Favorite Books of 2021

Happy new year! Here are my 5 favorite books of 2021.

1. Empire of Pain

A sprawling, enthralling story of the opiate epidemic told through the lens of multiple generations of the family that ushered it in. This book reminded me of Bad Blood, but with far larger scope.

In his book Opium: A History, Martin Booth observes that when it comes to products derived from the opium poppy, “history repeats itself.” During the American Civil War, morphine was widely embraced as a salve for terrible battlefield injuries, but it produced a generation of veterans who came home after the war addicted to the drug.

2. The Least of Us

In retrospect, one accidental theme in my covid reading was the opiate epidemic. This book is Quinones’s followup to his great Dreamland, focusing now on the recent rise of synthetic opiates – investigating both the chemistry of the drugs themselves and of our brains.

One interesting perspective from this book is that someone addicted to something relatively innoccuous – for instance their phone, video games, or sugar – is more likely to become addicted to more nefarious things, like alcohol or drugs. Dopamine doesn’t differentiate.

Once a person is addicted to one drug, trying another, and another after that, is easier. We are not so different, it turns out, from those sugar-dependent rats in Nicole Avena’s lab at Princeton. One drug consumed long enough primes us for another.

3. Atomic Habits

I’m late to the party here, but this book is great. It helped me stop blaming myself for lack of motivation and set up better systems in my life for things like spaced repetition study.

Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers. It wasn’t the goal of winning the Tour de France that propelled the British cyclists to the top of the sport. Presumably, they had wanted to win the race every year before—just like every other professional team. The goal had always been there. It was only when they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that they achieved a different outcome.

4. Entangled Life

A wonderful dive into the secret world of fungi. Did you know fungi connect the trees in the forest into a “wood-wide web” that facilitates a cross-species trade of materials and information?

The cultural developments associated with agriculture—from fields of crops, to cities, accumulation of wealth, grain stores, new diseases—form part of our shared history with yeast. In many ways, you might argue, yeasts have domesticated us.

5. Reinforcement Learning

This is an O’Reilly book that reminded me how joyful reading O’Reilly books can be. This is one of my favorite technical books I’ve read – great explanations, great pseudocode, and how-tos that are easy to pick up and experiment with yourself. Highly recommend. After reading this book I’m convinced RL is the future of AI.

The main thing that differentiates ML from RL is that you are giving agents the freedom of choice. This is the control part of the problem and at first glance looks like a simple addition on top of the ML prediction problem. But don’t underestimate this challenge. You might think that the best policy is to pick the action with the highest prediction. No, because there may be other states that are even more rewarding.