The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Non-fiction)

This is a thought-provoking, though somewhat rambling, overview of the impact of systemic racism in U.S. housing policy on African Americans. To be clear (because systemic racism has become an almost meaningless phrase thrown at everything), Rothstein documents the laws and policies — federal, state, and local — that explicitly made it illegal to sell real-estate to non-whites, give mortgages to non-whites, or offer certain kinds of tax-breaks to non-whites. These laws and policies were in action just as the suburban lifestyle took center stage with new housing developments supported by transportation networks optimized for suburb to city commutes. Subsequent chapters followed the resulting situations as housing prices outstripped wage gains and tax policies swerved to benefit home owners over city renters, etc.

While Rothstein’s extended research is accurate (and horrifying) it is anecdotal and not comprehensive. In other words, we hear about all of the racist laws, the long court battles trying to change them thus upholding the 14th amendment, and the many workarounds people used to avoid repercussions for ignoring court decisions — but we don’t really get to understand how prevalent this behavior was. I’m guessing it was quite prevalent, but I can’t actually tell from reading this book.

I’m also not thrilled by his conclusions — he constantly conflates race and class and often leaps straight from terrible situations to unsupported causal connections. For example, in one part he goes from housing unfairness to gangs in four sentences without considering any other possible explanations. Similarly, in a discussion of income mobility, the data showed African Americans had less income mobility than whites — but not as much less as one might expect under the circumstances. This he explained with a wave of hands suggesting that African Americans had worked twice as hard and / or that affirmative action was “working.” Lastly, despite the title, this book focussed only on the aspect of law that relates to housing and not to the many other aspects of law that could be shown to support racist policies.

Still — incredible eye-opening descriptions of what was done by the government to treat African Americans unfairly and the lengthy and complicated process required to make changes. If you can find someone to give a good summary, that might be preferable to actually reading the book which is a bit of a slog.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (Non-fiction)

A fascinating and timely story about the life sciences revolution (specifically gene editing) and the Covid bomb that ignited a community already poised at the brink of discovery — all told through the biographical lens of recent Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna.

Isaacson is a skilled biographer and synthesizer. He has an unsurpassed ability to explain very complex concepts in accessible terms. I’ve read four of his books and have been impressed by his ability to explain well things I already know (Steve Jobs and computers) and things in which I have little background and zero aptitude (Leonardo Da Vinci and 15th century art). His descriptions of CRISPR (DNA sequences that enable the gene editing at the heart of the book) and the myriad ways it was discovered, applied, and deployed do not disappoint. What I liked best? You actually feel the zing of scientific discovery as he describes the evolution of gene editing tools and techniques and the researchers who made it happen.

Getting to know the researchers was almost as interesting as learning the science — to the point where Jennifer Doudna — while thoroughly admirable — did not have a personality that eclipsed the other players, making it feel less like a biography and more like a community portrait. Every one of the key contributors was profiled in a succinct but insightful way: James Watson of DNA discovery fame (more on him later); Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church (who felt trapped in the present when he should be in the future); Doudna’s co-Nobelist and co-discoverer of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” the peripatetic Emmanuelle Charpentier who likes to keep herself on edge and not get too comfy; Feng Zhang — credited (but bitterly contested) with applying CRISPR to the human genome; and the many, many additional researchers pursuing careers in the field.

In addition to the science and the scientists, Isaacson spends a fair amount of time on the aspects of commercialization including the competition between academics resulting in sometimes bitter patent battles on rights regarding various facets of the technology and its applications. In contrast, he also gives plenty of air play to the wealth of technologies born of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic covering how the community was poised to act and the incredible bureaucracy and what strings had to be pulled to get through it (and who had the clout to pull those strings). Also included is a pretty comprehensive description of the requirements and applied innovations to virus detection, vaccination, and treatment. I actually feel much calmer about covid having read the book.

Lastly, Isaacson devoted a lot of time and discussion to the question of ethics — a topic I always enjoy. Ethical questions such as safety and unintended consequences, the tradeoff between individual needs and the needs of society, the potential widening of the privilege gap, and the potential impact on human diversity if we allow people free choice on gene selection for offspring. Isaacson inserted a lot of his own ideas into this section and I can’t say I agreed with everything he said, though he did fairly include multiple viewpoints. He appeared to conflate (as people often do) genius with debilitating problems — pointing to Van Gogh (mental illness) and Miles Davis (sickle cell anemia) as examples where a change to their genetic structure might alleviate their suffering but hamper their creative output — a loss to society as a whole. He (again, as most people do) also firmly yoked diversity to physical characteristics instead of a wide range of personality, opinion, intelligences etc. There appears to a strong fear that if left to their own devices, everyone would choose to have blonde haired, blue eyed children. Also — nobody ever seems to bring up the ethical question of parents making decisions for their as-yet-unborn children! I have more strong opinions on this chapter but I encourage you to read it yourself!

