(1) Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012)
The Better Angels of Our Nature is truly special. On the surface, it’s a book about the history of violence. But it’s also a deep dive into psychology, criminology, anthropology, policy, philosophy, morality, statistics, and data visualization. It’s also a stunning example of how good writing can be a source of immense pleasure. Each sentence is somehow more rewarding than the last, and each paragraph packs an unprecedented punch.
The book’s main thesis is this: all forms of violence have declined throughout human history, not inevitably, but because societies, institutions, and moral norms have evolved to favour our “better angels” (empathy, self-control, reason) over our “inner demons” (dominance, revenge, ideology). I had two main takeaways from the book:
The past was grotesquely violence. Unbelievably so. Consider:
To be hanged, drawn and quartered was from 1352 a statutory penalty in England for men convicted of high treason. A convicted traitor was fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where he was then hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). The traitor's remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.The best part is definitely the last line: for public decency, women were burned alive in a public square.
- The fact that you and I agree that the paragraph above is repugnant is not because we are morally superior to the people of medieval England. We simply grew up in a world with more evolved (though of course still imperfect) criminal sentencing. But **this evolution was not inevitable.** It happened because really smart people thought really hard about how to improve society and reduce suffering, and they designed smart policies that worked. If they could do it, so can we.
If you love graphs, this book is for you. If you love history, psychology, and criminology, this book is for you. If you love beautifully crafted sentences, this book is for you. If you’re literate, this book is for you. Read this book.
(2) Seth Stephens-Davidowitz – Everybody Lies (2017)
This book uncovers a new venue for probing human nature: the Google search bar. It’s one of the few places where people reveal their true preferences, interests, doubts, and concerns without any filter. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz used internet search data to discover that more people regret having kids than not having kids, roughly 5% of American men are gay, the mention of Muslim athletes decreases Islamophobic sentiment, and that people are more concerned about their genitals than they are about their lungs, liver, feet, ears, nose, throat and brain combined. Also, Indian men want their wives to breastfeed them. Speedy, enlightening, hilarious, ingenious, and often quite profound.
(3) Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis (2006)
Don’t be fooled by the self-help-y title: The Happiness Hypothesis is basically an introductory psychology course. Jonathan Haidt masterfully runs through the state of the art in our understanding of emotions, belief formation, morality, religion, and shows that this modern scientific knowledge jibes with a good deal of ancient religious and philosophical wisdom. I’d say it’s as almost good as Jonathan Haidt’s other book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion, which is about why people disagree so strongly and intransigently about moral questions, and is the book I believe would most make the world a better place if everyone read it.
(4) The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker (2014)
This is the only book you’ll ever need to read if you want to become a better writer. It’s also Steven Pinker, so, yeah, I love it. It uses cognitive science to explains what makes some writing clear and enjoyable and other (i.e. most) writing confusing and murky. The most important idea in the book is the curse of knowledge: once you know something, it’s extremely difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Knowledge-cursed writers litter their text with jargon, abstractions, and meta-discourse. Good writers stick to the concrete, the familiar, and the simple. My advice on how to implement the lessons from The Sense of Style would be:
- Read The Sense of Style.
- Find a friend who has also read The Sense of Style and edit all of each other’s work.
(5) Douglas Hofstadter – I Am A Strange Loop (2007)
Earlier this summer, I travelled to Bloomington, Indiana to meet my academic hero and the world’s most brilliant living polymath, Douglas Hofstadter. (I had emailed him asking if I could work with him over the summer, and he said “No, but if you ever happen to be in Bloomington, come on by.” So I booked a flight and told Doug I “happened” to be there for a week.) In preparation, I read all of Hofstadter’s books, most of which I’d read before. But I hadn’t yet read I Am A Strange Loop, which is why it’s the one that makes this list. It’s a breathtakingly lucid autobiographical journey through mathematical logic and philosophy of mind, and explains how a self can arise from selfless matter. In other words, where does the feeling of “I” come from? But it feels almost unfair to attempt to summarize it like this. You need to hear the story through Hofstadter’s puns, examples, analogies, anecdotes, and self-referential games.
(6) Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus (2016)
Homo Deus is a sweeping view of the major worldviews and systems of belief dominated throughout human history. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, and how those stories might change as technology becomes more complex and human-like (or even superhuman). It provides an incredible framework for understanding the past, present, and future of our species. It’s a sequel to Sapiens, which is also incredible, and tells the story of human evolution from the Stone Age to the present.
