Favorite Books

 

Economics and politics

  1. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America -- The introduction of this history of the USA in 1890’s is remarkable and mind-opening. Check it out: thePopulistMoment.pdf

  2. Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature -- well written collection of essays (mostly optimistic) about our future.

  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate -- the movie by the same name maybe an easier read.

  4. Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt -- Chris Hedges writes excellent prose about the impending collapse of globalization and capitalism. I recommend as a prerequisite to this his “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

  5. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality -- Frightening book by Richard Heinberg. Finite material, ecological, and energy resources will ultimately limit our exponential growth. Unfortunately Capitalism depends on, requires continual growth, so a collision is imminent.

  6. The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America -- and What We Can Do to Stop It -- Thom Hartmann’s latest book arguing that economic crashes repeat every ~80 years, after we forget the reasons that create them.

  7. How to Succeed at Globalization -- ever wonder what Mexicans might think of us? This cartoon book gives a few of the USA from south of the border.

  8. The Little Blue Book: The essential guide to thinking and talking democratic -- George Lakoff sheds light on the different ways that progressives and conservatives frame problems and solutions. Helpful in understanding why the other side just doesn’t “get it”.

  9. The New Jim Crow -- persuasively argues that racism is alive and well in the USA, but we now do it much differently.

  10. Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War -- Joe Bageant gives a very funny and revealing analysis of the different thinking of Red and Blue America.

  11. Economics Unmasked: From power and greed to compassion and the common good -- proposes that our “science” of economics is based on (hidden) axioms designed to keep the power with the powerful and the wealth with the wealthy. It has been highly successful achieving its goals. But if we want an economics with a goal of social justice, then we need to change the axioms, the underlying rules. Powerful read.

  12. The Secret of Oz -- this won Best Documentary of 2010, and its free on YouTube. It explores our economic woes looking back in history at who controls the money supply. I don’t know enough to evaluate its balance or truth, but the argument is interesting -- that good times correspond to adequate money supplies, and when banks pull back on the money in circulation, we bust. The government should print money (without interest to corporate banks), and issue it to pay for improvements in infrastructure.

  13. Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet -- this is a radical book like none I’ve ever read. If you think change won’t happen “within the system”, it gives suggestions on how to become more active.

  14. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism -- Arguing that “social businesses” should prosper in a mixed economy with conventional capital-driven businesses and charities.

  15. Letter to a Christian Nation -- Powerful rational argument that religion causes a great deal of human misery.

  16. Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire -- Journalist and filmmaker John Pilger conveys perspectives rarely heard from the recent victims of our empire.

  17. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire -- written before 9/11, this book explains in a rational way why the USA and its allies have so many enemies.

  18. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor -- not an easy read, but insightful, rigorous, unconventional analysis of poverty and “structural violence” that global economics imposes on the poor.

  19. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism -- a spooky analysis of politics and control

  20. The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth about Global Corruption -- classic tale of how government and corporations drive economic development around the world

  21. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered -- an old book with some very prescient perspectives

  22. Diffusion of Innovations -- formal analysis of how change permeates thorough a society or group

  23. Out of Poverty: What works when traditional approaches fail -- why have the billions of dollars spent to alleviate poverty been largely effective? This book elaborates an unconventional approach to reduce poverty, by someone who’s been remarkably effective.

  24. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot -- Many recent events have spooky parallels to Germany during the rise of Naziism. This book is an impassioned plea to learn from history.

  25. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present -- a tough read but useful in balancing some American history biases my kids are learning.

  26. Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back  -- Jim Hightower is a funny and entertaining writer (who also publishes a witty monthly newsletter on politics).


Creativity, innovation, business, management

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- a classic autobiography guaranteed to open your eyes. Text (minus a few diagrams) available here.

  2. Thinking Today as if Tomorrow Mattered: The Rise of a Sustainable Consciousness -- An unexpectedly interesting angle on innovation and long-term thinking, and how we’ll have to get off of “autopilot” to fix our problems.

