Category: Books

10 most influential books, my list

Here’s my list, not ten but as short as I could make it. It’s roughly in the order I read them. Ten books gets me through high school but doesn’t include all the books that had a big influence on me.

My list:
A kid’s biography of Thomas Edison. Sparked my interest in invention.

Commodore 64: Programmer’s Reference Guide. I taught myself programming on a VIC-20 and then a Commodore 64, then picked it back up again in graduate school to analyze mouse genomic DNA.

The Boy Scout Handbook. Learned lots of useful things!

Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I became a space nut by reading science fiction. Heinlein was an early favorite.

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. First big book on government I read.

A stack of old Scientific American magazines. I was given a few feet of Scientific American magazines and devoured the science review articles. This is where I found out biology was much more interesting than what was covered in high school. This is also where I discovered Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column and from that fractals and many more wonderful things.

Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, The Glass Teat, and short story collections by Harlan Ellison. I started reading Ellison’s short stories, then found his movie reviews in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then found his essays. He’s a master essayist.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Eye opening.

Broca’s Brain, The Dragons of Eden, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Taught me all sorts of science and started my love of general science books.

G̦del, Escher, Bach РAn Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. A stunning book about math, music, recursion, and cognition.

The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit B. Mandelbrot. Spent a summer reading this book. I wasn’t quite up to the math, but still it was fascinating.

Chaos by James Gleick. Fractals, chaos, deterministic but unpredictable systems, like weather. Good ideas, lots of interesting examples.

Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus by Martin Gardner. Pseudoscience and skepticism.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841). Read this early on in college. The tulip madness, the South Sea Bubble, and other incredible episodes in the history of human folly.


Other books, ones that didn’t make the top 10 or that I read later.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. (interestingly, the technology an everyman Connecticut Yankee knows was all new to me).

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. (the first book of her Arthurian legend series. Loved me some Arthur)

Neuromancer by Wiliam Gibson (sf, cyberspace!)

Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments, The Ambidextrous Universe: Mirror Asymmetry and Time-Reversed Worlds, Mathematical Circus by Martin Gardner. (recreational mathematics, puzzles, and oddities, mainly from his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. (sf, sociology as a super-science)

Animal Farm by George Orwell. (this rather than 1984, hearing so much about 1984 before I read it weakened the impact of 1984).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. (sf, funny, absurdist British sf)

Dune by Frank Herbert. (sf, a great tale integrating great sweeping ideas).

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Far Frontiers edited by Jerry Pournelle and Jim Baen. (I’ll let this stand as a representative of the non-fiction I read about prospects and plans for space development in books and in Analog. Read G. Harry Stine, Pournelle, Bova, Brin, Clark. “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle”. –Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, Kaluga, 1911).

Shakespeare’s plays. (I thought in iambic pentameter for a few weeks in high school. A fun way to rewire your brain!).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. (sf)

Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. (the history of computer hacking and the government’s alternately clueless and thugish reactions to it).

The Best of the Nebulas (sf, the best of the best).

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! by Richard Feynman

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. (an eye opener for me).

Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould. (Gould’s rich essays on biology and natural history are amazing. I think this is the collection I started with).

Churchill’s Complex Variables and Applications (complex numbers are strange and wonderful).

The News That Didn’t Make the News and Why: the Project Censored Yearbook by Carl Jensen & Project Censored. (strangely enough, not all the news is fit for print).

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward Herman), Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky. (a different view of American government policy and actions, densely written and exhaustively sourced).

The Aquatic Ape by Elaine Morgan (read this in grad school, the thesis is that humans evolved through a semi-aquatic intermediate hominid. This turns out not to be true, but I found the idea of using biological features as evidence for human evolution very interesting. I grew up during the ‘man the upright walker’ period in human paleoanthropology).

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (scientific racism, history and arguments against, read this instead of the Bell Curve).

Douglas North and Roger Miller, Abortion, Baseball and Weed. (counterintuitive economics)

Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire. (started me reading fantasy again)

The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks. (software engineering and personnel management on large software projects)

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. (a sweeping explanation of the large-scale pattern of human history. Not proven, but a great approach to the question).

