I listened to 18 books in 2014. There are 20 on the list, but two of them don’t count since I didn’t finish them (#1 and #18). I don’t have a record of what paper books I read in 2014, but I seem to remember there were only four of them and one was The Rosie Project. [2018 EDIT: Wow, 4 years later I just uncovered the list: The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré; The Bed of Procrustes, Nicholas Taleb; The Limits of Realism, Tim Button; and The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion.]
Books are listed in the order I listened to them. Books in bold are the ones I’d recommend most highly.
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
It has been a while since I listened to this book, so I can’t remember all the specifics (and didn’t take notes). I remember my general takeaway: it’s great. If you are at all interested in cognitive biases, or human psychology more generally, this is the book to read.
The book is very comprehensive, as it runs through all the major findings from an entire discipline over the last 40 years. This means that it’s also the longest book on this list, clocking in at 20h02m. I know some people who found it a bit too comprehensive and slow, but I found it all pretty fun and worthwhile to listen to.
(Having said this, I must admit that I think I got 1/2 – 2/3 of the way in and never finished the thing(!). Which means all that time listening won’t count towards the yearly statistics…)
Of course, a painful question runs through your head as you read it: will becoming aware of all of these biases make me any less biased? The fact that I can’t remember most of the book doesn’t bode well.
2. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, Robert Jackall
This was the first book I listened to in my recent audiobook spurt, and I chose it as it came highly recommended by Nick Beckstead. The book chronicles Jackall’s findings on the behaviour and motivation of corporate managers in the US, from interviews conducted with anonymous companies for four years in the early 1980s. Jackall’s narrative is engrossing, providing a flurry of insights into workplace psychology and the corporate dysfunction that arises from many self-interested agents trying to optimise for their own career success within a sprawling bureaucracy. One thing worth reporting is that, though it was impressive and always interesting, listening to the book made me a bit sad. Once you start viewing people as acting self-interestedly at all times, it’s hard to stop. Given that the book is fairly long (12 hours), this ended up being quite waring.
3. This Town, Mark Liebovich
Although I didn’t think about the connection before starting to listen to it, this book has noticeable parallels with Moral Mazes. Moral Mazes is about how people in business give altruistic reasoning to self-interested actions, and constantly jostle for status within their own determined hierarchy; This Town is how politicians, journalists, and political staffers do the same. As you might expect, the result is quite similar: listening to the book is an eye-opening experience, but you end up feeling quite bad about humanity. The big difference between the two books is that This Town is unashamedly gossipy, focusing on particular people with often-recognisable names, whereas Moral Mazes is more scientific in its approach and presentation.
4. The Foundation: A Great American Secret, Joel Fleishman
Recommended for those interested in philanthropy.
Joel Fleishman’s book contains discussion of the broad themes of philanthropy and foundations — the role the “civic sector” plays within the US, its interaction with government, and so on — as well as several specific case studies of projects taken on by foundations (this latter section is expanded upon in the case book). I enjoyed both parts of this discussion, especially the first. According to the 2005 statistics that Fleishman cites, individual donations made up around 2% of US GDP. Foundations made less of a contribution, but sit on top of an incredible pile of assets: there were 66,000 foundations in US in 2005, with $500bn in total endowments. The US really is unique in this respect: the nation that comes second in personal donations is the UK, and we donate 3x less than Americans.
Fleishman’s book is particularly interesting to read from an effective altruist perspective, as in many ways the book is a manifesto for effective philanthropy which predates the recent flurry of interest in this area. (The focus on effectiveness makes sense, given that Fleishman is an ex-board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy). One key distinction that Fleishman makes use of is the difference between expressive giving and instrumental giving: the former is when you give to show your support for a cause, rather than having particular expectations of what the money will do (e.g. ‘giving back’ to your university); the latter is when you have a particular goal, and use money strategically to achieve it. Fleishman advocates for foundations to have a greater focus on instrumental giving, and spends most of the book discussing strategies that can be used by instrumental foundations.
There is a tendency for those interested in effective altruism to try and reinvent the wheel, and come up with all the answers from scratch. Given that the philanthropic sector is so enormous in the US, there’s a lot to learn from what people studying and working in foundations have come up with already. Of course, there are ideas that Fleishman doesn’t mention that effective altruists have rightly emphasised the importance of: Fleishman’s call to arms is for strategic giving once you have chosen a cause area to work on, and he places less focus on the importance of selecting the right cause area in the first place.
I took fairly extensive notes on this book, which I hope to write up into a blog post soon.
5. Flash Boys, Michael Lewis
Flash Boys has been one of the best-selling non-fiction books this year, and for good reason. Michael Lewis attempts to open up the opaque, confusing, and ever-changing world of High-Frequency Trading (HFT), and expose it for what it is (spoiler alert: it’s hi-tech scalping). Lewis makes his case by interweaving three fairly unconnected stories of people involved in the HFT world: one Good Guy and two Sort Of Ambiguous Guys.
