The Best 10 books I read in 2016

This year was a great one for books, and I was fortunate to be able to read¹ quite a bit. Though I learned something from everything I read, some books stood out². Most of these books are well-reviewed by the Internet Literati³ yet still came with unexpected lessons. I’m also always looking for more books to read, so please send me your suggestions!

My top ten (the Internet tells me I should order them as a backwards list, so I’ll do so):

10. Road to Character by David Brooks

9. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

8. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, et al.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

6. and 5. This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, and What to Think about Machines that Think ed. by John Brockman

Both books are products of Edge.org’s Annual Question, in which the organization sends out the same question to numerous scientists, thinkers and experts, and then collates their essay responses in a book. It’s a clever concept executed well, though it sometimes suffers from trying to pack too much into a single book, leading to short, non-comprehensive essays. These books, respectively, contain answers to the 2014 question, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?,” and the 2015 question, “What do you think about machines that think?” The former reminds us that science is a process rather than something that provides definitive answers, but also that that isn’t a flaw. The latter provides a good introduction to an increasingly relevant question about consciousness and computers. The essays sometimes disagree, and thus these books both provide a peek (though not much more) into the ongoing debates in a variety of fields.

4. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

A funny book made hilarious by Ansari’s narration (this book was the only one I read which I thought benefited from the audiobook format. It felt like a multi-hour stand-up routine on the same subject, rather than a book). Though I don’t have too much experience in the online dating world Ansari describes, it seems that the book makes several insightful points about choice, preference, and picki-ness in today’s culture.

3. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

I coincidentally read The Blind Side just after I decided to stop following football mostly due to ethical concerns surrounding concussions and the NFL’s handling of the crisis, and I didn’t enjoy the book’s paens to hard hits. However, the book tells a wonderful story that revives a somewhat idyllic notion of sports as a unifier across cultural and economic boundaries, a view in which boosters aren’t just soul-sucking, power-hungry funders of the college football machine (for an opposite view, read my review of a book that does think that). And it does so while fully acknowledging the money and power dichotomies in sports. If you don’t want to read the book, watch the movie, which is mostly faithful to the book (though it does tend to portray the young protagonist Michael Oher as a little stupid rather than as someone who never had any education opportunities, like the book does).

2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Many people have written many wonderful things about this book, and I won’t repeat those things here. I’m a fan of Coates’s writings and I’ve read a lot of it, but this book is short enough, and poignant enough, that it’s a must read. I found one message of his especially moving and unexpected: that each of the victims of what he describes (slavery, Jim Crow, the modern Criminal Justice system, and society at large) are individuals. We can’t just think these things as a mass atrocity, but have to keep in mind that each person had individual hopes and dreams, felt pain, suffered and loved. It’s a striking message, especially as so many of the books I read revolve around individuals who did great things; the people who weren’t allowed to were individuals too.

1. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock

Superforecasting is especially relevant in a year in which British citizens rejected advice from economic experts and professional statisticians and political scientists failed on the world’s biggest stage⁴. Highschool debaters will remember Tetlock as the author of an infamous card which argued that ‘expert’ knowledge, especially in foreign-policy, is anything but — that the predictions they make are, on aggregate, no better than random. This book equally damns so-called experts while defending the traits we would most like to see in them: hard work and training; allegiance to getting it right, rather than to a narrative; and working well in teams.

In Superforecasting, Tetlock details the Good Judgement Project, in which thousands of lay volunteers were recruited to predict, over several years, the probabilities of specific events weeks, months, and years out⁵. The project found that some people, dubbed super-forecasters, consistently outperformed others, supposedly including intelligence officers with access to classified information. And when these people were subsequently grouped in (remote) teams, they consistently outperformed the best individual performers. The book contains several lessons in our anonymous, big-data dominated world:

  1. Individual insight matters, and discussions in teams can be more valuable than blind mathematical aggregation. The aforementioned superforecasters and their team didn’t prevail because of access to large amounts of privileged information run through computer models, and the best performing teams actually discussed information rather than just averaging their predictions.
  2. This insight isn’t born or credentialed, takes a lot of hard work, and can be taught. The book described superforecasters who were engineers, accountants, and teachers in their day jobs but then spent their evenings reading countless news articles and identifying singularly accurate information sources. They explicitly trained themselves in Bayesian thinking, willing to change their predictions with new information but not overreacting to any single ‘breaking news’ article. They didn’t beat those with grand theories and confident story-telling in their initial predictions, but crushed them in their followups. And when the researchers trained other lay people in these techniques, their predictions improved.
  3. However, in the battle between genius individuals and the Wisdom of the Crowds, the truth lies somewhere in between (as is almost always the case). As part of my research, I think about how to best mathematically aggregate crowd opinions to either make a collective choice or to make good predictions. I was happy to hear about the author’s papers, in the vein of prediction markets, describing how various mathematical prediction aggregations beat most individuals. Though special individuals (both subject matter experts and general superforecasters) are essential, there is a large space for such blind aggregations or work that integrates both approaches.

¹ “Read” in quotes. I almost exclusively listen to audiobooks nowadays. They make working out/cooking/commuting quite a bit more enjoyable, and I am able to finish many more books than I otherwise would. On the flip side, audiobooks make it difficult to refer to earlier sections of a book while reading and of course take away from the experience a bit. Overdrive.com has created a seamless, free (and legal) way to listen to audiobooks, though I’ll probably splurge on an Audible account soon.

² Ask me in person about the books I didn’t enjoy so much.

³ Not as negative a term as it sounds. Gates’s and Zuckerberg’s posts are especially great sources of recommendations.

⁴ The failure was as much about (mis)communicating variance as it was about getting the prediction wrong. Andrew Gelman has a characteristically fantastic series of posts (here, here, here, and here).

⁵ Current questions in the commercial spin-off include “Before 1 October 2017, will Ban Ki-moon announce that he is running for president of South Korea?”, and “Will Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump host the other for an official bilateral visit before 1 October 2017?

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