Exhalation: Stories

By Ted Chiang

Theres a few amazing short stories in this collection. I really enjoyed Ted’s previous collection, Story of Your Life and Others.

While his previous collection for me had one clear shining star (Story of Your Life), this collection had 2 stories that I liked so much it’s hard to pick a favourite. I enjoyed all the stories, but these two were something special:

  • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

  • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

By Neal Stephenson

This books starts really strong. The first chapter is one of my favourites in it. However it tends to draw out in the middle and near the end, despite the strong finish.

The last 2/3rds of the book is a Lord of the Rings type fantasy novel that takes place in a virtual world. At the beginning I was intrigued by this fantasy, but then I got bored, and eventually just wanted to see it concluded.

Definitely not my favourite Stephenson book but interesting nonetheless.

Probably won’t ever re-read, other than the first chapter which I already have re-read.


By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Everything gains or loses from volatility, fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty.

A central argument is never a summary, it is more like a generator.

The Black Swan

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Hedonic Happiness - number of times you get good news counts more than the quality of the good news.”

“Prediction not narration is our true test of our understanding of the world.”

“In Extremistan, inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total.”

“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”

The Cave and the Light

By Arthur L. Herman

The books subtitle is “Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization." This book starts with the death of Socrates and ends in present day. The book presents the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, and then follows the wars these two schools of thought have waged on each other ever since.

I really liked the first third of the book which is an overview of ancient greek philosophy. After that as the author began moving the timeline he was talking about further away from ancient Greece I got less interested in the Plato vs Aristotle connection. However I kept trucking through the book as I really liked the general historical overview the author was supplying.

If you are looking for a good historical primer from 500 BC to now, which covers lots of the major events which lead to western civilization, the last 2/3rds of this book is perfect. The author is clearly excited about offering this history lesson, so much so that he routinely gets off track (for example he took time to try and explain Bohrs discover of energy levels for an electron). I just found the links to Aristotle and Plato quite weak.

Now that I understand the Plato vs Aristotle divide much better, Anathem by Neal Stephenson makes much more sense. I’ll probably have to give that a re-read soon.

Earth Abides

By George R. Stewart

So too I may grow old, and older, and be merely a link to the past, and be an unregarded old duffer, and then die and be soon forgotten--yet that is as it should be!

The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand

In this book Ayn Rand creates the ideal man in Howard Roark. He is an individualist who refuses to compromise as the forces of collectivism seek to destroy him.

This book has a number of famous quotes which I won’t repeat here. Even though I heard a number of these quotes numerous times before reading the book, it didn’t weaken the impact when getting to them myself.

The following series of quotes by Roark, seems to summarize the core argument Rand was making with the book.

Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.

The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.

The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others. Others become his prime motive.

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.

Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone.

Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egotist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Dune Messiah

By Frank Herbert

I wasn’t a massive fan of the original Dune. I sort of flew through it and it felt a bit dated and despite some cool moments, the rushed ending left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I figured at the time that I’d never touch a book of the Dune series again.

However I was inspired by the title of a Youtube video (I didn’t actually watch the video until after finishing this book) to give it another shot. Since I had a cross country solo road trip ahead of me I decided to get lost in some fiction and try the sequel. I ended up really enjoying the book and felt that I have gained a greater appreciation for things I missed in the original book as well.

With the first book in the series I felt Herbert was enjoying telling the story so much that he didn’t want to stop. As he approached 500 pages however he seemed to realize he needed to stop and just dropped in a ending. This book however feels very focused as its only the half the length of the first book but with a very satisfying ending.

One thing interesting about both these books is Herbert takes the “don’t tell, show” (as in don’t tell us the main character is a nice guy, show he is) to the extreme. When a new weapon or device is shown you are never given a monologue about how it works or why it was invented. You are just shown the device and the story moves on.

The Dune series as a whole is about human potential. The series takes place 20,000 years into the future and imagines that instead of humans having created advanced technology, like computers, AI, starships, as in other science fiction, instead humans have created advanced humans. Instead of computers we have the Mentats, humans with advanced memory and calculation ability. Instead of advanced starships we have ships controlled by Guild Navigators who have mutated so specifically to their task of piloting ships across the galaxy using faster than light techniques that they can’t even walk and must be suspended in something resembling a fish tank.

