This was a good year for reading, since I spent it sitting with my Kindle on airplanes. (Kindles are great — like tablets, but without all those fussy little apps that distract you from reading.)
Of the ~150 books I read this year, these are the ones that come to mind when I think of the word “best”. They are very different, and you won’t like all of them, but they all do something well.
For a list of every book I remember reading, check my Goodreads account.
Best List of All the Books
In no particular order, save for the first four, which I liked most of all.
- Rememberance of Earth’s Past (series, all three books)
- The Steerswoman (series, all four books)
- Chasing the Scream
- Rationality: From AI to Zombies
- The Last Samurai
- The Fifth Season
- The Found and the Lost
- The Future and its Enemies
- On the Run
- The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot
- Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air
- Machete Season
- How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
I review the best books I read, but reviews are often almost useless. Many books should simply be read — and the best review is to quote from them, at length, so that others can begin reading right away.
I read about 125 books this year, and these are the ones that come to mind when I think of the word “best”. They are very different, and you won’t like all of them, but they all do something well.
To quote my book-review post from last year:
I’ve sorted this list into a series of “bests”: a Best Graphic Novel for people who like those, a Best Book About Selling Stuff for people who like those, and so on. Whoever you are, I’d probably recommend many of these books to you. And some of them are free!
For a list of every book I remember reading, check out my Goodreads account.
Best List of All the Books
These are in alphabetical order, save for the first four, which I liked most of all.
- The Neapolitan Quartet (series, all four books)
- The Book of Disquiet
- Negima! Magister Negi Magi
- A Civil Action
- Azumanga Daioh
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers
- Digger (free!)
- Great (free!)
- Gone Girl
- Parable of the Sower
- Strangers Drowning
- Strong Female Protagonist (free!)
- The Road to Wigan Pier (free!)
- The Vision of the Anointed
- The Yale Book of Quotations
- Them: Adventures with Extremists
- We Learn Nothing
My friend Jack Newsham, a reporter on The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:
Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)
My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.
I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.
Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.
I’ve started a new series of blog posts on Applied Sentience: “Teach To The Future”.
Through these posts, I cover subjects like teaching people (especially kids) to write for an online audience:
Or teaching people to see through the eyes of other people, in a rigorous and practical way:
I care a lot about education, especially since I’ve just received 17 straight years of the stuff. But I think we spend too much time on some subjects and not enough on… well, the subjects I cover in these posts. I don’t know much about pedagogy, but I try to stick to skills I do know. As always, let me know if you have thoughts on how to develop these ideas further.
Bonus: If you teach children and want help figuring out a curriculum based on any of the subjects or lesson plans I describe, I’m happy to help!
I try to use raw statistics to get a sense of what life is like in other places. This helps me avoid the selective nature of stories, though stories have their place after the numbers are in.
Here, a startling overview from Chris Blattman et al, in a survey of young Liberian men thought to be engaged in criminal behavior:
“On average the men were age 25, had nearly eight years of schooling, earned about $40 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skill labor and illicit work), and had $34 saved. 38% were members of an armed group during the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. 20% reported selling drugs, 44% reported daily marijuana use, 15% reported daily use of hard drugs, 53% reported stealing something in the past two weeks, and 24% reported they were homeless.”
—Measuring the Measurement Error: A Method to Qualitatively Validate Sensitive Survey Data
The entire paper is worth reading, and quite readable. Turns out that people are very honest in answering survey questions about “sensitive” behaviors when those behaviors are the norm within their social groups.
(The paper also provides a good lens for looking at cash transfers. In the hands of a man with $34 in the bank, who earns $40 a month, $500 might be enough to prevent multiple acts of theft or purchase a stable home. On the other hand, I’d guess that these men are more likely to spend some of the money on hard drugs than are families in rural villages.)
At a recent symposium, social scientists gathered to create a list of “big questions” that might serve as a driving focus for academics in the years to come—inspired in part by David Hilbert’s (largely successful) use of this technique to guide mathematicians.
More on the symposium here. The final list of questions is highly informal, but gives us a good idea of what problems are on the minds of very smart people:
1. How can we induce people to look after their health?
2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?
3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?
In April, I spent four days working to improve my life with the help of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). It was a good experience, and I’d recommend it very highly for most of the people reading this post.
If you’d rather skip the summary, or have questions afterwards, send me an email and tell me what you want to know.
CFAR teaches participants to better understand their minds, plan their actions, and achieve their goals. It does so through a series of small, hands-on seminars, run by some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen at work. It also introduces you to a community of other self-improvement-minded people, many of whom will become your friends.
The workshop is a lot like your best semester of college, but it happens in four days, costs a lot less, and is more likely to give you knowledge that will help you ten years down the road.
Some representative moments of my CFAR experience:
Reading time: 7 minutes
I’ve written a lot of book reviews, but I recently realized that I have a model in my head of what a “book review” should be, and that the model doesn’t make much sense.
I’m a fan of fancy book reviews that are more about life in general (or the reviewer’s ideas) than the book itself. David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith do those very well.
But most people seem to read book reviews to answer some of the following questions:
- Should I read this entire book?
- What is this book about?
- If this book isn’t worth reading, which bits are worth knowing anyway?
- If the author has an opinion, why might they be wrong?
- Where can I find out more about the book’s ideas?
These questions provide helpful structure, and structure means I can review more books! Huzzah!
This particular review is about the book Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own, by Roger Schank. Awful title aside, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (If it weren’t, this review would be much shorter, or bundled with other reviews.)
This is mostly a plug for the wonderful but seemingly abandoned blog Ten Hundred Words of Science, which features academics explaining everything from volcanoes to advanced mathematics using only the thousand most common words in the English language. (“Thousand” is not one of those words.) The whole thing is based on this webcomic.
I recently submitted a new entry, but I don’t think it will ever be published, so I’ve posted it here instead. These 191 words of science are brought to you by the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab.