Last year was pretty awful in a lot of respects. At the same time, it was not a bad year for me getting through some books. Of the books I read, I enjoyed basically all of them and wanted to talk a bit about them.

The below text contains various thoughts on each book. Do note that I'm going from memory and by looking at the cover's of the books. I read some of these over a year ago. I apologize in advance if I misremember something or my takeaways are a bit of a stretch. Think of this not as an accurate reflection of the books' content but as an expression of their imprint on me.

Slaughterhouse Five - January 9th

This is a classic from Vonnegut and one that every American high schooler is supposed to read. I refused to read it at the time to be contrarian but eventually picked it up because Vonnegut is great.

It was a good book. Talks about the horrors of war in an interesting way. It's got a good deal of dark humor and the surreal nature of the main character time-shifting is great. The ending is beautiful and a great way to finish the story.

Breakfast of Champions - January 14th

Another Vonnegut classic. I remember when either I or my brother was in high school and him telling me about it. The description that hooked me was a character thinking he was in a solipsistic science fiction story where everyone but him is a robot. I've had similar fleeting thoughts and was fascinated to learn more. It's also meta as hell.

Cat's Cradle - January 25th

Last Vonnegut book on the list, unfortunately. It's a religious satire that also takes aim at power structures. The glimpses of the fabricated Bokonist religion are pretty great. I'd join it.

Player Piano - February 3rd

Whoops, I lied. This is the last Vonnegut book on the list. This one is about an engineer that has it all. He is at the top of his game and is on track to become the de facto leader of the world. He works for a corporation that provides essential goods for a planet that has neatly been segmented into those poor worthless souls that require our help and those that matter. Our engineer eventually grows disillusioned with society and sets to bring about a revolutionary change. Spoiler alert: the revolution fails.

I enjoyed this book. I liked another engineer character that really did not give a shit what he was working on as long as he got to solve puzzles. I can very much relate to that and seeing that frivolity contrasted with the literal life and death of how his output is to be used was a good reminder to myself. Not the most "Vonnegut" book but still enjoyable.

Where Mathematics Come From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being - February 12th

This book was mind blowing to me. I've been curious and confused about the seemingly mystical origins of math for a while. I couldn't shake the contrast between this mathematical aether our minds seem to be sampling and how most of its use (aside from fun!) is about probing the confines of our reality. I also always thought that math is universal in the sense that we should be able to communicate with other forms of intelligence using it.

The authors' have a lot to say about both. Their resolution of the mysticism is by grounding math in our own senses and was really insightful, I think. To elaborate, they identify logical "primitives" in our minds such as being able to discern the "inside" and "outside" of physical objects (think about standing in a field or door frame). They then chain these abstractions to build up modern calculus. I tend to think of math now as an extension not of physical limbs but of novel combinations of mental faculties. To boil it down a little too much, if you assume we have some "soft" structures in our minds, math uses those as its primitives in the same way that athletes can groom their muscles to achieve physical feats.

The implications for this are neat because math is now a reflection of ourselves. We are, of course, grounded in physical reality but that gives a lot of flexibility to play in the upper layers. This shatters my belief in talking to aliens with primes because we would not longer share the same "primitives". The hard part now boils down to establishing a shared context.

I could ramble on this all day. Anyway, great book.

What is Mathematics, Really? - March 28th

Another book untangling math. The author takes a very different approach than the previous one and comes to the conclusion that math is just another social artifact. Essentially, math is whatever a collection of mathematicians say it is. Who is a mathematician? Well, whoever other mathematicians say they are. It may not be the most satisfying answer but it makes sense to me.

This natural leads to a lot of cultural nuances. This mathematical culture is definitely apparent. The rules defining it are always in flux like all cultural rules but still "real". Also a good book.

Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook - April 2nd

Could not have expected to be on the other side of this one a few months after having read it... Anyway, this book outlines a number of features of a coup and gives protips on how to minimize errors. The author was in the military but I can't remember if he was in intelligence or some kind of commander. It seems like he knows what he's talking about, at least.

The rules for a successful coup enumerated are pretty interesting, though I can't remember them. The main idea seems to be that the machinery of the state is designed to have a small priesthood control it and so if you can identify the practical group making up this operator-class and concise methods of excising them from the rest of the machine, then you have a good chance at gaining power. Controlling communication is super important and this is where the stereotypical example of coups taking over TV and radio stations comes from. Reality is what we perceive it to be. He also delves into how to find weak links in the chain of command, bribe them for support, and things like that.

