I try to be pretty careful about which audiobooks I pick, and I love to discuss them with others who have read them or are interested in similar topics. And I have really benefited from some other people who share info about books they read, so I thought I'd return the favor by talking about audiobooks I listen to here. 

If you think you might want to get into audiobooks in a serious way, I recommend trying one of Audible's monthly or annual plans.

Favorite audiobooks so far (in rough order)

1.       The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

2.       The Power Broker by Robert Caro

3.       Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall

4.       Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

5.       Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey by Steven Goldman (The Great Courses)

6.       The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

7.       Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

8.       Honorable mention: The podcast EconTalk by Russ Roberts


  1. Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

    1. About 13 hours

    2. Recommended

    3. How I chose it: I am not really a Foucault kind of guy. When I read my history I like statistics and graphs, and when I read my philosophy I like valid arguments for precisely specified conclusions. That's not what this is. However, this was recommended by an interesting friend so I thought I'd give it a shot.

    4. What it is: I think Foucault's method is to take some important aspect of society (the concept of rights/sovereignty, criminal justice, maintaining order in a bureaucracy), notice its shape and features as from a distance and regard them as contingent and in need of explanation, and trace their (presumptively) path-dependent historical origin. He is usually concerned with social "technologies of power", i.e. general techniques that are used by some to dominate others.

    5. What I got out of it: There are a lot of similarities between prisons, hospitals, and schools. The similarities have to do with systems of reporting information and managing and standardizing handling of the people within. Much of the purpose is to make the whole legible to the bureaucracy in control. The Panopticon is the motivating analogy. This is what Foucault means by "discipline." In addition, "apply Foucault's method to all the important institutions of society" seems like an interesting project.

  2. Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

    1. About 3 hours

    2. Not recommended

    3. How I chose it: I'd had some good experiences with Nietzsche, Foucault, and sort of Emerson. I was wondering whether the people in the squishier parts of humanities and social theory might be on to more that I had missed. I read this in a "political theory" class as an undergraduate and hated it, but I also hated Nietzsche at that time. I thought I'd give this another chance.

    4. I found this fairly impenetrable. I listened to it twice while doing other things, but wasn't really getting it at all.

  3. The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

    1. 16 hours

    2. Not sure if I recommend it yet, still working through it (as of 4-1-2017)
  4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
    1. Highly recommended

    2. About 7 hours

    3. How I chose it: A few friends recommended it as a way to understand people who live in rural areas of the U.S.

    4. What I got out of it: I have a more fleshed out picture of what it's like to grow up in the rural US, and that picture reconciles nicely with various things I thought I already understood and the author seems unusually candid, so I'm inclined to think that the picture is reasonably accurate.

      5. Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche
    1. Not recommended

    2. 3.5 hours

    3. How I chose it: I got something out of On the Genealogy of Morals, so I thought I'd give Nietzsche another shot. Brian Leiter, a Nietzsche scholar whose papers on Nietzsche I have found clear and helpful, recommends this book as a natural place to go after Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals.

    4. What I got out of it: I can't say I got much out of this. It just felt like huge numbers of unclear and unsubstantiated claims were being thrown at me. Maybe it's not suited to audiobook format, or maybe I needed more context to appreciate it.


Writing this in April 2017, I notice that I haven't added much to my "favorite audiobooks." I probably should add On the Genealogy of Morals, but I'm not sure where to put it that would feel both correct and non-ridiculous.

  1. Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

    1. About 17 hours

    2. Recommended if you're interested in China

    3. I might explain my thinking on this later

  2. Games People Play by Eric Berne

    1. 6.5 hours

    2. Listened to part of it, didn't find it intelligible, dropped it

  3. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky by Noam Chomsky

    1. About 22 hours

    2. Not recommended

    3. I might explain my thinking on this later

  4. The Will to Power by Kathleen M. Higgins, Robert C. Solomon (The Great Courses)

    1. About 12 hours

    2. Not recommended

    3. I didn't think this was as good as just listening to Nietzsche, and didn't add much to my previous reading of Nietzsche

  5. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    1. 14 hours

    2. Not recommended, but borderline

    3. I might explain my thinking on this later

  6. How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg (The Great Courses)

    1. 36.5 hours

    2. Recommended, but not finished (only like 25% done). I don't necessarily recommend listening to the whole thing.

    3. This was a bit too long, but I did enjoy the first 25% of it. I now am familiar with a number of musical concepts I wasn't familiar with, such as polyphonic textures, madrigals, the distinction between baroque and classical music, fugues, and passacaglias

  7. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

    1. About 18 hours

    2. Recommended

    3. I find David Foster Wallace funny and hyper-observant in a distinctively precise way, noticing lots of things about normal situations that most other people wouldn't notice at all. It's sort of like he is turning everyday life, or small corners of it, into a travelogue or anthropological report. I think this is a virtue. I listened to this book in part to try to have more of this virtue. I can't tell if it helped or not. His essay about going on a cruise ship is hilarious.

  8. Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

    1. 6.5 hours

    2. Not recommended

    3. I listened to this because I wanted to know more about material science. It felt boring and didn't stick. I don't think I can remember anything from this audiobook.

  9. The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp

    1. Recommended

    2. What it is: 15 principles for people who are working together, with success and failure conditions contrasted and cases for the principles explained.

    3. How I chose it: Someone I know said they liked it a lot, and it seems pretty different from things I normally read.

    4. Reservations: It's a bit hippy-dippy and authoritative speak-y about Buddhist-descended ideas, IMO. It's also preachy while pretending not to be preachy, IMO (mainly by repeatedly offering disclaimers that the "principles of conscious leadership" are not meant as moral injunctions, while subtextually always praising those who follow them and criticizing those who do not and using the term "above the line" for following them and "below the line" for not following them). Some of the principles seem a bit imprecise/unreasonable to me, and the choice between "above the line" and "below the line" seems like a false dichotomy in some cases (e.g. principle 10, link above).  

    5. What I got out of it: The main two ideas that stuck with me are a) ideas for how to have a workplace where people are committed to candor – in the sense of saying the important things they think, sharing their criticisms with each other, and being truthful – and b) the methods and desirability of "speaking unarguably" – which mainly seems to consist of turning debatable statements into statements about one's own mental states.

    6. Example of a process they recommend:

      1. Identify an issue in your life. State your complaint in unenlightened, dramatic, blaming terms.

      2. Step into 100% responsibility. Move to a different place.

      3. Repeat these statements:

        1. From the past, this reminds me of _____

        2. I keep this situation going by _____

        3. What I get from keeping this issue going is _____

        4. The lifelong pattern I'm noticing is _____

        5. I can demonstrate 100% responsibility concerning this issue by _____

      4. If you do not a shift during step 3 you do not experience a shift, go back to step 1 and repeat the process.

    7. I never tested that process but it sounds like a good process to me.

  10. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

    1. 6.5 hours

    2. Recommended

    3. How I chose it: I like the genre "biographies of great people." I had an interest in reading more primary historical sources – to notice various ways my understanding of the past might be weird and understand how people used to think in a more firsthand way – and trying more autobiographies – on the assumption that "great people of history" might have more to offer than professional biographers. Franklin had been pointed to me as a consummate, independent-minded rationalist.

