Lockdown Reading

Working from home for the past 18 months, I’ve saved between one and a half to two hours per day spent commuting, and that combined with a lack of external pressure to be running around in the evenings to scheduled activities has done wonders for the amount of time I have for kids and housework in normal daylight hours, freeing up time and energy in the evenings and weekends to catch up on reading, both for enjoyment and to sharpen the saw. Here are some micro reviews of the reading I’ve done since the start of the pandemic.


My Struggle, volumes 1 – 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard: See my post prior to this one. 3,600 pages of Norwegian novel about one man’s memory of his life. The language and description, and shifting times flow effortlessly. 9.5/10.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, and while not as good, and certainly not going to leave a similar mark on our culture, The Testaments is an enjoyable follow up, diving deeper into the world of Gilead as a Canadian spy tries to make her mark. 8/10.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: My knowledge of norse mythology is a ragtag assembly of facts gleaned randomly from movies, video games, and Amon Amarth, and Gaiman is a great storyteller so it seemed like an obviously good way to learn the details of norse mythology. Unfortunately, while informative, I actually found the book quite dull, and it failed to convey why anyone would have believed in these beings. 5/10.

General Non-Fiction

Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe: Fantastic work centered around a disappeared mother during the Northern Irish troubles. Well researched, well written, and damning of the central figures. Hard to believe this could have happened in the first world during the last half century. 9.5/10.

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer: Although I’m familiar with the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) due to reporting in the Vancouver Sun in the last decade, this book predates that reporting. I have personal acquaintances who have left similar sects, and with typically fluid writing, Krakauer shines a light into how these sects operate, and who falls into their clutches. How can someone be so absorbed into their belief that they will kill to defend it? 8.5/10

Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe: Keefe’s takedown of the Sackler family came out just a few months after rI finished Say Nothing, and so I had to pick it up. The story of Oxycontin is much more familiar to me than the troubles, and so I didn’t learn as much, and a few of the arguments late in the book are fairly tenuous (are Sacklers who obtained their money pre-Oxy actually tainted by Oxy?). Nonetheless, the opioid crisis is one of the central tragedies shaping our current society and this book looks straight at its cause. 8/10.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson: More hagiography than biography, perhaps in part because all we really have left of Leonardo are the works he left behind, Isaacson does a very compelling job explaining Leonardo’s genius and his myriad innovations. 7.5/10.

Humanocracy, by Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini: If you’ve never had the opportunity to see Gary Hamel speak in person, do so. He’s the literal definition of “man on fire”, speaking with the fervour of the truly devout. What is his belief? Not only is bureaucracy boring and slow, but it is downright immoral and contrary to human nature! Free people to be human again! While this book fails to have the same spark, it is nonetheless full of thought provoking ideas on how a business can operate, and how to unleash people to do their best. 7.5/10.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist: Really, really interesting. Using data from places like the port of New Orleans, Baptist is able to trace the inhumanity of the slave trade and convincingly argue that as an “asset” they were an essential part of America’s rise to economic dominance. 8/10.

Labyrinth Of Ice: The Triumphant And Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, by Buddy Levy: Can you imagine setting out to try and reach the north pole, or barring that to reach “farthest north”, closer to the north pole than anyone else before? Then on that trip, establish a base that would prove to be unreachable by support ships for the next couple years? Greely’s expedition is an epic of hardship, one that most men would not survive, but through hard labour and inspired leadership, a handful would make it through by the skin of their teeth. Gripping from beginning to end. 7.5/10.

The Folly and the Glory, by Tim Weiner: Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is a modern classic, and Enemies was excellent as well. The Folly and the Glory is not as good, in part because its subject matter is narrower and has been more widely told. The US and the Russians have both been meddling in other countries affairs for the last century. Nonetheless, as a chronicle of the history of relations and manipulations between these two countries leading up to the Russian attempts to destabilize the USA by helping Trump’s election in 2016, this is the definitive account to date. 7/10.

A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: To understand current Canadian political discourse, I needed to educate myself on the residential school system, and where better to start than with the official history from the TRC. Authoritative and blunt, this book lays out the history of the schools, from their inception to their final closure only a couple decades ago. My principal complaint about this is that it was too short in length, and an extra couple hundred pages could have gone a long way to conveying what was experienced by the children and adults who went through the system. 8/10

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation With Indigenous People’s a Reality, by Bob Joseph: After reading A Knock on the Door, I went looking for some more understanding of indigenous views and came across this little gem of a book. Quick to read, but insightful throughout, highly recommended. 8.5/10.

The World Beneath Their Feet, by Scott Elllsworth: Brits, nazis, mountains. This is a peculiar book in that it is written at a low grade level, and explains a lot of basics for people who have no background knowledge of mountaineering, but at the same time provides no maps, and no photos. It was enjoyable enough, but you’re much better off reading books like the White Spider, by Harrer, or Into the Silence, by Wade Davis, to get a sense of the early exploration of the Himalayas. 6/10.

