This is a place to consolidate book recommendations.

I'm reading The Logic of Failure and enjoying it quite a bit. I wasn't sure whether I'd heard of it here, and I found a post here called Great Books of Failure, an article which hadn't crossed my path before.

There's a recent thread about books for a gifted young teen and a slightly less recent discussion of books on cogsci thread which might or might not be found by someone looking for good books.

So, what books or lists of books do you recommend?

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My picks, some of which have already been mentioned. I would classify these all as "viewquake" books for someone who hasn't encountered the concepts in them before.

  1. Godel, Escher, Bach - gets a huge credit for sending me down the rabbit hole of "what your brain is actually doing", though like others I'm not sure if I would like it as much on a second reading.

  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - Stoicism at its best, I count this as the most motivational book I've ever read.

  3. The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert Simon - retreads topics that are probably already somewhat familiar to LW readers, but still has one of the highest insights/page ratios I've ever seen.

  4. 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene - instrumental rationality in the social arena.

And one dis-recommendation:

  1. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander - the concept of "design patterns" which gets quite a bit of mention nowadays got its start here, but this book is a mess. The support Alexander uses to back up his choice of patterns is laughably sparse, often completely wrong and picked to support his somewhat warped sense of eco-morality. Avoid.

48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene - instrumental rationality in the social arena.

Greene appears to assume worst-possible social equilibrium to justify the book, unnecessarily IMO. Clearly there are societies where people are more altruistic and trustworthy than others, but in a fairly decent society they are still useful for defense at the very least. On the other hand he's more honest than Cialdini, who pretended all of his methods are defensive, while greatly benefiting from booksales to manipulators.

I've only read bits and pieces of Godel, Escher, Bach but I certainly mean to read more. I'd borrow it from my parents, but my father (who showed me the Crab Canon when I was ten) is reading it to my fourteen year old little brother, and I'm certainly not about to interrupt! Maybe once I get around to paying back my library fees, yeah?

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - Stoicism at its best, I count this as the most motivational book I've ever read.

Wikipedia lists seven popular english translations. Is there a particular one you can recommend?

I grabbed "A Pattern Language" from the library and enjoyed skimming it. I also considered it overrated; I've been avoiding "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" largely because it's recommended by the same people.

I second avoiding "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It's definitely overrated: the arguments are unclear and not very well justified.

I like the idea of design patterns, just not the hubristic treatment they get in that volume.

On the other hand, I strongly recommend his "Notes on a Synthesis of Form", which discusses cognitive and cultural constraints on the design process. It's short, sweet, and full of insights as to why design generally sucks.

Zen and the Art I liked when I read in my pre-LW days, but on reflection it's an almost perfect example of huge, self-consistent networks of beliefs that don't correspond to reality.

The powerful characteristic of Chris. Alexander's 'A Pattern Language' is not immediately obvious - the patterns themselves are not rigourously researched (the authors admit this, and use a rating system to make it clear their own level of confidence in their proposals), and many do not stand the test of time. There are a few which seem to me to be worth paying deep attention to, but I won't go into that here.

The real invention is the idea of a pattern language. What it is. The work of an architect involves dealing at a wide variety of scales, and along the whole gamut from subjectivity to objectivity. It involves crossing and re-crossing between a number of only loosely related sets of systems; all with the aim of producing something acceptable in terms of function, aesthetics, economy and constructional/structural viability. In short, it is a complex task in an irreducibly (this side of any putative singularity) complex environment.

Humans are not good at dealing with complexity - there is well established research on the limits of the human brain in handling more than a few ideas at once. This is why reductionist practices have served us so well. However, reductionist practices are all but useless in complex environments, unless you are happy to ignore aspects of that environment which you can't handle- the error of the logical positivists.

Pattern languages offer a tool for managing our understanding of a complex environment, without self-defeating reduction (the error of Notes on the Synthesis of Form: in order to arrive at his tree-like diagrams of problems, Alexander had to develop an algorithm that decided which of the relationships between parts of the problem which had been identified should be ignored. The approach of 'Notes' involves deliberately ignoring parts of the analysis of the problem).

Each pattern allows for reductive thinking at an appropriate level of perspective, while the explicit links maintained between patterns at larger and smaller scales in a non tree-like 'semi-lattice' help maintain in consciousness and in the design process all the connections which make the situation complex in the first place.

I will admit to being an architect.

Wow, can't wait for the unknown gems this discussion will bring up!

Anyway, some of my own; these are all non-fiction.

  • Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is such a magnificent book, introducing all the wonderful solutions that evolution has come up with, and the insight that the battle for the 'survival of the fittest' takes place at the level of individual genes (or is at least a powerful model for understanding things)
  • Jared Diamonds' Guns, germs and steel which suggests that there are non-racial/non-ethnic reasons for the differences in wealth and power amongst various regions in the world. I think the writer's claims go a bit further than his evidence warrants, but nevertheless a good way to look into this field, and provides a lot of food for thought
  • As mentioned already, Hofstadters Gödel/Escher/Bach and The Mind's I (bundle of essays of various writers, redacted together with Daniel Dennett) are playing with all these interesting concepts like conciousness, AI, meta, self-reference.
  • Also Richard Feynman's work is fantastic -- the auto-biographic (You must be joking, Mr. Feynman and What do you care what other people think) are inspiring. I plan on going through some of his real physics works (like the Feynman lectures on Physics). Just seeing some of the interviews on Youtube show how well Feynman is able to make both complex and simple things understandable, at all levels; such a towering intellect.
  • For computer science stuff, earlier I mentioned SICP, which I am currently re-reading.
  • Then, Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming; I have read much too little of it, but it's such a rewarding experience to (slowly!) go through a few pages and finally the 'click' of understanding. I plan to read more of this. Knuth is truly the master of the field of programming and algorithms, and while reading it, I can almost feel how it sharpens my brain.
  • Finally, a lot of bad things can be said about pop-psy, but I really liked Dan Ariely's books (Predictably irrational and The upside of irrationality) that show where the classical picture of people being rational, homo economicus, has its limitations, and all the weird biases we have. He has some interesting TED-talks as well.

Voted up for The Selfish Gene. I really like the way Dawkins looks at the world. It's a good illustration that innovation can be very low-tech -- he got a revolutionary idea just by reading about birds and monkeys and thinking a little bit.

If you're going to read Diamond, I recommended also reading The Ultimate Resource by Julian Lincoln Simon.

I highly recommend Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. From a rationalist perspective, it is enlightening for its strong scientific approach to history -- a refreshing change from school history textbooks which are written like an exceptionally dry novel, with a single canonical narrative.

Collapse is good as well, yes. The only small issue I had with GG&S is how it goes a bit too eagerly from a plausible cause for differences in the world to ruling out any other, say ethnic or cultural influences. The writer may or may not be right about that, but it seemed he was a bit too committed to what he wanted to show. Anyway, only a small thing, the book is great still.

For a lot of examples, have a look at the Wikipedia article on Easter Island. Though the evidence he gave seemed incredibly strong, apparently it's quite disputed that they suffered a pre-colonization collapse at all.

I agree.

GG&S has crossed the line from "exploring possibility" to "fanatical propaganda."

I realize he just wanted to rebut The Global Bell Curve, but it's poorly done.

Collapse, on the other hand is great, especially if you read it in conjunction with its clear inspiration, Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons"

With regards to Collapse: Err, really? A fair number of Diamond's points are outright false; for example, his timing of the colonization or (and therefore the arrival of rats to) Easter Island is completely wrong- and, if I recall correctly (it's been a few years since I read Collapse), Diamond explicitly pointed out that the age of the (single, unique) site he was relying on to date the arrival was in question, before dismissing the critics without an argument.

I heard an interview with Ariely that was quite good. It appears that he agrees with the LW consensus on heuristics & biases, only he has a severely annoying habit of defining "rationality" too narrowly, as naive self-centred cost-benefit analysis. It really irks me when people conflate the two.

I would recommend listening to the TED talks linked over "Predictably Irrational". I feel like the books don't really go into much more detail if you grok the talks -- a couple new experiment anecdotes is about it.

SICP, Selfish Gene, Feynman esp. Lectures on Physics are all great.

TAOCP - I've read 1 volume only. It's unfortunate that he used assembly code rather than psuedocode. The material he's recently released on permutations/combinations/partitions/etc. is beautiful. I expect there are better, more concise surveys available now, but I doubt anyone will beat the quantity and quality of his problems (with solutions).

GEB was entertaining. I've been meaning to reread it to see if it still impresses me or if it's really just virtuoso hand-waving.

Mind's I didn't leave much of an impression on me.

I'm currently reading Introduction to Bayesian Statistics, which is an introductory statistics course taught from a fully Bayesian perspective. It seems very good so far, though I can only evaluate it from the perspective of someone who actually needs an introductory stats course; I don't have much to compare it to.

Edit: Does SIAI have an Amazon affiliate code? I'd format my links accordingly if so, and others might like to as well.

Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett's The Mind's I is now available for free online. It's essentially a huge collection of interesting articles and thought-experiments, from all viewpoints, on theory/philosophy of mind, with H&D's materialist/computationalist commentary. A pleasure to read.

I've read Dennet's Consciousness Explained, which covers similar territory, but more in answers mode than questions mode. Aside from the extensive review of the cognitive science of the era (which I assume has held up?) most of the arguments as such shouldn't be news to anyone who's read the zombie sequence, but the devil's in the details, and the details have really affected my meta-meta-cognition. But what really made it enjoyable was that I read Peter Watt's Blindsight thereafter.

Any other science/science fiction co-recommendations?

This is a lovely book. What a shame that Blogspot sort of munges the formatting. It's worth buying.

