[Warning: Long Read]

There are 37 books listed here, which is similar to past years (34, 43, 35). Here is how I categorized these books:

  • China (7 books)
  • Popular Science (9 books)
  • American History and Current Events (4 books)
  • Self-Improvement (6 books)
  • Dean Karnazes Books (3 books)
  • Yuval Noah Harari Books (3 books)
  • Miscellaneous (5 books)

For all of these I put the book’s publication date in parentheses after the title, since it’s important to know when a book was published to better understand the historical context.

This page will maintain links to all my reading list posts. In future years, I’ll try and cut down on the length of these summaries, since I know I am prone to excessive rambling. We’ll see if I am successful!

Books I especially liked have double asterisks by their name.

Group 1: China

For a variety of reasons, I resolved that in 2019, I would learn as much as I could about China’s history, economy, political structure, and current affairs. A basic knowledge of the country is a prerequisite for being able to adequately discuss China-related issues today. I successfully read several books, which I am happy about, though I wanted to read about double the number that I did. As usual, my weakness is being interested in so many subjects that it’s impossible for me to focus on just one.

  • ** China in Ten Words ** (2011) is a memoir by Yu Hua, one of China’s most famous novelists. To give some context, when I discuss my book reading list with my Chinese friends, the vast majority of them know about Yu Hua. The book was translated by Pomona College professor Allan H. Barr. I found out about this book from a Forbes article on “10 Books to Understand Modern China” – and I’m glad I read it! Yu Hua was born in Zhejiang Province in 1960 and thus experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), followed by China’s massive economic growth once they moved away from centralized economic planning. Yu features the following ten words: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat, and bamboozle. Each has a chapter devoted to it. For example, the “leader” chapter is obviously about Mao Zedong, and I could anticipate what “copycat” was about because Kai-Fu Lee in AI Superpowers (a book I read just before starting this one) explicitly mentions that Chinese companies have a “copycat mentality.” But who is Lu Xun? Yu says in the chapter on “reading” that the Cultural Revolution was an era without literature, but books by Lu Xun were allowed because (surprise, surprise) Mao Zedong was a huge fan. Another word I liked was “bamboozle,” or trickery and fraud. These and related stories are brilliantly educational since I only have indirect knowledge of China via Western observers and international students from China. While Yu doesn’t go out of his way to criticize the Chinese government, there are a fair amount of critiques or anecdotes that imply healthy disagreement, so I wondered if Yu was able to get the book published in China – but a brief online search here and here showed that this did not happen. It’s unsurprising; Yu discusses the Tiananmen Square protests in the very first chapter of the book and explicitly says: “[…] it is a disturbing fact that among the younger generation in China today few know anything about the Tiananmen incident […]”. There’s no way the government would approve. Thus, Yu, who lives in Beijing, got his memoir published in Taiwan. Surprisingly, I can’t remember anything about Taiwan in this book; perhaps Yu wanted to focus on themes less clear to non-Chinese? Overall, I give the book firm praise and I thank Yu for giving me a perspective on what living in China is (and was) like.

  • On China (2011) is by the legendary former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who as National Security Advisor, made a secret visit to China in 1971 to help lay the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China. While I recognize that Kissinger is a controversial figure, I have no objections with Nixon’s China trip. Indeed, since it helped lead to normalizing relations with China, it may have been one of the best parts of Nixon’s presidency, which is often viewed negatively in the US due to Watergate. Kissinger’s On China is a massive 600-page book that shows the insane breadth and depth of Kissinger’s knowledge about China. The first few chapters are mostly generic history, though from the lens of security and warfare. To double check the historical accuracy, I cross-referenced this portion with other books I read this year. On China gets more interesting in the middle part of the book, where Kissinger describes meeting high-ranking Chinese officials. The book includes transcripts from Kissinger’s conversations with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. While the transcripts are sometimes confusing to interpret and filled with prolix comments, I enjoyed seeing what those men actually talked about decades ago. It was also interesting, from an American perspective, to see the discussion internal to US officials, who in the 1970s generally agreed that if the Soviet Union attacked China, the US would attempt to take the Chinese side. The issue of “triangular diplomacy” among the US, Soviet Union, and China is also highly relevant in On China. Later in the book, the discussion often revolves around how much the US should attempt to spread human rights, and how much room for cooperation exists between the US and China. For example, President George H.W. Bush needed to proceed with caution with the US response to the Tiananmen Square killings, since Bush understood that condemning China would seem like it was interfering with their affairs, which is a constant sore spot from the Chinese perspective. (If any Chinese are reading this, be aware that in America we frequently have passionate internal debates among whether we should intervene or not in foreign countries.) From reading this book, I am amazed at the Chinese endurance, unity, and resistance in the face of foreign pressures, and I agree with Kissinger’s conclusion that, going forward, mutually beneficial and peaceful cooperation among the US and China is a must. On China is not a page-turner, and sometimes feels like it rambles on, since Kissinger — while obviously a great writer — is not on the same level as, say, Steven Pinker or Yuval Noah Harari. That’s totally fair; his expertise is with foreign policy. It is incredible that Kissinger can write a book this grand at the age of 88. He is still alive with a sharp mind at 96 today, and who just a month ago met with Xi Jinping.

  • CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016) by Kerry Brown of the United Kingdom is perhaps the preeminent biography available of Xi Jinping. I read CEO China because Xi Jinping is one of the two most important people in the world, with the other one being the President of the United States. CEO China was additionally recommended by Wasserstrom and Cunningham’s book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, and for once I decided to follow up a book by exploring its “recommended reading” postscript. Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. Like most books I read about China (except for Yu Hua’s book), it is from the perspective of a Westerner who studies China, though interestingly enough, Brown has personally met Xi once. In addition to Xi, CEO China analyzes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and what “power” really means in modern China. Xi was born in 1953, and from the book we learn about Xi’s upbringing during the Great Leap Forward1 and the Cultural Revolution, about Xi’s early career in government before he became a serious candidate for being the next Chinese leader2 starting in the mid-2000s, and about Xi’s closest friends and family members. As the title suggests, the “CEO” part is because Xi has heavily focused on economics and material goods as part of his and the CCP’s legitimacy to power. What I found more interesting and novel is that Brown often compares Xi to the Pope, and the CCP to the Catholic Church. The book concludes with a discussion of what Xi wants: Brown describes a hypothetical “China in 2035” scenario with stability and prosperity. There are, of course, many things that can go wrong, and power is intoxicating. For the sake of worldwide stability and peace, I hope that Xi will recognize when his power has overstepped too much and step aside. Brown has another book, The World According to Xi, published in 2018, and presumably that is a follow-up to this one, and might discuss Xi’s lifting of term limits and retirement plans (Kerry Brown is mentioned in this late 2017 NYTimes article), the surveillance of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and other similar topics that have garnered recent Western media coverage.

  • ** China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know ** (2016) is by Arthur R. Kroeber, a Westerner who has lived in Beijing since 2002. Describing China as “formally centralized, but in practice highly decentralized,” Kroeber drives us through a fascinating whirlwind of the world’s most populous country, discussing the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese leaders, Chinese growth relative to other Asian economies (Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan), State Owned Enterprises, the Cultural Revolution, how the political system works, how business and finance work, Chinese energy consumption, Chinese meat consumption (which, thankfully, is leveling out) demographics, the shift from rural to urban, and so forth. There’s a lot to process, and I think Kroeber admirably provides a balanced overview. Some of the economic discussion comes from Joe Studwell’s book on How Asia Works, which I read last year. The book is mostly objective and data-driven, and Kroeber only occasionally injects his opinions. American nativists would disagree with some of Kroeber’s opinions. For example, Americans often criticize China for excessive government protection of Chinese businesses, but Kroeber counters that every country has incentives to protect their businesses. Conversely, the Chinese government might not fully agree with Kroeber’s criticism of the one-child policy (but maybe not, given that the policy is no longer active), or Kroeber’s claim that it would be difficult for technological innovation and leadership to come from a country whose government does not permit free speech and heavily censors Internet usage. The book’s appendix raises the intriguing question of whether the government manipulates economic statistics. Kroeber debunks this, and one reason is the obvious: no one who has lived or visited China’s cities can deny rapid growth and improvement. Finally, Kroeber ponders about the future of China, and in particular US-China relations. He urges us (i.e., mostly Western readers) not to view China’s rise as foreboding a repeat of Nazi Germany or Communist Soviet Union, and thinks that an “accommodation can be reached under which China enjoys increased prestige and influence […], but where the US-led system remains the core of the world’s political and economic arrangements.” That is definitely better than a different scenario where war occurs between US and China.

