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Ask HN: Summer reading
37 points by argaldo on June 22, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments
What recent non-fiction books should you recommend for someone interested in science & technology?

Two essay with opposite views on the relationship between innovation, employment and prosperity, Race Against The Machine [1], and The Great Stagnation [2].

[1] Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy

In "Race Against the Machine", economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee ask the question: Could technology be destroying jobs? They then expand on that to explore whether advancing information technology might be an important contributor to the current unemployment disaster. The authors argue very convincingly that the answer to both questions is YES.


[2] The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better.

Cowen's central idea is that the pace of innovation has slowed, and that we are now on a "technological plateau" that makes further growth challenging. If you consider technology in the broad sense (energy, transportation, home, etc), this makes sense as things have not changed a lot in recent decades. However, I think it is also true that progress has been highly concentrated in information technology and communications, and that things continue to advance rapidly in this area. Cowen notes this but seems to feel that the Internet is the only really major innovation. http://www.amazon.com/The-Great-Stagnation-Low-Hanging-ebook...

Why must it be non-fiction? I'll stick to non-fiction since you asked, but I think its an odd limit to put in place in this discussion.


In my opinion the essential book for anyone interested in science and technology would be How To Win Friends and Influence People. By far the most important book. By far. I really can't overstate the importance of learning to interact with other people in polite, persuasive and friendly ways.

In my four years at an engineering university (RPI) the amount of people I ran in to that couldn't relate to others in a meaningful way and carry a normal conversation blew my mind. It was surreal. And I don't know what percent of them were aware of this but I would guess it can't be too high.

The number one thing I wish I saw more of in engineers isn't an understanding of other sciences or deep domain knowledge. It's consideration. Plain, pure consideration for other people and how they might feel about things.


The Selfish Gene would perhaps be a close second.

Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond is also a good read for people in STEM fields.

The Emperor of All Maladies, a book about the history of cancer. Extremely fascinating read, and accessible regardless of your level of biology knowledge.

The Emperor of All Maladies was a great book. Even with all the weight it carried dealing with such a serious topic, I could hardly put it down.

"normal" conversation? what's that?

In all seriousness, in my opinion, there's not such thing as normal conversation, people are different, conversations too.

Depends on what you're interested in. Do you want something heavy and factual?


Do you want a first-hand account?



Any particular area of science that interests you?

Also, if you want something non-fictional and thrilling, look into accounts of epidemology.


Also, I read alot of medical thrillers which are fiction by the author Robin Cook. There are many true facts about science mixed in so you might want to consider that.

"The Information," by James Gleick, is a rich history of information theory. Densely packed with lots of novel ideas, but totally worth the time.

How much of it is "been there, done that" knowledge for your average HN reader?

Not too much, tbh. It's less Jonah Lehrer, "why smart people are dumb" stuff and more of a historical look at the transmission of information throughout history.

Chapters discuss, among other things, English dictionaries, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, the telegraph, and memes. Great read.

EDIT: saw that you're bored of reading business and tech books. This is definitely a breath of fresh air--it unquestionably falls in a different category than "Switch" or "Rework."

I also have to suggest The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Graham was a genius and revolutionized the financial world. He wrote the book in the 50's, and it has been republished with anecdotes tying it to the modern day many times. The most recent republishing was after the tech boom, so that version has many references to that phenomenon in the anecdotes. However, Graham's original and unabridged words are included as well. He's incredibly lucid and pragmatic, denouncing mysticism for analytic techniques. The book is still considered to be the bible of value investing; Warren Buffett said his investment philosophy was "85% Benjamin Graham."

Related to finance, "The Four Pillars of Investing" is a solid read if you are new to finance and personal investing. It's getting a little dated but there are lots of great tips and explanations in it.

I've ordered this book just hours before this thread was live. Now I'm more eager to read it. Thank you!

"A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson is a great summer read. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Short_History_of_Nearly_Every...

If you'd like a great non-technical tour of how computers really work conceptually, starting from simple morse-code switches through to assembler, Charles Petzold's "Code" is awesome:


Even having understood for years how computers work in principal, nothing quite put it together for me like this book.

There's a similarly great book on the history/methods of cryptography called "The Code Book" by Simon Singh that I recommend too - http://www.amazon.com/The-Code-Book-Science-Cryptography/dp/... It's great because it traces the history but also walks you through how the cyphers actually worked, and provides the best intros I've ever seen to public key and quantum cryptography.

Simon Singh's book was my introduction to crypto and the wonderful Mathematics and mathematicians behind its vivid history. I had it with me all the time while doing the crypto-class.com online course a couple of months ago for a good historic perspective supporting Prof. Boneh's hardcore crypto topics. Highly recommended. Actually, his Fermat's Last Theorem book is also fascinating if you are interested in Math history.

I'm actually kind of bored of reading business and tech books. A couple that I've read lately that I've enjoyed are listed below. I'd love to read about what other people have been reading that's sort of "off the beaten path", but interesting to someone who is not an expert in the subject.

The New Geography of Jobs: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008035HQQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?... - a lot of it won't be all that surprising to readers of this site, though. Basically he says that innovation industries are highly concentrated geographically. This is probably not new territory for those who read a lot of economics type of stuff.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000UG9JFQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?... - a book about copy writing. Not great so far, but something I could stand to learn more about. Other recommendations in this vein would be welcome!

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000W5MINK/ref=as_li_ss_tl?... - in time for the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812. Very interesting, and lots of things I didn't know.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005LW5JL2/ref=as_li_ss_tl?... - same author as the above book.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...) is fantastic. It's not specifically about ad copy, having passion about what you're writing, as well as the fundamentals in this book, will help a ton.

