Books I have read (2011)

Posted on 31 Dec 2011 | Back to Bitloom home

Last year, as a christmas present, I bought myself a Kindle. It was an impulse purchase that turned out to be one of the most guessed purchases I ever did. Owning a Kindle and commuting by subway is the perfect way to read a lot.

This is the list of the books I read during this year (in alphabetical order) with a short comment for each one of them… Maybe this could give you some ideas about your next book to read.

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content (Mark Levy)

This book explains a very simple practice called freewriting. It consists in writing fast and continuously our thoughts without stopping for any reason. In this way you can put your mind in a “friction-less” state where thoughts flow without any “editing” done our brain (for example by correcting typos, or by censoring inconvenient thoughts). By writing stuff using this technique you can extract from your brain the un-edulcorated version of your thoughts and eventually come up with some great insights, ideas or solutions to problems. The book is very easy to read and proposes a lot of advices and exercises to try. The author suggests to do twenty-minutes freewriting sessions, which should be enough to brainstorm and get what you need to solve a problem. An interesting idea is that of a writing marathon, which consists in freewriting for hours… You need to train a lot before getting there but, if you do it, it could provide you answers that eluded you for a lifetime.

I tried to do several freewriting sessions and I found myself writing almost always about the same things, using the same patterns. This is very useful because it helped me to overcome these thought-patterns and escape from them. I should dedicate more time to freewriting because I think that it really has some value; the idea is to use it on a regular basis for brainstorming. This book is a great guide and I definitely recommend it.

Anything you want (Derek Sivers)

This book is about the entrepreneurial experience of Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, an online music store specializing in the sale of CDs and digital music downloads from indie musicians. It describes his journey from starting the whole thing as a hobby and working out to grow it as a business. The book is very interesting for two reasons: it honestly presents the successes and the failures, and provides a lot of interesting first-hand insights. What impressed me was the Sivers’ attitude at approaching things. He seems he really didn’t put money as an objective, doing things almost altruistically; and this paid off in the long term.

Einstein: his life and universe (Walter Isaacson)

I bought this book after reading Steve Job’s biography (see below) because it was written by the same author and I liked his style. I have never read biographies before, and starting with Einstein’s one seemed promising. This book describes Einstein’s life, personal and professional, and goes through all his achievements starting from his early years years at the Zurich’s Polytechnic to his annus mirabilis where he wrote the famous paper about special relativity. The book is very enjoyable and provides a lot of information about his life with several anecdotes; for example it’s not true that Einstein was not good at maths: it was very good indeed. The book also presents several technical details about Einstein’s theories which help the reader to better understand what they are about. Definitely a very passionate and interesting reading about one of the minds that truly revolutionized our modern world.

Freakonomics (Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner)

Freakonomics is a thought-provoking book: it takes some of aspects of our everyday life that are taken for granted, and presents them under a different light, usually with very surprising results. It has been written by an economist who loves to approach problems from different angles and the result is remarkable. It is written using an easy and funny style. While reading it I had a lot of “a-ha moments” about several topics I was used to think about in a “mainstream” way. You might find in the book a chapter dedicated to drug dealers titled “why do drug dealers still live with their moms” which explores the criminal life concluding that it is not that profitable as it seems, or another one about “how is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?” which reveals how agents actually work against the interests of their clients. Definitely a book that will change the way you think about the things that happen in you everyday life. Recommended.

