Media Diet

One of the most important things people with high information intake can do is be incredibly particular about what they consume. This lesson took me years to learn, and required fighting against strong media incentives.

This is my media diet, a digital bookshelf of sorts. Learn more about why I do this, and how I built my reading habit. Sporadically, I write short summaries of books and media that I’ve consumed. I’m currently quite behind on reviews!

This is dominated by non-fiction books, though if something else was particularly notable, I’ll include it. In general, I leave out books that I didn't finish or found particularly bad.

The Silva Mind Control Method

Two important disclaimers:

  1. The Silva Method is a series of techniques that must be practiced. I have read the book and mostly have a decent model for what it's doing, but haven't devoted weeks and months to practice. You'll see why; but, therefore, who knows how right I am.
  2. I read this out of a hobby: learning about various woo practices or techniques out of curiosity. This isn't because I have an affinity for the mystic or a repulsion of rationality. Rather, in my experience, "effective" techniques—as claimed by practitioners—often model the world literally incorrectly, but in a way that points at a deeper truth that's typically more complex than reductionist science can interact with directly. Good practices, no matter what their world model is, are useful! Max Langenkamp has also explored this idea with respect to "energy work".

The Silva Method is the top book in Amazon's Extrasensory perception category, and I've heard of it several times over the past several years — almost always with enthusiastic recommendations. The Amazon reviews alone are quite good, with nearly 6000 5 star reviews and very few 1 or 2 star reviews. So, there must be something here, right?

José Silva is the kind of citizen scientist that Adam Mastroianni frequently encourages (I linked to a random favorite essay of his, but seriously, go read his stuff). Silva wasn't credentialed or authorized by anyone to do science, but had some weird observations and pulled those threads. He was clearly curious and attempted to be as rigorous as possible. What resulted was a framework and method of "mind control".

His mind control ranges from entirely mundane—remembering facts more easily—to entirely supernatural—remotely diagnosing and healing medical issues and mental time travel. And therein lies the fundamental issue: Silva's lack of scientific education most definitely interfered with his ability to differentiate between interesting increased mental capacity techniques, and the supernatural.

It's a visualization meditation technique that facilitates a quiet mind. Within this state, certain memory and cognitive tasks are subjectively easier. Furthermore, it's a high-agency worldview, no different than modern "manifesting" (in fact, I bet manifesting was influenced by his work). That's basically it. It "works" because (a) actually intentionally creating supportive mind states for cognitive tasks is helpful, (b) high-agency matters.

That doesn't sell well, even if it "works". I don't want to accuse him of being a charlatan — I don't have any strong opinions about what he actually believed. However, he is most definitely literally wrong about many things, and statistical misunderstanding abounds in the book. I was hoping that I could get good citations for the research that has been done, but even their site's Research page is mostly un-cited claims, broken links, and quotations from people such as "The World’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain". For being as certain as they are about the validity of the method, they're not that interested in actual science.

So, perhaps I'm missing out on something supernaturally astounding. I like the mental model, but it's capable of 10% of what he claims it is.

The Silva Mind Control Method

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

Coyote America is the story of—to no one's surprise—coyotes in America. However, most interesting, it's a story of American history, through the lens of a uniquely American canine breed.

It's grim at times. American coyote policy has included the poisoning and extermination of millions of coyotes, often to benefit Western ranchers. Coyotes, however, are incredibly adaptive both geographically and to new threats. Coyotes have expanded to every continental US state, and have learned to exist on the fringes of cities and suburbs. Most impressively, coyotes will have larger litters when they're under threat. Thus, every single mass extermination program has failed.

The book was enjoyable and interesting. I learned a lot about coyotes and US environmental policy. There was no deeper thesis, however. But, for what it is, I'm glad I read it.

Coyote America

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

I'm in a weird situation: one of my favorite concepts that I learned from books doesn't yet have a great book that explores it. Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned was the first time I encountered it lucidly. The idea is roughly in the neighborhood of:

  1. All truly great things were discovered by accident.
  2. The most direct route towards greatness isn't direct or prescriptive.
  3. Planning greatness is basically impossible.
  4. Wandering, driven by curiosity and interest, is critical.

This idea is incredibly powerful, and while Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned was good, I felt that it didn't fully explore the space that I wanted to understand. I can't quite put my finger on what's missing.

Obliquity is another attempt, from a business-centric perspective. As a firm member of the "business leadership" genre, it uses case studies and large narratives to paint the picture of this idea. And yet again, I felt it missed for me. For one, this business-genre approach doesn't work well for me anymore (for example, if you know the actual specifics of a case study or company, glorious arcs feel oversimplified and cherry picked). The writing felt basic and too simple. This idea is powerful, and case studies about how companies didn't optimize for short-term gains seemed somewhat silly.

So, I'll continue searching.


The World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science

I've enjoyed Erik's other writing for a while — he often presents ideas in thoughtful and interesting ways that I'm drawn to. The World Behind the World is Erik's exploration into consciousness, including the history of conscious understanding, emergence, scientific hierarchies of complexity, and free will.

The first half is interesting. The historical inside-out vs outside-in view gave me a lot to think about, and resonated with many of my complaints with the state of modern neuroscience: it's focused on the outside-in, and not about what it's like to be a being experiencing consciousness. It focuses on the material structure, rather than the inner phenomenology.

The rest felt fairly muddy for me. IIT and Global workspace theory explanations were less clear than others that I've read, and the overall arguments missed for me. So much, in fact, that I'm trying to organize time with friends who have also read it to flesh out my own take. For example, his arguments for free will seemed quite incomplete: assuming too much, leaving holes, and proving too much.

For now, it was an interesting read in some respects, but I wouldn't recommend specifically. I'm open to learning where I missed something subtle!

The World Behind the World

The Pathless Path: Imagining a New Story For Work and Life

Paul Millerd was doing well on the high-achieving default path: credentialed schooling and career advancement at McKinsey. Over a couple years, he threw it away to do his own thing. Not "start a venture funded startup" sort of own thing, but literally make his own path in life. Pick the game he wanted to play and would get infinite energy from, and play that game.

I see a lot of myself in Paul. We both were good at the system, and built credentialed resumes quickly. Yet, we never fully felt satisfied. We're both driven by curiosity, learning, excitement, and wonder.

The Pathless Path is a great book if you have that itch — the feeling that you want to be optimizing for a different game than the one you're currently playing. He's not prescriptive about precisely what you do. In fact, I'm not sure he could tell you what he "does". Instead, he offers a perspective shift that's available to many of us if we choose.

The Pathless Path

The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge

"The flip" is when someone's perspective about the material world flips around, recognizing the metaphysical as just as real as physical reality. This book is about this process, delving into stories from scientists and other accomplished people to show how the material world is not all there is. It paints a picture of how materialistic reductionism is certainly not true, and consciousness is a fundamental part of reality.

To that extent, it was amusing, but aesthetically felt like wildly waving hands in the air. It offered story after story and many perspective against materialism, but didn't actually construct any cohesive, falsifiable (or testable, or critiquable) view. "Here's a super weird thing that happened that science can't explain..." over and over. The book wasn't about one specific spiritual path or belief system — in fact, it was fairly clear that established belief systems are hollow. Overall, I couldn't quite figure out what The Flip actually wanted of the reader, other than for the reader to muse aimlessly about consciousness.

The Flip

The Infinite Game

One of my favorite books is Finite and Infinite Games. It offers a simple message that keeps giving and giving over time. Whenever I find anyone who has had a similar experience, I feel an immediate connection.

You can think of The Infinite Game as Finite and Infinite Games, ported to the business world. Instead of vignettes creating shadows of what finite and infinite games are, The Infinite Game uses typical business/leadership case-study writing to illustrate how long term thinking is sorely missing in modern companies.

To that extent, it's fine. Perhaps even good. The strongest pitch for this book is that leaders need to be aware of what game they're playing, and consider a thoughtful frame that includes long term thinking. But — I suspect that outcome is already achievable by anyone who was psychoactively impacted by Finite and Infinite Games. It's a lens that pervades everything, so of course it would impact leadership and business. However, the case studies were interesting, and illustrated how short term thinking impacts the long term prospects of great companies. Yet, this has the same issue as all case-study-driven books: selection bias and hindsight bias.

Overall, I'd recommend reading James Carse first, and if you typically enjoy business/leadership books, you may get something from this one as well.

The Infinite Game

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

One of my favorite joys is seeing the work of a pro. I'm okay at a lot of things, primarily driven by sufficient confidence to try things and curiosity to learn. But some people are absolute pro's — at a level that seems almost incomprehensible. The difference in output is not just one of speed, though they are usually more efficient. A pro can accomplish something that normal people wouldn't be able to, even given as much time as they wanted.

George Leonard offers this short book about this very idea: becoming this sort of person, who has absolute mastery of a domain. The way I've framed it is actually incorrect, though. Mastery is about the journey, not a destination. In some ways, it's a state of being, not a state of accomplishment. Leonard talks about archetypical failures from people who fail to become masters in a discipline, and offers several keys and themes about building mastery.

It's an enjoyable read, and given me a lot to think about.



Growing up, I loved magic. Specifically, I consumed as much closeup and mentalism content as I could. Derren Brown—fairly well-known in the UK, and almost unheard of in the US—has produced many stage shows and TV programs. He is a hypnotist and mentalist who explores skepticism, psychology, and culture.

His style of mentalism is sort of as a dishonest conman. On one level, he's a conman: he's a magician and mentalist. His goal is to trick you. However, he also presents as a metaphysical skeptic and has spent a lot of his career debunking fake spiritual conmen. He's dishonest in that he cheats, often giving explanations of "psychology", when his methods are more classic magic trickery. However, he's good. He's a brilliant showman and entertainer.

Showman is not Derren's most amazing show, technically speaking, but potentially the most personal. It's a life letter to... well, that would kind of spoil it, so I'll just say it's intensely personal. My wife doesn't care much about magic, and enjoyed the show, recognizing the heart and soul he poured into it. I do enjoy magic, and appreciated the layers of misdirection and trickery he used to pull off the show.


Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity

I've read dozens of health, wellness, and longevity books. There's a diet book for almost every possible dietary configuration, and additional health books to optimize fitness, lower risk of diseases, slow aging, and more. Many disagree with each other, and most are fairly extreme. Carbs are bad, carbs are okay. Animal protein is bad, animal protein is great. And on and on.

I'm also biased: Peter Attia, via some of his clients, was indirectly one of the reasons I cofounded Levels. I've listened to his podcast, off and on, since he started, and had been looking forward to his book since he started talking about it several years ago.

