danvk.org » books http://www.danvk.org/wp Keepin' static like wool fabric since 2006 Thu, 09 Oct 2014 15:59:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 2012 Highlights http://www.danvk.org/wp/2012-12-31/2012-highlights/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2012-12-31/2012-highlights/#comments Mon, 31 Dec 2012 18:54:26 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=949 A few personal highlights from 2012:

I traveled all over the place this year. Some highlights:

I took a three-month sabbatical from work during May, June and July. Some highlights from that:

I also spent a lot of time working on personal projects this year. A few highlights:

Books I read in 2012:

And a few other miscellaneous things:

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Robert Moses, Getting Things Done http://www.danvk.org/wp/2011-08-19/robert-moses-getting-things-done/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2011-08-19/robert-moses-getting-things-done/#comments Fri, 19 Aug 2011 23:19:55 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=758 I recently finished The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s critically-acclaimed biography of New York Master Builder Robert Moses. At 1200 pages, it’s an undertaking. But I’d highly recommend it if you live in the New York area.

One passage about Moses’ daily routine struck me:

A third feature of Moses’ office was his desk. It wasn’t a desk but rather a large table. The reason was simple: Moses did not like to let problems pile up. If there was one on his desk, he wanted it disposed of immediately. Similarly, when he arrived at his desk in the morning, he disposed of the stacks of mail awaiting him by calling in secretaries and going through the stacks, letter by letter, before he went on to anything else. Having a table instead of a desk was an insurance that this procedure would be followed. Since a table has no drawers, there was no place to hide papers; there was no escape from a nagging problem or a difficult-to-answer letter except to get rid of it in one way or another. And there was another advantage: when your desk was a table, you could have conferences at it without even getting up. (p. 268)

Moses’ approach to snail mail sounds a lot like the “Getting Things Done” approach to email: make your inbox a to-do list and keep it empty. Moses wouldn’t do anything until his mail was cleared. He wouldn’t let tasks pile up, so he always had a clean plate every day. He even tailored his office to enforce this workflow.

I’ve been trying the Moses technique on my work inbox recently. When I arrive in the morning, I deal with all the emails waiting for me. No excuses. No starring and leaving the message as a “to-do” in the bottom of my inbox. There are many emails/tasks that I’d prefer to ignore, but it turns out that most of them only require ten minutes of work to deal with completely.

So far, this is working well for me. But will I be able to keep it up? Robert Moses did for forty years, so there’s hope!

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Books I Read in 2009 http://www.danvk.org/wp/2009-12-30/books-i-read-in-2009/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2009-12-30/books-i-read-in-2009/#comments Wed, 30 Dec 2009 17:00:59 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=639 As part of my 2009 year-in-review, I tried to make a list of all the books I’d read. Give it a shot for yourself, this is hard to do! I can remember what I’ve read in the last few months, but my memory starts to fade as I get towards summer. I found a few books from the start of the year via Amazon receipts and library records, but I’m sure there are many I missed.

Here’s the list, with a few thoughts about each.

oracle-bonesOracle Bones, Peter Hessler
A follow-up to River Town, this book chronicles Hessler’s time in China as a journalist. Both books offer a great impression of life in China, though this one started to drag on a bit towards the end. Highlights: his discussion of the alphabetization of Chinese and his interactions with Polat, the Uighur trader who wants to emigrate to America.

betterBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande
This book fits neatly in the “find six interesting stories and give them a catchy one-word title” genre pioneered by books like Freakonomics. But the stories here are very interesting! And the thesis is, too. In medicine (and presumably elsewhere), there are huge gains to made through non-technological means. Apgar scores reduced child mortality by making it easier to test the efficacy of treatments and changing perceptions about which babies could live. Changed expectations and the sharing of case histories had dramatic effects on the life expectancy of Cystic Fibrosis patients.

