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Alan Kay's reading list (squeakland.org)
575 points by drjohnson on May 30, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 168 comments

This wasn't actually for my students, and dates back to the early 90s. A number of people at Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) asked for my "top ten" books. This is not possible for anyone who reads extensively, so I came out with that list as a bare start. I should mention that reading lots of "poor books" is also part of literacy: they help the understanding and appreciation of "good books" considerably.

Alan, have you actually read all those books cover-to-cover ?

In general how do you read ? Do you finish a book even if you don't like the style or subject matter ?

Do you read sequentially - one book at a time cover to cover - or do you read several books in parallel ?

Any tips/tricks on how to choose the next book ?

Do you continue going deeper into the subject matter of the last book or do you jump to a completely different domain ?

Somewhat by accident I wound up a fluent reader before going to school, and read voraciously from then on. I'm not sure how many books I've read, but probably no more than 20,000 (I have some friends -- and have knowledge of some -- who have read quite a bit more).

Fluency really helps because there are fewer really worthwhile books than other kinds (this is similar to "most ideas are mediocre down to bad", in no small part because good ideas are a rarer set of insights, and they have to be formed in our not wonderful commonsense environment).

In third grade I started to put a lot more effort into really remembering what I read (it finally occurred to me that I'd have to reread most of the books if I didn't).

Because of efficiency, etc., I generally finish virtually all books. I often read several books at a time. I don't spend all day reading now, though I certainly often did when I was younger.

Reading often leads to other reading. I also read reviews of books. A really fun find ca 1970 was The Whole Earth Catalog, which listed thousands of "tools" including hundreds of books with small very useful reviews. Most of these were very worthwhile (and all the books in the WEC were the first books in the PARC library).

I sympathize with the writer below who wished for a little description for each book on my reading list (annotated bibliographies are very helpful).

I follow my nose (and try to use other dim senses when possible).

Thank you.

From what I've read, the idea for The Whole Earth Catalog came to Stewart Brand during an acid trip, so I'm going to try my luck with a deeper question on the subject...

The counterculture and the "psychedelic revolution" of the '60s has been a subject I've been very interested in, especially its impact on technology and computing.

You were there, you saw it with your own eyes, you helped move technology forward with your mind, you worked with all kinds of experimenters and bearded geniuses..

Do you think that psychedelic drugs had a big impact on how technology (and society) has evolved since the '60 ?

The reason I'm asking this, is because these substances and practices are making a major come back, now globally, and I'm very curious about how this will impact our society in the future, given the radical changes apparently spawned in the short period that people explored them, before becoming illegal..

"The 60s" was more than a backdrop, especially in California -- and it was about a variety of things all at once, including: equal rights and race, the Vietnam War, and thoughts less in the same groove. The "counter culture" was all around Palo Alto and the rest of the Bay Area, and provided another set of contexts.

And I think it had indirect influence -- kind of a glow -- on other things that were going on, such as changes in technology and computing. But I would call most of the top people there at that time -- including most of the researchers at PARC -- quite straight with regard to drugs. PARC was much more of an older drinking culture than a drugs culture. However, other kinds of non-drug mind-altering practices were experimented with (many kinds of meditation, self-hypnosis, isolation tanks, etc.)

A little goes a long way, for many reasons.

> A little goes a long way, for many reasons.


>probably no more than 20,000 (I have some friends -- and have knowledge of some -- who have read quite a bit more).

can you please verify that number? Assuming reading for that past 50 years, that is over a book/day (or 3 books / 4 days reading for 75 years). I'm a slow reader and generally enjoy taking my time reading, but that would be quite the volume.

I don't have any strong way to estimate -- I didn't bother counting them as I read (it wasn't a contest). There were many years where I read around 10 books a week (the library limit). They don't take long to read. I'm 76 and have been reading heavily for 73 years. My library at home has about 13,000 books and for the most part does not have books I read as a child. I still read roughly 4 books a week, etc.

So, as I estimated, probably not more than 20,000.

When I was a kid, I worked my way through our local library in an orderly fashion. I only had to be able to sign my name to get a card. When mom would drop us off for a few hours, we'd pick out our six books (the limit), she'd come get us, and before we got home, she'd chide us on already reading too many of them. We wouldn't make them last until the next visit.

It seemed an agonizing wait until 14, the required age for checking out books from the adult section. I'd read the entire children's section, so I had to wait until after school (pointless school) to read adult books at the library. By 18, I'd read about 20,000 books. Strangely, on turning 18, my reading rate dropped off a cliff.

I didn't get along very well with my sister, so when my mum went to work I went to the library instead of staying home. I was on a first name basis with most of the staff, but also revisited books many times if I particularly enjoyed them, so never got to a high number.

I became a librarian in the end. I rarely read anymore, my attention span and time just don't allow it.

How does one read that quickly with any degree of comprehension, particularly with regard to technical books?

I am a fairly intelligent person, with a large vocabulary, but forcing my "mind's voice" to read faster than a normal conversational pace dramatically reduces both enjoyment and retention of material. Doubly so for anything of technical content.

I believe the enabler to fast reading is to skip verbalization totally - i.e., not a "minds voice" that is speaking quickly, but going from seeing a sentence to getting the concept of that sentence without vocalizing, without ever having had a representation of how that sentence sounds, bypassing the hearing/speech centers of your brain, reading on an abstract purely visual level.

I feel a mental voice when reading e.g. poetry or when writing a draft for a presentation/speech, but all other content is purely visual. I tend to recall the visual location where a fact was written, e.g. that was on the right side of some page around the bottom part, but not how it sounded.

