I have participated in Goodreads’ Reading Challenge since 2011 and last year failed to read my usual annual goal, 10 books. This year I hit a new record of reading 30 books1.
This achivement can be attributed at least indirectly to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, because through lockdowns I learnt about my local libaries ebook services. It is funny how much more motivation having 14 day deadline to finish a book gives you2. As a regular podcast listener3, listening to audiobooks suits me very well, too4.
Here’s a not-so-short rundown of the books I read this year5, grouped by themes.
by John Carreyrou
After listening to The Dropout, it was hard to imagine that it could be worse, but this book goes deeper and shows that yes, the history of Theranos was even worse than you could have ever imagined. This is disaster porn at its finest, with the cherry on the top being how in the last chapters the company goes after the author of this book6. Theranos is a great example of how long it is possible to run a fraud and how people are willing to suspend their disbelief if enough money is on the table.
by Kim Scott
I probably picked this up because of a review or an interview in The Economist. Anyway, I enjoy business books where a pattern can be shown to be repeatable across different kinds of organizations and cultures and have similar results7. The basic idea, or the quadrant8, is quite simple to explain and wouldn’t need a full book, so the book is mostly about the author’s life in the big Silicon Valley companies meeting all the big Silicon Valley people. I think the big challenge to practice Radical Candor is if the company itself doesn’t support managers being honest and transparent, and care about their teams.
Scrum - The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time
by Jeff Sutherland
One thing that I didn’t fully grasp while taking my first year courses at the university was the focus on the management methods ands logistics of Japanese car manufacturers. Once I entered the work force I began to understand it was because most of those things were still very foreign to companies. Sutherland’s book isn’t a book that will explain Scrum itself (the reader is supposed to be familiar with the basics), it’s a book that explains where it came from and what ideas surround it - and this is interesting: many flashbacks to my first year courses in strategy, management and logistics and how all those building blocks started to fit together. This books goes well together with Radical Candor, because both value direct and honest feedback and focus on making the team succeed.
How to Win Friends & Influence People
by Dale Carnegie
As I was browsing through the ebooks and audiobooks my library offered through Libby, this classic popped up with a relatively short waiting list - and this year, everyone had time to wait. I guess today it’s message ist still valuable though as a book it was more interesting as a proto-self-help-book and a pathfinder of the genre.
TL;DR: Think about the other person and their needs.
The Power of Habit
by Charles Duhigg
This book had been hanging in my “to read” list for ever so what better year to clean that up a bit9. At this point, most of the anecdotes in the book were quite familiar from elsewhere. The book really pushes hard the self-help book formula by repeating and repeating things. I guess this was another inevitable read, and while the theme of the book is interesting, this isn’t probably the best book on the topic.
Economics & Society
by Caroline Criado Pérez
A great book that shows how women have been forgotten from datasets and how these datasets have themselves become “truths” that reinforce gender disparity. Another great point is how forgetting about others isn’t necessarily by intention but just going by “defaults” that for historical reasons are heavily biased for whatever suits average men. It is eye-opening how it is possible to leave over half of the planet’s population out of your data and still think it is somehow representative of everyone.
The Value of Everything
by Mariana Mazzucato
This book makes a great case how value is measured and how value creation differs from value extraction - and how conflating these two has created a twisted idea who and how value is created in the economy. Includes a great history of economical thought of how we have arrived to our current concept of “value” and how the current definition has flaws and how these are reflected in what we “value” in the market and in the society. It is a good reminder on how economics is not a natural science and how the concepts and definitions are not set in stone and must evolve as our societies develop and change. Goes well with Invisible Women because both discuss how “difficult” things can easily be excluded to make things simple and easier to count, and how these can lead to really bad outcomes for the society as a whole.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
by Shoshana Zuboff
I was a bit afraid that this book would go the usual route of talking about Cambridge Analytica and how big tech companies know all about us and our habits (see Power of Habit and the Target pregnancy marketing case) and the general hyperbole how social media is just generally bad. However, this book took a very surprising and refreshing view by defining new terms and showing the economic principles that will inevitably lead to the behavior we see big tech companies adopt. I really enjoyed the term “behavioral future markets”, ie. advertisers by access to Google’s and Facebook’s users who are - according to these platforms models - likeliest to behave in the future as these advertisers want (eg. buy their product). The idea of how these companies want to remove any uncertainty of what they sell - their users’ behavior - by ever increasing data capture for better prediction models and by nudging users’ behavior by getting their customers what they want (ie. you get what you measure) also put things in an interesting context. The insight, that in my mind makes this book better, is that no-one is intentionally trying to create a surveillance company: the market incentives just inevitably lead to that unless governments and regulators put a stop to these harmful “side-effects” of capitalism.
