Books Lately

Screenshot from 2018-12-15 12-45-15

Although I claimed to be super busy over the past few months, I somehow did find the time to read a bit. My recent preferences have definitely been for autobiographies, so if you have any recommendations, I’m all ears!

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I listened to this as an audiobook (mostly while driving to a work event in Arizona), and it was really great. Just really, really great. For one thing, it’s read aloud by Michelle Obama herself. And secondly, after hearing about her and her family’s devotion to public service (she went from private law to the non-profit/public sector), it really changed my perspective on the importance of public service. I’m ashamed of saying this, but I always had a tough time answering those “what have you done for your community?” type scholarship application questions, and considered them somewhat lame. Even now, on research proposals we write to the National Science Foundation, there’s a page or so where you’re supposed to describe your project’s impact on the community, but most people (myself guiltily included) treat it was a throwaway section and mostly write some boilerplate about doing outreach events with local high schools.

But listening to the way that she described service as a high calling… I think I get it now (at least better than before). Yes, we should drive ourselves to produce the best technical work/ideas that we can, but helping others along the way can have just as much or even more impact on society. I’m very grateful that, even if some people consider it extraneous, my job does give brownie points for community service. I’m not saying that we should do it just for the brownie points, but rather if we go out and do these things (like high school camps, which I’ve done a few of), those things are counted (in a minor way) by the tenure and promotions committee. I don’t know if that’s true in other professions – for example, would a tech company care if an employee was doing STEM outreach, and reward that?

In my mind, that’s one interesting thing about the American education system – for scholarship applications, while grades surely matter, so does service. Yes, it can end up being a throwaway (e.g., “I went to South America for a week and helped build two toilets”, which my younger sister did), but at least it encourages people to start thinking about service. When I see my foreign students, they really don’t have that mentality at all – it’s all grades, grades, grades.

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression from the book itself, but that’s the train of thought where it led me – it was very thought-provoking. The book also talks about her growing up in Chicago, experiences going from there to an elite university, and transition into political life. Highly recommend!

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

I don’t have nearly as many deep thoughts about this one, but just reading about his upbringing was pretty eye-opening to me. The apartheid conditions when he was born, the conditions under which he grew up, the economic environment, the challenges he overcame… all these serious issues presented, somehow, in a hilarious and lighthearted way. I grew up in basically the opposite environment: first-world country, educated family, opportunities to succeed. Reading about the kinds of conditions that people grew up in (and overcame) is just mind-boggling and inspiring.

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