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2020

  • Factotum (Charles Bukowski) - pure, honest writing. [more]
    I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.
    I walked back to my room and began packing. Packing was always a good time.
    She hiked her skirt higher. It was like the beginning of life and laughter, it was the real meaning of the sun.
    "Hank, we take their bets."
    "Those guys don't have any money -- all they have is the coffee and chewing gum money their wives give them and we don't have time to mess around with the two dollar windows."
    "We don't bet their money, we keep their money."
    "Suppose they win?"
    "They won't win. They always pick the wrong horse. They have a way of always picking the wrong horse."
    "Suppose they bet our horse?"
    "Then we know we've got the wrong horse."
    "Manny, what are you doing working in auto parts?"
    "Resting. My ambition is handicapped by laziness."
    "Mr. Big Horseplayer. You know, when I first met you I liked the way walked across a room. You didn't just walk across a room, you walked like you were going to walk through a wall, like you owned everything, like nothing mattered. Now you've got a few bucks in your pocket and you're not the same any more. You act like a dental student or a plumber."
    I understood it too well now --that great lovers were always men of leisure. I fucked better as a bum than as a puncher of timeclocks.
  • Borrow: The American Way of Debt (Louis Hyman) - interesting to read this ten years after the collapse of the housing bubble, and even moreso to wonder which bubbles are inflating now thanks to the Fed's latest orgiastic money-printing bonanza. [more]I think the author's idea for creating a government-sponsored "Bobby Mac" to rate small businesses and serve as the clearing house for private industry's securitization of their debt is interesting. And definitely more worthwhile than encouraging the same for consumer debt securitization. But I also think that without encouraging the onshoring of more industrial and manufacturing enterprises, such an effort is not going to be as successful as it could be. To me it's not a question of what America's priorities should or should not be, it's a matter of well-foundedness: a cerebral, highly developed service economy is valuable, but is at risk proportionate to the exclusion of other domains and pursuits that are now predominantly off-shored. You can't expect someone in a cubicle farm at One World Trade Center to come up with a brilliant process or design improvement for a product assembled in a dimly lit sweatshop half a world away. A nation of thinkers without the willingness to "do" is a has-been nation without growth potential, and while I don't think the US is quite there yet, I think it trends disquietingly so in that direction.
    (Aside: the author at one point writes: "Getting what you want now, without saving for it, should matter to all-too-mortal consumers. I would not want to wait until I was sixty years old to have my first dishwasher." He unironically writes this in a book about American debt. It's yet another data point reinforcing my belief that too many Americans have let their lifestyle expectations inflate to a state completely divorced from past realities and the reality of the world around them.)
    The same secondary mortgage market that saved S&Ls also killed them -- at least as they were traditionally run. The S&L crisis showed, ultimately, that S&Ls might no longer be needed. Global bond markets could fill the role of the old neighborhood banker. In a titanic shift in the organization of American capitalism, banks had become service providers, not capital providers.
    The trouble with securitization wasn't the bonds, it was the mortgages. Creating a demand for mortgage-backed securities pushed brokers to scour the land for new home buyers. We need a way to push brokers to scour the land for business opportunities...
  • Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel García Marquez) - Auspiciously, I happened to read the part about the seven tolls of the cathedral bells just as actual bells sounded in the distance at 7am one morning. [more]I liked this, but I liked Love in the Time of Cholera better.
    The adolescents of my generation, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia. My Sunday columns were there, like an archeological relic among the ruins of the past, and they realized they were not only for the old but also for the young who were not afraid of aging.
    I never had intimate friends, and the few who came close are in New York. By which I mean they’re dead, because that’s where I suppose condemned souls go in order not to endure the truth of their past lives.
    The truth is I'm getting old, I said. We already are old, she said with a sigh. What happens is that you don't feel it on the inside, but from the outside everybody can see it.
    "Today I look back, I see the line of thousands of men who passed through my beds, and I'd give my soul to have stayed with even the worst of them. ... So you go and find that poor creature right now even if what your jealousy tells you is true, no matter what, nobody can take away the dances you've already had."
    "... when I woke alive on the first morning of my nineties ... I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus' ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years."
    "Ah, my sad scholar, it's all right for you to be old but not an asshole."
  • Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis (Eric Berne) - now I finally understand why I can usually be found "helping the hostess ... at parties." [more]
    The eternal problem of the human being is how to structure his waking hours. In this existential sense, the function of all social living is to lend mutual assistance for this project.
    Individuals who are not comfortable or adept with rituals sometimes evade them by substituting procedures. They can be found, for example, among people who like to help the hostess with preparing or serving food and drink at parties.
    A patient in a sophisticated group pointed out what the therapist had overlooked: that in practice, waiting for Santa Claus and waiting for death are synonymous.
    Cases have been reported of a chapter of A.A. running out of Alcoholics to work on; whereupon the members resumed drinking since there was no other way to continue the game in the absence of people to rescue.
    "Debtor" is more than a game. In America it tends to become a script, a plan for a whole lifetime, just as it does in some of the jungles of Africa and New Guinea. There the relatives of a young man buy him a bride at an enormous price, putting him in their debt for years to come. Here the same custom prevails, at least in the more civilized sections of the country, except that the bride price becomes a house price, and if there is no stake from the relatives, this role is taken on by the bank. Thus the young man in New Guinea with an old wrist watch dangling from his ear to ensure success, and the young man in America with a new wrist watch wrapped around his arm to ensure success, both feel that they have a "purpose" in life. The big celebration, the wedding or housewarming, takes place not when the debt is discharged, but when it is undertaken. What is emphasized on TV, for example, is not the middle-aged man who has finally paid off his mortgage, but the young man who moves into his new home with his family, proudly waving the papers he has just signed and which will bind him for most of his productive years. After he has paid his debts—the mortgage, the college expenses for his children and his insurance—he is regarded as a problem, a "senior citizen" for whom society must provide not only material comforts but a new "purpose."
    A little boy sees and hears birds with delight. Then the "good father" comes along and feels he should "share" the experience and help his son "develop." He says: "That's a jay, and this is a sparrow." The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing. He has to see and hear them the way his father wants him to.
    The aware person is alive because he knows how he feels, where he is and when it is. He knows that after he dies the trees will still be there, but he will not be there to look at them again, so he wants to see them now with as much poignancy as possible.
    The somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as "togetherness." This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it.
  • The Cuckoo's Egg (Cliff Stoll) - incredible (for me) to imagine a time when writing ps -eafg instead of ps -aux revealed one's Unix upbringing. [more]
    Since [Lawrence Livermore National Lab]'s computers are often the first ones off the production line, Livermore usually has to write their own operating systems, forming a bizarre software ecology, unseen outside of their laboratory.
    "Sure, you could write a detailed proposal to chase this hacker. ... Or you could just chase the bastard. Run faster than him. Faster than the lab's management. Don't wait for someone else, do it yourself. Keep your boss happy, but don't let him tie you down." ... That's why Luis [Alvarez] won a Nobel Prize. It wasn't what he did, so much as how he went about it. He was interested in everything.
  • Gigolo (Ben Foster) - expected effervescence aside, this is quite interesting. Reminds me of the quote from Ecclesiastes, "behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun". [more]
    "Never complain, never explain, and never apologise," said Lady Catherine. "A gentleman never carries a card. He writes his number down on a slip of paper."
    Why was I invited into the secret? I was married with children. I was discreet. I didn't sell stories to the tabloid press. In order not to say the wrong thing and make an idiot of myself, I didn't say very much at all. This had given me a reputation for being the 'silent type.' Women like to chat. I had learned how to listen.
    Lines crossed her brow. She was pensive again. "People try too damn hard to do the right thing. That's why Vivienne's special. She doesn't give a shit."
    The sky was streaked in cloud. We walked arm in arm along the edge of the canals without a need for talking. I loved being a foreigner in a foreign place. It was like escaping from yourself. The hands on the clock had stilled. I couldn't read the advertising hoardings or understand what anyone was saying.
  • The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (Maurer, Sante) - This is the America I want to live in. I was born 100 years too late. [more]
    In [the late 1800s to early 1900s], communication was slower and more haphazard, making possible the payoff, for example, which depends on an interval between the end of a horse race and the broadcasting of its results. And there were just fewer people in the world, so that business was more personal and intimate, and casual trust in others—especially within the apparent bounds of one’s own class—was greater. It was, after all, a world in which it was actually possible to get in on the ground floor of something big just by striking up a conversation in a Pullman smoker.
    If marks were not so anxious to impress strangers, they would keep their bank accounts intact much longer.
    Some con men have observed that marks respond to con games differently according to nationality, with well-to-do American businessmen being the easiest. “Give me an American businessman every time,” declared one of the most successful of the present generation of ropers, “preferably an elderly executive. He has been telling other people what to do for so long that he knows he can’t be wrong.”
    It is significant that pickpockets, in contrast to gamblers, usually find that the post of insideman is best suited to their talents. Perhaps this is because pickpockets are not very talkative, except among themselves; a roper must be able to open up a conversation with anyone. Pickpockets are frequently too secretive and suspicious to approach strangers in the most effective manner.
    He worked for many years as a railroad conductor and made the acquaintance of con men through “copping the short.” He also made the acquaintance of a thief-girl in New Orleans who served as an entrée to underworld circles in that city. When he lost his job as conductor he went to New Orleans and turned out on the big con with professionals.
    I have observed that many [con men] read widely, and that it is an almost universal habit to run through ten or a dozen newspapers daily in order to keep constantly informed on topics which may come up in conversation. Newspapers also furnish a wide variety of news vital to grifters who want to thrive in their profession and keep out of jail. A few go deeper than casual browsing among the periodicals and haunt libraries when they have time, reading books omnivorously. One con man of my acquaintance buys a great many books, reads them, and promptly gives them away.
    Indiana Harry, the Hashhouse Kid, Scotty, and Hoosier Harry were returning to America on the Titanic when it sank. They were all saved. After the rescue, they all not only put in maximum claims for lost baggage, but collected the names of dead passengers for their friends, so that they too could put in claims.
    I think the reason that a con man never dies is that, like the Wandering Jew, he is always on the go. He is always traveling somewhere and seeing and doing new things. If he is in California, he looks forward to going to Florida, from there to Cuba, and so on. Then, too, he is always with young people. He dresses and acts like a young man, even when he is seventy. His talk and manners are up to date. I never saw an old pappy con man. Besides, con men never loaf around much. They are always active rooting out a mark. Much of their time is spent in the open air.
    Whatever happens to them during the course of their lives, it is a notable fact that, as their years increase, they remain young in spirit. They do not become “dated” as many men do who are marked indelibly with the characteristics of a particular generation. In attitudes, in dress and manners, in tastes and language, they live always, like theatrical folk, in the present. Their interests do not lag. They do not live in the past; perhaps they prefer not to do so.
    Once Jerry Daley made a little side trip to La Salle, Illinois. To kill time there he dropped in on a beauty contest. There on the platform was a little raven-haired Irish girl who immediately caught his fancy. He began to circulate about the crowd and sound out sentiment for her. She didn’t seem to be very popular. The fact that the odds were against her aroused Jerry’s sporting blood to the extent that he began to buy votes for her. Whenever he encountered opposition, he called into play all his ability as a fixer with excellent success. When all the votes were counted afterward, his little protégée led by an overwhelming number. That night Jerry married her.
    Con men are notably adaptable to any sort of existence and adjust to prison life much better than other types of professional criminals; but, above all, they miss the excitement, the tension, the high pressure under which they live; they love their freedom, and they are not long in getting it. They seldom do more than two or three years at most for any big-con touch.
    [Con men] like to express all life-situations in argot, to give their sense of humor free play, to revolt against conventional language.
  • The Most Important Thing (Howard Marks) - if only I had read this before gambling on FNMA in 2008. The author's emphasis on contrarianism and second-level thinking makes this a standout. [more]
    You must be aware of what’s taking place in the world and of what results those events lead to. Only in this way can you put the lessons to work when similar circumstances materialize again. Failing to do this -- more than anything else -- is what dooms most investors to being victimized repeatedly by cycles of boom and bust.
    ... only a few [investors] will achieve the superior insight, intuition, sense of value and awareness of psychology that are required for consistently above-average results. Doing so requires second-level thinking.
    Why should a bargain exist despite the presence of thousands of investors who stand ready and willing to bid up the price of anything that's too cheap?
    Many of the best bargains at any point in time are found among the things other investors can't or won't do.
    The key turning point in my investment management career came when I concluded that because the notion of market efficiency has relevance, I should limit my efforts to relatively inefficient markets where hard work and skill would pay off best. Theory informed that decision and prevented me from wasting my time in the mainstream markets.
    Believe me, there's nothing better than buying from someone who has to sell regardless of price during a crash.
    It’s essential to arrange your affairs so you’ll be able to hold on -- and not sell -- at the worst of times. This requires both long-term capital and strong psychological resources.
    You’ll do better if you wait for investments to come to you rather than go chasing after them. You tend to get better buys if you select from the list of things sellers are motivated to sell rather than start with a fixed notion as to what you want to own. An opportunist buys things because they’re offered at bargain prices.
    Th e period from 2004 through the middle of 2007 presented investors with one of the greatest opportunities to outperform by reducing their risk, if only they were perceptive enough to recognize what was going on and confident enough to act. All you really had to do was take the market’s temperature during an overheated period and deplane as it continued upward. Those who were able to do so exemplify the principles of contrarianism, discussed in chapter 11. Contrarian investors who had cut their risk and otherwise prepared during the lead-up to the crisis lost less in the 2008 meltdown and were best positioned to take advantage of the vast bargains it created.
    I always say the keys to profit are aggressiveness, timing and skill, and someone who has enough aggressiveness at the right time doesn't need much skill.
  • Never Split the Difference (Chris Voss) - worth the read; I now feel qualified to negotiate with my kidnappers next time I walk too close to the Iranian border.
  • China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (Howard French) - a thoughtful and vivid description of a massive cultural experiment of which most of the West remains unaware. [more]Western media loves to decry the negative aspects of Chinese activity, especially with regard to human rights, but speaks little of the positives, which French's interviews with Africans do illuminate. Setting those aside, it's clear (to me) that China's strategy of building infrastructure to extract resources is not long-term sustainable. Many of the complaints described herein bemoan the lack of education and employee training initiatives for local citizens. It's unfortunate that solutions to those issues are not nearly as easy to implement as building stadiums and hospitals. The US should be matching the magnitude of China's activity and applying it towards these more difficult efforts, but politically and culturally that seems unlikely -- there will always be a minority of Americans who are able to "eat bitter" like their Chinese counterparts, but as a society grows more comfortable and solipsistic, that minority shrinks. Even China will eventually follow in this regard. And while the question of whether China's expansion into Africa qualifies as imperialism is interesting, I wonder if there aren't more important questions. For starters, is it not concerning that economic advancement is still focused on endless races-to-the-bottom of manufactured goods produced en masse and as cheaply as possible? The rules, points, and violations of the game are pointless to discuss if the game itself is a waste of time.
    The timeline for resource depletion in many African countries is running in tandem with the timeline for the continent's unprecedented demographic explosion. At current rates, in the next forty years, most African states will have twice the number of people they count now. By that same time, their presently known reserves of minerals like iron, bauxite, copper, cobalt, uranium, gold, and more, will be largely depleted. Those who have diversified their economies and invested in their citizens, particularly in education and health, will have a shot at prosperity. Those that haven't, stand to become hellish places, barely viable, if viable at all.
    People have welcomed the Chinese because they were an alternative, because there are times when you can find yourself with no investors, and the West just wags its finger at you and calls you corrupt.
    Americans made beautiful, principled speeches and imposed countless conditions on all manner of things. But in the end, in Africa they seemed to move the ball very slowly. They regarded Africa not as a terrain of opportunity, or even as a morally compelling challenge to humanity, but as a burden, and largely as one to be evaded as much as possible.
    While the Americans fought bureaucratic battles to advance their agenda of granting deeds to peasants on about five thousand hectares of land, China's Sinohydro was busy building a $230 million waterworks that would connect the farmland to the region's huge irrigation grid ... and here again it was the Americans who were paying.
    ... American builders routinely showed no interest in [construction] work in Africa. They feared high operating costs and complicated bureaucratic regulations, and they were unfamiliar with the African terrain. Africa occupied a relatively blank space in the minds of most Americans , and when they stopped to think about it, aided by old and deeply ingrained habits of press coverage, all they could imagine was violence, corruption, disease, and horror.