Lewis is great at telling a story and making it compelling, accessible, and human. People who are looking for very granular information on the specifics on HFT may find the book a bit slow, but I thought it was a fun and informative listen. The book may also end up having far-reaching impact: US legislators have started taking action against dark pools, which receive extended discussion in the book (though of course it is not easy to assess how much of this is attributable to increased focus on the issue from the book, and how much to other factors). Pretty exciting: long-form journalism may well be an important force for drawing attention to things that can be improved!
6. The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham
Note from Oct 18th, 2015, ~15 months since this review was written: It turns out I somehow got tricked into downloading the abridged version of The Intelligent Investor (2h45) instead of the unabridged one (17h48). This may explain why I didn’t get much out of the book. Don’t buy the abridged version! What follows below is the original review…
Surprisingly, I didn’t get as much out of The Intelligent Investor as I had hoped. It might be heresy not to recommend this book, as it is the book everyone tells you to read first if you’re interested in value investing. It has also had an inordinate amount of influence over the last 70 years, most notably on Warren Buffett (who was taught by Graham). I think it is a testament to how influential Benjamin Graham has been that most of this book now reads like a list of truisms about investing, as opposed to packed full of insights. Once insights have been allowed to flow around the investing community for 70 years, the reaction to hearing them stated explicitly is less of a lightbulb moment, but more of a ‘well, duh…’ one.
The central thesis:
You’re a member of the general public, so don’t think you’re smarter than the general public. There is such a thing as a defensive investor (as opposed to a speculator), and a good one doesn’t get swayed by quarterly reports and doesn’t buy growth stocks. Their investments are characterised by a ‘margin of safety’.
The book pioneered lots of now-classic ideas in investing, e.g.
(1) “You are your own worst enemy”. In this respect Graham pre-empted a lot of recent research into cognitive biases and behavioural finance. His recommendation is to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of speculation, and to never expect outsized returns from any given investment.
(2) Diversification: Graham recommends a defensive split between bonds and stocks in your portfolio.
(3) “Don’t follow the crowd”.
(4) Since you’re not an expert investor, don’t rely on investing being a part of your business. Just expect market returns, and get to work doing your actual business (e.g. manufacturing hammers).
The audiobook available on iTunes is only 2h45m long, and costs $14.95, which is a probably too expensive per minute (especially given that the first half is pretty slow). You could instead read the Wikipedia entry on value investing, and/or a summary of the book, and get most of the content more quickly and for free. Overall, I think the book may be worth reading for historical interest; if you are interested in learning about value investing, there are better things to read (e.g. Warren Buffett’s annual letters to investors).
7. The Little Book of Behavioral Investing, James Montier
This summer I worked in an investing firm, and figured it was worth learning something about behavioural finance before starting. This book is nice and short, but packed full of studies and summaries of findings in the literature on cognitive biases. If you have read anything from this field already (e.g. Thinking, Fast and Slow, #1 above), then a good portion of the biases and studies Montier highlights will be familiar. However, even given this familiarity, Montier does a good job of showing how these biases can be applied specifically to investing, and which you should be most vigilant to watch out for as an investor.Overall: nice and short and to the point.
8. The Big Short, Michael Lewis
I chose this book as I had previously listened to and enjoyed Michael Lewis’s more recent Flash Boys (see #5 above). In The Big Short, Lewis charts the lead up to the financial crisis of 2007/2008 through the eyes of a few contrarian investors who predicted doom long before it happened. These characters are fairly compelling, and this character-driven narrative structure makes the book easy listening — perfect for dipping in and out of and not feeling like you have to take notes.
Lewis also manages to make what is a willfully opaque area of finance — involving credit default swaps, collateral loan obligations, and more — as accessible and understandable as can be hoped. In this respect the book is valuable in its attempt to make sense of a crisis that affected so many millions of people’s lives, but which it often feels like so few (if any) people understand. If you are looking for a very technical take on systemic risk or specific financial instruments involved in the crisis then this is not the right book for you. If you like non-fiction books that are written like stories, this is perfect.
9. Poor Economics, Abjihit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
This has probably been my favourite audiobook so far (and the competition has been strong!). Banerjee and Duflo survey attempts to help the global poor through nutrition, education, microfinance, and more. Their conclusions can be summarised as: details matter. Interventions that have intuitive appeal may not work on the ground, and in interventions that work on the ground in one region may not work in another.
I was worried that listening to this in audiobook form rather than reading it would be difficult, given that economics is bound to be quite detailed and involve graphs. This didn’t end up being an issue, though. Highly recommended!
10. Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene
This book has two interweaving projects: one is a summary of recent findings in moral psychology, and one is a philosophical defence of utilitarianism — or “deep pragramatism”, as Joshua Greene prefers to calls it.Important topic, and nicely written! I’m a Greene fan.
11. The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan
(Warning: I wrote this review a while after reading the book, and a friend has suggested I’ve misremembered some of Caplan’s arguments. So read the original just in case.)
Bryan Caplan is a excellent, forceful writer, and this book is the audio equivalent of a page-turner. It is quite discomfiting to listen to, since it is a book full of well-argued criticisms of something you’re not meant to criticise: democracy.
