Finished on 30 Dec 2017

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Book 1) by Brandon Sanderson

A few of my friends have been trying to get me to read a book by Brandon Sanderson for quite some time. Given that I enjoyed Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind, and Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora I thought a good starting place would be Mistborn: The Final Empire, which have a similar setup. The best thing about Mistborn is the world it is set in, and the fascinating and engaging pace with which new details are introduced about the world, characters and magic systems. There are at least two magic systems in Mistborn, Allomancy and Feruchemy, and both of them use metals as their medium of use. The thing I love about this magic system is that it has strict limitations which are easy to think about. Allomancy consumes metals, which means there is a natural resource management problem; where Feruchemy uses metals as a storage medium, which means that it can only store and release what the user puts into it (with some loss based on the rate of use). I also loved the character of Vin, and the overall heist like nature of the story. It is very engaging and I would recommend it to any lover of fantasy novels (and magic systems).

Finished on 13 Dec 2017

The Odyssey by Homer (Translated by Richard Fagles)

Homer’s The Odyssey, as translated by Richard Fagles, is a classic. The Fagles translation reads very naturally to a native English speaker. While I am sure there are some trade-offs when compared to a more literal translation, I felt that this translation was very enjoyable. I read this epic because it is a foundational text of the western literary tradition, and it really shows in it’s influence on other works. The form, the characters, and the motivations are all so familiar even though the original story is from so long go.

Odysseus is a sly hero and the stories he tells are ultimately there to serve his purpose. We see him lie to his crew, the gods, wife, father, and son all to get home and exact vengeance on his wifes suitors. This to me is one of the most interesting pieces of the story, an characteristically, and explicitly, unreliable narrator. What can we trust of Odysseus’s telling of his own story? Quite possibly, nothing other than it endears him to his friends, the gods, and his family. Another, point that is interesting, is that the human characters are rarely fully responsible for their actions, instead the gods put actions into the heart of the characters, inspiring them to different ends. This can be viewed as the characters drawing inspiration from different archetypes. However, it can also be viewed as a primitive view of the self, where the “voice” of higher-order or unique thoughts is thought of to be from an external force. Given the difference in society this would make sense.

I found The Odyssey to be a very good story with an interesting background. The one downside is that it’s origins as an epic poem, likely originally of an oral tradition, cause a lot of repetition, and some oddities in terms of the adverbs. Since descriptions of heroes, gods, and things often have specific descriptions to aid their fitting into the meter of the poem there can be conflict between the descriptions of the nouns and the actions they are actually taking. However, keeping that all in mind, I feel like reading The Odyssey has given me a greater context into western literature.

Finished on 22 Nov 2017

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I started listening to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman while I was in JFK airport in NY. I had missed a connecting flight and was alone in the airport for those early morning hours where the bustling of the airport stops. The ambiance of the airport fit the tone of the book. I really enjoyed the story-telling. Part of it was that the Audible full-cast production was very well done and the writing style fits an audiobook. Each chapter is a story in and of itself, and the book follows Nobody, a boy who is being brought up by ghosts in a graveyard. He learns things which are not typical, but through this he is able to overcome the challenges which prevent him from living a normal life. It is a beautiful coming of age story, and touches not just on the heroic, but also some of the ambiguity and evil which is inherent in living a life.

Finished on 10 Oct 2017

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery is a frightening and enlightening book about global warming. Though it is about 10 years old at this point it had a few major points:

  1. The evidence for human linked global warming is very strong (and has only become stronger)
  2. The reduction in biodiversity is intense, and probably irreversible; we have changed climates and biomes and there is probably no going back.
  3. There is no silver bullet, we need all nations to collaborate and the issues are largely policy issues. However, individual contributions are larger than I thought and in aggregate can improve the situation dramatically. These issues can be made easier with appropriate application of technology (electric cars, solar panels, etc.)
  4. A benefit of a green energy economy is that it can wrestle the production of power from corporations to communities, through town owned infrastructure (wind), and personal ownership (solar).
  5. Coal is the enemy, other forms of carbon emissions are more efficient and thus slightly less problematic.
  6. There is some hope…

I need to continue studying these issues, I think it can make a major impact on my habits and push me to try to get more involved.

