Since returning to work from paternity leave, I set out to read 4 books. I started 14, but only finished 8. This was an intentional strategy: I have made a promise to not finish books that don’t grab my attention quickly. Below I’ve rated each book (as well the ones I didn’t finish) and included some interesting tidbits I learned along the way.
Here are some interesting things I learned from 3 of the books I read:
The Old Way 4/5 In the 1950s, the co-founder of Raytheon took his family into the Kalahari desert to study a group of hunter gathers that are believed to have been living in that habitat in much the same way for the past 150,000 years.
The society they found was largely non-violent, non-hierarchical, trusting, and resourceful. In stark contrast to other ancient societies, it is believed that the !Kung had been forced by resource scarcity into extreme egalitarianism.
The !Kung used to hunt using poison-tipped arrows. Each arrow was constructed to fall apart upon impact, leaving the poisoned tip in the animal and the shaft (bearing telltale signs of the person who made it) behind. The neurotoxin poison would then slowly kill the animal over the course of the next several days. As a result, a hunt would routinely take several days and require not just skill at shooting the animal, but then tracking it for many miles across the desert. The person who’s arrow was identified as having killed the animal would have the privilege of deciding who gets to eat how much of the meat, even though several men were commonly required to track and bring the animal back to camp.
On the Kalahari desert, lions are at the top of the food chain, not people. For this reason, the !Kung would hunt during the day to avoid being attacked. This would routinely involve braving heat up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit at mid-day. Despite closely co-habitating with lions and hyenas, the !Kung had very few violent altercations. The primary killers for the !Kung were infant mortality (due to sickness) and injuries involved in hunting large game.
The Rise and Fall of Nations 3/5 Ruchir Sharma presents a framework for predicting the fate of nations based upon macro and microeconomic trends.
Historically, about 50% of a nation’s GDP growth can be attributed to growth in the working-age population. As a result of aging populations globally, GDP growth is expected to slow, but some nations will slow more quickly than others. The US is well-positioned with a workforce that is aging slower than contemporaries and strong immigration. Nations like France and the UK are going to have a tough time growing in large part due to greying populations.
Much of China’s recent growth can be attributed to domestic monetary easing and direct capital investment. Due to dodgy numbers, it’s hard to be sure, but it seems likely that in the past several years, the state has been leveraging cheap debt to invest in speculative infrastructure with little to no productivity improvements on the horizon. For this reason, as well as China’s rapidly aging population, it seems likely that the country’s yearly growth will start to fall in the coming years.
Positive press attention about national outcomes tend to be slightly negatively correlated with outcomes. Basically, if Time magazine writes about the miracle in country X, it’s more likely than not that country X’s run of good luck is coming to an end. The inverse is not necessarily true: bad press tends to signal only the beginning of a longer period of reform and reinvestment. Sharma suggests the countries that are poised to be the next miracle growth economics are not mentioned in the press at all.
How Will You Measure Your Life 3/5 This book is a thoughtful meditation on how to live a fulfilling professional and personal life. Although there are saccharine bits that are a bit over the top, and the appeals to authority are laid on pretty thick, I learned a few useful lessons:
Every job has what Clayton terms “hygiene” factors (things like salary, working hours, and prestige) as well as “motivating” factors (things like mission, people, and intrinsic interest). Every person will strive for a different mixture of the two, but it’s commonly a bad sign if you find your work skewing heavily to one side or the other. Really loving your work is more than just pay, but it’s also more than just loving a particular problem space. You need balance to find long-term satisfaction.
For those driven careerists, it can help to think about your important relationships as the most important job you have. Rather than taking the love and support you receive from your close friends, spouse, and family members for granted, always ben thinking “what job does my [friend/spouse/family member] need me to do?” Christensen posits, and I can anecdotally confirm, that deep life satisfaction and meaning come from sacrificing for others. Thinking about the job others need you to do gives you an opportunity to build love and trust while experiencing a deep sense of meaning.
I know from firsthand experience that it’s deceptively easy to shortchange your most important relationships in favor of your job, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I could quickly articulate why: long term relationships require massive investments of time, love, and presence. Because the investment is so great, at any particular moment, it’s hard to feel as though you are making progress or doing something meaningful whereas jobs are calibrated to give you an immediate sense of progress and self-importance. Basically, our society has learned how to get highly motivated people addicted to work through complicated systems of recognition and visible progress, and we’ve done the opposite for marriages and families by normalizing divorce, estrangement, and loneliness. It takes a wise person to recognize this trend, and I’ve definitely been guilty of overlooking it.
I read 5 more books that I really enjoyed. I won’t provide detailed summaries here for brevity, but here’s the TLDR cliff notes review:
The Great Leveler 4/5 This book takes the hypothesis that income inequality is only ever substantially reduced by human violence. I was so taken by this book, I’m doing more research and will post a longer blog post response later.
Strangers Drowning 4/5 This is about people who sacrifice almost everything they have to help others. The author does an amazing job at deeply empathizing with her subjects and contextualizing their sacrifices. I was enthralled.
How to Lie With Statistics 4/5 This one has held up incredibly well over the years. It’s also very fun, short, and practical. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants a quick statistics refresher.
Frozen in Time 4/5 Ah, survival-porn. I do enjoy stories about the most extreme survival situations and this one delivered. It didn’t teach me anything profound and it didn’t alter my world view, but I know a lot more about glaciers, WW2 planes, and living in the arctic.
Global Inequality 4/5 Follow-up reading from the Great Leveler. This focuses on global, rather than domestic inequality. The author presents some fascinating (and well-researched) counter-culture beliefs on immigration, the US government, and how we might be able to build a better tomorrow.
Books I couldn’t finish:
What Should We be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night 1/5 This is just a collection of short (and I mean very short), unsubstantiated suggestions from scientists about what we might want to worry about. Very little evidence is provided for their beliefs and the segments are too brief to even get into the reasons why something is worrisome.
Men, Machines, and Modern Times 1/5 The audio recording of this book is only a few hours long. The introduction, forward, and notes about this edition are 1 hour long. When I finally got to the bit about how a naval officer corrected gun sights and increased firing throughput in the last 19th century (interesting premise!), the author glossed over the entire discovery process in about 5 minutes, and returned to over-intellectualized academic philosophizing about technological progress. I know it’s a classic, but it was worse than useless.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa 2/5 This one was a bit better and may have actually been a good book, but it makes for a difficult audio experience. I think this is the sort of book you read with a notepad to keep track of everything. I knew I was in for trouble when the first 5 minutes of the recording was nothing by a wall-to-wall acronym glossary of rebel groups operating in the Congo over the last 30 years. Add to that a difficult time telling apart Congolese names without seeing them spelled, and I was lost almost immediately in the minutia.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital 2/5 This purports to be a somewhat shocking tell-all about the depravity of DC political culture, but it actually just reads like the story of any industry/city/location populated by wealthy, hyper-motivated people. I wasn’t able to learn much and after a short period, the narrative style starts to read like a disaffected barista trying to seem worldly and detached while name-dropping about all their powerful friends.
What to Think about Machines that Think: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence 2/5 This was slightly better than What to Worry About, but only slightly. The segments are too short, too little evidence is presented, nothing is learned.
Stories of Your Life and Others 2/5 These are supposed to be some of the best recent sci-fi stories, but I couldn’t really get into them, which is strange because I deeply enjoyed the movie adaptation of Arrival.