Spring 2012 books

 

For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (50th Anniversary Edition) – Ayn Rand
This is Ayn Rand’s challenge to the prevalent philosophical doctrines of our time and the “atmosphere of guilt, of panic, of despair, of boredom, and of all-pervasive evasion” that they create. One of the most controversial figures on the intellectual scene, Ayn Rand was the proponent of a moral philosophy–and ethic of rational self-interest–that stands in sharp opposition to the ethics of altruism and self-sacrifice. The fundamentals of this morality–“a philosophy for living on Earth”–are here vibrantly set forth by the spokesman for a new class, For the New Intellectual.


Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle – Chris Hedges
In this New York Times bestseller, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Chris Hedges has written a shattering meditation on American obsession with celebrity and the epidemic of illiteracy that threatens our cultural integrity. Reporting on such phenomena as professional wrestling, the pornographic film industry, and unchecked casino capitalism, Hedges exposes the mechanisms used to divert us from confronting the economic, political, and moral collapse around us. Empire of Illusion shows us how illiteracy and the embrace of fantasy have impoverished our working class, allowed for the continuance of destructive public policy, and ushered in cultural bankruptcy.

 

The Religion Virus: Why we believe in God: An evolutionist explains religion’s incredible hold on humanity – Craig A. James
Why is religion so incredibly tenacious? Why do intelligent people believe the universe is only six thousand years old? How can so many people believe the Bible, written over two thousand years ago, is 100% accurate in every respect?
Using the powerful new science of cultural evolution called “memetics” — how ideas spread and mutate as they move across society and down through history — Craig James takes us on a fascinating tour of religion’s peculiar and convoluted history.
Religions evolve, not metaphorically, but in a very real way. By applying “survival of the fittest” principles to religions, James shows shows us how religion became incredibly infectious to the average human. 

 

Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior – Suzanne Robertson (Author), James S. Robertson (Author), Stephen M. McMenamin (Author), Timothy R. Lister (Author), Peter Hruschka (Author), Tom DeMarco (Author) 
Adrenaline junkies, dead fish, project sluts, true believers, Lewis and Clark, template zombies . . .
Most developers, testers, and managers on IT projects are pretty good at recognizing patterns of behavior and gut-level hunches, as in, I sense that this project is headed for disaster.
But it has always been more difficult to transform these patterns and hunches into a usable form, something a team can debate, refine, and use. Until now.
In Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies, the six principal consultants of The Atlantic Systems Guild present the patterns of behavior they most often observe at the dozens of IT firms they transform each year, around the world.

 

In The Plex – Steven Levy
Few companies in history have ever been as successful and as admired as Google, the company that has transformed the Internet and become an indispensable part of our lives. How has Google done it? Veteran technology reporter Steven Levy was granted unprecedented access to the company, and in this revelatory book he takes readers inside Google headquarters—the Googleplex—to show how Google works.

Spring/Summer 2011 Books

Marvin Minksy’s – The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind

Minsky argues that emotions are different ways to think that our mind uses to increase our intelligence. He challenges the distinction between emotions and other kinds of thinking. His main argument is that emotions are “ways to think” for different “problem types” that exist in the world. The brain has rule-based mechanism (selectors) that turns on emotions to deal with various problems. The book reviews the accomplishments of AI, what and why is complicated to accomplish in terms of modeling how human beings behave, how they think, how they experience struggles and pleasures. (Wikipedia)

The Moral Landscape – Sam Harris

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives – Steven Levy

Few companies in history have ever been as successful and as admired as Google, the company that has transformed the Internet and become an indispensable part of our lives. How has Google done it? Veteran technology reporter Steven Levy was granted unprecedented access to the company, and in this revelatory book he takes readers inside Google headquarters—the Googleplex—to show how Google works.

While they were still students at Stanford, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionized Internet search. They followed this brilliant innovation with another, as two of Google’s earliest employees found a way to do what no one else had: make billions of dollars from Internet advertising. With this cash cow (until Google’s IPO nobody other than Google management had any idea how lucrative the company’s ad business was), Google was able to expand dramatically and take on other transformative projects: more efficient data centers, open-source cell phones, free Internet video (YouTube), cloud computing, digitizing books, and much more.

The key to Google’s success in all these businesses, Levy reveals, is its engineering mind-set and adoption of such Internet values as speed, openness, experimentation, and risk taking. After its unapologetically elitist approach to hiring, Google pampers its engineers—free food and dry cleaning, on-site doctors and masseuses—and gives them all the resources they need to succeed. Even today, with a workforce of more than 23,000, Larry Page signs off on every hire.

But has Google lost its innovative edge? It stumbled badly in China—Levy discloses what went wrong and how Brin disagreed with his peers on the China strategy—and now with its newest initiative, social networking, Google is chasing a successful competitor for the first time. Some employees are leaving the company for smaller, nimbler start-ups. Can the company that famously decided not to be evil still compete?

No other book has ever turned Google inside out as Levy does with In the Plex.

Winter 2009 reading



Sonoluminescence: A Galaxy of Nanostars Created in a Beaker (NASA)

The Idea Factory – Learning to Think at MIT, Pepper White :

“This is a personal story of the educational process at one of the world’s great technological universities. Pepper White entered MIT in 1981 and received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1984. His account of his experiences, written in diary form, offers insight into graduate school life in general—including the loneliness and even desperation that can result from the intense pressure to succeed—and the purposes of engineering education in particular. The first professor White met at MIT told him that it did not really matter what he learned there, but that MIT would teach him how to think. This, then, is the story of how one student learned how to think.”

