Here is a collection of essays, articles, websites, etc. that I found interesting, funny, or otherwise notable at the time that I read them. I’ll hopefully expand this list over the years.
It’s a little fuzzy, but I mostly define this as relating to some subset of technology, science, and society.
Who Can Name the Bigger Number? (Scott Aaronson, 1999)
I remember really liking this essay when I first read it, and I was happy to stumble across it again yesterday. It’s a fairly fascinating read about the busy beaver numbers, a sequence that grows uncomputably fast, and what implications there might be. Scott Aaronson’s blog in general is also a fun read and good source on quantum computation, although I’ve barely scratched the surface on it.
Exposing Floating Point (Bartosz Ciechanowski, 2019)
I haven’t actually read through the entire piece, but this is just an example of the sort of excellent, beautiful content that Bartosz posts regularly on his blog. (I chose this particular article as the canonical representative because it’s on something that I know a little bit about.) I’ll be happy if my own writing is half as informative as his one day.
Ken Shirriff’s Blog (Ken Shirriff)
Ken blogs about very cool historical computing projects. I first found out about his blog through his work on the Apollo Guidance Computer.
In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub (2015)
This is a thoughtful open letter about the current academic publishing crisis.
The Right to Read (Richard Stallman, 1997)
Stallman is somewhat controversial now and has always been a bit of an idealist with some of his views, but some of his earlier work especially has been incredibly prescient.
Are Software Patents Evil? (Paul Graham, 2006)
While this essay is overall geared toward people who would like to found startups (unsurprising given Graham’s background), it’s a pretty interesting read. In a topic that’s mired with passionate arguments over ideals, this essay takes a very practical approach to the matter (although there is some nice theoretical discussion toward the end). Actually, a lot of Graham’s essays are worth reading, particularly the earlier ones.
We Should All Have Something to Hide (Moxie Marlinspike, 2013)
This is a very nice rebuttal to the reasonable question: “if I don’t have anything to hide, why should I be concerned about mass surveillance?” The stories posted on this site are also worth perusing, if you have the time.
A Mathematician’s Lament (Paul Lockhart, 2002)
This is a pretty interesting (if lengthy) essay about the state of mathematical education in the United States. (Granted, it’s been almost two decades since this was written, but I get the feeling that things haven’t changed much.) Maybe also see Scott Aaronson’s comments.
The PhD Grind: A PhD Student Memoir (Philip Guo, 2012)
This is a small book in its own right—122 pages—and I’ve read it multiple times. It’s a well-written memoir of the author’s time as a grad student at Stanford, with an emphasis on his experiences struggling with research. Philip has since taken down the PDF copy (in fact, he’s taken down most of his online presence, including his previously widely-read blog); I’m respecting his wishes by not linking to his memoir here, but if you really want, you can find PDFs floating around on the Internet.
What Colour Are Your Bits? (Matthew Skala, 2004)
A short but interesting read about the “Color” of information, as applied to copyright, randomness, and more.
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences (Eugene Wigner, 1960)
This is an interesting reflection on the mysterious usefulness of mathematics in describing the natural world, as well as what this might say about our physical theories. I’m sure there have been plenty of essays on this topic in the decades since this was published, but Wigner’s exposition is a particularly well-known one.
Dan Luu’s Blog (Dan Luu)
Dan has rather good takes on many topics in and adjacent to technology.
You and Your Research (Richard Hamming, 1986)
This is a remarkable speech given by Hamming, reflecting on his career and how one can do “first-rate” scientific work. There is a lot of good advice in his speech, even for those who don’t end up becoming scientists.
A Mathematician’s Apology (G.H. Hardy, 1940)
I don’t think this explanation of why mathematics is worthwhile will be new to anyone who is seriously into math, but Hardy’s Apology is widely-quoted enough that I think it merits a read. There are a few places that seem particularly antiquated: for instance, Hardy’s consideration of “greatness” feels very old-fashioned, and his beloved example of number theory as a branch of mathematics with no practical utility has been superseded by the advent of digital cryptography. However, taken as a whole, this is a classic and beautiful defense of mathematics, written by one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century.
I will say that its overall effect was to put me in a bit of a melancholy mood. In Hardy’s conception, “real mathematics” is done by ambitious young people at the height of their creative powers. I increasingly feel like I have neither the talent nor the ambition to spend my youth doing mathematics, and so I will probably never participate in the beautiful work that was the passion of Hardy’s life.
Seemingly Impossible Functional Programs (Martín Escardó, 2007)
This guest post on Andrej Bauer’s blog is definitely one of the most mind-blowing things that I’ve ever read. Essentially, it shows that the Cantor space admits exhaustive search in finite time, which implies that extensional equality between functions of type (nat -> bool) -> nat
is decidable. Apparently this result was already known in the 1950s, from the computability of Brouwer’s fan functional. It’s also mentioned in a PhD dissertation by Ulrich Berger. Escardó has done some interesting work on the topological properties that enable exhaustive search, but I don’t know any topology, so I can’t really comment on that.
Many of these articles could be labeled as “Technical Interest,” but I think they will appeal to people beyond the CS nerd/hacker type.
Scott and Scurvy (Maciej Cegłowski, 2010)
Idle Words is a great blog to follow, and this is possibly my favorite piece on the site. It’s an intriguing, detailed read on how the cure for scurvy became “lost” over time. The site is full of awesome pieces, like this one on the shuttle program, which gives me conflicting feelings, of course. Another classic is his talk on the website obesity crisis.
Pearls before Breakfast (Gene Weingarten, 2007)
“Pearls before Breakfast” is a fine, classic piece of journalism. Unfortunately, the Washington Post has recently taken objection to Firefox’s default anti-tracking mechanisms, but I think the article is worth the read.
Hiroshima (John Hersey, 1946)
This is nontechnical, old, and long, but I think it’s a really good piece. It chronicles the stories of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (Bret Devereaux)
Bret’s blog is mostly about history. There are also some interesting historical analyses of popular culture items; I particularly enjoyed his series on the Siege of Gondor from Tolkien’s legendarium, although maybe that’s just because I’m a slight Tolkien nerd.
A Muscular Empathy (Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2011)
A short but worthwhile read on an uncomfortable sort of empathy. I suppose that my personal religion makes me think a certain way about it, but I won’t get into that here.
XKCD (Randall Munroe)
This hardly needs my promotion, but it’s pretty much required reading for a certain kind of person.
I can’t say that I agree with everything that appears on cat-v, but the quotes archive is an excellent place to lose an afternoon. In fact, several of these nearly became my senior yearbook quote. (I eventually settled on a quote from Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars.) Fun fact: I mentioned this website on my Princeton application. I did not get in.