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Books – 2019

I wanted to add a bit of a personal flair to the site. One of my hobbies is reading and listening to audiobooks so I figured I’d throw down mini-reviews of each book I read throughout the year and leave them here. This is mostly an exercise for me to improve my writing skills and for me to better remember the books I have read.

I’ll append to this post throughout the year as more books are read; please recommend your favorites or tell my why my reviews are terrible! Last year we hit 80 books, lets see how this year unfolds!


The year so far…

Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
I believe this book came to my attention as a recommendation from one of the Gates Foundation letters. Overall, I thought the book was extremely thought provoking and looked at some very important topics. In particular it looked at the history of Humanity as it passed through 3 approximate “revolutions” – the Cognitive revolution around 70,000 BCE when human societies became more capable and communication became more complex; the Agricultural revolution around 10,000 BCE, and the Scientific/Industrial Revolution which is still in progress today.

Yuval probes many uncomfortable questions such as our species likely involvement in the extinction of other human-like species, like the Neanderthals, as well as our track record of wiping out huge amounts of species throughout history, and our modern poor quality of life provided to animals such chicken and cattle.

While I don’t agree with all of the premises which Harari presents he does provide many well articulated and challenging interpretations of events throughout history, the role of ‘group delusions’ such as the believe in Capitalism or Socialism or things such as intrinsic human rights/equality of all people which, while I’d argue are GOOD things to believe and accept are certainly not things which a Darwinian existence requires or even would seem to support throughout history.

Other interesting perspectives throughout the book dwelled on questions of general human happiness and satisfaction and if that has changed much through time. There are some metrics – availability of food, diminished of wars, extended lifespans which are all seemingly objectively good changes but are those things making our race ‘happier’ or was the average hunter-gatherer approximately as happy as the average human today?

The end of the book was by far my favorite and dealt with potential upcoming challenges and questions our species will face as things like genetic editing, mechanically enhanced life, and the capabilities of general- or super-intelligent AIs come to prominence. Some of the challenges are around distribution of gene editing technology – how do we make sure the rich are not the only ones to benefit from it? As human lifespans become increasingly long – potentially indefinite – are we equipped to handle that responsibility? Will we tremble in fear from even trivial risks due to our expected indefinite life, will that make us better or worse people?

I certainly would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for a book to make them think. While I don’t agree with a number of the predictions and a few of the statements made throughout the book I found it a thrilling exercise to try to work out what merit/flaws is/are in his hypotheses and the book overall made me think more than most books I’ve read recently.

We are Legion (We are Bob) – (Book 1 of the Bobiverse series)
by Dennis Taylor
I found this to be a phenomenally enjoyable book! It is the first of a light-hearted sci-fi quadrilogy which deals with the unexpected ~second-life of Bob.

Bob made an investment in a company who would, on his death, freeze him and attempt to revive him once medical technology was capable of doing so. Little did he know that he would shortly thereafter be struck by a car and die. About 120 years after his death (his death being the early 21st century) he is awoken in an unexpected way. He is revived as a computer intelligence with all the memories, feelings, and essence of Bob.

However, things aren’t quite what you might expect. The world had been taken over by a variety of sects, the United States being replaced by a North American religious/faith based authoritarian government. In addition, due to recent scientific breakthroughs there is a new space race underway to go and colonize the stars in the name of the various global superpowers.

Ultimately, Bob is one of only 3 AIs to launch with ships and the act of launching these ships eventually leads to a nuclear winter on Earth and the near extinction of the species. Once Bob makes it out to the first new star system he starts to produce copies of his AI in to other ships he manufactures. As this happens various personality differences between his copies are evident and a gradual community of Bobs emerges.

These Bob’s end up deciding to help humanity rebuild, seek out habitable planets, and ultimately find another Earth based AI personality who is bent on destroying the Bobs as well as another species which harvests planets for minerals; despite the presence of life.

This book is filled with numerous sci-fi references, witty and absurd situations, and interesting questions which ultimately point to hard questions about what it means to be a conscious person, to be human, and how that connects to ethical and moral responsibility.

For We Are Many (Book 2 of the Bobiverse series) 
By Dennis Taylor

The second book in this series delves in to some of the various responsibilities and tasks the Bobs set for themselves. Some of the pertinent situations covered are observing and possibly preventing the possible extinction of a pre-agricultural humanoid species possessing intelligence and language; the challenge and responsibility of saving and relocating the human race; the dilemma of what to do against a species bent on harvesting planets of all resources and exterminating life on those planets; and the challenges of relationships with “ephemeral” beings who live only a finite duration and how to handle that as a more-or-less immortal being.

All These Worlds (Book 3 of the Bobiverse series)
By Dennis Taylor

The third installment of this book provided some very nice resolution of arcs which were developed in the first and second books. This book had two primary themes which were the evacuation of humanity from Earth and the defeat of the “Others” who threatened all systems in the vicinity of Sol.