Guns, Germs, Steel, Jered Diamond
My thoughts on why this is a really bad book are documented in another blog post.

botanyThe Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
As always, Michael Pollan treads that fine line between greatness and wishy-washiness. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was great. In Defense of Food was not. This book is somewhere in between. At least Michael Pollan is always honest, a welcome change after reading Jered Diamond. His researches into Johnny Appleseed were particularly fun to read. I’d never thought about this historical figure.

copernicusThe Book Nobody Read, Owen Gingerich
After reading Koestler describe Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus as “the book that nobody read”, Gingerich sets out to find every extant copy and document the marginalia — evidence of who read the book and what they thought. Part of what makes this book fun is just what a quintessential academic Gingerich is. The one thing lacking is any discussion of where Copernicus got his ideas from. This book also implicitly makes a strong argument for digitizing books: think how easy his quest would have been if he’d had search!

The watershed; a biography of Johannes Kepler, Arthur Koestler
A 250-page excerpt from the book with which Gingerich took issue. I’d always though of Kepler as the first astronomer who really “got it”. His three laws cleared away millenia of intellectual baggage. If nothing else, this book rid me of that delusion. Kepler is a really frustrating figure. He is spectacularly modern in some senses, but frustratingly medieval in others. He certainly did not consider the three laws for which we remember him his most significant contribution to science. Koestler clearly has an agenda, but I didn’t find it too distracting.

scourgeScourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, Jonathon Tucker
A really fun read. The eradication of smallpox was one of the most significant technological feats of the 20th century, and yet I’d never heard/read anything about it before. There are many great stories in the final steps towards eradication. I learned a lot about disease and pathogens from this book.

parisParis from the Ground Up, James H. S. McGregor
I read this on the way to Paris. It gave me a great sense of the city: where things were, what the significant sights were, why they were significant, etc. It follows a bizarre chronological cross thematic progression as you read which I found confusing at first, but ultimately enjoyed. If you’re going to Paris and want to have to have some context for what you’ll be seeing, this is a great book to read!

crowded-universeThe Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets, Alan Boss
This book chronicles the hunt for extra-solar planets between 1998 and 2008, a time during which this area exploded. It reads like a blog, with dated entries any time something interesting occurred. I wrote the author and suggested he start a blog, but he didn’t want to lose the potential revenue from another book ten years from now. NASA does not come across well in this book. The trials and tribulations of what became the Kepler Mission span the whole time frame.

asset-allocatorThe Intelligent Asset Allocator, William Bernstein
This is really close to the ideal personal finance book that I’d like to read. Whereas A Random Walk Down Wall Street explains why you should index, this book talks about how you should allocate assets between bonds, stocks, real estate, etc. It’s not particularly prescriptive — it won’t say “you should be 75% stocks and 25% bonds” — but at least it gives a good background on the issues involved. Basic upshot: some diversification is always a good idea.

long-emergencyThe Long Emergency, James Kunstler
This book is bad, bad, bad. Kunstler’s argument is that our society is so deeply dependent on oil that, once we run out, the effects will be completely catastrophic. Large swaths of the United States will become uninhabitable. Much of modern agriculture is dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, so billions of people will starve to death as earth’s carrying capacity plummets. Kunstler loves laying out doom and gloom scenarios. The problem is that he can’t be bothered to explain why they’re inevitable. There are zero charts or tables in this book, and his dismissal of technological solutions as cornucopianism is infuriating. See my thoughts on Guns, Germs, Steel for what it’s like to read a non-fiction book where you feel actively mislead.

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Favorite Books of 2007 http://www.danvk.org/wp/2008-01-01/favorite-books-of-2007/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2008-01-01/favorite-books-of-2007/#comments Wed, 02 Jan 2008 02:55:23 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=259 (See also podcasts and TV shows)

While podcasts are great for the daily commute, books work pretty well, too. That 2+ hour daily commute translates into a huge number of pages. Most of these are books I read in the latter half of the year.

I’m too lazy to include images this time, but I included two bonus faves at the end to make up for it.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan
This book really opened my eyes to how agriculture and the food industry in the United States work. Pollan follows four “food chains” from bottom to top: garden-variety industrial, organic, local and “hunter-gathered”, meeting unforgettable characters along the way. I’ve been reminded many times this year just how much I learned from this book.

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
It’s almost impossible to believe that I read this book in High School, given how little (i.e. major plot points) I remembered a second time around. I enjoyed the book much more this time around. This is mostly because I’ve had more experiences in my life now than I’d had ten years ago. Having had relationships and having moved from home into the unknown, I found it easy to relate to Pip’s changing fortunes. Estella is the most memorable character. “He calls the knaves Jacks, he does!”

