While 2023 wasn’t my biggest reading year, I still managed to read 39 books. Today I’ll share 6 of my favourite books that were finished in 2023.
My Favourite Non-Fiction Books of 2023
A City On Mars
We’ve all heard billionaire futurist dreams of a city on Mars in their lifetime, but how realistic is that vision? Kelly and Zach Weinersmith set out to write a book that showed us how possible it was because they were excited for the prospect of space colonization. What they found though was space colonization within the lifetime of multiple generations is highly unlikely.
First any space environment is so hostile to human life that even if we had worst case global warming with huge storms, massive flooding, and famine, the habitability of Earth is still far superior to anything in space. Moving to space would be like deciding you didn’t want to clean your room so you move into a toxic waste dump. We should be focusing our efforts on cleaning up our room, not engaging in some future fantasy of space colonization.
Next many would propose giant spinning rings in the sky, we saw them in Halo right…it must be possible. No it’s not. Getting the resources up from Earth so that the ring could be built in space that it is prohibitive without technology that we don’t have and can’t build. Maybe you’d suggest we get the resources from space because some asteroids have plentiful resources. Mining in Antartica is far more hospitable than doing anything in space, and we don’t do that because of silly laws…and the fact that it’s not profitable in by any stretch of the imagination.
Second, people like to cite all the resources that are available in space which would let us move to a post-scarcity society. They’d have us believe that we all will be better off if we support plans to colonize space. We already could be living in a post-scarcity society, it’s just that a few people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have hoarded so much wealth instead of distributing it to the world. Billionaires and capitalism are the reason we don’t live in a post-scarcity society now. Why would we believe that wealth will suddenly be evenly distributed because we live in space, when we can’t get it right now. We’re closer to Elysium than any type of post-scarcity society if the current crop of rich people have their way.
Finally, we’re not doing the science needed to create habitats for space colonization. The research needed to find out what microgravity does to generations of humans living with the toxic elements that are on Mars or the Moon would take generations and huge amounts of money. Sure billionaires are launching rockets, but they’re spending virtually no time on how we’d build a sustainable ecosystem so that everyone could eat and have oxygen to breath. Further, if you really push people arguing for babies in space they’ll admit that eugenics will need to be involved because there is no scenario under which a baby can be born and taken care of, due to a disability, without contributing back to the resources of the space colony.
I’ve only scratched the surface on how unrealistic it is to think we can achieve space colonization in the next hundred years. Billionaires talking about space colonies with no regulations from Earth is merely white flight and a fantasy made up by men who want to make their own regulations because they’ve fallen into the trap that just because they made some money they must know everything about everything.
Not with a Bug But With a Sticker
The current tech hype-cycle is focused on AI as the saviour of all. Some magical computer system, that we don’t understand, will be able to make better decisions than humans. If you believe the Sam Altman’s of the world, life will be so much better if their AI is allowed to permeate everything.
The reality is that Sam Altman, and a bunch of other techbros, will have fatter bank accounts full of money they could never spend on things that won’t materially affect their lives. If we let them have their way that is.
This book looks at how AI is unable to be free from mistakes and errors, and after 10-years of research, no one sees a path forward to making AI free from pollution from CSAM or from information leak attacks. Yes that includes Ilya Sutskever who helped found OpenAI and is on record in many papers saying how error prone the tools are and how they’ll always be error prone and easily attackable by malicous actors.
One recent time we turned to AI was during the COVID pandemic, but out of 415 leading AI systems none of them were found fit for clinical use. They were all more error prone than a human. A person with the high error rates of AI would be sued into oblivion for malpractice.
AI enthusiasts would tell us that older AI systems just weren’t trained well and their new system is trained in a much more robust way. Unfortunately the downfall of any AI system is the built into it because it only knows what it was trained on. This is how we get non-white faces being far more error prone for facial recognition than white faces. This is how we get most of the “fixes” for being able to fool face detection working far better on white male faces while doing little to protect women and non-white people from misidentification.
Most of the researchers are white males, so the datasets often contain white males, or what North American white males decide is important. This leaves out most cultures and many reference areas that would be important to women or people of colour.
When you dig into the training datasets you also find that they’re riddled with errors. Images are not labelled properly, words are translated wrong, and child pornography is present in image training data. As of Dec 20, 2023 the largest training dataset for image based AI was found to be riddled with child sexual abuse material. Yes that means that almost any current image generating AI is seeded with CSAM. No there is no way to undo the damage to AI that was trained on bad material without scrapping the AI model and training it again.
Training data sets can’t help but be full of errors though because companies are paying the lowest wage workers they can find to label data, often not in their native language, by the piece. The worker is unlikely to get caught mislabeling data and they need to eat so churning through as much as possible is the best way for them to make ends meet and keep their job.
A final question we should ask ourselves is, how much do we want to trust machines with our own fate? Right now we have UK subpostmasters sent to jail because software with known bugs said they stole money. Health companies use AI to deny claims, but 90% of those decisions are reversed when the claimant pushes and a human reviews the claims.
I for one do not welcome our new AI overlords, and I’m not interested in helping current tech bros continue to line their pockets while they exploit the public with their crazy ideas gleaned from science fiction books that were intended as cautionary tales, not paths for society to take.
