Here is a list of my favorite ten non-technical books that I read this year. I prepared it with the explicit goal of covering most of my interests these days; however, I realized that topics that are becoming my priority, such as Climate Change, are not represented here.
Tell me if you have read any of them, or if one intrigues you, and we can have a chat. I also would love to know what were your favourite books in 2019.
- There are no dead here (Violence in Colombia)
- A New Compact History of Mexico (Latin America History)
- The Storm Before the Storm (History of Rome)
- The Willpower Instinct (Popular psychology; self-help)
- Irrational Exuberance (Finance)
- Radical Markets (Economy)
- The Deep Learning Revolution (Artificial Intelligence)
- The World According to Wavelets (Popular mathematics)
- Nonsense on Stilts (Philosophy of science)
- The Other, The Same (Poetry)
The following are some personal notes about them.
1. There are no dead here: A story of murder and denial in Colombia, by Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno (2018).
I have said before in this blog that to understand the phenomenon of violence in Colombia, I tend to favor those books and articles that have a statistical approach to the problem. But you can’t always hide behind numbers: Sooner or later you need to get the courage to learn about the atrocities of the war in our country, by reading the human stories of pain and suffering, like the ones told with great mastery by Maria McFarland (Human Rights Watch) in her book There are no dead here.
Thousands of pages must have been written about paramilitarism in Colombia, but what makes McFarland’s account different is her choice of telling the tale through the lives of three people that were on the front row of those events in the late 1990s and 2000s: human rights activist Jesús María Valle, prosecutor Iván Velásquez, and Semana journalist Ricardo Calderón.
The massacres of El Aro and La Granja serve as the overarching element that brings together these courageous individuals, the cover-up operations by factions of the military forces, the involvement of the Colombian political elite, and the everlasting shadow of president Alvaro Uribe Velez in the rise of paramilitarism.
Over the last decade, the war in Colombia has changed but not stopped. I am afraid that there is already enough material for McFarland to write the second part of this book.
2. A new compact history of Mexico, by Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo et al. (2004)
This year I traveled to Mexico for the first time. Though I resolved to relax and just enjoy the beauty of Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula, I could not help but feel deeply attracted to its long history, especially after visiting the spectacular National Museum of Anthropology.
It is disappointing to realize that as a Colombian, I know American and European history better than the history of Latin America, so I took the chance of this trip to start filling the gaps in my knowledge. One sunny morning I went to the beautiful Libreria Gandhi, a bookstore in the San Angel district. I asked one of the sales assistants for the best introductory book about the history of Mexico. He didn’t doubt for a second. “You must read this book” – he told me, as he handed me a copy of A New Compact History of Mexico. I sat down in Starbucks next to the bookstore, and for the next two hours, I was immersed in the pages of this fantastic book.
A New Compact History of Mexico covers mostly the events up to the Revolution, with only one chapter, out of the seven, devoted to the events after 1928, so if you are looking for a recount of recent events, you will need to look somewhere else. However, for me, this was precisely the book that I was looking for, one that could give me a quick but complete and modern overview of the foundational history of Mexico, and one that could give me the tools to put in a broader context the events that were happening in parallel in Colombia.
One last note: This book is part of “Compact Histories”, an excellent series of short books published by Lectorum, which covers the history of other countries similarly. The one about Colombia, edited by Jorge Orlando Melo, should be on the shelves of every Colombian household.
3. The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, by Mike Duncan (2018).
Mike Duncan is the creator of The History of Rome podcast, a weekly program that ran between 2007 and 2012, and which turned many of his listeners from timid students of Roman History into enthusiastic amateurs. I listened to twice the 179 episodes on my commute to work, years after it has finished, and it turned me into one of his followers.
When I heard that he was going to publish a book, The Storm Before the Storm, I preordered it and waited for it anxiously for months. Unfortunately, when it arrived, I had a backlog of other books that I was reading, and I only managed to read it a few months ago. And of course, I loved it, so I bought the audiobook, which Duncan reads himself, and listened and loved it even more.
