2015 books

December 31, 2015

Third in a series (2013, 2014), here’s the books I read in 2015. Following @aaronsw’s convention, I particularly recommend books in bold.

  • How I Raised Myself from Failure by Frank Bettger
    A sales classic that’s more a book about convincing than selling.

  • The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
    Beautifully-written novels about awful people doing horrible things. Recommended – with those caveats.

  • The Martian by Andy Weir
    I stayed up waaay past my bedtime two nights in a row to finish this book; the late nights might be why I didn’t mind all the potato-talk.

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
    I hadn’t read this book before (it seems many people read it at age 14?) and liked it more than I expected.

  • Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
    A strategy book that was sufficiently straightforward as to make sense and sufficiently novel as to not numb.

  • Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham
    PG’s essays before such things were popular. More about making and discovering than any specific form (e.g. startups) of doing so.

  • Who do you want your customers to become? by Michael Schrage One of those Business Review-ish pieces that is exactly what it claims to be.

  • The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
    Eh overall (I had trouble relating) though a few parts stung.

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
    I went into this expecting another Gone Girl, which it wasn’t. (Not all crazed female leads are created equal.)

  • A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
    Escapism with War of the Roses trappings. I don’t think I’ll keep reading these.

  • Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik
    I’ve read a half-dozen or so early histories of Silicon Valley, and though I know the stories now, it’s still interesting how they can be arranged for different authors’ aims.

  • All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
    Two entwined, beautifully-written stories of teenagers during World War II. You know what’s going to happen the entire time – World War II isn’t that much of a surprise, turns out – and it doesn’t matter.

  • Season of the Witch by David Talbot
    This book was supposed to help me better understand San Francisco. It didn’t really do that, but the stories were good.

  • The Gervis Principle by Venkatesh Rao
    I found this book’s outlook too dim, though perhaps I’d think differently if I’d watched more of The Office.

  • Le Livre de Perle by Timothée de Fombelle
    A YA novel to brush off my dusty French. Very YA.

  • Q’ai je fait? by Anna Politkovskaia
    Unpublished half-manuscripts from a Russian journalist who was murdered while reporting from Kosovo. You get the sense she knew what she’d done all the way through. (Originally written in Russian; it’s also available in English.)

  • Schitt Happened by Jason Stoddard
    If I ever talk about doing a hardware startup, remind me to re-read this book (in which everything goes wrong.)

  • The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey
    I went looking for another pseudo-smart science book, like The Martian, and came across this one. Its set-up was interesting (what if a fungus that co-habited with – and changed – humans blanketed the earth?) but it was more philosophical than I’d hoped.

  • The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop
    More stories of technology development and deployment from the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Likely worth reading even if you’ve already read other books of this sort.

  • Grinding it Out by Ray Kroc
    “Distributor” doesn’t sound nearly grand enough, but I suppose that’s what Ray Kroc is to McDonald’s. This is his autobiography. I’d have preferred a biography of his company.

  • A Small Matter of Programming by Bonnie A. Nardi
    I found this gem of a book from Adam Wiggins’ End-user Computing blog post, and it was absolutely worth reading. Very much one of those “what’s old is new” books.

  • Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
    Kinda hard to get into, but once I was in, I was hooked. It’s the story of a young Chinese (Uyghur) illegal immigrant and a kid back from two tours in Iraq. They’re running around Queens, and everything is the most depressing.

  • A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin
    Feel-good book about Rwanda that’s exactly what it sounds like it is.

  • eBoys Randell Stross
    This book isn’t worth reading for its ending (we all know how the late 90s Silicon Valley story ends) but for how much of it applies today.

  • The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
    Interesting set up (a meteor will soon hit Earth and wipe out humans; what would you do?) and meh murder mystery.

  • Avogardo Corp by William Hertling
    This future, according to this book, is exactly like the present except more extreme in a few ways, all negative. I was quickly bored.

  • Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
    How Pixar runs its development process, and, by proxy, how we all might be meant to. I didn’t love it as much as ~everyone else seemed to.

  • The Effective Engineer by Edmond Lau
    I wish I’d read this book three years ago, when I started to code seriously.

  • Swimming Across by Andy Grove
    An introduction to the myth that is Andy Grove by Andy Grove.

  • A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
    I wanted more James Bond, and a friend suggested this. Real life Cold War intrigue! It’s all fun and late nights carousing in Istanbul when you read it 50+ year later ..

  • The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu
    Profiles of people who are not often profiled: a leper, a twice-imprisoned composer, a professional funeral wailer, a human trafficker, a grave robber. The profiles are structured as interviews, so Yiwu becomes the book’s central character. He comes off as empathetic, curious, and optimistic about people in China.

  • One More Thing by BJ Novack
    Fun, quick stories and vignettes. The red shirt was one of my favorites.

  • Chief of Station: Congo by Lawrence Devlin
    Memoirs of the CIA Station Chief in Kinshasa during the Cold War. Glimmers of truth amongst the stories, probably, and very good for my James Bond fascination.

  • Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
    A war novel written during its war by a former combatant. From what little I can tell, the Iraqi characters have real depth – in some cases more than the Americans.

  • The Plan of Record by Wayne Holovacs
    I thought this was going to be a business-y book about how technology companies use Plans of Record. (Without knowing better, I’d mostly assumed the concept started at Intel because, well, what didn’t?) I’m not sure if such a book exists, but this book is absolutely not that. Stay away.

  • Networks of New York by Ingrid Burrington
    Cute pamphlet about the telephone, cable, and fiber networks that wind underneath New York City. Also: consumer surplus courtesy of Kickstarter! (I wasn’t an original backer, but I’m glad this book exists.)

  • Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
    Story was a bit meh, but I love Teju Cole’s writing, so I was pleased I read this. (I still prefer Open City, his second novel, though.)

  • Closed Chambers by Edward Lazarus
    Decent at what it is, though I wanted this to be more about the workings of the courts and less about a few key issues. Probably too long. This is one of those books that doesn’t age well.

  • Burma Chronicles by Guy Delise
    Another graphic novel from Guy Delise, who makes awful places seem lovely. This book’s got his hallmarks: confusing bureaucracies, unthinking police, friendly neighbors, and beneath-the-surface evil.

  • Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
    Larkin uses George Orwell’s memoir and 1984 (“the second book Orwell wrote about Burma”) to make sense of the Myanmar police state. I thought she made a crutch of Orwell; she wrote about finding him everywhere (a Burmese teashop, a university, a backwater administration point .. ) and shortchanged what she saw. (I know that was the book’s conceit, but still — too much!)

  • Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming
    Ian Fleming on his larger-than-life travels through a few global capitals in the early 50s. He’s racist, misogynist, colonialist, and generally atrocious – and then he does all that with the air of James Bond.

  • The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U
    Well-researched history of Burma’s last hundred-ish years, written by someone whose family has played a large part in it. The best nonfiction book about about Burma I’ve found.

  • The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
    Long fiction about several generations of an Indian-Burmese family, beginning during the British invasion of Burma in 1885 and continuing about a hundred years forward. Insanely detailed and researched, and it’s the places, not the characters, that make this book.

  • Voice of Hope by Alan Clements
    A series of interviews between Aung San Suu Kyi and Clements, an American ordained as a Buddhist monk in Burma. Worth skimming for her answers, many of which are quite good. Skip over the questions, as Clements inserts himself too often.