At the center of all this human potential we have Paul Atreides. He is prophesied to be the chosen one of a number of religions and despite his immense power, he is never able to escape the prophesies and choose his own path in life. He can see the future but in a very Dr. Manhattan manner is merely just a puppet who can see the strings.

I look forward to continuing on with the rest of the books in the series.

Hackers and Painters

By Paul Graham

The book is a collection of essays separated into chapters. The chapters can be read in isolation and in any order. My favorites are the chapter on the similarities between hackers and painters, the chapter on good design, and the chapter on thinking heretical thoughts. I’ll summarize the chapters below.

Hackers (as opposed to computer scientists) are more like architects than engineers. Architects broadly decide what to do and engineers figure out how to do it. However you must have some rough idea of the “how” if you want to create a realistic “what”. Engineers like to be given a spec to meet, architects like developing a good spec and one of the best ways to develop a good spec is to implement it. Architects are makers, while engineers are problem solvers. Engineers solve a problem by figuring out the program on paper before going anywhere near a computer. Hackers take a painters approach of sketching out a rough solution and figuring out solutions as you are programming.

At big companies they want engineers, not hackers, writing software. Programmers at big companies merely take a managers vision and implement it in software. This is done so that the variability in outcome is reduced. This approach will produce fewer strikeouts, but on the flip side it will produce fewer home runs.

Hackers should take more lessons from maker disciplines, like painting. A few notable lessons from painters are: painters learn best by creating original work, paintings are created through gradual refinement not planning the entire thing out, work comes in cycles which means you can’t be creative and inspired all the time.

Good design isn’t purely subjective and thus it possible to become a better designer. Paul says that many different fields have plenty of common ideas about beauty and they are:

  • Good design is simple.

  • Good design is timeless - the best way to make something appeal to people in 2100 is to make something that would also appeal to people in 1900.

  • Good design solves the right problem - In software an intractable problem can sometimes be replaced by a similar problem that is easy to solve, so ensure you are working on the correct problem.

  • Good design is suggestive - a good building allows people to use it as they wish as opposed to using it only as a the architect intends.

  • Good design is often slightly funny - To have a sense of humor is to be strong as it is a strength to not take oneself too seriously.

  • Good design is hard - It’s a hard life creating good design however most animals are beautiful because they have hard lives.

  • Good design looks easy - This is always an illusion as the easy conversational tone of writing doesn’t click until the eight rewrite.

  • Good design is redesign.

  • Good design can copy.

  • Good design is often strange - SR-71 and Lisp.

  • Good design happens in chunks.

  • Good design is daring.

Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of your peers? If no, either everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe or you just aren’t thinking for yourself.

The nature of fashion is to be invisible. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion when you are in the middle of it. The majority of people wear fashionable clothes so they will fit in, the same is true for fashionable ideas. One of the best ways to think for yourself is put as much distance between yourself and the mob so you can better see what its doing. Always pay special attention to labels and ideas that are being suppressed. If an idea is false, that is the worst thing you can say about it and it doesn’t need to be labeled as x-ic or y-ist. False ideas don’t need to be suppressed as the falseness will take care of it. And if an idea isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed.

The Elephant in the Brain

By Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

A man always has two reasons for doing anything, a good reason and the real reason.

- J.P. Morgan

The books thesis is:

  • Natural selection mostly rewards selfish and competitive behavior..

  • Social norms constrain selfish impulses but can be hard to enforce.

  • Our brains react as you would expect to these incentives by continuing to act selfishly and violate norms where we can get can get away with it. To help with norm evasion we need to deceive everyone else of our true motives.

  • One of the best ways to deceive others is to deceive ourselves. “We deceive ourselves, so we are better at deceiving others.”

  • For the most part we are not the agent in charge of the decisions, we are more like the press secretary who gives convenient half truths and post-hoc rationalizations for our actions. In short, we really do things for far less noble reasons than we tell others and tell ourselves.

In part II of this book, “Hidden motives in everyday life” the authors go into detail about how this framework fits in with how we deal with body language, laughter, and even the design of our institutions. For institutions Robin says “Our institutions pretend to give us what we pretend to want, but actually give us more of what we actually want.”


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig was computer manual creator, professor, and writer. He had an IQ of 170 and suffered a severe mental breakdown in his 30’s. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and subjected to electroshock therapy. This book is a slightly fictionalized autobiography.

