Last year, I wrote a normal-length blog post about my three favorite books that I read that year. For 2016, I thought I would do something a little different: why not list all the books I read this year? That way, I won’t forget what I read, and if anyone complains to me saying “why do young adults nowadays spending time on social media instead of reading books?”, I can simply refer them to my blog. Genius!

I have done precisely that in this lengthy post, which I’ve been updating throughout the year by writing summaries of books as soon as I’ve finished them. I read 38 books this year. (Textbooks, magazines, newspapers, and research papers don’t count.) The summaries here are only for the non-fiction books that I read this year. I read three easy fiction books in January to get me warmed up,1 so the summaries here are for the other 35 books. Here’s a rough set of categories:

  1. Medicine and Surgery (4 books)
  2. Work Habits and Technology (4 books)
  3. History and Foreign Affairs (5 books)
  4. Religion (5 books)
  5. Science (4 books)
  6. NSA and CIA (3 books)
  7. Biographies and Memoirs (3 books)
  8. Miscellaneous (7 books)

Last note: books I especially liked are indicated with double asterisks by the title, ** like this **.

Group 1: Medicine and Surgery

I read all of Atul Gawande’s four books. Gawande is a famous surgeon who also gave the 2012 commencement speech for my alma matter. I think he’s an excellent surgeon-writer. His books contain a healthy amount of technical detail on surgery and medicine without going overboard to discourage the lay reader like myself. They not only give me a glimpse into what it must be like to work in medicine, but also make me appreciate my relatively good physical health. Some of the stories Gawande describes about his patients are absolutely shuddering.

Here are my thoughts on his books:

  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, Gawande’s first book and a finalist for the National Book Award, discusses the various complications and uncertainty that arise in surgery and medicine. It is divided into three parts: fallibility, mystery, and uncertainty. What happens when doctors make mistakes? And how do people feel about an inexperienced surgeon working on them? (After all, everyone has to start somewhere!) What about when there are cases that simply elude everyone? How about pure judgment calls? Each of the fourteen chapters covers a certain theme, and consists of several related stories. It’s a nice portrayal of how medicine faces some of the inherent difficulties in its field.

  • Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. Gawande explores different ways to get “better” at surgery and medicine. Like his last book, this one is a collection of loosely-related stories. In general, Gawande doesn’t directly propose solutions to various issues, but rather, he provides examples of how certain people at the top of their field (e.g., those treating cystic fibrosis) carry out their work, in comparison to “ordinary” people. There are also some interesting but awkward topics: how should physicians treat the handling of patient genitals, and how should doctors discuss their “bell curve” of performance and the possibility that they may be at the lower tail? While the book is a nice collection of stories, the selection and ordering of topics might seem somewhat haphazard. Still, I felt that – like other books – it gave me a glimpse into what it is like to be a surgeon.

  • ** The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right ** is an enlightening book about the power of checklists. Drawing from a variety of fields, including airfare, construction, and (obviously) surgery, Gawande shows how checklists have increased the safety and efficiency of those tasks that most of us take for granted. Yes, he acknowledges that checklists are stupidly simple. But here’s the remarkable thing: why didn’t anyone else write about this earlier? And why, as Gawande points out, do people resist utilizing something enormously beneficial with virtually no extra cost? Consequently, I’m now thinking about where checklists might be applied to my own life. One qualm I had with this book, however, is that it seems to put a ton of statistics in terms of percentage points only (e.g., 22 percent said this …) whereas we need the raw number to understand the significance (e.g., 22 percent of 10000 people surveyed …). This book is on the short end (fewer than 200 pages) so it wouldn’t hurt to have a little more data and facts.

  • ** Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End **. What is the role of doctors when treating patients who are near the end of their lives? Surgery and medicine often restrict their focus to “fixing stuff:” if a patient has a problem, then doctors should undergo the procedure that will prolong patient’s lives the most. But what if that leads to the patient going directly into a nursing home? What if the patient and his/her family are banking on being the one-percent of people who end up significantly better off after a specific procedure? Most examples of patient stories in Being Mortal concern cancer, a notoriously difficult disease to treat, and people are not always willing to undergo brutal surgery and chemotherapy. I should point out that this is not a book on assisted suicide; the book only dedicates about four pages to that topic, towards the very end. Rather, this book is about assisted living; how can we balance patient’s desires while considering their safety and their relatives’ (sometimes conflicting) desires? I liked this book a little more than I liked The Checklist Manifesto, and it made me think about what I would want to happen to my older relatives. And, of course, myself, but hopefully I won’t have to worry about that for a long time.

Group 2: Work Habits and Technology

In this group, I have two books by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport. I first became aware of Professor Newport’s blog back in high school when I Google-d “how to get good grades in college.” That search led me to a College Confidential thread which subsequently linked to his blog.

Professor Newport is a voracious reader (which I hope to be as well), so he recommends and discusses a number of books on his blog. I chose to read two of them.

