Every year I have a tradition where I try to write down all the books I read, and to summarize my thoughts. Despite how 2020 was quite different from years past, I was able to get away from the distractions of the world by diving into books. I have listed 40 books here:

  • Popular Science (6 books)
  • Current Events (4 books)
  • Business and Technology (5 books)
  • China (4 books)
  • Race and Anti-Racism (5 books)
  • Countries (4 books)
  • Psychology and Psychiatry (4 books)
  • Miscellaneous (8 books)

The total is similar to past years (2016 through 2019): 34, 43, 35, 37. As always you can find prior summaries in the archives. I tried to cut down on the length of the summaries this year, but I was only partially successful.

Group 1: Popular Science

Every year, I try to find a batch of books that quenches my scientific curiosity.

  • ** Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 ** (2011) blew me away via a whirlwind tour of the future. Michio Kaku, a famous theoretical physicist and CUNY professor, attempts to predict 2100. Kaku’s vision relies on (a) what is attainable subject to the laws of physics, and (b) interviews with hundreds of leading scientific experts, including many whose names I recognize. Crudely, one can think of Physics of the Future as a more general vision of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind (discussed below) in that Kurzweil specializes in AI and neuroscience, whereas Kaku focuses on a wider variety of subjects. Physics of the Future has separate chapters on: Computers, AI, Medicine, Nanotech, Energy, Space Travel, Wealth, Humanity, and then the last one is about “Day in the Life of 2100.” Kaku breaks down each subject into what he thinks will happen in (a) the near future to 2030, (b) then later in 2030-2070, and (c) from 2070-2100. For example, in the chapter on computers, much discussion is spent on the limits of current silicon-based CPUs, since we are hitting the theoretical limit of how many transistors we can insert in a chip of silicon, which is why there’s been much effort on going beyond Moore’s Law, such as parallel programming and quantum computing. In the AI chapter, which includes robotics, there is a brief mention of learning-based versus “classical” approaches to creating AI. If Kaku had written this book just a few years later, this chapter would look very different. In biology and medicine, Kaku is correct in that we will try to build upon advances in gene therapy and extend the human lifespan, which might (and this is big “might”) be possible with the more recent CRISPR technologies (not mentioned in the book, of course). While my area of expertise isn’t in biology and medicine, or the later chapters on nanotechnology and energy, by the time I finished this book, I was in awe of Kaku’s vision of the future, but also somewhat tempered by the enormous challenges ahead of us. For a more recent take on Kaku’s perspective, here is a one-hour conversation on Lex Fridman’s podcast where he mentions CRISPR-like technologies will let humans live forever by identifying “mistakes” in cells (i.e., the reason why we die). I’m not quite as optimistic as Kaku is on that prospect, but I share his excitement of science.

  • ** How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed ** (2012) by the world’s most famous futurist, Ray Kurzweil. While his most popular book is The Singularity is Near from 2005, this shorter book — a follow-up in some ways — is a pleasure to read. In How to Create a Mind Kurzweil focuses on reverse-engineering the brain by conjecturing how the brain works, and how the process could be emulated in a computer. The aspiration is obvious: if we can do this, then perhaps we can create intelligent life. If, in practice, machines “trick” people into thinking they are real brains with real thought, then Kurzweil argues that for all practical purposes they are conscious (see Chapter 9).1 There was some discussion about split-brain patients and the like, which overlaps with some material in Incognito, which I read in 2017. Throughout the book, there is emphasis on the neocortex, which according to Wikipedia, plays a fundamental role in learning and memory. Kurzweil claims it acts as a pattern recognizer, and that there’s a hierarchy to let us conduct higher-order reasoning. This makes sense, and Kurzweil spends a lot of effort describing ways we can simulate the neocortex. That’s not to say the book is 100% correct or prescient. He frequently mentions Hidden Markov Models (HMMs), but I hardly ever read about them nowadays. Perhaps the last time I actually implemented HMMs was for a speech recognition homework assignment in the Berkeley graduate Natural Language Processing course back in 2014. The famous AlexNet paper was published just a few months after this book was published, catalyzing the Deep Learning boom. Also, Kruzweil’s prediction that self-driving cars would be here “by the end of the decade” were wildly off. I think it’s unlikely we will see them publicly available even by the end of this new decade, in December of 2029. But he also argues that as of 2012, the trends from The Singularity is Near are continuing, with updated plots showing that once a technology becomes an information technology then the “law of accelerating returns” will kick in, creating exponential growth. There are “arguments against incredulity,” as argued by the late Paul Allen. Kurzweil spends the last chapter refuting Allen’s arguments. I want to see an updated 2021 edition of Kurzweil’s opinions on topics in this book, just like I do for Kaku’s book.

  • ** A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution ** (2017) by Berkeley Professor Jennifer A Doudna and her former PhD student Samuel H Sternberg (now at Columbia University). The Doudna lab has a website with EIGHTEEN postdocs at the time of me reading this! I’m sure that can’t be the norm, since Doudna is one of the stars of the Berkeley chemistry department and recently won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This book is about the revolutionary technology called CRISPR. The first half provides technical background, and the second half describes the consequences, both the good (what diseases it may cure) and the bad (ethics and dangers). In prior decades, I remember hearing about “gene therapy,” but CRISPR is “gene editing” — it is far easier to use CRISPR to edit genes than any prior technology, which is one of the reasons why it has garnered widespread attention since a famous 2012 Science paper by Doudna and her colleagues. The book provides intuition showing how CRISPR works to edit genes, though as with anything, it will be easier to understand for people who work in this field. The second half of the book is more accessible and brings up the causes of concern: designer babies, eugenics, and so on. My stance is probably similar to Doudna and of most scientists in that I support investigating the technology with appropriate restrictions. A Crack in Creation was published in 2017, and already in November 2018, there was a story that broke (see MIT Review, and NYTimes articles) about the scientist He Jiankui who claimed to create the first gene-edited humans. The field is moving so fast, and reading this book made it clear the obvious similarities between CRISPR and AI technologies and how they are (a) growing so powerful and (b) require safety and ethical considerations. Sadly, I also see how CRISPR can lead to battle lines over who has credit for the technology; in AI, we have a huge problem with “flag planting” and “credit assignment” and I hope this does not damage the biochemistry field. I am also curious about the relationship between CRISPR and polygenic scores,2 which were discussed in the book Blueprint (see my thoughts here). I wish there were more books like A Crack in Creation.

  • ** Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies ** (2017) is one of my favorites this year. By Geoffrey West, a Santa Fe Institute theoretical physicist, and who’s more accurately described as a “jack of all trades,” the book unifies the theme of “scale” across organisms, cities, and companies. It asks questions like: why aren’t there mammals the size of Godzilla? Why aren’t humans living for 200 years? How does income and crime scale with city size? Any reputable scientist can answer the question about Godzilla: anything Godzilla’s would not be able to support itself, unless it were somehow made of “different” living material. West’s key insights are to relate this to an overarching theme of exponential growth and scaling. For example, consider networks and capillaries. Mammals have hearts that pump blood into areas of the body, with the vessel size decreasing up to the capillaries at the end. But across all mammals, the capillaries at the “ends” of this system are roughly the same size, and optimize the “reachability” of a system. Furthermore, this is similar to a water system in a city, so perhaps the organization and size limitations of cities are similar to those of mammals. Another key finding is that many attributes of life are constant across many organisms. Take the number of heartbeats in a mammal’s lifespan. Smaller mammals have much faster heart rates, whereas bigger mammals have much slower heart rates, yet the number of heart beats is roughly the same across an enormous variety of organisms. That factor, along with mortality rates for humans, suggests a natural limit to human lifespans, so West is skeptical that humans will live far beyond the current record of 122 years. Scale is filled with charts showing various qualities that are consistent across organisms, cities, and companies, and which also demonstrate exponential growth. It reminds me of Steven Pinker’s style of research in adding quantitative metrics to social sciences research. West’s concludes with disconcerting discussions about whether humanity can continue accelerating at the superexponential rate we’ve been living. While careful not to fall under the “Malthusian trap,” he’s concerned that the environment will no longer be able to support our rate of living. Scale is a great book from one of academia’s brightest minds that manages to make the scientific details into something readable. If you don’t have the time to read 450+ pages, then his 2011 TED Talk might be a useful alternative.

  • ** The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect ** (2018) is by 2011 Turing Award winner Judea Pearl, a professor at UCLA and a leading researcher in AI, along with science writer Dana MacKenzie3. I first remember reading about Pearl’s pioneering work in Bayesian Networks when I was an undergrad trying (unsuccessfully) to do machine learning research. To my delight, Bayesian Networks are featured in The Book of Why, and I have fond memories of studying them for the Berkeley AI Prelims. Ah. Pearl uses a metaphor of a ladder with three rungs that describe understanding. The first rung is where the current Deep Learning “revolution” lies, and relates to pattern matching. In the second rung, a machine must be able to determine what happens when something is applied. Finally, the third and most interesting rung is on counterfactual inference: what happened if, instead of \(X\), we actually did \(Y\)? It requires us to imagine a world that did not exist, and Pearl argues that this thinking is essential to create advanced forms of AI. Pearl is an outspoken skeptic of the “Big Data” trend, where one just looks at the data to find a conclusion. So this book is his way of expressing his journey through causal inference to a wider audience, where he introduces the “\(P(X | do(Y))\)” operator (in contrast to \(P(X | Y)\)), how to disentangle the effect of confounding, and how to perform counterfactual inference. What is the takeaway? I’m judging the “Turing Award” designation correctly, it seems like Pearl’s work and causality is widely accepted or at least not vigorously opposed by those in the community, so I guess it’s been a success? I should also have anticipated that Andrew Gelman would review the book on his famous blog with some mixed reactions. To summarize (and I might share this view) while The Book of Why brings many interesting points, it may read too much as someone who’s reveling in his “conquering” of “establishment statisticians,” which might turn off readers. Some of the text is also over-claiming: the book says causality can help with smoking, taxes, climate change, and so forth, but those can arguably be done without necessarily resorting to the exact causal inference machinery.

  • ** Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control ** (2019) is by Berkeley computer science professor Stuart Russell and a leading authority on AI. Before the pandemic, I frequently saw Prof. Russell as our offices are finally on the same floor, and I enjoyed reading and blogging about his textbook (soon to be updated!) back when I was studying for the AI prelims. A key message from Human Compatible is that we need to be careful when designing AI. Russell argues: “machines are beneficial to the extent that their actions can be expected to achieve our objectives”. In other words, we want robots to achieve our intended objectives, which is not necessarily — and usually is not! — what we exactly specified in the objective through a cost or reward function. Instead of this, the AI field has essentially been trying to make intelligent machines achieve “the machine’s” objective. This is problematic in several ways, one of which is that humans are bad at specifying their intents. A popular example of this is in OpenAI’s post about faulty reward functions. The BAIR blog has similar content in this post and a related post (by Stuart Russell’s students, obviously). As AI becomes more powerful, mis-specified objective functions have greater potential for negative consequences, hence the need to address this and other mis-uses of AI (e.g., see Chapter 4 and lethal autonomous weapons). There are a range of possible techniques for obtaining provably beneficial AI, such as making machines “turn themselves off” and ensuring they don’t block that, or having machines ask humans for assistance in uncertain cases, or having machines learn human preferences. Above all, Russell makes a convincing case for human-compatible AI discourse, and I recommend the book to my AI colleagues and to the broader public.

Group 2: Current Events

These are recent books covering current events.

  • ** Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think ** (2018) by the late Hans Rosling, who died of cancer and was just able to finish this book in time with his family. Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician and academic, and from the public’s view, may be best known for his data visualization techniques4 to explain why many of us in so-called “developed countries” have misconceptions about “developing countries” and the world more broadly. (Look him up online and watch his talks, for example this TED talk.) The ten reasons in Factfulness are described as “instincts”: gap, negativity, straight line, fear, size, generalization, destiny, single perspective, blame, and urgency. In discussing these points, Rosling urges us to dispense with the terms “developing” and “developed” and instead to use a four-level scale, with most of the world today on “Level 2” (and the United States on “Level 4”). Rosling predicts that in 2040, most of the world will be on Level 3. Overall, this book is similar to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels and Enlightenment Now so if you like those two, as I did, you will probably like Factfulness. However, there might not be as much novelty. I want to conclude with two thoughts. The criticism of “cherry-picking facts” is both correct but also unfair since any book that covers a topic as broadly as the state of the world will be forced to do so. Second, while reading this book, I think there is a risk of focusing too much on countries that have a much lower baseline of prosperity to begin with (e.g., countries on Level 1 and 2) and it would be nice to see if we can get similarly positive news for countries which are often viewed as “wealthy but stagnant” today, such as Japan and (in many ways) the United States. Put another way, can we develop a book like Factfulness that will resonate with factory workers in the United States who have lost jobs due to globalization, or people lamenting soaring income inequality?

  • ** The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure ** (2018) was terrific. It’s written by Greg Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer specializing in free speech on campuses, and Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at NYU, and one of the most well-known in his field. For perspective, I was aware of Haidt before reading this book. Coddling of the American Mind is an extended version of their article in The Atlantic, which introduced their main hypothesis that the trend of protecting students from ideas they don’t like is counterproductive. Lukianoff and Haidt expected a wave of criticism after their article, but it seemed like there was agreement from across the political spectrum. They emphasize how much of the debate over free speech on college campuses is a debate within the political left, given the declining proportion of conservative students and faculty. The simple explanation is that the younger generation disagrees with older liberals, the latter of whom generally favor freer speech. The book mentions both my undergrad, Williams College, and my graduate school, the University of California, Berkeley, since both institutions have faced issues with free speech and inviting conservative speakers to campus. More severe were the incidents at Evergreen State, though fortunately what happened there was far from typical. Lukianoff and Haidt also frequently reference Jean Twenge’s book IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us, with a long self-explanatory subtitle. I raced through The Codding of the American Mind and will definitely keep it in mind for my own future. Like Haidt, I generally identify with the political left, but I read a fair amount of conservative writing and feel like I have significantly benefited from doing so. I also generally oppose disinviting speakers, or “cancel culture” more broadly. This book was definitely a favorite of mine this year. The title is unfortunate, as the “coddling” terminology might cause the people who would benefit the most to avoid reading it.