I have no idea how; I was a little kid. I do know I didn't read with an inner voice; I read silently.

How much do you read nowadays? What kind of stuff? (And have you got any recommendations in terms of fiction!?)

Nowadays most of my reading is online, I read about a paper book per week, like most of us. My fiction is mostly SF/Fantasy. My favorite non-fiction is history, entirely predictable. I just finished 1493 last night; it was excellent. Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk before that, also good, although Len Deighton is definitely opinionated.

I read HN with an eye to suggestions, which has worked out well for me.

Note: I have friends who claim to have read an similarly extraordinary number of books, although in their case it turns out they had actually been 'speed reading' them, which I wouldn't count as reading at all.[1] Some people would disagree with me, however...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_reading

As I mentioned in another place, the key is remembering what's important.

Sometimes when I get bored reading a piece it would be very nice to get over it fast. But especially when it is a recommended book I want to read the whole even if it feels like a chore. Then I'm looking for excuses not to read at all.

0 is no more than 20,000

100 is no more than 20,000

i don't think verification is needed...

[edited for carriage return]

> "... In third grade I started to put a lot more effort into really remembering what I read ..."

Do you have any tips, tricks, hacks that you would like to share that you may have developed in helping you to remember content. Did any techniques evolve over the years?

I've been asked this a few times. I'm not completely sure about all the keys for this. Looking back -- and also at the process today -- it seems to be a combination of things, and somewhat loosely connected.

The first thing to notice is what happens if you accidentally dial into the middle of a movie on TV you haven't seen for 20 years. How long does it take you to recognize the movie? And how often can you remember pretty much what is going to happen next? Then ponder that when you saw the movie the first time you didn't know you were going to be tested with just a few frames 20 years later!

There have been many studies over the years about just how good and detailed is visual recall. Much of the best recall is "prompted recall" usually via an image or some other sense (smell is a biggie).

You've also heard about Cicero's "mind palace" where when he was giving a speech in the Senate he would walk in his imagination around his villa and revisit parts of his speech that he'd associated with objects in his house.

This is also possible to do with ideas. It's a kind of relaxation from the parts of your brain that do general thinking (Kahneman's "System 2") and just letting the ideas be "configurational" (like images or sounds, where many can exist at the same time). A lot of the associations are kinds of analogies and metaphors.

In any case, we all have tremendous memories for some kinds of things, and it seems to be difficult to remember other kinds of things (perhaps things that are further from sense memories are more difficult). But it seems that a lot of the sense memory system is happy to remember enough "hybrid stuff" to then allow better recall of the more distant stuff.

One of the things I had discovered to a small extent in 3rd grade was that one can read "faster than actually thinking", and that a lot of the thinking would still be done. Looking back, I think this is like the kinds of background thinking we often do when we are working on a problem -- this seems to work also for reading. (It is also connected to how sight-reading in music is done (next comment).)

There's lots more, but one last thing here. Though I got to music early, I got to classical keyboards late -- in this case the organ -- and thus got a chance to watch myself learn to sight read three staves of music for hands and feet. (I found this quite a painful process for a few years, especially at my age.) But it has quite a bit in common with the mechanics of reading and remembering texts (with the addition of a lot of fine muscle memory that has to be taught what to do).

The essential transition is to gradually learn to detach from being "on the notes" to being able to see a few bars ahead (like what you do when you are reading aloud to someone), being able to perform with the meanings you just saw, while gleaning new meanings ahead and remembering them for the performance a few seconds later. It's basically a pipe-lined buffered process which anyone can learn to do, but which most do not learn easily (it was difficult for me).

If you can also tie the buffers to something that is in long term memory, you have a good chance of remembering it when something like it re-cues the memory. Most musicians wind up with a kind of double memory (they can remember the music more easily than the muscle movements). I think this also obtains in text reading and remembering.

The simple heuristic is "relax".

Do you make any notes during reading or make some sort of resume/recapitulation when you finish a book?

Are you a paper notebook fan?

I don't make notes while I'm reading or do a recap. However, I do use notebooks for "ideas" when I'm trying to get something done, or those that just show up. This is to not get trapped by the ideas -- basically to move them to a back burner, so more can happen. I sometimes look at the notes, but usually not. The writing down of the ideas seems to put them in a more useful place in the hairball.

I always wanted to ask you this: what's your opinion on Gregory Bateson's work on the intersection of anthropology, psychiatry, cybernetics and communication in general? Since this discussion is focusing on books, have you read "Steps to an Ecology of Mind"?

I hope it goes without saying: thank you very much for your contribution to the world, generally.

Another of many books I probably should have put on the list (but that's the problem with lists of "good books" in a world that has thousands of them). I knew Gregory slightly, and his daughter Mary Catherine more so. (And there are others from this circle that should be included: Gordon Pask, Heinz von Forester, etc.)

One way to think about this in the larger sense is that "an interesting person is one who is interesting whether you agree with them or not". This also goes for books. (This is the "it's about perspectives, not about relevance" point of view.)

It's worth it to try to understand what "interesting people" have thought -- it provides context for one's own thinking.

> It's worth it to try to understand what "interesting people" have thought -- it provides context for one's own thinking.

This is eventually the main reason why I mentioned Bateson's work in particular (besides the depth and orthogonality of his ideas).

I've read Watzlawick's work on interaction and pragmatics of communication before I've read Bateson's. I found Watzlawick's ideas easier to grasp (at least, I'm under that illusion), clearly presented with e.g. axioms. Then I read Bateson's work, and got this strange feeling of dwelling around the same underlying concepts, but without a clear understanding of his main argument.

