The Books I Read in 2020, and My Favorites

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Genre: Biography | Technology

I had always wanted to read Steve Jobs, so I figured reading about an inspiring subject at the beginning of a new year isn’t a bad idea after all. And I say, ‘Just brilliant.’ The book is almost too readable. Thick book (granted), but super slim chapters taking us entertainingly through several chapters in Steve’s life as he puts several ‘dent on the universe’. Apple I and II, Macintosh, Great Pixar animations, virtually (if not) all the i-thingy. iPod. iPhone. iPad. iCloud etc. Not a perfect dude, far from it, but there are soooo many things to pay attention to, and here is one: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Not a fact, but true enough for those who dare to take seriously.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Genre: Philosophy | Stocism

Writing around 49 A.D to his father-in-law Paulinus, Seneca philosophized about the subject of time (and hence life). The main thesis was that we waste so much of time – that it is not even funny. He argued that because time is incorporeal, a lot of us take this ‘incorporeality-of-time’ to imply the valuelessness of time, in the way we act. On the subject of how to spend your time (again, hence life), he argued for intentionality. In my head, this sits right into Rene Girard’s earlier works on the mimetic desire, and I could extend Seneca’s thoughts and say the following: beware of imitating the desires of others.

Apology by Plato

Genre: Philosophy

Socrates at the court of Athens, redefined wisdom, virtue, and death.

The Golden Saying of Epictetus by Epictetus

Genre: Philosophy | Stocism

The stoics have all these immunization regimens against various life dramas some are downright impossible injections to take; while some, you ignore at your own peril. Here is Epictectus in his stoic cloak, in the golden sayings. From the intuitive lesson: “Exceed due measure, and the most delightful things become the least delightful.” To warnings against mindless materialism: “…one man finds pleasure in improving [only] his land, another, his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.” To the hard pill: “… [you must] learn to wish that each thing should come to pass as it does.” To the meaning of prison: “… and wherever a man is against his will, that to him is a prison. Thus, Socrates was not in prison, since he was there with his own consent.” To the downright hilarious: “The question at stake is no common one; it is this – are we in our sense, or are we not?” … And everything in-between.

Euthyphro by Plato

Genre: Philosophy

This is a short dialogue, and it should be read very slowly if you are not familiar with the work. Socrates put Euthyphro to test on his way to prosecute his father in the Athenian courts for killing a slave. He claimed he knows what it meant to be pious, but soon got himself in deep trouble namely: “is the pious, pious because the gods will it, or does the gods will the pious because it is Pious.” He fumbled, hence the famous Euthyphro dilemma.

Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Sarris

Genre: History

Given the ‘busy’ times we live in, where devouring huge historical tomes is becoming – and God forbid – an ‘abomination’; one can’t be more thankful for pithy books like this gem. I learned a few things about the fallen empire, and hence a few things about the world we live in. The Roman Empire fell in the 5th century CE, but not exactly, as it continued in the form of the eastern Roman Empire which was later called the Byzantium. The book contains a lot of details about the empire: the political structure, Diocletian reforms, the reign of Justinian, Nika riots, Byzantium and Islam, education in the empire, religious ceremonies, theological and cristological controversy (Tritinarian theology, council of Niceae, e.t.c.), Mehmed the Conqueror final takeover of Constantinople, and many more. 4 stars.

A Course in Machine Learning by Hal Daumé III

Genre: Computer Science | Machine Learning

My first pass at CIML is the first ten chapters (decision trees to neural networks), and it does well to fulfill it promises as a very clear introductory text to machine learning. Short chapters, meaningful analogies, without taking anything away from the necessary technicalities. Reading CIML + Introduction to Statistical Learning is a diet every aspiring machine learning scientist must get on quickly.

Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

 Genre: History | Public Health

Reading Pandemics VSI is akin to taking an undergraduate crash course in the history of pandemics/epidemics over ~140pages of engaging materials. Prof McMillen started off by stating a useful categorization of pandemics: pandemic as an event (comes and goes) and persistent pandemics; the 1918 flu pandemic, the plague and the small pox are examples of the former while tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS are great examples of the latter. Ten chapters were devoted to ten major pandemics/diseases starting with the first identifiable pandemic in history – the Justinian plague (Yestinia pestis) that took place in the mid 6th century. Historians were quick to point out that this plague contributed to the downfall of the Byzantium empire. And it showed up in two more waves (pandemics) in various parts of the world wreaking havoc. Small pox, with the earliest trace to the 430BCE plague of Athens. Malaria, a nasty persistent pandemic which still kills hundreds of thousands (majority kids) every year. Cholera, categorized in 7 waves (pandemics); TB; Influenza; and HIV/AIDS.

Mathematical Notation: A Guide for Engineers and Scientists by Edward R. Scheinerman

 Genre: Mathematics

Reading technical papers riddled with scary math notation isn’t particularly fun. Searching the web isn’t efficient too until l came across Mathematical Notation by Edward Scheinerman. It’s largely a reference book, think dictionary for math symbols. It covers many topics in pure math: logic, geometry, numbers, linear algebra, calculus etc. And then a surprise package at the back: A LaTex reference chart for the notations!