  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Here, Newport argues that the often-cited “follow your passion!” suggestion is actually terrible, and people are better suited at developing skills that will allow them to eventually figure out their dream jobs. In short: don’t quit your job now with the fantasy that you’ll enjoy this new thing you’re starting out next week – you’ll end up worse than you were when you started. It is true that I sometimes feel like I may not be in an ideal job for me, but then I think things over, and realize that the current PhD program I’m in is clearly training me for a lot of jobs. Even if being a professor isn’t in the cards for me, I’m still learning a lot about programming, about advanced computer science, about teaching, about making connections, etc. Thus, this book made me feel happy that I am spending my twenties in an intellectually stimulating environment where my main responsibility is to learn new things and blog.

  • ** Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World **. This is Professor Newport’s most recent book and arguably his best, which became a Wall Street Journal 2016 business bestseller. His hypothesis here – which was obvious to me from the start – is that deep work, which is a state in which one is able to focus very heavily on a topic, churning out lots of work in a short amount of time, is becoming rarer at a time when it’s becoming more valuable. The former is due to distractions from smart phones and social media, and the latter is because the knowledge economy means people can pay the best workers remotely rather than hire locally for less-skilled people. When I was reading this book to myself, I kept thinking: come on, why on earth am I not engaging in deep work? There’s a lot of advice here, and there’s no way I can integrate them all, but I’ve been able to take a few steps (e.g., as my Facebook “friends” can attest, I don’t check Facebook frequently, and I don’t have Twitter, Instragram, SnapChat, or whatever is popular nowadays, and I check my smart phone a lot less than most people). I agree with a lot of what Newport says here; it seems like so much common sense. I have to add, it’s also funny that this book got published at a time when a related Deep phenomenon called Deep Learning is hot in AI, but that’s a story for another day.

  • You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, recommended by Professor Newport, is a 2010 book written by Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality technology. Lanier worries that our early technological achievements have locked us in into suboptimal paths. In addition, he argues that many areas of technology are dehumanizing and favor the crowd or algorithm over individual human voices. To me, while it’s true that Wikipedia may be dehumanizing in some sense, things were arguably much worse pre-Wikipedia from a “dehumanizing perspective” (NOT a technological perspective). To take one example, as Robert Gordon describes in his fantastic book The Rise and Fall of American Growth2, human life before the “great inventions” from 1870-1970 was extremely isolating, particularly for rural families and farmers (and this continued to be the case in this era for many areas of the U.S., particularly in the Civil War-ravaged south). If a family is isolated from the rest of the world, that seems pretty dehumanizing to me. Overall, as you might tell, I have some mixed feelings about this book and do not revere it as much as Professor Newport, but it certainly brings up thought-provoking points.

  • Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity is a 2016 book by Douglas Rushkoff, which I became aware of after reading (guess what?) one of Cal Newport’s blog posts. The author of this book is an American media theorist (what’s that?) and this book provocatively argues that our economic “operating system” of capitalism is not the best for today’s world. The latest technology boom creates value not with real things, but with human data. In addition, it encourages start-ups to create value for shareholders instead of “the people”, and to sell immediately instead of generating revenue. Rushkoff heavily criticizes our obsession3 with economic growth mindset, arguing that further growth is limited and doesn’t actually provide much value beyond the top 1 percent. Instead, Rushkoff argues that we need to stop this growth mindset and ensure that business is designed to be peer-to-peer (as in, more like eBay, not Amazon!) and to re-introduce humans into the equation. This is not meant to be income redistribution; it’s meant to ensure that business can work more towards an equal distribution of wealth. He heavily criticizes Amazon, Uber, WalMart, and other companies whose goal is to destroy competition rather than to create value. From reading this book, I definitely became concerned about whether I’m exacerbating the issue by supporting Silicon Valley ideals (I use Uber, and Amazon …) and am ignoring the realities of how most people live. This book is something that I will try to remember and to extract policy solutions from. I get the feeling that many pro-business Republicans may be skeptical of his proposals. Even though they’re technically centrist, it may sound more like liberal/socialism policies, but I would urge readers to consider this book.

Group 3: History and Foreign Affairs

Another way for me to describe this category would be “Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum books” since all of the books in this category are written by them (in fact, one is co-authored by them!). For better or worse, most readers probably know Thomas Friedman from his columns at the New York Times. Michael Mandelbaum is professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in international affairs. I enjoyed these books.

  • ** From Beirut to Jerusalem ** is a fascinating book about Thomas Friedman’s journey through the Middle East from 1979 to 1989, when he worked as a reporter and got to witness firsthand the people of Lebanon and Israel. The first half the book discuss his experience living in Beirut (in Lebanon). The second half of the book focuses on his life in Jerusalem, a religiously important city for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The city was (and still is) hotly contested by Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the book, Friedman discusses some history about how the Middle Eastern countries developed and why they are in constant conflict, but he also takes his reporting ability into account by describing detailed conversations and events he has witnessed. His extensive dialogue, his seemingly random thoughts about life, and his colorful analogies serve as intuition for what it must be like to live there. (In other words, I view this book as a textbook in how it teaches the reader about the Middle East, but the “teaching” is not through textbook-style language.) I do not know much about the Middle East, and even after reading this book, I still feel that way. But I sure think this book gave me a jump start in forming a baseline set of knowledge that I can draw upon when reading more books about the Middle East (and yes, there will be more!). The book, though old with its 1989 publication date, is still relevant today as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proceeds without any end in sight. The focus on the Middle East nowadays has probably shifted from Lebanon to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran (due to terrorism and oil) and Syria (due to the refugee crisis and Assad) but Israel is still a major player for US diplomacy and foreign policy, and reading this book will be helpful in the process of better understanding the parties involved in the Middle East.