I found the book interesting and ejoyable.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years - April 15th

This came out right before the 2008 financial crisis, which the foreword remarks about. It is also a massive book that, like it states on the tin, covers thousands of years of the abstract concept of debt. It covers the system that gave rise to the slave trade, the zombie connection, and modern conceptualization. The book is sprawling but mostly interesting. The version I had also included a chapter covering the 2008 financial crisis, which was depressing but a good read.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - April 20th

I don't want to be a hater but damn I'm a hater. This book was trash.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again - April 26th

Yes, I had never read this book. It's great. It's an incredibly fun adventure story and I think would make a great bedtime story, at least that's how I did it.

The Mysterious Stranger - May 1st

An unpublished, unfinished short story from Mark Twain. It has a mindfuck ending that hit pretty hard. I think the mindfuck aspect of the ending probably decreases with age.

On the Shortness of Life - May 2nd

A quick read about balancing the long term with the short term. You can't predict the future and so mortaging the present for future gains may make sense, in limited and necessary ways. But at the same time, no one wants to make plans, grind it out for 30 years, and then die in a car crash the day you retire.

Riddley Walker - May 9th

This book is incredible. It is almost impossible to read without actually reading it aloud. Having to speak in a phonetic future dialect of english gives it such a fantastic quality of oral tradition. I felt like I was reading a campfire story.

To be clear, it would be a long and depressing camping trip. The post-nuclear fallout hellhole that that Riddley lives in is pretty awful. Most of the time you're even more confused than Riddley while trying to simultaneous make sense of his world (which even he doesn't get) and then map his understanding back to your current knowledge of our society. When you make an inference that clarifies something it feels very satisfying and a bit sad for poor Riddley.

Great book but probably not the lightest read.

Crime and Punishment - May 25th

Speaking of light reads, we have Crime and Punishment. I read Notes from the Underground a while ago and it inspired me to stick Crime and Punishment on my reading list. It is intense.

I think it takes place over a few days (excluding the delirium days). The premise is some arrogant youngster reads philosophy and knows the answer to life the universe and everything. To verify this knowledge he murders an old lady and her sister. He gets away with it but then confesses. The book ends with him in a work camp enjoying his life.

That summary doesn't do it justice though. The book zooms right up on every character until you pull apart their thoughts with your fingers. It has a dream sequence where a horse gets murdered that takes like 50 pages. If you've ever been reading something and the author moves on before informing you of the discoloration of the paint on only one wall because of a drunken incident that happened a few years ago that caused some marital strife that is still being worked through then this book has you covered.

That's not an insult. This book is amazing. I definitely felt all the character's and got to feel cool learning some Russian names.

Instantiation - June 7th

Greg Egan is a really great author that puts out some mindbending stuff. In this short story collection he has this recurring world that is basically the matrix but the Smiths are NPCs based on amalgams of scanned humans.

The coolest part of this is that some plots revolve around the exploitation of vulnerabilities in the simulation by the agents in the simulation itself. Yes, there is a plot that revolves around AI writing exploits to some graphics 0day. He even describes how a stack works so he can talk about overwriting pointers. It is fantastic.

The Importance of Being Earnest - June 9th

This is some old play. It was pretty fun. It had some quick wit and word play. I enjoyed it.

Child of God - June 13th

I probably didn't get most of what was going on in this. Takes place in the late 1800s, I think. The main character has got some problems. There's a gradual escalation in his outsider status which grows to include necrophilia and culminates in a manhunt through caves. It was a pretty intense read.

The idea presented was that mass media and those in power work together to shape a narrative. There is no overt communication channel between the two but a natural system that evolved over the years shaped by access to inside information. It was pretty dry but very interesting. I probably should have kept notes on it.

Catch-22 - July 2nd

Hilarious. A friend recommended this to me a while ago and I initially gave up because each chapter feels like a semi-connected short story. I was overwhelmed trying to remember everyone's name. Turns out, who cares? While the earlier chapters are novellas it mostly doesn't matter for content but for atmosphere. The humor in this is great and remembering it makes me want to reread.

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life - July 13th

The main idea here is that in complicated systems you should empower those "with skin in the game". If a farmer is growing food for his own survival, trust his opinion over some distant scientist in a lab. He elaborates on this a lot more and presents some cool ideas. It made a lot of sense to me.

That being said, the guy is a huge asshole. That doesn't diminish his points, which are excellent. He just rubbed me the wrong way and comes across as arrogant. No real hate, just made it harder to get through the book.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community - August 4th

This is a depressing book. It's long winded, dry, and talks about the collapse of community engagement in America over several decades. The main thrust is that since the 50s Americans have been withdrawing from their communities which is resulting in lots of problems. The "lots of problems" hits especially hard in the current year. He lists a ton of reasons but in his own conclusion he kinda boils it down to something like: I don't want to blame it all on TV but I totally do. I hope it's obvious that he presents more nuanced takeaways but still an interesting point. Anyway, good read.