  • ** The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? ** (2020) by Michael J. Sandel, a Professor of Government at Harvard University who teaches political philosophy. Sandel’s objective is to inform us about the dark side of meritocracy. Whereas in the past, being a high-status person in American society was mainly due to being white, male, and wealthy, nowadays America’s educational system has changed to a largely merit-based one, however one defines “merit.” But for all these changes, we still have low income mobility, where the children of the wealthy and highly educated are likely to remain in high status professions, and the poor are likely to remain poor. Part of this is because elite colleges and universities are still overly-represented by the wealthy. But, argues Sandel, even if we achieve true meritocracy, would that actually be a desirable thing? He warns us that this will exacerbate credentialism as “the last acceptable prejudice,” where for the poor, the message we send to them is bluntly that they are poor because they are bad on the grounds of merit. That’s a tough pill to swallow, which can breed resentment, and Sandel argues for this being one of the reasons why Trump won election in 2016. There are also questions about what properly defines merit, and unfortunate side effects of the race for credentialism, where “helicopter parenting” means young teenagers are trying to fight to gain admission to a small pool of elite universities. This book is more about identifying the problem rather than proposing solutions, but Sandel includes some modest approaches, such as (a) adding a lottery to admissions processes at elite universities, and (b) taxing financial transactions that add little value (though these seem quite incremental to me). Of course, he agrees, it’s better to not have wealth or race be the deciding factor that determines quality of life, as Sandel opens up in his conclusion when describing how future home run record holder Hank Aaron had to practice batting using sticks and bottle caps due to racism. But that does not mean the current meritocracy status quo should be unchallenged.

  • ** COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One ** (2020) by New Scientist reporter Debora MacKenzie, was quickly written in early 2020 and published in June, while the world was still in the midst of the pandemic. The book covers the early stages of the pandemic and how governments and similar organizations were unprepared for one of this magnitude despite early warnings. MacKenzie provides evidence that scientists were warning for years about the risks of pandemics, but that funding, politics, and other factors hindered the development of effective pandemic strategies. The book also provides a history of some earlier epidemics, such as the flu of 1918 and SARS in 2003, and why bats are a common source of infectious diseases. (But don’t go around killing bats, that’s a completely misguided way of fighting COVID-19.) MacKenzie urges us to provide better government support for research and development into vaccines, since while markets are a great thing, it is difficult for drug and pharmaceutical companies to make profits off of vaccines while investing in the necessary “R and D.” She also wisely says that we need to strengthen the World Health Organization (WHO), so that the WHO has the capability to quickly and decisively state when a pandemic is occurring without fear of offending governments. I think MacKenzie hits on the right cylinders here. I support globalization when done correctly. We can’t tear down the world’s gigantic interconnected system, but we can at least make systems with more robustness for future pandemics and catastrophic events. As always, though, it’s easier said than done, and I am well aware that many people do not think as I do. After all, my country has plenty of anti-vaxxers, and every country has its share of politicians who are hyper-nationalistic and are willing to silence their own scientists who have bad news to share.

Group 3: Business and Technology

  • Remote: Office Not Required (2013) is a concise primer on the benefits of remote work. It’s by Jason Fried and David Hansson, cofounders of 37Signals (now Basecamp), a software company which specializes in one product (i.e., Basecamp!) to organize projects and communication. I used it once, back when I interned at a startup. Basecamp has unique work policies compared to other companies, which the authors elaborate upon in their 2017 manifesto It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy At Work (discussed below). This book narrows down on the remote aspect of their workforce, reflecting how Basecamp’s small group of employees works all around the world. Fried and Hansson describe the benefits of remote work: a traditional office is filled with distractions, the commute to work is generally unpleasant, talent isn’t bound in specific cities, and so on. Then, they show how Basecamp manages their remote work force, essentially offering a guide to other companies looking to make the transition to remote work. I think many are making the transition if they haven’t done so already. If anything, I was surprised that it’s necessary to write a book on these “obvious” facts, but then again, this was published right when Marissa Mayer, then Yahoo!’s CEO, famously said Yahoo! would not permit remote work. In contrast, I was reading this book in April 2020 when we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which essentially mandated remote work. While I miss in-person work, I’m not going to argue against the benefits of some remote work.

  • Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (2016) is by Antonio García Martínez. A “gleeful contrarian” who entered the world of Silicon Valley after a failed attempt at becoming a scientist (formerly a physics PhD student at UC Berkeley) and then a stint as a Goldman Sachs trader, he describes his life at Adchemy5, then as the CEO of his startup, AdGrok, and then his time at Facebook. AdGrok was a three-man startup with Martínez and two other guys, specializing in ads, and despite all their missteps, it got backed by the Y-Combinator. Was it bought by Facebook? Nope — by Twitter, and Martínez nearly screwed the whole acquisition by refusing to work for Twitter and joining Facebook, essentially betraying his two colleagues. At Facebook, he was a product manager specializing in ads, and soon got embroiled over the future ads design; Martínez was proposing a new system called “Facebook Exchange” whereas his colleagues mostly wanted incremental extensions of the existing Facebook Ads system (called “Custom Audiences”). He was eventually fired from Facebook, and then went to Twitter as an adviser, and as of 2019 he’s at Branch. Here’s a TL;DR opinionated summary: while I can see why people (usually men) might like this fast-paced exposé of Silicon Valley, I firmly believe there is a way to keep his good qualities — his determination, passion, focus — without the downsides of misogyny, getting women pregnant two weeks after meeting them, and flouting the law. I’ll refer you to this criticism for more details, and to add on to this, while Martínez is able to effectively describe concepts in Silicon Valley and computing reasonably well, he often peppers those comments with sexual innuendos. This is absolutely not the norm among the men I work with. I wonder what his Facebook colleagues thought of him after reading this book. On a more light-hearted note, soon after reading Chaos Monkeys, I watched Michael I Jordan’s excellent podcast conversation with Lex Fridman on YouTube6. Prof. Jordan discusses and criticizes Facebook’s business model for failing to create a “consumer-producer ecosystem” and I wonder how much the idea of Facebook Exchange overlaps with Prof. Jordan’s ideal business model.

  • ** It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work ** (2017). The authors are (again) Jason Fried and David Hansson, who wrote Remote: Office Not Required (discussed above). I raced through this book, with repeated smiles and head-nodding. Perhaps more adequately described as a rousing manifesto, it’s engaging, fast-paced, and effectively conveys how Basecamp manages to avoid enforcing a crazy work life. Do we really need 80-hour weeks, endless emails, endless meetings, and so on? Not according to Basecamp: “We put in about 40 hours a week most of the year […] We not only pay for people’s vacation time, we pay for the actual vacation, too. No, not 9 p.m. Wednesday night. It can wait until 9 a.m. Thursday morning. No, not Sunday. Monday.” Ahh … Now, I definitely don’t follow what this book says word-for-word. For example, I work far more than 40 hours a week. My guess is 60 hours, and I don’t count time spent firing off emails in the evening. But I do my best. I try to ensure that my day isn’t consumed by meetings or emails, and that I have long time blocks to myself for focused work. So far I think it’s working for me. I feel reasonably productive and have not burnt out. I try to continue this during the age of remote work. Basecamp has been a working remotely for 20 years, and their software (and hopefully work culture) may have gotten more attention recently as COVID-19 spread through the world. Perhaps more employers will enable remote work going forward.

  • ** Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley ** (2018) is by Emily Chang, a journalist, author, and current anchor of Bloomberg Technology. For those of us wondering why Silicon Valley continues to be heavily male-dominated despite years and years of public outcry, Chang offers a compelling set of factors. Brotopia briefly covers the early history of the tech industry and how employees were screened for certain factors that statistically favored men. She reviews the “Paypal Mafia” and why meritocracy is a myth, and then covers Google, a company which has for years had good intentions but has experienced its own share of missteps, lawsuits, and press scrutiny over its treatment of women. Then there’s the chapter that Chang reportedly said was “the hardest to research by far,” about secret parties hosted by Venture Capitalists and other prominent men in the tech industry, where they network and invite young women.7 Chang points out that incentives given by tech companies to employees (e.g., food, alcohol, fitness centers, etc.) often cater to the young and single, and encourage a blend of work and life, meaning that for relatively older women, work-family imbalance is a top reason why they leave the workforce at alarming numbers. The list of factors which make it difficult for women to enter and comfortably remain in tech goes on and on. After reading this book, I am constantly feeling depressed about the state of affairs here — can things really be that bad? There are, of course, things I should do given my own proximity and knowledge of the industry from an academic’s viewpoint in STEM, where we have similar gender representation issues. I can at least provide a minimal promise that I will remember the history in this book and ensure that social settings are more comfortable for women.

  • ** The Making of a Manager: What to do When Everyone Looks to You ** (2019) is by Julie Zhuo, who worked at Facebook for 14 years, and quickly rose through the ranks to become a manager at age 25, and eventually held a Vice President (VP) title. This book, rather than focusing on Zhuo’s personal career trajectory, is best described as a general guide to managing with some case studies from her time at Facebook (appropriately anonymized, of course). Zhuo advises on the first few months of managing, on managing small versus large teams, the importance of feedback (both to reports and to managers), on hiring great people, and so on. A consistent theme is that the goal of managing is to increase the output of the entire team. I also liked her perspective on how to delegate tasks, because as managers rise up the hierarchy, meetings became the norm rather than the exception, and so the people who do “real work” are those lower in the hierarchy but who have to be trusted by managers. I generally view managing in the context of academia, since I am managed by my PhD advisors, and I manage several undergraduates who work with me on research projects. There is substantial overlap in the academic and industry realms, particularly with delegating tasks, and Zhuo’s book — even with its focus on tech — provides advice applicable to a variety of domains. I hope that any future managers I have will be similar in spirit to Zhuo. Now, while reading, I couldn’t help but think about how someone like Zhuo would manage someone like Antonio García Martínez, who wrote Chaos Monkeys (discussed earlier) and overlapped with her time at Facebook, since those two seem to be the polar opposites of each other. Whereas Zhuo clearly values empathy, honesty, diversity, support, and so on, Martínez gleefully boasts about cutting corners and having sex, including one case involving a Facebook product manager. The good news is that Martínez only lasted a few years at Facebook, whereas Zhuo was there for 14 years and left on her own accord to start Inspirit. Hopefully Inspirit will grow into something great!

Group 4: China

As usual, I find that I have an insatiable curiosity for learning more about China. Two focus on women-specific issues. (I have another one that’s more American-based, near the end of this post, along with the “Brotopia” one mentioned above.)

  • ** Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China ** (2014) is named based on the phrase derisively describing single Chinese women above a certain age (usually 25 to 27) who are pressured to marry and have families. It’s written by Leta Hong Fincher, an American (bilingual in English and Chinese) who got her PhD in sociology at Tsinghua University. Leftover Women grew out of her dissertation work, which involved interviews with several hundred Chinese, mostly young well-educated women in urban areas. I had a rough sense of what gender inequality might be like, given its worldwide prevalence, but the book was able to effectively describe the issues specific to China. One major theme is housing in big cities, along with a 2011 law passed by the Chinese Supreme Court which (in practice) meant that it became more critical whose name was on the house deed. For married couples who took part in the house-buying spree over the last few decades (as part of China’s well-known and massive rural-to-urban migration), usually the house deed used the man’s name. This exacerbates gender inequality, as Hong Fincher repeatedly emphasizes that property and home values have soared in recent years, making those more important to consider than the salary one gets from a job. Despite these and other issues in China, Hong-Fincher reports some promising ways that grassroots organizations are attempting to fight these stereotypes for women, despite heavy government censorship and disapproval. I was impressed enough by Hong-Fincher’s writing to read her follow-up 2018 book. In addition, I also noticed her Op-Ed for CNN arguing that women are disproportionately better at handling the COVID-19 pandemic.8 Her name has come up repeatedly as I continue my China education.

  • ** Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China ** (2018) is the second book I read from Leta Hong Fincher. Whereas Leftover Women featured the 2011 Chinese Supreme Court interpretation of a housing deed law, this book emphasizes the Feminist Five, young Chinese women who were arrested for protesting sexual harassment. You can find an abbreviated overview with a Dissent article which is a nice summary of Betraying Big Brother. The Feminist Five women were harassed in jail and continually spied upon and followed after their release. (Their release may have been due to international pressure). It was unfortunate to see what these women had to go through, and I reminded myself that I’m lucky to live in a country where women (and men) can perform comparable protests with limited (if any) repercussions. In terms of Chinese laws, the main one relevant to this book is a recent 2016 domestic violence law, the first of its kind to be passed in China. While Fincher praises the passage of this law, she laments that enforcement is questionable and that gender inequality continues to persist. She particularly critiques Xi Jinping and the “hypermasculinity” that he and the Chinese Communist Party promotes. The book ends on an optimistic note on how feminism continues to persist despite heavy government repression. Furthermore, though this book focuses on China, Hong Fincher and the Feminist Five emphasize the need for an international movement of feminism that spans all countries (I agree). As a case in point, Hong Fincher highlights how she and other Chinese women attended the American women’s march to protest Trump’s election. While I didn’t quite learn as much from this book compared to Leftover Women, I still found this to be a valuable item in my reading list about feminism.

  • ** Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War ** (2020) by WSJ reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei was fantastic – I had a hard time putting this book down. It’s a 450-page, highly readable account of diplomatic relations between the United States and China in recent years. The primary focus is the negotiation behind the scenes that led to the US-China Phase 1 trade deal in January 2020. As reporters, the authors had access to high-ranking officials and were able to get a rough sense of how each “side” viewed each other, not only from the US perspective but also from China’s. The latter is unusual, as the Chinese government is less open with its decision-making, so it was nice to see a bit into how Chinese government officials viewed the negotiations. Davis and Wei likely split the duties by Davis reporting from the American perspective, and Wei reporting from the Chinese perspective. (Wei is a naturalized US citizen, and was among those forced to leave China when they expelled journalists in March 2020.) The authors don’t editorialize too much, beyond trying to describe why they believed certain negotiations failed via listing the mistakes made on both sides — and there were a lot of failed negotiations. Don’t ever say geopolitics is easy. Released in Spring 2020, Superpower Showdown was just able to get information about the COVID-19 pandemic, before it started to spread rapidly in the United States. Unfortunately, COVID-19, rather than uniting the US and China against a common enemy, instead further deteriorated diplomatic relations. Just after finishing the book, I found a closely-related Foreign Affairs essay by Trump’s trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer. Consequently, I now have Foreign Affairs on my reading list.

  • ** Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside ** (2020) by Xiaowei Wang, who like me is a PhD student at UC Berkeley (in a different department, in Geography). Xiaowei is an American who has family and friends throughout China, and this book is partially a narrative of Wang’s experience visiting different parts of the country. Key themes are visiting rural areas in China, rather than the big cities which get much of the attention (as China is also undergoing a rural-to-urban migration as in America), and the impact of technology towards rural areas. For example, the book mentions how chickens and pigs are heavily monitored with technology to maximize their fitness for human consumption, how police officers are increasingly turning to facial recognition software while still heavily reliant on humans in this process, and the use of Blockchain even though the rural people don’t understand the technology (to be fair, it’s a tricky concept). Wang cautions us that increased utilization of technology and AI will not be able to resolve every issue facing the country, and come with well-known drawbacks (that I am also aware of given the concern over AI ethics in my field) that will challenge China’s leaders, so that they can continue to feed their citizens and maintain political stability. It’s a nice, readable book that provides a perspective of the pervasiveness but also the limitations of technology in rural China.

Group 5: Race and Anti-Racism

  • ** Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City ** (2016) is incredible. I can’t add much more praise to what’s already been handed to this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Evicted is by Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University. Though published in 2016, it was in 2008 and 2009 when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, when he moved into a trailer park in Milwaukee where poor whites lived. Desmond spent a few months following and interviewing residents and the landlord. He then repeated the process in the North Side of Milwaukee, where poor blacks lived. The result is an account of what it is like to be poor in America and facing chronic evictions.9 One huge problem: these tenants often had to pay 60-80 percent of their government welfare checks to rent. I also learned about how having children increases the chances of eviction, and how women are more vulnerable to eviction than men, and the role of race. The obvious question, of course, is what kind of policy solutions can help to improve the status quo. Desmond’s main suggestion he posits in the epilogue is for a universal housing voucher, which might reduce the amount spent on homeless shelters. Admittedly, I understand that we need both good policies and better decision-making on the part of these tenants, so it’s important for us to ensure that there are correct incentives for people to “graduate from welfare.” Interestingly, Desmond didn’t seem to discuss rent control that much, despite how it is a common topic I hear about nowadays. Another policy that might be relevant to this book is drug use, since pretty much every tenant here was on drugs. I generally oppose rent control and oppose widespread drug usage, but I also admit that implementing these policies would not fix the immediate problems the tenants face. Whatever your political alignments, if you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend you add Evicted to your reading list. The only very minor suggestion I would ask for this book is to have an easy-to-find list of names and short biographies of the tenants at the start of the book.

  • ** White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism ** (2018), by Robin DiAngelo, shot up to the NYTimes best-sellers list earlier this year, in large part from racial protests happening in the United States. Her coined phrase “white fragility” has almost become a household name. As DiAngelo says in the introduction, she is white and the book is mainly addressed to a white audience. (I am not really the target audience, but I still wanted to read the book.) DiAngelo discusses her experience trying to lead racial training training sessions among employees, and how whites often protest or push back against what she says. This is where the term “white fragility” comes from. Most whites she encounters are unwilling to have extensive dialogues that acknowledge their racial privileges, or try to end the discussion by saying defensive statements such as: “I am not racist, so I’m OK, someone else is the problem, end of story.” I found the book to be helpful and thought provoking, and learned about several traps that I will avoid when thinking about race. When reading the book, while I don’t think I personally felt challenged or insulted, I thought it served exactly as DiAngelo intended: to help me build up knowledge and stamina for discussion over racial issues.

  • ** So You Want to Talk About Race ** (2018), by Ijeoma Oluo, attempts to provide guidelines for how we can talk about race. Like many books falling under the anti-racist theme, it’s mainly aimed for white people to help them understand why certain topics or conduct are not appropriate for conversations on race. For example, consider chapters titled “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?” and “Why can’t I touch your hair?”. While some of these seem like common sense to me — I mean, do people actually go about touching Black people’s hair, or anyone’s body? — I know that there’s enough people who do this that we need to have this conversation. Oluo also effectively dispels the notion that we can just talk about class instead of race, or that we’ll get class out of the way first. I also appreciate her mention of Asians in the chapter on why the model minority myth is harmful. I also see that Oluo wrote in the introduction about how she wished she could have allocated more discussion on Indigenous people. I agree, but no book can contain every topic, so it’s not something I would use to detract from her work. Oluo has a follow-up book titled Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, which I should check out soon.

  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (2020) by Layla F. Saad. This started as a 28-day Instagram challenge that went viral. It was published in January 2020, and the timing could not have been better, given that just a few months later, we would see America face enormous racial protests. I read this book right after reading White Fragility, whose author (Robin DiAngelo) wrote the foreword, and says that Layla F. Saad gives us a roadmap for addressing the most common question white people have after an antiracist presentation: “What do I do?” In her introduction, Saad says: ““The system of white supremacy was not created by anyone who is alive today. But it is maintained and upheld by everyone who holds white privilege.” Saad, an East African and Middle Eastern Black Muslim women who lives in Qatar and is a British citizen, wants us to tackle this problem so that we leave the world a better place than it is today. Me and White Supremacy is primarily aimed at white people, but also applies to people of color who hold “white privilege” which would apply to me. There are four parts: (1) the basics, (2) anti-blackness, racial stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, (3) allyship, and (4) power, relations, and commitments. For example, the allyship chapter mentions white apathy, white saviorism (as shown in The Blind Side and others), tokenism, and being “called out” for racism, which Saad says is inevitable if we take part in anti-racism work. In contrary to what I think Saad was expecting out of readers, I didn’t experience too many conflicting emotions or uncomfortable feelings when reading this book. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It may have been because I read this after White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race?. I will keep this book in mind, particularly the allyship section, now and in the future.

  • ** My Vanishing Country: A Memoir ** (2020) is a memoir by Bakari Sellers, who describes his experience living in South Carolina. The value of the book is providing the perspective of Black rural working class America, instead of the white working class commonly associated with rural America (as in J.D. Vanci’s Hillbilly Elegy). I read the memoir quickly and could not put it down. Here are some highlights from Sellers’ life. When he was 22, freshly graduated out of Morehouse College and in his first year of law school at the University of South Carolina, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives.10 Somehow, he simultaneously served as a representative while also attending law school. His representative salary was only 10,000 USD, which might explain why it’s hard for the poor to build a career in state-level politics. He earned attention from Barack Obama, whom Sellers asked to come to South Carolina in return for Sellers’ endorsement in the primaries. Eventually, he ran for Lieutenant Governor (as a Democrat), a huge challenge in a conservative state such as South Carolina, and lost. He’s now a political commentator and a lawyer. The memoir covers the Charleston massacre in 2015, his disappointment when Trump was elected president (he thought that white women would join forces with non-whites to elect Hilary Clinton), and a personal story where his wife had health issues when giving birth, but survived. Sellers credits the fact that the doctors and nurses there were Black and knew Sellers personally, and he concludes with a call to help decrease racial inequities in health care, which persist today in the mortality rate when giving birth, and also with lead poisoning in many predominantly Black communities such as in Flint, Michigan.

