Saturday, December 7, 2013

Two years of my book reviews

My wife says I read more than anyone she has ever met. I thought that was a pretty nice complement, she reads voraciously as well and we both want to pass that on to our son (and pending daughter). Even though he's only two years old I don't let him go to bed without us cracking a book and pointing at some pictures. The work pays off, he can already recognize most colors, shapes, and some numbers.

I started this post as a summary of what I read in 2013 (since it's the season for end of year blog posts) but I decided to include 2012. While looking at my notes there were a ton of good books that I have never mentioned here. I could go further, but I had to cut it off somewhere, this list is already out of control. I think I'm writing this in part to avoid real work, so there's that too. This ended up being an epic blog post, but I honestly enjoyed pulling it together and reviewing what I've consumed over the last two years. It's good to look back.

How I was able to do this is kind of interesting and unintentional. When reading a book I'd always fold over pages and put little check marks near lines I thought were exceptional or worth revisiting. This later evolved into those little arrow stickers and eventually dictating the lines to my Android phone and Evernote. Since my Evernotes have time stamps I can tell when I finished reading something, which is nice and enables me to look back at what I've read over a certain time frame. 

So here it is, a list of what I've read over the last two years and what I thought of it. If I thought the book worth recommending I took the time to included a picture of it's cover. If I thought it was very good the picture is bigger.


In the Plex – Steven Levy
Still reading as I'm writing this blog post. I like the company more after reading most of this book.

Radical Abundance – Eric Drexler
Eric Drexler's 1987 book Engines of Creation ignited the fascination with everything nano-technology over the last 30 years and is one of the most inspiring books I've ever read. This book details how the politics of government funding and
media hype crushed the prospects of seeing his Engines of Creation predictions come true in the last few decades. After lambasting some fools, he lays out some new predictions. My favorite line of the book: If you understand the implications of this and feel like telling everyone you meet, go lie down on the floor and wait until the feeling passes. I laughed at that, he's right; most people aren't ready to hear how much things are going to change. It's a lot of work to think this stuff through to the natural conclusions and few people want to do that work.

How to Create a Mind – Ray Kurzweil
If you're reading to catch up on Law of Accelerating returns predictions and haven't read any of Kurzweil's other books, start with The Singularity is Near; you won't find many predictions in this book. What you will find is well researched support for a theory about how the human mind works and a survey of the current state of research around building or emulating it. My favorite part was the chapter “Thought Experiments on the Mind”. In usual Kurzweil style he broadly surveys the literature around each of the topics presented and then responds to each with his own thoughts or cross references. Each book Kurzweil writes seems to be better than the last.
Age of Context – Robert Scoble and Shel Israel
Worth reading, the authors are tuned into what's going on; but so am I so nothing in here was a big surprise. Pretty much a list of companies and why they are disruptive. I'll be investing when they have IPOs, my notes are a list of who I think is worth watching closely. I think the top company to watch in the next few years is

Turings Cathedral – George Dyson
Great read! A historical discussion of the first few years of computers. A great reminder of where all this stuff came from. My favorite part, the mention of A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. To find out why I think that book is cool, read this Dr Dobbs article about how a challenge to compress the file has lasted ten years!

Social Intelligence – Daniel Goleman
Not on the top of any of my lists. A collection of pretty obvious anecdotes about how social intelligence is as important or more important than raw intelligence. To be 100% honest, the books I read from a christian perspective from authors like Andy Stanley or John Maxwell are more useful and contain better reminders and solid advice about how to treat people well and behave in life. A few years of neuroscience research doesn't hold a candle to thousands of years of research and practical application.

Wheat Belly – William Davis
I went Gluten free after reading this ...for almost two months. I decided that the inconvenience wasn't worth it and went back to eating bread and cereal. Most interesting concept: there's little incentive for medical research that doesn't result in a drug or device that can be sold at a profit. In the case of celiac's disease there's an entire industry even potentially suppressing research. Bummer.