The storm before the storm traces the history of the late republic, right after the Third Punic War in the mid 2nd century B.C, all the way up to the events that lead Cesar to become a dictator. The powerful men that dominated the Republic – the Gracchi brothers, Sulla, Marius, among others – make a fascinating cast of characters, all in the trajectory of a direct coalition with each other in their pursuit of total control.
What anyone reading this book wants to understand is what were the reasons that prompted the Republic to fall, transforming itself in the Empire. This question, of course, is very difficult, with many plausible answers, but Duncan does a brilliant job in giving you solid foundations to uncover the underlying reasons.
There is, however, another question that pops in your mind when reading The Storm Before The Storm. Could it be that the feeble democracies from our time are actually tracing the same path that Rome did two thousand years ago, leading to the configuration of a new order?
4. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal (2013)
I am not a huge fan of self-help books, so when I read The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, I did not feel that my life had changed. But a few months later, while I was traveling, I found myself desperately trying to remember parts of the book that I skimmed too quickly, so I end up buying the Kindle version. Eventually, I ended up purchasing the audiobook as well, to go through the material a third time, a moment at which I had to admit that I love this book.
I typically regarded willpower – or better, the lack of it – as the invisible force that made me break all those New Year resolutions even before January was over. It turned out that willpower is not an empty abstraction but rather the net drive in our actions that result from the tension between two clashing sides of our personalities: the side that wants instant gratification, and the side that wants long-term goals.
McGonigal’s book is exhaustive and exceptionally well researched, but it is not an academic treatise. It is, after all, a self-help book and one that is very proud of being so. Each chapter comes with exercises for you to become more self-aware of your actions, and to put in practice what you have learned.
A year ago I made my usual list of resolutions for 2019, and there were three which I thought would be particularly difficult to accomplish: To lose weight and get fitter, to meditate every day, and to write twice as many words as I did in 2018. Well, I can’t say that I owe everything to this book, but I can’t deny that it exerted a powerful influence on me. At the time I am writing this, I dropped 8 kilos and at least 6% of body fat, I meditated every single day of this year, and this entry will take my annual word count comfortably above the 50,000 that I set as my goal.
5. Irrational Exuberance, by Robert Shiller (2013)
Predicting a financial bubble might be a matter of luck. Predicting two in a row shows real talent. The warnings that Robert Shiller called in 1998 about the stock market (which took him to testify before Congress), and later in 2005 about the housing market, materialized in the most destructive bubbles over the last 20 years, converting him in an augur of Wall Street.
However, these omens were practical applications of the subject known as Empirical Asset Pricing, which Shiller helped to established in the 1980s together with Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, John Cochrane, John Campbell, and many others. The predominant theory in finance up to that point was that markets were dominated by the Efficient Market Hypothesis, which preclude returns from being forecastable, rendering them as random. But what Empirical Asset Pricing showed was that risk-premia is not static but varies across time and assets, and perhaps more importantly, that it can be predicted in long-time horizons.
For the last four years of my career, I have been working as a practitioner in this branch of finance. Still, it was only last autumn that I bother to understand better its historical development, from Shiller’s “volatility tests” to the modern Machine Learning approaches for factor timing, which naturally led me to this book. Irrational Exuberance, written for the general audience, only touches briefly on the early technical constructions that helped Shiller to detect that the markets were in danger (basically, over-stretched valuation spreads), and devotes most of its pages in other considerations from Behavioral Finance that complete the diagnosis of a bubble.
The writing is crisp and engaging, and I recommend reading the whole tome from cover to cover, including the appendices, which include the Nobel Prize lectures that Shiller gave in 2013 when he received the award. Not very often, you can find such a gem of a book, accessible for everyone and incredibly relevant to understand the markets, written by one of the high priests of Finance.
6. Radical markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl (2018)
When I saw Glen Weyl giving a talk about his book earlier this year, I thought he was some sort of socialist/anarchist. Just a few minutes into his presentation, he launched a full-fledged attack on private property, one the sacred pillars of our society. Goodness me!
