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Ask HN: What are you reading? What've you read lately?
11 points by heydenberk on Dec 9, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments
The last two truly great books I read were:

- James Gleick's _The Information: A History, a Theory, A Flood_ (http://www.amazon.com/Information-History-Theory-Flood/dp/0375423729/), an interdisciplinary overview of the human history of the creation, understanding and exchange of information.

- Manuel de Landa's _Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason_ (http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Simulation-Emergence-Synthetic-Reason/dp/1441170286/), about how computer simulations have allowed humans to begin to truly understand emergentism and to advance science at a level between theory and experimentalism.

EDIT: I'm asking about books -- not necessarily dead trees, of course, but long-form non-fiction or fiction.

The Unheavenly City by Edward Banfield: PDF: http://www.kevinrkosar.com/Edward-C-Banfield/Edward-C-Banfie...

Review: http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/92789.html

His time preference classes explains so much of people regardless of race, religion, nationality, etc.

Rise of the Fourth Reich: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fourth-Reich-Societies-Threaten/d...

This is where I learned about Konrad Zuse creating a digital computer and programming language miles away from Bletchley Park in the early 40s.

Dealers of Lightning: http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...

It's about XEROX PARC. Unfortunately, they did not talk about how PARC made the OS and apps obsolete by using objects communicating over a network. I had to learn about that from an Alan Kay video. It did show how PARC contributed to the Internet by creating an internet before ARPANET.

Last and best of all: http://vpri.org/html/writings.php

The latest report, "Steps Toward Expressive Programming Systems", describes a computer system without an OS. They seem to be refining what PARC did back in the late 1970s.

Cialdini is classic. It's the only science book I've stayed up all night to finish, it's such a page turner. Plus I remember astonishingly more of it than I do of most books. His anecdotes really help with that.

(It was a different edition though.)

I read Cialdini years ago because Joel Spolsky recommended it here:


From that list, I also highly recommend:

* Peopleware (get your cofounders to read it too)

* Godel Escher Bach

* A Pattern Language (but don't bother reading it straight through)

* Growing A Business

I love Pattern Language and use ideas from it all the time. It, and Alexander, are much more interesting than the mechanistic stuff that software people reduced him to. I think Chris Alexander is one of those rare cases where it's possible to see that an individual is right and an entire field is wrong.

Growing a Business I read because you recommended it on HN a few years ago!

Peopleware I remember as being pretty enlightened in spirit and ahead of its time for software projects, but one of those once-you-get-it-you-get-it things. Also, they totally made shit up in that book (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=333694).

GEB, meh. Hofstadter always struck me as the pseudo-profound type. Perhaps I am unfair.

I'm not as rigorous as you are; the idea that Demarco and Lister made up historical anecdotes in the book doesn't perturb me too much, because the value of the book isn't so much prescriptive ("break your company into tiny teams and let them each pick a far-flung cool-looking skunkworks office") --- it's more that it provides a new way of looking at how your company is organized.

On the other hand, I didn't "get" Surfer Rosa for like a year after I bought it, because by the time I had (in the early 90's) almost all the music I listened to was more or less cribbed from Pixies songs. Maybe the same thing happened with Peopleware, where pretty much every blog post we read about dev teams expresses a sentiment traceable to some part of Peopleware.

In my defense with GEB: I didn't read it because Joel Spolsky told me to, I read it because a girlfriend did. A similar logic had me pretending to enjoy Faulkner. My take on Hofstadter may be oddly colored. Also: I haven't read any of his other books and am not a Lisper, so he's had fewer opportunities to annoy me.

Oh, the making shit up part doesn't perturb me (well, maybe a little) - I just think it's worth mentioning. Your Pixies analogy is very clever. If Peopleware is the Pixies then maybe Jerry Weinberg would be the Velvets? Maybe not. The Velvets kind of stand on their own pretty well. Maybe the MC5. There's a band I never got, though they were pretty influential pre-punk. (My point is that Weinberg's early stuff on human factors in software -- Psychology of Computer Programming -- was seminal, but not particularly readable now.)

