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2018 Books

Posted: 1 January 2018

Refer to First Post of 2018 for my thoughts on the books read in 2017. Looking forward to populating this page with more books in 2018!

Artemis - Andy Weir

4th December 2018. The number I books I read is proportional to the time I spend flying. I didn’t know Andy Weir is a programmer-turned-writer. He wrote the book “The Martian” as well, which was a movie in 2017. Interesting plot of colonizing the moon - Weir even included calculations on how he thinks this is possible. If there’s a third book, I hope they combine the plots of “The Martian” and “Artemis” into a single universe.

Elon Musk - Ashlee Vance

16th February 2018. Elon Musk has the potential of being on the same level as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Some might argue that Musk is a successful industrialist and should be compared to Carnegie and Ford. I disagree. Musk is pursuing a vision far greater than anyone has thought of: Humans as an interplanetary species. And he might actually be on track to succeeding, with the super impressive Falcon Heavy launch and successful landing of the rockets. Musk is pretty inspiring. He has both positive and negative attributes and I could definitely learn from his positive attributes. Some notable quotes from the book:

  1. The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads (p. 12).
  2. Read Huebner’s paper on “A Possible Declining Trend in Worldwide Innovation” (p. 13).
  3. Zip2 was Musk’s first start-up and it was advertising related. People told his salesman that “advertising on the Internet sounded like the dumbest thing they had ever heard of” (p. 64). Look where we are for that now. We shouldn’t always listen to everyone!
  4. Okay, what are the things that affect how a team functions. The first obvious assumption would be that other people will behave like you. But that’s not true. Even if they would like to behave like you, they don’t necessarily have all the assumptions or information that you have in your mind. So, if I know a certain set of things, and I talk to a replica of myself but only communicate half the information, you can’t expect that the replica would come to the same conclusion. You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?’ (p. 73).
  5. They might take their chances entering a credit card number but exposing just their bank accounts to the Web was out of the question to many (p. 77). Look where we are with online banking now.
  6. The whole idea was to shift away from slow-moving banks with their mainframes taking days to process payments and to create a kind of agile bank account where you could move money around with a couple of clicks on a mouse or an e-mail (p. 84).
  7. The PayPal episode was a mixed bag for Musk … The book painted Musk as an egomaniacal, stubborn jerk, making wrong decisions at every turn, and portrayed Thiel and Levchin as heroic geniuses (p. 89). I always thought PayPal was led by Thiel, turns out that was true but I didn’t get the full story.
  8. He could have spent ten million dollars to send up the mice, but instead he’ll spend hundreds of millions and probably fail like all the others that proceeded him (p. 109). Look where Musk is now.
  9. Tom Mueller was the driving force behind SpaceX (p. 109).
  10. I told him that yeah, I’d worked on a 650,000-pound thrust engine at TRW and knew every part of it. Mueller set the engine down and tried to keep up with Musk’s interrogation. “How much would that big engine cost?” Musk asked. Mueller told him TRW built it for about $12 million. Musk shot back, “Yeah, but how much could you really do it for?” (p. 111) This has got to be one of the best questions in the entire book.
  11. Kestrel started out as a rael dog, and one of my proudest moments was taking it from terrible to great performance with stuff we bought online and did in the machine shop. Some members of the Texas crew honed their skills to the point that they could build a test-worthy engine in three days. These same people were required to be adept at software (p. 125).
  12. What Musk would not tolerate were excuses or the lack of a clear plan of attack (p. 126).
  13. When you interview make sure you can talk concretely about what you do rather than use buzzwords (p. 130).
  14. The engineering corps flew into a collective rage every time they caught Musk in the press claiming to have designed the Falcon rocket more or less by himself (p. 133).
  15. The entire part on Kwajalein Island was amazing (p. 135).
  16. The engineers were constantly baffled by what Musk would fund and what he wouldn’t. Back at headquarters, someone would ask to buy a $200,000 machine or a pricey part that they deemed essential to Falcon 1’s success, and Musk would deny the request. And yet he was totally comfortable paying a similar amount to put a shiny surface on the factory floor to make it look nice. On Omelek, the workers wanted to pave a two-hundred-yard pathway between the hangar and the launchpad to make it easier to transport the rocket. Musk refused (p. 137). I’m baffled by this too but there was a section where it was said that Musk does everything based on the daily burn rate.
  17. The dash to the United States and back showed that SpaceX’s thirty-person team had real pluck in the face of adversity and inspired everyone on the island. A traditional three-hundred-person-strong aerospace launch crew would never have tried to fix a rocket like that on the fly (p. 139).
  18. Had anyone from Detroit stopped by Tesla Motors at this point, they would have ended up in hysterics. The sum total of the company’s automotive expertise was that a couple of the guys at Tesla really liked cars and another one had created a series of science fair projects based on technology that the automotive industry considered ridiculous. What’s more, the founding team had no intention of turning to Detroit for advice on how to build a car company. No, Tesla would do what every other Silicon Valley start-up had done before it, which was hire a bunch of young, hungry engineers and figure things out as they went along (p. 155).
  19. An undergraduate, Berdichevsky volunteered to quit school, work for free, and sweep the floors at Tesla if that’s what it took to get a job. The founders were impressed with his spirit and hired Berdichevsky after one meeting (p. 156).
  20. Tesla formed a six-person task force to deal with the battery issue (p. 159). The entire part on the exploding batteries was interesting.
  21. Eberhard was apparently the founder of Tesla (p. 171).
  22. If you told him that you made a particular choice because ‘it was the standard way things had always been done,’ he’d kick you out of a meeting fast. He’d say, ‘I never want to hear that phrase again … ‘ (p. 177).
  23. The total market for satellites, related services, and the rocket launches needed to carry them to space has exploded over the past decade from about $60 billion per year to more than $200 billion (p. 216).
  24. He rebuffed requests to buy specialized tooling equipment, until the engineers could explain in clear terms why they needed certain things and until experience taught him better (p. 229).
  25. Musk would grill people and ask a lot of questions because he was trying to learn (p. 230).
  26. The story of Steve Davis (p. 234).
  27. Acronyms (p. 239).
  28. Elon felt like it was the most important problem facing Tesla at the time and that’s always what he deals with and how he prioritizes (p. 309).

