I like to read. Here are some of the best books I've read recently, and why I'm willing to recommend them.

The titles are linked to more complete descriptions and reviews from Amazon.com. Is this advertising? Yes. Have I sold out? I don't think so, and here's why.

Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, 2001
Even for a sympathetic reader, his attitude can get in the way at times; it's better suited to film, perhaps. This book was written before 9/11, before the latest war in Iraq, so it seems dated in some ways, but the collection of facts he had to work from into early 2001 were damning enough. Read the details of how Jeb delivered Florida to W. (it was more than just the Supremes), the Wars on intelligence, Drugs, poor people, and on and on. He doesn't spare the Democrats, or Clinton/Gore, either; the last minute barrage of Executive Orders from the last administration was more of an indictment for what they didn't get done, rather than a grand finale. (Lest we forget, however, 3/4ths of the Clinton administration was post-"Contract with America"; they had a lot of help.) The book has a lot of funny stuff in it, but not so much funny ha ha when it's all said and done.

Voodoo Science : The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Robert Park, 2000
A readable journey through the hinterlands of pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and of course, fraudulent science. Park describes the "belief engine" that makes us think A caused B when B follows A in our experience, and how that has given life to homeopathy, perpetual motion shams and scams, cold fusion, vitamin O, scares of microwaves and powerlines, and assorted hoaxes such as X-ray lasers and magnetic cures. He's got the background to explain it all succinctly, and the personal anecdotes to make it interesting.

A Shortcut Through Time, George Johnson, 2003
Progress reports about quantum computing seem to make a big deal about a very small number of qubits. Johnson explains why that should be: a very small number of quantum computing elements would make for a very powerful computer, able to do things that are impractical or impossible with the machines we have today. It's not an easy subject to make understandable at the popular science level; Johnson does a good job of it in a short book.

The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong, 2000
An important book for understanding the historical roots, the rise, and the consequences of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, this book provides an exceptional overview of history we'd be better off not repeating.

The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper, 1999
Answers to the riddle of why so much software is so bad, and what can be done about it. His list of "polite" characteristics for software interactions applies to interactions in general: "Polite software is interested in me, deferential to me, forthcoming, has common sense, anticipates my needs, is responsive, taciturn about its personal problems, well informed, perceptive, self-confident, stays focused, is fudgable, gives instant gratification, and is trustworthy."

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcom Gladwell, 2000
Epidemics are characterized by contagious behavior, little changes that have big effects, and changes that happen rapidly. That moment in the spread of an epidemic when a little change precipitates a big effect in a hurry is "the tipping point." Gladwell's very readable exploration tells us more about the way we think and the way our thoughts get transmitted in social groups. Recommended reading for anyone who wants to change the world.

My Year of Meats, Ruth L. Ozeki, 1998
Everything else on this list is non-fiction, but my sister gave me this novel for Christmas. I may not be qualified to review fiction, given how little I read, but I found this to be a gripping piece of work. Ozeki's experience with two different cultures, the technology of videography and the industry of meat are an incredible combination.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, 2000
The Manifesto's writing is an amusing travel book for some, lightning bolts of insight for others (I don't know "them" personally), and an odd treatise in a foreign language to still others. It's sort of a midterm paper on what the web is all about, and what it's going to mean for the future of commerce. As reviewer Laurie Kalmanson wrote on Amazon, "reasonably butt kicking ... and a breath mint, too." I have an extended response to this book.

Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, 1999
Isaacs' principles of dialogue are participation, unfolding, awareness and coherence, and he teaches how to put these principles in action. A profound handbook for kindling the fire of conversation into a productive energy. I have an extended review of this book.

How We Know What Isn't So, Thomas Glovich, 1991
Some patterns of misbelief are predictable, and knowing about them may help us avoid them. Each chapter has multiple useful nuggets, grouped in provocative categories like "Something out of nothing," "Seeing what we want to see," and "The imagined agreement of others." Nice companion to Why People Believe Weird Things, a few items down.

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, 1997
The story of the 1996 Everest disaster that killed 12 people, from one of the climbers. Intense, gripping adventure into the "Death Zone" at the top of the world. Krakauer's attempt to document what happened, and who made what mistakes became a lightning rod for the pain and grief of survivors, but I understand his need to do it. The truth of it is that at these kind of altitudes, even the best humans are slow, weak and stupid; single-minded purpose is required to get there, but even with incredible mental and physical conditioning, the margin for error is tiny.

