2019 books

This year

... discovered academic publishers — MIT, Princeton, Cambridge, Wiley — and very strong material: Normal Accidents, Streetlights and Shadows, Cornered, Causal Reasoning in Physics

... expanded on practical software engineering: The Data Warehouse Toolkit, The Clean Coder, Production Ready Microservices

... looked deep inside myself: The Ego Tunnel, The Manual, The Meditations, On Having No Head

... learned to write a bit better: Dreyers's English, Zen in the Art of Writing

... followed powerful stories: life of Wernher Von Braun in Dr.Space, willpower in White Devil's Daughters, horrors of Night, great leap of Rocket Men, cheerfulness of Jackie Chan, neuroscience in Into the Grey Zone

... got some good life advises: Never Split a Difference, Getting Things Done, Made to Stick, 12 Rules for Life, Range

... touched variety other interesting topics: What We Cannot Know, Brief Answers to Big Questions, Spying on Whales, The Art of Invisibility, Empty Planet, Novascene

... and just enjoyed some good entertainment: We are legion, Exhalation, What If, Soonish

43 books, longest 460p, average 270p.

Almost all paperback. Almost all gifted to charity, library@coex and friends.

books of 2018

Another great year. Finished 34 out of 22 planned books. Read a couple I had in back of my head for while and made few great discoveries along the way.

> What is your top pick, Nikolay?
> This year, I would recommend everybody “It does not have to be crazy at work”.

Powerful. Chief talent officer from Netflix shares fresh look at what is important to people at tech company. Recently, it become a cliche that tech company has fancy campuses with chocolate fountains, free food and champagne. Unnecessary perks, weird nudges and intrusion into work and after-work life is a wasteful corporate enterprise that diminishes agency of people working at the company. Instead, companies should focus on what they do the best — plain work. It is time for companies to cut the bullshit, think about what really matters and take people seriously. It was also great to follow story of Netflix from the front row.

Packing to Mars. Going to space is the most grandiose journey anyone can ever embark upon. But what it actually feels like? This book is full of funny and sometimes gross recollections from real witnesses. Here, on Earth, we are humans, and out there, in outer space, we are humans too.

Brotopia. One day, at popular computer science lecture at my alma mater, I noticed that there are 100+ guys and only 2 girls. The sheer scale of imbalance hit me. No matter what is your perception of expected imbalance this is way too extreme. To get some background on what lead to this, I looked into historical account on gender imbalance in U.S. in this field provided by this book.

The lean startup. Famous philosophy of rapid experimentation and growth for building new products and companies. Keep hand on a pulse of feedback from customers. Use tight build-measure-learn loop as an engine of your growth.

A study in scarlet. Beautiful novel from the world of Sherlock Holmes. audiobook 

The ethics of influence. Started this book a while ago and finally finished it this year. Now that we know about nudges, what is the moral grounds of government, or other authority like big corporation, using nudges for their own means? For example, when you walk into a food hall, what products you do see first and which require extra effort? Is it a healthy, ecologically friendly, or domestic option of the same thing? Do you even need it? Key takeaway, if we have choices anyways then why don't someone optimise choice-structure for social good? Another learning is that there are different types of nudges, some are quite subtle. Knowledge on how they work may not grant you immunity, yet the hope is it will tip the scales of power back into your favour.

Skin in the Game. Taleb covers here many interesting mechanisms that arise in case of uncertainty. One is responsibility and how it shapes social structures. Imagine you are seeing a doctor, do his incentives align with yours? Another one that stands out is difference of risk-sharing and risk-transferring. How come some customs and traditions spread and survive and others fade away. Lastly, if you don’t have real stake at what you have to say, perhaps we should not listen to you. And on the other hand, if you survived so far by making your own decisions, then there is some value to your opinion. Of course, that is very crude way to put it. As always, Taleb does extraordinary job articulating ideas, unconventional and profound.

Dreams from my father. Stories from formative years of Barack Obama, written by himself. Here I could follow his story with more detail and no restrictive format of political campaign speeches. The story of his childhood, race, African and American communities, in short his “audacity of hope”. audiobook narrated by Barack himself

Nocturnes. A couple of elegant and subtle novels about nightfall and music. paperback from SF SOMA 🌉

Competing against luck. Keep meaningful metrics and keep shipping. Pretty much same ideas as you would find somewhere else, Lean Startup for example, but less elaborate and in non-remarkable style. This book was a miss this year. audiobook

Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Monumental work on philosophy of science. If you are unfamiliar, in short, it is concerned with what is scientific knowledge and how it evolves. Now I realise, I got incomplete and at times wrong picture on this work when I was studying this topic back in undergrad. This work is very elaborate and acknowledges commonly referenced shortcomings, such as continuity. It was also great to learn how he blends research community and institutions that develop scientific knowledge into his framework. 