Group 6: Countries

I continue utilizing the “What Everyone Needs to Know” book series. However, the batch I picked this year was probably less informative compared to others in the series. However, I’m especially happy to have read the fourth book here about Burma (not part of “What Everyone Needs to Know”), which I found from reading Foreign Affairs.

  • Brazil: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016) by Riordan Roett, Professor Emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), who specializes in Latin American studies. Brazil is always a country that I’ve wanted to know more, given its size (in population and land area), its geopolitical situation in a place (Latin America) that I know relatively little about, and because of the Amazon rain forest. The book begins with the early recorded history of Brazil based on the Portuguese colonization, followed by the struggle for independence. It also records Brazil’s difficulties with establishing Democracy versus military rule. Finally, it concludes with some thought questions about foreign affairs, and Brazil’s relations with the US, China, and other countries. This isn’t a page-turner book, but I think the bigger issue is that so much of what I want to know about Brazil relates to what happened over the last 5 years, particularly given the increasingly authoritarian nature of Brazil’s leadership since then, with President Jair Bolsonaro.

  • Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016), by the late historian Michael Axworthy, provides a concise overview of Iran’s history. I bought it on iBooks and started reading it literally the day before the murder of Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was widely believed to be next-in-line to succeed Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader of Iran; the “Supreme Leader” is the highest office in Iran. If you are interested in a recap of those events, see this NYTimes account on the events that nearly brought war between the US and Iran. The book was published in 2016 so it did not contain that information, and the last question was predictably about the future of Iran after the 2015 Nuclear Deal,11 with Axworthy noting that Iran seems to be pulled in “incompatible directions,” one for liberalization and modernity, the other for conservative Islam and criticism of Israel. The book mentions the history of the people who lived in the area that is now Iran. Back then, that was the Persian Empire, and I liked how Axworthy commented on Cyrus and Darius I, since they are the two Persian leaders in the Civilization IV computer game that I used to play. Later, Axworthy mentions the Iran-Iraq war and the Revolution of 1979 which deposed the last Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) in favor of Ruhollah (Ayatollah) Khomeini. Overall, this book is OK but was boring in some areas, and is too brief. It may be better to read Axworthy’s longer (but older) book about Iran.

  • Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016) is by Timothy J. Colton, a Harvard University Professor of Government and Russian Studies. The focus of this book is on Russia, which includes the Soviet Union from the period of 1922 to its dissolution in 1991 into 15 countries, one of which was Russia itself. As usual for “What Everyone Needs to Know” books, it starts with dry early history. The book gets more interesting when it presents the Soviet Union (i.e., USSR) and its main leaders: Joseph Stalin, Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Of those leaders, I support Gorbachev the most due to glasnost, and oppose Stalin the most, from the industrial-scale killing on his watch. Then there was Boris Yeltsin and, obviously, Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of much of the last chapter of the book. This book, like the one about North Korea I read last year, ponders about who might succeed Vladimir Putin as the de facto leader of Russia? Putin is slated to be in power until at least 2024, and he likely won’t give it to his family given that he has no sons. Russia faces other problems, such as alcoholism and demographics, with an aging population and a significantly lower average lifespan for males compared to other countries of Russia’s wealth. Finally, Russia needs to do a better job at attracting and retaining talent in science and engineering. This is one of the key advantages the United States has. (As I said earlier, we cannot relinquish this advantage.) Final note: Colton uses a lot of advanced vocabulary in this book. I had to frequently pause my reading to refer to a dictionary.

  • ** The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century ** (2020) is Thant Myint-U’s latest book on Burma (Myanmar)12. Thant Myint-U is is now one of my expert sources for Burmese-related topics. He’s lived there for many years, and has held American and Burmese citizenship at various points in his life. He is often asked to advise the Burmese government and frequently engages with high-level foreign leaders. His grandfather, U Thant, was the third Secretary General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, and I’m embarrassed I did not know that; amusingly, Wikipedia says U Thant was the first Secretary General who retired while on speaking terms with all major powers. The Hidden History of Burma discusses the British colonization, the struggle for independence, and the dynamics of the wildly diverse population (in terms of race and religion). Featured heavily, of course, is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize13 recipient, and a woman who I first remember learning about back in high school. She was once viewed as the beacon of Democracy and human rights — until, sadly, the last few years. She’s been the current de facto leader of government and overseeing one of the most brutal genocides in modern history of the Rohingya Muslims. Exact numbers are unclear, but it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands have either been killed or have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. How did this happen? The summary is that it wasn’t so much that Burma (and Aung San Suu Kyi) made leaps and bounds of progress before doing a 180 sometime in 2017. Rather, the West, and other foreigners who wanted to help, visit, and invest in the country, badly miscalculated and misinterpreted the situation in Burma while wanting to view Aung San Suu Kyi as an impossibly impeccable hero. There’s a lot more in the book about race, identity, and capitalism, and how this affects Burma’s past, present, and future. Amusingly, I’ve been reading Thant Myint-U’s Twitter feed, and he often fakes confusion as to whether his tweets are referring to the US or Burma: A major election? Widening income inequality? Illegal immigrants? Big bad China? Environmental degradation? Social media inspired violence? Who are we talking about here? For another perspective on the book, see this CFR review.

Group 7: Psychology and Psychiatry

  • ** 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story ** (2014) is a book by Dan Harris which (a) chronicles his experience with meditation and how it can reduce stress, and (b) attempts to present meditation as an option to many readers but without the big “PR problem” that Harris admits plagues meditation. For (a), Harris turned to meditation to reduce the anxiety and stress he was experiencing as a television reporter; he had several panic attacks on air and, for a time, turned to drugs. His news reporting got him involved with religious, spiritual, and “happiness” gurus who turned out to be frauds (Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray), which led Harris to question the self-help industry. A key turning point in Harris’ life was attending a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in California led by Joseph Goldstein. He entered the retreat in part due to the efforts of famous close friend Sam Harris (no relation). After the retreat, he started practicing meditation and even developed his own “10% Happier app” with colleagues. Harris admits that meditation isn’t a panacea for everything, so that’s one of the reasons for the wording “10% happier” in the title. I read many books, so because of sheer quantity, it’s rare when I can follow through on a book’s advice. I will try my best here. My field of computer science and robotics research is far different from Harris’ field, I also experience some stress in maintaining my edge due to the competitive nature of research, so hopefully I can follow this. Harris says all we need are 5 minutes a day. To start: sit comfortably, feel your breath, and each time you get lost in thought, please gently return to breath and start over.

  • ** Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics ** (2015) by Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, is a book that relates in many ways to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (describing work in collaboration with Amos Tversky). If you like that book, you will probably like this one, since it covers similar themes, which shouldn’t be surprising as Thaler collaborated with Kahneman and Tversky for portions of his career. Misbehaving is Thaler’s personal account of his development of behavioral economics, a mix of an autobiography and “research-y” topics. It describes how economics has faced internal conflicts between those who advocate for a purely rational view of agents (referred to as “Econs” in the book) and those who incorporate elements of human psychology into their thinking, which may cause classical economic theory to fail due to irrational behavior by humans. In chapter after chapter, Thaler argues convincingly that human behavior must be considered to understand and properly predict economic behavior.

  • Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (2016) is co-written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, and for clarity is told from the perspective of Ms. Sandberg. She’s the well-known Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and the bestselling author of Lean In, which I read a few years ago. This book arose out of the sudden death of her former husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015, and how she went through the aftermath. Option B acknowledges that, sometimes, people simply cannot have their top option, and must deal with the second best situation, or the third best, and so on. It also relates to Lean In to some extent; that book was criticized for being elitist in nature, and Option B emphasizes that many women may face roadblocks to career success and financial safety, and hence have to consider “second options.” Option B contains anecdotes from Sandberg’s experience in the years after her husband’s death, and integrates other stories (such as the famous Uruguay flight which crashed, leading survivors to resort to cannibalism) and psychological studies to investigate how people can build resilience and overcome such traumatic events. As of mid-2020, it looks like Ms. Sandberg is now engaged again, so while this doesn’t negate her pain of losing Dave Goldberg, she shows – both in the book and in person – that one can find joy again after tragedy.

  • Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry (2019), by Randolph M. Nesse, a professor at Arizona State University, is about psychiatry. Wikipedia provides a short intro: psychiatry is the medical specialty devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders. This book specializes in the evolutionary aspect of psychiatry. A key takeaway from the book is that humans did not evolve to have mental illness or disorders. Dr. Nesse has an abbreviation for this: Viewing Diseases As Adaptations (VDAA), which he claims is the most common and serious mistake in evolutionary medicine. The correct question is, instead, why did natural selection shape traits that make us vulnerable to disease? There are intuitive explanations. For one, any personality trait exhibits itself across a spectrum of extremity. Some anxiety is necessary to help protect against harm, but having too much can be a classic sign of a mental disorder. Also, what was best back for our ancestors is not true today, as vividly demonstrated by the surge in obesity in developed countries. Another takeaway, one that I probably should have expected, is that the science of psychiatry has had plenty of controversy. Consider the evolutionary benefits of homosexuality (if any). Dr. Nesse says it’s a common question he gets, and he avoids answering because he doesn’t think it’s settled. From my non-specialist perspective, this book was a readable introduction to evolutionary psychiatry.

Group 8: Miscellaneous

  • ** The Conscience of a Liberal ** (2007, updated forward 2009) is a book by the well-known economist and NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman. The title is similar to that of Barry Goldwater’s 1960 book, and of course, the 2017 version from former Senator Jeff Flake (which I read). In The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman describes why he is a liberal, discusses the rise of modern “movement” Conservatism, and argues that a Democratic presidential administration must prioritize universal health care. The book was written in 2007, so he couldn’t have known that Obama would win in 2008 and pursue Obamacare, and I know from reading Krugman’s columns over the years that he’s very pro-Obamacare. Many of Krugman’s columns today at the NYTimes reflect the writing in this book. That’s not to say the ideas are stale — much of it is due to the slow nature of government in that it takes us ages to make progress on any issue, such as the still-unseen universal health care. Krugman consistently argues in the book (as in his columns) for having a public option in addition to a strong private sector, rather than creating true socialized medicine which is what Britain uses. Regarding Conservatism, Krugman gets a lot right here: he essentially predicts correctly that Republicans can’t just get rid of Obamacare due to the huge backlash, just like Eisenhower-type Republicans couldn’t get rid of the New Deal. I also think he’s right on race, in that the Republicans have been able to get an alliance between the wealthy pro-business and low-tax elite with the white working class, a bond which is even stronger today under Trump. My one qualm is his surprising discounting of abortion as a political issue. It’s very strong in unifying the Republican party, but perhaps he’d change that in a modern edition.

  • ** Steve Jobs ** (2011) by acclaimed writer Walter Isaacson is the definitive biography of Steve Jobs. Described as a classic “wartime CEO” by Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Jobs co-founded Apple with Steve Wozniak, but by 1985, Jobs was forced to leave in the wake of internal disagreements. Then, after some time in another startup and at Pixar, Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy, and somehow in the 2010s, Apple was on its way to being the most valuable company in the world and the first to hit 1 trillion in market capitalization. While writing the biography, Isaacson had access to Steve Jobs, his family, friends, and enemies. In fact, Isaacson had explicit approval from Jobs, who asked him to write the book on the basis of Isaacson’s prior biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and others. I am not sure if Jobs ever read this book, since he passed away from cancer only a few months after this book was published. The book is a mammoth 550-page volume, but it reads very quickly, and I often found myself wishing I could read more and more – Isaacson has a gift for tracing the life of Jobs, his upsides and downsides, and interactions with people as part of his CEO experience. There’s also a fair amount about the business aspects of Apple that made me better understand how things work. I can see why people might think it’s definitely recommended reading for MBAs. I wonder, and I hope, that there are ways to achieve his business success and talents without having the downsides of: angry outbursts, super-long work hours, demand for control, refusing and imposing unrealistic expectations (his “reality distortion field”). I would be curious to see how he contrasts with the style of other CEOs.

  • The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias is a book with a bad title but which has reasonably good content. It was first written in 1978, but has been continually updated over the years, and the most recent version which I read was the 2016 edition. As I prepare to move beyond my graduate student days, I should use my higher salary to invest more. Why? With proper investment, the rate of return on the money should be higher than if I let it sit in a savings account accumulating interest. Of course, that depends on investing wisely. The first part of the book has advice broadly applicable to everyone: how to save money in so-called incremental ways that add up over time. While advice such as buying your own coffee instead of going to Starbucks and living slightly below your means sounds boring and obvious, it’s important to get these basics out of the way. The second part dives more into investing in stocks, and covers concepts that are more foreign to me. My biggest takeaway is that one should avoid commission fees that add up, and that while it’s difficult to predict stocks, in the long run, investing in stocks generally pays off. This book, being a guide, is the kind that’s not necessarily meant to be read front-to-back, but one where I should return to every now and then on demand to get an opinion on an investing related topic.

  • Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America (2017) is a series of about 20 essays by a diverse set of women, representing different races, religions, disabilities, sexual orientations, jobs, geographic locations, and various other qualities. It was written shortly after Trump’s election, and these women unanimously oppose him. It was helpful to understand the experiences of these women, and how they felt threatened by someone who bragged about sexual assault and has some retrograde views on women. There was clear disappointment from these women towards the “53% of white women who voted for Trump,” a statistic repeated countless times in Nasty Women. On the issue of race, some of the Black women writers felt conflicted about attending the Women’s March, given that the original idea for these marches came from Black women. I agree with the criticism of these writers towards some liberal men, who may have strongly supported Bernie Sanders but had trouble supporting Clinton. For me, it was actually the reverse; I voted for Clinton over Sanders in the primaries. That said, I don’t agree with everything. For example, one author criticized the notion of Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist, and said that we need a different definition of feminism that doesn’t include someone like Palin. I think women have a wide range of beliefs, and we shouldn’t design feminism to leave Conservative women out of the umbrella. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of agreement between me and these authors.

