Voyageur Technologique

Mini Book Reviews 2019-2021

Extracting the short (mostly 3 paragraphs or less) book reviews I’ve written from a private group chat onto my blog, because fuck Goodreads and Amazon.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

Excessively long given the simplicity of the content. Instead, read:

  1. Patrick McKenzie’s post on salary negotiation
  2. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, which is a classic, while also being shorter


  • Frequently misuses the concept of Black Swan
  • Describes a gruesome execution by shotgun OUT OF NOWHERE

The Bad Food Bible: Why You Can (and Maybe Should) Eat Everything You Thought You Couldn’t by Aaron Carroll

I bought this book so I could throw it at people when they told me I was eating something unhealthy. It’s light enough that if thrown it shouldn’t do too much damage, while also being filled with citations of thorough research to be thrown with confidence.

Its summary is basically what you’d expect from looking at the table of contents.

  • Fat, carbs, protein, cholesterol and sodium are all fine in moderation. So eat your eggs with butter and steak, just don’t eat those items exclusively. Coffee and alcohol are also fine in moderation.
  • GMOs, MSG, artificial sweeteners and non-organic foods are totally fine. However, expect to get death-threats if you publicly express a lack of concern about artificial sweeteners.
  • Eat less processed foods, because they have large amounts of calories for little nutrition. Mostly you should be eating socially with other people, with food you’ve cooked yourself, as much as possible.

I’m happy I read this book, because it gave me a foundation to go up the ladder of abstraction to more thorny problems/questions. For example:

  • If all these villainized consummables are innocuous for humans, how do we determine what food is actually harmful?
  • Is there a somewhat unified theory of human toxicity and how was it developed? How does this unified theory apply to the current concern about nitrates and other preservatives?
  • Beyond harmful foods, what about environmental chemicals? For example, why did it take so long to figure out lead in our gasoline is bad?

The Rosen Method: Accessing the Unconscious Through Touch by Marion Rosen and Sue Brenner

This book was recommend by Glen Chiacherri. Glen basically accomplished everything I’ve ever dreamed of and then decided “Nah, I’m gonna be a therapist”. He mentioned the testimonials of “The Rosen Method” were particularly inspiring.

The Rosen Method is based on the idea that emotional pain has physical manifestations which can be found using touch. When the physical manifestations are found using touch, the source of the emotional pain can be dealt with.

The book emphasizes the strengths of the Rosen Method via case studies and some general guidelines, while still admitting its limitations. Despite this nuanced approach, the Rosen Method feels more like magic than science. Then again, you could probably say the same thing about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or the Bio-Emotive Framework?

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

Discusses our relationship to the Internet by setting a story after the Internet has collapsed, taking most of society with it.

Tim does a great job articulating the pre-apocalypse feelings of technological malaise that comes with living in an algorithmically optimized world, while also showing what happens when it collapses.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel that deviates from typical nihilistic perspectives on human nature and instead adopts a community perspective reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell”. The post-apocalypse is still hell, but not because you’re fighting your neighbours for food, but because pre-existing power structures occupying power vacuums in the form of a military coup. Survival is not earned through rugged individualistic competence, but through cooperation and luck.

But it is still just fiction. It doesn’t provide a concrete alternative, nor a politically realistic way to achieve this better world.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sachs

Oliver Sachs is a neuro-doctor who wrote books about neuro-disorders in a compassionate “thick description” or “métis” manner, rather than purely clinical or “épisteme”. I particularly liked his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”.

“On the Move” is an autobiography, so the usual bland summary of “neat life, good guy” apply. However, I did find his manner of describing his achievements as “I felt like writing and it’s neat people like it” especially charming.

Two things that stuck with me:

  1. Oliver’s constant scientific optimism chaffed against my current cynicism. Almost everyone he meets is a genius with wisdom to share and knowledge to deploy on Great Ideas. Whereas I’m frequently frustrated by precocious assholes who don’t bother organizing their ideas, despite my best efforts to emulate Oliver’s generous demeanour.

  2. This book used ejaculation as important narrative points TWICE.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

A fantasy book following a broken war veteran during a period of political upheaval. There’s a lot of political manoeuvring, some romance and some interesting theology.

Two passages in particular stuck with me:

  1. A description of prayer/devotion as the act of putting one foot in front of the other.

  2. When the protagonist is touched by a god, his experience resembles a strong psychedelic trip including:

    • An out-of-body experience
    • Noticing details of mundane objects and being emotionally absorbed with them: “THIS PEBBLE CAME FROM A MOUNTAIN?!?!?!?”

