The Books I Read in 2019, and My Favorites

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona Carnarvon

Genre: Biography | History

I spent a fair chunk of my 2018 Christmas break watching the hit series Downtown Abbey, and I thought I should pick up a book about the British aristocracy of the time. So, I did. The book is mainly about the Almina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon, the wife of George, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. It bears so many semblances with the hit series, and it was lovely to read.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

Genre: Philosophical Fiction

There are so many things going on in this book, almost impossible to summarize. The author, his son Chris, and some friends rode across the West (the United States) on their motorcycles. In the course of the journey, the author gave series of ‘lectures’ he called Chautauquas majorly on epistemology and philosophy of science. He teaches Quality, which could be taken literally at the most practical level. However, going deeper, he talks a lot about the Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ). Here I will focus of MoQ… Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge comes from sense-experience, and right off the bat, you see that empiricism accommodates perfectly metaphysical features of the world: arts, morality, religion, and all of those things. However, these metaphysical features are claimed by scientism to be unreal. This exclusion on the basis of un-realness springs from an assumption, a yuggeeee (metaphysical) assumption, which itself is not verifiable (via science).  Prisig went beyond this object-subject ‘obsession’ of science to a whole different level. He claims that all things that exists are values or quality (note that ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ themselves are as a result of quality), and they can be unpacked into two categories: 1) Dynamic Quality 2) Static quality. Dynamic Quality (with a capital letter Q) can’t be defined aptly in words, as its existence is perceived before any intellectual assembly is possible. While static quality refer to all concepts that can be captured empirically. The implication of this run deep: MoQ becomes more empirical than science, a theory of reality… “What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” This is one of the greatest philosophical fiction I have read so far.

Can Science Explain Everything? by John C. Lennox

Genre: Philosophy of Science

Short answer, No. If you have read 1) Gunning for God, 2) Seven Days that divide the world, and 3) God and Stephen Hawking; all by the same author, this book becomes almost redundant. I have read all three. However, that doesn’t take away from the importance of the subject discussed. Prof Lennox continues to stress why it is extremely important to understand the limits of science and the explanatory capacity of science. How can a law of gravity create something? How can any law create anything? Does the law of arithmetic ever drop money into your pocket? Is reason a ‘subject’ of science? Can’t we reason outside of science? Does Science compete with God as an explanation? How about the evolutionary argument against naturalism? Like I stated in the past, Prof Lennox always deliver the cargo. A refreshing read.

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It Fails by Yanis Varoufakis

Genre: Economics

This book tells you exactly how capitalism works. And the moment you see how it works you cannot but see how it fails. Feudalism was the thing before capitalism. Where the ‘king’ owns the land, and gives to his subjects as politics dictates. These aristocrats’ own serfs and make them work on their lands, and there it goes: you get production of products (by the serf), followed by distribution (lords consume their bits and sell the rest), and then we can talk credits and debits. However, when the merchants were becoming massively rich from global trades, local landowners in England and Scotland decided to follow suit. And what happened is the commodification of land and labor which lead to the great reversal – distribution now precedes production. This is the birth of capitalist societies and it created humongous wealth and productivity. But, it came with a price: misery and poverty for the majority, with a tiny proportion of the population owning almost all the wealth. Sounds familiar? And not only that, the moment profit becomes the main goal, commodification of almost anything becomes attractive, even if it leads to the destruction of the planet. Sounds familiar? And of course, the system crashes every now and then because of the black magic of bankers, irresponsibility of politicians, and the funny behavior of money and human labor. Not much is said about clearing these debris, but I have to say this: Yanis’s little book is one of the most accessible books I have read about the economy.

Arguing Religion: A Bishop Speaks at Facebook and Google by Bishop Robert Barron

Genre: Philosophy | Religion

Bishop Barron does a two-step job in this book. In the first step, he argues against things like scientism, straw-man arguments, fideism, voluntarism, and so on, and so on. Finally, he argues for arguing religion. In the second part, he does something totally beautiful through the help of Thomas Aquinas (the spiritual master). He demonstrated the fragility of our search for happiness in the materialistic sense. And this is exactly what the practicing absurdist/nihilist discovers (those folks get the point). He concludes: our search for happiness (should) leads us to God.