    ... he proclaimed that Malians were among the happiest people in the world. "Happier than Americans, and certainly happier than Chinese. If everyone around you is the same, you don't have to worry about being poor. What counts is fairness. If things become unfair, then the situation can become explosive."
    "China has a means of advancing which is different from that of the West. They are a like a boa: it observes its prey quietly, taking its time. In the same way, the Chinese are waiting for a long-term return. They're waiting for a maximal result."
    "You look at countries like France and the United States, their leaders are ordinary people, not supposed heroes. They don't behave like Chinese leaders, each of whom feels he needs to invent his own school of thought."
    He invoked an old [Portuguese] proverb to explain his decision to come all this way [to Mozambique] to build a new life. "The saints of the household have no powers to bless you. It is only the saints of the faraway lands that can help."
  • Early Retirement Extreme (Jacob Fisker) - a solid mix of philosophy and math, with plenty of no-holds-barred realism thrown in for good measure. [more]I typically stay away from books in this genre, as most of them are either peddling a narrow agenda or are biographical in nature. This one seems to be held in high regard, and I can see why. One thing I've noticed in anecdotal accounts of successful FIRE proponents is the tendency to get bored once financial independence is actually reached; one couple even got divorced because they had nothing to work together towards anymore. Fisker, on the other hand, emphasizes the sustainability and lifestyle benefits of maintaining one's pre-independence lifestyle even after reaching the tipping point. For him, FI was never a goal so much as a means to open up more free time to pursue his other interests. Accordingly, I think this book will only be useful to those who are at a point in their life where they 1) have developed such interests, and 2) are excited enough about those interests to adopt the mindset Fisker describes.
    Do you want to spend most of your life paying off the interest of a 30-year mortgage and working so you can fill increasingly bigger houses with increasingly more stuff while being stuck in your daily commute in increasingly nicer cars? Or are you prepared to give up the stuff so that you can do whatever you want, whenever, and wherever, within reason? What will your legacy be--what you owned or who you were?
    For those who choose to do it, attaining financial independence in a handful of years will provide them the time and freedom, the lack of which has previously prevented them from getting things done and caused relations with friends to stagnate or degenerate into acquaintances or "networking opportunities."
    ... a salary or even the potential of a future salary seems to be a gateway to the debt drug; so many people could probably reduce the risk of getting into debt by simply quitting their jobs.
    Traditionally, those who are too old to take care of themselves have relied on having children and instilling a feeling of filial duty. However, those filial feelings are perhaps no longer as strong as they once were, with parents having sent their children off to institutions from a young age and only really interacted with them for a few hours a day, being busy with their careers and lawns. Children thus often prefer to send their parents to institutions of their own during old age, in turn.
    Wage slaves are free to choose other products as long as they can afford it, but they're not capable of creating alternatives to buying products, because they're too busy working.
    A very common and very good piece of career advice is not to work to earn money but to work to learn new skills, gain new connections, and create new opportunities.
    A more enlightened state would be to always be willing to give away everything I own. Unfortunately, I'm not sufficiently skillful, nor do I as yet own so little to easily be able to reacquire and recreate everything I own, but that would be something to strive for.
    Maybe you're more interested in owning farmland for rent or windmills or solar panels producing electricity, a blog/blogging network, or other low-maintenance ventures? Until you know the answer to these questions, don't buy anything. Take time to figure out the answer while accumulating cash.
  • Man's Fate / La Condition Humaine (Andre Malraux) - a fictional depiction of the actual 1927 Shanghai massacre interspersed with many profound thoughts, many of which are stated by an elderly Japanese man high on opium. [more]There is some incredible writing here; the translator did an epic job translating to English what I can only assume is Malraux's mind-blowingly beautiful French. I've seen others comment about the depressing nature of this book: "oh, everyone gets killed, their struggle was in vain." Sure, but the plot never really became the main draw for me; it was more like a Hollywood green-screen of rolling hills and passing traffic that surrounds actors while they sit in a stationary car and film a dialogue scene: for me, that dialogue is the book. And I'm sure that wasn't Malraux's intention, given his personal involvement with Communism, but propaganda (which this book may or may not have qualified as) has a short half-life. In a work of my own, I would be ecstatic to be able to express even a few poignant ruminations in the manner that Malraux is able to pull off here; my problem is that the rest of the work would be sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek, and I have no idea how I would accomplish the necessary transitions without impelling the reader to crash their motor vehicle into the nearest embankment just to experience a less violent form of whiplash.
    Men have travels, women have lovers.
    Can it be that one is never jealous except because of what one supposes the other supposes?
    Ferral: "But man can and must deny woman: action, action alone justifies life and satisfies the white man. What would we think if we were told of a painter who makes no paintings? A man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do. Nothing else. I am not what such and such an encounter with a man or woman may have done to shape my life; I am my roads, my...."
    Gisors: "The roads had to be be built. If not by you, then by someone else. It's as if a general were to say: 'with my soldiers I can shoot the town.' But if he were capable of shooting it, he would not be a general. ... For that matter, men are perhaps indifferent to power. ... What fascinates them in this idea, you see, is not real power, it's the illusion of power, it's the illusion of being able to do exactly as they please. The king's power is the power to govern, isn't it? But man has no urge to govern: he has an urge to compel, as you said. To be more than a man, in a world of men. To escape man's fate, I was saying. Not powerful: all-powerful. The visionary disease, of which the will to power is only the intellectual justification, is the will to god-head: every man dreams of being god."
    When, shortly after the war, Gisors had come into contact with the economic powers of Shanghai, he had been not a little astonished to discover that the idea he had always had of a capitalist corresponded to nothing. Almost all of those whom he met at that time had regulated their love-life according to one pattern or another -- and almost always the pattern was marriage: the obsession which makes the great business-man, unless he is just another heir, can rarely adjust itself to the dispersion of irregular sexual experiences. "Modern capitalism, " he would explain to his students, "is much more a will to organization than to power..."
    [Clappique] staked sixty dollars on even, once more. That ball which was slowing down was a destiny -- his destiny. He was not struggling with a creature, but with a kind of god; and that god, at the same time, was himself. The ball started off again. ... Thanks to it he was able for the first time to gratify at once the two Clappiques that composed him, the one who wanted to live and the one who wanted to be destroyed. ... Through its agency he was embracing his own destiny -- the only means he had ever found of possessing himself! To win, no longer in order to take flight, but to remain, to risk more, so that the stake of his conquered liberty would render the gesture even more absurd!
    Since [Clappique] had changed his costume, the world around him had become transformed. He tried to discover how; it was the way people looked at him that had changed. The habitual single witness of his mythomania had become a crowd. ... He had found, suddenly, by accident, the most dazzling success of his life. No, men do not exist, since a costume is enough to enable one to escape from oneself, to find another life in the eyes of others. ... "Now I'm living a story, not merely telling one!"
    "You must introduce the means of art into life, my g-good man, not in order to make art -- God, no! -- but to make more life."
    Where had he read: "It was not the discoveries, but the sufferings of explorers which I envied, which attracted me..."?
    "One can fool life for a long time, but in the end it always makes us what we were intended to be. Every old man is a confession, believe me, and if old age is usually so empty it is because the men were themselves empty and had managed to conceal it. But that in itself is unimportant. Men should be able to learn that there is no reality, that there are worlds of contemplation -- with or without opium -- where all is vain..."
    "All suffer, and each one suffers because he thinks. At bottom, the mind conceives man only in the eternal, and the consciousness of life can be nothing but anguish. One must not think life with the mind, but with opium. How many of the sufferings scattered about in this light would disappear, if thought were to disappear..."
    "Every man is a madman, but what is a human destiny if not a life of effort to unite this madman and the universe..."
    "You know the phrase: 'It takes nine months to make a man, and a single day to kill him.' We both know this as well as one can know it... May, listen: it does not take nine months, it takes fifty years to make a man, fifty years of sacrifice, of will, of ... of so many things! And when this man is complete, when there is nothing left in him of childhood, of adolescence, when he is really a man -- he is good for nothing but to die."
  • Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (Hunter Thompson) - The more I read of Thompson's work, the more I notice how the need for a situational exit is inextricably central to both his writing and his life. [more]The sensibility of any given exit is irrelevant, for example: "I was not bored, and I still had work to do, but it was definitely time to get out of town." Of all the shenanigans Thompson and his real or imagined protoganists get into, it's this nature of their movement that I find most relatable -- sometimes there really is no good reason to enter or exit, but doing so is the only certain path towards the unknown (death being the ultimate example of this). And I think anyone with a hell-bent appreciation for (or addiction to) the unknown understands that sacrifices must be made to free oneself up to make those movements, for whatever definition of movement is important to them. Some of the other things Thompson writes about are less interesting to me; politics for one -- it's clear that his disdain for US politics grew in direct proportion to his age, without calibrating for the insanity of past US leaders and actions. But anyone who reads Thompson for his politics is probably a lunatic who, when presented with a pie, eats only the crust -- the Words on the Page are less important than How Thompson wrote them, capitalization included.
    My life has been the polar opposite of safe, but I am proud of it and so is my son, and that is good enough for me.
    The backstairs politics of San Francisco has always been a byzantine snake pit of treachery and overweening bribery-driven corruption so perverse as to stagger the best minds of any generation. All political power comes from the barrel of either guns, pussy, or opium pipes , and people seem to like it that way. The charm of the city is legendary to the point of worship all over the world, with the possible exception of Kabul, New Orleans, and Bangkok.
    "Yes", I replied. "That's why we're going to Africa next month. It is time to get out of this country while we still can!"
    This is what the bastards never understood - that the "Movement" was essentially an expression of deep faith in the American Dream: that the people they were "fighting" were not the cruel and cynical beasts that they seemed to be, and that in fact they were just a bunch of men like everybody's crusty middle-class fathers who only needed to be shaken a bit, jolted out of their bad habits and away from their lazy, short-term, profit-oriented life stances... and that once they understood, they would surely do the right thing.
    I was shocked. In 1981 I was 44 years old... I had ridden the wild beast of Passion through so many jungles and nightmares and devastating personal disasters that I felt about 200 years old. My heart was strong, but my body was scarred and broken and warped from a life-time of dangerous confrontations... I was old beyond my years, as they say, and I had developed a curious habit of survival. It was the only way I knew, and I was getting pretty good at it, on the evidence...
    There is not a bull market for raw sex, amyl nitrites, and double-ended Greek dildos in the friendly skies of United.
    I have known a few magic moments like these -- red dots on a sea-green map -- and I treasure them. They are the high points of my life, my moments of total Function, when I felt like a snow leopard fighting for life on its own turf.
    I haven't found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is, as much as going out and getting into the weirdness of reality and doing a little time on The Proud Highway.
    I had never been west of San Francisco until I’d arrived in Saigon about ten days earlier—just after the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) had been routed on worldwide TV in the "battles" for Hué and Da Nang.
    "First they tapped all my phones, then they started following me everywhere I went. People I'd known all my life were afraid to be seen with me. I moved out of town to the duck lodge, but it was no use. Finally I said, "Fuck this, I'm getting too old for it," so I bought a goddamn boat and went to Cuba."
    Let boys want pleasure, and men
    Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
    And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes
       to be duped.
    Yours is not theirs.
    I realize through the fog in my own brain that Dr. Thompson is in a kind of psychophysiological state of grace, because he has for all these years remained true to himself.
    ... It was a Different Time. People were Friendly. We trusted each other. Hell, you could afford to get mixed up with wild strangers in those days ... There was a sense of possibility ... There were Laws, but they were not feared. There were Rules, but they were not worshiped ... like Laws and Rules and Cops and Informants are feared and worshiped today.
    Good news is out of the question in this brutal year of our Lord 2002. This is the time of the Final Shit Rain, as Nostradamus predicated in 1444 AD...
    "... you have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend."
    Indeed. If the greatest mania of all is passion: and if I am a natural slave to passion: and if the balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase -- Well, that explains a lot of things, doesn't it? ... I have learned a few tricks along the way, a few random skills and simple avoidance techniques -- but mainly it has been luck, I think, and a keen attention to karma, along with my natural girlish charm.
  • A Tidewater Morning (William Styron) - the author's personal strain of eloquence herein is a literary catapult unerring in its ability to transport those who've lived there right back to the Tidewater. [more]
    [The millpond] lay in the woods several hundred yards to the east of the house -- an ageless murky dammed-up pool bordered on one side by a glod of moss and fern, spectacularly green, and surrounded on all its other sides by towering oaks and elms. Fed by springs and the same swiftly rushing stream in which the other children had gone fishing, its water mirrored the overhanging trees and the changing sky and was a pleasurable ordeal to swim in, possessing the icy cold that shocks a body to its bones.
    Yet his return to Virginia, I can now see, was out of no longing for the former bondage, but to find an earlier innocence. And as a small boy at the edge of the millpond I saw Shadrach not as one who had fled darkness, but as one who had searched for light refracted within a flashing moment of remembered childhood. As Shadrach's old clouded eyes gazed at the millpond with its plunging and calling children, his face was suffused with an immeasurable calm and sweetness, and I sensed that he had recaptured perhaps the one pure, untroubled moment in his life.
  • Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Ben R. Rich) - Tales from the glory days of American ingenuity. Maybe the fact that Russia is handing our asses to us in hypersonic weapons development will encourage us to get our act together again. [more]
    "I'll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we'll both go home early to boot. You don't need Harvard to teach you that it's more important to listen than to talk. You can get straight A's from all your Harvard profs, but you'll never make the grade unless you are decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you'll need to know is don't half-heartedly wound problems -- kill them dead. That's all there is to it. Now you can run this goddamn place. Now, go on home and pour yourself a drink."
    There are very few strong-willed individualists in the top echelons of big business - executives willing or able to decree the start of a new product line by sheer force of personal conviction, or willing to risk investment in unproven technologies.
    When Noah designed an ark and gathered his family and a pair of male and female animals of all species to avoid the Great Flood, he demonstrated his leadership. But when he turned to his wife and said, "Make certain that the elephants don't see what the rabbits are doing," he was being a farsighted, practical manager.
    In his dealings with me, Kelly appreciated the fact that I always provided him with alternatives when presenting him with a problem. I'd say, 'Solution one will cost you so much money. Solution two will cost you so much time. You're the boss. Which do you choose?' So often, others would come to him like errant schoolboys and moan, 'Kelly, bad news. We broke that part.' And he'd get sore and shout, 'Well, what in hell do you expect me to do about it?'
    In fact the entire Skunk Works design group for the Blackbird totaled seventy-five, which was amazing. Nowadays, there would be more than twice that number just pushing papers around on any typical aerospace project.
    Finally, [the DEA], after conferring with the Mexican planters [working for them], ordered a last [U-2] flight for photos showing poppies ready to harvest. The U-2 flew over the field, as scheduled, only to discover the poppy field had been swept clean: the workers had harvested the crop the night before and slipped back into Mexico. The first US government-subsidized and grown heroin was probably on the streets a few weeks later.
  • How to Solve It (G. Polya) - I had no interest in reading this when it was required of me ten years ago, partly because of all the geometry (too many triangles), but overall this turned out to be worthwhile. [more]I was never very interested in "textbook" math problems in school because I never cared what the solutions were to begin with (who cares when Train A collides with Train B anyway?), so reading this book in university never appealed to me; I remember flipping through it when it was first assigned and never opening it again. Reading it now, I identify with the authors' ideas from my perspective of writing software, where many of the author's tips are just as relevant and become second-nature with experience. My interest in mathematics itself these days trends towards the formal (or "pedantic" as the author might jab) -- proof engines like Metamath and Coq weren't around in Polya's day, and I wonder what he'd think about them. In the same vein, his presentation of Pappus and the pursuit of "analysis" (working forwards from knowns/theorems towards a goal) followed by "synthesis" (stepping back from the goal towards knowns/theorems) did strike me as illuminative. I've come to know that pattern of work from my experiments writing proofs in Coq, and in fact there you can blend both approaches simultaneously by rewriting statements in the proof context (working forwards: analysis) and applying theorems to the proof goal (working backwards: synthesis) at the same time. None of this would have been clear to me in high school or university in a pen-and-paper-only context, where I would frequently just zone out after plugging-and-chugging with my TI-83. Sometimes I wonder if my reliance upon software in attaining insights such as these is indicative of my having a limited mindset, a resourceful one, or of nothing at all.

