Books I read

Books I’ve read, a short summary, mostly for my own benefit re: I have the worst memory and often forget even books I’ve spent hours and hours of my life reading and waxing lyrical about.

Artificial Unintelligence, by Meredith Broussard

TL;DR - Robots are not as smart as we think they are (or can be), there are limits to artificial intelligence, and we still need human brains. We saw this in Star Wars, and we’ll see it again, and again, and again despite the best efforts of futurists and technologists to convince us of the imminent arrival of singularity. For what can be a very technical topic, Dr. Broussard is a very accessible writer. Even though she provides some in-depth examples of how to use machine learning on specific datasets, with the corresponding code, even that was understandable and even relatable. I was trying to decide between reading this book and another similarly titled book, but like that this book is written by a relatively young female professor, who is an academic and a data journalist and a software developer, and that’s cool. I’m glad I went with this criteria, because there are not that many non-fiction books that can keep my interest to go cover to cover. Usually by the time I hit the third chapter, the author has made their core point; and every subsequent chapter is a slightly different way of rehashing that point #cough-originals.

There is a recurring point in this book as well, of course, and in the author’s words, it’s that “computers are good at some things and very bad at others, and social problems arise from situations in which people misjudge how suitable a computer is for performing the task.”

For instance, machine learning on big data sets is useful for providing clarity on events or phenomenon that have happened in the past; but far less effective at using that knowledge to adequately predict what will happen in the future. This is again, because human systems are complex and sometimes illogical, and the data will only tell some, but not all, of the story. Data doesn’t know what human or environmental factors were present that could affect why and how historic events happened the way they did, and it doesn’t know when those factors have been unaccounted for. This is the stuff of tacit and learned knowledge (not data).

Don’t worry, human-cyborg relations are unlikely to upend anytime soon. The machines Dr. Broussard talks about - autonomous vehicles, drones, computers etc. - are still lightyears away from being sentient beings. But, data in the hands of the wrong people, corporations and government - entities that we can’t reprogram, or simply unplug from a data source to keep them from doing harm? That’s an entirely different story and much more likely source of a dystopian future (my opinion, not the author’s). Stay in school, stay vigilant, stay safe, all. ~Jan2020

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

A tale of two children who grow up to be adults who are scarred from being children. They have a very hard time letting go of their past, much of which revolves around stalking an alluring house that they grew up in called the Dutch House, and from which they were unceremoniously ejected by their stepmother after the death of their father. It's an interesting reflection on how our past shapes and has an indelible hold on us - while being completely open to the idea that maybe the past is a warped figment of our imagination. I like this book a lot. ~Feb2020

Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This book is like an eminently drinkable table wine. Goes down really easy but it's on the cheaper side. A multi-perspective novel about a free spirit in the 1970s (Daisy) who happens to be a looker, drug addict and singer songwriter who joins forces with a rock band (the Six) and goes on tour. The main theme seems to be around how everyone goes through their own set of trials and tribulations but can still make redemptive choices in the end. It flirts with the question of the difficult genius, and whether people who are really brilliant at what they do are justified in being kind of horrible self-centered people. Which is not irrelevant in the era of #metoo. ~Feb2020

The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

A book I read a few times as a teenager/young adult, first as required high school reading, and later as it was so engrained in the national psyche as a classical American novel, that to not know it felt like FOMO. It's also received some publicity lately as the book is now more than 95 years old, which means it has entered the public domain, that beautiful domain of open knowledge. I myself have lately been guilty of "gatsby-ing" someone - conducting actions meant to bring public visibility, but with the secret aim of attracting the attention of one person. Of course, in the case of Jay Gatsby, this turned out to be an ill-fated strategy. Dreaming of a life with Daisy, his first love, unattainably far out of his own socio-economic strata, he was driven to take ethical shortcuts to amass his own fortune and reinvent a new narrative of who he was. Years later, rich and well known, still chasing the idea of his first love, he thought he was finally worthy. He bought a house across the water from hers, hosting opulent parties which he didn't enjoy, simply in hopes of using the attention and the networks of his guests to reconnect with Daisy. In the meantime, Daisy was unhappily married to Tom, a proper blue blood, someone who was born worthy. When all of their lives finally intertwine, it seems that the continued love between Gatsby and Daisy is still not enough to overcome the deeply engrained schism of class and societal expectations. Daisy and Tom dabble easily in the lives of others without consequences, leaving a wake of destruction behind for the witless, unfortunate people who are attracted to them. The final wake being that of Jay Gatsby, dead and alone. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of people who travelled miles to take advantage of his parties, only a handful of people showed up to his funeral, while Daisy and Tom moved on to continue their easy, nomadic pleasure-seeking lives. The sad thing is, that the potential of Jay Gatsby - the ambition, the motivation, the ability to bring people together - was completely wasted by his fixation on the past and on a singular notion of what he wanted. Of course, the question to be asked, is whether he would have ever met that potential without having that fixation. How do we motivate ourselves to be the best version of who we are, without the source of that motivation not ultimately serving as a ticking time bomb, destructing the very thing that it helped to achieve?