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

Genre: Fiction

Origin is a novel that tells the story of a billionaire computer scientist, Edmond Kirsch, who simulated the origin of the world to show that life can be produced from just the law of gravity. In the middle of all of these, some weird ultra-conservative Catholic sect got caught up in Edmond’s murder. Apart from the exhausted nature of this novel’s plot, it’s so tiring to continue to see how shallow ideas about the origin of the universe are continued to be promoted. How on earth does a law of anything abhors a creative force? I am surprised I was able to finish the book, and I will blame that on the extremely popular, sunk cost effect.

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe

 Genre: History

I wondered why this isn’t taught in history classes in Nigerian schools. After spending twenty or so years in several Nigeria educational institutions, I had no idea that I had no idea of the deep schism at Nigeria’s birth, especially the big one manifested in the Biafra war. And so you know, I am NOT the type that skips classes or fails to write notes. In this book, Chinua Achebe narrated his own personalized history of the Biafra war starting with his childhood and initial education under the British system, and the he transitioned to the gory periods after the Nigerian independence. First, the January 15 1966 coup championed by two soldiers. This led to the death of several people from the Northern extraction of the country including the prime minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa. In certain quarters, especially in the North, the coup was believed to be an Igbo coup, because it was led by soldiers of the Eastern extraction of the country. And of course, you begin to have this back and forth thing, starting with the 1966 counter-coup (July rematch) where, the north retaliated; in between,  you have the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom. All laying a deadly foundation for the Biafra war which ended in unfathomable massacres with millions of Biafrans dead of starvation. And of course, the ‘war’ did not end after the war. As I read through the book, it made perfect sense while the country is still confused up until today, and at some point, I asked the obvious question: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

 Genre: Entrepreneurship

 Zero to One is an OK book if you don’t know much about startups. Peter Thiel, here, espouses his own philosophy about entrepreneurship and it oozes common sense.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

 Genre: Technology

Neat book, but a bit light. For anyone alive today, there is a high probability that the digital world (media) is interfering with the quality of your life, even if you don’t know it. In other words, there are debris needed to be cleared. If clearing such quality-vitiating debris is a must for you, Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts; and Cal’s Digitalism Minimalism are must-reads.

The True Life by Alain Badiou

Genre: Philosophy

Badou’s True life requires depth to really grasp it, in its entirety. I read two times, back-to-back, and I was able to save the things I lost in the first (very quick) read. And what is Badou saying here? He says that young folks today are disoriented – disillusioned partly because they are (forced) to live a false life at the dictate of an aggressive capitalist system: buy toys, buy things, get a career going, which he says, prevent the individual of becoming the subject he or she is capable of being. This analysis, I agree on. When money becomes the sole object of worship, disillusionment follows. The data is out. Here is where I pivot from Badou, does an anti-capitalist system necessarily solves this problem? No, I think not. He also indicated the complicity of the educational system, university, in this problem. The prevailing economic system apparently discourages deep thoughts, in turn, universities today are transformed into places you go, just to get degrees, so that you can become (i.e. get a job); not a place that encourages deep, diverse thoughts. All of this, keeps the status-quo, keeps the ball rolling. He also indicated the (modern) absence of initiation of the young, which leads to puerilisation and infantilisation of adults. My critique is this, I don’t see how a society can proximally, functionally, exist without some ‘channels’ and ‘tunnels’. In other words, the absence of (a kind of) capitalism, means the presence of something else which will ultimately alter the fabric of the society. It is at this point Badou confuses me. We can philosophize and theorize till kingdom come, but at some point, we need an interface with reality. As a young man myself, here is my take – this loop back to an analysis of our existential purpose, this is where the road leads.  Badou is making a huge mistake of wanting to solve a spiritual problem with materialism.