  3. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children -- powerful story of how one of the top ranking Microsoft leaders quit after 9 years and created one of the most successful charities, Room to Read. The book discusses what set him on his path, and the business and moral guidance that led to his successes.

  4. The Medici Effect -- it takes certain environments to cultivate innovation, and this easy-reading book explores and dissects the challenges. It would have saved me much frustration had I read this before leaving my prior company!

  5. The Soul of a New Machine -- great documentary of the processes, people, and individual sacrifices, that drove innovation and development of a new minicomputer.

  6. The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World -- “Reasonable” people don’t make change.


Africa

  1. The Ship’s Cat -- powerful novel about Biafra (Nigeria), and the horrors and politics of philanthropy and war. The author’s life is fascinating, as is the book.

  2. Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge -- Funny and tragic read about the foreign aid gig. I found his solution of having local merchants hire the local begging kids to pick up trash in front of their shops a cleaver win-win  for a community otherwise paralyzed with dysfunctional government services.

  3. The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel -- wonderfully written about a missionary family and the perverted perspectives that develop from living in Africa.

  4. Half of a Yellow Sun -- captivating story from a talented African storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here’s her TED talk.


Latin america

  1. Bridge of Courage: Life Stories of the Guatemalan Companeros & Companeras -- great insights into the Guatemalan revolution and the people who fought it, told by the wife of a disappeared rebel leader. She also wrote the excellent: Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala.

  2. Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson -- autobiography of a “normal” conservative kid who lost his innocence in Vietnam and became a remarkable pacifist. There’s also a great documentary film about him.

  3. Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place -- explores the American Southwest civilization, proposing a coherent model of how their society rose and fell, implying lessons for us.

  4. Island Beneath the Sea -- wonderful novel by Isabel Allende gives a feeling for life in the time of slavery, in Haiti and US.

  5. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus -- asks what the New World must have looked like the year before Columbus arrived. The presented evidence is in stark contrast to what I learned in school. The continent was teeming with people living sustainably -- which is partly why they left such little traces of their existence.

  6. Whispering in the Giant's Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia's War on Globalization -- Great read on the context and challenges of saving the rain forest (and the planet).

  7. When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep -- poignant and clever novel about rural Guatemala during its Civil War.

  8. The Long Night of White Chickens -- Another great novel about Guatemala.

  9. The Farm on the River of Emeralds -- beautiful tale of the challenges working with the poor and the land in rural Ecuador.

  10. The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers -- reflections on life by my favorite writer on poverty A tough read at times, but near the end gives a beautiful and concise descriptions of the fundamental problems of the people of Latin America.

  11. Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition Of The Mayan Book Of The Dawn Of Life And The Glories of Gods and Kings -- this is THE oldest surviving piece of new world literature. Some call it the Mayan bible. Translated into our language, but clearly from a cultural perspective miles and eons apart from us.

  12. Maya Cosmos Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path -- beautiful, somewhat scholarly, thesis of what the Maya believed and how their beliefs fit together into a coherent world view or cosmovision. An amazing piece of detective work to reveal what they might have been thinking when creating their pyramids, art, writing, etc.

  13. Breaking the Maya Code -- amazing tale of the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics, which was the basis for a movie and Nova documentary viewable online.

  14. Savages -- sad but interesting story of oil exploration in the Amazon, and how the oil companies, governments, and indigenous people, treat each other and the environment. Joe Kane is a great adventure writer.

  15. The World Is As You Dream It: Teachings from the Amazon and Andes -- Patience through metaphor and metaphysics is rewarded with some interesting insights, including the comment that headhunting was a mechanism for population control.


Science

  1. Relativity: The Special and General Theory -- written by Einstein for the public, this short book is great to celebrate the centennial of his great theories of space and time.

  2. Fields of Color: The Theory that Escaped Einstein -- a non-mathematical exploration of Quantum Field Theory, see also http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/9803075.