I've read "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" quite a few times (I still re-read some chapters every once in a while) and always felt that a) I'm reading new material; and b) I'm not getting it all. Yet, I always get something new, and this is an extremely interesting insight on how my own perception changes over time.

Of course, this happens with other books and authors. Still, personally, I have a clear feeling that not to the same extent as it happens with Bateson's ideas. It's my own mirror, so to speak.

Well, Gregory missed some important ideas in that book (partly from his background I think, and partly from his personality). You might get some perspective from looking at his last book "Mind and Nature". And, in many ways, much more powerful looks at "mind" are Minsky's "Society of Mind" and "The Emotion Machine". There is also Kahneman's "Thinking: Fast and Slow" more recently ...

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane is not really about the mind, but it is about the things that lead up to the contemporary mind and is consistently fascinating, even for me who has no biology / biochemistry background. I learned about it from the Bill Gates blog: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Vital-Question.

I don't want to ding this book, if only because the topic is well chosen and important. I was quite surprised that I didn't warm to it.

Would you have a place in your list for António Damásio's work on consciousness and, generally, the embodied mind?

I don't know whether I would include this book on the list for the Anderson Consulting people. It's worth reading for the context, perhaps not so much for the specific content.

I forgot to consider your list as aimed towards the Anderson Consulting people.

Having that audience in mind, wouldn't Manuel Castells' work (mostly, the "The Information Age" trilogy) be a good reference? Probably a little too vast.

Interesting suggestion! I think it was around when I made the list but I hadn't read it yet.

I think it might be too long for the intended purpose (maybe a little too academic?). On the other hand Mumford also wrote a trilogy "Technics and Civilization" that I did hope they would read ...

And certainly the McLuhan books are more cryptic for most readers. On the other hand ...

Castells ideas are indeed presented in a very readable manner, most of the times complemented with figures and data. In my "academic" tradition (communication/media sciences meets IT, in continental Europe), Castells is essentially a mandatory reference (even more than McLuhan).

Thinking about it, from a practical perspective, I'd eventually suggest "The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society" instead of the trilogy. It should be more readable, definitely smaller, while still addressing most important concepts (for me, it was the spatial configuration in the information society: the space of flows).

A piggy-back on "Gutenberg Galaxy"? I just ordered it just for the heck of it -- I'll admit to a prejudice of "not high hopes" for this, but it's worth a look.

This prejudice is part of a larger one (which is partly a generalization) that it is rare when commentators -- whether philosophers of science or other -- come close to having a good view. Of course, so many in fields are also quite blind to what is going on. Still, most of the good commentaries I know on science are by scientists, and most of the good commentaries on computing are by computerists. And music ... etc.

After reading the trilogy, particularly the first book, I don't think "The Internet Galaxy" will add much. Even the following "big" one from Castells, "Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective", won't add much from a conceptual standpoint (although an amusing read, I think).

My perspective on Castells is biased because it was essentially the backbone of my academic training. I had teachers telling us explicitly that Castells' notion of information society was the framework (in the Kuhnian sense) on which we'd build upon. Having that in mind, I see Castells as a sociologist and his work (sociological) as a view on a society defined by information flows (not exactly computing, although computing and telecommunications are key enablers). Still, he keeps technological determinism at bay by considering the impact of geography, territory, matter - the physical (tangible?) dimension.

What I like quite much about his work is exactly this aspect: he presents a vision of a society dominated by the intangible, while still dedicating rather extensive chapters on the geographical asymmetries of the world. This avoidance of technological determinism, the "information is key but place and physicality still matter a lot, as evidenced by real-world data" notion is why I see Castells as a great reference.

Would you also consider then:

_The Laws of Form_ by George Spencer Brown,

Anything about logic by Gotthard Günther :) (He's a rare bird.)

_Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living_ by Maturana and Varela

Anything by Niklass Luhmann about social systems: the economy, mass media, art, functional differentiation, … He was a student of Talcott Parsons

Norbert Wiener, _Cybernetics: Or Control And Communication in the Animal and the Machine_ and _The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society_

_An Introduction to Cybernetics_ by W. Ross Ashby

McCullogh and Pitts (You mention Minsky but not these dudes.) _A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity_

Basically, most of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberneticist

? :)

Sure. Just to remind that the list was for people in business -- they were quite intelligent, had college degrees, but were not well read or "broad". They were very goal-oriented, and I think they did not use school or college for "general education". I tried to pick books that would be assessable and useful for them.

A lot of the books you mention were listed in the Whole Earth Catalog, and were favorites at PARC.

Especially "Laws of Form".

And some of the other "Cybernetics" circle books (Bateson et al was part of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, etc.) Both Maturana and Varela were around in those times as well.

Minsky was a huge fan of Warren McCullogh and Walter Pitts.

Life is too short for poor books :)

I couldn't vouch for the other topics but I can say that the section on Philosophy made me raise an eyebrow! Well, that and the section on Politics & Economy is obviously US/capitalist -centric but you know that. No Communist Manifesto? Really? :)

In case anyone happens to read the list you gave and also reads here, the following are not considered primary philosophical works:

The Passion of the Western Mind by RICHARD TARNAS

Ascent of Man by JACOB BRONOWSKI

Science and Sanity by COUNT KORZYBSKI

Science is not Enough by VANNEVAR BUSH

What I Believe by MARK BOOTH (Ed)

Zen Mind, Beginners' Mind by SHUNRYU SUZUKI

Also. While Plato's Republic is a master-work his Symposium far exceeds the Timeaus. Symposium (not Timeaus) is included in the brilliant _The Classics of Western Philosophy_ which is a decent source and one stop shop of Western Philosophical Works: http://www.hackettpublishing.com/classics-of-western-philoso....