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, by Bart Ehrman: Ehrman’s books are almost always interesting, previously diving into topics such as which books were left out of the New Testament, and looking at the wide gamut of faiths and beliefs of the the earliest Christians, before the religion coalesced in the 3rd and 4th centuries to the religion we’re familiar with today. In this book, once again he tackles an interesting question. Heaven is only minimally described in the bible, and hell only a few mentions, yet we as a culture have a rich description and common understanding of heaven and hell. If not from explicit description in the bible, how did these beliefs arise and evolve? Without the rich source material of earlier books (i.e. the entire apocrypha and histories written by early church fathers), he simply has a lot less to work with but it was still interesting to keep me going all the way through. 7/10.

Arthur and the Kings of Britain, by Miles Russell: The title of this book doesn’t describe the book well. Most of the book is a comparison of the handful of early British sources with Roman histories of the conquest of Britain, strongly and convincingly arguing that the British historians of the early middle ages misinterpreted tribal battles in south west England as wars between nations, and misinterpreting different descriptions of the same events by the Roman historians as separate events. To a historian of earliest Britain, it is probably very important to aggregate all sources and cover each individual documented event, but to a reader like me, this would have been better as a long form magazine article. 5/10.

The Neuroscientist who Lost Her Mind, by Barbara K. Lipska and Elaine McArdle: A short memoir of a neuroscientists experience of developing mental illness and severe personality changes as the result of a brain tumour, all the while not being conscious or aware of her changing personality, only to recover from the tumour and be able to look back at who it made her become. A fascinating story, but reads as an extended magazine article, which it effectively is. 7/10.

Narrative Economics, by Robert Shiller: Are economic decisions the result of homo rationalis, an ideal person who calculates an effective cost and benefit function to determine which choices have the best utility? Or are people prone to make decisions based on a common narrative (i.e. “house prices always rise”), with changes in how people make decisions based in changes in these narratives? As an academic concept, this may be a radical way of looking at economics and it makes sense that economists need to learn to look beyond utility functions in their models (wasn’t this what ideas like “industrial organization” also brought to the table?), but as a lay person I found the examples and description to be rather obvious and wouldn’t recommend it to another lay reader. 5/10.


Building Secure and Reliable Systems, by Heather Adkins et al: Google’s newish book on building secure and reliable systems a few weeks ago and highly recommend it to everyone working in modern software development.   There are a few boring chapters around 2/3 of the way through, but overall I was impressed at how much of it was interesting and relevant to anyone building a system that needs to be secure and/or reliable –> essentially anyone. 9/10.

A Philosophy of Software Design, by John Ousterhout: Strongly recommend. It’s a short book focussed on complexity in software and how to eliminate it. Concise, to the point, only took 2 or 3 hours to read, and full of great practical advice on how to write good software that you don’t need to be an elite level developer to understand. When I bought it I thought it was by some random blogger but after reading it I looked up the author and it turns out the author is actually a Stanford prof who was the original author of Tcl back in the 80s, invented a new kind of fie system, and wrote the first VLSI program to lay out integrated circuits. 8.5/10.

Advanced Penetration Testing, by Wil Alsopp: Want to feel like it’s all hopeless? Read this book. Highly recommended for anyone involved in security. Systems are there to be broken. For example, I never knew how to implement a command & control system by reading DNS TXT records prior to reading it.  The author believes that every system can be hacked and shows how.  Scary, scary stuff, but really interesting.. the  author even says that he’d never sleep if he had to be on the other side and figure out how to defend against someone like himself.  Definitely helps to have a background in C++ and Win32 API programming to understand some parts, but lots of the hacks use other techs like Java and lots of instruction on how to stay ahead of the most modern defences. 9/10.

Kubernetes: Up & Running, by Brendan Burns et al: Written by a few of the people originally behind Kubernetes.  It’s a pretty slim tome, but I really wish I read this a year and a half ago when I first got involved in k8s work at Visier rather than spending all my time trying to black box infer what k8s actually does. 8/10.

Clean Agile, by Robert C. Martin: Another Uncle Bob book, this one is not in the same league as the Clean Coder or Clean Architecture. Interesting history of the agile movement and getting down to its core, but I didn’t feel that I learned much that I hadn’t already found in other sources. 7/10.

The Problem with Software: Why Smart Engineers Write Bad Code, by Adam Barr: I can’t recommend.   It’s basically a couple hundred pages talking about problems with old programming languages and shortcuts that devs take, combined with a bunch of anecdotes about working as a dev on Windows NT.   It was mildly entertaining but he never really gets around to explaining how to help smart engineers write GOOD code. 5/10.

Honourable Mentions

The following were read pre-pandemic but that I strongly recommend that everyone read:

Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems, by Martin Kleppmann: All you ever wanted to know about how Cassandra, Zookeeper, Vault, Kafka, (and more!) work internally and the design trade offs by their authors.   I read that one when it first came out a few years ago and absolutely love it.  Everyone who works on a data processing backend who hasn’t read it should be reading it. 9.5/10.

Clean Architecture, by Robert C. Martin: A great primer on what architecture is and full of useful real world advice on how to design and evolve software systems. Most book on architecture are either too academic or too heavyweight, but this one just gets to the core. Simple, clean, strongly recommended for all software devs. 8.5/10.

The DevOps Handbook, by Gene Kim et al: It says it’s about DevOps, but it’s really about how to efficiently build and deliver software. The line that’s most stuck with me since I first read it: “It’s okay for people to become dependent on our tools, but it’s important they don’t become dependent on us”. Strongly recommended for all software development managers, not only if you’re running a devops group. 9.5/10.