Still need to add:

  1. First they killed my father by Loung Ung, read during my first trip to Cambodia, a truly gut wrenching accounting of what people are willing and able to do to one another; a stark juxtaposition to the current day Cambodia that has emerged from this terror and the new generations trying hard to leave behind the PTSD of their recent history
  2. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a true story of a couple who through a betrayal of a friend find themselves homeless at the cusp of their 50s, and embark on an arduous walk across the coast of England, falling into a new life along the way...ultimately providing Raynor with the content for this book which has then reached hundreds of thousands of people with their tale of courage and resilience and partnership
  3. Chemistry by Weike Wang, a novel about an Asian-American PhD student trying to find her way, emerging from a cocoon of her parents expectations which have clearly exacted an emotional trauma on her that pervade her everyday relationships. An incredibly funny and poignant account of a third culture young woman.
  4. Why can't I change by Shirley Impellizzeri, such an interesting read about attachment styles and how our brain is indelibly shaped by our childhood and traumatic experiences, and what hope we have to overcome it.
  5. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener, a first person account of coming to age in the hey day of San Francisco's start-up and tech bubble
  6. When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi, a book I read at the height of my third life crisis, searching for the meaning of life. I don't know if this book provided it, but the account of an incredibly successful and high achieving neuerosurgeon who is diagnosed with lung cancer, and how he comes to terms with the change of his fate and life chapter by chapter.
  7. Tightrope by Nicholas Friedman, a hugely readable non-fiction accounting of how social policy in the US has completely failed us all by ignoring the stories and realities of the people who live through them, and how those policies only perpetuate the multi-generational trauma that is passed down parent-to-child through domestic violence and drug abuse and neglect and absence and all of the things you can't believe exist on this scale in the richest country in the world. Which is one symptom of the loss of human dignity that stemmed from the loss of good middle class jobs, the people left behind and how we have not been able to provide a reasonably path for them to ever catch up. An unfortunate intersect of incompetent policy, bad luck and poor decisions made by flawed (but real) humans. Is there still hope that we can ever bring ourselves out of this unending cycle of poverty and trauma-inducing parenting?
  8. Dirt by Bill Buford, which I didn't completely finished reading because at some point I got tired of reading about an incredibly privileged white old man who embarks on a training as a chef and baker in Lyon, taking unpaid stages and suffering humiliating abuses in the harsh kitchen environment. It is if anything a striking contrast from the enabling and welcoming work environment that we strive to create today. I have no idea which is more effective as a learning and growth experience; of course for the author it is just that - occupational tourism - a different reality from those who have no option but to "learn and grow" in this unforgiving way.
  9. The Sun Also Rises by the inimitable Ernest Hemingway, my favorite of all time, but such a dangerous book to read when in search of the meaning of life.
  10. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a re-read of a childhood love
  11. Man's search for meaning by Victor Frankl, a true accounting of how the author emerged from the horrors of a concentration camp, and how it informed his understanding of what keeps one going in the most dire times and circumstances
  12. Educated by Tara Westover. Fascinating memoir of a girl who is raised in Idaho "off the grid" - home schooled in an abusive and extreme anti-government household - until she goes to Brigham Young University at the age of 17 and is exposed to a different reality than the one she had been told existed her entire life. Through her process of gaining an education, she is able to slowly but painstakingly break free of the bonds that held her - despite the power of home and the power of family, and how wrenching it was for her to leave it. In a similar vein, it aptly showed how difficult it is for people who want to live a different lifestyle than they grew up in but find that themselves being isolated from those who they grew up with because of it. To live a different life than one's family but still be a part of the family; to be an individual but also part of a clan; to reject part of one's identity while keeping the rest - unfortunately sometimes choices need to be made.
  13. Maybe you should talk to someone by Lori Gottlieb. A therapist writes about her experience seeing her own therapist, weaving the tales of her patients together with being a patient to another therapist. A very strong insight into how we are all human, and how we can't trust the stories we tell ourselves, which act as surprisingly primitive defense mechanisms to maintain our view of the world rather than the addressing the challenging task of facing reality. Sadly these stories we tell ourselves with the intention of protecting ourselves from hurt ultimately and ironically are the cause of most of our self-destructive behaviour.
  14. Born a crime by Trevor Noah. My first insight into modern day South African society told through the eyes of the comedian Trevor Noah who tells about growing up in a society where his existence as someone half black and half white was illegal; growing up impoversihed in black-only townships in an abusive household; and the creativity and spirit of him and his mother that helped him find his way out.
