Book diet Oct-Nov 2019

Here are some books I listened to in the last couple months. These were all audiobooks that the Libby app enabled me to borrow from my public library online.

It is convenient to listen to books rather than reading them. On the other hand, I think I don't retain as much information when I listen to books. It feels like I learn better visually than by listening. Feelings aside, as one concrete difference, I can't take notes when I listen. When I read a physical book, I use a blank letter page as page separator and on it I note down important concepts/ideas I encounter. When I read an ebook on Kindle, I can more conveniently highlight paragraphs, and have them available for me as highlights.

The Kingdom of Speech (Tom Wolfe)

Tom Wolfe wrote this book in 2016, and died in 2018 at age 88. He was a master storyteller and journalist associated with the New Journalism style. (New Journalism is a literary style reminiscent of long-form non-fiction and emphasizing "truth" over "facts", and intensive reportage in which reporters immersed themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them.)

This book provocatively claims that the theories of scientists from Darwin to Chomsky on the evolution of speech is wrong. However, for his arguments, Wolfe has only his chutzpah to back him up as he has no scientific background to understand let alone theorize on this topic.

It seems like Wolfe had a chip on his shoulder against Darwin and Chomsky. His arguments are horrendous. Even for outsiders to the field, it is easy to tell he is wrong and unjust. For the first half of the book, he mocks and tries to discredit Darwin on his theorizing evolution, and argues that the credit should go to Wallace. Only at the last moment, he admits with a half-mouth that actually Darwin had been working on this theory for the preceding two decades and had more to back his theory. Similarly for Noam Chomsky. He has a bone to pick with Chomsky, and it looks like this is due to Chomsky's leftist views.

I have a very low tolerance for injustice. So I am outraged at his chutzpah and the nonsense he spews. But I couldn't stop listening to the book. His writing is so good. I just wished, he had written something that made sense, and I would enjoy it better. But noo... He had to spew these unjust statements. Unjust but beautifully composed, cleverly written sentences. The book is a train-wreck, but with beautiful cinematography... I couldn't stop watching, and enjoying it.

If this is what New Journalism style is like, I like the Old Journalism, thank you.

Anathem (Neal Stephenson)

This book was long and boring... Some other authors also write long books and include numerous details as well, but Neal Stephenson is just testing the limits of our patience in this book. Maybe he is trying to filter his audience: "Only the worthy among you should be reading my books."

I had really liked the Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and the Seveneves books. They are among my favorite science-fiction books. I didn't like Cryptonomicon much, and I didn't enjoy this book at all. I gave up on this book after a couple chapters in... Too dull, with not enough payback potential.

The Big Short: Inside the doomsday machine (Michael Lewis)  

Oh brother... I have zero interest for the stock market. But, the book was superb and very engaging. It was about the creation of the creation of the credit default swap market, the US housing bubble, and the resulting 2008 market crash.

The book introduced a foreign world of hedge fund managers, financial advisors, and stock traders. It introduced and made alive eccentric people like Mike Burry, Steve Eisman, Greg Lippman, and Eugene Xu. It was a very colorful book about a very technical subject. I see that this book is made into a movie, it should be worth watching now that I listened to this book.

This book showed me how people in power positions may not know that much and can be participants (knowingly or unknowingly) of a big scam banking on the ignorance of others. Just because things didn't break down yet, doesn't mean it won't ever break.

The book thought me that if you take the time, question other peoples basic assumption, do the grunt work, then you could be the real pioneer leader in an area. It takes some time but if you know something to be true whereas almost all other people are on the other side, be steadfast. One bit of truth can destroy vast amount of lies!

This also reminds me of Peter Thiel's favorite question: "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?" If you have a good/undervalued answer to this, this becomes your competitive advantage!


Next: The Future Just Happened (Michael Lewis)

This is another superb book by Michael Lewis, written in 2001, about how the internet got adopted and become mainstream approaching 2000s.

The book is now almost 20 years old. But it aged really well. It contains all the insights about the big role Internet would play in our daily lives. I lived through the 2000s and watch Internet get increasingly more adopted. I know this stuff, but Lewis is a great story teller, he still kept the content interesting to me after 20 years.

Lewis argues that Internet makes information readily available to everyone including fringes, and this disrupts the status quo. The internet is the great equalizer and democratizer of the information.

Here are descriptions of some chapters from the book: 
  • At the age of twelve, Jonathan Lebed began trading stocks.  By the age of fourteen, he learned that by posting messages in chat rooms, he could affect stock prices. 
  • The legal profession suffers a blow to its pride at the hands of fifteen-year-old Marcus Arnold, who became a top-ranked respondent to legal questions on AskMe.com.
  • The British rock band Marillion could not get funds for a promotional tour from their record company so they turned to the internet.
  • The TiVo and Replay transmit information back to the advertisers on consumer preferences. Consumers gain convenience at the cost of privacy.
The book finishes strong when Michael Lewis writes a response to Bill Joy's "The future doesn't need us" article. There he also replies to the 10K year clock guy, Hillis. (Here is an excerpt from that chapter).
When I put down Joy's essay, I thought: It was exactly how some old peer of the realm might have behaved had he found himself troubled by some new development. Call the old boys in the network. Talk it over. Build consensus. Reach a conclusion that satisfies the old boys, and then call directly on political authority to take care of the problem. Assume everyone else will bow to the old boys' wisdom. 
When highly self-conscious, highly intelligent, perfectly nice men chuck the principles on which they have built their careers and reinvent themselves as qualified enemies of their own idea of progress, it is as disconcerting in its way as gray goo on the kitchen floor. You see it and you know something is up. Hillis and Joy are trying to tell us something, but they don't know how to say it.

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