Three body problem. Famous science fiction from China. Very entertaining read.

The dark forest. Second part of “Three body problem” series. All the sci-fiction concepts you have heard mixed-up together. Story gradually losses its coherence leading to a complete mess in the end. The very ending was quite witty, but it takes unreasonably long to get there.

Machine, Platform, Crowd. Outlook on trends in tech industry. If you work in tech, you can probably add to this book, but unlikely other way around. audiobook 

Steering the craft. A crash course on writing and story telling. One thing that pops-out right away, keep in mind a persona who is telling the story. There are multiple kinds of voices that you can choose: omniscient observer, non-omniscient 3rd person, witness of story, main character, and others. This helps you to move reader closer to characters in your story. There is also a collection of other useful practical tips.

Bad Blood. Apparently, you could mislead investors, public and government for almost a decade, got a billions in founding without working product and cause physical harm to people. Thrilling story.

Principles. Life and work advices from founder of notorious Bridgewater hedge found. I am not found of the style he has chosen for this book, but looking back more of then not I agree with his advices. paperback

Gentleman. Short and intense novel about a guy who mistakenly sold his wife to devil. Narration gives you vivid pictures, almost like you are watching a play in theatre. paperback from SF SOMA 🌉

Bladerunner. Classic. I was surprised that movies completely missed a couple of elaborate dimensions to this story. That being said, both movies, and book have strong plot and convey unique and rich futuristic mood. paperback from SF SOMA 🌉

All the light we cannot see. Story about german boy and french girl in WWII. Very interesting style. paperback from SF SOMA 🌉

Factfullness. There are many metrics backed by solid facts that world is much better now than before and much better than you are thinking it is. Similarly, there are challenges and problems out there, but they are not exactly what you think they are. Why is it the case? Sensationalism in media and fundamental mechanics of how we learn about world is to blame. It was also great to follow his numerous stories from times he worked as data scientist in healthcare and government. Again, style was not the best, but most of the points make sense. paperback. many thanks to Hoa

All systems red. Good science fiction about life of an android. audiobook

Managing oneself. Rather depressing outlook. Didn’t learn much new from this book. Another miss.

Designing Data-Intensive Applications. Incredible book, very elaborate and coherent. Learned a lot about modern data systems and refined bits I already knew. You might enjoy it a lot if you work in software or just enjoying stretching your mind.

Forever War. What if there was a war that never ended?

On language. One of the most eloquent writings I have seen. Very deep material on fundamentals of language. Interview with Chomsky about politics gives fresh contrarian viewpoint on United States in past century. Especially good if you want to learn how did U.S. get where it is now.

Hagakure: The book of the samurai. Thoughts on life, economics, philosophy and other important affairs of people in ancient Japan.

Cat’s Cradle. Entertaining science fiction from Kurt Vonnegut. audiobook.

The obstacle is the way. Challenges that we face can be milestones that help us progress. Pushing this thought to the extreme, the problems we are solving form the way itself. Here author gives a collection of advices that can help you to build such mindset. Many appropriate references from ancient and recent history. Accompanying bonus interview with author was a pleasant surprise.

All quiet on the western front. Detailed and very personal account on WWI. Today is the most peaceful time in human history, yet we have not been so far in touch with reality as ever before. We see war exclusively through lens of sensationalist news camera, violent movies and games or state propaganda. Our perception of war is wicked. What is war really like? This book gives a glimpse of horrors and despair.

It does not have to be crazy at work. Very short and to the point account on work style. 

AI superpowers. I did not agree with many points Kai Fu Lee is making here about tech nor with his general defeatist attitude towards AI and tech. His paternalistic tone was annoying too. The most thought provoking and even shocking takeaway from this book is how scared of AI and its future can be someone so influential in this field.

Blitzscaling. Interesting read on how to scale-up organisations with lightning fast speed.

The curse of bigness. History of anti-trusts, monopolies and regulation. Originally I did not plan to finish it this year, but material on this topic is so well written in this book that it was a pleasure to finish it on Christmas. ❄️

books of 2017

This year I have finished 16 books. This is 4 books less than year ago, but it matches the plan for this year! 🙌

It will be marked by good books I have known for a while as well as great new discoveries. The subjects vary greatly, but few common reoccurring themes can be seen.

One more observation, many of the books are related to what I have read before. Such, I have read books from Tim Wu and Michael Lewis. Later wrote the book about the author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that I read last year. Speaking of fiction, plus-one goes to Charles Dickens and Neil Gaiman (looks like it will be the last one for Neil tho).

