Books of March 2018

How to Solve It - George Polya

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If you solve problems then read Polya's How to Solve It.

How to Solve It describes George Polya's system for solving problems. Because Polya is a mathematician, the book primarily focuses on math problems, but what I think is very cool about the book is his model also applies to other types of problems, and I've found his four basic principles of problem solving (understanding the problem, devising a plan, executing the plan, and reviewing the plan) to be useful for almost every single problem I've encountered, from how to set up an nginx reverse proxy to how to get better at laning in league. 

I've also recently been trying to use Polya's method in the class I teach. I especially like how the method focuses on finding the right set of questions to ask for every problem, because I used to ask very specific questions about the problem to try to guide the students to the right answer, but I realized after reading How to Solve It that it's better to ask very general questions first to help the students understand how they can learn to solve similar problems with this general approach. (As a side note, this is also a good reason why people should study math. Problems in math have very well defined inputs & desired outputs, and as a result provide really good practice for being able to reason about problems and develop a model for solving them.)

The book is fantastic, but most of it focuses on definitions of useful terms & methods which may not be super helpful (unless you study math, in that case you should read it all). I think an easier way to learn & adopt Polya's model is to just reference this pdf from Berkeley and try to apply it to every problem you solve.

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

If you're interested in a nice story set in Venice about youth and innocence then read The Thief Lord.

The Thief Lord is about two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who run away from their aunt after their mom passes away, and lives in Venice with a group of homeless children supported by a young thief (the eponymous thief lord). 

I have really similar thoughts on The Thief Lord as I do about Dragon Rider, with two additional notes:

  • I like how the characters are more complicated than they are in Dragon Rider, and have to make more difficult decisions. The Count and Scipio in particular are very interesting characters, and it's much harder to divide the characters in the book into distinctive buckets of good and bad. I pretty much felt exactly the same about every character in Dragon Rider in 8th grade as I do now, but I found I have a pretty different opinion of Scipio on this reread. 
  • I only realized this after I got older but it's actually super fucked up how they tricked Esther into adopting Barbarossa. Esther is not the nicest person, but she really doesn't deserve adopting a kid who's actually an adult turned young. 

神鵰俠侶 - 金庸


If you're interested in a dope love story set in the late Song dynasty with a super cool lone wolf protagonist then read 神鵰俠侶.

Set in the late Song dynasty a few years after the events of 射鵰英雄傳神鵰俠侶 is the second part of the 射鵰三部曲 and revolves around 楊過 and his lover and master 小龍女 in a time when romantic relationships between master and disciple were taboo. The book primarily focuses on their relationship, but like all of 金庸's works, 神鵰俠侶 touches on themes of nationalism and patriotism and refers heavily to Chinese culture/society/philosophy, and the Mongol invasion of the Song dynasty is an important subplot of the book.

神鵰俠侶 is one of my favorite 金庸 books because I love the characters- 楊過 is my favorite character in all of the 金庸 books I've read. He's super independent and very 我行我素, but is consistent in his philosophy and approach to life. He's stubborn and individualistic even before he becomes OP, and he really is the same character from start to finish, just more mature and levelheaded. He's also a really fun protagonist not only because he's very smart and one of the strongest characters in 金庸's universe, but also because he doesn't have one master and learns from a bunch of random people and a giant condor (lol), and later in the book develops his own individual style. 楊過 is also very much not an asshole, which is not a common pair with stubborn + independent, and has a strong moral compass which I find even cooler because he makes those decisions on his own and chooses to live the way he wants to. A good example of someone similar but is an asshole is 黃藥師 (and they happen to be friends, which is great, because 黃藥師 is a lonely dude and they're so far apart in prestige and age). I also like all of 楊過's relationships in the book, especially his friendships with 陸無雙 and 程英 and later on 郭襄. They are all really cute and because of 楊過's personality he is extremely devoted and loyal to his friends. 

Most of the book is really frustrating though because so many sad things happen to 楊過 and 小龍女 from misunderstandings or just really unfortunate accidents, but things work out in the end and it's super satisfying and I'm really happy that *spoilers* they reunite.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

If you're interested in a book about racism and family set in 1990s suburban Ohio then read Little Fires Everywhere

Set in Shaker Heights, a planned suburban wealthy neighborhood in Ohio, Little Fires Everywhere is about two very different families that come together and clash through their children. The simmering racial tensions in Shaker Heights and the tense family dynamic of the Richardsons are complicated by a court case that shakes the town, when poor waitress Bebe and the rich white McCulloughs enter a custody battle over Bebe's daughter, May Ling Chow (renamed Mirabelle by the McCulloughs). 

I had a really hard time with this book because I feel like it does so many things really well, yet I just didn't really like it that much. Little Fires Everywhere has all the elements of a good book: vivid depictions of characters and a big cast with many different views that Ng navigates and switches between nicely, some pretty interesting dynamics of race and family and wealth, and smooth, well crafted prose, but there's just something about the book that I just didn't warm to and it never really touched me. I never felt invested and didn't really care that much about what was going on.

I initially thought it was because of the themes or the ideas, but I definitely find racial and economic conflicts in suburban America pretty interesting (especially with Asian families). The book does presents a very complex situation, but where I think it falls short is it feels more constructed and crafted and never really comes alive. A good parallel are books like The Sympathizer or The Hate U Give, books that feel real and urgent, even rushed to exist. That is not true for Little Fires Everywhere. The characters never feel real and their desires and fears don't really emerge except in pretty straightforward character archetypes (moody male teenager, literally nicknamed Moody, jock that ends up being sort of 2D, a bitchy older sister, a rebellious younger sister, a very stuffy mom, etc.) and they feel more like they are serving roles in a situation that Ng wanted to create. Despite their variety, the characters feel one dimensional, and a lot of the Asian characters don't get the same depth of emotional life (however limited), and at the end you never really get to know Bebe that well, despite being central to the plot of the book. Everything is set up beautifully, but I just never felt the heat in the book. 

The book is good, and I think it's still worth reading, but I found it a little disappointing. 

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It - Chris Voss

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If you're interested in learning about how to negotiate better from a clear negotiations expert then read Never Split the Difference. 

Never Split the Difference is FBI negotiator Chris Voss's advice and tips on how to approach negotiations. I thought the book was well written and easy to understand, and he doesn't repeat himself a lot, which is a blessing in these types of books. The examples he picks for his chapters are actually helpful for understanding his points, and keeps the book pretty interesting (he's had a very cool career). I also like the structure and the organization, with each chapter focusing on one useful thing to learn about negotiations. I do wish that he did a summary at the end of the book, but he offers a brief one in chapter 1 and closes each chapter with key lessons, which I found pretty helpful.

The primary gripe I have with this book is I don't really like Voss and his style. He comes across as very arrogant throughout the book, and seems to have a weird inferiority complex (he keeps on talking about how his methodology is way better than any of the ones the experts have come up with), and it definitely turns me off the book a little.

But for my nonfiction I mostly value the type/usefulness of the knowledge I'm learning, and this was a helpful book for sure, so I'm still pretty happy I read it and I would comfortably recommend it.

Also, who recommended me this book? I actually cannot remember at all.

Books of February 2018

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling

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This is my least favorite book in the series, because

  • The characters are a lot less fun. Malfoy is not only a bad person but also a fairly boring villain, Snape is still slimy (and now you know he's a traitor), Ron and Lavender Brown is yuck, Harry obsessing over Ginny is weird (especially the monster metaphor), Ron and Hermione arguing the entire book is annoying, Fred and George are gone... everyone in general is a lot more subdued because of Lord Voldemort and generally less fun.
  • The plot of the story- Dumbledore dies :-((((((((((((((
  • Once again Dumbledore doesn't tell Harry what's going on and Harry makes all these crazy assumptions and does dangerous stuff. You would think Dumbledore would learn, and more importantly, you would think Harry would realize after 5 years Dumbledore is probably not an idiot and knows more than he does, but nope.

My least favorite book in the series is still a pretty good book though, which says a lot about what I think about Harry Potter ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Slughorn is also a cool character. 

How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC - Paul Edwards 

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If you're interested in the various aspects of being a good rapper, compiled by interviewing tons of rappers, then read How to Rap

In How to Rap Paul Edwards breaks down the different areas of rap, covering stuff like rhymes, themes, rhyme schemes, rhythm, recording, style, performing, etc. Some of it was interesting and educational, like rhyme schemes and different types of rhythms, but some of it was simple to the point of being useless (like explaining what alliteration is), and some of it was just not very relevant or interesting to me (like how to record music or how to perform).

I also really disliked the format. The overall structure was OK and pretty straightforward, but every chapter is formatted the same way: <very simple statement or explanation from the author> + <bunch of very broad, not very in depth reiterations of the idea from famous rappers> which was boring and also made simple things unnecessarily long.

Doki Doki Literature Club - Dan Salvato

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If you're interested in an insane experience with a psychological horror visual novel that breaks the fourth wall in incredibly clever and innovative ways, then read (play?) Doki Doki Literature Club

Not knowing what the game is about is a pretty integral part of the experience so I thought a lot about trying to write a review without ruining it, but I think it's more important to give fair warning. The game has a disclaimer in the beginning: "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed," but the disclaimer is wildly inadequate. DDLC does not just deal with heavy topics- it is a horror game and the trigger warning is absolutely serious. You should not play DDLC if you are affected by or are likely to be triggered by depression, anxiety, self harm, suicide, or abuse.

That being said, DDLC is a phenomenal piece of work. It starts as an innocuous dating sim, starring you as an unmotivated high school boy who gets dragged to join an after school literature club by your childhood friend. The four members of the literature club are all cute girls who seem to be into you, and for the first few meetings you write poetry at home and share poetry with the other club members. About an hour into the game, there's an insane twist that completely changes the game, and DDLC descends from cute dating sim to abject psychological horror. That experience is really crazy and nothing else I've read or watched really compares.

======================== It's hard to talk about the rest of the game without spoilers, so everything below has potential to be a spoiler ========================

The most obviously admirable part of DDLC is how well thought out the game is, which takes shape in a lot of different ways. I generally dislike works that break the fourth wall and directly address itself or the reader, but DDLC does it in such a clever, creative, and purposeful way. Characters that talk to you, dialogue options that change or disappear, portions of the game repeating or resetting, and interactions with literal game files all reinforce DDLC as a game, and in the latter half you are painfully aware that you are just playing a game despite the game feeling so uncomfortably real. I think this dissonance is a very big part of why DDLC is so scary- the line between the game and you blurs because DDLC constantly reminds you that it is a game while it is actively interacting with you and bringing you into its world.

The game is also very detailed. It is obvious that a lot of effort that went into DDLC: there's a ton of dialogue, a bunch of art, and even custom music that the guy wrote and made (the music is so good). There are also a lot of random easter eggs (the DDLC wiki has a very comprehensive list) and a lot of small details that together make the game so tremendously impressive. --heavy spoilers-- For example, one of the main characters Monika says she is late to a meeting because she was learning piano in study hall, and for the rest of the game, when weird or ominous stuff starts to happen, you hear the same music as before but with slightly off key piano music. When you meet Yuri out of school, she wears a long turtleneck and mentions her obsession with knives, a hint that Yuri cuts herself. Dialogue in your first play through before the game repeats seems very normal and innocent, but on the 2nd and 3rd run (after the game changes) takes on wholly different meanings. The tagline of the game is "will you write the way into her heart?", not their hearts. Monika has an active Twitter account that she reveals sometime in her 20 minute+ monologue. --end spoilers--

What I also really liked about DDLC after I thought more about the game and got over the scary parts was how the game engages with its heavier topics. Depression and mental illnesses are not treated lightheartedly or used as props or gags; instead they are given serious and honest portrayals.

The game is very haunting and I would never play it again, but if you feel like you are able to, I highly recommend the game. It is an incredible experience. 

P.S. if you were wondering I didn't try to play a dating sim on a Friday night, my friend Ben played the game before and recommended it to me

P.P.S I find it hilarious my friend Steve played it on a plane ride from NY to Taiwan

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K Rowling

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite Harry Potter books, and it rounds out the series so well. I remember coming back from Harry Potter themed camp right when the book was released and being extremely hyped to read it (those who know me will know this is especially significant because I only have something like 4 memories before 7th grade, and one of them is being excited about reading Harry Potter 7 after a week of camp).

This is the most unique book in the series because past HP books were all roughly structured by the school year, but this time there is no school year, because the book is centered on Harry, Ron, and Hermione trying to find and kill horcruxes and defeat Lord Voldemort. The story is really enjoyable and interesting, and also neatly ties up a lot of big questions and nicely resolves the series. There are a lot of very cool parts of HP 7: breaking into the ministry, escaping from Malfoy Manor, breaking into Gringotts, Ron destroying the locket, the final battle at Hogwarts... every part of the story was fun to read and built on the hype of the last 6 books in the series. More than just excitement though, plot points like Ron leaving and then coming back, Harry defending McGonagall, Tonks and Lupin having a son, Dobby sacrificing himself, and Snape's real motivations and background story were all very touching and heartwarming and quintessentially HP.

I also thought the ending was very good in both content and intent. It very satisfyingly follows through on the good triumphs over evil story that's been built up over 6 years, is engaging, remains consistent in themes, and best of all, address the biggest annoyance for me in all of HP. In the end of Book 7, when Harry and Dumbledore meet on King's Cross, we find out that this time Dumbledore intentionally doesn't tell Harry all the details because of his past experiences with the Hallows, and wanted Harry to not rush into searching for the Hallows to dominate death but rather truly understanding his sacrifice and embracing death. 

J.K. Rowling has continued to hammer ideas of loyalty and love and friendship over the past 6 books, and all of those shine beautifully in Book 7. All in all it is a wonderful end to the series, and reading about Harry and his family and Ron and Hermione on Platform 9 3/4 19 years later... man... :')

Oblivion - David Foster Wallace


I like short story collections because in these stories authors explore and flesh out many focused variations of their project, so since I am an unabashed DFW fanboy I obviously also love Oblivion.

None of DFW's fiction is particularly positive, which is kind of sombering because DFW wanted to write fiction about what it is to be human, but Oblivion is especially depressing because it is focused on the bleakest aspects of being human. The stories are about wanting/needing to be remembered despite our inevitable insignificance and oblivion, about the painful feeling of objectively knowing you are small despite subjectively feeling like you are big and important, about feeling like a fraud and never being able to communicate who you are to other people, and about the soul rotting boredom and gut dread that make up the lives of so many Americans.

This was a really short review but I have a half finished review of 3 short stories from Oblivion that I'm still working on. It's hard to write about DFW :-(. 

The Comedy of Errors - Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a Shakespearean comedy masking a tragedy about identity, family, and community then read The Comedy of Errors

In The Comedy of Errors, Egeon and Emilia get separated by a storm, and their two twins (both Antipholus) and two serfs (also twins, both Dromio) get separated, one with the father and one with the mother. Several years later, Antipholus of Syracuse come to Ephesus to search for his brother, accompanied by Dromio of Syracuse. A series of misunderstandings and mistakes and confusion happens, where there are a lot of amusing mix-ups between the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios, eventually ending up in the family reuniting. 

The Comedy of Errors is the first Shakespeare play I read that made me understand how malleable and open to interpretation Shakespeare's works are, and how important it is that he wrote plays to be performed and not novels to be read. In Titus Andronicus, small differences make big changes in the play, but nothing that completely flips the interpretation of the play. What struck me the most about The Comedy of Errors was when I first read it I thought it was just a cute and funny comedy, but in class when we discussed it we learned that under its comedic surface there is a very dark tragedy, and with certain readings and interpretations, the play could take on a whole different meaning. It was the first play that made me realize the multiplicity of Shakespeare and see Shakespearean comedies as thinly veiled tragedies divided by a very blurred and fragile line. Something always has to bend to make comedies and not tragedies, and it is the seething anxiety about identity and marriage underlying The Comedy of Errors that makes it such an interesting play.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation - Jeff Chang

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If you are interested in the cultural and social context of hip hop from its birth in the 1970s to the 1990s then read Can't Stop Won't Stop

Can't Stop Won't Stop chronicles the early hip hop scene from its roots in the 1970s to its widespread popularity in the 1990s, placing hip hop in context of the times and discussing it as a cultural, political, and societal force. It starts in Jamaica and begins in the US in the Bronx with DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, Sugarhill Gang and Rapper's Delight, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, continuing to hip hop's new sound Run-DMC and Sucker MCs, to political hip hop groups like Public Enemy in the East Coast and gangsta rap in the West Coast with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Along the way, Chang gets into a wide variety of different topics, including radio, legislation, gangs, graffiti, break dancing, police brutality, government intervention, racial tension, and gangs. 

Reading Can't Stop Won't Stop was a very new experience for me because I thought pretty hard about quitting after the first few chapters but ended up putting it in my cream shelf after I finished because it changed the way I understood hip hop. Hip hop today is the most popular genre of music in the US, but it started in the Bronx as nothing, a very underground and niche genre of party music. In tracing hip hop's initial 30 years of growth, Jeff Chang establishes the context in which hip hop was created and spread, explaining the anxiety and fears and anger from violence and oppression that birthed and inspired hip hop. 

In many ways it is a very infuriating book, especially the chapters about Public Enemy, N.W.A., and gangs in the 90s (Chang does a very good job defending and explaining gangsta rap in the West Coast). Very heavy structural racism deprived minorities of opportunities to work, make money, find housing, support their families, or even just to walk outside without fear of the police, and things like the policy of containment and police brutality resulted in a lot of boiling existential fear and anger. It was out of that seething anxiety and helplessness that songs like Straight Out of Compton, Fuck Da Police or Fight the Power were created, and the same feeling that drives songs like Alright or King Kunta today. It is incredibly important to have that context to understand these songs and not just think of them as just cool sounding angry black music, but rather as genuine responses to desperate circumstances. 

One of the big areas where I feel the book is lacking is the rap music itself. It's titled The Hip Hop Generation but discusses hip hop mainly in terms of political impact and social context, missing out on a lot of actual discussion of the music (for example, he talks a lot about Public Enemy and only mentions a couple of their songs in passing). I've read similar criticism in other reviews and I think it's a fair point, but as Jeff Chang says, his work is not the definitive work and it definitely helps contextualize and understand hip hop. 

I also didn't find the chapters on Jamaica and the Bronx that interesting, although that's more to do with what I personally like to read about, so YMMV, and regardless, if you're remotely interested in hip hop, I definitely recommend reading Can't Stop Won't Stop to understand why hip hop is so important and how it is both an influence on and a reflection of America in very deep and resonant ways. I also found it a very good complement to The Rap Year Book because it focuses a lot on the music, whereas Can't Stop Won't Stop emphasizes the societal and cultural impact of rap.

Fullmetal Alchemist - Hiromu Arakawa


If you're interested in the goat shounen then read Fullmetal Alchemist.

Fullmetal Alchemist is about two brothers, Ed and Al, who are on a quest to restore their bodies after they performed human transmutation to bring back their dead mother. Because of the law of equivalent exchange in alchemy (to obtain, something of equal value must be lost) and because there is nothing as valuable as the human soul, Ed loses his left leg and Al his entire body to their failed transmutation, and Ed sacrifices his right arm to bind his brother's soul to a suit of armor. 

FMA is the best shounen I've ever read, and comfortably sits at least top 3 in my favorite manga of all time. It is an incredible work, fantastic on many levels, and not only hits but smashes basically every dimension you can think of to evaluate a shounen.

The combat panels are very easy to follow, and have very clean lines. Characters generally look pretty good and are fairly proportional and consistent, and I especially like how Arakawa does eyes. The character design is also very good; even in a manga with a lot of characters it's generally very easy to tell different characters apart (especially the important ones). The art is nothing phenomenal like Berserk or OPM but generally pretty good.

The characters are arguable the best part of the manga. There's a crazy good cast of characters in FMA, many of them sympathetic and diverse and complex and well-developed. They all have different motivations and backgrounds and very distinctive strengths and weaknesses and character traits, like Riza being loyal, Mustang ambitious, Ed hot headed but good hearted, Ling ambitious and dutiful, etc. I think because Arakawa does such a good job with character exposition there are so many characters to like in FMA that really make the manga a lot of fun to read.

The villains are also pretty interesting and very multi-dimensional, which is a beautiful thing for shounen manga where most villains are power hungry uncreative edgelords. Each of the homunculi (the major antagonists) in FMA are a different sin, and each of them have very different personalities driven by the sin they represent. I especially like how --spoilers-- Envy's real body is a tiny bug, and he chooses to commit suicide after Ed pities him, and Pride gets killed by Kimblee when he tries to take over Ed's body. Scar especially is a very cool antihero and I really like how he symbolically defeats Wrath and becomes an Ishvalan high priest. --end spoilers--

There are just so many characters that you can understand and relate to and really root for. The only mangaka I can think of that's capable of doing this is Urasawa, and that is insanely high praise. 

It's a funny manga, there are lots of gag panels and recurring character jokes (mostly centered on Armstrong and Ed). I also really like when she caricatures her characters:


Combat concept:
This is another really important part of shounen which really makes or breaks a lot of manga. The concept of alchemy is cool, and the different types of alchemists are cool, but more importantly, the system of alchemy itself makes a lot of sense. It's cohesive and doesn't suddenly change, there are no random asspulls or deus ex machinas (Bleach, 7DS, Naruto, Fairy Tail are all egregious offenders) which is very important for immersion and allows for suspension of disbelief. 

There are a lot of very emotional moments in the manga!! These include some of the very sad moments like Nina Tucker and her dog Alexander transmuted into a chimera and Hughes getting killed, some heartwarming moments like Marcoh returning to Ishval as a doctor or Doctor Knox having coffee with his family, some bittersweet moments like Captain Buccaneer and Fu fighting Wrath, some very satisfying moments like the butcher and Major Armstrong defeating Sloth, and some very happy and proud moments like when Scar becomes an Ishvalan priest and when Ed and Al both get their bodies back. In general only very good authors and books can make you feel emotions very strongly, and FMA pulls your heartstrings in a million ways.

The overall story is also very good! It's cohesive and well structured overall, a large part of which is probably due to its length. FMAis about 108 chapters long which is pretty short (although each chapter is 45 pages, so about 200ish for a traditional manga) and it's clear that the ending was already planned from the inception of the manga. Each arc leds to the next very smoothly and in a very natural way, and the story as a whole is tied well together. That's also a big issue with some mangas where some arcs just seem pointless or completely unexpected, and it hurts the cohesiveness of the story as a whole. 

The ending is also insanely good. I completely did not expect the ending but I found it very satisfying and thought it was the perfect ending to the story to accompany and really bring home the theme. 

Speaking of the theme, I really like FMA's approach to engaging the dangers of hubris and blindly seeking truth. FMA is fundamentally about arrogance and the abuse of power, and a lot of the suffering and pain in the manga stems from the belief that we can learn everything and achieve everything, whether it be the hubris to think we can bring people back from the dead or the hubris to think that we can become immortals or gods. The question posed by the manga is resolved by accepting limitations of being human, and this is beautifully represented in the manga's ending when --spoilers-- Ed gives up his Gate of Truth and says "I've always been an ordinary human. A puny human who couldn't even save a little girl." --end spoilers-- This is explored in alchemy in the manga, but acknowledging and accepting our limitations also extends to war, science, power, and our search for knowledge.

Semi related to characters, one of the really cool things Arakawa does is that each person who opens the Gate of Truth has a different thing taken from them. Hohenheim loses his ability to die & to live and connect with others, Izumi loses her organs and her ability to have kids, Mustang who has a vision for the country becomes blind, Ed loses his leg to stand on and support his family, and then his right arm to bring back his brother (his metaphorical right arm), and Al loses his body and ability to feel warmth. "The truth is cruel but right."

I usually don't think this about manga or even most books, but I really think anyone will enjoy FMA in either its manga or its anime form (although the manga is better).

Richard III  - William Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a charismatically evil anti hero, a historical play, or Shakespeare's breakthrough play, then read Richard III. 

Richard III is a semi-fictional historical play about the rise to power and short-lived reign of the eponymous King Richard III of England who deceives, connives, and kills his way to the throne but is ultimately defeated in battle by Richmond, ending the reign of the Plantagenet House of York and beginning the rule of the House of Tudor.

In some sense his historical plays are also propaganda because Shakespeare is obliged to present the House of Tudor in a favorable light and R3 as a villain, but what his plays are really concerned with is what it means to be an effective ruler, and what happens when rulers get destroyed. Because the goalposts and ending are already set, Shakespeare's primary focus in his historical plays is how history is being created and how political change happens, an interest no doubt driven by the anxieties of succession his contemporary audience was feeling.

Some parts I liked or found interesting:

  • R3 is a very charismatic antihero. He's a terrible person but you can't help but like him, kind of like a cool Bond villain. He doesn't take the throne by force; instead, in the first scene of the play and R3's first soliloquy, he shows his mastery over and love of language, and it is despicable but still admirable how he charms and deceives to get what he wants.
  • Shakespeare suggests in R3 that the nature of kingship is acting, and R3 is a superstar- he can "quake and change thy color, Murder thy breath in the middle of a word, And then begin again, and stop again, As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror." Being an effective ruler is not about violence but about playing many roles, and R3's downfall begins when he reaches the top and starts to fail as an actor, becoming easily irritable and gullible. 
  • My favorite scene in R3 is Act 5 scene 3 when R3 has anxiety dreams before his big battle, dreaming that ghosts of his past victims have come to curse him. His painful soliloquy about the terrible loneliness of building and living the R3 persona is phenomenal, and for me this soliloquy made his character so much more interesting and sympathetic.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

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If you are interested in a lovely but haunting meditation on laughter and forgetting then read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a collection of 7 short stories by Milan Kundera, all of which are structured as variations on a theme and a form. They are all about laughter and memory, connected by an exploration of how losing the past (historical or personal) undermines the identity of people and countries. The novel is about memory and the past, crucial things that make us who we are, and the terribly light laughter that comes when we lose these things.

Kundera knows this because he's experienced this firsthand. "The first step to liquidating a people is to erase its memory," and Kundera felt this liquidation when he lost his teaching position and his books were banned and removed from Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Prague Spring and the beginning of the Soviet communist regime. This erasure of identity is characterized by a profound lightness that is symbolized by laughter. Laughter makes light of the serious, making even the most important things cheap and absurd, and so together with forgetting drives the us further away from ourselves and into insignificance and meaninglessness. There is pleasure in laughing and forgetting and sometimes we want a carefree life without the weight of our memories and ourselves, but what that also means is a life without context, without purpose, and without progress.

My favorite stories are Part 1: Lost Letters, Part IV: Lost Letters, Part V: Litost, and Part VI: The Angels.
Some of my favorite quotes are:

  • On the struggle for identity:
    “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” 
  • On the frightful innocence of children:
    “Children, Never look Back!" and this meant that we must never allow the future to be weighed down by memory. For children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.” 
  • On writing as the struggle for permanence:
    “For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.”

Decoded - Jay-Z


If you're interested in Jay-Z's autobiography then read Decoded.

Decoded is Jay-Z's autobiography and memoir following in rough chronological order his childhood years in Marcy to his fame and success as a rapper. The book combines lyrics, annotations, anecdotes, and reflections, and is intended to defend rap as a poetic art form and share a generational experience that people can relate to.

Some of it is interesting and it was cool to read about Jay-Z, but I honestly didn't really like Decoded that much especially compared to Gucci's autobiography. I think one of the main reasons is just that I'm not that interested in his artistic project (or at least the one that he explains in the book). I respect and like Jay-Z and I think his music is very cool and his success as a rapper is very admirable, but the story of "being a hustler" just doesn't really resonate with me as much. The book also does not feel personal enough and doesn't provide a lot of detail about Jay-Z's life, despite being an autobiography. Decoded felt very filtered through Jay-Z, and read much more like a constructed and thought out story rather than a genuine presentation of himself. Decoded talks about Jay-Z like Jay-Z wants you to think of Jay-Z, not the more interesting and raw-er Jay-Z from the perspective of Shawn Carter, which I'm know exists because in his newest album 4:44 he talks a lot more about himself and his struggles and shares deeper revelation and introspection that just isn't present in his book.

He also says some kind of stupid things sometimes, like "I have a photographic memory so I'd I glance at something once I could recall it for a test. I was reading on a 12th grade level in the sixth. I could do math in my head but I had no interest sitting in a classroom."  

Zatch Bell - Makoto Raiku

If you're interested in a fun and pretty good shounen with a decent concept then read Zatch Bell

I used to really like Zatch Bell, but recently I've been rereading some of the mangas I like more critically and on this reread I found Zatch Bell pretty average (although to be fair I just read FMA and FMA is goat). Zatch Bell follows demon child Zatch and his human partner Kiyomaro in their fight to make Zatch king. Every 1000 years, 100 demon children go to earth to battle to be king of the demon world. Each demon child has a human partner that has to read from a spell book in order to unlock their powers, and if the spell book is burned, the demon child returns to their world and they lose the battle. The last one remaining becomes the king for the next 1000 years (coincidentally, this would be an extremely cool battle royale game like PUBG except instead of guns and armor you pick up spells and maybe mana). 

I liked the breakdown of FMA, so along the same lines, what Zatch Bell does well is:

  • Art: The combat is pretty good. It's generally pretty easy to follow, and there are a lot of cool looking panels.
  • Characters: arguably the best part of the manga. There are a lot of different characters (100 demons, 100 human partners) and they all have very different personalities and motivations. Some of them are kind of heavy handed and follow very basic archetypes, but they still add a lot to the story and their diversity is pretty impressive.
  • Humor: the manga is funny. I like when Kiyomaro's face changes and strangling Tio.
  • Combat concept: another really good part of the manga. The concept is fairly creative and interesting, and there's a lot of flexibility and diversity in how different characters fight.
  • Emotion: on second thought probably the best part of the manga. There are a lot of very powerful emotional moments in the manga, especially towards the end of the manga.

Where Zatch Bell falls a little short is:

  • Story: the story as a whole is pretty entertaining, and it gets a lot better with the last three arcs, but there's a bunch of filler chapters that don't tie together up until the Millennium Demons arc. There's also a lot of weird plot holes and story developments that are never really explained (why does no one use guns?! Why is everyone so accepting of random demon children shooting lightning from their mouths? How does no one notice massive missiles flying through the air?) 
  • Emotion: especially early on, some of the arcs are a little heavy handed with the emotional response.
  • Characters: the characters are a little simplistic and are weirdly OK with sacrificing themselves to help make the children king. If a small child came up to me, handed me a book only I could read, and when I read it, he would shoot lightning or fire or gravity balls then hell no I wouldn't want to fight other demon children that could do the same thing, but everyone in the manga seems to have no problem with that.
  • Art: The art style is a little silly, which not everyone will like, and I also don't like how he proportions the demon children (they have very doughy limbs and big heads).

Letters to a Young Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke

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If you are interested in a beautiful collection of letters on what it means to be a poet and a person then read Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of 10 letters written from poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young aspiring poet about to enter the German military. Over the course of these letters, Rilke advises Kappus on how a poet should feel, experience, think, see, and understand the world, emphasizing the difficulty but importance and beauty of solitude and patience, and in these letters we get lovely insight into ideas and themes that show up in Rilke's other works and his philosophy and perspective on life. I haven't read much of Rilke besides his book Auguste Rodin, but Letters to a Young Poet is just as poetic and beautiful, and similar to Auguste RodinLetters is better quoted than explained, so here are some of my favorite quotes from his letters:

  • On your passions:
    "This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?"
  • On patience:
    "You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer."
  • On embracing sorrow:
    "If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge extends and out a little over the outworks of our surmising, perhaps we should then bear our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new, something unknown, has entered into us; our feelings grow dumb with shy confusion, everything in us retires, a stillness supervenes, and the new thing that no one knows stands silent there in the midst."
  • On doubt:
    And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become aware, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will perhaps find it helpless and nonplussed, perhaps also aggressive. But do not give way, demand arguments and conduct yourself thus carefully and consistently every single time, and the day will dawn when it will become, instead of a subverter, one of your best workmen,—perhaps the cleverest of all who are building at your life."

I wish I read this book earlier in my life because I feel like those ideas would've resonated very strongly with me as a teenager, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and I look forward to reading it again. 

Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke

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If you are interested in a cute children's story about friendship with fantastic creatures then read Dragon Rider.

Dragon Rider is about a silver dragon Firedrake, a brownie Sorrel, and a human boy Ben who travel to the Himalayas to look for the legendary Rim of Heaven, the last safe haven for dragons when they find out that humans intend to flood the valley they live in. There's not much to say about Dragon Rider; it's not a terribly complicated book but it is a cute children's story and it's very hard to dislike this book: it's got a fun story, simple but endearing characters, and a pretty straightforward theme of courage and camaraderie presented via a classic good beats evil story. 

Harry Potter is Good

I recently reread Harry Potter, which was awesome and amazing and lots of fun, and it got me thinking about why I like the books so much. There's obviously something about them that I really like, since I've read these books at least 10 times, but before this reread I've never really thought about why. 

So, what makes Harry Potter good?

The first thing and probably the most immediately obvious thing is the characters. The characters in the series are phenomenal. There are so many of them that are so well fleshed out that you have to relate to at least one, especially because a lot of them follow basic archetypes that you've probably seen in real life: the bitchy teacher Umbridge, the grumpy and scary teacher Snape, the firm but fair teacher McGonagall, the bookworm Hermione, the eccentric weirdo Luna, the paranoid old veteran Moody, etc. These simple character also become more layered and complex as the series progresses, and over the course of the books you really feel like you get to know them and you start to genuinely care about them.

Because of how strongly you connect with each character, every death in Harry Potter cuts extremely deep. Every time I reread and relive Dobby apparating to Shell Cottage with a knife in his chest or Fred getting killed by a curse is genuinely upsetting, and it's a mark of a good author and a good book to make you really feel and lurch when characters die.

But sadness is only a very small part of the emotional range you feel with the characters. Neville going from a small chubby boy getting bullied by his grandma and Snape in Potions to defying Lord Voldemort, pulling Griffindor's freaking SWORD out of the burning Sorting Hat, and decapitating a giant snake housing a fragment of Voldemort's SOUL in Book 7 is an immensely satisfying moment of strange pride in a fictional character, almost as if you're celebrating the growth of a close friend.

You also hate Snape, from Book 1 to Book 5, and then feel weirdly vindicated in Book 6 when it turns out he's been a spy all along and kills Dumbledore, and then angry when he cuts off George's ear, and then, in an insane twist in Book 7, turns out to be a TRIPLE agent who actually has remained in love with Lily for years and has actually always been loyal to Dumbledore. The reader's relationship with Snape is a crazy rollercoaster, and if you're telling me you weren't surprised by that then you're either lying or a lot smarter than I am.

The most important part though is that for those of us who started the series as kids and ended them as young adults, we grew up with these characters. I remember Ron and Harry becoming friends on the train, Ron, Harry, and Hermione becoming friends after beating up a troll, Hermione getting petrified, Hermione and Harry saving Buckbeak and Sirius, Ron and Hermione arguing over Krum, Ron sucking at Keeper, Hermione organizing the DA, the three of them sneaking into Gringotts, their kids going to Hogwarts, 19 years later... I read these books in my most formative years, and experiencing the series in my youth made the characters feel like friends that I've had for decades.

As a side note, making readers despise characters is also a wonderful authorial skill, and it's objectively impossible to read Book 5 without feeling a deep, deep loathing of Umbridge and associating hem hem with all authoritative bitchiness. 

Harry Potter is a pretty long series. It goes on for seven books, each of which is pretty long (especially towards the end) and a ton of shit happens, but it manages to remain consistently entertaining and creative. This is a very tough thing to do, as often writers get confused by their own story threads (GRRM, where is book 6), or just run out of material to write about (Bleach), but each HP book has a pretty different and interesting story, and no matter what type of story you like, there's something in HP that you'll probably enjoy.

  • If you're into fantasy, HP is a very large and intricate universe of magic, yet with enough normal, human elements to make it believable and immersive. That is the fantasy dream.
  • If you're into mystery, most of the books in the series has some sort of mystery and some sort of big twist (who is trying to get into the locked door on the 3rd floor? who killed the Potters? who opened the Chamber of Secrets? who put Harry's name in the Triwizard Tournament?). I can't really remember what I was thinking when I first read book 4 but I'm sure finding out Professor Moody was actually a Polyjuice potion'd up dark wizard probably fucked 4th grade Justin up a lot. 
  • If you're into love stories, there's plenty of those in HP: Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, Tonks and Lupin, Bill and Fleur, Snape and Lily (doesn't technically count but I'm counting it anyways and I'm willing to fight you over it).
  • If you're into intense thrillers, parts of the story are crazy hype, like Harry finding out Quirrell has Voldemort stuck on the back of his head, the Triwizard cup secretly being a Portkey, or when Dumbledore comes to the ministry in Book 5 (announced by Neville shouting DUBBLEDOOR, which I still find tremendously funny).
  • If you're into a classic "good triumphs over evil" story all of Harry Potter is basically that. There are some sad parts but HP is fundamentally a very happy series.

Universe/ Background
HP takes place in a very immersive and expansive universe. There are a bunch of spells, a bunch of cool magical creatures (nifflers, hippogriphs, dragons, thestrals...), a bunch of history, a sport, tons of cool places (Hogsmeade, The Burrow, and especially Hogwarts). People I talk to about HP still remember spells, some people literally play Quidditch as a real sport with brooms between their legs, and I still hear people describe beautiful, awe inspiring places as being "like Hogwarts!!!"

The theme in Harry Potter is not mind bogglingly confusing or difficult to understand and remains pretty consistent from the first book to the last, but that doesn't mean that these simple themes are not important. Loyalty and love and friendship and solidarity and courage are ideas that resonate with children and adults alike, and it doesn't matter who you are or how old you are, everyone can enjoy and appreciate Dobby's loyalty, Harry, Ron, and Hermione's friendship, Neville and Luna's courage, and Harry's loving sacrifice for his friends.

Obviously the series is not perfect, and people love to point out all the random plot holes in Harry Potter (I especially hate Time Turners), but what all these things boil down to is that Harry Potter is relatable. As kids, confused and unsure of ourselves, J.K. Rowling built a universe for us where we felt like we were home, we had friends, and we were taught that love, loyalty, and friendship are the most important things. This is something that so strongly resonated with so many of us that even now, people are still taking "Which Hogwarts house are you in" quizzes, people still brag about the amount of HP trivia they know (try mispronouncing Wingardium Leviosa with your friends, guarantee at least one person will correct you immediately), and people still remember the bitter disappointment we all felt when a Hogwarts owl didn't come before we turned 13. That's good stuff.

Books of January 2018

I liked the format of my Books of 2017 post, so I'm going to add a one liner before every book review, in the same form:

If you're interested in _________, then read _________

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
- Ben Horowitz

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If you're interested in Ben Horowitz's story or in his management tips, then read The Hard Thing about Hard Things. 

(this is from December, but I didn't write it until now, because I got tired after writing all those Vonnegut posts). Written by Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Opsware and now cofounder and general partner of a16z, The Hard Thing About Hard Things talks about how hard it is to run a company and be a CEO. It is half advice, and half autobiography backing up the advice.

