My favourite books 2020
Here are 10 books I most enjoyed reading this year - in reverse order:
“Facebook: The Inside Story”, by Steven Levy.
It covers Zuckerberg’s growing up and the fascinating story of how Facebook was founded. The reason is was initially successful was that it was very open within a limited group (Harvard, then college campuses):
Other scenarios would give Facebookers the shivers. Could an adult “friend” a high school student? Wouldn’t that be creepy? Or just uncool? “Facebook would be taking this service that college students considered their own, and opening it up to a bunch of randos,” says one employee from the time. “The thinking of folks at the time was that older people were just going to make it lame.”
Which is what happened.
The addition of the newsfeed shaped it profoundly:
What Facebook simply hadn’t realized about the News Feed was that pushing information to people was qualitatively different from publishing it on someone’s home page. (More accurately, it had shrugged off the early warnings to this effect.)
In a breathtakingly short period of time, people got used to the idea that the stuff they did on Facebook would wind up spread all around Facebook.
So it was that the simplest of features boosted Facebook’s business, gave users an easy way to express themselves, and set the company on a disturbing course of overemphasizing trivial or angry content.
I found it most interesting how Zuckerberg developed an approach for successfully taking over other social networks. Yahoo tried taking over Facebook, but stalled very late and tried to renegotiate. In response, Zuckerberg developed a “shock and awe” tactic of showering founders with attention and raising the price way above their expectation. It has worked well for their Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions.
I also enjoyed the part on Cambridge Analytica - I hadn’t been aware of how much went wrong within Facebook in handling this scandal.
“Uncanny Valley”, by Anna Wiener.
Wiener’s path through Silicon Valley. It’s written in a strange outside voice, like an alien ethnographer studying a group of humans. I found it very enjoyable and insightful, though I disagree with her with on most of her value judgments.
They [the programmers] talked about achieving flow, a sustained state of mental absorption and joyful focus, like a runner’s high obtained without having to exercise. I loved that they used this terminology. It sounded so menstrual.
Wiener works as a non-technical employee at a number of startups in San Francisco. She describes how she was often looked down upon for not being able to code. She was better at communicating and helping customers. In other industries (consulting?) these would be the more important skills and the higher status would be hers.
“The Ride of a Lifetime”, by Robert Iger.
Iger’s fascinating story rising to corporate heights at ABC and Disney.
Iger stresses his hardworking style, how he “could outwork anyone else” or how he took his “first ever” two week vacation when his son was two years old. It’s not something I find surprising from my own experience with managers, but it’s not very inspiring.
The book offers a lot on leadership. Iger emphasizes the importance of patiently doing the job you have well and then looking out for opportunities to take on more. On the flip-side, to grow people you should want people to be eager to rise up and take on more as long as “dreaming about the job they want doesn’t distract them from the job they have”.
I found it interesting how personal many of the key decisions such as corporate takeovers were. In this words: “Looking back on the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, the thread that runs through all of them […] is that each deal depended on building trust with a single controlling entity.” This is similar to the “shock and awe” tactic Zuckerberg developed.
“Vom Ende der Einsamkeit”, by Benedict Wells (in German).
Three siblings become orphans when their parents die in a car crash. They take very different paths in life. Beautifully written.
“The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)”, by Katie Mack.
Really great book on the universe and cosmology. The book is on our current best theories on the end of the universe. (Humanity dies out in all cases.)
I learned a lot from this book because of the level effect: I know little about astronomy and cosmology, so its amazing to see how much is known in this field. I had a similar effect reading a book like “Guns, Germs and Steel” where I learned about archeology and linguistics.
I especially liked Mack’s explanation of how distances can be measured in space or why we still see background radiation when we zoom out farthest into any spot in space.
“The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs”, by Steve Brusatte.
They had feathers and their last living descendants are birds. A fascinating book, simply because time scales are so incredible. Millions of years pass, species change, continents shift.
“Mind Without Fear”, by Rajat Gupta.
Gupta is the former head of McKinsey & Company and he was indicted for insider trading. He wrote this memoir in which he argues for his innocence.
He tells a fascinating story of his origins in India and his rise through the firm. He didn’t take out clients to fancy alcoholic dinners and didn’t play golf, but instead invited them home for his wife’s home-cooked Indian food. His colleagues once wrote down the following “Eight Laws of Rajat Gupta” for him:
- If someone else wants to do it, let him
- If you have ten problems, ignore them – nine will go away
- Being there is 90% of the game
- You can’t push a noodle; find the right angle and pull
- The softer you blow your own trumpet, the louder it will sound
- There is no such thing as too much work or too little time
- Listening takes a lot less energy
- When in doubt, invite them home.
He was head of the firm in the 90s and there were many strategic decisions to be made. Some consulting firms founded investment branches (like Bain Capital) and there was a discussion to go public (like Goldman Sachs, also a former partnership). During his time at the top, staff doubled and revenue tripled.
