2023 Winter Reading Recap
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I read most of this while high on an edible gummy, which made the reading experience much more memorable. I recommend the book. I don’t recommend getting high while reading it (unless you want to, of course).
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Dawkins is absolutely briliant here and reshaped how I think about Darwinism. Reframing the unit of natural selection as the gene, rather than the gene’s phenotype, is a subtle idea. But it’s an idea that I think is much, much more powerful for explaining how life has developed on Earth.
Taking this idea further leads to some (potentially) unsettling conclusions. For example, altruism that we see in any species – including ourselves – isn’t ascribed to some “goodness”, rather it’s a finetuned calculation to maximize the reproduction of a common gene.
Dawkins also coins the term “meme” in this book. Just as there is a physical, genetic unit of natural selection, there might be a “unit of natural selection” for ideas. This unit, the “meme”, has a similar dynamic as the gene. Its success is not measured by qualities like truthfulness or accuracy, rather, a successful meme is one that replicates the most and is highly durable.
Anyway, the book has much more to say. And it says it much better than me.
You Are Not Expected to Understand This: How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World by Torie Bosch (Editor)
I only read about 3/4ths of the essays in this anthology. Of the ones I did read, though, I found them to be interesting tidbits of computing history.
Software moves so rapidly and new trends come and go every few years. We rarely get to take the time to dissect and understand what happened in the past, and I think this is much to our detriment. How many of us really understand the accidents of history that led us to this moment in computing?
I won’t say this collection particularly illuminates paths not taken and other worlds we could be living in right now. But I think it helps shine the light on portions of computing history, which is a good first step to understanding.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang is one of my favorite writers. I recommend his stories all the time regardless if you’re into science fiction or not.
I think most of the stories in this collection are read blind, so I’ll omit the commentary. Read them yourselves, and then if you want to talk to someone about it, reach out to me. I’ll always make time to talk about Ted Chiang stories.
The Precipice by Toby Ord
Nice introduction to existential risk and its related brain children (longtermism, effective altruism). Personally, I found it only “okay”. As stated very early in the book, it tries to avoid academic details and passes over statistics and details in favor of making existential risk more approachable from any background. I think it made the writing and arguments weaker, however. But I recognize it’s probably because I come from a STEM background and find calculations and studies more compelling than arguments and prose.
If you have zero background in the topic, this is a good primer. But I’d recommend just reading the intro and summary posts on forums like LessWrong or 80,000 Hours. Frankly, I don’t think the book adds any more substance than what you can find on those pages. If you would prefer more prose and arguments with flourish, though, then the book might serve you well.
This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth
Note, this book has a U.S. centric POV.
The blast radius of software has gotten so large. It’s everywhere, from trivial things like social media to core infrastructure like water filtration plants and energy grids.
There’s such a big focus on AGI or rapid development of AI being an existential risk that I think it downplays how much risk we have due to nuclear weapons – and now cyberweapons too. If the threat of infosec isn’t on your radar already, skim this book and put it on your radar. I think it’s too important not to.
What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies by Tim Urban
A good book about the general state of politics in the U.S. (and a lot of other parts of the Western world). It’s packed full of entertaining illustrations and a helpful framework for categorizing arguments and “how people think”.
Tim makes it really explicit that we’ve been caught up in what people think when it’s just as important to consider how people think. Maybe in the past we could assume most people got their beliefs through well reasoned arguments and evidence. But now, it seems like a rather large fraction of the world gets their beliefs through weak arguments and poor or fabricated evidence.
I agree with Tim’s diagnosis of the situation, but admittedly didn’t find it too novel or insightful. If you follow the “rationalist” communities on the internet (LessWrong, Effective Altriusm, etc) then I think you came to this conclusion years ago.
Collectively, we’ve gotten stupider. Just think of how poorly institutions have responded to disasters in the past decade (e.g. COVID-19). I hope the ideas in Tim’s book become mainstream. It seems like most discussion is still dominated by “what people should think” – when the real issue is that we’ve forgotten how to think at all.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig
Pirsig propose an answer to the mind-body duality problem. Maybe, he argues, there’s a third element – quality – which arises from the interaction between mind and body. To avoid getting too deep into the metaphysics, I’ll leave it at that because the book isn’t about metaphysics. The book is really about figuring out how to apply metaphysics and live a good life.
There’s a lot of malaise around nowadays. It seems to have grown throughout the 20th century, and now it’s everywhere in the 21st century. I’ve been trying to find an answer to help me deal with the malaise, and I think some of it is in this book.