What I was not expecting though was to learn that his disdain for the private property does not arise from some Marxist agenda, but rather because he sees it as an obstacle for the market to be genuinely free. As a strong advocate of markets myself, I found his ideas way too intriguing to let it through, so I ordered the book even before the talk was over.
Radical Markets must be one of the books with the highest ratios of provoking ideas versus the number of pages. It covers not only private property as some form of monopoly but also proposes alternative arrangements for immigration, elections, corporate ownership, and data privacy. Their common theme is the usage of markets in a revolutionary way to resolve tensions and make societies more efficient, just, and fair.
Markets on steroids might be the last thing that people disillusioned with capitalism would like to try. However, the conceptual error is equating capitalism – a mode of production – with markets – a social technology, a mistake that I have seen many intelligent people doing. I am not 100% on board with all the radical proposals of Posner and Weyl, and the practicalities of their implementation can make you believe that this is nothing but fantasy. However, I am thrilled to find such a refreshing manifesto of ideas that do not fit in the trite polarization of left vs. right.
The book does not make an easy read, but you can find in the companion webpage excellent summaries and additional material (http://radicalmarkets.com) that will help you digest the content. Moreover, if you look around online, you will see that some groups of people have been discussing the ideas in Radical Markets with intense interest, leaving behind useful reviews, and expanding their ideas. The twist is that they are not economists or political scientists: most of them are blockchain developers.
7. The Deep Learning Revolution, by Terrence Sejnowski (2018)
The Deep Learning Revolution is the type of book that irritates those who are looking for an easy-to-read manual on Machine Learning, or those who think that learning about the history of scientific development is pointless. For me, learning where do ideas come from is essential, and more so those related to my work, so I found Terrence Sejnowski personal narration of the history of Artificial Intelligence exhilarating, critical to fill many gaps in my understanding of this field.
This decade that is coming to an end will be remembered as the one that brought an explosion of interest in AI, powered by the stream of victories that Machine Learning made possible. But this enthusiasm has led many to believe that (1) the whole field emerged from vacuum over the last ten years, and (2) that robots are just a couple of years away from stealing your job.
The Deep Learning Revolution tries to correct these two common misunderstandings. Written for the layperson, the book traces the journey of Sejnowski, one of the great beasts in the field of AI, across the intersection of neuroscience and computing. His message is clear: the revolution heralded by the thinking machines has been in gestation for more than sixty years, and it has been delivered by the most multidisciplinary collective of scientists ever assembled.
Sejnowski is pragmatic about the future of AI and does not dwell on the considerations that many found appealing and that usually caught the attention of the clueless media. After reading the book, and grasping how important neurobiology is for him, you get the feeling that for Sejnowski, perhaps even more important than developing a machine endowed with Artificial General Intelligence, is the hope that on that quest, we finally manage to understand how our brain works.
The hardcover version of this book is beautiful, full of colorful figures and printed on exquisite paper. It has been written with enough clarity to be enjoyed by a curious newcomer, but also with enough exciting stories to please the expert. Just as it is the case with Irrational Exuberance, The Deep Learning Revolution is written by one of the leading architects of the field. It is a privilege to learn directly from him!
8. The World According to Wavelets, by Barbara Hubbard (1998)
Many years ago, when I was still an undergrad student, I thought I was going to end up researching wavelets, that versatile machine that can go where Fourier analysis cannot. Eventually, I chose a Ph.D. supervisor that worked in the field of Numerical Analysis, but in a different set of problems, so I had to say farewell to wavelets – at least for a while.
But ever since Yves Meyer won the Abel Prize in 2017 “for his pivotal role in developing the mathematical theory of wavelets”, I renewed my interest in this topic. I dusted off my notes and the two forgotten theses that I wrote about them. It was during this walk down memory lane that I found a reference I wrote about an old book that, for some reason, I never managed to get my hands on, but that surely intrigued me back in those days. Times have changed, and as soon as I remembered the existence of The World According to Wavelets, by Barbara Hubbard, it took me only 10 minutes to find a copy in Amazon. What a delight!