This has actually gone public, without any request not to say anything, so I trust it's OK to mention it to anyone who finds themselves here and doesn't know yet. I know I'd want to know! :-)

Eliezer has completed the first draft of his rationality book based on his two-year sequence of blog posting on Less Wrong, packed with hundreds of pages of novel content.

The manuscript is over 280,000 words long (over 500 pages) and has been split into two sub-books. The next steps are thoroughly editing the text and moving towards publication.

Yay! :)

This has actually gone public, without any request not to say anything, so I trust it's OK to mention it to anyone who finds themselves here and doesn't know yet.

This is poorly worded enough that I'm not actually sure what you're saying. I have a tentative prediction that you were trying to say something like 'Eliezer has said to some acquaintances and public that the first draft etc.; as he did not request them to maintain the privacy of his statements, I am making it further public since I know many people are interested in the progress of his book.'

packed with hundreds of pages of novel content.

over 500 pages)

Hrm. I would have expected the sequences to have made a good 300 or 400 pages after editing and polishing...

two sub-books

What are sub-books?

What are sub-books?

I think it just means "two books". (A previous round of HPMOR Author's Notes referred to "my nonfiction rationality book which seems to have turned into two books actually", and refers to "the books" for the rest of the paragraph.)

The sequences add up to somewhere over a million words (I haven't counted precisely, this is a rough guess). For comparison, Lord Of The Rings is 450,000 words. So cutting it to a mere 280,000 in two volumes is quite good going.

I make it 1056054 words, but that will be over because "wc" will be counting HTML markup as words.

A number!

What do you get if you run it through lynx --dump or similar first?

Well, what I meant was that I couldn't see how one could add hundreds of pages of new content to the lengthy sequences and still wind up with something in the 500-600 page range. 2 volumes at 500 or 600 pages each is more plausible, although if the sequences really are >1 million words, I'm not sure about that either.

two sub-books

What are sub-books?

I suspect the word SIAI were after was "volume" :-)

What are sub-books?

I suspect the word SIAI were after was "volume" :-)

\subbook{} sounds suspiciously like a new LaTeX command. Perhaps Eliezer took some time off from writing his treatise in order to work on his typographical system?

Now that would be a tour de force to bring attention to EY's works ...

I have a tentative prediction that you were trying to say...

I wasn't trying to be specific with details, but sorry if I communicated badly. It was announced on the Singularity Institute Newsletter.

The 2nd & 3rd paragraphs are direct quotes, I know no more than that.

Eclectic lists can be fun. Here are a few titles:

  1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca;
  2. Obliquity by John Kay;
  3. Mistakes were Made but Not by Me by Tavris and Aronson;
  4. Master and Margerita by Bulgakhov;
  5. Social Cognition by Ziva Kunda;
  6. The Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux;
  7. Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz;
  8. Knowledge and Its Limits by Tim Williamson;
  9. Dilemmas by Gilbert Ryle; and 10.The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger

I recommend Edward Tufte's books on information visualization (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations). I'm surprised that I haven't seen these mentioned on LW before (except in passing once or twice). They're short but full of clear thinking about using graphic design to effectively communicate scientific reasoning. And even if you don't think you have much to learn from them, they're still beautiful books.

(I've heard his newest book, Beautiful Evidence, is not as good and mostly recycles material from the other three.)

His books and his one day graphics class are both excellent. There is some noise in the signal. The best part of his class:

he has a first edition of Galileo's first "natural philosophy" book and he has one of the employees at the venue (after donning white linen gloves) pass the book before the face of each student for fifteen seconds. The book is open to a particularly ingenious use of graphics by Galileo. He uses a number of Galileo examples in the books and in his class.

Also he has a hilarious demo on the misuse of powerpoint.

The worst part of the class: he has a bunch of slides showing off the metal sculptures (fifteen or twenty) that dot his huge Connecticut home site. If you are apathetic toward the aesthetics of modern art, your eyes will glaze over and you may be wondering what the numbers on financial statements are.

His treatment of the misuse of technical data presentation leading to the NASA space shuttle disasters is a classic in biased wrong reasoning.

Second the vote for Tufte's books, which are extremely well done and almost unique in their contents.

Also second the criticism of both his latest book and his seemingly insatiable desire to show off his lumpy metal art (pictures of it fill several pages of "Beautiful Evidence").

Computer sciences (General Introduction):

  • Marvin Minsky, Computation Finite and Infinite Machines
  • Michael Sipser, Introduction to the Theory of Computation
  • Charles Petzold, The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
  • Michael L. Scott, Programming Language Pragmatics

When I moved back to the US from Japan, I made an ordered list of the books I had to determine which ones to ship home. This is the top ten:

  • Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  • Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
  • Taleb, The Black Swan
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Thomas & Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth
  • Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Wolferen, the Enigma of Japanese Power
  • Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I've read Meditations.

Many wise aphorisms and thoughts there. Would recommend it for tougher times, as with any other stoic in general. Don't read it when feeling incredibly happy, or you are bound to have your emotional state flatten.

I go through Meditations on a regular basis. I have found it to be singularly uplifting. It has never "flattened" my emotional state at all, but I'm not surprised that flattening is an outcome for some readers.