This is the single best book about overall health and wellness that I've read. He touches on the major diseases that plague modern Westernized society, and explores interventions and levers that can be pulled to maximize overall healthy wellbeing. Fundementally, Peter Attia is a moderate. He doesn't advocate extreme diets, and carries healthy skeptisism towards many panaceas, such as supplements. I share his skepticism, and love how he approaches many problems from an outside view. He's friendly to pharmaceutical drugs such as statins, and deeply understands the state of nutrition research. He also identifies where research clearly supports behaviors that extend healthspan, such as Zone 2 and VO2Max training. Attia concludes the book with a vulnerable chapter on mental health, because optimizing health if we're miserable is pointless.

If you're interested in having health and physical ability into old age, I highly recommend Outlive. Peter Attia is on my short list of people in the health-space that I trust.


Never Finished: Unshackle Your Mind and Win the War Within

I've mentioned before that I have a soft spot for David Goggins. There's a part of me that resonates with the high-discipline, high-agency perspective he offers. This perspective has problems, as well: what he became is clearly a function of the abuse he's been through. But the raw power in what he offers is wonderful.

Never Finished is part two of his first book, Can't Hurt Me. The former finished fairly wrapped up, but since the success of that book, a lot has happened in David's life: major injuries, career changes, big races, and more.

It's an enjoyable and impactful read. Where Can't Hurt Me spent a lot of time focusing on tactics, Never Finished felt like it had more soul of David Goggins as a person. Overall, it's more of the same — it'll be a hit if you like him, and fall flat if his message doesn't resonate with you. Listen to an interview of him first to know which kind of person you are.

Never Finished

Reasons and Persons

Reviewing philosophy is as tricky as reviewing religious or meditation books — it matters more about where you are and what you need, than whether the book is "objectively" good or not. But since I run this place, I'll review from the perspective of how meaningful Reasons and Persons was for me. This was my second reading of a book that many regard as dense and difficult to get through. And it is. However, after reading Parfit, his biography, I wanted to go through the source material again.

There's this pattern that's happened several times in recent years: I adopt some life perspective or toolkit usually from interactions with others. And then I eventually read the source material—many are books reviewed here—which by then feels warmly familiar, and also mind blowing. Reasons and Persons was this for me: the source of many ideas that have become dear to me over the past few years.

This is the sort of book that feels like the output of a special, independent thinker that has a unique view of the world, and dances around ideas without a single cohesive terminus. Like Hofstaedter, Parfit offers an assortment of perspectives using many detailed examples. But where Hofstaedter's examples often have narriative structure, Parfit's feels more like formal logic. So, it is dense.

However, Parfit contributed more towards moral philosophy—especially how it is impacts culture today—than anyone else in recent memory. A friend refers to Parfit's contributions as baffling: nearly no one had meaningfully moved moral philosophy forward in a long time, and then Parfit offers several ideas that had basically been missed until him.

He explores moral theories, personal identity, and the implications of ethical decisions on future generations. "Common-sense morality"—the type of morality that most people have—is overall self-defeating. As in, if everyone adopted it, we'd be worse off. He explores precisely why this is the case, and uses this as a foundation to explore how self-interest impacts how we treat ourselves over time. What is your moral obligation towards your future self?

In fact, what makes a person the same person over time? This may feel like a strange or insignificant question, but ends up leading to powerful conclusions about ethics and morals. Furthermore, to what extent do people who don't (yet) exist have moral weight? Using examples about the effects of climate change and the potential trade-offs between quality and quantity of lives, he exposes the repugnant conclusion: "For any perfectly equal population with very high positive welfare, there is a population with very low positive welfare which is better, other things being equal." Which feels wrong: we don't morally optimize for population growth at all costs.

Reasons and Persons is for you if you want to explore the foundations of movements such as Effective Altruism, or care deeply about ethics and moral philosophy. It doesn't offer specific "here's how to live your life" advice, but has contributed significantly towards my own personal moral foundation. For that, I recommend, if this doesn't scare you away:

The book is long, and sometimes complicated. I have therefore separated my arguments into 154 parts…

Reasons and Persons

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

Derek Parfit, author of Reasons and Persons, has had a deep and lasting impact to moral philosophy. His life's work was to "rescue philisophy from nihilism". Along the way, he became influential in several modern effective altruistism movements. This book is a biography of his interesting life, that despite his influence, was spent away from much limelight.

Parfit was clever and deeply cared about ethics, though this biography largely just asserts his conclusions in between well-researched anecdotes of his life. So, if you have never read Parfit, this will unlikely be compelling. However, if you're a fan of his work, then it's a quite interesting view into his unusual life, and is a worthwhile read.


A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form

I read Paul Lockhart's essay, A Mathematician's Lament, almost 15 years ago as I begun my exploration into mathematics. It opened my eyes to what mathematics really was. Recently, I remembered the essay and found the book, a lightly edited version with another part added at the end that shows how mathematics could be taught.

The best way to think about his argument is in the beginning: what if music was taught to kid without letting them actually listen or play music until grad school? What if we taught notation, circle of fifths, counterpoint, and harmony as just abstract ideas, to prepare a few students to go on to actually enjoy what music actually is? Or, what if art was taught to children as color theory, perspective, and historical facts, without letting kids actually draw? What if art classes were tested whether they know the mechanics of "good art", and teacher and curriculum success was judged by the students scores?

The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such.

This is the state of mathematics today. Growing up, I was okay at "math", but was always bored. We learned to quickly do speed multiplication tests, learned rules of long division, quadratic formulas, chain rules, and on and on. All by rote, all without any sense of wonder or exploration. We needed to learn algebra because "it's needed for pre-calculus", which was "needed for calculus", which was needed for...? Most people leave math eventually, largely hating it—because they aren't "math people"—without actually "needing" what was taught. (Confession: I have used calculus quite a bit, but these days I'd use Wolfram Alpha for anything non-trivial anyways.)

Math is an art that explores pattern and logic, and is fundamentally about exploring problems. These problems are motivated by curiosity and wonder. Paul Lockhart shows exactly how mathematics pedagogy went wrong, and shines the light upon a better path that opens the door for more people to truly appreciate the wonder of math. This essay (and book, who's additions are indeed useful!) is for people who have never seen math as I'm talking about it, for those who aren't "math people". I can't recommend it more for anyone curious about the world, or who can help point children towards this special place of pattern and wonder.

A Mathematician's Lament

Society Of The Spectacle

In "The Society of the Spectacle," Guy Debord offers a critique of modern consumer culture, drawing parallels between this culture and religious worldviews. He argues that people are so deeply embedded in consumerism that they are oblivious to its influence on their lives. Debord explores the idea that illusion, rather than truth, becomes the driving force in both religion and consumerism. With capitalism evolving into "modern conditions of production," Debord claims that individuals are now alienated from the production process, leading to commodity fetishism where social appearances take precedence over substance.

Debord's concept of the spectacle is central to his argument that the relationship between commodities and society has shaped the transformations of the 20th and 21st centuries. The spectacle serves as an instrument to maintain the economic status quo, disconnecting people from reality on every level. By separating individuals from their reality, society, other people, and even themselves, the spectacle creates a constant state of disorientation, making it difficult for individuals to grasp reality and enact positive change.

Language and technology play crucial roles in perpetuating the spectacle, as they change human relationships and foster a religious obsession with appearances. Debord suggests that the spectacle not only alienates individuals from their own selves, but also deprives them of the revolutionary potential of language, as basic conversations about reality become increasingly difficult.

The book was an interesting, fairly short read. It pairs well with Frankfurt school critiques of the Culture industry.

Society Of The Spectacle

The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings

Nick has a theory: the best way to make friends is to be the host. Don't wait for people to invite you to events, invite them. People actually want new friends, and everyone's pretty bad at actually organizing people together. Being the central link makes you instantly "popular" with a group of people. This is experientially true: the best way to get a group together is to organize it yourself. However, this leaves out tactics. How exactly do you do this?

2-Hour Cocktail Party is one specific, highly detailed implementation of Nick's theory. He's hosted hundreds of these parties, and refined the process to be reproducible and systematic. He covers how to handle invites (even when you don't know many people), what to do during events, and how to make sure events are successful.

Nick doesn't think this is the only way to do gatherings, but is one way that absolutely works. You'll slide past most pitfalls people fall into, and can adapt the strategy to your own situation as needed. And for this, it's a great book. Combine with The Art of Gathering for a holistic view of gatherings.

(I actually got a copy of this book last year from the author, pre-ordered a paper copy as well, and recently read through it again.)

The 2-Hour Cocktail Party

In & Of Itself

In & Of Itself is a strange show. It's sort of a magic show, sort of a one-man show, sort of performance art. It's a deeply personal exploration into identity and being.

The magic and mentalism is good. What he does aren't "tricks", but I don't have a better word, so: he performs several original tricks, and several modernizations of old techniques. He mixes several disciplines across magic and mentalism, and avoids being cheesy. In some ways, it felt like a metamodernism exploration into magic. What's authentic? What's actually real? Can "tricks" be used to tell a deeper story?

There's only a handful of tricks, though. More deeply, this is a story about Derek as a person, and to that extent, it's breathtakingly effective. He may be playing the part of entertainer or mentalist, but is also very much playing himself. The show is from his heart.

In & Of Itself

Radical Wholeness: The Embodied Present and the Ordinary Grace of Being

Sometimes you start a book, and you're at the exact right place where everything the author wants to offer is immediately resonant. It's as if they're finally putting into words—or at least, phrasing in a new and clean way—thoughts you've had. Radical Wholeness started that way for me. It felt like a sort of spiritual take on ideas that are echo in Buddhism, post-rationalism, parts work, and The Master and His Emissary. A couple chapters in, I had a short list of people that I planned on recommending the book to.

Except, it never really took off. Not that the ideas weren't developed, but, somewhat crassly, Shepherd didn't write the book I wanted to read. I have a soft spot for adopting useful beliefs, so give a lot of leeway to exploring models of the world that may not be literally true—or at least, don't need to be literally true—but are practically useful. The resonance I felt for "full body knowing" started to sour when the book used anecdotes to supports its claims that... misunderstood science? For an author that mistrusts "head" ways of knowing, there was quite a bit of flexibility interpreting actual science. I thought about collecting these and writing a critique, but there started to be too many.

So, the fundamental metaphors here are interesting, but I suspect there's many books that do a better job. I suspect many readers who loved the book were able to sail over the inaccuracies to get the greater truth, or had no background to understand where the author was wrong.

Radical Wholeness

The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win

The Motivation Myth is two things: an outlook on what motivation really is and what "causes" it (how do you get motivated?), and a series of specific tactics to being successful.

