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This is the fifth in a series of annual book reviews:
I read ~113 books in 2018, and a lot of them wound up on this list. I may be giving out too many five-star ratings, but in the course of writing reviews, I remembered just how good all of these were, so… no regrets.
(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)
The Best Books
I didn’t choose a cutoff point, but ten books stood out from the rest, either because of their sheer quality or because they were easier to read than competitors of similar quality.
Every link in this section goes to my full review on Goodreads.
Ridiculously good books:
- Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (free online)
- Impro (Keith Johnstone) (free online)
- Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
- Erfworld (free online)
- Understanding Power (free online)
- Stubborn Attachments
- The Structures of Everyday Life (free online)
- George Orwell’s Essays (free online)
- Vinland Saga
- My Name is Asher Lev (free online)
Books that were merely very good:
Brought to you by the library system of the University of California, San Diego.
This is the fourth in a series of annual book reviews:
I read fewer books this year than in 2016, thanks to a new marriage and a few online serials that consumed a lot of reading time. But I’ve improved my selection process: I’m finishing more of the books I start, and learning more from the books I finish. As a result, I’d put this year’s class up against any of the other years in a… book fight?
(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)
The Best Books
The first five are, in order, the books that I’ve thought about most often this year, and that I remember most vividly. The rest appear in no particular order.
- Ache Life History
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- Tools of Titans
- Against Democracy
- The Damnation of Theron Ware (free to read online, from Project Gutenberg)
- Killers of the Dream
- The Subjection of Women (free to read online, from Early Modern Texts)
- Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
- Hard to Be a God
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant
- The Gods Are Bastards (free to read online)
This post attempts to answer two questions:
If you could spend a few weeks being Barack Obama, what would you learn about his life and the world in which he lives?
How would this experience change the way you think about the man, his policies, and the American presidency?
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
Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?
30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.
He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?
–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert
Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!
What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.
Can We Do Any Better?
There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better.
Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?
But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?
My friend Jack Newsham, a reporter for 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.
Update: Charity Science, an organization whose work I admire, has added my thesis to their page on charitable giving research. I highly recommend their site for more information on the topics discussed here.
* * * * *
After months of work, I’ve finally finished my thesis:
Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?
It’s a very long paper, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.
Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:
The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read
In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.
Each year, Edge.org asks a few hundred very smart people how they’d answer a certain question. The results are always a mixed bag, but it’s one of the most exciting mixed bags in the intellectual world.
This year’s question dug into one of my own interests: “What do you think about machines that think?”
In other words: What does the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) mean for humans, for the universe, and for the machines themselves? What will happen if and when AI becomes “general” or “superintelligent”, outperforming humans at almost every task?
The answers to this question would fill a book (and will, since Edge publishes one book each year). But even if you don’t have time to read a book, you should sample the content, because there’s always a ton of interesting material.
This post is my attempt to gather up some of the best answers and individual quotes, while responding to a few misconceptions about AI safety that popped up in the responses.
On the advice of Bing Gordon, I recently spent an afternoon reading through the last 17 years’ worth of Amazon shareholder letters, written by the somewhat strange and mostly wonderful Jeff Bezos. This was an interesting experience; if you like entrepreneurship, or business in general, I highly recommend it!
Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
“We brought [customers] much more selection than was possible in a physical store (our store would now occupy 6 football fields).”
“I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified. Not of our competition, but of our customers.”