Elon is successful because of his character. With his first success, he built on it and there were compounding effects, which is what we see today. Only time will tell if his companies will be successful, but I believe it will. He has formed something of a cult following and that definitely feeds his ego and drives him to work even harder. He’s even compared to Tony Stark, which is probably the best compliment of the 21st Century.

Homo Deus - Yuval Noah Harari

December 2018. Well, as you can see from the date, I haven’t been that consistent with blogging immediately once I finish a book. Homo Deus was quite a boring read as it was pretty similar to Sapiens. I did have some new points extracted though. I’ll leave this here for now and update that another day.

Merchants of Doubt - Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

May 2018. I actually forgot I read this book. I remember completing it while in UK but did not write about it until the last day of 2018. One thing I remember vividly was the fact that tobacco firms funded research to support smoking even though they knew that it was not good for health.

  1. When posed to jounralists, however, the loaded questions did the trick: they convinced people who didn’t know otherwise that there was still a lot of doubt about the whole matter (p. 18). This part talks about how the industry asked questions like “why do cancer rates vary greatly between cities even when smoking rates are similar”? This is a legitimate question and raises doubt in those who did not know better.
  2. It was established that smokers were ten to twenty times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers. The release of this report would be explosive and it was released on a Saturday. Half of all adult Americans smoked. The government promoted and profited from it through subsidizing tobacco farming and tobacco sales were an enormous source of both federal and state tax revenues. This was the biggest news story in 1964 and in hindsight, is actually the biggest new stories of the era (p. 22).
  3. Doubt is crucial to science - in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward - but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. This was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge (p. 34).
  4. In an infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969: “Doubt is our product” (p. 34).
  5. “The absence of a deployed system by this time is difficult to understand. The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational non-acoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years.” The panel saw evidence that the Soviets had not achieved a particular capability as proof that it had. The writer C. S. Lewis once characterized this style of argument: “The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden.” Such arguments are effectively impossible to refute, as Lewis noted. “A belief in invisible cats cannot be logically disproved,” although it does “tell us a good deal about those who hold it.” (p. 41)
  6. They understood the power of language: you could undermine your opponents’ claims by insisting that theirs were uncertain, while presenting yourown as if they were not (p. 42).
  7. The Fairness Doctrine had been established in the late 1940s, when radio and television licenses were scarce and tightly controlled by the U.S. government. Air time had to be provided for presentation of contrasting view points. Even though a particular view was supported by 650 scientists and the other only by 2, equal time was still granted. Does fairness require equal time for unequal views (p. 57).
  8. Of course the models were simplified, no on edenied that. Every model is, in a sense, a conjecture, just as every scientific theory is. But just as theories are tested by observation, models are built on established theory and observation. The models Seitz was attacking were state-of-the-art: the most sophisticated approach available. If they weren’t perfect, Seitz wasn’t offering anything better. And neither was anyone else (p. 60).
  9. Nothing is ever entirely clear. There are always more questions to be asked, which is expert consensus is so significant - a point we will return to later in this book (p. 71).
  10. Science is never finished, so the relevant policy question is always whether the available evidence is persuasive, and whether the established facts outweight the residual uncertainties. This is a judgment call (p. 76).
  11. Even in the absence of precise scientific knowledge, you just know in your heart that you can’t throw 25 million tons a year of sulfates into the Northeast and not expect some … consequences (p. 91).
  12. In Rahn’s opinion, nothing important had been added or deleted, but changes in order, in adjectives, and in tone had changed the tenor of the report, so the reader was left with a very different impression (p. 98).
  13. Once again, scientific claims were being published in scientific journals, where only scientists would read them, but unscientific claims were being published in the mass media (p. 111).
  14. Industry disinformation campaigns now took new and creative forms. Sylvester Stallone was paid 500K to use Brown and Williamson products in no fewer than five feature films to link smoking with power and strength, rather than sickness and death (p. 139).
  15. We’ve noted how the notion of balance was enshrined in the Fairness Doctrine, and it may make sense for political news in a two-party system (although not in a multiparty system)( p. 214). Hmm… Does it really make sense though?
  16. Rachel Carson was compared to Stalin and Hitler due to the “number of deaths she caused” because of her work on DDT and other pesticides which showed that they were doing great harm (p. 223).
  17. The notion of “equal time” remains enshrined in Americans sense of justice and fair play (p. 240).
  18. The belief that technology can solve society’s problems is central to the school of thought known as Cornucopianism, promoted by the economist Julian Simon. Cornucopians see themselves as responding to the philosophy of Thomas Malthus, who famously argued that the poor were poor because they had too many children, and the Enlightenment belief in the continued improvement of mankind was erroneous, because unchecked population growth would eventually outstrip resources (p. 256). Note to self: read about these philosophies.

The phrasing of what you write is extremely important. Lean towards writing stuff factually, but sometimes, when you have to convince the public for the greater good, it might be a good idea to still write facts but lean slightly towards good phrasing.

The Looming Tower - Lawrence Wright

4th February 2018. First book of the year! This book is about the events leading up to 9/11. The events had a common theme; the main reasons as to why it happened was because of politics, religion and economics. The more history I read, the more I realize that the world will never be in a constant state. The great Egyptian and Roman empires fell. It is naive to think that the current state of the world would be the same in a 100 years. What then, is the fabric that holds the country/world together?

It’s a simple question but it’s hard to answer. We have monarchies, democracies, dictatorships, etc. We have different religions. We have people of different colour. The single thing that holds us together is language. With language, we can have dialogue. With dialogue, we can build a common understanding. With the common understanding, we can then agree to disagree on various issues and further the entity’s interests. Tribes of cavemen in the past probably used sign language to communicate with other tribes. Countries today hold high level meetings to communicate with other countries. In summary, language, is the fabric that holds the world together.