My biggest takeaway from the book is more confirmation that I probably don't ever want to be a CEO, but I found it interesting and useful nonetheless, especially his advice/ thoughts on management and staffing and attitude. He covers a broad range of stuff in the book, like how to hire executives, how to fire friends, how to hire people from your friend's companies, when to sell your company, etc. Like most books in this genre, Horowitz has a very strong model for how he thinks a business should be run and what a good CEO looks like, and communicates that in a very functional and clear way (although it isn't what I'd really call good writing).

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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If you're into a bunch of interesting, well thought out characters, or a particularly deep dive into a poor suffering soul, then read Crime and Punishment.

I read this book in LitHum in my freshman year at Columbia, but unfortunately because I was/am a shitter I only read like 6 chapters of it, and besides some random plot details I only remember spending something like an hour discussing the horse dream. Because I was supposed to have read this book already and am kind of vaguely familiar with it, I thought it would be a nice way to start my chunk of Russian literature. 

Crime and Punishment is centered around Raskolnikov, a poor Russian student in St. Petersburg. Raskolnikov is obsessed with figuring out whether he is what he calls a "Napoleon," someone who is able to break the law for the greater good and transcend crime and punishment, so he commits a crime (kills two people, not a spoiler) and then spends the rest of the book suffering through his punishment (legal, psychological, social, etc.)

The strongest part of the book is definitely its characters. There are a ton of great, detailed characters with wildly different personalities and motivations, and Dostoevsky does an especially deep dive into Raskolnikov's thoughts and mental state, which make the book a much more engaging experience. Admittedly, the book is a little slow in the beginning, but picks up after about 150, 200 pages when you get more into the characters (for me, right about when I started thinking Razumikhin was very awesome and Luzhin was very lame).

C&P is definitely very engaging and thoughtful, but I didn't find it very insightful and I thought the ending was a little abrupt and did not fit the rest of the story well. We discussed this as well in LitHum, but Dostoevsky was on a time crunch when he wrote C&P, which is maybe why the book is very cohesive and interesting but not revelatory. Also, while I liked the in-depth analysis of Raskolnikov's tortured psyche, he is honestly a pretty annoying and unsympathetic character. To be honest I enjoyed the book and I thought it was good, but I'm not sure why it's so respected in the Western canon. If you really love the book and think I'm an idiot please let me know.

Gamaran - Yousuke Nakamaru


If you're looking for a fairly brainless, standard shounen with pretty standard shounen strengths and weaknesses, then read Gamaran

Gamaran is a very typical shounen manga, featuring a small but fast and deadly swordsman in a small martial arts school, who fights and kills a bunch of people to improve as a swordsman and to get revenge on his dad (with some minor differences that literally is the plot of a million stories and movies and mangas and animes).

It does what standard shounens do very well:

  • Characters are well designed. All the characters look different without looking very weird and not human, and they all use different weapons
  • Art is very good. Things I particularly like:
    - Energy and hype expressed well (think DBZ)
    - Many, many cool looking panels
    - Conveys motion very clearly, using big brush strokes to show arcs (path of a swinging sword, for example). Kingdom also does this very well, although Gamaran has less noisy panels with cleaner lines and less detail
  • Cliche cheesy lines and situations

It also doesn't do well what standard shounens don't do well: 

  • Characters are very one dimensional and not very interesting as characters. Not very clear why they do stuff besides "I WANNA BE THE STRONGEST"
  • There are many weird plot holes, especially in the final arc when something like 10 people fight a whole town's worth of soldiers and martial artists, and everyone that isn't fodder decides to mostly 1v1 instead of bum rushing them or even just shooting arrows from far away. Literally they pick the most terrible plan ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
  • Cliche cheesy lines and situations

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse


If you're interested in an insightful and thoughtful meditation on enlightenment then read Siddhartha.

Siddhartha is a fictional novel by Hesse about a man seeking enlightenment in the time of the historical Buddha. The title is a little misleading, but Siddhartha is not a factual or even fictional retelling of the Buddha's life- Siddhartha, the main character, is actually not the same person as Gautama, who is also in the story (even though the historical Buddha's original name was Siddhartha).

Siddhartha instead felt more like a very personal exploration of Hesse's philosophy, centered on the idea of the totality of experiences, meaning that enlightenment can only be achieved not through teachings but through experiencing things in their completeness, and understanding all of them as oneness. A friend mentioned the concern of Orientalism in a book about an Asian subject written by a German author, but I think Siddhartha is a very intimate and personal product of Hesse's experiences and engagement with Buddhist theosophy. It seems pretty clear to me that Hesse deeply respects these philosophical ideas, and Siddhartha feels much more like appreciation and inspiration than appropriation.

It is a very short book, with many poignant passages of self reflection. It is fairly easy to read but has some deep ideas. 

The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever - Teri Agins

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Still good, 2nd time around! She is a fantastic writer and each chapter is a very interesting case study. 

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

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If you're interested in a well written modern African story, then read Things Fall Apart.

Things Fall Apart takes place in late 19th century Nigeria, and follows the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his village Umuofia. The first part of the book describes his personal life, his history, his family, and the customs and society of his people, and the latter half focuses on the influence British colonialism and Christian missionaries have on the Igbo society. 

The book is well written and a fairly easy read. The characters are complex and sympathetic, and I was able to understand and connect with them even though I know nothing about their beliefs, culture, and way of life. The story is interesting and engaging, and provides good commentary and context on imperialism and colonization, and most impressively, presents their customs and traditions very honestly, showing how they can be simultaneously important and also toxic.

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

I didn't like this book and can't recommend it.

The Book of Tea introduces the philosophy Teaism and Japanese tea ceremonies. The main reason why I didn't like this book is because the author is so incredibly pompous, and makes all these grandiose statements without a lot of backing that seem ridiculous to accept at face value. He spends a lot of pages in a very small book talking down a lot of Western philosophy and aesthetics, which is ironic given his introduction lamenting that the West has ignored the learnings from the East. 

Some of the book was kinda interesting, like the part on tea room architecture and art appreciation in tea ceremonies, but most of it I already learned in class. Honestly I probably would've dropped it if it was longer than its 50 pages.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

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If you're interested in good, classic science fiction on society, religion, and happiness then read Stranger in a Strange Land.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about a man raised on Mars who returns to Earth, and is centered on his interaction with human philosophy, society, and religion and his trouble understanding and connecting with people as a Martian. This book used to be one of my favorite books in high school so I'm very sad about this, but on this reread I didn't like the book very much. 

I think there are two main reasons for this. The first (and major) reason is that I no longer agree with a lot of the ideas in the book, and actually find some of them very problematic. He makes a bunch of big claims about religion and art and society and human nature, very difficult and complex subjects, and presents them as obvious truisms, which I have a lot of problems with because for example, I don't think it's reasonable to dismiss all organized religions in a few paragraphs or even a few pages. He also has some very questionable views on homosexuality, masculinity, and rape, and in parts of the book he feels uncomfortably sexist. The second, semi related reason is I find Jubal very annoying. One of the main characters in the book, Jubal Harshaw is the grumpy and very cynical but very smart old man in the book. I thought he was so brilliant the first time I read the book, but a lot of the stuff I disagree with is said by Jubal (who probably is the mouthpiece of the author), and he's so pompous and certain about himself that it pisses me off.

The crux of the book is driven by an attempt to examine ourselves from a completely alien perspective which is a very interesting premise, and it's still a pretty decent book; I'm just disappointed because I remembered it so fondly.

Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, and Illustrated
- Shea Serrano


If you're into basketball or Shea Serrano (everyone should be, he's funny and amazing and I want to be his friend), then read Basketball (and Other Things)

I loved The Rap Year Book so much I decided to read a book about basketball, something I don't know or care very much about. Because of that I didn't enjoy the book as much as The Rap Year Book (a subject I enjoy very much) and I skimmed some parts of the book and missed some important context that would've made some chapters way more interesting (like who Patrick Ewing or Scottie Pippen are). 

Nonethless, Shea Serrano is funny and amazing and the best, and I still enjoyed the book immensely, so if you even remotely like basketball you should definitely read it, and if you don't like basketball you should still read it because Shea is that great. I aspire to be as funny and awesome as he is.

Some of my favorite chapters in the book include:

  • Which Dunks are in the Disrespectful Dunk Hall of Fame?
  • Was Kobe Bryant a Dork? (And Also: How Many Years During His Career Was the Best Player in the League?)
  • Am I Allowed to _____ During Pickup Basketball?
  • How Do Player's Legacies Change if We Change Their Name?
    (examples include Michael Jordan to Morgan Jordan, Kevin Durant to Keith Durant, Lebron James to Lebron Jones, and my favorite, James Harden to John Harder, action movie star)
  • What's the Plot for Death Hammer 2: Hammergeddon? (my favorite chapter)
    This is the plot for the fake movie that John Harder (James Harden) directs and acts in.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

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If you are interested in a more worryingly realistic dystopia than 1984, and if you want to read the most impassioned defense of unhappiness I've ever read, then read Brave New World.

I read this book I think in my senior year of high school and it very strongly influenced me then and who I am now. Brave New World takes place in an alternate world where people are engineered and created in artificial wombs, and separated from conception into predetermined classes (Alphas, the highest caste, to Epsilons, who are stunted mentally and physically and do menial labor). Every aspect of life, from work to entertainment, is closely controlled by the government not through violence and force but through brain washing and a soothing drug called soma

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the dystopia Huxley creates is in Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

I won't go into it here but I think that those same ideas, our "almost infinite appetite for distractions" and "what we desire will ruin us" are also a big part of Infinite Jest.

What makes the book good is its technical aspects. The writing is eloquent and smooth, making for a pretty easy read, and the characters are diverse and really help expound Huxley's ideas. I especially like how he uses roughly 4 different types of characters to make his point about society and purpose very clear: there's Bernard, the different but cowardly psychologist, there's John, the "savage" who grew up away from civilization reading Shakespeare, there's Helmholtz, the tall, very popular man who feels a lack of strength in his writing, and everyone else, happily addicted to soma and their place in society.

What makes the book great is chapter 17, when John, speaking with the Controller Mustapha Mond, discusses the sacrifices society has made to be "civilized" and peaceful, and John makes the most brilliant and convincing argument for unhappiness and suffering I have ever read: (if you're going to read the book and you haven't before, I recommend skipping this part, because the build-up and that entire chapter is literary gold)

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

Holy cow that is phenomenal.

And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie

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If you're into a creepy and very fun murder mystery that's actually suspenseful then read And Then There Were None

I read books for one of three reasons: for personal enrichment, to learn stuff, or just for entertainment. And Then There Were None falls very squarely into the third category. It is about 10 stranger gathered on an island under different pretexts, each of whom are complicit in some crime that they cannot be legally punished for, and over the course of a few days, each die in ways parallel to a nursery rhyme. 

The book is pretty short (read it in one sitting) and very easy to read. It is very fun and satisfying and manages to stay engaging throughout, and I actually had no idea who did it until the big reveal at the end (although I'm always very bad at guessing). 

Assassination Classroom - Yusei Matsui

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If you're interested in a fun gag manga with a very thoughtful message on education and potential, then read Assassination Classroom. It also manages to be surprisingly heartwarming. 

Assassination Classroom takes place in a middle school in Japan, where students are divided into 5 classes (A to E, ranked by performance). Class E, the "worst" students of the school, serve as motivation for  the other students to study and not be sent to Class E, where they study in a dilapidated classroom isolated on a mountain. In the same year, a large, humanoid octopus creature with tentacles blows up 70% of the moon, and threatens to do the same to Earth in a year. The only way to stop him is to assassinate him, and the best chance is in Class E, where he becomes their homeroom teacher, and the students learn regular subjects like math, Japanese, history, and English along with assassination.

The premise is definitely pretty goofy, and as a gag manga it's very good. It does a couple of important things well:

  • It's generally pretty tough to make an entire classroom of characters look and feel different, but it wasn't too hard to tell the students apart, especially because each student is different in their strengths, weaknesses, and motivation.
  • Very related to this is character design, especially for Korosensei, who is literally a big yellow blob with tentacles and a smile that spans his entire face. 
  • The panels of assassination attempts are really well drawn. They mostly center on one person, focus on their face, depict aura well, and eliminate most of the background which amplifies the person's presence and makes the scene very tense. 
  • There's a lot of fun and funny parts of the manga, like Korosensei (the big octopus teacher)'s various weaknesses (gets embarrassed easily, juicy gossip, succumbs to road rage) and some of the assassination plots (putting a bomb in the middle of a giant pudding). 

As a manga though, the one thing that makes Assassination Classroom great is that it has a very clear message and a theme that the story services. Assassination Classroom is the clash of two ideals- the belief that people are fixed and inherently different in abilities, and the belief that all people have potential to improve and change. The former is manifested in the teaching style of the principal, who split the students into 5 classes, and the latter is manifested by Korosensei, who teaches the students of Class E who no longer believe in themselves that they can still accomplish anything that they want. In an Asian culture where grades often determine their entire lives, the message that you are more than your grades and you can always change for the better is a very important one. 

Let me reiterate, because I think this is amazing: in a manga where a bunch of middle school kids regularly shoot the homeroom teacher (who is a giant yellow octopus and can move at mach 20) with assault rifles during roll call, Assassination Classroom manages to still be a thoughtful and positive manga. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J.K. Rowling

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If you haven't read Harry Potter please read Harry Potter. 

I started thinking about Harry Potter again recently because my roommate Greg told me he never read Harry Potter, and decided to read the entire series again because I was concurrently reading Lolita and J.K. Rowling seemed like a pretty nice, easy complement to Nabokov.

I don't know anyone else besides Greg who hasn't read Harry Potter before or at least seen the movies, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is about a kid who learns that he is a wizard, leaves his horrible uncle and aunt, and goes to a wizarding school somewhere in Great Britain. 

I love Harry Potter and grew up reading Harry Potter. I've reread Harry Potter many many times over the years (it's been 17 years since?) and I am very happy that even now I still really enjoy reading the series. Book 1 is good for several reasons:

  • It's well written. Book 1 is both interesting and easy to understand for kids as well as enjoyable for adults. 
  • The story is fun, appropriately tense, and immensely satisfying. Harry learning how to fly, Neville standing up to his friends, Hagrid busting in the door to give Harry a cake... super fun to read.
  • The characters are likable. For example, everyone loves when Hermione, Harry, and Ron become friends, because it's fucking cute. 

While good, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is only the precursor to the impressive universe that J.K. Rowling eventually builds out and the wonderful breadth and depth of characters that she develops. This is not to say the characters are not done well- really quickly, you learn to love Hagrid, admire Dumbledore, and hate Malfoy, but the character development and growth that made me feel like I grew up with the students at Hogwarts is not yet there. It is a simple, short, and easy to read and enjoy introduction to her masterpiece.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Only on this reread did I realize how brutally unfair the points system is. Dumbledore literally waits until the Slytherins have their banners up in the Great Hall before rewarding the exact number of points Gryffindor needs to beat Slytherin. How fucked up is that?
  • A very consistent theme gets developed in Book 1: Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover some half facts, draw some very wrong conclusions, and then gets in a lot of danger, sometimes completely unnecessarily. 

Mob Psycho 100 - ONE

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If you're interested in a very cute and funny manga about accepting yourself featuring a ridiculously overpowered but very nice kid, then read Mob Psycho 100.

Mob Psycho 100 is a Japanese webcomic made by ONE, the same guy who was the initial author & artist of One Punch ManMob Psycho 100 is kind of similar in the sense that it also features an unbelievably OP protagonist, this time Shigeo Kageyama, a student at Salt Middle School. Although he looks like a very average kid (his nickname is Mob, i.e. background character), he is actually a very powerful esper. Because Mob is scared of hurting others with his power, he suppresses his emotions to keep his powers under control, but when the percentage of his accumulated feelings reaches 100%, he is overcome by the strongest emotion he is feeling at the time and fully unleashes his power. 

Probably the most immediately noteworthy thing about Mob Psycho 100 (and also the original One Punch Man webcomic) is how bad the art is. The characters are all lumpy and misproportioned, and facial features are abstracted to their most basic. However, the art style is very consistent, and while not very polished or precise, never really detracts from the manga. On the contrary, I think it actually adds to the charm of the manga, and works because ONE doesn't always take himself very seriously (as a counterexample, I cannot imagine Bleach in the same style; it would look so fucking stupid).

Mob Psycho 100 is also very funny. Dimple the spirit looks like a cloud with bright red rouge on his cheeks, Reigen is a psychic without any powers who throws salt and gives massages during his consultations, Mob unwittingly becomes the leader of a gang and the head of a cult... everything in the manga is just ridiculous.

What I liked most about Mob Psycho 100 though is Mob himself. Mob is a very unique protagonist- he has a lot of power but doesn't see his power as anything special. Instead, he treats everyone with respect, works hard to improve himself, and genuinely cares for those around him. He is a little oblivious, but that's part of his charm- there is just something very endearing about a 8th grader with enough psychic power to destroy multiple buildings struggling to train in the Body Improvement Club to impress his crush. He also has dope helmet hair. 

I especially loved the ending (special shout out to the non cliche middle school crush subplot), and the last panel of Mob Psycho 100 is some of the most wholesome shit I've ever read in any manga ever. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

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In Book 2 the Chamber of Secrets opens, a bunch of students get hurt, and Harry Potter saves the day. The book is pretty much the same as Book 1, just with a different plot (same characters, same fun wizarding world!!!). The big difference is that it is a little scarier than Book 1, and I remember being really fucked up by bathrooms as a kid because of this book and a deep misconception that the grudge (from the movies) came out of the toilet and not the well. Between the two I only felt comfortable taking a shower, and even then I was scared of getting snuck up on while I was washing my hair with my eyes closed. :-( 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling

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Book 3 starts to feel a little bit different from the first two books, mostly because the adventure doesn't wrap up very neatly and nicely at the end of the day, and Harry is saving someone instead of stopping nefarious plots. The good things about the series remain the good things here, but this is the least favorite of the first 3 Harry Potter books because of the time turner. I think introducing time travel in general is very iffy, and it generally just makes for massive plot holes.

Lupin is awesome though.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov


If you're interested in style, flair, and beautiful English wrapping some truly abhorrent things, then read Lolita.

The fictional memoir of Humbert Humbert, written in prison while awaiting a murder trial, Lolita is the lovingly sordid story of Humbert and Dolores Haze, privately nicknamed Lolita. Obsessed with what he calls "nymphets," 9-14 year old girls, Humbert falls in love and becomes sexually involved with Lolita, who is 12 when they meet. 

The content of the book is obviously pretty fucked up, and Humbert Humbert is very clearly a terrible person, but part of the charm in the book is that despite being horrified by Humbert and Lolita, Nabokov makes you admire how he writes and understand Humbert. I didn't enjoy the book as much as I thought I would though, mostly because I had a really hard time getting through the book and staying consistently interested. While Humbert was a unique character, you spend a lot of time in his head in the book (it is his self narrated memoir, after all), and unfortunately a lot of times I just found him annoying. Because of that, I felt like the book moved a little slowly, and while it's interesting to read about Humbert silently obsessing and anguishing over Lolita, chapters and chapters of it start to drag on. I think for similar reasons I didn't love Crime and Punishment; I just tend to find fancy wordplay and writing for the sake of itself kind of boring. 

To be fair though, I was really tired the two weeks I was reading Lolita and reading Nabokov's flowery and flamboyant style is very hard if you can't completely focus on his writing, plus it's very easy to miss a bunch of the allusions he makes in Lolita. There's a book that catalogs and notes most of the references in Lolita called The Annotated Lolita which I think would be interesting, but nonetheless I am definitely going to read it again sometime, next time hopefully more carefully. If you love Lolita and think I'm an idiot please let me know, I'd love to know why you liked the book. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling

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In high school my friend rewatched all the Harry Potter films and remarked that The Goblet of Fire is when Emma Watson becomes very hot. While this is a weird observation, in a similar sense Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks a good halfway point for the series, when the series becomes a lot darker and shifts into more serious content. For example, Book 4 opens and closes with deaths, and (spoilers Greg please don't read this) Moody gets trapped in his trunk for 9 months, Barty Crouch gets put under the Imperius Curse for months and then gets killed by his son, Cedric gets murdered, and Lord Voldemort comes back to his full powers. Because they take place after Voldemort comes to power, Books 5-7 feel wholly different from Books 1-3, and 4 is an important segue way between them. 

Although it's changed a little in structure, story wise Book 4 is still very good, and the Quidditch World Cup + the Triwizard Tournament were very fun and exciting to read. It's also nice to have a lot of new characters introduced, especially with all the new students from Beauxbaton and Durmstrang. 

An interesting observation: when I first read the series I took a more Ron & Harry stance towards Hermione on S.P.E.W. and house elves ("haha Hermione is so crazy") but now that I'm a little older I'm a little more aware of how fucked up some of the stuff in the wizarding world is. 

Titus Andronicus - William Shakespeare

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If you're interested in a satisfying but very gruesome revenge play, and you want to read some early Shakespeare, then read Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus, set in latter day Rome, tells the story of the cycle of revenge between Roman general Titus Andronicus and Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. It is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and also the first of his plays I read in my Shakespeare class at Columbia. It was one of my least favorite plays of the ones I read in class, and is generally regarded as one of his worst plays, but there's a bunch of interesting stuff going on in Titus Andronicus that I really like:

  • Shakespeare is very interested in pivotal moments, and is restless in exploring the contemporary pressures and anxieties of his time. Issues like succession, racism, and definitions of community drive the action in Titus Andronicus, and continue to come up over and over again in his plays.
  • For me, in class, it was the first time I realized how important it is that Shakespeare wrote plays to be acted & watched and not novels to be read. There are a million different ways to direct and act out his works, and they are different in incredibly significant ways. For example, some questions that completely change the play: does Lucius get support from everyone or just his uncle Marcus? Does Aaron's child live or die? Does a Roman or a Goth say "let Rome be a bane unto herself?" 
  • The subtle differences are also very striking, making each production of the same Shakespearea play completely different. My professor told a story about a play where Lavinia gags reflexively in horror when she is writing the names' of her rapists in the sand with a stick, because she is triggered by the stick in her mouth.

The Musical Artistry of Rap - Martin Connor

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If you like rap and are interested in an in depth analysis of rap from a music theory perspective, then read The Musical Artistry of Rap.

This is the second book I've given up on because I found it too hard :-(. I know very little about music theory, and in the book he talks a ton about traditional Western music theory and creates his own deviation of it to archive and discuss rap. It went way over my head but if you're into that kind of stuff I'm 100% sure you'll enjoy it; he seems very knowledgeable and it's clear that he really likes rap. 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling

 I know this doesn't fit with the other covers but I don't care because this is the version I had when I was a kid.

I know this doesn't fit with the other covers but I don't care because this is the version I had when I was a kid.

Harry Potter 5 is where the series completely changes and feels very different, but the things I like about the series still hold, with two differences (one good, one bad). The good is that Book 5 has the most exciting climax out of all the books so far, and the rush to the Department of Mysteries, fighting the Death Eaters, Neville shouting Dubbledore (so funny), Sirius dying, Voldemort and Dumbledore dueling, and Fudge realizing he's an idiot is all very exciting stuff. The bad is that a lot of characters are profoundly stupid in Book 5, most of all Harry and Dumbledore. The former is surly most of the year (understandably, but still annoyingly so), ends up not practicing Occlumency, and gets tricked into a death trap, and the latter completely ignores Harry witohut explaining anything to him despite the fact that Harry gets in trouble every year because of his strong convictions in the wrong information. 

Book 5 gets bonus points though for having one of my favorite Ron stories:

'Well, we were always going to fail that one,' said Ron gloomily as they ascended the marble staircase. He had just made Harry feel rather better by telling him how he had told the examiner in detail about the ugly man with a wart on his nose in his crystal ball, only to look up and realize he had been describing his examiner's reflection.

Books of 2017

I always loved to read but couldn't find time in college until my second semester of my senior year. I had a pretty rocky year but one of the consistently great things for me this year was books. In 2017 I wanted to read more, set a goal of 100 books, and ended up reading 130 amazing books, all of which taught me something, improved the way I think, or changed who I am. 

2017 in books



I made a favorites shelf on Goodreads for books I liked but then wanted to make a subset of books that really changed my life, so I made a shelf called "cream" because of "cream of the crop" but also because I was really into the Wu Tang song C.R.E.A.M. at the time. Although I'm just now realizing that likes and favorites would've been better names... fuck.

Anyways, here are the 30 beautiful books I put on my cream shelf this year, with a short one line review:

  • If you're interested in math, music, art, and how consciousness arises from unconscious things, then read GEB by Douglas Hofstadter
  • If you're interested in an informative and insanely detailed history of 19th century Arabs read The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
  • If you're interested in how American pop culture manifests in the Middle East (rap in Palestine? Lionel Ritchie in Libya?) read The Sheikhs Batmobile by Richard Poplak
  • If you're interested in an epic clash between good and evil and some of the best character development I've ever read in manga read Monster by Naoki Urasawa
  • If you're interested in the dangers of machine learning and algorithms and recognize the importance of socially conscious computer science then read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil
  • If you're interested in an examination of happiness from a psychologist's perspective and a very funny book then read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert
  • If you're interested in a thoughtful and loving doctor's writing in his last years fighting terminal cancer then read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Thought I made it through tear-free but then his wife's epilogue made me cry a little.
  • If you're interested in how marketing has changed fashion via a bunch of case studies then read The End of Fashion by Teri Agins
  • If you're interested in the best depiction of depression I've ever read (sans maybe DFW) then read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Don't read it if you're not doing so well recently though.
  • If you liked Ender's Game (smart kids fight each other and aliens in space) and if you're interested in a more psychological version of that with an even smarter kid then read Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
  • If you want to read about mortality, and finding peace in death and authenticity in life then read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
  • If you want a beautiful answer to the question of the meaning of life from a man who has suffered with dignity and nobility then read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  • If you're interested in the dichotomy between Nietzschean weight and lightness or if you just dig beautiful writing on love then read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  • If you want to read about the various ways in which love can be laughable and horrifying then read Laughable Loves also by Milan Kundera (short stories!)
  • If you like to read about incredible insights distilled from very simple, common things then read Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. If you are curious about my undying and deep love of David Foster Wallace this is a good first book to introduce him.
  • If you want to read some heavy shit about how communities are formed and the choices we make that determine who we are & what we want to be, if you're interested in fantastic characters showing what it means to be brave and to be forgiving then read Beartown by Fredrik Backman
  • If you're interested in the toxic relationship with success & family and feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, or if you're interested in one of two authors I've read this year that I think use short abrupt sentences well, then read Chemistry by Weike Wang. Chemistry is also a hilarious book and I want to be her friend.
  • If you're interested in healthcare systems across the world and what lessons America can learn from them then read The Healing of America by T.R. Reid
  • If you're interested in addiction, in American loneliness, in the default mode, in being earnest, and in nourishing and life changing literature, then read Infinite Jest by DFW. Seriously please read Infinite Jest it will make me very happy.
  • If you're interested in an 8 page essay/book/speech on the importance of actively combatting your defaults, the purpose of a liberal arts education, and the complexity of simple things then read This is Water by DFW. Probably the best intro to how DFW thinks and his genius in writing and in thought. 
  • If you're interested in the most insightful essay on tv and fiction for understanding DFW's fiction or some bomb ass narrative pieces then read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again also by DFW
  • If you're interested in a children's book about the importance and beauty of art then read The Artsy Smartsy Club by Daniel Pinkwater. It is one of two things that pushed me to doing my art history minor and spawned my original interest in art.
  • If you are interested in love and interesting people and the CUTEST story ever then read 等一個人咖啡 by 九把刀. I've read this book over 20 times. 
  • If you are interested in the history of rap or some great pictures and diagrams and the best reviews of anything I've ever read then read The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano. I am greatly indebted to this book because it changed how I listen to and enjoy rap. Also I aspire to his level of reviewing skill. 
  • If you want to learn about the economics behind the drug business, then read Narconomics by Tom Wainwright
  • If you're interested in some good, important YA about the structural oppression and the hate we give as a society, then read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and then listen to some Tupac. 
  • If you're interested in the folly of man and the capability of people to make decisions independent of supernatural forces, or if you're just into an intense, well drawn manga then read Billy Bat by Naoki Urasawa
  • If you want to read about the dangers of blind faith in technology and the stupidity of man and how we should cope with it, then read Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Also has the one of the best ending of any book I've read. 
  • If you're into the weight and meaninglessness of human existence and want to feel some crushing sadness followed by the most uplifting and hopeful speech ever then read The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. It is my favorite Vonnegut book; it fucked me up so hard.
  • If you want to read about a good man who genuinely cares about the poor and the discarded of America and if you want to know how to love those who have no use, then read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Some favorites

My favorite three authors: 
Vonnegut, Kundera, David Foster Wallace
My favorite book:
Infinite Jest
My favorite fiction not IJ, because honestly the comparison is unfair: 
The Sirens of Titan? Tough one though...
My most frequently recommended books:
Chemistry, Beartown, The Sirens of Titan
My favorite non fiction:
The Rap Year Book

This year, next year

So far I've been pretty goal oriented with my monthly reading (inspired by the Warren Buffett + Bill Gates talk I went to in January) and every month I read books about some topics or by a specific author, so my read shelf has a lot of distinct blocks.

My chunked history of the year:
On the Middle East (4), by A. Lee Martinez (6), on fashion (1, looking for more recs!), by Kundera (4), from the Strand (~15), from Econtalk (4), on healthcare (2), on communication (2), on business & process (5), children's books I used to really like (4), by Vonnegut (7).

Chunks I'm interested in for next year:
By Shakespeare, Russian literature, wuxia, on specific artists (Manet, Goya), Infinite Jest

It's been a great year of books. Looking forward to another in 2018!

Books of December 2017

The Last Interview and Other Conversations - David Foster Wallace

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The Last Interview and Other Conversations is technically not a book written by DFW but rather a collection of his interviews gathered into a book posthumously. The 4, 5 interviews in the book cover a variety of topics, including conversations about his writing style & process, his attitude towards his fiction/non fiction, how he feels about being famous, his experiences teaching, his time at Amherst, and his fights with magazines about cutting the length of his articles. 

I think the book is probably best enjoyed after you read a few of his works, and especially after you read Infinite Jest, because it helps answers some questions on what he intended to do when he started writing the book. At this point I adore anything with DFW's voice and writing and thinking, so I immensely enjoyed reading his interviews, although I do feel some reservations about buying a book of his interviews that are available for free online and think he would find the consumerism and opportunism funny. My other problem with The Last Interview was I enjoyed the book because of DFW's wit and charm, not because the interviewers were particularly astute with their questions. I found many of the interview questions were frustratingly shallow and didn't give good insight into how he thinks. One particularly infuriating question asked him about the lengths of Infinite Jest (1000+) and McCain's Promise (124) and why he "decided to drop a few weight classes," which I found a really stupid question because anyone who's done the tiniest amount of research will know that McCain's Promise was originally a Rolling Stone's article, re-released in longer form in Consider the Lobster, and reissued in stand alone book form for the 2008 cycle. I mean, you get time with DFW, and you ask him a question like that?

My favorite interview in the book was the Salon interview with Laura Miller after Infinite Jest was published. The interview wonderfully describes what he wanted to accomplish with fiction and shows how compassionate of an author he is. Some of my favorite bits in the interview:

  • On what it's like to be American around the millenium:
    "There's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."
  • On the toxicity of the intellectualization and aestheticization of principles in America and the importance of being earnest:
    "It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation... The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."
  • On the unique magic of fiction:
    "There's a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn't happen all the time. It's these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don't with other art."

How Money Got Free: Bitcoin and the Fight for the Future of Finance - Brian Patrick Eha

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How Money Got Free chronicles Bitcoin's early history, told from the perspective of its early adopters, innovators, and evangelists. The story starts from Cypherpunks, cryptocurrency predecessors, and Satoshi, the unknown creator of Bitcoin, and leads to a lot of the influential people & major projects involved, like Nic Cary, Charlie Shrem, BitInstant, Coinbase, Mt. Gox, Roger Ver, Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, the Winklevoss twins, and Barry Silbert + DCG.

Eha sets up the ideological tension between the original Bitcoin purists + libertarian anarchists and the later Bitcoin pragmatists very well, and I found his account of Bitcoin's history really interesting. The book helped me understand a little of cryptocurrency's value & purpose, but I wouldn't recommend reading the book to understanding cryptocurrencies, because the book's primary emphasis is on the people and events leading from 10,000 BTC for two Papa John's pizzas to 1 BTC at 17k. 

One of my major complaints about the book is while he contextualizes the debates about cryptocurrencies and the different positions well, I thought he was way too opinionated, and brought in a lot of personal bias without convincing arguments or evidence. This was most egregious in the portions of the book about legislation & regulation of cryptocurrencies in his very obvious disdain for government. He also introduces a lot of characters through his very libertarian lens, and has a tendency for saying very debatable things in the book in a very objective way, like 

HSBC executives thus benefited from something like the transformative formula of modern art. A bag of rubbish is a bag of rubbish, but if one builds a Tate Britain around the rubbish it becomes art.

Wtf is that supposed to mean...?

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

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I read Slaughterhouse Five in my junior year of high school in IBHL year 1 English, and did my IB oral presentation on the book. I dogeared and highlighted the shit out of my book- Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first books I remember spending a lot of time analyzing, and one of the first books that showed me that a close read of literature can be very rewarding and deep. 

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who fought in WW2 and survived the Dresden bombings. Billy, a fatalistic, poorly trained soldier with no survival instinct, stumbles through the war and through a series of accidents gets captured by the Germans and sent to Luxembourg. During his transport, Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and begins to experience flashbacks from his past. A few years after he returns from war, Billy is abducted by Tramalfadorians, aliens who see all time simultaneously rather than continuously, and lives in a glass dome in a zoo, but continues to experience moments in his past and future after he is sent back to Earth in a time warp.

If the book seems confusing or weird, it's even worse in the book itself because all of this is told out of sequence. Slaughterhouse Five is the quintessential Kurt Vonnegut book, and many stylistic elements are repeated in his other books, including the nonlinear narrative (fits well here because like Billy, the narrative is unstuck in time). Others include:

  • Unreliable narrator:
    The narrator is a part of the book as an author, and Billy Pilgrim is the main character in a story that the narrator is writing about war. Kurt Vonnegut also experienced the Dresden bombings, and often in the book it is hard to separate fiction from reality and figure out what parts of the story are actually experienced rather than imagined.
  • Short sections:
    The book is split into really small pieces. Kurt Vonnegut described his books as "essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips...and each chip is a joke." This is especially cool for this book because these small pieces align nicely with Billy's abrupt jumps in time, and help create the jarring feeling of disorder.
  • Heavy dependence on black humor and irony:
    Basically every other part of the book, if not more.
  • Lots of repetition:
    "So it goes" follows every death in the book, "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob" is repeated by Billy a lot, the serenity prayer is repeated a lot, "Listen" prepends a lot of passages, "Everything beautiful and nothing hurt"... This is another cool stylistic element because the repetition connects disjointed, nonlinear narrative pieces, and becomes itself a joke when used heavily like in this book.
  • Simple syntax & sentence structure:
    I think this has a similar effect to the short sections. Terrible things stated simply and abruptly are more powerful, and are worse when delivered toneless and matter of fact. 
  • Drawings:
    This is also in Breakfast of Champions. I like his drawings; they're very simple but expressive line drawings.

There are also lots of common themes:

  • Anti-war (the topic of my IB presentation!) 
    The style serves the theme well here, and how starkly everything is laid out really highlights the absurdities of war, like the Children's Crusade, Roland Weary's bravado & the Three Musketeers, Billy Pilgrim stumbling into Luxembourg with a blue toga and silver shoes, and one of my favorite passages from SH Five:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

  • Fatalism, and the lack of free will:
    The Tramalfadorians see all time as a hill, and so simultaneously see the past, present, and future. We are described as being "trapped in the amber of the now," and so everything, already predestined and predetermined, will always stay the same and can never be changed. In the Tramalfadorian philosophy, our actions mean nothing, and so death means nothing besides a "so it goes." Our individuality and notions of free will also don't exist, because the answer to "Why anything?" is "Because the moment simply is." 

The Giggler Treatment - Roger Doyle

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I know I read a lot of kid's books, but I really enjoy them because I think writing good ones is tremendously difficult and so many of them are done so well. Because children's books are constrained by length, the author has to set up and wrap up a complete story with very few words, forcing them to be very deliberate and intentional with what they say. 

The Giggler Treatment is about a dad who works as a biscuit taste tester. The eponymous "gigglers" punish adults who are mean to kids and they overhear him scolding his kids for breaking stuff and misbehaving the night before, so they conspire to put some dog poop on his way to work the next day as a punishment. The story of the book is not that special (although it's a lot of fun)- what's really interesting about the book is its narrative structure and literary techniques. When he recommended me The Giggler Treatment, my friend Andy said it was the first book that showed him how creative and different books could be and the possibilities they afforded. The Giggler Treatment does a lot of interesting different stuff that I really enjoyed, like adding a bunch of self-referential stuff, playing with the length, naming, and meaning of chapters, breaking the fourth wall, and even changing the story in the story itself. I usually hate stuff like that in books, but The Giggler Treatment was so fun I enjoyed it anyways, and I'm sure as a kid it would've been revelatory. 

Personally, the book that made me think- "wow, I didn't know books could do that" was The Phantom Tollbooth, and it's still one of my favorite books today.

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat's Cradle was the other Vonnegut book I read in IB English (year 2...?) in high school; it is one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books. Cat's Cradle is about a writer (John/ Jonah) who is writing a book about famous people's reactions to the dropping of the atomic bomb. In his research, he goes to Ilium to interview the colleagues and the children of the father of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker, and finds out about a substance called "ice-nine" created by Felix, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When it comes in contact with water, ice-nine will seed it to make all the molecules of liquid water rearrange themselves into solid ice-nine. After Felix's death, his three children, Angela, Frank, and Newt Hoenikker receive small chips of ice-nine, and the Hoenikker children meet Jonah on the small island country San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries in the world. Ruled by dictator Papa Monzano, San Lorenzo has an unusual culture & history and its own religion, Bokononism.

There are a lot of quintessentially Vonnegut stylistic elements in Cat's Cradle like black humor, irony, small disparate pieces (Cat's Cradle is 304 pages with 127 chapters), parody, straight-faced emotionless delivery, etc. Unlike Slaughterhouse Five though, Cat's Cradle is not nonlinear, which I honestly prefer because I think it's easier to follow and I find nonlinear narratives really annoyingly distracting.

Thematically, I think there are two separate but closely related threads running through the book, two big ideas he is tackling. The first is the danger of blind faith in technology, and the immensity of human stupidity, and the second is, in the face of all this shit, does this all matter? How do we handle it? Ice-nine was conceived with indifference by a scientist who cared only for the truth, who had no real human connections and did not give a shit about anything else, a man who didn't know God, or Love, or Sin, and he passed his last creation to his children, who selfishly exploited it for their own temporary happiness. Ice-nine is just science fiction, but it has parallels in the nuclear arms race, and is a warning story for the stupidity and selfishness of people. As written in the Books of Bokonon,

Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing

and this filth is paired by an innate drive for meaning.