Africa’s Business Revolution: How to Succeed in the World’s Next Big Growth Market by Acha Leke, Musta Chironga, George Desvaux

 Genre: Business

“The instinct of most business people is to underestimate Africa’s size and potential as a market, and overestimate the challenges of doing business there.” This is one of the salient points in the Africa’s Business Revolution’s preamble. There is a mimetic complex around doing business in Africa, the ‘data’ don’t get scrutinized (i.e. the peace-makers that doesn’t make your 10’O clock news, the silent evidences), and assumptions are not being questioned. Acha Leke et al tried flipping the coin here. Showing what is possible, what is working, what has worked, and what is going to work.

Investment Clubs: How to create wealth beyond your pay-cheque by investing with others by Tomie Balogun

 Genre: Business

Investment clubs 101. Straight to the point, and easy to read.

Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future by Martha Hodgkins et al

 Genre: Agriculture

3 dozen plus letters to a young farmer — Joel Salatins’ would perhaps be my favorite. They speak to diversified portfolio of products, sustainable agriculture and many fine things. And then that Gary Nabhan quote that easily maps out to any worthwhile venture in life: “The most important lesson that farming imparts to the wayward human psyche is the constant need for humility. It does so by reminding us that we are really not ever in control and that we will likely be wrong about the complexities of nature and the economy more often than we are right.”

‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall  by Benedict XVI

 Genre: Christianity

What the Pope Emeritus did with the Book of Genesis is amazing. The evolution of the subject of creation in the Bible is in of itself indicative that what is being portrayed in Genesis is about the form of creation and not the content. They represent truth in the way symbols do. His comments on some form of logical positivism is great (while invoking Kant); and his analysis of what it means to be made in the image of God is salutary to say the least. He also did some ‘work’ on sin, and this quote summarizes a fair chunk of his exegesis on the subject. “Sin has become a suppressed subject, but everywhere we can see that although it is suppressed, it has nonetheless remained real.”

Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by Peter Godfrey-Smith

 Genre: Philosophy | Science

Theory and Reality tours about a century of rich arguments about science. First, the author delved into how does science works? As a social structure, mathematical modeling or empiricism? The debate between classical rationalism and classical empiricism. The whole gist about the logical positivists (and the ‘grave’ they dug for themselves). Induction, deduction, and what the hell constitute confirmation/evidence in science? This naturally led to paradoxes and riddles: raven paradox, Goodman’s new riddle of induction, that kind of thing. What more: Popper of course – the problem of demarcation, falsificationism, conjecture and refutations + two solid chapters on Kuhn. Godfrey-Smith also covered theories of explanation (covering, casual, and unification theory) and many other topics. It’s a nice treat. It reads like an undergraduate textbook on the subject – just technical enough. Might be tedious for a philosophy newbie.

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl, Dana Mackenzie

 Genre: Statistics | Artificial Intelligence

You and I know that it isn’t the cock crow that causes the sun to rise. And yet we do know that “the ball fell because the young lady over there threw it”, even though in both cases, one precedes the other. It turns out that a robot can’t tell a difference between the two, because a robot can’t tell a difference between correlation and causation. For a robot to be endowed with this capability, the mathematization of causation, casual inference, has to be straightened out. This is the story the book shares – the algorithmization of causation. The authors started with the history of correlation and causation. (And the suppression of the latter in the statistical field.) This suppression led to the unnecessary obfuscation in the identification of smoking as a cause of lung cancer, which led to many deaths. They introduce the ladder of causation, which is effectively the spine of the book: 1) observing (this is the realm of machine intelligence today) 2) intervention (What ifs question), and 3) counterfactuals (imagination: What if I had done X). The book carefully climbed up this ladder introducing Bayesian networks, confounding and deconfounding, back door adjustment, front door adjustments, paradoxes bursted with casual thinking, structural casual models, etc. Finally, Dr Pearl ended with an audacious prophecy about machine intelligence – AI systems that can think and be self-aware.

 How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, Irving Geis (Illustrator)

 Genre: Statistics

I spent the past couple months reading two extremely complicated (and huge) books still waiting to be completed; only to realize that I have not been having enough fun (when I picked up this gem.) I didn’t quite realize myself until I cracked up while reading this book one warm night and a fellow asked what comedy I was watching, then a long verbal review followed. Here, my review will be short. First, with such a suspicious title, I will start with the justification for reading the book: ‘the crooks already know these tricks; honest [folks] must learn them in self-defense.’ And I will end by stating that it covers the following topics: sample bias, averages, confounding, and many more — and in an extremely readable fashion.

PS: For folks who want to reallllly get into confounding, do the following: 1) pick up Pearl’s Book of Why, 2) read it very slowly.

