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2017 is about to finish. What were the best books you have read this year that you would recommend to other lobsters users? If possible explain why.

My favorites:

  • Data Intensive Applications
  • Weapons of Math Destruction
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    Related to work, I enjoyed the Google SRE Book, available for free here:


    Site Reliability Engineering is perhaps the correct term for what everyone, for awhile, was (apparently incorrectly) describing as “DevOps”. That is, SRE is about having large scale software systems operate well, cheaply, and reliably even in the face of changing codebases, unreliable hardware, and shifting usage patterns. If you run a large scale production system, this book serves as a good “book club” subject for your engineering team.

    One more work related title, I enjoyed going through Python Data Science Handbook with my team of both expert Python programmers and some novices. Also freely available here:


    It runs through the “PyData” stack, things like numpy, matplotlib, seaborn, pandas, scikit-learn, and so on. This includes a challenging final chapter on doing machine learning with Python.

    A quick warning on this one: I think the Wes McKinney Python for Data Analysis book does a better job “warming up” these subjects for novices. It was recently updated for a 3rd edition.

    In November, I decided to take a break from programming books for a few months. I have been working through the 3rd edition of “Managing Humans”, the engineering management book by Rands. I’m halfway through an interesting book on the adverse effects of goal setting, entitled “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned”. I am late to the scene in cracking open “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I will probably complete all three by end of January, since I’ve found all of them helpful in early chapters.

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      The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal – the meatiest book I’ve ever read about computer history. It’s long and somewhat dense, but pulls together a lot of threads that I knew about, but didn’t quite understand.

      Licklider was the head of ARPA, and an interesting character because his background was in psychology, as opposed to electrical engineering/mathematics. I think we lost some of this diversity of perspective in computing.

      A lot of this book is about the ARPA precursors of Xerox PARC – i.e. the networked graphical workstation, which we essentially all still use today! There is too much to list, but here are some names: Licklider, Skinner, Shannon, Bush, Turning, Wiener, von Neumann, Turing, Corbato, Minsky, McCarthy, Engelbart, Taylor, Sutherland, Cerf and Kahn, Metcalfe, Kay, Thacker, Lampson, Jobs, etc.

      I had known about the work of all these people, but this books weaves them together and gives a picture of them as people.

      I had read about Bell Labs history, which was concurrent with this. This is more MIT/California/ARPA history.

      I checked it out from the public library and couldn’t finish it in time. Then I bought a copy on Amazon for $70 or so!


      The Superman Seymour Cray – this is one side of the industry I knew very little about (supercomputing) Cray seems to be one of the last “lone inventor” types in the industry? He achieved some notoriety in the mainstream news as an eccentric genius who lived in rural Minnesota.

      Angel – Jason Calacanis. Some parts of this book are obnoxious, and I doubt I will put in the work to follow his advice, but it’s a good look into how a certain (important) part of the industry works: angel funding.

      Non-recommendation: I also read “Mind at Play”, the recent biography of Claude Shannon. It was OK, but I recommend “the Dream Machine” a lot more. It’s a bigger investment but you get more out of it.

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        I read The Dream Machine on vacation a few summers ago. Not your typical beach book but I was hooked! One part that I’ve been reflecting on recently is the relationship between acoustics (and psycho-acoustic research) and early computing. Does the Bell Labs book touch on this?

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          I definitely recommend “The Idea Factory”, which I read a couple years ago. It covers the same broad time period of almost the entire 20th century, but from a different perspective. The two books complement each other very well.

          I don’t recall if it touches on the relationship between acoustics and early computing. Licklider’s work seems to be the prime example of that, acoustics being a part of quantitative arm of psychology.

          Bell Labs was obviously coming at things more from a telecommunications perspective. But they almost certainly did work into acoustics, because IIRC one research project was to design handsets for end users of phones? The phone lines are somewhat designed around the frequencies that human voices fall into, as far as I remember.

          There is an interesting observation in the Dream Machine that Turing and Shannon’s work are “dual” – it’s data vs. code. Turing was coming at things from the perspective of computation to break cryptography. This was before von Neumann machines – stored program computers. Cryptography is obviously communication, but the code breaking is computation.

          Shannon was also pre-von-Neumann machine (which, as I learned in the Dream Machine, has some controversy around the credit given to von Neumann, and it had a patent dispute around it!).

          Conversely, Shannon had the perspective of transmitting information over channels. This involves information coding, which is computation, but the focus is on communication.