  • ** China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know ** (editions in 2010, 2013, and 2018 — I read the 2018 one) is by UC Irvine professor Jeffrey M. Wasserstrom and historian Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. It is an excellent pairing to Arthur Kroeber’s book (see above) since it has a much broader focus than “just” China’s economy. Wasserstrom and Cunningham review historical information relevant to understanding current events (e.g., Confucius, Imperial China, World War II-related events, and so on), in many cases arguing or clarifying common misunderstandings by Westerners. In fact, there’s a full chapter dedicated to “US-China Misunderstandings.” Part of it was because they wanted to avoid us thinking along the lines of “we are good, China is Communist so therefore they are bad!!” Before reading this book, I perhaps assumed there was more intense nationalism among Chinese citizens, and that there was greater uniformity in political and cultural thought than I expected. I can see why the situation is somewhat more nuanced. There is a wide range of Chinese opinions about Mao Zedong, just like we have a variety of opinions about our own leaders. In addition, many critical thinkers operate in a “gray zone” where they can dissent just enough from the government, but not so much that they become permanently jailed. An example is the unpredictable artist Ai Weiwei who “seems to delight in provoking the Chinese government.” Another one they mention is Yu Hua (see above), an author who publishes more controversial work outside of China, which has let him live in Beijing relatively unscathed. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who tragically died in state custody. Another misunderstanding I found interesting was the one that Chinese have of Americans, and here the authors argue that it’s the way the American media is structured. In America, our media is predisposed to write about bad news, which might be the opposite case in China, in which government-run newspapers want to emphasize the positive about China. In addition, even within American newspapers, there are a wide variety of opinions on a single issue, which is less common in China. In addition to the chapter on misunderstandings, I also enjoyed learning more about the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. I was reading this book at the same time the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests were happening. With regards to Taiwan, the authors state that the relationship between China and Taiwan has settled into an “agree to disagree” stalemate, and despite the Chinese rhetoric to the contrary, they predict that China and Taiwan won’t be going to war anytime soon. (I hope that’s the case!) The authors conclude with a discussion of whether Americans should refrain from all criticism of China. Their answer is no, but they hope that their book helps to explain why the Chinese government (and citizens) think about certain issues. They also wish they could recommend Chinese people to read a “What Everyone Should Know about America” book — but I wonder if such a book exists?

  • ** Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know ** (2018) is the third “What Everyone Needs to Know” book variant about China that I’ve read, by Daniel K. Gardner, Professor of History at Smith College. This one narrows the scope to China’s environment, which is inevitably tied to its economy and government. It is, as Gardner frequently preaches, of importance to us because China’s environment affects the world in many ways. China’s pollutants go into the atmosphere and spread to other countries. China’s purchasing power also means that if it is low on food or other resources, it may buy from other countries and push prices up, potentially adding to instability for those countries with fragile governments. Much of the discussion is about air, which makes sense due to its direct visibility (remember the “airpocalypse”?), but equally important to consider are soil and water quality, both of which look distressing due to chemicals and other heavy metals, and of course climate change. Understanding and improving China’s environment has potential to benefit China and others, and Gardner does a nice job educating us on the important issues and the relevant — but sometimes searing — statistics. I left the book impressed with how much content was packed in there, and I am thinking of ways for cooperation between the United States and China. In particular, I was encouraged by how there is an environmental movement gaining momentum in China,3 and I am also encouraged by their expanding nuclear power program, since that uses less carbon than coal, oil, or natural gas. Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly for a book published in 2018, I don’t think there’s any mention of Donald Trump, who isn’t exactly a fan of China or climate-related issues. I mean, for God’s sake, he tweeted the preposterous claim that global warming was a hoax invented by the Chinese. I can only hope that post-Trump, saner heads will soon work with China to improve its environment.

  • ** AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (2019) ** by Kai-Fu Lee is a brilliant read, a book about Artificial Intelligence that’s more grounded in reality than a book like Life 3.0. Kai-Fu Lee was born in Taiwan, moved to the United States at a young age, and got his PhD in AI from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) under Turing Award winner Raj Reddy at roughly the same time Ken Goldberg was at CMU. After leading Google China and co-creating Microsoft Research Asia, Lee is now a venture capitalist. As expected, AI Superpowers covers the Deep Learning revolution and its real-world impact. Lee correctly observes that many of the latest AI advances are mere refinements over Deep Learning, and more a matter of engineering and implementation rather than true breakthroughs. The United States has the lead in elite AI talent, but China has more engineers who can implement AI algorithms, which may give them the edge in certain AI domains. Lee predicts that in perception and autonomous AI, the balance of power will shift slightly in China’s favor in the next 5-10 years, but that both the United States and China will be far ahead of other countries with respect to AI. In addition, China’s lax data privacy laws compared to the United States and Europe means it can more easily obtain larger datasets to train Deep Neural Networks. Finally, Lee provides a blueprint for AI and human coexistence in a world where AI eliminates a large number of jobs. Lee views Silicon Valley’s go-to solution, a Universal Basic Income, as a painkiller at best; his blueprint would be to augment it with market forces that encourage and reward “human touch”. When reading this, I was reminded of Thomas L. Friedman’s “STEMpathy” claims. Lee’s ideas are inspired in part by his cancer diagnosis at the age of 53, which made him realize he was spending too much time working. Lee’s story is touching, and I agree with Lee’s critique of himself. But, Lee had tremendous career success. What if I and many others want that kind of experience and lifestyle? Why should we not work excessively hard, then? Even with some of my skepticism, I think Lee’s ideas have slightly more merit than a vanilla Universal Basic Income, but we’ll see how the details work out if, or when, it beckons. I will refer back to AI Superpowers frequently in the near future to see how some of his short-term predictions pan out.

This includes books with a psychology bent, such as those from Steven Pinker.

  • ** The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature ** (2002) by famous psychology Professor Steven Pinker, is a wonderful take on a topic which I had previously been unaware about: The Blank Slate, the idea that humans start off as a “blank slate” and can be “molded” to fit particular personality traits. Two other similar concepts are The Noble Savage, the idea that humans are by nature peaceful, and The Ghost in the Machine, that humans have souls distinct from the physical world we recognize today. The book is mostly about the first item, The Blank Slate, but occasionally Pinker reflects on the other two. What was new to me is that in the late 20th century, social scientists and psychologists had essentially agreed that The Blank Slate was correct. Part of this was due to the moral appeal. That people are blank slates inherently means they are equal and thus discrimination (e.g., by gender, race, or religion) is not only morally wrong, but also wrong in a scientific sense. Unfortunately, Pinker systematically debunks the claims of The Blank Slate so badly that if I were a Blank Slate supporter, I would be thoroughly embarrassed. He cites examples from Marxist regimes on how they subscribed to The Blank Slate … which then played a key role in their industrial-scale killing, making what the Nazis did seem almost moderate by comparison. (For example, The Blank Slate implies people can be manipulated and controlled with enough force.) Pinker also makes the strong case that our morals, such as being against discrimination, should be due to moral reasons and not hinged directly upon scientific advances, which indeed are showing strong evidence for innate human characteristics. Pinker delves into controversial areas, such as innate gender differences, though for his own sake, he probably avoided racial differences out of fear of further retaliation. Reading this book nearly two decades later in 2019, I don’t find the book’s claims controversial at all. It has always seemed obvious to me that there are inherent differences in human ability which affects human achievement, in addition to, of course, nurture. The last few years have provided more evidence for Pinker’s book. In fact, Pinker often cites Robert Plomin, a name I recognize due to reading his recent book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are this year. It is clear that DNA and inherent nature makes a lot of what humans are. Obviously, this is in addition to the importance of ensuring that we increase opportunity to a variety of people in our society.

  • ** The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined ** (2011) needs no introduction. The Bill Gates-endorsed, 700+ page magnus opus by Pinker, and which I managed to read in bits and pieces over the course of two busy months, describes how humans have grown steadily less and less violent over the course of our several million year history. This is in contrast to many commentators nowadays, who like to highlight every bit of violence happening in the modern world while longing for a more “romantic” or “peaceful” past. Pinker thoroughly and embarrassingly demolishes such arguments by providing compelling quantitative and qualitative evidence that violence was much, much more prevalent before the modern era. In years past, life expectancy was lower, a far greater percentage of people died due to homicide and war, and practices such as torture and unusual punishment were more common and accepted by society. This is just a fraction of what’s in the book. I recommend it to everyone I know. Since I read Pinker’s Enlightenment Now last year, which can be thought of as a successor to this book, I was already somewhat familiar with the themes here, but the book still managed to blow my mind about how much violence there was before my time. It also raises some interesting moral dilemmas, because while World War II did kill a lot of people, what might matter more is the number of deaths relative to the world or country population at that time, and by that metric there are many other incidents throughout history that merit our attention. Probably the only downside of Better Angels from a reader’s perspective is that the later parts of the book can be a bit dry since it presents some of the inner workings of the brain because Pinker wanted to discuss the science of why current circumstances might be more favorable to reducing violence. That is a tricky subject to describe to a non-technical audience. I view myself as technically-minded, though not in the sense that I know much about how the brain works internally,4 and even I found this section somewhat tough going. The overall lesson that I learned, though, is that I believe Pinker is right about humans and violence. He is also right that we must understand the causes of violence and how to encourage trends that have shown to reduce it. I remain optimistic.

  • Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016) is by entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan, who got his PhD in computer science (focusing on NLP) from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979. It is in the “What Everyone Needs to Know” series. Kaplan presents the history and research frontiers of AI, and then wades into AI philosophy, AI and the law, the effect of AI on jobs and society, and the risks of superintelligence. I knew most of the book’s material due to my technical background in AI and my reading of popular science books which cover such topics. Thus, I did not learn as much from this book as I do with others, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for a general audience. I do think the discussion of free well and consciousness could be reduced a bit in favor of extra focus on imitation and reinforcement learning, which are among the hottest research fields in AI. While this book isn’t entirely about the research frontiers, the omission of those is a bit surprising even when considering the 2016 date. The book is on the shorter side at 200 pages so perhaps a revised edition could add 10-20 more pages to the research frontiers of AI? There are also some other surprising omissions — for example, the famous AlexNet paper is not mentioned. In general, I might recommend more focus on current frontiers in AI and not on speculation of the future.

  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017) by scientist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a slim book5 where each chapter is on a major theme in astrophysics. Example include exoplanets, dark energy, dark matter, and what’s “between” planets and galaxies. I am familiar with some concepts at a high-level, most of which can be attributed to Lisa Randall’s two recent books that I read, and Tyson’s book served as a helpful refresher. Tyson boasts that Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is short, so there are necessarily going to be limitations in what he can present, but I think there is a niche audience that this book will reach. In addition, it is written in Tyson’s standard wit and humor, such as “I don’t know about you, but the planet Saturn pops into my mind with every bite of a hamburger” and “The system is called the Sagittarius Dwarf but should probably have been named Lunch”, since dwarf planets can get consumed by larger planets, i.e., “planet cannibalism”, get it?? The main benefit is probably to pique the reader’s curiosity about learning more, which could be said for any book, really. In addition, I will give a shout-out to Tyson for mentioning in the final chapter that we must never cease our scientific curiosity, for if we do, we risk regressive thinking that the world revolves around us. (Please read the final chapter to fully understand.)

  • ** Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence ** (2017) by MIT theoretical physicist — and a welcome recent entrant to AI — Max Tegmark, clicked on all the right cylinders. Think of it as a more accessible and mainstream version of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which itself wasn’t too shabby! The “Life 3.0” part refers to Tegmark’s classification of life as three tiers: Life 1.0 is simple life such as bacteria that can evolve but cannot change its hardware or software, and thus will not be able to change its behavior beyond what evolution has endowed it with. Life 2.0 represents humans: we can change our software by changing our behavior based on past experience, but we are limited by our “hardware” of being human, beyond basic stuff like hearing aids (that I wear), which can be argued as a “hardware upgrade”, but are minor in the grand scheme of a human design. In contrast, Life 3.0 not only can learn like humans, but can also physically upgrade its own hardware. The possibilities for Life 3.0 are endless, and Tegmark takes us on wonderful thought experiments: what kind of world do we want from a superintelligent agent? How can it use the resources in the cosmos (i.e., all the universe)? These are relevant to the question of how we design AI now, because by driving the agenda, we can increase the chances of attaining the kind of future we want. He gave a captivating keynote talk about some of this material at IJCAI 2018 in his home country of Sweden, which you can see from my earlier blog post. Having been a committed AI researcher for the past five years, I recognized many of the well-known names from Tegmark in his commentary and the pictures from the two conferences he features in the book.6 I am inspired by Tegmark’s body of work, both in the traditional academic sense of research papers but also in the sense of “mainstreaming” AI safety and getting the top researchers together to support AI safety research.7 The book manages to make the reader ponder about the future of life. That’s the name of an organization that Tegmark helped co-found. I will heed the advice from his epilogue about being optimistic for the future of life, and how I can help drive the agenda for the better. Overall, Life 3.0 is one of my favorites, just like it is for former President Barack Obama, and might have been my favorite this year.

  • ** Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams ** (2017) is probably the top popular-science book on sleep out there. It’s by UC Berkeley neuroscience Professor Matthew Walker, whose lab is in the same building as the AI group! I had to buy Why We Sleep after Scott Young recommended it. I badly want to improve my sleep habits. I don’t normally have a problem allocating my eight hours of sleep a night … the problem is that I might be physically in bed at the right time, but not fall asleep until an hour later, which means eight hours in bed corresponds to seven hours of actual sleep. I wanted to know if I could fix that. I am also curious about sleep in general: about the role of screens, alcohol, caffeine, and sleeping pills, and if there are truly people who can get away with six hours of sleep a night without performance degradation. I quickly devoured this book8 since it gave crisp and clear answers to most of my questions. Yes, some people can get away with about six hours of sleep, but those odds are roughly 1 in 2000 (and I know I am not one of them). Walker is also firm that sleeping pills and alcohol are not helpful for sleeping. Please, don’t say that wine helps you to sleep! Walker additionally describes the different sleeping stages of REM and NREM sleep (REM = Rapid Eye Movement). He backs up these claims and/or facts with scientific studies. These might involve bringing participants to his sleeping lab where he can monitor their sleep and probe them experimentally by waking them up in the middle of the night and asking them to perform cognitive tasks. I was pleased by how much “causality” was mentioned in the book, particularly because I was reading this in parallel with some of Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why (which I haven’t finished yet). Walker writes with the usual academic refrain that for some hypotheses, “causation has yet to be determined,” but there are other cases where controlled trials have shown that lack of sleep often happens before debilitating health effects. I believe it! The one thing I wasn’t quite sure about after reading this was on how fast people can fall asleep at night. I’ve had people tell me that they fall asleep within six or seven minutes (!!!!!) of getting into bed, and I was hoping Walker would discuss how that is physically possible. Nonetheless, it’s still a great book, and I am now using my FitBit to track my sleep, and may upgrade more sophisticated sleep measurement systems to cross-verify for accuracy. I read a lot of books so by now it’s hard for a new one to really change my thinking or way of life, but this one somehow managed to do it. It’s a top 2-3 book I read this year.

    Update 01/04/2020: yikes! A reader informed me of this blog post which claims that Why We Sleep is filled with scientific errors. That post has gotten a fair amount of attention. I’m … honestly not sure what to think of this. I will have to go through it in more detail. I also urge Professor Walker to respond to the claims in that blog post.

  • Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (2018) by behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin of King’s College London is about DNA and its ability to predict psychological traits. This is what Plomin means by “makes us who we are” in the subtitle, which he repeats throughout the book. The first part summarizes the literature and research results on how DNA can be used to predict traits, including those that seem environmental, such as educational attainment. The presence of identical twins has been a boon to genetics research, as they are the rare cases of when two people are 100 percent similar genetically. The second part discusses how “polygenic scores”9 computed from DNA samples can be used for “fortune-telling” or predicting traits. This is not my field, and I trust Plomin when he says that the science is essentially settled on whether heritability exists. Nonetheless, this book will be controversial; right on cue, there’s a negative review of the book which brings up precisely the points I am worried about: eugenics, designer babies, and so on. To his credit, Plomin keeps emphasizing that all DNA can do is make probabilistic (and not actual) predictions, and that there are an enormous spread of outcomes. Plomin is also right to say that: “The genome genie is out of the bottle and, even if we tried, we cannot stuff it back in” near the end of the book. Trying to hide science that’s already been made public is virtually impossible, as the Soviets demonstrated back in the early days of the Cold War when they stole nuclear weapons technology from the United States. But I worry that Plomin still did not sufficient assuage the concerns of readers, particularly those of (a) parents and potential parents, and (b) policy makers concerned about consequences for inequality and meritocracy. Though, to be clear, I am fine with these results and trust the science, and it’s also blindingly obvious that if we end up equalizing opportunity and education among an entire population, we will end up increasing the relative impact of genetics on final performance. Blueprint is a necessary book to read to understand the implications of the current genomics and DNA revolution.

