Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best Books of 2013

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman (Hirschman's life taught me the importance of observation, details matter and how to live a good life irrespective of circumstances. Yes, the book made me cry.)

Albert Hirschman’s odyssey of the twentieth century can be read— to borrow one of his own metaphors— as the epic of a mariner sailing ever into the wind. What he stood for, fought for, and wrote for was a proposition that humans are improvable creatures. Armed with an admixture of daring humility, they could act while being uncertain and embrace alternatives without losing sight of reality

What he wanted was not so much a theory with predictive powers, but a way to think about societies and economies, beginning with the premise that living in the world means we cannot step out of time to divine universal laws of human motion severed from the day-to-day banalities and mysteries of existence. The intellectual is as much a creature of the world as his or her subject— and so too are his or her concepts, which are limited and liberated by the context from which they emerge. It is for this reason that experience of real life, appreciating one’s place in history, was such a wellspring for Hirschman, as it was for his inspiration, Montaigne, whose last essay was “On Experience.” Life, as Montaigne reminds us, is “a purpose unto itself.” The excursions into real life— as struggler against European fascisms, soldier in the US Army, deep insider of the Marshall Plan, advisor to investors in Colombia, and consultant to global foundations and bankers— were never digressions for Hirschman; they were built into the purpose of observing the world to derive greater insight, and from insights invent concepts that could in turn be tested, molded, refashioned, and even discarded by the course of time. These were the pendular swings from a contemplative life to a life of action and back again— pendular because they were codependent.

If biography is the art of the singular to illuminate a pattern, Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believed that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course toward an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future by Paul Sabin (Intellect and brilliance takes back seat if you let you passions get better of you. Check your blind spots, avoid confirmation bias or else you will only get a pyrrhic victory and will undo lifetime good work.)

The history of Ehrlich and Simon’s conflict instead reveals the limitations of their incompatible viewpoints. Their bitter clash also shows how intelligent people are drawn to vilify their opponents and to reduce the issues that they care about to stark and divisive terms. The conflict that their bet represents has ensnared the national political debate and helped to make environmental problems, especially climate change, among the most polarizing and divisive political questions.

Sometimes rhetorical sparring partners hone each other’s arguments so that they are sharper and better. The opposite happened with Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Despite their respective strengths, both Ehrlich and Simon got carried away in their battle. The ready audience for their ideas encouraged them to make dramatic claims. Their unwillingness to concede anything in their often-vitriolic debate exacerbated critical weaknesses in each of their arguments.

The clashing insights of Ehrlich and Simon are necessary to help frame our thinking about the future. Our task is not to choose between these competing perspectives but rather to find ways to wrestle with their tensions and uncertainties, and to take what each offers that is of value. Ultimately, humanity’s course will be determined less by iron laws of nature or by unbounded market powers, Ehrlich and Simon’s dueling lodestars, and more by the social and political choices that we make. Neither biology nor economics can substitute for the deeper ethical question: What kind of world do we desire?

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths by John Gray (A beautiful book  which expressed what I was incapable of expressing properly in any language.)

If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas. Whatever they are called, torture and slavery are universal evils; but these evils cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. They return under different names: torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, slavery as human trafficking. Any reduction in universal evils is an advance in civilization. But, unlike scientific knowledge, the restraints of civilized life cannot be stored on a computer disc. They are habits of behaviour, which once broken are hard to mend. Civilization is natural for humans, but so is barbarism.

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation Hardcover by Tyler Cowen  (You kidding me? It would be miracle if I don't learn anything from Tyler's writings and I don't believe in miracles.)

Humans with strong math and analytic skills, humans who are comfortable working with computers because they understand their operation, and humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks. It’s not just about programming skills; it is also often about developing the hardware connected with software, understanding what kind of internet ads connect with their human viewers, or understanding what shape and color makes an iPhone attractive in a given market. Computer nerds will indeed do well, but not everyone will have to become a computer nerd.
The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key, not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake. Number-crunching skills will be turned over to the machines sooner or later.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (Gladwell conveys a very important message in this book, you simply have to "get" what he is talking about. Otherwise you will just read it as a sequence of brilliant stories or just call him a simplifier.)

We need to remember that our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside. David has nothing to lose, and because he has nothing to lose, he has the freedom to thumb his nose at the rules set by others. That’s how people with brains a little bit different from the rest of ours get jobs as options traders and Hollywood producers— and a small band of protesters armed with nothing but their wits have a chance against the likes of Bull Connor.

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