January & February Reads

2017 has been off to a good start, books-wise.  Here are some of the books I read these last few weeks:

Hard Truths, Elijah Millgram

This was a wonderful book that hits at the core of one of my long-time pet theories.  Millgram gives us a very readable work of modern philosophy that dresses down much of the last century’s work by metaphysicists.  He points to their efforts to find concrete answers to “What is true?” as misguided and doomed to fail.  Instead, we are destined to always deal with Partial Truth, except for when we take on significant efforts to re-engineer the world or our conceptual apparatus in order to give us the ability to make True statements.  Even then, we’re still often left with having to decide what is “true enough” for any given problem or context.  Millgram points out that this is the problem area philosophers of metaphysics should instead focus on (what true enough means in different domains, etc), and they should redefine the field as one of “intellectual ergonomics.”  I’ll be borrowing from this book for a long time.

Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

I listened to this on audiobook but I’ve preordered the paperback to have a physical copy.  I love this kind of stuff.  The authors cover a lot of research from math and computer science over the last century around optimal decision making, a sexy topic for any engineering-minded person.  It turns out a good amount of the heuristics we all use naturally for situations are also the ideal mathematical choices – a win for natural evolution.

John von Neuman, Norman Macrae

I didn’t know much at all about John von Neumann before reading this book.  I’m so glad I do now, what an amazing man.  There’s probably too much fetishizing about his prodigious intellect out there, even if it’s deserved, but he was otherwise a very well balanced and likable man.  For over a decade he was like the unicorn CTO for the US Armed Forces – equally brilliant and practical.  Beyond his contributions to US weapons technology and strategy, he sparked research and progress in a lot of other areas, especially the modern computer.  His approach there is remarkably similar to the open source movement of our modern area: he made sure his teams’ discoveries in the process of building one of the first computers was always published in the public domain and available for borrowing and improvement.  I do wish the biography went into more technical detail, at least at par with Isaacson’s Einstein biography, but this seems to be the best biography of him we’ve got.

This book paired nicely with Dan Carlin’s most recent Hardcore History episode, Destroyers of Worlds.  It’s another excellent episode that’s about the world-wide race to posses nuclear weapons and how that changed geopolitics forever.  Macrae’s biography gives added color about how decisions were made behind the scenes, especially as so many of them were a result of Von Neumann’s recommendations.

The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

Great book on skill development, inspired by Watizkin’s time as a young chess prodigy and his foray into Thai Chi.  Last year I began learning to play the piano and how to swim, and it’s been helpful to have read this book (and The Inner Game of Tennis) as guideposts on the learning process.  A lot of great reminders in here about what it means (and takes) to perform well in any domain.

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity.  Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”

The Trauma of Everyday Life, Mark Epstein

A great book by a psychiatrist who traces Buddha’s life and draws parallels to typical dilemmas and traumas we are all faced with.  There is a lot of wisdom in here, and it pairs well with a bunch of other stuff I’ve read recently, like Waitzkin’s book and Harris’ 10% Happier.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

A classic work of fiction that was a fun change of pace.  I bought the “ultimate” edition, with all the follow-on books, although I gave up halfway through – I could only take so many zany mishaps and adventures.

The Warded Man, Peter Brett

Fun work of fiction that helped fill my craving for good fantasy fiction after reading Patrick Rothfuss’ books last year.

The Dip, Seth Godin

Fast read about when it’s worth pushing through hard phases of any project.  If you find yourself asking questions about whether it’s worth quitting a project or not, you might pick this up to add some perspective.

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