Discover more from Dominic Cummings substack
As long promised (sorry!), here are some books and a few papers I recommend. I’ve read at least some of (almost) all of them and (almost) all of most titles I refer to (not all the textbooks).
Please leave errors and suggestions below, I’ll tweak and add over time and notify of updates. In particular I’ll add textbooks, history and philosophy which I’ve largely left out.
Update to Trump v Biden blog of last September. Many interesting developments and the launch of the 2024 campaign may be only a few weeks away, if Trump announces on 4 July as is being discussed in Mar-a-Lago. Will live players use the next five months to build build build or waste the most important element in conflict, time, and let non-player characters stumble into a set of critical decisions in November…?
Review of the disintegration of the Tories in the context of Brexit, SW1 vs Vote Leave perspectives on risks of Brexit/Remain, and why some of the VL team decided to go to No10 in 2019 and save the trolley to Get Brexit Done despite our reservations. NB. The vaccine taskforce a) created huge value for the UK and the world, b) would no way have happened without [typo original!] Brexit and VL in No10 (original official advice was to go with the useless bureaucratic EU scheme even though we’d left so a fortiori it would have advised the same had Brexit not happened, but credit to the Cabinet Secretary for backing Vallance and me with the PM), c) the elite world resolutely refuses to consider procurement generally or the VTF in particular in the context of Brexit good/bad, d) in 2021 the VTF was effectively closed and turned into a normal entity rather than given the money and goal of replacing current vaccines with new ideas to solve the variants problem with safer technology, e.g nasal vaccines, e) this too is a non-subject in SW1. SW1 suffers such extremely powerful wilful blindness even an event as big as covid doesn’t puncture consciousness in many important ways.
Something on how ideas change over different time scales. We look back on history and abstract over decades or centuries, judging the ideas that held sway for a few decades and sneering at how ‘formerly all the world was mad’ as Nietzsche put it. E.g Around 1848 nationalism was an elite opinion held by educated liberals who thought of liberalism and nationalism as naturally, and morally, connected, while uneducated peasants were less nationalistic. Then nationalism became generally despised by educated liberals, and so on… We can’t know how our own ideas will appear in the future but it’s fascinating how little we try to imagine how foolish our own views will inevitably appear to those looking back on us. ‘Elite opinion’ in London today is dominated by very similar people with very similar education and very similar views that inevitably include assumptions that will prove false — like ‘the British navy rules the waves’ (true and a useful heuristic for many decades then suddenly and drastically not true) — and ‘values’ that will seem evil/comical. Perhaps ‘America has elections every four years’, ‘power supply is ~100% reliable in the First World’, ‘Europe won’t see millions killed in wars again’, ‘nobody lives happily/normally to 200’, ‘robots can’t escape control and kill vast numbers of humans’, ‘children should study curricula controlled by the state’, ‘I support policies that undermine traditional ideas about the family’ will seem as quaint in 2052 as Bertrand Russell being taught by a grandfather who’d met Napoleon that British naval dominance is a fact of life.
How to predict news? If we could predict events like ‘the fall of the Berlin Wall’ better it would have huge value. Two adjacent questions: 1) what signals of memes/news predict that X is likely to emerge from the noise and become one of the few stories/memes that’s significant — e.g the process of ‘the Wall falling’ has started with small events which are detectable but almost nobody notices or realises what a big deal they will be in a few weeks, how soon can we detect ‘X is happening’ then predict ‘X is Y% likely to be a big story’, with what confidence?; 2) how to map the spread of memes and identify critical nodes in the network that, if influenced somehow, can amplify or dampen signals? In 2018 I asked some academics to consider this and we built a crude tool. Our impression was there is valuable low hanging fruit for governments, hedge funds, campaigns…
The Snippets format doesn’t work well and I’m rethinking how to do it. All ideas welcome. In the meantime I’ll post another tomorrow.
Please use comments below for reading suggestions, not general Q&A.
A few classics
The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides. The best book on politics. If you haven’t read it don’t read another modern book until you have. There is a great Commentary by Gomme and Andrewes, two of the great 20th C classical scholars.
The Art of War, Sun Tzu. Almost anything good you read on ‘strategy’ and conflict is based on ideas you see here. A lot of Boyd (including ‘getting inside your enemy’s OODA loop’) is interpreting Sun Tzu after 2,000 years of case studies proving him right plus some modern ideas.
Plato. Also see Nietzsche on the pre-Socratics.
Cicero’s letters. I’ve only read a few excerpts of these but reading them all is a project for later this year. Am told that the Loebs translated by Shackleton Bailey is the best translation.