The outlook is quite simple. Motivation is not the cause of working hard (thus, success). Success is the cause of motivation. As in, motivation just "is" — you can't motivate yourself. But you can design systems so that you're frequently successful, and motivation will result. As such, lofty goals may be useful, but should be discarded as soon as you have decided the path you'll actually do. For example, if you want to run a marathon and don't currently run, that is a lofty goal to work towards. But it's also far away, and difficult to have successes towards. Instead, with that goal, design how you'll get better a running ("run every morning for at least 1 mile, before 8am", etc), and then throw the goal away. Perhaps you will run a marathon, but your task every day is to do what you decided that you'd do.

The tactics fill most of the book, and span from losing weight, having professional mentors, starting a company, time management, giving praise to employees, etc. Overall, I'd say the tactics were good enough to keep me engaged, but many just didn't apply to me — or I had already implemented. The outlook (fully laid out in the first part of the book) was the most meaningful.

If this sounds interesting, start the book to get his outlook on motivation. He explains and justifies it well. Then consume as many of the tactics as you're interested in.

The Motivation Myth

The Courage to be Happy: True Contentment Is In Your Power

This is the continuation to The Courage to be Disliked, spending a lot of time focusing on education, and then about love and happiness. At times, it seemed a bit directionless, and the dialogue felt even more contrived. Overall, I liked the first book so much more — perhaps the ideas were fresh, and now it felt like insignificant details being added? Perhaps I didn't find the arguments as compelling?

It's kind of funny: I appreciated The Courage to be Disliked quite a bit, and upon recommending it to people, noticed several people found it difficult to read, and otherwise not all that interesting. This time, I felt this way about The Courage to be Happy, so perhaps it's just where I am right now. So, take my critical review with a grain of salt, and perhaps I'll revisit later.

The Courage to be Happy

The Creative Act: A Way of Being

Rick Rubin, accomplished music producer, could have written a memoir, including salacious celebrity stories and industry insider tales. Instead, he wrote a book about creativity — a collection of ideas and smattering of thoughts about what creativity is and how the channel it. Inside, it contains no celebrity references, no famous names. It's written almost like a Psalms, but also contains practical advice. And it's good.

In many ways, it's another telling of Big Magic; offering a perspective where creativity exists in the universe, and we tune into it. This metaphor is not offered as "truth"—necessarily—but as a useful model. Rubin opens with a disclaimer that none of the book is necessarily true, but reflects his expertise and experience working with artists. In fact, for me, at times it felt like a better Big Magic, which was surprising, since Elizabeth Gilbert's version was so meaningful to me.

(If you need more convincing, this review is more in depth, and is wonderful.)

The Creative Act

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels does exactly what the title promises: make a clear and compelling argument that fossil fuels aren't just a necessary evil, but are good, actually. As in, we should encourage developing countries to use more, and we should expand our drilling capacity. More fossil fuels is more energy, and more energy is more human flourishing. What about all the downsides? He addresses them: climate change may not be all that bad (even if we're causing it, assuming a change is always in the negative direction may be wrong), we can out-innovate human impacts, and we will not run out of fuels.

Here's the deal: I don't fully buy it. But, Epstein makes a really good argument for fossil fuels, and in popular culture—especially in my circles—these are not popular arguments. He does effectively poke holes in several common tropes against fossil fuels. But the real benefit is that he makes plain that everything is a tradeoff, and we have to be able to think about these tradeoffs instead of in absolute terms. While increased pollution in developing nations isn't good, it may be strongly coupled with a rise in economic prosperity, longevity, and health. These are very real and difficult tradeoffs that the popular zeitgeist does not consider. Now, why don't I buy it? I don't think he's an industry shill, but I do think he is far too pessimistic about clean energy, and also overly confident that everything will be okay, that technology can solve our future problems. Perhaps and very well it will, but he doesn't spend enough time talking about conservation within rich, developed countries, or economic policy that would improve clean technology viability.

Overall, it's an important book, because the perspective it offers gives us a lot to think about. I think it's mostly written for progressive-moderates, who are open-minded about these ideas, yet hold close to many "pro climate" talking points that don't hold water. For that reason, I recommend.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

Wild problems are the sorts of problems that Pro vs Con lists don't quite help with. They're problems where the unknowns surpass the knowns, such as whether to have kids, whether and who to marry, where to live, where to work, etc. The core issue is that evaluating options requires already being there. No one knows what marriage, particularly to a specific person, is like until they are married to them.

Roberts writes clearly and has many great insights, particularly about how to think about these problems. However, don't expect a simple plan that gives you the solution; he can't tell you whether you should marry a specific person, but does offer several guides and tips about making good decisions and minimizing regret. Overall, a nice read.

Wild Problems

When We Cease to Understand the World

No matter how much knowledge we accumulate, there's always a void of what we do not know — a black hole that can never be fully understood. The book conveys this idea through a series of unconnected stories spanning chemistry, mathematics, and physics. It reads like a novel, because eventually, it becomes one. It's best thought of as an alternate history, with many very real facts interspersed.

I can't fault Labatut for this — the perspective he offers transcends facts and historical truth, so he tells the stories he wishes to tell to illustrate his greater truth. However, fundamentally, it's a novel that intersects with truth, but charts its own path. I knew about some of the stories he told, so this was unsettling at times. It felt like I was learning about the real world, with random embellishments thrown in.

This book may resonate with scientifically-curious people who want a story over specific facts. For those who want fictional explorations into the limits of knowledge, or actual histories of the limits of our knowledge, I suspect there's better books out there.

When We Cease to Understand the World

Land is a Big Deal: Why rent is too high, wages too low, and what we can do about it

I first encounted Lars Doucet through his Georgeism series reviewing Progress and Poverty, originally on Scott Alexander's newsletter. Land is a Big Deal is this series, cleaned up and polished to be a cohesive book. I haven't read Progress and Poverty, but Doucet writes a modern, rational, and clear pitch for Georgeism. Georgeism is an economic and taxation view that land tax (not property tax) is the single best way to tax, ensure rent stays affordable, and minimize economic waste. The argument is simple, and to my lay perspective, totally checks out.

It's a great book if you're into economic policy and reducing rent-seeking behavior. It's not nearly as radical as Radical Markets, and seems quite practical to actually do.

Land is a Big Deal

Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds

There's a genre of motivational memoirs written by accomplished athletes. I strongly suspect that these books are completely hit or miss for different people; either they make you feel empowered, motivated, and powerful, or feel a bit contrived. I haven't read many in this genre, though most that I've read have only been okay. They all want to tell the story of an impressive person, and let that person offer bits of wisdom to help us improve our lives.

For whatever reason, David Goggins hits me perfectly. I love listening to him, and I love the perspective he offers. I had not picked up Can't Hurt Me for a couple years after knowing about it, but eventually gave it a try upon the ecstatic recommendation from a friend. And, wow — what an amazing story, and what a great toolkit of techniques and strategies.

Though, he's almost a meme. His message will either hit you well or not. Go watch an interview of him on YouTube. If you like that, this book is like that and better.

Can't Hurt Me

Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power

Existential Kink is a book about Jungian shadow work, even though it packages many of the ideas as original. I'm fine with this, and overall it's a set of useful ideas for people who haven't been exposed to them. This presentation is entertaining, but it's also deeply awkward — the writing isn't good, and it comes together as a mess of new age psychobabble. And I think this is its flaw: the at-times vulgur writing style and magic may turn off a lot of people from quite useful practices. So, there's two ways to approach this: withhold assent and do the exercises offered to see if they're useful, or find other introductions to Jungian shadow work. The exercises are indeed powerful, so if you're on a self-improvement journey, I recommend exploring this direction.

Existential Kink

The 12-Hour Walk: Invest One Day, Conquer Your Mind, and Unlock Your Best Life

Go on a solo twelve hour walk with no distractions, and you'll learn a lot about yourself. You can do it, even if it's hard.

The 12-Hour Walk is two things: a self-help book, and Colin O'Brady's memoir. He's an interesting person, but as far as the self-help element goes, the above summary will either resonate or not, but that's basically the book. Overall, the book felt like a mess to me. I'm sure it was exactly the kick many people needed, so I can't entirely dismiss it.

But the book didn't know whether it wanted to be a memoir or self-help book, and the self-help element felt exceedingly thin. It is no sermon from David Goggins, and the memoir itself was also just fine? Overall, I recommend the practice (it's indeed useful!), and do recommend videos about him, but think the book can be skipped.

The 12-Hour Walk

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Four Thousand Weeks is a productivity book without any productivity. Or rather, it's a book for people who want to be productive, leading them towards a more happy and equanimous existence: realizing that life is indeed short, and we'll never get everything done. Burkeman offers another way to look at productivity and time management — you must accept limitations, and should focus on what is actually deeply meaningful for you.

I enjoyed the read and it resonated with me. Far more philosophical, but similar direction as It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Four Thousand Weeks

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Barbarians at the Gate is an incredibly detailed recounting of how leveraged buyouts common in the 1980s happened, though the lens of RJR Nabisco. Through the story, I learned a ton about the incentives and behaviors of Corner-Office Executives that are influential in big companies in America. The story itself is interesting in the way the Enron story is interesting — if this sounds like paint drying, there's no way you'll make it through this book. But inside is a story of influence, opulence, manipulation, risk, and deceit. It's not a critique of the system itself, it's showing how the system works.

The normal version is quite long, and I listened to the abridged audiobook. After discussing it closely with a friend who read the long version, I suspect I got most of the story without growing bored.

Barbarians at the Gate

Silence: In the Age of Noise

We live in a sea of noise: not just audible noise—though that too—but informational noise. We're flooded with input. Silence is a book about the opposite, about seeking solitude and quiet. It's not particularly controversial; I suspect most people realize that the world is loud. So, I couldn't entirely figure out who the book is for — other than someone who needs nudging to explicitly create space for silence. To that end, it's a good book, but for me, nearly everything it had to offer was already believed and acted upon.


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Snyder is concerned that America might fall towards tyranny of a dictator, and so he collects twenty lessons that America should internalize to avoid this path. In many ways, it captures the progressive fear of Trump in 2017 quite well. To that end, it's an interesting (and exceedingly short) read. The lessons themselves hit me as overall fine — 5 years later, if anything, we've learned that the US government is so much bigger than a single President. Perhaps his fears are founded, and the lessons seem overall useful and positive. But, overall, it felt sort of like a book written for classical liberals to make themselves feel good about their choices and political beliefs. Perhaps what it wanted to convince me of I already mostly believed? Perhaps it felt too fearful?

