[Warning: Long Read]

As I did in 2016 and then in 2017, I am reporting the list of books that I read this past year1 along with brief summaries and my colorful commentary. This year, I read 34 books, which is similar to the amount in past years (35 and 43, respectively). This page will have any future set of reading list posts.

Here are the categories:

  1. Business, Economics, and Technology (9 books)
  2. Biographies and Memoirs (9 books)
  3. Self-Improvement (6 books)
  4. History (3 books)
  5. Current Events (3 books)
  6. Miscellaneous (4 books)

All books are non-fiction, and I drafted the summaries written below as soon as I had finished reading each book.

As usual, I write the titles below in bold text, and the books that I especially enjoyed reading have double asterisks (**) surrounding the titles.

Group 1: Business, Economics, and Technology

I’m lumping these all together because the business/econ books that I read tend to be about “high tech” industries.

  • ** Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers ** is Geoffrey A. Moore’s famous book (published in 1991, revised 1999 and 2014) aimed as a guide to high-tech start-up firms. Moore argues that start-ups initially deal with an early set of customers – the “visionaries” – but in order to survive long-term, they must transition to a mainstream market with pragmatist and conservative customers with different expectations and purchasing practices. Moore treats the gap between early and mainstream customers a chasm that many high-tech companies fail to cross. This is a waste of potential, and hence this book is a guide on how to successfully enter the mainstream market, which is when the company ideally stabilizes and rakes in the profits. Moore describes the solution with an analogy with D-Day: “Our long-term goal is to enter and take control of a mainstream market (Western Europe) that is currently dominated by an entrenched competitor (the Axis). For our product to wrest the mainstream market from this competitor, we must assemble an invasion force comprising other products and companies (the Allies) […]”. This is cheesy, but I admit it helped my understanding of Moore’s arguments, and on the whole, the advice in this book seems accurate, at least as good as one can expect to get in the business world. One important caveat: Crossing the Chasm is aimed at B2B (Business to Business) companies and not B2C (Business to Consumer) companies, so it might be slightly harder intuitively interpret “normal” business activity in B2B-land. Despite my lack of business-related knowledge, however, this book was highly readable. I learned more about business jargon which should make it easier for me to discuss and debate relevant topics with friends and colleagues. I read this book after it was recommended by Andrew Ng.2 While I don’t have any plans to create a start-up, Ng has recently founded Deeplearning.ai and Landing.ai, and serves as chairman of Woebot. For Landing.ai, which seems to be his main “B2B company,” I will see if I can interpret the company’s actions in the context of Crossing the Chasm.

  • How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region is a 2013 book by Joe Studwell, who I would classify as a “business journalist” (there isn’t much information about him, but he has a blog). Studwell attempts to identify why certain Asian countries have succeeded economically and technologically (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and now China, which takes up a chapter all on its own) while others have not (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines). Studwell’s argument is split into three parts. The first is agriculture: successful states promote agriculture for farms instead of “efficient” large-scale businesses, since low-income countries have lots of low-skill laborers who can be effective farmers.3 The second step is to focus on manufacturing with the state providing political and economic support to get small companies to develop export discipline (something he brings up A LOT). The third part is on finance: governments need to support agriculture and manufacturing as discussed earlier, rather than lavish money towards real estate. The fourth chapter is about China. (In the first three chapters, he has five “journey” tales: Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia. These were really interesting!) There are several broader takeaways. First, he repeatedly makes the case for more government intervention when the country is just developing, and not deregulation as the World Bank and United States keep saying. Of course, later deregulation is critical, but don’t do it too early! Studwell repeatedly criticizes economists who don’t understand history. But I doubt lots of government intervention is helpful. What about the famines in China and ethnic wars that were entirely due to government policy? To be fair, I agree that if governments follow his recipe, then countries are likely to succeed, but the recipe — though easy to describe — is astoundingly hard to achieve in practice due to a variety of reasons. The book is a bit dry and I wish some content had been cut off since it still wasn’t clear to me what happened to make agriculture so important in Japan and other countries, but I had to spend lots of time interrupting my reading to look up online about facts about Asia that I didn’t know. I wholeheartedly agree with Bill Gates’ final words: “How Asia Works is not a gripping page-turner aimed at general audiences, but it’s a good read for anyone who wants to understand what actually determines whether a developing economy will succeed. Studwell’s formula is refreshingly clear—even if it’s very difficult to execute.” Whatever my disagreements with Studwell, we can all agree that it is easy to fail and hard to succeed.

  • Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies is Changing the World (2016, later updated in 2018) by father-son author team Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, describes how the blockchain technology will change the world. To be clear, blockchain already has done that (to some extent), but the book is mostly about the future and its potential. The technology behind blockchain, which has enabled bitcoin, was famously introduced in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity remains unknown. Blockchain Revolution gives an overview of Nakamoto’s idea, and then spends most of its ink describing problems that could be solved or ameliorated with blockchain, such as excess centralization of power, suppression of citizens under authoritarian governments, inefficiencies in payment systems, and so forth. This isn’t the book’s main emphasis, but I am particularly intrigued by the potential for combining blockchain technology with artificial intelligence; the Tapscotts are optimistic about automating things with smart devices. I still have lots of questions about blockchain, and to better understand it, I will likely have to implement a simplified form of it myself. That being said, despite the book’s optimism, I remain concerned for a few reasons. The first is that I’m worried about all the energy that we need for mining — isn’t that going to counter any efficiency gains from blockchain technology (e.g., due to smart energy grids)? Second, will this be too complex for ordinary citizens to understand and benefit, leaving the rich to get the fruits? Third, are we really sure that blockchain will help protect citizens from authoritarian governments, and that there aren’t any unanticipated drawbacks? I remain cautiously optimistic. The book is great at trying to match the science fiction potential with reality, but still, I worry that the expectations for blockchain are too high.

  • ** The Industries of the Future ** is an engaging, informative book written by Alec Ross in 2016. Ross’ job description nowadays mostly consists of being an advisor to someone: advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to various other CEOs and organizations, and he’s a visiting scholar and an author (with this book!). It’s a bit unclear to me how one arrives at that kind of “advisor” position,4 but his book shows to me that he knows his stuff. Born in West Virginia, he saw the decline of coal and how opportunities have dwindled for those who have fallen behind in the new, information, data, and tech-based economy. In this book, Ross’ goal is to predict what industries will be “hot” in the next 20 years (2016-2036). He discusses robotics and machine learning (yay!), genomics, cryptocurrency and other currency, code wars, and so on. Amazingly, he cites Ken Goldberg and the work the lab has done in surgical robotics, which is impressive! (I was circling the citations and endnotes with my pencil, grinning from ear-to-ear when reading the book.) Now, Ross’ predictions are not exactly bold. There are a lot of people saying the same thing about future industries — but that also means Ross is probably more likely to be right than wrong. Towards the end of the book, he discusses how to best prepare ourselves for the industries of the future. His main claim is that leaders cannot be a control freak. (He also mentions the need to have women be involved in the industries of the future.) People such as Vladimir Putin and other leaders that want control will fall behind in such a world, so instead of “capitalism vs communism” of the 20th century, we have “open vs closed” of the 21st century. Of course, this happens on a spectrum. Some countries are closed politically but open economically (China is the ultimate case) and some are open politically (in the sense of democracy, etc.) but closed economically (India).5 Unfortunately I think he underestimated how much authoritarian leaders can retain control over their citizens and steal technologies (see LikeWar below). While his book is about predictions, not about policy solutions, Ross ran for Governor of Maryland in the Democratic primaries. Unfortunately, he got clobbered in the primaries, finishing 7th out of 9th. Well, we know by now that the most qualified candidate doesn’t always get the job…

  • ** Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead ** is an academic book by Hod Lipson, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia, and Melba Kurman, a tech writer. I have always heard news about self-driving cars — I mean, look at my BARS 2018 experience — but never got around to understanding how they are actually retrofitted. Hence, why I read this book. It provides a decent overview of the history on self-driving cars, from the early, promising (but overly optimistic) 1950s era, to today, when they are now becoming more of a reality due to deep learning and other supporting technologies. The authors are advocates of self-driving cars, and for fully automatic cars (like with Google is trying to do), and not a gradual change from human-to-automatic (like what car manufacturers would like). They make a compelling case: if we try to develop self-driving cars by gradually transitioning to automation but keeping the human in the loop, it won’t work. Humans can’t suddenly jerk back to attention and take over when needed. It’s different in airfare, as David Mindell describes in Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy where there can be a sufficient mix of human and autonomy. Flying a plane is, parodoxically, actually easier in some ways than driving to have human-in-the-loop automation.6 While this might sound bad for car manufacturers, the good news is that the tech companies with the software powering the self-driving cars will need to partner with one of the manufacturers for the hardware. Later, Driverless book discusses the history of competitions such as DARPA, which I’ve seen in prior books. What distinguishes Driverless from prior books I’ve read is that they describe how modern self-driving cars are retrofitted, which was new to me. And then, finally, they talk about Deep Learning. That’s the final piece in the puzzle, and what really excites me going forward.

  • ** Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work for You ** is a recent 2016 book co-authored by a three-team of Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, and Sangeet Paul Choudary. The first two are professors (of (management) engineering and business, respectively) and the third is a well-regarded platform business insider. Platform Revolution describes how traditional “pipeline” businesses are either transforming into or rapidly being usurped by competitors following a platform business model. They define a platform as “A business based on enabling value-creating interactions between external producers and consumers” and emphasize the differences between that and pipeline businesses where the value chain starts from the firm designing a product and soliciting materials, to consumers purchasing it at the end. Understanding platforms for business people and others is of paramount importance for an obvious reason: platform businesses have revolutionized the economy by tapping into previously dormant sources of value and innovation. It helps that many of the examples in this book are familiar: Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, dating apps, and so forth, but I also learned about lesser-known businesses. For me, key insights included how best to design platforms to enable rapid growth, how to create high-quality interactions, the challenges of regulating them, and of course, how platforms make money. For example, I already knew that Facebook makes a ton of money due to advertisements (and not for user sign-ups, thankfully), but what about lesser-known platforms? I will strive to recall the concepts in Platform Revolution if (more likely when) I enter the world of business. I agree with Andrew McAfee’s (author of “Machine Platform Crowd”, see below) praise that “you can either read [Platform Revolution] or try to keep it out of the hands of your competitors – present and future. I think it’s an easy call.”

  • ** Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future ** is the most recent book jointly authored by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. It was published in 2017, and I was excited to read it after thoroughly enjoying their 2014 book The Second Machine Age. The title implies that it overlaps with the previous book, and it does: on platforms, the effect of two-sided markets, and how they are disrupting businesses. But there’s also two other core aspects: the machine and the crowd. In the former (my favorite part, for obvious reasons), they talk about how AI and machine learning have been able to overcome “Polyani’s Paradox”, discussing DeepMind’s AlphaGo – yay! Key insight: experts are often incorrect, and it’s best to leave many decisions to machines. The other part is the crowd, and how the core of many participants can do better than a smaller group of so-called experts. One of the more interesting aspects is the debate on Bitcoin as an alternative to cash/currency, and the underlying Blockchain structure to help enforce contracts. However, they say that companies are not going obsolete, in part because contracts can never fully specify everything in the possible world, so companies can claim to do anything that’s not specified there if they own an asset, etc. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that while the pace of today’s world is incredible, companies will still have a role to play, and so will people and management, since they help to provide a conducive environment or mission to get things done. Overall, these themes combine together to form a splendid presentation in, effectively, how to understand all three of these aspects (the machine, the platform, and the crowd) in the context of our world today. Sure, one can’t know everything from reading a book, but it gives a tremendous starting point, hence why I enjoyed it very much.

  • ** Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone ** is a recent 2017 book by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and co-authored with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols. Nadella is the third CEO in Microsoft’s history, the others being Steve Ballmer and (of course) Bill Gates himself. (Hit Refresh is listed on Bill Gates’ book blog, which I should have anticipated like I expect the sun to rise tomorrow.) In this book, Nadella uses the analogy of “hitting refresh” to describe his approach to being a CEO: just as how hitting refresh changes a webpage on your computer but also preserves some of the existing internal structure, Nadella as CEO wanted to change some aspects of Microsoft but maintain what worked well. The main Microsoft-related takeaway I got was that, at the time Nadella took the reins, Microsoft was behind on the mobile and cloud computing markets, and had a somewhat questionable stance towards open source code. Fast forward just a few years later, and all of a sudden it’s like we’re seeing a new Microsoft, with its stock price tripled in just four years. Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform is now a respectable competitor to Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft’s acquisitions of Minecraft and – especially – GitHub show its commitment to engaging in the communities of gamers and open-source programmers. In the future, Nadella predicts that mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing will be the key technologies going forward, and Microsoft should play a key role in ensuring that such developments benefit humanity. This book is also partly about Nadella’s background: how he went from Hyderabad, India, to Redmond, Microsoft, and I find the story inspiring, and wish I can replicate some of his success in my future, post-Berkeley career. Overall, Hit Refresh is a refreshing (pun intended) book to read, and I was happy to get an insider’s view of how Microsoft works, and Microsoft’s vision for the near future.

  • ** Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data ** is a 2018 book by Oxford professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and writer Thomas Ramge, that describes their view of how capitalism works today. In particular, they focus on comparing markets versus firms in a manner similar to books such as Platform Revolution (see my comments above), but with perhaps an increased discussion over the role of prices. Historically, humans lacked all the data we have today, and condensing everything about an item for purchase in a single quantity made sense for the sake of efficiency. Things have changed in today’s Big Data world, where data can better connect producers and consumers. In the past, a firm could control data and coordinate efforts, but this advantage has declined over time, causing the authors to argue that markets are making a “comeback” against the firm, while the decline of the firm means we need to rethink our approaches towards employment since stable jobs are less likely. Reinventing Capitalism doesn’t discuss much about policies to pursue, but one that I remember they suggested is a data tax (or any “data-sharing mandate” for that matter) to help level the playing field, where data effectively plays the role of money from earlier, or fuel in the case of Artificial Intelligence applications. Obviously, this won’t be happening any time soon (and especially not with the Republican party in control of our government) but it’s certainly thought-provoking to consider what the future might bring. I feel that, like a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a data tax is inevitable, but will come too late for most of its benefits to kick in due to delays in government implementation. It’s an interesting book, and I would recommend it along with the other business-related books I’ve read here. For another perspective, see David Leonhardt’s favorable review in The New York Times.

Group 2: Biographies and Memoirs

This is rapidly becoming a popular genre within nonfiction for me, because I like knowing more about accomplished people who I admire. It helps drive me to become a better person.

  • ** Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World ** is a book consisting of a series of quotes from Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), either through his writing or interviews throughout his long life. LKY was the first Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, and the transformation was nothing short of astonishing: taking a third-world country to a first-world one with skyscrapers and massive wealth, all despite being literally the size of a single city! Written two years before LKY’s death in 2015, this book covers a wide range of topics: the future of the United States and China, the future of Radical Islam, the future of globalization, how leadership and democracy works, and so on. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote the introduction to this book, marveling at LKY’s knowledge. The impression I get from this book is that LKY simply is the definition of competent. Many books and articles I read about economics, democracy, and nation-building cite Singapore as a case where an unusually competent government can bring a nation from the third world to the first in a single generation.7 Part of the reason why I like the book is that LKY shares many of the insights I’ve worked out through my own extensive reading over the last few years. He, like I would describe myself, considers himself a classical liberal who supports democracy, the free market, and a sufficient — but not overblown — welfare state to support the lower class who lose out on the free market. I also found many of his comments remarkably prescient. He was making comments in 2000 about the dangers of globalization and the gap between rural and urban residents, and other topics that became “household” ones after the 2016 US Presidential Election. He’s also right in that weaknesses of the US system include gridlock and an inability to control spending (despite the Republicans in power now). He additionally (and again, this was quite before 2016) commented that the strength of America is that it takes in a number of immigrants (unlike East Asian countries) but also that the US would face issues with the rise of minorities such as Hispanics. He describes himself as correct — not politically correct — though some of his comments could be taken as caustic. I admire that he describes his goal of governance as maximizing the collective good of the greatest amount of people, and that he doesn’t have a theory — he just wants to get things done and then he will do things that work, and he’ll “let others extract the principles from my successful solutions”, the “real life test.” Though he passed away in 2015, his legacy of competence continues to be felt in Singapore.

  • ** Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace ** is Leon Panetta’s memoir, co-written with Jim Newton. I didn’t know much about Panetta, but after reading this engaging story of his life, I’m incredibly amazed by his career and how Panetta has made the United States and the world better off. The memoir starts at his father’s immigration from Italy to the United States, and then discusses Panetta’s early career in Congress (first as an assistant to a Congressman, then as a Congressman himself), and then his time at the Office of Management and Budget, and then President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, and then (yes, there’s more!) Director of the CIA, and finally, President Obama’s Secretary of Defense. Wow — that’s a lot to absorb already, and I wish I could have a fraction of the success and impact that Panetta has had on the world. I appreciate Panetta for several reasons. First, he repeatedly argues for the importance of balancing budgets, something which I believe isn’t a priority for either political party; despite what some may say (especially in the Republican party), their actions suggest otherwise (let’s build a wall!!!). Panetta, though, actually helped to balance the federal budget. Second, I appreciated all the effort that he and the CIA did to find and kill Osama bin Laden — that was one of the best things to happen from the CIA over the last decade, and their efforts should be appreciated. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s fortress was the most thrilling part of the memoir by far, and I could not put the book down. Finally, and while this may just be me, I personally find Panetta to be just the kind of American that we need the most. His commitment to the country is evident by the words in the book, and I can only hope that we see more people like him — whether in politics or not — instead of the ones who try to run government shutdowns8 and deliberately provoke people for the sake of provocation. After Enlightenment Now (see below), this was my second favorite book of 2018.

  • ** My Journey at the Nuclear Brink ** is William Perry’s story of his coming of age in the nuclear era. For those who don’t know him (admittedly, this included me before reading this book!) he served as the Secretary of Defense for President Clinton from February 1994 to January 1997. Before that he held an “undersecretary” position in government, and before that he was an aspiring entrepreneur and a mathematician, and earlier still, he was in the military. The book can be admittedly dry at times, but I still liked it and Perry recounts several occasions when he truly feared that the world would delve into nuclear warfare, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Cold War, as expected, Perry’s focus was on containing possible threats from the Soviet Union. Later, as Secretary of Defense, Perry was faced with a new challenge: the end of the Cold War meant that the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 countries, but this meant that nuclear weapons were spread out among different entities, heightening the risks. It is a shame that few people understand how essential Perry was (along with then-Georgia Senator Sam Nunn) in defusing this crisis by destroying or dis-assembling nuclear silos. It is also a shame that, as painfully recounted by Perry, Russia-U.S. relations have sunk to their lowest point since the high at 1996-1997 that Perry helped to facilitate. Relations sank in large part due to the expansion of NATO to include Eastern European countries. This was an important event discussed by Michael Mandelbaum in Mission Failure, and while Perry argued forcefully against NATO expansion, Clinton overrode his decision by listening to … Al Gore, of all people. Gaaah. In more recent years, Perry has teamed up with Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz to spread knowledge on the dangers of nuclear warfare. These four men aim to move towards a world without nuclear weapons. I can only hope that we achieve that ideal.

  • ** The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life ** is Barbara Boxer’s memoir, published in 2016 near the end of her fourth (and last) term as U.S. Senator of California. Before that, she was in the House of Representatives for a decade. Earlier still, Boxer held some local positions while taking part in several other political campaigns. Before moving to California in 2014, I didn’t know about Barbara Boxer, so I learned more about her experiences in the previously mentioned positions; I got a picture of what it’s like to run a political campaign and then later to be a politician. The stories of the Senate are most riveting, since it’s a highly exclusive body that acts as a feeder for presidents. It’s also constantly under public scrutiny — a good thing! In the Senate, Boxer emphasizes the necessity of developing working relationships among colleagues (are you listening, Ted Cruz?). She also emphasizes the importance of being tough (hence the book’s title), particularly due to being one of the few women in the Senate. Another example of “being tough” is staking out a minority, unpopular political position, such as her vote against the Iraq war in 2002, which was the correct thing to do in hindsight. She concludes the memoir emphasizing that she didn’t retire because of hyper-partisanship, but rather because she thought she could be more effective outside the Senate and that California would produce worthy successors to her. Indeed, her successor Kamala Harris holds very similar political positions. The book was a quick, inspiring read, and I now want to devour more memoirs by famous politicians. My biggest complaint, by far, is that during the 1992 Senate election, Boxer described herself as “an asterisk in the polls” and said even as recently as a few months before the Democratic primary election, she was thinking of quitting. But then she won … without any explanation for how she overcame the other contestants. I mean, seriously? One more thing: truthfully, one reason why I read The Art of Tough was that I wanted to know how people actually get to the House of Representatives or the Senate. In Boxer’s case, her predecessor actually knew her and recommended that she run for his seat. Thus, it seems like I need to know more politically powerful people.

  • ** Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis ** is a famous 2016 memoir by Venture Capitalist JD Vance. He grew up poor, in Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio and describes poverty, alcoholicism, a missing Dad, and a drug-addicted Mom complete with a revolving door of male figures. He found hope with his grandparents (known as “Mamaw and Papaw”) whom he credits for helping him recover academically. Vance then spent several years in the Marines, because he admitted he wasn’t ready for higher education. But the years in the Marines taught him well, and he went to Ohio State University and then Yale Law School, where one of his professors, Amy Chua, would encourage him to write this book. Hillbilly Elegy is great; in the beginning, you have to reread a few of these names to understand the family tree, but once you do, you can get a picture of what life must have been like — and how even though Vance was able to break out of poverty, he still has traces of his past. For instance, he still sometimes storms away from his current wife (another Yale Law grad) since that’s what the men in his family would often do, and he still has to watch his mother who continues to cycle in and out of drug abuse. Today, Vance is a Venture Capitalist investing in the mid-west and other areas that he thinks have been neglected.9 Hillbilly Elegy became popular after the 2016 presidential election, because in many ways it encapsulated rural, mid-Western white America’s shift from Democratic to Republican. As expected, Vance is a conservative, but says he voted for a third party. But here’s what I don’t get. He often blames the welfare state, but then he also fully admits that many of the members of his party believe in myths such as Obama being a Muslim and so forth, and says politics cannot help them. Well then, what shall we do? I also disagree with him about the problem of declining church attendance. I would never do some of the things the men in his family would do, despite my lack of church attendance — it’s something other than church attendance that’s the problem. According to his Twitter feed, he considered running for a Senate seat in Ohio, but elected not to!10 For another piece on his views, see his great opinion piece in The New York Times about finding hope from Barack Obama.

  • ** Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built ** is an engaging biography of Jack Ma by longtime friend Duncan Clark. Jack Ma is the co-founder and face of Alibaba, which has led to his net worth of about 35 billion today. Ma has an unusual background as an English teacher in China, with little tech knowledge (he often jokes about this), despite Alibaba being the biggest e-commerce thing in China. In Alibaba, Clark describes Ma’s upbringing from Zhejiang province in China, with pictures from his childhood. He then describes how the business-minded reforms of China allowed Ma to try his hand at entrepreneurship, and particularly at e-commerce due to the spread of the Internet in China. Alibaba wasn’t Ma’s first company — his first ended up not doing much, but like so many eventually successful businessmen, he learned and was able to co-found Alibaba, fighting off e-Bay in China and joining with Yahoo to skyrocket in wealth. Of course, Alibaba wasn’t a guaranteed success, and like many books about entrepreneurs, Clark goes over the difficulties Ma had, and times when things just seemed hopeless. But, here we are today, and Ma — despite sacrificing lots of equity to other employees and investors — somehow has billions of dollars. It is a rousing and inspiring success story for someone with an unusual background for entrepreneurship, which is one of the reasons (along with Jack Ma’s oral skill) why people find his story inspiring. Clark’s book was written in 2016, and a number of interesting things have happened since the book was published. First, John Canny has had this student and this student join Alibaba, who (as far as I know) apply Deep Learning techniques there. Second, Ma has stepped down (!!) from Alibaba and was revealed to be a member of the Communist party. Duncan Clark, the author of this book, was cited, quoting that this is a sign that the government may be exercising too much control. For the sake of business (and the usual human rights issues) in China, I hope that is not the case.

  • ** Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom ** is a thrilling 2017 book by Thomas E. Ricks, a longtime reporter specializing in military and national security issues, and who writes the Foreign Policy blog Best Defense. Churchill and Orwell, provides a dual biography of these two Englishmen, first discussing them independently before weaving together their stories and then combining their legacies. By the end of the 20th Century, as the book correctly points out, both Churchill and Orwell would be considered as two of the most influential figures in protecting the rights and freedoms of people from intrusive state governments and outside adversaries. Churchill, obviously, was the Prime Minister of England during World War II and guided the country through blood and tears to victory versus the decidedly anti-freedom Nazi Germany. Orwell initially played a far lesser role in the fight for freedom, and was still an unknown quantity even during the 1940s as he was writing his two most influential works: Animal Farm and 1984. However, no one could ever have anticipated at the time of his death in 1950 (one year after publishing 1984) that those books would become two of the most wildly successful novels of all time11. As mentioned earlier, this book was published last year, but I think if Ricks had extra time, he would have mentioned Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts” statement and how 1984 once again became a bestsellerdecades after it was originally published. I’m grateful to Ricks for writing such an engaging book, but of course, I’m even more grateful for what Churchill and Orwell have done. Their legacies have a permanent spot in my heart.

  • ** A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership ** is the famous 2018 memoir of James Comey, former FBI director and detested by Democrats and Republicans alike. I probably have a (pun intended) higher opinion of him than almost all “serious” Democrats and Republicans, given my sympathy towards people who work in intelligence and military jobs that are supposed to be non-political. I was interested in why Comey discussed Clinton’s emails they way he did, and also how he managed his interactions with Trump. Note that the Robert Mueller thing is largely classified, so there’s nothing in A Higher Loyalty about that, but his interactions with others at the highest levels of American politics is fascinating. Comey’s book, however, starts early, with a harrowing story about how Comey and his brother were robbed at gunpoint while in high school, an event which he would remember forever and which spurred him to join law enforcement. Among other great stories in the book (before the Clinton/Trump stuff) is when he threatened to resign as (deputy) Attorney General. That was when George Bush wanted to renew StellarWind, a program which would surge into public discourse upon Edward Snowden’s leaks. I knew about this, but Comey’s writing made this story thrilling: a race to try and protect a dying Attorney General’s approval to renew a law which Comey and other lawyers thought was completely indefensible. (It was criticized by WSJ writer Karl Rove as “melodramatic flair”). Regarding the Clinton emails, Comey did a good job explaining to me what needed to happen in order to prosecute Clinton, and I think the explanation he gave was fair. Now, about his renewal of the news 11 days before the election … Comey said either he could not say anything (and destroy the reputation of the FBI if the email investigation was found to continue) or say something (and get hammered now). One of the things that I’m most impressed about the book is Comey’s praise towards Obama, and oddly, Obama said he still thought highly of him at the end of 2016 when Comey was universally pilloried in the press. A Higher Loyalty is another book in my collection of those who have served in high levels of office (Leon Panetta, William Perry, Michael Hayden, Barbara Boxer, Sonia Sotomayor, etc.) so you can tell that there’s a trend here. The WSJ slammed him for being “more like Trump than he admits” but I personally can’t agree with that statement.