    4. What it is: Franklin has a very modern voice when he talks about his life.

    5. What I got out of it: No deep lessons, really, mostly just a few striking stories, including a tidbit of a moral trade, a discussion about how setting up dust cleaning is important because of small benefits to large numbers of people, and a discussion of how Franklin always used qualifiers when stating his opinions (a practice I like but some of my friends say is destructive to creativity; I take some solace in the fact that Franklin is with me on this one, though I still wonder if I'm wrong).

  11. The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

    1. About 9 hours

    2. I think this book has an important, well-argued, generally unappreciated thesis. It feels pretty obvious to me, though, and I suspect it would feel obvious to most people I know, or most people who have thought much about public choice theory or Hansonian cynicism. Probably the way to test this is to listen to Caplan's interview on EconTalk, which I think I just recommend without reservations. If your reaction is, "Yes, of course," then you probably don't need to listen to this book. If your reaction is, "Wow, unbelievable!" or "That can't be right," then maybe this is the book for you. I stopped listening about half way through because it felt like I knew where everything was going.


In the beginning of the year, I listened to a lot of recorded GiveWell conversations, and a lot of episodes of This American Life. I also spend less time commuting now, and that means I get through fewer audiobooks. 

I feel like the audiobooks I listened to were less exciting this year, and I also listened to fewer of them. I also have been less diligent about taking good notes.

1.     Manufacturing Depression by Gary Greenberg

a.     14 hours

b.     Recommended, with some hesitation. I wouldn't totally trust the author's analysis of medical literature, and the author is just a lot more of a sentimental humanist type than I am. But he's looking at this part of the world with his eyes wide open, and it's interesting.

c.     How I chose it: Depression is a huge problem. E.g., it gets tons of DALYs. I wanted to understand it better.

d.     What it is: The author is a clinical psychologist—a Freudian, very literary kind of guy—that's a critic of antidepressants. The book is an interesting mix of informal reviews of studies (largely highlighting evidence for limited effectiveness of antidepressants), history (e.g. about where antidepressants have come from and how depression has come to be seen as a medical condition), personal memoir (e.g. a story about the author's own depression, thoughts on what it

e.     Notes here.

2.     The Alzheimer Conundrum by Margaret Lock

a.     14 hours

b.     Recommended with reservations. I like that the author did a ton of interviews and explained things in a way that was pretty accessible for someone without a background in medicine.

c.     How I chose it: This was the most academic-looking book about Alzheimer's disease on Audible. I wanted to learn about Alzheimer's Disease because I was learning about it for work.

d.     What it is: Margaret Lock works on social studies of medicine. She interviewed a lot of AD experts and people with AD. She talked about what's going on in AD research. She talked about the politics of AD, such as how pitching and fundraising go.

e.     Full notes here.

3.     How Conversation Works by Anne Curzan (The Great Courses)

a.     3 hours

b.     Recommended for some people, I guess. I didn't learn much from it but I could imagine it being useful if you haven't thought about material related to Gricean implicature.

4.     Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield

a.     Not recommended. I found some simple guided meditation videos on YouTube more helpful. Two I like are this one (relaxation) and this one (loving kindness). Note that I don't know anything about meditation and the person who recommended this knows a lot more than me.

b.     1.5 hours

c.     How I chose it: I asked a friend for advice on how to get more into meditation. They recommended this book.

5.     Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds by Roy Benaroch (The Great Courses)

a.     12 hours

b.     Unfinished, not recommended.

c.     How I chose it: I have been working on issues related to the life sciences for the Open Philanthropy Project and I wanted to learn more about medicine. I didn't find this very helpful.

6.     Thinking about Cybersecurity: From Cyber Crime to Cyber Warfare by Paul Rosenweig (The Great Courses)

a.     About 9.5 hours

b.     Unfinished, not recommended

c.     How I chose it: People outside of my social circles keep bringing up cybersecurity in the context of global catastrophic risk. I wanted to figure out why. I listened to about half of this and couldn't really figure it out. The best I've got is that cybersecurity could interact with nuclear deterrence relationships.

7.     On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

a.     6.5 hours.

b.     Recommended.

c.     How I chose it: A friend bet me that I would get something out of this book if I read the first chapter. I was pretty sure I wouldn't get something out of it because I had read Nietzsche when I was an undergrad and couldn't stop yelling about how it was extremely unclear and speculative and largely bereft of arguments that it was possible for me to evaluate. I took the bet and lost.

d.     How to interact with this book: I think this is a guy who comes up with a lot of wild ideas and doesn't second-guess himself very much, and that the way to interact with this book is to treat it as a really interesting hypothesis generation machine. Then you "try on" lots of the hypotheses that it generates, trying really hard to think about what inferences you'd make if the hypotheses were true and how you'd come to those hypotheses.

e.     What I got out of it: I think I got some level of ability to come up with Nietzschean hypotheses about issues and identify claims/reasoning that Nietzsche would particularly object to. I am also curious about whether there are interesting people who think kind of like Nietzsche.

8.     Stalin: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley

a.     Recommended if you're interested in the subject matter.

b.     About an hour

c.     What it is: basically what it sounds like

9.     Wired for War by Peter W. Singer

a.     2.5 hours

b.     Not finished, not recommended

10.  Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

a.     8 hours

b.     Not recommended

11.  Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

a.     About 9 hours

b.     Outstanding.

c.     I haven't made notes on this yet, but I may put them up later. I thought this was an interesting glimpse into a world I don't know much about.

12.  Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

a.     13.5 hours

b.     Outstanding.

c.     How I chose it: Everyone is talking about how Elon Musk is the best. I used to find this confusing because I knew pretty little about Elon Musk, except that he is Founder/CEO of 3 really awesome and successful companies. It turns out that this is basically why everyone thinks he is the best.

d.     What I got out of it:

13.  The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) by Robert Caro

a.     Outstanding.

b.     About 40 hours

c.     How I chose it: Robert Caro wrote The Power Broker, which is one of my all-time favorite books, and my favorite biography I've ever read. He is in the process of writing an epic 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which sounded like the most detailed biography I had ever heard of. I really liked getting a nuts-and-bolts feeling for how politics worked in The Power Broker. And I really liked seeing detailed documentation of people lying and abusing power. I feel like the "public choice theory" people are pretty vindicated by this book.

d.     What I liked about it: This is detailed on levels that I find basically unbelievable. Robert Caro moved to the town for months while he was writing this book. The book starts by giving the history of the Texas hill country where LBJ is from, and then gives lengthy mini-biographies of his grandparents and parents. Caro seems to have interviewed multiple people who knew Johnson at basically every stage of his life, and we get various interesting revelations out of this (e.g. Johnson claiming that he would eventually be president at about every stage of his life, from the schoolyard to when talking to a debate team at some high school or middle school where he was teaching). We also get detailed documentation of LBJ lying about all kinds of things—why he left the Texas hill country to work in CA for a while, an affair, how much he spent on campaign contributions, what his political perspectives are. And we get detailed documentation of LBJ being underhanded in various ways—stealing elections in college, in the "Little Congress" when he was an aide to Texas Congressmen, and in a race for the U.S. Senate. And we get interesting examples of political favors. Most notably, he helps a Texas construction company get a deal making a giant dam for the New Deal; the owner makes millions and writes LBJ a blank check for his Senate campaign. We see an election in action, with voters swayed by lots of largely irrelevant revivals and "patriotism rallies," and large numbers of votes (especially in poor and uneducated areas) largely sold to the highest bidder (literally through bribes).

e.     I might put up notes later, but I haven't gotten around to it.