This is an established fact for all of known human history (if you don’t nitpick, but feel free to email me for a debate on this). While this is true, I’d like to challenge it. I don’t believe the future will be held together by language. I believe the future will be held together by ideals that are related to the advancement of Man.

So what has all this got to do with the book? Well, once again, this statment is an oversimplification, but if the entire world works with the vision of “advancing Man”, then perhaps we would achieve world peace and great technological leaps.

Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari

1st September 2018. A great overview of the history of humankind. What exactly are we as a society optimizing for? It definitely is not happiness - it’s hard to quantitatively measure that we are happier than the cavemen 10,000 years ago. Harari makes a strong argument that humans are after immortality (and 2 other things, which I forgot). And when we talk about optimizing for happiness, it seems like we are only focused on humans. Chickens are thriving in terms of pure population count, which seems like a sensible measure for the success of a species. However, the collective (and probably the individual as well) suffering of chickens is probably much greater than ever recorded in history. When humans blindly optimize for growth, we lose sight of perhaps the “more” important things in life like happiness and suffering. Are there better metrics?

  1. Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat (p. 90). A real contrarian idea and food for thought.
  2. Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They make take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place (p. 131). Another refreshing quote! Humans blindly optimize for “growth” and “prestige”, but what causes this desire in the first place?
  3. An economy of favours and obligations doesn’t work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate. It’s one thing to provide free assistance to a sister or a neighbour, a very different thing to take care of foreigners who might never reciprocate the favour. One can fall back on barter. But barter is effectively only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy (p. 195). Does this still hold true in the digital world? Could cryptocurrencies break this?
  4. The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire (p. 232). It seems like borders are being eroded and large companies like Google are becoming the Empire.
  5. No matter what you call it - game theory, postmodernism or memetics - the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being. There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage (p. 271). This is a scary thought. Most societies try and optimize human well-being - social safety nets, increasing standard of living, lowering cost of living, etc. Governments try and implement this, but populist parties will fight against social safety nets, gain power, and eventually reduce expenditure on them. I’m no expert on American politics, but it seems like Trump is trying to get Obamacare repealed, which purportedly is enhancing human well-being. Individual humans are far too weak to influence the course of history, but is this true? Can we say that Newton has influenced history greatly and perhaps Musk in future?
  6. The story the Scottish Widows pension fund (p. 287).
  7. Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating. Strict adherence to the wisdom of the ages might perhaps bring back the good old times, and human ingenuity might conceivably improve this or that facet of daily life. However, it was considered impossible for human know-how to overcome the world’s fundamental problems. If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius - who knew everything there is to know - were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so (p. 294)? In that era, nobody believed that knowledge could solve the problems they faced. When we look at how far the world is come, everyone now believes that Science will solve the world’s toughest problems. Did this hold true before and does it hold true now?
  8. Until the eighteenth century, religions considered death and its aftermath central to the meaning of life … The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. In its more poetic and desperate moments, nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will for ever live in it collective memory. Yet this promise is so fuzzy that even most nationalists do not really know what to make of it (p. 302). I do not have a religion - answering this question would help my search for meaning in life. I do not know what is in store for me in the afterlife, but I do want to find a metric to optimize for in this life.
  9. Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions (p. 304). Given 2 research topics, one that can increase the yield of milk and the other the mental health of cows, which should be funded? There isn’t a scientific answer to this question, but there are political, economical and religious reasons.
  10. In short, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries (p. 305). When looking at scientific progress, we have to look at the ideologies that influenced it, and 2 are particularly important - imperialism and capitalism.
  11. In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of ‘the White Man’s burden’ completely matches the facts. The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them (p. 337). Refer to the Great Bengal Famine, amongst many other examples.
  12. In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’ (p. 349). How true, hoarding money is of no use.
  13. This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way. When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe. Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed. The Atlantic slave trade did not stem from racist hatred towards Africans (p. 370). A great excerpt. Another example of how optimizing for growth in itself is probably not the best example. We tend to think of ideologies that kill lots of people as bad (Nazism), but we do not ever think of capitalism as such an ideology. We need to reflect more on this problem.
  14. Even the freedom we value so highly may be working against us. We can choose our spouses, friends and neighbours, but they can choose to leave us. With the individual wielding unprecedented power to decide her own path in life, we find it ever harder to make commitments. We thus live in an increasingly lonely world of unravelling communities and families (p. 428).
  15. If that’s the case, even immortality might lead to discontent. Suppose science comes up with cures for all diseases, effective anti-ageing therapies and regenerative treatments that keep people indefinitely young. In all likelihood, the immediate result will be an unprecedented epidemic of anger and anxiety (p. 430).
  16. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their fellings, and stop craving them (p. 442). This section talks about Buddhist teachings and segues into “New Age” stuff, like how the pursuit of feelings itself makes one unhappy.
  17. Afterword (p. 465). Are we Gods now?