It's possible that the translation you're using gives the text a morose tone. On the other hand, I've enjoyed both of the translations I've read (My current one is Maxwell Staniforth's and George Long's.)

Pirsig's book is brilliant... I recommend that to everyone as well...

Kavalier and Clay was very good - much better than his other (Yiddish Policeman's ...)

Cholera wasn't great.


Proofs and Refutations by Imre Lakatos, seconding JoshuaZ's recommendation

Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, and Science and Method by Henri Poincare

The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee

Journey through Genius and Euler: The Master of Us All by William Dunham

The Book of Numbers by John H. Conway and Richard Guy


The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

Never Let Me Go and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Contact by Carl Sagan

Niels Lyhne by Jens Peters Jacobsen

Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Songmaster by Orson Scott Card

Seconded "Never Let Me Go" and "Songmaster". I enjoyed "Contact" but the writing was not so great.

I have Notes from Underground, but haven't yet read it. Would you tell me what impressed you in it?

This might be old hat for the crowd here, but I've just discovered Karl Popper and I'm working through his collection of talks and essays, "Conjectures and Refutations." It contains a lot of very clear insights about the philosophy of science and its application to political and historical questions; the two most interesting pieces to me so far were one on Hume's problem of induction, discussing the difference between acceptance and logical certainty, and one on the development of the scientific mindset in Greek-era philosophers. I strongly recommend it if you're interested in such topics.

I also recently read Marvin Minsky's "Society of Mind", which is just a fantastic book. It's a very fleshed out introduction to some of Minsky's ideas about how surface-level phenomena of the mind like memory, learning, and volition can be explained through a model of the mind as a hierarchy of tiny agents with very specific goals that communicate among themselves. It's amazingly written; completely accessible, written in simple language, but every paragraph has a thought-provoking concept about something or other. (The single flaw is that it doesn't really reference a lot of actual research or data; it's more or less just laying out some food for thought based on our intuitive understanding of our mind.) I would pretty much recommend it to anyone at all.

Finally, I read Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game" -- although Hesse has been a favorite of mine for a long time, I never got around to that one -- and I found it to be the best fiction I've read in a year or two. You can head to wherever for a summary, but I highly recommend it to anyone. I suspect the premise will especially appeal to the sort of systematizing, truth-seeking folks around here.

Funny. I love Hesse, but found "The Glass Bead Game" to be incompetent SF by a literary genius who unfortunately thought that he was inventing the genre and thus didn't know how it should be done. OTOH, in general I find that when established literary authors dabble in sf they usually botch it terribly while winning great acclaim for it.

Minsky is fabulous. Popper is fairly interesting, from a historical perspective.

I also have a pretty jaded opinion of that same category of dabblers in science fiction, but I didn't really perceive Hesse in that light.

I identify "science-fictiony" books as being not only about technology, but about unusual, daring ideas taken to their logical conclusions; e.g. Borges and Calvino would usually qualify. But I didn't find Glass Bead Game to be focused on that; I found the most gripping parts of the book to be Knecht's intellectual and spiritual development, and how each of the characters negotiated the balance between a life of the mind and the rest of the world. Not very SF.

However, it's true that the big "idea", the Game itself, was immensely attractive to me, in a science-fictiony way, and maybe in a narcissistic way. I wish Hesse had been alive to learn computer programming; perhaps he would have had something to say about that.

Makes sense. I suppose that my objection is not to idea fiction being done by literary types (I like Borges a LOT) but to world-building done by literary types (other than David Foster Wallace, but he's more the 'genius-polymath' type), which is what I really think gets the critical acclaim despite being pretty uniformly awful when compared to even competent SF.

This is the nth time someone recommends me Borges. Although I have never felt particularly attracted to his writings by sampling pages of his books, I am reaching some kind of irresistible threshold I am about to cross. Will read something from him.

I liked "Glass Bead Game" very much (but not as much as "Anathem").

I've been reading a lot this summer; a lot of it has not been particularly Less-Wrong-themed, though.

For people who have a math, cs, or electrical engineering background, "A Wavelet Tour of Signal Processing -- The Sparse Way" by Stephane Mallat is a very useful overview of recent research that you'd otherwise have to chase through papers, written with more verve than any textbook I've ever seen, and yes it can change the way you see the world.

Other summer highlights:

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (essentially, built to spec especially to entertain me. Kinda dumb in places, but mostly fun.)

Vietnam, Stanley Karnow (the war was very, very weird. Can be a "rationalist" book in the sense that it's a historical exercise in how smart people can reason poorly.)

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote (if you've only seen the movie, this is infinitely more serious and poignant.)

The Possessed, Elif Batuman (a memoir of life as a Slavic Literature grad student. Lots of memoirs have funny anecdotes, and so does this one, but what's special is that Elif also gets across her intellectual excitement.)

Exiles, James Joyce (yep, he wrote a play. I have a thing for Joyce and I read this like five times in a row.)

