Books of knowledge
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition
by Ed Regis
Man: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
True Names and Other Dangers by Vernor Vinge
Books of future shock
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by
Man: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler
The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences,
edited by Wilson and Keil
The Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides, and
Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
by Richard Feynman
The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows
of the Mind by Sir Roger Penrose
Books of fun
Books of my youth
association with Amazon.com.
Permutation City by Greg Egan
Quarantine by Greg Egan
A Fire Upon the Deep/True Names/Marooned
in Realtime by Vernor Vinge
Aristoi by Walter John Williams
Neverness by David Zindell
Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
©1999 by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky. All rights reserved.
Books that changed my life:
This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human
species. This was the book that launched me on my career in artificial
intelligence and cognitive science. I don't mean to imply that those
are the only topics covered; Gödel, Escher, Bach also deals
with mathematics, music, art, programming, Zen, philosophy, self-reference,
and everything in the world that is bright and beautiful. This is
the most intelligent, the deepest, the most beautiful book in the world.
Period. End of story.
I'm not alone in this opinion, by the way. For one thing, Gödel,
Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize. Or just pick a random scientist
and ask ver what vis favorite book is, and 1 out of 5 will say: "Gödel,
Escher, Bach". No other book even comes close.
It is saddening to contemplate that every day, 150,000 humans die without
reading what is indisputably one of the greatest achievements of our species.
Don't let it happen to you.
Sure, if you're just an average person, you might not understand everything
in this book - but when you're done reading, you won't be an average person
When I was but a little lad, in the days of my wild and reckless youth,
I thought I would grow up to be a physicist, like my father before me (who
was at that time a physicist). I'd read QED
by age nine, and I even understood most of it. I was contentedly
headed for a life on the frontiers of the fourteenth decimal point.
Then along came a book called "Great Mambo Chicken". As I recall,
it was taken out as a library book and given to me, for the duration of
the loan, by a grand-uncle. Undoubtedly attracted by the title, of
course. And inside this book was...
Cryonics! The colonization of space! Fun with high explosives!
Humanity's conquest of the Universe! Artificial intelligence!
Genetic engineering! Nanotechnology! The Omega Point!
Ultratechnologies by the dozen!
I knew, in that moment, that I'd be doing one of those things for my
career. (I thought it'd be nanotechnology, actually; I didn't get
converted over to AI and cognitive science and computer programming until
I read Gödel, Escher, Bach.) I read this book, and I
realized it was possible to solve all the problems of the world,
that nothing was beyond the reach of intelligence, that my generation
and maybe even my grandparents' generation was going to be immortal, and
I decided that I was going to help make it happen, and that's what my life
Self-awareness is a wonderful thing. At its height, self-awareness
alters every aspect of intelligence and personality. And self-awareness
isn't just knowing how to think, it's knowing how to feel. If I understand
my own emotions today, it's because I read this book.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New
Science of Evolutionary Psychology is about, you guessed it, evolutionary
psychology - the origin of our-modern day emotions as the frozen strategies
of survival and reproduction from the days of the hunter-gatherers.
Knowing what's in your mind, knowing exactly where it comes from and
why, is the first step towards self-alteration. This book gives the
lie to the late twentieth-century American stereotype that to be logical
is to lose the ability to understand your own emotions. Armed by
the high quest of science, it's possible to attain a greater understanding
of emotion than pop psychoanalysts or folk psychologists ever will.
"Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology,
and found myself precipitated over an abyss. It's a problem we face
every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.
When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity
- a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied
- and the world will pass beyond our understanding."
One book, picked up on a whim in a public library. Sixty-five words.
-- Vernor Vinge, True Names and Other Dangers, p. 47.
My feeling at that moment is hard to describe; not wild enthusiasm,
just a vast calm feeling of "Yep. He's right. Well, now I know
how I'll be spending the rest of my life."
I've been a Singularitarian ever since.
Five years later, I've never looked back.
Books of knowledge:
Artificial intelligence. Cognitive science. Mathematics.
Music. Art. Language. Computer programming. Zen.
Philosophy. Self-reference. Genetics. Paradox.