The writing in this installment felt cleaner with a more fluid narrative than the prior book. It felt easy to read and each narrative segment/Bob personality felt more natural and absorbing. The solutions were believable and the victory against the Others was somewhat novel. Most compelling for me was the divergence of Bob’s identity as a human and how that was reflected cognitively, morally, and with how the Bob’s perceive interacting with humans.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this as a fun sci-fi trilogy to anyone who is a fan of the genre. Can’t wait to see the next book Dennis Taylor writes in the series!

The Man on the Mountaintop
By Susan Trott and Libby Spurrier

This was an audible original and a bit different than my normal reads. It portrays life of a small hermitage on a mountain and individuals coming to seek truth or gain wisdom from the sage who lives there with his disciples. It goes on to cover a variety of spiritual and practical questions and provides a broad range of traditional answers to some of those questions while acknowledging the limits of what answers can be given. It was a moderately enjoyable production with some interesting twists at the end but not something I’d likely recommend due to the conflation of many ideas without really understanding if there was a purpose or what stock to take in the seriousness of the provided ‘wisdom’. For me, it was neither great nor bad.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
By Douglas Adams

This is the second of Douglas Adams’ books featuring Dirk Gently and it was another fun read. The book starts with Dirk, a PI, speaking with someone who he doesn’t take on seriously as a client but who is, shortly thereafter, murdered. This leads Dirk to feel extreme guilt and investigate the case.

The quest takes him through a variety of bizarre circumstances including meeting with Norse gods in disguise, fortune tellers and an experience with a miniaturized jet and over-sized eagles. If you liked the first Dirk Gently movie, you’ll probably like this one.

Law School for Everyone
By The Great Courses

As someone who does not know much about Law and what goes in to the legal system, this was an eye-opening and enjoyable introduction to the field. The course focused a large amount on litigation and I found the first half to be the most enjoyable. Understanding the process and procedure around filing suits, presenting evidence, presenting arguments and so forth.

By Octavia E. Butler

This was my first book by Octavia E. Butler and I found it to be very good and different than much of the sci-fi I have read before. The subject matter was broadly focused on racism and there was some sense of drawing comparisons of racism in the early 1800s and the undertones that still live today. The story was very interesting and focused on the main character and, to a lesser degree her husband, bouncing back and forth in time to a distant relative who was white and lived on a plantation with slaves they owned.

Scenes felt very well researched and authentic and the story moved along at a good pace with a number of interesting explorations of life, times, and conversations as people realized what was happening. Some of the scenes were hard to read but never seemed too grotesque. I’d definitely recommend this book and plan to read more by Octavia Butler in the future.

A Little History of Philosophy
By Nigel Warburton

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman

The Andromeda Strain
By Michael Crichton

By Carl Sagan

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

I am Malala
By Malala Yousafzai

This was a moving account of the early life of Malala Yousafzai covering her early life, her early passion for educating young girls and improving the condition of women in Afganistan, through her tragic attempted assassination and the couple of years following it.

The most impactful part of this account was the detailing of life in Afganistan and the way she conveyed that experience. The tragic attempt on her life and the depiction of local warlord/terrorists taking hold in the country were eye-opening and thought provoking about how things which are so extreme can rapidly inch their way in to a peoples experience.

I look forward to seeing what Malala goes on to do with her life and highly recommend this book to anyone.

Money Management Skills
By The Great Courses

No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy

Man’s Search for Meaning
By Victor Frankl

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
By Josh Waitzkin

By Phillip K. Dick

On the Road
By Jack Kerouac

The Flight Attendant
By Chris Bohjalian

Age of Legend
By Michael J. Sullivan

The Final Empire
By Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages
By Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension
By Brandon Sanderson

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
By Gary Taubes

The Feynman Lectures on Physics
By Richard P. Feynman

By Elie Wiesel

This is a harsh and vivid portrayal of the author’s experiences through the Holocaust. It depicts how a remote village reacted passively to growing concerns of Nazi movements towards their home and how what seemed innocuous at first became invasive, burdensome, and on to the depths of inhumanity.

The depictions throughout the novel do a great job portraying both the daily mundane struggle for survival and depict how even good people can be torn down to steal, attack, or do just about anything when beaten down enough. It portrays another side of the struggle and search for a reason to keep going which Frankl outlines in his Man’s Search for Meaning.

If you haven’t read this, I would say it is worth considering. While the topic is horrible and there are many uncomfortable moments, it seems like something which should not be forgotten or just remembered as an abstract distant atrocity of history.

The Tempest
By William Shakesphere

Not my favorite Shakesphere play but it was enjoyable, nice twist and resolution at the end and a few funny moments.