Life Lessons From Freud by Brett Khar

 Genre: Psychoanalysis

Eight short meditations on the unconscious mind according to Freud. 1) Why some folks who are at the verge of a felicitous success finds a way to ruin it 2) Freudian slips (parapraxes) 3) On patients’ confidentiality and curative communications 4) marital psychology or why you lust after your neighbors’ wife 5) on deep, dark, familial hatred 6) psychology of jokes (why we laugh at certain jokes) 7) on the relationship between psycho-analysis and archaeology + how childhood experiences ‘make’ us; and 8) the three blows suffered by the universal narcissism of humans. I am not up to date on modern psychoanalysis to critique this work, but given that it was written by a practicing psychoanalyst, perhaps one could take his word for it, in the meantime. However, Freud’s (and the authors’) concession to the inconsequentiality of humans – citing Darwins’ work – is unscientific, and ought to be stated as a belief.

Introduction to Christianity by Benedict XVI

 Genre: Christianity

To summarize this great book, and do justice to it at the same time will require writing another one, as such a short review will have to do: 1) It has a ridiculously misleading title especially if you are not familiar with Pope Benedict’s works. When I picked up the book beginning of the summer, I was not expecting what will eventually hit me – a deep and thorough theological metaphysics treatment of Christianity, and this point cannot be overstated. 2) He started by deconstructing ‘belief’ – the content of belief and 3) he used the Apostolic creed as a token of the Christian faith, and then proceed to tease it apart, over some 400 intense pages. Depending on the readers’ familiarity with (Christian) philosophy, this might take months to read for neophytes (assuming you have a day job). So, it’s safe to say this an academic theology text. A masterpiece!

An Introduction to Statistical Learning: With Applications in R by Gareth James, Trevor Hastie, Robert Tibshirani, Daniela Witten

 Genre: Statistical Learning

This is one of the primary texts that introduced me to statistical learning. I have read bits and pieces over the years, and it all finally came to together. It reads like a ‘story book’, that is, as best as a text book can read like a ‘story book’. Concepts like bias and variance, under (and over) fitting were handled gracefully. Topics covered include linear regression, resampling methods, tree-based methods, SVM, dimensionality reduction, clustering, etc. For the R exercises, I skipped it. I will probably do a python version, if I can get the time in the future… I also noticed something, the moment I read just about half of the book, suddenly I could read more ‘intimidating’ materials on the subject. As such, by reading this book, I only have one regret – that I didn’t go hard the first time I picked up the damn book!

Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and Tensorflow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron

 Genre: Machine Learning

This will go straight to the top of my list of best ML books. Its minimalist on theory and largely a code repository, hence Hands-On. This is the first edition which is an important point to make, I got the first edition read 3/4 of its content only to realize that a second edition had been published, and that I wasn’t getting the ‘full package’, so I stopped and got a 2nd edition (… still ploughing through). A few changes to note in the 2nd edition. 1) Additional ML topics were covered such as unsupervised learning techniques, object detection with YOLO, semantic segmentation with R-CNN; 2) new libraries and API were introduced e.g. Keras; 3) migration of TensorFlow chapters to TensorFlow 2; and many others. The most pronounced changes are in the part II of the book on Neural Networks and Deep Learning. So I wouldn’t buy this one today for sure. Details about changes in the 2nd edition can be found here:

Creating Business Plans (HBR 20-Minute Manager Series) by Harvard Business School Press

 Genre: Business

Delivers on its promise.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 Genre: Philosophy | Novel

Notes from the underground, exposes the nadir of human consciousness, the wretched nature of human to be specific, however, I think a purely existentialist reading of the book might be misleading, as it is soaked in biblical motifs, like the kind you will see in Lamentations, Psalms, and Job. If anything, it ridicules any kind of existentialist ‘elixir’, a somewhat apophatic theological work at best.

The Personal MBA: master the art of business by Josh Kaufman

 Genre: Business

This is perhaps the most useful business book I have read so far and, come to think of it, there is a reason it became an international bestseller. That being said, given that I have read fairly well on the psychology of the mind, social psychology, personal productivity, and systems; a huge chunk of the book was not mind-blowing – more of repetitions. However, the five chapters on the five integral parts of a business was lit:  value creation, marketing, sales, value delivery, and finance.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger by Charlie T. Munger and Peter D. Kaufman

 Genre: Entrepreneurship

Charles T Munger is a nonagenarian billionaire who thinks with his head, and powerfully so. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, but I recently had the courage to pick it up. It requires a decent amount of time investment as it is a fairly large book. Here, Charlie documents his mental models which is heavily multidisciplinary notably in psychology, systems thinking, micro-economics etc. Charlie is widely known as the right-hand man to another billionaire, Warren Buffet.

My Top 5 Books of 2020

  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

  • Introduction to Christianity by Benedict XVI

  • Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and Tensorflow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron

  • Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  • Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger by Charlie T. Munger and Peter D. Kaufman

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2 thoughts on “The Books I Read in 2020, and My Favorites

  1. I always keep tab of your reading list. You have inspired a resurgence of my reading culture. Told myself I was going to read-a-book-a-month and not random as I read in the past. Achieved it! And I’ll be sharing on my website sometimes later.

    By the way, I think you’d need a bigger shelf😁.

    Thanks for sharing bro.

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      Hi Olamide, I am glad I was able to play that role, and good for you! And for a bigger shelf, I am working on it 🙂

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