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

 Genre: Self Help

I enjoyed reading this slim book from 1910. I enjoyed it because of its bluntness, it’s truths. Anyone who had read a few Cal Newport’s book would enjoy it. Needless to say Bennett’s book is one of the prominent ‘primary literatures’ in most Newport’s productivity books and essays, especially Deep Work. In this book Bennett addresses the ‘salarymen’ to seize their leisure time to drastically improve themselves. And he does a good job of exposing a great deal of free time that usually go untapped – early mornings, travel time to and from work, evenings, and weekends. I have attempted most of the ‘tricks’ in this book and it works too well but not without developing a very strong self-discipline. He says, “which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say ‘lives’, I do not mean exists, nor ‘muddles through’…”

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein

Genre: Philosophy

(Some) contemporary philosophical problems through the lens of Plato.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

Genre: Entrepreneurship

Start-up is all about building something awesome in an atmosphere of huge uncertainty. Needless to say, the anatomy of getting a PhD, in say, experimental biology, is akin to getting a Startup going. It’s all about starting your experiments (and doing that as lean as possible), you get your data, you learn, you pivot or you preserve (or you patch). And the cycle continues. The lean startup tells the story in all it’s boring details. A good book but the writing style isn’t the best. But I can imagine an entrepreneur being cool with just that.

Machine Learning (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge) by Ethem Alpaydin

Genre: Technology | Computer Science

Great introduction to Machine Learning. To read through seamlessly, some very basic knowledge of CS and stats would help a great deal. Having taken a graduate level class in statistical learning this was a light read, except for a few sections on deep learning. My favorite parts of the book are Ethem’s salutary use of analogies like, ‘learning with a critic’ for reinforcement learning; ‘learning with a teacher’ for supervised learning; ‘learning without a teacher’ for unsupervised learning; and a whole lot of those handy goodies. In general, this is a little nice book on a technology that is rapidly changing the way we live! From digital medical diagnosis, to Alexa, to amazon go.

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

Genre: Fiction

I was excited to read Tomi’s book, especially when I heard it uses Yoruba mythology extensively. The book started so strong, and I was liking it, but I got lost somewhere in middle. It got tedious, I would say, somewhat repetitive. A lot of folks like this book, which lead me to pick it up in the first place but I will say 3 stars (maybe I will like the movie :), the story is good).

Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior by Mark R. Leary

 Genre: Psychology

 From love, gender differences, to self-control – the psychology of everything. I learnt a lot!

AI tackles Biology: How Machine Learning Will Revolutionize Science and Medicine by The Scientist

 Genre: Science | Technology

I wanted something up to date on AI in biology, and this ‘The Scientist’ issue was just what I needed. A whole lot is going on at the interface of AI and biology. Here are few updates 1) NPL has been used to detect diseases like psychosis, addiction, and depression; 2) ML is used to detect if a cell is infected by pathogens; 3)QSAR is being powered by sophisticated ML algorithms for drug discovery; 4) from images, histopathology slides, and various -omics profiles, ML can now predict cancer diagnosis, tumor evolution, and treatment; 5) AI can now detect and differentiate weed from crops with some 90% accuracy; 6) AI can now predict how fire moves 7) predicts drought 8) predicts floods 9) predicts repairs made to DNA snipped with cas9; and a whole lot more. The flood is here, and I will borrow the words of the legendary African musician, Fela Kuti: ‘who no know go know’, meaning the folks who don’t know (about the power of AI) will soon know.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs, 4th Edition: Care, Facilities, Management, Breeds by Kelly Klober

Genre: Agriculture

This is the first text I am reading on the subject, so I lack some comparative abilities here. However, this contains virtually everything I wanted to learn about raising pigs, and that’s good enough for me.