  • Faith: A Journey for All is one of former President James (“Jimmy”) Carter’s many books,12 this one published in 2018. I discussed it in this earlier blog post.

Group 3: Self-Improvement and Skills Development

I have long enjoyed reading these books because I want to use them to become a highly effective person who can change the world for the better.

  • ** Stress Free For Good: 10 Scientifically Proven Life Skills for Health and Happiness ** is a well-known 2005 book13 co-authored by professors Fred Luskin and Kenneth R. Pelletier. The former is known for writing Forgive for Good and his research on forgiveness, while the latter is more on the medical side. In this book, they discuss two types of stress: Type I and Type II. Type I stress occurs when the stress source is easily identified and resolved, while Type II stress is (as you might guess) when the source cannot be easily resolved. Not all stress is bad — somewhat contradicting the title itself! – as humans clearly need stress and its associated responses if it is absolutely necessary for survival (e.g., running away from a murderer). But this is not the correct response for a chronic but non-lethal condition such as deteriorating familial relationships, challenging work environments, and so forth. Thus, Luskin and Pelletier go through 10 skills, each dedicated to its own chapter. Skills include the obvious, such as smiling, and the not-so-obvious, such as … belly-breathing?!? Yes, really. The authors argue that each skill is scientifically proven and back each with anecdotes from their patients. I enjoyed the anecdotes, but I wonder how much scientific evidence qualifies as “proven”. Stress Free For Good does not formally cite any papers, and instead concisely describes work done by groups of researchers. Certainly, I don’t think we need dozens of papers to tell us that smiling is helpful, but I think other chapters (e.g., belly breathing) need more evidence. Also, like most self-help books, it suffers from the medium of the written word. Most people will read passively, and likely forget about the skills. I probably will be one of them, even though I know I should practice these skills. The good news is, while I have lots of stress, it’s not the kind (at least right now, thankfully) that is enormously debilitating and wears me down. For those in worse positions than me, I can see this book being, if not a literal life saver, at least fundamentally useful.

  • ** The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career ** is more about self-improvement rather than business. It’s a 2012 book by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha. Regarding Hoffman, he left academia and joined the tech industry despite little tech background, starting at Apple for two years and then going to Fujitsu for product management. He founded an online dating company which didn’t work out, before experiencing success with PayPal’s team, and then of course, as the founder of the go-to social network for professionals, LinkedIn. And for Casnocha, I need to start reading his blog if I want to learn more about business. But anyway, this book is about how to improve yourself to better adapt to modern times, which (as we all know) is fast-paced and makes it less likely that one can hold one career for life. To drill this home, Hoffman and Casnocha start off by discussing Detroit and the auto industry. They criticize the “passion first, then job hunt” mantra a la Cal Newport — who applauds the book on his blog, though I’m guessing he wouldn’t like the social media aspects. Hoffman and Casnocha urge the reader to utilize LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to network, of but course Hoffman wants us to utilize LinkedIn!! Less controversially (at least to me), the authors talk about having a Plan A, B, and Z (!!), and show examples of pivoting. For example, the Flickr team, Sheryl Sandberg, and Reid Hoffman ended up in wildly different areas than they would have expected. Things change and one cannot plan everything. In addition, they also suggest working on a team. I agree! Look at high-tech start-ups today. They are essentially all co-founded. In addition to anecdotes and high-level advice, Hoffman and Casnocha have some more specific suggestions that they list at the end of chapters. One explicitly tells the reader to reach out to five people who work in adjacent niches and ask for coffee. I’ve never been a fan of this kind of advice, but perhaps I should start trying at least something? What I can agree with is this: lifelong learning. Yes, I am a lifelong learner.

  • How to Invest Your Time Like Money is a brief 2015 essay by time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders, and I found out about it by reading (no surprise here!) a blog post from Cal Newport. I bought this on my iBooks app while trying to pass the time at a long airport layover in Vancouver when I was returning from ICRA 2018. Like many similarly-themed books, she urges the reader to drop activities that aren’t high on the priority list and won’t have a huge impact (meetings!!), and to set aside sufficient time for relaxing and sleeping. The main distinction between this book and others in the genre is that Saunders tries to provide a full-blown weekly schedule to the reader, urging them to fill in the blanks with what their schedule will look like. The book also proffers formulaic techniques to figure out which activity should go where. This is the part that I’m not a fan of — I never like having to go that far in detail in my scheduling and I doubt the effectiveness of applying formulas to figure out my activities. I can usually reduce my work days to one or two critical things that I need to do, and block off huge amounts of flexible time blocks. A fixed, rigid schedule (as in, stop working on task A at 10:00am and switch to task B for two hours) rarely works for me, so I am not much of a fan of this book.

  • ** Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise ** is a 2016 book by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool. Ericsson is well-known for his research on deliberate practice, a proven technique for rapidly improving one’s ability in some field,14 and this book presents his findings to educate the lay audience. Ericsson and Pool define deliberate practice as a special type of “purposeful practice” in which there are well-defined goals, immediate feedback, total focus, and where the practitioner is slightly outside his or her comfort zone (but not too much!). This starkly contrasts with the kind of ineffective practice where one repeats the same activity over and over again. Ericsson and Pool demonstrate how the principles of deliberate practice were derived not only from “the usual”15 fields of chess and music, but also from seemingly obscure tasks such as memorizing a string of numerical digits. They provide lessons on developing mental representations for deliberate practice. Ericsson and Pool critique Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000-hour rule” and, while they agree that it is necessary to invest ginormous amounts of time to become an expert, that time must consist of deliberate practice rather than “ordinary” practice. A somewhat controversial topic that appears later is the notion of “natural talent.” Ericsson and Pool claim that it doesn’t exist except for height and body size for sports, and perhaps a few early advantages associated with IQ for mental tasks. They back their argument with evidence of how child prodigies (e.g., Mozart) actually invested lots of meaningful practice beforehand. And thus lies the paradox for me: I’m happy that there isn’t a “natural talent” for computer science and AI research, but I’m not happy that I got a substantially late start in developing my math, programming and AI skills compared to my peers. That being said, this book proves its worth as an advocate for deliberate practice and for its appropriate myth-busting. I will do my best to apply deliberate practice to my work and physical fitness.

  • ** Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance **, a 2016 book by Angela Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth is noted for winning a “genius” grant, despite how (when growing up) her father would explicitly say that she wasn’t a genius. She explores West Point and the military, athletics, academia, and other areas (e.g., the business world), to understand what causes people to be high achievers while others achieve less? Her conclusion is that these people have “grit”. She develops a Grit scale – you can take it in the book. (I am always skeptical of these things, but it’s very hard to measure psychological factors.) Duckworth says people with grit combine passion and perseverance (see the book’s subtitle!). She cites West Point survivors, fellow MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Cody Coleman, who is now a computer science PhD candidate at Stanford University. But how do you get grit? Follow your passion is bad advice, which by now I’ve internalized. And yes, she cites Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but apparently Deep Work must have been published too late to make it into this book, because her FAQ later says she works about 70 hours a week in all; this is shorter than my work schedule but longer than Professor Newport’s.16 But anyway, she makes it clear that once people have started their passion or mission, they need to stick with it and not quit just because they’ve had one bad day. For Duckworth, her mission is about using psychology to maximize success in people, and children in particular. Part of this involves deliberate practice, and yes, she cites Anders Ericsson’s work, which is largely compatible with grit. Probably the major gap in the grit hypothesis is that stuff like poverty, racism and other barriers can throw a wrench in success, but grit can still be relatively useful regardless of circumstances. If you want to know more, you can check out her 6-minute TED talk.

  • ** Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More ** is a 2018 book by Berkeley management professor Morten T. Hansen. The book advertises itself as the empirically-backed version of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and indeed, the main distinction this book has over other self-improvement books is that it’s based on a study Hansen conducted with 5000 participants. Hansen and his collaborators interviewed the people and scored them based on a series of survey questions. While there are obvious limitations to this, it’s unavoidable in a study of humans and it’s arguably the best we can realistically do if we exclude tracking Google Habits — see “Everybody Lies” later in this blog post. The main findings of Great at Work are not particularly surprising, and especially for me since I already read a number of books on self-improvement; heck, Hansen cites books I’ve read such as Peak (see above!) and Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. (It’s either a good sign or a bad sign that I know so many of Hansen’s book references.) One main point he makes is that the highest performers do few things, but obsess at being well at those things. So it’s not just enough to follow what most books tell you to do and pick a few tasks; you also have to really obsess to be the best at those. That seems to be the book’s most important advice. I know I need to do that. I’ve gotten better at “doing fewer things” because I’m finally focusing on robotics research only, but I still don’t feel like I’m the leading expert of any sub-field. I haven’t been as successful as a graduate student as I would have liked, hence why I read so many books like this. Perhaps that’s a sign I shouldn’t be reading so many books and instead internalizing the advice from a few of them — that’s a fair argument. Still, the book is a great read, and the empirical backing is a nice plus.

Group 4: History

This is a relatively short section, with just three books. Still, all three were excellent and highly educational. These books (especially the last two) can be harder to read than biographies, which is why I read fewer of them.

  • ** The Post-American World ** a 2009 book by CNN host Fareed Zakaria. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on TV, though I have seen him referenced many times in news articles, so this book allowed me to learn from him directly. The Post-American World is yet another book about the rise of other countries (especially China) and suggests that the United States is (gasp!) losing its aura of superiority; such books include as That Used to be Us and Mission Failure, both of which I read two years ago. The Post-American World is a fast-paced, easily readable book. At the time of publication, America was reeling from the financial crisis and suffering from the Iraq war. Zakaria has fair critiques of the Bush administration’s approach towards the war, and also wonders how the United States will manage its finances going forward. But fortunately, much of this book isn’t about pointing out the decline of America, so as it is about the uplifting of everyone else, which is a more pleasant tradeoff. I read this on my plane ride from Brisbane, Australia, to Vancouver, Canada, two countries that are not America (obviously) and which are also great places to visit and live. So, I don’t mind if other countries can lift their citizens out of poverty and ensure that their politics are working well and safe — it means much of the world is better off, not just America. I read this book literally the day after finishing Enlightenment Now, and I remember there being lots of similarities among the two books, and I was nodding and smiling along the way. My only wish was that it was slightly bit longer, since it was the only printed book I had on a 13.5-hour flight, and I feel like I forgot much of the details in the book in lieu of what was in Enlightenment Now (see below). For another perspective, the NYTimes reviewed it favorably.

  • ** The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution ** is a book by political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and one that I’ve wanted to read for several years and finally finished it after the ICRA 2019 deadline. I discuss the book in a separate blog post, where I also discuss Jimmy Carter’s book. Fukuyama wrote a follow-up book which I bought after BARS 2018, but alas, I have not even started reading it. Neither did I read Fukuyama’s more famous work, The End of History and the Last Man. There is so much I need to read, but not enough time.

  • ** Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress ** is a 2018 book by famous Harvard professor Steven Pinker,17 known for writing the 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature and for research in cognitive psychology. I haven’t read Better Angels (I have a copy of it), but Enlightenment Now seems to be a natural sequel written in a similar style with graphs and facts galore about how the world has been getting better overall, and not worse as some might think from the “Again” in “Make America Great Again!!”. The bulk of the book consists of chapters on one main theme, such as life, the environment, equal rights, democracy, inequality, peace, existential threats, and other topics. For each, Pinker explains why things have gotten better by reporting on relevant long-term statistics. Enlightenment Now is probably as good as you can get in answering as many of humanity’s critical questions together in one bundle, and written by someone who, in the words of Scott Aaronson (amusingly referred to as “Aronson” in the acknowledgments) is “possibly the single person on earth most qualified to tackle those questions.” In the other parts of the book, Pinker defends Enlightenment thinking from other forces, such as religious thinking and authoritarianism. To me, one of the most impressive parts of the book may be that Pinker very often anticipates the counter-arguments and answers them right after making various claims. I find Pinker’s claims to be very reasonable and I can tell why Bill Gates refers to Enlightenment Now as “his new favorite book” (replacing Better Angels). And about Trump, it’s impossible to ignore him in a book about progress, because Trump’s “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a glorious past, but this would include (in the United States alone) segregation, bans on interracial marriage, gay sex, and birth control.18 Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Despite all the real problems we face today, if I had to pick any time to be born, it would be the present. Pinker is a great spokesman for Enlightenment thinking, and I’m happy to consider myself a supporter and ardent defender of these ideals. This was my favorite book I read in 2018.

Group 5: Current Events

Here are three books published in 2018 about current events, from a US-centric perspective, with some discussions about Russia sprinkled in.

