2012 Reading List, January – June

The last time I froze and posted my short-term reading list on August 12, people seemed to appreciate it. Going by my Amazon Affiliate data and random conversations with some of you on Google+ and Facebook, it looks like at least a few dozen people bought one or more of the books and read along, in a sort of invisible de facto book club. So I figured I’d make it a routine feature.

I personally finished 6.75 of the 8 books I posted (one book got swapped out for an alternate) by December 31. That’s a reading rate of just under a book every 3 weeks. Which means I should be able to get through about 8.7 books by the end of June.

Here’s my book list that I plan to get through by June 30, beyond the backlog of  1.25, which leaves me with an allowance of 7.45. I’ll round that up to 8. Here’s the list.

  1. Notes on the Synthesis of Form: A seminal book on design, recommended by Dorian Taylor and Xianhang Zhang.
  2. Cognition in the Wild: Another seminal book on decision-making in real-world settings, also recommended by Dorian Taylor
  3. Shop Class as Soul Craft: A book on the philosophy of making stuff, and the value of working with your hands. Recommended by Art Felgate, Daniel Lemire and a couple of other people.
  4. Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies OR Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World’s Food Supply (haven’t picked yet): Books on the global food industry, recommended by Megan Lubaszska.
  5. The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution: From my own list.
  6. Why Beauty is Truth: the history of symmetry: From my unread pile.
  7. Design in Nature: how the constructal law governs evolution in biology, physics, technology and social organization: bit of a wildcard, due to be released January 24th. Recommended by John Hagel.
  8. Infrastructure: a field guide to the industrial landscape: a recommendation off Quora. Seems like fun mind-candy, targeted more at the “How Things Work” kids’ market than adults, but still…

Infrastructure and Making

Two themes seem to pop out here: infrastructure and making.

My exploration of the world of infrastructure, which has been going on casually for a couple of years (I’ve written quite a bit about things like shipping and garbage) is heading into a mature drill-down-and-integrate phase. It seems increasingly likely that my next book will be related to this stuff in some way.

If that theme is maturing and getting serious, a new theme is taking root: design, building stuff, making things. What people are calling the Maker Revolution. I see some red flags of save-the-world cultishness here, but it seems like a good time to think about the subject. Two readers, Nick Pinkston and Justin Mares, who are just coming off their Cloudfab project, have been energetically trying to persuade me (and apparently everybody else they talk to) to take this theme seriously.

If nothing else, I’ll learn enough to poke fun at the solemn save-the-world makers.

Do You Want a Forum?

On and off over the years, people have asked for a ribbonfarm discussion forum. I’ve been reluctant to set one up, since it would be more maintenance work, but now that WordPress has some strong support for the feature, it’s gotten easier.

The face-to-face field trip events last year, Google+ and Facebook have been good for small and informal sidebar conversations with some of you, but there’s something to be said for a less cluttered space for conversations that are not explicitly linked to a blog post, and accessible to all.

If I do this, it will be free, but I may do some light-touch gatekeeping so administration doesn’t take over my life.

If you are interested, let me know by email or post a comment, along with any suggestions. If there’s enough interest (at least a couple of dozen people), I’ll set one up.

Turning this de facto invisible book club into a de jure visible one seems to be a good first use case for a forum.



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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Nice! Enjoy Alexander and Hutchins!

  2. Geordie Keitt says

    I love Elliott Jaques’ elegant theories on the recursive structure of cognitive processes. A tour de force is his final book, The Life and Behavior of Living Organisms.

    I’d like to participate in a Ribbonfarm book review forum.

  3. To me, the “maker” approach is *not* about saving the world. And if you read “Shop Class as Soul Craft”, you’ll see that he is not interested in saving the world. The purpose is very pragmatic and not at all spiritual.

    It is about hacking your own psyche. To put it simply: we value far more what we built with our own hands. You know all the junk you buy at the store? Be honest… most of it has no value to you a week after you bought it. It becomes meaningless, and so you are surrounded by meaningless junk. And then you feel like crap one day. Nothing matters much to you. Making stuff is a way to reverse this feeling.

    I now make my own bread (yes, I no longer buy bread at the store), my own yoghurt, wine, beer, port… This has nothing to do with saving the world, living cheaper (though it is much cheaper) or preparing for Armageddon. I just feel *better* drinking my own beer and eating my own bread.

    I also spend much more time repairing broken stuff. For example, I spent time figuring out how to repair my MacBook Air (not easy!). I’ve now a special connection tot he MacBook.

    This is akin to exercise. I don’t exercise because I think it will make me live longer (though it might, a bit), or to look better… I do it because it is best way to keep depressive thinking at bay.

  4. Megan Lubaszka says

    Forum – yes! I don’t like leaving blog comments really. I have endless things to say about infrastructure.

    • Hmm… never really thought people would have drastically different views about posting blog comments vs. forum comments. Wonder if there’s any stats on this…

  5. I read “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” about four years ago and loved it. About 50% of it was above my head so it’s probably due for a re-read. Cognition in the Wild looks very good as well. Excited to read more design musings here!

    I’d definitely be interested in a Ribbonfarm discussion forum. Another option for a discussion forum is setting up a subreddit – http://www.reddit.com/r/newreddits/help/faqs/newreddits

  6. In Munich there is bi-annual festival having a green/alternative touch I visited in the week before X-mas with my colleagues. In one of the festival tents we could read the slogan SAVE EVERYTHING! which is much more than even the world. A few young people watched a documentary on a huge movie screen, probably from Latin America about good, poor people and evil corporations. We ordered fair traded coffee and beer and joked about the phobia against genetically engineered food. My overall impression was surely not one about asceticism and people acting dead and related stereotypes. The whole festival was a consumerist orgy after all and it didn’t feature people who live happily with their guns in the woods. That’s not how the conservationist ideology is limited.