  • ** The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century ** is a long book by Thomas Friedman. I read the third edition, published in 2007; the first two were published in 2005 and 2006. The metaphor “the world is flat” refers to the forces of globalization that have connected various people and countries together, and which empower the individual, particularly the Internet and how it allows people to have their own voices with blogs. (Contrast this, by the way, with Jaron Lanier’s book above, who argues that the Internet has been a chief cause of de-empowering the individual.) To his credit, Friedman emphasizes that globalization has tradeoffs. A frequent theme is the offshoring of work; companies can improve profits by utilizing cheaper labor in China and India, which benefits American consumers but makes life harder on those former American workers. Globalization has impacts on politics, of course, because it heightens income inequality. Friedman is pro-free trade, but understands that we have to provide the education and opportunity for people to flourish in this world. Right now, he argues America is not doing anywhere near as well as it should be doing — a quiet education crisis. This book is definitely a good history lesson for me, and it completely changed my perspective on how the world works.

  • The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era is a short book written in 2010 by Michael Mandelbaum. Its central argument is that in the twentieth century, America effectively served as the world’s government and was able to intervene in other countries because it had the money to do so. But after the 2008 financial crisis, a shift emerged in U.S. policy: no longer can we lavishly spend money and intervene almost at will. Mandelbaum, while recognizing that it is not optimal to have financial crises, hopes that we can be more circumspect (hence, a “frugal” superpower). We will, however, have problems because of entitlement spending, which naturally implies spending less on military action. Demography is also working against us, but the saving grace is that the three areas of contention (Russia, China, and the Middle East) all have their own problems. For example, China has even more of a demographic problem due to their former one-child policy. Mandelbaum concludes that one way we can restore the world order is by taxing gasoline, so (a) we reduce profits of Middle Eastern countries (and indirectly, I might add, radical Islam), (b) provide more money to the federal government for entitlements, and (c) we encourage renewable and cleaner energy, thus helping to combat climate change. This book, with the exception of the suggestion that we tax gasoline, is largely subsumed by Mandelbaum’s later book, Mission Failure.

  • ** That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back **, co-authored by columnist Thomas Friedman and foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, is a book arguing that America is failing to meet the four major challenges of today’s world: globalization, the IT revolution, chronic deficits, and increasing energy consumption. The authors look at America’s history and see many examples of how we have been able to overcome similar challenges. Unfortunately, they worry, “that used to be us.” Today, with our political gridlock, lack of education funding, and competition worldwide from Asia, especially from China (who they almost view as being the most powerful country in the 21st century), it is uncertain whether we will be able to resolve these problems before the market or Mother Nature brutally forces changes down our throats. One of their main solutions? A third-party presidential candidate on the “radical center” who, while not necessarily winning the election, would sufficiently influence the two parties to focus on the “radical center” issues, as H. Ross Perot did in the 1992 election about balancing the deficit. I really liked this book, and I agree with Bill Gates’ assessment that the one word review of this book is: “fascinating.” Not everyone would like this, however: the Wall Street Journal published a negative review, taking a traditionally Conservative stance by criticizing the authors for proposing more government as the solution to fixing America. But then I would like to ask them: what is their proposal to combat climate change?

  • ** Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era ** is Michael Mandelbaum’s fifteenth and most recent book, published in 2016 and dubbed by Thomas Friedman as “a book that Barack Obama and Donald Trump would both enjoy”. The focus is on the period starting from 1991 — the Cold War’s end — to 2015. In this period, spanning four American presidents (George H.W. Bush through Barack Obama), Mandelbaum argues that we spent this time, intentionally and unintentionally, engaging in “regime change” in other countries. The goal? To convert them to Western-style countries supporting peace, democracies, and free markets. Those three features are the foundations of Mandelbaum’s 2002 book The Ideas that Conquered the World, one of my favorite books and one which I blogged about last year. As examples, the Clinton administration engaged in substantial humanitarian intervention in countries that had little significance to the U.S., such as Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The Bush 43 administration also engaged in nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, though this was not the original goal as in both cases, it started from war. In addition, for many years we have tried to convert Russia, China, and other middle eastern countries (especially Iran and the Palestines) to be more like ourselves. But these missions all failed. Why? Probably the biggest reason is culture; in many countries, there is already so much sectarian violence that unity based on abstract concepts like the “rule of law” is not possible. In other cases, there is American resentment, as in Russia due to NATO expansion. I found the history behind all this to be fascinating. Of course, I am also concerned. After all, this “era” of American foreign policy abruptly ended by 2015, because Russia and China have now become powerful enough to upset the stability of global order.

Group 4: Religion

Here are some religion-related books. Specifically, these are from the non-religious or atheist perspective, which one might be able to tell given Sam Harris’ frequent appearance here. Don’t worry, I’m going to explore with more pro-religion books next year, and my parents have several book candidates which I can read.

  • Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, by Brooke Allen, argues that the six men who she considers to be the founding fathers of America: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, were not devout Christians as many claim, but instead highly skeptical men influenced not by religion, but by John Locke and Enlightenment thoughts. By doing so, Allen further claims that due to the efforts of these men, the United States was not founded on Christian principles. (To me, I find it odd that we’re often considered a “Christian nation” when the First Amendment explicitly allows for Freedom of Religion — and don’t get me started on “Judeo-Christian”.) The book has one chapter for each of these men, and uses their actual writing to claim that they were skeptical of religion and preferred to keep it out of politics. I agree with the main ideas of Moral Minority, but rather surprisingly (to me), I didn’t enjoy the book. In part this is due to the writing style; it’s a lot harder to understand 18th-century writing than modern writing. I also think the book discusses a lot of facts but doesn’t clearly unify or connect them together.

  • ** The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason ** is Sam Harris’s first book, written in 2004 while he was still a Ph.D. student4 in neuroscience. Its impact was remarkable: it propelled him to fame and played a critical role in forming the New Atheist movement. Harris began writing on September 12, 2001, when the ashes of 9/11 were well present, and the essay he produced in those weeks of collective grief became the basis for this book. This book is similar to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (blogged about here) in many ways, in that it is highly critical of religion, though to be clear: this is about criticism of sticking to any particular dogma, not necessarily religion. In fact, Harris argues near the end of the book (and this is something I did not know from reading Dawkins’ book) that Buddhism as a religion is far more an empirical science than Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While Dawkins focuses more on the Bible and Koran and argues for evolution instead of creationism and intelligent design, Harris here takes more of a “mind and consciousness” route, which suits his philosophy and neuroscience academic background. One particular aspect about the book is that he is especially critical of Islam, which should not strike readers as surprising, since he argues that religion must be the driving force behind suicide bombing, etc. While I recognize that there are many controversial aspects of Sam Harris and his books, I personally liked this book a lot and view Harris highly. I agree with him that any discussion of religion must begin with the thousands of people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

  • The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values, a 2010 book by Sam Harris, argues that people are mistaken about moral values. He urges us to think about improving “well-being” as being equivalent to a peak in a hypothetical, non-convex (to use a term from math) “moral landscape”. This book, while not as anti-religion as his others, dismisses religion as something that causes people to be too rigid to change, and creates friction over “distractions” (social issues such as gay marriage) when we really should be focusing on the threat of terrorism, climate change, and – of course – how to best advance the collective well-being of humans. In my opinion, I was reminded of the Moral Minority book by Brooke Allen – I can find myself agreeing with the general idea, but I felt like the argument is somewhat haphazard and it took me some re-reads of certain paragraphs to get his ideas. Honestly, to me his biggest claims come from arguing that there are other sciences that are vague and have subjective answers (e.g., health and economics) so morality should not be subject to a double standard. Note that he has an interesting discussion of this book on his blog where he challenged readers to refute his thesis.

  • Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion is a 2014 book, also by Sam Harris, that delves into rather unusual terrain for atheists: spirituality. I read this book for two reasons: one is that I know Sam Harris’ work and admire it very much, and the other is that I have been looking for spirituality or “meditation”-related stuff for a while to help decrease stress. This book, however, is less a “guide on spirituality” that its title suggests, and more about a discussion of the mind, the self, and consciousness. That I find really illuminating, albeit considerably difficult to understand. I felt lost many times in the book and had to reread certain sections, trying to gather every ounce of understanding I could. As an atheist, I acknowledge that there are very real benefits of spirituality and meditation, and that these can be utilized without religion. I want to pursue some of these tactics, but preferably those that don’t involve drugs, as Harris talks about near the end of the book. Ultimately, I was disappointed not because it is a bad book, but because I was expecting to get something different out of it.

  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, yet another book by Sam Harris (co-authored with Maajid Nawaz in 2015) is a conversation between the two men, who come from two vastly different backgrounds. Sam Harris is a well-known atheist, and I frequently read his blog and books (as highly suggested by this blog post!). Nawaz has a remarkable personal story; he was born in England, but became radicalized, but then escaped to become a liberal Muslim activist. Harris and Nawaz have a dialogue about Islam and the prospects of reforming the faith. Nawaz urges us to have plurality, which will lead towards secularism, while Harris argues that we need to start viewing Islam directly as the problem because the accurate reading of scripture indicates that it is among the more evil of religions. I was impressed that two men who no doubt have disagreements can have an honest dialogue, even if the difference isn’t that great (Nawaz doesn’t strike me as a super-religious person). But we need a starting point if we are going to counter radical Islam. I wrote a blog post about it earlier this year in the wake of the Orlando massacre.

Group 5: Science

Needless to say, given my “job” as a computer science graduate student, I have an interest in excellent (popular) science books. Here are four of them. The first three are physics/earth/biology-related with nontrivial overlap in their topics. The last one one is a machine learning book.

