For the past 10 months I haven’t written a single post. Since February 2017 I’ve been studying psychology, so whatever time I’ve spent on writing has been spent on research papers or answering people’s questions on Quora.
Fortunately, I’ve still had the pleasure of listening to more than 100 audiobooks on my way to and from school! If there’s one “hack” I can give you to get more reading done it’s to gradually get yourself to the point where you can listen to audiobooks at 1.5 times the speed.
Here’s a look at some of the books that stood out this year!
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
Every day we’re confronted with situations that require some sort of action on our part. At times we show how loving, generous, and compassionate we can be. At other times we show the very darkest humanity has to offer.
When we’re asked about why we acted in a certain way we usually come up with some sort of plausible answer, but how confident can we be that this explanation is correct? Is our behavior more based on nature or nurture, psychology or biology, past or present?
This book starts its journey at the point of when a behavior occurs and travels backward in minutes, hours, days, months, years, and generations to give us an expansive view of what influences our behaviors. Being human is a messy business and as such the question “Why do we do what we do?” needs a variety of fields to intersect and come together with each other if we truly want to find a broader understanding of ourselves and our behavior.
While this book is mainly focused on the biological aspects of behavior it also incorporates a variety of disciplines under its umbrella. Thus it manages to beautifully illustrate how there’s no “one right answer” to the question about human behavior that any particular discipline has the ability to provide alone.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
If there’s one word that’s key in this book it’s the word “curiosity”. How important a factor it was (alongside luck) in shaping one of the true masters. The book does a great job of painting a picture (pun very much intended) of the circumstances and times Leonardo was born into, his fortunes and misfortunes, and how he tackled them.
There are a myriad of lessons in creativity, art, and life in general to be found here. Also, the illustrations in the book that show his process and development of ideas are not only an inspiration but can also a serve as principles for the reader to incorporate into whatever field they’re in.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
While we aren’t doomed to repeat the exactly the same mistakes of the 20th century there are still many things that we apparently haven’t learned. This book looks back at the lessons we could, and should, have learned by now. Besides revisiting the past and how it lead us here the book also looks at what’s different this time around and what we can do to guard ourselves against the rise of authoritarianism.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths
While the brain/computer analogy isn’t as true as we would like it to be (this topic really needs a post of its own to dissect), it can be helpful. By applying some of the algorithms that computer science has applied to solve their problems, so perhaps can we. Especially when it comes to making decisions.
Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong by Andrew Shtulman
Early in our lives we develop theories about how things should work, and until they’re proven false we continue to believe them. The theories wouldn’t be problematic if it weren’t for the fact that we seldom come across situations where they are in fact proven wrong. Use of a deductive approach (top-down/based on theory) needs to be balanced with an inductive approach (bottom-up/based on evidence). This book gives the reader insights into their own mind, what mistakes we’re prone to, and what we can do about them.
The Secret Life of the Mind: How Our Brain Thinks, Feels and Decides by Mariano Sigman
A great book to complement the underlying principles presented in “Scienceblind”. The book delves deeper into how our brain develops patterns of thought, how emotions come into play, and how we ultimately decide (or do we?). While it might seem heavy on theory at first, you will gain tools that’ll come in handy in every day life.
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel C. Dennett
In order to build a house you need the right material, the right know-how, and the right tools. Perhaps we can build really solid huts, but they lack creativity. Perhaps we can build really elaborate and beautiful ideas, but they might lack structural integrity or won’t keep heat in and the cold out.
The same goes for thinking.
There aren’t that many good manuals on how to think about complex ideas, but this is one that really nails it. While the tools might not be directly applicable in every single situation they do provide a framework and the book is a good resource to lean against. I find the principles solid and the intuition pumps playful. Will probably re-read it in a few years to prime that pump!
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
I cried a few times during this read. While I give some affordance to the doubt that it might not be as representative of life for Appalaichans in the way that media has portrayed the book, it’s still a valuable insight into how many people feel and live in those areas.
If there’s one thing I hope this book gives is some understanding and empathy as to what kinds of challenges people face that you might not talk to, see, or hear much about. Also, what forces are at play that drive (in some cases force) people to lead lives very different from our own.
I read it because of what’s going on in America right now, but I came from it seeing that it tells a side of the story we rarely get, or perhaps want, to see.
Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage by Gordon Corera
A thrilling history of espionage from WWII to today. There were so many tidbits of information and interesting stories that until quite recently hadn’t been told. For example, the 2016 interference with the U.S elections and spread of fake news have some interesting parallels to what the U.S did back in the day.
Here’s an excerpt for your reading pleasure, I’ve highlighted the particularly interesting part in bold:
In Russia there was an awareness of vulnerability. That was evident to Roger Schell, who had been one of the first to understand computer security in the US Air Force in the 1960s, when he visited Russia just after the Cold War ended. He was working for a private company trying to sell software, and an admiral in the Kremlin in charge of evaluating security said their primary concern was what the translator described as ‘undisclosed functionality’– in other words, hidden vulnerabilities in hardware and software. Schell was peppered with questions at a conference about trapdoors and Trojan horses. The Russians had learnt to fear technology as a tool for sabotage. The Farewell operation had also emphasised the way in which you could sow confusion and doubt in your opponent’s mind and keep them off-balance by making them unsure of what was genuine and what had been doctored, thereby forcing them to discard genuine material as well as fake. Of course, if you were an American spy after the Farewell case, you would have two questions. Who else can we do this to? And if we are doing it to others, might someone else do it to us? This was the new world of computer espionage – one defined by opportunity and anxiety.
What I feel connects all the books above is that they all provide a different lens through which we can see and experience the world. We can learn a lot from those who’ve gone before us and we can build upon and teach those lessons to those who’ll come after us.
And with those words I wish you a happy new year and a fantastic start to 2018.
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