Listed in roughly the order I listened to them.

1.       The Cold War: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter and don’t yet know much about it.

b.      1.5 hours

c.       I think these “History in an Hour” books are pretty good for quickly and cheaply learning about interesting historical issues in cases where you don’t really know much about the historical issue in question.

2.       The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction by Robert J. McMahan

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter and don’t yet know much about it.

b.      6.5 hours

c.       Why I chose it: The Cold War was a period where some very GCR-relevant stuff was happening with nuclear weapons, and people bring it up frequently in discussions about GCRs, but I didn’t know much about it. I also wanted to get a better sense of the value of reading history for thinking about the future. I’ve had some good experiences with AVSI series in the past, and I had enjoyed a 1-hr audiobook on the history of the Cold War.

d.      I can’t remember very well how much I got out of this.

3.       The Russian Revolution: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter and don’t yet know much about it.

b.      1.25 hours

4.       Ancient Egypt: History in an Hour by Anthony Holmes

a.       Not recommended.

b.      1.25 hours

5.       Nazi Germany: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter and don’t yet know much about it.

b.      1.25 hours

6.       World War One: History in an Hour by Rupert Colley

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter and don’t yet know much about it.

b.      1.5 hours

7.       Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey by Steven Goldman (The Great Courses)

a.       Outstanding.

b.      18 hours

c.       Why I chose it: I don’t know as much about the history of science as I’d like to, and I got a lot out of learning economic history. Economic history and the history of science have a lot of interconnections. I also wanted to learn more about the history of science in order to have a better understanding of the value of putting more money and/or talented people into science. The history of science seems like rich territory for helpful analogies and examples, and I’m jealous of some people I know who are more adept at plucking these examples out and using them in arguments. This was also very highly rated.

d.      What I got out of it: I learned a decent amount about how 20th century physics contributed to technological development (e.g. with semi-conductors and lasers). I have the feeling there’s a lot I got out of this that I’m having a hard time remembering.

8.       Peoples and Cultures of the World by Edward Fischer (The Great Courses)

a.       Not recommended.

b.      12 hours

c.       A lot of discussion of how small scale societies (mostly hunter-gatherer) work. I felt like I didn’t get a lot of out of this. Also, there were some critiques of economics in there that I thought were not very thoughtful (and this was the part of the course I knew most about, and this decreased the credibility of the rest of the work in my eyes).

d.      Why I chose it: I don’t know much about anthropology, and I wanted to test the idea that it’s helpful to spend time reading introductory textbooks to subjects you aren’t familiar with. I also didn’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, and I thought maybe learning more about them would be helpful because some people I know think they’ve gotten a lot out of it.

9.       Modern China: A Very Short Introduction by Rana Mitter

a.       Not recommended.

b.      About 4 hours

c.       How I chose it: China is a big deal and is going to be a bigger deal in the future, but I don’t know much about it. I’ve had some good experiences with the AVSI series in the past. Against my better judgment, I chose it despite relatively low ratings.

d.      I thought the Wikipedia page and the CIA World Fact Book were far superior per unit time. I wish I had read something else, like Henry Kissinger’s book on China or something.

10.   Islam: the Religion and the People by Bernard Lewis

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      6.5 hours

c.       How I chose it: Islam is a pretty big deal in the world, but I knew very little about it. Plus I was going on a vacation to Turkey in the near future. This book seemed like the most credible short introduction to Islam I could find on Audible.

d.      I learned about the origin of Islam, Sharia, Muslim culture, hadiths, and differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. I feel less like I don’t know anything about Islam.

11.   Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue

a.       Not recommended.

b.      4.5 hours

c.       How I chose it: I wanted to learn more about politics. It’s a gap in my general knowledge, and I think advocacy could be a very important area for effective altruists to understand better.

d.      I found the book too shallow and overly general. I didn’t get much out of it.

12.   The United Nations: A Very Short Introduction by Jussi M. Hanhimaki

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      5 hours

c.       How I chose it: I wanted to learn about how the UN works because some potential responses to global catastrophic risks from emerging technology might call for intergovernmental organizations, and I didn’t know much about the UN. I’ve had some good experiences with books in the A Very Short Introduction series in the past.

d.      I learned a fair amount about how the UN Security Council works, the size of the UN, what the UN is supposed to do, and what some other UN organizations do. But I felt there wasn’t enough discussion of what I think are key questions, such as, “When can the UN have a substantial impact and where is it toothless and ineffective?” I don’t feel like I got much further on that question than I was prior to reading the book. It still gets fairly high ratings because it’s so short.

13.   Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography by Sherwin Nuland (The Great Courses)

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      6 hours

c.       How I chose it: I’ve been trying to get a sense of how much useful it is to study the lives of influential people, and at what level of depth they should be studied.  To this end, I’ve also been reading The 100 (5-7 page entries about 100 of the most influential people in history according to one author), The Power Broker, and Gig (a contrasting book with 5-10 page stories about the jobs of mostly regular people).  This is an interesting format because it’s 30 minutes per story, and it’s about doctors that have been highly influential. I’ve also had good past experiences with The Great Courses, and this one was highly-rated.

d.      What I got out of it: The story I think about most is the discovery of anaesthetics, which had an interesting accidental discovery. It’s interesting how much ancient medicine was based on authority rather than experiment, and it made me somewhat question my views on deference to common sense. Ultimately, I didn’t walk away with very valuable insights about what makes very influential people special. Per unit time, I think I get more out of stuff like The 100 and Gig (on the very shallow end) or The Power Broker (on the very deep end).

14.   A Concise History of the Middle East by Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson

a.       Not recommended.

b.      18 hours

c.       What it is: It’s a history of the Middle East from the beginning of Islam to recent times. There’s a lot about wars and one dynasty overthrowing another and so on. I found the discussion of Attaturk the most interesting.

d.      What I got out of it: I was disappointed here because it felt too much like “one damn thing after another.” I wasn’t able to glean big picture insights as I have been when reading other large-scale history books (e.g. Maps of Time or Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction).

e.      How I chose it: I’ve been trying to get a sense of how much big-picture understanding of the world I can get out of reading history, I don’t know much about the Middle East, it’s a seemingly authoritative textbook and also available on (a rare combination).