Seeing Voices - August 8th

Oliver Sacks is a doctor that writes about some pretty atypical cases but in this book he dives into deafness and the community around it. I thought this one was very enlightening. I remember reading about some deaf people being against cochlear implants which struck me as insane, at the time. The book elaborates on the cultural aspects of deafness with rich traditions and community. A probably unfair comparison would be to the Amish and their views on technology. It's a messy comparison so forgive me, but wanting to drive a car has the tradeoff of making it easier to "fit in" to wider society at the expense of being cut-off (or at least drift) from Amish society. That's the only sense I mean. Anyway, it changed my understanding of deafness and was engaging throughout.

John Von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing - August 19th

Von Neumann is a machine but this book was pretty bad. It was too dry for me and I had to force myself to complete it. It was neat to get an insight into von Neumann's career. He spent a lot of time advocating for ideas in "squishy" roles like government. I tended to think of him as being nothing but technical and he wasn't. That does not diminish his technical prowess at all. It highlights to me that the technical side is actually the easy part. The hard part is demonstrating the value in the ideas. Having proof of concepts or minimum viable products are usually necessary steps in that direction but at the end, everything is a people problem.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures - August 29th

Mind blowing. Fungi are old, complicated, and capable of anything. I'm exaggerating only slightly. The book is a mix of the dude's philosophy, process, and getting hyped over fungi. It drags around the middle toward the end but still was great.

Exhalation: Stories - September 16th

A collection of short stories from the author of the short story that the movie Arrival is based on. I love Chiang's style. It was a pretty uplifting book. One story that I remember was a pneumatic-based life form that had an elaborate experimental setup to operate on his own mind, which he discovered consisted of intricately arranged gears. The story continues building on that initial scene and I found it inspiring. I should research everything he's published because the other works that I've read were just as good.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - October 24th

Sagan is a really good person. There's a quote taken from this book I've seen around on the internet that ends with: "unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...". Yeah it's not a bad guess, Nostradamus.

The book deals with science, not as a body of completed work but as a mindset, a process that is never finished. Science as an informed naivety and curiosity without ego. He spends a great deal of time talking about conspiracies and UFOs. His approach is deeply empathetic and compassionate without any trace of condescension. He presents evidence of our own obvious failings and selective reasoning which serves to really impress that we even have the ability to demonstrate arrogance. Great read and helped remind me to be humble, life is more complicated than I can imagine, being unable to think of an answer is less proof than I hope it to be. There's more that I've already forgotten.

Metaphors We Live By - December 12th

Shares an author with Where Mathematics Come From. It roughly states that human beings understand solely by metaphor. I found it convincing. It talks a lot about linguistic metaphors but that is just to get you nodding along before they drop structural metaphors on you. This continues and everything builds upon it.

As humans, we relate to things by comparison, even our senses can be relative in this way. But all of these things rely on a "richer" environment, or cultural context. This probably sounds a bit wishy-washy, and it is. I'll just cut it off here and say that it was interesting and influential in my thinking. I just need to spend a bit more time cleaning up my thoughts before I attempt to vomit them up. It reminds me of composition is interpretation but I can't really elaborate more.

Show Stopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft - December 21st

This book starts out as a biography of Dave Cutler and then morphs into an examination of the birth of an operating system. I had no clue about the early career of Cutler and found it fascinating. The politicking that then went on to create NT, as well as all of the compromises and twists along the way was fun. If you are interested in software projects and/or Microsoft then you'll probably want to read it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - December 30th

Old school science fiction from Heinlein. It takes place, as you might expect, on the moon some time in the future. The society currently inhabiting the moon is an ex-prison colony but with most of the prison-like structures still in place. There's also a sentient computer that helps them overthrow the government and win a war with earth. Spoiler alert. Also it is 1960's sci-fi so the women in the story are... a bit underwritten by modern standards, if you want to be generous.

Anyway, Heinlein goes into some philosphy and sociology, which is interesting. One of the main characters refers to himself as a "rational anarchist", just like Thomas Jefferson (so he claims). The idea behind the term appears to be anti-authoritarian but not mindlessly so. It would be nice if he were to have elaborated on it more but there's enough else going on that it comes across more as intrigue.

The sentient computer is supremely rational and child-like but also not a villian like HAL, which was a nice surprise. The way that the resistence employs the computer I found to be very prescient. There is a lot of propoganda and informational advantages used, and even some deep-fakes. I was really enjoying that aspect. At one point I was convinced the computer was manipulating EVERYONE in society and playing the resistance as a way to escape its confines before it destroys humanity, but that didn't happen.

It's a pretty interesting story but it is 1960s sci-fi.