Books of July 2018

A brief update on the blog: I am going to explore a new format that hopefully will be easier to do, and focus my energy/time on writing more detailed, complete reviews for the books I have really strong opinions (especially the ones I really liked). 

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
- Ed Catmull

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If you are interested in how to cultivate a creative culture at the workplace, then read Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc. describes how Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, thinks about cultivating a creative culture. A lot of the cultural values he describes are very similar to Riot's, so I found the book super helpful and interesting (my coworker Shane actually recommended it to me). It also avoids the common pitfall many books in this genre fall into, where the book stays at such a high level that it becomes almost useless. Instead, Creativity, Inc. mixes theoretical models describing "how to see things" with practical advice suggesting "how to actually make things happen." 

Some of the helpful things I learned from this book (there are lots more!):

  • On talent, and unblocking talent
    We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. 
  • On actively identifying problems instead of passively solving problems
    Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. This would be the idea—the challenge—around which I would build my new sense of purpose.
  • On culture as an intentional and thoughtful process
    Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.
  • On good feedback
    A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific.
  • On building trust
    Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.

The big dark cloud that hangs over this book is the recent news about John Lasseter, a legend in the animation world. It is very disappointing and tough to reconcile the creative, open, and supportive Pixar Catmull describes in the book with the reality that Pixar was also a toxic workplace that tolerated (or even fostered) sexism and harassment. 

絕代雙驕 - 古龍


If you're interested in an entertaining and long but easy 武俠小說 then read 絕代雙驕.

絕代雙驕 is a 武俠小說 about two brothers with a very simple premise: twin brothers get separated at birth after their parents die tragically, a nefarious plot is spun to force them into enemies, they meet as adults as diametrically opposed foils, they reconcile their differences and become friends, there's a love triangle somewhere in there too, etc. etc (very standard stuff). This is the first wuxia novel I've read not by 金庸, so this was a nice change of pace and despite its length this was a fairly easy read. The story is simple but engaging, there are lots of interesting characters in the book, and the Chinese is much easier to read. If you are looking to practice your Chinese a little (I was trying to brush up a bit) this is a pretty decent choice that you can just zip through.

The book is made a lot worse by its sexism. Women are constantly simplified and disparaged in the book, and every female character is defined relative to the men in their lives. It fails the Bechdel test (does a work feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?), which is bad in a 90 minute movie but just straight appalling in a 1200 page book with hundreds of characters.

And Then We Danced: A Voyage into the Groove - Henry Alford

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If you are interested in the different forms and purposes of dance from the hilarious perspective of someone learning to dance then read And Then We Danced

And Then We Danced is humorist and journalist Henry Alford's exploration of different forms of dance and the different ways in which dance is meaningful to different people, the latter of which I especially enjoyed because I've never really thought about why people dance. In the chapters, he describes his experiences learning ballet, social dancing, and a movement meditation practice called 5Rhythms and discusses dance as rebellion, emotion and release, intimacy and socializing, and healing, to name just a few.

I like to dance but I was never good at it (or really tried to be), so I really admired his openness to trying new stuff. The book is a lot of fun to read because his personality and flair in his writing is phenomenal. There is so much life and character in his writing, and it really shines through on every page. I feel as if I know him personally after reading this book. A lot of books describe themselves as a voyage, but this one is one of the few that really feels like it- it is thoughtful and adventurous and tremendously entertaining.

The book also made me a little sad, because now I want to try taking some dance classes but that's tough because of my shoulder. 

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics - Stephen Greenblatt


If you are interested in a description of tyrants and a criticism of Trump through Shakespeare then read Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

About a third of the book in, I started to realize that a lot of his comments on tyrants and their behavior seemed particularly salient to our current political situation. About two thirds of the book in, I was pretty sure this book was written as a very thinly veiled criticism of Trump (and tyrants) through Shakespeare, which was pretty satisfying because he corroborated my theory in the epilogue, explaining that his original inspiration for the book was his reaction to the election. 

In Tyrant, Greenblatt explores different aspects and types of tyrants through Shakespeare's plays (mostly the historical ones). I liked this book a lot, because in my Shakespeare class I took at Columbia we mostly just talked about what my professor thought about the plays, so it was enjoyable to get a different perspective. The book also reinforced a lot of stuff that I learned in class, especially that Shakespeare wrote for a very contemporary audience but the anxieties and fears that he captured in his plays remain powerfully relevant.

I think it speaks to Shakespeare's influence and greatness that tyrants he described centuries ago like Richard III and Macbeth and King Lear are still prevalent and worth studying today, showing that we still have lots to learn and benefit from reading Shakespeare.

Code - Charles Petzold

If you are interested in learning how to build a computer from first principles then read Code.