L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, de Tocqueville. I should have read this, haven’t, will. Also Democracy in America.
The Federalist Papers. For us it’s often seen as high level ‘political philosophy’ but it was bashed out by Hamilton et al as part of a brutal political struggle including many dirty tricks on both sides. What does it say about the West that their newspaper propaganda was much higher class than most elite philosophy now?
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith. Vernon Smith, economics Nobel-winner, argues that TOMS provides a better basis for economic models and prediction than modern neoclassical economics.
On War, Clausewitz. Much (mis)quoted, rarely read.
Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche. If you want to understand modern culture, the 19th Century smashup of the traditional world with the capitalist, liberal and increasingly atheist world, and what deep forces lie behind the ideas we see all around us, it’s the best book. Also you can’t understand our world unless you have a sense of Nietzsche’s profound influence on 20th Century artists, thinkers, and politics. Although Nietzsche despised nothing more than the radical left, he became extremely influential on it, perhaps because nobody else so thoroughly demolishes the foundations of ‘liberal democracy’, although, in a further twist, few of the left realise the extent to which they are influenced by him. As Strauss said, Nietzsche despised anti-semites and the sort of characters who controlled the Nazi party but it also cannot be ignored that in attacking ideas and clearing the ground for ‘new values’, he also prepared the ground for communism and fascism: ‘Nietzsche did not mean it in the way people like Hitler and Mussolini meant it, but through his negations, he prepares it. No doubt about that... Nietzsche produced the climate in which Fascism and Hitlerism could emerge. One must not be squeamish about admitting this’ (Strauss). So a philosopher simultaneously prepared the ground for Hitler, deeply influenced today’s Left, and personally hated Bismarck and anti-semites. People who haven’t studied it often mock Fukuyama’s The End of History but most do not realise the last chapter is about Nietzsche and the Last Man, and this chapter is the most relevant today. ‘The greatest deeds are thoughts…’ (Some confusion about his ideas is a result of his sister who was a Nazi supporter and edited things he wrote to distort his actual views.)
Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky. If you want to understand the modern intellectual classes — media, academia and politics — this plugs you straight into their psychology. (Dostoyevsky was Nietzsche’s favourite novellist!)
Modern works on war / ‘strategy’ (NB. the word ‘strategy’ is a) used differently in military books, b) used differently over time, c) constantly misused in politics.)
Colonel John Boyd’s briefings are great. I started reading him around 1999 when I first got involved in politics. I started like everyone young assuming those at the top of politics must be smart, interested in policy and great at organising things. Then I realised the truth. I was amazed and desperate. I searched for explanations. In the search I came across Boyd. I applied his basic ideas in the euro campaign, in the 2004 North East referendum, in thinking through education reform and trying to get the Department for Education to do what I wanted, in the Brexit referendum, in solving the 2019 impasse, in No10, and to removing this PM since spring 2021. In all of these struggles I tried to follow Boyd’s advice — such as, connect yourself to sources of power, disconnect your opponent — and in all of them, as the opponent’s OODA crumbled I observed what Boyd said would happen: it starts to feel like your opponent is working for you, the more they try, the worse it gets (e.g when Cameron called the press conference to denounce ‘lies’ about the fact that Turkey was in the process of joining the EU!). Like all the best political advice you don’t need to be clever to understand it. The difficulty comes from the fact it’s psychologically very hard to stick to and almost all bureaucracies operate with incentives and culture that push in opposite directions. But this also means there’s always billion dollar bills on the pavement — sometimes even trillion dollar bills, like ‘do vaccines much faster and smarter than usual’ in spring 2020, and like now with 2024 approaching… ‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’ Robert Coram wrote a biography.
The Transformation of War, Van Creveld.
Makers of Modern Strategy, Paret et al. Looks at the bigshots of modern military thinking.
Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox. (A great highlight of Oxford for me was four-hour tutorials with RLF on Athenian democracy, Thucydides, Alexander etc.)
Nelson, biography by John Sugden. If you read Boyd you’ll see how lessons recur across Alexander, Nelson, Groves et al.
In general Colin Gray’s work. E.g Introduction to Strategic History, Modern Strategy, Strategy and Defence Planning (reading now).
One of Britain’s most senior and respected civil servants, Michael Quinlan, wrote this paper after retiring, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons, on nuclear strategy.
Can we survive technology?, von Neumann, 1955. The smartest person Einstein said he knew wrote one of the first things on existential risk. The basic arguments remain critical today. Also, Defense In Atomic War.