  • The Deep Learning Revolution: Artificial Intelligence Meets Human Intelligence (2018) was an instant-read for me the moment I saw the book at the MIT Press Booth at ICRA 2019. It is written by Distinguished UC San Diego Professor Terence Sejnowski, who also holds a chaired position at the Salk Institute and is President of the Neural Information Processing Systems foundation. That’s a lot of titles! I recognized Sejnowski’s name by looking at various NIPS (now NeurIPS) conference websites and seeing him as the president. From a technical sense, I remember he was among the team that refined Independent Component Analysis. I have a very old blog post about the algorithm, dating back to the beginning of my Berkeley era. He also worked with neural networks at a time when it was thought not to be a fruitful path. That the 2018 Turing Award went to Hinton, Bengio, and LeCun shows how much things have changed. The book talks about Sejnowski’s experience, including times when others said they “hated his work” – I was familiar with some of the history of Deep Learning, but Senjowski brings a uniquely personal experience to the reader. He’s also knowledgeable about other famous scientists, and mentions the pioneers in Deep Learning, Reinforcement Learning, and Hardware. He concludes by marveling about the growth of NeurIPS. The main downside is that the book can sometimes seem like a hodgepodge of things together without much connection among the topics, and there are some typos which hopefully will be corrected in future editions. There is, of course, the usual adage that it’s hard to know a topic that Sejnowski talks about without already knowing it beforehand, but every popular science book would suffer from that problem. I would later attend NeurIPS 2019, as I wrote here, where I saw him and a few others featured in his book. I wish I could attain a fraction of Sejnowski’s academic success.

  • ** Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet ** (2018) is by Varun Sivaram, who was then a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the main “think tanks” I generally trust. The book, recommended by distinguished politicians such as John Kerry, provides the scientific and economic facts to know about solar energy. We should care about solar energy, the book argues, due not only to climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions (this one obvious), but also due to how the sun powers enough energy to literally power the planet, yet we do not have the technology to utilize it effectively. The second point was less obvious but shows the vast potential of solar energy! I wanted to understand how much solar energy can realistically take care of our energy needs, both now and many decades in the future. While the cost of solar has come down, as I am aware, that is not a panacea. Large Chinese firms have pumped cheap solar cells into the economy, but the extra value added by a solar panel can actually be negative due to the panels absorbing too much power during the sunny days of the year, forcing electric utilities to sell solar power and reducing the economic basis of adding more solar panels. In addition, Sivaram explains that the focus on cost cutting and economies of scale with current products means it is harder for newer technologies that could, eventually, be superior to the current panels used today. He describes how academic labs throughout the world are tweaking with their designs for more efficient solar cells, but it could be many years before these become economically viable. In the meantime, we need more technological, innovation, and we also need systemic innovation, which refers to adjusting our power grids and infrastructure to take advantage of solar energy. There are a number of challenges, but like many readers, I came away deeply impressed with Sivaram’s optimism and technological expertise. I hope we get more exciting talent and results from this field. According to his website, Sivaram is currently Chief Technology Officer of ReNew Power Limited and lives in India. I hope he succeeds there, for India is an emerging economy and it is where climate change will be at the forefront.

Group 3: American History and Current Events

  • Washinton at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air (second edition, 1995) by Richard E. Cohen, a Congressional reporter, details what happened “behind the scenes” to make the 1990 Clean Air Act pass into law. I found this seemingly obscure book at a coffee shop in Berkeley. I decided to read it because … Washington is “at work?” Seriously? It’s working?!? YAY!!!!!! More seriously, the broader impact of Washington at Work is to provide context on how complex bills become law in America. Cohen wrote the book a few years after the act was passed, and “reconstructed” the dialogue and political dynamics. Cohen introduces the 1970 Clean Air Act, the predecessor to the 1990 one, and follows up with the Reagan years in the 1980s, where little could be done on environmental legislation due to deregulation.10 Fortunately, Reagan’s vice president, the late George H.W. Bush, was interested in being known as an environmental president. (Disappointingly, Bush had to move further to the political right after the law was passed to appease conservative critics, and paradoxically was unable to fully take credit for the Clean Air Act.) What follows in Washington at Work are stories of how the House and Senate were able to resolve their differences and create their own versions of an updated clean air act. Key players were the legendary representative John Dingell and Henry Waxman, along with George Mitchell in the Senate. One observation from reading the book is that political partisanship and deadlock were serious roadblocks back in the 1980s and 1990s, so I wonder if those who say that things are “much worse nowadays” have a quantitative metric to evaluate deadlock. Another observation, which might partially answer the first, is the large amount of partisan infighting over the bill, with coal-state Democrats opposing the bill (e.g., Robert Byrd) and several Republicans supporting the bill. I’m not sure we would see the same today. Finally, it’s interesting to see that back then, acid rain was one of the most pressing environmental topics of the day, but we barely talk about it nowadays. Instead the focus has shifted to global warming and climate change.

  • ** Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race ** is the 2016 bestselling book which inspired the movie of the same name. I’m not a movie person — since December 2015 I have watched a total of one movie in four years — but I am a book person, so I read the book, by Margot Lee Shetterly. I started right after making my Apollo 11 post, because I figured there was never going to be a better time for me to read it, and I’m glad I did. It chronicles the lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Coleman (still alive at the age of 101!), Mary Jackson, Christine Darden, and a few others, who were female African American mathematicians working at Langley and then NASA, helping America win the Space Race over the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Hidden Figures compellingly describes what life must have been like for them in the 1960s; when reading the book, I often got distracted due to fantasizing different 1960s-era scenarios in mind. The book discusses the career trajectories of the women, assigned as “mathematicians,” and concrete scenarios such as how Katherine Johnson’s work helped John Glenn orbit the Earth. If there’s one thing I was slightly disappointed about, it was that there wasn’t a whole lot about the actual Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, except for a bit in the final chapter, but perhaps it was hard to find documentation or evidence for the women’s contributions to that project, as compared to Glenn’s orbit. I agree with Shetterly in that these stories are inspiring but not well known prior to this book, and that clearly justifies the need for Hidden Figures. I was reading this at a time when I was laboring heavy hours in a workweek to meet some research deadlines, and one thing that helps drive me is knowing that I have plenty of opportunity here at Berkeley, and I can’t waste it.

  • ** American Dialogue: The Founders and Us ** (2018) by Joseph J. Ellis, Professor Emeritus at Mount Holyoke College, considers the question: What would the founders think? The book features four of them. Each has one major theme presented in a historical context and then a modern context. In order of discussion: Thomas Jefferson on race, John Adams on equality, James Madison on law, and George Washington on foreign policy. Ellis presents the history and circumstances of these four men in a concise yet informative and fascinating manner. My biggest takeaway are all the contradictions inherent in our founders. Thomas Jefferson opposed a biracial America and, while he wanted to free slaves, he also made it clear that the goal was to deport them to some undetermined location to keep America “pure.” At the same time he said that, he had a biracial slave mistress, and an extended family of slaves at home. Hypocritical is too kind of a word. This is also relevant to the famous “all men are created equal” phrase in the constitution … whatever happened to Native Americans or African Americans? Or, of course, women. (Hey, founders, I’m very impressed with your ability to ignore half of the population!) Meanwhile, in law, we have the whole “originalist” vs “living Constitution” debate … yet Ellis makes a convincing case that Justice Scalia’s District of Columbia v Heller opinion was highly political whereas Justice Steven’s dissent was originalist. (How often do we hear about the “well regulated militia” in the debates about the second amendment?) As Ellis keeps reminding us, we live in an America that is far different from what the founders lived in, so rather than view the founders as mythological creatures with the brilliance to write a Constitution that should last forever, we should instead view them as highly fallible men who debated and argued while drafting the Constitution, and could not have foretold what the future would hold. Argument, debate, and dialogue is their ultimate legacy.

  • ** Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment ** (2018) explores the topic of identity. It’s by Francis Fukuyama, better known for writing The End of History and the Last Man and The Origins of Political Order; I read the latter last year. Fukuyama admits from the first sentence that “This book would not have been written had Donald J Trump not been elected president […]”. Fukuyama also addresses whether event X or event Y in the world invalidates his thesis from The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama appears to still hold faith in liberal democracies, but he admits that such societies are not able to fully satisfy what’s known as “thymos,” the part of the soul that craves dignity. (Two related terms that frequently appear in the book are “isothymia” and “megalothymia.”) The rise of liberal democracies gives more freedom to citizens, but also means they have to consider the questions of “Who am I” and “What group am I in?” These questions would not have made sense in earlier, peasant-oriented societies. Unfortunately, these aren’t issues that the free market and capitalism can entirely address, meaning that some people resort to potentially dangerous strains of nationalism and religion. Fukuyama additionally discusses the identity politics of modern-day America, from both the left and right. While he admits that there are some positives (for example, he is concerned over police brutality to blacks and sexual assault from powerful men) he makes it clear that there are advantages to having shared citizenship, and at some point we must put aside our differences. From reading Identity, I gleaned several insights that in retrospect I should have known beforehand. In addition, the solutions that Fukuyama proposes in his last chapter appear reasonable, such as those about promoting immigration. If I had political power, I would try to implement these.

Group 4: Self-Improvement

  • ** Mindset: The New Psychology of Success ** (2007) is by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford since 2004. Mindset has been a huge success, with at least 1.8 million copies sold, and is advertised as telling us “how we can achieve our potential.” Professor Jason Mars recommend it when I personally asked him about his favorite books. The key contribution of Mindset to the public sphere is the notion of a growth mindset, in contrast to a fixed mindset. A growth mindset is about believing you can change your skills. Those with a fixed mindset think their skills are stagnant, and that if they have to put in effort for some task, they’re not skilled. Obviously, these are oversimplifications, and Dweck clarifies that everyone lies on some spectrum of fixed-to-growth, which is furthermore task-dependent. Some have a growth mindset for business but have a fixed mindset for their personal lives. Dweck presents examples in sports (UCLA coach John Wooden), parenting, relationships, and business. I am puzzled about her praise of former GE Jack Welch as CEO, but at least she — and Adam Grant in Give and Take — agree that Kenneth Lay of Enron isn’t someone to be admired. I conclude from Mindset that I need to have a growth mindset. I view the book favorably; it has a similar flavor to Grit by Angela Duckworth. Both books are subject to the same sets of criticisms, such as from the limitations of psychology-based research and the “blaming the victim” mentality when things don’t go well. Professor Dweck explicitly mentions she does not want to play this game, and admits that in CEOs and business, most of her examples are men, and she wishes she could feature more women. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the book is that I’m not sure where the line is drawn between blaming the victim (e.g., “it is women’s fault they don’t have the growth mindset!!”) versus attacking structural discrimination (e.g., “women don’t even have the opportunity to get these kind of careers!!”). Regardless of whether discrimination is present or not, it’s still better to have a growth mindset than a fixed one, and that counts for something.

  • Infinite Possibilities: The Art of Living Your Dreams (2009) is by Michael Dooley, a former tax accountant who now spends his time discussing daily “notes on the universe” and other things as explained on his website. Dooley’s chief claim from the start is that thoughts become things. Dooley argues we have to believe in and think about our goals, before we can attain them. Inifinite Possibilities is written in a motivational style, trying to urge the reader to do stuff, think positively, and follow your dreams. There are some good points in this book, and I appreciate Dooley revealing that even a deeply spiritual man like him suffers from similar things I do, like feeling guilty when relaxing and vacationing. The downside is that I disagree with the rationale for his beliefs in Infinite Possibilities. Dooley argues, for instance, that space and time operate via thoughts turning into things; but they actually operate by the laws of physics, and someone thinking about something can’t guarantee that the event will actually happen! Dooley counters this by claiming that we think about so many things that not all can be true, but that is cherry-picking. I am a vocal advocate of rigorous, empirical, controlled experiments, over high-level motivational comments. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t cite any studies or even a cursory glance at the literature in neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and other fields that could bolster some of Dooley’s claims. There is certainly an audience for Dooley’s book, as evident by his hundreds of thousands of email subscribers, but it is not my style.

  • Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (editions in 1983, 1991, and 2011 – I read the 2011 one).11 The three authors are Roger Fisher, a former Harvard law professor, William Ury, a distinguished fellow of “the Harvard Negotiation Project” (surprisingly, that’s a thing), and in later editions, Bruce Patton (also a distinguished fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project). Getting to Yes is a classic book on negotiation skills, which has become increasingly important with flatter hierarchies in work environments, which induces more discussions among people of equal status. The book starts off by warning us not to bargain over positions. That would be the classic “he said $X$, she said $Y$, so we’ll split the difference and do $\frac{X+Y}{2}$”, which is bad for a number of reasons. Here’s an obvious one: someone clever could just start with a more extreme position to get a desired quantity! Instead, the authors give us a four point method: (1) separate — or more politely, disentangle — the people from the problem, (2) focus on interests, not positions, (3) invent options for mutual gain, and (4) insist on objective criteria. Then they tell us what to do with people who won’t play nice (e.g., “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”) and then answer common questions from readers. Their advice seems sound! I can see why it works in theory. That said, the book has several weaknesses, but some are inherent to this kind of genre. First, I do not think the examples are fully fleshed through. Perhaps fewer examples would be better, and maybe it would be feasible to contrast those with failed negotiations? The book sounds scholarly, but it doesn’t cite much research except for some of the authors’ other books. Also, I don’t think this will appease people nowadays who talk about marginalized people and say that “the moderate stance is taking an extreme political position…” Fortunately, I think the book does a fine job in the delicate case of dealing with a more powerful negotiator.

  • ** Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Habits ** (2018), is written by James Clear and came recommended by Scott Young. The book’s central claim is to focus on making small improvements, because over time these add up. Making a 1% improvement for a few days doesn’t seem like much, but it makes a huge difference over a year, as compared to someone who might experience a 1% deterioration. I was initially skeptical at the start of reading Atomic Habits, but I gradually grew to like it. Clear provides clear (pun intended) tips on how to build good habits. For example, it makes more sense to fix your environment rather than to motivate yourself. If I’m trying to eat healthy, then why surround myself with a bunch of sugary snacks and hope that my “willpower” will make me avoid eating that stuff? The logical thing is to only buy healthy food. That’s essentially what I strive to do, so it was good to see my habits coinciding with Clear’s recommendations. I additionally use variants of Clear’s advice (e.g., “show up on bad days”) to help me with running. I am seeing results: in the last two years, my half-marathon time has dramatically improved from 1:54 to 1:35. Clear references some books I’ve read, such as the authors of the Harvard Negotiation Project who wrote the Getting to Yes book. Clear also references Robert Plomin, who wrote Blueprint, when discussing how certain skills are hereditary, most notably in sports contexts. The footnotes also mention Cal Newport’s Deep Work. From the perspective of my PhD research, I was also pleased to see a lot of discussions about rewards, which go hand-in-hand with reinforcement learning. Finally, it was nice to see in the last chapter (titled “The Downside of Creating Good Habits”) that Clear performs annual reviews of himself. You can find them here. It is quite similar to what I have with my New Year’s Resolution documents, though I do not make mine public. In fact, as I’m typing these words, I am simultaneously reviewing my 2019 document and polishing my 2020 plan.

  • ** Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World ** (2019) is yet another book written by computer science professor Cal Newport. I’ve read all of his books12, and knew I was going to devour Digital Minimalism upon its release. I did so through iBooks and mostly read the book on my iPhone during morning bus rides to campus. The point of Digital Minimalism is to offer a better philosophy of utilizing social media and other “digital technologies” to lead a more fulfilling life. Newport backs his claims with research on how humans are hard-wired for both socialization but also periodic forms of isolation; the latter is increasingly difficult nowadays in our constantly-connected lives. Newport particularly laments that social media companies have figured out ways to keep more users on social media longer to get more advertisement revenue, such as by using red as the color for notifications, and that key to the rise of social media is the smartphone and how it enabled constant social media access. Newport is a critic of these, which is what I would expect from someone who often boasts on his blog that he’s never had a social media account. But he brought up something thought-provoking and new to me: Steve Jobs did not anticipate us using smartphones the way we do today with constant connection; he mostly wanted to merge a phone with an iPod. In addition to discussing some history and current events, Newport provides recommendations for properly integrating social media for a more fulfilling life, such as deleting apps on smartphones that give access to social media and doing leisure activities that involve physical, non-digital activity. I feel strongly that the book is useful to the vast majority of people who utilize social media. For me, it probably isn’t going to change my life too much, given that I already follow plenty of Newport’s advice. It’s not as good as Deep Work, but it’s definitely worth reading.