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

But if capital-T Truth is not the answer, how do we live as meaningless mud? Vonnegut's answer is in Bokononism, the religion of San Lorenzo, an elaborate farce constructed to give them some kind of meaning in their life. All of it is fake and none of it is any more real or meaningful than science or technology or any other religion, but that's OK. The Truth is terrible, so all we can hope for and rely on are better and better lies. This is neatly summed up in the epigraph of the book:

Nothing in this book is true.
Live by the
foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
The Book of Bokonon 1:5

Cat's Cradle also has one of the greatest book endings I've ever read (also good: A Tale of Two Cities): 

(obvious, if mild, spoilers)
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino 

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If on a winter's night a traveler is about a guy reading the eponymous book. He reads only the first chapter, realizes the book is published with only first chapters, and tries to find and finish the rest of the book, but every chapter he reads is the first chapter of another, different book. Each chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler is divided into two parts: the first half the story of the reader trying to find the book, and the latter half the first chapter of a book he finds during his search. The first chapters of all these books are very different in content and style, and their background & story drive the plot of their succeeding narrative sections. 

This was definitely a unique reading experience, but I didn't finish the book because I tend to dislike books that use weird narrative techniques and structure for the purpose of just pushing the envelope of literary technique, rather than for some explicit external purpose (I also really really don't like when authors break the fourth wall). If playful postmodern puzzles are more up your alley than mine though, you will probably enjoy this book.

Farewell Waltz - Milan Kundera

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Farewell Waltz happens over 5 days in a small spa town in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, and follows 8 characters: Ruzena, the young and pretty nurse, supposedly pregnant from Klima; Frantisek, her boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her; Klima, a famous trumpeter who has a one night stand with Ruzena and is frequently unfaithful despite his devotion to his wife; Kamila, his wife, jealous & always suspicious of Klima having an affair; Skreta, the gynecologist working in the spa who wants to be adopted by Bertlef; Bertlef, the rich, sick American staying at the spa town; Jakub, an ex political prisoner leaving the country, and Olga, Jakub's ward, whose father betrayed him and eventually dies as a political prisoner. 

Farewell Waltz has really similar elements to many of his previous books that I've read.

  1. All the characters suck. They all have super shitty character traits and all of them say, do, or believe in some really shitty, slimy stuff.
  2. But despite that, the book is still fantastic, still really engaging, and despite yourself you still get drawn into the story and the characters even thought they're all terrible people. It is the mark of a great author that you can still feel sympathetic and still understand and empathize with characters that on a fundamental level you disagree with and dislike.
  3. Farewell Waltz engages with some serious topics like love, patriotism, hate, and accidents, but examines all this really dark stuff with a very light touch. On the surface the book is a comedy, and certainly there are some funny and absurd bits, but some terrible shit happens in the story and some heavy, dark elements lie very close beneath the surface. This is juxtaposed, as in all of his books, by how lightly he tells his stories, drawing you in more and making it even more abhorrent with the sharp contrast.

I think Kundera is a fantastic author, and I've very much enjoyed all four of his books I've read. 

Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

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Breakfast of Champions follows the story of two characters, "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." The first is Kilgore Trout, a minor recurring character in his other novels, and an unsuccessful science fiction writer. Kilgore Trout gets a rich fan, Mr. Rosewater (also another recurring character in other books) and is invited to a convention in a small town, where the second character, Dwayne Hoover, is a successful and rich white Pontiac dealer. Dwayne Hoover is deeply mentally unstable, and because of "bad chemicals" in his brain, acts out in ways he cannot control. Eventually, Trout meets Dwayne unwittingly, and after reading one of Kilgore Trout's books, Dwayne erroneously believes that he is the only person in a universe and everyone else is a machine. 

Stylistically, Breakfast of Champions is quite similar to Slaughterhouse Five (I believe BoC was written after SH5). An interesting difference is while both have pen drawings from Vonnegut, BoC has even more, some illustrating parts of the story and some tangentially related. My favorite of these drawings is:

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The presence of a narrator is also much stronger in this book than in any of his other books. Instead of the main character being a character in a story written or told by the narrator, Kurt Vonnegut is directly involved and a part of the story, and there are times when he directly influences or even changes the story. Kurt Vonnegut also has a knack for beautiful endings, this one not even textual- the last page is just a full page drawing of Kurt Vonnegut crying.

Breakfast of Champions is critical of American society and the way it treats its citizens, focusing largely on race and socioeconomic status, and points out the hypocrisy of a country founded on the principles of freedom exploiting its own people. 

They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

This is starkest in the parallels between Dwayne Hoover, a rich and powerful but terrible white man, and Wayne Hoobler, a black ex-convict who has never been free and dreams childishly of a place called Fairyland. Like many of his other books, BoC also calls into question the nature of free will, this time through the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient narrator and through the "bad chemicals" in Dwayne's brain that prompt him to act so violently and uncontrollably. 

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. 

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions - Brian Christian

Algorithms to Live By, written by two computer scientists, discusses how insights from CS, math, and statistics can be applied to everyday common situations. The book is based on the idea that we all face problems in our everyday lives that either relate to or can be directly reduced to common CS problems, examining a different problem/algorithm in each chapter.

The book does a few things well:
- The book discusses interesting, relevant problems. I found many of them personally useful, like the explore/exploit problem (finding new friends), optimal stopping (parking and apartment hunting), sorting (my books), and caching (organizing my notes at work). 
- The authors break down tricky concepts in CS (Bayes, game theory, concept of intractable (NP) problems, etc.) and explains CS problems very clearly (multi-arm bandit, traveling salesman, caches). 

What the book does really well:
The premise of the book is really great- that problems in real life often map, if not perfectly, to problems that serious research has been devoted to, and in really useful and interesting ways the search for optimal solutions for very well defined problems can be applied to real and much fuzzier problems in our lives. The big problem with that is most people feel like algorithms is the realm of computers and nerds and not applicable to most people, but that's treated admirably in the book as well. The authors acknowledge pretty frequently that problems in CS are more rigorous and can't be strictly applied, and approach every problem by looking at the naive case with lots of assumptions then takes away certain assumptions and discuss the more relevant (but harder to solve) problem. I like this approach a lot because it helps the reader understand algorithms as fundamentally just a way to solve a problem, and this helps in thinking about problems by defining the problem, clarifying assumptions and understanding inputs/ outputs. A good real life example of this is sorting/ organizing stuff. Most people just do insertion sort when they're sorting a deck of cards or organize by putting like with like, but both problems are pretty straightforward CS problems with provably better solutions (any n log n sort, LRU caches).

What the book is bad at:
I didn't really like their style that much. They suffer from the overuse of "quirky but not really relevant and honestly kind of annoying" quips that are so endemic in these types of books (e.g. "It turns out there’s no Godfather quite like God the Father"). My second complaint is less a general complaint and more a personal one: I wish he went more in depth on some algorithms instead of just presenting the answer, but I understand that the book is intended for more general audiences. 

Player Piano - Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano takes place in an almost totally mechanized world where the need for most workers has been eliminated, and the pervasive mechanization of work causes a chasm between the educated engineers & managers who run the factories and the lower class whose livelihood and purpose have been largely replaced by machines. This massive division is decided entirely by test results and fed into unchanging and unsympathetic machines, who determine what kind of jobs and what kind of lives they have. The story follows two separate characters: Dr. Paul Proteus, a factory manager in Ilium, New York, and the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million people in a distant, underdeveloped nation on a tour of America. Dr. Proteus, who goes from an unthinking but skilled cog in the machine to one of society's biggest and most outspoken critics and the Shah present two different perspectives of the system: the insider representative of the system and the outsider looking in. 

Of all the dystopias described in Vonnegut's books, this one seems the most plausible (I would argue we have moved even closer to that world since the publication of this book). The crux of the problem is blind faith in technology without recognition of its repercussions, i.e. what it means for people to lose their place in the world and become subordinate to machines, yet still live in a world where the comforts afforded by technology seem indispensable. While the technology may be new, these ideas are not particularly modern. Many seem to come directly from Marxism, like:

  • Alienated labor
    Workers in Player Piano are mostly unthinking assembly line workers
  • Labor as commodity
    Workers are valuable only until they can be replaced by machines
  • People lose ability to determine their life and destiny and cannot define themselves or their relationships to others and society
    People's lives are decided by a test and machines, with the results determining where they live, how much they make, what job they have, what kind of people they spend time with, and what kind of people they become. 
  • Workers cannot own stuff produced by their own labor
    This is true of upper class engineers & managers as well as lower class workers. Dr. Proteus cannot run a farm and live alone; Rudy Hertz the master machinist is replaced by a machine built from a recording of his hands.

My favorite part of Player Piano is (-- spoilers --) the courtroom scene where Dr. Proteus defends himself as leader of the Ghost Shirt Society (-- end spoilers --). I'm not really sure why but courtroom scenes fucking hype me up (see: Portia in Merchant of Venice, Mersault in The Stranger, John in The Crucible, Lisbeth in The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest...). I find the buildup plus the opportunity in the court for stirring speeches so exciting & satisfying, and in Player Piano Dr. Proteus gives some bomb ass speeches.

What distinguishes man from the rest of the animals is his ability to do artificial things,” said Paul. “To his greater glory, I say. And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.

"The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

Stylistically Player Piano is very similar to his other works (black humor, irony, biting social commentary) and address familiar themes, with one noteworthy exception: Vonnegut's use of metafiction & self-contained, well divided chapters was not yet developed when he wrote Player Piano, his first book. The book is still a very good book, but it feels a lot less weird, for lack of a better word, and a lot less Vonnegut. 

The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut

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The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite book by Vonnegut out of the couple I've read. It tells the story of Malachi Constant, a rich billionaire playboy, and Winston Niles Rumfoord, a rich space traveler who enters a phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum and becomes a wave phenomenon. Existing on a spiral between the Betelgeuse and the sun, Rumfoord and his dog materialize only temporarily on planets when his wave intersects with the planet, but lives on Titan, the only place where he materializes permanently. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, Rumfoord becomes aware of the past, present, and future, and under his machinations sets Malachi on a journey where he plays a key role in the purpose of human history, taking him to Mars, Mercury, Earth, and then finally Titan, one of the moons of Jupiter.

Sirens of Titans, Vonnegut's second novel, is when I think Vonnegut becomes Vonnegut, and when all the things I think of as Vonnegut begin to come together. It is in this book that he develops and engages with what becomes one of the hallmark themes of his books, the question of fate versus fate will. Multiple characters lack control or even understanding of the powerful forces that drive and direct them, and it is revealed later in the book (-- spoilers --) that all of humanity has been secretly manipulated by an alien race (the Tramalfadorians, also present in Slaughterhouse Five) to deliver a broken space ship part. Salo, a Tramalfadorian, is an explorer delivering a message to a galaxy far away, stranded on Titan when small component on his spaceship breaks. Salo sends a distress signal to Tramalfadore, and they use a force called the UWTB (Universal Will to Become) to manipulate humanity to deliver the part to Salo (Kremlin, Stonehenge, the Great Wall, etc. are all messages informing Salo of their progress). All of human civilization and history, the Martian invasion, the establishment of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, everything that happens is for the purpose of Salo's message, and the message turns out to be a single dot, which means fucking "greetings" in Tramalfadore. (-- end spoilers --)

None of Vonnegut's other stuff has had the same gut-punching strength as when Salo opens the sealed message he's been carrying for 200,000+ years. What you feel is the weight of the worthlessness and senselessness of everything we've built and everything we are. Everything, like monuments, history, government, and religion, but also personal, like friendships, love, family, everything we think gives us meaning- all of it is shit, and no one is free from it. No one can overcome or even comprehend it- the humans are controlled by Rumfoord, Rumfoord is controlled by Salo & the Tramalfadorians, and the Tramalfadorians are all unthinking, programmed machines, and in the end of all of this, after a lifetime of exploitation and a race of exploitation, Malachi Constant still manages to say this:

It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

And that is fucking nice.

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine - Danielle Ofri

What Doctors Feel discusses the powerful impact emotions have on the practice of medicine and how often they are neglected. We generally think of emotions in medicine as a negative thing, and in our TV shows and movies we respect cool, logical doctors like Dr. Cox or Dr. House, doctors that are ideals of the idea that medicine should be practiced with as less emotion as possible. But acknowledged or ignored, emotions affect medicine, and Dr. Ofri argues that they are ignored to the detriment to both the doctor and the quality of care the patient receives, ultimately coming back to harm both patient and doctor.

In the anecdotes, research, and personal stories and experiences she shares, Dr. Ofri touches on both positive and negative emotions but focuses mostly on negative emotions like grief, shame, burnout, and fear because of how badly they're often addressed. These emotions are definitely not unique to medicine, but the scale is very different for doctors. Doctors experience huge extremes in joy and grief and endure lots of crushing responsibilities, and many of them are directly responsible for other people's lives. That's fucking nuts- in comparison, when I fuck up a deploy, it sucks but no one ever dies.

What Doctors Feel is a very raw, very honest look at what doctors feel in the everyday practice of medicine, and provides very good insight into how tough it is to be a doctor. A lot of what she says is definitely not very new, but she tells it in a very real way that I really admire, sharing tough, honest stories about the mistakes she's made and the patients she's cared deeply for but ultimately lost. 

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give is a YA novel about a young black high school student Starr, who witnesses a white policeman shoot and kill her unarmed childhood friend Khalil. Stuck between the poor black neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban school she attends, Starr is the only witness besides the policeman to the event, and wrestles with her fear of danger and her desire to speak out for justice.

The Hate U Give is important, topical, and necessary, because it is impossible for me, someone not in the same situation, to truly understand the lived experiences of people who feel the same anger, fear, and frustration Starr and her community feel. The best and really the only substitute is listening, trying to be open to learn and to acknowledge the realities of the situation and how they feel. Angie Thomas says

 I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times they'll show us a side of the world we may not have known about.

and she does such a fantastic job with The Hate U Give, tackling a bunch of tough subjects in a very real and honest way. The book never feels preachy or moralistic; instead she uses characters and dialogue to make complicated ideas and topics accessible. I particularly like the conversations Starr has with her dad about T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody), and what form the hate given to the oppressed takes. On top of all that, The Hate U Give is just a good book. It deftly balances its political and social commentary with humor, fun characters, and a really beautiful family dynamic, thoughtfully addressing the heavy shit while remaining a very accessible & realistic read. The characters are varied and human, the corny bits in the story fit well and are very satisfying, and the book has a distinctive and natural voice.

At times it was frustrating and painful to read the book, and I was reading it at home or in a coffee shop. This is not my life, so I am grateful to any book that can expand my horizons and help me understand.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking - Samin Nosrat

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Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is a cookbook split roughly into two parts: the latter a more traditional cookbook with recipes, and the former lessons on how to cook. These lessons are organized into roughly four sections, each addressing an element of good cooking: Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat. 

I don't really cook, so it's kind of weird that I read a cookbook, but I really enjoyed Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat because Samin has such a strong model for good cooking. She explains the science and the why's behind the techniques, and emphasizes understanding these elements to allow freedom and flexibility in the kitchen. In Samin's model there are four main elements of good cooking: salt enhances flavor, fat carries flavor, acid balances flavor, and heat is applied at the right level and right rate so that the surface of the food and its interior finish cooking at the same time. Once you understand these concepts, build a strong model, and know what results you want, you can use ingredients and apply techniques to achieve them. You keep pies cold to create flaky pastry, you cook water out to make food crisp, you eat cranberry sauce to counter rich Thanksgiving meals, and you salt cookies to bring out the sweetness; behind all of these techniques is salt, fat, acid, and heat.

I found her approach especially cool because a lot of these ideas apply to good programming. There's a course online called The Programmer's Stone that discusses what distinguishes effective engineers, and in the first lesson, focuses on the idea of "mapping" vs "packing." Packing is collecting information as a storehouse, contrasted by mapping, which refers to storing, analyzing, and breaking down information in order to build a map of the world. What Samin does so effectively and clearly in Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is distill 15 years of cooking experience into a very strong and generalized map, and by sharing that, helps elevate how I appreciate and create food. 

The design of the book is lovely- instead of using pictures, Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is filled with illustrations of food, serving as both a reference and a reminder to not try to follow the cookbook too strictly. Samin is also a good writer. She explains the techniques and defines the terms clearly, and paints a vivid picture of her experiences traveling, eating food, and working in the kitchen. She very obviously loves cooking and it makes reading the book a lot more exciting and fun. 

Also if you just wanted to read a helpful cookbook the book is very educational, and I learned a bunch of random cooking facts & cooking techniques, like the difference between table salt, kosher salt, and fleur de sel, what "browning" is and how to achieve it, and how to "sweat" vegetables. The recipes in the second half also look pretty good and there are a lot of different ones that are supposed to complement the earlier lessons, although I haven't tried any of them yet.

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

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Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of Howard Campbell Jr., an American playwright who moves to Germany and becomes a Nazi propagandist during WWII. Now in prison in Israel to be tried for war crimes where he is writing his memoirs, Campbell is actually secretly (not a spoiler, revealed really early on) an American spy recruited by the U.S. War Department, and his speeches/ radio broadcast all contained secret information sent to the US.

This book is interesting because I think it extends one of the key themes in Vonnegut's works. We all have to tell lies to accept and tolerate being human, but Mother Night is centered on the importance of the lies that you choose. Campbell pretends to be a Nazi and does his job so convincingly well that not only does no one believe he is actually an American spy, his work inspires thousands of racists and Nazis and convinces them of the righteousness of their beliefs. (-- spoilers --) Kraft is a communist Soviet Union sleeper agent, sent to undermine the US, but likes to paint and genuinely cares for and loves his friend. Resi is complicit in Kraft's plot and pretends to be Helga (his wife)'s sister, but she genuinely loves Campbell, so much so that she dies for love. (-- end spoilers --)

All of these people are defined by their actions and what they pretend to be. We all cling to something, and it turns out that the lies you believe in define not just what you do but who you are. To pretend to be what you are not is not the sin, because everyone participates in some farce to get by- the real crime against yourself is picking the wrong thing to pretend to be. 

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut

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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is the last Vonnegut of the month! It is the story of Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire & the legal steward of the Rosewater fortune who develops a social conscience, leaves his glamorous city life, and establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater Indiana where he goes to "love these discarded Americans, even though they're useless and unattractive." Eliot's drunkenness, his poor relationship with his wife and his father Senator Rosewater, and his unbridled generosity for the poor make him appear mentally ill, to the joy of Mushari, a lawyer who wants to prove Eliot insane and give ownership of the foundation to his poor cousins, taking a big cut in the process.

Eliot Rosewater is unlike any other Vonnegut character because he is good. All other Vonnegut characters are flawed in some ways- even the good guys & the titular heroes are sometimes selfish, indifferent, stupid, and powerless. On the other hand, Eliot's only flaw is being sane in an insane world, being the only one to truly care about the discarded and the downtrodden of America. He is amazing because he gives up "everything a man is supposed to want, just to help the little people," shedding his big fancy family, his beautiful wife, his bright future, and his money to give love freely to those who can receive it from no where else and from no one else. 

"A Sum of Money is the leading character in this tale about people," and the book is about how we are as a society dominated by money, and how as we grow more and more industrial and capitalist, we continue to "hate all those who will not or cannot work." What Eliot does, "to give that kind of love over a long period of time", is extraordinary but not impossible, and it is a personal choice we all have to make. Especially in the current political climate where many political issues are fundamentally moral issues, we each must decide "love people who have no use," and if we can "find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings." We must decide if we can give uncritical love, and if we can "learn to love and help whomever we see."

Here is this idea, summed up beautifully in a baptism speech:

’Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—: " ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ "

The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor - Howard Marks

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Chairman and cofounder of Oaktree Capital Management, Howard Marks is known for his Oaktree memos to clients where he details his investment strategy and thoughts on the market. In The Most Important Thing, he distills his investment philosophy built from years of investment experience and study into 20 chapters (really 19, the last is a summary), each titled "The Most Important Thing is..." and explains one important idea in investing. 

The Most Important Thing has very few specific, actionable tips, focusing mainly on sharing his investment mindset and model and reinforcing the important concepts in investing. This is particularly useful because Marks breaks down his thoughts and opinions very well, expressing complex things in a very clear and witty way. His writing style is good and the basics merit emphasis, but the book is way too repetitive- he says it, then quotes it in a past memo, then says it again, then again, and then again in another chapter. It's good if these concepts are new or unfamiliar, but I think the book could be 40% its length without losing any of its message.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only book, is about a beautiful young man in Victorian era England and the full body painting his friend Basil Hallward does of him. Beautiful and pure, the eponymous Dorian Grey is struck by the youth and beauty of the painting, and laments that his beauty is fleeting while the painting will endure, wishing that they could switch places. His prayer comes true, and as Dorian explores even more vices and indulgences, Dorian in the painting becomes older and uglier, absorbing and reflecting his age and sin while Dorian himself maintains his youthful energy and charm.

The premise of the book is really cool and the story has a really cool ending, but man the rest of the book was hard to read. I think it may be because I just spent a big chunk of my month reading Vonnegut, but The Picture of Dorian Gray felt so stuffy and boring. The book gets bogged down by a lot of unnecessary detail and really long dialogue, and it takes almost 100 pages in a 184 page book literally named after the painting for the painting to start changing. The characters were also terrible in character and as characters. Lord Henry and Dorian Grey, two of the three major characters, are both fucking terrible and terribly boring people, and more than half of the book is just Lord Henry jacking himself off and talking about how witty he is or dropping cynicisms or Dorian alternatively obsessing over himself or justifying the latest fucked up thing he did- all of it in what felt like excessively flowery language. It is basically just two pompous and vain assholes talking. 

Again, this might be all the Vonnegut I read this month, but I think The Picture of Dorian Gray would've been better as a short summary of one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction books.

My Favorite Thing about Kurt Vonnegut

My favorite thing about Kurt Vonnegut is that he is simultaneously the greatest cynic and the greatest humanist. 

I've read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut this month (Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and a lot of his works are centered on the same couple of pessimistic, depressing themes: the lack of free will and choice in the universe, the immense stupidity, selfishness, and violence of man, and the dangers of blind faith in technology, in religion, in anything.

This obviously lends itself to fairly bleak books. In Cat's Cradle, an indifferent scientist, his foolish children, and a selfish dictator cause the death of most of the world's people. In Breakfast of Champions, a rich white man goes on a rampage in a society where the poor and the minorities are oppressed. In Player Piano, people live in a dystopia where most find their meaning and purpose replaced by machines. In The Sirens of Titan, the entire human race is manipulated for centuries to deliver a replacement spaceship piece to a machine of another race on Titan.

Reading Vonnegut can be tough sometimes, but running counter to that in most of his books is a glimmer of hope and beauty and an assertion that life is still worth living and people are still worth loving. I first noticed this in The Sirens of Titan, and in my month of reading, thinking, and writing about Vonnegut, I realized he also says the same thing in his other books. Despite the soul crushing relentlessness of his books, that is what makes reading Vonnegut so rewarding and so rejuvenating, and it is a reflection of what I think is the best part about Vonnegut's books.

I am not saying that this thing is an absolute good. It would be a flagrant and complete misread of Vonnegut's works to think that his message is to find that pure, truthy, good hope, and hang on to it as a buoy in a sea of shit, because some of it, or even all of it, might just be a total fucking lie. Edgar Derby, Boaz, Bokonon, Newt, Rezi, Proteus, Eliot, all the heroes, all the real characters in his books, are just as stupid and just as shitty as everyone, live in the same terrible world as everyone does, and are just as powerless in a universe that doesn't give a fuck. Vonnegut knows this, and he writes about this in his books. The epigraph of Cat's Cradle declares the book and Bokononism a foma (a well intentioned lie). Boaz's discovery of love in The Sirens of Titan is dimmed by the fact that he loves semi-sapient organisms that feed on music and is planning to live in a deep cave in Mercury. The idea that at our core we are bands of light despite being wrapped around a machine of meat is delivered by a fool in Breakfast of Champions, an artist described as a "vain and weak and trashy man." 

Vonnegut knows that this is a foolish thing to believe, that just like everything else, this hope of something that isn't bullshit could be, and might even very likely be, complete bullshit- and that's ok. It is the existence of this hope that is important, not the veracity of it, and that glimmer is a uniquely beautiful and human thing. This message is even more impressive because bearing the weight of all this, Vonnegut delivers his message through writing characters that still have a shred of dignity and nobility and decency. 

In The Sirens of Titan the main character Malachi Constant is sent to Mars, has his brain wiped multiple times, gets sent to and lives in an underground cave in Mercury with another soldier, forgets his wife and child, gets exiled from Earth to Titan, and literally strangles his best and only friend to death with his bare hands unknowingly. This stuff is just fucking relentless. What's amazing about Vonnegut is that he truly, seriously believes that the world is shit, that man is vile, that we are nothing but powerless machines with no free will, and yet can still write stuff like

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'
(God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater)

still think

We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.

and still believe that

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. (The Sirens of Titan)

That's a man who has faith in people, and it makes me feel like it's ok for me to too.

Books of November 2017

佐賀的超級阿嬤  - 島田洋七


My Chinese has been getting a little rusty recently so I wanted to reread some Chinese books to practice a little. This is why there are more Chinese books in this month's review, most of which are rereads from a while ago.

佐賀的超級阿嬤 is the autobiographical story of 昭廣's childhood years in 佐賀. After 昭廣's dad dies in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, his mom struggles to simultaneously work and take care of 昭廣, so she sends him to live with his grandma in a small town in rural Japan. Their family is poor, struggling to put food on the table type poor, but his grandma is this incredibly positive woman who with a lot of ingenuity and dignity raises 昭廣. In the book, 島田洋七 shares stories about his grandma, his friendships, his teachers, and baseball, and 佐賀的超級阿嬤 is full of funny stories like how 昭廣 unknowingly stole oranges from his crush's house only to gift the same oranges back to her, interspersed with a lot of heartwarming stories like how his teachers would always feign stomach aches on field day as an excuse to swap bentos with 昭廣 to cheer him up because his mom couldn't come see him compete or how his grandma took out a 10,000 Yen note to buy 昭廣 spike shoes the day he became baseball captain.

The star of the book by far though is his grandma. Creative and resourceful, his grandma walks around the island with a magnet tied to her back to collect scrap metal, gets groceries from the river floating produce from the upstream supermarket, and encourages 昭廣 to run as a free alternative to kendo or judo, and then later to run without shoes to avoid wearing them out. Despite having to struggle month to month, she lives life very bracingly, and the book is full of her small wisdoms & sayings like "我們家是窮得開朗". Her positive mental attitude is amazing, and even with little, she gives very freely, and she is never ashamed or apologetic for their poverty.

佐賀的超級阿嬤 is a cute story, and pretty light in style (vocabulary too) and content, but there were two parts of it that I remembered and was particularly impactful from years ago. One is the idea of 活得燦爛, (living positively) embodied by his grandma, and the other is the idea of 體貼 (thoughtfulness) being invisible, that the greatest level of care and support is the invisible kind, where the recipient isn't even aware. In the book, the stories of 昭廣's teachers swapping his bento on field day, and a tofu seller breaking perfectly good tofu as an excuse to sell tofu for cheaper are good examples of that. I didn't realize it then, but looking back the latter especially was actually a pretty big influence on how I viewed charity and generosity and kindness. 

Ship of the Dead - Rick Riordan

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Ship of the Dead is the last book in Rick Riordan's trilogy Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. The series is based on Norse mythology, and its plot revolves around eiherjar (dead heroes brought to Valhalla) Magnus Chase and his friends trying to stop Loki from starting Ragnorak by sailing out in his ship of the dead made from the nails (not metal ones, toes and fingers) of the dishonorable dead. Norse mythology is hardcore. 

Like his other 20 books that he churns out at an insane cadence, this book is good. I have no idea how he does it but every couple months he just pumps out quality books and every few years he starts a new equally entertaining series. They are all good books and they're all written well and all the characters are great and they're well researched and the story is a lot of fun. Rick Riordan is just a quality author. 

I've expressed this opinion before, but I think what really sets him apart and contributes heavily to his popularity is the human element of his books, i.e. how well thought-out his characters are in motivation and in background. The characters were especially good in this series (my favorites were Jack, the talking Sword of Summer, and Magnus's friends Blitzen the fashionable dwarf and Hearthstone the mute elf rune magician). I think this is partly due to the rife opportunities provided by the gory hardcore nature of Norse mythology, because almost every character has a sad and brutal background story (for example, rune magic requires you to empty yourself and give yourself fully, so Odin spent 9 days and 9 nights hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil (the world tree) with his spear piercing his side looking down into the Well of Urd), and partly due to how diverse his characters are. Alex Fierro is probably one of the first gender fluid characters I've encountered in any book, and he/she is written really well and actually integrated into the story (he/she is a daughter of Loki and a shapeshifter).

At this point I am probably going to stop writing multi paragraph Rick Riordan reviews, because like the McDonalds breakfast menu, all of them are pretty consistent and all of them are pretty good.

Team Ben: A Year as a Professional Gamer - Christopher Fabiszak

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Smash is one of those games that I just never got into. My Smash strategy is the same as my basketball strategy: I do the same thing over and over again and hope it works eventually, which in execution means picking Falco every game and just spam falcon punch constantly until someone accidentally drifts into my path. I know really little about competitive Smash except that it is very micro intensive and the levels of skill are very clearly delineated.

That's why, on recommendation from my friend Brian, I read Team Ben, a pretty short read about the Smash community and an autobiographical recount of pro player Wife's competitive Smash experience. Chris played in Team Ben as part of a duo called The Newlyweds (his partner Husband played Marth, and he played Peach in a white dress, hence the name Wife). I found the sections of the book explaining what makes Smash a difficult game, how high level competitive Smash play works, and the history of the scene the most interesting parts of the book. He participated in what's called the Golden Age of Smash when Smash was starting to get a lot more visibility and sponsorship, and started in the scene even earlier in more local communities. It was cool to read about the experiences he had being a part of Smash when Smash was getting its most external popularity, but stylistically the book is pretty meh. It is a fairly short read though (100 pages or so) so if you're interested in Smash you will probably also enjoy this book.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel - Tom Wainwright


I listened Tom Wainwright's Econtalk podcast a few months ago, really enjoyed it, and saw this book in a bookstore so decided to give it a shot. I realized while reading this book that a lot of my favorite non fiction I've read this year are books about economics being applied to different fields, like the book on water scarcity and water economics also from another Econtalk guy (I should listen to more Econtalk...). Narconomics looks at the drug industry as a big business, and in particular spends a lot of time analyzing cartels. It is full of really interesting stuff evaluating our current policies and suggesting better economic solutions, and changed my perspective and opinion on the topic of drugs and regulations, which is an awesome outcome from reading a book.

Before sharing some of what I learned from the book, a quick note on style:
I love his style. It's clear, well-written, funny, easy to understand, and his introductory hooks actually lead somewhere and have some kind of related meaning to his points, which is a real blessing in non fiction. The book is also very well organized & divided into clear sections, each examining a different part of the drug business. 

Some stuff from the book that I liked/ found interesting:

  • There is overwhelming focus on limiting the supply of drugs, when economics suggest that cutting demand would make more sense. The demand for drugs does not drop much with the culling of its supply, and limiting supply actually makes the price of the drug market go up, and as transporting and making drugs becomes even more dangerous and expensive, only the most dangerous and well funded cartels can participate in the drug business. An analogy he makes that I really like is with art. Paintings are much much more expensive than the paint used to create it, just like a drug like cocaine is much much more expensive than its raw materials when it gets to the consumers. Destroying supply of raw materials is about as effective as restricting paintings by destroying paint. 
    • The inelasticity of demand for illegal goods and services has two worrying implications for a policy that focuses on supply. First, it means that even big successes in forcing up the cost of drugs (or coyote crossings, for that matter) translate to only small victories in what counts, namely, the number of people buying the drugs (or crossing the border illegally). Governments are thus condemned to invest large amounts of resources in return for only meager gains. Second, large increases in price coupled with only small decreases in demand mean that with every enforcement “success,” the value of the market increases.
  • A chapter I liked a lot focused on the legal highs industry in New Zealand. Drugs are hard to bring into New Zealand, so synthetics are much more common and popular there, where regulation has struggled to squash new, slightly tweaked, even more dangerous synthetics. Wainwright uses this chapter to illustrate the misaligned incentives that drive manufacturers to produce even more dangerous drugs to escape regulations instead of working to provide a safer product,
    • At the moment, they are driven by the need to synthesize new varieties that avoid existing bans, with little care for whether the resulting product is safe. Under a regulated market, the incentives would be different. Manufacturers would have a powerful motive to perfect (and patent) drugs that were less harmful and more satisfying to customers.
  • Narconomics ends with Wainwright highlighting four common mistakes governments make in regulating drug usage, like mistaking prohibition for control, and emphasizing prohibition over prevention, and he suggests in a very convincing argument that all drugs should be legalized. 
    All the chapters in the book suggest that current policies are ineffective, and instead of treating drugs like a moral issue ("drugs are bad so ban them!") instead we should look at the realities of the situation and think about how we can really provide an effective solution.
    • The boring but unsurprising truth is that it costs less money to get someone off drugs and into a job than it does to chase that person down in a BearCat.
    • But everything that this book has described about the drugs trade—from its roots in South America to its traffickers in the Caribbean, and from its consumers in Colorado to its retailers in cyberspace—points to the conclusion that if you really want to get drugs under control, to put the cartels out of business and protect the public, prohibition is not an effective way to do it.
    • The case now most often made for legalizing drugs is not that drugs are safe—it is that they are dangerous, and that bringing them within the law is a more effective way to control them than leaving them to the mafia.

As a final side note I also really respect what he did to research this book. Investigative journalists are in general just pretty insane people doing crazy brave things for the sake of sharing knowledge with the world, and that is to me very very admirable.

侯文詠極短篇 - 侯文詠


This is the second of my get-better-at-Chinese books this month. My sister Jessica bought this book a few years ago and I think I last read this book late middle school or early high school. The format of this book is really interesting, and I haven't seen anything else like it. 侯文詠極短篇 is a collection of super short stories that people have shared with the author, some of them just a few pages long and a couple only a few paragraphs. A lot of them are punchline based, and are just outrageous and funny in a very Roald Dahl-esque fashion (although without the darker elements). 

Reading 侯文詠極短篇 feels very similar to sitting with your friends trading interesting and funny stories. A lot of them I genuinely laughed out loud at, but what I liked the most is that he manages to capture in his stories what I think is a really representational slice of being Taiwanese and living in Taipei. Most of his stories and the people who tell them are just so quintessentially Taipei in content and style, and he captures a very Taiwanese mix of earnestness and resignation and sarcastic wit. The only other artist that I can think of that does something that feels similar is Duncan and his comics. 

As a side note, I am pretty interested in writing a book or a collection of short stories in a similar format, so if you have any funny or insightful short personal stories please come tell them to me.

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

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My review of Infinite Jest is here.

等一個人咖啡 - 九把刀


I borrowed this book from my Chinese teacher almost a decade ago and never returned it :p. I'm not 100% sure, but I think this book has the unique distinction of being the book that I've read the most times. I've read it through cover to cover at least 10, 15 times, and read bits and pieces of it probably over 20 times. 
I really really love this book and now that I'm reading it again a few years later I'm realizing just how formative this book was to me in terms of how I saw and understood my friendships and my romantic relationships. 

等一個人咖啡 is about this high school/ college girl who works at a coffee shop, has a crush on a really good looking and smart dude, but also has a really close guy friend. The friend takes her around 新竹, and together they meet weird people (like a mafia boss who really likes watching movies, an ex 5 star restaurant chef turned laundrymat owner, a self claimed "human body magician" who can blow milk through his nose without drinking any, etc.) and they just in general do really fun and interesting things together.

The primary reason why I really liked this book is because it's so damn cute, and there are so many amazingly well-written short background stories to each of the characters that by themselves would be phenomenal short stories. All the characters are so fun, so endearing, and I want to be friends with all of them. I really appreciated how they interact and got to know each other, and I think that was a big reason why the book had such a large influence on me, because it prompted me to think about meeting new people as an exploration. It made me excited and feel more open minded about meeting new people, to try to find and appreciate what makes people weird and unique, and that was definitely very good for me. 

The second big influence that I'm not sure were as healthy for me is the romantic parts of the book. The book talks a lot about destiny, of stories being "written," of things being already set romantically ("有些事,一開始就已經決定好了,努力是沒有用的"), ideas which appealed a lot to me when I was younger. I think its unrealistic representation of relationships fed my equally unrealistic notions of romanticism unhealthily, although to be fair, I'm not sure how much the book can be blamed versus just being a teenager. It is still a lovely story, written very well with super great characters, and I adore the book, enough that I thought it was worth my time to read it literally dozens of times in my life.

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works - Ash Maurya

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In Running Lean, Ash Maurya discusses his strategy for vetting product ideas and his process for building successful products. This book is a pretty good supplement to the more philosophical and higher level The Lean Startup and provides some very concrete, actionable advice, but I think for that reason I didn't like the book as much.

The good parts of the book:
- It is very easy to understand
- It is short & to the point (a rare blessing in these types of books)
- It is well organized
- It has some decent case studies and concrete examples/ advice

The bad parts of the book:
- I didn't learn that much more than what I got from The Lean Startup, but maybe the book will be more practical if/when I actually start a business?
- This is a very subjective opinion, but this book was not that interesting
- The cover is really terrible. What kind of O'Reilly book doesn't have an animal? 

The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed - Shea Serrano

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A birthday gift from my roommate Greg, The Rap Year Book is a top five non fiction of the year for me. From 1979 to 2014, Serrano picks the most important rap song of every year (not the best, which is a slight but important distinction). In his explanations & justifications for his choices, he covers a lot of history of rap, various trends in rap, and the innovative rappers who changed the scene, which I all found very interesting because I am pretty unfamiliar with a lot of stuff pre-2000s-ish. 

There are three things that make this book particularly outstanding. The first is that he is very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. It is clear that he has been deeply involved in the music scene and has loved rap and followed it ardently for many years. He cares a lot about the music, listens to the music, and is undeniable a real fan of rap. He is very passionate about the songs, artists, and events he describes, and nothing is more interesting to me than someone who knows a lot and cares a lot about a subject.

The second is that he is such a great writer. I've been writing reviews since February every month, and the two parts I have the most trouble with are a compelling introduction to the book, and a distillation of what the book is about and what is really important about the book- Serrano does both of these things SO well. In every section, he very clearly articulates why he thinks the song is important, and how the song either epitomizes the apex of a movement or innovated an entirely new one. He is very conversational and casual, a deceptively difficult thing to do, so his style and voice come through very clearly, and I feel like I got to know him over the course of reading his writing. He marries the simplicity of his writing with an astonishing ability to explains complicated ideas eloquently, most evident in how he captures the artistry of rap (his piece on Dear Mama is incredible). Also, and at this point it seems unfair how great of a writer he is, Serrano is seriously funny.

The third is the incredible design of the book. Every chapter has art of the rapper, and every chapter has some kind of infographic or a style map, where he tags some lines in the song with an icon indicating certain traits/trends. I loved the infographic on Nas vs Jay Z, where he details famous rap rivalries and includes Lil B and Kevin Durant, Run-DMC and sucker MCs, and the infographic for Gold Digger, where he provides a helpful decision graph for determining if your girl is a gold digger.