Cory Doctorow has written a lenghty rebuttal to the book. In my opinion both can be correct: it’s entirely possible that this is just “rogue capitalism” and “just normal capitalism” at the same time, because as Doctorow says, a lot of this can be attributed to the monopoly position these tech giants command. I’m currently reading The Myth of Capitalism10 that also looks how the lack of competition and regulatory action has lead to a situation where these companies are doing exactly as they would in a wild/rogue capitalist system11. Both the surveillance and the monopoly position of these companies are a problem, and the market itself cannot solve this as all three explain.
Fascism - A warning
by Madeleine K. Albright
A better title for this book would be Albrith’s “Behind the Bastards”12. I find Albright’s definition a bit loose and defined so only that she can fit all these autocrats (and her autobiographical dealings with some of them) in one book. I think this book is affected by the presidency of Donald Trump because it means she has to make some comparisons between him and some of the anti-heroes of her book - and make a balanced take on how Trump is not a fascist but… Alhtough it is difficult not to agree with Albright that Trump is probably the most autocratic and anti-democratic leader of United States, I think the book does omit that it’s not like the US’s track record on these topics is somehow flawless. The book doesn’t either address the history of facsism in the US and only focuses on foreign leaders the author has defined as being fascist.
I think it is still a great book, I liked the autobiographical parts13 a lot, but it’s not really neither about facsism and doesn’t really offer a warning; other than the very clear warning that facsism was definitely not “won” either at the end of the Second World War nor at the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a book about the bastards of 20th century and Albright meeting some of them, it’s great.
Liberalism - A Counter-history
by Domenico Losurdo
A critical history (a counter-history) of liberalism that shows that liberalism - unlike some want to portray it as such - isn’t just a progressive ideology that has been the driving force of all great things in society among its centuries’ long reign. It can be argued that it has been a net positive ideology, but it has not been without its costs - its just these costs were never burden by the European elite that spread this ideology. The book paints the traditional story of liberalism’s march as a hagiography that convienently forgets how it wasn’t just linked but enabled many atrocities like slavery, white supremacy and fascism. Losurdo shows the internal contradictions and how liberalism as preached differed markingly from how it was practiced.
What I find interesting, not just in this book, but many books that are critical of liberalism, the market economy or capitalism, is not that they or their authors are against these ideas - almost the opposite. What they are against are the naive views in and beliefs of these ideologies, and how we have to face the criticism, need a reform, and genuinely apply the high ideals to improve our society. It’s indefensible to claim that everything is just fine.
Sci-fi & Fantasy
The Murderbot Diaries (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, and Network Effect)
by Martha Wells
These were clearly my favorite books of the year, I can’t remember the last time I was so hooked in to a series. It does help that most of the books are short stories, only the latest in the series, Network Effect, was full-length novel and not necessarily better for it.
The star of these books is the titular Murderbot, an android that has gone rogue - but in a good way. This is definitely competence porn to which I’m very suspectible to14. I found it best to imagine Murderbot a bit like Janet from The Good Place: not a human, not a human, not a girl. However, as much as Murderbot hates to admit it, unlike Janet, it’s very likely a person.
The books are a bit like The Martian, except that instead of using science, the solution is very, oh so very, often violence. All of which could have been avoided if humans weren’t just so stupid.
Small Gods, Going Postal, and Making Money
by Terry Pratchett
I used to read a lot of Pratchett, thanks to my local library, but one book I never really got around to was Small Gods. It’s a bit different in that it doesn’t involve any of the usual characters15 or storylines but stands on its own.
Going Postal and Making Money, on the other hand, introduce and follow (respectively) a new character, Moist von Lipwig, a con-artist. Like so many Pratchett’s books, these have a very obvious theme as an undercurrent while the characters fool around in the world of Discworld. I guess a younger version who hadn’t yet read untold books about economics would have gotten a bigger kick out of the plot twists in both books but the older me could see them coming from a mile away - this didn’t really matter to my enjoyment of the books.
