Book Reviews

Book review: A Theory of Everyone – The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going Energy, culture and a better future for everyone, by Michael Muthukrishna.

I found this book disappointing. An important part of that is because Muthukrishna set my expectations too high.

I had previously blogged about a paper that he co-authored with Henrich on cultural influences on IQ. If those ideas were new in the book, I’d be eagerly writing about them. But I’ve already written enough about those ideas in that blog post.

Another source of disappointment was that the book’s title is misleading. To the limited extent that the book focuses on a theory, it’s the theory that’s more clearly described in Henrich’s The Secret of our Success. A Theory of Everyone feels more like a collection of blog posts than like a well-organized book.

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Book review: Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, by Daniel Deudney.

Dark Skies is an unusually good and bad book.

Good in the sense that 95% of the book consists of uncontroversial, scholarly, mundane claims that accurately describe the views that Deudney is attacking. These parts of the book are careful to distinguish between value differences and claims about objective facts.

Bad in the senses that the good parts make the occasional unfair insult more gratuitous, and that Deudney provides little support for his predictions that his policies will produce better results than those of his adversaries. I count myself as one of his adversaries.

Dark Skies is an opposite of Where Is My Flying Car? in both style and substance.

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Book review: The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, by Peter Zeihan.

Are you looking for an entertaining set of geopolitical forecasts that will nudge you out of the frameworks of mainstream pundits? This might be just the right book for you.

Zeihan often sounds more like a real estate salesman than a scholar: The US has more miles of internal waterways than the rest of the world combined! US mountain ranges have passes that are easy enough to use that the mountains barely impede traffic. Transportation options like that guarantee sufficient political unity!

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Book review: The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma, by Mustafa Suleyman.

An author with substantial AI expertise has attempted to discuss AI in terms that the average book reader can understand.

The key message: AI is about to become possibly the most important event in human history.

Maybe 2% of readers will change their minds as a result of reading the book.

A large fraction of readers will come in expecting the book to be mostly hype. They won’t look closely enough to see why Suleyman is excited.

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Book review: Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, by Peter Attia.

This year’s book on aging focuses mostly on healthspan rather than lifespan, in an effort to combat the tendency of people in the developed world to have a wasted decade around age 80.

Attia calls his approach Medicine 3.0. He wants people to pay a lot more attention to their lifestyle starting a couple of decades before problems such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s create obvious impacts.

He complains about Medicine 2.0 (i.e. mainstream medicine) treating disease as a binary phenomenon. There’s lots of evidence suggesting that age-related diseases develop slowly over periods of more than a decade.

He’s not aiming to cure aging. He aims to enjoy life until age 100 or 120.

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Book review: How Social Science Got Better: Overcoming Bias with More Evidence, Diversity, and Self-Reflection, by Matt Grossmann.

It’s easy for me to become disenchanted with social science when so much of what I read about it is selected from the most pessimistic and controversial reports.

With this book, Grossmann helped me to correct my biased view of the field. While plenty of valid criticisms have been made about social science, many of the complaints lobbed against it are little more than straw men.

Grossmann offers a sweeping overview of the progress that the field has made over the past few decades. His tone is optimistic and hearkens back to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, while maintaining a rigorous (but dry) style akin to the less controversial sections of Robin Hanson’s Age of Em. Throughout the book, Grossmann aims to outdo even Wikipedia in his use of a neutral point of view.

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Book review: Investing Amid Low Expected Returns: Making the Most When Markets Offer the Least, by Antti Ilmanen.

This book is a follow-up to Ilmanen’s prior book, Expected Returns. Ilmanen has gotten nerdier in the decade between the two books. This book is for professional investors who want more extensive analysis than what Expected Returns provided. This review is also written for professional investors. Skip this review if you don’t aspire to be one.

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Book review: What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill.

WWOTF is a mostly good book that can’t quite decide whether it’s part of an activist movement, or aimed at a small niche of philosophy.

MacAskill wants to move us closer to utilitarianism, particularly in the sense of evaluating the effects of our actions on people who live in the distant future. Future people are real, and we have some sort of obligation to them.

WWOTF describes humanity’s current behavior as reckless, like an imprudent teenager. MacAskill almost killed himself as a teen, by taking a poorly thought out risk. Humanity is taking similar thoughtless risks.

MacAskill carefully avoids endorsing the aspect of utilitarianism that says everyone must be valued equally. That saves him from a number of conclusions that make utilitarianism unpopular. E.g. it allows him to be uncertain about how much to care about animal welfare. It allows him to ignore the difficult arguments about the morally correct discount rate.

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Book review: Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project, by Leslie R. Groves.

This is the story of a desperate arms race, against what turned out to be a mostly imaginary opponent. I read it for a perspective on how future arms races and large projects might work.

What Surprised Me

It seemed strange that a large fraction of the book described how to produce purified U-235 and plutonium, and that the process of turning those fuels into bombs seemed anticlimactic.

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