26 March 2015

Reading list to assist in understanding everything about everything

While I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who think I'm an idiot, I think (hope?) its fair to say there are at least a few who find me to have an above average grasp of how the world works.

I don't really think I'm all that much "smarter" than average.
I may have a slightly better than average ability to spot patterns in complex systems.  Side effect of being a touch closer to the Spectrum than your typical NT, I guess.

But part of it, I think, is just that its much more my goal to understand things than for most.

It seems for a lot of people a lot of the reason for adopting particular beliefs is to fit in and be popular.
That, and having those beliefs justify what people would like to be true, which is comforting or justifies something that would otherwise conflict with ethical values.

Since I've never had much interest in large groups of people, I've never had any real use for conformity - including conforming to any non-mainstream sub-cultures.
Beliefs that feed rationalizations to avoid cognitive dissonance?  Well, who knows, maybe I'm as susceptible to that as anyone, I suppose if I were doing it, I wouldn't know, would I?

Anyway, another advantage I've had is just that I've been exposed to some good sources of information that tie it all together.

I'm a generalist.  I've never wanted to focus intently on one narrow thing until I knew everything about it (that's one major thing that separates me from the true Aspies).  There is just so freakin much interesting stuff that exists, so many areas of wonder, so much to learn about so many things!  Also, I get bored kind of easily...

I suspect a lot of what limits many people from learning more and understanding the world better is, well, wasting time.  Ok, ok, "waste" is a judgment call, its totally subjective, and whatever people choose to pay attention to that keeps them entertained and happy, that gives it value in itself.

OK, but I'm just talking about what makes me stand out, why I know so many things about so many things (or, at least, you know - I'm not trying to brag, its just that people keep telling me this, and I suspect maybe they're at least partially right - goddamn it! It is really hard to talk about this without sounding extremely conceited...) is because I've spent a lot more of my free time trying to learn more.

I've never wasted time or brain space learning about the personal lives of celebrities, or the statistics of Local Sporting Team.  I admit I've spent a few too many hours on video games, but I've never been a true hardcore gamer.  I've never spent much time on FaceBook, and I've never owned a "smart" "phone" (i.e. pocket computer).  While contemporaries were reading comic books, I was reading science books.  While some watched talk shows and soap operas, I watched a bunch of science shows and documentaries.
I think the gift I had may not be so much "intelligence", per say - as in a good memory or the ability to solve puzzles - the gift is that I find cellular biology and economics and mechanics and history and statistics genuinely interesting.  So I have the motivation to go out and seek information.

Having the information may not be enough to synthesize it all and start to see the bigger picture patterns emerge - but it is definitely a prerequisite first step.

Just in case anyone out there is interested in beginning to get a better understanding of everything about everything, and how it all relates - from particle physics to politics - I thought I'd list here the reading list I plan to someday assign to my children.

Of course the amount I've read is an infinitesimally small fraction of the information humans have generated and consolidated in book form, and there may well be better examples of every topic, but these are just the ones I personally read and found great value in.

These are in the order they should be read - the list builds in complexity as you go.  Each book is complete in itself, but you can get even more out of it if you understand the underlying principals more thoroughly:

1) The Way Things Work (Macualay)
Not only will this help you understand how all mechanical systems operate, allowing you a huge advantage in being able to fix anything yourself, but, more importantly, it lays the ground work - psychologically - for the realization that stuff makes sense.  That it is possible to understand things.  In dramatic contrast to what some of the instructors at Coast Guard mechanic school are teaching, nothing is actually "Pure Fucking Magic".  Under the hood, or behind the screen, or inside the perfectly formed plastic, its just levers and wires, ordinary principals of everyday physics that, when broken down to individual steps, even a child can understand.
The mystery of all things built by other people has been something created and fostered by industry so that people feel obligated to get needs met by buying pre-manufactured products, and to replace them when they break instead of repairing them.  But it has also had the effect of continuing the idea that the universe is not something that ordinary people can possibly understand, and so we have to just accept what is offered to us by other people, presumably much smarter than ourselves.  But just like it wasn't spirits that made people sick back before we knew about bacteria, it isn't spirits that make your iPhone work today.  Its science, and science isn't reserved for people who wear lab coats.
The Way Things work essentially uses the explanation of how every day machines and tools and gadgets around us work to surreptitiously teach the basics of Newtonian Physics to people who might otherwise never consider reading a textbook on Newtonian Physics on the grounds that it supposedly had no relevance to their everyday life.
Also, this book uses Wooly Mammoths to explain a significant amount.