Ghost in the wires: my adventures as the world’s most wanted hacker (Kevin Mitnick and William L. Simon)

This book is epic. It’s about Mitnick’s life and about how he became the most wanted hacker in the world. Mitnick goes through all his exploits, from when, as a kid, he started to experiment with the phone network, to when he became a wizard who was believed to be able to “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone” (which of course was not possible, but this is what a judge was thinking of him). The book has all the details and is breath-taking, above all in the final part when the FBI started to unceasingly pursuing him. It was epic when he described how he wiretapped the agents who were wiretapping him, or when he managed to call somebody directly on the prison phone that was used by prisoners to talk to their lawyers. A must read because besides the venturesome story it also teaches you about the risks and techniques of “social engineering” (i.e., the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information)

In the plex: how Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives (Steven Levy)

“In the plex” is Google’s history told by Steven Levy. It goes through the early days of Google, when they were just a bunch of people squatting a garage at one of the first employee’s place, to current days. The nice thing about this book is that Levy had access to inside information (as much as possible) and also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in Google’s headquarters, attending meetings, speaking to and watching people working there. A lot of details are given about the life at the GooglePlex, and about the most important events Google went through: the advertising business, the IPO, the China gate, the launch of new products like Google Books, and also the failures concerning social networks oriented products. There are also a lot of details about everyday life at Google, from the well known cafeterias and kitchens, to TGIFs. A very interesting reading for understanding how Google became one of the most powerful actor of the Internet.

Introduction to algorithms (Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest and Clifford Stein)

I haven’t actually read all of this book because it’s huge. But I keep it handy for reading some pages from time to time. It’s one of the best references about algorithms and data structures, providing the implementation details and complexity analysis for almost all of the basic algorithms that make our software work… Something that by using high-level libraries we tend to forget or ignore.

Land of Lisp: learn to program in Lisp, one game at a time! (Conrad Barski)

This is another epic book, one of the best book about teaching a programming language I have ever read. It’s different from all the others because it’s fun and teaches you how to program in (Common) Lisp by building games. One of the great things about it, besides the fact that it covers all you need for productively writing Lisp programs, is that it’s full of nice and funny comics. If you want to have an idea of what you could find in the book you can just have a look at the cover or go to the official website. And moreover it’s about Lisp, the oldest and the most powerful language ever invented :) A must have.

Linchpin: are you indispensable? (Seth Godin)

This is a Seth Godin’s book. I would call its genre as motivational/productivity pornography, one of those books that makes you feel better when you read it but finally doesn’t help you that much. Don’t get me wrong, there are several nice insights in this book, like the fact that our modern society is going towards a model where creative people are the ones who will “survive” and you’d better start to do creative things that make you indispensable. All the book is a refrain about this theme. It makes you think, but you don’t need an entire book for telling it. I won’t say that this book is not worth to read, but if you have spent some time reading productivity blogs or event Seth’s blog you will find nothing new in it.

Petit cours d’autodéfense intellectuelle (Normand Baillargeon)

This is a very handy book that contains very practical information about common fallacies, probability and statistics, scientific method and epistemology, and a final chapter dedicated to the mass media and their functioning. A useful reminder about how to critically approach and filter all the overwhelming information we receive every day. Very recommended.

Rework (Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson)

This book is another piece of emotional/productivity pornography. But it has a positive aspects: it tells the way 37-Signals, a very famous web company, approaches the problems we find when it comes to deal with work or managing a company and a business. The book is full of practices that really go against the trends: how to deal with meetings, how to manage work hours, how to hire and so on. A good read if you want to test new ways of doing your everyday job. Maybe some of these practices could help you improve what you do and how you do it.

Self-discipline in 10 days: how to go from thinking to doing (Theodore Bryant)

Like the previous book this one is a candidate to be another piece of productivity pornography but actually it is not. The difference between this book and the endless stream of books and articles I’ve read is that this is the only one that focuses on the deepest psychological mechanisms that make us undisciplined. It doesn’t try to deny them or to convince us that they have to be removed, but it simply says that these are part of us and we just need a way to use them to our advantage. I’ve found this a more honest approach with respect to the ones found in other books and articles I’ve read. The book is organized in an introductory chapter where the author explains what happens when we need to put ideas into action, and how our self tries to sabotage this step. The rest of the book is divided into ten chapters, five of which are about fears and the other five about sabotaging attitudes. If you need to improve your self-discipline this is really a nice book to read.