  • What Evolution Is, by famed biologist Ernst Mayr, is a 2001 book about evolution aimed at the educated non-biologist. It is almost like a textbook, but simpler (the book itself is barely 300 pages). Mayr argues that evidence is not merely a theory, but a fact, based on the evidence of evolution from the fossil record. Mayr takes pains to show that this did not come out of a creationist-like reasoning of saying “this is a fact”; rather, the current theory of evolution based on natural selection had several competing theories when biology was in the early stages as a subject. Gradually, as the evidence accumulated, biologists more or less came to a consensus on the current “theory”. This is an extraordinary example of science in action. Ultimately, I don’t quite go as far as Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel), who says that this book is the “second-greatest thing” that could ever happen, with the first being if Darwin himself (the most famous biologist of all time) came and wrote a book about this. But the book is educational since it’s written like a pseudo-textbook. It’s somewhat dry to read but with enough effort, you can understand the main ideas.

  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert5, is an engaging fast-paced book arguing that we are in the middle of the next mass extinction — the sixth of the earth’s history. (The fifth, of course, was the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, a key topic of Lisa Randall’s book, which I’ll describe next!) The Sixth Extinction consists of a series of short stories documenting Kolbert’s adventures across the world, where she meets lots of people and explores the outdoors. Some conditions are dangerous, and others are more amusing, as when she recounts seeing frogs having sex. But where there is humor is also sadness, because the story of extinction is not pleasant. Kolbert describes how biologists have failed to find once-abundant frogs, how zoologists have had to deal with the reality of trying to force the two remaining fertile members of a species to create offspring, and how the effects of ocean acidification and human-accelerated climate change will accelerate extinction. This book, however, is not about global warming, as that subject plays only a minor role here. Even discounting global warming, there is irrefutable evidence that humans have directly caused the extinction of other species, whether it is through construction projects, deforestation, transporting pests across the world, and other actions. After reading this book, I continue to remain concerned about the future of the world and the fate of our species.

  • ** Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe **, by famed cosmologist and physicist Lisa Randall, is an exciting book weaving together astronomy, particle physics, earth science, and biology, to answer a profoundly interesting question: what caused the dinosaurs to die? No, I don’t mean about the meteor that hit earth. We know all that, and Randall briefly describes the interesting history of how scientists arrived at that conclusion. Randall’s book is instead about what caused the meteor to hit the earth. That’s a much more challenging question, and for someone like me without formal astronomy education, I have no idea how people can answer that kind of question considering the immense complexity and size of the universe. Fortunately, Randall explains the astronomy and particle physics basics for understanding some of this material. She proposes the new, very preliminary hypothesis that a disc of dark matter caused the meteor to hit the earth. The dark disc in the solar system causes the sun and planets to move up and down in unison periodically, and due to certain gravitational influences, when passing the center of the disc, causes one of the meteors (perhaps in the Oort cloud, something cool I learned) to dislodge from its orbit and sends it to earth. After reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, I can no longer view the universe the same way. It is an exciting world we live in, and though I will not be part of the physics/cosmology research that explores Randall’s hypothesis, I eagerly await what they find and hope that Randall will write another book in five years describing her research progress.

  • ** The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine will Remake Our World ** by Pedro Domingos is one of the few popular science books on machine learning, so naturally, I had to read it. It describes the history of machine learning as five tribes: symbolists, connectionists, analogists, Bayesians, and evolutionaries. This is what I wanted to know, so I’m happy he included this in his book. Near the end of the book, I felt like Domingos went a bit overboard with storytelling, but it’s probably better than the alternative of having more math. Certainly I would prefer more math, but most readers probably don’t want that, and we need ways to teach machine learning to a broad audience without much math. I have covered my thoughts on this book more extensively in this blog post. It’s an interesting book, to say the least, and I wish there were more books about this general area.

Group 6: NSA and CIA

I maintain an interest in the NSA and the CIA. I chose three related books to read and I liked all of them. This is despite how two books ostensibly appear to be on the opposite side of a contentious political issue (NSA collection of bulk metadata). The third is an espionage thriller … which happens to be true.

  • ** No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State **, is a 2014 book by journalist Glenn Greenwald. He was one of the people who Edward Snowden first contacted about the release of classified NSA phone metadata collection documents. The first part of the book is quite riveting, since it describes how Snowden first attempted to contact Greenwald (via PGP email, but that never happened) and how Greenwald decided to go to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. Greenwald next takes Snowden’s side regarding the NSA’s actions and argues that Snowden is right about what the NSA does (as in, Snowden’s famous “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap you […] if I had a personal email” phrase). Greenwald displays a number of leaked documents to support his arguments. Next, Greenwald argues that government spying is bad. Privacy is a fundamental human right, and government spying encourages conformity and suppresses valid dissent. One passage that particularly struck me was when Greenwald said that the alternative to mass surveillance is not no surveillance, but targeted surveillance. This is a lesson that might be useful to many policymakers today.

  • ** Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror **, a 2016 book by Michael V. Hayden, the only person to be the director of both the National Security Agency and CIA. It is meant to be “an unapologetic insider’s perspective” on the organizations in a time of terror, but also a time of criticism from the general public, who do not understand the intricacies of what these agencies do and what they are legally bound to do. Mr. Hayden frequently mentions that the NSA and CIA are unfairly asked to do more when the public feels unsafe, but then they’re asked to do less when the public feels safe. Mr. Hayden discussed his time talking to Congress, the POTUS (usually Bush 43, but he was also Obama’s CIA chief for three weeks), and other politicians, in an attempt to keep them as informed as possible, but that nonetheless did not seem to satisfy many Libertarians and others who oppose aspects of the work of the NSA and CIA. I found this book fascinating mostly for the insider’s perspective on what it’s like to manage such critical government organizations, and the careful considerations of these organizations when pursuing sensitive strategies (e.g., the metadata collection). I wish that there were other secrets he could have discussed, but I understand if this is not possible. One possible weakness is that it’s more of a biography/memoir with loosely related chapters, and doesn’t do enough (in my opinion, if it was the goal) to directly counter people like Glenn Greenwald6 and others who oppose NSA bulk collection of phone records.