Finished on 09 Oct 2017

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a fun fantasy novel aimed at young adults and teens. It follows a wizard named Ged/Sparrowhawk as he tries to get rid of an evil he brought into the world through his own arrogance. It is well written and enjoyable, like Left Hand of Darkness the world building is superb and is given to you in little shards as you need to know about it. The lessons of the book are deep and there is a lot to learn from the character development of Ged, as he learns to be more humble and to live life rather than run from death.

Finished on 30 Sep 2017

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What would it be like on a world where everyone was an asexual hermaphrodite 99% of the time? Where gender and sex were not the primary focus of day to day life, because most of the time everyone was the same in this regard? Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin thrusts Genly Ai, a run of the mill male Terran human, into the middle of the planet Winter where the inhabitants fit this description. His mission is to convince them to join the rest of humanity in a share of information. This book really plays with the idea of what it means to be human, and the role of gender and sex within that. It tries to tease out those things which may be constant, and those things which are due to a duality which has been baked into our culture. Le Guin also does a great job at world building without it feeling false, and just tying all of the characters together. It is an excellent book with an excellent moral.

Finished on 20 Aug 2017

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus by Ramez Naam is a science fiction book which takes place in the near future, where technology has been created to link human minds, and possibly control them. Naam inspects different social impacts of these technologies ranging from the most profound and inspirational uses (such as building new levels of empath and human connection) to the most disturbing and dark abuses (such as making it trivial to coerce people). The technology seems and feels plausible throughout the novel, besides towards the end where a few flimsy cyberpunk-esque plot devices are used to move the story forward. I also enjoyed the inspection of the technology through different lenses, such as, a Buddhist perspective in addition to a Silicon Valley hot shot perspective.

On the downside I found some of the writing to be bland, the characters to be flat, and the plot to be uninspiring; however, the book makes you think about a new technology in a very deep way. This is it’s redeeming factor and is what makes it into a great sci-fi book. I would recommend it if you are interested in the idea of human brains being linked through networks of nanobots. I would especially recommend this book if you liked the Drummers side-plot of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Finished on 27 Jul 2017

Dune by Frank Herbert

I finally read Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune after avoiding it for a long time. My father gave me a copy after finishing the [Lord of the Rings] during middle-school. At the time I found the book to be slow and overly political, but I came back to it at the perfect time. The world rife with political unrest and I am more capable of dealing the the moral ambiguity of the work. I am also more excited by the ecological and social phenomenon of the Freemen and Spice. This book has been discussed many times before; however, here are a few major take aways:

  1. The parallel stories of Princess Irulan and the Muad’Dib himself, Paul Atreides, is very well executed. You actually get a brief and clever glimmer into the emperor’s court without ever going there, and the author gets a way to foreshadow without relying on Paul’s murky ability to see into the future all of the time. I felt this device tied the story together in an elegant way.
  2. The oppression of Arrakis due to the spice is tragic and echoed through many Earth civilizations, where a more powerful nation might take control of a nation through various methods to mine and drill resources for their own benefit. The locals having nothing to do with this other than being there. I love the Fremen’s subtle plot to undo much of the spice production on Arrakis and that their oppression has led to their deadly precision as a fighting force. I strongly dislike that their rather pure motivations get unhinged by Paul’s murkier motivations.
  3. I read this around the same time I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast series about the Fall of the Ancient Roman Republic. And though the Galactic Empire in the book has already decayed quite a bit I thought that the ruthless self-promotion of the Harkonnen’s and the conflict between the “more royal” and the “richer” families echoed some of the conflicts of the Roman Republic towards the end. That said, I think that this theme has played out repeatedly in history.
  4. The background that AI and computing technology is severely limited due to a series of laws passed after an AI uprising is very interesting, especially since these tenants are baked into the religion and mutliple major organizations in the universe (Mentats, Bene Gesserit and the Space Guild). The interesting thing is that by removing AI the humans have figured out how to utilize humans with special training, and abilities, to compute extremely difficult problems. The interesting thing here is that the main reason these “super-human” intelligences are manageable is that they have classic human flaws, such as addiction to drugs, mortality, and emotional reliance. Over and over again these super-humans and undermined by normal humans in higher position by a combination of cruelty and loyalty. In a way this is what makes Paul such an anomaly. He is trained as a Bene Gesserit and a Mentat, and due to exposure to spice has many of the abilities of the Space Guild; however, unlike them he is also from the nobility and ruthless. This combination makes him almost as dangerous as the AI super-intelligences before, the reliance on human computing created the monster they hoped to deny by limiting artificial intelligence.

