James Somers

Who shoves whom inside the careenium?, or, What is the meaning of the word “I”?

Hofstadter is one of my favorite writers—I was so moved by his Pulitzer Prize–winning classic Godel, Escher, Bach that I ended up writing a long profile of him for the Atlantic—and for me this is peak Hofstadter. It’s an explanatory essay in dialogue form. It does a better job than anything I’ve read at explaining how something like an “I” might emerge in a brain.

Cells are very fast and crowded places

This short blog post helped kick off a revolution in my understanding of biology, and a newfound interest in the subject. It led me to one of my favorite science books, David Goodsell’s The Machinery of the Cell. Posts like this are a testament to blogging: someone learns a thing that surprised them, they share it in unfussy, plain language, and it changes the course of a reader’s intellectual life.


This is a damn good short story. I like a lot of short stories, but the truth is, most “good” short stories are good on something like an intellectual level. It’s rare for a short story to feel actually electrifying while you’re reading it. But from the jump there’s just something compelling about this story. It ends perfectly. I was moved to tears the first time I read it.

(It’s behind a paywall, but that doesn’t seem like the worst thing. It appears in the book All That is Left is All that Matters, which you can buy to support the author.)

“Bird Migration”

If you’re not already an “In Our Time” listener, count yourself extremely lucky to be hearing about it for the first time. It’s a treasure: the host is just a curious intellectual who invites three guests (usually academics) for a well-structured, fast-moving conversation about some specific topic. There have been episodes on Coffee, The Electron, and Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Someone made a compendium of all the episodes arranged by category.

My favorite episode so far is the one on Bird Migration. I learned that for the longest time, nobody really had any idea where all the birds went in the off-season; they had theories that now sound kooky to us, for instance that they transmogrified into fish. The story of how we discovered, and then proved, that birds actually crossed entire oceans, is phenomenal.

“Inventing on Principle”

This is the probably the best talk I’ve ever seen. It had a huge influence not just on me but on the programming community at large; the ideas from this talk ended up in widely used developer tools, for example in the Chrome inspector. More broadly it lays out a vision for what computing could be that Victor is still quixotically pursuing, mostly through the Dynamicland project. This vision is very hard to describe, but once you see it—or better yet, Victor would say, once you get your hands on it—you will start to lament the tools we all put up with.

The John McPhee Reader

As soon as I discovered John McPhee—through having this book recommended to me—I realized that he was who I wanted to be when I grew up. He’s one of the great nonfiction writers of our time, a genius of reportage and the profile, someone who could take any curious whim and turn it into a compelling book.

This collection of his is special because in the introduction, it basically lays out his method of reporting and writing. I’d read this not long before writing my first big article in print (that profile of Hofstadter), and I did exactly what the introduction suggested: I tried to do interviews the way it said McPhee did; I took notes his way, then sorted and arranged them like he did; I used his method of building an outline, and then sequencing that with the writing. McPhee’s method of reporting is to talk to people “until you’ve heard the same stories three times,” then to come home and produce an incredibly detailed scaffold out of one’s notes, which are agglomerated by affinity into sections and sub-sections. It’s an almost entirely mechanical process that, paradoxically, allows you to write more freely and artfully, because by the time you sit down to craft sentences you have done the hard work of choosing what to say (“writing is selection,” says McPhee), and in what order (he is obsessed with structure).

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)

Self-help is a very flawed genre but this one is a gem. Maybe the best thing about it is that it really is short—more of a blog post than a book (but power to Godin for turning it into one).

I read this at just the right time, at a time in my life when I felt like I was starting various projects and attempts at self-improvement and not really carrying them through. Godin’s point is that almost everything worth doing—from learning how to draw, or dance, or speak a foreign language, to writing a novel or getting good at programming—has this structure: it starts out delightful, because you learn a lot of new stuff very quickly. With minimal effort you’re a lot better than where you started. But then, the returns to effort start flattening out. It becomes kind of difficult, then really difficult, then discouraging. This is where most people quit! Only once you power through this trough is it possible to get to the far side, where steady improvement lies, and where you actually actually get good at something.

Once you see this pattern, you recognize that you’re not failing or coming apart when you reach the Dip; you’re just hitting the Dip! It’s up to you to decide whether, this time around, it’s worth pushing through to the other side.

I credit this book with giving me the wherewithal to really teach myself computer programming, right when I’d reached an impasse.

The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences

Here’s a weird one. This is a website where if you type in “0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,” you will be taken to a page revealing that this is the famous Fibonacci sequence—along with a dense array of facts about it, including facts about how different sub-fields of mathematics think about the sequence, and how it relates to other sequences in the database. I used to come here often when I was stumped on Project Euler problems. I think of it as being a projection of all of math into sequence-space.

My favorite sequences are the triangular numbers—given by 0, 0 + 1, 0 + 1 + 2, 0 + 1 + 2 + 3 and so on; they seemed to come up all the time—and the Catalan numbers. I learned on that page that the Catalan numbers can be interpreted as the number of “ways of joining 2n points on a circle to form n nonintersecting chords,” which once felt beautifully relevant to a problem I was working on and now... doesn’t.

“Fun to Imagine”

Richard Feynman, 1983

I fell in love with Feynman sometime in college, and I remember staying up late one night watching clips from this production. It’s just a series of lucid explanations. My favorite is the one on how trains stay on the tracks. Feynman’s genius was in understanding things so well that he could explain them simply.

A strange memory: after watching these clips one night, I went down to the school gym and started shooting baskets by myself. To my amazement, I was hitting almost every single one—swoosh after swoosh. I credited my accuracy to the Feynman videos. Something about his crisp, curious way of looking at the world cleansed the palette of my mind—and for whatever reason made me temporarily good at basketball.