Presenting Data in Tables and Charts – David Levine
zzzzzzzzzzzz boring. If you want to learn how to present information read Edward Tufte or Colin Ware.

Sexy Little Numbers – Dimitry Maex
Very worth a read. My favorite part are the detailed descriptions of marketing strategies. I liked the metrics driven approaches with acorns, golden nuggets, and jackpots vernacular. Some cautionary tales of failure as well: “Some people use data analytics like a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support not illumination.”

Leadership Gold – John Maxwell
Loved this book. I had read it when I was a Marine Lieutenant and re-read it this year. Some of my better random notes: Great people develop those around them. Small people will attempt to put the same limit on others that they put on themselves.” “Activity does not equal accomplishment. Twenty five years of experience is the same as
one year of experience if you just repeat the same year over and over again and don't learn. Reflection turns experience into insight. Experience alone means nothing, evaluated experience means everything. If a cat sits on a hot stove, it will never sit on a hot stove again; but it won't sit on a cold stove either. Cat's don't have the mental capacity to evaluate risk, sometimes people are the same way.

How to Stay Motivated – Zig Ziglar
I heard somebody make a joke about Zig, and I didn't know who he was so I picked up this book. It actually was pretty decent. Written in 1960 something, everything still was good. My favorite note from this book: Develop people like you mine for gold; expect to move a lot of dirt to get to the valuable stuff. People will become what you tell them they are or will be and words matter.

The Frontiersman – Allan Eckert
I can't recommend this book enough. Amazing historical fiction following the life and times of Simon Kenton. The challenges people faced during the 1780s in America make even the worst problems of the world today seem silly. After reading I bought a tomahawk and a canoe (just because I'm 32 doesn't mean I have to act like an adult). One of my unfortunate discoveries are that nearly all historical flintlock rifles have been destroyed, having been converted to percussion cap firearms. After reading this I bought the next book on my list.

Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men – Carl Russel
I think I got this book for a few dollars on Amazon, it's probably out of print. Lots of great pictures of illusrations and historical descriptions of stuff that doesn't exist anymore. The greatest minds of our time are writing software or working on space travel; the greatest minds of this time were making mechanical devices like traps, rifles, and refining metallurgy. The genius in their designs is apparent.

North American Bows, Arrows, and Quivers: An Illustrated History – Otis Tufton Mason
Mostly I just looked at the pictures. Then I made a Cherokee bow out of hickory and sinew string (not a joke, really). Maybe I'll write a blog post about that. Amazingly there is a kindle version of this book.

Camping and Woodcraft – Horace Kephart
Fantastic advice on, well, Camping and Woodcraft. Written in 1906. Not to be confused with the next book on my list.

Woodcraft and Camping – George Sears Nessmuk
I'd rate Kephart's book as better, but Sears published his 20 years earlier in 1884. The best part of the book was his obsessive quest to find the perfect double bit hatchet. These are still incredibly hard to find in quality form.

Kant in 90 Minutes – Paul Strathern
I picked this up because I had heard about the Kantian principle of not utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. It was an insight into his life and times and what drove him. My favorite part is when they describe the difficulty of scheduling events in his home country because it had 4 official time zones, none of which were based on sensible geo-spatial regions. Couple this with a lack of accurate clocks and hillarity ensues.

Do the Work – Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield
Both great books in their own merit, but not as good as the next book on my list. I believe they are both derivative of it, but don't come near it's excellence.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
If you haven't read this book, drop what you're doing and buy it right now. This is one of the big ones. Hugely important. There was a guest speaker at my church that made a passing reference to it and I was surprised that Pressfield had written non-fiction. I had only read his “Gates of Fire” years before. It's Pressfield's secret guide about how to channel creativity, overcome procrastination, and get things done. I've read it three times over the last two years and every time it's a real kick in the butt to get going.