I really enjoyed Dune and would recommend it, just maybe not when you are 13.

Finished on 26 Jun 2017

Beyond The Vertical by Layton Kor

Beyond The Vertical by Layton Kor follows the climbing career from childhood into old age of the author. The format of the book is a series of short vignettes of different climbing trips from a wide variety of Layton’s partners (including Steve Roper, Jim McCarthy and Royal Robbins) glued together by Layton’s own recounting of his climbing career. The descriptions of their approach to climbing, and the shear sense of adventure that compelled them inspires me as a human and as a climber. Layton’s major contributions were to Colorado climbing at Eldorado Canyon, Long’s Peak and The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He also put up bold climbs in Yosemite, the Dolomites and elsewhere making himself into a climbing legend.

I think this book will inspire any climber, but might be dull to a non-climber. Some of the most interesting passages are actually about the logistics, strategies, and techniques used to make the climbs possible. Some of the inventions, such as Royal Robbins’ jumar based haul systems, new pieces of protection, and the logistics of big wall climbing, enabled new climbs which would have been impossible. This history of climbing grew my appreciation for the boldness and adventurousness of those who came before. Now to repeat a Layton Kor route! Maybe one of the following:

This book inspired me to collect some data from Mountain Project and create webstite that maps the first ascents of various climbers. Check it out!

Finished on 14 Jun 2017

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Humans are story-tellers, we communicated by telling others about our experiences, about those of others, and most interestingly about things that never even happened. These stories create a shared network of knowledge and information, which allow us to cooperate and form networks of trust, and eventually layer on top of each other to form concepts like money, religion and the nation-state. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari explores and reveals pieces of the story telling nature of humanity and reveals the good and the bad of this. On one hand it is how we are able to cooperate and solve some big world problems; but on the other hand it is the reason we have those problems and why we can execute large displays of evil and inhumanity. Sapiens really is a book that makes you see the world in a different way and also it helped me deal with some of the shared human delusions like money. Just because it is a delusion doesn’t make it any less real, humans use these abstract ideas to form a basis of how they should interact and thus makes them necessary parts of our life. They may be more fluid than the laws of physics, but they are in many ways no less important.

Finished on 02 May 2017

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger’s Tribe is a short but poignant book about the transition from childhood to adulthood and belonging. The book seems to focus on a male perspective, but is not exclusionary so much as just very specific. The focus is on how do humans adapt from being part of groups—such as the military, where they have a strong sense of belonging, purpose and brotherhood—to being single independent units which are so common in modern America. It really delves into the psychological pain that is created by our current social structures, and how they are different in some other cultures. For me one of the most interesting examples was related to veterans in America versus veterans in Israel. In the US veterans are treated as outsiders, as people who did “great” things, but whose experiences could infect the population. As a result they do not feel welcome and can become isolated, creating symptoms of psychological diseases like PTSD, or making them worse. In Israel (according to Junger), since the battlefront, and soldiers are so close all the time the experience of being a soldier is a bonding experience to the nation, not an isolating one. Thus the soldiers tend to fit back into society. I thought this idea was interesting, and it seems to apply to any kind of negativity in America, it infects you…

Junger’s book is a good perspective and a fast read.

Finished on 27 Apr 2017

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

[William Finnegan’s] book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life follows the authors obsession with surfing, from his childhood to adulthood with a long section of being a surf bum in between. I have never surfed, but I found myself being dragged into the lingo and culture and really yearning in a way for that open life adventure. For me climbing fits a similar role in my life, I know to some degree it is pointless, yet I come back to it and it keeps providing something for me. This is Finnegan’s well of inspiration, even at those periods where he leaves the sport, and each time he comes back it brings him something new.

Another thing that Barbarian Days’s highlights are the characters who find themselves so hopelessly entrenched in an activity like surfing. They are strange, often brilliant, individuals from a variety places. Some of them are professors, doctors, and intellectuals, and some are railroad workers; however, all of them become overwhelmed with their desire to surf. This book is not just a surfing book, it is a book about obsession, life and passion. I also enjoyed the deep intuition for waves and form which surfing gave Finnegan, and he is able to portray through the book.