Continue ReadingLockdown Reading

Autumn / Winter Reading 2013

Beyond the Mountain, by Steve House: Most people in the mountaineering community know of Steve House, the man considered by Reinhold Messner to be the greatest alpine climber of the current millennium, and this book from a few years ago is his telling of his formative years, the physical and psychological burden of his climbs, and the impossible to rival bonds that can only be formed by tying yourself to another so that you both live or both die.  I found this book to be more possible to relate to than than Twight’s “Kiss or Kill”, and some of the stories and photos are just unbelievable.  Highly recommended for anyone wanting a peek into the mind of one of our age’s greatest climbers.

Mastery, by Robert Greene:  I’m a big fan of Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power”, and although I wasn’t terribly impressed by his “The 33 Strategies of War”, when my brother recommended Greene’s latest book to me, I was eager to give it a read.  Unlike his other books, which consist of loosely tied together but largely independent collections of “laws”, along with associated descriptions, analyses, and reversals, this book attempts to build up a cohesive view of what it means to achieve “mastery”.  As always, Greene ties together a vast array of historical anecdotes to support his points and the book is always lively and entertaining, but its tone of seriousness causes it to lose some of the enjoyment of the “is he possibly serious??” reaction that came from reading the pages of his previous books.  It’s a good read, but doesn’t reach the level of greatness that was the “48 Laws of Power”

Hacker’s Delight, by Henry S. Warren Jr: This is an interesting collection of programming “hacks” in the old-school sense of the word: clever and unexpected ways of using encodings and CPU operations to accomplish things efficiently, such as finding the index of the next 1 in a series of bits or counting the number of set bits in a word.  Most programmers these days probably could care less about these things, but for the few of us plugging away on a backend calculation engine there are some worthwhile ideas in here.

Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes: What a tome! Considered by many to be the first novel, the two parts of Don Quixote took a good long while to plow through, both due to the sheer volume of text and to the fact that many sections of the book (especially in the first part) simply drag on and on.  It is telling that almost every famous event from the book takes place in the first 30 pages.  Nonetheless, for readers with enough fortitude to stick it out and make it to part 2 (originally published a decade later), you are in for a treat as Cervantes’ skill grew tremendously and he was able to craft a narrative and not just a seemingly random series of vignettes.  I read the translation by John Rutherford, and was very impressed by it, especially with regards to the translation of poems and colloquialisms.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but certainly falls into the category of book that all lovers of literature should read at some point in their lives.

Days of Fire, by Peter Baker:  With this book, Baker has put together a comprehensive, thorough, yet very readable account of the George W. Bush presidency with a special focus on his relationship with Dick Cheney.  Very even handed, reading this book one can’t help but see that Bush was faced with few easy choices, especially when surrounded by such ideological and manipulative advisors with their own personal agendas like Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and sometimes Cheney himself.  Loyal and trusting to a fault, Baker shows how Bush was blind to the hidden agendas of these individuals and only late in his presidency was he experienced and strong enough to stand up to personally take charge of the running the country in the compassionate and bipartisan manner that he had first campaigned on years earlier.  Definitely worth reading.

The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker:  I’m of two minds about this book, just as it seems Pinker was when writing it.  The first third of the book is quite technical in how it breaks down the structure of phrases to discover how semantics are contained in words, while the rest of the book is an interesting, but lay-written look at the evolution of the meaning behind taboo words and phrases, jokes, figures of speech and so on.  If you read it, you’ll learn something, but most of the content is stuff that you’ve probably heard of elsewhere if you’re well read.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield:  When I was first given this book, I thought it would be a little piece of fluff meant to capitalize on Hadfield’s fame after returning to earth from his stint as commander of the international space station (ISS) (the first Canadian to do so).  However, I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable.  Hadfield is incredibly humble about his success and his tales of endless preparation, practice, hard-work, and as he says “sweating the small stuff” really resonated with me as that is exactly as I like to approach my career in software development.  It’s a small book, and a quick read, but very enjoyable.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum:  Applebaum’s previous book, “Gulag” was a masterpiece of historical writing and won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.  Unsurprisingly, I’ve been keen to read her follow-up book on the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe (in particular, Germany, Hungary, and Poland) after the second world war.  It’s a very well researched and interesting book, and her thesis about how communism was able to succeed because it always made apathy a better choice on a day-to-day basis than confrontation (an ordinary person’s life was better if they pretended to support communism than to openly defy it) so that even though few people supported communism, everyone pretended and just went along with it even as their freedoms were crushed.  Nonetheless, the organization into strict topical chapters “Police”, “Politics”, “Radio”, etc means that the flow isn’t as good as it could be.  Not as good as “Gulag”, but well above average.

What is Life?, by Erwin Schrodinger:  A little collection of lectures that caught my eye in Chapters a few months ago including the titular essay “What is Life?”, this contains the great physicist Schrodinger’s efforts to shape and predict what will be found to be the underlying structures of life.  This predates the discovery of DNA by a few years, but it is fascinating to see how prescient his predictions about what chromosomes are made of (for example) would prove to be.  Highly recommended for people interested in the history of modern science.

