The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017

Two things make a book truly important to read. First is urgency. Does it contain information that could immediately protect you from harm? That’s pretty important. Second, could this book change the whole way you look at the world, and maybe even revolutionize the way you live? These books have that potential. Check them out:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017.  So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it.  9.5/10

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), by Jane Mayer (ebook & print). I’ve read a lot of depressing books in my day, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or King Leopold’s Ghost, or the one right above about how everything is going to die. But somehow those tales of mass slaughter were not nearly as big a downer as Dark Money. David and Charles Koch are the billionaires at the center of the concerted effort to purchase American democracy to do the bidding of the ultra-rich. Them and other characters who consistently lack decency, like Richard Mellon Scaife and the DeVos family create front companies and multilayered shell entities to pass the Citizens United verdict, and create the Tea Party, and fund it to the tune of hundreds of millions. The detailed account of their successful experiment in South Carolina is particularly chilling. Not fun to read, but fascinating nonetheless, and utterly crucial. 9/10

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.

Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving true to oneself in Russia. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime (e.g. exile, incarceration and murder — y’know, the yoozh). The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truthtelling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay academic Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.

Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history through the lives of the protagonists. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”

And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has an internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?

One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in “1984”, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.

This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians seem to have been put through for over a century. And yet, there are still people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.

And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of fake news, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.

And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me Continue reading “The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017”

Bali: Rules for the Road

Bali scootersMost of the people I know here in Ubud have had some kind of scooter accident, from mild (gash in foot) to severe (broken hand) to life-threatening (concussion with broken leg and jaw). Scooters are the way to travel in Bali. Since there’s no way around them, might as well learn how to be safe on them:

Always wear a helmet. No ifs, ands or buts about this one. Make sure it’s a good one, and get a full-face helmet if possible, a $40 investment. Unless you don’t think your head and face are worth 4 gin-and-tonics.

First look right, then left. Like England and Australia, people drive on the left side of the road here, so look right first when crossing or merging. The corollary to that is “left turn easy, right turn hard.”

Keep feet inside footwell. Inside the footwell, your feet are protected. Outside of it, it can get snagged by trees or other motorbikes, or run over by cars.

Flip down your helmet visor when riding. The other day, a bat flew into my face at 30km/h. I didn’t have the visor down, but I was lucky that it mostly bounced off the helmet and only grazed my face. So now I always pull the visor down. At scooter speeds, a bug can shred your cornea. Protect your face and eyes when in motion.

Always wear closed-toe shoes. No exceptions to this one, folks. It’s unbelievably easy to injure your feet on a scooter — e.g. drop the kickstand accidentally on your foot, and voilà, now you need five stitches. Wearing real shoes instead of flip-flops prevents a whole host of minor disasters.

Slow way down when it’s raining. Your brakes don’t work nearly as well in the rain, and neither do those of others on the road. Avoid driving in the rain if possible, but if not, slow way the hell down.

Gravel and sand are the enemy. Gravel and sand eat scooters for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They make your traction and balance go to shit, then devour you whole. Avoid them.

Don’t pass if you don’t need to. We’re in Bali, not New York. Relax. Enjoy the warmth of the diesel exhaust on your face. Passing might save you 10 seconds; not turning into road pizza by an oncoming truck saves your whole life.

Merge with authority. Punch it when you’re about to get on the road so you can rapidly match the flow of traffic. This is one of the times when speed makes you safer.

No drinking. Even one drink compromises your focus.

No distraction. There are many attractive, minimally dressed women on the sidewalks. Wait till you get to yoga class to check them out — they will still be there. While riding, look only straight ahead.

Beware of dogs, kids, and tourists. All three are highly unpredictable and will wander onto your path, oblivious to danger or honking. Bali dogs are particularly spaced out, with zero respect for road rules.

Beware of mud and dog poop. They make the road far more slippery than you think. Riding onto a patch of either one could mean losing control of your bike.

Expect the unexpected. Oncoming trucks switching into your lane; extra-wide loads; vehicles going the wrong way; cars backing out onto your path; man-eating potholes; flash floods; drivers passing you while you’re passing; dogs sleeping in the middle of the street; chickens falling out of the vehicle in front; sudden traffic stoppage — all these happen on Ubud roads regularly. Anticipate the strange, and always pay full attention.

Impresssions: Bali

There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to Continue reading “Impresssions: Bali”

The San Francisco Lectures Resource

Many great public organizations in San Francisco put on high-quality talks and book readings. Here are some of the good ones I’ve encountered:
1. The Commonwealth Club: The grandaddy of them all, 112 years strong. They hold 2-3 talks per day, in SF and Silicon Valley. $100 yearly membership pays for itself if you attend two talks a month. They get all the world-class speakers, and practically every major new book goes through here. Inforum is their celebrity arm.
2. City Arts & Lectures: Weekly talks by names big enough to fill the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley.
3. Jewish Community Center of SF: very high quality speakers once or twice a week at the JCCSF in Pacific Heights on a variety of topics in science, arts and humanities.
4. Being Human: great speakers on neuroscience, mindfulness, spirituality. Frequency is sporadic but quality high; their last talk was with the amazing Prof Robert Sapolsky. Annual 1-day conference is worthwhile.
5. Wisdom 2.0: talks and workshops on the intersection of mindfulness, business, spirituality and technology. 4-day annual conference in Feb.
6. Odd Salon: series of short (10-20min) talks on a given theme on Tuesday nights. Sample themes: Revenge; Undead; Anomaly; Intrepid; Dystopia.
7. The Long Now Foundation: deep thinkers on science, technology, humanities and the future giving “seminars on long-term thinking.” 2-3 talks/month. Totally worthwhile membership. Founded by the legendary Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who conducts all the interviews and then sends you email summaries of them. Their bar, The Interval, was voted one of the best 20 new bars in the country – check it out.
8. Spirit Rock: daily classes, workshops and retreats on mindfulness, meditation, well-being and personal growth. A true treasure in Marin, 45min from the city. Jack Kornfield, the closest thing America’s got to the Buddha, teaches there.
9. Consciousness Hacking: Wed night gatherings with neuroscientists, technologists, meditators and entrepreneurs interested in the functioning of the brain and how to enhance it. Cool community.
10. Nerd Nite: monthly lighthearted gatherings with short, TED-style talks on scientific topics, with the occasional big event on an aircraft carrier or even Alcatraz. Quality varies, but usually a fun young crowd. Chapters in SF and South Bay.
11. Book Passage: bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings in its SF and Marin stores. Everybody comes through here. Probably the least-mobbed place to meet your favorite author for free. Check their site for listings.
12. Books Inc: The other SF bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings.
13. Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE): Based in Palo Alto, so a bit of a haul from the city. Periodic lectures and workshops with big names in psychology, mindfulness, meditation (eg Dalai Lama).

There are more (e.g. World Affairs Council), but I’ve only listed ones that I have personal experience with. If you have a noteworthy venue in mind that I haven’t included, please mention it in the comments!

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