The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem (a novel about growing up in Brooklyn in the 70's. If you want to know what great contemporary writing looks like, here it is.)

Generation of Swine, Hunter S. Thompson (I just love having his voice in my ear.)

The New Testament (long delayed but I really needed to read it. I've just gotten through the Gospels so far.)

Good and Real: This is pretty much LW in book format.

Influence: The psychology of persuasion: It's a biases and heuristics book.

A Farewell to Alms: Economic history, presenting a generally Malthusian view of world history, and crediting genes with the Industrial Revolution, with overwhelming amounts of data. I've seen people essentially get high off this book. (Inspired by djcb's recommendation of Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Influence was quite good (can't comment on others).

science fiction recommendations

Anyone care to distinguish between rationalist science fiction and science fiction rationalists are apt to like? I don't think Card has huge amounts of rationalist content.

I have a category of cognitive fiction-- fiction which rewards thought. I think cognitive fiction is mostly likely to be found in mystery, sf, and historical fiction, though there should be some in every genre.

I recommend Mary Renault's The Persian Boy. Who knew that the difficulties of putting together an empire of the very civilized Persians and the very uncivilized Macedonians could be so interesting? SF fans tend to like Renault-- she had a talent for choosing the details which indicate a lot about a society.

And if you like puzzles, not to mention ER Burroughsian invention presented in a large vocabulary, try Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. People have put a lot of thought into figuring out who Severian's parents are. Also, there's a duel with razor-edged hypnotic orchids? It's definitely a novel with a fantasy presentation and science fictional elements, but I'm not sure whether all the events have a more or less scientific explanation.

I loved New Sun - especially the first few volumes.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers - psychological stress damages human health - tedious but important (and well sourced)

Probability Theory - the Logic of Science (Jaynes) - only halfway through it. I can't justify its length unless I were really willing to work through all the computation shown (I'm not). The text is still somewhat meaningful if you merely read it.

Long, unexplained list:

  • The Wasp Factory, The Player of Games, Matter (Iain Banks)
  • Return from the Stars
  • Lilith's Brood
  • Cyteen
  • Godel, Escher, and Bach (EGB)
  • His Dark materials (juvenille, mediocre movie, but fun)
  • Black Company
  • Malazan Book of the Fallen
  • The Glass Bead Game
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Dispossessed
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics
  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
  • The Gods Themselves
  • The Ugly Little Boy
  • Permutation City
  • A Fire Upon the Deep
  • Neuromancer
  • Diamond Age
  • Anathem
  • Lovelock
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
  • Songmaster
  • Enchantment
  • Kushiel's Dart
  • The Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun)
  • The Deed of Paksenarrion
  • Flatland
  • White Light
  • The Eyre Affair
  • Pronoun Music
  • The Ground Beneath Her Feet
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • Air: Or, Have Not Have
  • Never Let Me Go

| Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

But stomach ulcers aren't caused by stress, they're caused by Helicobacter pylori -- although it seems like stress might slightly increase your risk of getting them.

Seeing how the book appears to have been first published long AFTER that discovery, I'm a little suspicious regarding the quality of the research.

But stomach ulcers aren't caused by stress, they're caused by Helicobacter pylori -- although it seems like stress might slightly increase your risk of getting them.

I think "slightly" understates the medical consensus that stress is an important cause of ulcers. See, which notes that more than 80% of people with H pylori do not develop ulcers.

(I have a personal interest in this topic, because I used to have ulcers, which was cured by taking a combination of antacids and antibiotics to kill off H pylori, but I'm pretty sure that in my case stress contributed to having ulcers in the first place.)

Wow, that's an interesting read! Until I suspected that I had H. Pylori, I believed peptic ulcers were mostly due to stress (apparently I missed the popular consensus memo). After I found out the more common view, I realized that I was still confused; the dismissal of stress given the bacteria seemed unmotivated, given its role in enabling many other diseases. (Turns out, for me, it was stress all along, but probably no ulcers!) Thanks for the article.

The guy knows his stuff and can be quite entertaining.

Check his video over on EDGE on TOXO (the cat lady parasite). At the end he mentions an avenue for research he's working on into a possible mechanism by which stress damages chromosomes

20 minutes well spent.

I agree the Zebra book was a little boring, but it fits right in w/ the recurrent OB theme on status and health

I'd heard that also.

I don't recall to what degree Sapolsky acknowledges it.

Ulcers are definitely not the core topic of the book; it's stress (and its varied effects).

The book both explains historic experiments and changes in scientific consensus, and cites studies properly. Of course I have no way of vouching for his selection of evidence, but there is plenty of it.

I hadn't made that connection, but I do still endorse any of Robert Sapolsky's books. They're pretty much the only ones that I've liked in biology.

I also second Iain M. Banks.

Seconding the Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

It's like Catcher in the Rye for serial killers

Anathem by Neal Stephenson - Covers much of the history of philosophy while telling an engaging story that really shows off the power of rationalist thinking. Also touches on the many worlds interpretation and all kinds of other fun stuff.