Life is too short period!

Just to remind again that the list was for people in business -- they were quite intelligent, had college degrees, but were not well read or "broad". They were very goal-oriented, and I think they did not use school or college for "general education". I tried to pick books that would be assessable and useful for them.

So no "Das Kapital" or other political tracts. I would have put in Madison's Notes on the Constitutional Convention, and many other political writings for a different audience.

I didn't really include much if anything primary about Philosophy (again, that wasn't the point for this group).

And, now that we are discussing this, I now recall that the original list (it was an email) was not just expanded by I know not whom into the pictorial form on the web, but has also been edited a bit. The most important changes are from sentences like "Anything by Bertrand Russell" and "Anything by Jerome Bruner" etc. to the individual books (as subsets). However, I don't recall what I did say about Plato ...

any updated misses? i'd have to say, for that audience (or any really), "fooled by randomness" taleb is required.

There have been quite a few books since that would be good for this group to look at (I will avoid the trap of mentioning any). Why don't you have a crack at it?

free to choose (friedman), guns germs and steel (diamond), fooled by randomness (taleb). essential contemporary fiction: the road or blood meridian (mccarthy). everybody should read the widely read religious texts that have been circulating for millenia.

On the last point, as Sussmann says:

"Bible, Talmud, Koran Read them whether or not you believe them! Be sure to read between the lines, and you can discover what people were actually thinking back then. Very interesting documents! Bava Metzia 59b is an interesting story!"


Did someone point you here or do you casually surf hacker news? I always find it fascinating who is potentially around here.

Google found a mention

Thanks for the list!

Also, I really liked your interview with Marissa Mayer at CHI.

He reads 3 or 4 books a week. No time for hacker news!

Alan, I am rereading


It was published in 2001. What do you think of its relevancy 15 years later in the context of our age of "big data" and "Machine Learning"?

I don't think I understand the question. This is by far the best book about how the major research funding and community happened in the 60s (Parc was one of the outgrowths). I would say that our "age" (or any age) could be enriched by understanding this book. For example, the real issues are not "big data" but "big understanding", not "Machine Learning" but "Machine Thinking". Some of the "Dream Machine" is about how the funders were willing to put forth considerable resources for "problem finding" not just "problem solving" -- a lot more of that needs to be done today.

Thank you Alan, your answer is the exact reason that I asked that question.

BTW, I did read the book about 10 years ago. Like what Alan commented below, I recognized some of the paragraphs and stories in the book with a kind of dream-like déjà vu. Very interesting feeling.

With your caveat that it is a point-in-time recommendation, perhaps you'd like to throw out an updated list?

I think there are any number of lists that would help getting started. The basic results are "multiple perspectives" and the sense that not all perspectives are equally powerful for given contexts. That list was for adult "business people". One would come up with other lists for children, etc.

An important idea about reading is that part of the pleasure (maybe even more than that) is one's choice of "this book, now". I had read many hundreds of books a year by the time I got to high school, but I balked at reading books chosen for me in a class. I suggested instead that the classes deal with themes and that there should be several thousand good books in the library that students could choose for themselves. This would make the discussions of the themes quite interesting, etc. But no go, so I wound up -- for their chosen books only -- reading "Classic Comics" like most of the rest of the students (I did get around to reading the "chosen books" later in life.)

The approach of lots of books and themes was used by Mortimer Adler in putting together "The Great Books of the Western World" (now 60 of them). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books_of_the_Western_Wor... Besides these books he picked 102 "Great Ideas", wrote an essay on each one, cross indexed the ideas through the "Great Books", and published the essays as the two volume "Syntopicon".

In this sense, the reading list I came up with for Anderson Consulting was too short -- it wasn't a decent library size. And this is true of the "Great Books": it's too short as well.

Another idea is the "Oxbridge" approach: pick "4" important as orthogonal as possible large subjects, and go deep on them until they meet in "the good stuff".

Simplest heuristic: read a lot.

I've heard you say that Rocky's Boots was one of your favorite computer games. Please, off the top of your head, what's your top-n list of inspiring games that you think people learning to program should play?

I've been playing Factorio [1] [2], which I think would resonate with your love of Rocky's Boots, cellular automata, queuing theory, visual programming, system dynamics and distributed control systems. It's in the spirit of John von Neumann's 29 state cellular automata [3] and universal constructor. [4]

[1] Factorio: https://www.factorio.com/

[2] HN Factorio discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11266471

[3] John von Neumann's 29 state cellular automata: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann_cellular_automaton

[4] JvN Universal Constructor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Neumann_universal_construc...

Hi Don

I think I'm so out of context wrt video games here and now that I can't come up with a worthwhile reply. I liked Rocky's Boots because of the brilliant combination of the content and the idea behind the game play -- and they were well matched up. I liked the idea of its successor "Robot Odyssey" a lot, but advised the TLC folks to use something like Logo for the robot language rather than the Rocky's circuit diagrams (which were now not well matched up to the needs). As you know I really tried to get the Maxis people to make "Sim City" a rule based system that children could program in so they could both understand the generators and to change them (no luck there).

If I were to look around today, I'd look for something where the underlying content was really "good" for children -- I doubt that cellular automata would be in my top 10 -- and then would also have good to great game play.

> I should mention that reading lots of "poor books" is also part of literacy

Thanks for mentioning that. I've been looking for a reason to read "poor books" for a long time (much to the frustration of people around me, who want me to "just read it, who cares"), and this makes sense to me.

(I'm not starstruck in the slightest, by the way...)