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

A pretty standard fantasy story, except the protagonist is a 40 year-old woman widower, Ista. By the end of the book, I adored Ista. I was excited to see her learn to love again after being scorned by her difficult life and move on from the trappings of her past failures. However, I wasn’t absorbed by the plot. If I had a better grasp of what the demons were supposed to represent metaphorically, I might feel more compelled to see where the story was going? As it was, I was pretty impatient by the time the climax had passed and felt the end overstayed its welcome.

Uncomfortably Happy by Yeon-sik Hong

An auto-biographical graphic novel about the year a comic artist and his children’s book author wife spent living in the mountains. Although the content is mostly slice-of-life, it deals with some heavy emotional content as they run out of money and Yeong-Sik has an existential crisis.

Its portrayal of Yeong-Sik’s ascent from a depressive rock bottom was especially compelling to me. There’s no epiphany, no discrete turning point. Just perseverance and a bunch of relapses as things eventually get better.

In addition to this inspiring recovery, the novel also portrays one of my great personal fears. Eventually Yong-sik’s wife’s children’s book is published. During the publishing process, he realizes all the aspects of her work he was suggesting to correct are actually essential sparks creativity celebrated by others. His convictions, despite being well-intentioned, were tragically wrong and harming the ones he loved.

Dreaming of Amelia by Jaclyn Moriarty

When I was in 8th grade, I read the funniest book of my entire life, “The Year of Secret Assignments” by Jaclyn Moriarty. It’s part of a group (not a series because they exist independently) of 4 YA novels. The final book, “Dreaming of Amelia” is still funny, but also surprisingly more cynical. It calls out the main characters of “The Year of Secret Assignments” as being rich, naive and childish. The plot mostly explores these biases and coping with the failures/harm they cause when two new students arrive at the school. I highly recommend reading this group of epistolary novels. If you are going to engage with the group, I recommend starting with “The Betrayal of Bindie Mckenzie”.

As an aside, the other funniest books I’ve ever read are “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green and “One Whole and Perfect Day” by Judith Clarke. “Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging” by Louise Rennison also deserves an honourable mention. I have no idea why I only find YA novels funny.

The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thaghard

Basically an extended exercise seeing how much philosophy (questions like “how to live a good/meaningful life” and “what is moral”) can be extracted from neuro-psych. I would have loved this book during my undergrad. He derives an impressive amount of understandable philosophical insights from neuro-psych research. However, now that I’ve already done a bunch of neuro and philosophy, this book felt unsatisfying. For example, a lot of Thagard’s reasoning about empathy relies on Mirror Neuron research, who’s validity is currently being hotly debated. Additionally, Thagard’s conclusion of living a good being a balance between goals of love, play, and work feels simplistic. He seems to be hand-waving the fact that pursuing your goals is only meaningful given certain approaches, as explained by Social Systems Design.

Ultimately, tying “a meaningful life” to neuroscience is pretty difficult, if not utterly futile, given the current state of the field. Heck, the field struggles with identifying a neural grounding to “flow” states, which seem like a much simpler phenomena. I fear Thagard’s confidence in his conclusions are misplaced.

Louis Riel by Chester Brown

Covers the Metis revolutionary Louis Riel as he tries to maintain the independence of his people while joining Canada, but gets continuously fucked over by Canada’s first prime-minister John A. MacDonald.

Filled in the gap my schooling left between “Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain” -> “???” -> “World Wars” -> “The Quiet Revolution” and made me want to read more Canadian history.

The Future of Education by Kieran Egan

It goes over the same materials as “The Educated Mind” in the first 23. But the last 13 is used to imagine a 60 year period where the new method described in the book of Imaginative Education (IE) flourishes and becomes the dominant educational paradigm. Now I actually understand how current institutions might gradually change! I want every non-fiction book to do this!

Highly recommend for an honest assessment of education at a macro/philosophical scale and imagining a beautiful, but still realistic future. Now I have to read his other books to really understand how to teach in the Imaginative Education manner.

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller

I thought was going to be a surreal work of fiction. It was actually a non-fiction account which discusses the life of taxonomist David Starr Jordan while the author struggles to overcome her own depressive nihilism. It is beautiful and I highly recommend it if you enjoyed The Anthropocene Reviewed. An excellent audio book for the next time you’re travelling.