2019

  • The Unconscious Civilization (John Ralston Saul) - The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. [more]If you don't yet have the time or the stomach to read Voltaire's Bastards in its entirety, this makes for a great initial teaser. Put your acid away and drop this for a change.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe) - A great read from one of the best to ever do it, and a societal commentary that doesn't take itself too seriously: the rarely reached apex, in my oh-so-humble opinion, of literary prowess.
  • The Soul of a New Machine (Tracy Kidder) - Hard to believe this all happened only 40 years ago, when 256K memory was spacious and you could use an oscilliscope to debug a nascent CPU. [more]Kidder does an admirable job of explaining things in layman's terms, and his insights on management and team dynamics also make for a compelling read. It's cool to hear how, at the end of the day, many of the hardware/software pioneers profiled in this book really just wanted a difficult challenge to work on. I'd like to think the current state of software still holds such challenges in its harder-to-reach corners, but when I read works like this, all I hear are the voices of those CPU designers of yesteryear whispering, "get off my lawn."
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe) - Colorful writing describing colorful times; Wolfe truly found the most intricate style imaginable in which to depict this historical period. [more]At times I forgot that all of the events herein actually happened. Aside from the stories of the shenanigans the Pranksters got up to, to me it was most intriguing to see how the movement that grew around acid was not immune from politics and a gradual encroachment into religious territory. As a group, the Pranksters clearly had a lot of fun and accomplished more together than apart, but once the group was formed devolution was inevitable. With recent developments such as JHU's new psychedelics lab, perhaps the spark kept alive by the Pranksters will inspire something fruitful for broader society, beyond what is possible when association is limited to a particular "scene" or archetype.
    :::: and it is either make this thing permanent inside of you or forever just climb draggled up into the conning tower every time for one short glimpse of the horizon ::::
    One way or another, the Hell's Angels came to symbolize the side of the Kesey adventure that panicked the hip world. The Angels were too freaking real. Outlaws? they were outlaws by choice, from the word go, all the way out in Edge City. Further! The hip world, the vast majority of the acid heads, were still playing the eternal charade of the middle class intellectuals -- Behold my wings! Freedom! Flight! -- but you don't actually expect me to jump off that cliff, do you?
    I'll have to hand it to the heads. They really want to end the little games. Their hearts are pure. I never found more than one or two cynics or hustlers among them. But now that the moment is at hand, everyone is wondering ... Hmmmmm ... who is going to lead the way and hold the light? Then just one little game starts, known as politics...
    The Pranksters, Babbs and Gretch and Page and others, take to the bandstand, all electrified, and they start beaming out the most weird loud Chinese science-fiction music and cranking up the Buchla electronic music machine until it maneuvers itself into the most incalculable sonic corner, the last turn in the soldered circuit maze, and lets out a pure topologically measured scream.
    the ... souped-up thing the Pranksters were always into, this 400-horsepower takeoff game, this American flag-flying game, this Day-Glo game, this yea-saying game, this dread neon game, this ... superhero game, all wired-up and wound up and amplified in the electropastel chrome game gleam.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery) - Interesting mix of philosophical interlude within a dually narrated plot. Paloma's musings on life are the best; [more](spoiler alert) I'm glad she doesn't end up killing herself after all. Without giving anything more away, I'll just say that the ending is one of the most abruptly poignant endings I've come across.
  • Just for Fun (Torvalds, Diamond) - In which Linus tells all about the early days of Linux and reveals The Meaning of Life [more]whilst cruising around the valley in a Z3. Great read.
  • The Unix-Haters Handbook - Now I understand why we all don't have personal Lisp machines. [more]Some of the design criticisms leveled against Unix here do make sense on the one hand, even despite the eradication of many of the bugs used to support those critiques back in 1994. On the other hand, that freedom to shoot yourself in the foot with Unix/Linux is precisely the reason why it's used everywhere and anywhere today - virally, as the authors point out. I'll just be thankful that I didn't have to put up with 10+ years of NFS failures, sendmail, and the early versions of X before having Unix open my eyes to the ephemeral nature of all things (and files and processes).
  • Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou) - I was 100 yards away from two years' worth of the shenanigans covered in this book and I never even knew it. [more]That this went on for so long is unbelievable; thankfully freedom of the press and well-intentioned people eventually prevailed, I'm just surprised it took so incredibly long: over a decade, in fact. Private American businesses get a large amount of freedom (comparatively speaking) in exchange for implicit expectations that people will "do the right thing," and ultimately most of Theranos' employees violated that basic American tenet. I should've hung out at Antonio's Nut House more often on my way to and from Caltrain.
  • Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller (David Larson) - Although the author clearly did not hit spell check before publishing this hilarious book, it ranks highly [more]for both the author's caring honesty about issues the profession has, and of course for the wild stories. Better to read this while not sitting in a plane, especially given the author's dead-serious conclusion about the FAA's state today in the years following the exodus of controllers hired by Reagan to break the 1981 strike.
    When the world goes to hell, make stuff up that sounds reasonable, talk faster, and try to sound like you know what you're doing even when you don't. That one lesson would come to serve me very well over the course of the next 30+ years.
    One day I saw a pack of dogs run under the fence on the south side of the aerodrome, so I called the cop/refueler/crash guys to dispatch said haters of aviation to aviation hater hell ... these guys were just as bored as we were, so they took to this task with all the fervor of the first responding rescuers on 9/11.
    The problem is that first we fired all of the people that worked around the rules, and had a can-do attitude.
    Do I think that flight 188 should have been shot down? Of course not. But if we're going to piss TONS of money away putting on a big theatrical show for the masses, then we better be ready to pull the trigger when the time comes. Otherwise, let's get back to living like sane people and put an end to all the bullshit bravado, and ignorant simplistic answers to complex problems that we really have no intention of living up to in the first place.
    With Bahamas Air heading west, level at 3000, and the Lear initially heading east but turning right to a northwest heading, now level at 3000, he took another swipe at Bahamas Air. On the tape ... you can hear that wonderful Bahamian accent declare, "Oh my God, here he comes again mon."
  • Convenience Store Woman (Murata, Takemori) - A fun literary exercise on what "conformity" really means, and to whom. By devoting herself to a convenience store, Furukura [more]is a "foreign agent" who ultimately honors her unorthodox calling despite the concerns of those who are unsettled by her choices.

