Book Recommendations

Since my book recommendations have become more popular, I’ve split them out here. You might also find other things of interest among the papers I recommend and the sites I found interesting.

These are books I’ve been urging my friends to read recently. Of course, I’ve left out many classics that are really wonderful – perhaps I’ll make a list of all-time favorites too. Feel free to recommend stuff you think I’d like, too! If you’d like to read a blurb, check others’ reviews, or buy the book, I’ve made it easy; just follow the book-link I’ve set up to for each book.

There are a number of themes that explain my interest in these books, but I’ve not organized them that way. The problem is that the best books combine several of the themes in interesting ways. Some of the themes you’ll recognize are: decentralized systems, the nature and growth of knowledge “in a changing and growing system”, uncertainty, variance, options, and pattern from randomness; functions that populations of people/objects/organizations derive from their environment; R&D and innovation processes; what is cognition?; what is possible/impossible?; the interaction of technology and society as change happens; environments for learning; engineering/design knowledge; etc.

Andrew Glassner, Andrew Glassner’s Other Notebook

This is the the most fun book I’ve read in years! It’s a sequence of explorations, using 3D computer graphics, of some very interesting ideas, ranging from Celtic knot designs to the hidden structure of motion blur in movies to quantum mechanics. A beautifully illustrated book, but one where I learned something new on every page. If anyone ever says that 3D graphics is only “eye candy” – show them this book. If only it were a Dynabook!

Annabelle Gawer and Michael Cusumano, Platform Leadership

This book captures how companies that control a platform can manage that platform to create maximum value for customers and partners, while maximizing returns to its investors. The primary case study is Intel, a company I personally know well from my days at Lotus. Intel has learned over the years to manage a platform extremely well. Other case studies include Microsoft and Cisco. I reviewed this book, and have been waiting eagerly for it to come out so I can recommend it to anyone who is involved in thinking about business strategy in the networked world.

Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in the Connected World

This book is a great synthesis of ideas that I think are very important to the future of man. It relies heavily on the end-to-end argument and an implicit understanding of the ideas of real options and the role of a shared platform for experimentation. Larry’s conclusion is that the creation of a commons is a very practical way to ensure continued innovation and exploration of valuable future possibilities. I think he presents a very balanced and nuanced view of the role of a commons – my own views are a bit less compromising (he calls me a “utopian” in one of his footnotes).

George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being

what fascinated me about this book is that it focuses on the common conceptual metaphors that reflect how mathematics was built. The idea that we have a choice about what particular mathematics we build is obvious (though there are some who believe that there is “one true mathematics”, apparently), but why those choices were made has always been hard to sort out. The most interesting thing is the “Basic Metaphor of Infinity” that seems to explain much. In particular the discussion about the choices made in discretizing geometry and the discussion about the choices made in not extending numbers to include infinitesimals in standard analysis are fascinating both from a mathematical and cognitive viewpoint. (note: the authors maintained a website (now only at the Wayback Machine) with some important errata, and some interesting reviews, both positive and critical). This book reminds me a lot of Wick’s The Infamous Boundary (below) and its implication that the way quantum theory was built also was based on choices bound to an inherent metaphor – perhaps Lakoff and Núñez would find this a rich lode as well.

Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix

this compact book/essay really makes clear that the idea of DNA as the “blueprint” of life is quite limiting. I think that the same sort of insight applies to many complex systems.

Stuart Kauffman, Investigations

this book is a fascinating exploration into “what life is”. I’m still digesting it, but each chapter provoked very many thoughts about how little we really understand systems that self-organize. As fascinating as Schrodinger’s What is Life? (or more).

Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark, Design Rules: The Power of Modularity (Volume I)

this is a fantastic synthesis of technology and business strategy. It shows in detail how architecture creates economic value. Using as case studies various events in the business of computer design, it shows how designs and business models can co-evolve across an industry. One key concept is the “Real Options” concept (see below), which is used to explain how creating an open, modular architecture creates valuable options when the “best” idea is not known.

Ullica Segerstrale, Defenders of the Truth

this book is very helpful in understanding the intellectual conflict that surrounds the coupling of biological and cultural evolution. It is centered on the “Sociobiology” debate, but provides a context about how scientists seek “truth” that is very helpful. In particular, the distinction between “planters” and “weeders” is worth the price of the book. A “planter” is a scientist in the “creative” mode – positing a new synthesis or theory, while a “weeder” is a scientist in “critical” mode, looking for weakness and lack of support for a theory. Read in conjunction with The Reflective Practitioner (below).

Larry Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

very interesting set of thoughts on the relationships of code, architecture and law in the new information world.

Jeff Hecht, City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics

this book is a great history of innovation. It really shows how the biases of companies can prevent them from seeing opportunities, or encourage them to miss the disruptive technological path.

Richard Rhodes (ed.), Visions of Technology

this book is a sequence of very short (one sentence to 3 page) quotations/articles on the impact or process of technology. Organized into a roughly historical sequence, they represent an amazing sequence of views of how various commentators viewed progress, innovation, the future, etc. at points in the past century or so. It includes many seminal passages – and it is surprising how early some of the insights come, and also how wrong others can be. It is incredibly fun to skim, and to quote to your friends…

Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors and David Brin, The Transparent Society

each of these books contain compelling arguments for allowing decentralized social processes to regulate dangerous knowledge. In Rauch’s book, he outlines the dangers of attempting to outlaw speech about ideas that are considered unacceptable, and in Brin’s, he outlines the dangers of trying to limit the use of information gathering tools to a narrow class of acceptable users. In each case, they conclude that adversarial processes will limit the damage, and maximize the value. They deserve to be widely read and discussed.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

this book is neat because it covers the idea that what makes societies successful is their native environment. There’s a powerful analogy in my mind to the notion expressed in Andy Clark’s book, Being There, mentioned below. And, of course, it contrasts with the argument of inherent genetic superiority advanced in The Bell Curve, which I don’t recommend.

Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma

this book makes a fascinating proposal about how disruptive innovations happen even to well-managed companies. Much better than the short article included in John Seely Brown’s Seeing Differently collection, below.

John Berger, Charging Ahead

an interesting book about real businesses who have been (and still are) trying to bring renewable energy to market. Since this is a classic case of disruptive innovation, since the incumbent technologies are in good shape, it is interesting to see what befalls those who try to turn such a thing into a sustaining innovation paradigm (read along with Christensen, you get lots of ideas). Another interesting view of this industry is found in

Daniel Berman and John O’Connor’s Who Owns the Sun?,

which protrays the forces that are at play in trying to drive this innovation away from a user-financed model, towards one where utilities will charge you for the power from the sun that lands on your own property!

Joel Brinkley, Defining Vision

another disruptive innovation that hasn’t played out: the HDTV saga, with all the political actors and forces. IMHO, this book is a prima facie argument against government involvement in regulation of businesses founded on technological innovation. But Brinkley merely reports the scheming, plotting, and hidden agendas of the actors playing on the ignorance and arrogance of Congress and the executive branch; he leaves the reader to make up his/her own mind about whether a market-based approach would have been a better idea.

L.J. Davis, The Billionaire Shell Game : How Cable Baron John Malone and Assorted Corporate Titans Invented a Future Nobody Wanted

this is another view of recent history of TV, etc. which shows how the Cable TV operators seem to play their local monopoly game… gives you an interesting view of Malone, AT&T, Al Gore, etc. These are the folks that are now trying to sell us a cable modem based future.

John Seely Brown, Seeing Differently

a collection of short papers, mostly from HBR, with some of the most interesting current ideas about how innovation relates to business strategy.

Andy Clark, Being There

a great synthesis of ideas about where intelligence comes from; much of it comes from situation and context, not the brain.

Paul Churchland, The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul

very thoughtful analysis of what the brain’s role is in perception and thought

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House

why evolution does not equal progress! This book conveys a real intuition about how to think about diversity in capability and how it evolves under natural selection. Another antidote to The Bell Curve.

Avinash Dixit and Richard Pindyck, Investment Under Uncertainty

a very thorough application of the idea of options to business decision making. Explains in detail why and how we should embrace uncertainty, not avoid it. I should mention that this book has some heavy analytical parts; if math puts you off, you might want to read the Harvard Business Review article in the Seeing Differently collection above.

Leon Trigeorgis, Real Options

another very good exploration of options thinking in business, chapter 4 is really the best part, because it gets into the issue of how collections of options interact. There are also heavily analytical parts here, but they are mixed with qualitative insights that are very useful. There’s also a collection of relevant papers edited by Trigeorgis, entitled Real Options in Capital Investment, where other authors explore applications of these ideas.

Martha Amram and Nalin Kulitilaka, Real Options: Managing Strategic Investment in an Uncertain World

this book covers much the same ground as Dixit&Pindyck and Trigeorgis, but is a lot more accessible to non-mathematicians.

Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, Unleashing the Killer App

a book that focuses on how the change to digital computing technology enables new corporate structures and new customer relationships. Light style, but a lot of depth of insight hiding behind the words. (perhaps I’m biased because I’m quoted in the book?) You may want to get further info at the book’s site…

Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro, Information Rules

a different angle on the same phenomena, from more “mainstream” economists. They point out that there’s no “new economics”, just that conditions of the digital world are different enough that some of the more “cool” aspects of economic theory are now very important in practice.This is one of the few books by economists that doesn’t get bogged down in the kind of theoretical modeling that I love to dig into, but makes most of my friends eyes glaze over.

Virginia Postrel, The Future and its Enemies

her ideas is that politics is no longer dominated by left vs. right, but by advocates of change (dynamists) vs. advocates of stasis (stasists). This neatly explains the strange alliances between and left and right on ecological change and information systems driven change. I think that this book, along with The Innovator’s Dilemma, provides a very interesting set of axes that structure my thinking about change.

David Wick, The Infamous Boundary

a remarkable exploration by a thoughtful physicist of how quantum physics has dealt with ‘the observer’. Are we living with a theory chosen because of Heisenberg and Bohr’s desire for mysticism?

Philip Davis and David Park, No Way: The Nature of the Impossible

a neat collection of essays that form a collage about how different disciplines deal with the notion of impossibility

Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner

exploring the nature of knowledge in professions like engineering, architecture, law, etc.

Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds

a remarkable exploration of the cultural issues related to innovation – showing how entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians work in similar ways

Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty

how statistical behavior of dynamic systems provides an alternative way to think about the fundamental uncertainty in the world. Argues strongly against the notion of an “anthropic principle”

Seymour Papert, The Connected Family

a great book about pragmatically rethinking settings for children to learn in the age of computing

Robert Buderi, The Invention that Changed the World

I enjoyed the way this book illustrated an unappreciated fact: how very many of the modern electronics, computing and communications ideas sprouted out of a small group of folks centered at MIT and also in the UK. This is a great history, tying a lot of threads and people together.

Joseph Nocera, A Piece of the Action

really remarkable history of innovations in financial technology. Anyone who really wants to understand the relation of information technology innovation to financial systems should probably start here.

Gordon Bell and John McNamara, High Tech Ventures

what I liked about Gordon’s book is that he dives into the details of how companies get started and what makes them succeed or fail. Anybody starting or joining a high tech startup needs to read this book. I refer to it regularly; it helps to make sure I’ve covered all the bases.