  • Sleep Donation by Karen Russel
    No Swamplandia! (Russel’s prior novel) but pretty creepy with some wonderful turns of phrase. Set-up: a mysterious, maybe-contagious epidemic of nightmares swept the world; babies’ sleep is an antidote – if you can get it.

  • Burma/Myanmar: What Everone Needs to Know by David I. Steinberg
    A nonfiction book structured as a Q&A. Don’t read this book cover to cover — it’s not meant for that. It’s mostly hawkish American foreign policy with little nuance. You should probably skip it.

  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
    I’d gotten it in my head that this book was going to be postmodern and bad: overly pleased with itself, obscure more than witty, etc. Instead, it was a mostly-normal story about the surprising loss of a parent.

  • Strategy Rules by David Yoffie and Michael Cusumano
    I didn’t buy into the overarching framework (too anecdotal for my tastes) but I enjoyed the stories about Grove, Gates, and Jobs.

  • The New New Thing by Michael Lewis
    An exuberant book about an exuberant time. I even read it quickly, thinking I’d miss out if I didn’t.

  • Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo
    I struggled through this one, though others liked it. A bit too much of an attempt to unify All The Things for my liking.

  • The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
    Science fiction from nearly a century ago. This book came highly recommended, but I never got into it.

  • Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
    Aung San Suu Kyi’s vignettes on her country and culture. The book is meant to introduce Westerners to Myanmar — a place that, as she was writing, it didn’t seem many would visit. Her stories about tea rituals, dinner menus, and family norms make the foreign more familiar.

  • The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming (re-read)
    I re-read this book, for the first time in two years, in a tent somewhere north of Sonoma, which seemed about right. It’s the sort of book that’s worth re-reading every year or two.

  • Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
    Eh. I’ll taken any episode from the first season of Girls over this.

  • Borderlines by Michela Wrong
    Fiction from one of my absolute favorite non-fiction authors. Her sense of setting and place – in this case, an imaginary country – remains amazing.

  • AA Gil is Away by AA Gil
    Blunt, short, funny narratives about far-off places. The chapters set in Africa were my favorites, but the whole thing was good.

  • A Thousand Times More Fair by Kenji Yoshino
    I never would have found this book if not for a friend’s recommendation, and I’m very glad I did. It’s the first literary criticism I’ve read in ages, and I enjoyed it.

  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
    Science fiction that, apparently, inspired the last ~four decades of science fiction. This book seemed full of tropes, but I suppose that says more about its impact.

  • The Money Game by Adam Smith
    Someday I’d love to write a book like this about early-stage venture. Until then, there’s Adam Smith and his memoir of Wall Street.

  • I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
    This book didn’t seem worth its page length, but a friend raved about it .. and I was wrong. It was a fantastic escape.

  • King Larry by James D. Scurlock
    I was so excited for this book, about the founder of DHL, and then it alternated between bland anecdotes and unsubstantiated indecencies. Blech.

  • Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
    Genius, madness, and repetition, all during two games of chess on an ocean liner. A gift; I wouldn’t have picked this up myself but am glad I did.

  • Essays in Persuasion by John Maynard Keynes
    Embarrassingly, I hadn't read Keynes before. I look forward to reading through his General Theory at some point.

  • The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
    Camus re-fashioned from the point of view of the nameless murdered Arab’s younger brother. (“My brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘the Arab’ forever.”) A good meditation on strangers.

  • Leading by Alex Ferguson, Mike Moritz
    I liked this book much more than I often do books of its type. I think its ostensible subject matter – British Premier League football management – pulled me through topics that ordinarily seem trite.

  • City of Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
    I agree with this book’s reviews: quite good and about 40% too long. It took me two months, and skimming a subplot and a half, to make it through .. but I’m still glad I did.

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    Coates explaining to his young son what “being black in America” means. The more you think this book wasn’t written for you, the more you should read it; you’ll not get a more encompassing explanation of the argument elsewhere.

  • Between you and me by Mary Norris
    Meditations on grammar from a New Yorker proof reader. I’ve never been much one for grammar, and I found this book fine.

  • Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
    The book from which that ceramics class parable came. There were a few other zingers in here too (“the function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”) Worth reading if you think of yourself as someone who might make art.

  • Shame by Melanie Finn
    A woman escapes to rural Tanzania after her marriage and more fall apart. With multiple narrators, some unreliable and others omniescient-ish, an odd dream sequence, and too many coincidences, this novel seemed to try very hard to be modern.

  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
    Not done with this one yet (still .. ) but I’m just over halfway through. Maybe next year I’ll finish it.

  • Principles by Ray Dalio
    I re-read this every year.

Education startups

January 19, 2015

From my online education work, I’m often asked how big online education businesses might be built. After recommending Avichal Garg’s post (which, if you haven’t read, you should!) here’s what I say:

Successful, fast-growing businesses are being built in education outside of teaching: Clever, Remind, TeachersPayTeachers, and ClassDojo are four I admire. All four build tools, and in 2015, if you want an education business that can grow quickly, build a tool that thousands of teachers could find useful.

If you want to teach, prepare for a slog. Teaching online is in an R&D phase: we don’t know how to teach online in an internet-native way, and we definitely don’t know how to monetize online teaching in an internet-native way. More bluntly: though teaching the world sounds great, no one’s figured out how to do it.

Teaching startups also seem to take longer than other startups. That’s not inherently bad, but it might be relatively bad. If you want a five-year success, start a B2B SaaS business; if you want to change education, maybe start a teaching-online business.

I’ve come to think about online learning businesses along two axes: audience size and proximity to a measurable skill. Audience size affects the service’s need to charge; you could make a small amount of money off each of a billion users, but with hundreds of thousands of users, you better (eventually) make a lot off each. Proximity to observable skills affects your ability to charge: obviously transforming people brings revenue; helping people begin something new is, optimistically, a less-clear business proposition.

(Like other two-by-two matrices, this one simplifies something complex. The world’s not this simple, but hopefully the framework’s still helpful.)

Square 1 (fewer people, closer to a demonstrable skill) holds “un-scalable lifestyle businesses”: bootcamps, finishing schools, and apprenticeship programs. These businesses often find product-market fit relatively early in smaller, cash-rich markets. They often don’t need venture financing, which is helpful beyond the obvious: these businesses tend to grow more slowly than venture-backed companies should. Udacity’s nanodegrees fall here today (but could move), as do companies selling online learning to schools and districts – those doing “enterprise sales to small businesses.” Online schools like Lynda and Craftsy started in Square I and have inched to Square 2 after years of content and audience expansion.

Square 2 (more people, closer to a demonstrable skill) is the Grail: teaching many people something valuable. The most promising efforts, so far, look like institutions rather than courses: Duolingo and its TOEFL killer, Coursera’s certificates, Lynda’s certificates, and Craftsy’s finished products. Square 2 resembles an idealized image of traditional universities.

Square 3 (fewer people, further from a demonstrable skill) contains most online learning products. Often these products could support hundreds of millions of students but .. don’t. Most people don’t want to learn most things most of the time, so these products don’t have widespread product-market fit.

Products that need particular environments for particular subjects (like online programming) gravitate toward Square 3. Most people don’t want to learn to program, and online programming environments don’t generalize well to other subjects.

No one sets out to build a square-3 business; it tends to happen because the market’s smaller than the entrepreneur thought. The primary way online education markets shrink is via geography: there’s (relatively) few Americans, and they’re not engaged consumers of online education. Change will come slowly: it’s not clear to most Americans that “better education” would solve their economic woes, or even that their current options are poor. In 2015, the greater leverage in online education – in users and impact – is outside the US.