2018

  • Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning (Andrei Martyanov) - An important and valuable read. The author minces no words in his valid criticism [more]of past and current US military policies, exaggeration by the US of its past military victories, and undue marginalization by the US of Russia's own accomplishments, especially with regard to WWII. He's particularly (and rightfully) concerned that future US desperation to maintain a unipolar world order will set off a global conflict. On the technology side, the author discusses Russia's unrivaled advances, including its development of long-distance hypersonic missiles that the US lacks and would be unable to defend against during a war. Martyanov does seem to overrely on some of these advances to support his broader points, but most everything he discusses in this book is all news to me and would never even be alluded to in a US high school history class. Bottom line is that much of the US populace is unaware of their own unromanticized history, not to mention Russia's own history and of what Russia is really capable of today, all of which does not bode well for current and future US policy decisions.
  • The Rum Diary (Hunter S. Thompson) - Great book, and much better than the 2011 movie of the same title [more]-- rolling Yeamon's character into Sanderson's was a poor decision, though they expanded on Moberg's quite well. More importantly, Thompson includes a heavy dose of introspection and commentary that is absent from its cinematic rendition: Kemp's existential angst, his over-thirty doubts, his observations of Americans, and his inner tension between staying in and leaving a place.
    The scene I had just witnessed brought back a lot of memories - not of things I had done but of things I failed to do, wasted hours and frustrated moments and opportunities forever lost because time had eaten so much of my life and I would never get it back.
    No matter how much I wanted all those things that I needed money to buy, there was some devilish current pushing me off in another direction -- towards anarchy and poverty and craziness. That maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas Goat.
    I had felt a definite contact with Yeamon, a kind of tenuous understanding that talk is pretty cheap in this league and that a man who knew what he was after had damn little time to find it, much less to sit back and explain himself.
  • Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner (John Sullivan) - An insightful and comprehensive compendium of the author's many years spent working in polygraph. [more]Sullivan's view is that polygraph is more art than science, where the success or failure of a test rests on the examiner's ability to analyze the charts, read the subject, and to skillfully conduct an interrogation if necessary. He recounts some wild admissions and a whole lot of office politics, which some may tire of but which lend some much-appreciated humanity to polygraph examiners and their work. The ironic ending, in which Sullivan is denied a clearance based on his own polygraph results, serves to confirm Sullivan's point: polygraph works, but the outcome depends on the specific pair of individuals sitting on either side of the apparatus.
    The examiner's ability is what makes a polygraph work; the subject's fear of detection is why it works.
    ... Doctor Dufek's guidelines for getting through a polygraph test: "Be nice, cooperate, and don't antagonize the examiner."
    In so many cases the admission that is obtained is insignificant, but the extent to which a subject goes to avoid making the admission is, or should be, factored into the adjudication.
  • But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (Chuck Klosterman) - Another excellent book by Klosterman, touching on weightier topics than any of his other books, [more]but never in a serious (or self-serious) way. The futures of physics, the US, football, music - it's all here. Wildest part: his compelling argument that we're in a simulation, with one piece of evidence being the uncanny precision and agreement of various fundamental physical constants. Heaviest: the possibility that Americans' over-reliance on the concept of freedom and the ideals in the Constitution could eventually be our downfall (still can't wrap my mind around this, which is his main point). His ruminations on what improves the odds of a work of art becoming definitive are interesting for their counterintuitiveness. My favorite part has to be the realization that his brilliant goddamn hedgehog wasn't a hedgehog after all...
    There is a sense that [football] is being taken from fans, and mostly by snooty strangers who never liked the sport in the first place. It will come to be seen as the persecution of a culture. This makes football akin to the Confederate flag, or Christmas decorations in public places, or taxpayer-supported art depicting Jesus in a tank of urine.
    The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful. Because every strength is a weakness, if given enough time.
    Every day, our understanding of the universe incrementally increases. New questions are getting answered. But are these the right questions? Is it possible that we are mechanically improving our comprehension of principles that are all components of a much larger illusion, in the same way certain 18th-century Swedes believed they had finally figured out how elves and trolls caused illness?
  • Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) - A wild life story. Most enlightening part for me was his illustration of how language opens doors and short-circuits [more]the tribalistic/racist assumptions of others.
  • Autonomy (Lawrence Burns) - One of the best examples I can point to of a book that ties together recent historical developments [more]in a way that paints a crystal clear picture of the near future. Burns explains how advances in software and computing power made autonomous vehicles possible in a fraction of the time most people thought, beginning with the mid-2000s DARPA challenges and working forward. Burns is far from the most unbiased historian who could have written this, given his association with Waymo and his clear dislike of Kalanick and Levandowski, but his depth of experience makes him one of the few authors who can write credibly and comprehensively about the autonomous vehicle transformation just as it begins to visibly change America today.
  • Freedom (Sonny Barger) - Another great book by the man himself, divided into 50 brief missives of wisdom [more]sourced from Barger's own life experiences. His insistence that political feuds and boardroom disagreements be resolved by hand-to-hand combat, and his citation of mandatory helmet laws as a prime example of how Americans' civic apathy has made society worse, are two of his more eyebrow-raising arguments. Setting those aside, most of Barger's assertions are of value, and especially the characteristically blunt manner in which he supports them.
    As Americans with less than three hundred years of heritage, we rose from the spirit of violence, rebellion, and revolution to become a nation of doubters and dissenters. It’s in our genes to stand up and disagree. That’s the cloth Americans are cut from.
    The size of your world is in direct proportion to how much courage you have to fill it, change it, and even leave it.
    What angers me is when America sits on its lard ass. What’s worse is when we sit on skills that could be put to use for the greater good.
  • Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (Tom Wolfe) - May he rest in peace. In this book, Wolfe dances freely [more]across the uncomfortable minefield of truths surrounding the relationship between society's elite and the marginalized groups they attempt to advance.
    The bureaucrats at City Hall and in the Office of Economic Opportunity talked “ghetto” all the time, but they didn’t know any more about what was going on in the Western Addition, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, the Mission, Chinatown, or south of Market Street than they did about Zanzibar.
    Black people began to realize for the first time that the white man, particularly the educated white man, the leadership, had a deep dark Tarzan mumbo jungle voodoo fear of the black man’s masculinity. This was a revelation. For two hundred years, wherever black people lived, north or south, mothers had been raising their sons to be meek, to be mild, to check their manhood at the front door in all things that had to do with white people, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Man. The Man was the white man. He was the only man. And now, when you got him up close and growled, this all-powerful superior animal turned out to be terrified. You could read it in his face. He had the same fear in his face as some good-doing boy who has just moved onto the block and is hiding behind his mama and the moving man and the sofa while the bad dudes on the block size him up.
    And even the Flak Catcher himself wasn’t losing much. He wasn’t losing his manhood. He gave that up a long time ago, the day he became a lifer... Just who is fucking over who... You did your number and he did his number, and they didn’t even have to stop the music... The band played on...
    Why do so many bureaucrats, deans, preachers, college presidents, try to smile when the mau-mauing starts? It’s fatal, this smiling. When some bad dude is challenging your manhood, your smile just proves that he is right and you are chickenshit—unless you are a bad man yourself with so much heart that you can make that smile say, “Just keep on talking, sucker, because I’m gonna count to ten and then squash you.”
  • Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker) - Everyone's reading this book these days, for good reason. Walker presents new information on sleep [more]that we've only just acquired in the last few decades, and questions some ingrained societal practices that seem unhealthy as a result (the most prominent being early school start times for children). Apparently just one alcoholic drink in the evening is enough to limit or even block REM sleep; too many nights of blocked REM sleep lead to daytime hallucinations and eventually insanity. The spike in heart attacks following spring's DST leap forward is wild, as are the similiarity of symptoms between sleep deficiency and ADHD in children. I knew the medical profession is notorious for sleeping too little, but I had no idea the problem is rooted in the precedent set by William Steward Halston when he founded JHU's medical school whilst addicted to coke. Surprisingly, the author advocates greater use of home sensors and wearables for improving sleep health; personally I doubt the solution is more technology and complexity. Most interestingly, Walker asserts that "Wakefulness is low-level brain damage, while sleep is neurological sanitation." This explains so much...
  • Paddle Your Own Canoe (Nick Offerman) - One part memoir, another part philosophical entreatise on life by the man who brought us Ron Swanson. [more]Some parts are more promotional than others -- a lot of LA name-dropping going on especially towards the end -- but it's all well written with a healthy dose of humor, irreverence, and sexual innuendo lacing it all together. The man really loves his wife, his woodworking, his meat, and his teachers: "... A quality that I have really learned to look for in an instructor: that he/she be one who continues to indulge in a hungry course of learning for him/herself."
  • Let's Ride (Sonny Barger) - A good source of info about riding, buying, and maintaining a motorcycle. [more]Barger's writing style is humorously honest; one minute he's dumping on the media for exaggerating about the Hell's Angels, another moment he's analytically comparing the differences between American and European motorcycles to the differences between American and European horse saddles, and yet another moment he's spiritually introspective: "Riding really is a form of meditation. Most religions have ways to help focus your thoughts -- meditation, prayer, ceremonies -- and in this way riding a motorcycle is a lot like a religion." Wildest part was about suicide clutches; the Buddha really has blessed us with an unparalleled sense of innovation.
  • Whatever (Michel Houellebecq) - This book was mentioned in a discourse about modern-day attacks perpetrated by people calling themselves "incels" (involuntary celibates). [more]In Whatever, the narrator's grand thesis is that sexual liberalism is a form of social hierarchy, in the same way that capitalism stratifies the economy; this of course is obvious to anyone who knows anything about biology and genetics, let alone real life. The catch is that Houellebecq's narrator isn't of the ignorant archetype, but of the perpetually dissatisfied, passive group: those who refuse to change or abandon the parts of their lives they actively despise; in this case, modern Western society (here the setting is 1990s Paris) and increasing use of technology (the narrator is a computer programmer/analyst). Those rare moments when change is affected are directed purely at others in violent fashion (i.e., the knife scene on the beach). In this way, Houllebecq's Whatever mirrors the antipathic mindset of, and sporadic acts of violence by, a certain subset of today's population.
  • Cape Horn to Starboard (John Kretschmer) - An alternatingly wild and introspective recounting of the author's rounding of Cape Horn in the 80s. [more]Having to deal with one challenge after another sounds like my kind of life; in his own words, "Although I did not reap either fame or fortune, I did succeed in breaking out of the suffocating pattern offered by our all-too-secure society." Additionally, the fact that the author's girlfriend at the time baked bread and chocolate cake atop just a kerosene stove blew my mind to the point of trying it myself: it really is possible after all. Never would have guessed.
  • Left of Boom (Douglas Laux) - At first I decided not to read this after flipping through a few pages: the author's writing style is much like that of a teenage boy [more]whose just crawled out of his bedroom window and thinks he's the first person to discover girls, cars, and drugs. But then I came across the book again and flipped through long enough to see that behind the machismo, the author's got some hard-won, valuable perspectives on America's wars, the CIA's role in them, and improvements that should be made in both domains. His ability to speak Pashto is his greatest asset in this respect. The book is heavily redacted, but you can easily read between the lines or even outright infer what was censored. So easy, in fact, that a drinking game could be derived from filling in "Pakistan" or "ISI" in half the blanks. More importantly, the heavy redaction shows how childishly broad our government's approach to "secret" information is (see John Ralston Saul's writing for some great points on this subject) and serves as a humorous illustration of some of Laux's own arguments. By the end of the book, and in spite of some of the cringe inducing accounts of his relationships with the women in his life, I found myself sympathetic to Laux's frustration about being prevented from doing his best work in service to the US of A.