Pentagon Wars, Burton. A Boyd ally wrote about his time in the Pentagon dealing with the extreme nightmare of procurement. Almost no MPs, journalists or academics have any idea about just how costly such bureaucracy truly is or how these bureaucracies truly work and the criminality and near-insanity they’re capable of. Like Hoskyns (below) genuine rare insight and almost totally ignored.
I’ve written blogs on some other important books:
Payne’s recent books on nuclear weapons. Remember that approxmitately no MPs and few in Congress are aware of these facts or ideas yet they speculate confidently about Putin’s thinking on nuclear weapons.
Rosen on military innovation, very relevant to discussions on things like drones and AI in Ukraine.
The Kill Chain, ditto.
Anyone interested in terrorism and counter-terrorism should watch Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers, one of the best movies ever made. It’s often found in terrorist safe houses when raided.
Modern politics and government
The best modern subject for those interested in how political decisions are taken and effective action in politics/government is Bismarck. While some characters from the ancient world, such as Themistocles or Alexander the Great, would be as interesting to study in minute detail we don’t have the sources. With Bismarck you can follow the twists and turns of a true (and monstrous) genius in great detail and learn an extraordinary amount about how politics, government, war and diplomacy truly work. The best biography in English (probably any language) is Otto Pflanze’s three volumes. (Steinberg’s recent book has interesting stuff but has many errors of fact/date and interpretation.) I will publish soon a chronology of 1862-67 following the twists and turns of Schleswig-Holstein, the escalating conflict with Austria, the domestic conflict running through the period. NB. ‘What is moral behaviour’ is not the same question as ‘what are the principles of high performance in politics’! It’s crucial to remember both aspects of this genius-monster — without whom probably no World War I, Lenin, Hitler etc — summed up by Salisbury’s two comments: ‘One misses the extraordinary penetration of the old man’ and ‘he will do things of which it would be absurd to suspect any other statesman in Europe’. You can learn from him about how to get very hard things done without admiring his character. Hard question (relevant to AGI safety debates!): how much was the effectiveness bound up with the dangerousness — the failure of alignment and/or the inherent drive of high intelligence to escape constraints/control/alignment with others’ goals?
Rohl’s multivolume biography on Wilhelm II is brilliant and, like Pflanze, a whole political education in itself. Autocracy has wide variance in performance — one minute you have Bismarck in charge, the next you have Wilhelm II firing him and trying to govern himself in an appalling disaster that took the best educated country in the world towards Nazism. It also corrects a lot of modern books that have reverted to the ‘World War I was a terrible accident / railway timetables’ idea — in fact crucial nodes in the Prussian deep state network were trying to force war in summer 1914 and to manipulate Wilhelm II into going along with their plans.
Jean Monnet created the ECSC and EEC/EU. He understood politics and government in a way I think almost nobody in 20th Century politics did and influenced it more than almost any elected leader. If one could observe a discussion between Bismarck and one politician from the 20th Century, he might be the most interesting choice. His Memoirs are fascinating and so is this biography by Duchêne. He did not try to influence today’s arguments but instead tried to ‘prepare the future’, an approach of great power partly because, as Monnet said, there’s almost no competition.
From Third World to First World by Lee Kuan Yew. I blogged a series on this great book starting here; if you only read one of these blogs make it this one on the most important issue, great people (NB. LKY, Boyd, Groves all say the same). If you really are interested in policy and how someone tries to bring principles of high performance to government, this is essential. Almost no MPs or senior officials study him or are even midly interested. Their favourite argument is the laughable ‘it’s a small island’, about as sensible as a general saying ‘Alexander the Great was using cavalry so it’s out of date’. The real reason is most people in politics don’t want to face the big questions about what government is for and how to do it better (and especially don’t want to face the quality of people).
Just in Time, John Hoskyns. He was a businessman who understood systems thinking and was the first head of the Policy Unit in No10 for Thatcher. It is by far the best ‘insider’ book I’ve read on modern UK politics and the only one that realistically and honestly faces a) the failures of MPs as managers and systems thinkers, and b) the failures of the civil service. You’ll understand more of how SW1 really works than from all PM memoirs of the last 30 years combined (PMs never face why they don’t control much of Whitehall even after they’ve gone). It is, therefore, practically unknown in SW1. (A counterfactual: if Thatcher had taken his advice in the early 1980s and rejected the emerging Single Market plan and embarked on civil service reform…?)
The Power Broker, Robert Caro. About Robert Moses’s grip on NYC. Someone should run a prize for the best 10,000 word essay summarising the fundamental lessons of this book (which I haven’t read in full, just skimmed, because of time not a judgement). Ditto for the Johnson volumes (I’ve not read) when Caro publishes the last. While some lessons are specific to time/place (e.g how the Senate works in 1950) the most important lessons from all such books are quite abstract and common and I assume this will be true of these classics.
