Commentary on every book I read in the quarter, covering: why I chose to read it, some insights and quotes, and review. Not intended to be a summary.
Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker (2017)
It’s a truism to say sleep is important – along with nutrition, stress management, and exercise. Yet I still found myself sleeping late, particularly during the lock downs. Cognitive dissonance? Lack of discipline? As did reading more about stress, understanding the specific physiology on why exactly it is so important pushed me over the line to make serious lifestyle changes.
Sleep science is relatively new. Even in 2011 as a university student, I remember asking questions after a sleep physiology lecture and the professor said science just doesn’t have the answers yet.
- Sleeping a few hours less means you lose 60-90% of REM sleep as most of it happens towards the later stages of the sleep cycle
- Awake reception, NREM reflection (file transfer), REM integration (more accurate models of reality)
- Brain is actually 30% more active in REM than being awake
- Deep sleep is a driving force of maturation as opposed to the other way round
- Targeted memory reactivation from NREM sleep (earlier in night): regain access to memories you couldn’t retrieve before sleep
- Cerebrospinal fluid only cleaned during night
- Dreams, like heat from a light bulb, may serve no function (evolutionary by-product)
- Sleep deprivation is ability but inadequate opportunity to sleep; insomnia is inability despite adequate opportunity
- Many modern-day torture techniques revolve around sleep deprivation
- Lower socioeconomic kids get less sleep: noisy, longer commute times, parents up earlier and sleep later etc. Health outcomes, cognitive development, etc – effects compound.
“…following a night of sleep you regain access to memories that you could not retrieve before sleep. Like a computer hard drive where some files have become corrupted and accessible…”
“We glorify the high-powered executive on email until 1:00am., and then in the office by 5:45am…There remains a contrived, yet fortified, arrogance in many business cultures focused on the uselessness of sleep.”
Some sections are dry, but given you’ll spend close to 1/3 of your lifetime sleeping, a few hours reading up on is a really good ROI.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber (2011)
Impulse bought this in a book shop earlier in the year based only on the cover. Have always been interested in the history of money and credit as it’s one of the key drivers of geopolitics, and an integral part to understanding how the world works.
As an anthropologist, the author approaches the origins of credit and money with a starkly different lens to economists.
“The story of the origins of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is rather the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal – and often vindictive – power of the state.”
The book is better appreciated if you already have at least an intermediate understanding of how the financial system works today.
- Barter theory of money: created to solve barter problem. Most commonly accepted theory today.
- Credit theory of money: money not commodity but accounting tool
- State theory of money: silver/leather/cod etc doesn’t matter so long as state is willing to accept it as taxes
- Primordial debt theory of money: we’re born with a debt that we owe to the world. Redemption in many religions. Money not to pay debts but to acknowledge that debt cannot possibly be paid e.g. marriage
- Also blood/flesh debt (owed if you kill someone), milk debt (owed to your mother), karmic debt
- Eurasian history alternates between credit and money (gold/silver):
– Agrarian empires (3500-800BC) credit
– Axial Age (800BC-600AD) money
– Middle Age (600-1450) credit
– Capitalist empires (1450-1971) money
– Now (1971-current) credit
- Axial Age. Military-coinage-slavery complex: raid foreign land, pay soldiers with coins, force new subjects to pay taxes in conqueror’s currency
- Middle Ages. markets and religions merge.
- Religions influence usury laws, paving way for Jews to play key role in banking
- Capitalist Empires. Axial elements of vast empires, professional armies, predatory warfare, usury, debt peonage reappeared but in entirely different way.
- Most silver from New World ends up in China
- 15th Aug 1971 Nixon ends Bretton Woods system (had little choice due to Vietnam War deficit), takes USD off gold standard, free-floating currencies
- US military power is now the only thing backing up the value of USD
- Low yielding treasury bonds is an indirect form of tribute
“Arguments about wealth and markets become arguments about debt and morality, and arguments about debt and morality become arguments about the nature of our place in the universe.”