I have a few other issues with the book — Isaacson seems to insert himself into the action more often than I thought necessary and spent a little longer than I liked on a somewhat sensationalized version of the patent wars. He also loudly supported our new “cancel culture” with his full chapter treatise on James Watson’s fall from grace due to unpopular racial remarks. I’m a big believer in a free electorate who must be trusted to think for themselves and not in favor of shutting down people who have beliefs different from my own (no matter how distasteful). Controlling people’s freedom of expression is really a bad move for a free society, regardless of how much we each wish we could get the other side to shut up!

Still — small annoyances aside — this is a fully engaging book about a fascinating topic told in an accessible manner and covering one of the key turning points of human civilization — so go buy it today and read it!

Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson (Non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5

A compendium of the major advances in life expectancy throughout human history. With an engaging, story-mixed-with-research style, Johnson devotes a chapter to each of the major contributions: Vaccines; Data and Epidemiology; Pasteurization and Chlorination; Regulations and Testing; Antibiotics; Safety Technology and Regulations; and Anti-Famine Interventions. While some of the stories were familiar to me, many of them were brand new. Even those I was familiar with were actually new to me: I hadn’t been aware of quite how devastating the problems were or all the tangled issues that snaked their way through solution adoption on a widespread scale.

The introduction states that the book is “a study in how meaningful change happens in society.” The ongoing theme is that it is the network of people and not just the genius that makes these massive changes possible — the journalists, activists, reformers, and amplifiers. He hammers this point frequently, accusing society of “… condensing a complex network of agents into a single heroic scientist.” And it is interesting in every case — how long it took and how hard people worked to get a solution to a horrific problem actually adopted.

The last chapter focuses on the future — AI drug design; a cure for malaria; syndromic surveillance; animal surveillance to stop virus jumping; and immunotherapies for cancers. There is some discussion of the negative impact on the planet of all these extra bodies but not much. I would have liked at least a little discussion on the need for additional birth control giving the teeming state of the world’s population.

The book makes for easy and engrossing reading. The numbers involved are astonishing, and the stories from discovery to scale to distribution eye opening. More intriguing than most fiction!

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (Non-fiction)

This book was a real treasure trove of information, and I consider myself an introvert who should have known it all already! Filled with research summaries, statistics, and case studies, it opened my eyes to aspects of our culture (and of myself) that I hadn’t previously considered.

Cain points out that “our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race.” She presents the American “extroversion ideal” — discussing its evolution and whether or not it is subscribed to by all cultures (it isn’t). Her case studies range from the bible (Moses was an introvert — God told him to have Aaron do all the talking) to CEOs to Tech companies (Woz vs Steve Jobs) to political figures (Al Gore).

Section 2 is all about the physiological basis of introversion which I found absolutely fascinating, and Section 3 compares cultures.

The last section of the book goes into tips for introverts who must live in this world: an entire chapter devoted to an illuminating Mars and Venus style dissertation on the communication challenges facing introverts and extroverts and strategies for schools, parents, and introverted kids (there is even a YA version of this book called Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids).

I was particularly stunned by her report on Elaine Aron’s research into “Highly Sensitive People,” of whom 70% are introverts. She describes 27 attributes ranging from sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, pain, and coffee to their difficulty when being observed, difficulty with being judged for general worthiness, their dislike of small talk, feeling exceptionally strong emotions, processing information about their environments unusually deeply, and unusually strong consciences. Is it obvious that I resonated strongly with this? I always just thought I was a pain to travel with 😉

A well structured book with accessible writing — peppered with fun fact implications (did you know that people getting Botox injections are less anger prone because the very act of frowning — which Botox prevents — actually triggers the amygdala to process negative emotions?). I really enjoyed it and am sorry it took me this long to get around to it. I particularly urge all of you extroverts out there to give it a read!

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I always love Gladwell’s books. This one is about the (sometimes very serious) mistakes we make when communicating with strangers. In typical Gladwell style the book blends research with anecdote with analysis of relevant high profile cases — Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, Amanda Knox, and some police departments. Even if you don’t recognize all of the names, you will recognize the cases.