  • The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Peter Orner) - This book is pure gold. The author based this on his real-life experiences teaching at a Namibian school [more]in the early 1990s. Orner wove his experiences into a narrative using 100+ chapters of lengths ranging from a few pages to a few sentences, giving him more creative liberty and a much more interesting book than if he'd just written a memoir.
    Soon the boys will be lining up at the dining-hall door for lunch, spoons in hands.
    A secret history of Pohamba? What of the horror of not having one, of being the person people think you are?
    Four years later, on the eve of independence, the diocese in Windhoek sent Goas new equipment. Men came out with state-of-the-art everything: lab tables, sinks with running water, microscopes. There are beakers and flasks. Safety goggles. Hazardous chemicals. Bunsen burners! To this day no boy has touched any of it. The principal keeps the place locked up like a gleaming shrine.
    You never see yourself as plainly as through the eyes of children who aren’t children anymore.
    My sister and I walked around like queens because my father was an assistant headman, because he worked in an office. A sell-out, my father.
    "You think I’m on vacation?" She doesn’t raise her head. "You think I don’t know I’m on vacation?"
    FESTUS: Maybe that’s a long speech for Mumbeli at the end?
    OBADIAH (wit’s end, end of the rope, last hurrah, goodbye to all that, things don’t fall apart, they implode): Even Festus is a critic. All we ever do is make speeches. Don’t you even understand that? You think anybody talks to each other? Ever? Talks to each other?
  • Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem (Simon Singh) - Andrew Wiles, what a man. I would like to know what rare force of nature [more](dare I say the Lord above?) inspires someone to work in secret for 7 years on a problem most people thought could not be solved. This book by Singh is great, but I have so many unanswered questions. How many times over 7 years did Wiles stare out a window, just barely clinging to the precipice of sanity? How many times did the high of solving some intermediate step put him atop the world in a way no drug can? Also, I can't believe Pythagoras drowned one of his students because he couldn't accept the fact that the square root of 2 is irrational. Thank God for progress.
    Some are influenced by the love of wealth while others are blindly led on by the mad fever for power and domination, but the finest type of man gives himself up to discovering the meaning and purpose of life itself. He seeks to uncover the secrets of nature. This is the man I call a philosopher for although no man is completely wise in all respects, he can love wisdom as the key to nature’s secrets.
  • City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism (Jim Krane) - I'm glad I read this book before going to Dubai, as it innured me to the common criticism [more]that Dubai is just a bland Disney-esque try-hard city (which I consider to be related to the same strain of ignorance that causes Trump to think everyone south of the Sahara lives in a hut). There are obviously problems: the place isn't walkable, laborers are treated like cattle, power and AC use is sky-high, and presumably the strength of traditional Arab communities has suffered (but how would I know). Krane mentions all of this while illustrating just how fast Dubai grew, giving it present-day advantages to becoming a global center in finance, healthcare, technology, etc. And with regard to the US, the author lays out some insight about the post-9/11 relationship between Dubai and the US, the subtly racist US reaction to Dubai World's 2008 attempt to manage some US ports (I remember being against it myself having bought into the media hype), and President Bush's reaction upon visiting Dubai and his gaining a new perspective on the Middle East as a result.
  • Factfulness (Hans Rosling, et al) - A worthwhile read; the authors are adept at visually depicting how much the world has changed in the preceding decades. [more]I think the single most valuable concept presented here is the replacement of the archaic "developing" and "developed" labels with four progressive income levels, and I would not have fully appreciated the nuances between these levels had I not seen firsthand what life is like in Tanzania. Also, I viscerally agree that Africa and Asia are taking "the West's" place as the center of economic action; for anyone alive today wanting a taste of modern Manifest Destiny, the two best bets appear to be "the East" and the private space industry. (Thanks to my lovely mother for the book recommendation.)
  • Victor in the Rubble (Alex Finley) - A great satire of bureaucratic incompetence in the "war on terror." [more]Finley managed to pull everything together just right such that Victor's obstacles in the CYA mirror those of Omar's in his terrorist organization, so much so that they end up commiserating together in an Atlanta jail cell. On top of that, anyone who's worked in a corporate office setting will appreciate Finley's depiction of headquarters: mandatory exercise, complimentary donuts, synergistic doublespeak, and a line out the door to Starbucks.
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Richard Feynman) - First half is a collection of random stories [more]in the style of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, second half documents his experience serving on the commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The best part is his essay at the end entitled The Value of Science, a most encouraging motivational piece for those searching for a way to best contribute to society and humanity.
  • From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (Caitlin Doughty) - Puts you in a (thoughtful, well-travelled) mortician's shoes for awhile. [more]Now I want to visit that columbarium in Japan with the lit up crystal Buddhas. Still considering whether I'd be down to be torn apart by vultures in some mid-air orgiastic feast, which will probably never be allowed in the US but really makes you ponder what could be... (Thanks to the lovely Rebecca for the book recommendation.)
  • I Wear the Black Hat (Chuck Klosterman) - As usual Klosterman eloquently elaborates on viewpoints you won't find elsewhere. [more]Some choice quotes: "The one intangible that makes Americans forgive everything else: superhuman self-assurance." "Day's over the top undeserved confidence is more desirable than Prince's insecure wholly earned arrogance." "Americans can't get over the idea of a man who unsuccessfully aspires to be what he is not." "On Seinfeld, the characters express contempt for emotion. It is the weakest quality a human can possess."
  • An Island to Oneself (Tom Neale) - A New Zealand man's recounting of his days living alone on a deserted island in his 50s and 60s. [more]It must be harder to attempt this these days; I wonder how many uninhabited yet habitable islands remain. An indefinite time horizon would not suit me, but a year or two would be epic. It'd really force one to get down to the fundamentals of life, in addition to bestowing an appreciation for the conveniences of modernity, provided one doesn't die before returning to civilization. The two wildest stories Neale writes about here: the one about two US Navy helicopters landing on the island, and the family who wrecked their yacht and had to live on the island with him for 2 months.
  • My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance (Emanuel Derman) - Good read, not just for the simple explanations of key concepts in quantitative finance and options theory, [more]but also for Derman's various insider and outsider life perspectives. I did laugh each time he was overly self-deprecating or withheld credit from himself - this was the single best illustration of how quants and traders differ. His South African viewpoint is noteworthy, i.e. "In America, I was alarmed to see students who set about learning things on their own." Best quote: "If you decide you don't have to get A's, you can learn an enormous amount in college." Amen to that. Any future children I have are going to know that sentiment well.
  • Getting Off (Erica Garza) - Respect to the author for being able to write this, let alone publish it. Garza relies on unqualified use of the word "addiction" [more]throughout most of the book to unify her actions, so I was glad to see that by the end of the book she presented an alternate perspective on "sex addiction," a phrase I still find vaguely unmeaningful. As she writes, her primary challenge was to eliminate the shame that accompanied her actions; without ruining the ending, I'll just say it's an encouraging one. For those with active imaginations, life would be boring without some fanciful fantasies and their reification, and I'd consider it myopic and unhealthy to simply abandon that outlet of creative expression merely because most other people don't develop it as enthusiastically, a conclusion Garza seems to support given how she chose to conclude this excellent book.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - Reading this book is like taking a sunset walk along the beach: you want to make it last as long as possible. [more]An English translation as beautifully written as this makes me wish I knew Spanish well enough to read the original. I'm not sure I could ever write a book quite like this, mainly because I would want to incorporate more dialogue than Marquez has included here, but I think it's possible to derive a suitable descendant. There's not a person on this planet who can't identify in some way with Fermina Daza or Florentino Ariza; by extension, this book is one of those rareties that draws out our deeply personal emotional memories that are unique to us as individuals but experientially shared by all, a commonality we hide from each other unless under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
    Florentino Ariza stated it another way: “The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not.” He distrusted those who did not: when they strayed from the straight and narrow, it was something so unusual for them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it. Those who did it often, on the other hand, lived for that alone. They felt so good that their lips were sealed as if they were tombs, because they knew that their lives depended on their discretion. They never spoke of their exploits, they confided in no one, they feigned indifference to the point where they earned the reputation of being impotent, or frigid, or above all timid fairies, as in the case of Florentino Ariza. But they took pleasure in the error because the error protected them. They formed a secret society, whose members recognized each other all over the world without need of a common language...
    And as much as I love the truth of that excerpt, my favorite part in the entire book is simply when Fermina Daza says, "A century ago, life screwed that poor man and me because we were too young, and now they want to do the same thing because we are too old."
  • A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life (Craig Venter) - Interesting life arc, and Venter manages to successfully explain complex biology and genomics topics [more]without sticking merely to layman explanations. Interestingly, when he's describing his relationships with other people, he has no qualms about relinquishing even the most personal of details, c.f. making love by fireplaces. This extends to the genomics palace intrigue that apparently took place in the 1990s; all the passive-aggressive reputational grandstanding he describes sounds like a pathetic waste of dignity. One of the best two threads of the book details the development of new software to take advantage of the increasingly powerful hardware becoming available at the time, which had a more prominent role in successfully sequencing the human genome than I had otherwise assumed. The other details his sailing escapades; I'm noticing a personality archetype for people who seem to have to risk their lives on the open seas in tandem with driving their land lives forward toward some insane goal at high speeds. Maybe there's a gene for that.
  • Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Ashlee Vance) - Picked this up after watching a live stream of Falcon Heavy's successful first flight whilst seated in my red plastic Coca-Cola chair [more]on my back porch in Tanzania at 12am one night. This occasion reminded me of two things: 1) I am damn proud to be an American; 2) we are shooting towards the future at an insane, seemingly exponential pace. While I read Vance's book, I was struck by the realization that everything related to Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity started in 2003 and beyond: all of this was getting off the ground while I just sat around in middle school writing pointless essays and designing a Finding Nemo board game for math class. But it's only in the last few years that the companies have reached some semblance of terra firma, and as Vance mentions, Musk's endeavors are opening up new, more fruitful paths for progress as alternatives to the vestigial dotcom-esque startups pervasive in SF and the Valley today. Now I've got a much better understanding of why some aspects of life in the Valley rubbed me the wrong way, and of the places I want to aim for if I ever write software for a living there again.
  • Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (Hunter S. Thompson) - Besides his writing style and deadpan humor, my favorite aspect of this book is how many holes Thompson tears in the facade of so many staid aspects [more]of 1960s US society (the press, "squares," restrictive marijuana legislation, etc.), but without tearing them down completely to make way for the Hell's Angels, who he ultimately concludes are entertaining but threaten to lead US society in a disturbing direction. Some of the stories Thompson includes are insane - what it would have been like to be in SF in the 60s, attending a LSD-fueled mixer of Berkeley beatniks and Hell's Angels hosted by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters...
  • High Fidelity (Nick Hornby) - Titillating, but fell apart for me towards the end. [more]It's not Rob's faults I take issue with, which the author develops in an entertaining and realistic manner - at times I cringed with recognition from my own life experiences and had to stop reading for awhile. But Rob's faults are mostly revealed to us by opening his consciousness up for us to see as he bumbles about his life, which is a passive sort of ordeal - cognizant of his problems, but not seeking any solutions to them. By the end (spoiler alert) he's lured his ex-girlfriend back and decides to compile a mixtape to show his appreciation for her. Which is great progress in the context of the very 1990s-esque plot, but doesn't strike me as an authentic progression given the developments of the first 3/4 of the book. I may also just be getting old. Anyway, good entertainment but emotionally a let-down.

