Neal's 2017 Reading List
Completed in 2017
1. Dreaming in Code Scott Rosenberg
end-date: 2017-01-08 pages: 418 start-date: 2016-12-29 grade: B
Re-reading of this book for the purposes of an upcoming conference talk, I was struck again at the futility of the slow-motion train wreck of this project, and the obvious places they wander down the wrong path. A great quote that I harvested from the book, useful to the talk:
We’ve consistently overinvested in infrastructure and design, the fruits of which won’t be realized in the next development cycle or even two—that is, not in the next six or twelve months. You pay a price for that in a loss of agility. The advice I would give is to do even more of what we’ve been doing in the last couple of years, which is to sequence the innovation, stage things, and be less ambitious. Do not build out infrastructure, like CPIA, except insofar as you need to meet the goals of the next year. I’m more and more feeling like the art here is to do agile development without losing the long-term vision—and, frankly, I didn’t even define the problem as that to start with.
2. Arrival of the Fittest Andreas Wagner
end-date: 2017-01-17 pages: 306 start-date: 2017-01-09 grade: B+
This book came to me via Amazon's long tail because I've been researching evolutionary biology for the Evolutionary Architectures book. It is about the latest advances in biology assisted by computational techniques. It is a fascinating look at how innovation happens via natural selection, and makes the argument for how the mechanisms of protein synthesis, genotype/phenotype mapping, gene regulation, and "junk" DNA all contribute to the mechanism and robustness of natural selection. While the science is fascinating, the book become repetitive because he walks through the nature of hyperspatial cubes and exponentiation three separate times, which serves to show how many avenues of innovation exists, but becomes a tad repetitive. This book also shows just how much computation has influenced biology and genetics over the last few decades.
3. Serenity: Those Left Behind Joss Whedon, et al.
end-date: 2017-01-20 pages: 104 grade: B-
One of several Firefly graphic novels released by Joss Whedon after the series left the air. This one is a typical Firefly episode, with each character being highly characteristic, with some mythology thrown in around the hunt for Summer. A pleasant enough graphic novel–the art is quite good, and it carries the story along nicely.rake-
4. Words without Music Philip Glass
end-date: 2017-01-26 pages: 447 start-date: 2017-01-17 grade: A
This is also a reread from last summer because I wanted to go over the music descriptions along with their creative process again. This book was even better the second time around–it is in fact one of the best autobiographies I've ever read. It covers fascinating life details of a struggling artist living in Manhattan in the 1950's and 60's in a loft with no hot water, the origins and development of his musical style and how it evolved. I suspect this book is a great contextualizer for introducing his music because it explains why things sound the way they do. Rather than force listeners to ascertain the structure and process, knowing it exists first allows for better clarity when listening to the music. No higher recommendation for this book–highly entertaining, informative, and insightful about the creative process.
5. Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories Zack Wehdon, et al
end-date: 2017-02-03 pages: 80 start-date: 2017-01-24 grade: B
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a three-segment serial story, was the writer's strike brain child of Jack and Joss Whedon, along with a willing cast to create something truly remarkable. When I heard about it, I thought it sounded cheesy, but I didn't realize that they nailed the perfect level of cheesy and camp, an extraordinarily hard chore. I loved the mythology they created, so I was excited to see a graphic novel companion by some of the same authors. It does not disappoint. This book is a series of short comics, highlighting each of the characters, including the origin story of Dr. Horrible himself. All well done, with the same level of humor and whimsy of the blog.
6. The Association of Small Bombs Karan Mahajan
pages: 288 start-date: 2017-01-27 end-date: 2017-02-08 grade: A
A fascinating book completely from left field. In an attempt to broaden my exposure and see what is considered hot in modern fiction, I added a number of books from the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016, including this one. It did not disappoint; along the way I made 8 observations.
- the book had an unusual structure, almost like a bomb in the way story lines exploded from the initial event, which was an explosion.
- Starting the book with such a dramatic event with very little lead up sets a distinct tone.
- The author does an outstanding job of subtle foreshadowing, casually mentioning "He later regretted X" at a critical time lets the reader know subtle hints about the future.
- The author does wonderfully subtle wordplay with the title, which could also be The Associations of Small Bombs, because a number of such associations around bombs exist: the initial victims, their extended affected groups, the bomb makers, and intersections between the groups. Eventually, one of the bomb makers becomes a bomb. Many of the relationships in the book come from associations caused by bombs.
- Several characters underwent radical but believable transformations, making the question of "who is/are the protagonist(s)?" interesting.
- It has an authentic feel for India, including some intracountry issues like bigotry.
- The author does a great job, through a filmmaker character, of anthropomorphizing the bomb and its explosion–darkness followed by sudden movement in all directions.
- The author makes the point several times that small bombs are worse because the pain is more concentrated among a small number of victims. Large bombs create a lot of victims, which in turn generates media attention and corresponding government aid. However, the media and government often overlook small bombs, which intensifies the victim's family grief and coping.
