At the end of every year I have a tradition where I write summaries of the books that I read throughout the year. Here’s the following post with the rough set of categories:

  • Popular Science (6 books)
  • History, Government, Politics, Economics (6 books)
  • Biographies / Memoirs (5 books)
  • China (5 books)
  • COVID-19 (2 books)
  • Miscellaneous (7 books)

I read 31 books this year. You can find the other blog posts from prior years (going back to 2016) in the blog archives.

Books with asterisks are ones that I would especially recommend.

Popular Science

This also includes popular science, which means the authors might not be technically trained as scientists.

  • Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (2018) is by famous geneticist and Harvard professor David Reich. Scientific advances in analyzing DNA have allowed better analysis of human population migration patterns. The prior model of humans migrating out of Africa and to Europe, Asia, and the Americas in a “tree-like” fashion is out of date. Instead, mixture is fundamental to who we are as populations have migrated and mixed in countless ways. Also, ancient DNA can show the genetic percentage of an ancient population (including Neanderthals) in modern-day populations. A practical benefit from these studies is the ability to identify population groups as more at risk to certain diseases to others, but as Reich is careful to point out there’s a danger in that such studies can be exploited to nefarious means (e.g., racial stereotypes). I believe Reich’s justifications for working in this field make sense. If scientists try to avoid the question of whether there might be the slightest possibility of genetic differences among different populations, then the resulting void will be filled by racist and pseudo-scientific thinkers. Reich shows that the heavy mixture among different populations shatters beliefs held by Nazis and others regarding “pure races.” Science, when properly understood, helps us better respect the diversity of humans today.

  • Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (2020) by Rebecca Wragg Sykes summarizes what researchers believe about Neanderthals, a species very closely related to Homo Sapiens (i.e., modern humans) who lived many thousands of years ago primarily in Europe and Asia. Neanderthals captivate our imagination since they are so much like ourselves. In fact, interbreeding was possible and did happen. But at some point, Neanderthals went extinct. Kindred reviews the cutting-edge science behind what Neanderthals were like: what did they eat, how did they live, where did they migrate to, and so on. (I was pleased to see that some of this information was also in David Reich’s book Who We Are and How We Got Here.) The main takeaway I got is that we should not view Neanderthals as a “less intelligent” version of modern humans. The book is a nice overview, and I am amazed that we are able to deduce this much from so long ago.

  • Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (2020) by James Nestor is about breathing. We all breathe, but breathing is not taught or discussed as widely as diet or exercise. Nestor describes an experiment where he stuffed his nose and was forced to mouth-breathe for 10 days. The result? Higher blood pressure, worse sleep, and a host of other adverse effects. Nestor also interviews historians, scientists, and those knowledgeable about breathing, to learn why humans have changed breathing habits for the worse, resulting in crooked teeth, worse sleep, and so on. The book concludes with some breathing advice: nose breathing, chewing, holding your breath, and suggesting certain breathing strategies. Written instructions for breathing can be hard to follow, so Nestor has a website with more information, including videos and additional expert advice. I’m not sure how much I will directly benefit from this book, given that I was already a strong nose-breather, and I don’t believe I suffer from snoring or sleep apnea — any sleep issues I might have are likely due to either (a) looking at too many screens (phones, laptops, etc.), or (b) thinking about the state of the world while my brain cannot calm down. It also feels like the book might over-exaggerate breathing, but to his credit, Nestor states that breathing is not going to cure everything. At the very least, it was nice to see a reaffirmation of my basic breathing habits, and I had not thought too much of my breathing habits before reading Breath.

  • ** What To Expect When You’re Expecting Robots: The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration ** (2020) by Laura Major and Julie Shah. The authors are roboticists, and I am familiar with Julie Shah’s name (she’s a Professor at MIT) and her research area of human-robot interaction.1 This book frequently refers to aviation, since it was one of the fields that pioneered a balance between humans and automation (robots) in real time in a safety-critical setting. In what cases does the aviation analogy hold for robots interacting with humans on the ground? As compared to aviation settings, there is a wider diversity of things that could happen, and we do not have the luxury that aviation has with highly trained humans paired with the robot (plane); we need robots that can quickly interact with everyday people. The authors present the key concept of affordances, or designing robots so that they “make sense” to humans, similar to how we can view a variety of mugs but immediately understand the function of the handle. Thinking about other books I’ve read in the past, the one that comes closest to this is Our Robots, Ourselves where MIT Professor David Mindell discussed the history of aviation as it pertains to automation.

  • Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (2021) is Adam Grant’s third book, following Give and Take and Originals, all of which I have read. At a time when America seems hyper-polarized, Grant shows that it is possible and better for people to be willing to change their minds. Think Again is written in his usual style, which is to present a psychological concept and back it up with research and anecdotes. Grant cites the story of Daryl Davis, a Black musician who has successfully convinced dozens of former Ku Klux Klan members to abandon their prior beliefs. While Grant correctly notes that it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of Black people like Davis to take the lead on something like this, the point is to show that such change is possible.2 Grant also mentions Harish Natarajan, an expert debater who effectively argued against a computer on a topic where he might naturally start off on the weaker end (he was asked to oppose “should we have universal preschool?”), and how Natarajan was able to force Grant to rethink some of his beliefs. Being willing to change one’s mind has, in theory, the benefit of flexibility in adapting to better beliefs. Overall, I think the book was reasonable. I try to assume I am open to revising beliefs, and remind myself this: if I feel very strongly in favor of anything (whether it be a political system, a person, a hypothesis, and so on) then I should be prepared to present a list of what would cause me to change my mind. Doing that might go a long way to reduce tensions in today’s society.

  • ** Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World ** (2021) by journalist Cade Metz. He writes about AI, and I frequently see his name floated around in articles about AI. Genius Makers is about AI and Deep Learning, and where it’s going. There are four main parts: the rise of Deep Learning, successes and hype (think AlphaGo), turmoil and dangers (bias in AI, militarization of AI, etc.), and the future. Throughout the book, there are stories about the key players in AI. As expected, featured players include Geoff Hinton, Yann LeCun, Yoshua Bengio, Jeff Dean, Andrew Ng, and Fei-Fei Li. The key companies include Google, Facebook, OpenAI, Microsoft, and Baidu. I follow AI news regularly, and the book contains some Berkeley-related material, so I knew much of the books’ contents. Nonetheless, there was still new material. For example, I think just about everyone in AI these days is aware that Geoff Hinton is “The Man Who Didn’t Sit Down” (the title of the prologue) but I didn’t know that Google bid 44 million USD for his startup, beating out Baidu. While I really like this book, Genius Makers may have overlap with other AI books (see my prior book reading lists for some examples) such that those who don’t want to consume dozens of books about AI may prefer other options. However, this one probably contains the most information about how the key players have interacted with each other.

History, Government, Politics, Economics

  • ** Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas ** (2016) is a massive book by historian and antiracist Ibram X. Kendi. The “stamped from the beginning” term comes from former US Senator Jefferson Davis, who stated this in 1860 as the rationale for the inequality of whites and blacks. Kendi presents the history of racial inequality, with a focus on how racist ideas have persisted in America. There are five parts, each centering around a main character: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. du Bois, and Angela Davis. Throughout each chapter, Kendi emphasizes that it was not necessarily hatred of other races that led to racism, but instead, racist thinking helped to justify existing racial disparities. He also frequently returns to three key ideas: (1) segregationst thought, (2) assimilationist thought, and (3) antiracist thought. While (1) seems obviously racist, Kendi argues that (2) is also racist. Kendi also points out inconsistencies in the way that people have treated people of different races. For example, consider Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy in criticizing interracial relationships, while he himself had sexual relationships with his (lighter-skinned) slaves, including Sally Hemingway.3 More generally it raises the question of the most important phrase in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” It is one that I hope we will continually strive to achieve.

  • ** How Democracies Die ** (2018) is a well-timed, chilling, concise, and persuasive warning of how democracies can decay into authoritarianism. It’s written by Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who specialize in democracies in Europe and Latin America. During the Cold War, democracies often died in the hands of military coups. But nowadays, they are dying in a more subtle way: by elected officials who use the system to subvert it from within. Those trends in America were developing for years, and burst in 2016 with the election of Trump, who satisfies the warning signs that Levitsky and Ziblatt argue are indicative of authoritarianism: (1) weak commitment to democratic rules of the game, (2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, (3) toleration or encouragement of violence, (4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that it’s not the text of the US Constitution that helped American democracy survive for years, as other countries have copied the US Constitution but still decayed into authoritarian rule. Rather, it’s the enforcement of democratic norms: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. They review the history of America and cite historical events showing those democratic norms in action (e.g., stopping FDR’s court packing attempt), but admit that the times when democratic norms appeared more robust in America were at the same times when the issue of racism was de-prioritized. They ultimately hope that a multi-racial democracy can be combined with democratic norms. The book was written in 2018, and while they didn’t directly predict the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have exacerbated some anti-democratic trends (for example, by inhibiting the ability of government to function), Levitsky and Ziblatt were on the money when it comes to some of their authoritarian predictors. Trump suggesting that the election could be delayed? Yes. The refusal of many politicians to accept the results of the 2020 election (highlighted by the insurrection of 01/06)? Yes. How Democracies Die reminds me of The Fifth Risk where an equally prescient Michael Lewis wrote about the dangers of what happens when people in government don’t understand their duties. A commitment to democratic norms must be considered part of an elected official’s duties. I will keep this in mind and urge America towards a more democratic future. I don’t want to live in an authoritarian country which curtails free religion, free speech, an independent media, an independent judiciary, and where one man does the decision-making with insufficient checks and balances.

  • Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (2019) by Susan Neiman, a Jewish woman, born in 1955, who has been a philosophy professor in the United States and Israel, and has also lived in Germany. I saw this listed in the recommended reading references in a Foreign Affairs magazine. Learning from the Germans consists of (1) Germany’s history of confronting its Nazi past, (2) America’s history of reckoning with slavery, and (3) a discussion over monuments, reparations, and what the future may hold for America and other countries that have to face prior sins. I learned about the complex and uneven path Germany took towards providing reparations to Jews, removing Nazi memorials, and so on, with East Germany handling this process better than West Germany. Neiman believes that Germany has responded to its past in a better way than the United States (with respect to slavery).4 It’s intriguing that many of the Germans who Neiman interviewed as part of her research rejected the title of the book, since they were ashamed of their country’s past, and surprised that others would want to learn from it. Neiman says it’s complicated to develop “moral equivalences” between events, but that ultimately what matters is how we address our past. If I were to criticize something happening in country “X”, and someone from that country were to respond back to me by criticizing America’s past sins, my response would be simply: “yes, you’re right, America has been bad, and here is what I am doing to rectify this …”. It’s not a contradiction to simultaneously hold the following beliefs, as I do, that: (1) I enjoy living in America, and (2) I am very cognizant and ashamed of many historical sins of America’s past (and present).

  • ** Good Economics for Hard Times ** (2019) by Nobelists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both of MIT (and a married couple); see the announcement video shortly after they won the prize. They give a wonderful tour of topics in economics, but also clarify that it’s not clear which policies directly lead to growth, as traditionally measured in GDP. Much of the book emphasizes that there’s so much uncertainty in economics, and that given climate change, it might not be prudent to try to find the formula to maximize GDP. Rather, the goal should be to best address policies that can serve the poor and disadvantaged. Good Economics for Hard Times simultaneously was a fast read but also one that felt like it got enough of the technical information through to me. It’s not super likely to change the mind of growth-obsessed people, and it comes with some critique of Trump-style Conservatism. I think it was a great book for me, and one of my favorites this year.

  • ** The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America ** (2019) is by Margaret O’Mara, a Professor of History at the University of Washington who researches at the intersection of technology and American politics. Hence, she is the ideal person to write this kind of book, and I have high interest in the subject area, since my research is in robotics and AI more broadly, the latter of which is the topic of interest in Silicon Valley today. O’Mara starts at the end of World War II, when the leaders in tech were on the East Coast near Boston and MIT. Over the next few decades, the San Francisco Bay Area would develop tremendously and by the 1980s, would surpass the East Coast in becoming the undisputed tech capital of the world. How this happened is a remarkable story of visionaries who began tech companies, such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page (and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos up north in Seattle, though all have heavy connections with Silicon Valley) and venture capitalists like John Doerr. However, and perhaps this is the less interesting part, the story of Silicon Valley is also one of sufficient government funding for both companies and universities (notably, Stanford University), along with immigration from talented foreigners across the world, resulting in what O’Mara calls an “only-in-America story” made possible by broader political and economic currents. O’Mara is careful to note that this prosperity was not shared widely, nor could it truly be called a true meritocracy given the sexism in the industry (as elaborated further in Emily Chang’s Brotopia) and that wealth went mainly to the top few white, and then Asian, men. O’Mara brilliantly summarizes Silicon Valley’s recent history in a readable tome.

  • ** The World: A Brief Introduction ** (2020) is by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which is my go-to think tank for foreign affairs. I started this book and couldn’t stop myself from finishing. It’s definitely on the side of breadth instead of depth. It won’t add much to those who are regular readers of Foreign Affairs, let alone foreign policy experts; Haass’ goal is to “provide the basics of what you need to know about the world, to make you more globally literate.” The book begins with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which encoded the concept of the modern international system governed by countries. Obviously, it didn’t end up creating permanent peace, as the world saw World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and then the period after the Cold War up to today, which Haas said will later be given a common name by historians upon consensus. My favorite part of the book is the second one, which covers different regions of the world. The third part is the longest and covers challenges of globalization, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and so on. The last one is broadly titled “order and disorder.” While I knew much of the material in the book, I was still able to learn aspects about worldwide finance and trade (among other topics) and I think The World does a valuable service in getting the reader on a good foundation for subsequent understanding of the world.

