Oct 08, 2016

Books read Q3 2016

Books I finished in the third quarter of 2016:

1. Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock
Head of Google's "People Operations" discusses how Google does HR-type things. Written with the optimistic pep that seems to pop up in all of Google's public-facing copy.

I should probably keep this on hand as a reference because I think there's a lot of valuable stuff here behind the pep. I'm currently struggling with the "above-the-mean" hiring rule, which seems obviously right yet somehow cruel.

2. The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker (audiobook)
Collected essays of Peter F. Drucker, management expert. I don't remember any specific takeaways, probably because I listened to this three months ago over the course of several runs. My vague recollection is that everything Drucker advocated seemed sensible, inoffensive, and sort of obvious. (Yesterday's revolution is today's status quo.)

3. Money, Real Quick by Tonny K. Omwansa & Nicholas P. Sullivan
History of M-Pesa, Kenya's expansive mobile money network. Moderately interesting content, though poorly written and sort of repetitive.

4. One Man's Wilderness Sam Keith & Richard Proenneke
Edited journal entries of Richard Proenneke from his first year in the Alaskan backcountry. Really amazing and beautifully written (though I wonder how much of content has been romanticized by Keith; I wish I read the unadulterated journal entries). Here's a particularly compelling excerpt. I also thoroughly recommend the documentary (a).

5. Assassination of a Michigan King: The Life of James Jesse Strang by Roger Van Noord
Read while on Beaver Island, appropriately enough. Strang lived a fascinating life, and I find the Strangites spellbinding. The biography itself isn't anything special, but the story is wonderful.

6. Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer & August Cole (audiobook)
Fun romp through an imagined third world war (USA vs. China + Russia in the Pacific Theatre). Read it on Chris Blattman's recommendation, though I think he enjoyed it more than I did.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I can't really write a summary that does this book justice. It's the best thing I've read in a long time. It's really amazing. You should read it.

8. What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Story of a gay American expat and Bulgarian sometimes-prostitute. Depressing but captivating.

9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Enjoyable sci-fi. Some of the best world-building I've ever read – everything was so weird, but so natural, somehow.

10. Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor
Prison memoir by a Michigan ex-con. A fast read. Sort of a surreal account of a Michigan which is right next to the Michigan I know, but worlds away.

11. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Merton's spiritual autobiography. I liked this a lot, some of my favorite parts here.

12. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
DFW essay collection. This is the first Wallace I've read. He's just so good. He's probably the best. It's lovely to read a writer who's this good at writing. It's also intimidating. I sense that I'm about to enter my DFW phase, and I have mixed feelings about this.

13. Utilitarianism: For and Against by J. J. C. Smart & Bernard Williams
Smart provides the case for utilitarianism; Williams gives the reply. Williams won the day, in my view (though he had the advantage of replying to Smart, and I'm biased towards his position). Here's his concluding takedown:

One important feature of [utilitarianism], which I have tried to bring out, is the number of dimensions in which it runs against the complexities of moral thought: in some part because of its consequentialism, in some part because of its view of happiness, and so forth. A common element in utilitarianism's showing in all these respects, I think, is its great simple-mindedness. This is not at all the same thing as lack of intellectual sophistication: utilitarianism, both in theory and practice, is alarmingly good at combining technical complexity with simple-mindedness ... Simple-mindedness consists in having too few thoughts and feelings to match the world as it really is. In private life and the field of personal morality it is often possible to survive in that state ... But the demands of political reality and the complexities of political thought are obstinately what they are, and in face of them the simple-mindedness of utilitarianism disqualifies it totally.

I wish Williams had put forward a positive vision for an alternative to utilitarianism, though that wasn't really in his remit here. (I suppose he would have been some sort of Rawlsian, and Rawls feels poorly specified to me as I currently understand him.) Building up a positive vision for a moral system is orders of magnitude more difficult than tearing down someone else's proposal, so Smart had the harder job. He made a fine effort, but I came away still convinced of utilitarianism's non-viability as the main organizing principle of morality (please don't ask what main organizing principle I do endorse; things are ... fuzzy).

I wish more books were written in this format: Neoconservatism: For and Against, Social Justice: For and Against, Effective Altruism: For and Against. I would eat those up.

[rereads: 1, edits: fixed a link, prose tightening]