It's hard to tell if a book is "poor" until it's read. I just meant that "reading lots of books and 'taking percentages' " is a good approach. The ones that are not so good still help a bit.

Are there any particularly good books (including fiction) which you've read in the last year or two which you would recommend? (and if so, which?)

This is a reasonable question, but it is also the kind of question that led to the list we are discussing (and I'd like to respectfully avoid trying to generate another one).

Thanks Alan, that looks like a pretty fantastic list of books to get engaged with.

Definitely agree with this sentiment:

> I should mention that reading lots of "poor books" is also part of literacy: they help the understanding and appreciation of "good books" considerably.

I see parents bemoaning their children reading sort of simple formulaic series like The Hardy Boys but frankly that's how I started out and now those parents complaining consider me some kind of authority due to my collection of books and wide ranging reading habits.

It's ok to read spy/dective fiction or romance novels. As long as you make an attempt to explore outside those genres at some point it'll be fine.

It's like the three stage rocket leaving earth's gravity. The payload is supported by an immense amount of push from something that will be thrown away later (until Elon Musk came along). You don't necessarily get better readers by increasing the quantity of payload.

I quite agree with this. I don't think of "junk novels" as "poor" in that sense. A lot of getting fluent is just doing, so reading lots of junk fiction that is fun is generally good (I certainly did). To me a "poor" book is one that is not up to its subject and/or its intent. There are lots of great junk novels.

[sent an email]

There is also a lot of really important "high hanging fruit" that needs to be done (for example real education for the entire world).

Absolutely. There is no question that we're not even at the beginning of making a dent in the Education space. I think once we have fully immersive virtual reality we'll still just be at the start of understanding the inputs/outputs. The people studying transcranial simulation are a bit out there but the essential idea of understanding how our students understand is clearly vital. Having the ability to know when a student has truly grasped a problem or stumbled onto the solution, just that alone would be magnificent. Also the idea of a good pedagogue for each child, monitoring and helping the child's entire education cycle into adulthood and beyond would be a great thing. I'm sure you've read the Diamond Age and are familiar with The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Thiel often says something to the effect of that when he worked out the value of Paypal, that the major value really came ten, twenty years later. So it would be important to focus on looking at those companies which could have a reasonable chance of having that kind of longevity and not worry so much about big spikes in valuations in the here and now i.e. sustainability was the major driver of returns vs the attraction of viewing investments as being lottery tickets.

The same thing is almost certainly true of the Net+Education. The major structural change the Net brings to advantage our lives probably doesn't exist yet or is in very nascent form. Either way the good stuff will take considerable time to mature to get us to that high hanging fruit.

Education in particular has so many sacred cows blocking the way to improving it. We do need some of your 'Whoosh' moments to break the conventional wisdom[s] that exist about Education though. It is more than possible that The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer and VR and transcranial monitoring/stimulation are the wrong paths.

We'll probably make horrible mistakes you know, but the Net is kind of like a giant Undo button that should allow us the ability to retrace our steps to where the initial error got made.

Whatever happens, a whole lot of ox is going to get gored! :-)

I forgot to ask. It's been circulating in the back of my mind for a while now.

What do you think about Urbit?

It seems to represent a fresh new start!

They have verve, and that's generally a good thing. In this case there are a lot of details that need to be grokked to make any reasonable comment. The use of combinators (a kind of dual of lambda calculus) harks back to an excellent thesis by Denis Seror at the University of Utah in the 70s that produced a safe, highly scalable and parallel implementation. I haven't looked at it more deeply (and probably should).

I'm sure Yarvin & the team will be delighted to hear it!

Hi Alan, sorry if this is a little off topic, but since we have you here I was wondering if you have any thoughts or opinions on the recently popular discussion surrounding object-oriented versus functional programming paradigms?

It is off topic here. But I'm happy to say something elsewhere.

That would be a very interesting opinion. Where could this discussion be arranged?

You could start a topic on HN for example.

Posted here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11808551 with a comment of mine soon to follow.

Up to you

If you could send me an email (in my profile) I'd love to get a comment on my ideas about the relationship between functional and OO.

Or you can post your own email and I will write you.

Please be sure to post what Alan says. Would be VERY interesting.

Of course I intended to do so but his idea of opening an HN thread (see above) is much better :)

Bookmarked this list the first time I saw it on HN seven years ago. I have been slowly working my way through it, with some personal curation, ever since.

Some of my favorites:

Conscientious Objections

Freedom and Culture

Visual Thinking

Notes on a Synthesis of Form

The Character of Physical Law

and anything Tufte

Here is the old post, with some good discussion:


Mindstorms by Papert transformed my understanding of how to program, and how to teach programming. The book discusses how children acquire mental models of computers and logical processes.

And it turns out that the book is growing even more relevant with the rapid growth of Lego Mindstorms -- which is a direct result Papert's projects and related MIT Media Lab projects.

What is most exciting, to me, is the direct links from the Mindstorms book to the rise of hobby micro-controllers such as the Arduino, BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi, and others, as well as the "Internet of Things" meme and similar kinds of home automation projects and home robotics projects.

Mindstorms is truly a transformational text. It's very sad that Papert's brain injury sustained in Hanoi resulted in him needing to use some of the same techniques that he developed in the text to aid in his personal rehabilitation and recovery.

I don't think it's necessarily a sad thing. It's of course a sad event for anyone to sustain a brain injury. But if he used his own techniques and they provably lead to recovery, it should be a moment of joy and triumph. His work was not wasted and he helped himself - what could be better than that?