Biographies / Memoirs

  • ** Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike ** (2016) by Phil Knight, currently a billionaire and Nike cofounder, with Bill Bowerman. Each chapter describes a year (1962 through 1980) in Phil Knight’s early days in Oregon, where he co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports (later, Nike). Shoe Dog — named after the phrase describing people who know shoes and footwear inside out — is refreshingly honest, showing the challenges Knight faced with getting shoes from factories in Japan. Initially they relied on Onitsuka, but Nike had a protracted legal challenge regarding distribution rights and switched suppliers. Furthermore, Knight had a tough time securing funding and loans from banks, who didn’t believe that the company’s growth rate would be enough to pay them back. Knight eventually relied on Nissho5, a Japanese guarantor, for funds. Basically, the cycle was: get loan from Nissho, make sales, pay back Nissho, and repeat. Eventually, Nike reached a size and scope comparable to Adidas and Puma, the two main competitors to Nike at that time. Nowadays, things have probably changed. Companies like Uber continually lose money, but are able to get funding, so perhaps there’s more of a “Venture Capitalist mentality” these days. Also, I worry if it is necessary to cut corners in business to succeed. For example, in the early days, Knight lied to Onitsuka about having an office on the east coast, and after signing a contract with Onitsuka, Knight had to scramble to get a factory there! Things have to be different in today’s faster-paced and Internet-fueled world, but hopefully the spirit of entrepreneurship lives on.

  • ** Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood ** (2016), by comedian Trevor Noah, was great. I’m aware of his work, though have never watched his comedy. He was “Born a Crime” as the son of a White (Swiss) father and a Black mother, which was illegal under South Africa’s apartheid system. Noah was Colored, and could not be seen with his mother in many places without the risk of police catching him. I realized (though I’m sure I was taught this earlier but forgot it) that in South Africa’s apartheid system, whites were actually a minority, but apartheid allowed whites to remain in control, and a key tactic was pitting different minority groups against each other, usually Blacks.6 Noah had a few advantages here, since he was multi-lingual and could socialize with different minority groups, and his skin color looked light on film at that time. For example, Noah a Black friend robbed a mall, and he was caught on video. When the school principals summoned Noah, they asked him if he knew who the “white” guy was in the video. The person was Noah, but the administrators were somehow unable to tell that, blinded by certain notions of race. Apartheid formally ended during Noah’s childhood, but the consequences would and still are reverberating throughout South Africa. I’m frankly amazed at what Noah overcame to be where he is today, and also at his mother, who survived attempts at near murder by an ex-husband. The answer isn’t more religion and prayer, it’s to remove apartheid and to ensure that police listen to women and properly punish men who commit domestic violence.

  • The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company (2019) by Robert Iger is a readable book on leadership and business, and provides the perspective of what it is like being a CEO at a huge international company. The first half describes his initial career before being CEO, and the second half is about his experience as CEO. Iger describes the stress throughout the selection stage to see who would become CEO after Michael Eisner, and how Iger had to balance ambition of wanting the job without actually demanding it outright. There was also the complexity of how Iger was already a Disney insider before becoming CEO, and some wanted to bring in a fresh outsider. I enjoyed his view on Steve Jobs, especially after having read Walter Isaccson’s biography of Steve Jobs last year. (Jobs had a sometimes adversarial relationship with Disney.) It’s also nice that there’s “no price on integrity” (the title of Chapter 13) and that Iger is supportive of cracking down on sexual assault and racism. I have a few concerns, though. First, it seems like most of the “innovation” happening at Disney, at least what’s featured in the book, is based on buying companies such as Pixar and Lucasfilm, rather than in-house development. It’s great that Iger can check his ego and the company’s ego, but it’s disappointing from an innovation perspective. Second, while there is indeed “no price on integrity,” how far should businesses acquiesce to governments who place far more restrictions on civil liberties than the United States government? Iger also repeatedly emphasizes how lucky he was and how important it was for others to support him, but what about others who don’t have that luxury?

  • ** The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un ** (2019) by New Zealand journalist Anna Fifield. This book is extremely similar to the next book I’m listing here (by Jung H. Pak), so I’m going to combine my thoughts there.

  • ** Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator ** (2020) by Jung H. Pak, who used to work in the CIA and has since been at the Brookings Institution and in the US State department. I have to confess, my original objective was to read a biography of Xi Jinping. When I tried to search for one, I came across UC Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s article in The Atlantic saying that there weren’t any good biographies of Xi.7 The same article then said there were two biographies of Kim Jong Un, and that’s how I found and read these two books. I’m glad I did! Both do a good service in covering Kim Jong Un’s life from North Korea royalty to Switzerland for school, then back to North Korea to get groomed for future leadership, followed by his current leadership since 2011. I vaguely remember when he first came to power, and seeing news reports questioning whether Kim Jong Un truly held power, since he was the youngest head of state at that time. But the last decade has shown that Kim’s grip on power is ironclad. There are only a few differences in the topics that the books cover, and I think one of them is that near the end of Becoming Kim Jong Un, Pak ponders about how to deal with the nuclear question. She argues that rather than do a misguided first strike like John Bolton once foolishly suggested in a WSJ op-ed just before he became the US National Security Advisor for former president Trump, we have to consider a more nuanced view of Kim and realize that he will only give up nuclear weapons if maintaining them comes at too great a cost to bear. Since the book was published, COVID-19 happened, and if there’s been any single event that’s caused more harm to North Korea’s economy, it’s been this, as exemplified by how Russian diplomats had to leave North Korea by hand-pushed rail. I still maintain my view that Kim Jong Un is one of the worst leaders alive today, and I hope that the North Korea situation can improve even a tiny bit in 2021.


  • ** Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China ** (2008) by Leslie T. Chang, who at that time was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. I found out about this book when it was cited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham in their book. Chang was motivated to provide an alternative perspective from a “traditional” American media, where a lot of the focus is on dissidents and human rights (not a bad thing per se, but it’s good to have balance). In this book, Chang meets and interviews multiple women who came from rural areas to work in factories, particularly those located in Dongguan, an industrial city in southern China in the Pearl River Delta region (a bit north of Hong Kong). As a reporter who also could speak in Mandarian, Chang is skillfully able to convey the women’s journey and life in a highly sympathetic manner. She does not sugarcoat the difficulties of living as a factory worker; the women who she interviews have to work long hours, might see friendships end quickly, and have difficulties finding suitable husbands in a city that has far more women than men. Factory Girls also contains Chang’s own exploration of her family history in China. While still interesting, my one minor comment is that I wonder if this might have diluted the book’s message. Despite the 2008 publication date, the book is still readable and it seems like the rural-to-urban shift in China is still ongoing.

  • ** Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China ** (2011) is a massive history tome on the former Chinese leader by the great historian Ezra F. Vogel, a long-time professor at Harvard University. (He passed away in late 2020.) There likely are many other biographies of Deng and there may be more in the future, but Vogel’s book is considered the “definitive” one, and compared to later historians, Vogel will have had the advantage of interviewing Deng’s direct family members and associates. The reason for studying Deng is obvious: since Deng took over the reins of China in 1978 following Mao’s death in 1976 and a brief interlude afterwards, he led economic reforms that opened the world’s most populous country and helped to lift millions out of poverty. The bulk of the book covers Deng’s leadership from 1978 through 1992. This includes economic reforms such as the establishment of “Special Economic Zones,” allowing foreign investment, and sending students abroad, largely to the United States, which also benefits from this relation, as I hope my recent blogging makes clear. It also includes foreign affairs, such as the peaceful return of Hong Kong to China and the difficulties in reuniting China and Taiwan. As a recent NY Times obituary here states, a criticism of Vogel’s book is that he might have been too lenient on Deng in his reporting, I do not share that criticism. In my view the book presents a sufficiently comprehensive view of the good, bad, and questionable decisions from Deng that it’s hard for me to think of a harsh criticism.8 (It is true, however, that the Chinese government censored parts of this book for the Chinese translation, and that I dislike.) Vogel’s masterpiece is incredible, and I will remember it for a long time.

  • ** China Goes Global: The Partial Superpower ** (2012) is by David Shambaugh, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University (same department as Prof. Sean Roberts). From the 1978 reforms which opened the country up to 2012, China’s been massively growing and asserting its influence on the world, but is not yet a “superpower” as would be suggested based on its population and economy. This could be due to hesitancy in taking on greater international roles, as that might require expensive interventions and undertakings that could hinder its economic growth, which is the CCP’s main mandate to the Chinese people. One thing I immediately noticed: the book has the most amount of quotes, citations, or interviews with Chinese government officials or academics than any other book I’ve read. (This was the pre-Xi era and the country was generally more open to foreigners.) Shambaugh does a great job conveying the wide range of opinions of the Chinese foreign policy elite. Two of the most cited scholars in the book are Yan Xuetong and Wang Jisi, whose names I recognized when I later read Foreign Affairs articles from them. Another thing worth mentioning: Chinese officials have told Shambaugh that they believe the “Western” media is misinformed and does not understand China. Shambaugh recalls replying, what precisely is the misunderstanding, and the government officials were aghast that there could be any disagreement. In Shambaugh’s view, the media is tough but accurate on China.9 As Shambaugh emphasizes, so many people want to know more about China (myself included, as can be obviously inferred!), and in my view this means we get both the positive and the negative. This book is a great (if somewhat dated) survey, and helps to boost my personal study of China.