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. (incredible travelogue of his around the world voyage)

10 most influential books

Tyler Cowen at the blog Marginal Revolution posted a list of the 10 most influential books for him. Other people, mostly economists, followed up with their lists.

Cowen is an economist, and many of the early linkers were economists as well. The lists contained many economics books, of course. I was surprised at how many philosophy and political philosophy books appeared on the economists’ lists. And how few–none on most lists–science books of any field or any modern books of ideas appear. From the lists of books, their minds were untouched by the ideas and incredible gains in understanding the world that flipped society upside down several times in the 20th century.

To jump to a wild conclusion, this may be one of the reasons the field of economics is so screwed up. Economists come to field field by way of philosophy and think ideas mixed with some mathematical modeling leads to discoveries about how real societies work. And these are people without any practical knowledge–no science, no engineering, no business experience, no government experience. Not even science at an undergrad level, or a widely read enthusiast. They think philosophy contains the essential ideas, and all the more applied fields are derivative, and so they have set their economics on a sound foundation.

Also, Ayn Rand is an important influence on many, which is not surprising but good for a few giggles. Also, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk is gaining as the influential book for libertarian minded young men. Watch out Ayn!

Book review: Mars Underground

Mars Underground by William_Hartmann. The book was a good read. It is set on Mars, at a time when thousands of people are on the planet, second stage exploration. People are beginning to think about colonization. The book is a mystery, with an administrator, Carter, his friend the resident artist, Philippe, and a newly arrived reporter, Annie Pohaku, investigating the disappearance of a Stafford, an exobiologist who’s one of the longest serving research scientists and explorers on Mars. Stafford had discovered traces indicating microbial life on Mars billions of years in the past.

The book starts very well, but then seems to stall out in the middle. The plot is uncomplicated and feels too bare. The characterization of the protagonist, Carter, is lacking. The description of Mars and the bases on the planet and Phobos are well done.


Book review: Ever Since Darwin

Ever Since Darwin cover
Ever Since Darwin is book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould, originally written as columns for Natural History magazine.

This is Gould’s first collection of essays, published in 1977. It’s a great introduction to Gould’s writing. The essays are shorter and the ideas are simpler than those in some of his later collections. There are great essays on the life and times Darwin worked in, and on how evolutionary and developmental biology got worked out through fits and starts. The last few essays on sociobiology are kind of weak. I guess 30 years on, it’s hard to really understand the ground that was being fought over.

Overall, a great book!

Science fiction stories for middle school

Here are sources for science fiction stories that I think would be suitable for middle school students. These are all freely available stories either out of copyright or made available by the author or publisher.

Most of these are very short stories or short stories. I think short stories are good because a few hard words won’t discourage a student–the stories read quickly. And if they don’t like one story they can try another.

At first I wasn’t optimistic that I would find stories available online as only stuff from the thirties or older is typically out of copyright. Here are a few good ones from Project Gutenberg:

Then I looked around more and found that many fairly recent stories are available online at the author’s site or some other apparently authorized site. This site and this site both link to a lot of good free sf. So now that it looks like there’s a lot to choose from I’ll make some suggestions.

Very short stories would be a good choice, this page links to a bunch of them, some only a page or so long:

Mary Robinette Kowal, “Evil Robot Monkey”, (940 words)
Terry Bisson, “They’re Made Out of Meat”, (815 words)
Cory Doctorow, Printcrime, (688 words)
James Van Pelt, “Just Before Recess”, (782 words)
Nolan, William F, “Of Time and Texas”, (608 words)

Other great short stories:
Harlan Ellison, “Jeffty is Five”, (page 71, 8k words)
Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron”
Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder” (4k words)
Cory Doctorow, Anda’s game (10k words)
Neil Gaiman, A Study in Emerald (9 pages)
Isacc Asimov, The Feeling of Power (3k words)
Orson Scott Card, “Ender’s Game” (15k words)
Larry Niven, “Neutron Star” (7k words)

