Best Non-Fiction Reads

Recently I spoke at Beca's Asia Leadership Conference. I related ideas from several influential non-fiction books I've read recently. Afterwards, I was asked for references to the books. I offered to write a short blog or ‘listicle’ with other favourite non-fiction reads included for good value. Here it is -

Greg's List

Science of Cities


The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies

Geoffrey West (2017)

Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West - the former president and distinguished professor of the Santa Fe Institute – is responsible for developing the study of a ‘Science of Cities’ and introducing the term ‘The Urbanocene’. West's research into complex systems identifies universal laws of scale which apply to organisms, companies and cities. One of his key findings is that every time you double a city's population you get an efficiency gain of, an average, about 15%. This means as cities increase in population they have super-linear economic growth and sub-linear infrastructure costs. By establishing this fact West builds one of the few evidence-based arguments outlining the value of cities. Anyone entering in to a discussion about the future of cities (or smart cities) is properly informed by reading it. Another other important book on cities is Lewis Mumford's The City In History (1961).

A review of Scale from 'The New York Review of Books'

Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence.


Paths, Dangers, Strategies

Nick Bostrom (2014)

Superintelligence is a beautifully crafted example of philosophical logic which I enjoyed for the formal structure of Bostrom's arguments in language alone. As an undergraduate student I studied formal logic. Others, who may take less joy from pure logic may find the drawn out philosophical nature of Bostrom's writing less accessible, but Bostrom's arguments are valid, profoundly thought provoking and entertaining: well worth preservering with. By the end of this book one has a clear understanding of the concept of a General Artifical Intelligence and, the potential implications for our civilisation.

I enjoyed Superintelligence more than Pedro Domingo's The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (the other book to read about AI). I read The Master Algorithm twice in order to reach full comprehension of technical distinctions between forms of machine learning algorithms. The Master Algorthim is more of a glossary - use it to get up to speed in understanding the difference between neural networks and Bayesian algorithms say, while Superintelligence is more akin to a great thinker engaging you in philosophical argument about AI, possible worlds, and all that it means for civilisation.

Follow this link to Nick Bostrom's blog where you will find a link to buy a paperback copy of Superintelligence for less than $10.

Psychology, Economics


Daniel Khaneman (2011)

Humans are not statistically instuitive. That’s the premise for Nobel-Prize-for-Economics-winning Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This epic book describes decades of scientific research by Khanneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky. He builds a fine argument about human behaviour which has become the foundation of the field of behavioural economics. This a long read. I had two false starts before finally completing the book. You’ll find summaries of Kahneman’s research quoted in a multitude of books like Range, which made this list, and also Nudge , Superforecastingand The Membership Economy, much shorter and more accessible books that do not make Greg's List. Whether you’re reading is, fast or slow, it’s worth persevering with Kahneman's long version to hear the evidence from the horse's mouth, so to speak.



How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein (2019)

Range summarises psychological research explaining ideas like analogical thinking and lateral thinking, and proves people with range are more likely to solve problems and innovate than groups of domain experts. If you're lacking a culture of innovation in your organisation you could have too many 'frogs' and not enough 'birds' on board. According to Epstein, your organisation likely lacks people who have both range of knowledge (birds) as well as depth of knowledge (frogs). Let's just say a lot of corporate recruitment functions would benefit from reading Range and opening their door a little wider.



A Brief History of Humankind

Noah Yuval Harari (2014)

An historical perspective is useful in order to understand the velocity of change in our world. Therefore, a book that's high on my you-should-read-this-list is Noah Yuval Harari’s first book Sapiens which reset the benchmark for accessible historical discourse. It's a popular best-selling book and for good reason. Another book-of-note along the same lines as Sapiens is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies(1997).



A Brief History of the Future

Noah Yuval Harari (2015)

Sapiens should be quickly followed by a read of Harari’s second book Homo Deus: a disiniterested and dispassionate frank observation of society's possible future from an almost anthropological perspective. In the final chapter Harari introduces the important observational concept of ‘dataism’, which goes a long way towards deconstructing our contemporary business infatuation with data.