  • China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet (2020) is co-written by professors Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro. The focus in China Goes Green is to discuss the following: in today’s era of accelerating climate change (or climate crisis), is China’s authoritarian government system better suited to tackle environmental challenges? Some thinkers have posited that, while they may be sympathetic to liberal democracy and human rights, maybe the climate urgency of today means such debate and freedoms have to be set aside in favor of “quicker” government actions by authoritarian rule. Li and Shapiro challenge this line of reasoning. A recurring theme is that China often projects that it wants to address climate change and promote clean energy, but the policies it implements have the ultimate goal of increasing government control over citizens while simultaneously having mixed results on the actual environment. That is, instead of referring to China today as “authoritarian environmentalism”, the authors argue that “environmental authoritarianism” is more accurate. The book isn’t a page-turner, but it serves a useful niche in providing an understanding of how climate and government mesh in modern China.

  • ** The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims ** (2020) is by Sean Roberts, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University (same department as Prof. David Shambaugh). The Xinjiang internment camps of China have become household names among readers of international news outlets, with reports of genocide and forced labor. Roberts explains the tense history between the ethnic Han majority in China versus the Turkic people who primarily live in the rural, western areas of the country. A key part of the book is precisely defining what “terrorism” means, as that has been the rationale for the persecution of the Uyghurs, and also other Muslim groups (including in the United States). Roberts covers the Urumqi riots and other incidents that deteriorated relations between Uyghurs and the Chinese government, and then this led to what Roberts calls a “cultural genocide” that started from 2017 and has continued today; Roberts recalled that he and other fellow academics studying the subject realized something was wrong in 2017 when it became massively harder to contact his colleagues from Xinjiang. One of the most refreshing things (in my view) is reading this knowledge from an academic who has long studied this history, instead of consuming information from politicians (of both countries) who have interests in defending their country,10 and Roberts is not shy about arguing that the United States has unintentionally assisted China in its repression, particularly in the designation of certain Muslim groups as “terrorism”. Of all the news that I’ve read in 2021, among those with an international focus, the one that perhaps stuck the most to my mind from 2021 is Tahir Izgil’s chilling story about how he escaped the camps in Xinjiang. While this is just one data point of many, I hope that in some way the international community can do what it can to provide refugee status to more Uyghurs. (I am a donor to the Uyghur Human Rights Project.)


  • ** The Premonition: A Pandemic Story ** (2021) by Berkeley’s Michael Lewis is the second book of his I read, after The Fifth Risk (published 2018), which served as an unfortunate prologue for the American response to COVID-19; I remembered The Fifth Risk quite well after reading How Democracies Die earlier this year. I didn’t realize Lewis had another book (this one) and I devoured it as soon as I could. The US was ranked number one among all countries in terms of pandemic preparation. Let that sink in. By the time it was mid-2021, the US had the most recorded deaths of any country.11 Lewis’ brilliance in his book, as in his others, is to spotlight unsung heroes, such as a California health care official and a former doctor who seemed to be more competent than the United States government or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Lewis is so good at connecting the reader with these characters, that when reading the book, and seeing how they were stopped and stymied at seemingly every turn from sluggish government or CDC officials, I felt complete rage. (The same goes for the World Health Organization, but the CDC is a US entity, so we have more ability to reform it.) The biggest drawback of this book is that Lewis doesn’t have any endnotes or details on how he went about investigating and interviewing the people in his book. In all fairness, the officials he criticizes in this book should have the opportunity to defend themselves. Given the way the CDC acted early in the pandemic, though, and the number of recorded deaths it would be surprising if they could mount effective defenses, but again, they should have the opportunity. One more thing, I can’t resist suggesting this idea: any current and future CDC director must have a huge sign with these words: You must do what is right for public health. You cannot let a politician silence or pressure you into saying what he or she wants. This sign should be right at the desk of the CDC director, so he/she sees this on a daily basis. Check out this further summary from NPR and some commentary by Scott Aaronson on his blog.

