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.