  15. Radical candor by Kim Scott. Care personally and challenge directly. I read this when I was having a lot of challenging dynamics on my team at work. I spent a lot of time reading material that would help me to be a better and more effective colleague; rather than being upset all day because we weren't able to make progress and I couldn't pinpoint why. I was also working in a team where reliance on each other was huge (product development - design - engineering) - if something wasn't going my way I couldn't step in and "fix it" because I didn't have the technical skills. I had to learn to work with my colleagues who did have those skills, and in a way, work with them to share a vision on how to move forward. Radical candor is about the skill (yes, it's a skill) of providing feedback to others in a way that is motivating to them and that is direct enough that they understand why it's important; and being able to solicit and receive feedback in a way that helps one improve. In short, having frank, open and honest conversations about performance; in being willing to be and appear vulnerable to one's peers and trust that it will improve team performance and not undermine one's credibility and power.
  16. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.
  17. A friend recommended I read this novel to become more aware of transgender issues. The premise is a little k-drama-y, if k-dramas were much more progressive. Except for Itaewon Class, that was a bit of an exception. But, I digress. It's about a couple who gets pregnant. But, one of the couple is a man who used to be a transgender woman, and then detransitioned back to being a man. He is unsettled by the idea of being a father, a heteronormative box/label that will erase his underlying queerness, especially with his current girlfriend. To counter this, he proposes bringing his ex-girlfriend, a transgender woman who deeply wants to have children, into the equation with the three of them (him, his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend) co-parenting the future child. Things ensue. What I liked most about this book is that it challenges the traditional family unit. I like the idea that families can be composed of different configurations, that there are different ways of living in a modern society than two parents living together in a house with their child(ren). But, as the book points out, as much as we try to support these different configurations, when push comes to shove we still revert back to what feels 'normal' and safe. Anyway, it was interesting, and I did learn more about transgender issues like suicide, gender identity, friendships and relationships, etc. Given the chance to go back in time, I'd probably still decide to read it.
  18. Midnight Library by Matt Haig.
  19. A woman with depression tries to commit suicide and finds herself in a sort of purgatory, which consists of a library where all of the books are the story of what her life would have been had she made different decisions - if she had pursued swimming, if she had gotten married to the guy she broke up with, if she had studied geology. By opening and reading the books, she finds herself immersed in these different versions of her life. One by one she 'reads' the book and one by one she realizes that she doesn't want to stay in that life. Spoiler alert, but not really because it's really a very predictable book, at the end she realizes the life she wants is the one that she just tried to end. Kind of lame. The central message to me is to live a life without regrets, because the one you live is the one you should live. Which I think is fine but also pretty bullshit because many of us have unrealized potential and are not living our best lives. But if you need something to make you feel better about your choices and give you hope that you can still change your future, I guess this book is ok.
  20. The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.
  21. This book is almost too straightforward to right about. It talks about the role of company culture in shaping successful organizations. A lot about building trust and belonging. Seems obvious but also despite that, still surprisingly rarely practiced. I would recommend it if you're interested in management or want to shape your workplace to be more empowering or even if you're interviewing for new jobs and want to understand the importance of workplace culture when choosing a new employer.
  22. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo.
  23. My library and netflix accounts both have embedded in their algorithms that I love Asian dramas, and thus this book came recommended to me via a computer. It's a very well written and interesting tale of a teenager growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1950s, who comes to terms with being gay and starts to explore the local scene. The girl struggles with many facets of her identity - not only being gay, but also being Chinese-American and ambitious - she is one of two girls in her high school's advanced math class with aspirations to work in the space industry. She makes compromises and finds her own path to stay true to herself while navigating her family and society's more traditional expectations. Particularly compelling for me was seeing her navigate being in western social circles for the first time and not knowing how to act - I think many Asian Americans who grew up embedded in Asian norms and values and social activities can relate, despite the 60+ years that have passed since this historic fiction took place.