On Tyranny

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals

I buy every book Stripe Press publishes, and have been a fan of Tyler Cowen for years, so this was an easy decision to read. It's quite short and easy to read, with a few powerful ideas packed inside. In short, we're wrong about a lot, ideas and knowledge create wealth, economic growth is very good for humanity, goodness for humanity includes flourishing and isn't strictly about money, and the future (including people who don't exist yet) matters. It's an optimistic book about how innovation and growth today makes an uncountable number of lives in the future better.

These are powerful ideas, and I'd recommend this book to anyone who hasn't thought deeply about them. However, especially if you know Tyler Cowen's ideas already, it's overall somewhat unsatisfying and messy. I wonder if this could have been a third the (already quite small) size and just as impactful.

Stubborn Attachments

The Most Important Century

The Most Important Century has a simple argument: we, currently, live in the most important century ever for humanity. This is ridiculously bold, so Karnofsky spends a good amount of time justifying his position. The gist is that AI will radically change the future in ways that look entirely unfamiliar to us today. This AI-driven future is likely nearer than most people would imagine, and we should start preparing because we're not ready now.

Most definitely, this is interesting, and is fuel for a lot of interesting thought. However, while I can't find specific holes in the argument (which leads towards digital personhood, etc), it feels a bit like science fiction. And perhaps that's the point: the future will be SO weird, we have to be willing to suspend disbelief about what it'll look like. I do think Holden Karnofsky and I could find a lot of common ground about what we should do today, but I do find myself still skeptical due to being a bit more humble about what we can accurately predict.

AI is accelerating. It's wild, and things are changing fast. I still don't know how this will impact humanity, positively or negatively. As a note, the book is free online, and has a free audiobook that can be added to any podcast app.

The Most Important Century

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

Provenance is fun — it's the true story of how John Drewe and John Myatt fooled the art world with fake paintings. These weren't ordinary fakes, though: they had incredibly realistic histories and evidence backing their validity up. The story required a mind-boggling amount of research, and at times reads like a thriller — complete with fake identities, sneaking documentation into real museum archives, and social manipulation.


How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going

Smil bites off a lot in How the World Really Works. I suppose a more clear title would be How Society is Dependent on Energy, because that's what this book is really about. Instead of arguing about climate change importance or impacts to society, Smil takes a tour through how energy is really used. How reasonable is a carbon-neutral future? Where do we spend our current energy budgets, and what innovations is the world utterly dependent on?

This book serves as an accessible introduction to think more about energy policy, and is educational and enjoyable along the way. If the topic is interesting to you, you'll like this book.

How the World Really Works

The Tacit Dimension

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot easily be expressed or even accessed. For example, knowing how to ride a bike is largely tacit; a book on bike riding may present fundamentals, but nearly everything there is to know about bike riding is experiential. As it turns out, a huge portion of our knowledge is tacit, and this is largely ignored by education and science. Polanyi wrote lectures, which turned into this book, about how science is actually done, and how we actually learn and practice craft.

This is most definitely a philosophy book, but what is offers has so many connections to life and learning. It's quite metarational, and gives a lot to think about for anyone involved in the sciences.

The Tacit Dimension

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Impro is a book about improvisational comedy, in a similar way that The Inner Game of Tennis is about tennis. That is to say, it is indeed about improv, but it's really about life, how identity works, the human mind, status, relationships, and story. It's not a comfortable book — it flirts with Jungian shadow work, and can feel weird at times. However, it's the sort of book that I keep thinking about, and has most definitely influenced how I operate in the world.


Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once is hard to describe. It's not an art film, per se. It's sort of a comedy, sort of science fiction. It's philosophy, much in the way The Matrix is. It's a story about parent-children relationships. It's about information overload and growing up on the internet. It's psychoactive. It's... an accounting thriller?

Philosophically, it's fundamentally an argument against nihilism, with absurdist influences. As hard to describe as it is, it's also hard to spoil. EEAAO is about the journey — and it's not short.

I don't add many movies here, but this is probably my favorite movie. However, it doesn't hit everyone equally. It requires a lot from the audience, and is directly addressing a crisis that not everyone feels or realizes. The closest I can get to describing who would like it: if you've struggled or thought deeply about meaning and nihilism, and are happy to suspend disbelief to go on a journey exploring these ideas, please go and watch it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Longitude is a fascinating tale about navigation: the invention that enabled us to determining longitude accurately. John Harrison, an amateur clockmaker, was convinced that he could develop a clock that was accurate enough to be used to measure longitude. Before this, navigation was a massive risk to the British Empire, and limited their ability to sail open waters confidently.

Sobel stays light on technical details, and focuses on the story of this innovation. Epistemic overconfidence, skewed scientific incentives, and theft of secrets — this has it all. It's an enjoyable read.


The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet

This is John Green's memoir hidden inside a cute package: reviewing things in the world that don't usually get reviews (Teddy Bears, Air Conditioning, Sunsets, Plague, and on). In some ways, it's the memoir of someone who may think a story about them isn't interesting enough.

Whatever it is, it's beautiful. I've been aware of John Green's long YouTube presence and impact to internet culture, but had never read his novels. So, this may be obvious to anyone more exposed to his work: John is a beautiful, gifted writer. There are moments of joy, intense interest, and deep sorrow. One of the most enjoyable reads of the year.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective

This is a bit of a strange book, because it's a book about innovation—literally capturing all "greatness"—written by Machine Learning researchers. It's short and easy to read, but doesn't entirely shy away from their ML research. Overall, it's one of my favorite patterns: someone sees an abstraction that deeply applies to their work, and over time, realizes the same abstraction expands to cover many different disciplines. How do we invent? How do major jumps scientific understanding happen?

This book is primarily about how these don't happen: they don't happen by planning. You cannot build an impactful, new invention directly. Instead, the path towards greatness has no clear path — only in retrospect is it clear how great things were created.

To this point, the authors convince me. It's real, and should impact how you approach creativity. However, the authors largely cannot answer, "well, how do we create greatness?" And, I suppose, that's fair. But, I would love to have a followup: "How Greatness Can be Stumbled Upon".

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned

The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success

This is one of the best leadership books I've read, though is not a quick read. That is, it could be read quickly, but it's deep. It's the sort of book that you may read one chapter per week, and still feel you may want to sit with ideas longer.

It's really a book about personal development, with a deep nod towards philosophy and non-dual awareness, packaged in "exec coach" and business-friendly packaging. The free resources here are useful and may be a great starting point.

15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

There seems to be an odd dynamic within popular understandings of genetics research: one side believes in equal outcomes, and cognitive ability has minimal genetic population variation ("Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not."), so any claims about variation are suspect; and the other side waves genetic studies that show clear variation.

What's the deal? Are progressives ignoring real and important science? Kathryn Paige Harden, a genetics scientist, raises the progressive case for embracing genetic variation to create a more equal society. Just as the location and family you're born into impacts your success in life, the genetic rolls of the dice (even variation within the same family) have a massive impact on outcomes. By ignoring this science, fears about racism or classicism overtake real opportunity to improve the opportunity of marginalized groups.

It's a fascinating book that felt balanced and even-toned.

The Genetic Lottery

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Hossenfelder explores how new science is discovered. How do we know where is interesting to explore and validate? How are theories created? Imagine a theory of gravity that could predict Newtonian mechanics perfectly, but with slight tweaks could also predict anti-gravity, or gravity stranger than anything we see. A good theory is one that is falsifiable and has explanatory power, but many theories are difficult to falsify and have enough parameters so that they could explain many observations.

One guidance scientists have used is beauty — formulas that are elegant and symmetrical. As it turns out, a lot of our physics is governed by quite beautiful mechanics. But as we've learned more, we've also discovered that the universe is weird. We make measurements that stretch our theories beyond what is reasonable. Hossenfelder argues that perhaps our universe is indeed weird, and convoluted ways to make it beautiful (dark matter, dark energy, string theory, etc).

It's a fascinating book, though is a bit inside baseball at times — it's less about communicating physics, than communicating how we explore new physics, and Hossenfelder's issues with current science. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though, so would recommend to STEM-minded people.

Feb 2023: Hossenfelder has put out a fairly concise video summary of her issues with current particle physics research.

Lost in Math

King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine

This is a Jungian analysis of four masculine archetypes. Another possible title could have been "In Defense of Masculinity". An excerpt:

We need to learn to celebrate authentic masculine power and potency, not only for the sake of our personal well-being as men and for our relationships with others, but also because the crisis in mature masculinity feeds into the global crisis of survival we face as a species. Our dangerous and unstable world urgently needs mature men and mature women if our race is going to go on at all into the future.

For some, this may read as outdated and sexist — and perhaps some of it is. However, I found it useful (though, over the top at times) when thinking about gender in society today. Pair with a good critical theory text to span the spectrum of perspectives.

King Warrior Magician Lover

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Crazy Like Us has one clear thesis: people everywhere are suffering, but the way mental illness manifests—including very real symptoms and pathologies—is moulded and guided by culture. This doesn't mean people are faking their illness, but that you cannot separate mental illness from cultural context. The second thesis is that American culture is impacting mental illness worldwide, in a strange Westernization process.

Watters makes these claims through several case studies, looking at mental illnesses that seemed to be American exports, arriving to new lands and quickly spreading. When suffering was occurring (such as from tragedies), people were not behaving according to Western clinical definitions of the mental diseases. The book is not overly critical of Western treatment, however, and remains focused on highlighting the realness and cultural context of these pathologies: "[mental] illnesses such as PTSD can be both culturally shaped and utterly real to the sufferer".

It's quite interesting, but honestly, Scott Alexander's review is just as good, and includes critical analysis as well. Start there, and pick up the book if you want more.

Crazy Like Us

The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

Spiritual and meditation books are difficult to review, because they're so personal. Either you're at the base of the ladder, or not. This book is full of direct self-help advice, as well as metaphysical explorations into God and the divine. I can definitely see how this book may be powerful for some people, but for whatever reason, it didn't deeply resonate with me. The parts about love were the highlight for me.

The Road Less Traveled

Finite and Infinite Games

There are finite games, which are played to win. And then there are infinite games, which are played to continue playing. As it turns out, life can be thought of as a game — but what are the rules and how is it played? Carse paints a picture of Finite players and Infinite players. We're all wearing masks and playing roles, and Finite players forget that they are not their mask. They play zero sum games to win.

This is the sort of book that felt interesting as I read it, and then started changing how I saw the world for months after. So I read it again, and it continued to be alive. This is a nearly poetic book. Some nonfiction readers may find this off-putting or incoherent — try to push through. Consider this closer to Proverbs than a normal self-help book.