  • ** The Fifth Risk ** is the latest book by author and journalist Michael Lewis, who writes about the consequences of what happens when people in control of government don’t know how it works. In the words of John Williams, “I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if he wrote it”. That’s true for me as well. Lewis quickly hooked me with his writing, which starts off about … you guessed it, Rick Perry and the Department of Energy. The former Texas governor was somehow tapped to run the Department of Energy despite famously campaigning to abolish it back in the 2012 Republican primaries … when, of course, in a televised debate, he failed to remember it as the third government agency he would eliminate. Oops. Later, he admitted he regretted this, but still: of all the people that could possibly lead the Department of Energy, why did it have to be him?!?!?19 Other departments and agencies are also led by people with either little understanding of how it works, or industry lobbyists who stand to gain a large paycheck after leaving government. I want the best people to get the job, and that’s unfortunately not happening with Trump’s administration. Furthermore, not only do we have job mismatches, we also have repeated federal government shutdowns, at the time of me writing this blog post. Why should Americans want to work for the federal government if we can’t give them a stable wage? (That’s literally why many people aim for federal jobs, due presumably to more stability than the private sector.) The silver lining is that this book also consists of a series of interviews with unsung heroes in our government, who are working to maintain it and counter the influence of misguided decisions happen on top. The Fifth Risk will clearly not have any impact whatsoever on the Trump administration, because they would not bother reading books like this.

  • ** LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media ** is a 2018 book that, like The Fifth Risk (see above), is engaging yet extremely disconcerting. It’s about how social media has grown out of an original innocence of “we can change the world” to something more sinister and dangerous that authoritarian governments and terrorists can exploit to advance their agendas. The authors, P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking, are experts in national security, conflict, and social media. At the beginning, they discuss Trump and Twitter, but LikeWar is not about Trump specifically. There was more discussion about Russia spawning fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook to influence American thinking and perpetuate fake news. (Though I don’t think this was directly due to Russia, remember PizzaGate?) ISIS, of course, ran roughshod on on Twitter to recruit terrorists. Also disconcerting are how China, Russia, Middle Eastern countries, and other authoritarian governments are salivating at the prospects of using social media and smartphone apps to police the thoughts of their citizens and (in China) assigning “scores” to them. At the end of the book, as I was worried about, the authors start talking about Artificial Intelligence, and how it can now be used to generate fake images, which will raise another host of worrisome issues. This is what keeps me up at night. Others agree: Gen. Michael Hayden, Vint Cerf, and Francis Fukuyama all provide their own praise for the book, showing the diverse audience of LikeWar. Singer and Brooking have some advice going forward: more information literacy, governments must view social media as another battleground, tech companies must step up, and so forth. I’m not optimistic that tech companies will do this, because they also have to satisfy shareholders who demand growth. Singer and Brooking resign to the fact that social media is part of our lives, and say we’re all addicted. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean people can’t change and cut down social media usage.

  • ** The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies ** (2018) by General Michael V. Hayden, former director of CIA and NSA. Hayden makes it clear that he isn’t a fan of Trump, and describes his perspective on Trump and the IC from the period when Trump was a candidate up to his first 100 days in office. It’s not optimistic. Hayden admits that the personal relationship between the IC and Trump was “in the toilet.” The biggest failure is Trump’s frequent dismissal of the IC’s warnings about Russia (and by extension, Putin). Hayden lamented that the IC’s priorities are Russia, China, Radical Islam and ISIS, and drugs/gangs at the border, in descending order, yet Trump somehow seems fixated on the reverse: frequently bashing Mexico and talking about a “wall”, and then trying to ally with Putin to defeat Islamic State in Syria (even though that’s the narrative Putin and Assad want), and so forth. It’s distressing. The good news is that there are competent people in the administration: Hayden has high praise for Pompeo and Mattis. Of course, the book was published before Mattis resigned so … yeah. Hayden concludes that government leadership is necessary to combat misconceptions on truth and Russia, but the Trump administration isn’t up to the task. This book shares similar themes with LikeWar (see above); no wonder Hayden’s praise is on the jacket cover. The Assault on Intelligence is a fast and engaging read, and I enjoyed the insider perspective. Hayden comments on his interactions with current and former Trump cabinet officials. The main downside for someone like me who follows national security news semi-regularly is that, aside from these personal interactions, there wasn’t much new to me, since I was already aware of Putin’s misinformation campaign. Perhaps for those who will read the book in the future with less memory of current events, the material will be more novel. I thank General Hayden for writing this book, and for his service. I hope that the Trump era will turn out to be just a blip in the relationship between the government and the IC. I hope.

Group 6: Miscellaneous

Finally, we have some random books that didn’t make it into the above categories.

  • Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know was written by Charles D. Ferguson, and provides an overview of various topics pertinent to nuclear energy. You can explore (Doctor) Ferguson’s background on his LinkedIn page, but to summarize: a PhD in physics followed by various government and think-tank jobs, most of which relate to nuclear energy and make him well-qualified to write this book. Published in 2011, just two weeks after the Fukushima accident and before the Iran Nuclear Deal, Nuclear Energy is organized as a set of eight chapters, each of which is broken up into a list of sections. Each section is highlighted by a question or two, such as “What is energy, and what is power?” in the first chapter on fundamentals, and “How many nuclear weapons do the nuclear armed countries have?” in the chapter on proliferation. I decided to read this book for two main reasons: the first is that I am worried about existential threats from nuclear warfare (inspired in part by reading William Perry’s book this year — see above), and the second is whether nuclear energy can be a useful tool for addressing climate change. For the former, I learned about the many agencies and people who are doing their part to stop proliferation, which partially assuages my concerns. For the latter, I got mixed messages, unfortunately. In general, Ferguson does a good job treating issues in a relatively unbiased manner, presenting both pros and cons. The book isn’t a page-turner, and I worry that the first chapter on fundamentals might turn off potential readers, but once a reader gets though the first chapter, the rest is easier reading. I am happy he wrote Nuclear Energy, and I plan to mention more in a subsequent blog post.

  • ** Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success ** is a 2014 book by Wharton Professor Adam Grant. I read his Originals last year (see my book list), so I had Give and Take on my radar for months. Written in his highly identifiable and engaging writing style, Grant explains that people can be categorized as “givers,” “takers,” or “matchers.” Givers spend more time helping others, takers place less priority on helping others,20 and matchers will help others so long as they are equally reciprocated. These labels are malleable: people can transition from taker to giver, as Grant demonstrates in his discussion about Freecycle21. People also act differently in various domains, such as being a giver in a volunteer hobby group but a taker during normal work hours. Having established these categories, Grant argues that we need to rethink the power of being a giver, and he provides evidence in domains ranging from schools to businesses that givers are the most likely to be successful. Adam Rifkin, America’s best networker, George Meyer of the Simpsons, and others who Grant describes as givers, have benefits over takers and matchers in communication, influencing, networking, and collaborating. Givers, however, need to protect themselves at the bargaining table to ensure that people don’t take advantage of them. His main strategy appears to be to give by default, but to transition to a (generous) tit-for-tat upon seeing any signs of trouble. Overall, the arguments and evidence seem reasonable. That’s not to say that I was not skeptical of some parts of the book. There’s the cherry picking as usual: what if there’s an enormous list of successful people who are takers, and perhaps these were simply ignored in Grant’s research? I do not hold this against Grant that much because, well, no one can collect and analyze every possible situation that might be of interest. Another possible limitation could be that giving takes too much time; as described in an excellent NYTimes article, Professor Grant — himself a giver, obviously — works extremely heavy hours, so I often wonder if it is possible to be such a highly productive giver with a tighter time budget. On balance, though, the book’s arguments appear reasonable and backed by studies, though obviously I haven’t read any of the academic references. I also naturally wonder what kind of giver, taker, or matcher label applies to me … comments welcome!