Grand Central Winter : Stories from the Street, Lee Stringer, 1999
What it was like to be a homeless crack addict in New York. A powerful story, well told, and (most likely!) an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.

Why People Believe Weird Things : pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time, Michael Shermer, 1997
By the editor of the Skeptic Magazine, most of it is "What Weird things do people believe, and why they are wrong." Alien abduction, Creationism, the cult of Ayn Rand, Holocaust denial, transcendant Physics. I clipped and saved his 25 fallacies in thinking, grouped into scientific, pseudo-scientific, logical and pyschological problems.

The Medusa and the Snail : More Notes of a Biology Watcher, Lewis Thomas, 1979
A collection of eclectic essays; just my thing. "Debating is what committees really do, not thinking. Take away the need for winning points, leading the discussion, protecting one's face, gaining applause, shouting down opposition, scaring opponents, all that kind of noisy activity, and a group of bright people can get down to quiet thought." Entertaining, witty, learned, insightful. His earlier collection, The Lives of a Cell : Notes of a Biology Watcher, won the 1974 National Book Award.

Inside the Tornado : Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting Edge, Geoffrey A. Moore, 1995
Some business fad books don't deserve a fad. This one does, and it's a good whack upside the head for marketing in the 90's and beyond.

Startup : A Silicon Valley Adventure, Jerry Kaplan, 1994
The rise and fall of GO Corporation, told by its founder. Some of why pen-based computing hasn't hit the big time, and a look inside IBM, AT&T and Microsoft. Not always pretty, but a real page-turner.

The Edge of the Unknown : 101 Things You Don't Know About Science and No One Else Does Either, James Trefil, 1996
Artful, 3-page descriptions of the frontiers of science. Now out in paperback.

Time : The Familiar Stranger , J.T. Fraser
Did you know that not all living things age and die? Sexual reproduction introduced that little side effect, with the benefit of speeding up the pace of change. What's the connection? Time looks different when you age and die, eh? Great book.

A River Lost : The Life and Death of the Columbia , Blaine Harden, 1996
If you want to understand the Pacific Northwest's "east side," this book is a fine start. Harden looks at the Columbia basin through the eyes of his father, who worked on Grand Coulee dam, irrigation farmers, barge pilots, windsurfers, Native Americans and more. Let's hope that we can figure out a way to keep this from being an epitaph.

Cadillac Desert : The American West and Its Disappearing Water , Marc Reisner
The definitive history of water in the West; power, politics, and dams.

The Moral Animal : Why We Are the Way We Are : The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Robert Wright
If we evolved, that implies quite a bit about the way we are. Wright uses biographical material about Charles Darwin to tie his exposition together in an entertaining way.

Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot : And Other Observations, Al Franken
I read the paperback, which has a few new chapters. FunNEE! He doesn't limit himself to the obvious target, either. A local author wrote "The Bum's Rush" a few years back detailing the deceptive techniques that Rush uses, but Franken makes it a lot more entertaining.

The Discoverers : A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself , Daniel J. Boorstin
We have the paperback, but the local library now has two copies of the illustrated edition. Might be worth re-reading, I enjoyed his grasp of history so much.

Genius : The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, J Gleick
Well written biography, with 48 pgs of notes, a Feynman bibliography, index. The story of a remarkable man in the center of 20th c. particle physics.

Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition : Science Slightly over the Edge, Ed Regis, 1990
Great title, huh? You hope a title like this won't be en empty tease. It's not. Read Howard Rheingold's review for a succinct invitation to a wonderful book.

Life in Moving Fluids : The Physical Biology of Flow, Steven Vogel
Less technical than engineering texts, this gives a better introduction to fluid mechanics, by being less obsessed with mathematical analysis (and yet doesn't skip the math).

Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich
I found this book stunning, and hard to put down. I'd like to find a copy to put in my library and go back to it again, after the ideas percolate for a while.

Things That Make Us Smart : Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Donald A. Norman
A proposal to have technology serve humans, rather than the current situation. Don Norman was briefly head of HP's Advanced Appliance Design Center in the Consumer Products Group, but doesn't really seem like a corporate guy.

Haven't had enough? There's more...

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Saturday, 25-Oct-2003 11:13:48 MDT