Square 4 (more people, further from a demonstrable skill) includes education businesses that look like media or platform businesses. Most EdX and Coursera courses land here, as they charge institutions for course marketing and distribution and provide free courses; their product-market fit surrounds brand-building for institutions, not end users.


Today’s successful online teaching companies either resemble media companies or credentialing shops – or they exist at the mercy of their investors. Other models probably exist; perhaps there’s a way to get Farmville-style payment curves into education, a more-widely-applicable apprenticeship model, or something else. But for now, if you want to teach under the auspices of a for-profit company that’s supposed to grow quickly – a startup – you’d best attract hundreds of millions of learners or very obviously transform many students and be unafraid to charge.

The problem is that figuring out how to teach hundreds of millions at once, from scratch, is near impossible; empirically, you’d best figure out how to teach one person, then ten people, then more. That’s a Square 1 or 3 business, and it won’t grow like a startup. But it absolutely might be a successful business.


Thanks to Leng Lee, Geoff Ralston and J.D. Zamfirescu for reading drafts.

2014 books

December 29, 2014

Second in a series, here’s my 2014 booklist. Following @aaronsw’s convention, I particularly recommend books in bold.

Overall: I’m a bit ashamed; 2014 was my weakest reading year since a particularly bad year of college. I can invent exculpations, primary of which is Pocket – though I read more there than ever before, books are on the decline – this wasn’t the reading year I’d hoped. (As salve, here’s a few article recommendations),

You can absolutely see the arcs of the two areas on which I spent the most time – banking and programming environments – in what I read.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    This book’s phrasing is lovely (“I’m also going back to Nigeria to see my man,” Ifemelu said, surprising herself. My man. How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives that we have imagined.) but I never got into the character or the story.

  • Restful Web Services by Leonard Richardson
    Read after I’d spent a few days making an API for Laisin, so decently helpful and useful — but if you’re not already very interested in this sort of thing, this isn’t for you.

  • Principles by Ray Dalio
    Makes the simple point that anyone’s unlikely to be productive without being definite about a direction. I rather liked it, despite having found myself allergic to these sort of advi-memoirs in the past.

  • Getting Unstuck by Timothy Butler
    Basically what you imagine from the cover. Some of the exercises are decent if you’re in that sort of mood.

  • Jony Ive: the Genius behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney
    Eh. The Vogue profile provided more bang-for-word than this book.

  • Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle by Matthew Symonds
    Semi-autobiography né biography, tis a journalist’s account of Ellison’s life with Ellison’s footnotes throughout. The best ones were the sharpest, which confirmed what I’d already thought of Ellison. Many tl;dr into “no, I didn’t yell at him because I was jealous of him; I yelled at him because he was an incompetent fool.” A book that didn’t change my opinions.

  • Barron’s AP Computer Science by Roselyn Teukolsky
    Another reminder that life’s better outside of high school. Read with purpose though!

  • Payment Systems in the US by Carol Coye Benson, Scott Loftesness
    The book on the topic apparently. About as interesting as it sounds it’d be (unless you really really want to know about payment systems in the US.)

  • The Complete HyperCard Handbook by Danny Goodman
    It seemed remiss, given HyperCard’s cult status, that I’d never used the program. (HyperStudio, my third-grade love, seems decidedly Not The Same.) This guidebook was a three-in-one: software use guide, programming primer, and programming language design treatise.

  • Squeak by Example by Andrew P. Black, Stéphane Ducasse, Oscar Nierstrasz, Damien Pollet
    Another environment, another way of doing things. This one much loved by people whose opinions I very much respect.

  • Digital Bank by Chris Skinner
    I’m all for Kindle Singles in practice (even on the tweet record!) by this one felt a hoodwink; the chapters were disjoint blog posts that called to mind the “If I had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter” truism.

  • Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs
    One of those business books that says all the things you think it would. Also seemed to spend too much time justifying storytelling with anecdata; only those who already appreciate storytelling will pick this up!

  • Damn Good Advice by George Lois
    Pretty good advice, damn good advertisements. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know George Lois before being handed this book.

  • A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin
    Ahhhh, so this is what you’re all going on about. Actually quite fun and much better paced than I’d expected; you can tell Martin used to write television sitcoms. I haven’t read the sequels only because I feel I should be reading better things. (Dicey logic, I know .. )

  • The Principles of Banking by Moorad Choudhry
    This is a textbook. Not a new-age digital textbook. A textbook.

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
    Really, really wonderful writing. It didn’t take me more than 20 pages to realize that despite my reading more than ever before (mostly on the internet), I’m missing out on the lilt of literary fiction.

  • iOS Human Interface Guidelines by Apple
    Quite a good version of what it is, which is highly suggested, probably-shouldn’t-be-optional rules. Building products necessitates reading these at some point, I think.

  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
    It feels a bit cliche – certainly not contrarian – to recommend this book, but (in its near terms) I’d rather be cliche and right than contrarian and wrong. The most impressive part of this book, to me, is how succinctly the ideas are expressed. I can only imagine how many drafts were wrought and discarded.

  • Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
    I’ve enjoyed Osnos’ writing in the New Yorker for a few years now, so this book wasn’t exactly new – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I especially like it as a complement to Peter Hessler’s stuff; to generalize too broadly, Hessler profiles China’s everyman, and Osnos its shiny movers-and-shakers.

  • Superdistribution by Brad Cox
    Another entry for the “quite nearly, but not completely, predicted the future before it happened” category. Today, Cox’s predictions seem firmly 20 degrees off center, but I suspect they’ll look better if we start thinking of software engineering’s output as data, not code, and “prebuilt components” as APIs rather than salable blocks of code.

  • Concilience by EO Wilson
    Perhaps I know too little about too much to have enjoyed this book adequately; I found myself swapping the book for Google searches so often I lost track of what I read.

  • Think and Grow Rich by Napoloeon Hill
    A guide to getting rich, from the 1930s, which I discovered through George Packer’s The Unwinding. I found it better as an anthropology of robber-baron America than a financial management guide. The book’s suffused with the confident stain of “work hard enough and the riches will yours.”

  • Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
    Solid long-form journalism without the sex or drugs with which the genre’s usually associated; elementary-school kids in working class Massachusetts sub in for the Merry Pranksters, and Kidder’s not part of the plot. It’s also empathetic; after reading it, I better understood why teaching is so hard, and why online instruction has been so noncomprehensive.

  • Flatland by Edwin Abbot
    A book I should’ve read a decade ago, when one of my favorite high school teachers recommended it. Quite fun.

  • Coming Apart by Charles Murray
    I did well to take this book, like Murray’s others, at arm’s length; his descriptive statistics are solid, but they’re not necessarily complete, and his extrapolations are just that. Perhaps worth reading if you’re puzzling through “what sort of inequality matters?” questions after Piketty.

  • The Swift Programming Language by Apple
    A pretty good version of what it is.

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Cute, fun, and sorta interesting, though I wish it’d spent less time on the video games and more time on the world – where it came from, what it’s like, and how we might get out. But this is my perpetual wish of dystopian fiction, and you might like this one just enough for what it is.

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
    Much has been said already, so only two things more: it’s actually very readable — the sort of clear writing that comes from near-infinite revisions — and its research is quite good. If Piketty wins a Nobel, it’ll be for making cleometrics (economic history) a “real” field within economics; he and Esther Duflo are on my shortlist!

