What I'm reading

Image credit: Open Culture

Dean has been pushing me recently to start actually putting down my thoughts somewhere. This seems like a good way to start - a list of things I’m enjoying reading!

So here’s a (hopefully regularly maintained) list:

  • The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene: In a thread with Jacob and Sham, Dean made the comment that “Extended Phenotype” is about “evolution on this planet”, while Selfish Gene is about “evolution on any planet”, and I kind of agree! My take is that probably Maynard Smith did the biology better, Fisher did the math better, but Dawkins did the philosophy best. Maybe that’s why I liked Selfish Gene better - though this book is extraordinary. On another note, why on earth hasn’t Dawkins won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

  • The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible: A pretty good description of the most important problem in mathematics (in mine and Fortnow’s opinion)! But (Lance if you’re reading this - I’m so sorry!), my favorite book on computation is still probably Quantum Computing Since Democritus. Though, I must say - reading the chapter on the “beautiful world”, it’s amazing how many of the problems Lance describes can be solved by modern AI!

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid: GEB is definitely a tome, but Dean and I often say “Computation is a truth of all universes”, and this is the probably still the best book I’ve read that convinces you that statement might be true!

  • Who Gets What - and Why: I’ve always thought that done right, the problem of modern economics is to understand and prove how a market can fail. It does seem like the Chicago School is the right null for a lot of problems. I do appreciate that these are the most serious challenges to markets (though markets in general do seem to win 😊!). I’m now very curious to understand how my two favorite topics, computation and markets, fit together!

  • Language Evolution and Syntactic Theory: Kinsella’s book provides a perspective I don’t see much in AI - what are the syntactic structures we can efficiently learn as humans.

  • The Arrow Impossibility Theorem: One of the few truly great negative results from math. I’ve been enjoying digging into how the thinking has evolved since Arrow published his thesis (!). On a side note, Sham and I recently had the honor of meeting Amartya Sen - what a great night.

  • The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves: It’s amazing how much the variability of adaptations on our planet and a little physics can tell us about what life might look like on any planet

  • The Dawn of Language: The story of how we came to talk: I’m enjoying wondering about how what we know about language can shape our NLP models. I thought Dawkins’ summary of the book captured my feelings well!

  • The Production of Human Capital in Developed Countries: RCTs we’ve run in education these days! Amazing how little has a large effect

  • Good Economics for Hard Times: Poor Economics was maybe one of my favorite books ever. Can’t say this one made me any happier!

  • The Selfish Gene: I recently re-read one of my favorite science books ever. Dean (who I think this came from), Sham, and I frequently discuss how the four pillars that shape our understanding of the world are Evolution, Falsifiability, Economics and Computation - I think this is the book that convinced me Evolution belongs in those pillars.

  • The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time: I’d always wondered how Evolution as a theory could be tested within our lifetimes - reading about the Grant’s research really convinced me that we know just how accurate the theory really is. It also convinced me that punctuated equlibrium was a really wrong-headed idea!

  • Quantum Computing Since Democritus: The book that probably contributed most (the other being the phenomenal book by Boaz Barak and Sanjeev Arora) to my believing that Computation was maybe the most interesting (to me) of Dean’s four pillars

  • The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships: Less empirical than I would have liked, though the idea of emotional bidding seems like a good way to see the world! I wonder if the primary research would convince me more of some of the claims the book makes

  • Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty: One of my favorite books ever addressing what I think is the most important problem humanity has to solve - incredibly depressing to read, no matter how many times the authors stress the importance of hope!

  • The Man Who Used the Universe: Dean’s namesake wrote maybe my favorite sci-fi book! I was a bit discomforted by how much I identified with the protagonist

  • From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds: I really enjoyed some of Dennett’s ideas (I wonder how we could build Gregorian conditioning into our LLMs) - but I wish I could change the word “Bayesian” to “Neural Network”! I also thought he undermined his own message of “competence without comprehension” in the final chapter

  • The Fire Next Time: Baldwin’s most famous novel is on my short-list for “books that changed my thinking”

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: Still my favorite opening line of any novel. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

  • Kiln People: Another great sci-fi recommendation by Dean. We probably spent a full day discussing the question “Would you treat your clone as an extension of yourself or as a separate person?” (We both agreed the former seems far likelier)

  • The Second World War: My first or second favorite history book! It seems like a slog - so I was always tell people to try one chapter. I’ve found uniformly that they get just as sucked into it as I did!

  • Mémoires d’Hadrien: My other favorite history book! A great portrait of ageing and wisdom during a “moment unique où l’homme seul a été”

  • Lyrical and Critical Essays of Albert Camus: Pretty much anyone who knows me knows I swear by Camus - Summer in Algiers remains one of my favorite essays. I recommend the Rains of New York to anyone who doubts that there is only one place to live 😊!

  • Hellspark: A sci-fi book that really gets how important communication is - and what being able to speak many languages (particularly relevant I think for scientists) brings to a life. Dean loves this book so much, he named multiple offices after it!

  • Wretched Refuse?: I’ve long thought that immigration is one of the most important things to focus on for making the world a better place. The book dumps a lot of R/Stata output (which makes it a slog) - but the first two paragraphs really moved me!

  • Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning through COVID-19: This book is slightly hard to read because the memories and trauma of COVID are still so fresh, but I think it’s one of the best introductions to Economics and why it’s so important, that I’ve ever read. It gets to the heart of why so many people disagreed with the decisions that were made (correctly or incorrectly) by Governments and Public Health Officials through the COVID-19 crisis.

  • The Code of the Woosters: One of the great things an English-esque education gives you is the pleasure of encountering your first P.G. Wodehouse novel. This book cracks me up everytime I read it, specially the line “What ho! A Dictator!” 🤣

Dhruv Madeka
Dhruv Madeka
Principal Applied Scientist, Amazon

I’m a Principal Scientist at Amazon working on Natural Language Processing, Reinforcement Learning, and Forecasting.