          But both Turing and Shannon reduced these real-world engineering problems to their mathematical essence. That connection between theory and practice is mind blowing and something we rarely see today.

          We now have robust notions of computation and communication, but back then they had to attack real problems without those tools! There was a long time before it was clear what computers should look like!

          EDIT: I just looked back on my notes from the Idea Factory. I wrote that I learned that vacuum tubes were used to amplify telephone signals across the country.

          I now remember an interesting story about the first phone call across the continental United States (east coast to California). And also some interesting stories about the first satellites.

          Some interesting stories about William Shockley and his problems getting along with people. The Dream Machine also has this kind of “inside baseball” – disputes for credit over ideas, etc. And it also has good stories about Claude Shannon.

          I even wrote that I was surprised that Bell Labs was even more innovative than Xerox PARC! Although, I’m not sure that comparison is meaningful now, and the ARPA history definitely affects the judgement.

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        I’ve only read Masters of Doom this year, I haven’t been reading much this year. I think someone else recommended this book here on lobsters, and I would very strongly recommend it, it goes behind the scenes of Doom’s development and id Software’s internal structure and how it influenced the games id developed.

        It’s about 350 pages, I think I finished it in about a week.

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          Lots of books on the coral reef these days! I get all my programming book recommendations from this community, so here are some titles from other areas of my reading life that have crustacean appeal.

          Two tech history books:

          Two books on contemporary technology:

          And two novels:

          • Nova by Chip Delany. Finally read this classic from 1968 and there is so much to chew on in 2017: post-work economics, cyborg spinal interfaces, race and racism after interstellar travel.
          • The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. Creeped-out horror set in a modern-day psychiatric hospital that flips “Cuckoo’s Nest” on its head.
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            Anymore book recommendations on the topic of computing history ?

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                Sure! :) Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray is a drop-dead classic. (The first edition came out in 1996 but they’ve since updated and expanded the book with contributions from other historians.) Or, for a deep dive on a single machine with an unusual story, check out Now the Chips Are Down, a history of the BBC Micro by Alison Gazzard.

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              • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
              • Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
              • All Systems Red by Martha Wells
              • The Red by Linda Nagata
              • Red Mars by KSR
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                I gotta say I enjoyed The Red too.

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                  2nd’ing Three-Body Problem. The sequel Dark Forest is great, too. The final book is not quite as good, but still very solid.

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                    Yeah I enjoyed the whole trilogy. It really reminded me of Clarke’s style.

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                  The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good by Sandi Mann. It explains her research into the psychological benefits of downtime and being bored, a good antidote to the “always be hustling” rhetoric of software’s burnout culture.

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                    The Dispossessed, by Ursula K.LeGuin

                    • a SF exploration of capitalism vs anarchism
                    • some very interesting and relevant discussions around the topic of the (un)intentional consequences of scientific/technological achievement

                    How Children Learn, by John Holt

                    • one of the earliest works by the founder of the “Unschooling” philosophy
                    • with a very young child under the wing, this is very practical to me; those without children but interested in educational psychology might also get a lot out of it

                    Category Theory for Programmers, by Bartosz Milewski

                    • reignited my passion for mathematics as distinguished from programming
                    • IMO very approachable book for anyone interested in Haskell, functional programming, or the abstract underpinnings of these paradigms

                    HMs: Haskell Programming From First Principles, Purely Functional Data Structures, The Little Schemer, People’s History of the United States.

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                      For a tech book, I enjoyed “Inventing the Internet” by Janet Abbate. It’s interesting how the net came to be, from military experiments (at least researchers presented them that way for funding), to testing ALOHANET, to the killer app (email) that took people by surprise.

                      That was one of the books on my tech reading list - https://begriffs.com/posts/2017-04-13-longterm-computing-reading.html

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                        I always list the best I read during the year as my Christmas book list.

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                          Awesome! Had to check book tag also since 2016 & 2017 are tagged books.

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                            Thanks. Your comment prompted me to make the tags consistent, e.g., book vs books, or even Just Christmas. So the other yearly suggestions are now listed on the same tag :-)

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                          Never Split the Difference – Chris Voss. Should be required reading for people expecting to negotiate, e.g. those doing job interviews.

                          Hyperion – Dan Simmons. Great science fiction, best I’d read in years.

                          Tell me how it ends – Valeria Luiselli. Heartbreaking short non fiction.

                          The most important thing – Howard Marks. Fantastic advice on investing from a bond guy.