Psychologie des foules, Gustave le Bon. A remarkable 19th Century book about propaganda and politics that influenced Lenin, Hitler and PR pioneers like Bernays. The cynicism/realism remains shocking.
The Selling of the President 1968, McGinniss. How Roger Ailes packaged Nixon with actual campaign memos reproduced at the back. When you read this you realise that UK parties are something like 50-60 years behind understanding TV so it’s no surprise they’re bad at new technology.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, Hunter S Thompson. A classic on the 1972 campaign.
The Greatest Communicator, Worthlin. By Reagan’s pollster. Reagan’s White House was better at communication than any other in the modern era partly because they did not rely on normal political staff but brought people in from Hollywood. Steve Jobs advised Obama to do the same but it didn’t happen.
All’s Fair, Carville & Matalin. Re Clinton’s 1992 campaign which influenced the Blair 1997 campaign.
Audacity to Win, Plouffe. Pflouffe ran the Obama 08 campaign and 2012 re-election. If he’d run the Hillary campaign in 2016, no Trump as President. If you want to stop Trump in 2024 you should figure out what you could offer Plouffe’s wife to let him do it.
Influence, Cialdini. Interesting on the psychology of selling and marketing. Vast amounts of what you read on this is rubbish. I like reading stuff about people where incentives and feedback work, from used car salesmen to fortune tellers.
I’ve flicked through books on post-Thatcher UK general elections but never found them interesting enough to read in full. British political writing depends hugely on assuming that much of the newspaper coverage is roughly true, so given much is actually invented it means the books repeat a lot of fake news and miss the point.
Getting hard things done
Now It Can Be Told, General Groves. The insider account of the Manhattan Project by its legendary leader. Oppenheimer is better known but Groves was his boss. Los Alamos was crucial but it was part of a much vaster infrastructure of engineering projects, intelligence, planning and so on. One of the most critical lessons? For this unprecedented project in world history Groves had no huge central staff, he worked with a brilliant woman and a tiny staff with truly extreme decentralisation. (Also note that the ‘oversight’ for Groves was a group of just four who met with no secretariat and no formal records.) The critical meta-lesson is the same for all the below: practically nobody has any interest in extreme performance and all governments in the west will try to stop you applying these lessons. Groves’s last personnel report concluded that ‘his effectiveness is unfortunately lessened somewhat by the fact that he often irritates his associates, but he has extraordinary capacity to get things done.’ Then he was effectively fired. The peacetime bureaucracy knew what it valued. (If anyone knows if his remarkable secretary, Mrs. O’Leary, left any records or an oral history please leave links below.)
The Dream Machine, Waldrop. A history of ARPA-IPTO and Xerox PARC: how the internet and PC revolution was created. Alan Kay, one of those present at the creation, says it’s by far the best history. I wrote this blog which has a further reading list. In particular read Alan Kay’s The Power of the Context and watch the two-part YCombinator talk he gave. It’s fascinating both for ‘getting hard things done’ and how to reform science funding. It was a direct inspiration for my terrorist demand to Boris, July 2019: we must create an ARPA. Also cf. some Kay emails, Sydney Brenner interview on the hideous science funding system. I’ll do a separate list on science funding.
Skunk Works, Ben Rich. Insider account of how the legendary Skunk Works worked by a guy who ran it. His boss and predecessor was Kelly Johnson who wrote this short list of principles. This will also show you why high performance is so hard — it is totally hostile to normal bureaucracies dominated by large numbers of middle managers. You’ll see it’s very similar to Groves’s principles (above). For example:
The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).
High Output Management, Andy Grove, ex-founder/CEO of Intel. Considered by many in Silicon Valley to be the best book on the details of management. I advised spads and officials to read this in 2019 and ignore the media. The media laughed and many said ‘it’s so boring’. Six months later tens of thousands died for the lack of such skills.
The Idea Factory, Gertner. A history of the amazing Bell Labs which famously won more Nobels than most EU countries. Like with ARPA-PARC it’s fascinating to see how funders ignore such successful examples. AT&T could only support it when a monopoly. Governments find it very, very hard to fund such ventures. People who climb to the top of the science system tend to defend the system rather than support change, even when they realise how bad it is. I wish there was something similar on the history of the LMB at Cambridge, one of our crown jewels which Whitehall (and the VC office) has gradually buried with stupid regulation.
