2016 in Books and Tools

2016 was a good year for thinking and building, so I thought I would offer some of the books and tools I found helpful this year (inspired by Saku Panditharatne’s great year-end book list).

Climate, Food and Energy

During 2016, I focused most of my reading on academic climate and energy books. Vaclav Smil’s work is a favorite. His books are consciencious, dry, and full of references. Bring a highlighter.

In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil builds a rigorous estimate of earth’s carrying capacity. Where is the upper limit? How close are we to it? His survey reaches all the way back to the origins of farming and forward to demographic trends in the next 50 years. I started reading this in 2015 while transitioning to MIT OpenAg. It helped form my thesis that indoor farming, greenhouses, farming robots, and bioengineering will be crucial tools for weathering a climate changing future.

Energy Transitions is Smil’s researched assessment of what it will take for civilization to transition to renewable energy. We’ve transitioned from one energy source to another several times before: people to animal, animal to wood, wood to coal, coal to oil. Here’s the tricky part: every transition has been a step up in energy density. Oil to Renewables will be our first step down. Smil looks to natural gas as a means to make up the difference.

In Prime Movers of Globalization Smil looks at the Diesel engine and its impact on civilization. Globalization is basically Diesel-powered.

A Case for Climate Engineering (David Keith) is a little book that makes a high-level pitch for careful geoengineering. It’s designed to convince policy makers in a hurry and doesn’t go into detail, but offers an easy way to get aquainted with the idea of geoengineering. Author @DKeithClimate is a good Twitter follow, btw.

Aurora (Kim Stanley Robinson) is an ecological novel disguised as hard sci-fi. A generation ship is headed toward the nearest earth-like planet. They have to keep their little terrarium in balance. Abstract climate concerns become concrete problems when you shrink the biosphere by many orders of magnitude. It’s a story about carrying capacity, island ecology, inbreeding, sick building syndrome, eutrophication, and ecological niches.

Design

Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Christopher Alexander) — a lucky find at Powell’s Books in Portland. Alexander works out a formal logic language for reasoning about design constraints. I like these types of thinking tools. They give you a way to make abstract thought concrete and composable.

Cyberpunk

Extrastatecraft (Easterling) is a cyberpunk work of architectural criticism. It analyzes the “spatial software” that generates our cities - replicable standard patterns like zones, broadband networks and trade laws. As an architect, Easterling sees this spatial software as framing the boundary of what is possible for city planners, architects and citizens. Can we work with this software, or hack it to regain personal agency?

I read a few William Gibson novels for fun. I grew up in suburban USA, where an implicit belief hangs in the air that says the world will never be different, the world has never been different. This kind of reading is an innoculation against a static worldview.

Doom

Books on global catastrophic risk were cathartic this year. Also, there are good ideas to be found at the extremes.

Inner Life

3 books had significant personal meaning for me this year.

Identity and Violence (Amartya Sen) is very good, and very easy to understand. Amartya Sen puts his finger on a slippery problem: our tendency to flatten people to a single identity, then point the finger at that identity.

A Secular Age (Charles Taylor) points out that 600 years ago, it was almost impossible not to believe in God. Today, it is difficult to have an unquestioned belief in God, even for those who would prefer it. Taylor asks how this change in western culture came to be. His chapter on the perception of time is wonderful. Thinking of time as a container to be filled is a very modern notion. Now that I see it, I can’t unsee it. I think there’s a pretty strong through-line between Max Weber, Hagel and Charles Taylor. This book is thick, and I’ve whittled away at it by alternately reading and listening to an audiobook version.

The Courage to Be (Paul Tillich) is one of those books found at the right moment. His description of what it looks like when networks of symbolic and institutional meaning break down is fantastic, and echos Charles Taylor. I like Existentialists.

Practical Books

On the practical side, I picked up The Business Solution to Poverty (Polack Warwick) on the recommendation of a friend. The book details problems encountered while building an appropriate tech business. It’s light on theory. Many of the takeaways are probably not reproducible. However, the case studies are a useful look at designing for extreme affordability.

The Robotics Primer (Mataric) is a great teaching resource. It goes over the most important techniques in robotics and has copious references to source material for deeper reading. Anyone could pick up this book and walk away with a working understanding of robotics.

2016 in Ideas

I’m taken with the idea of Gertrude Stein’s Salon, the Macy conferences, and stories of a Whole Earth Catalog published from an inflatable commune in the desert.

In 2016, I organized the first Foxes Congress, a Salon discussion group. The topic was The Future of Nature, and we found a suitable supervillain lair to host it in. The goal was to expand the network of ideas, and there was a lot of thoughtful discussion. It was a refreshing relief.

The next theme in the salon series will be Start with a Lathe (or, how to boostrap civilization).

2016 in Tools

Most of my work at Mozilla was in JavaScript. I picked up Python again while working on OpenAg’s climate-in-a-box growing chambers.

My sweet spot for programming productivity is a pragmatic functional style — plain functions, minimal statefulness. Python makes a few design choices I would lean away from: classes, exceptions, and hard-to-Google sugars. At the same time, Python gets some basics very right: readable syntax, batteries included, and native lazy generators.

Python can be very charming when you lean heavily on plain functions, generator expressions and built-in data structures. There are always simple ways to do the things you need to do.

ROS, by the way, is a solid framework for robotics. We use it to power the OpenAg backend. It offers a message system for scripts to communicate over typed channels. Every state in the system is the result of a message. This means you can serialize, record and replay any system state for testing. It’s a very similar architectural approach to the one our team at Mozilla used for UI programming. More software should be written this way.

OpenAg has also meant hands-on work with single-board Linux computers. These things are cheap. $5 cheap. Soon they’ll be cheaper than dirt. Get ready for an Internet of Things held together by chewing gum and string, because SBCs are so cheap, they’ll soon be in everything.

PocketCHIP is an early example of what you can do with cheap SBCs. This handheld game console is a mistfit toy cobbled together from Android supply chain leftovers: a Linux SBC, a 4” phone screen, a circuit board with a built-in QUERTY keyboard. What you end up with is an open source Gameboy, with 8-bit games you can hack and reprogram yourself. This thing is designed to make kids fall in love with programming. I gifted a couple as Christmas presents.

I got to spend some time at Artisan’s Asylum in Cambridge. What a perfect Cambridge place. It’s a warehouse-scale makerspace full of forts built from 2x4s, stuffed with the work of engineers, hackers, welders, puppeteers, and tinkers. That’s what you get when you create access to tools. More like this please.

2017

2016 helped me firm up a set of tactics I believe in, and I hope to put them to good use in 2017:

  1. Optimize for learning. Continual learning is a process of getting better at getting better. Cultivate a beginner’s mind, because you can’t learn what you already know.
  2. Create things. Even small things. Each act of creation makes the world a little different (hopefully better). Everyone should have the chance to create, to embody a bit of their own meaning in things.
  3. Build tools. Tools remove the barriers to creation.

Additionally,

  • Continue developing an inner life. Continue developing as an individual.
  • Offer my money and effort to those who need them.

Good luck this 2017. Keep moving forward. Keep doing good.

  • Updated
    Jan 1, 2017

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