2018

  • 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. 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." 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 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. 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. 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. 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, 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" 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. 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 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 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 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. 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 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. 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; 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 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. 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 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" 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 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 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. 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 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, 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, 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, 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 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. See this post for details.
  • 2312 (Kim Stanley Robinson) - As evidenced below, I typically read things that pertain to this world rather than others, 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. 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, 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 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, 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 rather than ten or twenty years from now.
  • Creating a Class (Mitchell L. Stevens) - I picked this up after meeting Mitchell; 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 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? 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. 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, 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 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 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. 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, 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. 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. 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 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. 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 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, 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. 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 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 (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 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 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 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, 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 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. 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 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 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 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. 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 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 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; 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 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 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)

Bookmarked


Bookmarked 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