  • ** World War C: lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One ** (2021) is by CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, released in October 2021, and I expect it to reach a wide audience due to Dr. Gupta’s position at CNN. After a brief review of the early days of the pandemic, the book covers how diseases spread, the effects of COVID, and the function of vaccines. Then, it provides guidelines for building resilience to the next pandemic. For the most part, the writing here seems reasonable, and my main disappointment doesn’t really have to do with Dr. Gupta per se, but has to do with how understanding the effects of “long-haul COVID” is just going to take a lot of time and involve a lot of uncertainty. Also, and this may be a good (or not so good) thing but Dr. Gupta, while acknowledging that politics played a role in hindering the war against the pandemic (particularly in the US), tries to avoid becoming too political. His last chapter, on ensuring that humanity fights together, resonates with me. In April 2021, India was hit with a catastrophic COVID wave due to the delta variant, and at least one of Dr. Gupta’s relatives died. Since the virus constantly mutates, the world essentially has to be vaccinated against it at once to mitigate its spread. As the Omicron variant was spreading as I finished up this book near the end of the year, it’s imperative that we end up supporting humans throughout the world and give out as many vaccines as we can, which is one reason why I consider myself a citizen of the world.


  • Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016) by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, emphasizes the need for rest and recovery to improve productivity. This seems obvious. I mean, can you really work 16 hours a day with maximum energy? Pang argues that it’s less common for people to think about “optimizing” their rest as opposed to things more directly related to productivity. As he laments: “we think of rest as simply the absence of work, not as something that stands on its own or has its own qualities.” The book presents anecdotes and studies about how some of the most creative and accomplished people (such as Charles Darwin) were able to do what they did in large part due to rest, or taking breaks such as engaging in long walks. Here’s an interview with the author in the Guardian. That said, while I agree with the book’s general thesis, it’s not clear if I actually benefited as much from reading this book as others. As I fine-tune this review in late December 2021, three months months after I finished reading this book, I’m not sure how much of the details I remember, but it could be due to reading other books that convey similar themes.

  • ** Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life ** (2018) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is part of his 5-book “Incerto” series. I’ve only read this book and I might consider reading his other books. When someone has “Skin in the Game,” that person has something to lose. Consider someone making a prediction about what will happen in 2022 regarding COVID. If that person has to tie his or her prediction with significant financial backing and is thus at risk of losing money with a bad prediction, then there is “skin in the game,” in contrast to someone who can make an arbitrary prediction without being held accountable. The book is thus a tour of various concepts in life that tie back to this central theme, along with resulting “hidden asymmetries.” For example, one reason why Taleb is so against interventionism (e.g., the United States invading Iraq) is because it shows how so many foreign policy pundits could safely argue for such an invasion while remaining in the comfort of their suburban homes, and thus there’s an asymmetry here where decisions they advocate for don’t affect them personally too much, but where they affect many others. If you can get used to Taleb’s idiosyncratic and pompous writing style, such as mocking people like Thomas L. Friedman as not a “weightlifter” and insulting Michiko Kakutani, then the book might be a good fit as there’s actually some nice insights here.

  • ** Measure what Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs ** (2018) by famous VC John Doerr describes the “OKR” system which stands for “Objectives and Key Results.” Doerr is revered throughout Silicon Valley and is known for mentoring Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. I have prior experience interning at Google (remotely) in summer 2020, and I saw a few documents that had OKRs, though I never used the system much nor did I hear much about it, but I imagine that would change if I ever joined Google full-time. The book covers diverse examples of organizations that have used OKRs (not just those in big tech), and a common theme that comes up is, well, work on what matters. The goal should be to identify just a few key objectives that will make an impact, rather than try to optimize less-important things. It’s kind of an obvious point, but it’s also one that doesn’t always happen. While the message is obvious, I still think Doerr explains this with enough novelty to make Measure what Matters a nice read. I signed up for the corresponding email subscription, and there is also a website. Perhaps I should check those out if I have time. It might be good to map out a set of OKRs for my postdoc.

  • Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage (2020) by Harvard Business School Professor Laura Huang, acknowledges that all of us have some adversity, but that it is possible for us to turn this into something advantageous. That is better than just giving up and using adversity (e.g., “I grew up poor”) as an excuse to not do anything. Some of her suggestions involve trying to turn stereotypes into your favor (e.g., redirecting what people thought of her as an Asian female), and to see how unexpected behavior might be useful (e.g., as when she was able to get Elon Musk to talk to her). I think her message seems reasonable. I can imagine criticism from those who might think that this deprioritizes the role that systematic inequality play in our society, but Professor Huang makes it clear that we should also tackle those inequities in addition to turning adversity into advantage. The writing is good, though it sometimes reads more casually than I would expect, which I think was Professor Huang’s intent. I also enjoyed learning about her background: her family’s immigration to the United States from Taiwan, and how she became a faculty member at Harvard despite unexpected challenges (e.g., not graduating from a top PhD school with lots of papers). You can see a video summary of the book here.

  • Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace (2020) by Sarah Beaulieu, attempts to provide a guideline for challenging conversations with regards to anything that might be relevant to “MeToo.” She deliberately does not give firm answers to questions such as “can I date a work colleague” or “should I report to the manager” but emphasizes that it must be viewed in context and that there are different ways one can proceed. This might sound frustrating but it seems reasonable. Ultimately I don’t know if I got too much direct usage out of this since much of it depends on actually testing and having these conversations (which, to be clear, I fully agree that we should have), which I have not had too much opportunity to engage in myself.

  • Skip the Line: The 10,000 Experiments Rule and Other Surprising Advice for Reaching Your Goals (2021), by serial entrepreneur and author James Altucher, uses the analogy of “skipping the line” for accelerating career progress, and not necessarily having to trudge through a long list of hierarchies or spend 10,000 hours practicing a skill (as per Malcolm Gladwell). He provides a set of guidelines, such as doing 10,000 experiments instead of 10,000 hours, and “idea sex” which is about trying to tie two ideas together to form new ones. My impression is that Altucher generally advocates for regularly engaging in (smart) risks. I won’t follow all of this advice, such as when he argues to avoid reading news in favor of books (see my information diet), but I think some ideas here are worth considering for my life.

  • ** A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload ** (2021) is another book by Cal Newport, and surprise surprise, one that I also enjoy (see my prior reading lists). I would say “I don’t know how he publishes all these books” but in his case, we do know how since the answer lies in this and his past books (even if it’s not easy to implement). Newport’s key argument that email started off as a way to facilitate easier communication, but it soon created what he calls the “hyperactive hive mind” world, characterized by being in a state of constant online presence, checking email and other messaging platforms (e.g., Slack) throughout the day (and in the evening, and on weekends…). Newport makes a convincing case that this is reducing productivity and making us miserable. For example, he makes the obvious argument that a short face-to-face conversation can better clarify information compared to many back-and-forth emails that sap time and attention away from things that produce actual value. In the second part of the book, he proposes principles for operating in a world without (or realistically, less) email. I thought these were well-argued and are anti-technology; it’s a way of better using technology to create more fulfilling lives. I still think I check email too much but I enjoy the days when I can simply work and program all the way, and only check email starting around 4:00PM or so. As usual I will try to follow this book’s advice, and I think even doing this moderately will help my work habits in an increasingly online world given the pandemic.

  1. Human-robot interaction is also becoming popular at Berkeley, in large part due to the excellent 2015 hire of Professor Anca Dragan and with increasing interest from others, including Stuart Russell and one of my PhD advisors, Ken Goldberg. 

  2. People have criticized Davis’ techniques, but I think Davis is usually able to get around this by pointing out the number of people that he’s helped to leave the KKK. 

  3. Joseph J. Ellis’ book “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” discusses Thomas Jefferson’s relationships with his slaves. 

  4. While not a primary focus of the book, the history and treatment of Native Americans has a similar story. 

  5. Nissho Iwai is now part of Sojitz Corporation. You can find some of the history here

  6. Intriguingly, since South Africa wanted to maintain business relations with Japan, the few people who looked Japanese in South Africa were spared significant harm, and other Asians (e.g., those of Chinese descent) could avoid mistreatment by claiming that they were actually Japanese, and such tactics could sometimes work. 

  7. In my 2019 reading list, Wasserstrom is the co-author of a book on China I wrote. However, also that year, I read Kerry Brown’s book “CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.” I’m guessing Wasserstrom does not view that book as a compelling biography? 

  8. Then again, the usual disclaimer applies: do not view me as an expert on China. If the Biden administration were to hire people like me to brief them on China … that would be disconcerting! 

  9. I share this thought. I want to make the distinction between “being misinformed” versus “being informed, but disagreeing” with a political decision. Those are two distinct things. My insatiable curiosity about learning from China means that I’m more inclined to research a topic if I feel like I am misinformed about something. 

  10. For more on this point, I emphasize that it is possible to have criticism for both the US and China for various atrocities (as well as other governments). For example, I’m happy to be the first one in line to criticize the Iraq War. I am aware that it is more polite to be critical of “oneself,” broadly defined, and that holding ourselves to the highest standard is extremely important. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore or shy away from other atrocities going on in the world. (I also recognize that the only reason why I feel safe criticizing the US government in the US is our protection for free speech.) 

  11. I recognize that this is recorded deaths, so it is likely that other countries had more deaths (such as India), but it would be hard to imagine the true count leaving the US outside of the top 5.