2017

  • The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture (Ishmael Jones) - The author has lived a wild life, and this book recounts some of the highlights [more]in addition to making the case for structural changes to the CIA. Jones also presents some wisdom from his years on the job: be aggressive when needed so as to define the contours of a relationship, have enough money to temporarily fund yourself so as not to be dependent on your own employer, and solve every possible problem completely on your own. Jones frequently relied on these strategies during his years with the CIA, and I think they're an ideal set of qualities to have when working for anyone other than yourself. That being said, all of the needless bureaucracy-induced pain that Jones endured while simply trying to do his job reminded me of the saying "it's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." A fine sentiment for an individual to apply to their own life, but if we want to incentivize many people to come together to help preserve America, we clearly need a better environment than that of the CIA as Jones describes it here.
  • The Art of Invisibility (Kevin Mitnick) - Not bad in terms of informational value, or for a decent overview of the 2010s' highest-profile privacy infringements. [more]But the book is rather promotional and lacks technical depth, philosophical curiousity, and just plain old realism. We don't need "invisibility" to avoid most of the problems this book discusses, just common sense and an independent approach to self-valuation. I'd write the book myself if it wouldn't be so mind-numbingly and obviously boring for me to write and others to read.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig) - As the author says in his afterword, this is definitely not the type of book one decides to sit down and write one day; [more]it's all got to flow to you from beyond. Those who feel this book is either anti- or pro-technology missed the boat; technology is just one aspect of life that Western society has elevated to an importance it doesn't deserve. Spirituality, emotions, the omniscient - Pirsig refers to these collectively as "Quality," and as he says: "A real understanding of Quality captures the System, tames it, and puts it to work for one’s own personal use, while leaving one completely free to fulfill his inner destiny." Pirsig interweaves his musings with a motorycle trip he and his son made from the Midwest to California, and includes scenes from his past as a university lecturer and PhD student. His evolution as a teacher is particularly striking to me and matches my own: after some time he concludes that "schools teach you to imitate" and refuses to assign grades, before finally seeing that "his days as a shepherd are coming to an end too."
  • Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) - I can see why this is a popular book these days. I do agree with the author [more]that personal responsibility and sheer force of effort are required for those who wish to change their socioeconomic circumstances, and that government assistance is (usually) helpful but will never make more than a dent given the magnitude of the changes the US is dealing with today. A not insignficant number of Americans do need to stop relying on welfare, quit eating at KFC every day, and lay off the opiates. But then what? What are they actually going to do afterwards? The author himself is a lawyer, one of the lucky few in a profession with an oversupply of aspirants and a declining supply of jobs, the latter due to the same trends that drained much of the prosperity from his chilhood home of Middletown, Ohio. Vance neglects or avoids discussing these deeper societal shifts in his book; although this doesn't make it any less of a valuable read, his failure to do so is akin to summitting a crowded mountain peak before proceeding to shout advice down to the scrambling masses below. What that mountain needs is a good old-fashioned landslide, something no amount of advice, government policy, or personal effort can deliver - only the hand of God and the passage of time.
  • Software Foundations Vol. 1 (Logical Foundations) - I've heard a lot about Coq over the last few years and have been interested in learning how to use it; this was the book that got me there. [more]Thankfully I have been disabused of my previous conceptualization of Coq as magic; it does have that aura at times, but all the hard work is still in the mind. I think it's much more fun to use Coq to learn these concepts than it is to read traditional books or listen to university lectures. Informal proofs put me to sleep, but formal proofs let me be active instead of passive: I can step through parts I don't understand, try alternate approaches, etc. And the ability to extract code directly from proofs is indicative of the long-term future of software. Great book, highly recommend; available here for public download.
  • Post Office (Charles Bukowski) - A masterful combination of deadpan humor and an honest, straightforward writing style [more]similar to that found in one's personal diary. The effect is such that on those occasions when Bukowski wants to communicate a serious point, it comes across perfectly without needing to be stated directly outright. My favorite line: "I wasn't much of a petty thief. I wanted the whole world or nothing."
  • Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution (Derrick Jensen) - Every indictment the author levels at industrial education is accurate, but his criticisms of "industrial civilization" [more]border on Unabomber-esque philosophy. If you wish to live in a cabin in deserted Montana, you have no right to send pipe bombs through the US mail to people who choose not to live as you do. Likewise, if you choose to live in modern society, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails, harping, as the author does, on your desire to blow up dams on behalf of wild salmon sounds disingenuous. I get that modern society produces a lot of destructive conformity, but so did the colonialism and tribalism of generations past. These qualms aside, I found Jensen's thoughts on education and writing to be insightful and valuable.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Hunter S. Thompson) - I laughed the whole way through this. When I get around to writing a book, in addition to taking some inspiration [more]from The Paradise Eater, parts of it will be styled similar to how Thompson has done here. Not the whole thing and not completely gonzo, because I think this style is best suited to linear narratives of historically-fictive drug-induced shenanigans, of which life is (ideally) constituted piecewise rather than continuously. Many of the cultural references from the 1960s and early 1970s were lost on me, but after some heavy Internet research I can see why this book is acclaimed as an insightful commentary on that time period. "One toke over the line sweet Jesus, one toke over the line; sittin' downtown in a railway station, one toke over the line."
  • The Intel Trinity (Michael Malone) - Maybe I'm just getting old and jaded, but it seems to me that this is more of a hagiography [more]than anything else; the title alone should have warned me. The author has some crazy obsession with Moore's Law, going so far as to breathlessly proclaim it "the metronome of the modern world." Apparently to the author, modernity is defined by the rate at which he can cram twice as many songs onto his iPod (do they still make those?). Noyce seems like a cool guy, and at least more of an actual person than Grove. I don't care how much skill it takes to grow a multibillion dollar company - it also takes a deplorable deficit of imagination to dedicate one's entire adult life to running said company predicated on the absurd belief that it would be "the ultimate way to assert one's place and identity in the world." If I had read this book just a few years ago, I would have wanted to become Andy Grove. Reading this now, my thoughts hang instead on the image of Grove spending his final days in a Los Altos office surrounded by Intel memorabilia and complaining that his successors were trashing the company. Grove's biggest failure was to be so successful at running Intel that it made him blind to a life without it. Similar to drug addiction, just more socially acceptable. I'd love to debate Grove on this point, and with all due respect to Malone: I'd win.
  • Flirting with Mermaids: The Unpredictable Life of a Sailboat Delivery Captain (John Kretschmer) - I will do this one day, if not with other people's boats, at least with my own. [more]This guy has so many great stories, especially the one about getting shot at in the Middle East. I'll be floating off St. Vincent and the Grenadines fixing computers like that guy in Culebra does. Siku moja.
  • Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (Jerry Mander) - This is a brilliantly written book. The author stays away from surface-level critiques of television [more]to dive into the technology, our biology, and the interdependence of TV with America's material culture. This was written in the 1970s; while some parts do seem dated in our age of the Internet, most of it is still entirely relevant today, and parts of it are quite prescient, such as ruminations that television was causing hyperactivity in children. Environmental advocacy efforts on TV having a negative effect on viewers was something I'd never considered before, and linking back to primitive societies and religions to remind readers that "we evolve into the images we carry in our minds" was especially on point. This book was quite depressing to read, in that it made me realize that it's impossible to acheive a sense of inner peace in any heavily technological, human-designed, environmentally-mediated society, regardless of any individual choices one makes while living in said society.
  • The King Never Smiles (Paul Handley) - Well-written and even-handed. The author includes quite a few salacious details about the royal court, [more]so I can see why this is banned in Thailand. Any entity with power will fight to keep or expand it, so while I don't believe a "dhammacracy" is an honest form of government, the book makes the progression towards it clear enough. The palace hype machine notwithstanding, Bhumibol does seem like one of those rare, gift-from-God monarchs in light of his compassion and drive. And though I will always be a fan of Buddhist temples, the book details some wild beliefs by high-level monks (i.e., killing Communists is spiritually meritorious) that reinforce to me just how distorted any organized religion can become in the hands of its adherents. After all, Buddha himself was an independent wanderer, and upon his death he told his students to follow no leader.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) - The author deftly jumps from dream-state to reality, from 1900s political ideologies to love, [more]and from present to future tense in a skillful way I have yet to see elsewhere. I enjoyed his interjection about Tomas, Tereza, Franz, and Sabina all representing extremes of his own character. In a way they're extremes of all of our characters, over the course of our entire lifetimes. The motif of lightness and heaviness is integrated well throughout, though perhaps too dichotomously. The part I most appreciated: "We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions - love, antipathy, charity, or malice - and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power."
  • Barbarians: How The Baby Boomers, Immigration, and Islam Screwed my Generation (Lauren Southern) - The author deserves respect for calling out some of the harder-to-admit truths about Western society today, [more]but her rants against Islam are xenophobic and her arguments against globalism make no sense to me.
  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! - Assuredly one of the more interesting academics to walk the face of the Earth, on account of his desire/need to venture out [more]of his specialized area of knowledge and learn how to draw, play samba music in Brazil, self-induce hallucinations, etc. I found the parts about him "sticking it to the man" to be less enlightening, such as his insistence that the government give him a dollar for his patent rights, and the occasion when he refused to sign a final government form in order to get paid; life is too short to waste on such Sisyphean rebellions, even if it does make for a good(?) story down the road. Overall though, Feynman portrays the high and low moments in his life with the same clear-sighted honesty throughout, a difficult accomplishment for any self-regarding person.
  • Kiswahili: Msingi wa Kusema, Kusoma, na Kuandika (Hinnebusch, Mirza) - From humbly asking for water in an Islamic coastal village [more]to telling the butcher I'd quit buying from him if he kept giving me bones instead of actual meat, this book has helped me immensely. And with regard to learning languages in general, the authors' approach in this book is the one to emulate.