Who Owns the Future, by Jaron Lanier:  In this book, Lanier presents his thesis about how “big data” and “siren servers” don’t properly value people’s work, and presents his own “modest proposal” on how to go about fixing it.  The problem is very clearly stated and well argued.  For example, if people translate texts and post them online, a company like Google can suck in the translations to improve their translation engine without any compensation to the person who originally did the translation, even though eventually the original translator could be put out of work by Google’s translation engine.  His proposed solution is to use two-way links to trace what data was used by models so that the people who created the data underlying the model can be compensated for the capabilities of the model when it’s used.  I realize it’s meant as a polemic and meant to get people thinking, but to start a serious conversation, I would’ve preferred more details on how he thinks this could ever possibly be done, as the cost and complexity of maintaining the lineage of all data would seem to be astronomical in comparison to the one-way hyperlinking strategy used on the web today.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson:  Another Christmas gift that I’d put off reading for a while because I wasn’t sure about how interesting it would be, once I started reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I couldn’t put it down and finished the whole thing in one day.  Extremely well written, insightful, and frequently unflattering, and published shortly after Jobs’ death, it is easy to see why this book caused such a splash.  If you work in the tech industry, read this book.

Continue ReadingAutumn / Winter Reading 2013

Summer Reading 2013

Well, well, well, in the past few months in addition to enjoying the great weather we had this summer, I had the opportunity to read a number of books.  I feel like I read more than what’s listed below, but I can’t think of what it is I’m missing.  Anyhow, here goes:

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami:  Although Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, Haruki Murakami was among the people considered most likely to win and when I was passed this book it seemed like an appropriate time to try out some modern Japanese literature.  Told from the simultaneous perspectives of two individuals, Aomame and Tengo Kawana, the book reminded me of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in how everything is in the end tied together.  Although Murakami spend a bit too much time dwelling on the minute details of each situation for my liking, I found the first half of “1Q84” to be quite magically and extraordinarily well written.  Unfortunately, the later parts of the book swerved a bit too much into the mumbo jumbo of an invented mythology and the plot’s resolution was quite unrewarding.  I can highly recommend this book for its first few hundred pages, but I can see many people getting bogged down later on and struggling to make it through to the end.

A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin: After the disappointment of “A Feast For Crows”, the plodding 4th book in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, the series was badly in need of a kick to get the story moving again, and in this regard, “A Dance With Dragons” largely delivers.  As always, Martin’s writing is fantastic, and unlike the previous book it focusses largely on characters that the reader actually cares about, such as Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys (much of the book takes place at the same time as the previous book but from different viewpoints)  There are still long sections that should probably have been excised or simply summarized by other characters in order to keep things moving quicker, but at least by the end of the book all of the necessary characters have been moved into place so that the series can start moving again.  I’m optimistic after reading this that the 6th book in the series will be a return to the greatness that was the first three.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould: What a large book!  I started on this one a couple years ago after finishing Gould’s fabulous “The Richness of Life” and wanting to dig a bit deeper into the theory and controversies in modern evolutionary theory and only got back into it to finish reading it this summer with a few quiet days up on Hornby Island.  Most definitely not for the casual science reader, this tome features massive chapters (> 200 pages often), a horrendously nested structure, entertaining and insightful diversions relating evolutionary theory to all sorts of matters in the outside world, hundreds of invented words probably never seen elsewhere, and a level of thoroughness in its covering of the history and development of the so called “modern consensus” as well as of the debates and controversies that continue in the development of modern evolutionary theory.  Not for the faint of heart, but if you manage to plow through it, I guarantee you’ll learn more about evolutionary theory than you ever knew there was to know.

Rumsfeld’s Rules, by Donald Rumsfeld: Donald Rumsfeld isn’t a man who gets a lot of respect these days in many quarters due to how close he’s linked to the Iraq War and his infamous statement that “we know” where the WMDs were prior to the 2003 invasion.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to dispute his professional accomplishments, as both the youngest and the oldest Secretary of Defence in history, the CEO of two fortune 500 companies (including those responsible for Aspartame and Tamiflu), serving as the US ambassador to NATO, elected to congress four times, and serving as President Ford’s chief of staff.  Throughout his career, he collected quotations and sayings that were occasionally distributed to his staff and colleagues, and this little book is an organized collection of these sayings along with his thoughts and anecdotes relating them to his career and to management and leadership in general.  It’s a quick read but one I’d recommend, especially for his thoughts on the design and outcomes of the planning process.

Wild, by Sheryl Strayed: Apparently this is a popular book right now, because as I was reading it on the ferry this summer I noticed at least two other people reading it.  This is the tale of an aimless young woman who’s ruined her marriage and spent time dabbling in drugs but then gets the idea that to find herself she should through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Washington State, despite having never hiked before in her life.  The book is well written and very human, showing the follies and triumphs of someone who heads out without any idea of what she’s getting into, but somehow makes it work nonetheless.  I can’t see this being a classic or remembered 10 years from now, but in the moment, it’s an enjoyable read.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg:  Another quick read on our short Hornby Island vacation this year, Sandberg’s book is meant as a call-to-arms of sorts for women to step up and fully engage in their career.  Too often women don’t “lean in” and put themselves in the situation to rise up and become leaders.  Obviously I’m not a woman, but from my observations in my career, I can’t help but agree with Sandberg’s central claims and would encourage all women entering professional careers to give this book a read.

