Summary of reading: July – September 2021

“Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine” by
Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh – a scientifically-inclined exposé about
alternative medicine, focusing on the most common types like chiropractic,
acupuncture and herbs, but also with notes on the more obscure approaches
like Reiki. Lots of interesting historical context, as well as damning
evidence against the practitioners of various alternative medicine regimes.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot – a fascinating
account of a cell line (called HeLa) that’s been instrumental in medical
research since the 1950s and to this day. This book combines a great human
story (of Henrietta herself and her progeny) with a scientific story. This is
a story that had to be told, and the author worked long and hard to bring it
to fruition. I have some minor criticism too – for example, it seems to me
that the author was trying really hard to dig for a political angle on the
story, but without real success.
“Demian” by Hermann Hesse – I really enjoyed the author’s “Siddhartha” and
was hoping to like this book as well, but it didn’t turn out this way.
Although it starts well enough as a raw, honest and realistic coming-of-age
story, it gets progressively weirder as time goes by. The last third or so
is so metaphorically entwined that I’m not sure I even understand it.
“The Last Hunger Season” by Roger Thurow – the story of four smallholder
farmer families in Kenya on the brink of a significant change brought by
improved farmer technologies. Sobering account of the hardships and hunger
experienced by millions of people in Africa during an age of plenty in the
21st century.
“The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah – I was lured to read this book by the
promise of Alaska, and indeed the descriptions of Alaska (focusing on the
Kenai peninsula) in it are pretty great. Otherwise I found it a generally
unremarkable romantic novel with too many suboptimal decisions leading its
protagonists into bad situations.
“Fermat’s Last Theorem” by Simon Singh – technically it’s a re-read, but the
last (and also the first) time I read this book was more than 20 years ago.
In fact, I will forever fondly remember it as the book that kick-started my
adult life nonfiction reading streak, which is going strong to this day.
A great book, for sure. Obviously, I’d be happy if it went a little bit more
into the details of the proof, but I also realize that would probably turn
away more readers than it would attract.
“Numerical Methods in Physics with Python” by Alex Gezerlis – I received a
free copy of this book for review. I was expecting a more code-oriented book,
but in fact there’s very little code here. Each chapter develops the math
for some aspect of numerical analysis and includes 2-3 short Python samples
implementing some computations. These code samples use Numpy and are fairly
straightforward once the math is understood. The math is very high level
(early graduate level, I’d guess), and thus it’s a really hard book to read
cover-to-cover. Instead, it could serve as a good reference in some cases,
so full judgement has to be deferred until the book has indeed served in
this role.
“The Power Broker” by Robert A. Caro – a monumental (1300+ pages) biography
of Robert Moses – the powerful NYC park commissioner in the 1920s-1960s who
built many of the city’s parks, roads, bridges and neighborhoods in those
years. The book focuses on the interplay of power and politics in NYC in that
era, and serves as a sobering reminder of just how corrupt things can get
under the surface. The book casts a critical light at Caro’s accomplishments,
questioning the benefit of his influence on the city vs. the downsides of
his approach.
“Humble Pi – A comedy of maths errors” by Matt Parker – a fun book about some
well and less well-known mathematical and engineering errors in history.
The book is informative and full of humor, but it feels like towards the
end the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find more relevant
examples, and mostly discussed programming bugs of different sorts.
“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir – with this book, Weir attempts to recreate
the magic of The Martian, but this time on an interstellar scale. Engrossing
read full of fun scientific and engineering geekery, just like The Martian.
Quite a bit less realistic, of course – but that’s what you get by expanding
the scope so much.
“The Machine that Changed the World” by J. Womack et al – describes the
lean production method of the Japanese car industry, and how it’s different
from (and superior to) traditional mass production. Very interesting book
overall, though somewhat outdated (written in 1990). Some terms popularized
by this book – like Kaizen, Kanban, Just In Time – have become iconic in
many modern industries.
“Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement” by Daniel Kahneman et al – I really liked
Kahneman’s previous work so I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately,
it was disappointing. The central thesis is interesting and important, but
could be covered in an extended article. 400+ pages for so little actual
material is a drag, and I couldn’t wait for the book to end.
“The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David K. Shipler – describes the
lives of several poor families in the USA around the turn of the 21st century.
Interesting book that manages to be only slighly preachy and stay mostly on
topic. Covers the income vs. expenses conundrum of folks employed at minimum
wage, and a wide assortment of related topics like welfare, health, child
development, parenting and job training for drug addicts. Recommended!
“Programming Rust, 2nd edition” by Blandy, Orendorff and Tindall – a thorough
overview and reference for Rust 1.50; this book is the “Stroustrup” for Rust,
the closest document to a formal spec the language currently has. As such,
it’s great as a reference and only “pretty good” as an introduction to the
language to be read cover to cover. In the latter role the book covers all the
important topics thoroughly, but suffers from a lack of realistic examples,
projects and exercises. The 2nd chapter, “A Tour of Rust” is excellent in this
regard, working through a couple of interesting small projects; it’s a shame
the rest of the book does not follow through, and most examples are very
artificial. Folks new to programming are unlikely to benefit from the book,
since it assumes a fairly high level of familiarity with low-level
programming, particularly memory management. Overall, for an experienced
developer (preferably with C++ background) who knows how to use alternative
sources for projects, this book is a good and thorough overview of Rust.
“A Walk Across America” by Peter Jenkins – in which the author describes
his early 1970s walk from NY to New Orleans – the first part of his multi-year
quest to walk coast-to-coast. It’s one of those books that was probably much
more impressive when it was originally published (1979), as it apparently
kicked off a travel writing trend. The book is entertaining, but I’m not sure
I like it overall. It’s not clear what the author achieved here, other than
collecting a bunch of anecdotes written in flowery and over-excited language.
I’ve certainly read much better travelogues written after this book, but then
again, it was one of the first in the genre.

Re-reads:

“Tortilla Flat” by John Steinbeck
“The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” by Wes Moore
“In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan
“California: A History” by Kevin Starr

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