  • Reporting by David Remnick
    Remnick’s writing’s so good, and his subjects so interesting, it’s hard to do much beside praise this collection. Though – if pressed – I feel a bit guilty; these sorts of pieces can seem highbrow gossip rags. Is reading about Benjamin Netanyahu’s daily habits thaaaaaat different than reading about Taylor Swift’s?

  • Men, Machines, and Modern Times by Elting E. Morison
    Stories of technological diffusion within large organizations — the navy, steel factories, and dairy processors. Still feels more recorded lectures than a proper book but very much recommended if you’re into the topic.

  • Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha
    Great if you want 500 pages on Russia’s last two decades. Dawisha’s an academic, but the subject matter’s very James Bond (if the bad guys had won) and the writing is somewhere between dry and James Patterson (call it “damp?”) If all that sounds only vaguely compelling, read the book’s New York Review of Books review and the trashy articles about the oligarchs in the Daily Mail instead.

  • Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson
    Pretty good, by most definitions, but for anyone who’s familiar with IAS’ early years, this can’t help but feel a little tired. (Though, to be fair, it’s an infinitely more readable account of IAS than everything else out there.) If you haven’t read any Dyson, start with Darwin Among the Machines.

  • The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte by Robert Asprey
    The sort of history book I like: a decently linear story, based on primary sources that I don’t need to tease through myself, told in a novel-ish way. I’ve got the sequel (“The Reign of .. ”) but haven’t cracked it yet.

  • Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
    One of those books that quote-unquote predicted parts of the internet much before they happened: “The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description .. ” Probably worth reading.

  • America’s Most Successful Startups by Oliver Samwer
    A master’s thesis about what startups got right, and wrong, in the late 90s. Mostly interesting for what the author did later.

  • Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
    Desperately sad, beautiful writing about the pearly bits of hard-shelled people. Her Paris Review interview is also deadly.

  • Business Adventures by John Brooks
    I read these chapters on and off through the fall. My favorites were the Edsel and Xerox tales, though I’d recommend them all as a more-lighthearted storytime.

  • The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
    Super well written, super depressing – calling these characters “nasty, brutish, and short” would be too kind. It’s kinda Bret Easton Ellis meets Edith Wharton.

  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
    This one’s a bit of a cheat; I’m only midway through the third book as the year’s ending, which is less than 40% of the entire oeuvre. But given that’d be at least a book on its own in most other contexts, I’m including it now. I’ve learned a ton, and despite the logical reasons to abandon the book, I doubt I will.

I track books I’ve read in a spreadsheet throughout the year. If you know of a book I should read, do let me know!

Build products

December 4, 2014

Around this time a few years back, I started taking seriously the idea that I – not just one, but literally me – could build things on the internet.

I spent the first few weeks working alone from Hunch; starting alone has its benefits and drawbacks, as does every other tack. If you’re more the bowling-together sort, Orbital Boot Camp might be the place for you – and they’re accepting applicants for their second session until December 8.


About learning to program

  • Programming is the surest way I know to feel brilliant one second and idiotic the next.
  • There’s no easy or quick way to learn to program, just as there’s no easy or quick way to learn most valuable things.
  • Learning to program requires tenacity, not brilliance. Most professional programming isn’t rocket science, metaphorically or actually.
  • If you tell someone you’re going back to school, they get it; if you tell them you quit your job to code, they’ll think you’re insane. Enter Dev Bootcamp, Flatiron School, App Academy, Hackbright Academy, etc. – coding schools.
  • Use whichever programming language those of whom you can ask advice – friends, coworkers, a partner – know.
  • Don’t worry too much about the language choice. The point is to choose something with which you can start learning, not something you’ll use for the next 3-30 years.
  • Okay okay: start off with a stable, forward-looking, well-documented language. In 2014, this practically means Python, Ruby, or Objective-C. Save the Node, Scala, Go, Android, Swift, etc. for when you’ve better mental models and will more easily fill in documentation gaps. (PHP and Java are stable and well-documented, but they’re not very forward looking for a new, web-focused developer.)
  • Once you’ve chosen a language, start building your thing in it.
  • 3,000-line main.py files (or their equivalents) are, I think, a rite of passage. You get one.
  • Don’t worry about models or abstractions too much in the beginning. As you start writing code, you’ll stumble on all sorts of ways to improve what you’re doing.
  • You won’t write tests, because they feel like make work, and then you’ll make yourself very sad, and so you’ll start writing tests. As far as I can tell, everyone does this.
  • If you need a database, use an ORM. Google “[Python] ORM” and choose the one whose documentation you like best.
  • Using SEO to choose a framework/library/package/whathaveyou isn’t crazy: highly-ranked pages are a decent proxy for better documentation. When you’re starting out, you want good documentation.
  • Deploy your first projects on Heroku; it’s horribly confusing the first time through, but it’s less confusing than everything else.
  • Rebuilding a prior project in a new language/on a new platform is a helpful, if academic, exercise.
  • Write an API for your project if you want to learn about HTTP requests.
  • Computers are deterministic. Running the same code, on the same machine, hoping for a different outcome never works. Even if it seems like it will.
  • So it’s absolutely worth learning how the console/debugger in your environment-of-choice works. This will probably feel like make-work, but it’s not: you’ll speed future development and debugging.
  • When programming, the thing you’re making won’t work 98% of the time. In other disciplines – say, writing an essay – your thing isn’t broken most of the time, even if it might not be good. It’s odd in the beginning, but remember that things being broken, not just bad, is a characteristic of programming – not you.
  • Once you’ve finally got something working, you’ll often need to break it to do something new. This is painful, but if you got it working once, you’ll get it working again. (Version control helps too.)
  • If you can tell you’re hitting related errors/StackOverflow pages, it’s worth understanding how the underlying thing actually works. This is true even though it takes longer to understand something that to copy-paste promising StackOverflow code.
  • When you’re not building, read everything you can muster about your language – HN is a good source for posts. Don’t worry if you don’t understand much at first; you’ll pick up more over time.
  • Conversely, reading about entirely unfamiliar things (e.g. gdb debuggers when you’re all Ruby/Sinatra) will probably be frustrating.
  • If someone tells you that using language X would be a better choice than language Y, ask him/her if s/he’d mind showing you how their favorite thing in X works in both languages. The person’s being a doofus, but at least you’ll learn something.
  • Questions like “Express doesn’t work. What should I do?” are hard to answer (and ask.) Describing your problem and asking for direction is a better bet: “I put ‘Error: Route.get() requires callback functions but got a [object Undefined]’ into Google and can’t get any relevant results. What should I search for instead?”
  • If you can, put yourself physically next to a bunch of engineers in the beginning. Engineers like to talk to other engineers about what they’re building. When you look really upset, they’ll probably ask what’s wrong, too. (No one likes sitting next to an upset person.)
  • Get code reviews if you can, preferably from someone who’ll say “I see what you did there. Let’s do that part together” rather than “What were you thinking? Did you test X, Y, and Z? It couldn’t possibly have worked!”

