Books and media we found
influential, informative, or just entertaining.

August 2020

Team Reading Group

The Library of Babel
by Jorge Luis Borges

This is a philosophical story about a library that stores an infinite amount of knowledge—and what it's like to use that library. There is a lot of overlap with people who store and retrieve information for a living. 

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
by Michael Ruhlman

We take the grocery store for granted, but it’s truly amazing how much richer and more diverse our food choices have gotten in such a short time. This book shows how that happened, which in many ways is a window into the progress of our society in the last 100 years. There are some parts that are less awesome, but they are easily skipped.

Rachel Lomasky

July 2020

Team Reading Group

The Effluent Engine
by N.K. Jemisin

It's a steampunk spy adventure story about Haitian independence. Plus, Jemisin is an incredibly talented author.

One Summer
by Bill Bryson

Bryson is mostly known for his travel work, but this is more of a history book—specifically, the summer of 1927. He covers Lindbergh, Baby Ruth, Capone, etc. He’s a great writer in general, and One Summer has his trademark snarkiness and dry humor.

Meghan Blanchette

by Ted Chiang

Chiang's sci-fi always forces me to think about the near future differently (and they’re short stories, so quite accessible).

Vinay Seth Mohta"

June 2020

The Book of Why
by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie

I've been doing DS/ML for a very long time now — and I've always batted around the periphery of "causal" claims, but have never thought about them deeply. Well this book makes you think about them deeply, and it's profound.

Big takeaway: Causal claims will NEVER be found using data alone. They are separate from the data. You must build a model of the world and then data can verify it, but you can't build a causal model of world from data alone.

Sourav Dey

Statistical Rethinking (videos)
by Richard McElreath

Really accessible introduction to modern statistical modeling—connecting many varied threads from machine learning, to Bayesian methods, to causal inference. It’s really amazing to see it all connected together with a common thread. It’s been a great complement to the “Book of Why”.

Sourav Dey

The New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander does a great job laying out how mass incarceration is being used as a tool—once it's all spelled out, it almost seems obvious. She backs everything up with heavy citations, while remaining accessible. She notes that her goal is to hand people the ability to easily share what she's learned, and she's definitely succeeded. 

Meghan Blanchette

by Neil Stephenson

Stephenson gives an interesting perspective on technology, learning, and civilization cycles across millennia (in a fictional world). If you feel like biting off a 1000 page novel, it’s really good! Just get past the weird hard sci-fi language nonsense in the first 40 pages.

Joseph Goldbeck

Team Reading Group

Why People Think Computers Can't [PDF]
by Marvin Minsky

In 1982, Minsky figures, "A generation later, we should be experimenting on programs that write better programs to replace themselves." It's a discussion of how we are going to get there. Almost 40 years later, we have made minimal progress. Why is general intelligence so hard?

Note: This is a PDF that will automatically download when you click the link.

Injustice for All
by Chris Surprenant and Jason Brennan

This book discusses the messy nature of our criminal justice system, as well as how we got here and how we can get out of here. It does a pretty good job of holding all political sides accountable. 

Rachel Lomasky

Broken Earth Series
by N.K. Jemisin

The series contains a really rich world and very different than your typical fantasy world. I think mainly because N.K. is a Black woman who is writing in a genre that doesn’t have many authors of that background.

Sourav Dey

His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik

The Napoleonic Wars with dragons. What more does one need? This is the first of nine novels telling Temeraire's story, and the series looks at what friendship means, what loyalty means, and how we have to sacrifice to do the right thing. Plus, as mentioned, dragons.

Meghan Blanchette

May 2020

Team Reading Group

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
by Richard Feynman

Interesting views on the good or evil that can come out of technology and science. It also provides an interesting take on what science means, what a scientific mindset is, and how our modern society is pretty unscientific, despite the great advances in science and technology. It was written in the 1960s, but still feels relevant today.

The Great Mental Models (Vols. 1 & 2)
by Shane Parrish

They are a great distillation of the great mental models of the world, adapted from the Farnam Street blog. He’s added a bunch of new material too—they are a really satisfying read, and a great thing to show off on your coffee table.

Sourav Dey

Creativity, Inc.
by Edwin Catmull with Amy Wallace

Pixar and Disney are awesome, but the book also has very interesting management/organizational culture thoughts and tips. I’m only partway through, but Catmull is pretty open about mistakes he made, and the consequences.

Meghan Blanchette

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Good computer science concepts applied to real-life scheduling and decision making. I especially liked how they discussed Explore vs. Exploit tradeoffs.

Rajendra Koppula

April 2020

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy (Podcast)
by Tim Harford

Eight-to-ten-minute podcasts about one thing that has shaped our world (concrete, barcodes, compilers, paper money, plastic, etc). We’ve been using them during breakfast as a way to spark discussion and appreciate how many things in our world we take for granted. Plus, a lot of the stories of how these things came into our world are new to me, at least in the detail that they discuss them. They always end with a reference or two that you can send the kids to follow up on (homeschooling hack), although every now and then, there’s one that is not kid-appropriate (contraceptive pill, I’m looking at you).