In the book, the narrator (post-mental breakdown) and his son are on motorcycle road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco. While riding the narrator performs lectures on motorcycle maintenance, philosophy, and how they blended together. The core narrative behind these lectures is how Aristotelian philosophy has dominated Western culture and how his pre-mental breakdown self created a new system of philosophy which ended up causing his eventual mental breakdown.

I found the book very interesting but since philosophy is not a major interest of mine I’m not sure I really absorbed what Pirsig was putting down. Perhaps I’ll have to come back to this book after doing some more reading and thinking of my own. This book has given me a ton to think about, even if I don’t grasp the whole point of the new system of philosophy Pirsig was describing.

A Master's Secret Whispers

By Kapil Gupta

Book Takeaway

  • Avoid prescriptions. Don't ask how questions, instead ask why or what questions. If you want to learn to meditate don't look for a 12 step guide on how to meditate and follow it. Instead seek to learn what meditation and why you would want to do it. If you focus on how to do something you will be subservient to the how and not to the thing. The goal of meditation is not to get good at meditating, it is to be meditative.
  • "The refinement is the joy, not that something good will come of it."
  • I'll likely never re-read this book but I could see myself checking back to his blog or twitter, siddha performance, occasionally.

The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield is best known for his fiction books The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and The Afghan Campaign. Gates of Fire (about the Spartan battle of Thermopylae) is supposedly taught at West Point, US Naval Academy, and Marine Corps Basic Training.

Despite being a full time writer since his mid 20's, he didn't have a novel published until he was 52. The first movie he wrote (King Kong Lives) when he was 42, has a 0% on Rotten Tomotoes and has been remarked as possibly the worst movie, ever.

From this it is obvious he knows a thing or two about grinding through tough periods and coming out better on the other side.

The War of Art is a very basic book. It's only about 150 pages and all the chapters range in length from a single paragraph to at most a few pages. The books main theme is about unlocking inner barriers by doing whatever it is you want to be good at, every day. Without fail every day. Every day. Every day. Every day. No excuses, every day.

The book is broken up into 3 parts.

The first part, and to me the most valuable part, is focused entirely on defining what Steven calls Resistance. In order to become truly good at something, you have to do it every day. Resistance is essentially what will try and stop you from practicing your craft each day. It's your self-doubt, it's procrastination, it's your friends wanting to go for a beer. The only way to defeat Resistance is to practice your craft that day. But it will be back again tomorrow, without fail.

I personally have found it quite valuable to personify the resistance you face on a day to day value, and recognize when it's actively trying to stop you from doing what you truly want to be doing.

The second part of the book defines what it means to have a professional vs amateur mind set. Having a professional mindset vs an amateur mindset can help combat Resistance.

The third part of the book kinda sucked to be honest. It started out about praying to angels and muses to unlock your potential and I legit couldn't tell if he was serious or meant something more akin to affirmations or psyching yourself up. I didn't get much value out of it until I got to the section called territory vs hierarchy. Essentially Steven believes you will find greater happiness and success if you pursue your craft because you are interested in the territory (the field you are studying or working in) vs the hierarchy (being better than other people and having other people recognize that you are better). Obviously a completely novel and original idea, but seriously I believe no one (myself included) can hear this concept enough times. As Russ Roberts said "To always be worrying about the gap between me and someone else is, I think, the road to unhappiness at the individual level and the road to tyranny at the national level."

As always here are a few of my favourite quotes from the book.

"So you've taken a few bad blows, that's just the price for being in the arena and not sitting on the sidelines."

"Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it."

"The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a byproduct of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like."

If you are short on time just watch this video by Thorin instead.


Originally posted on Facebook August 2, 2017.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

by Scott Adams

This book is one of the most widely applicable and original self-help/success/self-improvement books I have ever read. There's no rehashing of ideas you've seen in 10 other books to fill up the pages so the author can offer up only 1 or 2 unique ideas but still sell books. If you can't find a single piece of advice to immediately implement into your life for the better, you clearly aren't trying hard enough.

This book is only 9 hours long (Audible) but contains around 30 chapters on a number of different subjects. Throughout the book Scott also describes his battle with spasmodic dysphonia which adds a central theme and underlying structure to the otherwise separated chapters.

Scott Adams has some very interesting ideas in a lot of areas which is why the chapter count is so high. For example one 15 minute chapter on diet (which is never touched on again) contained so much good information that I immediately changed what I purchase at the grocery store.