Finite and Infinite Games

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs was a student of the American city. She observed what made them work, where they failed, and how they thrive. As an outsider to existing "urban planning" in New York City, she realized that the way we design cities in America limits their potential. Instead of focusing on theory, her urban philosophy is firmly rooted in reality — building practical rules that play out again and again. Fundamentally, this is a book about diversity: the kind that ensures streets are always active, people are safe, and humans thrive. If you're interested in urban planning and haven't read Jacobs, please do.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The War of Art

This is a classic book about creativity, resistance that arises, defeating resistance, and inspiration. It's a practical, short, and easy read. Most of the book focuses on procrastination and avoiding creative output, so if you've struggled with this, you may find this inspirational.

The War of Art

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

This is an economics book that wants to talk about people. Instead of being a detached progressive diatribe against capitalism, it rationally explores concepts such as human capital, economies of scale, resource use, ownership, growth, incentives, and value. In many ways, it's philosophy, as applies to economic and social systems. He argues against scale as a desirable goal by itself, without neglecting practicalities of inefficiencies. In short, he makes compelling arguments for promoting human flourishing over optimizing for consumption. Consumption can lead to flourishing, but is not the primary metric of an economy's success.

This is my favorite of Schumacher's books, and I've recommended it to many people.

Small is Beautiful

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

Our society has become decadent: innovation has stalled, we're not striving for greatness, our art is stagnating, and things are becoming more and more mediocre. This is the pessimistic thesis — if The Beginning of Infinity makes you excited about what's possible, Douthat makes you... gloomy? To the end of highlighting how we're stagating, the book is successful. However, it largely has no thesis of change. It's a think piece that highlights a need for change, without offering any possibilities.

The writing is good, the message resonated, but overall it made me feeling depressed.

The Decadent Society

Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness

Reviewing meditation books is hard, for reasons I've mentioned before. So, I'll be brief. Our Pristine Mind is a western-friendly view into Dzogchen Buddhism. The technique is exceedingly simple: remain uninvolved with what arises during meditation, remaining in the present moment. You can get this instruction from many books, so why this one? The writing is clear, and it presents a non-woo explaination into why and what's happening. It's an easy read that doesn't get bogged with with Pali, Tibetan, or tradition. However, this presents a difficulty where some people will understand what it's talking about—and this book may potentially be life changing—and others will have a hard time following. The instruction is indeed good, but is incredibly dependent on where the reader is at, what techniques resonate with them, and their meditation goals.

Our Pristine Mind

Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

John Vervaeke is a cognitive scientist who recorded a 50-part lecture series melding existential philosophy, history, psychology, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, and Christianity to address the meaning crisis. He addresses what the meaning crisis is, its impact to society, and how we might address it. It's powerful, psychoactive, and engaging.

This lecture series has been one of the most meaningful works I've ever consumed, and I have difficulty recommending it—because it's a lecture, and around 50 hours. The payoff is long, though if Sapiens-style historical narratives are captivating, you may love it from the beginning. It's more of an undergraduate seminar, and should be consumed over a long period of time. This is not meant to be passively absorbed; it's not "background audio podcast" style content. In fact, he advocates for an ecology of active and participatory practices. I took notes of each lecture to understand his arguments as richly and deeply as possible, and watched this over nearly a year.

Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

This book will make you uncomfortable. Using modern cognitive psychology, it argues that our actions are evolutionarily driven by building alliances so that we've learned to lie to ourselves and others about motivations. We're not rational, in the sense that about causes we care about, we're more motivated by feelings than effectiveness. We're driven by our own interests, which were formed over a long time to align—often—with group interests.

Finally, you should read more Kevin Simler. He pitches the book better than I can. Highly recommended.

The Elephant in the Brain

Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World

This was my first exposure to Peter Zeihan, who has a quite particular and confident view of geopolitics, de-globalization, and the resiliency of the United States. The brief summary is that we're entering an era of de-globalization that is unwinding the political order of the past many decades, supported by the US's economic and military might. The outcome will be a huge shift, impacting some countries more than others — in fact, it'll be a pretty bad deal for most countries, and good for... the US. He's thorough about why he thinks this, and summarizes country by country the economic and political impacts of this shift.

It's difficult, though, because it's such a clean and pretty story. Zeihan portends that history is quite predictable if you read the leaves correctly, and he can. Many of the arguments are difficult to evaluate, or not falsifiable until the future comes. So perhaps in two decades we'll point to this as entirely nailing what ended up happening, but jury's out. Meanwhile, Zeihan has become a bit of a geopolitics influencer, with high-confidence proclamations about what's happening in the world. He's smart and knowledgeable, but he's primarily a story teller, and his track record is moderate at best.

Disunited Nations

The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing

I've read a few books on Eugene T. Gendlin's Focusing self-therapy technique, and this one is my favorite. It's practical, simple, and effective if you're receptive to it. It's model is directly opposed to The Mind is Flat, which claims that there is no subconciousnes processing. Instead, with Focusing, you create open space and facilitate introspection into the unconscious through body sensation and intuitive guidance. In fact, in my opinion, it perfectly balances with The Mind is Flat, where you end up with two very different maps of the mind, both offering something useful.

The technique itself has been incredibly powerful for me. In fact, it's so simple that it can be explained in a couple paragraphs, and seems like it couldn't work. Yet, it does, at least for myself and several others I know. If you're willing to give this an earnest and open attempt, I recommend this approach.

The Power of Focusing

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Dictators will do anything to stay in power, nearly regardless of other factors. If they don't, and another potential dictator could take over, they will, and then will do everything they can to stay in power. Thus, fragile nations end up with dictators, who execute a playbook to stay in power. This book walks you through this playbook, with enough details and examples to be quite convincing. It's an interesting geopolitics book that addresses leadership dynamics, but felt a bit dark to me.

The Dictator's Handbook

The Mind is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain

Chater's thesis is simple: while your mind feels deep—with a rich subconscious—it's not at all. In fact, it's shockingly flat. There is no hidden "true" self, you aren't unconsciously processing and thinking, and introspection is imagination.

He doesn't expect to convince or convert you immediately, so the book slowly chips away at ideas of a deep mind using modern neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Did he convince me? Sort of, or at least, not "no". It's a book that has offers an interesting perspective, whether or not it's "right" about everything. I see this as more of highlighting the complexities of mind, and pointing at truths that may be missed by an overly-bold assumption about consciousness. This book pairs incredibly well with Focusing and IFS / parts work books, because they both present useful models that mechanistically disagree, but join together to present an interesting and fascinating view of the mind.

The Mind is Flat

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region

Why did some Asian countries industrialize quickly and successfully—rapidly becoming developed and rich countries—while others have continued to flounder? Studwell combines history and geopolitical analysis to present a clear argument that explains current events in Asia. The thesis centers around how land reform—specifically communist-inspired redistribution of land to many people—empowered capitalist economic industrialization.

Overall, it's an enjoyable read and coherent, and effectively explains development strategies and policies that have worked and haven't worked across Asia. If geopolitics is interesting to you, you'll probably enjoy this book.

How Asia Works

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Important disclaimers: I love Hofstadter and could read his musings to no end, and Surfaces and Essences is long and gets deep into the weeds of linguistics and thought.

This has become one of the most important books I've ever read. Hofstadter and Sander are making a very bold claim: all cognition is analogy making. However, if you're like me, this doesn't feel all that unlikely, so they first need to convince you that this claim is quite bold (keying on "all"), and proceed to dismantle beliefs you have about cognition and categorization by slowly chipping away at that mountain.

Thus, their task is large, and the book is very long. At times it feels like it may be going in circles or nowhere in particular. But it's broken my ability to think in categorized binary terms about things. For me, it was an upgrade to my cognitive firmware.

I can't begin to capture everything the book covers. However, one final disclaimer: the core of the argument is in this Hofstadter lecture: Analogy as the Core of Cognition. The lecture is great and far shorter than the book, so is perhaps is a better starting place. If you love it, then tackle this book.

Surfaces and Essences

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Seeing like a State is psychoactive for many people, because it reflects a light against cultural structures that many people have never seen. In brief summary, Scott walks us through how human history has been defined by states gaining and managing power through legibility. It's a powerful concept, because once you've seen it, you see it everywhere.

It's a good book, abet long and not concise. I lean towards agreeing that much of the value of the book can be picked up from reading Scott Alexander's review (Nat's is also good, but is more of a summary than a review). So, I recommend you start there. If the idea resonates strongly with you, check out the book.

Seeing Like a State

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

Yes, yes, yes. The Beginning of Infinity is such a joy, especially if you like physics, philosophy, and politics. The book is sort of all over the place, fundamentally being an exploration into Karl Popper's ideas, and expanded by Deutsch to explore other areas. It's an argument for knowledge, humanity's future, and the infinite path in front of us. It's shamelessly optimistic.

If you're rationally-minded, read this. I don't necessarily think Deutsch is right about everything (specifically the limits of rationality), but every single chapter will give you something to think about.

The Beginning of Infinity

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know

Think Again is the kind of pop-psychology book that has several useful nuggets, and is so accessible that you'd expect to see it on "Best Nonfiction of 2021" sorts of lists—and perhaps at the airport. This isn't to be overly critical, so I'll summarize the idea: we're overconfident and don't spend enough energy trying to be right; we're susceptible to predictable cognitive biases where we are poor judges of our lack of knowledge.

If you're exposed to LessWrong-style rationalism, none of this is new or surprising. If you're not, then it'll probably be pretty eye-opening and interesting. For me, it was a bit of a slog—not because of dense or poor writing, but more that I kept waiting for novel insight. In many ways, if you liked other Adam Grant books (or perhaps, a more refined and polished Malcolm Gladwell), you'll minimally probably enjoy the journey.

Think Again

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, well-known for a hoax where they submitted bogus papers to left-leaning social science academic journals, directly address "critical theory" and the rise of woke-ism in academia and culture. It's interesting and inciting if you're moderate or right-leaning and want more reasons to dislike American progressivism, but the whole book felt like a series of misunderstandings and cheap shots. It's not that they're wrong, it's that they specifically are arguing against a strawman version of progressive politics—admittedly, that does exist—without much critical analysis towards objectivity. It's a part of the same culture war that they claim they hate.

In other words, it's fine. It'll probably get you mad, whether you agree (curse what the wokes have done to America!) or disagree (how dare they mislead readers with this nonsense!). If you want to read this and want to walk away with your own moderate informed position, balance it out with someone equally as one-sided from the other side.

Cynical Theories

The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name

I'm so torn by this book. For one, it's such an enjoyable journey—pun intended. Vastly oversimplifying, it lays a theory that early Christianity retrofitted psychedelic ritual from a cult of Dionysus, which explains its rapid early expansion. There's a lot to unpack here—there was a psychedelic ritual related to Dionysus?—and the book reads as a well-researched exploration journal.