2016

  • The Paradise Eater (John Ralston Saul) - When I eventually get around to writing a novel one day, I want it to measure up to this one. [more]I now also want to live in Bangkok for awhile. My favorite passage is the dialogue between John and Paga at her golf course; there's too many good parts, but one of the best is Paga's thoughts about coups in Thailand: "Every coup, I lose money. The men spend all their time making coups, but they don't like to fight. No one dies in a coup. The Vietnamese are different. They fight all the time. If Vietnamese come here, they beat Thai army; but after, they cannot beat Thai people. ... Vietnamese man fight like lion, so he need Thai girl." Also, General Krit's reflections as a new monk: "When I was a Colonel, I spent some months in the States on a course. Fort Benning, Georgia, to be precise. The Parachute School. After that I worked with them through the Vietnam business, and really, I came to understand the Americans less and less. Perhaps it has to do with dogma. You Christians, you put dogma at the centre of your religion and, by association, at the centre of everything else. Every statement for you is true or false. Every action is right or wrong. Your salvation depends upon acceptance of the true faith. As a result, you lose your benevolence toward those who refuse your truth. And then, of course, you kill them. ... Our violence is much more personal. We don't believe any positive statement can be true. They are all false. Just by stating them, we make them false. So if we must kill, we kill out of passion or out of need. ... Certainty is a terrible distraction for the human mind. Certainty always obscures clarity."
  • All That Man Is (David Szalay) - I can't think of another book that made me as sad as this one while reading it. [more]In each of the nine chapters, which are essentially loosely linked short stories, the primary male characters have their internal thoughts and feelings narrated by Szalay in a way that allows us to share in their misgivings about their lives. And I say "share" because most any male reading this will be able to identify with some of the attributes of the contemporary men portrayed here, living and working in ways that most other men do these days. This book isn't just an indirect commentary on men, or even men in Europe - it's a commentary on modern life and the way many men choose to live within it, which Szalay more or less characterizes as blind followership without an accurate sense of self-awareness. The ages of the portrayed men progress from young to old as the book moves through spring, summer, fall, and winter settings. The vividity with which Szalay expresses not only the physical, but the psychological state and environments of the characters transforms this book beyond a mere commentary into something truly personal for the reader, such that the confusing mix of compassion and pity I had for each of the men eventually united into an overwhelming motivation not to live as they had.
  • Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (John Ralston Saul) - After spending a few months slowly working my way through this, I consider it to be the most thought-provoking and well-written literary work I have yet read. [more]Published in 1992, there is no mention of recent events and developments (i.e., 9/11, the Internet, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers), but most everything Saul has written here is entirely relevant today. This demonstrates an incredibly rare ability to frame our society and our history -- our actual, non-mythologized history -- at truly enlightening angles, rather than the all-too-common broad brush strokes most authors settle for when attempting to do the same. If we fail to arrange our own Athenian pause and instead end up taking ourselves out (Trump 2016), I will make sure to save my copy so we can jump start ourselves out of the Dark Ages.
  • Turn Right at Machu Picchu (Mark Adams) - Respect to the author for the mental and physical effort required to write this book. [more]The arch on Bingham was interesting to me, but not as much as the profiles of people like John Leivers, the author's Australian guide on his first trip who has made his living providing adventure travel services, and Paolo Greer, the independent researcher living in an Alaskan cabin. Even if they didn't "discover" anything, as Bingham ostensibly did, they appear much more at peace, and in solidarity, with nature and the world. (Thanks to my lovely mother for the book recommendation.)
  • Death of Eden: Outlaw (Chelsey Colleen Hankins, Emily Martens) - This book has excellent plot lines and is well written, I am fortunate to have met the first author as well. [more]I wouldn't be surprised to hear that this plus the future four books in the series take the form of a TV show one day.
  • Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Rebecca Lowen) - This answered many of my questions about how present-day US higher education came to be what it is today, for better and for worse. [more]Rebecca Lowen describes Stanford specifically, and others more generally, in a comprehensive history spanning the 1910s to the 1960s. I can't think of a more complicated evolution that has been researched and presented as successfully as she has done here.
  • Down and Out in Paris and London (George Orwell) - Best part were the pages about Bozo the screever's philosophy on life. [more]Orwell narrates, philosophizes, and proposes societal changes, although his admonitions to the LCC that beggars be treated more humanely, while laudable, sound to me a tad idealistic considering human nature's drive to stratify. I'm agreed on the work of a plongeur being insane, but Orwell takes his argument too far by calling it "slavery;" if he didn't enjoy being last in line to the teet in Parisian society, he could've saved his croissant money for a one-way ticket elsewhere (I hear Burma's nice). In his own words: "Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it."
  • The Little Prover (Daniel Friedman, Carl Eastlund) - An excellent introductory book on assisted theorem proving, with more than a smattering of breakfast lexicon throughout. [more]See this post for details.
  • 2312 (Kim Stanley Robinson) - As evidenced below, I typically read things that pertain to this world rather than others, [more]but this book came highly recommended and did not disappoint. The author portrays a future of climate change and quantum computing that sounds like a logical extrapolation of today's society, and he whips out an impressive litany of art, musical, and literary references in the process. And although I don't share the author's view that Florida will be raised out of the ocean (get in line behind Charleston), nor his timeline on gender indeterminacy (I'm calling 2050 at this rate), I do celebrate his decision to get the two main protagonists married at the ages of 113 and 135; after all, we can't just go perambulating around Mercury forever. (Thanks to Lauren for the recommendation.)
  • The Prince (Machiavelli) - If society ever regresses (progresses?) to that of Rennaisance Italy, I will be prepared. [more]Practical matters aside, it's fun to read about the societies of yesteryear and all of the ways in which they differ from today, in both leadership and populace. I didn't realize that Machiavelli wrote The Prince in hopes of proving himself worthy of a job with the Medicis - just wait until the US job market gets wind of that.
  • The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy (Rainn Wilson) - Rainn Wilson displays an articulate self-awareness here, [more]and made me realize the potential that acting has as a medium to know oneself. His years in school and in the theater read as a separate world to me, and some of those insane classes make me want to go to acting school. Also, the fact that he can intimately identify with One Hundred Years of Solitude thanks to his several years of upbringing in Nicaragua is awesome.
  • Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman) - As I expected, I loved this book. Chuck Klosterman's ability to write so well [more]about so many disparate topics is an ability I wish to have myself one day.
  • Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Natasha Dow Schull) - Thorough and well-written; I was not aware how engineered both casinos and gambling machines are, [more]and it's even crazier to consider how much of this engineering has made its away to other aspects of our daily lives.