This year it has been 5 fiction (2 sci-fiction) books. Remarkably, EGB is the longest I have read so far with over 800 pages. More numbers from goodreads:

The Attention Merchants Tim Wu. Just as in his other work — “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” — here author gives a close historical look on the evolution of attention industry. Things at which we pay attention influence how we think and how we make our choices. Hence, it has been subject of profound efforts to direct it by individuals, governments, and businesses. The book concluded with remarks on how to this day attention in many forms is still the principal force that shapes our society. The real story was not as lush as Mad Men, still very intriguing to follow.

The Chimes” Charles Dickens. English classic. It was nice to spice it up a little last winter with a bit of Christmas magic. — audiobook

The Nest” Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It was a joy to read this light story about one big American family. I remember when I bought this book, lady at the checkout told me “..this is her first book. How did she do it so well?..”. I don’t know the answer, but I totally agree. — paperback from bookstore in SOMA SF 🌉

We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama”. Last speech of Michelle Obama as FLOTUS sparkled in me interest into public speeches. Next thing I remember I was watching speeches by Barack Obama. I have got inspired by the style, how he elaborated on his ideas and connected them. Written form also helped to zoom out and see how he constructed his speeches more clearly. — paperback from bookstore in SOMA SF 🌉

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” Marie Kondō. It was truly a life-changing book for me in many ways. My home have got cleaner. I’ve got good habits, more free time, better sleep. Most importantly, this book gave me a cozy and warm feeling when it was very much needed.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” Ben Horowitz. This is a cornerstone of philosophy of execution under stress. This is a guide on how to go through struggle. How not to die. How to win when no-one cares.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” Peter Thiel. This book explains fundamentals on creating a new venture. However, to me its biggest value comes from its inspirational yet intelligent message. I mean, you get this strong sense of startup philosophy while reading this book. I am also very found of its open and direct style.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” Yuval Noah Harari. First, author went through forces that shaped our society up until this moment. Next, he explored on how these fundamental learnings might shape our nearest future. He very carefully and coherently covers hot topics including: AGI, religion, ethics, politics. Among many other topics with elaborate examples, from top of the mind, I most vividly remember references to “inter-subjective” — realm where constructs make sense only when there are humans who believe in them, e.g. money, bank, government, corporation. However, there are many more ideas that are too hard to squeeze into one paragraph. Some of them are quite sobering, but sound reasonable nonetheless.

A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform”. Published in 1983, this official report gives harsh but critical overview of educational system in the United States at that time. The key alarming message of this report is that educational system was not keeping up with other countries. It provided analysis on why that might be so and how to fix that. I was interested in this work primarily in the context of other studies I was reading at that time.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” Douglas R. Hofstadter. This book has been a separate challenge to me. So far it has been the most challenging book I have read, but it has been the most rewarding at the same time. It is an elegant journey into math, consciousness, music, biology and art. — paperback. many thanks to Pooja.

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley” Antonio Garcia Martinez. This story sheds a light on the dark and ugly side of startups and big tech companies. Some of the points I find quite relatable, some — not so much. Often the story is told in very subjective and overly one-sided manner. Nonetheless, I appreciate the author for speaking-out and uncovering unspoken hard topics from the tech world.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” Douglas Adams. Good sci-fiction in the best spirits of “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”. I wanted to know how the story unrolled next. Had a few good laughs while reading it.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” Michael Lewis. This book does not talk much about behavioral science, rather it tells the story of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky on their way to form its foundations. This is a story of people behind “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

Man’s Search for Meaning” Viktor E. Frankl. Long time ago back at KAIST, I have heard someone mentioning Frankl’s Optimism in his argument. Particularly, it was that even under worst conditions we are able to make a choice to strive for the better. Since then I wanted to finish the original work. At first, author brings very vivid and frightening images of struggles in death camps. Later, he uses them to advocate his theory. I am not sure about its soundness, but I like that it gives more weight to top-down (slow system first) directions of our motives as opposed to bottom-up (fast system; subconscious first).

The Time Machine” H.G. Wells. Very well written short sci-fiction. Author explored ideas on how basic biological evolutionary forces will play in long term with technological progress and social order. — audiobook

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders” Neil Gaiman. Last book this year. The choice was between another classic — Sherlock Holmes, and this book. I chose this one due to good memories of reading his previous collection “Trigger Warning”. This one is a collection of mostly dark stories. Few are good, but only very few. Perhaps, Sherlock would have been a better choice.— audiobook

It has been a great read this year. Let’s keep it rolling!

2016, year in books

As a part of my last year’s resolutions, on the January 1st I committed myself to finish 20 books this year. And Yay! I did it! 