About creating things

  • In startups today, there’s not a great conception of projects for projects’ sake. So even if you’re adamant you’re not starting a startup – you’re just building something for yourself! – most people will still think you’re starting a startup. (They’ll just assume you’re too modest to tell them.)
  • If you’ve left a job to make things, figure out a way to explain that to your parents.
  • When you don’t have a job, most will assume you’re not working. (In truth, you’re probably working harder than you ever did.) Don’t be mean to these people – they’re confused, not malicious.
  • Like most decisions, this one wasn’t as risky as it seemed. If you’re the sort of person who can afford to quit his/her job to make things, everything’ll be okay regardless of how this all turns out.
  • That said, this is one of those things that’s easier to do in college than after. And it’s easier to do without a family than with one. But whatever your situation: thousands of other people have done this. Given time and effort, you can too.
  • If you’ve graduated from college, most people – including those who work with startups – will tell you that you shouldn’t do what you’re doing: you’ll never be as good at making things as those who’ve done it longer, and you should specialize in whatever you’ve been specializing in. How correct they are is up to you.
  • Start by making something you want.
  • Forget what everyone else wants. They want a product and – at least initially – you want to learn.
  • The first thing you make probably won’t work; neither will the second or, probably, the third. This is all okay.
  • You’ll make bad things. You will eventually, if not immediately, realize they’re bad. Keep going. (cf Ira Glass.)
  • Turns out everything is bad initially, so where things start doesn’t matter; what matters – all that matters – is how quickly they improve.
  • Since the first things you make will be bad, it’ll behoove you to abandon them; you’re learning too quickly to spend time on rescue missions. Here’s my list.
  • Cycling through projects can come off as dilettante-ish to others. Ignore them (to the extent you can.)
  • Keep a daily changelog in the beginning. You’re learning more and faster than you realize.
  • Making anything good is exceedingly hard, which most people don’t understand; they just wonder “why everything sucks.” Gravitate toward people who’ve made things before. They get it.
  • It’s worth figuring out what makes something “good” to you. (For me, it’s something at the intersection of “valuable,” “useful,” and “fun.”)
  • If you don’t have definite ideas about what you’re building, abandon it. There’s too many other things to build and learn, and doing so is sufficiently tough without having impostor syndrome about the product too.
  • Friends are great and will try whatever you put in front of them once. Many will not come back. Don’t resent them for it.
  • Most friends won’t tell you your thing is bad or why it’s bad. Keep close to those who do.
  • Find your 1,000 True Fans. You probably don’t know more than three yet.
  • Having users is essential if you want to make anything good. Launching is not. Often, “getting users” is conflated with “launching,” but they’re pretty different.
  • You can learn things from a dying product that’s further along – say, one that’s built but will never have many users versus one that’s in progress with no users – but you’ll learn more when you’ve got a living product (and you’ll enjoy everything infinitely more.) Best optimize for a living product.

Learning Online

September 29, 2014

That we’ll learn school-ish things on the internet seems inevitable, but most people seem not to learn very much or very quickly online; Sebastian Thrun admitted as much in a Fast Company interview a few months ago. To figure out how computers actually could help people learn, I spent the summer teaching students and building software.

This post is about the summer: how much students learned, the software I built that helped them, what worked and didn’t, and where I think we should go next.

Curriculum

AP Computer Science seemed a good place to start. We’re still pretty bad at teaching programming, and programming presumably lends itself more naturally to computer-aided pedagogy than, say, geography. Programming is also horribly — and unnecessarily — unfriendly to beginners.

It takes eight months in a classroom to cover the AP Computer Science curriculum. It took me 20 hours in person or over Google Hangout to do the same. I’m neither brilliant nor in possession of a killer methodology; learning is still hard – very hard. And though the software I built helped (I needed to explain, debug, or unstick each student less as it improved) students still had to slog through problems they’d never seen.

The College Board offers a standardized curriculum for the AP CS class and an annual test. High test scores often grant college credit at a public university – which means, very tangibly, needing fewer credits and tuition dollars to graduate – or a “you took a hard class” gold star (though no credit) at a private university.

The AP Computer Science curriculum is standardized and small; it’s an introduction to object-oriented programming in Java that stops at ArrayLists.1 It’s unimaginative, but there’s curriculum, textbooks, and labs scattered online. I ended up centralizing some of the best I found and made in a free, open-source repository: Teach APCS

Java is a poor language for beginners; its syntax is obtuse and foreign-looking, it makes graphics unnecessarily tedious, and it requires the heavy Java Virtual Machine. But because it’s the language of the AP test, more schools teach it, and it’s a better choice for beginners than learning nothing.

For all the hemming about programming languages, the hardest part for these students was solving puzzles in English, not Java. Often, they’d skip to the Java, glossing over their logic. This didn’t work, but “forget Java for a moment; what are you trying to do in English?” and “How would you explain what you’re trying to do to a 5 year-old?” were the two questions most likely to unstick them. Once they explained the logic – “go through all the letters. If you find an A, swap it with the prior letter” – the Java came easily.2

Why code?

The AP Computer Science test is a carrot for high schoolers, but it’s not a very tasty one. The students who take the class either have been coding for awhile, though probably not in Java, or are motivated by the AP credential but don’t yet understand computers.

Before beginning, I asked students what they wanted to make, if they could make anything:

  • “I would make an app that would help people in need.”
  • “Animate a film”
  • “An awesome videogame”
  • “Time machine”
  • “a tool to learn a subject on your own if you are unhappy with the class in school that the school would accept for credit.”
  • “An application that helps improve networking on many different things.”
  • “A train network that was fast, efficient, and safe, and connected all of the us with minimal stops.”
  • “I would make a cure for cancer, that causes no pain for the patient.”

Some of those ideas lend themselves better to software than others, but more striking, I thought, was how general they are; there’s no “I’ve been dreaming about making an app that does X” or “I really want to make a webpage for Y, this idea I’ve had.” So many of today’s learn-to-code tools focus on making specific apps or sites, but these high schoolers hadn’t figured out what they wanted to make yet. They just thought coding might be fun.

Why not code?

Scary “code or be coded” rhetoric haunts some of today’s learn-to-code initiatives, which is ridiculous; you shouldn’t learn to code if you don’t actually want to. You’ll not be eaten by computers any more than folks were eaten by electricity 100 years ago.3 More practically, learning anything new is hard, and Catholic guilt (“Oh, I really should learn it though ... ”) isn’t enough.

I don’t mean to be dissuasive though; writing software can be excellent, and — I feel strongly about this — you should know you can do it should you want to.

Meta learning

Overall, it was surprising how quickly students learned. Those who hadn’t yet learned calculus seemed to learn faster, which isn’t crazy: variables and functions in math and CS are related but not the same, but students who weren’t confronted with the difference didn’t think about it.

By the end of the summer, the stronger students were those who had made more mistakes: they’d tried more things, compiled more bad code, hit more runtime errors, and confused the REPL more soundly. Their banging produced better mental models, so they could anticipate what code would do when run. (If environments like Xcode Playgrounds and LightTable succeed, tracing through full programs in your head might become a party trick, but it’s necessary today.) When students experimented in logical ways, they developed confidence in solving problems with code.

Undirected banging (aka “type random things and maybe it’ll eventually work?”) is worse than unhelpful; it’s demoralizing. Without any ideas for how programming’s pieces hang together, computers are incomprehensible. Letting a motivated person loose, unguided, on today’s programming tools is probably the fastest way to exasperate her.

What we did

Tutoring started with two hours of guidance through a REPL, with only primitives, no variables, to impart a sense of the underpinnings of programming. (“Why’s division weird? When you fire up a random number generator, how long until you can get a random number? How does substring work exactly?”)