    About a week later I saw a video of a talk presented by an artist/activist couple at the 28C3 about food hacking. Seemingly people have lots of fun with genetically modified food, also outside of Monsanto. Another example of refactored perception. Maybe there is a proper divide which is one of literacy in numbers, data and the creative use of technology. Owning a smartphone and a laptop is not enough.

    About discussion forums. In my experience this can only work if there is some tangible content such as the content of an article which is commented and even in that case people like to jump from the headline directly to the forum and start to associate freely. Instead of breeding new contexts like rabbits I’d expand on previous experiences with guest bloggers reviewing books on ribbonfarm. The obvious benefit may be that you don’t have to go through long laundry lists of literature yourself when your overall impression is that review + discussion actually exhausted your interest in some book. This is also one of the major services of this blog to your readers.

  7. Steve Heise says

    May I suggest a swap-out for ‘Synthesis of Form’ with Alexanders ‘The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 – The Phenomenon of Life’.

    The 1964 book is of ‘Notes’ which moved towards a full theory described in ‘The Nature of Order’. ‘Nature’ is also an extraordinarily beautiful book, lush photographs of nature and buildings which illustrate the points in the text, and implicitly root of his theory. A truly integrated piece of work.

  8. A forum would be great addition. In my opinion, Google Group seems convenient for such purpose.

  9. peedyfizzle says

    This would be a great site for a forum. So many other forums are unproductive…but a ribbonfarm one would be golden.

  10. For another read similar to Shop Craft, try the Craftsman by Richard Sennett. Some of my favorite parts had to do with his take on striving for perfection vs. working with what you’ve got.

    His prime example was the Wittgenstein house, a house built to exact proportions and specifications without regard for material or natural constraints. Though the final product was built to spec, it’s ugly and was never really lived in.

    This story, that a true craftsman takes what is natural but imperfect, and refines it towards a vision, was one of many that I enjoyed. Especially Sennett’s notion of prehensility – a craftsman’s feel they develop for material and work.

  11. I think the forum is a good idea.

  12. There’s also a rising movement towards “resilient communities” (spearheaded by John Robb of Global Guerrillas). That movement draws from the Maker movement and works to build local communities that are highly self-reliant.

    I’d also be interested in seeing you address funding platforms (Kickstarter, Indie gogo) that suppor the efforts of individual Makers and inventors. I know many people who’ve raised money going through such platforms, which has allowed them to make things that were too costly just a few years ago. The growth of Etsy and such sites also supports the movement towards craftsmanship and away from mass produced goods.

  13. I don’t think a forum would rhyme with what I consider to be the appeal of this blog. I don’t read a lot of blogs on a regular basis – don’t have the time – but those that I do read have few or no comments.
    As the web is fast becoming a bazaar of yelling merchants, who try to be everything to everyone, I tend to go to places of specialization.
    Ribbonfarm to me is Venkats soap box, with no need for added value.

  14. Mark Reveley says

    A forum would be awesome. Certainly for a period of time. But when forum entropy hits? Steve Pavlina just pulled the plug on his forum for this reason. Your blog might scale up better (assuming you want this) without a forum. If you go forward maybe consider starting a forum that can be spun off into its own thing easily if it (almost inevitably) gets out of control, or develops a mind of its own. You could drive and receive traffic without feeling married to it. Even still however, like Marcus points out you would need to be prepared to deal with what comes with to surrendering control of the soapbox.

    For me, your blog is useful for driving and informing action. That action may served the world better if it is directed externally.

  15. Art Felgate says


    As an interesting followup to the suggested “Maker” theme, I really enjoyed this short article published in the WSJ a couple weeks ago, about a small boutique motorcycle manufacturer, and its exceptional designer:



  16. There’s a non trivial difference in the marginal cost of my time between reading a blog article, and reading a book. When I stumble upon a blog post, or an online news article I can quickly exit. I don’t really have any level of commitment. However when I pick up a book, there’s definitely a mental barrier I need to overcome. First there’s the justification of the purchase price, I’m not going to loose sleep over a $7 kindle purchase, but i’m also not going to stop reading a paragraph in. Second, when I start reading a book I expect some level of a time investment. So I tend to be more picky about what I choose to read.

    Your article “A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100” was great, because (for me at least) you sold me the recommendations. I was so intrigued that I just had to learn more, which lead to several books I never would’ve considered putting in my reading queue from first glance.

  17. Alexander Boland says

    I live in NYC so refactor camp has not been much of an option for me. That said, I have a strange aversion to the forum idea. On paper it sounds amazing, but I’m genuinely worried that it would damage the aesthetics of the community in some obscure but significant way.

    The closest thing that comes to mind, if it’s even close, is how recently Nassim Taleb has liked to talk about how a whisper or an interview over a crackling phone line is a more effective communicator than a shout or an interview in a high-tech studio.

    BUT, if the forum were limited to being just a book club that isn’t representative of the whole of Ribbonfarm, that might actually work.

    I’m just going on my gut feeling, so people feel free to let me know if I’m saying something of substance. I’d like to know what it is.

    • Yeah, I’ve gone back and forth on this, and basically abandoned the idea of a generic forum. The book club idea doesn’t interest me personally, but if I do something, it will probably be something equally narrow.