Holiday Reading 2017

Every time I teach my software engineering class, I try to offer the students some more general life perspective in addition to just straight-ahead software skills. One way I do this is to recommend books that have been particularly life-changing or behavior-changing, or that I’ve found to be profoundly important, for school, work, life, or all three. For those possibly interested in reading any of them, here is the December 2017 list, with Amazon links to each. As I mentioned, my reviews and recommendations are strongly opinionated, but if you expose yourself to lots of different and contrasting opinions, you will maximize the depth of your own learning and understanding. Read and enjoy. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreamsby UCB Prof. Matthew Walker, one of the world’s leading sleep scientists.  Getting the right amount and right type of sleep can improve your learning and retention, your happiness, your health and longevity, and your overall performance. Dr. Walker explains the science behind these startling findings, and the do’s and don’ts of getting good sleep. I found this to be a life-changing, behavior-changing book. 

Representative extended quote: “[U]nable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviorally difficult, with mental health instability…these symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep. … [T]here are people sitting in prison cells [for] selling amphetamines to minors on the street, [yet] pharmaceutical companies broadcast prime-time commercials highlighting ADHD and promoting the sale of amphetamine-based drugs (Adderall, Ritalin)…We estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder.”

Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? by Harry Lewis, Ph.D., longtime Harvard Dean of Students. Lewis reflects on what college is supposed to be for students, and how professors, administrators, and students themselves are thwarting these very goals and impoverishing the student experience. His framework accommodates such wide-ranging topics as cheating, sexual harassment on campus, grade inflation, and more. If you ever expect to work with college students in any capacity, you can’t afford not to read this. [My review on Amazon]

Representative extended quote: ”A [student with a disability] who turned in a plagiarized paper … [argued that his] typist must have typed up his notes rather than his actual paper, and he turned in what the typist gave him without checking it. His family assured us that they would take the College to court … if he were found guilty of plagiarism. It was not his fault that the paper […] was the work of others. … His family … may have taught him how to make the system work for him, but did they teach him anything about character? [T]he College is expected to coddle students when they should be learning about life by trial and error.”

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,  by Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School. If you insist on using the word “disrupt”, you should understand what it means. Disruption is profound, unexpected, and has happened in a wide range of major industries outside technology, long before bloggers and pundits misappropriated the term. Reading this won’t prevent disruptive tsunamis but it may help you see them coming.

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield. Have you thought deeply about the technology you are creating and the social and economic structures in which it’s embedded? No? After reading this, you won’t be able to not think about it. If you work at the cutting edge of CS and you don’t read this, you leave yourself morally liable. [My review on Amazon]

Representative extended quote: “Watch what happens when a pedestrian first becomes conscious of receiving a call or a text message …what does our immersion in the interface do to our sense of being in public, that state of being copresent with and available to others that teaches us how to live together? … [T]here is a very real risk that those who are able to do so will prefer retreat behind a wall of mediation to the difficult work of being fully present in public… The internet of things in all of its manifestations so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on all the places where capital has left us unable to care for one another.”

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. This team of historians wrote the definitive ~20-volume “Story of Civilization” in the 60s, then stepped back and wrote this condensed 100-page “design patterns of history” book. This is like getting a preview of everything that has happened in the 20th century or will likely happen in the 21st, based on what has happened in the past.  As Santayana said, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”  Don’t be that guy.

Representative quote:  If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security for all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.”

Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. Bing! you got a text. Bing! someone liked a Facebook post you made. Bing! someone you’re following just tweeted. Bing! Bing! Bing! Ever wonder about the effects of being in “constant standby” and interrupt-driven on your work habits, your ability to concentrate over extended time intervals and absorb new material, your social capital? Neither Rushkoff nor I are arguing for a technology-free lifestyle, but your actions and choices should be informed. This book can help.  

Representative extended quote: “[W]e sacrifice the thoughtfulness and deliberateness our digital media once offered for the false goal of immediacy—as if we really can exist in a state of perpetual standby. We mistake the rapid-fire stimulus of our networks for immediacy …This in turn encourages us to value the recent over the relevant. We can watch a live feed of oil from an oil well leaking into the ocean, or a cell phone video of an activist getting murdered…But with little more to do about it than blog from the safety of our bedrooms, such imagery tends to disconnect and desensitize us rather than engage us. Meanwhile, what is happening outside our window is devalued.”