A REPL is a simple environment to explore tools; inside one, it’s easy to try new things, and messing up doesn’t break anything or take much time. The REPL’s prompts, honed by tutoring, introduce new tools and suggest things to type. Hitting return runs an experiment, and the feedback’s instant. Students quickly began to develop a mental model of what it means to talk to their computer. Here’s an automated version of what I did:

REPLs are limited — no one writes a full program inside one — so we moved to simple scripting in the editor. We used code snippets that built on the tools they’d learned in the REPL, like this one:


int wallet = 100;
System.out.println("I have $100");

while(wallet > 0){
    wallet = wallet - 25;
    System.out.println("Spent $25.");
}

System.out.println("No money left!");

That’s Java written to be understood, without nice things like graphics, a visual language, or step-through evaluation. Before being run, the snippet was wrapped in a main method and class so only one new thing — while in this case — appeared.

When you ask a new programmer what that code does, she’ll probably tell you it “Spends all the money in the wallet and then tells you there’s no money left.” Ask how many times it’ll spend $25, and she’ll say 4. Indeed, that snippet prints:


"I have $100"
"Spent $25"
"Spent $25"
"Spent $25"
"Spent $25"
"No money left!"

Then, ask her to modify the code so that it prints what’s in the wallet immediately after it spends $25:


"I have $100"
"Spent $25. I have $75."
"Spent $25. I have $50."
"Spent $25. I have $25."
"Spent $25.  I have $0."
"No money left!"

Change the code a few more ways; each time, the student’ll get more comfortable with the while tool. Piecemeal introductions, like this one, allow learners to build up a set of tools and the skills to use them.

Tools in hand, we began solving puzzles; students made Magic 8 Balls, Bitcoin, Hangman AIs, Chatterbots, and more. They made these things on their own, using the tools they knew, and their successes were sweet because they took work. Here’s a speedy video of a student solving FizzBuzz:

Early conceptions of computers’ power focused on machines’ ability to augment human intellect, but some learn-to-code initiatives seem to take a dim view of learners; they preference typing over problem solving, and their “problems” deal with swapping variable names or values. Ask people to re-type or edit text in single-line text boxes, and they’ll do so really quickly — but they’ll only become bored. Equip people with tools, then ask them to solve puzzles — even trivial ones, like FizzBuzz — and learning might become valuable.

Tools that helped

A beginner who’s never ridden a bicycle doesn’t want training wheels; she wants a rideable bicycle. Similarly, I don’t think there’ll ever be a successful beginner’s editor; there’ll be editors that beginners can understand that programmers use too.

Unfortunately, most editors aren’t so smart and aren’t so easy to use. Their standard interface is borrowed from the command line, which is neither friendly nor forgiving, and it doesn’t acknowledge what makes code different from text. What you actually want is an editor that’s both smart and easy to use.

Here’s a few ways editors can be nicer for everyone, including learners. All the demos take place in an environment I made, but the same principles could be applied elsewhere:

Code Snippets

Go directly to the tools that interest you. They’re grouped by what they do rather than what they are because that’s how you think anyway.

When you click one, it’s inserted into the editor, as you see it — example text and all. (Autocomplete snippets work the same way.) The placeholder text gives a starting place; it’s a lightweight nudge to recall how things work.

Inline REPL

As you type in the editor or use code snippets, that code’s loaded into the REPL. The interplay between the REPL and the editor lets you chisel your code as you write it, which is powerful; you need not wait until it’s done to use, and you can experiment as you’re coding in a way that’s not possible otherwise.

Explanations

Every word in the editor explains itself when you hover over it; these make code more understandable, so you can concentrate on genuine programming concepts rather than fancy terminology. They transform the editor from a dumb mirror to a more helpful guide, and they’re especially helpful to those unfamiliar with programming’s 10-cent words. They’re not meant to replace formal instruction though; if you’ve never heard of static methods, but have to use one, a tooltip probably isn’t going to explain enough. But the tooltip does give a better starting point than a confusing term amongst a sea of confusing terms.

Variable explorers

Two of the trickiest concepts for this summer’s programmers were variables and variable scope. Prior environments have tackled these with variable boxes and colored method backgrounds. In my experience, neither were quite right. The best explanation I found was showing variables directly in an explorer. Then the environment tracks the variables and values, underneath a header of where they’re seen. It also leaves the computation to the computer.

Lints and error translations

Lints and errors help, so long as they’re comprehensible. That often means parsing text from compilerish to English. (When tutoring, this was one of students’ primary frustrations — “yes I know my program is broken, but I can’t understand what you’re telling me about it being broken.”) There’s good reasons that compilers speak compilerish, but there’s very few good reasons for humans — especially those starting out — to learn compiler.

Comparing classes to spreadsheets

Classes are strange and seem useless at first. The analogy that works — and that everyone understood — is spreadsheets. A class is a sheet, its attributes are columns, and constructing an instance means filling in a row. Here’s a simple example:

Here’s a few instances:

Going forward

Much tutoring and building later, the idea became simple: if you show people how programming works, and guide them toward thinking systematically, they’ll learn on their own. Most programming tools don’t help students think through logic, experiment quickly, and recover from failed experiments, but they should. It’s what the fastest learners do on their own.

I’m optimistic there’s more to do in online education, across subjects, especially when we think about inciting and feeding students’ curiosity. Allowing students to mull puzzles and stumble on solutions worked for me this summer. That’s not a new idea; Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms — published in 1980! — advocates it. But it seems not to have been pursued whole-heartedly, and my summer implies it has a good chance of succeeding. We’re still in online learning’s early days, and we can already see glimpses of what works; we just have to let students guide us.

Try beta software and stay updated

Contact me

If you’re interested in working on these tools, let me know.


I tutored some students for free — generally, girls who’d attended a Girls Who Code summer camp and wanted to keep learning — and some students for fee — generally folks who replied to my Craigslist ads. I also help teach an AP CS class in an SF public high school through TEALS. Some of the teaching is in Java, and some in Python, but it all hewed to the material on TeachAPCS.

[1] What’s left? you might (reasonably) ask. Not much. There used to be more — searches, sorts, preliminary Big-Oh, Hashes, and LinkedLists — but the College Board dropped all that because so few students took the test. But that’s not quite fair; it wasn’t the students’ fault. So few students took the test because so few teachers taught the material.

[2] When you start programming, you quickly realize how much intuition you have — and how much a computer doesn’t. What, for example, does it mean for two things in a list to be adjacent?
“Two things are next to each other?”
“How do you know if two things are next to each other?”
“(Because they’re next to each other? )”
“What if you have them in an ordered list already? Then how do you know they’re next to each other?
“Their positions in the list are one off?”
“Okay ... what does that mean?”
“Well, the thing in list position 2, what’s that next to?”
“The things in positions 1 and 3?”
“So it’s like position number plus one and position number minus one?”
“Ah, okay, in that case ...”

[3] If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you absolutely should read Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, which includes gems like:

Electricians often joked about the public’s “wild views” about electricity, but some in the industry considered this ignorance no laughing matter. Journalists and politicians with half-baked ideas about electricity were bound to demand the impossible from electric companies and stir up public fear and resentment against their business. Better education seemed the answer, and many industry leaders called not only for technical training for electrical workers and engineers but the addition of electrical science in the high school curriculum. The public’s irrational fear of electric power was bound to fade, these men hoped, when “wider education” gave more Americans a chance to explore and understand electricity for themselves.

...