All explained in an utterly clear, utterly readable, utterly accessible
style, completely open to the average reader in every way, assuming no
prior knowledge. It provides the best introduction I've ever seen
to any of the above subjects, not because the author is writing
a textbook, but because the author wants you to see how much fun
Gödel, Escher, Bach: Read it! Read it! Read
If Gödel, Escher, Bach is an introduction to all the most beautiful
knowledges in the world, then Great Mambo Chicken shows us all the
coolest technologies. Bask for a moment in the table of contents:
"Truax", about an independent rocket scientist out to beat NASA; "Home
on Lagrange", about the L5 society and the colonization of the solar system;
"Heads will roll", about cryonics, and freezing the heads of the deceased,
saving all that information in the brain before it rots; "Omnipotence,
Plenitude & Co.", about attaining complete control over the structure
of matter on the molecular level through the agency of quintillions
of molecular-level self-reproducing robots; "Postbiological Man", about
the possibility of augmenting ourselves and transcending the limitations
of (organic) flesh; "The Artificial Life 4-H Show"; "Hints for the Better
Operation of the Universe", or how to keep the Sun (or for that matter,
the Universe) from getting all dark and icky; and there's "Death of the
Impossible", which is about how to do everything else.
Want to know thyself? Here's where you learn. Why do
we eat sugar and salt and fat in an age when these things are no longer
good for us? Because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness,
they were scarce resources. Whence comes the stereotype that men
care about sex and women care about love? Why does the male eye stray
more easily than the female? Why are men the wooers and women the
choosers? Because the male invests a night of effort to produce a
baby, while a woman invests nine months; the optimum evolutionary strategy
for the male is to sleep with everything in sight, while the optimum evolutionary
strategy for the female is to be very choosy.
I suppose some people would think it depressing to see the puppet strings
on which we all dangle, think that bad old science made the magic go away.
But in my experience, like I said, seeing the puppet strings is the first
step towards cutting them and getting on with your life.
Before Great Mambo Chicken, there was Engines of Creation,
the book in which Eric Drexler deliberately and calculatedly set out to
create the multi-million-dollar nanotechnology research efforts we know
today, and the zillion-dollar nanotechnology industry of tomorrow.
His was the stroke of genius. He invented the phrase. He did
the homework. He projected the results. He wrote the book.
He created the industry. Every time you hear the word "nanotechnology"
used today, every time you read about it in Time Magazine or Business
Week, it's because Eric Drexler decided to make it happen.
And this is the book that started it all.
(If you want the technical stuff, see Dr. Drexler's Nanosystems,
published years later. Engines is the futurist's version,
from before there was the technical stuff.)
I've been reading cognitive science books for five years, and it's a good
thing MIT published this Encyclopedia in 1999, or I'd be really ticked-off
at the fact that I needn't have bothered. Virtually everything I'd
learned was in this book, and more. It's like a magic spellbook;
you read it, and it turns you into a cognitive scientist. It's a
complete college education and then some. Just amazing.
The price Amazon currently quotes is $150, but they were selling copies
for $90 at our local Microcenter Warehouse computer store. Is it
worth it? Oh yeah.
Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby
After The Moral Animal comes The Adapted Mind, brought to
you courtesy of Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, and brought
to me courtesy of Paul Hughes (he sent me a copy as a birthday present).
If you're already familiar with evolutionary psychology, this book won't
rock your world to its foundations - but it'll be fun to read. (At
least, if you're familiar enough with cognitive science to understand it.
This is not an introductory-level book. It took me a month to read
it, and my ordinary speed is around a book a day.)
The book is a collection of chapters by specialists in various fields
of evolutionarily grounded cognitive science; the authors listed are simply
The most wonderful chapter was definitely The Psychological Foundations
of Culture, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. To describe the
forces that generate a culture, you need to describe the evolution of the
psychology that composes the culture, the environment and cultural
environment that created the selection forces that drove the evolution,
not to mention the evolution of the cultural memes themselves. So
they did. It's all in here. All the interactions. All
the causality. Laid out in neat little paragraphs.
There's also an amazing little gem about the human visual system.
Why is the sky blue? Yes, because the air scatters blue light - but
why does the sky look blue? Why do we see blue as a pure,
beautiful color? Would any sky look the same to the creatures that
evolved underneath it? Why are there three types of cones (color
receptors) in the retina, and not four or two? Why those three cones?
And why is purple the strangest of all colors?
Why are flowers pretty?
What makes a landscape interesting?
To find out, you'll just have to read the book.
Douglas Hofstadter returns with this compendium of articles published in
his column at Scientific American. Self-referential sentences,
logical games, the power of language over the mind, the wellsprings of
creativity, typefaces, Rubik's Cubes, Lisp, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle,
Alan Turing, analogies, the amazing Copycat AI, stumbling-blocks in the
field of artificial intelligence, the genetic code, psychological games.
Plus "The Prisoner's Dilemma Computer Tournaments and the Evolution of
Cooperation" and "Irrationality is the Square Root of All Evil", both of
which should be required reading for anyone who wants to live on a planet
with other people.
So what's up with all those whizzing atoms? What's really going on
down there? And is it humanly possible to explain it so well that
a nine-year-old child can understand it? Yes, it is, but only if
you're Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and probably the
single greatest explainer in human history. Without oversimplifying,
Richard Feynman clears away all the technical terminology and provides
simple methods for visualizing the laws of physics.
