Zac Stewart

Zac Stewart

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Some Things I Read in 2012


I read a total of 14 books last year. I had set my goal for 15, but finished the year two-thirds of the way into three different books. I tend to read plurally.

I thought I'd give a quick run down of the ones that I liked best, in no particular order. I don't mean to provide a synopsis; you can read those all you like on Amazon or Goodreads. Instead, I just want to share a bit about why I liked them.

My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla

A pretty short read–around 80 pages–but despite its brevity, Tesla reveals some incredible details about the nature of his genius.

When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop.

I thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes of his development as an engineer as well as his focus on introspection and personal fulfillment and think it's a valuable read for anyone, technical or not.

The Consolations of Philosophy

This one is a journey across philosophies, including those of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. It covers many topics ranging from sexual inadequacy to social conformity.

I consider this not be a philosophy book, but more of a guidebook for the more dense primary sources it describes. That said, it's a very enjoyable read and Alain de Botton has a way with stitching the ideas of disparate philosophers together such that the entire volume feels like a contiguous whole, and not a disjoint anthology.

It piqued my interest in both Nietzsche and Montaigne so that I bought a book by each.

On Solitude

Montaigne proves to have been incredibly forward thinking for his time. Once well into the book, I actually had to check Wikipedia for the time period because judging by the content you'd think the book was written during the late 18th century at the earliest. Sure enough, he lived from 1533 to 1592.

However, he also held some ridiculous beliefs, I would think even for his time period. Especially in the chapter 'On the Power of the Imagination.' Some range from innocent mind-over-matter incidents such as a man being cured of impotence just be believing in a potion that Montaigne had concocted for him, but in one case he describes a man so flatulent that he literally farts himself to death.

Much of his thought is admittedly just his digest of the classics. He builds heavily on the stoic philosophy of Seneca:

We should have wives, children, property, and, above all, good health… if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on them.

After reading this book, my lasting impression of Montaigne is that he was an incredibly honest man. Honest with himself, and diligently practiced introspection as a means to correct his thought.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Why I am so Wise

Nietzsche is one of those philosophers whom I always assumed I would like. I was interested in his ideas of the Übermensch and eternal recurrence, his atheism, and the general hubbub and debate about whether he actually inspired Nazi ideals.

After reading Zarathustra I was honestly a little disappointed. Not a whole lot of it made sense to me, and I'm not sure how much to chalk up to translation, my own ignorance or whether he was just writing madness. I came away still wondering what he was on about. As a side note I read this before I read Consolations, which did help provide some context and encourage me to take another stab at Nietzsche.

I found Why I am so Wise to be much more enjoyable. As arrogant as the title is, I understand him to be quite optimistic. He details some of what he believes attributes to his success as a writer, for instance, only attacking causes against which he'd find no allies and he has no personal difference.

Other than that, he describes his ideal climate (dry air), eating habits, abstinence from alcohol, friendship with Richard Wagner, and many other things.

Also to my relief, he repeatedly denounces German nationalism and expresses vitriol toward all things German:

I am a pure-blooded Polish nobleman, in whom there is no drop of bad blood, least of all German.

It's hard for me to believe he would have been enthusiastic about Nazis adopting some of his ideas.

Accelerando

This one follows the story of one family across three generations as they cross the threshold into the technological singularity.

This is nerd porn at its finest. All sorts of things are explored: augmented reality, uploading, artificial intelligence, solar sails and interstellar travel.

RESTful Web Services

Want to become the HTTP wizard around the office? This book is invaluable if you spend a lot of time designing APIs.

My advice is to skip all the code examples (reimplementing a Flickr API in Rails). I found them to be very dry and outdated. Maybe it's just me, but I hate reading page after page of mediocre Ruby code without syntax highlighting. Another part you might just skim is the one detailing various XML microformats. Unless you actually need to use one, there's probably little value in understanding it in detail.

The rest of it was definitely rewarding. I no longer have to skip a beat wondering which response code is right in a given situation or which method a resource should should expose.

The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing

This one wasn't exactly a thriller, but it did give me a lot of knowledge for planning my financial future. Knowing how to tax-shelter your nest egg, or whether you should put your money in a managed fund or a passive index fund is definitely boring material, but I feel a tiny bit more informed about the decisions I make now.

tl;dr, no-load index funds are the way to go, put your high-yield investments in your tax-sheltered account (e.g., Roth IRA), asset allocation is everything and rebalance your portfolio at regular intervals to maintain your desired allocation.

Planning for Freedom

This last one is a little obscure. Von Mises is the name behind the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a popular, libertarian, Austrian economics think tank. The printing I have includes a bunch of other essays, and it eventually becomes very repetitive.

However, it's a very beneficial read, whether you consider yourself to be libertarian or more social-minded (if only to know how to better refute libertarian arguments).

Von Mises' ironic title makes a little jab at the idea that social planning can lead to more freedom. His basic premise is not that he rejects economic planning as a thing, but whose planning.