  • Turing’s Vision: The Birth of Computer Science is a brief book by math professor Chris Bernhardt which attempts to present the themes of Turing’s landmark paper of 1936 (written when he was just 24 years old) on the theory of computation. Most of the material was familiar to me as it is covered in standard theory of computation courses for undergraduates, though I have to confess that I forgot much of the material. And this, despite blogging about theory of computation several times on this blog! You can find the paper online, titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”. I think the book is useful as a general introduction to the lay reader (i.e., non computer scientist).

  • ** Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are ** is a brilliantly entertaining book published last year by researcher, writer, and lecturer Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I’ll call him “Seth” in this post only because he isn’t much older than I am and his last-name is very long. Seth is an economist who is well-known for mining data from Google searchers to help us answer pressing questions such as the ones he lists on the cover of the book: How much sex are people really having?, How many Americans are actually racist?, and so on. Seth correctly points out that if these questions were listed in traditional surveys, few would answer honestly. Furthermore, some questions (e.g., how much sex?) are subject to the fallacies of human memory. The solution? Take a database of Google search terms and make inferences! Google searches have a number of benefits: that people are comfortable making sensitive searches in private, that people are using them a lot (hence, “Big Data”), and that there’s meta-data attached to it, such as the time and place of the search, which we can tie to specific events and/or political characteristics. Everybody Lies uses this and other factors to make what I think are quite reasonable conclusions about these sensitive topics (sex and racism are two common ones in this book), and brings what I think is a largely novel perspective of merging Big Data with traditional humanities research, something that Steven Pinker (who wrote the foreword to this book!) pointed out in Enlightenment Now. Seth, like any responsible author, points out the limitations and ethics of utilizing Big Data, and on the whole the perspective is balanced. One takeaway from this is that I should be thinking about data-driven things whenever I try to think about the humanities, or even about my own political positions. I’ll do my best!22

Whew, that’s 2018. Up next, 2019. Happy readings!

Update January 2, 2019: I revised the post since I had forgotten to include one book, and I actually read another one in between the December 27 publication date and January 1 of the new year. So that’s 34 books I read, not 32.

  1. Technically, books that I finished reading this year, which includes those that I started reading in late 2017, and excludes those that I will finish in 2019. 

  2. Yeah, yeah, if Andrew Ng says to read a book, then I will read it. Sorry, I can follow the leader a bit too much … 

  3. One of the phrases that I remember well from the book is something like: “this is a book on how to get into the rich man’s club in the first place” (emphasis mine). 

  4. I would be interested in being a “science advisor” to the President of the United States. 

  5. It should surprise no one that I am a vocal proponent of an open society, both politically and economically. 

  6. There’s less congestion in the air, and the skill required means all the “drivers” are far more sophisticated than the ground counterparts. 

  7. Singapore is advanced enough in that top academic conferences are held there — think ICRA 2017. (Sadly, I was unable to attend, though I heard the venue was excellent.) In addition, Singapore is often the best country in terms of “number of academic papers with respect to total population” for obvious reasons. 

  8. At the time I finished this book in early 2018 and drafted the summary for Worthy Fights in this blog post, the US Government was reeling from two government shutdowns, one from Chuck Schumer and the other from Rand Paul. And at the end of 2018, when I finished doing minor edits to the entire post before official publication, we were in the midst of the third government shutdown of the year, this time from Donald Trump who famously said he would “own” the shutdown in a televised interview. Don’t worry, this doesn’t hinder my interest in running for political office. If anything, the constant gridlock in Washington increases my interest in being there somehow, since I think I could improve the situation. 

  9. This raises the question: if Vance says he should do that, shouldn’t other VCs help to invest in areas or in groups of people who haven’t gotten the fruits of VC funding, such as black people? 

  10. This shocked me. If I were in his position, which admittedly I am not, there’s no way I would not run for office. I mean, he had people (not including — presumably — his relatives) clamoring him to run!! 

  11. In 2005, TIME chose both Animal Farm and 1984 to be in their top 100 novels of all time. 

  12. I mean, look at all of these books

  13. I decided to read it upon seeing it featured on Professor Olga Russakovsky’s website

  14. When I saw the book’s description, I immediately thought of Cal Newport’s Deep Work as a technique that merges well with deliberate practice, and I was therefore not surprised to see that deliberate practice has been mentioned previously on Study Hacks

  15. I say “usual” here because chess and music are common domains where psychologists can run controlled experiments to measure expertise, study habits, and so on. 

  16. I wonder what she would think of Newport’s Deep Work book. 

  17. I bumped into Steven Pinker totally by coincidence at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) last month. I was surprised that he was all by himself, even when SFO is filled with people who presumably must have read his book. I only briefly mentioned to him that I enjoyed reading his book. I did not want to distub him. 

  18. I should add from my perspective, the past also includes lack of technological and personal support for people with disabilities. 

  19. Lewis, unfortunately, believes that Perry has not spent much time learning about the department from the previous energy secretary, an MIT nuclear physicist who played a role in the technical negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal. Dude, there’s a reason why President Obama chose nuclear physicists to run the Department of Energy. 

  20. Unless they’re smooching to get that salary increase, or trying to con people à la Kenneth Lay. 

  21. Freecycle seems like a cool resource. Think of it as a Craigslist but where all products must be sold for free. I’m surprised I never heard of Freecycle before reading Give and Take, but then again, I didn’t know anything about Craigslist until summer 2014, when I learned about it as I was searching for apartments in Berkeley. That’s why reading books so useful: I learn

  22. I couldn’t help but end this short review with two quick semi-personal comments. First, I didn’t realize until reading the acknowledgments section (yes, I read every name in those!) that he is a close friend of CMU professor Jean Yang, whose blog I have known about for many years. Second, Seth cites the 2015 paper A Century of Portraits: A Visual Historical Record of American High School Yearbooks, by several students affiliated with Alexei Efros’ group. The citation, however, was incorrect since it somehow missed the lead author, so I took pictures and emailed the situation to him and the Berkeley authors. Seth responded with a one-liner: “Sorry. Not sure how that happened. I will change in future editions”, so hopefully there will be future editions (not sure how likely that is with books, though). I bet the Berkeley authors were surprised to see that (a) their work made it in Seth’s book, and (b) someone actually read the endnotes and caught the error.