It had been a long time since I last read a Discworld novel and I guess it’s telling that once I picked one up, I ended up reading three.
by Ernest Cline
Having read Ready Player One and not really enjoying the fake nostalgia trip it was, I was pretty sure I would not enjoy this book either but it had no queue at the ebook library16, so…
Yeah, if you kinda wanted to like Ready Player One but kinda hated where it went, then do I have a new hate read for you. Absolutely every sentence in this book includes a comparison to nerd or pop culture. The book’s plot is probably written by repeatedly taking two 80’s pop culture items and tying them together until book-length chain is achieved.
I’ll probably end up reading Ready Player Two and completely hating it, too.
The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes (#1) & The Doll’s House (#2)
by Neil Gaiman
I discovered Gaiman relatively late, only really through his and Pratchett’s Good Omens, went head-first into American Gods and I have really enjoyed his modern fairy-tales ever since. I didn’t really read these kinds of comics growing up either, except for some reason The Preacher17. I finally found my way Gaiman’s Sandman, which kind of explains his later works a bit.
I’ll file these as stuff that I probably should have read a long time ago. But not so long ago that there would have been a risk of me turning out goth.
The nice thing about data science is that most resources are available online for free. The bad things is that things move so quickly forward and other things get broken that some of these resources get really old, real fast.
R for Data Science
by Hadley Wickham & Garrett Grolemund
I first touched R at the university during an econometrics course. It just happened that the university didn’t have a license to SPSS anymore and it would be few years before they adopted SAS. So I fortunately missed these two enterprise statistics packages and instead learnt R. I would learn to withstand the pain that its convoluted syntax caused and decipher the gloriously unhelpful academic help pages it had.
Anyway, R in 2020 is a bit different beast because some of these pain points have been addressed either by helpful packages18 or by the language itself. This book introduces the beginner19 and advanced (or, lapsed) R user alike to Tidyverse which makes importing, massaging and reporting data way, way more comfortable20. Even if you don’t use R, the book is a great overview of the steps and methods needed to do “data science”21.
by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub
The name of this book is a bit misleading, although its later chapters dvelve deep into the internals of Git, it begins from the basics and explains in detail how to manage version history with Git. If the last chapter about internals was dropped from the book, the correct title of this book would be “Git for beginners”. I would recommend this book to anyone who uses Git and wants to learn it.
Data Visualization: A Practical Introduction
by Kieran Healy
The book uses R, so it’s a good companion to R for Data Science. Instead of just being a cook book, the book does a great job of explaining “why” of each step in the data visualisation process. It revolves heavily around
ggplot, although, like R for Data Science, the principles are universal.
Bayesian Methods for Hackers
by Cameron Davidson-Pilon
A nice introduction to Bayesian statistics using Python and PyMC with many real-world examples. It’s a bit more approachable than Downey’s Think Bayes. However, this approachability comes at a cost: this is very much a book for hackers and so focuses on getting stuff done instead of telling why things work. The libraries the book uses might also be a bit out date, and the versions of the book with different libraries might not be complete so be warned - it’s open source, after all.
These books are both fiction and non-fiction, but didn’t really neatly fit any of the above categories.
by Randall Munroe
This is the book version of Munroe’s “What If?” columns on XKCD, including a lot of new material. It’s essentially just more of the same. Fun, but not necessarily the most useful book.
by Robert Rankin
As a fan of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, this book was often up there in my recommendations and I can now understand why. It is very British, its world is familiar yet a bit unfamiliar and it’s a very fun read. Also, there’s a very high possibility of an apocalypse.
I’m not sure if I will read the follow-up books in the series, but I did enjoy this book and the recommendation systems were right for a change. I probably should give them more chances.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
This book wasn’t really what I was expecting, given its status as a classic. However, I was pleasantly surprised because I enjoy magical realism. It is a bit too much at times, and it was a bit hard to understand what was going on but I just accepted that and soldiered on. Although not much seems to be going on, the language is overflowing with metaphors and descriptions. It seems to be a book that people either like or hate. I can’t say I completelty understood it, but I did enjoy it more than I had initially expected.
It probably helped I listened to an audiobook version so it wasn’t possible to get stuck but just follow along.
A Philosophy of Walking
by Frédéric Gros
An entertaining read that talks about walking, the different ways of walking and what they mean, and how walking is related to some philosophers’ life and thinking.
by Gretchen McCulloch
From the outset it was pretty clear that this was a book written for me. It does a great job of going through the history of online language and how written language isn’t in fact in danger “because internet” but how this is the first time in the history of the written language that we see casual written language that was previosly only limited to the backs of postcards.
The book has a well-researched history of online writing and shows how one’s approach to online writing depends on when one entered the cyberspace, already back in the BBS days or after the smartphones.