The Confession, by John Grisham: Ahh, John Grisham.  I keep reading his books because they’re entertaining and consumable fully in short time periods.  I read this on my last day up at Hornby Island this year, and actually found it to be my favourite Grisham novel of the ones I’ve read in the past few years.  This novel is Grisham setting out to demonstrate the evils of the death penalty through the pending execution of Donté Drumm, and innocent man, and for the most part he succeeds.  As someone who is opposed to the death penalty on principle, I can only hope that enough American’s pick this up in their supermarket checkout lines to force them to think through what it means to have the state kill a man.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson:  Prior to reading this book a few weeks ago, I’d already seen both the Swedish and American movie adaptations, but I actually found the novel to be more enjoyable than either movie.  Larsson’s writing is simple and concise, and keeps the tightly wound plot moving along quickly, always leaving the reader wanting to read just a little more.  The two main characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, are interesting and well developed, although everyone else is developed only to the minimum required to advance the plot.  Larsson has a propensity to spend a bit too much time delving into trivial details such as which version of Palm Pilot is used by Lisbeth or what was made for breakfast, but nonetheless, it’s easy to see why this book kicked off the Millennium trilogy phenomenon a few years ago.

The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson:  The second novel in the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is even faster paced than the first, although with characters such as a Russian spy turned gangster and a 6’6″ henchman with a congenital lack of ability to feel pain it veers into the melodramatic.  Regardless, I actually preferred this novel to the first one as it seems that Larsson was more comfortable with his main characters and writing style when writing this novel and it’s a very enjoyable mile-a-minute read.  (Note: I watched the Swedish adaptation of this novel after reading it, and the movie is quite mediocre)

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson:  The final novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, this is my favourite in the series.  Less fantastical than the second, but more tightly plotted and even more human than the first, this novel shows of the simple power of Larsson’s language.  Yes, he continues to veer into polemics about the state of this and that in Sweden, but for me that only added to the charm.  It’s rumoured that Larsson left at least one uncompleted additional novel in the Millennium series, but this book wraps up the events of the first three so naturally that it’s hard to see where a 4th or 5th book could go.  Recommended.

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth: First published as Forsyth’s debut novel in 1971, “The Day of the Jackal” reportedly caused quite a stir when it was released, and with a cover quip that claims that the novel is “unputdownable”, I decided to give this classic thriller a chance.  The story of an Englishman who is hired to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, and the efforts of the excellent detective Mr. Lebel, Dan Brown this is not.  Instead, Forsyth gives us a slow burn, with the detail and tension increasing right until the climax at the end.  The novel shows its age somewhat both in structure and language, but nonetheless is in the upper tier of modern thrillers.


Continue ReadingSummer Reading 2013

Spring Reading

Suffering from an undiagnosed illness and kept away from the mountains this spring I’ve had the opportunity to read a good number of books in addition to wasting too many hours playing DOTA 2.  Here are some micro reviews:

God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens: A Christmas gift from a relative, the late Hitchens’ tear down of religion (all religion, not just Christianity, mind you) was my first reading after plowing through the first four A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books.  Written in classic polemic style, it is concise, easy to read, and absolutely one sided.  Even-handed this is not.  Yet that is the point of a polemic: to make the case that your argument is so strong that there is no other argument to consider, no valid opposing point of view.  Although his vitriol is tiring on occasion, that his arguments should be considered by believers and atheists alike cannot be denied.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo:  Most laymen with an interest in modern physics or its development are familiar with many of Paul Dirac’s results and innovations: the Dirac equation, the Dirac delta function, bra-ket notation, the prediction of the anti-electron (positron), and so on, and yet most of us have little awareness or understanding of Dirac’s life and personality.  In this book, Farmelo does a great job showing Dirac’s troubled upbringing, struggles to succeed as a young adult, supreme awkardness in his personal relationships (hence “The Strangest Man”), fame and triumphs in his 20s and 30s, and acolyte of the quest for truth in mathematics through his later years.  The book is occasionally dense, and sometimes a little dry, and probably couldn’t be enjoyed without a prior interest in Paul Dirac, but for those interested in the early development of quantum theory this is a great book.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: According to the front cover, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker prize, but I respectfully disagree as to its quality.  A fairly long tale told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell set in the middle years of King Henry VIII’s reign, a complex web of relationships is developed, but little empathy is developed and the plot plods along ultimately going almost nowhere.  For a more interesting yarn involving the same characters (and more!) I would suggest instead watching Showtime’s TV series “The Tudors”.

CUDA Programming: A Developer’s Guide to Parallel Programming with GPUs, by Shane Cook: In my real life as the lead developer for a high-performance in-memory database and analytic engine, I’m frequently asked whether any of our calculations could be optimized by running them on GPUs instead of CPUs.  Consequently, I used my time on a recent trip to Texas to read Shane Cook’s introductory book on programming GPUs with CUDA and found it to be very enlightening.  Nothing can compete with raw experience, but for a quick head start on developing with CUDA (only for nVidia GPUs), this book does a really good job at explaining the necessary concepts and developing examples to show fof the various capabilities and pitfalls of GPU programming.  A few more examples of converting real world algorithms to work on GPUs would have been appreciated, but there’s always trial and error in Visual Studio to figure that out…

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle: I’ve struggled these past few months to come to grips with a long lasting illness, and at times felt a need to seek help working through things. Through this process, I was recommended two books by Eckhart Tolle, and read this one first.  Written in question and answer format, the book is structured as a long conversation between the reader and Tolle himself, working to guide the reader to understand the importance of “now”, and how “now” is the only thing that ever is.  Regardless of what happens or what has happened, you are living “now” and all that is not “now” needs to be dealt with rationally and minimally.  Personally I found this book very helpful, and that’s pretty much all that can be said about it.  Some people would probably find it fluffy and just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, as would I have a year ago, but if you’re struggling to come to terms with something in life, this book is a powerful kick in the pants to get mentally back on track.