I am a particular fan of the Debono books. I swear, debono is unparalled in clear writing. Here are video versions of the two debono books mentioned in Alan Kay's reading list just in case anyone's interested:

Lateral Thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFFZ0XSfCRw

Six Thinking Hats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Mtc_CBTIeI

"Six Thinking Hats" was the first book that I read in this area. To this day I like to use his methodology from time to time when I have to find a solution to a big problem that confuses me so much that I don't even know where to start. Even if you don't have a problem at hand applying it to a hypothetical problem is quite a fun mind game when you have some time to kill (for example on a long bus trip).

That said I probably read the book at the right time because it works best when you have a certain naivete and faith that you stumbled upon the ultimate silver bullet for problem solving.

Had I encountered the book just yet I'd probably have been more dismissive of it. "Oh yeah, here we go .. another guy who wants to sell you some self-help fluff disguised in a business context"

Note that the only book specific to computer language on there is McCarthy's Lisp manual.

If you plan to get old, invest in fundamentals. They'll be with you long after any specific implementation is dead and buried.

> If you plan to get old, invest in fundamentals.

by that account, shouldn't we all be learning mathematics ?

Learn ecology, we are organisms that can't live without our ecosystem and we all need to be aware of what ecosystems can and can't do. Doesn't get more fundamental than that.

In that spirit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fates_of_Nations (I pretty much wrote that Wikipedia page.)

Math, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, ethics and algorithms.

Can ethics really be taught?

why not?

So great to see Neil Postman and Marshal Mcluhan on the top, as well as Joseph Campbell and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the middle

Essential reading for a world that usually promotes taking media for granted.

This could do with a short summary of the book and why Alan Kay thought it was relevant, for each, on-page, before the link to Amazon.

It's not about "relevance" but about "perspectives"

There seems to be a depth limit on replies: too bad.

Also, I wonder if there is a provision (perhaps in a "preferences" section I don't know about) to have an email sent when someone replies (this is a very limited format for an open-ended exchange ...)

> There seems to be a depth limit on replies: too bad

It's an old pg trick to put a speed bump on flamewars (edit: the 'reply' link does show up after a few minutes), but you can get around it by clicking the timestamp of the comment you want to reply to.

I've relaxed the depth limit a notch, too.


You can sign up here to get email notifications http://www.hnreplies.com

Also do you have a favorite piece of software?

Thanks very much!

Good question, but I don't have a good answer (perhaps too much of an idealist ...)

No problem.

You should setup a Twitter or a blog or something. But I'm sure I'm not the first person to suggest this. Or even better write a book.

Ars longa, vita brevis. I don't have time to do justice to the top three things I'm trying to do.

Haha, I figured you probably weren't bored.

On some level though I think that making more people acquainted with what you are working on might be beneficial to making progress.

> I don't have time to do justice to the top three things I'm trying to do.

I cannot not ask what those top three things are :-). I'm pretty familiar with your work but I'm not sure what the top three things are.

One of them is quite a bit of interesting work and play with Sam Altman and his new YC Research initiatives. A recent one is: https://blog.ycombinator.com/harc

> the top three things I'm trying to do

they being?

See above for one of them.

It's not a depth limit. Rather, mods noticed that many deep threads were flame wars, and implemented a short delay before you can post in deep threads. At least, that's my understanding.

To see replies, click on "Threads" at the top of the page. I don't know if there is any standard way of getting an email notification.

It seems I've missed the boat on this discussion, but I wanted to say that I appreciate the context in which the list was created and the choices in that light. In other words, this list is a thoughtful attempt to educate people of a certain bent via "constrained breath" -- not the greatest term, but the best one that comes to mind. I've been trying to put together a list in the same spirit for some time aimed at programmers, systems thinkers, etc. with varying degrees of success. The current list can be described as "books for programming that are not about programming" containing such gems as How Buildings Learn, Pattern Recognition, Living System, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, and others.

I suspect Dr. kay would have a lot to say about (and perhaps add to) such a list.

I've been making lists out of book recommendations from Reddit. Adding this list and all the other books on www.shelfjoy.com

I'm surprised there is nothing by Montessori. Seems a natural given the works by Piaget and Vygotsky. The Absorbant Mind would be an obvious pick.

Yes, the first two or three books by Montessori would be on this list if I'd been comprehensive enough. I don't remember whether I listed Suzuki's "Nurtured By Love" book: another classic for those trying to think about learning, children, art, culture, environment, etc.

In checking, I see that there is a Montessori book listed, as well as the book by Suzuki ...

So there is. My mistake. Secret of Childhood is a good one.

Montessori anticipated the whole 'the brain exists to control movement' awakening that is happening in developmental cognitive neuroscience, and her work caused me to question the relevance of technology in an early learning environment.

This is a great book list. I was delighted to see De Bono there, who I'd forgotten about since I first discovered him years ago. May have to reread some of that.

The inner game of tennis is an awesome quick read.

That's a lot of books! I wish there were a top 5.

It's a bit like the problem of comparing great composers and great music -- for example, it doesn't really make sense to try to decide whether Bach was a greater composer than Beethoven or any other great composer. Thresholds are a little better: "above the line is 'great' ", etc. But then drawing the line is tough.

In this list I didn't include quite a number of books I think of as "great" -- instead I put in readable books that I thought would help the target readers.

Just to pick one as an example: I think Newton's "Principia" is a great book. It's not easy to read, and it would not have been a good choice for this group, but it is above any threshold I would draw.

Great list but I'm surprized about the De Bono books. Edward De Bono is a great story-teller, but there's little science in his work and while he describes many instances of creative thought, he never shows the underlying mechanisms with any rigor.

That's lines up with Kay perfectly.