The [electricity] industry had much to gain, of course, from what it called this “high mission,” since it would cultivate young people eager and able to contribute to the growth of the business. By the turn of the century, various electrical trades employed nearly a million people, making electric light and power one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing industries. Progressive educators did not care so much about producing good employees for the electric companies, but they agreed that every American student should receive at least the rudiments of a technical education.


The most solo-seeming efforts often owe the most to others. Tremendous thanks to: Barbara Andersen, Ryan Bednar, Tom Blomfield, Christina Bognet, David Boylan, Libby Brittain, Avi Bryant, Britt Caputo, Gary Chou, Peter Coles, Patrick Collison, Harold Cooper, Leigh Ann DeLyser, Georges Duverger, Eric Florenzano, Pamela Fox, Leo Franchi, Avichal Garg, Elad Gil, Erik Goldman, Jonah Greenberger, Marc Hedlund, Oliver Ho, Bob Ippolito, Vichi Jagannathan, Joy Kesten, Nina Khosla, Evan Korth, Sasha Laundy, Dana Ledyard, Greg Leppert, Roxanne Leung, Roddy Lindsay, Ted Lee, Hannah Ma, Amjad Masad, Naseem Makiya, Ben Newman, Akshay Patil, Peter Pawlowski, Ben Plesser, Jason Prado, Geoff Ralston, Myles Recny, Josh Schwarzapel, Star Simpson, Jon Steinback, Matt Spitz, David Tisch, Matt Wahl, Albert Wenger, Ryan Williams, Fred Wilson, Tash Wong, Christine Yen, and Ivan Zhao.

2013 books

December 31, 2013

Inspired by friends’ year-end booklists, I put together my own for 2013. Following @aaronsw’s convention, I particularly recommend books with bold titles.

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
    Fantastically good and recommended, even if you don’t think of yourself as someone who reads “books like this.” Boo’s a lovely writer and keen observer – in this case, of slum life in Mumbai, though her New Yorker essays (e.g. on lower-class Oklahoma City) are also worth hunting down.
  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
    If you’ve got a tie to East Africa, you’ll probably like this book; if not, you can skip it. The writing kinda has an MFA-program tone I don’t love.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    I really, really wanted to love this: two times Booker winner, Tudor drama! (a favorite of 12 year-old me), and an author for whom it’s easy to root. I just ... didn’t.
  • Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
    I’d heard great things, but I found it plodding and full of solipsism. Perhaps you’ll like it more?
  • River Town by Peter Hessler
    One of my favorite books of the year. This is the two-years-in-the-peace-corps bildungsroman that everyone tries to write and no one pulls off. Hessler’s versions is empathetic toward the people around him and toward his foibles and triumphs. I came away liking him a good deal, which I think of as high praise for an autobiography.
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
    Sugar-sweet dystopian fiction centered on an imperfect, teenage heroine. Better than the Hunger Games though it’s no Giver or Brave New World. More than the book, check out the author’s blog – she’s super likable!
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
    A short book about making movies in Hollywood. It feels out of date and thin, though I’d be very interested in an updated version.
  • One Room Schoolhouse by Salman Khan
    Succinct retelling of Khan’s ideas, though you’re probably better off watching his TED talk and other public speeches.
  • Mindstorms by Seymour Papert
    How children could learn better with computers, first published in 1980, and mostly relevant today. That it’s still relevant is either a testiment to the book’s timelessness or the sludge we’ve called education innovation – I’ll leave that determination to you – but it’s worth reading if you’re interested in these sort of things.
  • Human Capitalism by Brink Lindsey
    A Kindle Single that argues for follow-on effects to both the accumulation of and a lack of human capital. I’m sympathetic to the argument, so I both liked the book and found the policy proposals reasonable, though I’d be curious how someone else less sympathetic to the broader points finds it.
  • How Children Fail by John Holt
    Apparently a decently-well-regarded critique of hierarchical education systems like the US’s, but I thought most of the arguments were tilting at strawmen.
  • Shopcraft as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford
    I think this book’s over-arching themes are good ones – that seeing the immediate effects of your work can be valuable, that returns to “making something” can be greater than those to “thinking about something”, that American education tends to skew towards “thinking things”, etc. – but the narrative felt heavy handed.
  • Hard Landings by Thomas Petzinger, Jr.
    A history of the US airline industry. The portrayal of airlines in 1970s reminded me of tech today: it was the high-flying (ooooooof) industry that attracted all the bright young things – until realism and regulation dashed it all.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
    Worth reading, even if you think you know what it says. (It won’t take you more than 90 minutes!) The biggest take-away, for me, is how thorny gender in the workplace is and how good intentions are painfully insufficient.
  • Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows
    A short book on the Chinese language and one linguist’s efforts to learn it. This book doesn’t try to be anything but fun facts and small anecdotes, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.
  • Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows
    Ten essays that together are supposed to let us in on the secrets of Modern China. The essays are well-written and interesting, but they’re a better mirror to Fallows than they are to China.
  • The Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert
    An update to Mindstorms, sortof, which you should probably read instead.
  • Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
    Not Hessler’s best, but his not-best is better than most everyone else’s best. Alternate title: “dispatches from a young journalist in China in the early-to-mid 2000s.”
  • The Bo Xilai Scandal by the Financial Times staff
    A collection of the FT’s reporting on Bo Xilai’s downfall, up to his wife’s trial. It’s well reported, full of detail, and a decent counterpoint to more pro-China sources.
  • The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan
    The novel opens with all of China waking up, ostensibly after a night’s sleep, to a month that’s gone missing from public record and private consciousness. There’s an inkling something terrible happened during the forgotten month, but most are too happy to question it. The premise, though far-fetched, made it easier for me to empathize with life in today’s China. This book was banned – and so is very popular – in mainland China.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Closer to the mind of a psychopath than I hope I’ll be for a long while. Compelling, suspenseful, etc etc, but not a book that stuck with me.
  • Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born by Keith Gesson
    A great introduction to the modern book business and how hard it is for writers. Gessen’s friend, Chad Harbach, is the article’s half-protagonist, which makes the story that much more humane. Very much made me want to stay out of publishing.
  • A Life Decoded by J. Craig Venter
    Venter’s done more than most people – first to decode the genome, first to create what he’s calling synthetic life, etc – and he’s well aware of it. As much as I admire those things, I didn’t like him very much by the end.
  • A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
    A conceptual history of Mumbai, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Dubai. The book holds together better than I thought it would, though I found its best bit the historical perspective; reading it, you realize the descriptions of St. Petersburg from the eighteenth century aren’t all that different from contemporary descriptions of Dubai.
  • Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World by Allison Graham, Robert D. Blankwill, Ali Wyne
    A collection of interview and public-speaking excerpts from Lee Kuan Yew. Worth it if most of your China news comes from American or European sources (as mine does), though you’ll have to skip the first fifth of the book – it’s all blurbs from world leaders praising Yew. (Including all of them is an odd decision; he so obviously earned the praise that the lot of them comes with a feeling of “why protest so much?”)
  • Hidden in Plain Sight by Jan Chipchase and Simon Steinhardt
    I think this book was meant to sell more consulting work, which is really too bad, because Chipchase’s blog used to be great and inspired much of my early design work.
  • Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French
    It’s hard to tell how partisan Patrick French is to the Tibetan government in exile, but his allegiance certainly isn’t to the Chinese government. He offers a decent mouthpiece for the Western, free-Tibet lobby though I’d recommend reading Peter Hessler’s 1999 essay on Tibet instead.
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russel
    I loved Swamplandia!, Karen Russel’s first novel. This short story collection is good but not what I’d hoped, though in her defense, that still means it’s better than most other short story collections.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
    Fun fluff. I found the “Harry Potter for adults” catchphrase mostly accurate.
  • Strange Stones by Peter Hessler
    By the time this came out, I already knew I’d read anything Peter Hessler wrote; this essay collection proved I’d re-buy and re-read stuff I’d already read for free.
  • Free to Choose by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
    Libertarianism from the source. The Friedmans make compelling and succinct arguments. Worth reading because they argued their points better than anyone has since.
  • The Age of Edison by Ernest Freeburg
    A really great history of technological diffusion – in this case, of electricity in the United States. Touches on reasons electrification proceeded faster in the US than Europe (more state sponsorship and more tolerance for accidental electrocution) and electricity as a social phenomenon (electric companies petitioning for electronics education in primary schools – not because everyone will be an electrician but because everyone will need to understand electricity in the modern world. (Sound familiar?))
  • Kern and Burn by Tim Hoover and Jessica Karle Heltzel
    Interviews with interaction designers and web entrepreneurs, talking about how hard it is to make things and how they do it anyway. Provided a peek into creative processes, which I wish I got more often.
  • It Will Be Exhilarating by Dan Provost and Tim Gerhardt
    The Kickstarter-campaign book, written by two of Kickstarter’s early superstars. (Provost and Gerhardt kickstarted both the Gliph and the Cosmonaut.) Short and does what it says it does.
  • Everyday Technology by David Arnold
    More academic than I’d hoped, but if you’re into stories of technological diffusion, this might be a book for you. Covers the bicycle, sewing machine, typewriter, and rice mill in India.
  • Computers and Society by Richard Hamming
    Published in 1972, Hamming talks through the impact he thinks computers will have on society. In retrospect, he was both directionally correct and too soon; many of his predictions felt fresh in 2013.Example:

    “There is little doubt that the process of consolidating our information files is now going on at a rapid pace. Not only are large corporations doing it internally, but as mentioned before, various governmental agencies are gradually doing the same. What it is necessary to find out is how far people who understand the two sides of the argument are willing to go, and where, and tow hat forms are they prepared to say: ‘stop, this is going too far. We prefer the inefficiencies and their attendant cost to the other less tangible losses that will happen.’”
  • The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming
    Part electronics explanation (not for me, perhaps for you) and part how-do-you-do-interesting-things? advice (very very good.) If you’re into this sort of thing, check out Hamming’s “You and Your Research” in text and video.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
    Ostensibly a book about baseball but really a book about perfecting a craft. (In an interview, Harbach said he wanted to write about writers but recognized most people find them too boring.) I don’t like baseball very much, but I really, really liked this book. Unfortunately the ending’s a little wonky, though it’s pulled off better than others of its sort.
  • And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared by Genrich Altshuller
    Invention hacks from a Soviet dissident. Probably more striking when it was published, as it seems most of these principles have filtered into hashtag-entrepreneurship pop culture.
  • Les Cendres d’Oublie by Carina Rozenfeld
    Decently sure this series is the French version of Twilight. Probably written for 12 year-olds, which is about the level at which I read and comprehend French. (Basically: all win!)
  • After the War by Christopher J Coyne
    Reminded me why I wasn’t a political science major.
  • The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
    Aaaalright. In her late 40s, Thomas returns to the remote piece of the Kalahari Desert where she spent her teens with her anthropologist parents. The book’s mostly a lament of the Bush culture that villagization, alcohol, and “Western ways” destroyed; though her descriptions of the Old Way that had been practiced are lovely, I wish she’d turned that empathy on more modern practices too.
  • Average is Over by Tyler Cowen
    I’m an unyielding Tyler Cowen/Marginal Revolution fan, and I’m sympathetic to the symptoms the book describes, but I think Cowen’s solutions are a bit off – though he did suggest reasonable policies, rather than pie-in-the-sky dreams. (Though: as we welcome our robot overlords, why don’t we prepare more people to work with robots? Also why are the robots coming on now, rather than five years ago or five years hence?)
  • Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson
    Filled in gaps I had on the first ~two decades of Microsoft. I came away with the impression that Gates and co. were both very very good and had little idea things were working as well as they were.
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
    I liked the portrait of Smith and Mappelthorpe, but I loved the rendering of 1970s New York.
  • Onward by Howard Schultz
    Business platitudes. Shoulda guessed from the title.
  • The Everything Store by Brad Stone
    The best of the three entrepreneur-in-Seattle books I read this fall. The parts about Bezos’ father felt unnecessary and intrusive, and the parts about early Amazon and the web’s Wild West were my favorite.
  • Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell
    Eh. I knew most of this book’s material, either from other books or news reports, but it’s a decent introduction to professional cycling and its Lance Armstrong fiasco if that’s the sort of thing in which you’re interested.
  • Beta China by Hamish McKenzie
    Solid reporting, though I’d hoped for more analysis.
  • In An Uncertain World by Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg
    Rubin’s life has been interesting, though his recollections feel prepared and airbrushed; this is a filtered autobiography. More interesting were the examples of his probabilistic point of view in which good decisions are “good” because of their process, not because of their outcome. (Not a novel idea, I know, but Rubin’s examples played out on a larger scale than most.)
  • The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol
    Published in 1993 and does what it suggests. Pretty fantastic depiction of how far we’ve come.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by JK Rowling
    Re-read. I’d forgotten how much of the book is spent searching for the hollows.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling
    Re-read. Much plot movement.
  • The Unwinding by George Packer
    Another of my 2013 favorites. Packer uses character vignettes to sketch his point – America’s middle class is disappearing, and we’re all becoming less content – without moralistic thwacks. If only Jimmy Carter had had Packer’s nuance.
  • Made in America by Sam Walton
    Sam Walton’s autobiography, which isn’t as self-congratulatory as most books of this type. You can probably skip it.
  • Masters of Doom by David Kushner
    Lighter on the drama and detail of id software than I’d expected. I’d also been hoping for the story of how gaming rose to a mutli-billion dollar industry, but this book wasn’t that either.
  • The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White
    Felt like a book from its era, the eve and onset of World War II in Britain. This was more a philsophical treatise, touching on why men can be evil and told through animals and allegory, than a fantasty novel.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History, one of my favorite books, so I was unreasonably excited to read The Goldfinch (published: October 2013.) I enjoyed it; it’s well written, gloomy, long (784 pages!), and more uplifting than I’d anticipated. If you’re trying to decide whether to read it, Stephen King’ NYTimes review might be helpful. (But really: just give it a go!)
  • How Asia Works by Joe Studwell
    Basic premise: North East Asia developed because of 1) land-reform policies; 2) industrialization policies that supported infant industries and required them to compete globally; and 3) finance policies that supported all this. South East Asian countries messed up one, two, or all three of these things and were “left behind.” While I’m sympathetic to the argument, I’m skeptical of the comparative treatment: how much was this a book about development policy in Asia, versus development policy anywhere? For if this were a globally-focused book, I think the conclusions would change; in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, you see smallholder farms and what Studwell calls “gardening,” but you don't see more than subsistence farming. Is that because gardening “doesn’t work” everywhere, gardening must be coupled with state investment in marketing, distribution, and technology, these governments failed to industrialize, or something else?

If you’re curious for bookish updates on a more-than-annual basis, I also track books I’ve read in a spreadsheet and on Laisin.

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