Finished on 29 Mar 2017

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World by Haruki Murakami involves 2 parallel, seemingly unrelated stories, which become more and more intertwined as the stories develop. One of them takes place in a cyberpunk like future, with humans who act as encryption/decryption services, and the other in a surreal fantasy land where your shadow is removed from you and you can’t leave. The story is intriguing and I can’t discuss it much more without spoiling, but I found it to be thought provoking and it was a little bit of a smoother read than other Murakami books, but still had all of the beautiful and delicate language which Murakami does so well.

Finished on 09 Mar 2017

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore is an elegantly written book filled with heady references and a magical-realism which penetrates this abstract reinterpretation of Oedipus Rex. The setting is outstanding, describing not just Japan, but all of the subtly magical pieces of the world. The spiritual becomes an integral part of the novel, and nothing is literal. It stretches your mind as a seemingly direct prophecy is carried out through the most abstract and dream-like of means. There is a lot of really hard to handle content, as the main character develops and is not always the best person. However, he seems to learn who he is, and a bit of empathy by the end as the hero’s journey comes to a close. Well written and worth it, but it can be a little dense at times, which I enjoyed but others might not.

Finished on 06 Mar 2017

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens is a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman which I listened to as an audiobook. A humorous, satirical and biting novel about the apocalypse, starring a demon who is not so bad, an angel who is not so good, and an anti-christ who just wants to play with his friends. I found it to be hilarious, with a lot of funny social and religious commentary. The book feels mostly like Terry Pratchett, with a little bit of the unique darkness Neil Gaiman brings; however, I think the collaboration was very successful. While Pratchett’s voice overpowers Neil’s, the real benefit seems to have been Gaiman feeling more comfortable writing books.

The book goes fast, and I think having humor about the end times is both necessary and health. So if you find yourself needing a little bit of levity, and maybe some “faith” in humanities desire to keep on being, I would read or listen to Good Omens. And remember, any accurate prophesy must be uselessly vague and banal because context is not included and cannot be presented to the one making the prophesy

Finished on 26 Feb 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is retelling of the myths of the Norse God’s focusing mainly on: Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya and Frey. I listend to the audiobook, narrated by Neil Gaiman, which I thought was well done, and felt personal. The stories are engaging and well told. The book approaches the perfect blend of myth and narrative, and it extends from being a creative work in its own right. The myths are accessible, but still they leave a strong impression, and a strong curiosity to learn more about the bizarre world of the Norse gods, and their massive flaws. I highly reccomend reading this to anyone who liked American God’s, since it indirectly fleshes out of the characters in that book (who are themselves based on Norse myth).

Finished on 13 Feb 2017

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

This is my second time reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. When I first read this book I appreciated the appreciated the dark sarcasm, humor and absurdism, but I never appreciated what they were doing. This is a book written by an author to himself as a deeply introspective work about his own creativity. A world created to make vulnerable the author himself, to insect life and use a work of fiction to explain itself. The characters are setup to collide, but for no real reason or purpose, like life itself. There was a quote from this book I read which made me wanted to read it again, where Kilgore Trout (a character who resembles Vonnegut) contemplates the seriousness of life with a bus driver:

“I can’t tell if you’re serious or not,’ said the driver.

I won’t know myself until I find out if life is serious or not,’ said Trout. ‘It’s dangerous, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s serious, too.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

These words are potent, and can help one keep life in perspective.

Later in the novel the author inserts himself into the narrative directly inorder to be present for the novels climax. He tries to act like a conductor, summoning his musicians, bit is keenly away that he can setup the situations, but not change their will. While he has created his characters, they exert their own will on him. To some degree they are driven by their desires once they are created and the author cannot easily change that. This speaks to the act of creation in general. The creator has great power, but is also controlled by her creation.

I would NOT reccomend this book as your first Kurt Vonnegut book I recommend reading one or two other Vonnegut books first such as: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Mother Night or [Welcome to the Monkey House][wttmh].

Finished on 02 Feb 2017

Death's End by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu’s last book in the Three Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, is a break in format from the last two books in the series. It starts before the first book and ends millions (or possibly billions) of years afterwards following the life of Cheng Xin, a aerospace engineer who ends up making some of the most important decisions for humanity. Where the last two books are rather focused in scope this book has the feel of Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke, and inspects human societies evolution, as well as, questions the fundamental structure of the universe. The book naturally follows the Dark Forest hypothesis to its dark but logical conclusion: as intelligent beings spread throughout space and came in contact with eachother, large intergalactic wars started taking place. In these wars the god-like aliens wielded the laws of the universe against eachother, changing universal constants and fundamentals of the galaxy, to the point where the universe itself was at risk of dying. The Darwinian need for purpetual survival of your kind leads, inveitably to death no matter the mess you make trying to avoid it.