Hubbard’s book is simultaneously a historical account of the development of wavelets, and an introduction to its techniques up to the level of someone who has taken a course or two of mathematics in college. Hubbard is not a professional mathematician, but for this book, she got access to interview all the big names in the field in the 1990s: Meyers, Daubechies, Mallat, Strang… The result is a book that is spiced with the human stories of the people that developed the theory (which you don’t get by reading the specialized papers) but without being sloppy or over-simplistic in its treatment.
Hubbard took a bet by splitting the book into two parts. The first hundred pages or so are an overview of what wavelets are and how they become one of the hottest topics in mathematics in the 1980s and 1990s. The following two hundred pages are a collection of short essays about specific aspects of the theory of Fourier and wavelets, which are much more technical than the first part, but still engaging enough for a novice. Such bet would not have worked for another author, but fortunately, it is what makes The World According to Wavelets an excellent book for the popularization of Mathematics.
The book was written more than 20 years ago, and I am sure the progress in the theory and applications of wavelets has not stopped. I do hope that Hubbard, or someone else, takes the challenge of updating this book, giving us, all the enthusiasts of wavelets, with a revised account of the most recent advances in this formidable topic.
9. Nonsense on stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci (2010)
A personal highlight of this year was to attend “How The Light Gets In” festival in Hay, a four-day extravaganza of Philosophy and Music. Being a rookie to this event, I made sure to pack my days with talks, debates, dinners and concerts, a sure strategy to overload my brain. I planned to spread my time across speakers as much as possible, but when I heard Massimo Pigliucci giving a talk on rationality, I knew I had to clear my agenda to attend to all his lectures. It was a wise decision.
Pigliucci is a biologist and a philosopher, an outspoken critic of pseudoscience and the co-host of the popular Rationally Speaking podcast, together with Julia Galef. His book, Nonsense on Stilts, seems surprisingly unpretentious when you consider the breadth of its ambition: To classify science from pseudo-science, and even within the former, delineate the border between the “hard sciences” and the “soft sciences”. Pigliucci is eloquent without being arrogant and creates a common ground for people to understand the thinking of others.
His conceptual map projects Particle Physics, Evolutionary Psychology, Finance, Astrology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and many other occupations, in two orthogonal axes: their cumulative body of knowledge (that is, their theory), and the reliability of their empirical work. You can use this framework on specific examples: Quantum Electrodynamics ranks high on both dimensions; String Theory has a deep theory with zero experimental evidence (making it a neighbor of classical finance); Psychology has empirical evidence with relatively high accuracy but lacks a highly developed theoretical foundation; Astrology fails both in theory and in practice.
The demarcation between science and pseudo-science is critical in a world that is getting too comfortable in thinking that all types of knowledge are the same. I don’t think that an avid Flat-Earther will change his mind on reading Nonsense on Stilts, but I think it will provide those with an enquiring mind with a robust framework to assess their own views of the universe.
10. The Other, The Same, by Jorge Luis Borges (1964),
If I have written an annual list like this one for the last few years, with the top ten books that I enjoyed reading the most, the chances are that there was always an entry from Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite writer of all time. His short stories were my point of entry to his work, and I think by now, I have read all of them a few times.
This year I decided to start reading his poems, and it has been a sublime experience. I am not a good reader of poetry, but Borges’ poems opened an alternative door to his fantastic universe that I have reached before through his stories. Many of his themes are the same, but the constraints of poetry make him more playful and witty, but also a bit more nostalgic and lonely.
The Others, The Same is a collection of poems originally published in 1964 and reprinted in the second volume of the Complete Works that Emece Publishing House prepared in 2011, with annotations by Rolando Costa Picazo. I have no idea how others read poetry, but for me, it is an exercise where I have to harmonize my emotions and my rationality. The hundreds of footnotes that Costa includes in the 2011 edition eased my qualms of not understanding factual elements in the poems, freeing my spirit to be touched by Borges’ words.