After QED comes Shadows of the Mind, by Sir Roger Penrose, going
deeper into the mathematics of quantum and relativistic paradox.
Penrose isn't trying to explain quantum physics; he's trying to persuade
you that the human mind isn't Turing-computable. (Penrose is right
about this, although purely by coincidence.)
Penrose's philosophical arguments are flawed, and his sections on Gödel's
Theorem are eminently skippable - but physics! There's where Penrose
shines. The book is well worth reading, simply for the exposition
on quantum physics and relativity. Even Daniel Dennett (philosophical
archnemesis of Penrose's crowd) recommends the book on those grounds.
It's remarkable how clear explanations can become when an expert's trying
to persuade you of something, instead of just explaining it.
Books of future shock:
This is simply the best science-fiction book ever written, the Grand Bull
Moose Award Winner for really really good fiction. It is, in short,
my all-time favorite.
Can you imagine a book where the premise is that human beings have been
scanned into computers as virtual Copies? "Darn it," you cry, "now
you've spoiled it for me!" Oh, no, I haven't. Can you imagine
a book where this concept is introduced on the first page?
That bit about Copies? That's not the plot. That's just
the starting assumption. The surprises this book delivers
are unbelievable. It shocked the living daylights out of me.
But I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. So if you want to know
more, read the book.
Another patented Greg Egan surprise-a-thon. On the first page of
book, we find out that the stars vanished from the sky on the night the
Solar System was enclosed in an impenetrable bubble. But that doesn't
even begin to convey what awaits you in this book.
There's always one moment in a Greg Egan novel when you understand,
and there's just nothing that compares to that feeling - except, of course,
for the thrill of scientific discovery. We can't all win a Nobel
Prize, but we can all read Greg Egan, and we probably should.
Three books, in three completely different Universes, that present in three
ways the Vingean Singularity. Will the rise of greater-than-human
intelligence be like this? No. Of course not. It'll be
completely different. We can't see beyond that horizon... but Vinge
takes us right up to it, and makes us see the wall stretching ahead.
Short of experiencing our actual Singularity, the Vinge novels come as
close to drawing a picture of What Lies Beyond, as we will ever see...
A Fire Upon the Deep is probably the best of these; it comes
right out and shows you the Transcendents, awesome, moving on a
galactic scale. And oh, yes, it won a Hugo.
by Walter John Williams
The novel of nanotechnology, and a really, really well-written book
besides. Imagine a society that is the product of Greek culture,
Chinese culture, nanotechnology, and technologically augmented mental disciplines.
Imagine you're such an amazingly good science-fiction author that you can
write about it seamlessly, that the culture shown is perfectly integrated
and perfectly executed and entirely plausible. That's the Logarchy,
and in my entire reading experience, it is the most beautiful and compelling
culture ever. If I had to choose one example of supreme professional
craftsmanship in the art of creating futuristic societies, it would be
Walter John Williams has written many excellent books, but this is indisputably
the best. It deserves a Hugo, a Nebula, and possibly a Pulitzer.
by David Zindell
Mallory Ringess is a pilot of the lightships of Neverness, member of the
Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame,
governed by the Lord Horologe and Master Timekeeper. The black, diamond-hulled
ships are piloted through the manifold through the mappings and theorems
of set theory. On Neverness the akashics and cetics and remembrancers
and warrior-poets practice their professions. And it just keeps getting
For poetry on the galactic scale, you can't beat Neverness.
(The next three books don't meet the amazingly high standards of Neverness,
however. Be warned.)
"So what the heck is this 'Culture' everyone is talking about?", you ask.
Well, the Culture is as close as science fiction has ever gotten to describing
a real utopia. It's the society SL3 transhumanists would build, given
full rein. It's More Fun In the Culture... even if you're exposed
to danger while bringing the blessings of civilization to less fortunate
societies as part of the do-gooder Contact section... even if you're part
of Special Circumstances.
If I had to choose one poster child for the dictum that the technology
creates the society, this would be it.
Phlebas is also pretty good.
Books of fun:
Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
you're joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis
Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
6: The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
many many others)
Books of my youth:
(Ordered by reader age, youngest first.)
Cadet by Robert Heinlein
Pig by William Sleator
3: Support Your Local Wizard by Diane Duane
You Want to be a Wizard, Deep
4: The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
5: The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
Dark is Rising, Greenwitch,
Grey King, Silver
on the Tree)
6: Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
of Autumn Twilight, Dragons
of Winter Night, Dragons
of Spring Dawning)
7: Dragonlance Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Time of the Twins, The
War of the Twins, The
Test of the Twins)