Doing the Impossible, Slotkin. Re George Mueller, the man who managed the Apollo program. My blog with other books HERE.
Thoughts on past and future of the Buffett system, Charlie Munger. On the 50th anniversary Munger reflected on why his partnership with Buffett had been so successful and Buffett’s personality. Fascinating. The main biography of Buffett, The Snowball, is also interesting. Again the meta-lesson: while everybody wants to know ‘what are they investing in?’ almost nobody pays any attention to ‘how do they organise Berkshire, why is it so different, how does this relate to extreme performance?’
Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Rumelt. Almost the only good business book I have read on ‘strategy’.
If you’re thinking of doing a startup or just curious about how to do hard things you should read Paul Graham’s essays.
I enjoyed/learned from Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
NB. The more I study the more clear it is that luck plays a crucial part in almost all famous successes. True of Bismarck (only appointed because of meltdown in royal circles), true of the likes of SpaceX (an explosion away from bankruptcy) and Steve Jobs (tried to sell early and was turned down), true of Brexit… We just don’t see all the stories of very able people trying really hard who get taken out by bad luck early in the story. Also though, everybody has bad luck and those who survive long enough to get good luck are very perseverant.
On research, thinking
Expert Political Judgment, and Superforecasters, Tetlock. Very very telling that in a recent interview with Tyler Cowen, the recent head of the CIA was clearly unaware of this work, which includes results showing that his own agency is routinely bested by people like unemployed grandmothers in a hut in Central America. This shows the critical meta-lesson again: those in power have no interest in high performance.
Thinking, fast and slow, Kahneman. The replication disaster means you have to be careful about what you believe but it’s still a good book. Kahneman bravely admitted he’d ignored some of his own lessons in believing studies he shouldn’t have believed.
Sources of Power, Klein. On expert decisions under pressure, like firemen. I think he’s right that most academics assume models for how this works that are clearly not how people really think under pressure.
The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver. On prediction.
The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande. Interesting how some fields (e.g airlines, surgery) have significantly improved performance while others have not, and the barriers to improvement. (I used this to argue for checklists and transparency over the repeated failures of social services with child abuse when in the Department for Education 2011-14. Some supported this approach but as you’d expect the worst hated it. Again the meta-lesson: the media often obsesses with specific horrific stories which for a few days absorb SW1 attention, but there is no interest in actually solving the institutional problems and the institutions will successfully resist change during a media panic then go back to business as usual. The politicians soon are on the next current thing too. Click repeat...)
Charlie Munger has written and spoken extensively about mental checklists/models he uses, not just for investing. Highly recommended. ‘Most economists can’t synthesise worth a damn’.
You and your research, Hamming. ‘I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.’ His Art of Doing Science and Engineering is considered a classic but I’ve not read.
The Man from the Future, Bhattacharya. A widely praised new biography of John von Neumann, the man Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Pauli et al thought was the smartest person they knew. I’ve written a few things about his work. E.g his few pages on maths and economics which few economists seem to know about! (I’ve recently read some of the media commentary about 2019 that I ignored at the time and it’s amazing how many hacks thought I was trying to use vN’s game theory. I was not. I did pinch ideas from how Bismarck dealt with the Prussian constitutional crisis.)
Never At Rest, Westfall. This is the Newton biography and it’s brilliantly done with intense love and care for its extraordinary subject. Keynes’ essay on Newton is great:
He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago… Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and that is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…
Yudkowsky’s Sequences, the core document of the ‘rationalist’ movement. And a very recent post, AGI Ruin, summarising the arguments on why artificial general intelligence is so dangerous and why controlling these dangers is so very hard.
Follow Zvi. He’s a very unusual thinker and much more right much more often than just about anybody, partly because of how he thinks. If you read his blogs and trusted him on covid over the entire CDC/FDA/WHO bureaucracies, you’d have come out far ahead. He replied to Yudkowsky’s AGI ruin here as did Paul Christiano here. (NB. You often read versions of ‘those really at the edge of this research do not predict fast timetables’. This is false. I know some of them. Those who think very fast timetables are plausible do not talk about it publicly because (partly) they worry about the effects of their comments. Predictions on AGI can be Straussian. Many academics predicted OpenAI’s approach would not work but have been proved repeatedly wrong.)
Follow Julia Galef. Her recent book, The Scout Mindset, was excellent.
Also cf. Maths below.
Complex systems, economics, integration
This by Fields Medallist Terry Tao, maybe the greatest mathematician alive, is brilliant and incredibly useful for someone like me explaining a lot of fundamental concepts in non-technical language.
