Tiny Book Reviews for 2019

2019 has been my best year for reading yet.

    1. The Craft of Intelligence by Allen Dulles. Former CIA director talks about spy-craft. His biases were readily apparent, but nonetheless detracted from the work. Many of the stories were amusing and harrowing. Sometimes Dulles gets annoyingly preachy. But the book was still useful.
    2. Looking for Alaska by John Green. Not similar at all to my boarding school experience, except for the lack of competent counseling and supervision and an uninspiring campus culture. Decent book, still managed to stir some nostalgia for me. Moral: don’t send you child to boarding school.
    3. The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. The first half of this book was quite a drag to read, but the second half was brilliantly constructed and beautifully done. A good journey.
    4. The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II Book 1 by Fernand Braudel. A most dense and awe-inspiring work of history, breathtaking views of a wide and diverse Mediterranean world. His grand sweep is informed by thousands of little details. Unlike some authors who write “Big History” like Sapiens which always turns out to be a monist view of some single or few aspects of history and humanity, Braudel tries to capture the whole, not just a model of the whole. Recommended for the right reader.
    5. Politics by Aristotle. The most surprising and delightful thing about Politics is how many different genres it spans. How did I not know there was a discussion of collective ownership in here or urban planning? The breadth of examples poleis is surprising also: Carthage, Thurii, Syracuse, Sparta. Highly Recommended.
    6. Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb. A highly entertaining read and intellectually therapeutic. Though I abhor Taleb’s vendetta slinging persona, I also can enjoy his honest aggression from a safe distance. It’s a guilty pleasure. The book offers countless insights into optionality and nonlinear systems. Highly Recommended.
    7. Gulag Archipelago Abridged (some) by Alexsandr Solzhenitzen. This book was awesome and awful and depressing. Eventually, I couldn’t read any more, because I became inured to the horror. “Yeah, wow, that’s awful” spoken 10,000 times. I read part of the unabridged book 1, and I liked that a bit more because it had more history in it. Part of Solzhenitzen’s project is to show that the violence of communism was not some unfortunate accident that could have gone differently, but to show that the regime depended upon injustice and violence as part of its very survival. Connecting ideology to outcomes is always extremely hard to show. If it can’t be done in the USSR case, it can’t be done at all. Recommended for the right reader.
    8. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. I strongly agree with her critiques of high stakes testing, but her arguments against voucher systems, school choice programs, and charter schools is much weaker and overly relies upon arguing against the politics of people in favor, as opposed to the policies and outcomes themselves. She tries to connect political ideology to outcomes, and as Gulag shows, this can be quite difficult. This book half-ends up being a political action piece more than a popular, but well-researched document, from which to learn new things about American schooling. I recommend her other book below instead.
    9. The Transformation of the School by Lawrence Cunningham. It’s the history of the progressive education movement from 1856 – 1957. This book about the history of education reform was amazingly helpful and insightful. I loved it and want to follow up on a lot of its footnotes.. Recommended for the right reader.
    10. The Troubled Crusade by Diane Ravitch (To be Continued). I started this but had to return it to the library. It was awesome and illuminating. I will finish it this year.
    11. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. Not nearly as good as Ender’s Game. Speaker for the Dead stands head and shoulders above the rest of the books here. Still a fun read.
    12. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock. Amazing and interesting insights into decision-making and prediction. I use some these insights in grading and predicting outcomes in my day job. Highly recommended.
    13. Starting from Paumonok by Walt Whitman. Beautiful poems in honor of America. Highly recommended.
    14. Iron Curtain (some) by Anne Applebaum. I started this around the same time as Gulag for context. It’s also quite grim.
    15. Euler’s Gem (in progress) by David Richeson. This book about networks
    16. The Waste Lands by Stephen King. The third book in the Dark Tower Trilogy doesn’t fail to disappoint. Unfortunately, it ends on a cliff hanger. But Charlie was worth it.
    17. Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can We Know? By Philip Tetlock. The progenitor of Superforecasting, this book reveals how awful political analysts generally are at predicting political events, even though their assessment direct billions of dollars of defense spending. If we even became 5% better at political risk assessment, we could save hundreds of millions of dollars.
    18. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Stunningly poignant depiction of some of America’s characters and personalities. Highly relatable, deeply subtle. I can’t believe 8th graders read this book. The pain lurking just below the surface is paralyzing to this adult. But “deep pain below the surface?” That’s the story of America.
    19. The Book of Why: The New Science of Causes by Judea Pearl. Horribly written, and obviously the work of two authors who didn’t work the product into a fine final form, but important and engaging ideas nonetheless. It’s probably better to read Pearl’s book Causality instead which I haven’t read, or Causal Diagrams in Social Sciences, which I have. Still, if one is serious about forecasting, prediction, or rational thinking, this is a good pickup.
    20. How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. When I was in college I couldn’t read this book because I was not humble enough. Today, it provides many insights to make reading more pleasurable, useful, and intensely enjoyable.
    21. The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. This was my first time reading it. I wasn’t knocked away. But I appreciate the Rowling universe and think it is criminally underrated by the detractors.
    22. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. An actually good book about business strategy. The anecdotes are also original and interesting. Highly recommended.
    23. Pedro Paramo by Luis Rulfo. A kind of ghost story in a Mexican village. It’s literary fiction in both a good way and a bad way. Oddly satisfying.
    24. Insight by Bernard Lonergan (in progress). Still plugging away at this magnificent tome. Unfortunately, I have been taken in by the Lonergan fever and am already indebted to his metaphysics. This book works out in detail philosophical problems I have been contemplating for three years. Love it.
    25. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. A decent biography of an excellent person, from whom there are many lessons worth taking.
    26. De Anima by Aristotle. When people think about Aristotle, they think boring proto-science person who believed wrong things. But when you read Aristotle, it’s more like reading the blog of a deeply intelligent freelance scientist. De Anima is extremely thought-provoking and concerns issues for which consensus answers still don’t exist.
    27. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. An amazing novel. The character of Porfiry Petrovich is horribly delicious. Reading this book while having a fever would be insane.
    28. The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (in progress). Never have I sat on the edge of my seat for the fate of a train of caterpillars or dropped my jaw at evolutionary brilliance of wasps. Here it is though. An amazing book so far.
    29. The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (some). Appointed ambassador in ’08 this memoir gave some helpful insight into the processes and attitudes of a highly effective lady I respect.

Podcasts of honorable mention:

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson. Always good.

Revolutions by Mike Duncan. Along the lines of Braudel in its effect. Listen to the details of historical revolutions and come to understand the nature of political discontent across time. My favorite revolutions have been the English, Haitian, and the 1848 year of revolution. The currently ongoing Russian Revolution is amazing, but I might be noticing a decline in primary text and telling details which is a pity.

80000 Hours by Rob Wiblin. Amazingly long interviews, some of which are amazing, and all of which have extremely useful, detailed transcripts.

Conversation with Tyler by Tyler Cowen, the best and most efficient interviewer, managed to get Jordan Peterson to sound fresh and allowed himself to be owned time and again by the august Margaret Atwood. Transcripts are available for power users.