Harari is an important thinker. His first two books became required reading for middle class and educated folk. Visit his official website to read his latest thoughts, media coverage, sign-up for his occasional email newsletters and social media activity



Ten reasons we're wrong about the world - and why things are better than you think

Hans Rosling (2018)

Speaking of data, facts, and statistics the late Hans Rosling's post-humous Factfulness : ten reasons we're wrong about the world-- and why things are better than you think is a rare attempt to correct the lop-sided weight of mis-conceptions about the state of the world held by many people. Rosling presents facts about the world to enable a more considered and balanced perspective.

Rosling points to data which shows many things in the world are getting better. Factfulness advocate Bill Gates wrote "We’ve cut the number of people living in extreme poverty by half over the last twenty years, but there was never a morning when “POVERTY RATES DROP INCREMENTALLY” dominated newspaper headlines". Other useful information contained within includes the UN’s population growth forecasts and, Factfulness make a strong evidential argument for the education of women as the key factor in constraining population growth.

Continuing the theme of addressing mis-conceptions Scienceblind, Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong by Andrew Shultman, is a gentle reminder of what’s been achieved by Science since the Enlightenment. Who could forget the eradication of small pox? Many people, it seems.



The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicolas Taleb (2007)

Nassim Nicolas Taleb writes in laisefair manner, full of arrogance, he is a brilliant writer and thinker. If you have time to read all the books in Taleb's Incerto series - go for it. If not, at least tackle The Black Swan. The concept of a black swan event is one we are better off knowing about. This risk management concept alone is worth the ticket price.

The Black Swan has been described by Britain's The Sunday Times as one of the twelve most influential books since World War II.

Computer Science, Self-help


The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (2016)

In a practical and utilitarian way Algorithms to Live By provides an insight in to computer science for non-computer-scientists. This book is full of practical 'algorithms' that can be applied to improve our day-to-day decision making.

For example 'optimal stopping' teaches that beyond a certain point an increased sample size no longer improves the outcome of your decision making. Optimal stopping helps you decide early about the most-likely-closest car park: so you avoid circling the block; and helps you decide the sufficient number candidates to interview in order to optimise your chance of hiring the best possible candidate. After a certain number, your options don't improve. Have you seen a recruitment process go on too long in the fruitless hope of finding the perfect candidate? I know I have. Shortly after reading this book my wife and I used an 'optimal stopping' algorithm to see the fewest possible number of houses before deciding to buy our current house. We got a great house and we are happy with our decision. I'm especially happy because we saved many weekends of open home viewings and avoided potentially endless discussions. Time spent reading Algorithms to Live By is time well spent.

Leadership, Organisational Change Management


New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Stanley McChrystal (2015)

I have read a mountain of management books. Team of Teams though, is probably the most influential in terms of changing the way I think about team leadership. I'm a pacifist, so reading a 'war book' written by a retired military general is outside of my normal reading scope. This book however proves once-and-for-all why we should read widely and from different fields of endeavour. The lessons learned by McChrystal in reshaping the robust US Army in Iraq into a resilient responsive organisation is profoundly relevant to modern challenges in organisational management and business transformation. Having worked in large corporations I can relate. Retired from duty, McChrystal now runs a management consulting business. Good move. This book is a favourite with Protiotypers - many of us have read it. I think, going forward, we will give preference to working with people who have read and understand the concepts of Team of Teams. There is so much to be learned from reading this book. A great book.

Entrepreneurship, business strategy.


The Lightning-Fast Path To Building Massively Valuable Companies

Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh (2018)

Reid Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur, founder of PayPal and LinkedIn. In Blitzscaling Hoffman lays out his start-up investment game plan. There is a lot of as-expected but very useful information such as Hoffman's qualifying criteria for investing in start-ups, which I've recited in conversations many times. Beyond that, if you are an entrepreneur you should read this book to understand what you are up against tactically when entrepreneurs like Hoffman step in to the ring and Blitzscale businesses in order to blow away their competitors. Know your enemy.