The Quark and the Jaguar, Murray Gell Mann. Nobel-winner, Feynman sparring partner, co-founder of Santa Fe Institute, wrote a book on complex systems for the general reader.
Consilience, E.O. Wilson.
Linked, Barabasi. Popular intro to network theory.
Complexity Economics, Beinhocker. I thought this was outstanding and every young person aspiring to be influential in politics should read it.
The Misbehaviour of Financial Markets, Mandelbrot. He was a mathematician who got interested in how markets work. Many ideas you see from others (e.g Taleb) derive from Mandelbrot.
Rationality, Vernon Smith. I found his Nobel lecture fascinating and I suspect it would be one of the most useful things to force politicians and senior officials to read.
Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison and others have been trying to push some of the principles of ‘how to do hard things’ into economics and government, in similar ways to some of my arguments over the years. Collison has a webpage summarising responses to this. If interested in how a government could take seriously accelerating progress, follow these debates. E.g rapidly speeding up construction/housing/infrastructure, how to accelerate scientific discovery and technological development. Cowen & Collison handed out ‘fast grants’ to researchers during covid and at my request advised UKRI on how to speed up in spring 2020. A striking thing: notice how they take regulation and speed extremely seriously because they have direct experience of it, in contrast to most professional economists who influence media debate on regulation who have no idea of how government really works and how destructive it is to make simple things take years, how it drives people away, rewards the worst people and companies etc.
The Method of Coordinates, Gelfand, Glagoleva, Kirillov. Functions and Graphs, Gelfand and Glagoleva. Lines and Curves, Vassiliev and Gutenmacher. (This series was written for the Russian ‘correspondence school’ — a way of giving talented maths pupils a useful curriculum in such a vast country. Many who used them went on to the famous Kolmogorov schools.)
Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, Morris Kline. A reader with no more than GCSE Maths can read this introduction to maths from Greece through the birth of calculus.
Mathematics and the Physical World, Morris Kline.
Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos (1988). A classic non-specialist introduction to reasoning.
Reckoning With Risk, Gigerenzer. On typical problems dealing with statistics, Bayes’ Theory, and how to improve understanding of probability.
Mathematics: A short introduction, Gowers. For the beginner, by a Fields Medallist.
The Story of Mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy. Book accompanying an OU course. Useful introduction to some fundamentals, from Pythagoras to Newton to e and complex numbers.
The Joy of X, Strogatz.
Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson (son of Freeman). The story of Turing, von Neumann and the computer.
In Pursuit of the Travelling Salesman, Cook. A good introduction to ‘P=NP?’
Number, Dantzig (1930, updated 1953; new edition 2007). I really liked this classic but a lot was beyond me.
How to Solve It, Polya. A classic book on mathematical problem solving.
Solving Mathematical Problems, Terence Tao. A modern version of Polya for children, by a Fields Medalist.
Causality, Judea Pearl (advanced). The Book of Why (general reader). Pearl led a revolution in thinking about causation from inside the then tiny field of AI. It amazes me how many scientists and economists know nothing or almost nothing about it.
What is mathematics?, Courant. A general introduction to number theory, topology, calculus and other subjects. Partly accessible to a non-specialist with some maths already, though very challenging for most including me. Blurb endorsement by Einstein.
Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to its Use and Abuse, Franzen. The best book about Gödel’s Theorem (according to the editor of Gödel’s Collected Works) which explains why almost everything one reads about it — including by some famous scientists (e.g. Dyson, Hawking) — is wrong. Some of the unpublished stuff in Gödel’s Collected Works is extraordinary, e.g his secret search for the truth about Leibniz.
Mathematics: Its content, methods and meaning, Kolmogorov et al.
Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times (3 volumes), Morris Kline. A scholarly history of maths, not for a general reader.
Calculus, Spivak (2008 edition). A classic book on calculus / analysis designed for undergraduates.
A mathematician’s apology, Hardy. Cited by many professional mathematicians as an inspiration.
Introduction to the Theory of Computation, Sipser (2005 edition). Classic text, university level.
I wrote some essays on the history of maths and computing which have further reading lists. (I spent ~2 years reading a lot of books on this ~2005-15.)
Six Easy Pieces, Feynman. A classic based on his famous Lectures. A short companion book to his famous lecture series, Tips on Physics: a problem-solving supplement, which was unpublished for many years and seems to be generally unknown, is super-useful.
Physics for Future Presidents, and Energy for Future Presidents, Richard Muller. Brilliant physics books for the interested non-specialist written by a top physicist, widely praised by Nobel Prize winners, used in his Berkeley course voted ‘best course on campus’. An inspiration for changes to maths teaching I pushed in 2011-14, including trying to get a ‘maths for Presidents’ course going. A billionaire should provide copies to all elected politicians.