Cool thing is that in this year I read more books in English than in the rest of my life before (5 in 2015, 3 in 2014 and only a couple before that). Some of them are pretty short, but on average they are of a decent length. Many of them are popular, but few are surprisingly undiscovered. Here is what goodreads tells me:

Here are few words about each of them:

The Education of a Poker Player” — in this book cryptologists Herbert Yardley, who founded US black chamber (predecessor of NSA), guides through his life experiences and teaches subtleties of a poker game.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” — China have long been of a big interest to me. This book helped me to gain a bit of insight about its today’s society, role of party, culture with a bit of deeper historical perspective. Author recalls his memories and conversations with many people from different backgrounds in China, which forms very tranquil and rich narrative.

The Lessons of History” — this book is a collection of observations regarding biology, social order, economics, religion, moral. If we could say few things about each of them, what would they be?

Brave New World” — widely known masterpiece that became classics of modern literature.

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” — with innate to academic world love to detail and clarity author describes origins of life. It is certainly filled my gap in this part of biology. But what is more, I found it interesting how author brings physics and biology together and goes into details of evolutionary process.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” — collection of short, a little bit scary and disturbing stories from Neil Gaiman. These elegant stories were like a breath of fresh air in the midst of predictive, worn-out plots we see often in TV or novels.

Sphere” — very pleasant Sci-Fi in the best traditions of the genre.

High Output Management” — in this fundamental book Andrew Grove, the guy who made Intel, US semiconductor industry, and the Silicon Valley itself back in the day, talks about how to be a Great manager. We are all managers of a sort — we manage our own lives and people around us. I find it uttermost useful and insightful.

The Machine Stops” — another short Sci-Fi that pictures over-reliant on tech society.

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker” — true story from the O.G. hacker who elevated social engineering up to an unimaginable level. Reading this book was comparable to watching Hollywood Action movie that makes your heart pump faster, but with a big difference — the story here is real.

Daemon” — (if you are involved in software world — yes, it is that daemon. background process in your OS). What if highly autonomous, self-healing, distributed, and resilient program runs wild. How bad it could be? On the bigger scale, tech described in this book blurs border between highly advanced man-made tools and intelligence. Cool thing — folks from Google were consulting author about tech :)

Freedom™” — second part of Daemon. Now whole society is going through rapid changes and being re-shaped by tech. Is it good or bad? This book reminds how dramatically society can be changed by tech.

Outliers: The Story of Success” — this books is very popular nowadays, I see people reading it in London underground and in coffee shops. Without going into details, in this book author tries to find common patterns behind stories of success. No wonder this book is so popular :). It is a combination of luck, hard work and environment. What surprised me the most is role of environment and culture, which I tend to underestimate in favor of other factors.

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” — aesthetically beautiful passages about other worlds and outer space. Imagery that you picture while reading this book is comparable to ones from best Sci-Fi (in my case — Interstellar), but it is real and goes in hand with our best understanding of physics. Interestingly, few times you can even see glimpses of technology that might come only in decades (i.e. today) like rise of A.I. enhanced tech and VR. And all these has philosophic foundation that sees us as travelers, explorers and defines a new frontier in space.

The Last Lecture” — there is a heart-breaking story behind this book, which made me curious about its content. It is a collection of advices reflected in life story of a man that happen to be in very unfavorable conditions. There are definitely some good ideas here, but to me it was more about understanding how he thinks under such circumstances. It is one more reminder for all of us think about what really matters.

The Man in the High Castle” — what would our world looks like if history turned other way in WWII? The plot in the book goes closely to the TV Show. However, I find later better developed with richer and more interesting narrative.

Utopia” — very old book, really, published in 1516 in Latin. It is mix of fiction and philosophy about social structure and politics about imaginary society. It is where term “utopia” is originated.

Thinking, Fast and Slow” — despite it sounds like a cheep motivational book. Believe me, it is very far from that. This work is written recently by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman. It is like a comprehensive course on psychology and cognition have been compressed into a book. Yet, it preserves good writing style. It also has many references to economics and statistics. If you are familiar with books by Nassim Taleb, you will find here many related ideas. The core concepts in this book change the way how you understand human behavior and inner workings of our mind.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” —just like in “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, Cathy O’Neil talks about issues that require public attention, but on different front — big data usage in big companies and government.

Bushido: The Soul of Japan. A Classic Essay on Samurai Ethics” — this is another old book published in 1900. It is one of the best essays on the traditional Japanese culture and the place where Bushido was introduced to Western world. It is one of the works that initiated such prolonged interest in Japanese and Oriental culture, so I was eager have a look into it myself.

Looking forward to what I will learn in years to come!