  • ** 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week ** (2019) is a new book by famous film-maker and Internet pioneer Tiffany Shlain, who I know because she is married to one of my PhD advisors. Needless to say, 24/6 was an instant read for me when it was published. Fortunately, Ken Goldberg brought a copy to the lab. When I opened it, I found a hand-written note from Ms. Shlain addressed to me, saying that I was “the most prolific reader in Ken’s lab”.13 Thank you! The book resonated with me because, Like Ms. Shlain, I am deeply connected to the world and rely heavily on the Internet for my day-to-day duties. I also have this long-running blog, which probably makes me even more closely attached to the Internet compared to other computer scientists in my generation. This book discusses how she and her family takes 24 hours off a week, from Friday night to Saturday night, and unplug. This means no electronics. For calls, they use their landline phone, and for writing stuff, it’s paper and pen. This is inspired by the Jewish “sabbath” but as Shalin repeatedly emphasizes, it’s not a Jewish thing but one that can apply to a variety of religions, including the church I go to (atheism). 24/6 has many examples of Shalin’s activities during her sabbaths, some of which were known to me beforehand. She also proposes practical tips on making a 24/6 life happen in today’s world, with testimonials from her readers. The easiest way for me to follow this is, like her, to have a 24/6 break from Friday night to Saturday night, and use that time for, well, reading physical books instead of e-books, long-distance running, and cooking the next salad dish. I hope I can keep it up!

Group 5: Dean Karnazes Books

All three of these books are by ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes. He is perhaps the ultramarathoner best known to the general public. While Karnazes is not the best ultramarathoner, he’s a very good one. (This article shows some context on the “controversy” surrounding Karnzes.) I first saw the name “Dean Karnazes” in an email advertisement for a running race in the Bay Area. It showed a picture of him shirtless (no surprise) and quickly recapped some of his eye-popping achievements: that he’s run in conditions ranging from 120 degree temperatures in Death Valley to freezing temperatures in Antarctica, that he once ran 350 miles continuously, and that he once ran 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states. One Google search led to another, and I found myself reading his books.

  • ** Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner ** is the 2005 biography of ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, and the one that catapulted him to fame. In Ultramarathon Man, Karnazes describes how he had an epiphany when he turned 30 to start running for the first time since high school, to give him satisfaction and meaning that he wasn’t getting from his corporate job. The book describes four main running races: the Western States 100, Badwater, a run at the South Pole, and then a 200-mile race. The Western States 100 run was his first 100-mile ultramarathon and describes all the setbacks, pitfalls, and dangers that he and other runners faced, such as disfigured feet, bad urine, and dehydration. But Western States 100 probably pales in difficulty compared to Badwater, a 135 mile run in 120 degree weather in Death Valley in July. Ouch! Karnazes actually dropped out in his first attempt, came back to finish and eventually won the 2004 race outright. His race in Antartica was equally dangerous, for obvious reasons: there was frostbite, and he nearly got lost. The last one was a 200-mile “relay” race that he ran solo, whereas other teams had 12 alternating runners. Karnazes’ purpose was to raise some money for a young girl’s health condition. It’s very touching that he is inspired to run “to give the gift of life,” especially considering how his sister died in a tragic car accident while a teenager. The main feeling I had after finishing this book was: inspiration. As of December 2019, I have run seven half-marathons, and I will add some marathons in the coming years. Health permitting, I will be a runner for life. If there’s any ultramarathon I’d run, it would be the San Francisco one, which gives a break of a few hours between two consecutive 26.2 mile runs. Perhaps I’ll see Karnazes there, as I think he still lives in San Francisco.

  • 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days — and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance! (2008), written by Dean Karnazes and Matt Fitzgerald, describes Dean Karnazes’ well publicized 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days quest.14 This is the best reference for it. I think there was other information online at some point, but that was back in 2006. NorthFace sponsored Karnazes — in part due to the publication of Ultramarathon Man — and provided him with a support team for travel to races and to monitor his health. Karnazes’ target pace was 4 hours for each marathon, and he kept remarkably well at it. The average time of his 50 marathons was 3:53:14. Most of the 50 races were not actual “live marathons” since those usually happen on weekends. The weekday races were simulated like a normal marathon and run on the same course, but with only minimal police protection and a smaller group of volunteer runners that signed up to run with Karnazes. There are many great stories here, such as a Japanese man who signed up on a whim to impress his new lover, and how former Arkansas Governor Michael Huckabee joined him for the races in Arkansas and in New York City. Incidentally, the last race was the live 2006 New York City marathon, which he ran in 3:00:30, a very respectable time! After the celebration, the next day Karnazes said he felt lousy. So … he went for a run. He said he spent forty days almost entirely outside, running from New York City back to the starting line of the Lewis and Clark marathon in Missouri?!? How is that possible? Sorry, I don’t believe this one iota. Finally, the book is scattered with running tips from Karnazes, though most are generic “marathon advice” that can be easily found outside of this book. Three pieces of advice I remember are: (a) tips on how to avoid getting sick during a race, (b) stop heel-striking, and (c) don’t drink water for the last hour before a race.

  • Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss (2011) is yet another Dean Karnazes book, consisting of “26.2 chapters” on various short stories throughout Karnazes’ running career, not including those in his prior books. For example, he recalls the Badwater races he ran after his first, failed attempt (covered in Ultramarathon Man), including one where he ran naked after he found out his father needed heart surgery. Strangely, he never mentions the 2004 edition of Badwater, which is the one he actually won. He also never mentions his continuous 350 mile run done over three nights without sleep, though he does refer to run of the same length in Australia over six days. Karnazes also mentions his two failures at Leadville, the first due to altitude, and the second due to a torn meniscus. He then ignored his doctor’s instructions to stop running! I disagree. I like running but I am not willing to do lasting damage to myself. Run! is a reasonably nice supplement to better understand the highly unusual nature of Karnazes’ life. Some stories seem a bit fragmented, with only a few pages to digest them before moving on to the next. The book is on the short side so I’m in favor of adding rather than removing content. I believe Karnaes’ first book, Ultramarathon Man, is the best, followed by 50/50, and then this one. I am fine reading all of them, but for those who aren’t running fanatics, I recommend sticking with Ultramarathon Man and leaving this one aside. The book’s cover is a picture of him shirtless which I found to be a bit self-centered, though to be fair Karnazes doesn’t write like a someone trying to inflate his ego — he explicitly states in his book that he runs for personal goals, not to brag to others.

Group 6: Yuval Noah Harari Books

I’m glad I finally read Yuval Noah Harari’s books. Somehow, he takes us through mind-blowing journeys across history, current events, and the future, and delivers highly thought-provoking perspectives. All of his books are about 400 pages, but for “academic-style” books, they honestly don’t feel like slogs at all. His English writing is also beautiful, and reminds me of Steven Pinker’s writing style. All of this is from someone who works less than me and spends 1-2 hours each day meditating.

  • ** Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ** (2011, US Edition 2015) is a lovely book that somehow covers the entire history of humanity, from our Neanderthal ancestors to modern-day humans. Thus, Sapiens must necessarily sacrifice depth in favor of breadth. That’s fine with me, as I can pick other books from my reading list that can go into more depth on a subset of topics. Harari does a great job describing our ancestors in such vivid and sometimes quirky language. I especially enjoyed his descriptions on what life was like as a forager, where wild, “natural” food was available — provided you could find it — and infectious diseases were nonexistent. Consider the contrast, Harari argues, with agriculture, which forced us to settle into fixed communities with animals. Not only did disease spread, but domesticated animals themselves became an evolutionary tragedy: they are technically “successful” in reproducing themselves, but they live such miserable lives. (Harari also discusses our treatment of animals in his other books, and due to his research, he now strives to avoid anything to do with the meat industry.) I was also delighted to see that Sapiens covers happiness and the decline of violence. These are similar themes present in Steven Pinker’s books of Better Angels and Enlightenment Now. The Hebrew edition of Sapiens was published in 2011, the same year Better Angels came out, so perhaps Harari and Pinker independently synthesized the research literature on the decline of violence? They seem to have a fair amount of common interests (and common readers, like me), so perhaps they collaborate in their academic lives? Collaboration, after all, is an example of human communication and cooperation, which Harari states as perhaps the definitive advantage of our species over others.