Conflictingly, I feel I have no way of evaluating its claims. They're interesting, but the author is clearly telling a specific story. He even addresses this, talking about how modern Classics scholars have an idealized version of Greek culture which is incompatible with this theory. This I can believe (historians are blinded by their culture as anyone is), but this doesn't necessarily mean his underlying theory is true. However, it's a quite enjoyable read.

The Immortality Key

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon

Working Backwards will likely become—or perhaps already is—cannon for people in tech building companies and designing organizations. Optimistically, it's an account of what systems and structures made Amazon successful, and how it continued to innovate even at very large size. It is a bit starry eyed, and one of my critical realizations is that most of us aren't building Amazon, so what works for them may not work for everyone.

That said, the book is full of actionable takeaways. Founders and leaders of all types of companies will likely benefit from reading and discussing this book with their teams.

Working Backwards


Meaningness is both critically important, and frustrating. Important, because it offers a framework that establishes what meaning and purpose are, where they comes from, and how they're made. It confronts many ways meaning isn't made, including "confused" stances that most everyone holds, though few realize: eternalism, nihilism, existentialism, mission, materialism, monism, and dualism. We hold these by adopting systems (religions, philosophies, etc) that require them. After dismantling these, what's left behind is hard to specifically point to, but can be described. It's nebulous, yet has distinct and real patterns. Meaning is real (and cannot be denied), but is fluid (so it cannot be fixed). It is neither objective (given absolutely) nor subjective (chosen by individuals).

The spoiler here is that this is a clever packaging of some Buddhist ideas that haven't previously had clear Western-friendly mappings. It's good, and was particularly meaningful in my own personal path.

It's frustrating to read because it's a web book (though, has a free audio podcast version, which I recommend) that's written for the web. It's been written over many years, with the form making it difficult for me to read linearly, since links jump ahead, behind, and towards glossaries. It also meanders a good bit — because the point is indeed nebulous, for a long while, it feels like he dances around what he wants to say instead of just saying it. It's also incomplete with some placeholders, with placeholders and needs for an overdue edit job

I'm incredibly grateful for David Chapman for his writing, and it's been transformative in my life. Overall, I recommend it, but bring some patience for the unusual format.


The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World

Peter Wohlleben is a ecologist and caretaker of German forests. This book is a beautiful exploration into trees — what is their role in our ecosystem, how do they work, etc. It's fascinating and changed how I see trees. It read much more like an ode to trees than a science book, though effectively sparks interest and joy in an area I hadn't thought much about before.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness

It feels weird to review a meditation book, because each set of techniques assumes a starting place (where the techniques are most helpful), and has a intended and desired outcome. As with many meditation guides, the outcome is a bit nebulous, but the guide and techniques are exceedingly clear. John Yates (also known as Culadasa) outlines a very specific meditation path, with very clear stages and explanations, based on breath-attending awareness and concentration.

The clarity and specificity is wonderful. The technique itself, and intended outcome, did not become my own meditation path, but I took several concepts from TMI that were useful. The book has helped many people, so if such a clear path is interesting to you, I'd recommend at least starting these practices.

The Mind Illuminated

The Rise of Carry: The Dangerous Consequences of Volatility Suppression and the New Financial Order of Decaying Growth and Recurring Crisis

The authors make a pretty bold claim: carry (think: holding assets for differences in interest rates) has become so pervasive that the global equity market is one giant carry trade, backed by the Fed and other central banks. In short, with every market turning into a carry trade (from "buying the dip", volatility selling, share buybacks, etc), a growth and low volatility obligation is established that disguises real systemic risk in the system.

The book was published in 2019, I read it in 2020, and am writing this review in 2023. The book completely nailed what would and did happen to financial markets during COVID: policymakers launched aggressive equity-support tools that "stabilized" markets while shifting real, deep, systemic risk elsewhere.

If you care about systemic risk or monetary policy, read this. It's quite good.

The Rise of Carry

A Guide for the Perplexed

E. F. Schumacher addresses modern materialism, with a sort of metamodern perspective. He understands how modernism taken to the limit yields nihilism, and lays out a recognition that life and conciousness is special, existing in a higher realm of being. "Materialistic scientism" focuses exclusively on understanding the outside material world, and so Schumacher focuses bridging to knowledge of oneself, knowledge of the interior existence of other beings, and knowledge of how one is percieved by others.

I personally didn't find this as compelling as an anecdote to materialism, but I did feel this book offered something relevant to me. It's short, so I'd recommend if you'd like to explore ontological discontinuities that may exist on different levels of being.

A Guide for the Perplexed

Fierce Intimacy: Standing Up to One Another with Love

Terry Real talks—it's audio only—about intimacy and masculinity. Or, at least, healthy masculinity is the lens that shown through the brightest for me. It's a book about relational living—being with another person, no matter how messy we are. He's quite practical, but hard hitting. He doesn't shy from real topics, and provides such a fresh and empowering perspective. This audiobook would likely work best in the context of other therapy. I found this significantly more meaningful than other books on masculinity that I've read.

Fierce Intimacy

Living from the Soul

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

We're really bad at knowing how we—ourselves—think. We're also bad at knowing how others think. What results is tribalism, where we over-estimate our ability to accurately model mental states and motivations of others.

Mindwise had many incredible perspectives and nuggets of information. If our greatest skill is to be able to understand the minds of others and ourself, it's vital that we intentionally seek to improve this ability.

The book paces well, and has great insights the whole way through. I highly recommend it.


Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

Once I got the gist of Godlin's point, I struggled to get through this. Though, it's good. If, like me, you already see the value in avoiding "cog-based" work, there's not a whole lot that is novel. If you've optimized your skills towards being very good, but likely replaceable, you may learn a lot. In fact, this book was recommended to me by someone who changed their work-life based on some principles here.

Critically, Seth under-estimates the coordination problem of having large companies full of linchpins. And, several of his examples of linchpin-driven companies—all of which are massively successful—I happen to know are full of monotony, bureaucracy, and cog-work. So, at it's worst, it's a repetitive, motivational-blog-style treatise. At it's best, it codifies important principles on succeeding in creative work.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

This is such a neat writing exercise: take a writing prompt, and write many unconnected short stories. Each of Sum’s short stories answers what happens after death, and they swing between hilarious, sad, and enlightening.

I'm curious to try this writing prompt towards other unanswerable topics.


The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

This is the fascinating story of how a poor Russian, Jewish immigrant ended up becoming one of the most powerful men in America in the early 1900s via the banana trade. The story feels too wild to be true, and details the history of active US meddling in Central American governments (and the associated exploitation of labor) to support political goals. Eating bananas now feels a bit weird.

The Fish That Ate the Whale

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Jonathan Heidt’s The Righteous Mind has been one of my favorite reads for the past couple years, and so I was excited to read this one, specifically analyzing the shift towards several philosophies and thought patterns that produce fragile people. This shift starting in academia, but now extending to wider American culture. It’s characterized by a belief in these false ideas:

  • What doesn't kill you makes you weaker
  • Always trust your feelings
  • Life is a battle between good people and evil people

The Coddling looks closely at how we got here, and why these 3 beliefs go against how we know our psychology works. Overall, it is fairly measured, even though it’s explicitly critical of how several social justice causes are advocated for currently.

The Coddling of the American Mind

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

For someone who believes in the transformative power of growth, technology, and culture, this book initially felt like a curmudgeon's diss of civilization. With a bit more suspension of biases, I found myself thinking deeply about the premise.

Are we significantly better off due to technology? Christopher Ryan addresses this though historical and sociological evidence, and makes a strong case that we're massively capable of deluding ourselves about how great things are now and how bad they were before technology.

This book left me feeling a bit powerless, as we can't "go back", but has affected my views of consumption, fragility, and growth.

Civilized to Death

I Am a Strange Loop

Douglas Hofstadter's books share a theme: Hofstadter will take you on a winding path through his ideas, and the reader shouldn't explicitly expect to "get to the point"—you're on a ride, not trying to specifically arrive anywhere. This isn't to say there isn't a point, but the books are canvases of an assortment of ideas, presented on a buffet. If you're like me, this particularly journey is an absolute joy to ride along, so the density or lack of clear destination is no concern. However—I'll acknowledge—this isn't everyone.

With that said, I Am a Strange Loop is an absolute joy. Hofstadter's first love is mathematics, and spends most of the book delving deeply into the idea of "strange loops"—self-referential systems, such as MC Escher's Drawing Hands, or if you follow his reasoning, consciousness itself. The book is intensely personal at times, and delves into theories of mind, formalism, and meaning of life.

I Am a Strange Loop

The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience

“The wedge” are activities and practices that separate us from natural environmental responses. The book details several “wedges”, such as cold plunges, fasting, sauna use, psychedelics, sensory depravation pools, certain exercises, etc that allow practitioners to expand their normal consciousness.

Interestingly, the chapter list looks nearly like my Woo post, so I was primed to like the book. Unfortunately, my guess is that most people with exposure to biohacking or similar practices would be well-aware of most practices that he details. The narrative seems to be written for people with minimal exposure to any of these, at times slowly trudging through inconsequential details. In fact, a few of the topics are ones that I happen to know quite a lot about, and the writing seems optimized for flow rather than rigor. Many of my examples of this are nits, but do impact the thesis being offered (example: for many people, raw potatoes observably do indeed significantly impart a high glucose load, so the idea that a short-term potato-only diet serves as a metabolic reset is strange). If you’re interested in these topics, such as Wim Hof-style cold exposure, and have minimal exposure, it may serve as a highly-accessible primer. Otherwise, I’d say skip — there’s not really anything new here.

The Wedge

Education: A Memoir

I read this with my wife, who liked it a bit more than I did. It's well-written, with the pacing of a triller, focusing on a wild story of a very unusual, religious upbringing. However, I don't fully understand the hype, though we've had several "Fringe Hillbilly to Successful" stories capture our imagination in recent years (such as Hillbilly Elegy). If you like this kind of memoir, you'd probably like it.


Why We're Polarized

Ezra Klein, founder of Vox, details how media incentives, demographic shifts, and the internet / niche news have resulted in natural polarization in America. Full disclosure: I went into this book skeptical, but tried to give it as fair of a chance as I could. Overall, his thesis is fine, and he even comes close to recognizing his own active role in the problem, but stops just shy. He’s astute at pointing out how right wing media, catering to the white, middle class in America, has polarized center-right.

But, he misses the chance to dive deeply into how he is also culpable via Vox, which generates traffic on outrage, oversimplification of complex issues, and one-sided reporting. In fact, by so lucidly pointing at the failings of the right, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Klein actually gets it and is working against these incentives. Based on reading much of Klein's work and listening to debates he's done, I have low confidence he does. So, overall, the book falls flat. Read Trust Me I'm Lying instead.