Six easy pieces: essentials of physics explained by its most brilliant teacher (Richard P. Feynman)

I got interested in Richard Feynman after having read something about him on a blog post. In this book he explores and presents in a very easy-to-understand way six different topics: atoms, basic physics, the relations of physics to other sciences, the energy conservation, the theory of gravitation and quantum behaviour. I’ve found the book very very interesting because Feynman was able to make a lot of links between these sometimes-not-easy-to-grasp concepts and our everyday life. I’ve found the chapter about the relations with biology and the DNA particularly fascinating. I recommend this book because it gives a lot of insights about how our complex world works, without being complicated.

Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)

This is Steve Job’s biography. I won’t comment too much on this because a lot has been already written about him and this book. What I can say is that I had a lot of “WTF moments” reading it: Jobs did really weird things in his life. What impressed me most was the fact that he used to cry publicly, even during company meetings; a side effect of his being too emotional. This book is surely a nice reading and, in my opinion, is a guide about what NOT to do and how NOT to behave when managing people and businesses.

The art of computer programming (Donald E. Knuth)

This is another book that haven’t read fully and that I keep handy for reading it from time to time: it’s the distilled knowledge of fifty years of computer science about fundamental algorithms, seminumerical algorithms, sorting and searching and combinatorial algorithms, beautifully typesetted using TeX and written by Donald Knuth. Nothing more to add.

The art of deception: controlling the human element of security (Kevin D. Mitnick and William L. Simon)

I bought this book because I got so excited about Mitnick that I wanted to read more. This book is about social engineering attacks, the ones that are carried on people instead of systems. It was through social engineering that Mitnick was able to do what he did. I was a bit disappointed by this book because it is basically a censored version of “Ghost in the wires” . It was written by Mitnick when he was on probation and he was not allowed to touch any computer. It basically explains how he did what he did, with a lot of omissions. The book is intended to be a security course about how to protect people from social engineering attacks, and it has a lot of comments about how to prevent them… But read “Ghost in the wires” if you want to know about the real thing :)

The art of strategy: a game theorist’s guide to success in business and life (Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff)

I’ve bought this book because at some point I got interested in game theory: “a mathematical method for analyzing calculated circumstances, such as in games, where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others”. This books offers a good presentation of the problems and the strategies to address many situations that can be dealt using game theory: from the prisoner’s dilemma, to the tragedy of the commons. It doesn’t contain too much formalisms and it’s written in colloquial style; a very nice reading for understanding how to handle complex problems that we can face in our everyday life.

The dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick) (Seth Godin)

This book is about quitting. Understanding when it’s worth to quit even though we put a lot of effort in what we have been doing. It provides nice insights about how to understand when we are sticking to something we don’t believe in, just because we are panicking or we don’t have the guts to do otherwise. Overall the book is quite redundant and many concepts are repeated over and over. It’s a nice read, but in my opinion it present something that could have been explained in a short blog article.

The nature of computation (Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens)

This is the third book that I read from time to time, when I want to look at the beauty and elegance behind the raw bit and bytes. It’s about the theory of computation. It has been written by having physicists in mind so it presents things in a very clear way without using too much formalisms. It goes through all the classic complexity classes, P and NP, touching NP-completeness, the P=NP problem, optimization problems and ending with quantum computation. The book and its content are simply beautiful.

Tout se joue avant 6 ans (Fitzhugh Dodson)

This book has been suggested by my wife. We are parents of a little girl and we got interested about what to do to improve our parenting skills (which, btw nobody taugth us directly). This book explains that a baby forms almost all his personality before her sixth year. It explains the different growth periods and their characteristics, what is good to expects during these phases and what is not. The book really provides interesting materials to think about and gives you warning about what can be the consequences of ignoring or misunderstanding baby’s needs during these phases. I was surprised to read that teaching the baby how to go to the toilet could be a traumatizing experience if not done correctly or at the wrong time. It was also nice to see that the author had the same opinion about toys as me (Lego FTW! :)) If you are becoming a parent or if you have a baby under six years, I definitely recommend this book.