Of course, I don’t agree with some of the arguments in the book. The author’s inductive arguments weren’t logically robust – particularly in the last few chapters. But makes subtle observations that’s not well known – exactly the kind of things I look for in a book – YouTube content usually doesn’t offer this kind of uniqueness.
Also important to remember it was written in 2011 – post-GFC sentiment, and in the early days of the excessive quantitative easing policies, and before the 2017 crypto hype.
If you’re interested in finance and economics, this will definitely make you question some fundamental assumptions you held. A fascinating read.
Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (2016)
Was on my list after seeing Tom’s talk live at TEDxSydney 2017.
Explains 10 computer science concepts, and how they can be generalised to everyday life.
Some concepts I found interesting (won’t explain them in detail here):
- Optimal stopping: 37% rule; upper confidence bound.
- Explore vs exploit: latest vs greatest; gather vs use; people tend to over-explore
- Sorting: time complexity O(n) important consideration due to diseconomies of scale in computing
– bubble sort & insertion sort too slow. O(n2)
– merge sort (parallelized pair sort) is most common, O(nlogn)
– bucket sort (rough sort when not every item needs sort) faster, O(nm) ≈ O(n) when # buckets m is small
– other: comparison counting sort & blood sort
- Caching: forgetting as important as remembering (limited compute power)
– random eviction; FIFO (first in first out); LRU (least recently used), Noguchi filing system (I’ve been using this for years, and it still remains the most superior way to organize stuff)
- Scheduling: maximize overlap; earliest due date; shortest processing time; tension between throughput & responsiveness
- Bayes’s Rule for predicting future
– metaprobability: probability of probability based on history
– Laplace’s law: (w+1)/(n+2). w wins, n attempts
– if power law prior, predict future with multiplicative rule
– if normal prior, predict future with average rule
– if Erlang prior, predict future with additive rule
– idolatry of data: focused on what’s measurable rather than what matters
– regularization: use constraints that penalize complexity. Just as metabolism in biological systems has a caloric penalty for overly elaborate machinery
– heuristics, less is more.
“When the future is foggy, it turns out you don’t need a calendar – just a to-do list.”
“Throughout history, religious texts have warned their followers against idolatry: the worshipping of statues, paintings, relics, and other tangible artifacts in lieu of the intangible deities those artifacts represent… Overfitting is a kind of idolatry of data, a consequence of focusing on what we’ve been able to measure rather than what matters.”
“Seemingly innocuous language like “Oh, I’m flexible” or “What do you want to do tonight?” has a dark computational underbelly that should make you think twice. It has the veneer of kindness about it, but it does two deeply alarming things. First, it passes the cognitive buck: “Here’s a problem, you handle it.” Second, by not stating your preferences, it invites the others to simulate or imagine them.”
Perfect book for transdisciplinary maniacs obsessed with borrowing concepts in one domain and applying it to others.
Wish I read this earlier.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (2014)
This is one of those canonical books that every finance/economics nerd claims they’ve read while very few actually have.
Appreciate that Piketty presents wealth inequality data that stretches further back than typical economic literature – goes into the 1800s.
Thesis is basically: once we see a rate of return of capital (r) exceeding the rate of growth of output & income (g), capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities.
Some useful and interesting stuff in here such as: distribution of world GDP by region by year; mix of primary/secondary/tertiary (agriculture/manufacturing/servivces) economies by year
“In practice, this allowed deficits to be financed by those who had lent money to the state, and taxes did not have to be raised by an equivalent amount. This “progressive” view of public debt retains its hold on many minds today, even though inflation has long since declined to a rate not much above the nineteenth century’s, and the distributional effects are relatively obscure.”
“US investments abroad continued to yield a far better return than the nation paid on its foreign-held debts – such is the privilege due to confidence in the dollar. This made it possible to limit the degradation of the negative US position, which amounted to roughly 10 percent of national income in the 1990s and slightly more than 20 percent in the early 2010s.”
“At the beginning of the 1970s, the total value of private wealth stood between 2-3.5 years of national income… In 2010, between 4-7 years… This structural evolution is explained by three sets of factors, which complement and reinforce one another… Slower growth… Gradual privatization and transfer of public wealth into private hands… long-term catch-up phenomenon affecting real state and stock market prices.”
