Summary of reading: January – March 2018

  • “Rule and Ruin” by Geoffrey Kabaservice – full title “The Downfall of
    Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the
    Tea Party”. A decent history of the Republican party, with lots of details in
    some periods and much fewer in others (in particular skipping multiple years
    while Democrats are in power is questionable). Gives a good account of the
    tortuous and convoluted process of radicalization and turn to conservatism
    that started after WWII.
  • “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee – a historical novel focusing on the lives of
    Korean immigrants in Japan in the 20th century, following an extended family
    for 4 generations from South Korea to various cities in Japan. Good book,
    though somewhat longer than it needed be, IMHO.
  • “Atomic Adventures” by James Mahaffey – a set of stories about the crazier
    aspects of nuclear science, narrated by a physicist who himself played a role
    in cold fusion research. This is a curious case where a book is completely not
    what I expected it to be, and at the same time I thoroughly enjoyed reading
  • “Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time” by Bill
    McGowan – how to speak convincingly and avoid many traps. Although much of the
    book applies to significantly more “professional” speakers than me (for
    example executives having to do multiple speeches, folks who get interviewed
    by the media, discussion panel participators and moderators, etc), there’s
    quite a bit of good advice for “day to day” conversations as well. The book is
    not perfect (it has the usual repetitiveness and fluff so common in this
    genre), but it’s fairly good and insightful overall.
  • “Quantum Computing since Democritus” by Scott Aaronson – Wow, quite a mismatch
    of expectations here. I was expecting a light “popular science” read, and this
    isn’t it; it’s a recap of the author’s graduate-level computer science course
    for students interested in complexity theory and quantum computing. For good
    measure it also mixes up with some discussions of recent papers on these
    topics. I would probably have liked the book much more if I allotted ~100
    hours to going through it (instead of the 10-15 as usual for a 400-page
    nonfiction), but as a “lightweight” read it completely missed the mark for me.
  • “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren – an autobiography by Prof. Jahren, a geobiologist
    focusing on the study of plants. This is a really, really good book, deeply
    personal and informative not only on the topic of plants, but also friendship,
    grit in scientific research, the challenges of women in academia, and more.
  • “Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight” by David A. Mindell – an
    interesting perspective on human-machine interactions in the early stages of
    the NASA space program, focusing on the Apollo missions and their precursors.
    Apollo’s computer seems so primitive in retrospect, but the realization this
    happened >50 years ago is poignant. The programming and testing challenges
    faced by Apollo SW engineers certainly sound recognizable. It’s also
    interesting to read about the very early concerns of computers replacing
    humans in certain tasks – concerns that are quite prominent recently due to
    advances in AI.
  • “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson – as with any
    self-help book, YMMV. I personally didn’t like this one and didn’t find it
    insightful or novel in any particular way. I’ve actually stopped reading books
    of this kind a while ago, but seemingly got caught in the hype and stellar
    reviews with this one.
  • “Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen – the author has won the Nobel prize
    for welfare economics, and here he lays out his main tenet of looking at more
    than per-capita income as a measure of a country’s development. There’s quite
    a bit of implied criticism of the US economic policies, and many interesting
    examples from around the world. There’s more stuff in the book, general
    thoughts on economics outside the main tenet, as well. Overall a pretty
    interesting book, if somewhat academic – not easy to digest in a single
    cover-to-cover reading.
  • “Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital
    Weapon” by Kim Zetter – a pretty good, if somewhat long-winded and repetitive,
    book documenting the discovery of the Stuxnet virus in 2010. I liked the
    author’s reasonably technical descriptions of the security vulnerabilities the
    attackers exploited. There’s not much actual details to rely upon, of course,
    due to the secrecy surrounding the attack. Interestingly, Snowden’s leaks
    provided some clues into the background, but not much of it concrete.
  • “Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond – a
    poignant ethnography of “inner city” Milwaukee residents (most of them black
    women with young kids) who face severe poverty and frequent evictions. The
    author somehow managed to blend himself into that environment and follow
    people over several years. Very well-written book, though definitely not an
    easy read. Much food for thought here.
  • “From Mathematics to Generic Programming” by A.A. Stepanov and D.E.
    Rose – some introductory math concepts (mostly geometry and abstract algebra)
    with musings on programming in the style of “Programming Pearls”. I think I
    understand what the authors were going for with this book, but IMHO they
    didn’t hit the target – it’s just not sufficiently cohesive. Moreover, the
    choice of C++ is puzzling as it requires “concepts” to express the ideas the
    authors are talking about; yet C++ doesn’t support concepts yet (maybe in
    C++20) so many of the code samples in the book won’t even compile.
  • “Madame Curie – A Biography” by Eve Curie – a fairly good biography of Marie
    Curie. It’s a bit starry-eyed, which is not surprising given that the author
    is Marie’s younger daughter, but good writing.
  • “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison – a novel following the life of a young
    man in an African-American community in Michigan in the middle of the 20th
    century, and his quest to find his family’s roots. Can’t say I liked this
    book, too weird for me. Definitely some good writing there, as well as
    interesting historical context, but it’s just not my style.


  • “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
  • “The Mythical Man-Month” by Frederick P. Brooks Jr. – added some modern
    impressions to my super-old review from 2003.
  • “Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel

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