A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle: Unlike “The Power of Now”, Tolle’s “A New Earth” is much less focussed on becoming mindful about “now” and living focussed solely on your current being, and instead focusses on the matter of ego and how it affects oneself as well as humanity in general.  The points he makes are interesting and seem quite valid, but for me this book lacked the poignancy and power of his previous book.  Furthermore, a few sections veer just a little too close to “mumbo jumbo” when he starts discussing things beyond the self.  Not bad, but not great either in my mind.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day, by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan:  One of the constants of popular Himalayan mountaineering literature is that it’s told from the perspective of the visitors: the North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans who visit the Himalaya each year to climb and conquer its mighty peaks.  Nonetheless, there are few expeditions to the Himalaya that don’t have Sherpas or other high altitude porters (HAPs) assisting them all the way from the valleys to high camps, and often all the way to the summit.  These Sherpa climbers support expeditions, save lives, and die on the mountains just like white people do, and it is their story that Zuckerman and Padoan bring to life in this book.  A remarkably quick read, requiring only a few hours, their book vividly tells the story of climbers like Chhiring Sherpa from their upbringing in tiny villages to their involvement in the tragedy that unfolded on K2 in August 2008.  Well written and brief, this book fills its niche well and we can hope that more stories in the future share the perspective of the local climbers and guides and not just the visitors with the money to pay for the expeditions.

Continue ReadingSpring Reading

A Song of Ice and Fire (Parts 1 to 4)

ice_and_fire_box_setI’ve been watching Game of Thrones since it started airing on TV, and despite not having read the books, I found both seasons to be exceptionally well made and engaging.  Furthermore, they led me to want to read the books that they’re based on.  I originally wondered whether it would be enjoyable to read the first two books of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series given that I already knew the plots from the show, but I’m pleased to report that even knowing the plots, they were both a fantastic read.  Following these two, I proceeded on to the next two books as well (I had been loaned a paperback box set), and my thoughts follow below.

The first two books in the series, “A Game of Thrones”, and “A Clash of Kings” stand out as amongst the best fantasy writing put to paper.  Told from the perspectives of a large host of characters, one can’t help but be enamoured by the stories of Ned Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and many others.  The third, “A Storm of Swords” is excellent as well, although perhaps a slight notch in quality below the first two.  The saga is epic in scope, and the world that Martin creates is as realistic and complete as I have ever seen.  In these first books, the characters are deep and act in manners consistent with their personalities, and the story progresses in broad arcs all while maintaining the human focus on the focal characters.  Truly fantastic.

The series begins to run into trouble, however, with the fourth novel, “A Feast For Crows”.  When originally writing the novel, Martin realized that he had too much material to fit into a single book, and rather than split the novel into two parts chronologically, he split the novel by character viewpoint.  On one hand, this isn’t much of a problem, as most of the characters are far enough apart from each other at this point in the saga that their storylines only interact tangentially, but on the other, this means that most of the characters I cared the most about have been left to have their stories told in a future book.  Furthermore, as the novel (and in theory its companion as well) is meant to fill in a time gap before the story is meant to progress, very little actually happens.  The language is rich, the imagery vivid, the dialogue witty, but as far as advancing the story, it’s essentially fluff and filler.

I still look forward to reading the fifth novel in the series, “A Dance With Dragons”, much as I look forward to watching future seasons of the show on TV, and much as I plan on reading the remaining books in the series in the future.  Nonetheless, I can only hope that Martin is able to get the storyline progressing once again so that he’s able to recapture the magic of the first three parts of his wonderful tale.  None of these novels is a quick read as the books have an average length of over 1000 pages each, densely written.  That said, I recommend reading the series to everyone with a taste for fiction and adventure.

Continue ReadingA Song of Ice and Fire (Parts 1 to 4)

Late Summer, Early Fall, Reading

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, by John Darwin:  One of the better non-fiction books I’ve read recently, the scope of Unfinished Empire is vast and this is both its greatest strength and weakness.  Readable throughout, this is the most comprehensive book I’ve encountered detailing the origins, expansion, and eventual decline of the British Empire.  Darwin makes very clear that aside from the late-developing notion that free trade is good, the Empire did not originate from a singular ideology, nor did it it expand in a particularly planned or controlled manner.  Instead, the diversity of the Empire, in demography, governance, and development, was as varied as the geography itself, and this is the source of the main problem with this book.  Given the diversity of the Empire and the constraints of documenting the entire history of the expansion and decline of the Empire into a single book, the reader has little chance to get a good feel for any particular aspect or part of the Empire.  Perhaps this only goes to prove Darwin’s thesis regarding the chaotic and organic development of the Empire, but it left me wanting more at the end, unsure of how much I really had learned.