Bio-Inspired Artificial Intelligence – Theories, Methods, and Technologies, Dario Floreano and Claudio Mattiussi :

“New approaches to artificial intelligence spring from the idea that intelligence emerges as much from cells, bodies, and societies as it does from evolution, development, and learning. Traditionally, artificial intelligence has been concerned with reproducing the abilities of human brains; newer approaches take inspiration from a wider range of biological structures that that are capable of autonomous self-organization. Examples of these new approaches include evolutionary computation and evolutionary electronics, artificial neural networks, immune systems, biorobotics, and swarm intelligence—to mention only a few. This book offers a comprehensive introduction to the emerging field of biologically inspired artificial intelligence that can be used as an upper-level text or as a reference for researchers.”

On the Edge – The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore, Brian Bagnall :

“Filled with first-hand accounts of ambition, greed, and inspired engineering, this history of the personal computer revolution takes readers inside the cutthroat world of Commodore. Before Apple, IBM, or Dell, Commodore was the first computer maker to market its machines to the public, eventually selling an estimated 22 million Commodore 64s. These halcyon days were tumultuous, however, owing to the expectations and unsparing tactics of founder Jack Tramiel. Engineers and managers share their experiences between 1976 and 1994 of the groundbreaking moments, soaring highs, and stunning employee turnover that came with being on top of the PC world in the early computer business.”

The Road to Reality : A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe – Roger Penrose :

“At first, this hefty new tome from Oxford physicist Penrose (The Emperor’s NewMind) looks suspiciously like a textbook, complete with hundreds of diagrams and pages full of mathematical notation. On a closer reading, however, one discovers that the book is something entirely different and far more remarkable. Unlike a textbook, the purpose of which is purely to impart information, this volume is written to explore the beautiful and elegant connection between mathematics and the physical world. Penrose spends the first third of his book walking us through a seminar in high-level mathematics, but only so he can present modern physics on its own terms, without resorting to analogies or simplifications (as he explains in his preface, “in modern physics, one cannot avoid facing up to the subtleties of much sophisticated mathematics”). Those who work their way through these initial chapters will find themselves rewarded with a deep and sophisticated tour of the past and present of modern physics. Penrose transcends the constraints of the popular science genre with a unique combination of respect for the complexity of the material and respect for the abilities of his readers. This book sometimes begs comparison with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and while Penrose’s vibrantly challenging volume deserves similar success, it will also likely lie unfinished on as many bookshelves as Hawking’s. For those hardy readers willing to invest their time and mental energies, however, there are few books more deserving of the effort.”

Born to Run – A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall :

“Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.”

Books for Spring 2009

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley : Re-reading but not from any paradise-engineering paranoia perspective. Simply insightful, focused and a great style. First covered this in high school decades ago. It’s ironic and deviously cool that this was actually course mandated at my high school ! (Have yet to finish Island.)

Pugetopolis – Knute Berger : The Seattle analog of Palahniuk’s A Walk in Portland, Oregon.

Useful because apparently Seattle is one of America’s most difficult cities to grok.

Aesthetic Computing (MIT Press) – Paul A. Fishwick :
“… key scholars and practitioners from art, design, computer science, and mathematics lay the foundations for a discipline that applies the theory and practice of art to computing. Aesthetic computing explores the way art and aesthetics can play a role in different areas of computer science. One of its goals is to modify computer science by the application of the wide range of definitions and categories normally associated with making art. …”
In the domain of Gabriel’s Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community (scroll down after link).



Maypole dancing circa 1950, somewhere in America

Some 2007 Reading / Listening


Reading

Robert Cialdini’s “Influence” –

Plenty of social psychology observations that should be common sense if you’re paying attention to the world around you. Read it on recommendation thanks to Scott Adams.

Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” –

Yea yea, it’s nothing new but got through it last year and realize why his books morph fairly quickly into Hollywood scripts. Not much else to say about it.

“The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer –

Although written half a century ago it’s incredibly contemporary in many ways. More social psychology but from a mass movement perspective. Well written in practical style and very distilled ideas. Some paragraphs are worth more than a few hours of thought.
Frank Herbet’s “Dune” –

In Science Fiction what else come’s close ?

Listening

Trentmoller –

‘The Last Resort’ and ‘The Trentmoller Chronicles’ are simply great albums. Wonderfully lacking in exploratory fear of the electronic genre.

Miss Kittin – Batbox

New directions here on her second album. Diving a little deeper and darker. So worthwhile.

Dust Galaxy – Dust Galaxy
Thievery Corp Garza’s rock side project. Still electronic but psychedelic and even grungy and dub.

Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”

The book presents a fairly good intro to the topic of memetics. I agree with Dawkin’s indirect reference that the theory of memetics deserves a shot. I’d say that Blackmore’s theory on memetics deserves a shot too, at least up to chapter 13.
These chapters are a pretty good spring board into the pool and for me they seemed ‘less koolaid’ than Brodie’s “Virus of the Mind”.

When Blackmore gets to Religion, New Age and Philosophy from chapter 14 onwards and to the end of the book then things seem dogmatic, contrary and too nihilistic in spite of the fact that she does well in pointing out the typical hooks that these meme-plexes use to hook into minds, replicate and cause damage to an open and mutually beneficial society/culture.

It’s fine to go with the opinion that human beings may have no soul, spirit or actual ‘self’ to speak of in any concrete terms but these chapters read as if it’s just a closed case. What about giving the theory a chance ? The buddhist philosophy in conclusion also doesn’t help the argument.

The book was penned almost a decade ago so there’s likely more that the author would add or change now regarding her theory. Still worth a read for the useful meta-memes.