But most of the book is just lots of charts with years on x-axis and variations of capital/income ratios (private, public etc) on y-axis, followed by several paragraphs describing the data. Wish it spent less pages explaining methodology and describing data, and more on drawing insights and discussing broader implications.
Stopped halfway. Interesting, but not interesting enough to continue. Respect opportunity cost. Might revisit relevant sections another time.
Taleb criticizes Piketty’s methodology on grounds of ergodic assumptions:
“The problem is never the problem; it is how people handle it. What was worse than Piketty’s flaws was the discovery of how that Mandarin class operates… the widespread enthusiasm for his book was representative of the behavior of that class of people who love to theorize and engage in false solidarity with the oppressed, while consolidating their privileges.”
This review from one of the wealthiest – Bill Gates – is also interesting. Gates argues the book does not account for the differences in how wealth is made, and how it’s spent.
Still a worthwhile read/skim if you’re going deep into understanding economics.
Nonzero, Robert Wright (1999)
Another title that’s collected dust on my bookshelf for a while, but picked it up after repeated references to it in a Complexity Investing whitepaper I recently enjoyed.
Argues that the world/universe arranges itself into ever increasing non-zero sum games over time.
“In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of ever-more-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate non-zero-sum games. It is the accumulation of these games that constitutes the growth in biological and social complexity.”
- Within any non-zero-sum games lies a zero-sum dimension
- Cultural evolution involves little advanced planning – it’s not guided by farsighted reason (e.g. why we chose farming)
- In purely zero-sum relationship, there is no rational reason to communicate
- Rather than metallurgy-based sophistication (Stone age vs Bronze age), more useful technological dividing line is energy and information technologies
“The turbulence that characterizes world history is not only consistent with a “progressivist” view of history; it is integral to it.”
- Information metatechnologies: social algorithms guiding the use of such information technologies such as money
- Interest groups generate positive sums internally but dampens overall non-zero-sum-gain to broader society. So one function of government is to keep interest groups from sapping the public good.
“How did the European Coal and Steel Community morph into the European Community and then into the European Union? Actually, the transition is surprisingly logical: one non-zero-sum game leads to another, which leads to another, and so on.”
- Cultural lag happens when material culture (technology) changes so fast that non-material culture (inc. governance and social norms) has trouble catching up
- Trade-off between liberty and privacy
- One of the main trends in cultural evolution is a gradual increase in capacity for information processing, storage, and analysis
- Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustain and protect structure
“Why my seeming preoccupation with information technology? Though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge. In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information – not the other way around.”
- Mitochondria are encapsulated slaves subject to ruthless metabolic exploitation
- Opportunities for cheaters. Mechanisms to avoid parasitic mutiny
“What is an organism? There is no such thing. Each organism is a collective. And not a wholly harmonious collective… If the line between organism and society isn’t the distinction between complete and incomplete unity of purpose, then what is the line?”
- Is consciousness just an epiphenomenon?
“Directionality in the narrowest sense isn’t evidence of telos. Water flows from high to low, but we don’t think of water as being imbued with purpose.”
“In this view, the entire 3-billion-year evolution of plants and animals is a process of epigenesis, the unfolding of a single organism. And that single organism isn’t really the human species, but rather the whole biosphere, encompassing nall species.”
This game theory approach to the development of organisms and society (superorganism) is both fascinating and compelling. Highly fitting and consistent with every other good history book I’ve read.
I finished it in two sittings. Maybe because it reinforced most of what I was already thinking.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in existentialism and game theory.
Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb (2018)
Read it to live up to my Taleb fanboy status (my post on his core work, antifragile, here). And also knowing that this book revolves around ergodicity, a concept I’ve been trying to wrap my head around after stumbling across Ergodicity Economics earlier in the year.
Lots of aphorisms. It’s evident Taleb is heavily influenced by Nietzsche.