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, by Jane Gleeson-White:  At a glance, the title of this book makes it sound like you, the reader, will learn two things: what double-entry bookkeeping is, and how it forms the underpinnings of modern finance.  However, after reading this book, I can attest that the reader is unlikely to walk away with a strong grasp of either.  Interesting enough is the descriptive phrase that comes to mind thinking of this book.  It’s reasonably well written, and some parts of the book are excellent, such as its biography of Luca Pacioli.  However, overall it cannot be described as better than average, and a potential reader is probably better off reading the relevant topic pages on wikipedia.

Information Security: Principles and Practice, by Mark Stamp: This excellent book should be mandatory reading for all software developers.  Despite already having a strong background in cryptography, the first part of the book on Crypto was largely review, but there were still many interesting nuggets of information for me, especially regarding Cryptanalytic techniques, as the depth of material covered goes far beyond the level covered by most introductory security textbooks.  Similarly, the remaining sections on Access Control, Protocols, and Software were well written and enlightening.  This is the best book I’ve read so far covering information security in general, and as I mentioned before, would highly recommend that it be read by all software developers.

Applied Cryptanalysis: Breaking Ciphers in the Real World, by Mark Stamp and Richard M. Low:  Much more technical and in-depth than the book previously reviewed, it can be thought of as building on the cryptographic topics in the prior book.  Perhaps a quarter to a third of this book overlaps with the previous in that it takes its time to describe all of the cryptographic techniques analysed, but the remaining two-thirds of the text consists of an in-depth description of state-of-the-art cryptanalytic techniques to attack, and sometimes break, the algorithms described.  I personally found the book very interesting to read, and would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a good overview of the subject matter, although it goes far beyond the depth that most computing scientists or software developers would care to know.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje:  Despite his fame and reputation for books such as The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, I’d never read one of Michael Ondaatje’s books.  Luckily, one of my aunt’s gave me a copy of The Cat’s Table for my birthday last week and so I finally had the pleasure of reading one of his works.  The writing in The Cat’s Table is impeccable.  Ondaatje’s writing is simultaneously simple and vivid, concise yet colourful.  As each page quickly went by I was enthralled by his language and by how well he conveys the joys and amazement of a child coming of age.  Unfortunately, the plot itself is good, but not great, and this will likely lead to this book not being as remembered in the future compared as his other works (I’m assuming).  Nonetheless, The Cat’s Table is a quick, very enjoyable, and extremely well written read.

Continue ReadingLate Summer, Early Fall, Reading

Summer Reading

Here are some pocket reviews of a few other books I’ve read in the past few months:

Shantaram: Of all the books I’ve read this year, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram stands out far above the others, and as I read it a few months ago, I’m shocked to notice that I haven’t mentioned it before.  A truly remarkable book in all regards, it is a semi-autobiographical novel of Lin, a young Australian convict and former drug addict who flees to India and is forced to build a new life in Bombay.  Starting in the slums, and rising through the criminal underworld, Lin is a character of extraordinary depth, and Roberts is a writer with extraordinary insight and pathos.  Almost all of the characters are unforgettable, and the detailed description of the motivation and sensation of heroin abuse about 80% of the way through the novel is among the most harrowing pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  Highly recommended.

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings:  I’ve read a few of Bart Ehrman’s popular nonfiction books in the past, and decided to try and gain a deeper knowledge of the early evolution of Christianity by reading through his introductory textbook on the early Christian writings.  If you’re interested in the subject, this is an excellent book to read through.  The writing is clear and engaging throughout despite its textbook nature.  Reading this wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found it to be both entertaining and eye opening.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High:  Business / Life-Skills books like this are really hit and miss, and the vast majority really don’t have much more to say than to find 200 pages of ways to re-state the book’s title.  Fortunately, this book rises above that level.  It is a quick read, and although there are few meaningless flow charts in it, I generally found it enjoyable and worthwhile.  The conversation tools presented are well thought out and elucidated, and it’s clear that the authors spent a lot of time thinking about the essence of making an effective conversation and thinking about how to present their thoughts.  Not an absolute must read, but absolutely worthwhile for some food for thought.

Great Expectations:  I’ve loaded a few more Dickens novels onto my Kindle lately, and by chance the first of these that I happened to open was Great Expectations.  Great Expectations is one of his more famous novels, although critical opinions of it greatly vary.  Personally, I found it to be decent, but inferior to some of the other Dickens novels I’ve read, such as A Tale of Two Cities.  For whatever reason, I just didn’t find Pip to be a very engaging protagonist.  So often he was too dense to understand what was plain in front of him, and similarly too many of the other characters failed to gain my sympathy.  Still, this is a Dickens novel and even a mediocre novel of his is better than most other novels out there.  Like his other novels, Great Expectations features a long and deeply wound plot, but unlike his other novels that I’ve read, for much of the novel, I simply failed to care strongly about how things wound up.  Decent, but not great.

