Jan 10, 2016

Books read Q4 2015

(See also: Q1 list, Q2 list, Q3 list)

I continued to get into audiobooks this quarter. I think my comprehension and retention is substantially lower for audiobook listening compared to reading on paper (maybe 80% as good on both axes?), but the quantity more than makes up for it – I read approximately twice as much this quarter than the last.

Books I finished in the fourth quarter of 2015:

  1. Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar
    MacFarquhar's examination of extreme altruism. Very good, one of the best things I read this year. A bit of a surreal read for me, because people I know personally kept popping up amidst the profiles of heroic do-gooders (like Babu Amte, who built a thriving leper colony in the Indian wilderness by sheer force of will, or Ittetsu Nemoto), the Zen priest who gave himself wholly to counseling suicidal people in Japan).

  2. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
    Transcribed talks on Zen buddhist practice by the bringer of Zen to America.

  3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)
    Angsty Russian intellectual goes about his day, imagining slights, plotting revenge, struggling against the mundane. Similar to The Catcher in the Rye (or rather, Catcher is similar to Notes, if we want to be chronological about it).

  4. Braintrust by Patricia Churchland (audiobook)
    Churchland's attempt to ground morality, using neuroscience! I was excited for this after reading the excellent New Yorker profile of the Churchlands, but came away disappointed. The neuroscience just isn't where it needs to be in order to support Churchland's materialist claims, so she spends a lot of time discussing interesting findings in neuroscience, and some time on abstract moral philosophy, without strongly connecting these two parts. Also, I wish she had spent more time on is-ought, which seems very pertinent to materialist conceptions of morality.

  5. The Alliance by Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh
    Another Silicon Valley business book. Heard about it via EconTalk; it seemed interesting enough to check out.

    As with most business books I've encountered, the core idea is simply stated, and most of the text is given over anecdotal examples and discussion of how the core idea should be applied. The core idea here: the old model of the employer-employee relationship is outdated, and a new model is necessary. Employees and employers should form alliances – employees sign up for time-limited "tours of duty", with the expectations for the tour agreed upon at the outset; at the conclusion of the tour, the employee and employer can agree to re-up, or to go their separate ways; once employees move on, the employer should work hard to maintain a strong alumni relationship with them.

  6. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Anscombe, Hacker, & Schulte translation)
    I started this months ago, on a motorcycle trip up the coast, pursuing some high-minded ideal of nomadic scholarship. I finished in November, on another motorcycle ride down to LA. So – ideal realized.

    There's a lot going on here, some of which definitely went over my head. The basic premise is that human language is always used within the context of a "language-game", and the meaning of words is determined by the context of the game they are used in. Further, sometimes language-games become detached from physical reality. Once this happens, words in the game are unable to say useful things about the world outside of the game. This detachment happened to academic philosophy, thus philosophical claims about Truth are not meaningful outside of the philosophical language-game (though some claims play the language-game better than others).

    That's my quick gloss. The work is composed entirely of aphorisms, most of which consider some use-case of language and then rhetorically ask what truth can be gleaned from the words of the case. This style is very indirect, and I think intentionally so – I am therefore suspicious of my plain-spoken summary of Wittgenstein's work. Perhaps the Thing Wittgenstein was pointing to could only be pointed at obliquely, perhaps any attempt to just come out and say it would actually fail to say the Thing. Or perhaps not.

    Also, I suspect I will get more out of the Investigations after I read the Tractatus, so I'm planning to reread this at some point in the future.

    Favorite quote (from the end of the introduction): "I should have liked to produce a good book. It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it."

  7. Principles by Ray Dalio
    Life principles and management principles by the founder of Bridgewater.

    Some good takeaways here –

    Takeaway 1: You can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want.
    Takeaway 2: Organizations are machines that turn goals into outcomes, and consist of two types of parts – the design and the people.

  8. My Struggle – Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Bartlett translation)
    The third volume of Karl Ove's memoir. Focuses on his childhood on an island in Norway. I enjoyed this one less than the first two (reading about schoolyard crushes and exploring forests gets a bit boring after a couple hundred pages), but Knausgaard's writing remains absorbing, and there are some great scenes with his father. I'm looking forward to Book Four.

  9. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (audiobook)
    The most substantive book I've attempted as an audiobook so far. Thesis: violence has been on consistently downward trend for a long, long time. Not too complicated – the impressive part is Pinker's salvos of evidence. Dataset after dataset, across domain after domain, all in support of his thesis. I really enjoyed it, though I should probably revisit it at some point to ensure absorption.

  10. One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs (audiobook)
    Hour-by-hour account of the Cuban Missile Crises. Pretty engaging, which made for easy listening. I'll write more about this soon.

  11. The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford (audiobook)
    I wasn't impressed. A polemic against modern life, particularly against the commoditization of attention. Which is fine as a thesis, but was not well supported.

    Then again, on reflection I'm having trouble recalling the details of Crawford's argument, so maybe I just wasn't listening closely.

  12. Superforecasting by Tetlock and Gardner (audiobook)
    Tetlock's volunteer-sourced Good Judgment Project entered IARPA's forecasting tournament, and several GJP forecasters (and teams of forecasters) dominated. The book is an examination of how they were able to do that, and more broadly of the principles underlying sound prediction-making.

  13. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
    I liked this a lot. I still need to write up my notes on it, so I haven't absorbed it all yet, but here's the thrust: thinking can be conceptually divided into two systems. System 1 is rapid, unconscious, lazy, and prone to error. System 2 is slow, conscious, more rational, and requires greater exertion. This two-system set-up is an efficient division of labor. In both systems, thinking makes use of heuristics and is prone to bias.

[rereads: 2, edits: moved a parenthesis, nearly forget this end-tag :)]