- Never engage in detailed over-explanations… One debases a principle by endlessly justifying it
- Systems learn by removing parts, via negativa
- Politics is scale-dependent
- Conflict of interest is okay if it is congruous with downside risk for themselves
- Every metric is gameable
- “Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”
- Average behavior of market participant will not allow us to understand the general behavior of the market (due to ergodicity). Markets are not sums of average individuals
- Freedom is never free
- True equality is equality in probability
- Dynamic equality restores ergodicity, making time and ensemble probabilities substitutable
- Exact opposite of perfect ergodicity is an absorbing state
- Often the bourgeois or clerical classes are early adopters of revolutionary theories
- The reason science works is because they are subject to their own natural fragility. They are vulnerable to the falsification of time.
- Naive bureaucrats are fooled by the label
- Problem with Pascal’s wager: belief cannot be a free option
- Greek and Roman architects intentionally tilted some columns inward in order to give us the impression that they are straight
- What may appear illogical on surface may have deeper logical reasons
- Rationality is avoidance of systemic ruin
“The psychological experiments on individuals showing “biases” do not allow us to automatically understand aggregates or collective behavior, nor do they enlighten us about the behavior of groups.”
“Those who use foul language on social networks are sending an expensive signal that they are free – and, ironically, competent. You don’t signal competence if you don’t take risks for it – there are few such low-risk strategies. So cursing today is a status symbol, just as oligarchs in Moscow wear blue jeans at special events to signal their power.”
“Never compare a multiplicative, systemic, and fat-tailed risk to a non-multiplicative, idiosyncratic, and thin-tailed one.”
“When the beard is black, heed the reasoning, but ignore the conclusion. When the beard is gray, consider both reasoning and conclusion. When the beard is white, skip the reasoning, but mind the conclusion.”
Too long to be an essay, but a bit short to be a book.
World Order, Henry Kissinger (2010)
Ramped up my interest in geopolitics as US-China tensions rise. Plus a global crisis like a pandemic typically resets the geopolitical landscape. So reading the inner thoughts from the mind that shaped US foreign policy in the late 20th century seemed worthwhile.
The big idea is that European colonial powers are accustomed to a Westphalian principle of power balance. If anyone becomes too powerful, the rest will gang up on them to restore the balance.
- 3 levels of order: world (entire world), international (substantial part of world), regional
- Balance between legitimacy and power is extremely complex, especially over bigger areas
- Russia, hard lessons from the steppe, no natural borders, restrains on power spelled catastrophe, therefore pursue absolutism as a means of survival
- For much of history Germany was either too weak or too strong for the peace of Europe
- International reputation for reliability more important than demonstrations of tactical cleverness
- EU struggles to resolve internal tensions. Pursues monetary union side by side with fiscal dispersion and bureaucracy at odds with democracy. Embraces universal ideas without means to enforce.
“The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European order. The concept of state sovereignty was established.”
- Islam expansion is unidirectional and irreversible, otherwise it repudiates legacy of the universal faith
- Sykes-Picot 1916 divided Ottoman Middle East by manipulating tensions to lay foundation for later civil wars
- Major Arab states either torn by civil war or preoccupied with Sunni-Shia conflict
“Domestic and international conflicts reinforce each other. Political, sectarian, tribal, territorial, ideological, and traditional national-interest disputes merge. Religion is “weaponized” in the service of geopolitical objectives…”
- Iran, Persian king of kings, 1979 revolution
“India’s foundational religions are inspired not by prophetic visions of messianic fulfillment; rather, they bear witness to the fragility of human existence. They offer not personal salvation but the solace of an inextricable destiny.”
- American overextension and disillusioned withdrawal
“The nature of the state itself…attacked and dismantled by design, in some regions corroded from neglect, often submerged by the sheer rush of events.”
“The international order thus faces a paradox: its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalization, but the process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspirations.”
Kissinger writes elegantly, and it’s a good way to look back on well-known historical events through the lens of power and legitimacy. Though, this is one of those books where it’s particularly important to keep the author’s background in mind. It’s extremely US-biased, as expected. His tone is basically every US president made the right choices given the situation they were in. Many of which I don’t agree with. Which is exactly why I love to read.
Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2013)
I can finally see why this book has been so popular among the bright minds in developing economies. Overall, an excellent work with a clear thesis, solid evidence, and articulated with impeccable clarity.
It talks about the socioeconomic effects of extractive institutions versus inclusive ones. Thesis itself is not that novel, but approaching history through the lens of the development of political institutions really helps understand how we got to now.
- Poor countries are poor not because of ignorance or culture, but because those in power intentionally make choices that create poverty for their own self-interest
- Inclusive political institutions: sufficiently centralized and pluralistic
- Economic prosperity depends on policy and institutions. But politicians themselves
“The bankers faced different economic institutions, institutions that subjected them to much greater competition. And this was largely because the politicians who wrote the rules for the bankers faced very different incentives themselves, forged by different political institutions.”
- No natural tendency towards political centralization
“This institutional divergence was the result of a situation where the differences between these areas initially seemed very small: in the East, lords were a little better organized; they had slightly more rights and more consolidated landholdings. Towns were weaker and smaller, peasants less organized.”
- Critical juncture is a double-edged sword
- Structures of colonial rule left complex and prenicious institutional legacy in Africa in the 1960s
“When the plan was formulated in tons of steel sheet, the sheet was made too heavy. When it was formulated in terms of area of steel sheet, the sheet was made too thin.”
- Move to inclusive institutions can, unfortunately, be reversed (e.g. Venice)
- England: strong Parliament but also plenty of checks and balances to constraint Parliament
If you’re into this theme, I’d recommend the following in this order:
- Factfulness by Hans Rosling
- Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
- Sapiens by Yuval Harari
- Why Nations Fail
- Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
- Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama
Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom (2014)
Haven’t read AI book for a while. Wanted to read this to cover aspects of second-order AI effects that I hadn’t put as much thought into before.
- We expect superintelligent AI to have very different cognitive architectures than biological intelligences (whole brain emulation)
- Rate limiting step in human intelligence not how fast raw data can be fed into brain but how quickly brain can extract meaning and make sense of the data
- 4 paths to superintelligence: artificial, whole brain emulation, biological cognition, brain-computer interfaces, networks
- 3 forms of superintelligence: speed, collective, quality
Very high information density, well structured, informative, and succinctly written.
Recommend reading up on neuroscience and having at least a basic understanding of AI before jumping into this book.
Billion Dollar Whale, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (2018)
For those that are less familiar with the 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal that gained global attention in July 2015 following a Wall Street Journal article, here’s a nutshell.
This Malaysian guy Jho Low uses daddy’s money to befriend powerful kids at Wharton by throwing extravagant parties. He convinces people that he’s from an influential family with powerful connections, and positions himself as someone that can get things done. He sets up shell companies, leverages off powerful names, and maintains secrecy under the veneer of sovereign relationships. Also pulls off a vast swathe of accounting tricks – layered transcations, intra-family excuses for transfers, free ports, IOLTAs (interest on lawyer trust accounts) – to steal billions. Much of this ending up in the pockets of former Malaysian PM, Najib. In the end, it seemed like what he wanted was respect, fame, and to live amongst celebrities.
Jordan Belfort: “This is a fucking scam, anyone who does this has stolen money. You wouldn’t spend money you worked for like that.”
This story is much like the Wolf of Wall Street (the film was actually funded by Jho Low’s company), but an order of magnitude crazier.
Growth, Vaclav Smil (2018)
From one of Gates’ reading lists. This may be the most ambitiously scoped book I’ve ever come across. Goes through biology, history of energy, materials, as well as human history – all with a lens on growth of complex systems. In similar tone to Factfulness, many growth curves that look exponential are actually S-curves.
“Ultimately, growth trajectories must be governed by first principles expressed through biochemical reactions, material limits, entropy change, and information decay, but actual nonlinear progressions will show irregularities and deviations from specific growth functions.”