Theoretical Minimum, Leonard Susskind (2013). Based on a course Susskind taught in San Francisco to give people a basic physics education.
Fab: From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Gershenfeld (MIT). On digital fabrication.
The Great Equations, Crease.
A Cavendish Quantum Mechanics Primer, Professor Mark Warner. This excellent short book introduces quantum mechanics using A Level maths. (I knew Mark, a professor at Cambridge, who spent a huge amount of time over the past decade helping state school pupils get hold of great physics material via Isaac Physics. I googled recently after getting no reply to an email and learned to my dismay that he died of cancer last year. If you’re involved in Isaac Physics and want to discuss how it could continue please get in touch.)
Histories of the Standard Model: The Second Creation, Crease & Mann (1996) and The Infinity Puzzle, Frank Close (2011). A good biography of Einstein by Isaacson. A good biography of Dirac, The Strangest Man, Farmelo.
The Dance of the Photons, Zeilinger. On connections between quantum physics, computation and information theory.
The Limits of Quantum Computers, Scott Aaronson (Scientific American, 2008). Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Scott Aaronson (2013) is a brilliant introduction to many ideas about computation, physics and quantum information.
Michael Nielsen on quantum mechanics and computers: Why the world needs quantum mechanics... Quantum Computing for Everyone... Quantum Computing for the Determined. Michael also wrote the textbook on QCs, one of the top ten cited physics books ever written. He also wrote a book on neural networks.
The Blank Slate, Pinker.
Behavioral Genetics, Plomin. A great textbook by the world’s leading scholar on the subject. Most educated people remain unaware of how little home environment affects IQ/education nor that modern analysis of DNA has confirmed the data from decades of twin/adoption studies. If you want to follow the cutting edge of this research follow Steve Hsu’s blog, which you should anyway. We can now test fertilised eggs for common risk factors such as mental disorders and heart attacks and choose which egg to use for IVF. Steve has a startup that is a leading player in this emerging field.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Beautiful Evidence, and Seeing With Fresh Eyes, by Edward Tufte are classics about the presentation of information by the world’s leading expert.
Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider, 1960 and The Computer as a Communication Device, Bob Taylor, 1968. Two of the most important documents on the computer revolution by two of the critical figures in ARPA/PARC.
On dynamic tools, interface design, Seeing Rooms, new ideas about programming, tools for thought, and so on, read Bret Victor, a rare genius.
David Deutsch’s books. David wrote some of the breakthrough papers on quantum computers. He opted out of the traditional science funding system early. His point about the fundamental importance of error-correction in political institutions was the fundamental reason I think Brexit is the right idea and the EU is doomed to fail in important ways.
The Ascent of Man, Bronowksi. Great DVD documentary too.
Mindstorms, Seymour Papert. Classic on teaching children programming, recommended by Alan Kay and Bret Victor. I’m reading this summer.
Gödel’s Lost Letter & P=NP (on maths, logic, P=NP, computational complexity)
Steve Hsu (in general, and if interested in extreme talent Steve blogs a lot on this)
The most interesting intelligent person writing on American politics who a) really knows a lot of history, b) understands the ‘rationalists’ but is not of them, and c) whose version of regime change includes ending democracy, is Curtis Yarvin. As the craziness of 2024 approaches his ideas will be much more influential in some circles than you will realise from the media.
Yes it’s striking that looking at my internet favourites for politics there are no UK-based political blogs/writers I regularly read. Why? A big problem for UK political discussion is people focus obsessively on the immediate interest of the London media rather than trying to think about what’s really important. This is true even of those who frequently complain about this phenomenon. This is not true of blogs like Marginal Revolution. Also the club of those who write about UK politics a) are rarely interested in how power really works, b) are almost never interested in management, how to get hard things done, or how organisations work, c) think they’re an expert on communication but are not — a general problem for hacks who confuse ‘understanding journalism’ with ‘understanding communication’. (Politicians also constantly make this mistake in hiring journalists to do ‘communication’, almost always a bad idea.)
I’ve got a list of a few dozen people I follow on Twitter (I use Tweetdeck + Lists for Twitter) and will make this public shortly.
Favourite modern fiction
Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. In War and Peace, you see a world historical genius skip between vast scales of time and space, connecting tiny things happening this moment to the biggest things affecting decades or centuries to come. Non-fiction books on politics fail to give you this crucial sense. The philosophising Tolstoy fought against the picture of an infinitely complex system in which most thoughts and actions fade to zero significance quickly but a few connect to others with highly non-linear effects. But the storyteller makes this picture incredibly beautiful.