Purple Cow – Seth Godin
Why is the Mona Lisa special? Because it was stolen. Things are desirable because they stand out, rarely due to objective quality. This book lays out a bunch of great examples of this. Seth has a great blog too. Check it out.
Linchpin – Seth Godin
I picked this book up in an airport at random. It looked good and it really was. It details why the employee employer relationship has changed and how to ensure job security by choosing to be exceptional at what you do.

All Marketers are Liars – Seth Godin
No really. They are. Lies can be good: the wine glasses that make wine taste better but only if somebody tells you they are supposed to make it taste better (placebo effect). Lies can be bad: Nestle marketing powdered baby formula as healthier causing young mothers in Africa to forgo breast milk and killing their babies with polluted water mixed with the advertised formula.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall
I had noticed a co-worker wearing toe-shoes and struck up a conversation that included him recommending I read this book. So I did. It details the adventures of ultramarathoners and a native tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara that are legendary for their running ability. Some analysis of why modern sneakers are bad for us and flat shoes/barefeet/sandals are good for us. I buy shoes differently now, opting for flat soles and the least “support” possible.

Everything is Obvious – Duncan Watts
Duncan Watts gave a presentation at a local TED conference, that I missed. I was having lunch with a colleague that recommended his book. It was a good discussion of how unpredictable things are and that we can pretend to see indicators after the fact. A cautionary tale of the predictability of many things.

Data Mining – Ian Witten, Eibe Frank, Mark Hall
A somewhat rough introduction to Machine Learning. Programming Collective Intelligence was a much better book if you're just starting off. Weka is a very broad ML tool and this book covers a lot of it. For ML tasks and education I've mostly fallen back to the python ml libraries and vowpal wabbit, making this book kind of useless for me. However, if you're invested in Weka, this is a must-read.

Coders at Work -  Peter Seibel
Interviews with some of the most famous and talented programmers on the planet. Peter Norvig, Ken Thompson, Don Knuth, and many more. My favorite part: they all use print statements to debug instead of debuggers. I was always kind of ashamed I never spent much time with break statements and debuggers, but I feel better about it now.

The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – Steven Pinker
I saw his TED talk, then I got half way through his book. I get it. I agree with his observations and it's hard for me to understand why more people don't get this. For further evidence read The Frontiersman, which I noted earlier. Violence is declining.

The Elements of Style – William Strunk
I bought it on a whim. It was mentioned in one of the interviews in Coders at Work. I'd hardly say I read this. More like skimmed through it and tried to figure
out why they thought it was good. I'm sure it's good, but there are better books on this (like the next one on my list).

Essential Communication Strategies for Scientists, Engineers, and Technology Professionals – Herbert Hirsch
This was a re-read. I read it several years prior. Pragmatic and funny, this is my go-to book for good technical writing.

The New Digital Age – Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen
Pass; I finished it but it got to be a struggle. Two interesting people, not a very interesting book; maybe they canceled each other out. This is more of a "what just happened" book instead of a "what is about to happen" book.

Seeing Further: The story of Science and the Royal Society – Bill Bryson
I read this shortly after reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Freaking fantastic. I read Bill Brysons History of everything a few years ago and this was an excellent book as well. I also read At Home, which was good too. Bill is a talented non-fiction author and he can find the interesting aspects of almost anything. In this books he covers the foundations of modern science which makes it double-interesting.


Daemon – Daniel Suarez
My top recommendation for fiction. Eccentric millionaire video game company owner dies and a computer daemon and assets he has prepositioned wreak havoc on social structures. A little gory (the first few sentences have a beheading) but as the story goes on it gets smarter and although there is a lot of violence the plot isn't cheap. The book is fantastic. Interesting that Daniel had to work so hard to get it published.
Freedom (TM) – Daniel Suarez
The sequal to Daemon. It's even better than the first book and a lot of what the eccentric millionaire was trying to accomplish makes more sense. I found myself annoyed that there wasn't a third book.

Kill Decision – Daniel Suarez
I read this because Daniel's other books were awesome. This one, not so much. It talks about autonomous UAVs, which is cool, but it didn't really resonate with me the way the other two books did. Not enough geek culture, too much government conspiracy stuff. If I could go back in time I'd tell myself to pass on this one.