2015

  • Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates) - I am fortunate to have read this now [more]rather than ten or twenty years from now.
  • Creating a Class (Mitchell L. Stevens) - I picked this up after meeting Mitchell; [more]I enjoyed both his writing and his willingness to question the meritocratic aura surrounding US higher education. He details, among other things, the motivations and constraints of an admissions office he worked in during the early 2000s, and it brings much light to that less-exposed half of the feedback loop between universities and applicants. References to status, that "endlessly renewable human resource and a complicating feature in virtually all human affairs" as Mitchell puts it, highlight the intractable conflict between our society's populist ideal of universality and our innate desire for selectivity. I think most prefer to ignore this conflict, while Mitchell does an excellent job of giving it proper treatment, controversies and all.
  • Animal Farm (George Orwell) - Quite an allegorical damnation of Soviet Communism. This must be illustrative [more]of how Zappos employees feel about their newly flattened org chart.
  • Flash Boys (Michael Lewis) - This book is one of the reasons why I seldom read fiction - why bother with fake stories when the world has so many good real ones? [more]The author did an extraordinary amount of research for this book. Brad Katsuyama and the people at IEX are all impressive for swimming against the tide. The parts about Serge clearing his bash history and that one dude coiling up a bunch of fiber to create a 350 microsecond delay are hilarious. Just wait til I have my own stock exchange: orders will only be acceped on written paper via pneumatic tubes, then processed by migrant workers wielding abacuses. The pendulum of history swings ever on.
  • Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (Robert Jackall) - This book does an excellent job of articulating the many sociological nuances of the drama of corporate life. [more]On the one hand, I'm now more sympathetic to the precariousness of those whose livelihoods depend on the vagaries of their peers and managers; on the other, I'm less sympathetic considering most of life in business is a game. All of the author's interviewees display a reasonable degree of self-awareness, so it seems to me that the problems start when people take the game too seriously, or get high off their own supply. Speaking of which, it is regrettable that the author's beautifully written lines can not be snorted off the pages of this book.
  • Working (Studs Terkel) - a compendium of individuals' reflections on their jobs and lives, written in the 1970s. Studs is apparently famous among his generation, based on my conversations with some of the nation's elders, [more]including a homeless guy in downtown Seattle. I can see why; although many individuals he converses with get right to it, he has a way of guiding the others into a realm of more personal, and insightful, conversation. The biggest thing that stuck out to me were the numerous occasions on which individuals said something about society that applies just as well today; on the surface a lot has changed since the 70s, but the fundamentals clearly haven't. One day, when I look less like a punk-ass kid and more like a wise old man, I want to write a contemporary equivalent of this book (assuming we haven't automated ourselves out of all our jobs).
  • Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies (Andreas Antonopoulos) - a complete and well-communicated technical rundown of Bitcoin's internals, with a mind towards potential application [more]to other domains and systems. Reading this increased my confidence that future systems and applications will make heavy use of the details presented here, regardless of Bitcoin's long term viability.
  • Antifragile (Nassim Taleb) - This one is right up my alley: a discourse touching on all manner of topics [more]by an individual who is not afraid to write confidently and substantively. The author says he spent three cumulative years secluded in his attic ruminating on all things antifragile, and after reading this, there's no way it could have been done otherwise. I really can't do this one justice in a few sentences, so I'll just say it's awesome and leave it at that.
  • Modern Romance (Aziz Ansari) - I had high expectations for this one and Aziz did not disappoint. [more]Much respect to him for writing scholastically, humorously, and candidly all at the same time (he outdid himself with his recounting of the time he pleasured himself with a silicone egg for the sake of research). It's interesting to ponder which parts of this will be true and which will be outdated in 20 years time; I'm looking forward to the day when my future children find this book on my bookshelf and tell me themselves via ridicule. I'm also a huge fan of the quote by Pitbull that Aziz says is his favorite discovery: "Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente;" I'm damn good (perhaps too good) at that way of life.
  • The Book of Satoshi (Phil Champagne) - I finally understand the inner workings of Bitcoin now, [more]and certainly agree with the widely held sentiment that Bitcoin is the greatest technical contribution to society since the advent of the Internet. Despite a significant number of copyediting and message thread formatting issues, the author did a good job overall of highlighting and chronologizing important discussions from Bitcoin's early days.
  • The Case for Working with Your Hands (Matthew Crawford) - I uncharitably assumed that this book would amount to distant philosophizing, but the author's writing and his personal history made me eat my words. [more]This book, along with Antifragile by Taleb, makes concrete, well-supported arguments for practical skills and jobs, and against many of the vague "knowledge economy" jobs that are in high demand these days. The author pointedly questions macroeconomic health, and his recounting of his own varied employment history led me down several introspective paths myself.
  • Java Performance (Scott Oaks) - I knew that the JVM can get complicated, but this book delivers a whole new level of awareness. [more]Granted, the author is right that better performance always starts with better application code, but he does an excellent job of detailing what one should know about the JVM and the Java ecosystem when going the final mile. The author's years of experience and attention to detail are evident throughout.
  • The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (McLean, Elkind) - this is a good one; a big takeway from this book is that people can look smart on paper [more]and turn out to be dumb as rocks. I didn't fully appreciate how many deluded people were responsible for Enron's collapse, both inside and outside the company. Speaking of which, I'd love to know the difference b/w some Silicon Valley "companies" with P/E ratios > 50 emphasizing MAUs in their earnings reports, versus Enron, which had its own insane P/E and invented its own metric called TCV (Total Contract Value) to distract investors. Some things never change.
  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Matt Ridley) - this is without a doubt the most mind-blowing book I've ever read. [more]The author paints a portrait of human motivations, gender competition, evolution, gene recombination, and more as the causes and effects of a Red Queen competition where "the faster you run, the more the world moves with you and the less you make progress." Ridley's writing here is of an experimental sort, putting together puzzle pieces and seeing how well they fit in a narrative fashion. Some parts are dispiriting, others are hilarious, but the whole book is awesome.
  • The Practice of Cloud System Administration (Limoncelli, Chalup, Hogan) - if this year sees a jump in adoption of automation by sysadmins, coupled with a heightened expectation that developers [more]take more responsibility for the reliability of the code they write, this book will be largely responsible. Crossing the divide between development and operations is a must for ensuring the reliability of complex systems, and the authors draw on their extensive experience to explain how to get it right.
  • Scalia: A Court of One (Bruce Allen Murphy) - well researched; it's clear that the author is not a fan of Scalia's judicial philosophy, [more]and his back-handed way of expressing this irked me at times. I understand that originalism is both narrow and malleable, but without it or something like it, constitutional law is reduced to a partisan free-for-all.
  • Geek Sublime (Vikram Chandra) - the author explores the functional/aesthetic duality of language, first in software and then in Indian culture. [more]This duality is best described as a continuum, which the author travels while delving deep into Indian and Western literature and culture along the way, all the while managing to tie together seeming unrelated artifacts in novel ways.
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Daniel Dennett) - I thought about writing up my detailed thoughts on this book, but there's just too many awesome things in here [more]and too little time for me to do them deserved justice. The author does a brilliant job of tying concepts from math, computer science, evolution, biology, philosophy, consciousness, and more into a cohesive literary exposé that is better appreciated than described.
  • Two Scoops of Django: Best Practices for Django 1.6 (Greenfeld, Roy) - this is enthusiastically written; although the detailed parts of the book [more](package names, package versions, API details, etc.) will likely have a short shelf life, the comprehensive treatment given to all aspects of Django (especially security) has long-term value.
  • Java 8 in Action (Urma, Fusco, Mycroft) - this is a very well-written and thorough tour of the implementation and use of lambdas, streams, and completable futures [more]in Java 8. The authors do a great job of going into detail while keeping the big picture in mind.

2014

  • Java Generics and Collections (Naftalin, Wadler) - I read this to gain a better understanding of the intricacies of generics [more]in Java and was not disappointed. The second half has a distinctly different feel than that of the first, serving mainly as a reference manual for the Java Collections Framework; it contains some interesting JCF implementation details, but the first half on generics was by far the most useful for me.
  • Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (Chuck Klosterman) - all-around awesome; my favorite part is the section midway through the book [more]that starts out with "The twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them."
  • On Intelligence (Jeff Hawkins, Sandra Blakeslee) - if you have any interest at all in AI or neuroscience, [more]and aren't looking for textbook-level discourse, this is a worthwhile read. The author details his comprehensive views on how the neocortex functions, dubbing it the memory-prediction framework. Written in 2004, it's interesting to see that some of the concepts presented by the author have already found their way into recent advancements (i.e, self-driving cars).
  • OCaml From the Very Beginning (John Whitington) - excellent introduction to OCaml; if you're looking for details [more]you should probably go straight to Real World OCaml, but for a solid introduction, this is a good resource.
  • Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (Roger Martin) - this was occasionally interesting as an expository work, but I found its persuasive elements lacking. [more]The author spends 25% of the book describing his interactions with students during the fall 2004 semester at St. Johns, another 25% commenting on St. John's "Great Books" curriculum and the state of higher education in general, and the remaining 50% detailing his practices and competitions as a member of the college's crew team. Although my respect goes to the author for competing in collegiate crew at age 61, I remain unconvinced that an education based primarily on classical literature was appropriate in 2004, let alone 2014.
  • An Introduction to Functional Programming Through Lambda Calculus (Greg Michaelson) - written in 1988 (and revised slightly in 2011), this is one of the few books I can find [more]that slowly and methodically steps through the foundations of functional programming, balancing the theoretical with the practical the entire time (this goes for the exercises as well). The last two chapters use the constructs and lessons from the previous ones to compare and contrast ML and LISP as functional languages. I think alot of university students would benefit from a course based on this book, all knowns and unknowns considered.
  • Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates (Tom Robbins) - this one is awesome; the themes and plot line are tangential at some points [more]and aligned in others in a surprisingly cohesive way; I almost put it down 80 pages in when this wasn't clear to me (and when I thought the author was using overly ornate language just for the hell of it), but eventually I caught on.
  • The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network (Katherine Losse) - this book reads alternately as a tell-all about Facebook's early years and as a compilation of reflections [more]by the author on her experiences as one of Facebook's first hires. Time-wise, the author covers 2005 to 2011; her take on the developments that transpired over those years, both with regard to Facebook and social media in general, is especially noteworthy given her position in user relations, rather than in engineering.
  • The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) - as I read this, I found myself agreeing with both the explicit sentiments and unstated subtext of this book. [more]The Fountainhead has fervent fanatics and detractors; I think both camps are guilty of mistakenly conjuring potential government policies from Rand's writing and finding the imagined result to be either appealing or deplorable, respectively. In its intentionally limited context of the individual, however, I find it to be an extremely compelling philosophy.
  • The Fractalist: Memoirs of a Scientific Maverick (Benoit Mandelbrot)
  • Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family (Jeff Goodell) - the author goes to great lengths to detail the evolution of the Bay Area [more]in the same disappointed and analytical manner in which he descibes the events that transpire in his family; this is interesting, but rather dark.
  • I Love Yous are for White People (Lac Su) - this book gave me alot to think about, especially the part [more]that ties the eye-catching title into the book at large; the author does an excellent job of weaving cultural insights into his own personal narrative.
  • Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (Chuck Klosterman) - this is far and away the best book I have read in recent memory; [more]the writing style Klosterman employs is brilliant and must have taken a long time and a lot of practice to hone.
  • Daring Greatly (Brene Brown) - author presents some interesting research-based insight and interview data on various personality attributes [more]related to innovation, creativity, parenting, etc.; research is more qualitative than quantitative but does not detract from the author's findings, all of which are worthwhile and well-presented.
  • We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency (Parmy Olson) - highly recommend
  • Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits (Kevin Roose) - highly recommend, makes me appreciate life [more]as a programmer rather than what it could be as a bank analyst.
  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Marc Levinson) - well cited, occasionally repetitive, highly insightful.
  • Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality (Jacob Tomsky) - excellent; disregard the negative reviews on Amazon
  • A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers) - very good one.

2013

  • On the Road (Jack Kerouac)
  • Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (David Kushner)
  • Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Scalia, Garner)
  • Known and Unknown (Donald Rumsfeld)
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo)
  • Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir (Eddie Huang)
  • The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (Jeffrey Toobin)
  • The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Jon Gertner)
  • My Grandfather's Son (Clarence Thomas)
  • No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of The Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden (Mark Owen)

2012

  • Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan (Daryl Davis)

Of Interest


Of Interest (Practical)


Of Interest (Software, Math, Science)


Authors

  • Chuck Klosterman
  • Douglas Hofstadter
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Daniel C. Dennett
  • Richard Feynman
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Carl Jung
  • Robert James Sawyer (recommended by John)
  • John Ruskin
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Tom Wolfe
  • John Ralston Saul
  • Osho
  • Hunter S. Thompson
  • Charles Bukowski
  • Andre Malraux