This site also has section of ‘kids’ stories:

I found these Project Gutenberg stories first but though they are good stories I wouldn’t put them at the top of my list:

H. Beam Piper, Omnilingual (16k words)
H. Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy (59k words)
Fritz Leiber, “Bread Overhead” (5K words)

Bill Watterson cartoons

Making Light pointed me to this site of collected Bill Watterson art. It includes cartoons drawn for his college paper, political cartoons, one offs to decorate interviews, some album art, and more. It must really suck for cartoonists, having to draw a cartoon for free to go with an interview.

Watterson drawing

Book review: The Atrocity Archives and Concrete Jungle by Charles Stross

Atrocity Archives word cloud

Charles Stross has written the best new books I’ve read over the past few years.
Singularity Sky, Accelerando, Halting State, each excellent. And his books explore different ideas and are set in very different worlds. With the exception of the dismal Family Trade series, his writing has been excellent.

The Atrocity Archives and Concrete Jungle, two shorter works set in the same world are the first fantasy I’ve read by him, and they are crazy good. Halting State good, but these stories are modern fantasy integrated into the technological world, magic for hackers that participates in the modern world revolutionized by discoveries in mathematics, electronics, modern physics, and computers. A magical worldview that has confronted modern physics and considered the natural consequences of computers.

The book was a real page turner–errr, a virtual page turner that I read on computer. The Atrocity Archives is better than Concrete Jungle. Jungle seems constrained by its short length, the ending feels rushed. After Concrete Jungle I immediately sought a sequel and was glad to find The Jennifer Morgue.

Concrete Jungle word cloud

Book review: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

I finally read the iconic dinosaur book by Michael Crichton. The book was very similar to the movie, closer than any other movie I’ve seen. In many ways the book reads as if it was written with the idea of turning it into a movie in mind. The plot is straightforward: rich old guy hires scientists to recreate dinosaurs from DNA preserved in fossils, then the dinosaurs get loose and eat people.

The science fiction idea than spawned the book is grand. Recreating dinosaurs! Real dinosaurs! That people can be see and watch and eventually run screaming from. The other part of the book, the horror movie bolt on plot, is naturally fit for a movie.

Surprisingly there isn’t much more to the book than what’s in the movie. And unfortunately the worst parts of the movie are the author’s invention. The ‘mathematician’ character, spouting ridiculous idea that chaos theory proves everything will go wrong and fall apart is all the author’s. Also, the annoying younger sister who alternates between fear, whining, and suicidal stupidity is all Crichton. She’s written worse in the book, the other characters mock whatever she has to say and keep telling her to shut up. The out of nowhere scene in the movie where she pops up as a computer system expert looks added in an attempt to give her character a positive side.

Still, dinosaurs!

cover pic

When the book was written, it was plausible to speculate that fossils millions of years old would contain bits of DNA. As it turns out, DNA degrades over hundreds of thousands of years, and no DNA has been recovered from samples millions of years old. In fact, chemical studies predict that DNA will degrade at such a rate that no original DNA remains in samples millions of years old. Today, alas, it seems unlikely that dinosaur DNA sequences will ever be recovered.

Jurassic Park word cloud

The University Press

I saw an article of the problems Univerity Presses are having these days, the problems of an industry facing a changing market combined with university budget cutting during the recession. I think University Presses should embrace change. To me, the Univerity Press looks like the easiest segment of the publishing industry to move completely online. Most of their books are published by academics and mailed to university libraries where they sit bulky and using expensive floor space, rarely read. And for an academic, the electronic book has plenty of advantages, easy searching, cut&paste for quotes and organizing digital research notes, etc.

The physical book is unnecessary, and the price could easily drop several fold. Libraries would save money both buying the books and on shelf space. Without physical books, the main cost is in Univeristy Press is acquisitions and editing staff. The only things holding the Press to physical books are old academics who can’t/won’t use computers (few), the norms of what counts as a book for academic advancement, and inertia.