  3. Collective Electrodynamics -- this is a really amazing (but challenging) book by Carver Mead that explores the question that knowing what we now know about electricity, magnetism, and quantum mechanics, should we still teach E&M in largely the same way we’ve done for 100 years?

  4. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology -- this and the author’s prior book Quantum Evolution: How Physics' Weirdest Theory Explains Life's Biggest Mystery, attempt to answer the question of how life initially formed, with entangled states in dimensionally reduced zeolites. Right or wrong, science keeps chipping away at these mysteries.

  5. Physics of Societal Issues. Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy -- Clear examples of physics applied to important issues about energy, security, and the environment (by my ex-professor at CalPoly).

  6. Spark from the Deep: How Shocking Experiments with Strongly Electric Fish Powered Scientific Discovery -- a wonderful story analyzing the history of electricity. I wrote this review: PWJul14reviews-rasnow.pdf for PhysicsWorld.

  7. Big Bang: The origin of the universe -- Simon Singh did such a great job telling the story of the big bang, that I chose to use this as the text book for my introductory astronomy (“the stars and beyond”) class.

  8. How I Killed Pluto and Why It had It Coming -- Caltech astronomer Mike Brown spins a funny tale of how his discovery of numerous Plutoids condemned to Pluto to death (in order to save consistency and order in the Solar System).

  9. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe -- This monster tome by Roger Penrose is remarkable. I’ve read parts of it twice and still struggle to understand it, but I feel I’m on the road ...

  10. Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy -- interesting history of the development of our understanding of black holes and GR by Kip Thorne.

  11. Relativity. The Special and General Theory -- from Einstein himself, this strikes me as more understandable than the attempts by others to replicate it.

  12. The Trouble with Physics and The Cosmic Landscape -- explains the state of modern physics (and blasts string theory).

  13. Not Even Wrong: the failure of string theory and the search for unity in physical law -- another (similar) view of the state of the science.

  14. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle -- Why is scientific literacy so low? Why is it cool to be ignorant? This book addresses such questions.

  15. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values -- Sam Harris argues that the firewall between ethics and science has become an obsolete artifact. Science can begin to answer questions of ethics.

  16. Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind -- didn’t get too far into this one that analyzes elements of consciousness from an evolutionary biology perspective

  17. Uncommon Sense: The heretical nature of science -- Alan Cromer argues that science is an unnatural way of thinking, and this is fundamentally why we find it hard. But like ballet dancing or opera singing, it can be mastered with great effort.

  18. Why Sex is Fun?: The evolution of human sexuality -- A silly title for a great read by Jared Diamond on the evolutionary biology of sex.

  19. Science Made Stupid -- long out of print, the funniest science satire I know of (please tell me if you find a funnier one)

  20. The Cartoon Guide to (Non) Communication : The Use and Misuse of Information in the Modern World -- Larry Gonick is a brilliant science cartoonist, and I recommend all his books

  21. Symmetry and the Monster: The Story of One of the Greatest Quests of Mathematics -- entertaining story of some very exotic math and the people behind it.

  22. Sky in a Bottle -- history of theories of why the sky is blue. Neat examples of the evolution of scientific theories.

  23. Eye of the Whale: A Novel -- in the style of a Michael Creighton book, with the opposite political bias. Not science but intelligent and entertaining.


Environment

  1. Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature -- A well written collection of essays about how our future is not so dire -- but change is a comin’.

  2. Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air -- Affordable (free download) and readable quantitative account of (British) energy usage, and prospects for becoming more sustainable.

  3. Consider a Spherical Cow. A Course in Environmental Problem Solving -- classic by John Harte offers techniques for estimating and solving environmental problems.

  4. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: Revised and Updated: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It's Too Late -- Thom Hartmann gives a brilliant synopsis of how we got where we are. Later parts of the book are a bit metaphysical and optimistic for me (and I suspect even for him, his later book isn’t so positive).

  5. The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future -- Northern-hemisphero-centric vision of our future by a geophysicist.

  6. Our Choice. A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis -- Al Gore’s most recent, which has an even better version for iPhone/iPad.