Here are some of my recommendations:

1. Hacking: The Next Generation (Animal Guide) - http://www.amazon.com/Hacking-Next-Generation-Animal-Guide/d...

2. Discrete Mathematics for Computer Scientists - http://www.amazon.com/Discrete-Mathematics-Computer-Science-...

3. Imagine: How Creativity Works - http://www.amazon.com/Imagine-Creativity-Works-Jonah-Lehrer/...

4. The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption -http://www.amazon.com/Information-Diet-Case-Conscious-Consum...

_Trading and Exchanges_ by Larry Harris.

I'm currently really enjoying "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry...

A very interesting read for hackers.

Wow, that was our "bible" years ago in art school! Must revisit it.

As a former Commodore Amiga user, I really enjoyed this: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&...

It was surprisingly in-depth, both technically and historically.

Two books which helped me to understand people and to organise my own thoughts:

Applying Psychology to Everyday Life: A Beginner's Guide http://www.amazon.co.uk/Applying-Psychology-Everyday-Life-Be...

A Whole New Mind - Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whole-New-Mind-Right-brainers-Future...

There is actually little evidence for the left/right brain division we see so often in popular culture (and from what I see in the reviews, in the second book?)

From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateralization_of_brain_functi...

>although a lateral dominance is measurable, these characteristics are in fact existent in both sides,[1] and experimental evidence provides little support for correlating the structural differences between the sides with functional differences.[2]

Heres a few ive read int he last month or two that I enjoyed on some level

Technopoly - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/79678.Technopoly: the author puts forth the argument that technology isn't always good, and may replace parts of our life that are more beneficial. I don't agree with a lot o the points, but it was fascinating to see technology from a very different view point than I see it in.

Turing's Cathedral - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12625591-turing-s-cathedr...: A terribly named book, since it barely mentions Turing (its focus is John von Neumann and his team). It does, however, give a reallly well documented look into the stone age of digital computing.

Cluetrain Manifesto - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/81195.The_Cluetrain_Manif...: Its been a long time since I read this originally, but I reread it again recently. If you haven't before, you should. Mostly about running a company online.

Enchantment - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9895917-enchantment: I like Guy Kawasaki's books. This one is a bit less focused on startup/tech, more on how you interact with people (both as a person and as a brand).

Racing the Beam - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5435210-racing-the-beam: A deeeeeeep dive on the atari system. Literally discusses how the controllers manipulate the bits in memory to do different actions.

Checklist Manifesto - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6667514-the-checklist-man...: A surgeon made a study to see how much the health care industry could be improved by having a checklist before preforming common tasks (hands are washed, patient is correct patient, etc). Phenomenal results, with really interesting implications as to human nature and expectations.

<i>Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over The Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground</i>: This book won't necessarily teach you all that much, but it is a true story and it's both intensely interesting and not lacking in substance. It's written by a past hacker, as well, so there are no irritating mistakes or hand-holding around technical concepts that can sometimes get annoying in general interest books about computers. I highly suggest reading this, it's captivating and it's the kind of book that gets you excited about computers and the potential they give you.

My book is three years old now, but it's still relevant. The Geek Atlas: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596523213.do

I would say that three years fits in 'recent' timeframe :). I've read that one and recommend it too.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

It's the history of the first lab-grown human cells, _kind of_ stolen (it was normal at the times) from a black woman who died from cancer, her family had never really heard or learned what the science was actually about - very cool insights into bioethics and how modern science/medicine came about.


If you're interested in fitness and exercise, read "The First 20 Minutes" by Gretchen Reynolds (http://www.amazon.com/The-First-20-Minutes-Surprising/dp/159...). It's somewhat a review of the current state of scientific thought in exercise (tons of studies are cited throughout the book)

I've enjoyed Abundance by Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X-Prize foundation. It's by no means laden down with details, but it is an entertaining overview of emerging technologies and how they might be put to use.


"The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" http://www.amazon.com/The-Drunkards-Walk-Randomness-Rules/dp... was a great book that showed that not everything is under your control

I've just finished reading Bruce Schneier's "Liars and Outliers": http://www.amazon.com/Liars-Outliers-Enabling-Society-Thrive...

Very interesting and gives you a lot to think about. Highly recommended.

Reality is Broken. Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal (http://www.amazon.com/Reality-Is-Broken-Better-Change/dp/014...)

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation - http://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Factory-American-Innovation/d...

I just finished "A.B.C of relativity" from Lord Bertrand R. May be a bit old now, but this is more a philosophical book than a scientific, as what is nice in it, is to see such a great (and kind) spirit giving us a way into modernity !

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - Dan Ariely. Read all his books and papers, for that matter.

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

I also liked Jonah Lehrer's Imagine, a book about creativity.

If you're into programming, I recommend The Joy of Clojure.

The Smashing Book 3+3(1/2) is a great read if you are in the Web Dev (especially front-end) field. Not science or high-tech, but well put and designed content for the people working for the web.

I've got these and really getting a lot of good info. In fact, taking them to the beach next week for my "summer reading".

I recently posted a similar question to HN and just found this thread. Incredible suggestions.

Here are mine: http://farhan.org/?p=22

"The ego tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger ( 2009 ). It offers an amazing insight on the concept of the self and the inner workings of conscience.

I really enjoyed The Most Human Human by Brian Christian. It's about Turing tests and The Loebner Prize.

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter is my personal favorite piece of non-fiction.

The pale blue dot - by Carl sagan

I was going to recommend "2001: A space Odyssey". But non-fiction might rule that one out ?

Summer? But the winter is starting here in the South Hemisphere!

Sorry. I couldn't resist

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