2) A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bryson)
This starts at the beginning of the known universe, and travels all the way to the emergence of humanity.
It goes through astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry, geology, the creation of life, and basic evolution.
But not only does it tell you facts, it goes into great detail about how we know.  It never asks you to just accept that something is a certain way because the author says so, or because "scientists" proclaim it.  It describes the specific experiments and other methods people have used to figure out answers to questions.  In the process it tells the stories of the people who made various discoveries, and even includes many of the mistakes that were made along the way.
In doing so, it furthers the idea that everything that is understood by anyone is in fact understandable by anyone.  It takes the mystery out of both science and the scientific process.
It is also generally a lot easier to remember individual facts when they are placed in a greater context and the "why" and "how" is explained alongside the "what" and "when".

3) The Selfish Gene (Dawkins)
Famous enough, perhaps, that it requires little commentary?  This book explains evolution.  It answers all of the questions about how it works - and how it could occur in the first place.  It explains how the behavior of altruism is in no way in conflict with evolution, and how something as complex as the eye or the brain could develop (and without any need for a pre existing consciousness as a guide).  It explains how life could have first developed from no life.  And, without really calling attention to it, it implicitly explains an awful lot of human behavior at the same time.  This was the book that really sparked the anti-Dawkins movement among Christian fundamentalists, which means it was written before all that happened, which means it was before his eventual crusade to discredit all religion, which means it lacks the tone of aggression, (or at least passive aggression), that may come across in later works...

4) How The Mind Works (Pinker)
Now that we understand the basics of biology, time to take it up another notch and explain this wacky, ephemeral, indescribable thing known as consciousness.  The mind is created by the brain, but the structure and function of mind is as different from the physical flesh of the network of neurons called brain as software code is from silicone semi-conductors.  We have at least a vague understanding of the brain - synapses, neurotransmitters, white matter, grey matter, cerebrum, cerebellum, amygdala, Hippocampus, medulla oblongata - but how the heck do we go from that to thinking, or to the sensation of warm, or the feeling of fear?
About as well as will ever be possible, this book describes the "software" side of the human mind.  It explains what it means to "picture something in your mind", and explains why so much of every language uses location words in contexts where it doesn't make any sense (give up shut up mess up sign up clean up cheer up screw up open up wake up hook up back up speak up what's up wait up hurry up set up tie up).
It goes a long way to explaining why what our eyes see and what we consciously observe are so often different, and explains why we tend to default to the perceptions we have.  It gets pretty "meta" when you are part way through and start thinking about how it is your own brain reading and interpreting the words written on the page, and thinking about how you are thinking about the process of thinking.
It bridges the gap between the last book on evolutionary biology and the ones coming up on cognitive psychology.

5) The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Sacks)
The last book explain how the mind works when everything is functioning as it should.  This one tells tales of what can happen when something goes wrong.  It is much less directly applicable to everyday life than the last 4 books, and yet, by exploring into the extreme cases of the author's patients, the limitations of using a brain made out of cells to process information about the world around us.  What better a way to shake the blind faith we put into our perceptions than to get acquainted with people who are every bit as confident as ourselves about things in which they are clearly and indisputably flat out wrong?

6) Predictably Irrational (Ariely)
Guess what?  It turns out it isn't just people with head trauma, rare congential birth defects, and brain diseases who make grossly illogical mistakes.  You do it too.  Everyone does.  It turns out that the human brain was never designed to objectively collect all facts, apply strict logical rules, and come to the best possible conclusions given the available information.  We were designed to have whatever perceptions gave us the best chances of survival in the wild - whether those perceptions were right or wrong.  Our brains evolved with a set of heuristics based on threats likely to occur on the African Savannah of 100,000 years ago, short-term risk versus reward ratios in a world where nothing was guaranteed tomorrow, and social dynamics in small nomadic tribes of humans with no laws, no property, no birth control, no agriculture... and since, in evolutionary terms that was all just a moment ago, we still have those same brains today, and they are rather poorly adapted to a world of cars and FaceBook.
As such, our intuitions on most things is mostly wrong most of the time.
This leads to us doing all sorts of silly things, with money, with food, with risk calculation, with social interactions.
This book exposes a lot of those mistakes.  Mistakes that the majority of people make, the majority of the time.  Mistakes which, if no one went into depth to explain, we would all just keep doing, and assuming we were being sensible, forever.  It explains why "common sense" is wrong at least as often as not, and why marketing is so effective at getting us to spend money on things that don't actually lead to better or happier lives, why freedom doesn't make people happier, and why free markets never behave in practice the way they are supposed to in theory.

7) You Are Not So Smart (McRaney)
This builds on what was laid down by the last book, but even more explicitly on how it applies to you, the reader, and not just the generic "they" out there.  It also covers a much more wide range of psychological phenomenon, where Predictably Irrational focuses primarily on economic issues.  You Are Not So Smart started out as a blog, the success of which lead to a book, and which has now turned into a regular podcast - the only one I follow consistently

8) You Are Now Less Dumb (McRaney)
A continuation of the last book - new examples, and with more emphasis on the fact that, although these are natural and universal human biases, misperceptions, and cognitive errors, it is possible to become aware of them, and by doing so, to greatly reduce your own personal chances of making them in the future.