Rachel Lomasky

The Nature of Technology: What It Is & How It Evolves
by W. Brian Arthur

W. Brian Arthur is one of the deepest thinkers on this topic. He introduced the term “combinatorial evolution,” which I believe Hal Varian and then Eric Schmidt adapted to “combinatorial innovation.” I suggest easing into it with something like Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and then stepping up to this.

Vivek Mohta

Team Reading Group

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
by Kate Raworth

We enjoyed chatting about what the economy might—and should—look like in a post-COVID world.

Donut Economics was a frank and approachable discussion on Economics. While you won’t find specific answers to key issues such as inequality or environmental exploitation, Raworth does the foundational work of guiding what problems economics should even be concerned with. Afterwards, others are invited to hash out the answers. Some readers may find that dissatisfying, but we enjoyed this book’s contribution because it doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re working on solving the wrong problem.

Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business
by Bob Lutz

Detroit used to have a product mindset—like Silicon Valley—in the 1950s and 60s, and then lost its way in the 1970s. This is a colorful story from someone who was at the center of it all. It gave me a new perspective on my early life in the Detroit area in the 80s and 90s.

Vivek Mohta

Gradual Machine Learning for Entity Resolution [Paper]
by Boyi Hou, et al.

Entity resolution is a very common problem that seems to evade a generic solution that works well. Also, the paper uses a promising approach and addresses a particularly hard part of data labeling. 

Jakov Kucan

March 2020

Caffeine (Audiobook)
by Michael Pollan

This is a relatively quick listen, and you’ll be glued to learning more about how the history of caffeine has affected the Western world.

Vinay Seth Mohta"

by Ling Ma

A beautifully written zombie-apocalypse/pandemic satirical sci-fi novel that is both weirdly current and a different world to escape to.

Julie Steele

World War Z
by Max Brooks

A great book at how the world reacts to a global pandemic. In this case, the pandemic is a zombie disease.

Justin Chen

Why Liberalism Works
by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

The world economy is changing and this book looks at the issues we should consider as we move forward.

Rachel Lomasky

Parable of the Sower
by Octavia Butler

Spencer uses her lived experience with racism to create a dystopian near-future vision. I also recommend the sequel, Parable of the Talents.

Rachel Lomasky

Wage Labor and Capital
by Karl Marx

Reading Marx was one of the first times I realized how my upbringing mired my understanding of society in a singular perspective. Marx is intentionally bombastic in his writing and argumentation, and he would be the first to tell you to apply "Ruthless Criticism" to his own arguments, but his work offers one person’s attempt to objectively analyze the relationship between people and economics. He often reaches much less optimistic conclusions than many other philosophers, and for that reason I believe it is an essential counter-point to the more common perspective that the market solves all ills.

Because Das Kapital is a bit of an intimidating-tome-of-a-book, Wage Labour and Capital can be a good introduction and give a reader a taste of what Marx has to offer.

Josh Hayes

February 2020

Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie

This is a really well-done space opera, full of AI. It includes themes of power, class structure, expansionism, space future, and the relationship between AI and humans.

Joseph Goldbeck

Mining of Massive Datasets
by Jure Leskovec, Anand Rajaraman, and Jeff Ullman

This book has the best overview of MapReduce, relational algebra, Spark, and Pregel I’ve seen. It really provides the baseline required to understand the academic papers in this space. Problem sets are really good too, I love the matrix multiply as a single map-reduce step problem. The LSH section is really good too.

George Erickson

Uncanny Valley
by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener's memoir is an interesting and entertaining take on working in Silicon Valley from a non-engineer/non-founder/non-VC perspective.

Chris Schuch

The Ride of a Lifetime
by Robert Iger

Disney is a powerhouse and this memoir details how Iger used technology to grow the company even further.

Vivek Mohta

by Atul Gawande

Gawande has excellent insights into what makes systems and institutions work or fail, and is a masterful storyteller who marries deeply personal medical narratives with large-scale facts about medical institutions.
I also recommend Gawande's other works, Better and Being Mortal.

Ramesh Sridharan

A Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh

This is a really interesting fictional narrative that explores the various societal roles, conditions, and motivating forces in colonial India around the time of the first Opium War. It's one of those books that has a compelling narrative through which you learn things you might never be exposed to otherwise.

Joseph Goldbeck

by Safi Bahcall

It gives insightful historical reviews of why various innovations succeeded (or failed), along with what these stories tell us about culture and why groups act as they do.

Jakov Kucan

by Charles Schwab

This memoir shares insider stories about the early days of the brokerage industry—including how Schwab was a bad check away from running out of cash, and how they ran A/B tests without computers.

Matyas Tamas