King Leopold’s Ghost
Adam Hochschild
I’d heard “the race for Africa” referenced before reading this book, but never fully understood why it was such a catastrophe. This is an in-depth look at one aspect of it, the exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold’s Belgium for ivory and rubber. This was an extremely educational book for me. It’s a great look into how the world worked in the Guilded Age, as it helped me understand some of Africa’s problems today. One nit, though: Hochschild is inconsistent in whether he judges people by the norms of their own day versus our own. He finds the racism of many of his heroes understandable for its time, but Leopold is always presented as a modern man scheming to exploit the Congolese.

A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemingway
I heard about this at a Hemingway-themed party and greatly enjoyed it. Though it was published after his death, it recounts Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 1920′s. He has great stories to tell about all the famous writers and groups of the time, and his style works perfectly for this short read.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Malcolm X lived one of the seminal lives of the 20th century: his father was murdered by the KKK (it was ruled a suicide), he led a colorful life of crime during the Harlem Renaissance, became an influential leader of the Nation of Islam and was assassinated. If you’re not up for reading the book, the Spike Lee movieis fantastic.

OK, now the bonuses! Here are two articles I’ve enjoyed this year that you can read online:

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I miss the sun http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-11-26/i-miss-the-sun/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-11-26/i-miss-the-sun/#comments Tue, 27 Nov 2007 03:19:52 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=237 It set at 4:53 PM today. And it’s only going to get worse over the next month, as we head towards the winter solstice on December 21.

For some perspective, check out Graham Robb’s excellent New York Times op-ed piece on human hibernation, The Big Sleep. Well into the 19th century, people in the European countryside went into partial hibernation during the winter. Robb’s book is near the top of my reading list.

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“The Cathedral and the Bazaar” http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-07-05/the-cathedral-and-the-bazaar/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-07-05/the-cathedral-and-the-bazaar/#comments Fri, 06 Jul 2007 05:08:51 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=179 esr.pngThere’s a long tradition of great titles in the software engineering world. Djikstra’s “Goto Considered Harmful” has spawned thousands of imitators, and even a meta-paper. Fred Brook’s The Mythical Man-Month clicks as soon as you understand the title. Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” gives open source software its defining image.

I read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” as an introduction to the world of open source software for someone interested in joining it. There’s a history lesson to explain where you’ve come from and what you’ve accomplished. There’s arguments and a case study to show that you’re on the right ship. And finally, the essay serves as a call to arms, to get you excited about becoming a contributor.

I found the history lesson most interesting. I’d had some understanding of this before, but lacked much detail. ESR gives a first-person account of UNIX and software development from the late 1970′s to the present. This is the canonical story of open source. It has its heroes and villains, its true believers and false idols. There’s the Moses figure, Richard Stallman, who freed the users of UNIX from the oppressive yoke of restrictive licenses. But like Moses, he couldn’t enter the promise land. Open source stagnated, awaiting its Last True Prophet. This was Linus Torvalds, who created the Linux kernel, the last piece of the open source operating system.

ESR really uses that of tone. I get the sense that he’s intimidated by Richard Stallman and absolutely idolizes Linus Torvalds. The essay drips with hero worship. Linus is the visionary whose vision he’s writing about.

Beyond the hero worship, there is a clear exposition of the open source model. In order to avoid the problem of N^2 channels of communication amongst N contributors, open-source project have a small set of core developers. These core developers have total control over the project. They decide what gets checked in, and where the project goes. It’s a (hopefully) benevolent oligarchy. Outside of that core, there are occasional contributors and legions of testers, who can submit bug reports. Does this strict hierarchy really sound like a Bazaar?

If you want a real Bazaar, think about Wikipedia. Since I’ve never contributed to an open source project, I kept it in mind as a reference point. It works pretty well, but this perspective has the side effect of making open source development look positively Cathedral-like. Think about it. Rather than having a core set of contributors and legions of users/testers, Wikipedia explicitly aims to make all of its users into contributors. It does this by lowering the barriers to entry as low as it conceivably can, even if this leads to vandalism. All that’s needed to contribute is the ability to write in some language. Last time I checked, English had a few more speakers than C++. Rather than just reporting problems, users are empowered to fix them on the spot. See a typo? Just correct it. Want a citation? Find one and plop it in to help future readers.