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá - A great example of how to use mountains of evidence to justify controversial conclusions.

Anathem was fabulous - although, like his other works, it got kooky at the end (his worst offender: Diamond Age, which was beautifully begun and oddly ended).

(his worst offender: Diamond Age, which was beautifully begun and oddly ended).

How so? I loved the ending, and thought the beginning (about Nell's father) was sort of an annoying "take that" to Cyberpunk classics.

I'm glad you liked it. On the whole, I also enjoyed the book. I only vaguely remember now (years after reading), but wasn't there some sort of undersea modified-human group-mind entity at the end? I more enjoyed the first 2/3 of the book, before the disjointed action-movie climax (a similar proportion holds for my enjoyment of Anathem).

Stephenson is still one of my favorite authors (although for some reason I've still only read the first of his Baroque series).

Does anyone have a recommendation for a good broad neuroscience book/textbook or books/textbooks (preferably including everything from neuroanatomy to relevant machine learning algorithms), primarily to be used as a reference for both AI and IA (intelligence amplification) research? Surprisingly we seem to be missing one at Benton house, though it could very well be I'm not looking hard enough.

There isn't a copy of The MIT Encylopedia of Cognitive Sciences lying around, or is it not specific enough? (For those interested, the surprisingly navigatable pdf version can be downloaded surreptitiously here)

EDIT: Amazon shows Mapping the Mind as a suggestion after viewing MITECS; from a cursory glance it seems topical.

Kuhn's "The Copernican Revolution" and "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" are both excellent. The first is a very good history of astronomy, the second is a mix of history and Kuhn's views on the philosophy of science. Kuhn, is, as far as I can tell, deeply wrong about the nature of science, but he makes good points and where he is wrong he's wrong for interesting reasons. The Copernican Revolution does a very good job helping one understand just how complicated the history of astronomy is and how often subtle premises can impact scientific investigation even when (or possibly especially when) the premises are not explicitly stated. Alan Hirschfeld's "Parallax:The Race to Measure the Cosmos" is also an excellent book within similar lines.

Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" is still very readable and shows an example of really good thinking even under incomplete data.

I'm trying to get through Priestley's "The History and Present State of Electricity" which is fascinating and gives good thoughts about how to approach thinking (it has gotten I think multiple quotes in the rationality quotes threads here), but the archaic style and grammar makes it sometimes difficult to read.

"Proofs and Refutations" by Lakatos is an excellent and enjoyable look at both the psychology and philosophy behind discovering mathematical proofs.

Kuhn, is, as far as I can tell, deeply wrong about the nature of science

Expand? I read Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" right after reading Popper, and the contrast was striking. Popper tries to define from first principles how science should be done, and fails; Kuhn examines how good science is done in the real world, and succeeds. His concept of "normal science" - which Ken Binmore expressed as something like "small problems conclusively solved, building on one another" - helps me differentiate between good and bad science more reliably than Popper's criterion of falsifiability. You could say I'm addicted to incremental advances the same way as others are addicted to paradigm shifts.

My views on Kuhn are complicated. I agree with most of what you have to say, but roughly speaking I consider Kuhn to be wrong on three accounts:

1) He underestimates the level within people in different paradigms can talk to each other. For example, in Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he tried to argue at one point that someone in a Newtonian paradigm can't really talk to someone in a relativistic paradigm.
2) He underestimates the degree to which people can during crisis choose one paradigm or another based on objective considerations (such as simplicity, ability to account for evidence, degree of consistency with other stable paradigms in related fields, etc.)
3) He underestimates the degree to which genuine progress can occur. (In the postscript to the later editions of Structure he argues that he's been misinterpreted and that he believes in some limited forms of scientific progress. But I think even the level given in that postscript is an underestimate). He especially fails to acknowledge that in the long-arc eventually new paradigms become finer approximations for predicting actual behavior of reality.

To make a linebreak appear without having to skip a line, put a double-space and the end of the line. (I assume that's what you wanted to do with the numbers.)

What counts as more "simple" than something else is usually defined by the paradigm your working within (and so isn't really objective). For instance, Cartesian physics could be considered more simple than Newtonian physics, because it posits less kinds of forces (only contact forces, no forces that act at a distance).

On the other points I agree. All of Kuhn's main arguments (like Feyerabend's) would be sound if they weren't overstated.

He's probably thinking of Paul Feyerabend; the best example for Feyerabend is probably his studies of Galileo - demonstrating that Galileo's observations did not prove his theories, his theories made poorer predictions than geocentrism, replication of his results often failed, and so on, and that Galileo succeeded more on account of non-empirical reasons such as theoretical elegance and social connections than on the then-merits of his theory.

Replying to myself to keep further recommendations well-organized:

Richard Wiseman's "59 Seconds" is an examination of many pop-psych claims and what research actually says. It also includes a lot of helpful tricks and techniques that can be performed in less than a minute (hence the title). Hmm, it might make sense to also mention this in the thread on short rationality techniques...