Why We're Polarized

Smart People Should Build Things

Before Andrew Yang was famous for losing political elections, he founded Venture for America. This book is the story and thesis of VFA, arguing against the current pipeline of sending our best and brightest to law school and management consultant companies. Instead of creating more professional service workers, he argues, we should equip and train people to build new things. In Silicon Valley, this is an obvious train of thought, but isn't common outside. And naturally, VFA focuses primarily outside of major metropolitan areas where tech is already known to be a good career.

It’s a great, quick read, and changed how I viewed the current educational/professional pipeline. I highly recommend it to policy makers and high schoolers thinking about career options. It's pointing to a real risk for America's future and society, and provides a techno-optimist framing towards the solution. The book has one primary idea, so once you get the gist of it, feel free to skim or skip the rest unless you also love the story.

Smart People Should Build Things

The Joy of Movement: How exercise helps us find happiness, hope, connection, and courage

I read this book based on an interview between Kelly McGonigal and Kevin Rose. Kelly talks about how movement is important and connected to our health, spirituality, meaning, and sense of belonging in community. I learned some new things, but overall it was mostly an enjoyable summary of how powerful movement is. The writing is pleasant to read, so if you're interested in moving more (and more effortlessly), you'll likely enjoy this book.

The Joy of Movement

The Courage to Be Disliked

In my friend circle, this book has been both recommended as one of the most impactful reads published in the past few years, and also one of the most overrated. I think I get it.

The dialogue in the English translation—and perhaps the original?—is quite contrived and, at times, condescending. It's a Socratic-style conversation between a young person and a sage-like philosopher, talking about Adlerian psychology. I learned a lot, and it's helped me reframe my actions into goals-based evaluations (What goal do I have that leads to this behavior?).

There's several overlapping ideas between Adlerian psychology and Nonviolent Communication. I recommend the print book over the audiobook due to the narration style.

The Courage to Be Disliked

Fantastic Fungi

This documentary combines wonderful cinematography (how on earth did they film mushrooms growing so well!?), science, and a compelling story. I've since researched more about several of the topic covered, such as how trees communicate through fungi-powered Mycorrhizal networks, and been eating a lot more mushrooms as well.

Fantastic Fungi

The Way of the Superior Man

This is an interesting book, in that it serves as sort of a bundle to many arguments against toxic masculinity. Or, more accurately, it provides a model that celebrates the author’s brand of masculinity, and has strong critiques of how many men live currently. It embraces a deeply spiritual, mission-driven, strong idea of man-hood.

You’ll probably strongly disagree with portions of this book. I’d rather not write a specific critique of it, however, because it’d be too long, but in summary, there’s a lot that feels outdated / offensive, and a lot that provided a fresh perspective of masculinity for me. However, I did like how he supports a polarity spectrum of gender that provides balance for people. Overall, I'm glad I read it, but probably wouldn’t reference again.

The Way of the Superior Man

Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

Friends of mine know that I love talking and complaining about American urban development philosophy. Strong Towns is a non-profit that has written about the fragility and risks of the dominate structural growth philosophy underlying many American cities and towns. Unfortunately, the blog isn't super well structured—in my opinion—and has many ideas that are difficult to distill into a cohesive argument. The exact meanings and implications of their philosophies are fairly complex, though. Overall, they’re advocating for cities and towns to be run profitably, where growth does not obfuscate long term liabilities, and where wealth is generated and retained.

For years, I’ve felt that the American experiment of city and suburban development felt broken, but I wasn’t sure why. Strong Towns (the book) is in the single best summary of how cities used to be built, how they’re built now, and what breaks. It tells the story of American development, focusing on the suburban expansionary post-WW2 period, and how we've failed ourselves. At times, it's bleak: what if Detroit and Ferguson are not unique, but just early? It’s full of really interesting insights, such as how towns can best invest capital, where wealth is made/lost (it’s not where you’d think), and what’s in store for the future of many American cities. I’d recommend this book above other urban planning books to people new to this due to how accessible and easy to read it is.

If you're into city planning, development, and thoughtful growth, I highly recommend this book.

Strong Towns

The Manual: A Philosopher's Guide to Life

This is the most concise book on Stoicism I've ever read, and is full of valuable insights. It's surprising, in a way, how it was written so long ago, and applies so easily and directly to modern life. Sam Torode's translations of both Mediations and The Manual are my favorite, as they re-write ideas in modern language.

I highly recommend this book if you're interested in Stoic philosophy — everyone can get something from the wisdom in these pages.

The Manual

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It

In my opinion, this is one of the greatest books on business, and still applies well to tech businesses today. I've recommended this one for several years to founders, and read it again. If entrepreneurship is interesting to you at all, this paints a fantastic picture of how to build a business that is not dependent on you based on business design (you working on the business, rather than working on the product).

The E-Myth Revisited

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

Max Tegmark has an unusual idea: reality is just a mathematical structure. This is a bold claim about reality, so to get those of us there, he walks through a journey of what we know about our universe and how we know it. More importantly, he builds to focus on what the same mathematical underpinnings we use in our universe predict about things we can't directly observe.

To get anywhere close to explaining his ultimate theory, he spends sufficient time explaining the cosmos, with successes and failures of previous theories, so even a non-academic can understand where multiverses came about.

Part "introduction to the cosmos", part memoir, part philosophy, Tegmark's journey is brilliant and enjoyable. The most meaningful portion for me was a metaphor he offered for life. I'll write more about this later.

Our Mathematical Universe

Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It

Confession: I held off reading this one for several months because of the title. I assumed it was some sort of exposé on VC, or perhaps "history of A18Z". I was entirely wrong: this book provides the background, incentives, and purpose of venture capital and starting a VC-funded company. It covers everything from governance, term sheets, equity splits, board member duties (and legal obligations), and a lot more.

The chapter on Term Sheets is worth the book alone. Despite living a short drive from Sand Hill for the past 7 years, I've never seen something written that's so clear. All founders interested in VC should be aware how deals are negotiated, what the terms mean, and how it'll affect them.

It's also provides a great insight into VC incentives. How are they paid? What do their LPs want? This, and a lot more. I can't recommend this book enough to anyone interested in raising venture capital.

Secrets of Sand Hill Road


Richard Turner is one of the most brilliant card mechanics that has ever lived. My wife and I watched this documentary covering his fascinating life and the challenges he has faced, and loved it.

As a kid, I loved card magic. I collected special decks, pamphlets from experienced magicians, and books detailing advanced techniques. Almost 15 years ago, I watched Richard Turner's instructional DVDs Fans, Flourishes, and False Shuffles and The Cheat, and was blown away by his skills.

This documentary is a human story, far more than a magic or card story. He's one of the greatest due to sheer dedication and obsession: he practices card mechanic skills nearly every waking hour. If you like learning about the lives of fascinating people, even if card magic is not your thing, you'll probably like this one.


Why Evolution is True

Frankly, it's hard to find balance on many issues that directly support or reject specific world-views. Evolution is a prime example. Nearly all scientists feel there is sufficient evidence for natural selection and evolution—including in humans—as the explanation of species breadth we see today. However, only 9% of white evangelicals agree. Even more surprising, each side is highly confident in their conclusion. They have arguments supporting their view, but it seems that neither side fully understands the other.

The result is a lot of talk past each other. Evolution is complicated and the evidence is nuanced. It's easy to construct a straw man argument that misinterprets the opposing position and then proceed to tear it down. Instead, if we genuinely are interested in truth, we must steel man arguments.

If you're interested in understanding evolution, either because you don't have a firm grasp of what arguments are being made—and more importantly, why people believe them—or because you think scientists are misguided, Why Evolution is True is the best book I've come across to clearly outline the central claims and supporting evidence. Coyne covers precisely what scientists mean by "evolution" and "natural selection", falsifiable and verifiable claims that have been made, what we would find that might discredit the theory, and what we have found after hypotheses were made. Throughout the book, he reviews battery of evidence we've found, spanning geology, genetics, the fossil record, biology, and more. I learned a ton.

Why Evolution is True

Stillness Is the Key

I'm a Ryan Holiday fan, have received a ton of value from other books of his, such as Trust Me I'm Lying. So, I had this one pre-ordered since it was announced. Stoicism, virtue ethics, and meditation? I'm in.

Each of us has access to more information than we could reasonably use. We tell ourselves that it's part of our job, that we have to be "on top of things," and so we give up precious time to news reports, meetings, and other forms of feedback... We must stop this.

"If you wish to improve," Epictetus once said, "be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters."
Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key

Unfortunately, it did none of these well. It starts well, with several brilliant quotes, and it often dips into great insights. Some of my favorite chapters include thoughtful historical stories of leaders who valued stillness in hard situations. As a whole, though, it never came together into a cohesive unit.

Past half way, it seems to fall apart. The chapters are full of appeals to the bandwagon — if lots of smart people did X, then X is worth doing. His understanding of history is incomplete, which only tripped my detector when I realized that many historical counterexamples to his point were oddly left out. Furthermore, the structure of the book left overlapping ideas in disjoint sections to fit the "mind", "spirit", "body" form he chose.

If you're new to Stoicism, you'll pick up a lot. However, I'd recommend starting with the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations.

Stillness Is the Key

Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society

If you believe that markets are the most efficient way to allocate resources, what if their breadth was extended to be far beyond how they're used today? Posner and Weyl play with this concept, and deliver proposals outside the current political axis, leaving people of nearly every political persuasion both interested and aghast.

I'll focus on the proposal they get the most attention for, regarding property ownership. They offer an economic system that would implement a wealth tax, levied on all personal property valued at whatever you publicly declare its value to be. Except, anyone can immediately take ownership of anything of yours by exceeding your named price. This incentivizes accurate valuations, and encourages the optimal use of resources. If you undervalue property because you're underutilizing it, someone else can quite easily arbitrage this spread.

This is one of four radical ideas they present using markets. The others involve voting, immigration, corporate control, and data ownership.

Here's the generous interpretation: their book is an interesting philosophy of economics, rather than literal ideas that could be adopted wholesale. That interpretation fueled many interesting hypothetical discussions I've had recently. However, for me—a fairly layperson—there's significant flaws with many of them, but they're interesting to think about and guide how we build our future.

Radical Markets

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari narrates the history of human kind, starting from pre-history with many types of sapiens roaming the world, to modern days. Large popular works often make for wide targets of criticism—which you'd see about Sapiens if you looked around. There's a lot to be critical of, but for me—uneducated in much of the anthropology and sociology underpinnings—there's also a lot to take away. Frankly, many of the vocal criticisms miss the point. Harari's greatest flaw is how he narrates as if detached from what he speaks about, as an unaffiliated observer reporting facts and observations; however, he frequently mixes well-agreed history with his opinions.

