Weblog and media showcase

All 2015 Book Reviews

Contained below is a list of books I've read in 2015. Most recent are towards the top of the list. I aim to upload a review straight after finishing a book. The ratings are based on how much I enjoyed the book, and how readily I would reocmmend it.

End of year totals: 10 books and 3,180 pages.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies - Nick Bostrom

Very interesting high-level overview of the current state of artificial general intelligence. Quite diverse in the range of topics and ideas covered. However, very academic in the writing style, and felt like it repeated itself a lot - making it a bit of a chore to get through from a casual angle, when not particularly bothered about every argument being justified in meticulous detail.

Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson

One of the most powerful and inspiring books I've read.

Before reading this, my knowledge on Apple, and specifically Jobs, was very limited. Based on an image largely shaped by what was highlighted in the media, I saw him as simply a slightly eccentric CEO of an alternate technology brand. So I clearly wasn't entering in with high expectations.

Ended up being absolutely fascinated by Jobs's story. One of the telling points is that despite being over 600 pages long, the book only really feels like it's providing a glimpse into some of the key moments of his life and career.

While I was all too aware of his widely touted personality flaws (which, quite tragically, ended up causing severe complications to his health) Isaacson really puts them into context against what his unique personality allowed him to achieve.

Whilst he was far from "perfect" (as is everybody), I'm certainly left with with a large newfound respect. Came across countless points in the book where I was amazed at how spot on his opinions were, and unlike so many others, he wasn't afraid to act on them.

Overall, this has left me with a lot to think about, learn from, and be inspired by.

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl

Insightful reading the account of a holocaust survivor, but personally did not get much value out of the accompanying "logotherapy" psychological system which the second half of the book is devoted to. Although, to be fair, I did cram this in the 3 hours preceding a book club meet.

Doing Good Better - William MacAskill

While the author provides some neat frameworks that can be used to make more informed decisions about how to donate time and money in more efficient ways, unfortunately I feel the book takes these ideas to far too much of an extreme. I felt that the book presented the techniques of the Effective Alturism movement as some kind of objective science, when in fact I believe them to be extremely subjective (will get onto why later).

The book opens with an anecdote of a charity effort that received a lot of media attention, in which water pumps in rural Africa were replaced with children's roundabouts. Anyone who has a basic understanding of physics, and has ever played on a roundabout, should be able to understand why this is a flawed idea. Yet MacAskill really goes to town with pointing out his intellectual superiority over this misguided attempt at alturism. Overall I found the whole book to carry through this same frustratingly smug tone.

My overall belief on the argument presented is that, the world is infinitely complex, and no human or computer will ever be able to accurately model and predict the most effective courses of actions for solving it's problems, or providing the most "quality adjusted life years" once you look outside the very immediate consequences of actions. Therefore getting too wrapped up in any system of quantification and metrics over something so complex is a futile oversimplification.

In my opinion, the EA movement falls victim to the exact same trap they criticise others for, of doing good because it makes them feel better. The only difference being that they need a lot more logic and statistics to satisfy their own belief that they've done something objectively "good". This results in an abandonment of common sense, and the cracks in the logic start to show as the movement advances towards ridiculous extremes.

Having said all this, if taken with a grain of salt, this book does contain some nice ideas on how decisions related to alturism can be better informed.

Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers - Robert Jackall

Extremely thorough deconstruction of the bureaucratic structure that defines large, modern corporations. Found some really valuable insights, and enjoyed the coherent picture it presents of the madness that is the social structure of corporations. But the depth that Jackall goes to, and the fact that a lot of the material explored is fairly common knowledge, made parts a bit tedious to get through.

The Village Effect - Susan Pinker

An excellent overview of the current state of research on a very important topic: the importance of face to face contact, over the more ephemeral connections encouraged by technologies such as social networks.

Lots of extremely useful insights to be gathered from reading. There were only a few quite minor issues I had with the overall structure, and the writing seeming a little too anecdotal and hand-wavy in places.

The Outsider - Albert Camus

An interesting philosophy, but can't say I was a fan of the execution.

Zero to One - Peter Thiel

Some interesting and inspiring thoughts, but very short and disjointed. May have been as well off just reading the original lecture notes.

The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein

Definitely one of my favourite non-fiction books. Amazingly well-researched deconstruction of the "disaster capitalism" complex affecting governments, in the same way No Logo was for corporations. Can't recommend enough.

How Bad Are Bananas? - Mike Berners-Lee

First book review of 2015 (after an inexcusably long hiatus). Came across this while researching for a climate change related website I'm working on. Neat way of presenting information on carbon footprints - highly informative, and gives a good idea of where individuals can make the most impact, whilst still being an engaging and entertaining read.