Continue ReadingSummer Reading

Spring Reading

During our vacation in Italy and Germany, and a long weekend at the Eskelinens’ place on Anderson Lake I had the opportunity to read a number of books, of various degrees of quality.  A few pocket reviews:

The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer: I picked this up in an Interlaken bookshop for something to read on the last days of our European vacation, and it was for the most part a very enjoyable read.  Its primary attraction for most people will be its account of the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger (Harrer was a member of the first ascent party, also the author of Seven Years in Tibet), and his account is excellent.  The remainder of the book consists of reports and analysis of earlier and later attempts on the Eiger’s north face, and although perhaps a bit too much time is spent on disputes that seem inconsequential in retrospect, the book remains gripping throughout, and you’ll walk away with great respect for the men who subject themselves to such a dangerous persuit.  3/5.

The Litigators, by John Grisham:  Another book picked up in Interlaken to pass the time on the train to Frankfurt, the Litigators was thoroughly mediocre.  I don’t know if Grisham’s ability to come up with a good story has diminished over time or if I’ve simply read enough of his books that they all feel the same, but nothing about the book stood out.  It was a quick read, and helped pass the time, but unless you also have a long train ride to sit through, there isn’t much reason to read this book. 2/5.

The Associate, by John Grisham:  Up at Anderson Lake I picked up yet another Grisham book from the shelf, and like the Litigators, it was a quick read, but didn’t stand out at all.  Shockingly, some of the same phrases from the Litigators turned up in this book too, such as the “Rocket Docket”.  Read it if you have a few hours to pass and don’t want to have to think.  2/5.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis:  I read Davis’ detailed telling of Mallory’s expeditions to Everest in the week or so prior to our Italy vacation, and it is a fantastic book.  He delves deep into the men of each expedition, as well as into the hardships and triumphs they endured.  It won’t ever be known for certain whether Mallory succeeded in summiting Everest (Davis believes that he did not), but that question misses the point of this book, which is to look at the big picture around the expeditions and then to look at how the particulars of the men involved fit into that image.  To this point, Davis succeeds without any doubt.  5/5.

The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna – The World’s Deadliest Peak, by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts: Ed Viesturs is the only American to have summited all of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks, and The Will to Climb is his third book.  Whereas his first book featured his personal accounts of climbing all of the 8000m peaks, and his second book focussed on climbing K2, this book combines accounts of his attempts and eventual success on Annapurna with retellings of the history of mountaineering on Annapurna.  Although much of the detail of his climb can be found in his prior work, the tales of “obsession and commitment” of the men and women who sought to climb a mountain that has claimed one life for every two that have reached summit are engaging and enlightening.  3/5.

The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:  Working through each presidency from Eisenhower to the present, this book documents the relationships that each president has forged with his living predecessors.  As each president has found, the other members of the “President’s Club” are arguably the only people on earth who can understand their pressures and troubles, and the relationships that have developed between them have frequently been deeply personal, unobstructed by the divisions of party lines.  The detailed analysis and elucidation of their relationships presents the reader with a fascinating look into the psyche of each president, and for this, the book can be highly recommended.  4/5.


Continue ReadingSpring Reading

Midnight’s Children

Like many people, I’ve known of Salman Rusdie since I was very young, due to the fatwa put on him by Ayatollah Khomeini back in 1989, but until now I’d never read one of his books and that was a near inexcusable mistake.  Midnight’s Children is a deep, witty, and marvelous book, and altogether worthy of the 1981 Booker prize that it won.

Midnight’s Children is written as the autobiography of Saleem Sinai, a young Indian man who was born at the precise moment of India’s independence from Britain — the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, and who because of this is intimately connected to the progress of the nation (hence the attached genre of ‘magical realism’).  Much like Forrest Gump, Saleem is thrust into the events that shaped the young nation along with the 1000 other midnight’s children (the babies born within 1 hour of India’s independence).  From Saleem, to Pavarti-the-Witch, to the Reverend ‘whatitsname’ Mother, the novel is full of deep and memorable characters.

Rushdie arguably has the greatest mastery of the English language of any 20th century author.  Through pathos and tenderness, cutting wit, and an eye for meaningful detail, he exposes the soul of a young nation, with all of its complexities laid bare.  There should be no illusion though: this is a dense book that will demand your attention, and in reading this, my rate of pages read / minute was very low.  Nonetheless, it is a fantastic novel that should be read by all.

Verdict: 5/5

ISBN: 978-0812976533


Continue ReadingMidnight’s Children


Sometimes award winners are truly deserving of their prize, and that is indeed the case with J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which won the 1999 Booker Prize.  Disgrace tells the tale of two disgraced individuals: David Lurie, a professor of poetry who refuses to publicly apologize for having an affair with a student, and his daughter Lucy.  After being forced to leave his position at the university, David retreats to his daughter’s country home, where he slowly rebuilds his existence, only to be unable to help when Lucy suffers a brutal and savage attack.  As both David and Lucy struggle with their shame and disgrace, their relationship frays, and each must find a way to carry on.

David retreats into the study of the life of Byron, of whom he has a great interest and dreams of emulating by leaving his home and escaping to Italy.  Lucy similarly retreats into herself, unable to confront those who brought the attack upon her, and unable to handle the consequences wrought.   Written to express the dilemma confronting the White people of South Africa, Coetzee has written a deep and subtle novel, perhaps best captured through David’s expression of how he might be able to move on: “Yes it is humiliating.  But perhaps that is a good point to start from again.  Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept.  To start at ground level.  With nothing… No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity… Yes, like a dog”.

Verdict: 5/5

ISBN: 978-0143115281

Continue ReadingDisgrace