This was an unbelievably enjoyable read, and to put the cherry on top, I enjoyed almost all of the songs he picked.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments - David Foster Wallace

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A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is another set of essays by David Foster Wallace. Very similar to Consider the Lobster in style and in content, this collection had a mix of commissioned journal articles and  essays presenting arguments and theories, on subjects like the influence of television on fiction, his experiences at the state fair and on a cruise trip, and his competitive tennis history. 

There's one particular essay in the collection that I think deserves special mention: E Unum Pluribus, his essay on how TV and fiction are connected. It definitely isn't the most interesting essay in the book, but more than any of his non fiction that I've read, provides his perspective on fiction that drives a lot of the fiction that he writes. I can't do his fairly complicated argument justice in a short summary, but in the essay he argues that fiction and TV are related through their use of irony, and laments the popularity of meta-fiction in fiction. Irony overused becomes a prison, and in the essay, DFW describes his aspirations to free fiction from the bounds of cool and hip indifference and bring back earnest, honest writing. This essay lays out his project really well, giving a sense of the type of fiction he wants to write, and helped me understand Infinite Jest a lot better.

I also really appreciate and admire how he thinks so analytically and perceptively about something really mundane and distill deep insight from it. His essays on the state fair and the cruise trip were so interesting, and made me want to be more aware of the things around me and write more about my personal experiences.

Also man I am so jealous of the people that got to sit on a cruise with DFW for an entire week and play ping pong and chess against him. 

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View - Ellen Meiksins Wood

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The Origin of Capitalism is a political and economic argument about the history of capitalism, sketching out how far from being the natural and unavoidable consequence of technological advancement and economic freedom, capitalism is a historically specific and unusual development. I wanted to read this book because I share that view despite some misgivings about capitalism, so I thought it would be interesting to read.

I felt bad about giving up on this book because I usually quit on books only if I really dislike them for reasons of style or content. I quit on this book because while the subject is kind of interesting to me, the writing is so academic and dry I had trouble finding the focus to trudge through it. I might pick it back up some other day, but it reads like the stuff I had to read in CC.

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is the first book of the fantasy trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicles. As a rule I usually don't read fantasy novels, and I definitely don't usually read books where the name of the author is the same size as the title, and together they take up more than half of the book (see: James Patterson novels).

But The Name of the Wind is good. It does the standard fantasy novel very well in three different ways:

It hits all the cliches in a really satisfying way
The Name of the Wind has all the standard things that we love and expect in a good fantasy novel: the hyper-competent hero, an Orphan from the Streets who goes to a Super Special School of Magic and meets the Beautiful but Aloof and Unattainable Girl, investigates Ancient Mysteries and Scary Bad Guys (there are 7 of them, of course), learns magic (sympathy) from a Weird but Respected and Mysterious Master, etc.

It has impressive depth and consistency in a big story that takes place in a large world with a lot of characters
This becomes more obvious after you read the second book, but as the story builds, you see that Rothfuss is really careful and deliberate about the stories he tells and the names of things, and there are an abundance of interesting and unresolved mysteries in the book that remain consistent and meaningful. It is clear he's thought all of this stuff out before, and the small fragments of information and detail that Rothfuss slowly builds out over the course of the story weave into some bigger thread. The presence, or lack thereof, is what makes or breaks a lot of fantasy novels and contributes to bloat (see: book 4 of ASOIAF).

The writing is smooth and flows nicely, carrying the plot along well
My only gripe is how he uses foreshadowing. A lot of it feels heavy handed, like ending a chapter with an ominous future declaration ("I hope they enjoyed their final night of happiness together..."), and in my opinion is an effective but cheap cop out from building suspense. 

The book is long but goes really fast. The story is engaging and the characters are interesting, so if you're looking for something light and easy to read, this is definitely good bedtime material.

射鵰英雄傳 - 金庸


This is the first book I've read by 金庸, although since then I've reread some of his works a bunch of times. 金庸 is the pseudonym of a very famous Chinese author, who wrote a bunch of wuxia novels that are very popular in China. References to his books in movies and books and TV shows are rife if you pay attention and know them (the best example for Western audiences is probably the masterpiece Kung Fu Hustle). 

Wuxia refers to a genre of Chinese literature about the adventures of ancient Chinese martial artists. Many of 金庸's novels explore the themes of Chinese nationalism and patriotism very strongly, and many of his stories are set during times of Chinese occupation by foreign forces, like the Song dynasty. 金庸 also refers very heavily to Chinese culture, and his books have references to Chinese philosophies and religions, music, art, poetry, history, weiqi, etiquette, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, etc. His characters are also heavily motivated and his stories heavily driven by traditional Chinese values, like filial piety, respect, honor, and Confucian hierarchical relationships.

射鵰英雄傳  is set in the Song dynasty, in the beginning of the Jin dynasty's invasion of Northern China. The story is centered around 郭靖 and his development as a hero and as a martial artist, as well as the Jin invasion and the growing influence and power of the Mongols led by Genghis Khan. 射鵰英雄傳 has such an exciting storyline and so many diverse characters, and honestly is some of the hypest shit I've ever read. This is doubly impressive because the book is so long (4 volumes in total) yet still ties together nicely, flows very smoothly, and constantly delivers on the hype.

One very frustrating part of the book is that most of the story's conflict is driven by misunderstanding and people being too proud/ stubborn/ rash. In many many parts of the story, if someone just took the time to think and find out what really happened instead of swearing a bloody vendetta and trying to beat up a bunch of people, the story would be a lot shorter and there would be a lot less need for all the fighting and dying.

These books are classics, so I would definitely recommend reading them if you can. I read them because I enjoy them but also to practice my Chinese, but I found the vocabulary pretty hard, and I had to search up about a word a page. I also had a lot of trouble with the poetry, the songs and the ancient Chinese in the book and a lot of it went over my head, although YMMV. 

And Every Morning The Road Home Gets Longer and Longer - Fredrik Backman

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And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a short novella about an old man with Alzheimer's who is struggling to remember his most important memories and learning to let go. This is a dreamy love story and goodbye to family and loved ones all in one short novella, and is a lovely distillation of Backman's charm and compassion. It was good, but Backman's strongest suit in my opinion is character development, and there was very little opportunity for that in <100 pages. The message was classic Backman, but I think it loses the strength from his other books without the support of a strong cast of characters.

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss

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The Wise Man's Fear is the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicles. It's basically the same as The Name of the Wind, with some awesome differences:

  • It's longer.
  • The plot is more unique, and there are less cliched story points/ plot lines. I especially like the Felurian and the Ademre parts of the book.
  • There are a lot more details and stories, and the way they all fit together while furthering the mysteries and questions of the book is very impressive.
  • The writing is better (no more egregious use of foreshadowing).

I gave up on this book because I disliked the writing style and didn't find the content of the book that interesting. They were more like a random collection of anecdotes rather than interesting insight or experiences about being a pornstar. The cover/design is very nice though, and she shares one of the best haikus I've read in a book before:

Home from Trader Joe's.
Was it there that en-tire time?
Dried cum on my neck

The Entertainment

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace


My favorite book in the world is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

I am a DFW fanboy through and through, and I have not felt such great unstinting admiration for an author and a person in a super long time, maybe ever. I loved Consider the Lobster, I loved his speeches, and I loved his interviews, so I decided to pick up Infinite Jest earlier in September, which was a way bigger commitment than I thought it would be. I usually clip through books in a few days, maybe a week if it's an especially long read, but I spent 2 months, at least 30 minutes every day, beating my way through Infinite Jest.

This blog post is my review of Infinite Jest, and it is organized along the two dimensions that I think are the most important to the book: how brilliant and amazing and phenomenal and mind-blowingly addictive and great the book is, and looming equally large, how fucking insanely difficult it is to read. But before I get into that,

What is Infinite Jest about?

In an alternate world, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a unified superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. for short (lol). On orders of U.S. president Johnny Gentle, a star turned politician (lol) and a clean freak who campaigned on the platform of cleaning up the U.S., toxic waste is literally catapulted into the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, rendering it an uninhabitable wasteland either devoid of all life or terrorized by herds of giant feral hamsters. 

The book mainly takes place in two locations, both in Boston: Enfield Tennis Academy, where students train in tennis and compete to attend The Show, and Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where residents try to kick their drug addiction. Most of the characters in the book are either students in the academy or people living in the house.

There are four primary plot lines in the book, eventually interwoven:

  • The students that train and study at Enfield Tennis Academy
  • The addicts at Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
  • A fringe group of Quebecois terrorists, Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins; A.F.R.) and their violent geopolitical coup, opposed by high level US operatives
  • The history of the Incandenza family, especially Hal, a brilliant student and tennis player

The thread that connects these four narratives is a film made by James Incandenza, founder of Enfield Tennis Academy and the main character Hal's dad. The eponymous Infinite Jest (also referred to in the novel as "The Entertainment" and the "samizdat"), the film is so entertaining to its viewers that they lose interest in everything but viewing the film until they eventually die. 

Why is Infinite Jest Hard?

The vocabulary:
DFW has an immense mental dictionary at his disposal, and somehow his fiction has even denser vocabulary than his non fiction. I'm not sure how much it adds to the book itself, but based on his speeches and his other works I think he actually does use words like "avuncular" and "uremic" in his everyday vocabulary. The vocabulary in this book is so ridiculous that someone compiled definitions for all of these words, page by page here.

The length:
The book is long, like hard to carry around and dangerous if dropped long. Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages, including footnotes, and the book is so unwieldy to read that some readers actually recommend cutting the book in three parts. Amazon sent me two copies of the book, so with an exacto knife I actually cut the book into three: one at page 531, the other at the start of the footnotes.

Infinite Jest split.jpg

The organization:
The organization of this book is best described as "aggressive." Eschewing chronological plot development, Infinite Jest is atemporal and jumps around from date to date seemingly randomly (although apparently it models the Sierpinski triangle) and his endnotes are insane. At one point in the book he puts entire chapters in the footnotes, and early on in an endnote (24), he details the complete filmography of one of the characters, James Incandenza. Each entry looks something like this:

“Fun With Teeth” - B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Herbert G. Birch, Billy Tolan, Pam Heath; 35 mm; 73 minutes; black and white; silent w/ non-human screams and howls. Kosinski/Updike/Peckinpah parody, a dentist (Birch) performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic (Tolan) he suspects of involvement with his wife. MAGNETIC VIDEO, PRIVATELY RELEASED BY LATRODECTUS MACTANS PRODUCTIONS

and this goes on for almost 20 pages, in tiny footnote font. This filmography is packed with references and details and several films directly foreshadow and mirror future events in the book, but the endnote is literally almost incomprehensible and painfully boring to read the first time you read it. 

The individual sections:
The chapters/ sections of the book are individually really hard to consume. Part of it is definitely because of the vocabulary, but mostly I think it is because as a fiction author, DFW feels no qualms about hosing you down. You know how the first time you go to class, the teacher usually spends some time going over the basics? The professor doesn't start a modern algebra class by immediately talking about groups and rings; he/she generally spends some time going over some basic set theory and easing you into the subject. DFW is completely not about that. Infinite Jest covers a million different topics, from media theory to optics to mathematics to tennis to complicated North American politics to drugs, and for each of these DFW just starts talking, with seemingly no regard for how much you know. On the first read, you have to grip desperate at every bit of knowledge DFW throws at you, hoping that you retain enough of it for any of it to make any fucking sense.

The overall map:
But by far the most significant obstacle is the book's map is very unclear, meaning that it is very hard to build out a mental model for what the fuck is going on section by section, let alone character by character, let alone general plot. There are just so many seemingly completely divergent and random plot lines and character backgrounds that are traced in back and forth and up and down that I felt not only lost but actually assaulted when I was reading this book. 

Why is Infinite Jest good?

So why is the book worth it? Hard things are only worth it if there is an equivalent or greater reward, but like yanking your teeth out one by one, there are a lot of difficult and painful things that yield pretty minimal reward. Infinite Jest is not one of them. The early pages are definitely rough, and up until page 150 or so the book is pretty much absolutely meaningless and profoundly confusing, and I can totally understand and respect the desire to give up before that. He remains pretty consistently abusive throughout the book, but it gets better around page 200ish and then progressively improves until it basically becomes your Entertainment, your samizdat. Even after spending 2 months on it, I feel like I've barely even scratched the surface of DFW's masterpiece and labor of love, and I barely understand the book or really appreciate its greatness.

The style:
The easy one to point out is his brilliant language and phenomenal style. He has a really unique way of writing, a really special DFW way of communicating that is clearly evident in his non fiction but shines through even greater in his fiction. 

The endnotes:
I love reading his endnotes. A lot of them are punchlines to jokes that I didn't even know he was setting up. 

The individual sections:
Especially early on, Infinite Jest feels a lot like DFW just saying some random shit and telling you random stories, which is actually by itself great because DFW is a genius, so you get these individual sections that are just brilliant stand-alone short stories or phenomenally profound essays. The story of Steve Erdedy preparing for a marijuana binge or Hal's essay on the modern hero are just tiny sections of the book, but by themselves they are better than anything I could ever hope to write.

The breadth:
This isn't to say many of his sentences aren't painful to read, but in between long moments of deep confusion there are flashes of insane brilliance and insight. While I was reading the book, I would often read a sentence or a passage and stop to think: "man, this guy is really smart." Part of the greatness of the book is that he hits on so many topics in such a deeply thoughtful way, and what makes his writing so special is that he looks at a small but common element of modern American life and thinks very deeply about it and then writes very beautifully and incisively about it. I have never read a better description of hip irony than:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human [...] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” 

or a better argument for the importance of what we worship than:

“Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.” 

or a more compelling reason to not watch porn than:

"Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of [porn] giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he'd personally prefer that Orin wait until he'd found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that'd he'd wait until he'd experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely."

The book is full of this kind of stuff. He is an awe-inspiring writer and thinker.

The map:
A big source of pleasure from reading the book is figuring out how things connect, and DFW leaves plenty of satisfying hunts and clues. Separate sections constantly refer back to each other or connect in a surprising way, and the more you pay attention and remember details and people and events from earlier in the book, the more enjoyable reading the book becomes (for example, the Great Concavity/Great Convexity controversy). This becomes more clear as you read more of the book and start to see the references he litters liberally throughout the book, but this was most obvious to me when I was explaining a plot point that especially fucked me up to a friend. To set the context for that story, I had to explain a bunch of random stuff about inter Canada-US relations and tennis and filmography and geometry and addiction, and 10 minutes into my explanation I realized somehow I absorbed a lot more from his firehose than I realized. 

The motivation:
My favorite part of the book is what I think the book is about, but I'm going to skip that in this review, because it took me up to around 850, 900 pages to really start to have an opinion on what the book is about. For me a large part of the brilliance and beauty of reading Infinite Jest is the process of coming up with your own ideas of what the book is about, and I would hate to spoil that experience for you if you haven't read the book. If you have and want to talk about the book, please let me know; I'd really love to hear what you think!

I didn't realize this until I wrote out reasons for why I think this book is both difficult and so good and found there was a lot of overlap, but in my opinion the two dimensions of the book are deeply intertwined in a very significant and meaningful way, and the book would be much less richer without its difficulty. I think he writes fiction very much for the reader, and despite a lot of evidence otherwise, I don't think Infinite Jest is intentionally written to be difficult to read just to fuck you up. 

Should I read Infinite Jest?

The book is massive and takes a lot of time, but if you have the time and investment then yes, it is the greatest book I have ever read. The book gets a lot better around page 150 and picks up around page 200-300 ish when you pick up enough pieces to start understanding what the fuck is going on (it is no accident that page 233 is the "Chronology of Organizations of North American Nations' Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time, by Year"). It's like the folks in AA say in the book- it might not make any goddamn sense but Keep Coming Back, keep trying, keep paying attention, because by god, it works.

I am blessed by this book, and I am a different person after reading it. There are very few books that have so profoundly shown me new horizons.

Books of October 2017

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane - Gucci Mane, Neil Martinez-Belkin

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This was such a crazy book. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane tells the story of Gucci's life from his perspective, from his childhood to his successes as a rapper to his most recent arrest and release. In the book, Gucci shares his background as a super fucking hard dude from the streets, and his incredible music career, with all of its glamor and all of its shit. From a poor kid selling drugs on the street, he built up the Atlanta hip hop scene and had a huge hand in its widespread popularity now. His roots run so deep, and it was really interesting to read him casually name drop some huge artists he either worked with or personally brought up. A lot of the artists he brought under his wing he found way before any of their songs were popular, and so many people are connected to or indebted to him- Nicki Minaj, Migos, Waka, Young Thug, etc.

He's definitely done some pretty nasty stuff, some shitty and slimy stuff in the industry and in his life, but he's the first to admit his faults in the book. He had a tough life and grew up in some bad circumstances, but his hustle and work ethic are so admirable. He works so freaking hard- I tried to listen to a song he quoted in his book from 2008 on Spotify, and just couldn't find it, because he's made so many mixtapes and albums since then that scrolling through the 2010s took a solid minute.

He's also really turned himself around after his most recent arrest: he's apparently now a family guy, devoted to his kid and his fiance Keyshia, quit the drugs cold turkey, lost a ton of weight from working out and quitting lean, and still makes a ton of music. I really respect how much he believed in himself, and how dedicated he was to making music and furthering his craft. Recently, Rihanna posted this Gucci Mane meme:

 He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

He looks INCREDIBLE. Team Gucci

Sidenote: while I was reading the book, I realized an interesting problem with me learning most my stuff from reading- I tend to not really know the source material that well compared to a real fan. For example after reading this book I have a decent understanding of Gucci's background and his philosophy on work and his history as an artist, but I've only listened to something like 3 of his songs...

Here are some quotes that I really like from the book:

  • On trap music:
    "Trap music. To some it’s the subject matter. Stories of serving fiends through burglar bars. To others it’s a style of beatmaking. Shit, today there’s a whole audience of white kids who think trap music is about popping molly and going to a rave. In a way it’s all those things. But when I think about trap music I think about those early days in Zay’s basement. When I would go over early in the morning after a night spent juugin’ in my neighborhood. When Zay would mix our songs and he didn’t even know how to mix. The whole process was crude and unrefined. What we were making wasn’t radio-ready and definitely not destined for the charts. When I think about trap I think about something raw. Something that hasn’t been diluted. Something with no polish on it. Music that sounds as grimy as the world that it came out of."
  • On Gucci's insane work ethic:
    • "It was a 24/7 operation with an open-door policy for any rapper or producer I fucked with to come be a part of what we had going on. I gave those boys hell whenever they tried to leave. Take a nap on the couch if you tired, I’d tell ’em. If one of the engineers got tired, I’d sit down and record Peewee or Thug myself. If you need a break from recording, let’s roll something up. Or pour something up. Or shoot some dice. Ain’t no need to leave the studio. The Brick Factory was some hippie commune shit. Outlaws playing by our own set of rules. A tale of true American counterculture."
    • "I hit up every DJ I knew and told them I wanted to do a mixtape with them. EA Sportscenter with Holiday, Mr. Perfect with DJ Ace, So Icey Boy with Supastar J. Kwik, Ice Attack with Dutty Laundry, WILT CHAMBERLAIN with DJ Rell, Gucci Sosa with DJ Scream, From Zone 6 to Duval with Bigga Rankin."
  • On Gucci's insane A&R:
    • "I already had a reputation as an A&R man—someone with an ear for new talent. My early involvement with Waka, OJ, Nicki, and Mike Will spoke for itself. But the Brick Factory was where I took an active role in grooming the careers of the next generation of young talent coming out of Atlanta. This was because one by one, all the young guns I’d taken under my wing at the Brick Factory were blowing up. My fingerprints were all over their music and they were making their reverence for me known."
    • "The other reason nobody broke artists in Atlanta the way I did was because my method didn’t make much sense on paper. An established recording artist, a multimillionaire, hanging out with twenty-year-old street niggas in a studio off Moreland in East Atlanta every day, that shit doesn’t add up. But for me it did. Because I always made myself accessible. No matter how much money I made or how famous I became, I was never able to withdraw myself from that world. That’s something that’s given me the reputation I have, but it’s something that’s had its drawbacks. Big ones."
  • On 2017 Gucci:
    "I remembered that as low as my lows had gotten, I always had faith in myself. That I always knew if I could get past those temporary moments, eventually I’d be up again. Jail couldn’t beat me. Lean couldn’t beat me. No situation could beat me. I was the only one who could beat me."

The Best of Roald Dahl - Roald Dahl

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I spent 2 months reading this book on and off, mostly because I kept getting distracted by other physical books and because the layout of this book is so brutal. The text is tiny and the pages are so flimsy it feels almost Bible-like. I thought I would really like this book, because I really enjoyed Skin, a collection of short stories also by Roald Dahl, but this felt like a superset of Skin with additional short stories that weren't as great.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting stories in there, and he definitely has a twisted fucked up mind. This collection supports my theory that good children's book authors are only a thin line away from being good at writing horror stories, and the storylines of children's books are a small hop from becoming horror stories. A lot of his stories take a similar form in content and style- many of them are about a setup (someone trying to con someone else), and then realizing in the end that they're the ones that got tricked. Most of these stories really come together only in the end, and the ending is the big reveal and the satisfying finish that makes these stories good.

Some of my favorite stories from the book were: Man from the South, Taste, Skin, Lamb to the Slaughter, Parson's Pleasure, Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, The Great Switcheroo, and The Wonderful Tale of Henry Sugar.

Born a Crime and Other Stories - Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime and Other Stories is about Trevor Noah's crazy childhood in South Africa. I honestly had no idea he had such a crazy past; the first time I heard of him was when they announced he was taking over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart, and after that I stopped watching The Daily Show. I thought he was just some British comedian, but the name of the book is not a joke and he was literally born a crime, born during apartheid when white and black people were not allowed to marry and have kids.

Besides the legality of his existence and the racism, Noah went through some pretty tough circumstances- growing up in poverty, raised by a single mom, living with an abusive stepfather, etc. His book shares a lot of his interesting thoughts on poverty traps and racism, especially as someone treated as a white man who thinks of himself as black. 

He's also very very funny- his stories about jail, going to the winter dance, selling bootleg CDs, and his brief meditation on pooping were all actually fucking hilarious, but more importantly, his description of his family dynamic, what it was like being colored in South Africa, and his views on racism and apartheid have that beautiful combination of humor applied to very serious topics without trivializing them that all great late night news comedians like Jon Stewart and Colbert share. 

On a quick sidenote: this is not really related to the content of the book or the author, but the book is also printed with really big words and huge margins, which I think its an under appreciated thing in books that is often hogged by children's books. Adults like margins too!!!

People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts - Robert Bolton

People Skills.jpg

People Skills, written in the 80s, is a collection of tips/advice/skills from Robert Bolton about interacting more effectively with people. This book has some useful information, but like almost every other book from this time in this category, the book is just so freaking unnecessarily long. Every author of this variety writes the same fucking thing 4 or 5 times and tops it off with a quote or two saying the same thing, and while I appreciate the summary he adds at the end of every chapter, I can't help but think that the summary is probably a more appropriate length for the chapter than the chapter itself. The other reason why I skimmed this book is because, also like every other psych/ business book from the 80s, they all write in the same rage inducing style. Every section

  • includes weird semi-related literary references, often to the Bible
  • abuses common idioms ("It takes two to tango, but it also takes two to tangle")
  • liberally uses some super scripted examples where people say stuff like "Oh darn!" or "Jolly good!"
  • adds a shit ton of quotes, mostly in the form of "as [famous person] said, [insert already repeated idea]"

At one point he literally uses a dictionary definition to open a chapter, something I haven't used or even seen since middle school. The only merit to this style is that these books tend to be very well organized, and its easy to understand if not very annoying to consume. I thought some of the book was helpful, but most of it was pretty formulaic and I haven't disliked a book so long in a while, but who knows... YMMV.

Auguste Rodin - Rainer Maria Rilke

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Rodin is my favorite artist ever, and my trip to the Musee Rodin in Paris last summer was amazing. I love his work because when you engage with his pieces you feel like Rodin has captured some fundamental essence of life and humanity, some painful and broken element and made it monumental and beautiful and dynamic in static sculpture. It is hard to accurately describe the sense of grandeur and weight in his works, but in Auguste Rodin, Rodin's friend and secretary Rilke (the poet) does a beautiful job of capturing a lot of what you feel when you look at a Rodin sculpture in his discussion of Rodin's work and development as an artist.

The book is pretty short, but still takes a while to read because Rilke's prose, while lovely, is also very dense.

Some quotes I really like from the book:

  • On the dedication of a great artist:
    "He possessed the quiet perseverance of men who are necessary, the strength of those for whom a great work is waiting."
  • On doubt, and the sureness of greatness:
    "At the moment when they began to doubt him, he doubted himself no longer, all uncertainty lay behind him. His fate depended no more upon the acclamation or the criticism of the people; it was decided at the time they thought to crush it with mockery and hostility. During the period of his growth no strange voice sounded, no praise bewildered, no blame disturbed him."
  • On completeness:
    "Hence his work was so invincible. For it came to the world ripe, it did not appear as something unfinished that begged for justification. It came as a reality that had wrought itself into existence, a reality which is, which one must acknowledge."
  • On the self containment of Rodin's work:
    "It must not demand nor expect aught from outside, it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries."
  • On life distilled as art:
    "Here life became work; a thousandfold life throbbed in every moment. Here was loss and gain, madness and fright, longing and sorrow. Here was a desire that was immeasurable, a thirst so great that all the waters of the world dried up in it like a single drop. Here was no lying and denying, and here the joys of giving and taking were genuine and great. Here were the vices and blasphemies, the damnations and the beatitudes; and suddenly it became evident that a world was poor that concealed or buried all this life or pretended that it did not exist. It was!"
  • On the greatness of Rodin:
    "With his own development Rodin has given an impetus to all the arts in this confused age. Some time it will be realized what has made this great artist so supreme. He was a worker whose only desire was to penetrate with all his forces into the humble and difficult significance of his tools. Therein lay a certain renunciation of Life, but in just this renunciation lay his triumph, for Life entered into his work."

Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: Intersectional Perspectives and Inclusive Designs in Gaming - Yashin B. Kafai, Gabriela T. Richard and Brendesha M. Tynes

Diversifying Barbie to Mortal Kombat.jpg

Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat is a collection of essays by various academics providing intersectional perspectives and research in gaming. I really enjoyed this book; I found it a very insightful read and I learned a ton from the book. Not all the subjects were that interesting or useful to me (like game design for sex education or college applications, how to organize gaming conferences, etc.) but the essays on GamerGate and intersectional feminism in gaming were really eye-opening. It was helpful in introducing me to some of these new ideas and giving me some new vocabulary to think and talk about this stuff. The writing is sometimes a little academic and dry, but in general the book is pretty accessible and easy to read, and it is very clear that the authors are very deeply involved and understand the gaming community (my favorite example of that was in an essay when the author quotes someone from an X-Box forum with the gamertag SheBangs123).

Some of the things I learned/ enjoyed from the book (there's a ton of good stuff here, I had to take out a bunch for the sake of length):

  • On Taking Play Seriously: while games on played out on virtual environments, games are a very real part of people's experiences and it is important to remember behind the summoner name, the gamer tag, the steam id, there is a very real person interacting with the game.
    • "But this popular cultural conceit, comprising a near-consensus view of the internet, transcending lines of class, ideology, nationality, gender, has led many people to become implicitly socialized into viewing actions taken online as somehow less real or otherwise lacking in serious consequences."
    • "The solution lies in asserting, more powerfully than ever, that the Internet is a real place and that avatars are us, a digital manifestation of our flesh and blood existence, a vulnerable form onto which we may project all that we are and hope to be, and which is thus lumbered with many of the same vulnerabilities as our physical selves."
  • On gamer gate and broadening our perception of "gamers":
    • "In this way, GamerGate is a death rattle of a dying regime. White male-presenting players were never the only consumer base for games nor the only important one, and even marketing these days cannot afford to solely cater to their fancy."
    • "There have always been women at the forefront of leadership in games. Many of these women have stood with their female finger in the dam of social outcry for greater regulation, legislation, and even censorship at times in our history when that position was massively unpopular and cost them politically and personally. Game enthusiasts ought to be grateful to them—and GamerGaters are right to fear them. This is no longer their industry anymore, if it ever was."
  • On the three waves of feminism in gaming:
    • "The first wave tended to focus on “how most games featured narrow gender stereotypes, how few games on the commercial market were of interest to girls and women, how female players wanted different gaming experiences, and how women were not a visible part of game production” During the second wave, the emphasis was on understanding sociocultural context, and the experiences of women who play and participate in gaming. In particular, scholars critiqued how women and girls’ preferences and motivations to play games were “unproblematically reported” as being linked to their supposed “natural” preferences for cooperation, non-violence and exploration. Now in the third wave, the current research on gender and game culture is heading toward understanding intersectional concepts like sexuality, ethnicity, race and class, and the nuanced experiences across gender, which includes revisiting how we define and study masculinity."
  • On the external barriers minorities feel in participating in games and gaming communities:
    • "when non-players are queried directly about their reasons for not playing a particular game, they provide answers that fall outside what would typically be classified as “personal choice”."
    • "an individual’s “lack of interest” is misread as a choice to not participate in gameplay and/or gaming cultures. And yet, as chapters in this collection have illustrated, dropping out or disengaging from gaming cultures is often far more complicated than what could be attributed solely due to “personal interest”."
    • "Violently silencing women, whether in The Odyssey or in Call of Duty, is as old as the hills."

And my favorite takeaway: "When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum. —Leigh Alexander."

Turtles All the Way Down.jpg

Man I have been waiting for this book for ages. I started reading John Green's stuff in middle school, and I've really liked his stuff ever since. I think his books were more meaningful to me when I was younger, but I am still a fan; I still think he's a good writer and I like the topics that he chooses to write about. Turtles All the Way Down is about Aza, a young teenage girl suffering from OCD, and her search for her old childhood friend Davis Pickett's billionaire father.

I enjoyed this story as well, but I think it misses the epic element that made his books before so enjoyable. In The Fault in Our Stars it was their Amsterdam trip, in An Abundance of Katherines it was their uproariously funny hunting trip, in Looking for Alaska it was the prank; it didn't feel like there was a similar equivalent in Turtles All the Way Down. But the strongest parts of his books are always his characters (especially the best friends: Hassan, the fat, smart, unmotivated Arab, the short smart bookworm who goes by "The Colonel," the blind friend who loves video games and takes blindness in stride). Turtles All the Way Down is no exception, and features a strong and lovable cast. Like all of John Green's protagonists, Aza is funny, smart, caring, heroic, and also flawed in painful and deeply relatable ways (also Aza's best friend Daisy writes Wookie centered Star Wars romantic fan fiction). 

I really like how John Green addresses some important and painful topics in his books, and I think part of why his books had such a big impact on me was because he made these heavy complicated topics digestible for teenagers. His characters are so easy to understand and relate to that it's clear he thinks a lot about how to make his characters real. You don't need to be in love with 17 Katherines or to have cancer to feel very strongly for Colin or Hazel, and you don't need to have OCD to empathize with Aza- you just need to know the very human experience of feeling trapped with your mind in your body. 

On a side note I noticed while reading this book that he uses a particular writing technique over and over again: a description and/or observations, followed by a short but deep and profound statement. I used to really like it and those short statements would fuck me up but I feel like they've lost a bit of their appeal now.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • On enduring friendship:
    ‘Holmesy and Daisy: They did everything together, except the nasty.’
  • On self:
    “Nobody gets anybody else, not really. We’re all stuck inside ourselves.” “You just, like, hate yourself? You hate being yourself?” “There’s no self to hate. It’s like, when I look into myself, there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them just don’t feel like they’re mine. They’re not things I want to think or do or whatever. And when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It’s like those nesting dolls, you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there’s a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it’s solid all the way through. But with me, I don’t think there is one that’s solid. They just keep getting smaller.”
  • On doubt:
    “There’s a moment,” she said, “near the end of Ulysses when the character Molly Bloom appears to speak directly to the author. She says, ‘O Jamesy let me up out of this.’ You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.” I nodded. “But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.” “But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?” “No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.”

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses - Eric Ries

Lean Startup.jpg

The Lean Startup is Eric Ries's description of his Lean Startup Methodology of developing new products, designed to quicken the product development cycle by shortening what he calls the Build-Measure-Learn loop. I found this book surprisingly valuable given that I work at a pretty big company, but I think there's a lot of stuff in here that's relevant and useful even for people not working at traditionally defined "startups." Ries defines entrepreneur as anyone working to provide value in a space with a lot of uncertainty. This is not necessarily tied to size, but rather by problem space and the type of value you're trying to provide, so by this definition my team operates pretty similarly to a startup.

The basis of his methodology is in answering the question of how to build a valuable product in a space of uncertainty. Great engineering directed at the wrong product is a brutal waste of resources, and Ries argues that the best way to figure out what to build is to try a bunch of stuff, but try it intelligently. Think about what the key assumptions are, think about how to validate them through the correct metrics to measure success, and then think critically about what value the product is providing. All the tools and tips in the book in some way help tighten that feedback loop and are driven by the pursuit of validated learning. Even as an engineer not doing PO work, this book has a lot of great ideas for engineers to think about how to wear the product hat better. 

Like all books of this genre, the book is super well organized, and I especially liked how he precedes each chapter by ending the previous one describing the motivating problem of the chapter. He is also a pretty good writer, and actually varies his sentence structure, which is actually kind of rare for the business related books I've read. I also like how he uses a lot of concrete examples to help make his points clearer. My one gripe stylistically and content wise is that I hate books that refer to their ideas as a "methodology" or even worse, a "movement," and Ries is a little too cultish for my liking about the "Lean Startup Movement" that's poised to fundamentally transform the way we work and change the world forever.

But that's a small complaint and most of it is concentrated towards the end of the book. It's definitely worth a read and I liked it enough to actually buy a physical copy too.

Books of September 2017

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee


Pachinko is the story of four generations of a Korean family in Japan in the 20th century. Sprawled over the course of seven decades, Pachinko begins with a cleft-palated lame fisherman Hoonie and his wife Yangjin, who own a boarding house in a small fishing village in Korea during Japan's annexation, and follows the family's immigration and exile to Japan, where they struggle to survive in an indifferent and unfair environment. 

Like every good multi-generational story, Pachinko defies summary. It is a rich story of sacrifice, love, suffering, ambition, loyalty, and identity, but also a story of outsiders and minorities, of devoted sisters and wives, of fathers scrambling to provide, and of sons and daughters struggling to find their identity. Every time the story seems to center around a topic- living in Japan as a Korean during Japan's occupation, Christianity, the suffering and sacrifice of women, the struggle for 2nd, 3rd generation immigrants to reconcile starkly different cultures - it quickly changes, adding to its breath-taking complexity and depth. 

Lee writes with simple, down-to-earth language, reflective of her characters and the family. Her most powerful writing is when she describes complex events and emotions with unadorned language, like Mozasu's frank conversation with his best friend over fried oysters, shishito peppers, and beer:

"In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I'm just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the fuck?” 

or Sunja thinking about her son:

“There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could feel Noa's small hand when he was a boy, and she would close her eyes and think of his sweet grassy smell and remember that he had always tried his best. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.” 

The one thing I thought was weak about the book is its ending. Pachinko is really really long, spanning so many of stories and so much time that it becomes very difficult to tie up so many different stories together in a satisfying way. The ending is a little abrupt and doesn't really wrap things up, and it definitely doesn't help that I thought her best characters are early on in the book (although I really like Mozasu and Hana and really rooted for both of them).

Despite the wide breadth of events in the book, it is the characters and their stories that really propel the long novel forward. Lee's characters are fantastic- they are varied and complex, and they each have their private motivations, wishes, fears, and desires that manifest in how they carve out their existence in their tumultuous lives. The book is not very happy- a lengthy imprisonment is ended by torture, a disgraced man commits suicide, a young, ostracized woman resorts to prostitution, becomes ill, and dies early - but the core of the book remains hopeful. A motif oft repeated in the book is that "Go-saeng- a woman's lot is to suffer," but in the midst of great suffering these powerful and devoted women continue to survive and dream. “Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage," and even though "pachinko was a foolish game, life was not." In the chaotic landscape of life, despite stacked odds, they play on and endure for a chance to win.

Chemistry - Weike Wang


Chemistry is about an unnamed chemistry PhD candidate in her final year. The story is centered around two important questions: should she finish her PhD, and should she say yes to her boyfriend's marriage proposal? In her exploration of these questions, we learn about her toxic relationship with her parents, her wonderful relationship with her boyfriend Eric (the only named character in the book), and her feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. 

The contents and the story itself is not very groundbreaking or even particularly interesting, but what sets the book apart is its phenomenal writing style. I usually hate when authors write in short sentences because I find it is often abused as a lazy way to build suspense or to try to generate hype, but in Chemistry, Wang uses her staccato sentences and short, spare sections as a hilarious and brutally honest companion to her deadpan observations and attitude towards the crazy stuff she's going through in her life. It reminds me a little bit of The Bell Jar, because the unnamed narrator and Esther speak in the same matter of fact way. But where Esther's impassiveness heightens the horror of her situation, Wang's dry style is much more conversational, casual, and relatable, and in conjunction with the continual present tense, makes Chemistry feels more like a stand-up routine than a novel. Her account of her personal crises are interjected to great effect by a constant stream chemistry, physics, or biology facts, such as

  • "A meter is the distance between two marks on a platinum bar in Paris. A meter is how much chocolate I have eaten since he has been gone."
  • "That night, I lie with one cheek on his bare chest. I listen to heart sounds, the ones of valves opening and closing as blood goes from atrium to ventricle, ventricle to arteries, and back around. The circulatory system is a closed system, which means nothing goes in and nothing comes out. The first rule of chem lab is to never heat a closed system or it will explode."

Other gems include:

  • On Chineseness:
    "A new fear I have is that I am losing my Chinese-ness. It is just flaking off me like dead skin. And below that skin is my American-ness."
  • On calling your parents:
    "In college, I had a Chinese roommate who called her parents every Sunday. In college, I had a Chinese roommate who cried for two hours every Sunday."
  • On name calling:
    "That phrase about sticks and stones and bones. But my bones are very brittle. And I am lactose intolerant."

and my personal favorite:

  • On women in science:
    "A guy in lab strongly believes that women do not belong in science. He’s said that women lack the balls to actually do science. Which isn’t wrong. We do lack balls."

The quirkiness and humor aside, the book is definitely pretty emotionally devastating, and explores some super real and very painful topics like being pushed too hard by your parents, working impossibly hard as a young adult and trying to figure out what it is that you actually like and what it is you should really be doing. What makes the book so fantastic is all of this is shared in such a fresh and intimate and morbidly funny voice that despite never learning the narrator's name, you feel like you're listening to a friend, rather than reading fiction. 

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most 
- Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

Difficult Conversations.jpg

I decided to read Difficult Conversations because I struggle with these types of conversations (I mean... why else would someone read a book titled Difficult Conversations?). I find that I often don't get my point across effectively in the uncomfortable times I've had to have these conversations with someone, so I hoped to get a framework to address these problems by reading some books, which, come to think of it, is my solution to most of my problems.