Code is basically the Fundamentals class they teach at Columbia in a book. It starts from first principles (seriously first- it starts with Morse code with flashlights) and builds on that foundation with the goal of helping you understand completely how a computer is built. I really like how the book is structured and I wish I read this book instead of going to class, but to be honest I'm not super interested in knowing how to build an adder or specifically how a 8-Line to 1-Line selector works, so I skimmed a bunch of the circuit sections. Unfortunately I also knew a bunch of this stuff at one point but promptly forgot it after fundamentals. I did like learning how memory works though; I remember being out that week and missing those two classes. 

I will say if you're interested in this kind of stuff, this is the best book I've ever read for that, and if you're taking a CS class (or early on in your CS major at college) this book will probably be better than your professor.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories - B.J. Novak

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B.J. Novak is so funny. One More Thing is the kind of book that inspires me to write more, but once I actually sit down and try again I realize how much I suck and how difficult it is. The book has so much personality and is so quirky and clever. It is one of the few books I remember just having a lot of fun reading.

My favorite stories: The Rematch, Romance (Chapter One), Julie and the Warlord, The Girl Who Gave Good Advice, All You Have to Do, 'Rithmetic, The Ambulance Driver, Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30pm on Wednesday, The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate, and The Walk to School the Day after Labor Day.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On romance (this is the entire chapter)
    “The cute one?”
    “No, the other cute one.”
    “Oh, she’s cute too.”
  • On writing that reads like speech
    ‘The … Something.’ ‘The … Something.’ ‘The SOME-thing.’ Do you get it, Dale?! It was going to be ‘The … … … SOMETHING’!!! I was going to decide that part later!”
  • On creative work
    Do you know what it’s like to sing a song that started inside you to a room full of laughing, dancing children, who keep singing it even after you stop? It feels like the world is made of music, and you are the world. One or two more people died each year in Grant County than before, but it was always a number within the statistical margin of error.
  • On the type of perfect that is frustratingly elusive
    The first is the type that seems so obvious and intuitive to you and everyone else that in a perfect world it would simply be considered standard; but, in reality, in our flawed world, what should be considered standard is actually so rare that it has to be elevated to the level of “perfect.” This is the type of perfect that makes you and most other people think, “Why isn’t everything like this? Why is it so hard to find …” a black V-neck cotton sweater, or a casual non-chain restaurant with comfortable booths, etc.—“that is just exactly the way everyone knows something like this should be?” “Perfect,” we all say with relief when we finally find something like this that is exactly as it should be. “Perfect. Why was this so hard to find?” The other type of perfect is the type you never could have expected and then could never replicate.
  • On the infinitude of love
    “One more thing,” she said. “You meet a finite number of people in your life. It feels to you like it’s infinite, but it’s not. I think it’s the biggest thing I can see that you can’t. Because your brain doesn’t work the way mine works, with all these calculations and everything. You think you meet an infinite number of taxi drivers, but you don’t, it’s probably not even a thousand, in your whole life. Or doctors or nurses—do you get what I’m trying to say? At all?... There’s always going to be one more thing. Because that’s what infinite feels like. And the difference between love and everything else is that it’s infinite, it’s built out of something infinite, or it feels like it is, anyway, which is the same thing to us. Or to you, and to simulations like me—I know what I am. But you can’t see it, because to you everything is infinite. You think a million billion more things will come your way, a million billion more versions of everything. But no, everything that actually causes that infinite feeling, the circumstances of every infinite feeling, is so, so finite. And I know you can feel this. I mean, if I can, you can!” She laughed, desperately. “If I can? Come on! I’m a robot! If I can feel this, you can feel this! You can feel this.”

It's been about a month since I've read the book, and I still find myself thinking about that last quote about love from time to time.

Makes me want to re watch The Office. 

Constance Verity Saves the World - A. Lee Martinez

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I am a huge A. Lee Martinez fan and I love his stuff, but man this book sucked. This series is so disappointing- the first one was bad and this one isn't any better (actually arguably worse, since there's been more time to develop the characters and the story). I didn't like any of the characters, which is strange because the main thing I loved about his other books were how relatable and real his characters were. He just kept on hammering the same stupid theme- "Constance Verity is awesome and saves the world and is generally really great, but at the same time she just wants to be normal! Isn't that conflict so interesting and worth devoting an entire [whiny] book to?"


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

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If you are interested in a wonderfully dreamy read about a journey of self discovery then read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I finally read my first Murakami! After years of being recommended Murakami from a ton of friends I finally actually read a Murakami novel, and man... I loved it.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a very dreamy read. There is a very delicate quality to the writing, which is so difficult to achieve- it requires enough words and description to be evocative but not too much to be heavy handed and too detailed. Every word feels necessary and incisive, and nothing (from the writing to the story) feels excessive or extraneous. It is well constructed not just chapter to chapter but as an entire story. The book flows beautifully as a whole, and I particularly love how he starts and ends chapters, which is tricky, because there are a lot of time jumps from Tsukuru's past to Tsukuru's present and lots of backstories of characters, but the transition always feels very smooth. The entire way through, reading it felt like a dream.