                          Crossing the Chasm – Geoffrey Moore. Should be required reading for anyone at a startup.

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                            It would probably be Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler.

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                              Peter Hessler

                              Doesn’t look like it’s about OpenBSD though.

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                                Nothing about the great firewall?

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                              For fiction:

                              For non-fiction:

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                                Based on some recommendations here I read The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim. I really enjoyed reading it.

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                                  • The Fifth Season (Broken Earth series) by N.K. Jemisin. I’m charging through the second book right now. It’s the most interesting and well-written fantasy I’ve read in a long time.
                                  • The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim and The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. I see The Phoenix Project as kind of an IT and DevOps version of The Goal, and reading both books helped me understand the ideas better. I’m still not clear on how the ideas in these books can (or if they should) be applied to software teams (the scenarios in The Phoenix Project aren’t universal to software engineering) but I’d like to learn more about it.
                                  • Revenger by Alistair Reynolds. I typically like Reynolds, and this new universe is a welcome and interesting change from Revelation Space.
                                  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. A funny and haunting account of growing up as a mixed-race boy in barely-post Apartheid South Africa. Really a fantastic read.
                                  • Edited to add: Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. Superb account of an ill-fated Everest expedition, by someone who was there.

                                  I also read The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else seemed to. The ideas were interesting but the writing was so stilted (I know it was a translation).

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                                    A few draft picks for best book I’ve read this year (all them recommended by fellow crustaceans):

                                    • Interconnections: Bridges, Routers, Switches, and Internetworking Protocols by Radia Perlman
                                    • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
                                    • Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
                                    • The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds by John Tyler Bonner
                                    • Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis

                                    Worst book bar none:

                                    • Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee
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                                      Really good books:

                                      More serious kind:

                                      Kinda good:

                                      + more, but not worth recommending.

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                                        In science fiction, two books by Greg Egan stood out for me this year: Distress and Permutation City.

                                        Permutation City, in addition to being great sci-fi that explores simulation, simulated consciousness, and cellular automata as a computation substrate, also looks at deeper questions: what is consciousness, what is the meaning of life, what is the meaning of eternal life?

                                        Distress explores the possibilities of advanced biotech, but has a plot centred on a proposed Theory of Everything in physics.

                                        A really impressive thing about Egan’s books is how well they age. Both of these books were published in the mid-90s but they read as if he was extrapolating from 2017 - hardly anything seems out of place.

                                        In fiction, I really enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It’s a huge novel with many themes: grand adventure, horrors of war, military strategy, lost treasures, some detail on cryptanalysis & phreaking, a digital haven and a digital currency. As is usual with Stephenson, you have to like his style with many diversions in order to truly enjoy the novel.

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                                          Try Egan’s Diaspora and his recent Clockwork Rocket trilogy.

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                                            Definitely, Diaspora is an amazing book, and Clockwork Rocket is on my list.

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                                          Now reading Getting Things Done. Heard good things about it. Should be able to get good tips from it.

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                                            Going though my librarything entries of this year, things which I found worthwhile and look relevant to Lobsters:

                                            • Library at mount Char - Scott Hawkins: fantasy-ish, but very original.
                                            • Tau Zeo - Poul Anderson: classical SciFi, quick read, really great fun
                                            • The Apollo guidance computer : architecture and operation - Frank O’Brien: they did so much with so little
                                            • Binti - Nnedi Okorafor: another quick read. Fantasy/scifi
                                            • Lab Girl - Hope Jahren: the title explains it. Surprisingly funny and warm.
                                            • Exploding the phone : the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell - Phil Lapsley: Oh yeah, how the ancient US phone systems were hacked.
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                                              I got this recommendation from a podcast and was pleasantly surprised. There is so much in the book that I’ve enjoyed it and connected a lot of small dots for me.

                                              Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, 2011

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                                                I enjoyed Sapiens too. Relevant to the suggestion Harari makes about the shift to agriculture being a net negative, I recently saw an interesting critique of studies that concluded pre-agriculture humans worked a lot less than humans in later societies. Basically, it seems that a whole lot of food processing work that happened after collecting raw ingredients wasn’t accounted for. Once it’s accounted for, the amount of work goes up to ~35 hours per week IIRC. I wonder if that puts a dent into Harari’s argument.

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                                                I got the chance to read some scifi this year! The Rocannon’s World-Planet of Exile-City of Illusions trilogy by Ursula Le Guin were page-turning reads.

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                                                  Future Crimes by Marc Goodman and Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Both excellent books and relevant to the current time.