I wish I could grok these references :/ I didn't grow up in the US, so my musical knowledge ends with classical rock (and even that's not very deep).

The Velvets are The Velvet Underground, a New York band best known for songs like "Who Loves The Sun", "Sweet Jane", and "Heroin". They're one of the precursors to punk music.



The joke is, almost nobody bought the first Velvets album, but everyone who did started a band. Which brings us to the Pixies, which is a Boston band from the late eighties that combined sounds from the Velvets, surf rock, punk, and "college rock" indie like Husker Du and is more or less the greatest band of all time sorry Daniel but it's true.



All this is just to build an elaborate and overwrought metaphor; Kurt Cobain from Nirvana famously claimed that everything on Nevermind, their best-known album, was more or less lifted directly from the Pixies. The Pixies are another band notorious for being more influential than commercially successful.

So the point being, Peopleware, decades old, blog posts today, &c, you get it.

The line about everyone who bought the first VU album started a band is usually attributed to Brian Eno. I wouldn't say they were a precursor to punk so much as to all things indie. The Stooges were the biggest precursor to punk. John Cale, the avant-garde genius from the Velvets, did produce the Stooges, but that was after Lou Reed had kicked him out. I've never been a huge VU fan musically though I like them fine, but there's no denying they were sui generis and everything art-cool in rock music since can be traced back to them. (I was a huge fan of Cale's 1970s solo albums though. Do you know them? Equal parts exquisite and menacing.)

Pixies... why sorry? I admit I never got them though - not then and not since. I need more melody and song structure than that, and the ironic-detached thing only gets me so far.

Re Cobain, he may have said that, but it isn't true. Nevermind is classic because he pulled off what no one else had and blended the indie-noise thing with classic pop songwriting. I think that was genius and his tragedy was being embedded in a subculture that didn't respect that. There's a documentary floating around online (edit: at http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/kurt_cobain_about_a_s...) in which he says that his original idea for a band was Black Sabbath crossed with bubblegum and that no one else got it. In that subculture (which I remember well, and the pretentious twattage that went with it) it was de rigeur to piss all over the pop side; that was how you established your cred. It was also a limiting move: it's why the music from that period isn't anywhere close to the level of the Ramones or Pistols or many others. (I suppose we disagree here.) Anyway, Cobain put them together and millions of people loved it and he never lived that down. Nor alas did he ever do it again.

Re the Pixies - have you seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEPi5EQjEpw? David Sanborn, yuppy purveyor of intolerable smooth-jazz, somehow had the coolest musical thing going on TV in the late 80s. It was canceled after he had the Residents perform with Conway Twitty!

I think Nirvana picked up a thread that had already been running through REM and the Replacements and that started with Big Star; I'm hesitant to give him too much credit for the an idea as big as "revitalizing serious pop music", but it's hard to put a finger on why I listen to Nirvana so much more than I listen to The Replacements.

Love John Cale. Not so much a Lou Reed fan.

Night Music! Had no idea! That hair! How could this not be great? Thank you!

Yup, got the reference. Thanks for the musical links as well.

Do you like rock n roll? If no, I wouldn't bother. If yes, there is an unbelievable world of music to explore, and you're in luck, because you can easily get most of it on the internet instead of spending countless hours combing through dingy record stores as we used to have to do.

As far as alternative rock music (the stuff that never got played on commercial radio) goes, there are basically two schools: the kick-ass school (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDNzQ3CXspU) and the melodic school (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=844bENvq0e0). If you like either of those, there's a universe out there. I've always loved both. And that's not to mention the parallel/intersecting universe of black music with its tremendous riches. The five peak years or so of late 60s soul, when blues and gospel merged, are particularly great. Their emotional resonance is unmatched by anything anywhere. A mid-period example is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5fqWugnIhk (1967) and a late one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPUGC4zFMjc (1971 or so). Again, there's a whole universe of this. Several, rather.