Finished on 11 Nov 2016

Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is an engaging fantasy novel set in the city-state of Camorr, which is inspired by Venice. Locke is a leader of a gang called the Gentleman Bastards who steal from the nobility and other marks using elaborate confidence schemes. The novel spends a lot of time uncovering the history of the Gentleman Bastards, and delving into the underground of Camorr. This is presented in an engaging manor, but my favorite part of the novel is the way in which Scott Lynch constructs the world Locke operates in. At no point does it feel unnatural. Since, Locke has to have a deep understanding of the world around him the world naturally materializes around him to provide ammo for his impressive heists. The human civilization of Camorr is built on top of a long gone alien civilization, which had a much higher level of technology (and maybe magic). It subtly sits in the background, but begs the question: When we fade will a new civilization use what we have left behind for their infrastructure? History seems to point to yes, if it is still usable and someone understands how to use it. It is easier to adapt what is present and use it as a natural resource than to tear it down. And those who can use the technology become the priests, witchdoctors and magicians of a new world… Treating what those long gone took for granted as gods.

Despite the awesome world building, fun dialog and nail biting plot the novel can feel like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign at points. Certain events and encounters feel like they are triggered by status effects, or dice rolls rather than the narrative. This never makes the story feel forced, but sometimes it feels like you are on a side-quest/or a search for a magic potion. There are also a few encounters which just feel weak and are not well worked into the story. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fun and enjoyable fantasy book with awesome world building, and for that alone I think it is worth while if you want a fun and interesting fantasy novel.

Finished on 30 Oct 2016

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon was recommended to me by Derek Sivers and he also has notes posted which are rather entertaining and boil down some of the content. I found Austin’s book to be very insightful, and I found it reinforced my resolve to share what I am working on, be that my reading, music, or hobby engineering projects. There are a lot of awesome pieces of wisdom hidden in the book about the source of creativity and the benefits of sharing, but a core principle is found early on in a quote:

Creativity is not a talent it is a way of operating
John Cleese

Austin goes on to discuss the importance of doing “any” kind of work over doing nothing and also the importance of keeping an amateur mindset:

That’s all any of us are amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.
Charlie Chaplin

The important thing is to keep learning and share the process of your work and what you have learned. With the ease of sharing process now on the Internet, your process can be just as much a part of your work as your finished projects. This brings up the concept of flow (your feed of small unpolished pieces such as Tweets, Instagram photos, short videos, and blog posts) and stock (your polished end products), and how they drive each other forward. This means that you should always be showing pieces of your work, you can reuse them later. As Austin says:

Don’t show your lunch or your latte, show your work.
Austin Kleon

Showing your influences, story telling, grit and perseverance are also explored. However, the portion about not being a “jerk” who complains about “who the most ‘authentic’ punk band is” struck me deeply. I used to be concerned about such thing; however, as I grow as a human I am realizing the silliness of it all. We are here to express ourselves in whatever way we can, authenticity means nothing! It is a limiting thought that prevents us from breaking into new territory.

I highly recommend this book and I implore you start showing your work too!

Finished on 27 Oct 2016

A Guide To The Good Life by William Irvine

Over the last year I have been reading a lot of Stoic philosophy. I decided to approached the source texts of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca The Younger first. I had been doing well for myself by reading these very influential texts (most notably Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and On The Shortness of Life by Seneca); however, found myself desiring some interpretation from a modern perspective to help challenge my understanding of this philosophy of life. William Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life showed up in a lot of searches and was discussed by Derek Sivers in his book notes. Irvine starts by giving a background of why having a philosophy of life is critical, and starts to explain why a religion might not fill that role. He then gives some historical background on Stoicism: first in Greece, and then in Rome where the version of Stoicism that has been best preserved was formed. Irvine then launches forward into various pieces of stoic advice and proceeds to insert his own little quips and opinions in there. Some of the most profound extractions from the stoic texts were:

  • The practice of negative visualization where you think about the bad things that can happen to you, to prepare for them and prepare yourself for their eventuality. The idea is by doing this you will cherish those things you appreciate more knowing you will not have them forever.