  • ** Homno Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow ** (2015, US Edition 2017). I was initially puzzled: how can someone, even a great mind like Harari, write 400 pages of what the future will be like? I can see how to write Sapiens (in theory), since there’s so much history to write and the difficulty would be with condensing it, but predicting the future seems too speculative, and might rely heavily on subjects such as climate change and artificial intelligence (AI), and he is not an expert in those areas. Yet, Harari once again managed to surpass my expectations with Homo Deus. Yes, climate change and AI certainly made their expected appearances, but they are not as prevalent as I expected. Harari begins by presenting the “new human agenda,” stating that many advances of the prior centuries were about reducing premature deaths (e.g., infant mortality), but this is not the same as the more exciting but frightening concept of upgrading the human experience. Why is this problematic? Reducing premature deaths is fine if we think of the “baseline human experience” as living in good health until age 90 or so, and societies have incentives to increase health and prosperity among (most of) their people, not just a tiny elite. But what will happen if the super rich can upgrade themselves to live to 150, and where technological forces and globalization mean that there is little to no incentive to improve the well being of the non-elite, working class, who suffer from irrelevance? Homo Deus then explores these themes in more detail, in three main parts: (1) on how we treat animals, because upgraded humans could treat ordinary humans like we treat animals, (2) how “Humanism” won over Communism, Nazism, and Fascism, and (3) the future of Humanism. Even if, say, Humanism dies out, this might not be a bad thing. “Dataism,” for example, could take the place of Humanism, where data and algorithms make our decisions. I’m pretty pro-data myself — though not a “fanatic” — and it was scary to ponder about the danger the future could hold. Harari concludes with the obvious disclaimer that no one can predict the future, and nowadays, there is so much information that we actually need to cultivate skill in filtering nonsense. I strongly endorse Harai’s books and I think they are worth our time to read. This was a top 2-3 book that I read this year.

  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) is the third book by Yuval Noah Harari, and once again, somehow Harari manages to blend complex concepts and “how did I not realize that earlier?” ideas into wonderfully simple language. Harari divides his third book into 21 chapters, each with a particular “lesson” or “theme” for us to ponder. This is about the present, whereas his prior books talk about the past and future, but this book has quite some overlap with Homo Deus, such as with the “fly and the bull” metaphor about terrorism. Nonetheless, there is certainly enough new material to be worthy of its own book. Chapters include those on terrorism, as suggested earlier, along with those such as war (never underestimate human stupidity!), liberty, equality, work, ignorance, education, and so forth. Harari concludes with two interesting chapters, on (a) how to find meaning in life, which includes discussions on suffering and has persuaded me that meaning can be found in reducing suffering, and (b) his own solution to facing information overload in the 21st century: meditation. Perhaps I should get around to practicing meditation, since it would be good for me to figure out how to keep my mind concentrated on one topic (or no topic!), rather than the present state where my mind repeatedly jumps around from subject to subject. Now for the bad news: it seems like, at least if the Wikipedia page is right, that for the Russian translation, Harari authorized the removal of some passages critical of the Russian government. I will call it out like it is: hypocrisy. I don’t know why he did that; if I were in his position, I would get all the Russian experts I know to confirm that the Russian translation actually contains the criticism of Russia, and I would refuse to authorize the translation if it removed them. Putin is the kind of person who would be happy to create the kind of heavy surveillance state that Harari criticizes in the book when discussing the loss of liberty. To sum it up: an excellent book, and one which will probably persuade me to try out meditating, but poor hypocrisy.

Group 7: Miscellaneous

I put a few books here that didn’t fit nicely in any of the earlier categories.

  • ** The New Geography of Jobs ** (2012) by Berkeley Economics Professor Enrico Moretti can be thought of as a counter view to claims made by those such as Thomas Friedman of The World is Flat fame that new long-distance communication technology means geography is less important for jobs and the economy. Moretti argues that, in fact, geography matters now more than ever. Why, out of all places in the world, do the high-tech computer software industries continue to cluster in Silicon Valley? Similarly, why have other major metropolitan areas in the United States and in other countries become hubs and magnets for particular high-innovation activities? One would think that companies want to move to areas with lower costs of living. That has happened, but mostly for lower-skilled manufacturing tasks. Higher-skilled research and development remains in pricey US cities. Moretti provides compelling evidence of the advantages these cities possess: they have “thicker markets” with a plethora of highly skilled workers and jobs that match them well. In addition, simply being around talented people can breed greater success and innovation, as many academics can attest (myself included). Critically, this book is not just about the high-tech industry. Moretti’s research suggests that these innovation hubs also provide jobs and wealth to lower-skilled workers. Highly skilled workers have more disposable income and can afford the hairstylists, barbers, yoga instructors, plumbers, carpenters, and other services that still require the same human labor as compared to decades earlier. These advantages, though, only apply in areas that already have high innovation activities, and most cities lack the proper “ecosystem” and thus we see a huge divergence in the fortunes of people based on geography. This book was written in 2012, and Moretti frequently cited the city of Flint as an example of a city whose fortunes have been trending in the wrong direction due to these forces. He turned out to be horribly right. I learned about Flint, like many of us did, when lead was found in its water, forcing then-Governor Rick Snyder to apologize and leading the Democratic political party to host a debate there. So what do we do? Moretti’s main policy proposal is to increase levels of investment in education. Right now, US students are about average in math and science compared to other advanced countries, but fortunately, we are still a magnet for talented citizens of other countries to study and work here. This is the key advantage that we have over other countries, particularly China and Japan, and the US must never relinquish it. Yet, I worry that Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, though mostly aimed at lower-skilled immigrants, has the additional effect of making it harder for high-skilled immigrants to come here. To make matters worse, we continue to see lower levels of funding and investment in domestic education and higher levels of student debt. Addressing this must remain a high political priority going forward.

  • It’s Not Yet Dark: A Memoir (2017) is a short and sweet memoir of Irish Filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice, about his life as a filmmaker living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (i.e., Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was diagnosed in 2008, and given four years to live. Despite this, he made it to late 2017 before passing away, and in that time he and his wife gave birth to more children, for five in all. In addition, he wrote the film My Name is Emily using eye-gaze technology. It’s Not Yet Dark poignantly describes how Fitzmaurice’s muscles and body motions progressively broke down, and how he needed a ventilator to breathe. There was some pushback, he recalls, from some people in his Irish hospital about whether it makes sense to “ventilate” someone with ALS, but Fitzmaurice convinced them that he wanted to live. The book describes in succinct yet surprising detail what it’s like to live with ALS, and also how to appreciate life. I’m regularly terrified that I’ll be in good health until I turn, say, 35, and then am suddenly stricken with ALS, which is why I will always try to cherish the present.

  • ** Educated: A Memoir ** is a lovely, best-selling 2018 memoir by Tara Westover. The Bill Gates-endorsed book shows how Tara, born to “survivalists” (her wording) in Idaho, grew up without going to school. While technically she was “home schooled,” her family was ultra religious and tried avoiding other activities most of us do in the modern era without much questioning, such as going to the doctor and buying insurance. After some inspiration from an older brother, Westover studied hard for the ACT to get into Brigham Young. Despite being Mormon15 herself, she could not fit in with other students, who viewed her as strange and too devout. In class, Westover didn’t know what the word “Holocaust” meant, and asked that question aloud, to bewildering reactions. (“That’s not a joke” she was told.) I’m amazed she managed to actually get decent grades. In fact, she won a Gates Cambridge scholar and would get a PhD in history from Cambridge. The journey was not easy. Whenever she came back home, she faced a violent brother who would attack and cut her, and her parents would take her brother’s side. Her parents also tried to get her out of the PhD program, insulting those “socialists.” Eventually, Westover started to be open with her friends and collaborators about her background. At the end of the book, she reveals that she could not abide to what her parents were asking her to do, and her family bisected into two, with the PhDs (including her) on one end, and the others (including her parents) on the other. They are not on speaking terms, and I think that’s fine. I would never want to socialize with people like her parents. I did some Googling and found that a lawyer defending her parents said “42% of the children have PhDs.” While that is true, it is in spite of what her parents did, or because her parents starved their children of education — not because they were “better” at preparing their children for PhDs! Educated is the epitome of the memoir I like reading: one which appreciates the power of education and gives me a perspective on someone who has lived a vastly different life than I would ever want to live.