The Screwtape Letters
By C. S. Lewis

This is an interesting dialectical short story which features a senior demon writing advice to a junior tempter (some sort of lesser demon). The content of the writing is ways in which to seduce, trick, persuade, or pull humans from a life of good action to a life of sin.

While not a book I would normally read, I did find this quite entertaining and interesting. One of the more interesting parts was seeing what was viewed as bad action at the time this was written versus what we might see communicated today. In addition, many of the ‘slippery slopes’ to bad action seemed to be well argued and based more often in basic psychology than any sort of theology which made it quite interesting and entertaining to read.

Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston

I greatly enjoyed this book, it was a story of an African American woman in the early 1900s and tells of the many challenges which came from living in that era. It had a wonderful sense of style with great imagery and well-developed personas. The picture of life in the country after the antebellum era, the ups and downs in the main character’s life, and her perseverance through the stages of her life combine in to a wonderful novel.

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life
By Richard Mabey

This book was a recommendation by my mom which covered the history, biology, weird behaviors, and colorful aspects of plants in our world. The tone of the book was exciting, which was surprising for a botany book, and it sought to bring out the more interesting characteristics, historical significance, and bizarre instances of plant biology and their impact on humans and history. While very digestible I did have to google a lot of the species mentioned to get an idea of what the descriptions were referring to but I imagine a print version of this book would have been a bit better for those who, like me, aren’t well versed in the names of many species of flower, tree, and other vegetable life. This was definitely a different kind of book for me to read and I am definitely glad to have read it and find myself taking note of various plants and trees in my day-to-day life a bit more after reading it. I’d definitely recommend this as an accessible and fun-filled book for those interested in learning a bit more about the world around you or for those passionate about vegetable life to glean interesting and varied information across all types of plant life.

The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a modern retelling of the Illiad and it does a great job bringing the classic to life accessibly while respecting the mythology and events. The story is told from the point of view of Patroclus and there is a lot of time dedicated to the early life of Patroclus and Achilles. The narrative is captivating overall the story feels compelling and made me want to read the original again. Madeline Miller’s depiction of the various characters and world felt lively and brought a nice dose of realism to the mythological setting. While I felt there was some overdone emphasis on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles where there could have been more details in the story/world it did lead to a compelling ending and served the narrative well. I’d definitely recommend for anyone who’s looking for a modern take on the classics – though maybe skimming some background information beforehand would enrich the experience!

Tools and Weapons
By Brad Smith, Carol Ann Brown, Bill Gates

Tools and Weapons is a phenomenal book. It was written by Microsoft’s President and Communications director and covers a whole host of issues about technology’s place in the world. The discussion brings up the challenging issues of respecting privacy and data, the risks and rewards of AI, and the challenges of holding data in a world with many governments with strong opinions but limited agreement on legal and ethical responsibilities exist.

I finished this book right as MLAT (mutual legal assistance treaty – an agreement for information requests of tech companies from governments around the world) has been replaced with CLOUD, a more invasive and abusable agreement. The book struck me as extremely sincere and wanting to start a dialog about privacy, risk, and regulation in the technology space as our identities and life become increasingly entwined with the cloud.

In particular, there were sections on privacy and government data access requests which have significant bearings on individual rights and the bizarre position tech companies are in regarding what actions to take. Companies tend profit from data and have incentive to collect more; governments was access to data for legitimate (anti-terror, abuse, etc.) and illegitimate (surveillance, manipulation, targeting, etc.) purposes; there is little international consensus on what privacy rights people are entitled to or even which country owns the ‘data’ in the cloud. Companies have abused data but have also sought that governments provide protection for their users and guidance on what is acceptable. Many have even formed alliances with competitors to petition for regulation of their business in some of these regards which is a bizarre situation to think about.

This book covers many topics and does a good job showing the importance of many of these issues which are fast becoming important for individuals around the world. I’d recommend this for anyone with an interest in personal privacy, the 4th amendment, risks of AI, opinions on government regulation of the tech sector or just curiosity about the intersection of the material and digital worlds. Outstanding writing, clear, easy to understand but important and significant writing.

The Sun Does Shine
By Anthony Ray Hinton

This book tells the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, a black male who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit in the 1980s. After a trial in which he was defended by an incompetent attorney it took 30 years to appeal the decision and ultimately the supreme court stepped in and ruled there were grounds to hear the case anew.

I was struck by the apparent disinterest of the courts in Alabama of even considering that they may have made a mistaken judgement – especially after adept expert witnesses and funds were available for the defense. The depiction of life on death row was about as one would expect it to be but the book captured the sense of hell and the occasional events which could cause joy or thoughts of hope in a place like that.

I wasn’t expecting this to be as engaging and deep of a read as it was for me and am very glad I read it, it has motivated me to get informed on an issue I knew little about and will definitely be a book I recommend to others.

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