The 60s and 70s were a musical supernova. Especially the 60s, though the 70s stuff often sounds better. It seems you can spend the rest of your life finding amazing stuff from that era. A guy I knew named Greg Shaw who was one of the great champions of punk and garage rock had over a million records. He went all over buying them for pennies at yard sales because people thought they were junk. Later he released selections of his favorites on low-budget compilation albums. Every generation rediscovers this music. Stuff like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoBB0e-dVhc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZXkzao9KvA.

As far as rock music goes, the best material today is no different from the best of decades ago. It's the exact same patterns being reworked. Take e.g. the Black Keys- that's all they do. That's no criticism; it's the same thing the "originals" were doing. It's a little weird that 45 years mean so little culturally - i.e. that the music of 45 years ago and today are (technology aside) about the same. The process hasn't been linear. It's more like a state change occurred in the post-war years and we've been living in that reality ever since.

Thanks for that slam-bang tour, I'm going to digest it slowly.

I like rock, but I don't tend to put on music as much as others. I'm more likely to hum it than listen to it. I usually have something stuck in my head. I watched Soylent Green a few weeks ago and had Beethoven's ninth stuck in my head for days. Anyway, I think not tending to turn on music makes me less likely to discover new music.

Wow, first criticism I've ever heard of GEB.

Finally got off my ass and purchased Pattern Language. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0195019199, right?)

That's the one. I hope you enjoy thumbing through it.

The first thing from that book that caught my attention was his point about rooms feeling more alive when they have light coming in on two different sides. I've noticed that, or the lack of it, in just about every room ever since.

Hofstadter? It's always the same grad-students-drinking-beer mentality: hey man, this thing is totally like that other thing. The connections seem profound, but are not, because they don't have deep roots in anything. The real tell is that nothing of great value ever comes out of this way of doing business (I mean this style, not H's work specifically). It's an intellectual sugar rush.

But again, perhaps I am unfair.

The Confusion - Neal Stephenson (I'm starting to tire a little of the female hero character who's in all his books, but on the whole, The Baroque Cycle, which this is the second volume of, has been very educational and always entertaining)

The Visual Display of Quantative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence (I picked up all four books by Edward Tufte at his one day training course. At the 2011 SVG Open, I was blown away by Mike Bostock's D3 demo, and Niel Fraser told me to read all of Tuftes books to see where these revolutionary ways of displaying information came from)

ESV Bible, actually hoping to find time to get my Python script running so I can download the audio, chapter by chapter, because the audio version I bought is nigh impossible to navigate.

Is Beautiful Evidence good?

VDQA is an all-time favorite of mine, and I've even paid to see him talk live about this stuff, but I've found his books got fuzzier and increasingly subjective over time, so that I really don't even remember what Visual Explanations was trying to say anymore.

I'm just finishing the last book of the The Baroque Cycle, and it's pretty good. I recommend making it through.

I've noticed too that when people recommend books or say what they're reading, it's almost never novels. It's either technical, or memoirs.

Here's one novel I just finished rereading that's almost like an anti-Oprah book in that you won't identify with any of the characters, it doesn't build to sweet resolution, it doesn't say great things about the human spirit, yet at the end you feel enobled for having spent time with such a true work of art: Michel Faber's Under the Skin. http://www.amazon.com/Under-Skin-Novel-Michel-Faber/dp/01560...

I'm almost at the end of Vanity Fair. It is long, surprisingly light, and psychologically astute. There's one passage where Thackeray nails the concept of cognitive dissonance so strikingly (100 years before Festinger) that it ought to be in textbooks. Many of his observations have made me laugh with their classic English wit. He also has one hell of an anti-heroine. This book reminded me why I used to love literature.

Also, Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson - a good book on research into unconscious thought processes.

Right now I'm reading:

Fiction- - Reamde (Bought it when it came out, but had to wait to start until I finished some other stuff on my list)

- The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos

Nonfiction- - Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia (Volume 1) -- primarily for research, but it's fascinating.

- Dark Markets by Misha Glenny

- How to Live on Mars by robert Zubrin

- The Lightness of Being by Frank Wilczek

- This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

- Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier

- and Strange Things Happen by Stewart Copeland

Technical- - Tangled Web (I saw someone else mention it, and it's really really good so far)

- Skiena's Algorithms book (making slower progress than I'd like).