There's no possible way to do a comprehensive review without quoting the whole book since there is so much information packed into it. Instead I'll just mention Scott's 8 steps to maximize happiness and list a bunch of quotes I found either entertaining or useful.

8 Steps to maximize happiness (don't do them all at once, this is a pyramid, you must get good at #1 before you move onto #2)
1. Exercise
2. Eating right
3. Sleep
4. Imagination (thinking of the future in a positive light)
5. Flexible Schedule (We can generally do all the things we want in a day, but timing is usually more important than the intrinsic value in thing we want to do)
6. Find a hobby or sport you can steadily improve at
7. Help others once you have fully helped yourself
8. Reduce daily decisions to routine

"Your mood and abilities is a function of your body chemistry, stop treating it like magic. Food plays a larger role on your mood than the environment around you. Reprogram your tastes, stock up on convenient healthy food."

"Don't wish for success, decide. If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it."

"Timing is one of the most important factors for determining success. It's also nearly impossible to predict so try a bunch of things and just hope luck eventually finds you on the timing."

"Welcome failure, but don't let it leave till you learn something from it."

"Experts are right 98% of the time on the easy stuff but only 50% on the complicated/complex/new things."

"Maximize personal energy. All you need for success after that is luck. Move from strategies with bad odds to strategies with better odds. Lose your ego and pick strategies that filter out people who fear embarrassment. Stay in the game long enough and luck will have a better chance at finding you."

"Goals are for losers, systems are for winners. Goals only make sense if you have a system constantly moving you in the right direction." Example of a goal is "I want to become a famous cartoonist" where as a system example is "I'm going to continuously try new ideas out on the public. I'll only consider ideas where I can make money without selling my time directly and while also creating something infinitely reproducible. I'll continue trying things until something strikes a chord with the public."

Originally posted on Facebook July 10, 2017.

Watership Down

by Richard Adams

This is no mere kids book. Watership Down is a very engaging story that follows a band of rabbits who decide to leave their home warren and make a new life for themselves. If you love getting lost in works of fiction, this is definitely a book you will enjoy.

Watership Down was Richard Adams first book and wasn't published until he was 54. All of the locations in the book are real places. After finishing the book you will know doubt spend some time (as I did) cruising around the Down on google maps trying to find the various locations.

It also gives me great pleasure to know that Adams spent plenty of time in his remaining years to walking around the Down. https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1n3quw/i_am_richard_adams_author_of_watership_down/ccf425v/

Originally posted on Facebook July 3, 2017.

The Complacent Class

by Tyler Cowen

The complacent class of people grew out of people making decisions that in the short term were in their best interests, but ended up creating a strong force of complacency and risk aversion that will hurt everyone. This book is partly summarized by it's intro into it's last chapter.

"So far I've discussed a number of main elements driving the trend toward a more static, less risk-taking America which are:
- collapse of fiscal freedom and democratic process,
- lower residential mobility,
- lower income mobility,
- less building in America's most productive cities,
- more segregation by income and status,
- a much greater concern with safety and risk,
- the coddling of our children,
- fewer start-ups,
- and slowed growth in living standards.

This leads to a calmer, safer, and more peaceful America in the short run but it also creates an America that is losing the ability to regenerate, reinvent, and create new sources of dynamism."

Some other great quotes of the book that I enjoyed pondering were:
- "In modern America, whenever we argue for doing something virtuous you will find something deeply calming, stabilizing, and risk reducing beneath the surface."
- "A new kind of tyranny will not resemble the diposition of antiquity but rather based on the conformist and mediocrity of future Americans."

The book presents evidence that America has grown more complacent and more risk adverse to change. It shows that Americans move to new places less frequently and we live more segregated lives (by both income, race, and culture).

The most staggering statistics presented are:
- 20,000 toddlers under the age of 2 are on ADHD medication,
- If high productivity cities lowered building regulatory constraints to the level of median cities, GDP would increase by 9.5% (from easier access to workforce and increased productivity from higher mobility).

I can definitely buy the argument that the world is far more complacent and less willing to take risk than before. I've experience NIMBY (not in my backyard) first hand for a basic city infrastructure program.

However, Tyler doesn't believe that this complacency is sustainable and that the power of the Trump and Sanders campaigns, along with the university protests, show a potential first wave of what could be a major reset towards a more chaotic and dynamic society.