  7. Eaarth. Making a Life on a Tough New Planet -- If Al Gore is too optimistic, try Bill McKibben’s latest proposal to cope with inevitable climate change.

  8. Flight Behavior -- a brilliant novel about climate change and its possible effects on butterflies and people.

  9. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity -- powerful book by James Hansen, the USA’s leading climatologist.

  10. Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers -- companion to the great movie Chasing Ice, awesome photos of climate change.

  11. Arithmetic, Population, and Energy -- This video, free on YouTube and text on Albert Bartlett’s website is quite profound. I met Dr. Bartlett at a talk he gave at a Physics conference in 2010, he’s still going strong trying to teach the (not so) simple idea of exponential growth.

  12. Ishmael: An Adventure in Mind and Spirit -- this mind-blowing book could fit in many categories here. A Socratic dialog with a telepathic gorilla, it explores human pre-history, the agricultural revolution, and the subsequent path we’ve been on to destroy our ecology. From this deep (20k year) view of history, Daniel Quinn argues we need a profoundly new vision to save our planet. First of an excellent trilogy, all recommended: The Story of B and My Ismael.

  13. Desert Solitare -- And other books by Edward Abbey are beautifully written stories about the American Midwest and its conservation. Abbey finished writing this

  14. Lives per Gallon. The True Cost of our Oil Addiction -- written by the former Secretary of the California EPA, well written book explores the externalities and subsidies offered to oil. Sheds a little light on the most powerful and wealthy industry the world has ever seen, and the way they’ve controlled government and our lives.

  15. Out of Gas: The end of the Age of Oil -- David Goodstein (Caltech physicist) gives a now somewhat dated assessment of the hole we’re in.

  16. Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal -- Written by the head of Rainforest Action Network.

  17. Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet -- organized by the effects we can expect following 1, 2, 3, ... degrees of global warming.

  18. The World According To Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth -- How many fish are in the sea? How much solar energy are we using to feed humanity? Not only does this book answer basic questions like these, but it explains the science and technology to answer them.

  19. The Weather Makers : How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life -- very readable book on climate science.

  20. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning -- Sir James Lovelock takes a rather pessimistic view of our planet. It’s too late to avoid rather catastrophic climate change, but there are ways to mitigate the impact. I don’t agree with all of his positions, the book is thought provoking.


Mind and brain

  1. NAMI, the National Aliance for Mental Illness is a wonderful organization advocating for education and rights. 

  2. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World -- Challenging tome exploring what are the functions of the left and right sides of the brain. Easier summary in his TED talk.

  3. Diverse info on bipolar, from outside the mainstream, is at Jack Pedigrew’s website: http://www.uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/BipolarDisorder.html.

  4. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey -- autobiography of a young neuroscientist who suffered a massive stroke. Deep insights into left-right brain dichotomy. Her TED talk is also good.

  5. The Quiet Room -- amazing autobiography of a schizophrenic.

  6. A Beautiful Mind -- both the movie and book are excellent, the story of Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash.

  7. Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl,  and Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism -- autobiography of an autistic.

  8. The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum -- Temple Grandin has written several excellent books about her unique perspectives on animals, this is her latest.

  9. Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar but Were Too Freaked Out to Ask -- autobiography of a manic depressive.

  10. Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates And What You Can Do About It  -- Unconventional view of ADD from a sufferer and a very open minded doctor, who also wrote:

  11. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction -- broad exploration of addition -- to drugs, compulsive behaviors, eating, etc. --  and what they tell us about how the brain is wired to seek rewards.

  12. Society of the Mind -- a dated but original view from a pioneer in artificial intelligence (AI) and learning.

  13. Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology -- also dated from the AI perspective, shows how complex appearing emotions can emerge from almost trivial neural networks.

  14. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- old but amazing story of math, AI, and mental wanderings.

  15. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- a classic autobiography guaranteed to open your eyes.

  16. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel -- there are some fascinating gems of uncommon perspective in this story written from the point of view of an autistic child.