There are three basic components to the problem. Humans are programmed to “default to the truth.” We like to believe people are telling the truth and unless the doubt becomes insurmountable, we have a tendency to rationalize away any misgivings or even the suspicions of others. Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff fall into this category. Transparency is next problem — we expect people’s internal feelings and thoughts to be reflected transparently on their faces … in the way we expect. We have been trained to expect a certain set of behaviors and expressions in someone who is sad, for example. When someone we don’t know behaves according to our expectations, we are confident we understand their inner state; when they don’t, we can easily misinterpret their behavior. Jerry Sandusky and Amanda Knox are cases that illustrate this phenomenon. Lastly, there is the concept of coupling to context. We don’t (can’t) understand the influence of context in which a stranger’s behavior is taking place. Sylvia Plath and Brock Turner (and alcohol) illustrate this point.

What to me is the most important part of the book, however, is that Gladwell points out that if we optimize for suspicion so that people like Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff don’t get away with their crimes for so long, we can tear the fabric of society apart. Most people don’t lie, commit crimes, or run around with malevolent intent, but if we treat everyone as suspicious — particularly those in a specific neighborhood, or with foreign license plates, or with a different colored skin — we run some terrible risks (which he illustrates in some very compelling ways). Now with Covid, it feels like we are viewing every other human being with suspicion.

As with all of Gladwell’s books — full of insight, completely accessible and utterly fascinating.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (psychology, philosophy)

This classic — first published in 1959 and claiming “more than 15 million copies in print worldwide” — was disappointing to me. Two sections: part one deals with his survival in the concentration camps of WWII; part two discusses Logotherapy — the author’s theory that our primary driver in life is a search for meaning.

My problem is that part one has very little insight. The biggest insight to me was his statement that those who survived the camps were “not the best of us.” His other insight seemed to be obvious — that those who survived had something to look forward to — someone they hoped to find alive or some work they wanted to do. Quite a bit of discussion focused on finding meaning through suffering — in your reaction to suffering and the inner decision each man makes to be the kind of person he becomes. However, quite a bit seemed to be predicated on survival of some sort, either in this world or in a religious belief in an afterlife. Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz was a far more thorough coverage of a similar topic.

Part two on Logotherapy was overly simplified and dated. It’s possible that I would have gotten more out of it had I been willing to read the 12 volumes he wrote on it rather than this simplified version. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the late 50s. One interesting point: he compares his “will for meaning” to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power.” I don’t claim to be a psychology expert but I wouldn’t have summarized Freud and Adler in that way. In any case, surely it’s clear that different people have different motivations and personal makeups.

The good news is that it is short at 154 pages. Possibly good to read for a history of psychological thought at the time but frankly pretty dull.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Non-fiction)

A fascinating (but somewhat uneven) book that looks at the way the needs of half of the world’s population (women) are ignored in the design of almost every system and object on the planet. From transportation systems, to medicine, to the sizes of tools, cars, and piano keyboards, Perez points out the insidious way that women’s needs aren’t considered unless they perfectly align with men’s. She divides the book into three themes: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. It’s a mixed bag — a huge pile of information (with references) — some of which is deeply insightful, some politically motivated, and some really about the needs of groups which may be predominantly women but are not necessarily problems of women because they are women.

The best parts (for me) focused on the (ignored) biological differences in the female body. Examples include different heart attack signs, incorrect medication dosages, and pacemaker thresholds. What amazed me was that some studies have shown different medication efficacy at different stages of the menstrual cycle — and yet no pharmaceutical trials ever even consider that. Why? As one researcher said — it’s just too hard! Other aspects of the “female body” theme are a little less cut and dried. Many, many, things from tools, to voice recognition systems, to pianos, to car seats, to the temperature in offices are designed for “the average man.” I always have trouble with averages because that means that many men — who are not average size — will also have trouble with these things depending on the shape of the curve and the spread in sizes. Still — I found all of these stories to be fascinating and primarily things I had never considered. I had some issues with the other two themes — the assumptions and calculations didn’t always make sense to me — though they did give me something to think about.

Overall this is a really fascinating collection of data (or lack of data) about how the world that we live in considers women to be the “exception to the norm.” While I found that some of the examples strain the point — really belonging to other groups, many of whom happen to be women; calculations of economic productivity that leave out factors not supporting her conclusion; items based on averages that are not working for non-average men as well as women, etc — there are an equal number of truly fascinating studies and examples that completely shifted the way I thought about things.

Recommended, but keep your own thinking cap on before blindly accepting all of her conclusions….

Human Compatible — Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell (Nonfiction)

An extremely well-written, comprehensive overview of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — with a focus on the very real risks it poses to the continued viability of the human race and a proposal for how to move forward reaping the benefits of AI without making us “seriously unhappy.”