“Opening the section on economic growth by three brief reviews on the physical inputs of energies, food, and materials has been a deliberate choice. I intend to stress the first-things-first principle that is now so often ignored in the world by economic abstractions, and also to emphasize how imperfectly those complex physical realities get appraised in monetary terms. Food production is by far the best example of this skewed valuation. As the entire agricultural sector now contributes less than 2% to national GDPs in every G7 country, economists see it as an entirely marginal undertaking…”
“…better not to draw any specific inferences about the underlying causes of economic growth because the factors involved are dynamically linked within a complex system, making the exogenous-endogenous dichotomy largely an artificial construct.”
- Most economic growth since onset of industrial revolution driven largely by declining energy costs.
- First upswing (1787-1817): coal; stationary steam engines
- Second upswing (1844-1875): steam engines on railroads and steamships; metallurgy advances
- Third upswing (1890-1920): widespread electricity; electric motors
- More upswings in late 20th century: ICT
There’s so much in here. Should not be read cover to cover. Even nerds like me find it a tad dry. Ruthlessly and apologetically skip the familiar, and mine out the nuggets of wisdom relevant to you.
If you were planning to read his other books, I’d recommend just starting with this one as it covers a bit of everything. You can read the others if you want a deeper dive on a specific area.
It’ll be one of those books I’d keep referencing back to over the years.
So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo (2018)
Prompted by the Floyd protests. Written by a lesbian black woman, intended to shine light at systemic racism perpetuated by those that believe they have good intentions.
- Racism: prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power. Second part of definition very important.
- Racism is like being in an abusive relationship with the world
- “I get it” is cringe
- Take on the emotional risk of investigating whether you are contributing to systemic racism
- Do your research. Hitchen’s Razor: it’s never the job of the person of colour you’re talking to to become your personal Google.
- Opponent isn’t a person, it’s a system of racism that shows up in the worlds and actions of other people
- Where our privilege overlaps with other’s oppression, we have opportunities to make a change
Pretty consistent with another book on racism I read last year – White Fragility. But this one really got to me. Felt extremely uncomfortable reading this as I took an honest look at myself on this topic. There’s still more for me to learn, and I’ve become much more cautious with what I say and perpetuate.
Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull (2014)
Following friend’s recommendation, enjoyed Bob Iger’s Ride of a Lifetime before jumping into this. In recent years I’ve found myself preferring business stories and biographies over more traditional how-to-style business books.
- Problem you think you’re solving turns out to be entangled with all these other problems.
- Inspired by Toyota’s lean manufacturing processes in the 80s, responsibility to finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee
“Trust the process” had morphed into “assume that the process will fix things for us.”
“People who take on complicated, creative projects become lost at some point… In order to create you must internalize and almost become the project for a while… But it is also confusing. Where once a writer or director had perspective, he or she loses it… Could see forest now there are only trees.”
Nothing too radical or novel for me, but it neatly packaged what I’ve read/listened/watched over the years into the Pixar story. Highly recommend for anyone interesting in inspiring creativity, mastering craft, and navigating business uncertainty.
50 Psychology Classics
Despite the bad rep that summary books like these receive, I find them really useful for 3 main reasons.
First, I don’t have the time to read all of the originals. And if I am more interested in some works than others, I’d go ahead and read the full original.
Second, I don’t know what I don’t know, and books like these bring forward canonical works to my attention that I would have otherwise missed if I had just continued my own self-study.
Third, and most importantly, I’m more interested in how the classics were received and influenced proceeding classics, more so than the content of the classics themselves. I’m basically piecing together the evolution of humanity’s understanding of psychology over time. Compilations such as these are great for this.
“With [people not close to us], we feel the need to give them a label such as “intellectual”, “brat”, “jerk”, or “nag”, but by doing so we cease to see the person before us, only a type.”
- Techniques of creative thinkers: generate alternatives; challenge assumptions, quotas, analogies, reversal thinking, suspended judgement
- Social metaphysicians: philosophy of life revolves around others, not themselves
Fantastic way to get transcend an introductory level understanding of psychology.
Thanks for reading.
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An hour a day is 50 books a year: tried and tested reading tips
Single sentence summaries for every book I read in 2019
Single sentence summaries for every book I read in 2018