  • India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2018) by Mira Kamdar is another “What Everyone Needs to Know” book, structured as a list of question-and-answer sections. Kamdar was a member of the Editorial Board of the New York Times from 2013-2017, and currently is an author and provides expert commentary on India. The book reviews the history of the Indian territory, its early religions and ethnic groups, and the British control that lasted until India’s independence in 1947. While some of the history felt a bit dry, it still seems valuable to know, particularly when Kamdar describes famous and powerful people of India, such as Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and the famous Mahatma Gandhi. I’m embarrassed to say this, but before reading Kamdar’s book, I thought Indira was related to Mahatma. Oops! Indira was actually the daughter of Nehru and married someone with a last name of “Gandhi.” Anyway, the most interesting portions of the book to me were those that listed the challenges that India faces today. India will soon be the most populous country in the world,16 which will strain its water, food, and energy needs. Unlike China, which has a rapidly aging population, India has a far larger group of younger people, which means it doesn’t need to provide as much elderly care, but it does need to find jobs, jobs, and jobs. If the government fails to do so, it may face protests and anarchy. In addition, India (despite once having a female Prime Minister) still has quite retrograde views on women. I want India to be known for a great place for women to visit, rather than a place where women get gang-raped when they board buses. To make matters worse, sex preferences have resulted in more young men than women, just as in China. The current leader, Narendra Modi, faces these and other challenges, such as dealing with a rapidly-growing China and a hostile Pakistan. I am not a fan of Modi’s “Hindu nationalism”17 that Kamdar mentions; I think unchecked nationalism is one of the biggest dangers to world peace. Kamdar’s last question is a bit strange: Will India’s Bengal tiger become extinct? But, I see her reason: India was able to make progress in rescuing the tiger from the brink of extinction. This gives hope that India will rise to the occasion for bigger challenges in this century. I sure hope so.

  • ** North Korea: What Everyone Needs to Know ** (2019) is yet another book in the “What Everyone Needs to Know” series. The author is Patrick McEachern, who spent time at the Wilson Center as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.18 I wanted to read this because (a) I do not like Kim Jong Un,19, (b) I am concerned about their nuclear weapons program, and (c) I want to know more about North Korea understand the history and politics that have influenced present-day events; a similar rationale motivates my reading of books about China this year. Fortunately, McEachern does an effective job addressing (c). The book, though certainly about North Korea, is probably more accurately described as “two-thirds North Korea” (i.e., the DPRK) and “one-third South Korea” (i.e., the ROK). It starts by discussing the history of Korea and its annexation by Japan, which explains much of the current Korea-Japan animosity across both halves of Korea.20 The book discusses what we Americans view as the Korean War; I have a relative who served in that war. It also makes it clear why so many in North Korea hate America, and why most South Koreans support America. I learned about the history of Korea’s leadership. In the North, we have Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. In the South, we have leaders from Syngman Rhee to current President Moon Jae-in. McEachern discusses how China is reluctantly an ally of North Korea, for a variety of diplomatic reasons. Interestingly, McEachern believes that North Korea has not yet developed the capability to strike the US with ICMBs, at least as of early 2019 when the book went to print. It was interesting to see that South Korean politics is often a back-and-forth between Conservatives and Liberals, mirroring what’s happening in the United States today. That said, I was surprised by a few of McEachern’s points. For example, his description of the status of women in North Korea is surprisingly neutral, or at least not as negative as I would have thought. I want to see more details on the status of North Korean women in the next edition of the book. I also liked his thought-provoking question at the end. Who will lead North Korea after Kim Jong Un? McEachern proposes that, if Kim Jong Un dies sooner than expected, then his trusted younger sister could lead North Korea. Could North Korea, of all places, have a female leader before the United States?

Whew, 2019 was a good year for reading. Now, onto 2020 and a new decade!

  1. Or more accurately, The Great Leap Backwards. The Great Leap Forward was one of the biggest tragedies in the history of the human race. 

  2. We should be clear on what the “leader of China” means. There have been five major “eras” of leadership in Chinese history since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949: the Mao Zedong era (1949 to 1976), the Deng Xiaoping era (1978 to 1992), the Jiang Zemin era (1992 to 2002), the Hu Jintao era (2002 to 2012), and finally the Xi Jinping era (2012 to present). The years that I’ve put here are only approximations, because there are three main positions to have to be considered the “ultimate” (my informal term, for lack of a better option) leader in China and these men sometimes did not have control of all positions simultaneously. In addition, they can often play a huge role after their formal retirement. Incidentally, the three positions are: General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (which controls the army) and State President (to control the government). In practice, the first two are more important than the third for the purpose of ruling power. As of this writing in late 2019, Xi Jinping holds all three positions. 

  3. In China, it is safer to protest about environmental-related issues because protestors can align their objectives with the Chinese Communist Party and frame it as improving the country. It is far different from protesting over more politically sensitive issues, such as asking for democracy in China. Yeah, don’t do that! 

  4. No, understanding neural networks does not mean we understand how the human brain works. 

  5. Hence the “People in a Hurry” in the title. My hardcover copy is a little over 200 pages, but the margins are super-thin, so it’s probably equivalent to a “120-page book.” It’s definitely the second-shortest book that I have read this year, with the book It’s Not Yet Dark having the honor of the shortest of them all. Pinker’s Better Angels is, of course, the longest in this list, followed by (I think) Henry Kissinger’s book about China. 

  6. Thankfully, Tegmark put the names of the conference attendees in the picture caption. It’s definitely a veritable who’s who in Artificial Intelligence! I only wish I could join them one day. 

  7. Probably the chief downside of Life 3.0, and one which might be a target of criticism from AI researchers, is the heavy discussion on what a superintelligent agent can do is vastly premature; it’s basically the same argument against Nick Bostrom’s work. Still, I argue that there are many pressing AI safety issues right now that the subject of “AI safety” must be a current research agenda. 

  8. I probably should have expected this, but at the beginning of Why We Sleep, there is a disclaimer which states that the book is not meant to be used for professional medical advice. 

  9. When reading the book, I was struck by similarities between polygenic scores and Deep Learning. Polygenic scores rely on large-scale studies and the results can only be interpreted by the end outcome from the human’s experience. That is, to my knowledge, we can’t look at a gene and interpret its actual effects on the bloodstream, muscle movements, brain cells, and other body parts of humans. We can only look at a person’s years of education or height to see which set of genes can explain the variance in these qualities. Thus, it’s not as interpretable as we would like. Interpretability is a huge issue in Deep Learning, which has (as we all know) also benefited from the Big Data era. 

  10. Cohen mentions Anne Gorsuch, who was the Environmental Protection Agency administrator during Reagan’s presidency. I recognized her name instantly, because in 2017, her son Neil Gorsuch, was successfully nominated to the United States Supreme Court. Remember, Cohen’s book was published in 1995. 

  11. The first edition of the book had some “sexist language” according to the authors. Uh oh. I suspect the “sexist language” has to do with the negotiations about divorce settlements. Earlier editions might have assumed that the (former) wife was relying on the (former) husband for income. Or more generally, the book may have assumed that the men were always the breadwinners of the family. 

  12. With one exception: I have not read his book on how to be a high school superstar. 

  13. If you are a member of Ken Goldberg’s lab and would like to dispute this “most read” label, send me your reading list. I don’t mean to say this in a competitive manner; I am legitimately curious to see what books you read so that I can jump start my 2020 book reading list. 

  14. I’m a bit confused why the title isn’t 50/50/50, as that would be more accurate, and the fact that Karnazes ran in 50 states matters since all the travel eats up potential recovery and sleep time. 

  15. At the start of the book, Westover mentions that this is not a book about Mormonism and she “disputes connections” between Mormonism and the actions of people in this book. My guess is that she did not want to offend Mormons who are far less extreme as her parents. But we can run an experiment to see if there’s a connection between religion and the activities of certain people. We need a random sample of Mormons, and a random sample of non-Mormons, and measure whatever we are considering (I know this is not easy but science isn’t easy). I don’t know what would be the outcome of a study if such exists, but the point is we can’t unilaterally dispute connections without rigorous, scientific testing. It is disappointing to see this phrase at the beginning of the book. 

  16. Kamdar explicitly says in the book that sometime in 2017, India surpassed China to be the world’s most populous country. Most online sources, however, seem to still have China slightly ahead. Either way, India is clearly going to be the most populous country for much of the 21st century. 

  17. Since the book was published, Modi has presided over power and Internet outages in Kashmir, and a controversial Indian citizenship law that arguably discriminates against Muslims. The prospects of peace between India and Pakistan, and within India as well among those of different religions, appears, sadly, remote. 

  18. Yes, that’s another CFR fellow! I read a lot of their books — and no, it’s not on purposes — I usually don’t find out until I buy the book and then read the author biographies. It’s probably that the genre of books I read includes those which require specialized expertise in an area that relates to foreign affairs. 

  19. I read this book on the return flight from the ISRR 2019 conference. In one of my blog posts on the conference, I stated that “I will never tire of telling people how much I disapprove of Kim Jong Un.” 

  20. If I were President of the United States, one of my first foreign policy priorities would be to turn South Korea and Japan into strong allies, while also reassuring both countries that they are under our nuclear umbrella.