An excellent book, full of interesting plot twists, a wide array of characters, transformation, and eloquent prose. Highly recommended.
7. Serenity: Better Days Joss Whedon, et al
pages: 128 end-date: 2017-02-13 grade: C+
Volume 2 of the Serenity graphic novels. Like the first, it basically represents a short Firefly episode. A few minor character revelations, but nothing earth shattering. Neither volume really extends the TV series in meaningful ways, alas.
8. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space Anna Levin
start-date: 2017-02-12 end-date: 2017-02-27 pages: 257 grade: B
Billed as a book that covers both the science of gravitational waves and the scientists who struggle to build increasingly complex mechanisms to detect this phenomenon predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The book is well written, verging on poetic in places, but the ratio of science to personality felt skewed to me. Part of the problem lies with the in-between nature of the physics. The general principle is easy to explain (and this book would have benefitted tremendously from one of the diagrams found on the previously linked Wikipedia page) but the real physics is too complex to even skim over. Thus, once the author has nicely explained the concept with a few well chosen metaphors, the rest of the book resolved to personalities and the mystery story of if/when scientists would detect the gravitational waves with their detectors. This book is an easy way to catch up on some fascinating astrophysics from the last couple of decades.
9. The North Water Ian McGuire
pages: 272 start-date: 2017-02-28 end-date: 2017-03-10 grade: A
What a fantastic novel! Another suggestion from the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016, this is like a gritty mixture between Moby Dick and Game of Thrones. The plot is riveting, along with lots of fascinating bear symbology. The writing style is fluid and effortless, with just enough detail to evoke scenes (sometimes vividly) with a poetic sparsity of words. This is the best novel I've read in years.
10. At the Existentialist Cafe Sarah Bakewell
pages: 448 start-date: 2017-03-11 end-date: 2017-03-30 grade: B
This book purports to take the notoriously voluminous output of several existentialist philosophers and reduce it to a reasonable page count, summarizing and distinguishing along the way. Mostly, the book succeeds in this regard. This subject is necessarily obtuse because many of the prominent figures either disagreed on what it meant and/or changed their definition along the way. The root message really careens off two previous books ago: relativity. The existentialists believed that no philosophy can be understood without considering the individual first, because all their thoughts and impressions will always be relative to their experience, otherwise stated by Frederick Copleston as existence precedes essence. I enjoyed this book as a good introduction to the overall philosophical subject, the messy individuals, and how both they and their ideas evolved against the backdrop of messy 20th century events.
11. The Book of Opeth The Members of Opeth
pages: 209 end-date: 2017-04-15 start-date: 2017-02-01 grade: B
A biography of the Swedish death-metal-turned-lyrical-progressive-rock band Opeth that contains a surprisingly frank look at their creative process, band member dynamics, and This is Spinal Tap moments. I was expecting a shallow rock-journalist fluff piece, but the book consists entirely of interviews with band members, interspersed with nice photography from each of the band's eras. My favorite Opeth is the post-Heritage material, and the book covers the creative decision process to radically change their sound to keep following their musical passion. Highly enjoyable and impressively frank.
12. The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker
pages: 844 start-date: 2017-04-06 end-date: 2017-05-25 grade: A+
This book has perhaps the densest prose of any book I've ever read–it seemed to last forever. Fortunately, Daniel Pinker is an outstanding writer, and reading his prose is a real joy. He provides exhaustive arguments (and I do mean exhaustive) to make all his points, and the preponderance of evidence is overwhelming. Highly recommended, but expect for this book to take a long time to read–each page is packed with information. I recently read that Bill Gates called this book the most important book he's ever read. Generally, I would be wary of hyperbole, but the case that Pinker thoroughly proves does have some long-term impacts on how we as a species approach the future.
13. Kill Decision Daniel Suarez
pages: 514 state-date: 2017-05-28 end-date: 2017-06-05 grade: C+
Conflicted about this book. On the plus side: the ideas are stellar, and the author has a compelling way of creating technology mashups that seem realistic and frightening. However, it is definately potboiler SciFi, with the obvious target audience of programmers–how many books go out of their way to mention Emacs? The plot points outside the killer (literally, in this case) technology were formulaic, but overall the book is worthwhile.
14. Influx Daniel Suarez
pages: 417 start-date: 2017-06-06 end-date: 2017-06-19 grade: B+
What a much better book than Suarez's previous one! Influx starts as a typical techno-thriller like his other books, but quickly goes to an unexpected place and stays there. It has homeopathic resonances with Wool and its sequels, albeit less stylized. There are still some tired tropes here (the geek and the impossibly attractive woman were destined to end up together, which is obvious from the outset. Still, a highly imaginative book with a compelling plot.
