Big reading list

Very happy to spend the first year of my PhD reducing my ignorance about what has gone before me.

Note that I have a duty not merely to read, but to compress (for the interested), focus (for my own research), bring together (common ideas and themes) and synthesise (if I didn’t have anything to add, what would be the point?). However, given the breadth of my interest, the distribution must be unequal and prioritised…

Imprefectly sliced by related theme and then authorship. This document is a WIP and subject to reshuffle.

The Classics

Loosely, stuff that’s been around for many decades yet few have actually read.

Mess: [A]ccept, [B]ulldoze, [C]ancel?

Monism (modernism?): everyone speaks the same language, uses the same system. Messy reality can and should be cajoled into nice simple models that our minds can cope with. Our field is full of problems like X and Y and Z! Why can’t we just solve them by all agreeing to adopt this scheme or that cool new idea? It worked for Unicode!

Pluralism: That’s just the Just World fallacy conning you. Mess is natural and inevitable; the best we can hope to do is somehow innovate without stomping all over it with a single grand uniformity. The true state of reality has no obligation to be easily understood, if comprehensible at all.

Status-quokery: Desirability is synonymous with evolutionary success. We live in the best of all possible worlds, and our systems are fine, because they work and have worked for a long time and they won the popularity contest. Naively speaking, nothing should ever change and nothing new – at least at the largest scales – is needed.

Slate Star Codex

My favourite blog.

TheOriginal PatternsGuy

Christopher Alexander, who wants human designs to embody “living structure”.

  • Notes On The Synthesis Of Form
  • The “guns for hire” OOPSLA speech

The Bozz-man

Antranig Basman, a jolly friend of mine and very much against top-down imposition of simplistic structure on complex reality and … er … seemingly everything else we take for granted in Computer Science.

  • The Open Authorial Principle
  • If What We Made Were Real
  • Entangle, critique
  • other stuff on github

Kell’s Bells

Stephen Kell, just down the corridor from me, wrote about Smalltalk and Unix in a way that sparked my interest in the concepts of pluralism and Mess.

  • Some Were Meant for C
  • Unix Smalltalk etc

Richard P. Gabriel

  • Worse Is Better

Ted Nelson

A curious example of the two approaches entangled together. To Nelson, linear or even hierarchical organisation forced by traditional media fails to capture the messy graph structure of real information associations. The HTTP Web was a hack job, wasting an unprecedented opportunity to improve on this, instead further embedding the paper model in a wildly successful [i.e popular] medium for who knows how many further generations.

It’s easy to concur with a lot of this — especially when you’re trying to organise a reading list but only have access to different sized headings to associate your atomic units in a flawed hierarchy.

So the Web won, and his proposed alternative Xanadu software system did not. He continues to push for its adoption, yet it seems that no compromise can be made with the existing Abomination – no building of that believably superior structure on top of what, for good or ill, got here first. Is this a case of

level the status quo and replace it with something else!

being far simpler to conceptualise yet far harder to actually do than:

find some way to Worse-Is-Better infect the existing system with the better idea

Or is my analysis superficial?

Do What I Do, Not What I Say

Programming By Demonstration or Otherwise, but without having to utter / type magical incantations in something resembling natural language.

Insight into Physics Envy

Some fields, when confronted with their lack of consensus or success, think:

I know! I’ll look at Physics!

Physics is a Science. Physics pioneered the Scientific Method, and look how successful it was at solving its most stubborn mysteries!

My field is a Science. (Maybe it even has Science in the name!) Therefore, we should look to Physics and seek its method, the Scientific Method, a method of knowledge advancement common to all Sciences. If only we find out what the essence of this method is, then we can prosper too!

Unfortunately, there are some thorny assumptions here — most interestingly, the idea that there is a single scientific method that physics merely exemplified, rather than, say, a set of techniques that worked for physics and will only work for something resembling physics.

To be honest, there probably is a loose commonality that can be clustered into a Scientific Method (e.g. “making predictions and testing them”). What I find far easier to criticise is a naive faith in the trappings or appearance of Science — what Feynman called “Cargo Cult science” — such as lab coats, fancy LaTeX math formulas, or numbers, rather than actually sitting down and thinking about what would qualify as knowledge advancement in your specific sub-sub-subfield.

There is an argument to be made that the boring reason physics benefitted so much from maths, is because the field of “physics” is implicitly defined as the set of problems amenable to solution using maths, and because much of mathematical development has been stimulated precisely to solve specific physics problems. This obviously can’t be the end of it — we still have to explain the success of physics even though we’ve explained away its dependence on maths. But it’s a warning against mathematising your field in the hopes of cashing in on math’s demonstrated power elsewhere.

(Spiritual) Children of the PARC

Hugely inspirational for me, whatever the naysayers think (bozzman!). Rather a heavy monist / modernist leaning — see Kell’s Smalltalk/UNIX stuff.

Ian Piumarta, Alex Warth

Bret Victor

Against Mere Crossword-Puzzling

Jonathan Edwards


The Tablizer

Author of many fun-to-read polemics against OOP and hierarchies and in favour of ultra-late-bound dynamically-typed graph / set / table relations.

Recent Contemporaries



shteve krouse & friendsh

otherwise not beginning with sh

  • My own previous public / unpublished writings / code

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