The book starts a little bit slow, but yields a lot of deep insight. To be honest, I didn't like the book very much at first, because I thought it was a little preachy and reductive, but while reading the book, I actually had some difficult conversations and found myself thinking through some of the lessons. I took the book more seriously then, and enjoyed it a lot more. It has a lot of really helpful gems, some useful tips and small bits of advice, but the book is most helpful in reorienting your attitude towards difficult conversations. 

On a higher level, a lot of the book is focused around changing your attitude to a learning mindset, decreasing a lot of the mental stress and defusing a lot of the hostility/baggage we bring into these tough situations. Most of the book and its pieces of advice are a reflection or manifestation of that attitude, like emphasizing listening, figuring out your feelings/identity before you start the conversation, or just helpful techniques like reframing or naming the dynamic. 

After reading the book, I thought about some of the past conversations I've had that I found difficult, and tried to think about how I would apply these lessons. I definitely feel like what I learned would have made those conversations much simpler and more productive, and actually look forward to trying this stuff out in the future (although hopefully not that often). 

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On working with your feelings:
    "rule number one: before saying what you are feeling, negotiate with your feelings."
  • On expressing emotion vs being emotional:
    "Too often we confuse being emotional with expressing emotions clearly. They are different. You can express emotion well without being emotional, and you can be extremely emotional without expressing much of anything at all. Sharing feelings well and clearly requires thoughtfulness."
  • On trying to justify how you feel:
    "Your feelings need not be rational to be expressed. Thinking that you shouldn’t feel as you do will rarely change the fact that you do."
  • Remembering the purpose of a difficult conversation:

    • "There’s nothing wrong (and plenty right) with not wanting to hurt someone, or wanting them to like you even after you convey bad news. Yet holding this as a purpose in the conversation leads to trouble. Just as you can’t change another person, you can’t control their reaction — and you shouldn’t try."

    • Don’t measure the success of the conversation by whether or not they get upset. It’s their right to be upset, and it’s a reasonable response. Better instead to go in with the purposes of giving them the news, of taking responsibility for your part in this outcome (but not more), of showing that you care about how they feel, and of trying to be helpful going forward.

Fair warning though, the book feels a lot longer than it needs to be. While I enjoyed reading it cover to cover, it probably isn't the most efficient way to consume the book. They provide a checklist at the end that might honestly be enough if you just read that, and if you feel like parts of the checklist are confusing or you want to read more examples, then go ahead and read the specific chapters. His style is also a little dated, i.e. he writes like an old white dude. He makes a lot of bad jokes, and has a lecture-y style that I found a little off-putting. Stuff like "Peanuts aren’t nuts. Whales aren’t fish. Tomatoes aren’t vegetables. And attributions, judgments, and accusations aren’t feelings." I actually paused and groaned at. That is a small issue though; if you truck through there's a lot of great content to unpack in the book.

The Artsy Smartsy Club - Daniel Pinkwater

The Artsy Smartsy Club is about three kids who learn to make and appreciate art during a boring summer from a famous screever (sidewalk artist) Lucy Casserole. My review of this book is a lot longer than my usual stuff, because this book is one of the few that I can point to as truly transformative in my life. I recently started thinking about it again, and got a copy off of Better World Books, a used copy from a library somewhere in Virginia (it even has the record of who borrowed the book still attached to it). 

The usual process of how I develop my hobbies & interests is I read, hear, or get introduced to something by a friend, try it out, get really into it, and either the interest dies out or it keeps a steady flame. I rarely remember what the original catalyst was, with the only exception to that being art- I can point to two very clear moments in my life as the impetus of my enjoyment and appreciation of art. The first is spring break, freshman year, when I went to the National Gallery of Art in D.C. with my friends, and we were looking at a piece of religious art (The Adoration of the Magi?), trying to figure out what the piece was about. Why was there a bird above that guy's head? Who were the groups of people around Christ? Why did some of them have that gold cross halo thing behind their heads? We were in the middle of arguing about which of the three dudes in the painting were the magi, when a tour guide leading a group came up to the painting, started explaining the piece, and just blew us away. There was a ton of depth and complexity to the work that we completely missed when we were doing our shitty analysis of the painting. That experience changed how I thought about looking at art - how could two people look at the same piece and see completely different things?

The second moment came way before the first, when I read The Artsy Smartsy Club in middle school. Before that, I went to a few museums with my mom, and took some drawing lessons (although I displayed a shocking lack of talent), but I thought of art as an incomprehensible and vaguely snotty thing that people liked to ooh and aah it. Sure, it was nice to look at, but to really appreciate and feel?

The first Daniel Pinkwater book that I ever read was The Hoboken Chicken Emergency waaay back in middle school. Since then, I've read a couple more of his books, and they are all awesome. It is fantastically difficult to write a good children's book, but all of his works have the quintessential Daniel Pinkwater combination of fun and slightly zany characters and completely crazy but very satisfying stories. He writes with an easy smooth style, and his books are just a lot of fun to read, even almost an entire decade later.

But what is so special about The Artsy Smartsy Club is that without any of the pretension or snottiness unfortunately endemic of "high art", Daniel Pinkwater explained to me why art was important, and what it meant to really look at a piece of work. It seems counterintuitive to have to "learn" how to look, but before you learn the theory, before you learn the history, you need to learn to really see the painting, to identify its stylistic features, to see its colors, to see its brushstrokes, to see its composition. 

Now I am going to look at the sunflowers, Lucy Casserole said. I will look right at them, and I will look at them out of the corner of my eye. I will look at them with my eyes wide open, and with my eyes half closed. I will try to look at just the colors, and I will try to look at just the shapes. Now I am looking at the light and the shadows.

One of my favorite parts of the book and the part that I remembered the most clearly from my first read is when the children decide to take the train to Manhattan to visit a museum. Their trip to the Frick is not how we typically engage with museums, where we try to hit a checklist of the top things to look at in a museum and walk past the galleries giving the little white description placards and the actual art equal attention. Instead, while they are walking around the collection, they're fully focused on interacting with only a few pieces, and the pieces they encounter, they really look at and appreciate them.

"She even said we shouldn't try to look at all the pictures." I said. She said we should just glance around in general, and then pick one of the rooms, and only really spend time with maybe four or five pictures. She said that is the way to look at things in a museum. If you try to take everything in, you won't really remember anything vividly.

These chapters are such a beautiful explanation of the excitement you get when you engage with a really good piece, and are a phenomenal example of the purity of appreciation that I've searched for in my relationship with art. Just take a look at his description of St. Francis in Ecstasy by Giovanni Bellini:

Saint Francis.jpg

It was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen in my life. It showed a guy wearing a monk's robe. He was standing on these greenish rocks, outside a sort of cave that had been fixed up with a little gate- and there was a little table, knocked together out of some pieces of wood, with a book and a skull on it. In the background there were cultivated fields, and there were hills and mountains, and a castle, and a sky that looked like Vincent [Van Gogh] might have painted it, if Vincent had been sane. And there was this little tree, up in the left-hand corner- just an ordinary little tree- in fact, everything in the picture was sort of ordinary, only... only...
Well, the thing about this picture was ... you could tell that everything was so important. It was magical. There was this light in the picture. It was soft, but powerful. It wasn't regular light. It was ... "wow."

And they very quickly turn to a St. Jerome by El Greco, described as

St. Jerome.jpg

Where the St. Francis was amazing and beautiful and full of details and drew you in, St. Jerome was simple and full of fire and jumped out at you. It was this skinny old guy with white hair and a white beard, wearing a red robe, with his hands on a Bible- and he had a look in his eyes that made you feel like he was about to say something astonishing. After looking at the other picture, it was as though someone had rung a bell- a loud bell. 

Really early on in my life, Daniel Pinkwater made me understand how it felt to truly be wowed by a piece, to really connect somehow with art and feel deeply that this stuff is important, this stuff is fundamental somehow. But why is art important? Is there anything else beyond the pure appreciation of art (which is reason enough)?

There was one more surprise for us. When we went outside in the street, everything looked different. Colors were different. Light was different. Everything we saw looked different- different from the way we saw it before we went inside the museum- and we knew it would never be the same.

And if that isn't the strongest endorsement of art, then I don't know what is.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency - Daniel Pinkwater

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.jpg

I think Daniel Pinkwater is brilliant, and this story has all of his great elements- a good story, endearing characters, funny writing, and satisfying resolution. I really like how Henrietta and Arthur get reunited, especially the CHICKENS NEED OUR LOVE blimp, and I still think about how the professor raised square goldfish (is that possible? I'm still not sure. You can PM me for a full description of how square goldfish are made and we can discuss the biological possibilities). I liked it a lot when I read it over a decade ago, and I'm happy that I still enjoyed it now.

Short review, but what, you thought every children's book I ever read was life changing?

Angela and Diabola - Lynne Reid Banks

Angela and Diabola.jpg

I read a lot of children's books this month because I thought of The Artsy Smartsy Club and bought a few children's books that I really liked second hand and they all came at once. I vividly remember reading Angela and Diabola in 5th grade. The story was pretty interesting, and the writing was decent, but what really stayed with me about the book was the ending.

Angela and Diabola are about a set of twins, the eponymous Angela and Diabola, one of which embodies pure good, and the other embodies pure evil. As they grow, Diabola gets stronger, and causes more and more problems for the family. Most of the book is just Angela being a really good girl and Diabola fucking up her family. After reading it a second time, I realized it's definitely pretty fucked up for a children's book (at one point Diabola has to be locked up in a cage), especially the ending. I didn't remember anything about the book except the ending- Diabola and Angela are fighting on a roof, with Diabola hurting people on the streets with her mind and Angela healing them, when Diabola tries to push Angela off the roof and instead falls off the side. Stunned, she grabs onto Angela's hand, who tries to save her, but Diabola hates Angela so much, she tries to pull Angela off the side instead of trying to save herself. Angela is so shocked by Diabola's evil that she inadvertently lets go, and Diabola falls to her death. "Pure good, by vanquishing evil, becomes a mix of good and evil," and balance is restored, with Diabola living on inside Angela, physically indicated by one of Angela's pure blue eyes getting replaced by Diabola's glittering green eye. 

What the fuck? That fucked me up when I was in lower school, so much so that even though I forgot everything else about the book (and I barely even remember my 5th grade teacher's name), all these years later I still remember the distinctive red cover and that crazy ending.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance - Atul Gawande


BetterA Surgeon's Notes on Performance is the third book I've read by Atul Gawande. It is a loosely related set of essays on performance, roughly grouped under 3 categories: diligence, doing right, and ingenuity. They mostly read like individual pieces, stories that are vaguely united by theme, and describe stuff like his trip on a mop-up campaign for a polio outbreak in India, the history of childbirth and the Apgar score, medical treatment on the battlefield, and the fight to treat and cure cystic fibrosis.

The pieces are all pretty interesting and he is, as always, a good writer. His writing is easy to read and he condenses complex information in a pretty digestible way. I liked all of the essays in the book, and they all had some interesting ideas on how to be better and what good performance looks like. He discusses how success comes from more than just medical or technological advancement, and technically skilled surgeons are not necessarily the most successful, pointing to simple innovations like the Apgar score for childbirth, tenacity to treat cystic fibrosis, and diligence to just wash your hands as a surgeon. While all the pieces are about medicine, I think there is a decent amount of crossover and applicability to other areas of excellence and mastery. While I was reading the book, I was also thinking about better performance as a software engineer, and I think his points on resilience, adaptability, and willingness to grow are especially salient. It is not necessarily the engineering team with the best tech stack or the greatest tools that are the best engineers, it is the engineers that are adaptable to change and are determined to push through problems that have been the best engineers I've worked with.

Some quotes from the book that I liked:

  • "We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than like making sure everyone washes their hands."
  • “What will you do when polio is finally gone?” I asked Pankaj. “Well, there is always measles,” he said.
  • "To fix medicine, Berwick maintained, we need to do two things: measure ourselves and be more open about what we are doing."
  • "He believed that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful."
  • "Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try."

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Ready Player One.jpg

The idea of the book was cool, and I think it had a pretty creative setup/world building, but I really didn't like his writing style and couldn't get into it. I gave it a fair shot, I think a couple of chapters and close to 100 pages, but I just couldn't look past his style (some of it may just be that I tend to dislike young narrators). It wasn't that I thought the book was childish- I reviewed and enjoyed 3 children's books this month- but rather I tend to dislike the young teenager style of narration, and even then Cline's writing felt a lot like he was telling me stuff, breaking my immersion into his very cool world.

I hear a movie is coming out though, and I'd watch that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success explores the concepts of the fixed and the growth mindset, and how they manifest in very important ways in our lives. Dweck examines areas of our lives like parenting, relationships, business, and teaching that are greatly influenced by the mindsets that we have, and suggests some ways to work towards a growth mindset. I was introduced to her research a few years ago in an article, but was recently recommended this book during my denewbification at Riot (we are big on the growth mindset at Riot). 

In a nutshell, a fixed mindset is a belief that capabilities and skills are fixed at birth, and there is little you can do to change them greatly. A growth mindset is the opposite belief, that there is always something you can do to grow and your skills are a reflection of the time and effort that you've devoted to improving yourself. This is a simple idea, but it has a deep influence on how we view the world and ourselves. I particularly liked the chapters about teaching and parenting, because I think that is where a lot of my mindset was developed. I always thought that I had a very strong growth mindset, especially after I came to college, but after reading the book and working for a few weeks I realized I have a fixed mindset in some important areas. I think of abilities and skills as flexible and growable, but I still associated success/failure in a fixed way, i.e. once you do/don't do something you are either a success or a failure. Reading her book helped me understand these ideas a lot better, and I really appreciate Dweck for that.

A quick note on style: I did not like her writing. A lot of the book reads a little like a middle school paper, and the "hooks" that she uses to introduce new topics are so jarringly out of place that they actually distracted me, stuff like how she prefaced her chapter on relationships: "What was that about the course of true love never running smooth? Well, the course to true love isn’t so smooth, either." To be fair, the content is very clear and well described, and definitely serves the purpose for the book, and any small gripes I have with the writing is largely overshone by its fantastic content.

Here are some of my major takeaways from the book:

  • On the stress of the fixed mindset:
    "Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics."
  • On relationships:
    "In the growth mindset, there may still be that exciting initial combustion, but people in this mindset don’t expect magic. They believe that a good, lasting relationship comes from effort and from working through inevitable differences. But those with the fixed mindset don’t buy that. Remember the fixed-mindset idea that if you have ability, you shouldn’t have to work hard? This is the same belief applied to relationships: If you’re compatible, everything should just come naturally."
  • On meeting new people:
    "The shy growth-mindset people take control of their shyness. They go out and meet new people, and, after their nerves settle down, their relationships proceed normally. The shyness doesn’t tyrannize them."
  • On the right question:
    “Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?”
  • On parenting, coaching, teaching, and mentoring
    "However, the moral of this story is that parents, teachers, and coaches pass on a growth mindset not by having a belief sitting in their heads but by embodying a growth mindset in their deeds: the way they praise (conveying the processes that lead to learning), the way they treat setbacks (as opportunities for learning), and the way they focus on deepening understanding (as the goal of learning)."
  • On improvement, developing gains, and dealing with setbacks:
    "They think actively about maintenance. What habits must they develop to continue the gains they’ve achieved? Then there are the setbacks. They know that setbacks will happen. So instead of beating themselves up, they ask: “What can I learn from this? What will I do next time when I’m in this situation?” It’s a learning process—not a battle between the bad you and the good you."

Books of August 2017

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care - T.R. Reid

I decided last month that I'd like to have a better understanding of the American healthcare system, so I wanted to devote a good chunk of this month's nonfiction reading to healthcare. I googled some books, found some interesting looking ones, and started with The Healing of America

The Healing of America is journalist T.R. Reid's global quest to understand different health care systems around the world, both to fix his bum shoulder injured in the army and to learn ways to improve and fix America's broken healthcare system from other countries. When I started the book I knew almost nothing about healthcare anywhere except it's cheap in Taiwan and expensive in America, so I was mostly hoping for just a basic level of understanding and actually ended up learning a lot.

I love how he organized the book, opening the discussion with three chapters on terminology and basics, moving into detailed analyses of how various countries approach healthcare, and then concluding with a reflection on America's current system and potential improvements. Each section is clearly detailed and divided, so it's always very easy to follow and grok the main points. He also writes in a very simple and digestible way, and I almost never felt confused by what he was trying to say. As I was reading the chapters on , I did have some trouble keeping track of the differences between the different countries in my head, but he always repeated and reiterated his points, really hammering in the key points and takeaways. In addition to analyses of different countries, the book includes his personal experiences with the healthcare systems he encounters, giving a personal angle to the logistics that helped me understand and remember how each system works. I also really like how he addresses the pros and cons of every approach in detail. While every healthcare system falls under 4 basic models, because of cultural, political, economic, and historical differences, every country's healthcare has their strengths and their downsides, their variances and their differences , and he provides a nuanced analysis for each. 

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • It was nice to learn the vocabulary, terms like individual mandate, guaranteed issue, etc. that I've heard before but never really understood.
  • Healthcare is certainly partially an economic question, but countries who have successful models of healthcare were driven to build theirs primarily because they saw universal healthcare as a moral decision.
    • "Those Americans who die or go broke because they happened to get sick represent a fundamental moral decision our country has made."
  • There are four basic models of healthcare, and America's healthcare system is a medley of all four: 
    • The Bismarck model (private providers and payers) financed mostly jointly by employers and employees and supported/regulated by the government. Examples include Germany & Japan.
    • The Beveridge model (public providers and payers) financed and provided by the government through tax payments. Examples include Britain and Cuba.
    • The NHS model (public payers and private providers), typically single-payer (or something similar) and private hospitals/doctors. Examples include Canada and Taiwan.
    • The out-of-pocket model, which is the model most developing countries have. Examples include China and India.
  • Healthcare in America sucks- we pay more for lower quality care, a large percentage of claims are denied by insurers, America is the only developed country that allows insurance companies to be for profit and to refuse coverage to people who most need it, the system is staggeringly complex with different payments systems and prices and rules, the list of woes goes on and on
  • There are many common healthcare myths, all of which I've heard before, (e.g. "It's all socialized medicine out there" or "they are wasteful systems run by bloated bureaucracies") that he discusses and debunks at the end of the book (too long to repeat here)

The book is great, with lots of info (I highlighted half of the book on my Kindle), it's pretty short, healthcare is important, go read it!!

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, recounting some of his personal history and background. Directly addressed to his son, the book is a deeply thoughtful and insightful meditation on blackness in America reflecting on his past and his background, through which he poignantly frames the frustration and fear that black people feel in America. 

His writing reads almost like poetry, like a long extended thought that you dive deeply into and come out many pages later, feeling a little out of breath and disoriented. The book shares a perspective that I can't fully understand, growing up where and how I did, but I still felt it deeply, and it completely changed how I understood the experience of being black in America. It is a very important book to read to begin to understand and engage with some of the fucked up societal and cultural shit deeply entrenched in America today, a system where abuse, disenfranchisement, and violence are not exceptions to the system but the system itself. 

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • On autonomy and self possession:
    "As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies."
  • On the violence of America:
    "You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body."
  • On the American dream:
    "And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."
  • On the historic exploitation of black people in America:
    "You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold."

The Saga of Darren Shan - Darren Shan

 The first book (the cover design is the one I like the most and actually read before)

The first book (the cover design is the one I like the most and actually read before)

I last read this series in middle school, was reminded of it by a reddit comment, and decided to reread the entire series. I liked these books a lot in middle school, and I was really happy to find that I still like them now! The story is good, but as expected of titles like Tunnels of Blood or Sons of Destiny, the storyline is not very deep. To its credit though, the story is still engaging, and the books have interesting, varied characters and pretty solid world building. Exciting stuff happens in every book, and when you read the series in one go (as I did in the reread), the story actually moves along pretty seamlessly from book to book. I liked almost all of the characters in the book, even the villains, which in my opinion is how you can really judge an author's character exposition. Characters I liked include R.V., Steve, Arra. Mr. Crepsley, Vancha March, and Harkat Mulds (the list goes on; his characters are good!). 

The writing is again geared towards audience, so there isn't a lot of sophistication there, but his style is consistent and compelling, and he writes with a lot of energy that drives the action well. One of the things I didn't like is that he uses a lot of foreshadowing, to the point of being overdone. A lot of chapters end in short sentences punctuated by exclamation marks, random cliffhangers meant to shock you into reading on. I find that style of writing lazy, and when used too much starts to lose its effect. Some of the weak parts of the plot are also explained away by destiny (Mr. Desmond Tiny, in the book). I think it works and it makes sense, which is more than can be said for a lot of stories, but again, it seems a little lazy to me to tie up loose ends by referring to destiny. 

These were a fast, enjoyable read that I mostly finished on the plane, and if nothing else they were better than the Delta movie offerings.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Philip K. Dick

 The first hardback cover

The first hardback cover

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a sci-fi novel exploring the idea of sentient A.I. and the distinction between artificial intelligence and human intelligence as technology advances. It is apparently the inspiration / source material for Blade Runner, a fact whose significance is lost on me because I've never actually seen the film. 

I tend to not be a big sci-fi fan (although Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land are amongst my favorite books), but I liked the story a lot here, and thought the philosophical discussion was good, if not somewhat predictable. The book is centered around bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who is hired to track down and "retire" 6 rogue robots. Their world has advanced far enough that most people have left Earth, leaving it a dusty, dirty bowl, and with the extinction of most animals, having an animal has become a status symbol of sorts. The book's primary philosophical theme is the blurred lines between A.I. and humanity, questioning exactly what it is that make us uniquely human, besides our flesh and blood. This doesn't seem to me a particularly innovative idea to write about, but to be fair, it was written in the late 60s and predates a lot of sci-fi books that I've read, so perhaps it was ahead of its time and only pales in comparison because now that we have discussions of killer robots every week pitting Elon Musk against Mark Zuckerberg.

The book is well written, although I got a little bit confused while reading the last few chapters, especially the chapter describing his religious experience and climbing the mountain. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story as a whole, especially the ending with the toad, and I might even watch Blade Runner sometime.

America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System - Steven Brill

America's Bitter Pill is my second book on healthcare, and I think together with The Healing of America gave me a pretty good base to understand healthcare in America. The Healing of America focuses on different healthcare systems around the world, taking lessons that we can apply in America, but America's Bitter Pill focuses more on Obamacare, and "the money, politics, backroom deals, and fights" that went into the controversial healthcare reform.

Brill goes into exhaustive detail on the intense and endless conflicts centered around Obamacare- the vicious and brutal struggle politically and internally between the House and the Senate, between the Republicans and the Democrats, between the various stakeholders and financial players in healthcare, and even within the Democrats supporting reform. It is a thorough retrospective of the challenges, successes, failures, and history of Obama and his administration in directing the most comprehensive and revolutionary health care reform since the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid during LBJ's presidency, providing an insightful look into how we got to where we are. Boy, it really isn't pretty. As with any detailed story of healthcare in America, America's Bitter Pill shows the brokenness of our political process and the painful inadequacy of our current healthcare system. 

As our current president recently learned, healthcare is really complicated. Brill's account of Obamacare includes a painful, Game of Thrones level number of names, titles, political affiliations, and aspirations, but he does the best possible to break the story down to more digestible, understandable parts. The book is long (almost 500 pages) but it is organized fantastically, and with the more important names he often includes small reminders of who the person is. I still found myself flipping back and forth a lot to remember names, but the story overall is distilled to maintain simplicity without losing breadth or depth in a very complicated story. 

My favorite part of the book by far is the very last chapter, where Brill discusses his idea for a new system of healthcare, integrating healthcare payer and provider into a single hospital. I was explained this idea earlier in the month, but had some trouble understanding how it works until I read about it in the book. Essentially, the primary question of healthcare becomes who bears the risk, and Brill argues that it makes the most sense to have healthcare providers also be healthcare insurers, encouraging competition, but cutting costs by removing the middle man and aligning incentives. This has the added benefit of being a much more plausible transition to a better healthcare system than single payer overnight, because similar systems are already happening in many places with massive hospital mergers.

The most impressive part of the book by far is how cogent the narrative is, backed by a tremendous amount of research, interviews, and work distilled into a fascinating and gripping tale of Obamacare's triumph and failure. I am really happy about the two books I chose to read about healthcare, because now I feel like I have an opinion backed by facts & analysis and can participate better in discourse on healthcare.

The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen

War novels are a dime a dozen, and I very rarely find a book on war that touches a subject or explores a story that hasn't already been done. That is why I am so happy and excited for books like The Sympathizer, which provide new, underrepresented perspectives on subjects like the Vietnam War. The Sympathizer tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a half Vietnamese, half French communist sleeper agent exiled to America after the Fall of Saigon, framed in the form of a forced confession written in a communist reeducation camp, recounting his life from his childhood to his years in Los Angeles to his eventual return to Vietnam. 

The narrator lives with a series of dualities: he is a mixed race North Vietnamese mole who remains sympathetic and friendly with South Vietnamese military officials and a US CIA agent, he was raised in Vietnam but went to college in the US, his best friends are a South Vietnamese soldier and a North Vietnamese revolutionary, and much of the book's brilliance is how Nguyen navigates and guides the reader through the contradictions and absurdities of war and identity.

The book is full of nuggets of wisdom and piercing insight combining humor with brilliance and tragedy like:

  • “She cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary.” 
  • "In this jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States, Americans expected me to be like those millions who spoke no English, pidgin English, or accented English. I resented their expectation. That was why I was always eager to demonstrate, in both spoken and written word, my mastery of their language."
  • “I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”
  • “Now a guarantee of happiness—that's a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.” 

and there is also a memorable passage on the narrator masturbating with a squid that is the impetus for Nguyen to launch into an ethical comparison between murder and masturbation.

The most distinctive stylistic feature of the book is the continuous commentary of the narrator, an approach that focuses deeply on his individuality despite his anonymity and provides a complex and nuanced reflection on the contradictions in not only his own life, but the contradictions of foreign identity in America. I am very excited about these books and I think they have an important place in our understanding of these topics because they provide a perspective unheard and underrepresented, pushing back on the traditional American-centric narrative.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Rights - Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto.jpg

The Checklist Manifesto argues that in a complicated world, checklists are really helpful in reducing complexity, allowing us to focus on what we're good at. As fields like medicine and building and engineering become more complicated, we are moving away from Master Builders and need more standardized ways to approach more and more complex problems. This is related to some ideas I learned before in SWE, formulated earlier as "removing things from your window of focus," and "letting tools do what tools are good at, and let people do what people are good at."

I have always found similar cases interesting, ever since I read the article on the importance of checklists in aviation, and how much simple checklists help hospitals and healthcare providers do a better job. I read the book hoping to think about ways to apply that to SWE. The most obvious benefits are with rote tasks, such as deploys or installs, that are mostly a set of repeated steps but often with a high degree of complexity. The task tends to not change (which is why deployment lends itself to automation), and so the programmer can follow a checklist.

But building software is not like flying or performing surgery (neither of which I've done, so correct me if I'm wrong), but creating software is the creative process of writing new stuff to address new problems, whereas in flying & medicine complications arise but the work is largely very similar, just very complicated. One possible way checklists could help is to make more specific checklists for specific types of projects. For example, for projects related to web development, perhaps there are a few important things and common bugs to pay attention to that can be put into a standardized checklist to at least promote discussion. There are interesting parallels there between his examples of finance and investing in companies, where checklists are not meant to be prescriptive, and instead are very effective in providing a list of things to remember and think about. 

A quick note on style and content: I read Being Mortal by the same guy, Atul Gawande, a few months back, and the book is VERY similar in style. These books are packed with detail, and are very well organized with lots of interesting insight, but he really could be a lot more concise. He hammers the same idea over and over again, and pretty early in the book I was convinced that checklists were good and just wanted to see some application. I bought in to his thesis pretty early; I just wanted to dive deeper into specific examples. 

JavaScript: The Good Parts - Douglas Crockford


Haha!!! JavaScript has good parts?!

Just kidding. I read this book in my sophomore year during my internship, and wanted to reread it since I was learning react and thought that knowing some JS would be helpful. The book is short (174 pages?) but dense, with a lot of info packed into it. I read most of it in an afternoon, with two caveats: I skimmed some sections and skipped some I thought were not going to be super helpful to me right now, like ch 8 on regex, and I didn't work through that many code examples. I was hoping for a more general understanding of the philosophy of and ways to think in JS, so for the purpose just reading the book and then actually getting experience at work would probably be more fruitful. 

That being said, I read the book cover to cover the first time but got more out of this re-read because I worked with JS last summer. I think that speaks to how effective it is to work with the stuff that you're trying to learn, and to combine reading with practical application & small samples to play with it. The book is pretty well written, although I think with es5 and es6 it may be a little dated. A more experienced JS programmer will have more insight into that.

Some Additional Thoughts on "Up, Simba"

One of my favorite pieces in David Foster Wallace's collection of essays Consider the Lobster is "Up, Simba." Written for The Rolling Stones, "Up, Simba" on the most superficial level details DFW's week spent on McCain's campaign trail in 2000, but that description doesn't do the brilliance of the piece justice- what it really is is a deep, painful examination of modern politics, capturing beautifully what it feels like to be a young voter in America.

I summarized it briefly in last month's book review, but basically in the week DFW is covering the campaign trail, Bush starts running negative ads and McCain's campaign is forced to do the same, hurting his image as a Good and Nice American, a persona on which he has drawn a lot of voters and won some surprising victories. At a public Q&A, a mother, Donna Duren, tells McCain about her son Chris, a young McCain supporter who was harangued by some push pollers, and details his anguish in hearing all the terrible things being said about McCain and his disillusionment and confusion in the value and veracity of believing in real American heroes. Moved to tears, McCain apologizes to Mrs. Duren, reaffirms the value in getting involved with politics, and pledges to remove all his negative ads and to urge Bush to do the same. 

This exchange, what DFW calls "the most interesting and complicated week of the whole 2000 GOP race," is what launches him into his phenomenal dissection of the malaise and apathy modern voters feel. Millenial politics is painful, because in a world not only saturated by marketing but also universally recognized as so, we can never be sure if politicians are real or if their entire identity and platform is a just carefully crafted concoction of speech bites and rote gestures. We share a deep-rooted cynicism borne from a perpetual cycle of lofty promises and brutal letdowns, a cynicism that has permeated so widely into our consciousness that even when politicians say or do good, we can't help but wonder if this is just preplanned pandering and someone somewhere in a back office is patting his back over his latest bit of political ingenuity. Nowadays I share about the same confidence in the platitudes and promises of politicians as I do in the nutritional facts on cereal boxes. 

It hurts to care, but despite everything we can believe in McCain because when he was not running for president, when he was just a POW in Vietnam, we saw the strength of his convictions and can admire his heroism without fear of an underlying marketing strategy or campaign manager. When he says that he wants "to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than self-interest," we can believe it's not another pebble on the mountain of noble-sounding bullshit politicians feed us because in that dark, dirty Vietnamese prison cell with two broken arms, he did devote himself to a cause greater than his self-interest, and probably without thinking about how helpful this would be to his presidency in the future. 

As a millennial voter (this past election was my first), this essay resonated very much with me, and I've been thinking a lot about it relative to the 2016 election cycle. This piece was written in 2000, when Trump being president was nothing more than a joke on the Simpsons, but I think it is still relevant and useful to help us understand Bernie Sanders' campaign. 

It is hard to overemphasize the excitement millennial voters felt about Senator Sanders. In his 2016 campaign, he won more youth votes than Hillary and Trump combined, and it wasn't even close- exit polls showed a lead of more than 25%. But even without the numbers, you could just feel the energy and excitement amongst millennial voters. His speeches, platforms, and ideas were being shared constantly on Reddit and Facebook, and weeks before I could even vote in the primaries I was being handed Bernie stickers and asked to fill out my info on clipboards at Bernie booths manned by enthusiastic classmates. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he was the perfect candidate or trying to espouse my own political views. We can doubt the loftiness of his ideals, question his limited political capital, or debate the economic infeasibility of his plans, but ultimately we cannot argue that he does not care. Sure, I guess it is possible that he saw the potential behind rallying the young, millennial vote, decided to craft his campaign around that ideal, and upon his victory, would've been the same as any old politician, but when we see pictures of Bernie the young activist being arrested at Civil Rights protests, when we read about his consistent and principled voting record, when we hear his passionate and fiery speeches, we can't help but feel that he really, honestly, cares, and suddenly it doesn't hurt so much to be a Bernie supporter. 

 Bernie in 1963

Bernie in 1963

Poll any millennial on the street, and I am sure that you will find that, whether true or not, and regardless of whose fault it is, we all share the permanent and persistent discomfort that we are always being fucked by something big, whether it be Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Government, Big Money, or just Bigly in general. It is a relief to at least hear someone acknowledge the always-dicked feeling and to give political voice to the injustices we perceive, a voice that runs counter to the reverberant "millennials are lazy and stupid!!," but the greater relief is to feel that a politician really understands, cares, and wants to make a difference. 

Come to think of it, maybe that also explains why it was so painful to watch Senator Clinton dab.

Books of July 2017

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays - David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has an unbelievable knack for making the mundane interesting and distilling deep insight from the obvious, and the best analogy I can think of that captures the experience of reading this brilliant collection of essays is watching a good magician's slight of hand. At some point in every essay, there is a "wow" moment, a moment always preceded by a period of confusion when it seems like he is just rambling about a particular subject. To be fair, it is a very interesting and eloquent type of rambling, but there doesn't seem to be a purpose until the "wow" moment, when in a few sentences he explains the point and you just have to put the book down and admire his brilliance. That is what makes these essays so good- like a skilled magician's sleight of hand, when you see it you can't help but "ooh" and "aah" in appreciation. In "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," DFW writes a scathing review of tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography and sports autobiographies in general that eventually reveals itself to really be about the difference between the perception of talent and divinity and the actual possession of it.

I imagine most people probably know what they're getting into when they ask DFW to review something- ask for a review of a sports biography, get a moving soliloquy on the nature of skill and talent; ask for a review of a book on American language usage, get an exposition of the different camps of American lexicography; ask for a short story on McCain's campaign trail, get a full magazine length article on the realities of modern politics- but I imagine some poor bastard who commissions a piece only knowing DFW is a famous writer and gets an examination of the morality and ethics behind boiling animals for consumption when he just wanted to know if the lobster rolls were good.

My favorite essays were two of the longer pieces in the collection, "Authority and American Usage" on American lexicography and "Up, Simba" on McCain. I found them especially insightful and the wow moments especially wow-y. "Authority and American Usage" is nominally a review of Brian Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage, a usage dictionary for English, but in actuality is a more general discussion of American lexicography as a whole used as a medium to discuss the relationship between authority and democracy and between authority and Authority (see what I mean about the sleight of hand?).

"Up, Simba" is the original, unshortened essay he wrote for The Rolling Stones about the week he spent on McCain's campaign trail, when McCain and Bush were both running negative campaign ads. During that week, Donna Duren, a parent of a young supporter of McCain, asks about push-polling and aggressive campaigning in a public Q&A. The essay is not so much about McCain the person, but rather about McCain the candidate and the excitement he generated, and what that shows about marketing and advertising in politics and the millennial attitude towards politics. I have never read or heard anything by anyone so eloquently sum up the malaise and apathy, the boredom and disgust millennials feel towards politics and politicians. I admire it so much I'm not going to butcher it by even trying to paraphrase it, and instead just quote a representative passage:

"Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit."

He writes very eloquently, drawing from an impressively large vocabulary. I wrote down all the words I didn't know while I was reading Consider the Lobster and I ended up with something resembling an SAT vocabulary list. He is clearly a master of language, but he never uses his vocabulary condescendingly or intentionally obscure his points in difficult-to-understand academic English (in fact he criticizes what he calls SNOOTS in "Authority and American Usage"), opting mostly for a more casual, conversational style. You can really get a sense of his style from the fantastic opening of "Authority and American Usage":

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near Lewinskian scale? 
____(more rhetorical questions about US dialects)___
Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

Essays that I particularly liked were:

  • Authority and American Usage
  • How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart
  • Up, Simba
  • Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the recollection of some haunting childhood memories by this guy who returns home and begins to remember things long forgotten. It is pretty classic Gaiman, with strong elements of fantasy intertwined with reality written in a mythical, almost dreamy style. 

Just like Coraline, another dark fantasy novella by Gaiman, the book is a little nightmarish at times, and the antagonist is seriously scary (I still remember the button for eyes in Coraline). But seen through the lens of the young protagonist's childhood innocence, it becomes easier to appreciate and accept the supernatural characters and events, making the experience of reading the book feel like remembering a bad dream. 

It's not really anything groundbreaking or special, but it was a pretty enjoyable and engrossing read.

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America - Michael Ruhlman

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America is a surprisingly detailed look into grocery stores in America. There is a little bit on the history of grocery stores, but the book mainly focuses on how grocery stores are organized and why, where produce and new products come from, how grocery stores are managed and run behind the scenes, and most importantly, how grocery stores affect us and how we in turn affect grocery stores. Ruhlman puts special emphasis on middle sized grocery stores because they have an especially strong relationship with the everyday consumer- their size means they are more likely to explore and innovate because they have the dexterity, capital, and greater sensitivity to consumer needs, but are also more likely to be able to influence national trends, affecting what we buy and see in grocery stores of all sizes.

He also includes in the middle chapters a digression into the health aspect of grocery stores. I liked the portion discussing the growing interest and investment into health related products (health supplements, superfoods, the kombucha craze, etc.) at many grocery stores, but I could've done without the rant on the healthiness of the foods we eat. I didn't find it very relevant to the book, and wasn't that interested in what has already been covered by mountains of literature. 

Besides the holier-than-thou rant on nutrition, the book is really insightful and packed with interesting detail. I really liked the chapters on where the food we see in stores come from or who grows the produce and raises the animals for meat. We have an amazing abundance of food available all the time that we (or I, at least) never really think about, so it's cool to learn about where produce, meats, vegetables, and fruit are actually sourced, and how stores cycle through seasons and countries to always get fresh produce. I also found interesting the scale at which grocery stores operate- there are massive amounts of food bought and sold at razor thin margins in grocery stores everyday, and the stores are chaotic to manage and operate. He ends the book with the prediction that grocery stores of the future will be smaller specialty stores, because as Amazon continues to grow, they cannot compete with the economies of scale and will always lose out on convenience and price. I see a similar trend nowadays in bookstores. It is tough to justify buying a book in a bookstore when Amazon offers the same book for much cheaper, so bookstores now try to compete by filling a niche via specialty book stores, or offering supplementary experiences that big online stores offering only cheaper prices don't have.