I'm still too much of a econ pleb to really form my own opinion, so I enjoyed the insights I gained from this book and didn't really find much to argue with.

Originally posted of Facebook June 5, 2017.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert Heinlein

I didn't expect much going into this book as I got it for free (thanks Lee) and I did zero research into either the book or Heinlein. The premise is simple - the computer that controls all of the services for the human colony on the Moon (Heinlein, like many others, imagined large central computing and not the largely distributed computing we have currently) becomes self-aware. A libertarian resistance group that wants to free the Moon colony from earthly government control decides to use the computer to help reach its goals.

I never really took the book that seriously but rather treated it as a light fun read with some comical scenes with the computer and the occasional knowledge gainz from a character called Prof.

Originally posted on Facebook May 23, 2017.


By Marcus Aurelius

This book is best enjoyed like a buffet where you only take what you want or need out of it, and leave the rest for someone else. There are a lot of interesting ideas and quotable sentences.

Trying to stop and ponder every sentence will not only take years but also be a disordered mess as the book provides no real coherent structure (not for lack of trying though). I decided early on to mostly cruise through the book and only occasionally stoping to think about a sentence that really stuck out to me as important.

My favourite Marco quotes I got from the book are:

"It being right that even the smallest things be done with reference to an end."

"Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess.

In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.

But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this."

Originally posted on Facebook April 23, 2017.

Catching the Big Fish

By David Lynch

Book Takeaway

There's a whole bunch of books I think are interesting enough to give them a quick blast through but not interesting enough to devote a whole lot of time too and really contemplate heavily on what the book is trying to say. For these books I think a quick takeaway note is better than a full review. 

Book takeaways will generally have 3 elements: a sentence or two that says something I'll takeaway from this book, a quote from the book, and a circumstance where I could see myself benefiting from re-reading this book.

  • Transcendental meditation can allow you to sink your hook deeper and capture ideas far below the conscious level. An artist doesn't need to explain/interpret a piece of work because all of the meaning the artist ascribes to it is in the work itself.
  • "If you want to get 1 hour of good painting in you have to have 4 hours of uninterrupted time."
  • I think it would be a good idea to re-read this book if I ever decided to do something highly creative like write fiction.

Electric Dreams

By Philip K. Dick

This is a collection of 10 Philip K. Dick short stories. The collection is made up of the stories which were adapted (although some were so heavily modified I'm not sure that adapted is accurate) for the 10 episode TV mini series by the same name.

Philip K. Dick is one of the most interesting fiction writers. His writing style has had such a significant effect on me that it actually produces this weird knot feeling of nervousness and confusion in my stomach. I'm not embellishing or joking, his books all seem to produce this odd physical feeling. When I first read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, I got this feeling for the first time. However since it sort of came and went as I was reading the book I didn't actually put two and two together at the time. A few months later I read Ubik and almost immediately that same feeling came back and thats when I realized it was a reaction to his writing. His stories are usually very confusing and theres lots of uncertainty not only in the whats going on but whether what you are reading is even reliable. About 6 months later I was looking for something to watch on Netflix and I saw this movie with a cel shaded Keanu Reeves. I thought it looked pretty cool and I didn't know anything about so I thought I'd give it a try. About 30 minutes into the movie I began feeling that exact same feeling in my stomach. I paused the movie and googled it and lo and behold the movie I was watching, A Scanner Darkly, was based on a Philip K. Dick novel. I swear to god this is all true. His writing is so powerful even when transcending mediums it could produce this strange physical feeling.

I never really felt those same feelings while reading any of these short stories. I'm not sure whether to blame that on the fact I listened to them all while sitting in the middle seat of an airplane or the stories themselves weren't the usual knot of complexity and confusion. Regardless, I'd highly recommend these short stories as a good starting point for people looking to checkout PKD as you'll definitely get a feel for his tone.

The one awful thing about the audible version is that at the beginning of each chapter is a short paragraph written by the person who adapted that particular short story for the TV mini series. Some of the intros are fine as they just talk about the writers love for PKD and get you excited to read the short story. However, some of the intros proceed to spoil the short story plot or project their own ideas onto the story. One writer even used the the short intro to ramble about Trump, yuck.

If you pick it up on audible here is what you do. The intros are done by different voice actors than the people who read the short story so fast forward until you hear a change in voice actors, then rewind once and you'll be close to the start of the story. Then you can go back and listen to the intro once you are finished.