I love Kay and you should absolutely read any of his recommendations or at least examine them with earnest. That said, I struggle to remember anything he's created or written that's moved the needle (my needle). I'm honestly not hating and I have way too much respect for him to say anything on this list is not worthwhile. But, in my experience, Kay has been one of those brilliant uncles who's (written) work never seems to approach the peripheries of my (self-guided) computer science study (or main stream relevance?). Obviously I've heard of and studied him but if you asked me at a bar "madebylaw is alan kay still relevant in computer science?"

> I struggle to remember anything he's created or written that's moved the needle

Well he helped created the first computer networked workstations, practically invented Object Oriented Programming, created the concepts of overlapping window management...

... I struggle to think of what needle your trying to move that wouldn't be moved by any of those.

Also, more recently, his work with the Squeak Smalltalk and Scratch communities, particularly regarding computer programming education for children, is certainly currently relevant. His is one of the finest minds I have yet experienced in person.

Your question, if flipped, can make for an interesting bridge.. What of modern computer science is relevant to Alan Kay?

His insights about this field and its potential, narrowed by his views that many of today's computer engineers have forgotten fundamental principles and practices of old, favoring instead popular trends of new, and that the Web was built by amateurs, I imagine, would yield a very interesting subset of ongoing work.

Yes, because we are yet to achieve a mainstream way of doing computing the way he and his peers have envisioned.

Although my IDEs are quite powerful, they are yet far from the Xerox PARC workstations experience used to feel like.

My tablet, even a Surface, aren't as easy to use or programmable in the same way as the Dynabooks were envisioned.

So yes, he is still relevant, because mainstream computing is still catching up to his vision.

Ouch, why did I say anything. Feel like a hater :-/

It might have been better phrased as a question. What do you mean by "still relevant to computer science"?

EDIT: from a brief read of his wikipedia page:

"Kay has lectured extensively on the idea that the computer revolution is very new, and all of the good ideas have not been universally implemented."

Coming from someone with multiple major accomplishments (OOP pioneer, smalltalk, overlapping window GUI, etc.), that's a powerful message that can still be applied today.

My thought is essentially a synthesis of Kay and Thiel.

Namely; much of the low hanging fruit has been ignored and much of the world is in a technological stagnation.

Separately they could be made to sound pessimistic, but together there is much reason for optimism.

It would be interesting to know what are his favorite books of the last 20 years

Which is a very polite way of pointing out how out of date it is ;-)

I think I read most of those books they were popular, but I'm not that much younger than he is. I'm not sure I'd recommend all of them now....

The site's not loading for me. Cached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:_vTAtT7...

Mindstorms, the quintessential Kay book in that list, links to the wrong amazon page, Ghost in the Machine, ironic.

It's a good list, but might just be a bit too androcentric with only 5 women out of the ~90 persons listed, (including anthologies.) Counting: Hannah Arendt, Maria Montessori, Mary Midgley, Sylvia Scribner and Rebecca West.

I don't know about you, but I never check the gender of the author when picking up a book. Your comment suggest that Alan Kay deliberately discarded books written by women, and I find that hard to believe.

> I never check the gender of the author when picking up a book.

That's probably true, and that's good. However, that doesn't mean that the author's gender doesn't influence the work itself. You are not deliberately opting into skewing the data yourself, but you are still consuming a biased input set.

> Your comment suggest that Alan Kay deliberately discarded books written by women, and I find that hard to believe.

I don't think that's the case. I think it's just the more value-free observation that "this set of data points is biased." It doesn't state why it is, just that it is. That might be relevant to someone who expects the list to reflect a certain distribution of perspectives.

What is the persentage of scientific books is written by women?

I think I have the same ratio in my bookshelf. More interesting the subject is for me, less women. For example: I have ~50 computer science books and only one is written by a woman (Sonya E. Keene).

Can you pls explain the downvote when you do it please?

I thought hn prevented dupe link submissions. Im glad this slipped by since I missed the other ones. But how did it slip by in the first place?

Do you read on paper, tablet, phone, or all of the above? What do you think about the respective merits of these?

I did a lot of work at PARC on the design of readable fonts, and a few years later on reading from a display (CRT) using a super-good eye tracker we had. This was prompted by "bad feelings" when trying to read from displays. The displays are better today, but I still have "bad feelings" (somewhat different) from reading from various kinds of displays, even including eInk ones. It's partly "movement" and partly memory, so I always print out to read when I can. (This is a disappointment to say the least.)

Thanks. I tried to go all digital a few years ago -- getting rid of nearly all my 1000+ paper books -- only to conclude I'm generally better off reading paper and nearly always better off reading important things on paper. This because paper has a higher barrier to entry (I think of it as "slow information"), because the cookie-cutter sizing of tablets and ereaders screws up sizing (of code in particular) and, frankly, because I get tired of looking at screens and struggle to resist context switching. That said, I like to have an electronic copy of everything for easy referencing and corpus work.

The subject of paper vs digital is of particular interest to me because I volunteer with www.savenypl.org, a group created to thwart the NYPL's efforts to gut the stacks at the 42nd Street Library and sell of two branch libraries (we succeeded, mostly). I am not as skeptical of keeping books off site as some of our members, but I think many libraries are misguided in their rush to remove paper books, for reasons of both reading efficacy and surveillance. I know many technologists share these concerns. Richard Stallman was kind enough to help a few years ago (https://stallman.org/save-the-nypl.html). Now it would be good to have additional technical people weigh in on the issue of digitization / paper book removal.

May I add you to the list of such people and / or keep you posted?

There's no question that electronic media as readable as paper can be done -- and, in a way, it is not too surprising that it hasn't (I don't think most technologists care). I am quite curious why the super-high-res screens don't work better for this (worth looking at).