  • The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks (2018) is by WSJ reporter Ben Cohen, who specializes in covering the NBA, NCAA, and other sports. “The hot hand” refers to a streak in anything. Cohen goes over the obvious: Stephen Curry is the best three point shooter in the history of basketball, and he can get on a hot streak. But, is there a scientific basis to this? Is there actually a hot hand, or does Curry just happen to hit his usual rate of shots, except that due to the nature of randomness, sometimes he will just have streaks? Besides shooting, Cohen reviews streaks in areas such as music, plays, academia, business, and Hollywood. From the first few chapters, it seems like most academics don’t think there is a hot hand, whereas people who actually perform the tasks (e.g., athletes) might think otherwise. The academics include Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the two famous Israeli psychologists who revolutionized their field. However, by the time we get to the last chapter of this book, Cohen points out two things that somehow were missed in most earlier discussions of the hot hand. First, basketball shots and similar things are not “independent, identically, distributed,” and controlling for the harder shot selection that people who think they have “the hot hand” take, they actually overperform relative to expectations. The second is slightly more involved but has to do with sequences of heads and tails that has profound implications in interpreting the hot hand. In fact, you can see a discussion on Andrew Gelman’s famous blog. So, is there a hot hand? The book leaves the question open, which I expected since a vague concept like this probably can’t be definitively proved or disproved. Overall, it’s a decent book. My main criticism is that some of the anecdotes (e.g., the search for a Swedish man in a Soviet prison and the Vincent van Gogh painting) don’t really mesh well with the book’s theme.

  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019) by artist and writer Jenny Odell is a manifesto about trying to move focus away from the “attention economy” as embodied by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media and websites which rely on click-through and advertisements for revenue. She wrote this after the Trump election, since (a) she’s a critic of Trump, and (b) Trump’s constant use of Twitter and other attention-grabbing comments have turned the country into a constant 24-hour news cycle. Odell cautions against us trying to use “digital detox” as a solution, and reviews the history of several such digital detox or “utopia” sessions that failed to pan out. The book isn’t the biggest page-turner but is still thought-provoking. However, I am not sure about her proposed tactics for “how to do nothing” except perhaps to focus on nature more? She supports preserving nature, along with people who protested the development of condos over preserved land, but this would continue to exacerbate the Bay Area’s existing housing crisis. I see the logic, but I can’t oppose more building. I do agree with reducing the need to attention, and while I do use social media and support its usage, I agree there are limits to it.

  • Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams (2020) is a recent book by Stefanie K. Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business who studies leadership and diversity. Dr. Johnson defines inclusify “to live and lead in a way that recognizes and celebrates unique and dissenting perspectives while creating a collaborative and open-minded environment where everyone feels they truly belong.” She argues it helps increase sales, drives innovation, and reduces turnover, and the book is her attempt at distilling these lessons about improving diversity efforts at companies. She identifies six types of people who might be missing out on the benefits of inclusification: the meritocracy manager, the culture crusader, the team player, the white knight, the shepherd, and the optimist. I will need to keep these groups in mind to make sure I do not fall into these categories. Despite how I agree with the book’s claims, I’m not sure how much I benefited from reading Inclusify, given that I read this one after several other books this year that covered similar ground (e.g., many “anti-racist” books discuss these topics). I published this blog post a few months after reading the book, and I confess that I remember less about its contents as compared to other books.

  • Master of None: How a Jack-of-All-Trades Can Still Reach the Top (2020) is by Clifford Hudson, the former CEO of Sonic Drive-In, a fast food restaurant chain (see this NYTimes profile for context). This is an autobiography of Hudson who tries to push back against the notion that to live an accomplished life, one needs to master a particular skill, as popularized from books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and his “10,000 Rule”. Hudson argues that his life has been fulfilling despite never deliberately mastering one skill. The world is constantly changing, so it is necessary to quickly adapt, to say “yes” to opportunities that arise, and to properly delegate tasks to others who know better. I think Hudson himself serves as evidence for not necessarily needing to master one skill, but the book seems well tailored for folks working in business, and I would be curious to see discussion in an academic context, where the system is built to encourage us to specialize in one field. It’s a reasonably good autobiography and a fast read. I would not call it super great or memorable. I may read David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World to follow-up on this topic.

Well, that is it for 2020.

  1. Kurzweil predicts that “we will encounter such a non-biological entity” by 2029 and that this will “become routine in the 2030s.” OK, let me revisit that in a decade! 

  2. As far as I know, “polygenic scores” require taking a bunch of DNA samples and predicting outcomes, while CRISPR can actually do the editing of that DNA to lead to such outcomes. I’d be curious if any biochemists or psychologists could chime in to correct my understanding. 

  3. Dana MacKenzie has an interesting story about being denied tenure at Kenyon College (which he taught after leaving Duke, when it was clear he would also not get tenure there). You can find it on his website. There is also a backstory on how he and Judea Pearl got together to write the book. 

  4. Personally, I first found out about Hans Rosling through a Berkeley colleague’s research on data visualization. 

  5. I didn’t realize that Martínez knew David Kauchak during their Adchemy days. I briefly collaborated with Kauchak during my undergraduate research. 

  6. I somehow did not know about Lex Fridman’s AI podcast. If my book reading list feels shallower this year, then I blame his podcast for all those thrilling videos with pioneers of AI and related fields. 

  7. To state the obvious, I have never been to one of these parties. Chang says: “the vast majority of people in Silicon Valley have no idea these kinds of sex parties are happening at all. If you’re reading this and shaking your head […] you may not be a rich and edgy male founder or investor, or a female tech in her twenties.” 

  8. I rarely post status updates on my Facebook anymore, but a few days before her Op-Ed, I posted a graphic I created with pictures of leaders along with their country’s COVID-19 death count and death as a fraction of population. And, yes, my self-selected countries led by female leaders have done a reasonable job controlling the outbreak. I’m most impressed with Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who had to handle this while (a) being geographically close to China itself, and (b) largely ostracized by the wider international community. For an example of the second point, look at how a WHO official dodged a question about Taiwan and COVID-19

  9. If you’re curious, Desmond has a postscript at the end of the book explaining how he did this research project, including when he felt like he needed to intervene, and how the tenants treated him. It’s fascinating, and I wish this section of the book were much longer, but I understand if Desmond did not want to raise too much attention to himself. In addition, there is a lot of data in the footnotes. I read all the footnotes, and recommend reading them even if it comes at the cost of some “reading discontinuity.” 

  10. When he ran for his state political office, he and a small group of campaigners went door-to-door and contacted people face-to-face. I don’t know how this would scale to larger cities or work in the age of COVID-19. Incidentally, there isn’t any discussion on COVID-19, but I suspect if Sellers had written the book just a few months later, he would discuss the pandemic’s disparate impact on Blacks. 

  11. I do not feel like I know enough about the Iran Nuclear Deal to give a qualified statement. I was probably a lukewarm supporter of it, but since the deal no longer appears to be active as of January 2020, I am in favor of a stronger deal (as in, one that can get U.S. congressional approval) if that is at all possible. 

  12. The ruling army junta (i.e., a government led by the military) changed the English name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. 

  13. She isn’t the only terrible recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Reading the list of past recipients sometimes feels like going through one nightmare after the other.