Tall Building Design Primer by Phillip Oldfield

As someone who wants more of his friends to be able to live cheaply closer together and hates driving, I’ve been really fascinated by the design of tall buildings. Admittedly, most of what’s stopping Toronto from growing sustainably is political, but that can get exasperating to obsess over, so I gave myself a break to hyper-fixate on new building design methods. “The Sustainable Tall Building: A Design Primer” is a remarkably easy-to-read introduction to tall buildings (think skyscrapers) and how they don’t need to suck environmentally.

Take-away summary:

  1. Glass, hermetically sealed, rectangular prisms are dumb. They’re really expensive to heat and cool, don’t adapt at all the environment/seasons they’re built in, and waste materials.

  2. Air flow in buildings, especially across micro-climates which vary with altitude, is complicated, but can provide a ton of natural cooling and heating.

  3. We should start building with timber again. It has less environmental impact that concrete/steel and it isn’t a fire hazard.

  4. Vertical farming is still a terrible idea. I’m more sympathetic to vertical gardens, but the maintenance of those seems absurdly expensive too.

  5. Singapore’s tall buildings are great at fostering communities. It is unclear how if their gathering spaces could be translated to a cooler climate like Toronto.

Next, I’m hoping to find a similarly well-written book especially on how off-site pre-fabrication can reduce on-site building times and improve worker safety.

The Billion Dollar Molecule by Barry Werth

Mostly a hagiography of the people involved in the early days of Vertex as they try to create a novel immunosuppressant. Specifically, they’re trying to create a less toxic FK-506 (now called Prograf, or generically Tacrolimus) which binds to the protein FKBP-12.

There’s an exhaustive amount of detail surrounding investors and deals, which culminates in a full IPO despite having no sales and minimal intellectual property. All of the drama can be summarized as:

  1. The company’s burn rate is astronomical, so they’re running out of money.
  2. Joshua Berger promises to investors an outcome which may not be possible.
  3. Scientists resent Joshua Berger for telling investors a story not yet supported by science.
  4. Investors buy in, mostly due to the market trends.
  5. Scientists toil to realize Joshua’s vision. Some of the scientists have emotional breakdowns.

This cycle repeats several times throughout the book. The most useful aspect of the book is its discussion of rational, structure-based drug research and contrasting it with brute-force assays using molecules extracted from dirt samples.

Summary of struggles encountered

  • John Thomson refining enough FKBP-12 protein and HIV protease from animal organs for research purposes.

  • Competition between NMR and Crystallography to get the structure of FKBP-12.

  • Having to fire a board member, Stuart Shrieber, due to his inability to keep company secrets.

  • Deciding whether to commit more resources to an HIV drug instead of continuing to pursue FKBP-12

    • According to the book, the HIV drug succeeds in the long run while targetting FKBP-12 is useless. FK-506’s initial promise is a quirk of the clinician administrating it to his organ transplant patients. However, upon doing a quick search after finishing the book, Tacromilus doesn’t seem useless. It was just less of a revolutionary drug than it was initially claimed to be? I guess this also discouraged Vertex from trying to improve it.

Miscellaneous notes

  • One of the researchers keeps talking about HIV being an existential threat to humanity, which seems like a weird belief given HIV’s limited transmission vectors.

  • The organization of Vertex is flat chaotic anarchy, but quickly becomes hierarchical after it IPOs. The book claims this was to satisfy the scientist’s need for status/recognition and consensus.

  • The final pages cite Joshua Boger’s megalomania as the driving force which allowed Vertex to succeed

    For him, lofty motives were infinitely less powerful, less trustworthy, less useful, than pure ones. Science was too difficult for people to engage in solely because, as he had written at age thirteen, they wanted “to help rid man of the burden of disease… and to help man get along with man.” They did it because they were absolutely certain it could be done, and to prove to themselves and the world that they could do it first. They did it to bash their competitors, to think themselves divine, to win, and to avoid the terrible, deathly anguish of losing. Backbreaking science and unblemished greed and raw fear, not moral correctness, would conquer AIDS. Boger was absolutely sure of that. He didn’t want to save the world. He wanted to control it; he believed he always had.

    I have no understanding if CEOs being abrasive, mildly narcissistic weirdos is survivorship bias or actually necessary.

  • The book spends chapters covering a scientist, Yamashita, struggling to get the structure of FKBP-12 for more than a year. But in the epilogue, a scientist named Eunice Kim gets a structure for an enzyme in a few days. Despite her seemingly superior skills, I can only find a few publications from her. Did she change her name due to marriage or did she disappear from science? Or was that enzyme abnormally easy to characterize structurally?