Two sections were particularly excellent:
The discussion of consciousness, and how the normal range of conscious experience we experience on the day-to-day is a fraction of the entire spectrum of possible conscious states. Some people use drugs or meditation to achieve novel states, but even those don't give us access to all the possible states of mind. For instance, the whale brain is much larger than the human brain, so for all we know, whales can experience emotions and think thoughts that we could never comprehend. And who knows what it's like to be an ant, or a bat, or (someday) a superhuman computer intelligence?
- The exposition of why the concept of **free will** is incoherent. It's best to be precise here. If by "free will" you mean "the capacity to act on your thoughts and desires," as in "I ate that chocolate bar of my own free will" (as opposed to someone forcing you to eat it), then that's perfectly coherent. But if you mean "the capacity to choose your thoughts and desires," then that's *bupkes.* You can't decide to want the chocolate; that decision was made by myriad genetic and environmental factors that have been shaping your brain and body since the moment of conception. Here's another way to look at it: think about the name of a song, any song. Got one? Alright: did you *choose* to think of that particular song? Or did that the song just appear in your mind, and somehow made its way into your consciousness? After some reflection, you'll likely conclude the latter. You can't choose your thoughts and desires; you just think and act on them.
(7) Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
Incredibly heartening, touching, beautiful, and funny. I was expecting Anne Frank’s diary to be sad, but it was consistently upbeat, often hilariously so. It’s worth reading to see how moral uplift can come from the most dire of circumstances.
(8) Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway – Merchants of Doubt (2010)
Merchants of Doubt is about the concerted efforts by various corporations, think tanks, and individual scientists and spokespeople to obfuscate the truth about tobacco, the ozone, DDT, acid rain, nuclear power, climate change, and other environmental concerns. The most fascinating thing is that the same tiny group of people (mostly physicists), motivated mostly by politics and ideology, were responsible for generating doubt around these topics of scientific consensus. As pernicious as the doubt-mongerers were and still are, scientists must be held accountable too, since they didn’t do a good enough job of getting the truth out there with authority and clarity.
(9) John Seabrook - The Song Machine (2015)
A very small group of people—specifically, a very small group of Swedish men—are responsible for the vast majority of pop music over the last 20 years. Take a scroll through Max Martin’s production discography. The Song Machine is the somewhat unbelievable story of how pop music works, and explains how The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Ke$ha came to be the juggernauts they are today.
(10) Dale Carnegie – How To Win Friends And Influence People (1936)
This book was written in 1936 but I think it’s as important now as ever. I got a ton out of it, especially when it comes to handling disagreements (“Begin in a friendly way”; “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say ‘you’re wrong’”; “let the other person feel the idea is theirs”). The line I liked the most was “be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” In other words, be generous with compliments. I had already started to adopt this with my philosophy of “Email Your Heroes,” but I’ve now taken it a step further: I’ll praise cashiers if they’re scanning groceries really well; I’ll compliment a customer service person on their friendly voice; I’ll email an author to tell them how much I loved reading their book. “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise”!
(11) JD Vance – Hillbilly Elegy (2016)
Sheds light on a culture and way of life strikingly different from my own.
(12) Johann Hari – Chasing The Scream (2015)
The War on Drugs: bad.
(13) Sam Harris – Waking Up (2014)
Meditation is very good, the self and free will are both illusions, and consciousness is incredible.
1. John Mayer – The Search for Everything
2. Vulfpeck – Mr. Finish Line
3. Scary Pockets – Scary Pockets
4. Come From Away – Original Broadway Cast Recording
5. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
6. Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP
7. Cory Wong – Cory Wong and the Green Screen Band
8. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
9. Theo Katzman – Heartbreak Hits
10. LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
11. Ed Sheeran — Divide
12. Paramore — After Laughter
13. Drake — More Life
Songs (alphabetical by artist)
- Calvin Harris ft. Frank Ocean & Migos — Slide
- Charlie Puth — Attention
- Cory Wong — Dial Up
- Dear Evan Hansen — Waving Through A Window
- DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller — Wild Thoughts
- Drake — Passionfruit (Scary Pockets cover)
- Ed Sheeran — What Do I Know?
- Haim — Want You Back
- The Implications — High Hopes
- J Balvin & Willy William ft. Beyoncé — Mi Gente
- John Mayer — Rosie
- Kendrick Lamar — Humble
- Kygo & Selena Gomez – It Ain’t Me
- LCD Soundsystem — how do you sleep?
- Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee ft. Justin Bieber — Despacito (Remix)
- Selena Gomez — Bad Liar
- Theo Katzman — Hard Work
- Vince Staples ft. Kendrick Lamar — Yeah Right
- Vulfpeck – Birds of a Feather
- Vulfpeck — Hero Town
(1) Come From Away
On September 11th, 2001, all active aircraft needed to emergency land, which led 38 planes and the 7,000 people on them stranded in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland. Come From Away is the story of the incredible generosity of the Gander townspeople toward the travellers, and straight up, I’m crying again just thinking about it. I saw the play twice when I was living in New York this summer. The second time, I was in tears before the show even started. Every morning on my way to work, I would sit on the subway from Brooklyn listening to the soundtrack and absolutely weeping. Basically: this play is beautiful and if you ever have the chance to see it, you should pounce, immediately.
(2) Sam Harris
Listening to Sam Harris reason out loud is a singular thrill. He is possibly the most articulate human person ever. It took me a while to get used to his manner of speaking when I started listening to his podcast, Waking Up, a year ago, but now I can’t get enough. His conversations are consistently the best version of discussions that are going on everywhere, on a huge range of topics: AI, CRISPR, Trump, religion, violence, history, psychology, consciousness, cancer, animal ethics. If you want a small taste, check out the first seven minutes of this podcast about death. Take in how precisely Sam chooses his words. It’s a treat.
(3) Bluetooth Earphones
I rarely, rarely buy stuff, so this purchase was a big deal. A couple months ago, I needed new headphones, and decided to make the big leap to bluetooth (specifically the VAVA MOOV 28). No joke, it’s been transformative. The fact that I am no longer tethered to my phone when listening to music or podcasts makes me feel like a straight up deity. I can pop in an audiobook, leave my phone on my desk, zip up a jacket without worrying about a chord getting caught in the zipper(!!!), go to the washroom, play guitar, put my phone in my backpack, and run around town. It’s so. damn. nice.
About two and a half years ago I became convinced that eating meat was bad, for number of reasons which I’m sure you’re bored of hearing: livestock rearing and meat production are one of the biggest contributors to climate change (far more than transportation), animals are sentient beings who live horrible lives and are tortured in factory farms, and cutting down on meat is a generally healthy thing to do. I decided that, as an experiment, I’d stop buying meat from the grocery store. I’d still eat it if it was around, and would accept the large quantities of frozen chicken dishes my mom would send to school, but I’d skip the meat section on my weekly shopping. Turns out this was surprisingly easy, especially since my diet consisted mostly of cheese and crackers (with the occasional tomato on top if I was feeling sophisticated).
After about six months, I decided it wouldn’t be too big a stretch to cut out meat entirely, but still eat it on special occasions. I then found that, on these special occasions, I was opting for the non-meat option anyway, so I figured I might as well cut meat out of my diet entirely. It took me about a year after that to become comfortable with the label “vegetarian.” Since then, I’ve learned how to cook for real, and I’ve actually managed to persuade many people that tofu can be extremely yummy (the secret: cut in cubes, coat in corn starch, fry, then add sweet chili & soy sauce).
I stumbled on vegetarianism almost by accident. I didn’t (and still don’t) have an extremely strong emotional conviction against eating meat, but I was persuaded by the arguments, and gradually wound up switching my diet. I’d say that, for most people, full vegetarianism isn’t the right move. Rather, cutting down on meat in some way is probably the most effective way to be consistently moral. The way I think about it is: eating 2 burgers instead of 5 cuts down on emissions and saves more cows than eating 0 instead of 2. Plus, then you’re not “cheating” if you eat meat. Reducitarianism: terrible name, great idea.
(5) Effective Altruism
Effective Altruism (EA) is a community and movement that uses reason and evidence to determine how to do the most good for the people most in need. I think of it like this:
EA = compassion + statistics.
The main thing I’ve gotten out of EA is a conviction that I should start donating to charity, even if it’s only a small amount. If anything, it’s a good habit to be in, so that when I do have more disposable income in the future, I’ll consider charitable giving a normal part of my budget. So last year, I set up a monthly donation to Give Well, a charity evaluator that gives my money to the top-10 charities that save the most lives per dollar donated. At the moment, those include the Against Malaria Foundation (which funds and distributes bednets) and Give Directly (which funds cash transfers to families in extreme poverty). It took about 3 minutes to put in my credit card information, and I haven’t really thought much about it since. It’s that easy!
ReadCube is a reference management software. I had never used one before (the main ones seem to be Mendeley and Zotero), but this thing is pretty transformative. You read PDFs in the app, and you can click on references in the text, then immediately download the referenced paper into your library. In fact, you can download a given paper’s entire bibliography if you want. You can also click on the name of anyone referenced in the text and see/download all the other work they’ve published. You can make annotations right in the text, then search for those annotations later, and you can also export citations right into Word or Google Docs. I can’t really imagine reading academic papers any other way at this point.