Summary of reading: July – September 2019

“HTTP – The Definitive Guide” by David Gourney and Brian Totty et. el. – very
thorough reference for the HTTP protocol, including tons of useful information
about tangential topics like proxies, tunnels, cookies etc. A shame that this
book is so dated (from 2002) – it would be really great to have a new edition.
“What’s the matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank – another book trying to
decipher the mystery of the swing to the right of working-class Americans
that occurred in the last 20-30 years. Unfortunately, it’s a very
disappointing book. I was looking for balanced insights, but it just keeps
attacking conservatives without providing any explanation. Instead of “here is
why this happens”, it’s “here are more examples of it happening, see how
stupid these people are? har har har”. I’ve read several books on this topic
by now, and this one is by far the worst.
“The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure” by H. M. Enzensberger – a fun,
playful introduction to several mathematical topics for kids. Went through
this with my daughter and she really liked it, although some of the ideas
discussed are a bit over the head of an 8 year-old. This book seems like
a great part of an enrichment curriculum for kids who are curious about math
and science.
“The Codebreakers” by David Kahn – an epic, encyclopedic account of the
history of cryptography, from the earliest historics artifacts and until
World War II. Certainly one of the longest books I’ve ever read, and it took
me a while to finish it – a chapter here, two there, stretched over several
months. The writing is really good, but the author has an obsession for
details so the book is not easy to read for a prolonged period of time without
taking a sizable break. While it’s good for history, the world of crypto has
been completely revolutionized by computers and this book has absolutely
nothing on that – having been writtein in 1966. As far as it’s concerned,
mechanical rotor devices (a-la Enigma) are the state of the art in encryption.
A more serious criticism is that the author tries to explain the details of
the codes he describes, as well as their solution, but does it in an
inadequate way. It would be better to explain some of them in real depth, and
drop the attempt to explain others altogether. I do want to end this review on
a positive note, however. It’s a unique book, and finishing it is a rewarding
experience if you’re really into crypto. It provides very insightful
background and history for some classical ciphers and their creators.
“The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett – ostensibly a saga about the
construction of a cathedral in 12th-century England, but this book is really
95% about medieval politics. The description of life in those days is very
realistic and interesting. I’m curious why Follett can’t write books shorter
than 1000 pages, though. While this book could’ve easily been at least 30%
shorter, it’s still pretty good.
“The Long Valley” by John Steinbeck – a collection of short stories, somewhat
mixed quality. Includes “The Red Pony” which is itself a collection of 4
loosely connected stories. I enjoyed other Steinbeck short story collections
(like “Pastures of Heaven”) much more.
“Can You Crack the Code?” by Ella Schwartz – good intro to ciphers and
cryptography for kids. Read it with my daughter – she really liked the
book and read it multiple times. My only gripe about this book is that the
exercises are too simple.
“Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed” by Ben Rich – the
author worked at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division for his whole career
and was its director from 1975 to 1991. This is his memoir of his work at
Skunk Works from the development of the U2, to SR-71 and F-117, with some
other projects in-between. Fascinating glimpse into one of the most highly
respected engineering operations in the world. Very interesting lessons here
about what makes teams and companies effective (small >> big).
“Math with Bad Drawings” by Ben Orlin – an original approach to explaining
various real-world phenomena using math. Fun book for the most part, and the
humor is actually good. I was hoping it would be more interesting to young
kids, but the level jumps quite a bit between topics – some are trivial, some
require considerable cultural background and maturity, e.g. insurance,
politics/elections and baseball.
“The Log from the Sea of Cortez” by John Steinbeck – travel log of the
author’s trip to collect sea animals from the gulf of Baja California, with
his friend Ed Ricketts. Great book overall, and I especially liked the last
part which is a brief biography of Steinbeck’s friendship with Ricketts.
A must read if you like “Cannery Row”.
“The Signal and the Noise” by Nate Silver – the author has made a name for
himself by blogging predictions about politics and baseball, and in this book
he lays out his philisophy for managing uncertainty and making predictions,
leaning on Bayesian reasoning. It’s an OK book, occasionally amusing and
insightful.
“The Information” by James Gleick – decent book with some interesting
historical trivia I wasn’t aware of. I liked the author’s earlier works (like
“Chaos”) much more.

Re-reads:

“Resurrection” by Leo Tolstoy
“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by A. Faber,
E. Mazlish
“Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell

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