  • ** The Billion-Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal ** is a 2015 book written by David Hoffman. The book’s summary in its cover flaps describes it as “a brilliant feat of reporting which unfolds like an espionage thriller”, and I think this is a valid description. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s details on Cold War espionage activities performed by the US and the Soviet Union (and this is something getting more attention nowadays due to Obama’s much-needed sanctions on Russia). It emphasizes how U.S. spies had to carefully communicate with Soviet engineer-turned-spy Adolf Tolkachev deep into the heart of Moscow … and several blocks away from the feared KGB. Fortunately, they were able to do that for several years, continually communicating with Tolkachev who handed over tens of thousands of secret documents. The air force said the material was worth “roughly in the billions of dollars range”. Wow. But then, in 1985, the operation ended due to a shocking betrayal. There are several downsides to this book. The first is that the “betrayal” is obvious once the appropriate character is introduced, and the second is that it includes some nice pictures of the characters and setting, but the pictures should be at the end of the book (not the middle!) because it gives away the ending. The first is a limitation of the story, though, and the alternative would have been to expand the book to be longer and introduce more characters early. I still greatly enjoyed this book, a riveting and poignant tale of Tolkachev.

Group 7: Biographies and Memoirs

Here are some biographies and/or memoirs, with quite different themes. Actually, Michael Hayden’s book (from the previous group) would also qualify as a memoir.

  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is the first book by Haruki Murakami that I’ve read. Murakami is mostly known as a prominent fiction writer, both in Japan and abroad, but I decided to read this book since I was in the middle of a personal “Running Renaissance” (e.g., see this blog post about running in the Berkeley Marina) and wanted to see his take. This book is a short memoir about the notes (most from 2005/2006) Murakami compiled while training for the New York marathon. Along the way, we learn that Murakami ran a bar (in Japan) until his thirties, but then started writing and struck gold there. He then started running to help him physically manage the strain of writing novels. Regarding his running, Murakami describes his experience training and running in marathons once a year. He’s even run an ultramarathon in Lake Saroma, which is 62 miles long. This book is probably an accurate survey of what Murakami thinks, though I think it suffers a lot from cliches: hard work can beat talent!, most people need to work hard!, and so forth. It’s a short book so even if one doesn’t like the concepts, reading it from start to finish does not take much time.

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author (and MacArthur Fellow) who I was previously aware of due to his 2014 The Case for Reparations article. This book won the 2015 National Book Award, so I was looking forward to reading it. The best way to describe this book is as a cross between a long letter and a poem, and Coates addresses it to his son. He argues that, as blacks, they will have to be extra careful about their bodies. He says that there is a lot of concern in a world where we’ve recently seen a lot of police officers shooting black men and boys. (And, tragically, the manuscript for this book must have finished before the Charleston shootings, which certainly would have made it in otherwise.) One term he uses a lot is “The Dream”, but paradoxically, it doesn’t actually seem to refer to a dream for blacks (as in, Martin Luther King Jr.’s kind of dream) but that of whites who are attempting to define themselves. In terms of my opinion, it’s true that this book helps me to understand the perspective of being black, and obviously made me appreciate not being black7. I think Coates could have focused more on the shooting cases where the officers were clearly guilty or had video evidence suggesting that, because in some cases it is justified for police officers to retaliate. Whether they did or not in those well-known cases, is not my place to answer, and could be a source of fair criticism for this book. As for the title, I think it was designed to represent how there is a “real” world, one for whites, and “his world” of blacks.

  • Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World is a 2015 dual biography by lawyer Linda Hirshman. She describes an overview of the Justices’ lives, starting from childhood, then to their difficulty establishing legal careers, and of course, to their time as Supreme Court justices. The book is educational for those who want to know about the politics and intricacies of the Supreme Court. I certainly count as one of those, so this book was a nice match for me: it was just technical and sophisticated enough that I could follow it (along with some Wikipedia checks to, for instance, understand what it really means to clerk for a judge or to be on the United States Court of Appeals). I also learned a lot about how the court works, about how justices have to strategically frame their arguments to get a majority, and why it matters who writes the opinions. The book talks about Ginsburg’s rise, then O’Connor’s rise, then about them together later. Towards the end of the book, Hirshman starts intervening with her personal opinions, as well as her attacks on Justice Anthony Kennedy. Hirshman doesn’t shy about inserting her liberal beliefs so this may discomfort diehard conservatives (but not moderate conservatives, ironically those like O’Connor), and I wonder if she would have done something differently had she waited until Kennedy wrote the majority opinion which legalized same sex marriage. I enjoyed knowing more of the relationships between the Supreme Court justices and how they work, and would like to see more of that if the book were to be extended. Also see the book’s review on the “nonpartisan” SCOTUS blog, which I mostly agree with.