The Spy with No Name by Jeff Maysh

 Genre: Fiction

 A very, very short story of a spy with ‘no-name’. I can sketch it: Someone got pregnant. She left the child for donkey years, only to start searching for her child, who is now a grown-up man. She finally found a spy who is the child, except that he was not. The spy played along brilliantly, but, you know how these things work – it’s only a matter of time. I can only imagine what a great movie this story could make. 5 stars!

Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again by Eric Topol

Genre: Medicine | Technology

This one is a good read. I have read a few materials on A.I. and biology (medicine), but this one stands out. The fourth industrial revolution had begun, and Dr Topol managed to map out how AI is impacting, and will impact, medicine. Perhaps you know of how Instagram photos had been used to reveal predictive markers of depression. Or how scientists are using AI to predict time of death. Skin cancer detection with your smartphone. Mobile apps for medical diagnosis. Drug discovery insilico. What can I say: new world, new times.

Socrates and Òrúnmìlà by Sophie Bósèdé Olúwolé

Genre: Philosophy

Socrates and Orunmila was written by my favorite female philosopher, Mama Sophie. Brilliant woman! I searched for the book for years, but recently got my hands on it. Here, she argued for a parity of status between Orunmila and Socrates, whom she stated are two patron saints of classical philosophy. She engaged in a very deep, critical comparative analysis of African and Western philosophy. And, as a side note: one thing I liked about her (the book) is that she didn’t shy away from throwing trenchant jabs at philosophers who ignorantly downgraded, or questioned the existence of a bonafide African Philosophy. Her arguments, for me, are quite convincing. As such, if anyone one needs convincing that we (Africans) had thrown away the baby with the bath water. Buy this book (good luck getting it) and read carefully.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight

Genre: Entrepreneurship

Two things had kept me up late into the early mornings this year -insomnia and Shoe Dog. One of the best memoirs I have read.

Enchiridion by Epictetus, George Long (Translator)

Genre: Philosophy

Wisdom for 2 bucks!

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie

Genre: Self Help

“A good book gets better at the second reading”, I once heard a philosopher say. I read this one for the first time few years ago, and picked it up again. The book – when read with the apt mindset, receptive mind – works like a ‘medisin’: extremely therapeutic. It is bathed in common sense (heavily), psychology (mildly), christian philosophy (heavily) and stoicism (somewhat heavily). We will always live with worry and anxiety, there is no escape, it comes with the baggage; perhaps, then, it’s a good idea to manage it, so that one could do that which one should do relatively calmly and optimally. That sounds like a good plan to me. So, happy reading!

The Self-made Billionaire Effect Deluxe: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value by John Sviokla, Mitch Cohen

 Genre: Entrepreneurship

 An attempt to map out patterns, by asking the question: what make billionaires billionaires? Five habits stand out: empathetic imagination, patient urgency, inventive execution, relative view of risk, and leadership partnership. A good read.

Artificios by Jorge Luis Borges

Genre: Fiction

Discovering Borges, for me, was like discovering a whole new continent (of fiction, of literature); and reading Artifices is perhaps one new little state I have just explored. In my first contact with Borges’ work I made the unforgiving mistake of moving too fast, like I will do with other work of fiction — this left in my mouth, a poor taste. A poor and a rich taste, to be precise, and I have learnt from my mistakes. In Artifices, the following story got my head spinning: The Secret Miracle, Death and the Compass, The Shape of the Sword.

The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman

Genre: Entrepreneurship

From pre-founding, founding, and post-founding; the founder’s dilemmas is a useful resource for various pitfalls associated with founding.