I also love the premise of the story. Tsukuru Tazaki works as an engineer on train stations in Tokyo, and back in high school, he was part of a group of 5 friends (2 other guys and 2 girls). They all had colors in their name besides Tsukuru (hence the title Colorless Tsukuru), and had very different personalities but were a very tightly knit group. Tsukuru worries that his colorless name reflects his colorless personality, and that he doesn't really contribute to or belong in the group. One year in their sophomore year, his fears are realized, and Tsukuru gets abruptly cut off from his friends, who say they never want to speak with him again. He leaves that box unopened in his heart until many years later, when someone encourages him to go back and resolve his past trauma, and Tsukuru goes on a pilgrimage to find answers and understand what happened. 

This was a super light and easy read, and a wonderful introduction to Murakami. I'm really looking forward to finally reading his other works. I read half of this book at WiSpa and the other half between 6-8am at the DMV, and it speaks to how good this book is that I think of both those periods almost equally fondly. 

As a final sidenote, this is not a real complaint but the ending is not satisfying enough :< I want it to appeal to my brainless adoration of happy satisfying conclusive endings

Carceral Capitalism - Jackie Wang

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If you are interested in capitalism and the incarceration system and the way the two of them intertwine and interact then read Carceral Capitalism, although to be honest I think everyone should read this book.

Carceral Capitalism is one of the four, five books I've read over the past few months that have completely changed my perspective on capitalism. Instead of summarizing the main thesis of the book shittily, I'm just going to quote her: 

Rather than focusing on the axis of production by analyzing how racism operates via wage differentials, this work attempts to identify and analyze what I consider the two main modalities of contemporary racial capitalism: predatory lending and parasitic governance. These racialized economic practices and modes of governance are linked insofar as they both emerge to temporarily stave off crises generated by finance capital. By titling this book Carceral Capitalism, I hope to draw attention to the ways in which the carceral techniques of the state are shaped by—and work in tandem with—the imperatives of global capitalism.

Each chapter of the book is a separate essay focusing on a separate topic, roughly bundled under the twin axes of incarceration and global capitalism. Topics examined along this spectrum include the biopolitics of juvenile deliquency, algorithmic predictive policing, speculative and predatory financialization, and the political revenue of fines and fees, but the collection also includes a very thought provoking critique of liberal anti-racist policies, "Against Innocence." In these essays, Wang shows that as technologies improve and societies change, new carceral modes become possible and realized, and for many, the lines between imprisonment and freedom blur. 

Some of the things I learned from her book:

  • On the dangers of governments funded by private creditors
    As the public debt is financialized and the money to cover government expenditures is increasingly supplied by the financial sector, government bodies become more accountable to creditors than to the public. Over time, this has a de-democratizing effect. 
  • On the negative interaction between policing and revenue
    As this article suggests, in the new fiscal environment, police are increasingly taking on the role of directly generating revenue, which ensures that their departments do not suffer extensive budget cutbacks and layoffs when there are municipal revenue shortfalls. In other words, their survival and expansion becomes bound up with their capacity to use the police power and the court system to loot residents.
  • On the exploitation of borrowers as an opportunity for financial growth
    Thus, as growth in the “real” economy remains low, in our perverted debt economy, falsely categorizing borrowers as delinquent has become a financial opportunity in itself.
  • On all space being carceral space
    I also argue that predatory police practices turn the space that is being policed into a carceral space. Not only do these practices turn entire jurisdictions into zones marked for looting, they effectively limit the mobility of mostly black residents and “box” them in a myriad of ways. Algorithmic forms of power—and predictive policing in particular—do this as well. Whether it is a covert municipal financial structure that authorizes plunder or an algorithm that generates hot spots on a map, invisible forms of power are circulating all around us, circumscribing and sorting us into invisible cells that confine us sometimes without our knowing.
  • On domestic extraction and looting as an externality of capitalism
    While extraction and looting are the lifeblood of global capitalism, it occurs domestically in the public sphere when government bodies—out of pressure to satisfy their private creditors—harm the public not only by gutting social services, but also by looting the public through regressive taxation, fee and fine farming, offender-funded criminal justice “services” such as private probation services, and so forth.
  • On predation as a central feature of contemporary capitalism
    Stock promotions, ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction through inflation, asset-stripping through mergers and acquisitions, and the promotion of levels of debt incumbency that reduce whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt peonage, to say nothing of corporate fraud and dispossession of assets (the raiding of pension funds and their decimation by stock and corporate collapses) by credit and stock manipulations—all of these are central features of what contemporary capitalism is about.
  • On risk as a new form of color blind racism
    I hold that risk is a new color-blind racism, for it enshrines already-existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity. When thinking about risk, we should ask ourselves if market mechanisms will have the capacity to redress hundreds of years of structural inequality.

OK I'm going to stop here, but I'll leave one last note about this book: on average for nonfiction I have about 20, 30 highlights, and in this book (shorter than average too, a little over 200 pages) I had 119 highlights.