As with a lot of Caplan’s writing, the book is packed full of insights that you’d never quite put your finger on but sound obvious once you hear them. For example, there is a great section that neatly demolishes the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis (more below).
One thing that struck me throughout is that in a key respect the book is mis-titled. Caplan argues that voters are uninformed, and are rational to keep themselves uninformed since they have such little chance of personally affecting the outcome of any election — they might as well just vote in a way that makes them feel good. This, he argues, leads them to vote too altruistically, for policies that don’t make sense from the perspective of their own self-interest.
But this picture crucially has a rational voter at the center — one who quite rationally keeps themselves uninformed. So the book should be titled The Myth of the Informed Voter. That’s less catchy, though: no one thought voters were that informed to begin with.
(Note that usually people hold the opposite of Caplan’s two views above: it’s common to think that voters should pay more attention to policy than they do, but that they end up voting in their own self-interest in either case!)
I think the weakness of the book is that Caplan assumes that altruistic voting is in general bad, since it comes with costs that no individual actually wants. To me this sounds like an excellent outcome: democracy imposes a structure where people end up voting altruistically instead of in their own interest — what a great system for producing social benefits and positive externalities!
At least that’s what I told myself to come out of the book with my dogmas intact…
12. The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson has had a long career full of important scientific breakthroughs and controversies. I had read some popular articles by Wilson before, and figured that this recent book might be in keeping with the moral psychology kick I’d been going on since reading Moral Tribes. It was surprising, then, how uncontroversial this book was. It makes an enjoyable read: it is the philosophical musings on the social nature of humanity and ants from someone who has had a lot of experience of both. (Wilson warns us: we can learn nothing about morality from ants — they’re cannibals and reprobates of the highest order).
The book is fairly sparse when it comes to informational content, and is occasionally repetitive: there are a lot of platitudes about how the humanities can learn from science, for one. When Wilson does go into details, it is sometimes strangely specific: for example, he predicts that if any intelligent life crops up on other planets it will have “soft fingers”. (Of course, he gives provisos that he’s speculating.)
Perhaps most strangely, given his lengthy section on possible alien life, is the conclusion of that chapter: ‘There live among us today space enthusiasts who believe humanity can emigrate to another planet after using up this one. They should heed what I believe is a universal principle, for us and for all ETs: there exists only one habitable planet, and hence only one chance at immortality for the species.’ This is out of kilter with his optimistic, futuristic look, and also seems empirically underdetermined (or even wrong).
Overall the book is enjoyable and short, but not a must-read.
13. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom
Bostrom writes about superintelligence, with the particular focus on the dangers that may arise from the development of superintelligent artifical intelligence. This topic is very important, and it is clear that growing attention will be paid to it as its economic and political ramifications become more significant.
This book should be read by anyone with an interest in technology, or the future of the human species. It will be interesting to see how much of it stands the test of time, since Bostrom is careful to note throughout that it is too early to know what specific computational problems we will face when the time comes. But in a way this is unimportant: the book has served its purpose of getting people to start discussing this issue seriously.
14. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt
Very good. Right in the middle of Greene and Kahneman (#10 and #1 above). If you’re going to read only one of the three books, read this one. If you’re going to read two, read Greene and Kahneman. If you’re going to read three, read all three. You should probably read 2-3.
15. The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
Fun topic, nicely covered. Inherently difficult project, of trying to project forward economic and technological progress. I don’t think they make a strong enough case to defend the bombastic title, but good content nonetheless.
16. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Taylor Branch
Very interesting, and timely given the current protests. Descriptions of nonviolent resistance make me extremely emotional, it turns out.
17. Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock
Excellent book; important topic. Many of the middle sections of the book were fairly technical, on the methodology of polling people and aggregating probability estimates. I found this quite hard to follow in audio format, so it may well be worth reading this book as opposed to listening to it.
18. Understanding Genetics (Great Courses), David Sadava
I decided to stop listening to before the end, so this one doesn’t really count. (I got 3 hours in to the total 12 hours.) I found it a bit too slow and content-light, and given this found it hard to concentrate enough to internalise the content there was. This may be a case of me not being able to learn science through audiobook format, but I will probably try one more scientific book before taking this conclusion too seriously.
I would recommend saving time and money, and instead of buying this book simply read the Wikipedia page on genetics to get some of the way there. I am fortunate in that one of my friends knows everything about genetics/medicine/science, so she kindly sat down for half an hour with me and explained all the basics. The benefit of this approach is that you can ask questions. (Thanks Emily!)
19. The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt
I bought this book because I had enjoyed Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (#14 above), and this book had good reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. There is a lot of material in this book that gets repeated in The Righteous Mind, including almost all of chapters 1 and 3. It also occasionally teeters on the irritating sides of positive psychology, though just about stays in the safe zone. Overall, though, I’d recommend skipping this book and just going for The Righteous Mind.
20. Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Great Courses), David Christian
This condenses the history of the universe into 24 hours of lectures, and does it well. Now I just wish I could remember what happened…