Norman Doidge: the brain that changes itself

Jonah Lehrer: How we decide

Atul Gawande: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

And the brainsciencepodcast - while technically not a book there are transcripts.

Could you put links to the referenced articles into your post?

Nonfiction: As someone who leans toward biology, I've found Richard Dawkins to be consistently fun and thought-provoking. For explaining hard-to-understand concepts clearly, Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time" and "The Universe in a Nutshell" are great. For general awesome, "Surely you're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is both educational and funny.

Fiction: Neal Stephenson is a genius at world-building. I've read "The Diamond Age," "Snow Crash," and "Anathem," and they've all been hits.

I can't really recommend a book I've only just started, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World isn't about rationality, nor is it obviously in the majority's tastes here (surrealism, repressed sexuality, unicorns).

But Clippy might like it more than most fiction. Paperclips promise to play some pivotal role in the next phase of evolution or the end of the world.

That's the only book I can think of that has ever made me cry.

But Clippy might like it more than most fiction. Paperclips promise to play some pivotal role in the next phase of evolution or the end of the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, although I already believe the second sentence.

If you don't have much money: some of these books are available on the Kad network(eMule) others have a preview on google books.

gigapedia dot org. I get electronic versions of my paper books there also books I'm not sure about buying. 70% success for my interests, which largely overlap with the others here as far as I can tell.

I'm kind of unsure if piracy is on net good or bad for the world (although it's clearly good selfishly), but what the hell: and (username: gek and password: gek) are excellent sources for books about mathematics and related fields.

"good selfishly" is at least an oxymoron, though I would consider it a contradiction in terms. That said, it's not at all clear that piracy is in one's rational self-interest, all things considered.

While I'm not sure it has direct bearing here, Software Ownership and Natural Rights by Richard Volkman is still one of the best accessible papers that's been written on the subject from the social point of view, though it's about 10 years old now.

"good selfishly" is at least an oxymoron, though I would consider it a contradiction in terms.

Drescher makes a good point on this issue in Good and Real, in distinguishing selfish from self-interested acts: the latter are those that consider acausal entailments, while the former only consider causal entailments. Going back to my Parfit's Hitchhiker point, someone who reasons that "hitchhikers should pay" is acting in furtherance of their own interests, but not selfishly.

(Note, importantly, that his reasoning does not depend on whether, at the moment you decide to pay, you are causing future benefits to flow to yourself.)

(although it's clearly good selfishly)

Not so clear for those of us who make a living in the content industries.

You pirating a book will, personally, make you poorer more than it will richer? Even though it's impossible that you will get even 100% of the amount you would otherwise pay for a book?

I suppose you might feel guilty about it, and the negative utility of guilt might be greater than the economic cost, but purely economically, it's clearly good for you personally to get something for free that you would otherwise pay for.

I interpreted your statement as:

I'm kind of unsure if [widespread, unchecked] piracy is on net good or bad for the world (although it is clearly good selfishly)

But it seems you meant:

I'm kind of unsure if [my individual act of] piracy is on net good or bad for the world (although it is clearly good selfishly)

I'm unsure if legally enforced copyright is on net good or bad for the world but I'm inclined to think bad. As a content creator however copyright laws represent an implicit subsidy on my income and since all of my income ultimately derives from the sale of content but only a fraction of it is spent on content I'm inclined to think that [widespread, unchecked] piracy is bad for me selfishly even though [my individual act of] piracy could be good for me selfishly.

You are exactly the kind of person my recent blog post was written for. (I didn't post it here because of the obvious political focus.)

In short, do you consider it selfish to refuse to pay Omega on the Parfit's Hitchhiker problem? If so, what exactly are the boundaries of the space called out by the term "selfish" in this case? Do you generally believe it's a good idea to act selfishly in that sense?

I agree with the general thrust of your argument (though as usual Omega makes it less rather than more convincing for me than merely phrasing it in terms of the way things actually work in the real world) but I don't think this is a convincing argument for legally enforced IP, merely an argument for the rationality of cultural norms around authorship rights.

True. Like I said to nfactor13, the actual (expected) norms favoring IP screen off all other factors. Whether people generally respect IP because of religion, cultural norms, or successful police prodding is irrelevant once potential creators form a belief about how well their exclusivity is respected.

successful police prodding is irrelevant

That might be a hard sell, especially to libertarians. I'm not sure if I missed a relevant post of yours on it. While I accept that in the sense that you're concerned about it, the norms favoring IP screen off other factors, that still leaves room for libertarians to say, "Well, I'm in favor of the good outcomes from respecting IP, but I'm not in favor of people making me respect IP at gunpoint".

There are plenty of things that I don't do that I nonetheless don't want there to be laws against.

Yes, I was only saying it screens off one set of factors with respect to some what potential creators plan to do; that doesn't deny that someone could still dislike some of the screened off factors.