I enjoyed “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” for the history lesson, but I find its central image misleading. The development process of open-source projects is as well-organized as any commercial venture.

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Recent music and books http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-04-14/recent-music-and-books/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-04-14/recent-music-and-books/#comments Sat, 14 Apr 2007 07:25:39 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=130 Albums:

- A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)
- R.E.M., Murmur (1983)
- The Velvet Underground, Loaded (1970)
- Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962)

Some albums are just inextricably associated with times and places in my life. Loaded wins that award for summer 2006. It’s hard to say how long you have to wait to know, but the early returns have Reasonable Doubt as the sound of starting at Google.


- Kenneth Browser, The Starship & the Canoe (1978)
- Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1997)

Hopefully I’ll write more about both these books in the next week or so.

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Stuff I’ve Enjoyed Lately http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-02-23/stuff-ive-enjoyed-lately/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2007-02-23/stuff-ive-enjoyed-lately/#comments Fri, 23 Feb 2007 07:11:03 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=99
The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy

Fun history of hip-hop and breakdancing in particular.

Modern C++ Design, by Andrei Alexandrescu

If ever you thought you understood C++…

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

A much easier, faster read than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I prefer my darkness alone in the bottom of a well rather than in a subterranean cavern with a plump 18 year-old who may or may not be a sex interest.

King: Man of Peace in a Time of War

A look at Martin Luther King’s principle of nonviolence in the context of the Vietnam War. The extended clip of King on the Michael Douglas show was fascinating. In the future, we’ll be seeing more and more legendary figures in down-to-earth contexts like this.

Malcolm X, Directed by Spike Lee

Malcolm X’s life forms a fascinating counterpoint to Dr. King’s, and this is one hell of a movie.

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Centauri Dreams, by Paul Gilster http://www.danvk.org/wp/2006-11-27/centauri-dreams-by-paul-gilster/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2006-11-27/centauri-dreams-by-paul-gilster/#comments Tue, 28 Nov 2006 05:49:11 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=55 Centauri Dreams

Recently, I’ve been trying to write at least a short review of every book I read. The latest on my list: Centauri Dreams, by Paul Gilster.

Centauri Dreams. What a name. I noticed it on a blogroll this summer and was instantly drawn in to Paul Gilster’s blog. It embodies everything that’s wonderful about blogs and the web. Interstellar travel is a niche topic. Almost nobody works on it for a living. I’d be lucky to find any books in a library on the topic, and if I did, odds are they’d be from the Apollo era, if not earlier. But with Centauri Dreams, I get a relevant, up to the minute story every day.

After a few weeks of reading the blog, I realized that there was a book to go along with it (yes, this seems backwards) and Centauri Dreams the book quickly shot to the top of my reading list. It even inspired me to get a library card in Mountain View!

The book is a summary of all the major ideas that have been advanced for interstellar travel in the last fifty years. The problem is a difficult one. Even the New Horizons spacecraft, the fastest ever launched, would take 80,000 years to get to the nearest star. It would make more sense to wait and develop new technologies, and there’s a detailed discussion of the Wait equation. Much of the book is devoted to exotic propulsion methods and the men who dreamt them up. The author clearly admires these visionaries, and has read all their books. Even the bad science fiction that they wrote on the side.

There’s Freeman Dyson and the legendary Orion project, which recommended denoating nuclear bombs underneath a spacecraft and riding the shockwaves in the 1950s. The success of the Mercury program and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put an end to that. Then there’s Robert Forward and his solar sail (check). A solar sail would be tens of kilometers across and incredibly thin. It would be propelled by photons from the sun, and thus wouldn’t need to carry fuel. This would make it incredibly light.

Viewing the development of space flight through the prism of these programs was eye-opening. Much like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, it shows that the rosy picture of rapid, brilliant technological advance and heroic astronauts isn’t the whole story. From the standpoint of interstellar travel, the 1950s were a golden age. The space age was coming quickly and there was infinite potential. Doors were wide open: exotic ideas like Project Orion were given funding and a chance to prove themselves. But then we had to go to the Moon by 1970, and suddenly there was no room for anything but man-carrying rockets. Projects like the Solar Sail would foreverafter be second-class citizens.