15.   India: A Portrait by Patrick French

a.       Not recommended.

b.      About 17 hours

c.       Per unit time, reading the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia articles on India were much more effective. This does help by giving some content to abstract points about inequality, corruption, the political process, very soft issues about what the culture is like.

d.      How I chose it: Lots of people are saying that India is going to be an increasingly big deal on the world stage, there are a billion people there, and lots of important development work goes on there. But I didn’t know much about India prior to reading the book and checking out other sources along the way.

16.   The Prince by Machiavelli

a.       Not recommended.

b.      About 3 hours

c.       It’s short (3 hrs), which is good. It’s inspiring and impressive to see someone drawing in a lot of qualitative data and using it to construct an actionable worldview in the political arena, and dropping the moralizing (though there is some “reverse moralizing”). I think I am a bit better at thinking about how a “Machiavellian” person would operate in politics.

d.      There are a lot of historical examples that I knew very little about, which made it hard to learn from the book. Perhaps it would be outstanding for someone who had an outstanding command of ancient military history, or who bothered to spend 30 minutes reading about each historical allusion that he brings up.

e.      Reading the Wikipedia page on The Prince probably yielded more learning per unit time.

f.        How I chose it: it was recommended by an acquaintance, it’s a classic, and I’m interested in seeing how well people can piece together a big-picture understanding of how the world works. I think that’s what Machiavelli was trying to do.

17.   Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall

a.       Outstanding.

b.      About 20 hrs.

c.       A sociologist interviewed a lot of people at corporations and spent time with them to learn how their world works, and how they think it works. It’s got a lot of interesting stories about institutional dysfunction, and reminds me a lot of The Wire, where doing a minimally decent job, showing loyalty to your boss, and playing politics is the key to success in an organization. The only reason it doesn’t get 10/10 is that sometimes Jackall waxes overly theoretical and uses a lot of sociology jargon that I don’t find terribly illuminating.

d.      How I chose it: It was strongly recommended by Aaron Swartz, and I find the topic of bureaucratic dysfunction fascinating. Last time I picked a book strongly recommended by Aaron Swartz it was The Power Broker, which was outstanding.

18.   Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

b.      About 16 hours.

c.       The publisher’s summary is pretty good: “Working behind the scenes for 18 months, Bob Woodward has written the most intimate and sweeping portrait of President Obama making the critical decisions on the Afghanistan War, the secret war in Pakistan, and the worldwide fight against terrorism. Drawing on internal memos, classified documents, meeting notes, and hundreds of hours of interviews with most of the key players, including the president, Woodward offers an original, you-are-there account of Obama and his team in this time of turmoil and uncertainty.”

d.      How I chose it: It was recommended by a colleague that reads a lot of audiobooks. I thought it might shed some light on how rationally high-level government decision-makers handle challenges, and how they think.

e.      My reaction: I feel that I got a realistic sense of discussions about whether to have a troop surge in Afghanistan, but my perception of how high-level government decision-makers operate didn’t change much. I gave the book good marks because I have the sense that it was very well-researched. A few of anecdotes from the book stand out in my memory:

                                                               i.      Obama wrote a six-page memo about what he wanted to do about the troop surge and why, and this was very surprising/unconventional because normally a president would not be so personally involved.

                                                             ii.      Biden started a comment at a meeting by saying “I have six points,” and then going down the line.

                                                            iii.      Obama pressed Biden to be free and open with his criticisms and suggestions, with the purpose of getting more and better criticism.

19.   The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

a.       Outstanding.

b.      About 20 hours.

c.       A science journalist’s overview of evolutionary psychology. I thought I knew a lot of this—and I did know everything in the first few chapters—but there was a lot new to me in later chapters (e.g. about the conditions under which reciprocal altruism might evolve and how it could have gotten started in humans, the importance of high male parental investment in humans in explaining stuff about how people operate, various cynical explanations of how men and women behave the way they do, and the way status hierarchies work. There were a couple of chapters where Robert Wright talks about how evolutionary psychology should make us more utilitarian, less retributivist, and more self-skeptical. I didn’t find the philosophy very compelling, but I did like the reflections on the relationship between understanding evolutionary psychology and self-skepticism.

d.      After reading this, Robin Hanson seemed like less of an outlier in terms of cynicism. It sounds like a lot of evolutionary psychologists think along similar lines.

e.      How I chose it: I picked the book because it was recommended by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and because I wanted a more solid grounding in evolutionary psychology.

20.   Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

a.       Outstanding.

b.      About 12 hours.

c.       It hits on a lot of themes in problems with academic research that I’ve heard GiveWell people talk about in their work on meta-research. Goldacre lists very specific recommendations at the end of each chapter. You can tell that he is very conscious of the importance of not just giving the reader a bunch of anecdotes, but also sees the importance of using examples to illustrate the types of problems he’s concerned about. So he goes to great lengths to convince the reader that the examples he discusses are representative of problems in the pharmaceutical industry/biomedical research.

d.      I did think that Goldacre failed to be fully evenhanded in some cases. For example, he says many times without qualification that drug reps in the pharmaceutical industry distort evidence-based medicine by pitching their wares to doctors. But as he acknowledges, GPs often don’t have time to keep up with the academic literature, and it’s plausible to me that these drug reps know a lot more about the drugs they’re pushing than GPs do. I believe that the reps are distorting evidence-based medicine in the sense that they are sales reps and aren’t acting like, e.g., Cochrane methodologists. But their influence could well be better than the “distortion” of doctors just not being aware of research on the drugs that reps promote, and hearing from the drug reps is an imperfect improvement. Perhaps everything in this paragraph has a reasonable answer, but I didn’t find it when I listened to this audiobook.

e.      How I chose it: Stephanie Wykstra is a fan of his, the book was on sale, I read the intro and it was compelling, Ben Goldacre seems like a big intellectual in the UK and someone who is changing policy. I suspect his publication of this book played a role in the policy changes he’s pushing for.

21.   Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

b.      About 20 hours

c.       This was better than the other two cold war history books I read (the A Very Short Introduction one and History in an Hour). It covered a lot of the detail in those other history books, and it did a nicer job of bringing history to life and explaining technical details of atomic weaponry that made it easier to see how close we ever got to accidents. It was a bit long for my taste, and I got bored at times. I might have preferred a book like this that was maybe 40% shorter. Some striking things I remember from the book:

                                                               i.      There haven’t been any accidental detonations, but there have been various close calls. Other parts of nuclear weapons have exploded, been dropped out of airplanes, caught on fire, etc. Military people tried hard to cover up these accidents.

                                                             ii.      Reagan and a soviet leader (can’t remember if it was Kruschev or Gorbachev) came very close to agreeing to get rid of all nuclear weapons, and—according to this account at least—only didn’t do it because they couldn’t see eye to eye on the whole Star Wars thing.

