Summary of reading: April – June 2021

“Gandhi before India” by Ramachandra Guha – part 1 of MK Gandhi’s biography,
focusing on his early life and his time as the leader of South African Indians
in their struggle for better rights and treatment from the government.
Very detailed book, providing a strong foundation for Gandhi’s later (and
more historically significant) years. Gandhi was an unusual person in many
respects, like his treatment of his family and attitude towards food.
The most interesting part for me was learning about the Gandhi’s initial
experiences with nonviolent protest and how it developed during his South
Africa years, long before he became really famous for it in India.
“Toxic Parents” by Susan Forward – so many parenting books are written to
tell you what to do; sometimes it’s interesting to approach this from the
other direction, by reading a book that clearly signals what not to do.
While most of the behaviors this book describes are fairly extreme, it’s still
an interesting framework to think about the long-lasting damage parents can
cause to their children’s lives.
“The Secrets of Consulting” by Gerald M. Weinberg – I was expecting more from
this book. There are some useful insights hidden in there, but they’re coated
with thick layers of general truisms and quippy life advice. May be worth a
more targeted review later on to evaluate specific scenarios.
“The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel – a quick tour of personal finance
advice in the spirit that has been fairly popular in the tech industry in the
last few years: be frugal, careful with taking risks, invest long-term in
index funds, and so on. Nicely written, but nothing too revolutionary here if
you’ve been reading other books on the subject. It’s a fairly short book, so
not a bad use of one’s time overall.
“Never Home Alone” by Rob Dunn – a fascinating book focusing on the different
living creatures we can find inside our homes and bodies: some insects,
lots of bacteria and fungi. Descibes several interesting experiments the
author’s research group and collaborators performed, and overall a captivating
account of the kinds of research biologists and applied ecologists do.
“One World: A global anthology of short stories” by Adichie, Lahiri et. al –
a collection of short stories from around the world, but mostly from Africa.
The stories deal with family, relationships and general hardships. I enjoyed
reading this – such hand-picked anthologies seem like a great idea.
“Charlie Wilson’s War” by George Crile – the story of American involvement
in funding the Afghan freedom fighters’ war against the Soviet invasion
during the 1980s. The main characters are Charles Nesbitt Wilson – a
Texas congressman who played a key role in procuring the funds, and Gust
Avrakatos – the CIA agent responsible for running the operation. Amazing story
that was recently made into a popular movie; the book is much better, of
course. It offers a fascinating glimpse both into one of the key military
contests of the late 20th century and into the inner workings of the CIA of
those years. In the last third of the book the author went a bit overboard in
detailed descriptions of internal CIA politics, IMHO, but overall the book is
excellent.
“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich – the
author “went undercover” for a few months to work as a minimum-wage worker in
various places and states, trying to figure out how such folks survive on
their salaries. The book is interesting and important, but the shaky
methodology combined with the preachy “proletariat vs. bourgeoise” tone are a
bit grating.
“Let’s Go Further!” by Alex Edwards – a followup on Edwards’ earlier “Let’s
Go!” book. In this one, the author covers more advanced topics, focusing on
building a REST API with Go, including extensive DB interaction with best
practices for schema migrations, sending email, metrics, user sign up and
authentication. There’s even a comprehensive tutorial of deploying the app to
a VM behind a reverse-proxy. The slightly odd stylistic choices from “Let’s
Go!” remain in this book, as well as the propensity to use 3rd party packages
for fairly small chunks of functionality, but overall the book is very good.
The writing is clear, covering a wide spectrum of important topics. The code
is clean and it’s easy to follow along with the book, developing and testing
the app locally.
“Eyes on the Prize” by Juan Williams – a history of the American
civil rights years, 1954-1965. Very good writing covering the major events
of those years – the marches, sit-ins, court decisions, legislation and
showdowns between the federal and local govenments in the South. As a
standalone book it feels a little bit scattered because it was written as a
companion to a PBS television series with the same name, but it still makes
for a good read separately.
“Rebel Cell” by Kat Arney – an interesting perspective on cancer as a
natural outcome of evolution and multicellularity. This book goes deeper than
usual for a popular science work into the biology of cancer and the latest
research into cancer treatment. It’s not a light read and takes a somewhat
pessimistic view, though it’s mostly focusing on the advances (or
lack thereof) in the treatment of late stage metastatic cancer. I found the
parts lambasting big pharma for “profit making” populist and annoying,
especially right after the author describes the meticulous, expensive and
failure-prone research involved in developing new treatments.
“The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle – I’ve read this book before – multiple
times – but the last one was certainly more than 20 years ago, so it’s time
for a quick review. Nostalgia 🙂 Old-style adventure story in Conan Doyle’s
unmistakable dramatic style; it hadn’t occurred to me as a kid, but
scientifically this book is completely off, mixing different animals that
could not possibly have coexisted. For a book written in 1912 (30+ years
before carbon dating), it’s hard to blame the author.
“The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf – a biography of Alexander
von Humboldt, a Prussian polymath and scientist from the early 19th century
whose work and writing inspired the generation of 19th century scientists,
explorers and authors that are better known today in the English-speaking
world. The original traveling scientist who made an epic journey of South
America, he inspired Darwin to join the Beagle, inspired Thoreau in his search
of unity with nature, inspired John Muir to explore California, as well as
many others. Beautiful writing; this book is a real pleasure to read.
“PostgreSQL Up & Running” by Regina Obe and Leo Hsu – somewhat disappointed
by this book. I was looking forward to something that could supplement just
reading the docs, and this book didn’t deliver. It provides a fairly shallow
overview of many features, with incomplete code samples, no exercises, no
projects and no extended examples. I may change my mind when trying to use
this book as a reference guide later on (and in this case, will update this
review), but for now it’s not clear why anyone would read this book instead
of the excellent PostgreSQL docs.

Re-reads:

“The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston
“Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick
“The Code Book” by Simon Singh – I’ve read the full book before; this
re-read is of the adaptation for young adults.

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