But then the story turns: Gupta founded a hedge-fund with Raj Rajaratnam and had phone calls with him after key events around the 2008 financial crisis (Gupta was on Goldman Sachs’ board). After the board meeting in September 2008 where it was decided that Warren Buffett would buy Goldman stock, he called Rajaratnam seconds later and Rajaratnam bought Goldman stock right after. However, there’s no smoking gun evidence that he told Rajaratnam any insider information or that he benefited financially from it. (Also see this summary.)
My feeling is that even if he hadn’t been part of insider trading, the things that Gupta admits overstep enough lines to warrant the loss of reputation, his board seats and probably a financial fine.
Gupta went through grueling years of being accused, losing his position and many of his relationships. He spent 19 months in prison and says that he paid a 20 million US dollars fine.
I found his explanation of his time in prison the best part of the book. It shows Gupta as a human, empathic person trying to survive in a hostile environment. He was even sent to solitary confinement for the silly “crime” of having a special cushion for his bad back.
Overall, I find the punishment too harsh for the crime. After all, the evidence was circumstantial, it’s a white-collar crime and it’s unclear that he ever benefited from it financially. I don’t find it necessary for him to have gone to prison at all. The financial penalty, the loss of his reputation, the years spend being dragged through the courts seem enough to me.
Another lack of judgment is how Gupta chooses to tell his story. In his world view, he’s a brilliant person who got cheated by other people. He doesn’t apologize and writes mean comments on some of the people involved and former colleagues.
“Very Important People”, by Ashley Mears.
The author is a sociology professor in Boston and a former fashion model. She wrote this amazing book on an extreme niche of global partying: How the most expensive clubs use “promoters” to bring fashion models to their parties. Super-rich clients pay thousands of dollars for these tables for a night and promoters then bring the models to these tables such that rich men can surround themselves with pretty women:
Sex between girls and clients is not the main point of having so many models in attendance; rather, it is the visibility of sexiness in excess that produces status. […] High-status places are surely pleasurable in themselves, in part because being high status feels good.
It’s an arrangement that looks like sex work. But it feels qualitatively different than sex work, because the club does not sell the company of girls directly. Rather, clubs sell marked-up bottles of alcohol that usually result in the presence of models, typically brought there by promoters or arranged by the club managers who ensure clients are surrounded by beautiful women. Paying for women outright is stigmatized, but there is nothing wrong with paying for drinks. By bundling expensive bottles with beautiful girls, clients get the illusion of authentic company with girls. […] Footnote 25: Hiring a broker is a common means of obfuscating a stigmatized exchange.
This might make for an obscure read, but I found the lessons quite broad. For a probably not-so-small share of humanity, this is considered the peak of luxury and exclusivity. Yet it falls apart when you see what’s behind it. And the parties she describes sound very unappealing - to me at least.
The most interesting people are the promoters themselves. They’re often from poor minority backgrounds, yet are surrounded by young beautiful women and mostly rich white older men. They earn good money, but it’s almost impossible for them to become like their rich clients.
But if anything looks like sex work in the VIP world, it’s not the sex between clients and the girls. It’s the sex between the promoter and his girls.
I like how fair and ambiguously Mears treats the materials. One point she considers are particularly unfair is that the models aren’t paid:
There was one gift that promoters rarely gave to girls: money. Cash payment was notably absent from promoters’ strategies for recruiting girls. Promoters frequently offered to pay models’ cab fare to and from the club (about $20), but this money was always explicitly earmarked for cabs, lest there be any confusion about what she is doing out. Sometimes a promoter might share a windfall of cash with his favorite girls, but it was expected this would be used for shopping sprees and not considered payment.
While the surroundings are super gendered and unequal and models don’t get paid for their labor, all participants seem to enjoy it and like being part of it. I think a useful correction to come out of it might be for people to assign lower status to these kind of clubs and parties than what is currently the case.
Also see this interview between Mears and Tyler Cowen.
“Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings”, by Neil Price.
There is a lot we don’t know about the vikings. This author tells us what we do know.
They were polygonous, haven’t left us a lot in writing, buried incremendible riches such as silver and ships. I really enjoyed how Price combines insights from many different sources, such as archeology (especially burials), medieval Icelanding poems, Arabic travel memoirs. He even mentions how there is a specific kind of mice species living on a Portuguese island in the Atlantic ocean, showing that the Vikings must have traveled there. He also has a cool way to introduce the vikings: The book starts with the most difficult part - how vikings viewed the world, their ideas of afterlife, their views of the body and the four different kind of souls live within it. The viking age started off with a large crisis in roughly 400-600 CE driven probably by volcanoe eruptions in combination with plague leading to lower fertility, population shrinkage etc. The author hypothesizes that this shaped the vikings’ world view: That there world would at some point end and that doom was certain (Fimbulwinter, Ragnarök).
It’s very fascinating to see what we can find out from these historical sources. There are even Icelanding poems telling of the journeys to Vinland (America).
“Pachinko”, by Min-Jin Lee.
A wonderful novel following a Korean family over several generations, starting before World War II. The author is an Korean American and the book was originally written in English.
“Because it cannot.” There was nothing else he could think of, and he wanted to spare her the cruelty of what he had learned, because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean — good or bad — was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.