                                                            iii.      Soviet bluffs and flawed intelligence resulted in mistaken assumptions about how many nuclear missiles the Soviets had, and caused large US investments in nuclear arms.

d.      How I chose it: It was highly recommended by Luke Muehlhauser. I looked into it for a lot of the same reasons I read other cold war stuff. The more journalistic style involving more individual stories also appealed to me as something to have alongside the more traditional history stuff.

22.   The Visioneers by Patrick McKray

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

b.      11 hours

c.       How I chose it: The book is largely about Gerard O’Neill and K. Eric Drexler, and their research and advocacy on space settlement and atomically precise manufacturing (aka “molecular manufacturing”). This subject interests me because I’m interested in how well people can plan for major technological changes, lots of people I know are interested in space settlement and atomically precise manufacturing, and I see a lot of parallels between Drexler and people thinking about the future of AI. Also, Miles Brundage referenced it in our conversation.

d.      Gerard O’Neill is a big name in space settlement, with a lot of work pointing back to his book The High Frontier. This was a quick and accessible overview of what he wanted to do, how it was promoted, and how it was received. His advocacy for space settlement was promoted on college campuses, and growing into something called the L5 society which had about 10,000 members at one point, IIRC. There are some interesting parallels there with groups promoting effective altruism with campus-based chapters. He’s also interesting as an academic—a physicist at Princeton—who got into issues far off the beaten track of his discipline, but used the prestige of his position to help spread his ideas.

e.      Drexler’s story is an interesting one as well. He didn’t travel so far down the traditional academic path, but was fairly successful in getting his ideas out there. The story of his advocacy for atomically precise manufacturing to the US government is a sobering one as someone who is interested in the possibility of government involvement in the creation of other transformative technologies. Reading this book largely confirmed my impression that Drexler’s vision of atomically precise manufacturing (APM) stimulated the government’s interest in making large investments in APM (billions of dollars), but those investments turned out to be largely spent on nanomaterials that had relatively little to do with Drexler’s original vision.

f.        Bottom line: I’d recommend it reading it for people who are interested efforts to shap the development of potentially transformational technologies like AI, bioengineering, and APM.

23.   The Bet by Paul Sabin

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

b.      Seven hours

c.       What it is: A history of the public debate between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. The book is pretty favorable to Simon.

d.      What I got out of it: There is a nice glimpse into the life of a public intellectual, and anecdotes about how the Heritage Foundation supported Julian Simon. I also feel like have a somewhat better grip on the intellectual roots of people very concerned about environmental issues (something I’d like to understand better).

e.      How I chose it: It was recommended by Bill Gates, I wanted to learn more about arguments for catastrophic risk from environmental issues other than climate change.

24.   The Foundation: A Great American Secret by Joel L. Fleishman

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the topic.

b.      12 hours

c.       What it is: A leader in the foundation world talks about the history of foundations, including discussions of notable successes in the history of foundations.

d.      What I got out of it: I became more aware of interesting putative success stories in the history of foundations. I don’t remember details very well, but I know of a place to look if I want to get a quick refresher. I got the impression that past successes were more impressive than many successes I’m aware of today.

e.      The bad: The author seems like he’s really interested in convincing you that foundations are really great, and it feels a bit unbalanced at times.

f.        How I chose it: GiveWell strongly recommended the “casebook” for this book, and Bill Gates recommended it as well.

25.   The Environmental Movement by Liz Sonneborn

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      About 3 hours

c.       What it is: What it sounds like. She discusses John Muir, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace, the eco sabotage people, climate change, and environmentalism in American politics, and other stuff I’m forgetting.

d.      What I got out of it: Very basic familiarity with key steps in the environmentalist movement, and a sense that there were some significant environmentalist things happening before Carson’s Silent Spring.

e.      How I chose it: Environmental degradation can affect the distant future in an unusually clear way (though effects are more tenuous if our long-term future will involve space colonization). It was short and a couple of quick Google searches couldn’t find an obviously better introduction to the issues.

26.   What Should We Be Worried About? By John Brockman

a.       Not recommended

b.      14 Hours

c.       What it is: This was’s question for 2013. About 150 scientists/public intellectuals/other smart people talked about issues that are largely off the popular radar but they think we should be concerned about. Some other people talked about risks that they thought were overstated/overblown. They hit on issues that I think are important—e.g. Martin Rees and Gary Marcus talk about GCRs and x-risks, Max Tegmark talks about the singularity, Nassim Taleb talks about black swans, someone else talked about geomagnetic storms. And they talk about issues that don’t sound very important/tractable/clearly problematic; e.g. the internet giving us shorter attention spans, people not using pencil and paper enough. Michael Vassar has an interesting piece about “authoritarian submission” which is interesting, but I’d seen already.

d.      How I chose it: I hoped that listening to these people talk about problems would cause me to identify issues that might be worth thinking about more deeply from an “effective altruist” perspective.

e.      What I got out of it: I was largely disappointed. The best I got was probably Frank Wilczek’s suggestion that, “the diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism—triggered a Dark Age before, and they could do so again.” I’ve heard people say stuff like this enough times now that I formed an intention to learn more about it. Maybe second best was some Thiel-sounding points by Eric Weinstein about the pursuit of “excellence.”

27.   Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      25 hrs

c.       How I chose it: Enough people were making a fuss about it on the econ blogosphere and my Facebook newsfeed that I got really curious what all the fuss was about. I also thought it might illuminate wealth inequality in the very long run.

d.      Enough people have reviewed this more closely than me, so I’ll just say a couple of brief things. This book is mostly economic history, and the history is very interesting quite independently of his theses about future wealth inequality or his idea of a progressive tax on capital. I listened to this quickly, but I don’t recall any discussion of the consequences of a progressive tax on capital for long-term economic growth. That seems like a pity to me because it seems like an important consideration for whether his main policy proposal is a good one.

28.   Radical Abundance by K. Eric Drexler

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

b.      12 hrs

c.       What it is: Drexler’s latest book on molecular manufacturing, or “atomically precise manufacturing” as he now calls it.

d.      How I chose it: Lots of futurists I know think nanotech going to be a big deal and that it will make us really good at manufacturing. They also point to the National Nanotechnology Initiative as an example of the government getting involved with the development of a technology like AI and it going very badly. Drexler’s other books on this topic (Engines of Creation and Nanosystems) don’t appear to be on audible.

e.      What I got out of it: I don’t feel like I understand atomically precise manufacturing all that well yet. My intuitive picture is something like 3D printing+++, but I expect this is wrong in various ways. Drexler says we can do lots of amazing stuff with atomically precise manufacturing: cheap, low-carbon energy; very fast computers; remove carbon from the atmosphere; overcome ecological limits to growth; and more. There was a lot of scientific and engineering material in the book that I didn’t understand, and I don’t have a good sense of how atomically precise manufacturing is supposed to do all of this stuff, or why I should expect that it is possible. This is probably some measure my fault, in that I could have understood Drexler’s perspective better if I had spent more time on this and his other work, which I will probably do in the future.