  • The dichotomy of control which is the idea that you must focus only on the things over which you have agency. The world will throw absurd, and unpredictable things at you, but worrying about those things is pointless. As a result goals should be set internal to yourself. For example, “I do my best at climbing this route” rather than “I will climb this route flawlessly without falling”.

  • Removing pleasures from your life occasionally can prevent you from depending on them and requiring them to live.

  • Set your values properly to live a good life. Fame and fortune are not good values.

  • “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them” - Epictetus

There are countless others, but those were some of the points which were most relevant to me right now in my life. In general, I would recommend this book, but I think the source texts are actually just as easy to approach and a little less preachy. If you want to be introduced to stoicism I recommend Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life, if you find value there then this book might help you understand a biased reconstruction of Stoic thought, which you will be better armed to parse through. Take what you will from the book, but don’t take it as gospel.

Finished on 21 Oct 2016

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday

I listened to Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph as an audiobook on my way back from a weekend of climbing at the Gunks. Climbing always gets me into a reflective and stoic mindset because of that introspective struggle which involves both meatspace and your internal thought processes, so I was very receptive to this book on my drive back up. Ryan takes the approach of inspecting the stories of various successful people throughout space and time to extract some of the common mental tools used by all of them. The book is full of great anecdotes, and lessons which you can apply to your life, but the core piece of knowledge is really in the title. Every obstacle that life puts in front of us, no matter how bad, can be viewed as an opportunity after the fact. Who we are is a sum of the obstacles we had to undertake, and those obstacles are great growth opportunities and should be taken advantage of rather than shrouded in fear and terror. This is of course easy to say and hard to do. Some obstacles are terrible and have a very strong psychological impact, but for many obstacles we face on a day to day basis they are minor and help us hold a mirror up to ourselves.

Finished on 10 Oct 2016

Seizing The Enigma by David Kahn

Daniel Kahn’s Seizing The Enigma is the story of the ENIGMA machine, a electro-mechanical cipher system used by the German’s during WWII, and ULTRA the British code breaking effort of the ENIGMA (and other Axis encodings and encipherments). Daniel Kahn is a leading historian of cryptographic history and it shows in his ability to stitch together a story which does not focus on one person (such as Turing or Welchman), but instead covers the German’s, the navy, and Bletchley Park (the headquarters of the British code breakers). The descriptions of the encoding, and code breaking methods, are easy to follow. However, the real point the book drives home is how pure mathematical analysis is important, but it in a problem like cryptography it can prove that something is “very difficult” to break, without taking into account implementation, and human, details which change the mathematical facts. The breaking of the ENIGMA is a beautiful interplay between mathematical rigor, engineering, espionage and social reasoning. I think this will change the way I think about problems going forward. This applies not just in the domain of cryptography, but also safety of systems which have high consequence. A mathematically provably safe system can be useful, but it is the social aspects and variables that were not controlled for that can still cause issues and incidents! This is not to say that we should not provide rigor, but instead that mathematical and engineering rigor are a basis, and that data collection and skepticism are necessary to improve and maintain a system.

Finished on 24 Sep 2016

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies by Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies inspects and dissects the topic of Superintelligence. First, laying out different possible paths to super intelligence and then discussing how these different paths might effect humanity, or might occur. It then discusses the dynamics of a singleton AI and later a multi-polar world of interacting AIs. However, Bostrom’s real point throughout this book is not just how one might build an AI. But how one might build and control an AI safely, namely the control problem (which I just found out has a subreddit dedicated to it). On one hand Bostrom suggests that human-brain emulation might lead to a super intelligence that naturally shares our values, and with proper selection, there is a small chance this solves the control problem. However, more likely it means we have no real control over what happens. On the other hand, the challenge of building an AI which is set up to be flexible enough to grow with humanity, being benevolent the whole time, and be provably this way is a major challenge in its own right.

The book was eye opening to me as an engineer. Not only does Bostrom really dig into superintelligence, but the ethics the project that designs it should have. Namely, a focus on safety and a compassionate attitude towards humanity. Also enlightening was the idea that the best way to specify most of the subsystems an AI needs might be indirectly, which at first seemed counter intuitive to me. This is do to the fact that a sufficiently smart AI (or human for that matter), if it has a goal to improve itself does not need to start life with a perfect system, as outlined by this quote:

Rather, our focus should be on creating a highly reliable design, one that can be trusted to retain enough sanity to recognize its own failings. An imperfect superintelligence, whose fundamentals are sound, would gradually repair itself; and having done so, it would exert as much beneficial optimization power on the world as if it had been perfect from the outset.

