An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks – audiobook review

Title: An Anthropologist on Mars
Author: Oliver Sacks
Narrator: Jonathan Davis
Year: 1995
Tags; non-fiction; clinical; neurology;

Overall impressions

This book is in the same spirit as Dr. Sack’s earlier enjoyable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Of the two, while I preferred his earlier work, this book, An Anthropologist on Mars, is still definitely worth a read/listen. If you read only one, choose The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. If you liked that book, and you want more of the same, then this is it.
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Recommended Audible audiobooks

I’ve written before about my affection for Audible audiobooks. Now I’m putting together a list of books that I have read, along with summaries for each.

Below I started a list of audiobooks that I read, but I decided to move to a new table format, which you can view here. I’ve left the below list for historical purposes, and recommend you check out my updated recommended book list instead.

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Napoleon: A Life – by Andrew Robert – audiobook review and notes

I recently finished the audiobook, “Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts. As you may expect from the title, this hefty audiobook (nearly 33 hours) gives great detail on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.

What struck me most about the life of Napoleon was his ability to cope – no, more than cope, he thrived – in such an environment of confrontation. Napoleon waged wars against the strongest powers in Europe, and even when in massive confrontations, he wrote obsessive letters to people on seemingly trivial topics, detailing their marriages and affairs. Even when opposed by with such great forces, he did not shut down, he did not seek escapism, except perhaps for brief periods with his mistresses.

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The Signal and the Noise (book/audiobook review, summary and notes)

During an odd phase of fascination with American politics (I’m Canadian), I stumbled across Nate Silver’s website’s ( political coverage of the 2016 Idaho primary. Their cold, analytical coverage of the election appealed to me. It turns out Nate also wrote a book about prediction, which luckily for me, is also in audiobook format.

The core idea
The takeaway from this book is essentially this: prediction is really hard and most people (and machines) suck at it (expect for weather forecasters). More concerningly (is that a word?), most people don’t even know that they suck at it. Oh, and you should use Bayesian statistics to give probabilistic estimates and update your probabilities when you get new information.

This book encouraged me to take a hard look at my own predictions. Do I suck at it? Do I actually understand Bayes theorem?

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Leonardo and the Last Supper [audiobook review]


Last night I finished listening to “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King. As might be expected from this title, this book had a large focus on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper.

the original painting went through a ton of abuse (including a bomb nearly blowing it up, and people scraping off the original paint)… da Vinci, although he had a great ability to paint, did an awful job of using the right materials to preserve the giant wall painting.

I was surprised how little seems to actually be know about Leonardo da Vinci. Much of what is known, seems to be speculation. Not even a portrait of da Vinci can be said to for sure exist.

As such, another large focus of this book is on the exploits of da Vinci’s patron (employer) who was a well known Duke, and the wars that surrounded the area. So not only do you learn about da Vinci and his famous painting, but you also learn some Italian history. The author gives a sense of how the people of this time must have lived.

The narrator (Mark Meadows) I thought was great. I don’t know how to speak Italian at all, but I enjoyed Meadows pronunciation of the Italian names and places.

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The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life [audiobook notes]

Here are some notes on the audiobook, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. 

At first, I was hesitant to listen to a biography of someone who (at this time) is not yet dead. What if they go on to do a whole bunch of incredible things still and I have to reread their final biography? Or imagine I actually meet them in real life, would I be awkwardly star struck? But these are silly reasons not to read a book…

I was interested in this book for a few reasons:

0) To learn more about finances and business
What better way to get my mind thinking about this than hearing about one of the greatest business minds and most wealthy person of our time. How did he make big decisions? What was his approach to managing people?

1) Buffet seems to encourages such philanthropic behavior among the wealthy
Who is such a person that they would amass such a fortune, only to give it away?

2) Learn a bit about American history over the past ~100 years

Note that this is a hefty audiobook. At ~37 hours, this is by far the longest audiobook I have completed. And there are a lot of details. A lot.

Here are some bookmarks I made listening to the audiobook along with their corresponding times.
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The Willpower Instinct – audiobook review and notes

I recently finished listening to the audiobook, “The Willpower Instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it,” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal. While willpower has gotten quite a bit of attention from the self-help community, I was curious what the scientific community would find after shining the scientific method spotlight on it. Having more willpower seems to be a pretty useful goal.

Quick summary:
The subtitle pretty much captures the essence of this book. Dr. McGonigal teaches a popular course on Willpower at Stanford. This book, The Willpower Instinct, is based on this course.

If you are curious about what willpower is and what science has so far been able to say about it, then this book is worth a read. It gives a nice summary of the field and changed how I thought about willpower and myself. For example, tests of willpower show a correlation with changes in blood sugar levels. Increasing blood sugar levels yield better performance on willpower related tasks. This type of thinking makes me approach my willpower challenges differently. When I’m struggling, I now think, am I tired? Am I hungry? I then try to make sure I have these handled first.

I made some notes/comments when I heard something that really resonated. If you find these snippets interesting, it’s worth having a listen to get the full context. So here are some brief notes and thoughts (along with their corresponding times) for certain parts that struck me as particularly interesting.

My comments in italics

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audiobooks – the best thing ever

So I signed up with Audible about one year ago now. Now after a year, it seems appropriate to reflect on this decision.

I want to read books, but it is hard to schedule time to read.

Do audiobooks during mundane human tasks.
e.g., cooking, cleaning, traveling to work, walking somewhere, eating, etc…

I usually manage to get at least an hour a day of listening to an audiobook without scheduling any time for it. I can just squeeze it in my mundane morning routine, when I’m cooking dinner, or cleaning up.

What has this translated into? I managed to finish reading (okay listening to…) over 30 books. 30 books! Considering that I read about 1 or 2 books a year (a generous estimate) prior to this, I’m pretty happy with this result.

Think about this. As I cooked dinner or traveled on a crowded bus, I got to hang out with Benjamin Franklin as he frolicked with the French ladies (and ignored his poor wife and children), meditate with Sam Harris and many others, watch the world explode with Arthur Dent, become terrified of volcanoes because of Bill Bryson, see life evolve from a primordial soup with Richard Dawkins, and so much more…

As great as audiobooks are, to be fair, here are a few caveats for those getting into it.

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