Summary of reading: October – December 2021

“Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto” by Alan Stern
and David Grinspoon – a fascinating account of the New Horizons mission, told
by its principal investigator. Lots of interesting scientific and engineering
details about the mission. A good portion of the book is spent on NASA
politics in the lead-up to the mission approval, which turned out to be
surprisingly interesting.
“Largo p├ętalo de mar” by Isabel Allende – a historical family saga spanning
several decades in the 20th century. The novel follows the journey of a family
of Spanish refugees from the 1930s civil war and ther life in Chile and
Venezuela following an escape from Europe on the famous SS Winnipeg in 1939.
Enjoyable book that served well as my yearly don’t-forget-to-read-in-Spanish
ritual.
“Site Reliability Engineering” by Murphy, Beyer et. al – the “Google SRE
book”, this is a formidable and dense tome describing how SRE work (now also
sometimes called DevOps) is done at Google scale. Lots of information, lots
of examples and quite a bit of redundancy in this book – which is natural,
given that it’s a collection of loosely-related essays by different people.
Some of the best parts are descriptions of Google-scale distributed systems,
with interesting insights about their design and maintenance. I took a slow
approach to this book reading a few pages at a time – and it took me over a
year. It was just hard to get through; not exactly light bedside reading. This
book should be fascinating and indispensible for anyone building a modern
SRE/DevOps org, though.
“American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race” by Douglas
Brinkley – (young readers edition) nice short book about the history of
the space race, focusing on the role JFK played in it. This book ends with the
assassination of Kennedy, which is a bit odd. Not sure why they didn’t keep
telling the story until the actual Apollo 11 mission.
“Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948” by Ramachandra
Guha – the second half of this extensive biography of Gandhi. Certainly a
great place to learn about who Gandhi was and what he did, but if you’re
looking to learn about the history of India in these pivotal years through
Gandhi’s biography, this book falls somewhat short IMHO. It’s just hard to
see the forest for the trees; there’s so much detail about every aspect of
Gandhi’s persona – not just the admirable work for Indian unity, religious
tolerance and the untouchables, but also his celibacy and unusual economic
ideas. The author does dedicate some sections to try and derive some unified
view of Gandhi’s influence on history, but these are few and far apart.
“Alien Oceans” by Kevin Peter Hand – describes the current scientific
understanding of the possibility of life on ocean worlds in the solar system
(Europa, Titan and a couple of other moons of the giant gas planets).
Excellent book overall, with a Sagan-esque ability to evoke the magic of
science; the inferences made about a liquid, salty water ocean on Europa from
scientific observations were a particular favorite – a fascinating topic very
well presented.
“A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us” by Todd May – this wasn’t a good
use of my time, at all.
“How to Walk on Water and Climb on Walls” by David L. Hu – the author is
a professor of mechanical engineering and biology, focusing on animal motion.
In this book he describes his own research and the research of some of his
colleagues on topics as diverse as the urination time of mammals, how insects
fly in the rain, shark-skin and how fish swim. Each chapter describes several
interesting research findings as well as robots that scientists built to
replicate some animal. Very interesting and well written!
“Code Talker: A Novel abotu the Navajo Marines of WWII” by Joseph Bruchac – a
short novel aimed at young readers, telling the story of a fictional Navajo
Marine who was a “code talker” during the war in the pacific; much of the
book is based on real events and real people. Nice, quick read.
“The Ray Tracer Challenge” by Jamis Buck – this book guides you through
implementing a ray tracer, using the programming language of your choice. The
book is structured as a series of “unit tests” and pieces of pseudocode that
are simple to translate into any language. It’s very well-written and
sequenced; it’s fun to build something visual while learning a new programming
language. I was somewhat disappointed that the book didn’t spend more time
explaining why the formulae and pseudocode it provides work, and didn’t help
develop intuition. This is by design – the author admits he’s not going to
do this right in the preface. This leads to a serious problem when debugging
issues, though. Since no intuition is developed, the only way to debug is
to meticulously compare your code to the book’s pseudocode, to ensure that
nothing got lost or mistyped in the transcription. I think this book is good
but it could be much better if it spent more time on explaining the why, not
just the how; it would be fine to trim out some of the advanced material if
space is of concern.
“The Vietnam War: An Intimate History” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns – a
very detailed history of the Vietnam war, from the point of view of both
American and (mostly North) Vietnamese soldiers. Great book, though I don’t
think it’s very successful in its goal of being neutral and conveying a
balanced point of view; it clearly tilts left in its interpretation of events.
“Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life” by Luke Burgis – I’m
genuinely puzzled about the raving reviews this book got; I found it shallow
and barely readable.
“The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr” edited by Clayborne Carson –
collected from MLK’s writing and notes, and mixed with the recordings of
several of his speeches. Interesting insights into the civil right movement
from its most famous leader and symbol. MLK was a deep thinker and great
writer, as well as a fantastic orator. Some of his sermons reproduced in this
book made me think of the prophets of antiquity, and how they got proclaimed
and elevated to their “saint” status by virtue of their charisma.
“Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri – a short novel about a single middle-aged
woman living in a large Italian city. Not much happening there – just a
collection of loosely coupled very short stories from her life. Beautiful
writing that evokes a certain mood in readers; Lahiri is a master.

Re-reads:

“Exodus” by Leon Uris

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