The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer by Charles Graeber

Genre: Biology

Biology is extremely complex, so is our immune system. So, let’s get that out of the way first. Okay. One, this is a great book to read for anyone interested in how biology / biomedical research works. It’s just lots of failure. However, these failures aren’t failures in a very practical sense (if experiments were carried out appropriately), because Science at its best is an antifragile system. Two, for a lay person who wants to marvel at the complexity of our bodies, this will give you some hints. Three, for someone who wants to learn about these topics, obviously – that our immune system has the capability of clearing out cancer cells. A first course in immunology will make this a light read, and for the general audience, the author does a great job with analogies. Four, a caveat. This isn’t the conventional, intuitive breakthrough, as Charles puts it “The breakthrough is a door, now open; the beginning, but not yet the cure.” In shorts, there is plenty we don’t know.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Genre: Entrepreneurship

So many things to tease apart in the book, but a few points worth mentioning:

The simple idea that education should be used for a particular end – whimsical education is not the way to go. John D. knew what he wanted and he got the specific education he needed to kick off his career. Nothing more. Nothing whimsical; and as far I can tell, nothing particularly mimetic. He had enemies from the beginning (yuge tigers chasing him). One was the dependence on his unreliable father. The mere thought of such dependence, he said – while looking for a job at 16 – “made a cold chill” run down his spine. Like the great Umberto Eco advised, when there is no enemy, we have to invent one. Rockefeller showed how personal financial journaling can be brutally effective. And no doubt his adoption of the ideals of ascetic Christianity, Puritanism gave him ‘super-human’ abilities. Again, as Epicurus had argued and showed, and modern psychologists replicated — the happiness that comes from money departs very quickly. In short, money won’t immune anyone from a great deal of unhappiness (that’s if the money doesn’t cause the unhappiness itself.) That will hit you, yet again, if your read the book. And finally, the numerous apparent weaknesses of an unfettered capitalism. Who reads an 800-pager if it isn’t a page turner? A great read.

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard E. Nisbett

Genre: Psychology

If I had read this (or the materials in the book) some five, six years ago, it would have been staggering, a paradigm shift, mind blowing; however, having read Thinking Fast and Slow, Mauboussin’s Think Twice (and a bit of Kunda’s Social Cognition), I had to stop halfway as, especially, Danny’s book makes Mindware redundant. However, this is a really nice psychology book nevertheless.

In the book, Nisbett maps, very neatly, numerous cognitive concepts like schemas, spreading activation, framing, representative heuristics, The Linda problem, availability heuristics, attribution error, dispositional factors, halo effects, mere familiarity effects, cost-benefit analysis, revealed preferences, sunk cost, opportunity cost, loss aversion, endowment effect, status quo bias, and a few other statistical concepts. All great tools for smart thinking.

How Much Land Does a Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy

Genre: Fiction

A powerful lesson about Greed. Should be a required reading for everyone.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab

Genre: Technology

After the Agrarian revolution, we had several industrial revolutions (IR), starting with steam engines, rail roads (first IR); electricity, assembly lines (second IR); digital revolution – electronics, computers, internet (third IR). Now, we are at the beginning of a forth IR. And what will this look like? We are talking 1) hacking life, biology (CRISPR-cas9 technologies, is a case of note), 2) Improvement in physical things (3D printing, advanced robotics, new materials e.t.c), and on top of everything, 3) even more improvement in the world of bit (machine learning, artificial intelligence, block chain technologies, on-demand economy). If this is dizzying, you are probably reading this well. However, to summarize roughly, an important hallmark of the 4th IR is a blurring of the distinction between machine and humans. And then we have to sit around the table and talk about lots of things. Jobs. Privacy. Rights. And a lot more. There is a good dose of optimism in this book, in that, I am not in total agreement.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

Genre: Entrepreneurship

The everything store tells the story of Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon. An educative tour of what it looks like to build a digital business empire.

René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver

Genre: Philosophy | Anthropology

I will be the first to say that this isn’t an easy read and yet, it’s one of those books a person should read rather than not. Just mind bending. Rene Girard’s Mimetic theory explains virtually everything. As such, summarizing could be tricky. However, I will still proceed. A theory of culture, and yet a theory of conflict, and yet again, a theory of religion. It explains the triangular structure that guides mimetic desire, metaphysical desire, scapegoat mechanism, the origin of kingship (political power), and also shows the biblical exposure of the scapegoat mechanism. One hell of a ride!

My Top 5 Books of 2019

And have a wonderful 2020

 

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