The Good Enough Job
The central theme to The Good Enough Job is that workism is particularly American and is very prevalent among the privileged. Workism is the belief that we can replace the meaning we used to find in religion and in community connections, with work. Yes, people with lots of money employing others in society would have us believe that the work they want us to do has meaning, so we should be working lots for the meagre amount of pay they’re willing to give us.
This idea stretches back to the Protestant belief that working is akin to godliness. If you were working hard and lots then you were closer to God. If you were idle then clearly you were up to no good and taking steps closer to evil.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop…or some such nonsense.
The current incarnation of this is hustle culture, where some guru tells you that you need to push a bit more and for longer and work the hours no one else will. Then if you do that you’ll succeed. If you don’t succeed, then it’s because you didn’t push hard enough, it could never be the fault of the advice the guru gave you. Of course any success is because of the advice the guru gave you, so you better keep hustling or you’re a failure.
The focus on work leads to defining everything about your life by work. That means quitting a crappy job that’s killing you is the easy part. Once you’ve quit you realize that all your friends were work friends, and you no longer go out for drinks with them because you don’t have the same “after work”. You now need a new identity because you can’t be defined by work.
Overall, workism has flipped the script on hundreds of years of the belief that as you earned more money you worked less and experienced more leisure. Today you just work more and more, and because you work so much you have nothing outside work, so you work more because it’s all you know how to do.
Stolzoff ends the book with three ideas that can help us all get out of over work. First is basic income to remove scarcity. When you remove scarcity from people’s lives they don’t have to work crappy jobs for little money and can demand better working arrangements. They can organize their lives well and make better decisions in all areas of life.
Second, leaders need to show a balanced workplace, not just advertise it in their jobs. That means no emailing at all hours. Leave your employees alone when they’re not on the clock. I find this “solution” unrealistic in most scenarios as many employers need you to feel like your job is a calling so that they can overwork and underpay you.
Third, realize that your job is there to pay bills because that’s how capitalism is set up. Don’t view your job as anything more than that. If you’re employer says “we’re family” ask them how many years they’ll pay you for if you ever can’t work because you get cancer. If the answer is less than, however many years you need to get better, you’re not family. Step back from your job and decide how much you need and stop when you get there. Don’t fall into consumer culture, just stop and be happy. Use your money to have time to do whatever you want.
My Favourite Fiction of 2023
Now that we’ve dealt with some heavy topics, let’s take a lighter turn and dig into some fiction that I loved this year.
Yumi and the Nightmare Painter
This is an instalment from Brandon Sanderson in his “secret books” project. On top of publishing his huge tomes regularly, he found time to write 4 extra books that no one knew about. Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is a time/space hoping spiritual adventure where Yumi and Painter create a connection and jump between each other’s bodies.
Painter captures evil souls that roam the city by painting them and giving them shape again. Yumi is the best rock stacker there is and summons spirits that willingly give themselves to the townspeople to perform tasks as a way of thanking Yumi for the creation they’ve witnessed in her stacking.
Each main character has a part to play in jointly saving the world and the climax in the last few chapters throws a twist that I didn’t see coming and very much enjoyed.
A Man Called Ove
If you’ve heard of this it’s because you’ve likely heard of the movie called A Man Called Otto staring Tom Hanks. As usual, the movie was good, but the book was so much deeper.
Ove is a grumpy man who seemingly has nothing to live for anymore. His wife died, he’s been retired from the job that gave him meaning, and his life has been hard. Not just a bit hard, the type of hard where your neighbours burn your house down because they don’t like how well you’ve fixed it up and in the process burn the house down of your neighbour which almost kills their child.
At first Ove seems like a grumpy old man but by the end of the book you see why he may beat up a clown for a quarter and be fully justified in doing so. In many ways Ove reminds me of an old employer I had that looked so grumpy random customers would ask me how hard it was to work under my employer. Sure he looked grumpy, and was fairly gruff and blunt, but to this day if I needed something he’d drive the 7 hours to my house to help out.
That’s Ove. Misunderstood and has a huge heart, in more ways than one.
Tress of the Emerald Sea
This is another instalment in Sanderson’s secret book project. We meet Tress on a world that is covered in spores which even make up oceans. If these spores get wet they will burst into vines, yes that means if you get a dust of a spore in your eye it may burst into vines in your eye and your dead.
Tress lives on a barely hospitable island that won’t let you leave because it’s the source of rare resources and the king needs people to work the mines. After the only bright spot in Tress’ life is abandoned somewhere in the world, Tress heads out on an adventure across the Emerald Sea of spores to find and save the person she loves.
Through this we get to visit beings from different dimensions, and get to see a number of characters from other places in Sanderson’s Cosmere universe. I thoroughly enjoyed deciphering the hints about who characters really work, and flipping back into previous books from Sanderson to try and confirm my suspicions.
-  A City on Mars Pg 26
-  A City on Mars Pg 82
-  A City on Mars 86
-  Not with a Bug Pg 7
-  Not with a Bug Pg 65
-  Not with a Bug Pg 90
-  Good Enough Job Pg XV
-  Good Enough Job Pg 43
-  Good Enough Job Pg 66
-  Good Enough Job Pg 112
-  Hundreds of studies show that basic income doesn’t stop people from working. See Basic Income for Canadians: https://curtismchale.ca/book/basic-income-for-canadians/
-  See Scarcity: https://curtismchale.ca/book/scarcity/