I read Misha Glenny's _McMafia_ and it kind of left a bad taste, even before they got to the cybercrime stuff where I knew some of his sources were just making things up. How's _Dark Markets_?

Love that Skiena book.

So far, Dark Market is a little too "Dateline expose" for my taste, but I'm only about a third of the way in (maybe it gets better).

I actually picked up Skiena purely from your recommendation of it on here. I wanted to go back to algo fundamentals, and I was irrationally opposed to buying CLRS for the second time (having bought and then sold it back in college), so I figured I'd give it a try. I like the presentation of material a lot better, but I've just been a lazy git about plowing through it.

The Tangled Web: A Guide to Securing Modern Web Applications: http://lcamtuf.coredump.cx/tangled/

Have heard absolutely nothing but great things about this book.

Just bought a (physical) Kindle; it has:

_Wolf Hall_ (http://www.amazon.com/Wolf-Hall-Novel-Booker-Prize/dp/080508...)

_Tree of Smoke_ (http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Smoke-Novel-Denis-Johnson/dp/0374...)

(I'm about halfway through both; I'm trying to get better about reading fiction).

_The Lean Startup_ (http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Startup-Entrepreneurs-Continuous-...)

(Having trouble getting myself propelled into this one)

_Imbibe!_ (http://www.amazon.com/Imbibe-Absinthe-Cocktail-Professor-Fea...)

(Probably the best book on booze ever written, my favorite thing I've read all year)

_Bitters_ (http://www.amazon.com/Bitters-Spirited-Cure-All-Cocktails-Fo...)

(The Atlantic liked this book, but I found it slight --- although we're going to make bitters from this book in our office, so maybe I'll appreciate it more later)

Finally, I didn't read this "recently", but I'll take the opportunity to STRONGLY RECOMMEND IT TO EVERYONE:

_Ideas in Food_ (http://www.amazon.com/Ideas-Food-Great-Recipes-They/dp/03077...)

This book blew my freaking head off. The authors are modernist ("molecular", gag) consultant/chefs with a very popular blog; the book adapts the stuff on their blog to home and professional cooking.

What's amazing about it is that they did such a great job translating modernist techniques not just to home kitchens but to home cooking, so that the same concepts that give you wanking spherification and foam dishes in restaurants give you hands-free bulletproof risotto at home. I could go on and on about this thing. It is simultaneously the geekiest and most useful food book I've ever bought. Own it immediately.

(Do audiobooks count? If so, add to the list _Thinking Fast And Slow_ by Daniel Kahneman, _Blood, Bones & Butter_ by Gabrielle Hamilton, and Caro's _Power Broker_).

> (Probably the best book on booze ever written, my favorite thing I've read all year

Highly recommend:


The End of Faith by Sam Harris - http://www.amazon.com/End-Faith-Religion-Terror-Future/dp/03...

It's the first non-technical book I've read in a while, and I am loving it.

Philip Roth's 'Indignation. Julian Barnes 'The sense of an ending'. And a few other novels. Plus I'm reading 'The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey Sachs. I would recommend one and all.

You should probably clarify if you want to know the last X we read in general, fiction/non-fiction/both/specific topics, the last X great books, whether books or else (e.g. graphic novels, comics).

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson - for pleasure

Hadoop: The Definitive Guide - for fun

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software - for work

Effective C++ by Scott Meyers - for work

More Effective C++ by Scott Meyers - for work

And before that I read, back-to-back, George W. Bush's and Keith Richards' autobiographies - both great reads though odd shelf-fellows.

The Baroque Cycle. It's absolutely brilliant, I recommend it to anyone with an interest in security or economics.

Currently reading:

iOS Programming - Big Nerd Ranch - 2nd Edition

Agile Web Dev with Rails - Pragmatic Programmers - 4th Edition

A Clash of Kings - GRR Martin

Fiction: Carl Sagan - Contact Non-fiction: Uresh Vahalia - Unix Internals

I am reading 'Facebook App development for Dummies'

The Lean Startup and Crossing The Chasm

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