29.   The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell

a.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter, but wasn’t what I was looking for.

b.      9 hours

c.       What it is: A book about how you would guide civilization through reindustrialization in the event of a global catastrophe killing a large majority of people. A lot of it is history of technological development, and how we might trace different paths given the resources available after a catastrophe and knowledge we now have about science and technology.

d.      Why I chose it: As I mention on another page, I’m interested in understanding more about how bad a global catastrophe would have to be before it would result in a collapse of industrial and other social infrastructure—e.g., what would it take to wipe out electric grids in a way that would be really hard to recover from—and how hard it would be to recover from such a collapse.

e.      What I didn’t like: The book didn’t really illuminate the questions I wanted to know about. The discussion of what might lead to the kind of collapse discussed in the book (have to restart agriculture and everything else form the ground up) is pretty perfunctory. Dartnell briefly discusses pandemics and nuclear war, but without asking which versions of these disasters might lead to scenarios more or less like his. And though Dartnell outlines many of the key steps that we’d have to take to reindustrialize, there isn’t much discussion of whether we’ll succeed or what might make that impossible. That’s not really a criticism of his book, because that’s not what he said he was going to do.

f.        There’s also a bit too much detail on how certain inventions work, at least for my taste. I found a lot of it hard to follow and remember.

g.       What I liked: It’s a pretty awesome tour of the key innovations that brought us from agriculture to 20th century civilization.

30.   The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (gave up)

a.       Not recommended

b.      19.5 hrs

c.       What it is: the autobiography of Henry Adams, grandson of US president John Quincy Adams. It focuses a lot on his quest for “education” (a term I use in scare quotes because he talks about it in an unusually expansive way).

d.      What I got out of it: I listened to this for about six hours and then gave up. It was sort of interesting to hear about Adams’s quest for education, but ultimately there was too much detail that I found boring. Maybe I’ll come back to it later and give it a second chance.

e.      How I chose it: It was ranked really highly in a couple of “best non-fiction books” listings, including a ranking based on some kind of weighted combination of other top non-fiction rankings. 

31.       The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

a.       Not recommended for people who already know a moderate amount about the singularity. Maybe it would be OK as an introduction.

b.      About 25 hours

c.       What it is: I primarily think about it as a book about the future of AI, but there’s also a decent amount in there about genetic engineering and nanotechnology. It’s the book that most people think about when they hear “the singularity.”

d.      Why I chose it: I’m interested in the future of AI, but people I know don’t really talk about Kurzweil very much. I wanted to know whether they had good reasons for doing that.

e.      What I didn’t like: My largest complaint about this book is that Kurzweil does a very poor job of clearly distinguishing for the reader between “things Ray Kurzweil thinks” and “things that are generally accepted by people with relevant knowledge,” and I get the sense that a lot of the book might be the former. (I also get the sense that he knows a lot more about most of this than I do, so I could be wrong.) So I can’t bring myself to really believe anything suspicious that he says on his authority, and I have to treat him as an interesting hypothesis generating machine. The other complaint is that I find his AI timelines too specific given the levels of uncertainty I think it’s reasonable to have about when we’ll be able to reverse engineer the human brain or otherwise learn enough about how intelligence works to make advanced AI. Kurzweil seems too sure that we’ll have human-level AI capabilities in the 2030s and significantly beyond in the 2040s. For any of the specific technologies he talks about, I’d rather be reading someone else (e.g. Bostrom on AI, Drexler on nanotechnology, or Craig Venter or George Church on bioengineering).

f.        The argument for reading it: He does bring together a bunch of ideas that a certain group of people have about the future potential of technology that I think might be right (though I think it should be blurred out quite a lot more). So if someone wanted to get up to speed on what the transhumanists think about what future technology was going to do for us, and they wanted to just read one book, maybe this would be the book to read, as long as they took everything with a really huge grain of salt.

32.       A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel

a.       About 8 hours

b.      Not recommended as an introduction to the Enlightenment. It’s probably good for someone with more background knowledge. I really was looking for something of the form, “Here was a time when Enlightenment ideas really weren’t going around. Here is some of the first people to talk about it and how that happened. And here is how those ideas ultimately took root in society and affected politics.” I got something that was more like a compare-and-contrast of two branches of Enlightenment thinking.  I might check out this book or this book later.

c.       How I chose it: I’d like to better understand the most important social transformations, and the Enlightenment is one of them. I was curious why it happened at all, who played a major role, and what influence it ultimately had outside of philosophy. I picked this book by Jonathan Israel because (i) I saw him described as a leading historian of the enlightenment, (ii) he wrote what looks like an extremely detailed 3-volume set on the enlightenment and I couldn’t find anything like that, and (iii) he also wrote something that was a more gentle introduction to his main conclusions from that gigantic study which was available on

d.      What it is: Ericka Tucker has a good explanation here.

e.      What I got out of it: Israel’s distinction between the “Radical Enlightenment” and the “Moderate Enlightenment” is something I’ll be looking out for in the future. Israel makes a point of arguing that Spinoza played an especially important role in creating key ideas of the Radical Enlightenment—an interesting claim I’ll be looking out for later. The whole book made me question stuff I wrote here—these Enlightenment guys might have been doing some of the best stuff ever, and it really doesn’t look like they were using common sense as a prior, or that they were engaged in the kind of project where they could expect to see the fruits of their labor bear meaningful fruit within their lifetimes. 

33.       Fire and Light by James MacGregor Burns

a.       14.5 hours

b.      Not recommended.

c.       I liked this better than Jonathan Israel’s book on the Enlightenment for a few reasons. First, there was more detail about how the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers ultimately influenced society. There was a lot more in this book about how the Enlightenment affected the American and French Revolutions, for example. And a lot of these consequences are traced out into the 19th century. Second, there was also more detail about the lives of significant figures in the Enlightenment. However, as with Israel’s book, I’m still feeling pretty hazy about how the Enlightenment got kicked off in the first place, what the closest thing was prior to the Enlightenment, and how it caught on more widely. So this isn’t yet something where I’d say, “You’ve got to read this book about the Enlightenment.”

34.       Nano by Ed Regis

a.       12.5 hours

b.      Recommended if you’re interested in the subject.

c.       This was my favorite of the four books I’ve listened to that talked a lot about nanotechnology, the others being The Singularity is Near, The Visioneers, and Radical Abundance. I liked that Regis talked to a lot of people about nanotechnology and included both critics and boosters of Drexler’s idea. I thought it had a reasonable level of technical description, and gave a reasonable flavor for how nanotechnology was received by scientists, futurists, and the government. It went into specifics more than The Visioneers, which I think was a good choice.

d.      How I chose it: I’ve been trying to get a better sense of what’s going on with molecular manufacturing/atomically precise manufacturing. The book was positively reviewed by a couple of my friends.

e.      Some interesting quotes and more detailed notes.