Group 8: Miscellaneous

These are some miscellaneous books, which don’t seem to fit in the above groups. I’ve arranged them by publication date.

  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a 2011 book by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt that won the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (geez …). It’s the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian scholar and book-hunter in the 14th and 15th century, was able to track down Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, a dramatic, profound essay that had been lost for well over a thousand years, and (incredibly) describes things that we take for granted today, especially the atomic nature of the world. The book chronicles Poggio’s journey to get the book and navigates through his life as a papal secretary and, clearly, the trip that led him to reach the long-lost manuscript. Note that this book is technically non-fiction, but given that this all happened in the 1400s, I think some of its content is bound to be the result of artistic license. Greenblatt argues that this essay “revolutionized our understanding of the world we live in today.” I thought this book was interesting, though I probably wouldn’t be on record as saying it was as great as other books I’ve read, such as Guns, Germs, & Steel. One thing that might not suit certain readers is the anti-religious stance of On the Nature of Things, which argues that there is no afterlife, so it subscribes to the Epicurean philosophy that life should be fulfilled for enjoyment first. For instance, see Jim Hinch’s criticism of the book.

  • David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is another book (from 2013) by the famous author Malcolm Gladwell, who I regard as one of the finest authors for explaining how the world works. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers in high school. This book is about taking a new perspective of underdogs versus the favorites. Why are we surprised when the underdogs win? What if we should expect underdogs to win? Gladwell discusses how people with disabilities or traumatic experiences, while generally worse off than others, have a chance of overcoming and being stronger than ever. For instance, he cites David Boies, a dyslexic lawyer who countered his disability with the ability to listen far better, and he is one of the top tax lawyers in the country. He also raises the interesting point as to whether it is better to be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a large pond. The first two parts are my favorite; the third part is a bit drier and mostly discusses how people who are in power have to consider carefully what happens to those under them (e.g., police officers versus civilians, the United States versus (North) Vietnam, etc.). Overall, the book, especially the first two parts to me, is thought-provoking and I agree with a lot of what Gladwell says. I do, however, have to emphasize a criticism of the book that I’ve seen declared elsewhere: when students who are at schools of vastly different prestige study the “same” subject, they are not studying the same concepts, looking at the same notes, etc. I can say this with confidence after studying the material from the artificial intelligence and machine learning courses at Williams and at Berkeley8. The Williams courses are noticeably easier and cover less material than the Berkeley counterparts. And Williams is a very strong school in its own right! The gap is therefore wider for other pairs of schools.

  • Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nicholas Turse in 2013, is a history book that attempts to account for much of the atrocities committed by US soldiers in Vietnam. Most Americans, myself included (in 9th grade), were taught that the well-known My Lai massacre was just an anomaly, one mistake in an otherwise “appropriate” war. Turse refutes this by discussing how American troops were trained to hate Vietnamese (including South Vietnamese, ostensibly their allies) and how they committed crimes such as torture, rape, and murders (to gain body counts) etc. This was not the act of several low-level military folks, but people higher up in the commands. Turse goes over Operation Speedy Express, which he calls “a My Lai a month” but which has not gotten as much attention because of efforts by the US military to cover up the details. Yes, this book is frustrating to read, and it is not designed to be enjoyable. I don’t know how one could be happy when reading about what our military did. I knew already that the Vietnam War was a mistake just like the Iraq war, and though there are reviews of Turse’s book that argue that it doesn’t explain the whole truth, they can’t refute that American soldiers killed many innocent Vietnamese civilians. I have no doubt that if Vietnam had more military might, population, and power, it never would have restored diplomatic relations with the United States. Let’s not kid ourselves: the reason why we’re now “allied” with them today is because of our power imbalance (we’re “number one”) and because we “need them” to counter China.

  • Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a 2014 book by Peter Thiel that consists of notes from a class on startups that Thiel taught at Stanford. How do startups become successful, and what kind of people, attitude, and circumstances are necessary for them to flourish and ultimately change the world? He laments the fact that America is in a phase of “indefinite optimism” instead of the “definite optimism” of the 60s, when we landed a man on the moon9. Nowadays, people who want money but who don’t know how to create it become lawyers and investment bankers, a problem which Thiel says is exacerbated by today’s world which encourages us to focus on incrementally improving a variety of skills and focusing on getting top grades and so forth (though Thiel was like this in his early life!). The entrepreneurs are the ones who can generate wealth, and in order for them to succeed, they have to go “from zero to one”. That means being like Google, which had no comparable peer in terms of searching. While other search engines are going from 1 to n and recreating what we know, it’s very difficult to go from 0 to 1. This book is not a guide on doing that; such a guide cannot exist. It’s just a set of notes, but it’s an educational set of notes. I mostly enjoyed the notes, but almost all of it relates to technology startups. As Thiel mentions, you can’t really apply startup analysis to the restaurant industry, so this book caters to a specific group of people, and may possibly frustrate those outside the field.

  • Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, is a 2014 book where Stevens concisely describes six different ways the US Constitution needs to be amended. The reason for amendment is that, as he says: “rules crafted by a slim majority of the members of the Supreme Court have had such a profound and unfortunate impact on our basic law that resort to the process of amendment is warranted.” (The use of amendment has declined in recent years, as the last one was the 27th Amendment in 1992.) Prominent examples Stevens cites are political gerrymandering, the death penalty, and gun control. Some of the book is written in near-legalese language, but fortunately I was able to follow most of the arguments. I can definitely see why he now wants to abolish the death penalty (by simply adding “such as the death penalty” to the 8th Amendment). Granted, diehard Conservatives obviously won’t like this book, but Stevens simply aims to state what he thinks must be revised for the Constitution, and I agree in many respects.

  • The Road to Character by David Brooks the “conservative” commentator10 who writes opinion columns for the New York Times. Brooks describes the metaphor of each people having two different versions of themselves, “Adam I” and “Adam II”. The former is the one we emphasize today, which focuses on self-accomplishments, achieving power and fame. But he argues that we have lost focus on “Adam II”, our moral character, who represents the kind of qualities that are discussed in our eulogies. These, Brooks argues, are what we want in our legacies. (Brooks concedes, though, that the focus on Adam I has helped many people, most notably women from breaking out of subservient roles.) Brooks goes through almost ten mini-biographies of people including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Eisenhower, and describes how these people built moral character and focused on Adam II instead of Adam I. Then at the end of the book, Brooks summarizes the lessons learned for building character. As for my opinion, I do not disagree with Brooks’ assessment of today’s world; yes, in the civilized world, there are so many forces that encourage us to focus on Adam I instead of Adam II. I found Brooks’ thoughts on this and his conclusions to be interesting and valid. I probably did not enjoy the mini-biographies of people that much. This is probably because Brooks deliberately writes in an excessively sophisticated manner.

  • Who Rules the World? is the latest book by Noam Chomsky, possibly the most cited academic in the history of the world. (His Google Scholar account shows a ridiculous 306,000 citations as of May 2016!). Chomsky is provocative in his writing here, though I suppose I should not have been surprised after reading his Wikipedia page. His main argument is that the West (read: the United States) thinks they rule the world and can run it the way they want. America is therefore the arrogant bully who wants things run his way and manipulates the media in doing so. As a side effect, America actually hinders progress towards some of its goals. Take the “Iranian nuclear threat” for instance. America and the West (myself included) view Iran as one of the gravest threats to the world, but this is not the case in the Arab world or elsewhere. The Iranian threat could have been resolved many years ago, Chomsky argued, if we had not invaded Iraq or invited Iranians to study nuclear engineering at his institution (MIT). Also consider the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. The US argues that the PLO does not concede anything in negotiations (in fact, Mandelbaum argues just this in Mission Failure, described earlier) but Chomsky argues that it is Israel and the US who are blocking progress. Of course, there is also the threat of climate change in addition to nuclear warfare, the two main things that worry Chomsky. And, of course, climate change progress is stalling due to the US (more accurately, Republicans, who Chomsky accuses of no longer being a political party). Throughout the book, Chomsky criticizes Republicans and also criticizes Democrats for veering to the right. I can definitely see why some people will take issue with Chomsky’s ideas, but this book helped me to take a more critical view of how I understand US domestic and foreign policy.

Whew! That’s the long list of summaries of the books I read in 2016. I will now get started on next year’s books, once I can find the time …

  1. They were “thriller” type books, but the themes and plots were shallow. If you want to read an excellent thriller book, I think Battle Royale reigns supreme. Don’t get me started about The Hunger Games — it’s almost a complete rip-off of the decade-older Battle Royale. 

  2. I’m currently reading his book, but alas, as much as I would have liked to finish it before 2017, the book is dense and over 700 pages, and I will not finish in time. 

  3. Like me, he’s probably been reading too much of The Wall Street Journal

  4. It looks like I better get around to writing a book. “Fortunately” it appears that I will be a PhD student for a long time. 

  5. Interestingly enough, she was a visiting professor at Williams College for 2015-2016 (she might still be at Williams, I’m not sure). 

  6. Well, OK he did mention Glenn Greenwald a few times. I remember Hayden describing him as “pretty much anti-everything”. 

  7. I have a pet peeve about race, however: why can’t we call mixed race people by the proper terminology: mixed race? Or, possibly better, we can clearly list the most accurate approximation of race we have. For me, when describing my race, people should state: 50 percent White, 50 percent Asian. For Barack Obama, people should state: 50 percent White, 50 percent Black. And so on. These aren’t true percentages, of course, since all humans originate from the same ancestor, but they’re as close as we can get. Sometimes I wonder if mixed race people exist when I read countless statistics saying “X-Y percent white-black” with X+Y=100 and seemingly no room for others. 

  8. Currently, at Williams, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are numbered CS 373 and CS 374, respectively, while the Berkeley counterparts are CS 188 and CS 189. 

  9. Now that I think about it, this may have been a reason why Thiel supported Donald Trump’s campaign, going so far as to talk at the Republican National Convention. This book was written before Donald Trump’s campaign, though. Thiel, as a Libertarian, was supporting Rand Paul beforehand. 

  10. I do not think David Brooks is really that conservative. Perhaps he enjoys being called “liberals’ favorite conservative.”