Also, I'm not sure that being "pro-good outcomes" is a political position, at least not a meaningful one. Besides, the people I'm arguing against don't even seem to seem to regard it as good, even on the level of "this would be polite" to honor IP claims, although they eventually shift back and forth on this.

Ok, why the downvoting? I understand the downvoting for my first comment (though I don't understand why it's parent is +1), but -1 for pointing out an inaccuracy? An explanation would be welcome.

I wasn't one of the persons downvoting. However, there are many reasons why people here downvote, and one is moral disapproval. This is likely the reason for the downvoting of both comments.

I'm reading through this now and trying to collect some actual books-to-read from here. It's not that easy. People have lists with just the titles of the books in them, and I'm picking promising lists based on finding books I know I like or don't like on the lists. Lists that are just book titles which I don't know are hard to do anything with.

Maybe next time we do this everyone could make a top-level comment for each individual book they recommend that hasn't been mentioned yet, with some short description on why they recommend the book. People who also liked the book can then upvote this comment, and we'll get a handy sorting of forum favorites. People can also add their own comments about mentioned books under the top comment.

Let me advertise my absolute favorite: an obscure Hungarian writer called Geza Csath. He was a doctor and journalist at beginning of the 20th century and he wrote the most beautiful and objective stories on self-deception and other human weaknesses. Highly accurately, without moralizing or romanticizing.

I've only read the originals, but I hope the translation is not too bad. (Unfortunately, in English, it is available only used:

A good book I am reading currently is The Art Of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar.

A superb neuroscience popularization is Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran. He is a different kind of neuroscientist that uses a "Sherlock Holmes" method of investigating brain disorders like phantom limbs with a simple yet inventive experiments that shed insight into the workings of the mind.

Some fiction....

  1. The Color of Magic (Discworld series) -- Terry Pratchett -- pretty funny, top British author. The first book (this one) seems to be unmatched by at least the next five in the series, but there are like 30 in the series total, so...

  2. Neutron star -- Larry Niven -- a collection of short stories in Larry Niven's fascinating future.

  3. Fire upon the deep -- Vernor Vinge -- just the best picture of a future filled with GAI's that I have read.

  4. Neuromancer -- William Gibson -- incredible action/cyberpunk story, incredible characters. Gets pretty boring at the end though.

Some nonfiction...

  1. Madness and civilization -- Michael Foucault -- exquisite historical/philosophical writing. This book I think shows an example of what it means to be a real scholar.

  2. Road to reality -- Roger Penrose -- an interesting attempt to delve into the exact sciences of physics/mathematics in one, singular drive. Not recommended without extensive prior experience in math/physics, since unfortunately it doesn't explain so much as shed new light on things you might have already learned. There needs to be more books like this.

  3. Die nigger die -- H. Rap Brown -- this book is written with such passion and intelligent revolutionary spirit, it really had a major impact on me when I read it. (Brown was an important figure in the civil rights movements of the 60's. )

That's funny. Well, perhaps Foucault may not have been very accurate -- I'm not at all qualified to comment. But the book still stands as an amazing work of intellectual writing.

I liked the end of Neuromancer (and the rest). "Fire" is definitely good.

Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Evolution in Human Intelligence by Alison Jolly. Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. Bayesian Data Analysis, 2nd ed. by Gelman et al. (upper-level undergrad to postgrad level stats). Scientific Progress Goes "Boink" by Bill Watterson. Seconding The Brain that Changes Itself and Predictably Irrational.

Nearly any book by Smullyan is likely to be enjoyable to LW readers, if not particularly on-topic for Less Wrong.

  • What is the Name of this Book? is classic - this is the canonical source (maybe the original source, I'm not sure) of the liars/truth-tellers puzzles and other delights.
  • "To Mock a Mockingbird" is a nicely-paced set of puzzles that just happens to lead the reader through the first few key insights of combinatory logic.
  • "The Tao is Silent" is what happens when you soak a brilliant logician in Taoism for a while. Somewhat in this flavor is his story Planet Without Laughter, which is the best defense of something between mysticism and realism I've met.

I'm not sure if I got Planet Without Laughter. Was the whole sequence of events (spoiler) whfg vagraqrq gb cynl n wbxr ba Arzbq?

I loved "Mockingbird" but usual for me and math-heavy books, I got tired of really following along and started merely reading halfway through. Beautiful stuff, though.

Can anyone recommend a good book on improving social intelligence? This is probably a subject that would be helpful to many of us.

Epictetus' extant works have much to recommend them. The basic themes are that you are in control of your thoughts and behavior to a greater degree than you might think, you are less in control of others' behavior and other "externals" than you might think, and that fretting about what's not under your control will lead to unhappiness. It's not hard to quibble with the details and arguments he offers, but the basic picture he offers is very inspiring to me.

It's rather repetive, and it's not systematic. With books of this type, I like to read a bit each evening and then re-read the same bit the following morning. Upon the second read, I pick a passage and memorize it, repeating it to myself on occasion throughout the day. I'd be interested to learn whether others have similar habits.

A smart graduate friend is feeling that t