Taking a step back, his story telling led to many new revelations for me, even though many of the facts weren't all that surprising. For example, in the beginning he talks of human's ability to believe and live by fictions; we build our whole society based on them. Money, companies, countries, society, equality, rights, etc. are all constructs that we join together to believe. We're the only species that does this.

I learned a lot, and enjoyed the read. If you're willing to keep a skeptical mind and understand that much of this is Harari's own opinions, you'll likely enjoy it as well.


Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Nonviolent Communication best thought of as a philosophy of language, and presents a communication technique that encourages compassion and giving from the heart. It centers around how language builds implicit power structures. It's an all-inclusive framework, but can be borrowed from as useful. The key parts are identifying observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

I got a lot from this book, and it has improved my communication with others significantly. Some ideas feel a bit out there (such as not saying "I love you", because, according to Rosenberg, it's largely meaningless), but I've incorporated the observations → feelings → needs → requests flow.

Nonviolent Communication

How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease

Spoiler: eat plants. I love this book, and am frustrated by it. Lots to love: Dr. Greger is motivated to help people be healthy and live longer; there's nothing else. The first part of the book looks at all the top modern killers (heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, ...), and gives evidence supporting plant-based diets. It's very well cited, and he's quite intelligent. Just like when reading Keto books, there's almost this underlying conspiratorial overlay on much of the evidence. Our science is largely funded by the food industry, who are in charge of informing policymakers of latest science. So, we end up with monoculture foods, sickly animals, and sugar-packed diets. The latter part of the book was more enjoyable for me, because it gave practical advice. I've increased my berry, spice (especially turmeric), and flexseed consumption based on the evidence he cites.

Frustrated: the science is cherry picked to form the larger point: you should be vegan, or at least vegetarian. I don't think it's wrong, but feels incomplete. If he disagrees with other modern research, such as with saturated fat consumption or the role of dietary cholesterol in blood cholesterol, he should have confronted it directly. Instead, it's just assumed that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are awful. Absolute vs relative risk is frequently ignored for many risk factors. The chapter on diabetes spends more time talking about saturated fat than sugar. So, lots to learn from, but feels a bit dogmatic.

How Not to Die

High Growth Handbook

There's plenty of writing about how to start a company, but how do you take a company from early product-market fit to hypergrowth? It turns out, not many people have done this. Leading fast growing companies is a still earned through experience, with few people having the opportunity to have done this. A lot of this knowledge has been passed on through coaching and mentorship.

This book is a reference, mostly useful when growth situations come up and you need help. The syllabus covers every area that a leader would need to become proficient at: communication, hiring, delegation, marketing, raising capital, and acquisition. I'm keeping this close, and am thankful Elad compiled such a great resource.

High Growth Handbook


It's a sci-fi, fantasy, and murder mystery animated show, rolled into one. It tackles time travel, mental illness, and reality. Go in fresh — don't read any reviews or commentary, and commit to the whole season. The whole series is less than 3 hours, and comes into its own towards the end.

(Update, November 2022: Season 2 wasn't as good in my opinion, but Season 1 stands on its own just fine.)


The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different

Our culture optimizes for "the average". This isn't saying we encourage everyone to be average, but we measure from the average. This breaks down when a measure is "jagged". Consider people of different sizes, and you're tasked to sort them from smallest to biggest. Do you do it by height? Well, this would rank a 1.5m tall obese person as "smaller" than a 1.6m very thin person. By weight? This has the same problem. As it turns out, "size" is jagged. This may seem silly, but we do the exact same thing with intelligence tests, clothing, standardized tests, and even norms. There is no "ideal" beauty measure or "smartest" intelligence measure, we measure nearly everything as if there were smooth metrics. No one is actually "average".

The book is a fun read and isn't long. Once you wrap your mind around the idea, however, it's a bit repetitive.

The End of Average

The Personalized Diet: The Pioneering Program to Lose Weight and Prevent Disease

An inspiration for Levels, but could be a lot shorter. The universal best diet doesn't exist because people respond differently to foods. The best way to find out how you respond is to measure it. Unfortunately, the end of the book, with the actual protocol, is disappointing. They recommend using a finger prick, and taking a few point measurements after meals. From my own experience wearing a continuous glucose monitor, this is far too noisy.

The Personalized Diet

Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again

Another health book during my research for my new startup. It won't surprise many technologists that ML is changing healthcare. Topol introduces us to the future of medicine: how humans will work with machines to provide better healthcare. He talks about what assumptions we should be careful of when designing AI health systems, and what the future may look like. He's critical of shallow medicine, which he claims most healthcare practitioners currently offer. Instead, he sees a future where full patient context can be used to provide personalized, targeted care.

Deep Medicine

Free Will

I've appreciated a lot of what Sam Harris has created (such as Waking Up, and especially his meditation app of the same name), so wasn't unfamiliar with his arguments. This one's short, and is okay. His arguments are not the most intellectually rigorous, but I'm not sure that was his intention. Rather than an exploration of determinism, his goal is to show that if you look closely for "the one who thinks," it disappears. Thoughts appear in consciousness, and the autonomy we believe we have is an illusion — in fact, the illusion isn't even there. If you haven't explored this, it's a hard concept to grasp. If this sounds like gobbledygook, you'll likely get little from this book. Much of the content in Free Will overlaps with his meditation app, and I'd recommend that instead to approach these ideas.

Free Will

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

We're social beings, and wonderful things happen when we gather. Great gatherings, though, don't happen by accident. They have intentionality behind who is and isn't invited, what we gather for, how long we are together, how we conclude, and how we'll remember the time together. Parker is a virtuoso at human gatherings, and shares her wisdom on how to gather well. Read this if: you are interested in hosting others, and want your gathering to be meaningful and memorable.

The Art of Gathering

Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law

Preet Bharara writes about justice: what is it, how do we protect it, why should we protect it, and how do we fail? It's both the story of his career as the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, but also about the world we live in. How do we effectively deliver and fight for justice? How do our leaders affect its grasp?

"[T]he rule of law" and "due process" and "presumed innocent" seem to do service these days more as political slogans than as bedrock principles… It seems preferred these days to demonize one's opponents rather than engage them, to bludgeon critics rather than win them over. There is a creeping contempt for truth and expertise… And the concept of justice seems turned on its head—holding different meaning depending on whether you are a political adversary or ally.

We're not left with too many solutions, and at times it's worrying. I have deep appreciation for the leadership we've had in our government, and how important it is.

Doing Justice

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

This is actually the second time I tried to read this, and the first where I succeeded. Previously, I found the philosophical diatribes encouraging my mind to wander — which is ironic, given the context. This time, I enjoyed it. From first principles, what is spirituality? How do people around the world—with different and contradictory beliefs—have spiritual experiences? Where do feelings of "oneness" come from?

Harris explores spirituality building from observations that we can analyze ourselves. It isn't easy though: looking at the nature of consciousness is difficult, to say the least. And for my Western mind, adopting the illusion of self took self-exploration and observation, rather than through logical arguments. Read this if: you're interested in Buddhist ideas, but do not care for the dogma attached.

Waking Up

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

This book is delightful. I struggle with creativity: it hasn't previously felt accessible, and never productive. Gilbert thinks that's ridiculous.

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.”

Read this if: you want to be more creative, or don't think you can be.

Big Magic

Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert's Guide to Making Connections That Count

I'm a bit torn on this one. The advice inside is likely quite useful for many people, advocating for a modern interpretation of "networking". However, at least among people I work with, much of the advice is well-known and not surprising. Read this if: you find the concept of networking pointless or overwhelming. There are incredible benefits to building a wide, diverse network.

Taking the Work Out of Networking

Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day

This doesn't have a unified philosophy on productivity. It's a book with a ton of tactics on focusing and working more effectively. However, it's far too long, and felt like a grab-bag of all the tips and tricks the authors could come up with around productivity. Don't go on Facebook, focus on one thing, avoid the news, exercise, don't drink too much coffee, hang out with friends, etc.

Make Time

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Jocko and Leif advocate for better leadership through "extreme" ownership: taking ownership of outcomes, no matter who is directly at fault. It's a pleasant read, mixing practical "real world" advice with war stories. The crux, however, could have been delivered in a blog post. You'll be a far more effective leader when you take full ownership of everything under your purview.

Extreme Ownership

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End

Gawande considers aging and the slow process of modern death. Told alongside the story of his own father's death, he asks deep questions about mortality, end of life care, and autonomy. In an age of copious medical options, he advocates for a more holistic perspective on aging. He advocates for simple things, such as focusing on quality of life—which paradoxically often extends life, more than aggressive disease management. The book takes courage, especially if you have loved ones going through end of life care.

Being Mortal

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts

Annie Duke, renowned—and controversial—poker player, writes about applying poker thinking to life. Specifically, separating outcomes from expected value, and making choices with incomplete information. If you've played a lot of poker—or, traded in financial markets—there's not too much surprising here.

In terms of applicable value, the lesson is fairly short, and could have been a blog post. Seek contrarian opinions and evidence against your biases. Don't blame negative outcomes on bad luck or necessarily bad decision making: the outcome only has a loose connection to the quality of the decision. Review decisions with other smart, experienced people.

Thinking in Bets

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

This book changed the way I thought about morals, beliefs, and communication. Presented as a philosophy of morals—such as surveying the different types of morals we see in cultures—this book craft-fully made me think about my own moral compass. What do I value? Where do I place my values?

We make decisions without critical thinking, and are masters at explaining our decisions with rationality. We have this (shared) illusion that our beliefs are based in rationality, and thus when we disagree, we hit roadblocks. How can they possibly believe that? There is a solution, however; it may be why conservative talking points convince more people than liberal ones. Read this if: you're often frustrated how others place their values, and you want to learn empathy towards them.

The Righteous Mind

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

An appropriate start to my media diet. This book isn't nearly as conspiratorial as you'd think. Rather, it's a study of incentives: how are different forms of media incentivized? I deeply respect the work that good journalists do, but unfortunately, that's not what pays the bills for the news outlets. Since subscriptions are down, we're in a feedback cycle where poorly-researched, quickly-written hype pieces get more attention than actually impacting journalism. Read this if: you're curious about reducing media consumption.

Trust Me, I'm Lying


These are entirely subjective, and roughly try to capture my personal enjoyment and usefulness, and how likely I'd recommend it to others. Don't read too much into this unless you love my judgement. Rough guidelines:

A: Top quartile. Changed the way I think about something.

B: Worthwhile. I took away something useful.

C: Didn't hit, wouldn't directly recommend. Likely won't revisit.

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