AI Pioneer Stuart Russell is a Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, has numerous awards, fellowships, chairmanships, etc. and has co-authored a textbook on AI with Peter Norvig. This is a book written by that rare creature — someone who knows his subject thoroughly and can explain it. He does not shy away from the complexity of the topic but breaks it down and explains it, simply making it accessible to anyone who is willing to read and think. He includes short, clear examples from science, philosophy, history, and even science fiction and references current and historical work from academia, research labs, and startups from around the world.

The book is divided into three parts: the concept and definition of intelligence in humans and machines; a set of problems around the control of machines with superhuman intelligence; and a proposal for shifting our approach to AI to prevent these problems from occurring rather than trying to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” once it is too late.

Russell explains the potential problems of unleashing a massively intelligent machine on the world. An AI machine offers incredible scale. Think of an entity that (with the proper sensors) can see the entire physical world at once, that can listen and process all concurrent conversations at once, that can absorb all the documented history of the planet in a single hour. And we plan to control this entity via programming. With a superhuman intelligence, the programming would need to be at the objective level. And yet — specifications — even with every day human programmers — are incredibly hard to get right. Russell uses the example of giving the machine the task to counter the rapid acidification of the oceans resulting from higher carbon dioxide levels. The machine does this in record time, unfortunately depleting the atmosphere of oxygen in the process (and we all die). Remember the old stories about getting three wishes and always screwing it up? This would make those stories look trivial. Russell never uses scare tactics and does not wildly overstate the thesis — instead he uses practical examples and includes one tremendously simple chapter (the not-so-great debate) that lists every argument people have made that we don’t have to worry and rebuts them quickly.

His solution: we should design machines correctly now so we don’t have to try to control them later. He wants to build a “provably beneficial machine” — provably in the mathematical sense. His machine would operate on only three principles: the machine’s only objective is to maximize realization of human preferences; the machine is initially uncertain as to what these preferences are; and the ultimate source of information on human preferences is human behavior. This is interesting — he wants to “steer away from the driving idea of 20th century technology that optimize a given objective” and instead “develop an AI system that defers to humans and gradually align themselves to user preferences and intentions.” There follows an entire chapter devoted to how we can program the machines to determine what those human preferences are, particularly in light of competing preferences, potentially evil preferences, the cognitive limitations of humans to understand their own preferences, behavioral economics, the nature of mind, definitions of altruism — you name it — all the fascinating areas of understanding human behavior become part of the problem. Which, while completely fascinating, strikes me as even more difficult than trying to work out how to define exact specifications in the first place!

I was left with a knot in my gut about how fast AI is moving without much oversight and how suddenly relevant these issues (that I had long relegated to comfortable musings in science fiction) have become. While I find his proposed solution intriguing, it is hard, hard, hard — and expecting random investors and startups to tackle harder design problems instead of racing towards monetization will be tricky. On the other hand, we move forward as a civilization by raising the issues and embedding them in our moral consciousness and Russell has done an excellent job of clearly teeing up a huge number of costs, benefits, and issues from technical to ethical. Highly recommended if you have any interest in the topic.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

This memoir is as gripping as a good novel.  Hall-of-mirrors style, we experience therapy from the perspective of the therapist with carefully selected stories that highlight both the therapeutic process and the impact on the therapist herself. At the same time, we’re along for the ride as Gottlieb enters her own therapy as the result of a (surprisingly) bad breakup. She has a real talent for insight — into herself and into others — and the training and background to understand that insight. Even better, Gottlieb can write — the prose is clear and succinct and gets to the essence of complex feelings, motivations, and awareness. My favorite one liner: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.”

This memoir is one of the bravest and most honest I’ve read. I never would have had the courage to bare my soul, warts and all, in such a genuine and authentic manner. The narrative embeds her personal story — the path through journalism and medical school to a combined career as therapist and writer — as well as relevant bits of the history of psychology. She references several psychologists — some famous, some new to me, and a few favorites — as she leverages their teachings in her own work. The one that hit me hardest was this quote from Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Apropos of nothing, another interesting tidbit: the countries with the most therapists per capita (in order) are: Argentina, Austria, Australia, France, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, US. Would not have been my guess!

Did this book make me want to enter therapy? She included a definition that I hadn’t heard before — Counseling is for advice whereas therapy is for self-understanding. I’m always interested in self-understanding and working with a *good* therapist who has great skill and insight would be (I’m sure) both interesting and beneficial — but the process is long, expensive, and doesn’t appear to be very efficient — I think I’ll stick to my “self-taught” approach and continue with ongoing internal exploration.