It is obvious that he loves food and grocery stores (enough to enjoy being a bagger for a month), which really comes through and helps make the book more interesting. He also did some pretty cool field research for the book, like trekking through a field looking for lambs to visit the source of Lava Lakes lamb. He does have a tendency to repeat himself a lot, and the book doesn't seem to be organized around any central thesis except for "things related to the grocery store," but it certainly is a good educational read.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry - Fredrik Bachman

This is the second book by Fredrik Bachman that I've read so far (the first A Man Called Ove). My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is a very similar book, with a similar story, setup, characters, and style, but falls a bit short and isn't quite as good. I really liked the idea behind both books (curmudgeonly old man with a sad backstory or a headstrong little girl in an apartment with quirky characters- both pretty solid premises) but the execution was weaker and the characters were not as interesting. I loved most in A Man Called Ove its heartwarming character development and satisfying twists and resolutions, but I didn't get the same sense of gratification with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry.

That being said, A Man Called Ove is a damn good book, so it's a tough comparison, and if you liked that book you'll definitely like this one. Elsa, the main character of the book, is a 7 year old precocious girl whose only friend is her grandmother, and they share a land of fairytales called the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas. When she passes away, Elsa is sent on a quest by her grandmother to deliver apologies in the form of letters to the various residents in the building she lives in. The setup is kind of obvious as it is with A Man Called Ove- there are parallels between her apartment and its residents and the world of fairy tales that they invent, and as she delivers the letters, Elsa learns her grandmother's history and befriends the various residents. Smart, sassy, and obsessed with Wikipedia, Elsa is in her own way just as lovable as the grumpy old Ove. 

A complaint I read from Goodreads before starting the book was that the fairytales told in the beginning are a little confusing until they are reintroduced and tied in later in the book. I also had to go back a few times to reread some of the early stories, but I didn't think find it too bad (maybe because I was forewarned?).

I liked the book (especially Elsa), but some of the twists were pretty obvious, and while the characters were sympathetic, I just didn't cheer for them the way I did in A Man Called Ove. I I think some of it may be because the twists are already explained in the early stories, and the major reveals later on only connect how each resident relates to the characters in and the events of the stories. Still, this was a pretty good book, and if you're looking for a simple feel-good read along the lines of A Man Called Ove, this is a pretty decent choice.

Beartown - Fredrik Backman

Beartown takes place in the eponymous hockey town, a small town with a failing economy and a dying community. Isolated and forgotten in the cold woods, the town's only hopes for revitalization rest on the shoulders of its junior hockey team, a bunch of teenagers carrying the heavy burden of a town's future into the nationals. Beartown is a huge departure from Backman's typical, feel-good works, and far from his whimsical style and gratifying novels, Beartown is dark, heavy, and deeply profound. I love reading books different from an author's typical work, and I think a mark of a good author is the ability to tackle many different genres. Backman does this admirably in his new work- Beartown is painfully good. 

Backman is fantastic at building suspense and setting up situations, but done in his other books for the eventual satisfying resolutions, he applies his skill in Beartown very differently. The brutal parts of this book are absolutely glacial- you see them coming from a mile away and he is generous with the foreshadowing, but it comes so slowly and with such delicious tension that it is almost hard to read on. Waiting for the bad shit to happen almost feels like being a passenger on the Titanic watching the approaching iceberg. 

But like his other books, the strength of his books is in his characters. Backman always introduces a great cast of characters, people that are complex but relatable, flawed but sympathetic, and Beartown in particular has a wide spectrum of characters diverse in background and personality. New characters are introduced constantly, but they are interesting and different enough from each other that it is never difficult to keep track, and the characters never felt like a tick on a checklist. Each character offers a unique voice and perspective that enriched the novel, endowing it with both a subtle realism and a magical quality that draws you into the story and makes it painfully real.

Despite its name and cover, the book is not about hockey and not about the town. It is ultimately about the individual people, and the struggles they face and the choices they make that determine who they are, what they want to be, and what kind of community they build around and for each other. Backman brings to life their hopes and dreams, frustrations and difficulties, adults and teens alike, and I felt deeply and painfully the crosses they bear. 

Beartown is not a light, happy book- it grapples with some difficult, heavy themes, but despite itself there are still beautiful examples of forgiveness and courage. These glimmers of hope are appreciated even more in the backdrop of immense injustice and suffering, and whatever it is: pain, respect, sympathy, passion, anger, sadness, pride, joy... you feel it all in this beautiful book.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World traces the history of cod, from its early abundance and historical/economical/political significance to its current state of endangerment from overfishing. It is another one of those really popular topical books by Kurlansky, along with Salt, Paper, etc. 

I don't really know anything about fishing or fish and I can't say I have a great passion for cod, but I did learn some interesting stuff from the book:

  • Cod was really important for travel, because it could be preserved and dried for long distance naval travel, and was very nutrient rich and dense in protein.
  • Cod was important economically for many European countries, but particularly for New England. For a time cod was the sign of economic abundance and the success of New England. Fishing and selling cod made a great deal of people very rich.
    • "Cod was creating an entrepreneurial class in Iceland, the same way it had in New England in the 1640s."
  • Cod was also tied closely into slavery in New England, because it was often sold as cheap nutrition for slaves in Central and South America. When there was a cod shortage in New England & not as much dried cod was available, many slaves tragically died from starvation. 
    • "New England society was the great champion of individual liberty and even openly denounced slavery, all the while growing ever more affluent by providing Caribbean planters with barrels of cheap food to keep enslaved people working sixteen hours a day."
    • "Regardless of how many ships actually did or did not carry slaves, or how many New England merchants did or did not buy or sell Africans, the New England merchants of the cod trade were deeply involved in slavery, not only because they supplied the plantation system but also because they facilitated the trade in Africans. In West Africa, slaves could be purchased with cured cod, and to this day there is still a West African market for salt cod and stockfish"
  • There is a great deal of thorny politics involved in fishing, particularly for European countries like England, Iceland, and Spain. England especially because fish and chips is made from cod, and it is sacrilegious to use any other whitefish. Fish and chips is also regarded as a worker's food, so as cod becomes rarer, the price goes up correspondingly which make lots of people upset.
  • Besides being political and economic, cod is also surprisingly nationalistic- instead of recognizing problems of overfishing & governmental policy, oftentimes fishermen of various countries blame each other (the English blame the French, the Americans blame the Canadians, for example)
    • "If there is anything as basic and universal to the British working class as fried fish, it is xenophobia."
  • Cod is super overfished, and in the 1800s and 1900s cod was thought to be able to weather any human interruption and the stock would never be depleted to dangerous levels. Instead, innovations such as freezing & bottom trawlers raised the demand for fish and also the ability to supply it, causing more and more cod to be fished from the sea.
    • "If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod—the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an openmouthed species greedier than cod."
  • This requires political solutions, and Kurlansky discusses a few of them like quotas, restrictions on boat activity, etc. There are a ton of varying attitudes and perspectives on overfishing, and it is a particularly tough conversation for fishermen who rely on the sea for a living.

I also like how he closes each chapter with a cod recipe, and ends the book with a chapter of recipes from across the world. He writes in a nice casual style that makes the book easy to read and its information easily digestible. I'm not really sure what I expected, but I guess it is about as interesting as a book on cod can possibly be. 

Lily and the Octopus - Steven Rowley


Lily and the Octopus is about a single, gay writer and his best friend, his dachshund Lily, who he speaks with regularly. Lily, unfortunately, has a tumor on her head that takes the form of an octopus, and the book is mainly about how he deals with her illness and her eventual passing (I am sorry for the spoiler, but this book is about grieving, and one of two main characters is an aging dog with a big tumor on her head- what did you expect?).

As with any work with a dog that passes away, Lily and the Octopus is very sad, and it is a profound exploration of grief. But not just any grief- this book explores the grief for a pet, the grief you feel for one wholly dependent and completely in love with you. I thought the beginning (the parts where we learn about their background and see how they live together) and the end (when he deals with her passing) were the best parts of the book. I love the interactions with Lily, and when Lily talks to Ted she speaks in all caps and exclamation marks following every word. She is super cute, and their relationship is so endearing. 

The ending was very raw and emotional, especially because of my adoration for Lily and their relationship built up over the book. I also like how he explores and reflects on their relationship in the later chapters, acknowledging how he loves Lily but also used her as a way to escape from the difficult things in his life (something he dubs enclosed-world syndrome). 

There  is a good bit of magical realism in the middle, a type of writing I'm not a big fan of, and I don't think it worked very well here. I thought it was a little confusing and out of place, and the book would've been just as good without it. But barring that, the rest of story was great, and I think it is a wonderful expression of love, longing and letting go of our best friends of the canine persuasion.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On LA:
    "Fucking L.A. Professional dog walker. Is that a thing? Are most dog walkers maintaining their amateur status to compete in the Dog Walking Olympics?"
  • Lily on eating the remains of Thanksgiving turkey:
  • On forgiveness and new opportunities:
    "Because dogs let go of all of their anger daily, hourly, and never let it fester. They absolve and forgive with each passing minute. Every turn of a corner is the opportunity for a clean slate. Every bounce of a ball brings joy and the promise of a fresh chase."
  • On grieving in dog time:
    "ONE! MONTH! IS! LONG! ENOUGH! TO! BE! SAD! I want to argue with Lily—one month is not long enough. But in dog months that’s seven months, over two hundred days. But none of it matters; to her even one day of my sadness was one day too many."

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an account of Oscar De Leon's life, a fat, lonely, nerdy Dominican American obsessed with science fiction and fantasy (what he calls the more speculative genres) and falling in love. The middle sections of the novel interposes Oscar's life with stories of his sister, Lola, who struggles with her headstrong mother, his mother, Belicia, and her childhood growing up as an orphan in the Dominican Republic, and his grandfather Abelard, imprisoned unfairly under the Trujillo regime, a family plagued by the fuku curse.

The book is a bit of a sprawl, and it is messy in the sense that there is a lot of stuff going on, but I think that is part of the charm of the book and representative of the diverse Diaspora that Diaz is writing about. Drawing from many sources and switching between different voices, Diaz freely blends Academic English, Spanglish, slang, superstition, and nerdy references (sci-fi, high fantasy, animation, etc.), creating this wonderfully alive story with a really unique voice. Each character speaks very differently, and phrases like "I do not move so precipitously" sit side by side with descriptions like "Beli might have been a puta major in the cosmology of her neighbors but a cuero she was not." 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is often described as magical realism, a genre I'm not usually much into, but I think it works very well in this book as family and cultural folklore. The supernatural elements are described very mundanely, imbuing the story with a mysticism and magical power but in an understated way that emphasizes its ubiquity in Dominican culture. For example, "it was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond," and descriptions of the godly mongoose who save Beli and Oscar's life are preceded by a disclaimer on the accuracy of the vision of the mongoose. 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a fantastic multi-generational slice of Dominican diaspora- definitely lives up to the hype.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan

Man I thought this book was terrible, and I cannot believe there are two more books in this series. I don't hate fluffy books and I definitely don't hate comedy, but this book was just egregiously bad. I found the writing bad, the characters shallow, and the plot boring and predictable. I did not give a shit about any of the characters, and there were just far too many of them, undistinguishable in their wealth and their horrible personalities. I had to flip forward to the family tree to remember their names in the first half and just gave up in the last half. Game of Thrones is excused because of George R.R. Martin's fantastic world-building; what's Kwan's excuse? Shallow characters do not necessitate shallow writing- Joffrey is pretty 1-dimensional but everyone hates him with a passion because he is written well. The twists are also really really bad- the major surprise at the end of the book sucks, and the followup twist to that sucks even harder. Its only impressive and surprising part is how impressively and surprisingly bad it is. 

To be fair, it was a little fun to read about their excessive wealth and their profligate spending (I liked when the main character, whose name I now forget -_-, first went to her boyfriend's grandmother's fancy house), but just like any guilty pleasure, the extravagance gets old really quickly, and then you're left with a pretty subpar story populated with pretty subpar characters. You'd probably get the same level of enjoyment out of just reading the synopsis on wikipedia.

I will say though, this line is pretty funny:

Please watch over dear Sister Eleanor, Sister Lorena, Sister Daisy, and Sister Nadine, as they try to sell their Sina Land shares …

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch

Dark Matter is a sci-fi thriller about a physicist who gave up his exciting research on the many-worlds theory years ago for his family. One night he gets kidnapped and wakes up in a different world, a world where he continued his research and left his wife to pursue his career. 

I didn't really like the book and didn't manage to finish it. I thought the writing was not very good, and I found his style very jarring. I especially disliked his sentence structure- writing sentences without subjects do not automatically make your story suspenseful. The characters were also not that interesting, and a lot of their motivations & backstories were not fully fleshed out. I didn't really feel that invested in what happened to them, so it was hard for me to get interested in the "thrilling" parts of the book.

That is unfortunately pretty common in a lot of thrillers that I still end up enjoying, because they are redeemed by the plot, but I didn't find the plot line engaging either. I read about halfway then gave up and googled it to see if there was some plot development that would be worth reading on for, but found out about this trite relationship development, groaned out loud, and gave up on the book. The multiverse, or in general variations on your current reality, is a pretty oft explored concept, and I didn't think Crouch's take was particularly new or engaging. Examples of multiverse stories I thought were very strong are Gaiman's Coraline, Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and Bioshock Infinite.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a cult classic from the early 70's detailing journalist Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo's drug fueled trip to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Unfortunately, their job is repeatedly obstructed by their rampant drug abuse: on their psychedelic trip to and across Las Vegas they smoke, inject, snort, drink, consume, and inhale everything I could think of and some more (what is mescaline?). In the grips of their constant high and bizarre hallucinations, they destroy hotel rooms, wreck cars, and generally terrorize people.

Considered the finest work of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an energetic, first person perspective style of journalism that involves the author as a protagonist and closely ties in his personality. In a smooth blend of facts and fiction, there is no real consistent narrative or plot, and the book slips freely between reality and fantasy until it's hard to separate what actually happens and what their drugged up brains perceive.  

The book is famous for Thompson's vivid descriptions of egregious, outrageous drug abuse, but it is a classic of American literature today because it is a fantastic capture of the zeitgeist of the 70s, a sardonic but thoughtful rumination on the collectively felt disillusionment in the American dream and the freedom and excitement of the 60s. Through the crazy experiences of Duke and Gonzo, we see and feel the failures of the counter culture movement in its starkest opposite, Las Vegas, and the ugliness of a city of greed and excess while the duo destroy symbols of American consumerism like big hotel suites and fancy rented cars.

The preface quotes Samuel Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Seen through this lens, the drug abuse is less about the recreational "drug" part and more to do with the "abuse" part. The abuse is intentional; they mean to destroy themselves to escape the harsh realities of American life and the decline of the American dream. 

Here is my favorite quote from the book, also illustrated in a Zenpencils comic here:

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride...and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well...maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” 

How to Set a Fire and Why - Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why features a young arsonist Lucia Stanton, who, in addition to the usual high school angst, has it especially rough. Her father died in a car crash when she was young, and in the same accident her mother now lives in a mental hospital, spending her days staring vacantly at the pond. Lucia lives with her aunt in a garage-turned-bedroom, eats only hard boiled eggs, bread, and stolen licorice for lunch everyday, has very few friends, and (claims that she) never laughs. Kicked out of school for stabbing a basketball player in the neck with a pencil in class, Lucia attends a new school where she joins the Arson Club, a group of young arsonists with 2 simple membership requirements: 1) set fire to something, 2) never tell anyone about it.

The book has a really unique narration style, combining story, diary, "predictions," and eventually a double column pamphlet named "How to Set a Fire and Why." The book is all written in first person, and the protagonist Lucia is very vivid and engaging- so much so that the best part of the book by far is Lucia. She is quirky, smart, funny, sardonic, really likeable, and really really cynical. The book is full of profane and profound observations like:

"What I mean is: the shitty little cells that cluster together to muster up in sum total the person I used to know are now clustering in some inferior way and the person I know cannot ever be found."

about her mom, or when she talks about sports with a classmate:

“One girl asked me if I was going to go out for sports, which made me spit out the apple juice I was drinking. I said that sports were part of the spectacle. She said what. I said the ruling class. She looked confused. I said otherwise people would get fed up and they couldn’t be controlled, so no. I mean, I would go for a run if it was a nice day, or definitely swim. I would do judo or something if they had that. But chase a ball? Do I look like a dog?”

Unfortunately, I think the book loses focus a little as it develops, and when I finished it I felt a bit disoriented, and wasn't really sure what the book was about. I enjoyed Lucia's sharp, funny perspective and commentary a lot, and she really is a fantastic character, but they fade away in somewhat flat accompanying story.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman 

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is the story of a modern day apocalypse. Prophesied hundreds of years ago, the capital-A Apocalypse is due to happen in a few days, but an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley who have grown to be quite fond of each other and the world team up to do everything in their power to stop the Apocalypse. The unlikely duo are but a part of the book's wide cast of quirky characters, also including the Antichrist, a nice boy named Adam, his group of friends, a witchfinder named Newton Pulsifier, and his love interest and witch Anathema Device (whose ancestor, Agnes Nutter, wrote the book of prophecies and coincidentally was burned at stake by Newton's ancestor, Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifier). 

I really like the premise of the book, and I have always enjoyed supernatural fantasy stories of biblical proportions with heavy dose of humor and featuring very normal, relatable characters. For the same reasons, I am a big fan of Rick Riordan's work and I adore A. Lee Martinez. My favorite minor characters were the modern day Four Horsemen, War, Famine, Death, and Pollution (Pestilence retired a few decades ago because of antibiotics, apparently), updated from horses to Harley Davidsons. 

But what makes the book so phenomenal is its wacky, Douglas Adams-esque type of British humor. Some of my favorite examples are:

  • "'It’s on the street, it knows the risks it’s taking!' said Crowley, easing the accelerating car between a parked car and a taxi and leaving a space which would have barely accepted even the best credit card."
  • "It was state of the art, he said. The art in this case was probably pottery."
  • "His voice was a dark echo from the night places, a cold slab of sound, gray, and dead. If that voice was a stone it would have had words chiseled on it a long time ago: a name, and two dates."
  • "Archimedes said that with a long enough lever and a solid enough place to stand, he could move the world. He could have stood on Mr. Young."
  • "What was going to happen soon would make barbarism look like a picnic—hot, nasty, and eventually given over to the ants."

I liked all the characters, but it gets hard to keep track of all of them, and there are a lot of subplots, flashbacks, and backstories to read through. It makes the story a bit slow especially in the middle when there are a lot of different threads to follow, but this is a small transgression because all these stories come together very nicely in the end when they all gather for the final hours of the Apocalyse. 

Hidden behind all the funny and exciting bits, Pratchett and Gaiman managed to sneak some pretty profound messages (as is always the case in the best books of this genre). I can't say too much without too many spoilers, but in the end Adam makes an important decision and makes a profound speech on ineffability, on making choices, and on human morality in between the forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

Kekkaishi - Yellow Tanabe

According to legend, 500 years ago, there was a lord whose mysterious power drew ayakashi (demons) to his land. To protect his land Karasumori and his castle, the lord hired Kekkaishi Hazama Tokimori, but when the lord died, his powers remained on the land, sealed by Hazama. To protect the land in the future, he created the Sumimura and Yukimura families to inherit the Hazama-ryu style kekkaishi he invented, and in present day the legitimate successors Yoshimori and Tokine guard Karasumori from ayakashi that still intrude nightly. 

Kekkaishi is illustrated and drawn by Yellow Tanabe (a brief sidenote: isn't it interesting that two of the best shonen, a genre typically catering to a male audience, are both drawn by female mangaka? Full Metal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa is GOAT). But while FMA is critically acclaimed and has a fantastic anime adaption, Kekkaishi is a criminally underrated shonen. 

Many shonens suffer from a condition known colloquially as "ass-pulls." Bleach is especially egregious; none of the abilities actually make any sense and people pull stuff out of their ass all. the. time. Abilities have to make sense; there has to be some kind of logic that allows for suspense of realism. Despite the impossibility of creating a new energy source in a cave, we can accept that Ironman flies around in a superpowered suit, because in the framework of the story the dubious compliance with the laws of physics are ok. 

A similar offense is the power creep. While training arcs are an important component of shonen, and being able to watch the MC grow and develop is very satisfying, there has to be reasonable jumps in ability. There should be significant divergence in skill from start to end, but it has to progress logically and reasonably. TOG does this really well; there are always characters stronger than the MC, the power limit doesn't keep on shifting, and there are dedicated arcs where the MC receives sensible powerups. An example of doing this badly is freaking Naruto, where in the beginning they throw shruikens and at the end they throw literally meteors at each other, or Bleach where in the beginning they hit each other with swords and in the end rewrite the past, present, and future (talk about an ass-pull...).

One approach is to do it the DBZ way and just make everything ridiculous, until eventually they become literal gods and can destroy planets easily (shifting the power limit...). This works because it's DBZ and it's supposed to be a little ridiculous, but I think a better and more suitable approach for most mangas is something similar to what Kekkaishi does. Characters don't suddenly and inexplicably get stronger; their source of power is preplanned and sensible, and there is a good gradient (strong people remain strong and don't suddenly become irrelevant as stronger people pop up randomly). Some characters are definitely stronger than others, which is key to development and struggle that make shonens so satisfying. It is generally no fun to see the MC stomp everyone all the time (sole exception: Onepunch man).

This is related to good world building, because characters and storylines that are planned well go hand in hand with a logical framework for abilities. The plot in Kekkaishi flows well, and there are no jarring arcs that don't seem to fit into the main progression of the story. In Bleach, what the hell are Fullbringers, and where did they come from? In Naruto, who the hell is Kaguya and from what ass was she pulled from?  On the other hand, Kekkaishi unfolds with intent, and each arc contributes towards the tension and resolution of the final arc. Just like in FMA, the MC has a big goal to accomplish, and the story is always moving towards that goal. Obviously this is easier the shorter the story is, because the story tends to be more cohesive when it is shorter and better planned (see again: FMA), but it is possible in longer mangas too (see: One Piece). 

Characters are also important in a shonen, and especially character design, because there tend to be many characters and villains, so it becomes hard to be invested in the new characters that get introduced with every arc. But antagonists in Kekkaishi are more than the villain archetype- they aren't just evil because they're evil. Many have complex backstories, and all the characters have different motivations and reasons for their actions. This is especially true for Yoshimori and Tokine, the MCs, because as the story progresses, besides growing in strength and abilities they grow in character. Even minor characters get decent exposition, so you actually care about what happens to most of the characters. 

But the most admirable part of Kekkaishi is what sets good shounen apart from great shonen. Yellow Tanabe tries to convey a message in the story, and there is actual meaning beyond the "Wow! Kill stuff!" parts so characteristic of a shonen. Kekkaishi explores the relationship between power and arrogance, and the possibility of destructive human folly but also great virtue.

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow is the 30 year saga of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, put under house arrest in the Metropol hotel in Moscow in a time of great change and activity in Russia. An ex aristocrat but a permanent gentleman, Count Rostov forms warm relationships with staff and guests, deals with unexpected twists of fate, and otherwise masters his circumstances, persevering despite his lifelong imprisonment as a "Former Person" in the rise of the Soviet Union.

It is a beautiful book compelling told by Towles, and reading it feels like eating a lovely piece of rich chocolate cake. The strength of the book is not in its plot, but rather in its exquisite detail and amazing characters. The major focus of the book is on the small things that happen at the hotel, and the people that the Count meet and form relationships with. There isn't much substance to the plot, and it's hard to explain without it sounding boring (Count Rostov gets a haircut. Count Rostov eats dinner at the Boyarsky.), but the book unfolds wonderfully and remains super engrossing because Towles' writing is fantastic and you love the characters. I adored all of them: the chef Emile, the seamstress Marina, the maitre d Andrey, the girls Sofia and Nina, the actress Anna, and especially Count Rostov.

Count Rostov is the quintessential gentleman: well-spoken, polite, knowledgeable, determined, classy, and an expert in wine, food, music, literature, and etiquette alike, but instead of the obnoxiousness so endemic to many depictions of "gentlemen," there is an elegant style and thoughtfulness to him. You can't help but appreciate the kind of man who, on a "walk of shame," describes his late night return to his room with a comparison to Hamlet:

Like Hamlet’s father roaming the ramparts of Elsinore after the midnight watch . . . Or like Akaky Akakievich, that forsaken spirit of Gogol’s who in the wee hours haunted the Kalinkin Bridge in search of his stolen coat . . .

a red wine poorly matched with a stew as:

The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy.

and first impressions as:

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

That is beautiful. However, what is most respectable and admirable about Count Rostov is not his class or his eloquence- it is his attitude towards people and life, freely giving in his relationships and freely accepting of the hardships in life. He lives his life by the belief that "adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances than he is bound to be mastered by them," so treats every person with humility and respect and faces any tribulation with an indomitable spirit and good cheer. One might expect a perpetual imprisonment in a hotel a downer, but Count Rostov embraces his situation with a joie de vivre and optimism that permeates the book. 

In A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles creates an entire world in a tiny hotel, and it was a genuine pleasure to get to know the characters and appreciate the world of Count Alexander Rostov.

Books of June 2017

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

I've been meaning to read the LOTR trilogy ever since I read The Hobbit for a class in middle school, so I am glad that I finally got to them. I also never saw the movies, which along with never having seen Star Wars is one of my fun I-am-a-fob facts. For those similarly oblivious to Western pop culture, the LOTR trilogy is an epic high fantasy novel centered around the One Ring, the key to the dark lord Sauron's campaign to conquer the Middle Earth, and the hobbits' (plus their faithful companions) quest to destroy the ring. 

I had a pretty good time reading the books, but to be honest I didn't love them. My favorite novels are the ones with a lot of character development, and there is little to none of that in LOTR, with the exception of maybe the hobbits who were established early on to be unusually and unexpectedly brave. The books are exceptional because of its setting and background. The universe of the LOTR is really impressive, and I think is the primary reason why he has so many die hard fans. The depth of Middle Earth is amazing, from the stories to the topography to even the full blown languages. I was particularly impressed by this Quora post describing how even the short 9 line poem about the One Ring has proper and consistent conjugation. Tolkien didn't write a story; he created a universe.

To be fair, the characters were very endearing, and I especially love Sam and Frodo's friendship. Their journey to Mount Doom and Sam's undying support and loyalty to Frodo is so touching.

My main gripe with the trilogy is that there was a bit too much description for me. I am bad with directions in real life so I have even more trouble visualizing all the different locations on the map, and I lose interest really quickly when he's describing the 20th hill in a row, making the books a lot more difficult to read than I thought it would be. Because the story is so description rich, I think this may be one of the few books that translate to film really faithfully, so I look forward to watching the movies sometime.

Billy Bat - Naoki Urasawa

 First volume cover

First volume cover

This is the third manga I've read by Urasawa, and also the third work in 3 months that my good friend and book birb James has recommended. Relative to his other works, I think Monster > Billy Bat, and Billy Bat = 20th Century Boys

Billy Bat is about a mysterious bat symbol that can talk to certain people, and through its manipulations of those who can see the bat, has influenced and directed the course of history since ancient times. In modern times he speaks to mangakas, and direct history and the world through the prophetic Billy Bat comics that they draw. Billy Bat reimagines important historical events such as Jesus's crucification, the moon landing, JFK's assassination all under the direction and influence of the bat.

As always, Urasawa's build up is top notch and his characters are amazing. He is a master at creating suspense and mystery, and similar to Monster and 20th Century Boys, after a point the manga just sucks you in and all of a sudden you've read 50 chapters in 1 sitting. The story is super ambitious, spanning many different time periods, characters, and themes and the premise is really unique and executed brilliantly.

I particularly liked the first half of the manga, but unfortunately it seems like most of his works have pretty weak endings. There are a lot of things that I wish he went into more detail with and some unresolved questions that I wish he addressed. Despite that, I liked the message in the ending of Billy Bat- to encourage us to think for ourselves independent of the prophet/god/devil, the Bat, and to keep on "drawing" and stand on our own feet independent of a supernatural influence (maybe an allegory for organized religion?). It is a hopeful ending to complement a gritty and realistic manga. 

His art style I've written about before, but I like his clean lines and character design. Another wonderful work by Urasawa.

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

 The original cover, under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas

The original cover, under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas

I loved this book; this is one of my favorites of the year. The Bell Jar is poet Sylvia Plath's only novel, and follows Esther Greenwood, a smart, successful, beautiful young woman in her struggle with depression. The book is allegedly semi autobiographical, and there are lots of parallels between the events of The Bell Jar and Plath's life. 

I found Esther's account of her years trapped under the bell jar a wonderfully honest depiction of depression, and I was most drawn by its stark immediacy and intimacy via Esther's detached and emotionless narration. You feel the tension, the chaos, and the violence enveloping and suffocating Esther, made even more horrifying and realistic when seen through the veneer of depression's horrible nonchalance and indifference. It is as if you are standing with Esther in the middle of the eye of the storm, fixed by her side in her glamorous New York internship, in the asylum, at her suburban home, and always in her ever increasing mental instability.

The back cover of the edition I have describes the book as "a shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity," and Esther's mental illness as a "breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational." I find that tremendously unfair and a pretty shitty description, because it suggests that Esther is herself insane and the reader is supposed to be amazed at Plath's amazing writing because we are so surprised by how _real and "rational"_ Esther is. The book is relatable and Esther seems so real and rational because she is- The Bell Jar is primarily about Esther's struggle with her identity, the same struggle we have all faced at some point in our lives.

This is closely related to her difficulty with fitting into the traditional mold of womanhood. Esther wants many different things in her life but feels trapped by other people's expectations of her, the eponymous bell jar. Her relationships are all ones of dominance, but the men in her life in particular all inflict some kind of violence on her, whether physical or psychological. Everyone wants her to be something, but no one cares enough to understand what she wants or even try. That is the source of Esther's mental instability, not some inconceivable insanity, and is what makes Esther so sympathetic and her pain so relatable.

Here are some quotes that I like from the book: 

  • On silence:
    "The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence."
  • On apathy:
    "After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired."
  • On choice paralysis:
    "I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out."
  • On expectations and security:
    "That's one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."
  • On suicide:
    "I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies. But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn't do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at."

The Vegetarian - Han Kang


Such a haunting story. The Vegetarian is about a Korean housewife who becomes a vegetarian after she starts having disturbing nightmares. Her personal choice to stop eating meat and animal products changes much more than just her diet, and the events that transpire range from bizarre and brutal sexual encounters to horrifying episodes of physical violence and emotional trauma. 

There are three parts to the book, each told by a different family member (her husband, brother-in-law, and her sister). It is interesting because you get to know the protagonist without actually ever hearing the story from her perspective (although I guess that is appropriate, because the book is about withdrawal from the world as a reaction to its violence and impurity). 

I am really divided about the book, and it was a pretty difficult one to read. It is very dark and engages with heavy themes of violence, despair, and identity, and frequently grapples with questions of sanity (definitely not light bedtime reading). At times I wanted to put the book down, but the story is unique and gripping, and trying to figure out what Kang is doing keeps the pages turning. 

I thought the book was at first similar to The Bell Jar because like Esther, Yeong-Hye is repeatedly victimized by men that are manipulative, predatory, or just cruel, all united in their failure to understand and empathize with her. This book is actually a lot darker, less personal, and more allegorical, touching on so many social issues- gender, conformity, violence, sexuality, insanity, domestic abuse, and self-identity. It is motivated and inspired by the question of how to respond to an unavoidably corrupt and violent world, and Yeong-Hye's withdrawal from the world is her answer, rejecting her humanity to become as pure as a plant. 

I can't say if I liked the book or not but it was certainly thought provoking and it's short, so if you're looking for something a bit more serious and darker this is a good choice.

Here are some quotes from the book that I like:

  • On sexuality and the body:
    "This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented."
  • On ownership:
    "It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted."

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

I generally don't like psychology books. The last one I really enjoyed and had a big impact on me was Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, but I think Thinking, Fast and Slow is definitely also up there. I haven't enjoyed a psych book like that in ages, and I don't think I've ever read in a book in its genre that has so concretely changed the way I think. 

Thinking, Fast and Slow is about two systems of how we think. One system (System 1) is fast, intuitive, and emotional, and the other (System 2) is slow, methodological, and more logical. Kahneman examines how the interaction between these two systems and how they contribute to our thinking is at the source of many common cognitive biases. 

The book is organized really nicely into 5 sections, and discusses three dualities: two systems, two agents, and two selves. The two systems are System 1 and 2, the two agents are Econs, the perfectly rational agents assumed in economics, and Humans (regular people), and the two selves are the experiencing self and the remembering self. I like how each chapter tackles a specific idea, and how he explains the research and the theory in detail, relating it back to the two systems.

A chapter I particularly liked explains how psychology lessons don't really sink in that well, and oftentimes we learn about cognitive biases but then go right ahead and succumb to the same biases and heuristics. A study discussed in the book shows how this can be remedied by showing particular cases and allowing the participants to extrapolate to the general. Because of this, the book is supported with short examples that you can answer and think through to show you how you are not exempt from these mistakes. He wrote the book to change the way we think about these mistakes and how we talk about these heuristics, so he ends each chapter with "Speaking about _x_" where he shows examples of how you might talk about these biases in common conversation. That's a really unique idea I haven't seen anywhere else before, and really helps relate the concepts to our everyday lives. 

Here are some of my major takeways:

  • On regression to the mean:
    Basically when something performs unexpectedly (away from the mean) eventually it most likely will regress to the standard. This is pretty obvious in theory but has interesting real life applications. An example he gives is that golfers performing really well on their first day statistically do a bit worse on their second day, because of the additional element of luck in their performance that varies day to day. That this is surprising is an indication of how we tend to focus on the causal role of skill but neglect the role of luck.
  • On interviewing:
    He suggests relying on a more objective pre determined rating system on a few dimensions rather than intuitive judgment. This is a good counterargument to the "would I get a beer with you" test that is so popular amongst startups nowadays. 
  • On estimation + planning:
    Your confidence in yourself will make you overestimate your abilities and underestimate how long things will take. A better approach is to gather statistics on similar projects and their success/failures, using historical data instead of an inaccurate heuristic. This is really similar to the idea of evidence based scheduling that Joel suggested in a great Joel-on-Software post.
  • On loss aversion + narrow framing:
    we can avoid these biases by thinking in aggregate, broader frames, and not thinking of each case individually. A good example is poker. I once took a 60/40 bet and all-in'd Frank on a hand on recommendation from Randy, and ended up losing. That sucks on a solo case, but I will likely make more 60/40 bets in the future, and if I take all of them, statistically I'll end up coming on top.

A good book, easy to read, and really useful!

Eyeshield 21 - Yusuke Murata

 1st volume cover

1st volume cover

This is my second time reading through the manga in my entirety. Eyeshield 21 is about a skinny little kid who turns out to be a super fast runner and is roped into playing American football as a running back. Their team's goal is to win the Christmas Bowl, where the top two teams (east and west) of Japan compete. The eponymous Eyeshield 21 is the title given to the best runner of each generation at Notre Dame (a title the main character uses as a codename). I actually don't know shit about American football, and I take the opportunity every year during the Super Bowl to go to the gym when it's just me and my fellow fobs working out. This manga is the only reason why I kind of know the rules of American football and how the sport is supposed to be played.

The manga is written by Riichiro Inagaki and illustrated by Yusuke Murata. Murata has recently become pretty famous for his work on One Punch Man (storyboarded by ONE). His art is actually mindblowing; I don't think there are many mangakas on his level, and you can really see how Eyeshield 21 helped him hone his amazing ability. The action is really clearly delineated and easy to follow, and the character design is also awesome. I find a lot of sports manga, or manga in general where there are tons of characters, suffer from a big problem where their characters are hard to distinguish (homogeneously athletic people). Inagaki and Murata's characters all have easy to distinguish and memorable looks as well as abilities & backstories. I think it is also very helpful that in American football players have really specific roles, so it's relatively easier to set up different abilities, designs, and back stories based on the roles. I also like how the teams are accompanied with little cartoon depictions, and the text is really big and blocky- I think it suits the manga really well. 

To Inagaki's credit, the execution and build up of the manga is also brilliant. Sports manga are interesting because they generally only span 1 year (basically until the seniors graduate) and they have really clear goals (winning the tournament), so there isn't a lot of room for surprising results since they generally have to win, or else they're eliminated. Each game in Eyeshield 21 is unique and exciting, and games unfold differently by unique strategies, comebacks, and oppponents. 

I also liked how the manga has a very positive message. A lot of the characters struggle with a difference in physical ability, but love their sport and have a competitive drive to be the best, so they accept their limitations, continue to fight, and find a niche in which they can excel. My favorite quote in the manga is this: "Even second rate lions have a single right allowed to them. That is the right to challenge the boss of the group in a fight. It's up to you to live while using that right or to live while not using it." 

The manga is also very funny- I love Kurita and my favorite recurring joke has got to be powerful-go, the really terse but super expressive language that only powerful men can understand. 

This is a great sports manga and I really enjoyed reading it. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

 I love this cover

I love this cover

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera's most famous book, and to my great chagrin and embarrassment, I avoided reading it for years because I thought the title was pretentious. "Hey, what have you been reading recently? Oh, nothing much. Just The Unbearable Lightness of Being." This ended up being a very stupid bias because I loved this book and I think Kundera is brilliant.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about two women, two men, and a dog in Prague in the 1960s and 1970s. It follows some very different characters: Tomas, the womanizer and surgeon, his devoted wife Tereza, the fickle and beautiful artist Sabina, her lover Franz, the university professor, and Tomas and Tereza's sweet dog Karenin. The book is a mix of philosophy and novel, each supporting the other. The philosophy provides the backbone and the motivation for the story, and the story fleshes out the philosophy in greater detail. The story is largely driven by Tomas and Tereza's relationship, and Tereza's anguish from Tomas's infidelity. 

The name of the book comes from Kundera's challenge to Nietzche's philosophy of eternal recurrence- things are given weight because everything happens has occurred already and will recur eternally. The underpinning theme is the question between this weight of eternal responsibility versus the lightness of everyone living only one life and everything happening only once. The unbearableness, the "weight" of this lightness of being is the core of the book.

Kundera has an amazing narrative style, and I loved the narrator in the book. He really comes to life; more than just someone who dictates the story and explains the stuff, the narrator is another character in the book. The writing style is also fantastic- light and easy to read, but somehow still very weighty, expressing and representing well the weight of lightness. 

One of the questions I thought a lot about while reading this was whether Kundera answers the question he poses in the first chapter: is lightness preferable to weight? I think in the end he answers the question pretty decisively, and in Tomas and Tereza we see that there is an answer to the lightness of love and life, and that commitment and weight is not only possible but also preferable. 

Some quotes that I liked from the book (there are a lot of them...):

  • On compassion: 
    "For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes."
  • On the basis of love on chance and coincidence: 
    "We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the "Es muss sein!" to our own great love."
  • On the vulnerability of love: 
    "The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis. It meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow."
  • On the weight of lightness:
    "When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina—what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being."
  • On the meaningfulness of love, despite its origins from chance:
    "She, born of six fortuities, she, the blossom sprung from the chief surgeon's sciatica, she, the reverse side of all his "Es muss sein!"—she was the only thing he cared about.
  • On the no-take-backs of life:
    "Another way of formulating the question is, Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death? Is there any answer to these questions? And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions."
  • On the death of Stalin's son:
    "If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light."
  • On the mind/heart duality:
    "When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object."
  • On unconditional love:
    "Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company."
  • On the mission of life:
    "Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it's a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions."
  • On the nature of love:
    "Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."