35.       The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations by Andrew Fix (The Great Courses)

a.       About 24 hours

b.      Recommended if you're interested in the subject.

c.       I found this more interesting than a lot of history I’ve read. Prof. Fix does a good job of offering context and considering causal explanations for important events, and that was appreciated. The highlights for me were events that helped with my overall understanding of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and there were a decent number of these in my more detailed notes on this audiobook. That’s basically what I was looking for, and I’m happy with it. Because these are lectures, Fix also takes a conversational approach and explains things in a fairly down-to-earth way, and covers a lot of the basics. I liked that too.

d.      How I chose it: This had good reviews on Audible, on the Great Courses website, and looked like the best broad overview covering the Renaissance and Reformation that I could find on Audible. I’ve also had good experiences with the Great Courses for the most part.

36.       The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World by Ian Worthington (The Great Courses), (gave up)

a.       About 25 hours

b.      Not recommended, though I only listed to a quarter of it

c.       Why I chose it: Ever since I got interested in the Industrial Revolution a while back, I’ve been trying to get a sense of when in history there might have been important “twists” or contingent changes in the trajectory of civilization. Ones I’ve been really interested so far, apart from the Industrial Revolution, are the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. I picked this because I wanted to learn more about how whether there was an important “twist” around the creation of Greek culture.

d.      This one was a bit slow for me and had a bit too much detail for my liking. There was more discussion about how specific tyrants were and weren’t overthrown than I would have liked, and not enough discussion of how these events impacted other ages.

37.       Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World by Daniel Robinson (The Great Courses)

a.       About 6 hours

b.      Not recommended as an introduction to Ancient Greece or the impact of Hellenic culture. Maybe recommended for someone with a lot of background knowledge on these issues and time to follow up on interesting claims that aren't strongly supported by evidence in the lectures.

c.       Why I chose it: same as The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World.

d.      On the plus side, Robinson approaches the subject with a lot of passion, and he makes a lot of interesting claims. On the minus side, there are more opinions and abstract claims without concrete examples than I would like. I think this would really not be a good introduction if you didn’t already know a lot about Ancient Greece. For a flavor, more in my detailed notes. I think you have to treat this as hypothesis generation that’s interesting for someone who already has a lot of context. I preferred the discussion of Ancient Greek culture in History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 (another one in The Great Courses). But I did like this better than what I’ve heard from The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World (still another one in The Great Courses).

38.       The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 by Lawrence Principe (The Great Courses)

a.       About 18 hours

b.      Recommended if you’re interested in the subject.

c.       Why I chose it: I was hoping to get a better handle on the legacy of Greek thinking on the modern worldview, intellectual inquiry during the Middle Ages, and the Scientific Revolution.

d.      This course has incredible breadth and I feel like I have a much better sense of Greek natural philosophy and natural philosophy during the Middle Ages. Some highlights for me:  i.The Greeks were the first to seek elegant, law-like explanations of natural phenomena. ii. I got the impression that Aristotle did some huge proportion of natural philosophy in ancient times, despite the fact that 80% was lost (!). iii. The Romans didn’t do much natural philosophy. iv. A substantial portion of ancient, medieval, and early modern learning (including natural philosophy) was funded and encouraged by religious institutions.

e.      I have some more detailed notes here.

39.       Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications by David Sadava (The Great Courses)

a.       About 12 hours

b.      Recommended if you’re interested in the subject.

c.       Why I chose it: Biotechnology is a big deal and I don’t know as much about it as I probably should. I’ve had good luck with The Great Courses (all of the last five audiobooks I’ve listened to are from them). It has good ratings on The Great Courses website.

d.      I have a better grip on how DNA was discovered, what some advances in biotechnology have been (e.g. polymerase chain reaction, recombinant DNA, genetic screening, gene therapy, cloning). It made me think of interesting questions like, “Could we do a GWAS, identify DNA leading to a genetic disease, screen an embryo for the markers, cut out the offending DNA with a restriction enzyme and replace it with healthy DNA, and then have a healthy embryo?” Previously, I would have much less of an idea what someone was talking about if they answered this question and I probably couldn’t have framed it as well. So I’m counting listening to this as a win. 

40.       The Launchpad by Randall Stross

a.       About 9 hours

b.      Strongly recommended for people interested in the subject.

c.       Why I chose it: Lots of people I know think that tech entrepreneurs are really cool. It seems like they’re probably right, and I’d like to know more about why. I enjoy Paul Graham’s essays and I thought this interview with Sam Altman on EconTalk was interesting because Y Combinator people seem to have interesting heuristic for evaluating people and projects quickly, and have some thoughtful positions on what kind of start-ups would be most likely to have a big impact.

d.      What I got out of it: Y Combinator makes investment decisions substantially on the basis of how good they think the people are. Sometimes after an interview with an entrepreneur, they’ll say, “Fund for the pivot,” meaning roughly, “This idea is bad, but the person is good, and we want a stake in whatever their next project will be.” It’s interesting that, like Peter Thiel, they express a lot of interest in really ambitious projects that aren’t just web-based technology companies, but that seems to be a limited portion of what they fund. Presumably, that’s driven by few people trying to work on such projects.

41.       Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Peter Doherty

a.       About 8 hours

b.      Recommended if you’re interested in the subject matter.

c.       Why I chose it: Pandemics—both natural and artificial—are important global catastrophic risks. This book is aimed at people without a lot of background and was written by a Nobel-prize-winning immunologist. I also wanted to try out the “What Everyone Needs to Know” series.

d.      What I got out of it: I learned more about the history of SARS, the 1918 flu pandemic, west nile virus, and how the WHO classifies epidemics and pandemics. I also got his opinion that “No pandemic is likely to wipe out the human species. Even without the protection provided by modern science, we survived smallpox, TB, and the plagues of recorded history. Way back when human numbers were very small, infections may have been responsible for some of the genetic bottlenecks inferred from evolutionary analysis, but there is no formal proof of this.“ And I learned about attempts to wipe out rabbit populations in Australia using myxomatosis, which decreased the population from 600M to 100M, but couldn’t get rid of them.

42.       The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business by Duff McDonald

a.       About 11 hours

b.    Recommended if you’re interested in consulting.

c.      How I chose it: I wanted to learn more about consulting because a significant fraction of students attending Ivy League universities end up working in consulting. And McKinsey is the most prestigious consulting organization. I wanted to know what the work was like, what the people who do it are like, where the people do it end up, and how useful it is. Also, I’ve heard that consultants are generalists, and I wondered how useful these generalists are. This was the most relevant book I could find on this subject on Audible.

d.       What it’s about: It’s a history of McKinsey from its founding in 1926 to the insider trading conviction of Rajat Gupta in 2012.

e.      What I got out of it: It has some information about advancement in McKinsey, suggesting that most new consultants move on after a few years, only 1 in 6 stay for 5 years, and a very small portion stay in the firm for 10 years or more. Perhaps the most interesting thing was the absence of achievements that really turned companies around or McKinsey playing a role in innovations that really did much good. I’ve been reading a lot about the history of science and Silicon Valley, and there’s a very strong qualitative sense that people in these areas are doing a lot more for the world. Finally, McDonald is pretty skeptical of the value of McKinsey’s generalists, arguing that while the firm prizes generalists and frameworks, more specialist approaches to consulting have been in greater demand.

f.      More notes here.

