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.