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Books I finished reading in June 2014

I read Thiel’s Zero to One (2014) in May, but forgot to mention it in the May books post. I enjoyed it very much. His key argument is that progress comes from monopolies, not from strong competition, so we should encourage certain kinds of monopolies. I generally agree. I also agree with Thiel that technological progress has slowed since the 70s, with the (lone?) exception of IT.

The Info Mesa (2003), by Ed Regis, is fine but less interesting than Great Mambo Chicken (which I’m currently reading) and Nano (which I finished last month).

The Atomic Bazaar (2003), by William Langewiesche, tells the story of nuclear trafficking and the rise of poor countries with nuclear weapons programs, and especially the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan. It was pretty good, though I wish it had done a better job of explaining the limits, opportunities, and incentives at play in the nuclear arms trade.

Age of Ambition (2014), by Evan Osnos, is a fantastically rich portrait of modern China. Highly recommended.

Human Accomplishment (2003), by Charles Murray, is a fine specimen of quantitative historical analysis. The final chapters are less persuasive than the rest of the book, but despite this terms like magisterial and tour de force come to mind. Murray does an excellent job walking the reader through his methodology, its pros and cons, the reasons for it, and the conclusions that can and can’t be drawn from it. You’ll probably like this if you enjoyed Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature.

Superintelligence (2014), by Nick Bostrom, is a fantastic summary of the last ~15 years of strategic thinking about machine superintelligence from (largely) FHI and MIRI, the two institutes focused most directly on the issue. If you want to get a sense of what’s been learned during that time, first read Bostrom’s 1997 paper on superintelligence (and other topics), and then read his new book. It comes out in the UK on July 3rd and in the USA on September 3rd. Highly recommended.

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty (2013), by Dan Ariely, is as fun and practical as the other Ariely books. Recommended.

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Books I finished reading in May 2014

Nano (1996), by Ed Regis, tells the story of nanotechnology up to 1995, and serves as a cautionary tale for others trying to promote the development of a novel science from outside the establishment. Recommended.

The Visioneers (2012), by W. Patrick McCray, tells the story of both Gerard O’Neill — who advocated space colonization in the 1970s — and Eric Drexler, pioneer of nanotechnology. It’s less detailed than Nano, but also recommended.

Soldiers of Reason (2009), by Alex Abella, is a history of RAND Corporation. Most of it is pretty interesting, especially if you happen to run a nonprofit research institute, though I disagree with the author about the purpose and value of rational choice theory.

David and Goliath (2013), by Malcolm Gladwell, includes some great stories as usual but is also Gladwell’s most annoying, disingenuous book yet.

Think Like a Freak (2014), by Levitt & Dubner, also includes some great stories, and is less annoying than David and Goliath, but is basically a repackaging of posts from their blog.

A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), by Nicholas Wade, is about race, genes, and IQ, a touchy subject!

The Knowledge (2014), by Lewis Dartnell, is about what we’d need to know, and what knowledge we’d need to preserve, to reboot human civilization as quickly as possible after some kind of apocalypse. I wish there was more available on this subject. Recommended.

The Up Side of Down (2014), by Megan McArdle, is about how failing well is the key to success. I’ll echo Robin Hanson: “Overall I found it very hard to disagree with anything that McArdle said in her book. If you know me, that is quite some praise.”

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