The main thing I got from this book was that humans are just chemical reactions, and we get happy from these chemical reactions, and the unenlightened ones seek these reactions. Perhaps that’s because the last few chapters talked about this. But then again - why put them to the last if they aren’t important?

Shoe Dog - Phil Knight

23rd July 2018. I’ve taken a long break from reading. Spent most of my spare time working and reading technical books. Finally got down to reading this book which was on my reading list for awhile. It’s amazing how Phil ran his company on debt in the early stages. Promising things that didn’t exist yet. That’s perhaps how business works. It’s also very admirable how he abided by his principles of staying truthful - that won him many court cases. Breaking the rules and hiding stuff from Nissho and then getting away with it because he was driven by ambition was a great story. The Japanese were also very understanding. Once again, these successful people are not driven by money - they are driven by passion. Phil had a fundamental belief in shoes. What’s my fundamental belief?

On another note, I would love a library in my house in future. Just like the one Johnson had. Some quotes:

  1. I believe in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible (p. 56).
  2. But business has its warlike parallels. Someone somewhere once said that business is war without bullets, and I tended to agree (p. 90).
  3. Page 179 is the point where Phil started to manufacture Nike shoes.
  4. Ours was a difficult, death-drenched age, and at least one every day you were forced to ask yourself: What’s the point? (p. 213).
  5. Supply and demand is always the root problem in business. It’s been true since Phoenician traders raced to bring Rome the coveted purple dye that colored the clothing of royals and rich people; there was never enough purple to go around (p. 233).
  6. Fear of failure, I thought, will never be our downfall as a company. Not that any of us thought we wouldn’t fail; in fact we had every expectation that we would. But when we did fail, we had faith that we’d do it fast, learn from it, and be better for it (p. 254).
  7. I would search my mind and heart and the only thing I could come up with was this world - “winning.” (p. 281)
  8. We were disrupting the nation’s entire economic system, he said. It’s simply not right, he insisted, or feasible, that a shoe worker makes more than a medical doctor (p. 374). This point really resonated with me. I’ve always wondered why poverty can’t be solved by raising wages of everyone. These things take time.
  9. And yet I know that this regret clashes with my secret regret - that I can’t do it all over again (p. 381).

Tell Tale - Jeffrey Archer

July 2018. Bought this from Copenhagen Kastrup Airport as I was going on a flight back to London and had nothing to do on the flight as I just finished another book (can’t remember what it was). Entertaining read with many short stories - there’s even the one on the carpark attendant! I added this book to this post after adding “The Three Secret Cities” and I must say that this style of writing appeals to me more now.

The Three Secret Cities - Matthew Reilly

21st December 2018. It’s been close to a year since the previous book, The Four Legendary Kingdoms, was released. I read that in January 2017. Semi-interesting plot with predictable sequences. I’ve also gotten bored of this style of writing for some reason. Nonetheless an entertaining read.