A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov.
Chekhov’s short stories.
Master and Margarita, Bulgakov.
The Leopard, Lampedusa.
Short stories, Flannery O’Connor — my wife gave me these, they’re little known and absolutely brilliant, the closest to Dostoyevsky of anything in the 20th Century I’ve read. If you’re in Georgia, visit her house in Milledgeville.
I know I should like Dickens, the Russians loved Dickens, but I just couldn’t enjoy it, probably a school effect, and I should retry.
A Night at the Opera
A Streetcar Named Desire
Alien / Aliens
*All About Eve
All the President’s Men
*The Battle of Algiers
The Big Sleep (1946)
Burnt by the Sun (Russian)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
*Chaplin — City Lights, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, Great Dictator
*Come and See (Иди и смотри, Russian). Warning, it’s an accurate portrayal of atrocities on the Eastern Front therefore truly horrific. The director was evacuated from the horror of Stalingrad as a child: ‘The city was ablaze up to the top of the sky. The river was also burning. It was night, bombs were exploding, and mothers were covering their children with whatever bedding they had, and then they would lie on top of them. Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.’ If there’s one film to show Nietzsche brought back from the dead, maybe this is it. The Nazis did indeed think they were creating a new world ‘beyond good and evil’, so did Stalin. The title comes from Revelations 6 (7-8):
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
The French Connection
The General (1926)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Glengarry Glen Ross
The Godfather / #2 (not 3)
*Gone With the Wind
His Girl Friday
Lawrence of Arabia
The Maltese Falcon
No Country For Old Men
No Way Out
On the Waterfront
Paths of Glory
The Producers (1967)
*Renoir — La Grande Illusion; La Regle de Jeu (Renoir said of the rage about the film, shot in 1938 between Munich and war, that he’d showed ‘a society in the process of disintegration, so that they [the characters] were defeated at the onset ... the audience recognized this. The truth is that they recognized themselves… my enemies had nothing to do with its failure. At every session I attended I could feel the unanimous disapproval of the audience.’)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Risky Business (‘Sometimes you just gotta say, what the fuck, make your move, what the fuck brings freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future…’)
Seventeen Moments of Spring (the most watched TV show in Russian history, it literally emptied the streets; tells the story of a brilliant Russian double-agent outwitting the Nazis; its hero tops Russian polls for ideal President and its iconography is highly influential)
Some Like It Hot
The Third Man
Touch of Evil
War and Peace (the 1960s Russian TV series is really an epic movie)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (Burton & Taylor)
I put * next to 7 which is a guess at what people 100 years hence will find most interesting on this list.
(Planning to see some classics I’ve missed: Intolerance; Tokyo Story; Bicycle Thieves.)
Viz the famous lists, Yes to Renoir, Welles, Chaplin, Keaton, No to Fellini (tried to watch 8 1/2 at least five times and fallen asleep fast every time) and Hitchcock.
NB. Welles dismissed the French auteur theory as not relevant to the old Hollywood where the producers called the shots, not the directors.
Orson Welles thought Renoir the greatest director. On Renoir and Hollywood:
It would be ridiculous to be bitter about Hollywood. Anybody who goes to Hollywood can see right away what the setup is… Hollywood is Hollywood, there’s nothing you can say about it that isn’t true, good or bad. If you get into it you have no right to be bitter, you’re the one who sat down and joined the game… People who don’t succeed, people who’ve had long bad times like Renoir — Renoir was the best director ever — are people who didn’t want to make the kind of pictures that producers want to make. Producers didn’t want to make a Renoir picture even if it was a success. People don’t realise that nobody in movies is interested in money... They’re really interested in — it’s all an ego trip, status…
You can replace ‘Hollywood’ with Westminster, ‘picture/movie’ with ‘political strategy’, ‘producers’ with MPs, and ‘money’ with ‘the public’…
The point that ‘Producers didn’t want to make a Renoir picture even if it was a success’ is really important. Groves (fired), Bob Taylor (fired), George Mueller (not funded to push on to Mars after the moon), Renoir… The list goes on and on. There are fields like professional mathematics and equity investing where institutions mean the best people are recognised over time. Most of the world is not like this! And notice that despite their vast success Buffett & Munger have had almost zero success in persuading anybody to run their companies the way they run Berkshire! Just like despite ARPA-PARC’s success, almost no science funding is done like that in the world (hence why I made the creation of ARIA one of my terrorist demands when Boris asked me to go to No10, 21 July 2019).