2022 Fall Reading Recap

  1. I sold my life for ten thousand yen per year by Sugaru Miaki


I actually read the manga adapation of this novel, but the translation is on my eventual to-purchase-then-to-read list. Shipping costs from Japan hurt, and I can’t justify the expense quite yet.

Anyway, this book found me at the right time in my life. I’ve been feeling a little worried about what the future will hold for me.

Will I do anything worthwhile with my life? Can I contribute anything of value to this world?

Miaki writes a story with a common theme: that you can’t really quantify the value of a life lived well. Or a life lived poorly, for that matter.

Instead of spending all your time worrying about how much you’re “worth”, just focus on the things you can do today. What can you do today to be a little more happy? To make someone else’s life a little easier?

The trajectory of our lives aren’t changed by the plans we make for the years ahead. It’s molded by how we choose to act day by day. Good years are just a series of good months, which are just a series of good weeks, which are just a series of good days. And so instead of worrying about a “good life”, it’s often enough to aim for a good week or a good day.

I guess it’s just a reminder that I should stop overthinking things.

  1. The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz


Swartz was an activist, writer, and programmer who tragically committed suicide after facing a lawsuit for trying to make scientific journals accessible. From a very young age he maintained a blog and published essays on what he thought about politics, education, copyright, and more.

This book, amongst many things, is a demonstration of how much value you can get out of seeing your ideas grow over time. I got the impression from Swartz’s early writing that he was desparately trying to find answers to some hard existential questions (who wasn’t?). In his later essays, it’s clear that he didn’t find all the answers, but he at least made progress and found more focused questions to ask.

I think it’s valuable to have Swartz’s degree of skepticism and analysis. Revisitng and reevaluating what you consider true, not once or twice but many times throughout your life, is going to be increasingly important.

  1. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman


Postman makes a case for how TV is “trivializing” U.S. culture. His argument is that the structure of television (and I think this extends to any new medium) influences and molds the content. TV in particular has made content more “entertaining” – even things that shouldn’t be entertaining.

He focuses on some core institutions (politics, education, religion) and then spends a lot of time arguing for how these institutions have been made more entertaining by television. And Postman stresses that being more entertaining doesn’t necessarily serve the original intent of these institutions.

For example, nowadays political debates are primarily sources for soundbites and gotchas. Debates were (and should be) forums to deeply understand a candidates positions and how they aspire to realize those positions. Television, then, is not conducive to this goal. How much can one really understand in a 15 minute YouTube video, or a 5 minute response?

Postman starts and ends with drawing an analogy between the world of Huxley’s Brave New World and the U.S. I’m afraid that Postman, and academics like him, were apt in their comparison.

The solution, Postman supposes, is through better education. I didn’t find this particularly helpful. There are lots of people who benefit from the current structure of our media ecosystem. Better public schools and universities won’t fix things (by themselves, anyway).

I don’t have a better answer, either, so I guess I can’t be too critical of Postman’s proposed solution.

  1. How the World Really Works by Vaclav Samil


I blazed through this book in 3 days.

What really compelled me was understanding the world through two fundamental things: energy and materials (physics and chemistry). It’s an underapprciated lens to see the world through. Economics or history might be easier to understand if you don’t have a STEM background, but I also think it obscures some hard facts about our reality.

For example, politicians and economists will make bold statements about reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2045. But there is, as Samil argues, no engineering or scientific backing to support those kinds of claims. At least, not without dramatically reducing human population by the billions.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s truth. And if you understand the basic processes for growing food or creating concrete, then this truth becomes painfully obvious.

I highly recommend reading this book if you’re serious about understanding climate mitigation and adapation efforts.

  1. Engineering a Safer World by Nancy Leveson


I only read the first part of this textbook, which discusses “systems engineering” and ways to make engineering, as a disclipine, safer. I think this book was originally intended for engineering majors at MIT. In particular, the kinds of engineers who end up working in fields like manufacturing, healthcare, and aerospace.

This was a really valuable read for me. Unfortunately, I don’t think software engineers are held to same standards as other engineering disciplines.

For the most part, that’s okay. Lots of software engineers ultimately find themselves working on web applications that aren’t too critical. But as software finds itself in more critical industries, it’s important to have engineers who can meet the same rigor as other disciplines.

  1. Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis


I would describe this book as “political fiction”, where Yanis tries to describe an alternate timeline with a more ideal political and economic structure.

I think his ideas are a bit too radical for me. For example, he describes a future where there is no stock exchange and all companies are cooperatively owned by its employees. Employees are also free to join and leave companies as they please, as there’s a single central banking system that provides every citizen in the world with access to credit and a bank account.

I don’t fundamentally disagree that this might be a better way of organizing our politics and finances, but he handwaves how these systems would be feasible as “software” or “algorithms” that would do X. That’s something I find less appetizing to accept. Sure, we might have said software or algorithms now, but we don’t know how it would work at scale. Getting something to work for 500 people is different from getting it work to 500 million, yet alone 5 billion people.

Aside from the technical and political disagreements, I appreciate this genre of fiction/writing a lot. It’s good to always be hopeful and creative when considering better futures. I think Yanis’ world is in the realm of fiction, but there are elements of it that seem possible in reality, even if unlikely.

I think true optimism isn’t just dreaming up some idealized future. It’s dreaming up a future that is idealized and that you honestly believe can be realized. Otherwise, you really are just dreaming.