Nick Bostrom

It was an enjoyable read and I left the book with a wonder and awe at the problems of AI. It is a little scary, but I think I agree with Bostrom’s thesis that is not if but when and I for one would rather try to contribute to a benevolent AI, than let the world get swallowed by an ignorant, sophistic or power hungry AI. I leave you with this quote:

The point of superintelligence is not to pander to human preconceptions but to make mincemeat out of our ignorance and folly.

Nick Bostrom

Finished on 01 Sep 2016

The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder

I listened to The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder as an Audible audio book on my drive from Boston to NYC and back. It is a rather fast-paced and intense story of the team behind the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code named Eagle, a 32-bit minicomputer. The book gets into the heads of the various engineers of the project and explains various sub-systems in layman’s terms, as well as, how the engineers think of the particular system. You are introduced to a cast of characters quickly termed the Hardyboys and the Microkids based on which subsystems they work on, hardware or the microcode of the processor. These engineers become engulfed in the project and after some time produce the first prototypes Coke and Gollum. From here flows a story of debugging, commitment, and a little bit of insanity.

There are some interesting concepts related to management of a team, and project too. Most of these relate to how Tom West decouples his team from the minutia of making a product, and corporate politics. This ultimately makes the product possible since the engineers can spend their time acting as a group of close collaborators working on technology.

After listening to this book I suddenly want to work on an intense and groundbreaking project, as well as, build a IC-based CISC processor myself.

Finished on 14 Aug 2016

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson inspects some interesting topics in nano-technology, tribal societies, and in many ways is a spiritual successor to Snow Crash in that the general structure of the world is similar. Personally I enjoyed the portion of the book about the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and Nell, which explores what can happen when an underprivileged individual comes into contact with a technology built around educating and raising children to be strong individuals. The book sort of becomes a little stale towards the end, the Seed is an interesting technology, but never quite makes sense and the Drummers and the story that unfolds around them, The Fists of Righteous Harmony, and John Hackworth (the inventor of the Primer) feels somewhat forced. Like many other Stephenson books, the ending leaves you wanting more, but the world he has constructed is interesting enough to satisfy. Think of the book more as a thought experiment in how tribal societies interact, nano-technology, and a series of other concepts rather than a concrete story and it will be an enjoyable ride.

Finished on 26 Apr 2016

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu was a thought-provoking book which I think really does glimpse into the darkness of civilization, and humanity. There is some subtle optimism presented throughout the book which puts much faith in humanity’s (and other civilizations’). However, there is also a darkness which is presented which is a disturbing answer to the Fermi paradox. It is thought provoking and really makes you contemplate humanity’s place in the universe.

Finished on 13 Apr 2016

Test Driven Development for Embedded C by James Grenning

Test Driven Development for Embedded C by James Grenning is a book I heard about through a friend of mine, as well as, through the embedded systems podcast. It is a well thought out introduction to TDD in an environment where there is a strong reluctance to adopt new techniques, and improve code readability, provability and test-ability. Grenning does a great job at making the sale that TDD is ultimately worth it and then executes through examples how to test code from scratch, how to add test harnessing to legacy code, and ultimately how to design code so that it can be tested. To developers who don’t work with C for an embedded platform you might thing this is old hat; however, for me this book changed the way I think not only of writing C for embedded systems, but all code. Unit testing has become a standard part of my vocabulary and what I value in code.

Finished on 07 Apr 2016

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu was a very refreshing near-future sci-fi novel. I really enjoyed the opening of the book and the backdrop of Chinese Culture and history. This gave me new perspective and was novel compared to the tired backdrops of near-future sci-fi, which tend to be western with some superficial Chinese and/or Japanese culture spiked into the mix. As an engineer myself I found Cixin Liu’s descriptions of technology to not be too distasteful, he takes his liberties (especially with the Sophons), but in general tries not to depart too far from possibility except where it makes for a good plot device. This book definitely made me question whether humanity even deserves to continue on this planet, a problem the main characters struggle with. I have not quite come to a conclusion, but I do know that I will read the sequel The Dark Forest.