Summary of reading: October – December 2019

“What If?” by Randall Munroe – the author attemps to provide “serious
scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions”, mixed with a large
dose of typical XKCD humor and comics. Fun book.
“Serious Cryptography” by Jean-Philippe Aumasson – a modern introduction to
cryptography covering real-world algorithms and implementations. What sets
this book apart from the classical crypto texts is the modern treatment of
practical vulnerabilities, attacks and workarounds. The author rightly
presents the process of applying crypto as an arms race between implementers
and attackers, and in many cases discusses how implementations are hardened
against specific attacks. The book covers a lot of material in just over 250
pages, so it doesn’t go very deep on each topic; for a deeper understanding of
the algorithms and attacks one has to turn elsewhere.
“A Russian Journal” by John Steinbeck – a trip report by Steinbeck and the
photographer Robert Capa, touring the Soviet Union in 1947. Very nice, light
reading in Steinbeck’s unmistakable tone.
“Grant” by Ron Chernow – a massive, comprehensive biography of Ulysses S.
Grant. Excellent writing – for ~1100 pages reading this book was surprisingly
easy and fun to read. Very good historical background of the times in which
Grant was active as a General and the army and later as President.
“Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve” by Ben Blatt – the author picked up Python
and NLTK and went on to analyze hundreds of classic books and modern
bestsellers for various patterns and statistics. Short, fun read for
literature fans.
“Let’s Go!” by Alex Edwards – building web applications in Go. Pretty good
book with a lot of useful material and code for building a non-trivial web
application from the ground up – inlcuding sessions, authorization, DB state,
HTTPS and some security measures (like CSRF protection). I appreciated the
book’s pragmatic approach and attention to detail (nice chapter on testing!).
I would prefer the author used fewer dependencies to implement the app,
though, as it would help learn the basics better. Some dependencies (like
pat) add very little and don’t even seem to be maintained any more. I do
realize it’s a delicate balance to strike, though. While some of the stylistic
choices are questionable (improper structure of comments, using *_test.go
files for non-test utility code, etc.), by and large the code is clean and
idiomatic.
“Implementing SSL/TLS” by Joshua Davies – this book has a complete
implementation of TLS (version 1.2) with a focus on HTTPS, in C. It includes
the implementation of the cryptographic protocols involved – from scratch;
even parsing of certificates. Amazingly diligent work by the author, no doubt.
It also covers the cryptography needed, but not in much depth – so you’ll
probably need a companion crypto book if you really want to understand the
algorithms and attacks in depth. The book feels slightly dated because it was
released in 2010 and focuses mostly on TLS 1.1; it does mention 1.2 and adjust
its implementation for it, but mostly as an after-thought – because the use of
1.2 wasn’t widespread yet at the time. It would be really nice to see an
updated version written with TLS 1.3 in mind. All in all, this is a very
useful resource for understanding TLS – writing all the implementation down
really forced the author to cover every detail.
“What you should know about politics… but don’t” by Jessamyn Conrad –
secondary title “A nonpartisan guide to the issues that matter”. A very good
book about the current state of American politics (relevant to early 2016),
patiently discussing the variety of issues that the US faces and how the
different political parties address them. The author mostly succeeds in making
this book an objective, nonpartisan account, which increases its value
significantly.
“Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight” by Martin Gardner – I remember
fondly browsing Gardner’s books as a kid, so I decided to get one to go
through together with my daughter. It’s a nice book, though the levels of the
paradoxes vary wildly, requiring anywhere from elementary counting to at least
high-school level math. It’s a fun format for the kids because of the comics
presenting each paradox.
“The Nazi Hunters” by Neal Bascomb – a story of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in
Argentina and clandestine transport to Israel by the Mossad. This book is
written for “young adults” (I grabbed it from the local library while browsing
with my kids) but it’s actually very engaging and interesting for adults as
well. In fact, I found the writing style to be refreshingly straightforward,
focusing on telling the story without unnecessary embellishments.
“Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk” by Peter L. Bernstein – an
opinionated history of probability and calculating risks, with a focus on
applications to investment. Tedious and not very interesting, IMHO.
“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr – a beautifully written novel
about the lives of a blind French girl and a German boy during WWII.
“The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean – a popular science book about the
periodic table, its discovery and some prominent elements. I read the
young readers edition with my kids. Fairly entertaining, though likely more
useful for kids with more formal exposure to science (like middle-school
science lessons).
“The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution”
by Gregory Zuckerman – the story of Simons’s famous quantitative hedge fund,
Renaissance Technologies. Good writing, but precious few details on the one
question everyone is actually interested in – how do these funds work, and
what mathematical techniques they use. Sure, most of this stuff is secret, but
I would expect at least some older know-hows to be public by now. Alas,
there’s almost none of this here – you could congest all it says about the
actual quantitative methods into barely a page. But hey, if you’re really into
a tabloid-like coverage of these folks’ private lives, yachts, poker games,
political involvement and internal feuds – this book will deliver.
“Infinite Powers” by Steven Strogatz – good, but not great book about the
origins of calculus, attempting to explain its foundations intuitively (though
still requiring at least high-school level math).
“Change is the only constant: the wisdom of Calculus in a madcap world” by
Ben Orlin – the author mentioned his original attempt at this book was a more
traditional introduction to Calculus using his comic style, but he gave it up
and went for story-telling itself. Thus, this book has very little math in it,
and mostly is humorously narrated and drawn stories with some Calculus
connections. I can see where this could be useful for math educators, but not
sure about myself and general readership. It’s a quick and fun book to read,
but if you’re interested in the actual math I’d say Strogatz’s
“Infinite Powers” is better.
“Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of
the American West” by Stephen Ambrose – a detailed account of the Lewis and
Clark expedition. Combines a fun-to-read travel log with a fascinating
snapshot of frontier America in the early 19th century. Excellent book
overall.

Re-reads:

“The Man Who Loved Only Numbers” by Paul Hoffman
“The history of the Supreme Court” by Peter Irons
“Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life” by Annette Lareau

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