9) A Short History of the World (Roberts)
Funny coincidence how closely this title matches the second book in the list.  Well, not a coincidence, really, since the goal here is summarizing the most relevant general human knowledge for understanding basically everything.  Anyway... This one is purely about human beings.  It broadly covers everything we know about prehistory - homo erectus, neanderthals, the invention of tools and agriculture - then checks in on every major civilization on all the populated continents.  The amount of time spent covering each one is proportional to how many people a particular culture influenced, both in its own day, and future generations up to today.  It covers both major wars and other politics, and the daily lives of ordinary people, including women, peasants and slaves in different societies.  It talks about religions and philosophies and culture, and how they all interacted with each other over time.  It continues bouncing around the globe, checking in on the progress of civilizations over time all the way to the early 1990s, when it was written.  It is surprising to learn how much that we take for granted are actually very new concepts in human history (such as the entire notion of a "State", as a geopolitical unit).  It puts almost everything that has happened in our own lifetime in a much more full context, and that context changes a lot of meaning.  Reading this after having gained some insight into psychology from earlier books makes it  a bit easier to understand the motivations of cultures distinctly different from our own, which helps avoid having alienation distract from understanding what happened when and why.

10) A People's History of the United States (Zinn)
Overlaps the last book in time, but zooms in with finer resolution on the United States specifically, which is where I happen to live, and is also probably the single most significant and influential culture in the world at this particular point in time.  As the title suggests, instead of focusing on battles and presidents and celebrities, this book covers the influential ideas and actions of people you've probably never heard of, as well as people who's names were never even recorded, and it covers mass actions without any clearly identifiable leader.  There is something about human nature that seems to make us want to focus on figureheads and celebrities, and attribute every significant change in history to some individual, but in the real world one person pretty much never makes a difference.  It is always a movement.  One person may take up the reigns and lead for a bit, but that never occurs in a vacuum - whether  scientist, general, or activist, they all build on work started long before them and pushed forward by hundreds or thousands of regular people.  This book focuses on all of those people. It also tells parts of American history which were hugely influential on the course our collective consciousness took to get to where we are today, but which has been (deliberately?) suppressed in almost every other retelling of history (for example, that the concessions of industry to the labor movement were largely a calculated move to undermine the spread of communism among the American working class).  Coming fresh off the world historical perspective of the last book, this one really helps provide a near complete understanding of how we got to where we are today, and dissolves any remaining notions one might have that what we are used to is somehow "normal" or the natural "default" state for the world to be.

11) The Irony of Democracy (Dye and Zeigler)
If the last book didn't make you question our political system - while simultaneously confirming that not much else is really all that much better - this should.  It discusses very concrete and practical ways we could make the system work better.  Which, likely as not, are never going to happen, but at least if you understand it, it can help make for more informed voting and other political decisions.

12) The No Nonsense Guide to Democracy (Swift)
Shares the description of the last book, and also goes into the relationship between economics and politics.  Specifically, it destroys the unspoken assumption promoted in the US that "democracy" and "capitalism" are two sides of one coin.  That undermines a lot of political rhetoric that has been used for the past hundred years or so, and continues to today.

13) http://biodieselhauling.blogspot.com/2013/01/what-to-read.html
Having established a baseline of understanding in both science, psychology, history, and politics, with each building on the other and leading to a more broad sense of how they all tie together, and having challenged a few misconceptions about the world along the way - now that we've taken the Red Pill, so to speak - its time to challenge a few more things that "everyone knows".


  1. Wow, Bakari, what a great reading list and thank you for the Cliff's notes short summary of each! I'm retiring in 8 months, I may actually have some time to read more, a few of these sound awesome to me!

  2. Hi Bakari,

    As a complement to the non-historical book by Zinn, I'd suggest looking at A History of the American People by Paul Johnson.

    1. I don't think "non-historical" is an accurate term. Everything described in the book actually happened. Like any history book, Zinn focuses on certain things instead of others, and interprets events from his point of view. It would be impossible to write anything that didn't have those two elements. The focus is certainly in a different place than most history books, and that was the entire point.

      I haven't read Johnson's book, but from the reviews, it appears to be at least as biased, if not slightly more (in fact the author readily admits to writing with bias), has a number of errors, includes outright opinion and conjecture (naming the "worst" CA governor, stating the conditions under which we could have won Vietnam), and, most significantly, is focused almost entirely on leaders and historical figures, which is precisely and deliberately what Zinn was trying to avoid, since there is no lack of knowledge of what the contributions of the Great Men were throughout history.


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