The Joke - Milan Kundera

The Joke is Milan Kundera's first novel, which I was pretty surprised about when I found out, because the book seems more like the work of a mature author. The Joke's protagonist is Ludvik Jahn, a communist who makes a crappy joke on a postcard to his girlfriend and is expelled from school by party leaders who take the joke seriously. He is sent to work in the mines for a few years with other subversives, but despite this setback, Ludvik becomes a successful scientist. Some years later, Ludvik returns home bitter and angry, planning his big revenge on those who have wronged him. 

Just like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the writing style is amazing. Chapters center on one of 4 characters, each with 4 distinct voices and writing styles. These characters are so unique and different that it is immediately recognizable who is speaking in the chapter. This is masterfully demonstrated in the last chapter, where 3 characters alternate in speaking. Separated by unlabeled sections, it is nonetheless very clear who is speaking in which part. 

The Joke also engages with the idea of lightness and weight, but doesn't use relationships to demonstrate this lightness. Instead, Kundera motivates the novel with the idea of trivial things that have great weight on our lives, the little decisions that end up influencing us greatly. The first joke of the book is Ludvik's harmless postcard, taken too seriously and he gets some very severe consequences. The second joke of the book is Ludvik's revenge, when he seduces his enemy Pavel's wife Helena only to realize that Pavel has a mistress and is glad to be rid of Helena (not a spoiler, explained really early on). 

But what is the eponymous joke? The joke is not just the ones that Ludvik makes, nor the way that they backfire making him the butt of the joke. The real joke of the book is Ludvik's obsession over the trivial, making his life centered around the joke, staking his existence on something so meaningless. The joke is trap of triviality, the funny tragedy of the weight of a joke created through taking the joke too seriously.

Here are some quotes I like from the book that may demonstrate that idea better:

  • On the complexity and unnaturalness of love:
    "The psychological and physiological mechanism of love is so complex that at a certain period in his life a young man must concentrate all his energy on coming to grips with it, and in this way he misses the actual content of the love: the woman he loves. (In this he is much like a young violinist who cannot concentrate on the emotional content of a piece until the technique required to play it comes automatically.)"
  • On the young:
    "The young can't help playacting; themselves incomplete, they are thrust by life into a completed world where they are compelled to act fully grown. They therefore adopt forms, patterns, models—those that are in fashion, that suit, that please—and enact them."
  • On being the butt of the joke and the comforting belief in destiny:
    "True, there was a time when I too glorified my outcast destiny as something heroic, but it was false pride. I've had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't assigned to the black insignia for having been courageous or for having fought, for sending my idea out to do battle with the ideas of others; no, my fall was not preceded by any real drama; I was more the object than the subject of my story, and (unless one considers suffering, sadness, or defeat values) I have nothing whatsoever to boast of."
  • On obsession with injustice:
    "You became bitter to the depths of your soul, convinced of the great injustice done you. That sense of injustice still determines every step you take."
  • On the triviality of life:
    "And I was horrified at the thought that things conceived in error are just as real as things conceived with good reason and of necessity."

The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman

I was really looking forward to this book because it is so highly lauded as the design book (also it has really high ratings on goodreads). This book ended up being kind of a disappointment, and I finished it with some reluctance, skimming a lot of the chapters. It made a lot of kind of out of the blue, really general assertions, and I'm not saying that the author doesn't know what he's talking about, but I think in his book he simplifies a lot of stuff to the point of being not very factual or very useful. 

When I picked up the book, I was hoping for an analysis of specific examples to demonstrate principles of good design (possible even with outdated examples!). I thought it would be more about how common things are actually designed, like teapots or elevators, leading to a discussion of more general design principles. Instead, the book had a lot of grandiose statements about human behavior and psychology that aren't really backed up with any kind of reference to any studies, just stated as if they are inviolable facts. I also thought he seemed a little pompous and he was pretty into himself, a pretty big turnoff for me. 

I did get some useful stuff out of the book, and some of it was pretty interesting. For example, he describes some different ways of approaching designs that I thought were helpful, such as emphasizing discoverability (finding new features) and understanding (being able to understand what to do/ how to interact with it) in good design. I also liked the idea of blaming machines and products for being poorly designed when we make mistakes, and to center the design process around the human. Instead of forcing people to follow the archaic specifications of the design, the design ought to anticipate how people will approach, use, and interact with the product. I also liked his bit on the 7 stages of action (goal, execution: plan, specify, and perform, and evaluation: perceive, interpret, and compare). I thought it was interesting how the process described is really similar to the debugging process I learned from Kyle at Riot. There were a lot of useful chunks and gems in the book, there was just also a lot of it that I felt was unnecessary or unsupported. 

I also felt like some of it was kinda obvious, but to be fair, maybe that's because the book has been so popular that its lessons have already been adapted ubiquitously?

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

I encountered Man's Search for Meaning in a reddit thread about books that changed your life. I love this book and I found it both inspiring and deeply touching. The book is authored by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was sent to 4 different concentration camps during WW2. The book is divided two parts, the first about his experiences in concentration camp, and the second explaining his psychology theory, logotherapy.

The main idea of Man's Search for Meaning is that we are driven and motivated by meaning. We want to have some kind of purpose, some kind of higher goal, and more than just the will to power (Nietzsche) or the will to pleasure (Freud), we have an indomitable will to meaning. But instead of asking and searching for the meaning of life, we should ask what life expects of us and to aspire to reach those goals. Frankl describes three ways to find meaning: through accomplishment, through loving something or someone, or through suffering. The last is especially poignant and personal, and he explains it in detail through his experiences in the concentration camps. Frankl argues that we can find dignity and nobility and purpose in suffering, and that people can always rise above their circumstances, and become more. Even in depths of great despair there can be human triumph and heroism. It is short, but such a powerful read. 

I'm going to stop poorly reviewing it and share quotes instead because there are so many good ones:

  • On the honorable endurance of suffering for love:
    "The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way —an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”"
  • On the capability to appreciate even in the worst conditions:
    "One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”"
  • On spiritual and inner freedom:
    • "Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress."
    • "Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful."
  • On choosing your attitude:
    "They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
  • On bearing your cross:
    "The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most diffcult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a diffcult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
  • On the opportunity of growth in suffering:
    "Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself."
  • On hopelessness:
    "They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning."
  • On pain, pleasure, and purpose:
    "Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life."
  • On old age and reminiscence:
    “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
  • On the tragic optimism of our generation:
    "Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
- Richard Feynman

This is a collection of Feynman's writings, speeches, talks, interviews, articles, etc. He talks about all sorts of interesting stuff in there, and I thought most of it was pretty cool. In these various pieces we learn about his background and his work, his views on science and the place of science in society, and the exciting new possibilities and advances of science in the future.

Feynman is a tremendously interesting person with a storied and exciting career, having worked on the Manhattan Project, done a lot of weird stuff (detailed more in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman), and won a Nobel Prize for his work in physics. He is also kind of a dick. Admittedly, he is aware of it, but that just makes him a self-aware asshole, a marginally better distinction. In his books, he seems like a very nice person in general, albeit a little condescending, is a super smart guy, and a really accomplished physicist, but some of his views are a bit distasteful. He dismisses the social sciences and philosophy as being "unscientific," which strikes me as a little rude, but even worse, in one chapter he describes how he was surprised that "the female mind is capable of grasping concepts in analytical geometry." It baffles me how someone who is such a strong proponent of the scientific method can believe that men and women have unequal mental capabilities, and was such a strong turn off I almost stopped reading.

The good bits... I liked his views on science, and his discussion of the importance of curiosity in science. I learned a lot from his talk on how to teach science, to avoid teaching rote definitions and instead try to understand the deeper motivation and meaning behind the definition. I think there is a lot to be improved in STEM education, and Feynman has some interesting ideas. I also really liked his accounts of his past work, especially on the Manhattan Project, and the trajectory of his career, but my favorite parts of the book were the chapters where he talks about future advances in science, especially on the future of computing. "There's Plenty of Space Down There," about the possibilities of micro computing, was REALLY interesting and I think is a good look through the lens of physics into the potential of hardware. 

Some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On definitions versus learning:
    "I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing except the definition. You learned nothing about science."
  • On the importance of intuition and motivation:
    "Dirac said that to understand a physical problem means to be able to see the answer without solving equations. Maybe he exaggerated; maybe solving equations is experience you need to gain understanding–but until you do understand, you’re just solving equations."
  • On curiosity in everything:
    "I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough."
  • On living with doubt:
    "I’ve learned how to live without knowing. I don’t have to be sure I’m succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m delighted with the width of the world!"

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon

This book gave me a lot of anguish because I gave up on it halfway through, and I hate quitting on books. I REALLY wanted to like it, because I really loved his other book Summerland, I thought the premise was really unique and interesting, and this book won a Pulitzer Prize. I read 200 or so pages and just couldn't get into the story. I didn't find the characters that interesting and just didn't care that much about the story. If you've read it and loved it, I would love to hear why. Maybe I'll give it another shot in the future.

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

I bought this book at a used bookstore in East Village and I feel kind of jipped. I thought the book was a collection of Roald Dahl's ghost stories, since his name is bigger than half the title, but actually this is a collection of ghost stories gathered and curated by Roald Dahl. Nevertheless, I enjoyed two stories out of this 14 story collection before giving up, because to be totally honest with you, I get scared too easily. Maybe I will return to it when I feel braver, but more likely it will sit in my bookshelf until I gift it to a more thrill seeking friend. 

Laughable Loves - Milan Kundera

This is the third book by Kundera that I've read this month, and I enjoyed it sooo much- maybe even more than The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Joke. I have always enjoyed short stories, because even more so than novels, the central theme and motivating vision is extremely clear, and it is a pleasure to see how these various ideas get developed and fleshed out over the course of a short story. In short stories I think you really get to understand the author's project. In Laughable Loves, Kundera explores a variety of romantic relationships, expanding on themes such as the weight of brevity and lightheartedness, and the closeness of tragedy and comedy (ideas central to The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

In these stories, two middle aged men explore the game of seduction, a young man and a woman engage in a make believe hitchhiking game only to become real strangers to each other, and a old man struggles with detachment from his younger, more seductive and attractive self. They are all wonderful and thought provoking works of grace and illusion, and Laughable Loves is Kundera at his best. 

My favorite stories are Nobody Will LaughThe Hitchhiking Game, and Eduard and God

Some quotes I liked from these stories:

  • On the malleability of the past:
    "Every human life has many aspects," said the professor. "The past of each one of us can be just as easily arranged into the biography of a beloved statesman as into that of a criminal."
  • On the intermingling of tragedy and comedy:
    "Only after a while did it occur to me (in spite of the chilly silence that surrounded me) that my story was not of the tragic sort, but rather of the comic variety. That afforded me some comfort."
  • On experiencing versus remembering:
    "We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has."
  • On the mind body dualism:
    "She often longed to feel free and easy about her body, the way most of the women around her did. She had even invented a special course in self-persuasion: she would repeat to herself that at birth every human being received one out of the millions of available bodies, as one would receive an allotted room out of the millions of rooms in an enormous hotel; that consequently the body was fortuitous and impersonal, only a ready-made, borrowed thing. She would repeat this to herself in different ways, but she could never manage to feel it. This mind-body dualism was alien to her. She was too much at one with her body; that is why she always felt such anxiety about it."
  • On the worship of purity:
    "This was all the worse because he worshiped rather than loved her; it had always seemed that the girl had reality only within the bounds of fidelity and purity, and that beyond these bounds it simply didn't exist; beyond these bounds she would cease to be herself, as water ceases to be water beyond the boiling point. When he now saw her crossing this horrifying boundary with nonchalant elegance, he was filled with anger."
  • On the illogic of love:
    "This sounds illogical to you, but love is precisely that which is illogical.""
  • On balding:
    "Naturally he was silent about the bald spot that was beginning to appear (it was just like her silence about the canceled grave); on the other hand the vision of the bald spot was transubstantiated into quasi-philosophical maxims to the effect that time passes more quickly than man is able to live, and that life is terrible, because everything in it is necessarily doomed to extinction; he voiced these and similar maxims, to which he awaited a sympathetic response; but he didn't get it."
  • On the perceived self:
    "It was far more important to him how he himself was seen in the eyes of his partner than how she appeared to him."

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly - Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential is Anthony Bourdain's hilarious and inappropriate account of his professional story plus industry commentary, a behind-the-scenes look at how kitchens and restaurants are run. The book is a lot of fun, and Bourdain honestly recounts the intense and insane environment of the commercial kitchen, a story of profanity, debauchery, and general vice.

In the early chapters he says that he hopes his book will be eye opening for outsiders of the restaurant world, and I certainly learned a lot from reading his book. I liked the descriptions of different management styles of restaurants, and especially the chain of failing restaurants that he took over, teaching him how to smell a dying restaurant a mile away. I thought the section on chef's tools + professional cooking at home really helpful, especially since I recently threw away all my crappy and abused cooking stuff from college.

I've seen some of the insanity and mayhem of a kitchen during lunch and dinner rush on TV, but his descriptions paint a non-edited, even more vivid image of the chaos and brutality of the food industry. Far from an idyllic, clean paradise where chefs with pristine hats drizzle sauce artistically over tastefully plated food, the kitchen as Bourdain describes and has experienced is a bawdy battleground, shared from a perspective only possible from one who has sadomasochistically crawled in the culinary trenches for decades.  

I always liked his show and his book is very similar in tone and style. He doesn't pull any punches, doesn't dole out any bullshit, and doesn't gloss over anything- the glories and the horrors are described side by side in full detail, and he is harshest on himself, detailing his mistakes and misdeeds. It is obvious that he sincerely and profoundly loves food, and adores the crazy, dirty world of cooking professionally. I was surprised by the brilliance of his writing, and I absolutely love his style. He is descriptive and funny, obscenely eloquent and unapologetically frank, and his style is very conversational and personal. His personality consistently shines through in the book. I think he writes in a very similar style to me (albeit with less swear words...), but he is a much much better writer and I aspire to his level. We both write with a lot of adjectives, interject long sentences with short thoughts led with "-"s, and use a lot of lists & parallelism to describe things, but I especially admire how he builds up long sentences to culminate emphatically on a short sentence, bringing a nice punch to his work. I am working on that in my own writing. His passionate description of his first oyster, the one that drew him to love food and chase unknown culinary thrills, and his pensive description of his scarred hands after 20 years in the kitchen is just good writing.

This book is a delight, I loved it and look forward to reading his other stuff!

Books of May 2017

In May I read:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - Steven Pinker

This is the most well researched and comprehensive book that I have ever read. I was kind of annoyed when I first started it because after starting this series of my blog I want to get through a nice chunk of books every month, and this book was just so damn long. There are 10 chapters in total, and each chapter is a bit under 2 hours of reading (and I think I read pretty fast). It is just dense, packed with information, and he tackles a shit ton of subjects.

The main subject of the book is that contrary to public opinion and apocalyptic claims of the media, unilaterally and unquestionably violence has decreased in every possible way.

better angels example.jpg

The decline is sharp and undeniable, and very very very interesting. I'm not sure why I did, but I started out already believing his thesis so I didn't really need that much convincing. 

A short note on style & organization before I talk about content:
The book is organized wonderfully, and even though the chapters are super long, they're all further subdivided into more digestible sections. The roadmap he puts forth in the introduction is really helpful, and it is obvious that he had the whole book mapped out really well before he started writing. The main ideas he repeats often, and it helps keeping the takeaways in mind while reading through graphs and long explanations. His style is also pretty easy to follow, and he supplements all his data with careful and nuanced analysis.

In the book, he discusses 6 trends of declining violence: the Pacification Process, the Civilizing Process, the Humanitarian Revolution, the Long Peace, the New Peace, and the Rights Revolution, roughly by chronological order (side note: I really like his naming). In the last few chapters, looking at psychology, biology, and philosophy, he examines the inner demons that plague humanity and drive us to violence as well as the very similar better angels that drive us to pursue peace instead of violence.

Some things I found really interesting in the book (gosh there are so many):

  • Contrary to our ideas of peaceful natives and a lovely life living by the land, early life pre civilization was pretty brutal, and statistically you were much much much more likely to die (two orders of magnitude or so?). You could live in the worst city in the world and the odds of a violent death would still be much higher in pre civilization times
  • Evidence doesn't support "cycles" of violence- there are certain factors that contribute to the long and unprecedented peace. People and societies don't seem to have violence valves that need to be periodically emptied with a Purge day. 
  • He creates a simplified model of peace called the Pacifist's Dilemma (very similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma) and explains how incentives can be changed by a Leviathan, global commerce, feminization, and empathy & reason. These ideas are explained in greater detail in the book; I won't do the injustice of butchering them here.
  • Most importantly, I think, the declining trend of violence doesn't mean there will ALWAYS be a declining trend of violence. There have just been factors contributing to these declines, and it is important and useful to recognize what these factors are instead of clinging to mistaken myths so it's easier to understand and maintain peace. While I doubt that we will descend into WW3 anytime soon and start a nuclear war, in recent times populist trends, isolationist policies, and we-versus-them ideologies are certainly worrying. 

The Whipping Boy - Sid Fleischman

The Whipping Boy.jpg

I read this book when I was in lower school, and I liked it then and I like it now. I wanted to read it again because I read about whipping boys in The Better Angels of Our Nature and thought of this book. It's a nice short story about understanding other people and being nice to each other. It also made me interested in eating baked potatoes with salt as a lower schooler. Interestingly, I remember thinking the book was really long when I first read it but I ended up finishing it this time in about 30 minutes.

The Dark Prophecy - Rick Riordan

I like Rick Riordan a lot and I'm really glad he's made it big enough to have his own shelf at Barnes and Nobles. I'm sure the man is raking it in, and I think he deserves it- I've read all of his books and I've liked all of them (some more than others, I think the newer ones are a bit weaker). His strengths are in funny, exciting plots, but more importantly deeply sympathetic and nuanced characters, exploring mythology (always a fascinating subject) with great, relatable characters. His books are like Chipotle in the sense that you always know what you're going to get, and it's always pretty good.

This one is the 2nd in The Trials of Apollo series (I think there are 5 books?) and it was a much better sequel to the lackluster 1st book. It follows the events of The Heroes of Olympus series, and the protagonist is Apollo as the human boy Lester, transformed as a punishment from his father Zeus. I thought Apollo was really annoying in book 1 and was very barely redeemed by his partner Meg. Apollo was a much more sympathetic character in this book, and I liked how Riordan fleshes out Apollo's personal change and growth from all powerful god to pimply teenager Lester. I also like how he's rotating the supporting cast and bringing back different heroes from The Heroes of Olympus in each book. My main minor annoyance is the amount of pop culture references; I get that he writes for a teen audience but it sometimes feels a bit forced.

I was also excited that I recognized who the villain was before he said it in the book by his epithet (the New Hercules), and that I'm pretty confident I know who the villain in the 3rd book is based on the prophecy at the end of this book. Thanks Professor de Angelis!

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is another in a long line of books under the World War II fiction umbrella. It is a little bit predictable, and the plot does not have a lot of surprises. A lot of the big plot points are set up really early and you know what's going to happen from the start, but the story plays out really nicely. It's very well written and the characters are endearing, and the story plays out in a sad, hopeful, and always very charming way. This goes to show that you don't need to have big twists in the plot or unpredictable characters to write an engaging story. The book is lovely and I think it's a lot of fun to read, but I also don't think it's anything new or groundbreaking.

As a side note, I think it's really interesting how a lot of books are written in the same style. I first noticed it with The Night Circus. A lot of these authors write with the same short sentences punctuated roughly. I guess the short staccato sentences builds suspense...? 

The Death of Ivan Ilych - Leo Tolstoy

I read this short novella because it was discussed a lot in Being Mortal and I like Tolstoy. I really really really enjoyed this story and I highly recommend it to anyone. Tolstoy is such a masterful author and I love how he sets up his story and expresses to you what he wants to tell you without telling you explicitly.

The story is about a man Ivan Ilych who lives a very regular, bureaucratic life, and believes that life should run "easily, pleasantly, and decorously." Tolstoy starts the book with a lovely line: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." In an unfortunate and stupid accident, Ivan Ilych gets injured, and he becomes very ill. His pain is persistent and worsens, and a rotating crew of doctors cannot heal him. Even though he is dying, no one around him admits it, and more than the pain in his side, he is crushed by the pain of isolation and the fear of having lived an inauthentic life. His grasp with mortality brings him the understanding that an authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy, and unmasks the true meaning of life his artificial existence has been denying. 

In the course of the short book, I felt the rage, the pain, the sorrow, the despair, and the suffering of Ivan Ilych intimately, driving me to think about life and meaning. I especially love the ending of the book, and I thought his final epiphany and spiritual & psychological rebirth was very touching. 

Living with Water Scarcity - David Zetland

Living with Water Scarcity.png

I heard about this book from the Econtalk episode where David Zetland talks with Russ about water scarcity. This book is short (100 pages) and enjoyable, and touches on the very important problem of water scarcity and examines economic and political solutions. I also really liked the economic analysis and he writes the book in a very legible and simple to understand way.

Many people dismiss market based solutions for water scarcity by claiming that water is a right. While water is indeed a right, getting water where it is needed is not a right, and requires money in infrastructure, resources, and energy. Water is also, despite claims otherwise, a commodity and a resource, so if water is always given away for free (or relatively close to free), then people will use water at that price. This is a particularly important point- water has a sharply declining marginal utility, so having that first bit of water (for drinking, washing, bathroom, etc.) is really important, and people will pay almost anything for it, but once you have a lot of water, water for your lawn, pool, etc. is just not as important. If it is all free, then that declining utility doesn't matter. A lot of the book is about incentives, and if water is free, the costs, including potentially hefty environmental costs, are not reflected, and people have no reason to care.

The solution is not supply side, because no matter what you do, as long as water is cheap and almost free, then there will never be enough water. Expensive desalination plants and shipping water is not the solution, because (and I thought this was really amusing) as costs of water increases for the consumer from these expensive solutions, demand will drop, and the extra water will become unnecessary anyways as consumers find ways to cut their water usage. The solution is to fix the demand for water with prices. 

People may complain about higher water prices, but acknowledging realistic water scarcity is better than living with water shortages. I really like this quote from the book:

"Prices generate revenues and reduce demand, but they also give customers choices. A regulation on outdoor watering may annoy a granny with flowers. A desalination plant may annoy environmentalists. An education campaign is condescending to some and a waste of breath on others. A campaign to install low-flow toilets may install sparkling receptacles in unused second bathrooms. Prices send a direct signal at the same time as they accommodate many responses. Customers can choose their own mix of technologies and techniques. Some will take shorter showers. Others will install drip irrigation. Some will shower at work. Others will just pay more. A higher price for water, like a higher price for any commodity, allows people to choose how much water to use. Choice is a pleasant option compared to water shortages or tickets from water cops."

A counter argument I often hear is that rising water prices will be unfairly difficult for the poor, but in reality water prices will still cheap- a few dollars per thousand gallons. But what about the poorest people in the world living in underdeveloped countries? The same- increasing water prices will actually help those most in need of clean water. With better priced water, people can get better, more reliable water and service, instead of dirty water delivered intermittently, like in Egypt where water is only available at certain times of day. Even in countries with less robust infrastructure than the US, real water prices reflect environmental costs and provides choice.

Slam Dunk - Takehiko Inoue

OG sports manga, good art, exciting storyline, funny people, great character design - would recommend. Has a lot of tropes that future sports manga have adopted and it's cool to see where they came from & got popular. I thought the ending was kind of weak but still worth reading. 

Ender's Game; Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card

Ender's Shadow.jpg

This is probably something like my 20th read of Ender's Game...? I read the book in middle school in the library, and I've read it every couple months since then. The science fiction is excellent and its got a really strong plot, but the real strength of the book is its characters. The characters are deeply complex and sympathetic, and Card builds out their interactions and growth with amazing depth and nuance. I most like how he explores the psychology and motivations of the characters, especially the struggle between Ender as a empathetic leader able to inspire love and loyalty and understand the enemy and a cruel commander able to exterminate the enemy.

It is for the same reason why I like Ender's Shadow even more, and why it is my favorite companion novel ever. It explores the same storyline (roughly) as Ender's Game but is told from the perspective of Bean. In Ender's Game, Bean is a smart but not super important soldier, but in Ender's Shadow, Card reveals a completely different view and changes the story so much despite it being the same storyline. I think that is incredibly mind blowing and masterful. I found Bean to be an even more sympathetic protagonist than Ender, and I loved seeing how Bean's story added and supplemented Ender's and how much depth was added to the story because of Bean. A lot of stuff that was just a sentence long minor detail in Ender's Game was a big plot point in Ender's Shadow, and a lot of minor decisions that Ender made turned out to be very significant and greatly influenced by Bean.

This is also why I was so surprised to find out Card was xenophobic, racist, and homophobic, because he writes such wonderful characters with complicated, real strengths and flaws. Apparently in his later books that comes through more strongly, and honestly if you read carefully I think you can get a bit of that in both books. The author's personal views aside, the books are amazing and are both classics. I love them and would recommend them to anyone. 

The Thing Itself: Essays on Academics and the State - Michael Munger

I was introduced to Michael Munger thanks to Econtalk, so I thought since I liked his talks so much I would probably like his books too. So I picked up The Thing Itself. It is an interesting collection of essays about the state, and how the problems of the state often have no solution within the state, because the problem is _the thing itself_. The essays are half about the state, and half about academics, and while a goodreads reviewer claims they are related, I didn't really see a big connection between the two subjects.

His essays on conservatives in academia were interesting, where he criticizes higher education as being insular and therefore failing the students. The problem is not necessarily that kids are too liberal or professors are too liberal, but rather a problem of a lack of challenge. Universities ought to be driven by education, not ideology, and education is most effective as what he calls "collision with error." Therefore, because liberal views are often accepted without challenge, education systems aren't a problem for conservatives. They are a problem for liberals, since they are never taught how to think and defend their views without a robust counterargument. An analogy he uses is a chess game. The conservative student learns the entire game because his views are often challenged, but the liberal student learns only the first move: the answer to "are you a liberal or a conservative?" He quotes Mill:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

I like that a lot and I deeply agree with Munger. The problem that I have personally with a lot of my views is I have a hard time defending them on good grounds, and even when I see something on facebook or reddit I immediately scoff at, I also often don't understand well the counterarguments and the logic or facts behind my position. As Munger says in his book, "if you don't learn what you stand for and why you'll fall for anything," and a lot of my views feel a bit tenuous. In my experience, however, I think the core curriculum at Columbia does a pretty good job, and even if I accidentally said something right my CC professor Yogesh Chandrani would still fix me with a withering look and tell me to say more. 

I also found his thoughts about democracy and majority rule very interesting, summed up nicely here: "Requiring that government actions hinge on the consent of the governed is the ribbon that holds the bundle together, but it is not the bundle itself." 

I loved the essay on Transantiago, the bus system in Chile. It was an effective private bus service before, albeit with significant problems (pollution, lots of accidents, etc.) and it was turning a profit, so the Chilean government nationalized it and it became a public bus service. The rest is history and the bus service sucked, turning commutes from 40 minutes to 2 hours. The lessons here are rife, and as I listen to more econ talk podcasts (with Russ, who is a libertarian), I find that I generally agree with Munger and Roberts that market based solutions, with minor government tinkering, is often the best solution to problems. The essay is really interesting, if you read nothing else in the book I would read that essay. 

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu, a young woman from Nigeria, and traces her life from Nigeria to America and back. The book is also interwoven with stories from her young lover Obinze, who longs to go to America but is denied a visa after 9/11 and becomes an illegal immigrant in London. The book is sort of a novel about blackness in the 21st century, and examines the differences between African American and Africans in America, London, and Nigeria (American Blacks, and Non American Blacks as she calls it in the novel). I say the book is sort of about blackness because its scope is so much wider- it is also a novel about immigration, about loneliness, about biculturalism, and about identity.

These stories are so wonderfully personal and sympathetic because the voice telling them is so authentic. Americanah never feels fake, and Adichie never pretends that Ifemelu or Obinze is perfect. Their frustration, their struggle, their dignity, and their authenticity is what made me really connect with their experiences, and I loved Adichie's funny and accurate depictions of America. These came through the best in Ifemelu's romantic relationships and her blog posts closing some of the chapters (my personal favorite was her bemusement at the American overuse of the word "excited.")

Adichie can provide broad social critique so successfully because Americanah is centered around Ifemelu and Obinze's experiences and who they are as people, rather than the story itself. It is funny, heart wrenching, eye opening, thought provoking, and above all, always authentic. I thought it was really worth reading. 

Here are some quotes I liked from the book:

  • On race: "because this is America. You're supposed to pretend you don't notice certain things."
  • On culture: "Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought culture the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with rich."
  • On poverty: "Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor."
  • On accents: "Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American?"
  • On souvenirs: "He was still not sure whether Emenike had become a person who believed something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so."
  • On emigration: "Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burning villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty."

Podcasts of May 2017

In May I listened to:

Michael Munger on Choosing in Groups
I love Michael Munger and I think he is brilliant. In this podcast he talks about his new book Choosing in Groups (I eventually plan on reading it but it looks dense, so it's on hold for now) and discusses with Russ the challenges of group decision making. The entire thing is interesting, but I found particularly engaging the point he made about no successful democracy being majority rule, because democracies can be manipulated and is therefore not radically determinate. There can be several majorities existing at the same time, and depending on the rules of democracy, the outcomes can be very different. This is kind of the same thing we talked about in CC when we discussed the Federalist Papers and some of the fears the authors we read had about popular majority rule democracy. I also liked the point that if you don't trust the average person, and believe they have flaws, why would a majority suddenly be better? 

David Zetland on Water
I liked this one so much I read the book, so my thoughts are in the book section. A good podcast about the economics of water scarcity and different potential solutions.

Campbell Harvey on Randomness, Skill, and Investment Strategies
I liked this one as a reminder to remember randomness when evaluating skill. A lot of successful investment strategies are just lucky over that short time period, so it's tremendously difficult to differentiate between good luck and true skill. I liked the description of a popular scam: someone sends 5000 picks to group A, 5000 picks to group B, and then further split the correct picks by half until you get a small group of people who have received 5 correct picks in a row, and are willing to buy whatever you're selling. 

David Skarbek on Prison Gangs and the Social Order of the Underworld
I thought this one was really fun to listen to and really interesting. They discuss how prison gangs are formed, why prison gangs are formed, and the incentives behind it. There is apparently a lot of money flowing through prison gangs from illegal contraband, and a lot of it is received from either family or from friends from the outside, snuck in, or bribes. Skarbek also suggests prison gangs formed because previous community accepted rules became insufficient with larger and larger prisons, and so people needed gangs to quickly affiliate and protect themselves. He also provides a motivation for racial gangs (easier to differentiate, harder to leave). Interesting stuff.

Andrew Gelman on Social Science, Small Samples, and the Garden of Forking Paths
I liked this one a lot if only because it provided a good basis for my suspicion of social sciences. He says a lot of data can be "p-hacked" to obtain the results that you want. This sounds sinister but is not necessarily invalid; it's just there are many "forking paths" that are equally valid statistically and often researchers take the one that leads them to a "statistically significant" result. I found it interesting and worrying that lots of psych or econ studies, when repeated, do not yield similar results and are not very repeatable. 

Books of April 2017

In April I read:

Gils All Fright Diner, Monster, Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain,
Chasing the Moon, The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, Nigh Omnipotent
all by A. Lee Martinez

 sample book cover, won't include them all

sample book cover, won't include them all

There are only a few authors whose works I've read in their entirety and will always support in the future. A. Lee Martinez is on that short list; I've read all 20-ish of his books. I first picked up Gil's All Fright Diner a few years ago in the library, and I loved it so much I bought all of his other books soon afterwards. His style is refreshing and funny, his writing is easy to read and his characters are relatable. All of his stories are "real," in the sense that he puts realistic, relatable, normal people in difficult situations and crazy fantasy worlds. The premises are always SO interesting (e.g. an ordinary man who keeps on getting resurrected gets put in charge of a failing military company, a modern day Minotaur and a popular Asian high school boy get sent on a quest by a banished god, etc) and they're executed really well. The twists are actually unpredictably twisty and the ending is always surprising and satisfying. I recommend his books to everyone.

Books of his I especially liked:

  • Gil's All Fright Diner
  • Helen and Troys Epic Road Quest
  • In the Company of Ogres

Try them and tell me what you think!!!

Poorly Drawn Lines: Good Ideas and Amazing Stories - Reza Farazmand

I love his stuff, he's my favorite comic artist still active (2nd ever after Bill Watterson). This book is weird and funny and weirdly funny, check out his Instagram @poorlydrawnlines and buy his book. Love his art style and his humor. 

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande

This is a really thoughtful book written by Dr. Gawande, a surgeon. He explores the failings of modern medicine to provide adequate end of life care, and addresses the difficult question of our inevitable mortality and failing of our body despite the advancements of modern medicine. It is really well written, with plenty of personal examples and stories, although at points I felt like the book was too long. I especially enjoyed the final chapters of the book when he was describing the struggle he and his family had when dealing with his father's cancer and final years, and how the lessons he was explaining earlier in the book were applied in providing the best care for his father.

I found this book particularly interesting because of my recent surgery, and together with When Breath Becomes Air have fundamentally changed my views of medicine. These are things that I haven't really thought about, and even though I was never at risk of dying, my brief stint in the hospital and my surgery put me in closer contact with the failings of my body than I had ever been. It is weird to think about what quality of life you want, and what makes existence meaningful, especially in a world where medicine is capable of keeping you alive often at a greater cost than death. 

The parts I found interesting were:

  • He discussed a study where people became more short term oriented when faced with mortality or less time, emphasizing time with friends and family instead of personal achievement
  • The focus is not only to heal the body, because sometimes that is impossible. The goal of medicine is to provide the best quality of life possible- often that is to cure and to treat but sometimes that is not the best option. For example if my 4 days in the hospital were extended to the rest of my life I would probably rather pass gracefully than forever pee through a catheter
  • So few people want to get into geriatrics... not a glamorous field and kind of depressing, but a really important and neglected area
  • Very important for us to embrace our mortality- death is the enemy. But "the enemy has superior forces," and eventually it always wins
  • Questions to consider when the time comes:
    What are your biggest fears and hopes? What goals are most important to you? What tradeoffs are you willing and unwilling to make?

In particular I hope as my family members grow old and as I grow old (hopefully far into the future...) I will be able to keep these lessons in mind and accept being mortal with grace and dignity.

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

This is a suuuuuper feel good, typical heartwarming story, but one written really well and really tugs at your heartstrings. It's about a crotchety old man who lives alone and holds a lot of sadness in a thick shell of anger and general grouchiness. He meets a vibrant, pregnant Iranian women who moves in nearby, and over the course of the story, you learn about his family, his neighbors, and his childhood (i.e. what makes Ove Ove today). I won't spoil anything, but almost everything in the book is tied up wonderfully. The chapters alternate between present and past, and often something inconsequential happening in the present is revealed to be very significant through a short chapter-long backstory. The parallelism is very satisfying and I enjoyed being surprised by Ove many times. It is perhaps also a good lesson on reading people too quickly, and a grumpy old man is revealed to have great depth and sadness. 

The book is easy to read and very short, and honestly it's so cute and enjoyable I might read it again soon. I cheered continuously for Ove in the last few chapters, and really grew to love all the characters. 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance 

Good book, pretty eye opening. This book is a memoir of a Yale law school graduate who is self professed to be average, but it is his average accomplishments that are deserving of a memoir, because he grew up in Kentucky in a "hillbilly" family where people are often not set up for success. The people in the Rust Belt and Appalachian mountains live in some of the toughest and poorest conditions in America, and it is eye opening to see and understand their background (or at least Vance's experience). He paints a grim childhood with a lot of trauma, a father who abandoned his family, an unstable drug addicted mother, and a tumultuous environment, but still speaks with great pride of his roots, which I deeply respect.

I found particularly interesting:

  • His ideas of social mobility and how climbing up is never a one way path. Even when he "made it" there was always the fear of slipping back down, and he would always be affected by his upbringing. There is no permanent escape from where you are from
  • Theory of learned helplessness, that people don't try to help themselves and believe they are incapable or odds are stacked against them. He describes his grandparents and sister as providing the necessary encouragement and stability for him to eventually thrive and beat that mentality
  • Social networks have real economic value- connections are important and making connections is learned behavior plus luck plus a lot of help

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories  - Ken Liu

This is a collection of short stories by Ken Liu. Some of them are heartwarming, a couple of them are brutal, a few of them really fuck you up, and most are very thought provoking.

Several of his stories can be classified as science fiction, and explore the ways humanity changes as new technology is produced, especially as we leave the earth to explore and evolve, providing a lot of insight about ourselves. Many of his stories are heavily influenced by Asian history, society, and culture, and stories often feature heavy elements of Asian mythology, such as Nu Wa or the Monkey King. Liu also explores stories of Asian history, often basing his stories on the pains and hidden brutality of our past, such as the 228 massacre, the Yangzhou massacre, and Unit 731. Those stories in particular are very heavy. The eponymous Paper Menagerie is a different style of story, melding together Western and Eastern, examining how Asian values are challenged and change in the face of strong Western influence. My favorite of these types of stories Liu tells is the one where Guan Yu moves to California as part of the gold rush. 

His stories are imaginative and diverse, and I was impressed by how his stories explore difficult themes and events. My minor gripe is with his style of writing. I think it suits the subject and his stories, but his writing is very delicate and flowery, which I am personally not the biggest fan of (although he is undoubtedly a fantastic writer).

My favorite stories from the collection are:

  • State Change
  • Mono no aware

but I also liked The Literomancer, All the Flavors, Good Hunting, and The Paper Menagerie.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future - Ashlee Vance

I haven't really read a biography in years, but my good friend Gary recommended me this book, so I gave it a try. This book is a biography about Elon Musk, focusing in particular on his "quest" to make humanity better through clean energy and ultimately making humanity a multiplanetary species. 

I thought Vance did a wonderful job of creating the narrative of Musk's life, providing interviews from many people who have worked with or known Elon Musk. I particularly appreciated the nuanced perspectives he provided on a very polarizing figure, interviewing disgruntled ex employees and quoting from his most vocal critics. The book is written very well and is very funny and informative, and provided a lot of insight into Musk's life and his current superstar status + how he got there.

Threading the book together is Musk's conviction to make humanity better. I was deeply impressed by how long term his plans were, and how genuine and dedicated he seemed to be to his goals. Vance's account of 2008 was especially good, when Musk was under enormous pressure with SpaceX and Tesla both threatening to fold and with his messy divorce. I admire his willingness to get his hands dirty, to tackle difficult problems, to always search for the best solution, to never accept nos or compromises, and his conviction to his goals through pressure and pain.

One point Vance returns to a lot in his book is Elon Musk's relationship with other people, especially those closest to him and those working under him. Famously abrasive and perfectionist, Musk attracts the greatest talents with his lofty goals and incredible drive, but also burns out many employees with long work hours and difficult demands. I find that a unique approach (to put it mildly) and doubt that would work for many other companies without a CEO with as inspiring a mission as Musk.

This is a good book and it gives good insight into Musk's personality and mission as well as an appreciation for how close he was to failure, how much they've achieved, and how much more they have to go.

