and rebel agains the establishment, never give up, and you will be rewarded by feeling happy that your life is fulfilled, and by recognition, often posthumously.

The writing itself a bit repetitive, but it served a job as being my audiobook for periodic alone trips — you can basically start/stop and any point without much penalty to the storyline because there is not really one.

Overall, while a decent general book — I’d only recommend to people who specifically want to either broaden their horizons a bit with some classical knowledge, or who struggle with figuring out what they want to be doing in life. That said, it won’t blow anyone’s mind or anything like that :)

The Four Pillars of Investing
by William J. Bernstein
8/10

Easy, fun, and useful read. Bernstein does a great job at explaining the basic building blocks of investing, why active investment does not work, and how to stay at the efficient frontier.

I most enjoyed the history section of the book — very well done and gives a perspective on the current events. Solid book all in all.

I wish though the author tried to work through how to invest for people who earn income (which is everybody). For whatever reason in the books authors assume that people just invest a lump sum money over time, but the real situation is always more complicated than that.

It takes under 20 hours to finish, so I’d recommend to anyone who is scared they don’t know what to do with the money. It’s suitable for any level.

The Double Helix
by James D. Watson
10/10

Wow! What a book! I don’t remember when was the last time I finished a book in 3 days — this one is an absolute gem! Engaging and thrilling, written with humility and wry style this book goes over the personal story of how the DNA’s double helix structure was finally established.

The style of the book reminded me of “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”, which I also loved. There are many random fun bits about British and American cultures which are so amusing!

I’d recommend this book to everyone. It only takes ~5 hours to read — pretty short — and does not require any scientific background. Any person will enjoy this book, but I’d especially recommend to middle and high school students who are in search of what they want to do when they grow up :)

How the Immune System Works
by Lauren M. Sompayrac
8/10

A nice blend of professional level textbook and an approachable readable text for those who want to know a bit more specific details about what immune system is and how it actually works.

The book is structured as independent lectures/chapters, and I can’t recommend enough the first few chapters that provide an overview of the immune system, and the last few chapters that talk about:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Cancers (which are to a degree the opposite of autoimmune diseases)
- Vaccines
- Allergies

While the middle chapters become very technical very quickly, and it’s pretty hard to follow for someone outside of the field, the first and last chapters are very approachable and fascinating — they will give a reader more knowledge than perhaps an average non-specializing doctor has, and since they talk about the things everyone encounters in their lives it’s just an amazing source of useful knowledge.

Highly recommend!

The Authoritarian Moment
by Ben Shapiro
7/10

A rather depressing book that I finished in just two days…

I don’t agree with Ben Shapiro on a lot of issues, and I don’t like when conservative writers don’t at all acknowledge the successes of the social programs (here in US but especially in European countries), but it’s very hard to ignore his overall point that the (“progressive”) establishment in the US becoming more and more authoritarian, and it’s very scary.

Ben argues it’s time to unite and say NO to authoritarianism.

The Constitution of the United States of America
by Founding Fathers
8/10

Impressive how can you load just a few pages with the detailed description of the robust and stable system. Worth a read to anyone. It’s incredible how the founding fathers had the oversight for a lot of scenarios to come.

The system for amendments is also fascinating, along with some of the amendments themselves.

One thing I did not know at all the those who serve in the office actually take an oath to protect the constitution!

Can’t Hurt Me
by David Goggins
10/10

What a book! It has several different aspects to it: great story, educational (psychology), inspirational/motivational, educational (culture, history, racism). Plus, it’s just a great text!

What’s more, is that it’s a sensational audiobook! It’s recorded together with David (author) with a podcast-style interjections after each chapter, and sometimes mid chapter. The narrator does an excellent job, it was exciting to listen to. Not often do I get chills and wet eyes from listening to an audiobook!

The content itself is just amazing. Truly. I won’t spoil it for you, but I recommend to absolutely everyone at any age.
Obviously, whenever you look at greatness you will find a lot of sacrifice that borders with lunatism, and it’s clear that not everyone needs to go that far. The book also often falls short on considering the tradeoffs and other side of the equation. But then again, it’s not an academic analysis, this book is a powerful story with a transformative potential that so many people need!

10/10, get an audiobook and thank me later!

Self-Reliance
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
3/10

The message of this essay makes a lot of sense, but the winding language and some references did not age too well :) Overall, I did not enjoy reading it too much, so can’t really recommend.

The Quest
by Daniel Yergin
8/10

What a great book! So many things to note:

1. Accuracy — Yergin gets a really accurate picture of what was going on at the time. Being intimately familiar with how Soviet collapse and the subsequent privatization was handled I was very impressed that he was able to capture many of the nuances that are outsiders are not usually privy to. That makes me believe that other countries/eras characterizations were also done thoroughly and in earnest.

2. Captivating writing — I really enjoy Yergin’s style of sharing perhaps not directly relevant details about the main characters in the story — but those little nuggets really help to picture the main protagonists which a) makes it easier to relate, and b) just makes it more exciting of a read on its own — it’s like you are reading a fiction book, but in the end it helps to understand the struggle in the context

3. Unbiasedness — to the degree possible author is really trying to capture all sides of the story without being too prescriptive about who’s right and who is wrong — instead he focuses on the motivations and reasoning behind each side — which makes it much easier for the reader to make their own judgement — that’s how it should be!

4. Completeness — it’s a very thorough account of the energy picture in 20th and 21st centuries. If you want to understand world economics or politics you really can’t do that without understanding energy. This book gives an excellent purview on the matter.

Overall, highly recommend to literally anyone.

Stats:
15 books, ~4000 pages

Previous Years:

2020: https://alexsalo.medium.com/books-2020-e1bd23ac379c
2019: https://alexsalo.medium.com/books-2019-847b0be98a50
2018: https://alexsalo.medium.com/books-2018-c78a754e508e
2017: https://alexsalo.medium.com/books-2017-e3f88be7a23a
2016: https://alexsalo.medium.com/books-2016-d01ee6a93a7

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Alex Salo

Alex Salo

What's life without a little adventure?

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