43.       Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

a.       About 4 hours

b.      Recommended.

c.       How I chose it: A friend of mine said Infinite Jest was one of his favorite books. I haven’t read a lot of great literature, and I wondered I’d like DFW. Infinite Jest is really long and has a lot of footnotes, and I didn’t think it would be suitable for Audible. But I read online that DFW had some interesting essays from his days as a journalist in this volume, so I thought I’d give it a try.

d.      What it is: DFW has journalistic coverage of a lobster festival in NJ, the porn industry’s video awards ceremony, how people in a Midwestern town reacted to 9/11, and a really detailed review of a memoir of a star young tennis player (written with a journalist). The charm of DFW in these pieces is that he puts some corner of culture under a microscope, making fun of parts of it mercilessly, and analyzing other parts of it in ways that are careful and insightful. These articles are like unusually introspective and interesting New Yorker articles.

44.       The History of Science: 1700-1900 by Frederick Gregory

a.       About 18 hours

b.      Not recommended.

c.       How I chose it: I enjoyed the other two courses on the history of science from the Teaching Company covering Antiquity to 1700 and the 20th century. Of the three, I liked the one covering the 20th century best, the one covering antiquity second best, and this one least.

d.      I found the first half of these lectures fairly boring because they focused a great deal on physical natural history, but I find that topic fairly boring and I don’t feel that I got much of an understanding of how people used to think about natural history during that period. In addition, I preferred the coverage of natural history in Making Modern Science. The highlight for me was the coverage of theistic rhetoric and The Vestiges, which was a natural history written anonymously in 1844. More on that in my more complete notes. But it wasn’t that much of a high point. I think this period may have been less interesting because the Scientific Revolution was already under way before the period began and the many of the more mind-blowing technological applications came along in the 20th century.

e.      More notes here.

45.       The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

a.       17.5 hours

b.      Strongly recommended.

c.       How I chose it: I really liked Walter Isaacson’s book about Steve Jobs, I knew little about the Digital Revolution, and this book offers a broad history of the Digital Revolution, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to Google.

d.      What I got out of it: There are many interesting anecdotes about how academia, venture capital, and start-ups work. It covers many stories without going into too much detail. I learned more about many interesting characters that I’d heard of, but knew little about, including William Shockley, Arthur Rock, and Douglas Engelbart.

e.      More detailed notes here.

46.       The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (gave up)

a.       About 22.5 hours. I only listened to about 12.5.

b.      Not recommended. It’s not exactly the same topic, but I thought Wright’s The Moral Animal had more depth and interest. I also thought I got significantly more out of hearing the EconTalk episode discussing Bryan Caplan’s work on parenting.

c.       How I chose it: A couple friends said it was interesting. Pinker’s Better Angels is one of my all-time favorites.

d.       I think Pinker's positive thesis is close to “Biological mechanisms—including mechanisms described by evolutionary psychology—play a significant role in explaining human culture and individual characteristics.” For me, that's the starting assumption and the question is how much of our culture/individual variation is explainable by such factors, and I don’t feel I got anywhere on that question by listening to the first half or so of this book.

e.      Part of it is dedicated to arguing that some prominent people have denied this for political/moral reasons and tried (and succeeded?) to life difficult for people who didn’t accept this positive thesis. There’s also some moral philosophy covering dualism and Humean points about free will and moral responsibility (all making reasonable points). Again, all seemed pretty obvious.

f.        The book seems to have the most potential interest as a piece of academic sociology. If people think the role of genetics and evolution in shaping human nature is as limited as Pinker says—and especially if it is happening for the reasons Pinker says—then there’s some serious dysfunction going on. But I found it about equally plausible that Pinker is straw manning his opponents, picking on isolated cases, or poking a few of the most outlandish statements. But I don’t feel like I can tell what’s going on without doing additional work. 

47.     Law 101: Everything you need to know about American Law by Jay M. Feinman

a.     16.5 hours

b.     Not recommended. I don't feel like I remember much from this book.

c.     How I chose it:

                                               i.     I don't really know much about the law. I wanted to know more. This sounded like a good broad overview.

d.     What it is: Intro to various areas of law: constitutional law, contract law, property law, criminal law, torts, litigation, criminal procedure.

e.     What I got out of it: I can't remember much. Probably, if someone talked about a legal issue I could say which of the above categories it fell under. But I struggle to remember examples from the book.

48.     Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow (not finished)

a.     35 hours

b.     Recommended, but not finished. I paused at ch. 23 of 38, plan to probably finish it at some point.

c.     How I chose it:

                                               i.     I want to understand the lives of people who had a lot of power—how did they get it? What did they do with it? How are they different from other people?

d.     What it is:

                                               i.     One of the definitive biographies of Rockefeller.

e.     Highlights for me (more here):

                                               i.     Rockefeller made some fairly EA comments: preaching earning-to-give, complaining about lack of thoughtfulness in philanthropy, and suggesting that we should take philanthropy as seriously as business

                                             ii.     Standard Oil being broken up into shards that formed what are still some of the largest companies in the U.S.

                                            iii.     Rockefeller was (at least claimed to be) motivated by having cheap, good oil for the common man

                                            iv.     Worst thing Rockefeller did that I heard of: using the size of Standard Oil to get non-competitive prices for use of railroads and then lying about it

                                              v.     Anecdote of Rockefeller taking out all of the stops when he decided he wanted to learn to play golf. E.g. he noticed he was forgetting to look down, so he hired a kid to follow him around and say, "Look down, sir!" before he would swing. He paid for lessons. He noticed he was moving his foot in a way he shouldn't, so he made something to fasten his foot to the ground (or something like that) to make it work. He quickly became good at glof.

                                            vi.     Description of how lots of people in the 19th century were interested enough in virtue and self-improvement to keep diaries scrutinizing daily activities and thinking about how their could develop various virtues.

49.     A Nation Forsaken: EMP: The Escalating Threat of an American Catastrophe by F. Michael Maloof

a.     5 hours

b.     Not recommended. While I learned a decent amount about what might happen in an EMP/geomagnetic storm catastrophe, I didn't get the sense that this book was particularly careful or moderate.

c.     What it is:

                                               i.     The book makes the case that an EMP/geomagnetic storm could be devastating for the U.S., that we aren't particularly prepared for it, that we could be more prepared than we are (e.g. by hardening the electric grid and paying more attention to what EMP capabilities other countries have), and that we should get more prepared.

d.     What I got out of it:

                                               i.     It was a good chance to think through what might happen if we lost power for a while, and what it would take to bring it back online. I clearly don't have a detailed understanding of that.

e.     How I chose it:

                                               i.     This was one of a few audiobooks on audible about geomagnetic storms/EMP. I wanted to learn more about geomagnetic storms because they could cause a significant global disruption. I recall that he had worked in government, and that seemed a bit relevant.

f.      More notes here.