Joel on Software: And on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters That Will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity
- Joel Spolsky

Damn that is an annoying title to type. Joel Spolsky is the CEO of StackOverflow, and co founded Fog Creek Software. He runs the site Joel on Software, which I found in sophomore summer and then read a bunch of articles at work. I recently found out he wrote a few books, so I read Joel on Software and share some of my thoughts on the book here.

I think this book is a very valuable resource and he writes very humorously and intelligently on some very interesting topics. Would highly recommend "to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity."

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

This is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty, a trilogy of epic historical fiction in the style of Game of Thrones. Instead of a vague historical Western land, The Grace of Kings is loosely based on the transition from the Qin Dynasty to the Han dynasty, albeit with very different names and invented characters. There are 7 states in the land of Dara, paralleling the 7 states unified by the Qin emperor, and rebellions begin due to the harsh legal system put in place once Xana (Qin) became the dominant power. The book also has a lot of references to Asian mythology, culture, society, and history, such as the Qin emperor's efforts to unify language and measurements, his public works and those who died building them, his premature death from his search for immortality immortality, the debates between different philosophies (Legalism, Confucianism, etc.), and the Japanese system of Sankin-kotai. There are many more I didn't mention and I'm sure there are many I missed, but I really enjoyed those references in the book. 

I thought his writing style was really appropriate for this type of story, and the book is written very well. It's very long but very fast and easy to read, and the plot is pretty good. There aren't too many surprises but it's satisfying to see how things unfold and the story as a whole is pretty solid. 

The weakest part of the book, in my opinion, is similar to the one in Paper Menagerie. I thought his characters were very 1 dimensional, and there was very little significant character development outside of the two main characters (and even that was pretty minimal and lackluster). It feels like he first comes up with a cool plot point or a cool twist, and then fills it in with a character later. The characters are all pretty predictable, and even though they often have cool backstories, their motivations aren't really fleshed out and they serve their purpose then fade to obscurity. I didn't feel a connection with any of the characters and didn't really care what happened to them.

Outside of that, the book is interesting and fun, and the plot is engaging and immersive, well making up for its slightly weaker characters. 

Books of March 2017

In March I read:

Why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby - why the lucky stiff

This is a book introducing the programming language Ruby, although honestly that is a terrible description of the book. The author, why the lucky stiff (abbreviated as _why) is a famous Ruby programmer who was much beloved until he disappeared one day without notice, taking with him a lot of repositories and projects he created over the years. He is an enigmatic and divisive figure; some people sympathetically and nostalgically remember his programming career (although he is still apparently a programmer today, just laying much lower), and some people are angry for him leaving behind very little trace of his work. _why described his book as less of a programming book and more similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which I think is a pretty apt description.

I was introduced to _why by Kyle Burton, my manager and mentor at Riot, started it a few months ago, and only finally got around to finishing it. It is technically a guide to Ruby, I guess, but it is the furthest thing there is from the O'Reilly books adorned with animals (although there are cartoon foxes talking about chunky bacon in the book, if that counts?). 

_why is a little crazy, and his book reflects his very unique and creative way of thinking. Here is a programming snippet from his book:

starmonkey = ratchet.attach( captive_monkey, pipe.catch_a_star ) + deco_hand_frog

His writing style is also very interesting. His flow is oftentimes very abrupt, because he uses short sentences in quick succession without really chaining them together. The result is this stream of consciousness style where thoughts and ideas spill out like slices in an array.

A big benefit of his weird examples and style is that they make you think more deeply about the syntax & ideas he is trying to teach. The guide is self professed to "teach Ruby with stories" but after reading it I'm not really sure if the story serves the programming or the programming snippets serve the story. I think it's an interesting approach and I enjoyed most of his examples & stories (e.g. % as a sideways frog face holding seats for other animals on the bus), but I still think the best way to learn programming is to actually do it and the best way to learn a language is to use it.

A downside though is that the book is tough to read, because it's so weird, and he goes on strange tangents with comics that feel more like wandering through the colorful LSD infused wasteland of _why's mind instead of a straightforward programming lesson. In Chapter 6, my cloud-to-butt Chrome extension changed a bunch of instances of the word "cloud" to "butt" in one of his stories and I didn't even think it was wrong until I saw the associated comic... but I guess that is the point.

A lot of the things he covers are universal concepts, so they were already familiar. I would be really interested in what a novice to programming would think of this book, and how clearly the ideas would be transmitted & how long they would stick. This is certainly a guide to Ruby, but in a way that is rare (at least in my experience) in programming and computer science, his personality really shines through in his writing and his thinking. I am reminded of one of his quotes:

when you don't create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

The book is free online here if you are interested in reading it.

 self portrait of _why

self portrait of _why

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present - Michael Oren

Great read. This was the second book I chose to read in my "books about the Middle East" chunk of reading, and I think this was a really good complement to Arabs. While Arabs focused primarily on a modern history of the Arab world, cycling chronologically through themes in each country, Power Faith and Fantasy focused on America's involvement in the Middle East from its conception to present day.

The book was roughly split into two halves: the first half is a summary/account of America's involvement with the Middle East from independence to somewhere in the 19th century, and the second half is more of a thematic analysis of WW1 to present day, relating it to ideas discussed in the first half. The first half of the book I found really interesting because there wasn't much about American involvement in the Middle East in Arabs, so learning about the Barbary Wars and the many religious and philanthropic missions was pretty surprising. The second half of the book I thought was excellent, especially because he shied away from giving factual summaries and rather focused on comparing how the various presidents reacted and acted in the Middle East according to the power, faith, and fantasies they had.

I liked how he included the perspectives of many people in his book, giving me a really good understanding of the changing attitude and beliefs Americans had about the Middle East through the centuries. I am particularly fond of history books that provide not so much an account/summary but rather a coherent and consistent theory/philosophy/theme through which to understand events. He really hammered the intertwining themes of power, faith, and fantasy, and it was interesting to see how they consistently wove together influencing policy and attitude of America towards the Middle East.

The Sheikh's Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Middle East
- Richard Poplak

Soooooooo stellar. I would recommend this book to anyone; it is tremendously interesting and fun to read. Richard Poplak is a journalist who travels to 17 (?) Muslim countries looking for evidence of and influences from American pop culture. He explores Lionel Ritchie's popularity in Libya, rap in Palestine, the Simpsons in Saudi Arabia, and a ton of other parts of popular culture (I won't list them all here, there are too many plus part of the fun of the book is reading each chapter and being surprised by what's popular in what country). As a pop culture enthusiast, Poplak is both interested in how American pop culture has spread beyond America and how pop culture can be more than just a generic homogenizer of culture and instead a social and cultural force for good. His on-the-grounds reporting style brings him to meet with and learn from people who have adopted and adapted American pop culture, transforming it into something to address their needs, combined with uniquely local elements.

Through these similar but different brands of pop culture, Poplak shows us how Muslim American pop culture is something much deeper than its often shallow and superficial origin, helping these adopters transform the society and world they live in. In several of the chapters, I was impressed and inspired by their bravery in carving out a niche for themselves and using pop culture as a way to bring about change.

The book is very hopeful, and even though I am far from a pop culture fanboy, it is hard to not also believe in at least the feasibility of his views and his dreams. I'm can't say that I'm quite as optimistic as him, especially w.r.t. his hopes for pop culture being the bridge between what seem like vastly different cultures. At the same time, by learning something about these countries that is more than just the crap on the news, I felt closer to these people that I know very little about, and closer to mutual understanding. If nothing else, the book is very humanizing.

The content of the book is pretty simple, but he writes with a bunch of metaphors and comparisons and flourishes that are fun to read but difficult and tiring to get through. Not sure how much I enjoyed his style, but his personality definitely shines through in his writing, and he's very colorful and fun. It isn't a big complaint, and I honestly thought it was just my problem until I read some reviews of people who felt the same.

I found this book interesting also because of my background. I was kinda fobby until the 7th grade, and I still have this massive cultural gap from being born & raised in Taiwan. A lot of the American pop culture references he makes are the first time I've heard of any of them, which means that there are a surprising number of people in Muslim countries who know more about American pop culture than me, an American. Interesting to think about...

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

I was recommended this book by my good friend Alex who spent an hour thinking about it in a chair by the beach in Costa Rica after finishing the book. It seemed to me as good an endorsement as any, so I read it on my flight back to NY (it is a really short read, 2-3 hours).

This book is fantastic. The prose is beautiful, the thoughts are beautiful, the themes are beautiful, the book is beautiful. It is written by Paul K, a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who discovers in his last year of residency that he has lung cancer. The book is interesting in that you already know the ending of the book (spoiler alert: he passes away) but is gripping and touching and tragic all the same.

I learned a lot about seeing things from a physician's point of view, and I especially liked what he said about doctors needing hope as well. I don't have a really sophisticated view of medicine, so I can't say transforming my idea and perspective on medicine is a massive achievement, but he definitely changed the way that I think about modern medicine. Instead of medicine being a way to always "cure" and "fix" problems (i.e. people), the goal of medicine is more to "cure sometimes, treat often, and comfort always." I found his views on medicine very humanizing, especially when he explained how he came to see every patient not as a problem but as a person, and therefore see every chart or data or test or result as a person. 

Underlying the book is his search for a meaningful life. Paul explains how he was drawn to neurosurgery because each patient raises the question of what constitutes a meaningful life, since operating on the brain is to operate on the existence of a person. In his own search for meaning, even when his time in life drew much shorter than expected, he wanted not a happy life but a meaningful, purposeful life. It is a tough but necessary question for everyone to consider: with the time that we have, how do we live a meaningful life? More generally, with what we have, time included, how do we live a meaningful life?

Something I thought particularly interesting was his reason for turning to medicine, when he originally studied English, biology, and philosophy. He came to grapple with questions of life, death, and meaning initially through literature and philosophy, and found instead that the best way to come to terms and understand it was through direct experience (hence medicine). This is a philosophy I share; I think it is difficult to really understand anything unless you directly experience it yourself. Near the end of his life though, Paul turned to literature again to find the words to capture his experience. This is also how I view academic theory vs direct experience; the two are complementary in that each help us understand the other better. I find this multi disciplinary approach of his really great, and I personally also believe in applying different tools to tackle similar things with different methods and philosophies (a fine argument for a common core or at least delayed specialization).

I can't really remember the last time a book made me cry. I didn't cry until the very end of the book when his wife writes, also beautifully, about their relationship. I loved many lines in the book, but the ending of the book describing Paul's integrity and honesty in the face of death was very very touching (I won't spoil it here for you).

The book is very sad, and the story is undoubtedly tragic, but somehow the book remains beautiful and very hopeful. This is my favorite line in the book: "You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving."

Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

 Apparently this is not the most common or current cover, but this is the version I have and I really like it.

Apparently this is not the most common or current cover, but this is the version I have and I really like it.

OK full disclosure: this one is kind of a cheat, and I dunno how much it should count because
1) I've read this book over 10 times over the last few years, or at least big chunks of it
2) Technically I read half of it (this time around) over winter break, and just finished the other half this month.
I still read most of it though and flipped through the pages so I'll count it. Plus, I've never reviewed it before (or whatever you call what I do here).

I like the book a lot. I think my sister gave it to me around my sophomore year or so (of high school) and I've read it at least once a year ever since. Contrary to its name, Stumbling on Happiness is not a self-help book about how to find (or stumble on?) happiness, and instead a book about psychology, and why we have such a hard time figuring out what makes us happy.

He brings up three shortcomings of our imagination: realism, presentism, and rationalization. We believe in the realism of our imagination too faithfully, we imagine futures that look suspiciously like the present, and if we have a hard time imagining the future, we have an even harder time imagining how we will feel about it. He also proposes a surprising solution to this problem (won't spoil here) and supports it with interesting evidence. I will say it definitely has changed the way I think about things, from the little psychological facts I learned to my approach to figuring out if I'll like something. 

I love how he organizes his book and it is mapped out in a way that makes the ideas really easy to understand. The subject is kinda complicated at times, but he combines funny and educational examples with A TON of psychological studies to make his points come across very strongly and clearly. This book is soooo well researched and written, and I really love his writing style. It flows super well and is full of personality, making it a really really fun and fast read (even though it's kinda long). I never felt lost and I think there's a lot to be learned and appreciated from the book.

He also opens each chapter with a Shakespeare quote, which I appreciate a lot. 

Weapons of Math Destruction - Cathy O'Neil

Cathy O'Neil is an ex Barnard math professor who left to work at a hedge fund, and after the financial crisis, became a data scientist. Her book is about the dangers of Big Data, a very hyped field in Computer Science. I was introduced to this book by an econtalk podcast I watched last month (linked here). I am sympathetic to this topic because it is one of my biggest concerns & fears about Big Data and even about CS as a whole. I actually mentioned this topic during my Palantir interview, albeit really poorly, so I was interested in what kind of examples and what kind of solutions Cathy proposes in her book. 

The eponymous Weapons of Math Destructions (WMD) is what Cathy uses to describe mathematical models that are opaque, operate at scale, unquestioned, unaccountable, and create pernicious feedback loops. Each chapter of her book explores a different WMD and at the end of the book, Cathy paints a grim picture of connected WMDs that trail us from life to death. From applying to college, to finding jobs, to getting loans, to getting insurance, to voting, WMDs seem to dominate our lives in ways that we often cannot control or understand. What I think is noteworthy is that even though a large part of the book focuses on how the poor are especially harmed by WMDs, WMDs is a problem that affect us all, hitting the poor, middle, and upper class alike (although in differing severity).

The problem with WMDs stem from their objective. Until our models learn morality, our ML models have to have their objectives & focuses planned by the programmer/developer/ data scientist, and often times the objective of WMDs is not fairness or equality. Instead, many try to optimize for efficiency or maximum profits, ignoring that there are real people behind these data points. In models that iterate on complex data, such as human beings, every person must be simplified into traits that are hopefully representative of them, and Cathy argues that these traits or proxies are often inaccurate or malicious, intentionally or otherwise.

This is, I think, a strong argument against a completely free market, and strikes me as one of those externalities that require government intervention. The free market, optimized for maximum profit, will continue to use WMDs in a pernicious feedback loop to keep the disenfranchised and affected in. Instead, just as we needed government regulation and market based policies, combined with strong unions and journalism/ awareness to fix the poor working conditions of the industrial revolution, we will need a similar type of fix for these WMDs.

Cathy highlights that many of these WMDs have the tools to be great forces for good, because the same WMD that negatively profiles and incarcerates people can be a model that identifies those who most need assistance. The problem is that many WMDs codify the past instead of inventing the future, reinforcing past stereotypes and past mistakes but hidden under the mask of unbiased unquestionable mathematics. 

I've always felt that the other half of the solution is closely related to the programming community. Just as people need to be aware and need to have access to the models that affect their lives, the developers that create these models also need to be cognizant that data is people, not just statistics and numbers. Cathy

I think this is also a strong argument for diversity in tech. Those who think the same will just continue to build the same models with the same assumptions, and with great diversity in tech these different backgrounds will help prune and weaken the initial biases built into these models. This was always a problem in the tech industry, although initially I think more related to excluding talent, but now it takes a moralistic dimension, as programmers continue to gain more and more influence into people's lives. 

Even if you are not remotely interested in data science, these WMDs probably affect you in some way or other, and Cathy writes in a wonderfully legible way, making sometimes complex topics easy to understand. She also hammers her points in with multiple examples, and repeats herself, making the ideas in the book very clear. I really recommend this book!!

The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever
- Teri Agins

The End of Fashion.png

A few days ago I decided the "theme" for the next chunk of books I plan on reading is fashion, so I dutifully googled "good fashion books" and this was one on the top of a list, so I started with this one. I think this book ended up being a good place to start, and would be an interesting read for a range of people from fashion industry newbies like me to more serious fashion fans and aficionados. 

The book, written by a fashion journalist Teri Agins, looks at fashion in the last couple of decades, and how mass marketing and changing consumer trends have changed the fashion industry. It is a really interesting story starting from the haute couture (a term I didn't know until I read the book) French fashion houses, and along the way examining Emanuel Ungaro, Ralph Lauren & Tommy Hilfiger, Armani, department stores, DKNY, and Zoran. I only knew about half the names on this list but apparently Ungaro and Zoran are pretty famous.

This book actually completely changed my views on fashion and updated my very naive and uneducated understanding of why brands are famous and how fashion has evolved over the last few decades. Initially, fashion was dictated from these fancy old French fashion houses, like Dior, or YSL, or Chanel, and fashion trends were birthed from the runway and from fancy seasonal collections. This is the kind of runway fashion that I typically think of if someone asks me where fashion comes from; thin Europeans wearing crazy clothes designed by trendsetting designers (like Zoolander and Mugatu).

Dispensing with the conception that fashion designers are crazy geniuses isolated from commerce and marketing, Agins explains how changing consumer tastes for cheaper and more comfortable clothes and lessened importance on fashion forced designers to focus on marketing their brand. Fashion houses were no longer able to dictate the trends of fashion from the runway, and to secure profits and retain customers in a world no longer enamored by haute couture, they had to resort to strategies like bridge brands, boutiques, licensing, and marketing through movie stars. Many brands now sell the same or similar clothes to a public with increasingly homogenized tastes, differentiated only by their marketing and brand name & reputation.

Miscellaneous parts that I liked:

  • Armani making a fortune by marketing to movie stars, and Oscars being referred to as Armani's night. Previously fashion houses were too snobby to market to movie stars, thinking their more deserving clientele to be royalty and aristocrats
  • The evolution of department stores from actual departments (menswear, sportswear, etc.) to the collection of boutiques that we see now
  • The homogenization of department stores (into the same few collection of boutiques), because the products they sell are safer
  • The volatility and fragility of these companies, and how 1 bad season or 1 bad clothing line can lose millions and drive away business
  • The steak vs the sizzle in fashion and the disconnect between the runway and the consumer, especially in Isaac Mizrahi's case, where he was hyped up by the fashion press but his clothes never sold well on racks
  • The catfight between Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger
  • Zoran and his success in the fashion industry by NOT changing his clothes too much, by changing colors rather than hemlines and shapes
  • I wonder if innovation will be stifled because designers are not as free to explore, just as movie directors are not as free to explore with bigger and bigger budgets, and new designers will have a hard time breaking in because marketing is so expensive and so crucial to success

(as a side note, I kinda like the idea of "Miscellaneous parts that I liked," maybe I will do that for all the books in the future)

Instead of my original conception of fashion giants and entrenched emperors, the fashion industry seems more like one gigantic wild game of capture the flag, with all these companies running around frantically to keep their brand afloat amongst a sea of fickle consumers. It is an interesting story of a shifting balance of power, and how these fashion companies have either struggled to adapt or perished in the last few decades. 

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
- Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah's Men.jpg

I originally planned on The Sheikh's Batmobile being the last book in my Middle East series, but I kept seeing the same pictures of Iranian women in Western style clothing picnicking on the lawn on Reddit, and every comment section would say "Iran used to be a democratic country before the US fucked it all up!!!" So I got interested in how it actually happened, and I picked up All the Shah's Men

 pics like this

pics like this

All the Shah's Men is a book about the CIA-backed Iranian coup dubbed Operation Ajax that happened in 1953, orchestrated by the US and the UK to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mohammad Mosaddegh was a popular prime minister of Iran, seen by many as a champion of secular democracy, and fought vehemently with the British to reclaim Iran sovereignty over their lands and resources, especially oil. The story begins over a century ago, first with a brief explanation of Persian history and religion, and then with the weak and corrupt Qajar dynasty who gave many concessions to Russia and Great Britain. From the Qajars' concession, the Anglo-Iranian oil company extracted much of Iran's great wealth in oil and earned much but gave little to the Iranians, a classic case of colonial exploitation. It was in this political climate that Mohammad Mossadegh came to power as a man of the people, a fervent Iranian nationalist. 

The UK-Iran conflict comes into a climax when Mossadegh nationalizes the oil company. This is complicated by the US-Iran relationship, where the US supports the fledging democracy of Iran and frowns upon British colonialism, the US-UK-USSR relationship in the Cold War. Initially against military intervention in Iran, the US changed policy after Truman and under Eisenhower, when the Dulles brother's orchestrates Operation Ajax. On the few days of Operation Ajax, Kinzer gives a gripping blow by blow account of how Roosevelt's mission to overthrow Mosaddegh barely succeeds, with many unexpected obstacles and surprises. Kinzer ends the book by analyzing some of the consequences of the coup, lamenting the death of the beginnings of a mature Iranian democracy and warning against attempts of military dominance in Iran.

Stuff I found interesting:

  • The US was initially very well liked by Iran, and many Iranians thought of the US as very different from the European colonizers. Instead, the US was seen as a democratizing benefactor who supported Iran. This shift to the relationship now between the "Great Satan" and part of the "Axis of Evil" is very interesting to me.
  • US sentiment towards the coup changed greatly from Truman to Eisenhower, under which the coup happened. Two things I thought interesting were: Eisenhower was driven by ideology, and wanted to keep communism out of Iran at all costs. Eisenhower was also given incomplete information (but didn't want complete information) by his advisors and aides, who were the main architects of the plan. Which sounds familiar in today's political climate, and is completely horrifying.
  • Mossadegh was not a saint, and made many mistakes. I appreciate how Kinzer highlighted that perspective.
  • On that note, I appreciate how Kinzer didn't make 100% assertive conclusions, acknowledging that the question "what would've happened without the coup" is very difficult if not impossible.
  • Eisenhower's bemused question why they couldn't "get some of the people in these downtrodden countries to like us instead of hating us." Great question still today...
  • (most of) the British government were assholes, and Churchill in particular was a horrible imperialist in the book. I drew a similar conclusion from Arabs except this was a detailed account of a specific event.

While I liked the historical account and analysis, I am not persuaded by the last chapter. I'm not sure if you can draw a steady line between the coup and the Iranian Revolution 20+ years later, and the connection is especially tenuous tracing from the Iranian Revolution to the Iran in present today, ignoring several presidents and big events in between. I agree that we should be wary of the unintended consequences of US intervention, but it seems to me like Kinzer takes a few too many jumps from 1953 to the 21st century. 

Like all of the books I've read so far on the Middle East, this is a pretty depressing book, but it is a really interesting read and now I definitely have more context for the next time that photo is reposted. 

Robots versus Slime Monsters - A. Lee Martinez

love A. Lee Martinez; I was planning on reading more of his books in April so I'll talk about all of them together. I'll just say this is a wonderful book for his fans, since each story follows a side character in each of his novels after they finished. I really wish I backed this on kickstarter when it was out.

Podcasts of March 2017

In March I listened to:

534: A Not-So-Simple Majority
Holy crap this was a really frustrating podcast to watch. This was also my first This American Life podcast (recommended by Andy!). This podcast was about a NY district, East Ramopo, and the school system there. Because there is a large Hasidic ultra-orthodox Jewish community, many of these Jewish children don't go to public school and go to private yeshivas. However, because property tax pays for a lot of public schools, the Hasidic community was upset over having to pay taxes for schools their children would not use, and was able to vote a majority of their candidates onto the school board, even though their children would never go to a private school. As a result, they were able to vote to cut budgets, remove classes and extracurriculars, and even sell schools. The whole podcast goes from frustrating to infuriating and it is a crazy intense local political battle.

I found this not-so-simple majority especially alarming in a political climate where people in power make decisions about things that will never affect them (e.g. a bunch of white men signing bills about birth control for women).

Something else I found interesting was that I found myself automatically siding with the public school side, even though the Hasidic Jews had some good claims too, since many of them were lower middle class and paying for schools their families would never use. Perhaps this is because I can more easily identify with the regular school district kids...?

Paul Bloom on Empathy
This one suuuuucked. I liked the first part and the premise, but I didn't feel like there was much substance to this podcast. The primary idea is that empathy is sometimes harmful, and empathy is a poor tool for policy. Bloom highlights three main problems:

  1. It is biased. It's much easier to be empathetic to someone like you, even if intellectually those might not be the type of people that need your help.
  2. Empathy often extends mostly to individuals or small groups, so we get these interesting psychological findings where it is easier to care about 1 than about 10. This happens everyday; we watch a Facebook video and become tremendously concerned about someone in particular and yet have no trouble being indifferent to the suffering of thousands or millions.
  3. Empathy can also be "weaponized," and exploited by people to get us to support stuff that makes the world worse.

3) was interesting, a good example he brings up is child beggars. Bloom suggests that donating to disabled or injured child beggars is good in the short run, but in the long run, creates demand that results in more children being maimed intentionally (to exploit our empathy). A horrifying case of unintended consequences...

The rest of the podcast I found pretty boring, and they talk about things like parenting, IQ points, and anger.  When I started watching This American Life I realized one of the things I don't like about Econtalk is sometimes Russ and the guest go on kind of unrelated tangents. I skipped most of it, maybe you will find it more interesting.

550: Three Miles
Wow this was really really good!!! This was about two schools in the Bronx 3 miles away, one a public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx and the other an expensive private school. The producer Chana follows two students from the public school, Melanie and Jonathan, after they graduate from high school. Melanie disappears before senior year ends, and Jonathan ends up getting a scholarship to Wheaton (I will not spoil the rest of the story).

This was both really eye opening and really sad. I thought it highlighted something that people from privileged positions often do not see, that you cannot imagine poverty by just taking money away from your bank account. Poverty is often pervasive, and one of the most insidious things about it is the effect it has on your attitude. It is heartbreaking to hear about the pressure Melanie was put under and to hear Jonathan say he never felt like he deserved to achieve anything.

513: 129 Cars
This was probably my favorite TAL podcast so far. If you watch any to see if you like them I would recommend this one. A bunch of producers follow a team of car salesmen trying to reach a monthly quota. If they reach their quota, 129 cars, then they get a big bonus from Chrysler, putting them in the black, otherwise they will be in red for the month (since they sell at a deficit to get to those numbers). 

My takeaways were:

  • After listening to them describe a few sales I kept thinking that this was basically psychological warfare, so I was pleasantly surprised when one of the car salesmen mentioned the most important text to learn to sell cars is Sun Tzu's The Art of War
  • I also always thought the manager and the salesmen work together to play the customer, but really the manager and the salesmen play the customer and the customer plays the dealership and the salesmen plays the manager and the dealership plays each other and the car company plays them all. Really really interesting stuff.
  • The best time to buy a car from a car dealership is on the last few days of the month when they're trying to meet their quota

360: Switched at Birth
Pretty weird story. This woman gets the wrong daughter from the hospital, realizes it early, but only tells the two daughters 42 years later. This obviously causes a lot of tension between the two mothers and the two daughters. I found two parts of the podcast interesting:

  • The first was that the women felt they belonged in the family that they were actually biologically born into, raising some interesting questions about nature vs nurture. Marti was outgoing in a serious family, and Sue was anxious and introverted in a generally extroverted family. 
  • The second was with myself, I found myself much more sympathetic to Mary Miller, the woman who raised Marti even though she knew Marti was not her daughter after she explained her story. A good... reminder to not draw early conclusions?

600: Will I Know Anyone at This Party?
This episode is about how the Republican party has transformed over the years, especially given the recent political climate. This episode was really something else... There's a song sung by Neil Patrick Harris about Paul Ryan's private thoughts, pains, and feelings about embracing Donald Trump and feeling abandoned by his party. Here's my favorite line from the song:

Now the guy is calling me a wussy, I wish I could grab by the lapels and tell him...

The first part is also called Party in the USA. Which is great.

The episode opens up by talking about how three Reagan era Republicans, all hosts of a conservative show, feel like their party has transformed. They discuss their surprise at how the party has changed, and how values have shifted, changing what the party stands for.

A big ticket issue this election season was immigration. Party in the USA takes Zoe to St. Cloud Minnesota to understand why and how immigration became such a big deal, even the core issue, for Republican voters. 

Why is immigration such a central issue? Was it because they were directly affected in some way? Did they lose their job or been negatively impacted? Zoe found no. The concerns about immigration were rooted in fear of and discomfort with change coupled with feelings of lack of control. I found it interesting that no one interviewed thinks they are racist (I guess that is kind of obvious), and that even people who disagreed with those against immigration never used the r-word (racist). Instead, racism was more a side product of fear of change from the old ways in a very isolated town, and people pointed instead to money as the primary problem. How much are these immigrants costing us?

A big cause of this is just ignorance, "experts" citing "facts" and fear mongering. A lot of people Zoe spoke with were very concerned with immigrants being a big burden on tax payers, and imposing Sharia law in America, both of which are just not true. But the same message is being pushed over and over again, by many speakers who come in with similar information that reinforces these beliefs.

At one point, a young Somali immigrant said she understood how they felt, and she just thought that those against immigrants had learned bad information and just needed to learn good information. She said, "you can't argue with a feeling." I think that is really interesting. A lot of political discourse now begins and ends with insults, and a lot of what we believe we reinforce by selectively learning. To reach across the other aisle, to counter this stream of misinformation, we need to push a different message instead of isolating and insulting those across the political aisle.

Robert Whaples on the Economics of Pope Francis
This podcast is about the economics of Pope Francis, specifically in the encyclical that he recently wrote dealing with environmental and economic issues, such as capitalism, inequality, etc. His argument is that we have been addicted to excessive consumption for too long, which combined with environmental problems, puts us on an unsustainable path that could easily become a catastrophe.

This view is, of course, contrary to the ideas underpinning capitalism, since free markets are based on the idea that people will always want to consume more, driving competition and consumption. Robert discusses the idea that the pope has in relation to his background. Pope Francis is from Argentina, one of the countries where a capitalist system has failed, and so is skeptical of capitalism. On the contrary, his predecessor John Paul II, who spent most of his adult life in a communist society, was much more supportive of the benefits of free markets.

I found Robert and Russ's argument that in general poverty has been greatly improved in the 20th century, in part due to capitalism very interesting, and reminds me of some of the arguments made in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Taking up a pro-market perspective in contrary to Pope Francis, they argue that the problem with capitalism is not necessarily capitalism, but rather that capitalism gives us what we want. Capitalism does have its flaws and its externalities, but the way to make capitalism better is to change what we want.

Crafts, Garicano, and Zingales on the Economic Future of Europe
They had 3 guests on this podcast, each an economist from a different part of Europe. It was fun to hear three different views with three different accents discussing and debating the economic future of Europe and how they got there. Even though they have different views and perspectives, they all paint a grim picture of Europe's future and specifically the future of the European Union.

Some interesting things I learned from the podcast: 
The EU was never really well unified, with the Northern countries dominating the Southern countries (and with France believing they belong with Northern Europe but economically more similar to Southern Europe). There is also no real leader of the EU, and Angela Merkel, despite her position of power, is ultimately elected by the Germans to serve the Germans. There is a lot of mistrust between these countries, making it difficult for policies to be implemented affected countries by people not from those countries. A big cultural challenge.

The euro was created under the assumption that there would be institutions created later to support it, but currently none of these institutions exist. Instead, at a time of crisis, countries are turning to more nationalistic agendas, making it even more difficult to create pan-Europe institutions necessary to revitalize the EU. This connects to a discussion on Brexit, specifically its short term and long term impacts. In the short term, Brexit doesn't seem to have caused that significant of an impact, which Crafts argues is because short term is macroeconomic forecasting, which economists are bad at. Long term, disintegration of trade and greater trade costs means trade goes down, which is unequivocally a negative effect. 

One of the other big things they discuss is productivity in Europe. Perhaps due to regulations, creative destruction in Europe is very difficult, making innovation costly. The job market is also relatively stagnant. Crafts draws a comparison between America and Europe in that the former tends to protect the worker, while the latter tends to protect the jobs. Another big problem for productivity is corruption. In Italy for example, the elite employs the EU to stay in power, driving down innovation and competition at the cost of growth and productivity.

All in all they describe a very pessimistic view of Europe where the EU is a burning building without a fire escape. There is a great amount of anxiety in Europe, a large populist movement anxious about the future and antagonistic towards immigration and globalism. One thing 

611: Vague and Confused
I am really liking This American Life! I think I prefer them to Econtalk. They are better produced and more interesting, plus sometimes Russ goes off topic which bothers me a little.

This podcast is about rules that are vague and confusing, and the aftereffects of that. The first case that they examine is immigration. The recent laws on immigration/deportation, and the uncertainty regarding the policies of our new president has caused a lot of fear and confusion amongst undocumented immigrants. Ira Glass and Lilly Sullivan go to Chicago, and meet with a family trying to navigate the situation. I found their personal account very powerful, with their concerns over whether their oldest sister would have to go back, how their financials would be if their father was deported, if they would split up their family or all move back to Mexico, etc. It was particularly sad when their youngest daughter started to cry, worried about whether her sister would be able to stay in America. It really puts a human real side to the problem, instead of demonizing "undocumented immigrants" or "aliens," and helping us see them as real people.

The second case was wildly interesting; I had no idea this island existed or even ever heard about it. Producers Sean and Adia head to the Hawaiian island of Niihau, where a rich American family, the Robinsons, purchased an island from the Haiwaiian king. When they bought the island in the 1860s, they promised the king that they would help the people living on the island. They interpreted this as keeping the island the way it is, and so Niihau still has no running water, speaks an older form of Haiwaiian, and still live according to the rules of the Robinsons. Some of these rules are vague, such as not being able to have long hair or tattoos, or staying off the island for too long. They interview many people, some who cannot return to the island and some who run the island (Leiana, the matriach). These rules are vague and confusing, but at the same time, people who live on Niihau love their life, and in particular one guy moves back because he likes the simple day to day better. Pretty interesting stuff.

On the other side, part three looks at when laws are applied perhaps too consistently? Producer David goes into a courtroom to defend himself from a traffic ticket, and observes judge Clarence Barry-Austin exact the law in the courtroom. This is a super boring municipal court, the lowest law in the land, but the story telling is actually fascinating. The law applied this way seems kind of esoteric, and David ultimately gets a ticket because he says too much and dings himself on (what I think is) a technicality. 

609: It's Working Out Very Nicely
The title of this podcast is from Donald Trump's comment regarding the recent travel ban, "it's working out very nicely." This podcast is about the way the travel ban was implemented, and the chaotic results it had on people when it was put into effect.

The prologue begins by introducing Somali refugees who were supposed to come to America from their camps but were denied entrance because of the travel ban. These people have waited years to be able to enter America, and were told that America would happily accept them, and that America was a land of equality. They even gave up their jobs and lives and took on debt to buy winter clothes for America, and were ultimately told that they were not welcome. It is just an awful awful situation. 

Part 1 is equally awful, and moves to the people who were mid-air when the travel ban went into effect. In particular, this Iraqi guy flying from Canada to join his family was detained by immigration for several hours, and told he would be sent back to Iraq, where he would be executed because his wife had worked with an American contractor in Baghdad. This was so horrifying, to imagine being him thinking he was going to be sent back to be killed or to imagine being his wife, waiting in limbo to hear news about her husband. These policies and their implementation are not just bureaucratic details, but deeply affect many people.

Part 2 brings us to those responsible for vetting immigrants, showing their emphasis is on security, and that our vetting process is already extremely detailed.
Part 3 discusses the purpose of the travel ban. Nancy Updike, a producer of the show, looks to understand how the visa process was related to 9/11. I found most interesting that pre 9/11, there was a much smaller focus on immigration, and Saudi Arabians at the time weren't seen as security threats but rather as rich tourists. The real security system does not rely on visas and immigration checks, since the majority of terrorist attacks are done by citizens, either born in America or naturalized. Instead of alienating the Muslim community, "our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send the message of welcome, tolerance, and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in the countries of origin." 
Part 4 discusses the ban as a "Muslim ban." Benjamin Wittes, editor of a website devoted to national security law, sees the law's real purpose as keeping out Muslims. The law is poorly written, with plenty of vague points and loopholes, and was created and passed without consulting any of the nation's major agencies, such as Homeland Security, DoD, State Department, etc. Wittes argues that the goal is not real security objectives, but rather a symbolic bashing of Islam. 
Part 5 ends the show by talking to Abdi Nor, a Somali green card holder, who refuses to leave the country now out of fear of Trump's extreme vetting.

Ultimately, I think this podcast, along with Will I Know Anyone at This Party, brings an important human aspect to the problem. The people that are affected by these things are not abstract concepts, they are real people who are affected by these policies!!! It is important to always remember that those who are denied entry into the US or those who lose healthcare are not just numbers, but real people with real worries and real fears. 

I also love how each podcast looks at the topic from a ton of different perspectives.

Tina Rosenberg on the Kidney Market in Iran
So apparently in Iran kidneys are available to buy, and there is a market type thing going on matching kidney donors with kidney buyers. This is a big problem in the US (and actually in most countries) where the list of recipients for kidneys is super high, and many people are stuck on dialysis and die waiting for a kidney. 

The initial response to a market for organs is probably negative, since it evokes black market connotations of the poor being exploited by the rich to give away their kidneys for a cheap price. Actually, in Iran, the system works quite well. Only people of the same nationality can buy or sell kidneys from each other, so there is no risk of a wealthy foreigner coming to buy a kidney from a poor Iranian. There is extensive medical and psychological testing, as well as financial consulting, before a donor is allowed to give a kidney, and in fact the line for donating kidneys is longer than the line for receiving kidneys. The government pays the donor about $3500 for his kidney, with some regional differences. Generally the system is a success, but in some regions due to financial difficulty the program works much less well. 

I was annoyed by Russ's discussion of the motivation of doctors in the US, and how the system doesn't exist in the US possibly because doctors have a financial incentive to keep dialysis. I like the economic discussion on Econtalk, but sometimes I find Russ brings up stuff that isn't very supported. In particular I think (would hope, at least) and believe that doctors often have the best interest of the patient, and would be hesitant to put people on dialysis just to make money. 

Something unrelated I found interesting was that with bike helmets becoming more prevalent there are apparently fewer transplants in the US, since organs can be only be donated from the dead under specific circumstances (brain death w/o organ damage, something frequently caused by catastrophic traffic accidents).

I like the idea of market based solutions and would be interested in seeing how it would be implemented in a different society and a more robust economy. Any misgivings about this program I think would be offset by the benefits it would give (namely, save a bunch of lives)!

605: Kid Logic 2016
This one is about kid logic being applying rationally in normal situations and arriving at completely wrong conclusions. It is really fun, and there was actually a really heartwarming story called "Werewolves in Their Youth." 

Also kids are mean. :-(

603: Once More, With Feeling
This is a podcast about people trying new approaches to things they've been doing. The first one is really interesting; it's about a woman who responds to cat calls trying to convince men to stop. She speaks to one dude who likes to slap one woman's ass in a group of women, referring to himself as a "one ass one group" man. This is interesting to me because none of these men think that the women don't like the attention, and it doesn't cross their minds that it might be scary or uncomfortable for these women. In particular, they think that because they would like the attention (mostly) other people should too. It takes Eleanor 2 hours to convince Zack to literally stop assaulting women on the street.

The second part is about a soldier finding ways to tell honest stories from his deployments in Iraq. He initially used a "veneer of chill" only telling funny stories, but eventually told his friend Isaac a real story about the war. My biggest takeaway was Isaac's response, when he just looked Michael (the vet) in the eye instead of looking away or being uncomfortable or changing the subject, making him feel like he wasn't a "monster."