The first commercial laser printers were 300dpi and the result was quite readable (the very first one that was invented -- by Gary Starkweather at Parc -- was 500pdi). I asked John Warnock why 300dpi worked better than I thought it would, and he said that it was the "real black" and excellent accuracy.

We have both at least that on "retina" type displays, so I'm guessing that there is still some refresh flicker that is causing some of the problems (if so, then that would revise long ago experiments that indicated most people would not be bothered by anything above 120p).

(But I think I feel that my eyes are doing extra saccades on laptop displays, and that the contrast ratios and res are not good enough with eInk.)

The experiments I did at Parc, cross connected with Tom Cornsweet's work at SRI, showed curves that swung both with contrast ratio, and "distance from real black".

Another thing that will help (for "Aldus" type personal books) will be the next round of flexible displays that will feel a little more conformal.

(Also, how could the Ipad and Eink tablet folks failed to have put the batteries on one side of a symmetric device so it could be held with the center of mass in the offhand?) This is really shockingly awful elementary human factors design. The next round of these will hopefully have a lower density/mass in any case.

I think a glossy screen in a well lit room will never achieve an acceptable black. I am writing this on a macbok in a room with bay windows and I can see my reflection on the white parts of the screen.

Screens used to have a "quarter wave plate" that would knock down a lot of the reflections -- I'm not sure why the glossy screens came back (more light out? cheaper?).

I have an older MacAir that does not have a highly reflective screen. The black is pretty good.

My feeling is that my eyes are jumping a bit with it, and for this (or some other) reason, I also have a distinct "I'm not remembering as well" underlying feeling. (This could be an illusion, or it could be harking back to long ago when I was trying to learn how to remember more of what I was reading ...)

Glossy displays definitely appear to have more vibrant color in the average big-box store with very diffuse lighting. They are also somewhat better if you can sit so that all of the specular reflections from bright lights will be directed away from you.

Digital Media May Be Changing How You Think. "Using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly," https://www.dartmouth.edu/press-releases/digital-media-chang...

Thanks. This is interesting (and somewhat related to a Stanford thesis done by Steve Wyer ca 1980). And it has the fun irony of presenting a rather abstract result in the medium it says emphasizes concreteness ...

It would be good to know if they have tried studies that involve grades of reading fluency.

It's an interesting selection overall, however I couldn't help but notice that the "Politics & Economy" section looks like neither politics nor economy have ever existed anywhere but in the US : )

Have you read Drucker?

Drucker's books are listed under "Technology & Media", not "Politics & Economy", so I can't see how it relates to my comment


Personal attacks aren't allowed here. We detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11803404 and marked it off-topic.

[nevermind, I misread]

As other users have pointed out, that was the fault of a usability problem at our end. It was hard to tell that a comment was replying to a flagged comment. Sorry for the confusion!

This has been on our list to fix since https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10917057 so I went ahead and fixed it (or tried to). Now, in addition to "[flagged]", "[dead]", or "[deleted]", you'll see the usual item line with at least a timestamp. Hopefully this will make it clear that there used to be a full comment there, to which there is a surviving reply.

Awesome :) Always nice to see things improve. Thank you for the feedback.

dang replied to a comment that is hidden, it isn't a reply to your comment.

You can turn on showdead in your profile to see comments that have been hidden.

Oh, I see. Thanks for clearing that up.

It was displayed as if it was a reply to mine - in place of the deleted comment there was just "[flagged]", but no date or anything, so it looked like a tag added to mine. This isn't most readable UI...

Thanks for the showdead tip.

I'm disappointed not to see Aristotle. On the other hand not totally surprised, either.

Kay is a huge admirer of Socrates. When I interviewed Kay in 2012, he even managed to bring Socrates into the conversation and then discourse on his worthiness in the context of various religions[1]: "You can't go to heaven unless you're baptized. If anyone deserves to go to heaven, it's Socrates, so this is a huge problem."

While the link below goes to the page mentioning Socrates, I highly recommend the entire interview. Kay was in truly excellent form.

[1] http://www.drdobbs.com/architecture-and-design/interview-wit...

Dante has a solution for this: There is a place in the upper section of hell with no punishment or torment, reserved for "just heathens" like Socrates. So technically he did not go to heaven since he is denied the closeness to God, but arguably this is an even nicer afterlife, since he can continue thinking and questioning things together with other great minds.

And consider that the Mormons did get Socrates into heaven (via proxy baptism!)

Exmormon here, to get into VIP Heaven (highest kingdom in heaven) he also needs temple endowment and temple sealing done by proxy too (which they've probably done). Don't tell me you converted to mormonism because of this

Nope (I just read a lot)

Mormonism solves this problem by baptizing dead people.

It contains Bertrand Russels 'History of Western Philosophy' which is far more relevant IMO - and gives a nice summary of Aristotle including the warning "he's kinda rubbish if you compare him to his reputation". By which he means, in several topics Aristotle is rather more enthusiastic, than coherent, precise or correct.

Marvin Minsky: "A lot of philosophy is just bad science ..."

Would you agree that there is no science without good philosophy?

I don't understand this question, but it sounds as though a good answer could be "yes" ... please say more ...

Ah if yes, then I have no more questions. Couldn't tell but it seemed like the comment "A lot of philosophy is just bad science ..." could have meant that science could somehow exist separately from philosophy.

That was Marvin's comment, and I'm quite sure that he meant it literally, i.e. not as a comment on either science or philosophy, but on "most philosophy".

Aristotle was, as opposed to Plato, and much to the benefit of humanity, an empiricist.

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