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Good books I read in 2022

The covers of recommended books.

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny

There is an image imprinted in my brain from when I was about ten years old. Yugoslavia fell apart. The following civil war brought horror to the whole region. My family and I are watching the news on TV, and a muscular bald man in a black leather jacket comes up in a news segment. I can’t remember what he was saying. My gaze goes from a gold chain around his thick neck to the text overlay stating his occupation: entrepreneur (poduzetnik in Croatian). His industry? Import and export.

I learned later that people like him were war profiteers. They amassed vast fortunes by smuggling weapons, drugs, and people. Many had, or still have, connections to the government.

The Balkan region is not the only example of the criminal underworld. There are many organizations and networks across the world, and they have uncomfortable relationships with businesses, industries, and governments. Misha Glenny does a wonderful job of explaining these relationships, how and why those bad things formed, and why they happen in front of our eyes, with us barely noticing.

Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives by Michael A. Heller, James Salzman

You board a plane, take off, and the seatbelt sign turns off when the plane reaches cruising altitude. The person in front of you leans back, crushing your knees, and getting their seat in your face. What do you do? Is it in their right to lean back because it’s their seat, or do you have the right to have some space in front of you? And why don’t airlines decide, leaving people to get into conflicts instead?

This surprisingly engaging book is about ownership design. Like many good books about ethics and human judgment, it won’t give you definite answers. Still, it will provide the tools for evaluating arguments and six (wrong) maxims of how people define ownership:

  1. First come, first served
  2. Possession is 9/10ths of the law
  3. You reap what you sow
  4. My home is my castle
  5. Our bodies, our selves
  6. Meek shall inherit the Earth

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich

Humans are an unusual species because we’re likely the most adaptive cultural learners in the world. Our biology hasn’t changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. Still, our behaviors, customs, and technology have seen the pace of change and improvement unprecedented in human evolution. How and why that happened is the book’s core message by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

I doubted that something could top Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, but Seneca’s collection of letters comes close. There are two reasons why I enjoyed the collection:

  1. Reading someone’s thoughts from two thousand years ago matches my description of The Secret of Our Success book—even though customs and technology are very different today, we still think in similar ways, have the same social and biological needs, and struggle with pretty much the same human problems. Stoics also have a sound approach to dealing with them.
  2. Each letter is only a few pages long and clearly written, so it’s ideal for daily reading and reflection. I tried reading Discourses by Epictetus—another stoic philosopher—but it was so incomprehensible that I gave up.

Collins Classics (publisher)

Save the Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

I never considered writing a screenplay. However, I heard about the book in one podcast, so I decided it was going to be one of my random explorations into new areas. It was a good choice.

The book is a blueprint of how to develop a compelling storyline, choose characters, and pace the story through critical milestones. The advice doesn’t hold only for movies but for any narrative, fictional or real. If you want a taste of it in a video form, here is a Save the Cat Interstellar explainer.
My book notes

The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert by Shugri Said Salh

The Last Nomad is simultaneously a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir of the author’s lifelong journey from one extreme to another. The story starts in a Somali desert where she takes care of animals with her grandmother, continues through a civil war and displacement to another country in her teenage years, and ends in North America, having to start almost from scratch as a young woman. But below the surface coverage of these life events is a deeper story about independent and resilient women, culture and customs, and complex family relationships.

Workman (publisher)

The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell

mRNA vaccines, machine learning models that predict protein folds, and engineered bacteria that eat plastics are only a tiny fraction of biotech and medical advancements that surfaced in the news in the past several years. As we continue to learn about and discover molecular machinery, there’ll be much more of that. The Machinery of Life is a beautifully illustrated book about molecules and cells in living beings. It assumes almost no biology knowledge and is written for lay people. What amazed me is how short it is while still being able to cover all fundamental concepts and build intuition about the size and speed of participants in major molecular interactions.

The Machinery of Life

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins is an interesting person. He co-founded Palm Computers (I was a proud owner of m505 Palm Pilot two decades ago) and then pivoted and founded a research lab as a neuroscientist. The book covers the research that came out of that lab.

The author builds on earlier research that discovered that the neocortex in the brain is composed of roughly identical cortical columns. The central hypothesis in the book is that those columns store and keep track of reference frames that, in turn, store all knowledge about the world. The author describes the fascinating mechanics of how the storage and retrieval of knowledge in cortical columns work and what consequences this finding might have for machine and human intelligence in the future.

Basic Books (publisher)

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