15. Native Son Richard Wright
start-date: 2017-06-20 end-date: 2017-07-16 pages: 563 grade: A
A fantastic novel by a great novelist. This is book number 20 on the Random House Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, which I'm slowly working through–this one is a gem. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a very poor African American who commits a horrific crime, and investigates the intrinsic and extrinsic motives: a compelling combination of his personality and the culture he matured within. The writing style is sublime: each sentence has the minimum number of words to convey a visceral scene, sort of like a slightly more verbose Hemingway, but less reportery. One interesting aspect of this novel–the author describes in vivid detail what Bigger thinks throughout his crimes, yet later has Bigger try to explain those feelings and thoughts, and he cannot articulate them. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
16. The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock David Weigel
start-date: 2017-07-18 end-date: 2017-08-10 pages: 368 grade: B
This is a brand-new rock history of my favorite era of music, and it mostly delivered. I learned a few new things, but nothing earth shattering. Living through the era, I had not realized how popular many of those bands really were. It was organized to start with Cruise to the Edge, the progressive rock cruise (I've attended all of them), so I was on the ship with the author. And, it ends with a story from NEARfest, the progressive rock festival I attended several times. So, the author certainly knows his pedigree! If you love this music, you'll love this book. If you know nothing about this music, it will baffle you.
start-date: 2017-08-12 end-date: 2017-08-19 pages: 286 grade: B
Reluctantly, I dragged myself into politics with this book. But, I saw an interview with the author that intrigued me, and the book did not disappoint. It's about how Bannon helped the unlikely ascension of the president, including useful insights on strategy and miscalculation from the other side. I think this book also shows possible hazards of undirected autodidacticism–sometimes even intelligent people go down rabbit holes best left unexplored. Ironically, I finished this book the day that Bannon was fired from the White House.
18. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide Stephen Burn
start-date: 2017-08-20 end-date: 2017-08-22 pages: 96 grade: A
I've read Infinite Jest three times now, as it's obviously one of my favorite books. So, I went into this reader's guide not expecting much fresh insight–was I ever wrong! Rather than tackle the whole thing, the author focuses on coincident dates within the narrative that only reveal themselves upon close reflection (because of the fractured time line of the novel). For example, I never realized before that the day that Hal starting secretly using drugs was also the same day Don Gately was forced into rehabilitation because of the accidental murder. It turns out there are lots of similar date collisions add even more depth to the narrative. Currently fighting the urge to take Infinite Jest off my shelf and dive in again…
19. Fragile as a Song Tony Levin
start-date: 2017-08-21 end-date: 2017-08-24 pages: 62 grade: A
Tony Levin is a phenomenal musician, photographer, and general renaissance man. He released this short book of poetry that illustrates just how broad his interests are. The poems here fall into mostly two camps: very sincere and bordering on sentimental (but never too far) to entirely whimsical. I thoroughly enjoyed this several book and looking for more.
20. Change Agent Daniel Suarez
pages: 412 start-date: 2017-08-20 end-date: 2017-08-27 grade: B-
Change Agent was a return to style to Kill Decision, which is to say back to traditional potboiler science fiction. The story follows this author's general style: choose a few cutting edge science discoveries, then project into the future about the impacts they will have on, well, everything. I generally enjoyed the writing style, although the long pilgrimage in the middle seemed a little invented to string out the tail. I'm hyper sensitive to this sort of stuff, but one glaring continuity error jumped out at me: at one point, the main character professes to know the motive behind what happened to him, yet there is no way that motive would make sense to the character at that time. Anyway, a good SciFi romp.
21. The Writing Life Annie Dillard
pages: 111 start-date: 2017-08-28 end-date: 2017-09-02 grade: A+
I'm finding that the odd sub-genre of books by writers about writing has some terrific works, including this one. This short book is a marvel of writing and story telling. Each metaphor offers deep insight and perception, all described in impeccable prose. The writer is clearly also a poet; she packs maximum meaning and nuance into the most compact form, which just adds to it's elegance and beauty. I can offer no higher recommendation for this book. She has some great, deep insights into writing.
The classic computer science text Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs was used for years as the introductory computer science textbook at MIT. As an experienced programmer, reading this text resonates strongly with hard-won experience–virtually every sentence caused me to sit back to ponder just how wise the advice was. I wonder if The Writing Life will have the same effect on someone who hasn't written a book? I had a strong sense of déjà vu in the parallels between the two works–in both cases, each sentence is packed with connotations that go far beyond the mere denotation of the words.
22. The Vegetarian Han Kang
pages: 192 start-date: 2017-09-05 end-date: 2017-09-15 grade: A
Another book from the New York Times best novels of 2016, this is a dark book written in a quirky, compelling style. There is nothing happy in this book; it is mostly peopled by characters who have deep psychic wounds and their foils. It covers a lot of ground about what compels people to do things that may be destructive to their lives but they cannot stop themselves. It ends with no firm conclusion, more of an impressionistic fog of troubled characters. One recurring theme that works quite well plays off the previously unnoticed ambiguity in the title–a vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat, but perhaps also someone who identifies too closely with vegetation as an escape. Recommended, but don't expect a happy time.
Created: 2017-09-15 Fri 12:45