Freeman Dyson’s take on all this is fascinating, and inspired me to start reading his Disturbing the Universe, which I’ll hopefully review soon. Here’s an excerpt:

The history of the exploration of space since 1958 has been the history of the professionals with their chemical rockets. The professionals have never been willing to give a fair chance to radically new ideas. Orion is dead and I bear them no grudge for that. Orion was given a fair chance and failed. But there have been several other radical schemes that came later, schemes better than Orion, schemes that could do everything Orion could do and more, schemes that do not spread radioactive debris around the solar system. None of these newer schemes has been given the chance that was given to Orion, to prove itself in fair competition with chemical rockets. Never since 1959 have the inventors of new kinds of spaceship been encouraged to try out their ideas with flying models as we did at Point Loma. You will not find any of their models resting beside our Hot Rod in the National Air and Space Museum. (115)

There are problems other than propulsion, of course. Gilster also talks about communications, nanotech and AI. The AI discussion was awful and used old results to try and create a sense of hope where there is none. The nanotech discussion was far more interesting. Lowering a ship’s weight has fantastic effects on travel time, so miniaturization could go a long way. I pictured an interstellar mission as a swarm of microscopic ships, each specialized and capable of communicating with the others. If they were small enough, they could just be individually accelerated towards the stars. I don’t know what the masses and speeds would have to be for this to be reasonable, though.

An interstellar mission won’t have any hope of getting funding until telescopes start taking pictures of blue-green worlds around sun-like stars. And there’s a lot of work on that front. I’m excited about the ESA’s COROT mission that’s being launched in late December and NASA’s Kepler mission in 2008. The Centauri Dreams blog is a great way to stay up-to-date on such news. The book is not. I whole-heartedly recommend the former, and maybe 2/3-heartedly recommend the latter.

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The Right Stuff http://www.danvk.org/wp/2006-11-03/the-right-stuff/ http://www.danvk.org/wp/2006-11-03/the-right-stuff/#comments Sat, 04 Nov 2006 05:00:05 +0000 http://www.danvk.org/wp/?p=38 The Right StuffI found this review of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff from the start of this summer. It’s interesting for me to read this, because my attitudes toward manned space travel have evidently changed dramatically in the past six months. More on that in the review of my next book.

I finished reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff this afternoon, and I was completely blown away. I may very well be a sucker for anything space-related (I did read every book on it at the local library), but this book was different. It made me feel as though every other book I’d read on the space program was an historical artifact, something that reflected the opinions and attitudes of its time towards the space program. But Tom Wolfe was cutting right to the quick. He was exposing the rest of the press for what they were.. the “Victorian gent,” as he likes to call them, throwing the astronauts softballs in order to portray them as national heroes.

The really shocking things that came out of this book is just how easily the whole space program could have been different, and just how much power the media had over it all. It wasn’t clear at all in 1959/1960 whether the Mercury program was the place to be. The test pilots weren’t sure if the space program was just a path to glory, or a complete dead end. The X-15 program looked much more promising at first. But what really shifted things was the first three successful Mercury flights.. Shepherd, Grissom, Glenn. When the press turned the astronauts into national heros, there was no backing down from this route to space exploration. And the X-20 program, which would have sent piloted craft into orbit, was scratched. Scratched to the point that I’d never even HEARD of it.

The bits of the book where he talked about the chimps were absolutely fantastic. A very Tom Wolfe tone.

I wished that the book had continued past the Mercury program. It would have been completely appropriate for it to go until the end of the Apollo program, when the infamous budget cuts came around. I would have loved to hear Tom Wolfe’s take on that part of the whole space story. A little followup on what happened to the characters, too. I checked them all out on Wikipedia… most satisfying: Deke Slayton finally got to fly in space in 1975, Pete Conrad walked on the moon (Apollo 12), and so did Alan Shepherd (Apollo 14).

I’ve had about as much Tom Wolfe as I can take for at least the next month, but I’d love to read something else by him in the future.

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