A Revolutionary Approach to Entrepreneurship with Significantly Less Risk and Higher Chance of Success

Joseph Ong (2015)

The usual suspects: The Lean Start-up, Zero to One, are of course must-reads for start-up entrepreneurs, but these are well-known paths to tread. Less well-known is Singaporean entrepreneur Jospeh Ong's Remote-Entrepreneurship. Jo Ong has an interesting story, the youngest ever Asia VP at Symantec, as his MBA thesis he set out to prove whether it's possible to build a successful start-up business by developing remote management systems, employing others, and keeping your day job. Jo's method is scientific, his book well-researched and thorough. As Reid Hoffamen said 'a startup is already dead by default'. If you are contemplating quitting your day job to 'do start-up', read this book first before doing anything stupid. There is a alternate risk-reduced path to entrepreurship called Remote Entrepreneurship.



From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life

J Craig Venter (2013)

Genomics is a field of amazing innovation, and potentially the source of the most profound changes to our lives. It's a good idea to have some exposure to the field in order to separate fact from fiction. The processes unfolding in genomics and synthetic biology are hugely interesting and holds clues for solving problems in other fields of work. Worth reading is Doudna and Sternberg A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution which explains the history making research behind CRISPR and Cas9: so-called 'genetic scissors'. We’ve gone from blunt genetic instruments – think of splicing two varities of apple together on a tree to create a hybrid variety - to cutting and pasting sequences of human DNA - exactly. That’s pretty amazing. And while we are getting our heads around the potential of that, synthetic biology has leaped forward again.

J Craig Venter's Life at the Speed of Light is a quick escalation through the genomics and synthetic biology learning curve. In the wild cells run DNA sequences to create the building blocks of life. In the same way that all code-we-write in our computers resolves to binary - zeros and ones - DNA can now be written as CTAG, as a line of code, and passed in to cells to run. That's life altering. Literally.

Genomics is a field that's less than two decades old and quicky evolving. Craig Venter lead the project to decode and publish the first human genome sequence (in 2007). In fact iVenter’s own genome was that first human genome decoded at a cost of US$2 billion. Today, you can get your genome decoded for $200 and hundreds of thousands of people have, thus adding to the data resource available to Science.

Harvard Medical Research geneticist David Reich's Who We Are and How we Got Here (2018) talks about information gathered by extracting DNA not from living people but from ancient human remains. This DNA data is an important resource for Scientists to compare with modern DNA and, the archeological record, to reveal troves of new information about human history and migrations. If you are curious about the latest Science concerning the history of humanity, our migrations, our ancestors, where they lived and how their DNA maps to the resource of present day decoded genomes, then this is a compelling read. Reich notes the field of ancient DNA is updating with new information so quickly - there was no data at all until a few years ago - when he first finished writing the book he had to re-write the beginning again to make it current before publishing.

Evolutionary biology, DNA.


How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Professor Menno Schilthuizen (2018)

A less well known book about genomics is Schilthuizen's Darwin Comes To Town. What I find interesting about Schilthuizen is how he carefully delivers a couple of unexpected twists. Turns out some species are prospering in cities in response to humantity's rapid population growth and urbanisation (see Factfulness and Scale). Some species, such as mosquitoes, are evolving to adapt to our intrusions - their DNA is changing such that technically new species are created. Natural selection is not a slow drawn out process as Darwin thought. Evolution is happening at a much faster pace than we thought it could. This, is news.

History of Engineering


How Precision Engineers Changed the Modern World

Simon Winchester (2018)

Simon Winchester’s beautifully written historical account of how precision engineering has changed the world. Exactly is a history lesson. Engineers should know the stories of long and lat, of James Watt and the steam engine, and Henry Ford and interchangeble component parts and moving production line, show how precision engineers have created the modern world. This book has value for engineers and non-engineers alike.

To keep up to date with Protiotype's news and events
please enter your email here -