Earth Afire – Orson Scott Card
I read this in preparation for the Enders Game movie to come out. This is the prequel to Enders Game. I felt like Orson Scott Card was really off his game. It turns out my suspicions were half right; he had a ghost writer co-author this one. Bummer. Unless you're a die-hard Ender's game series fan (like I am) don't bother. If you are, pick it up; it's not terrible.

A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
A few years ago I read Rainbows End on a recommendation I received from talking to somebody at a conference. A Fire Upon the Deep did not dissapoint. Hardcore science fiction, singularity meets sentient artificial intelligence meets interstellar travel. All awesome.

A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge
Not as good as A Fire Upon the Deep, but still ok. AFUTD really reasonated with me, this one didn't as much. I don't know if it was my mood when I read it or the book.

Some Remarks – Neal Stephenson
I always enjoy Neal Stephenson and buy anything he publishes. The best part about this book is the best part can be read online for free. Out of all the essays I enjoyed “Mother Earth Mother Board” the most. It was originally published in Wired and is still there:

Last of the Amazons – Steven Pressfield
Some women cut off one of their breasts to be better archers. I enjoy reading about warfare, women's rights, and archery. Having all three together may have spoiled it for me. Not my favorite Pressfield book.

The Afghan Campaign – Steven Pressfield
Pressfield was a Marine and he writes better to the experiences of current and historical warriors than anyone else I know of. My favorite Pressfield book is still Gates of Fire, which is based on the Spartans at Thermopylae and served as a basis for most of the 300 movie. This book is a close second. It follows a handful of Alexander the Great's Army as they fight their way into Afghanistan in 330 b.c.

Ruins – Orson Scott Card
A while ago I read Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card, I enjoyed it so much that when Ruins came out I finished it within a few weeks of it's release. Orson Scott Card's first novel Treason was some of his best writing and I think in these books he takes the best aspects of Treason and his Space Sci Fi and mixes them together. A great combination. The book ends on a cliff hanger, so I expect another book soon. Unfortunately I think Orson was side-tracked by the Enders Game movie and pressured into writing Earth Afire instead of continuing this series.

Interface – Neal Stephenson
It's neat to have Neal Stephenson writing a thriller set in Northern Virginia where I live. Weird to have him writing about politics, but the book has some neat concepts and scenes in it.

Anathem – Neal Stephenson
I can't write much about this one without plot spoiling. Each plot change was a major twist and it was extremely interesting. I can say that if you like Neal Stephenson you should pick this up. Neal stopped at google to discuss this book and it was inspired by the Clock of the Long Now

The Castle – Franz Kafka
For a detailed review of this book, see my blog post on Federal Certification of Information Systems. I'm kidding... kind of.

Distrust that Particular Flavor – William Gibson
An exploration of William Gibson's unique version of Otaku. His obsessive interests really appealed to me when I was a teenager and my copy of Burning Chrome fell apart long ago from being read so many times. “The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed.”

Moby Dick – Herman Melville
While stuck in an air port I found a book titled “Why read Moby Dick?”; I read the back cover, then popped open my kindle app on my android tablet and got Moby Dick. Melville was a true master of words and the book is so fluid and lucid that it's almost like poetry.

Reamde – Neal Stephenson
Not a typo, but a great book on massive multi player video games, entrepreneurship, and terrorists. If the fact that Neal Stephenson wrote it and it contains these topics doesn't have you rushing to buy it, nothing else I can say will sway you.

World War Z – Max Brooks
I've heard this book was good for years but never picked it up because most of the zombie craze doesn't really excite me. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good zombie movie or show as much as anybody; maybe an aversion to media glorifying post-apocalyptic scenarios is a side effect of having lived as a US Marine in Iraq for over two years. But this book turned out to be as fantastic as everybody said it was. My favorite chapter: the downed female pilot. Read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about when you get to it.


Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About – Donald Knuth
Don Knuth aka “The Father of Computer Science” was asked to come to MIT and give a series of lectures on whatever he felt like. So he talks about infinity and what probability theory can tell us about free will. Then he talks about whether or not mathematics can enhance our personal understanding of the bible. This book is an all-out defense of the faith from one of the smartest people on the planet in front of one of the smartest audiences on the planet. Don was somebody I respected deeply way before I decided Christ's words made sense. Finding out this book existed was one hell of an affirmation of my beliefs. I plan to read Don's other book on Christianity called 3:16 in which he randomly samples bible verses and deep dives into researching the passages that come back.

Revolutionary Parenting – George Barna
One of the best parenting reads I've had. I abhor hearing parents say things like “kids are just going to do what they are going to to do and we can't stop it”. I think that a huge part of what our children become is based on our expectations of them and SHOWING THAT WE CARE. Let them grow, but show them that you care about how they turn out by being involved in their lives and asking about how they feel about things and letting them know how you feel.

Enemies of the Heart – Andy Stanley
This book covers how to deal with four emotions that every human has to contend with: guilt, anger, greed, and jealousy. Being wise doesn't mean you don't have problems, but it does mean that you won't be the source of your problems. This book is full of great practical advice for getting control of these emotions and making sure they don't control you decisions.

Deep & Wide – Andy Stanley
In northern Virginia we have access to some awesome churches that are intelligent, supportive, committed, vibrant, and packed full of people that generally really have their lives together and are eager to help others out (of course there are exceptions but they are welcome too!). Andy pastors a similar church in Atlanta. This book covers how he did it. When I travel to other areas of the country where churches are in decline I sometimes get disappointed and wonder how they even still exist. I think some of them are sustained on mere habit or tradition and I think that's unacceptable. This book is about how to build one of the good churches.

The Case for Faith – Lee Strobel
Lee Strobel wrote The Case for Christ and this is a follow up to that book. Lee is one of billions of people that have come to follow christ after earnestly studying his words. This is a nice account of the second half of his journey as he attempts to grapple with some of the more advanced intellectual questions along the way.

What Christians Believe – C.S. Lewis
This book is a watered down summary of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. It serves a purpose because Mere Christianity is a very intellectually heavy book; also one of my all time favorite books. Mere Christianity was given to me by a friend at a time when I wasn't paying much attention to the bigger questions in life. In that book he tackled the most difficult questions he faced on his journey from atheism to a follower of Christ. He wrote about intellectual cowardice and the need to constantly challenge your most basic assumptions and to go where the truth leads you. Lead along the path by JRR Tolkein and others, his reasoned path made him an ardent defender of the faith. His ability articulate what and why he believed led to him having an opportunity to speak to British soldiers and pilots who were routinely facing the prospect of death. These talks led to his thoughts being broadcast as a series on the BBC during WW2 and later compiled into Mere Christianity. If you're intellectual and want to know what Christians believe, pick up Mere Christianity. If you're not too much of a thinker, pick up this book.

The Unshakable Truth – Josh McDowell
Josh wrote one of the all time most popular defenses of the faith called More Than a Carpenter in 1977. He revisits those arguments in this book, but after 30 years of refining his approach. It was a decent read which I picked up after Josh McDowell came to speak at my church.

How Good is Good Enough – Andy Stanley
A freaking great question and a great book about how to answer it. Short too (200 or so pages). This book is a discussion of what separates Christianity from every other religion on the earth. Famed atheist Dan Dennett gave a TED talk where he made a policy proposition to make it mandatory to teach about every religion in the world. I agree with him, hiding the existence of other religions isn't fair or responsible. I think if this book was in that curriculum Dan's plan would not have his intended consequence of jading our youth to all religion. If you believe in the afterlife de-facto or if you're just aware of Pascal's Wager and think you should take some time to evaluate this stuff, this has to be the a question on your mind. Exactly how good is good enough, with all that's potentially riding on it it's worth the time to flip through this book.