Books read in January 2021

Its been 10 years since I’ve read enough to write one of these summary posts… Which I guess means something. This month I’ve been thinking a lot about systems design and how to avoid Second Systems effect while growing a product, which guided my reading choices a fair bit. A fair bit of that reading has been in the form of blog posts and twitter threads, so I am going to start including those in these listings of things I’ve read.

Social media posts of note:

Books:

The Mythical Man-Month

I expect everyone (well, almost everyone) involved in some way in software engineering has heard of this book. I decided that it was time to finally read it, largely prompted by this excellent blog post by apenwarr which discusses second systems effect among other things. Now, you can buy this book for a surprisingly large amount of money, but as Michael Carden pointed out, the PDF is also made available for free by the Internet Archive. I’d recommend going that route.

The book is composed of a series of essays, which discuss the trials of the OS/360 team in the mid-1960s, and uses those experiences to attempt to form a series of more general observations on the art of software development and systems engineering.

Continue reading “The Mythical Man-Month”

The Mythical Man-month Book Cover The Mythical Man-month
Frederick Phillips Brooks, Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.,
Computer programming
Reading, Mass. ; Don Mills, Ont. : Addison-Wesley Publishing Company
1975
195

The Calculating Stars

Winner of both a Hugo, Locus and a Nebula, this book is about a mathematical prodigy battling her way into a career as an astronaut in a post-apolocalyptic 1950s America. Along the way she has to take on the embedded sexism of America in the 50s, as well as her own mild racism. Worse, she suffers from an anxiety condition.

The book is engaging and well written, with an alternative history plot line which believable and interesting. In fact, its quite topical for our current time.

I really enjoyed this book and I will definitely be reading the sequel.

The Calculating Stars Book Cover The Calculating Stars
Mary Robinette Kowal
May 16, 2019
432

The Right Stuff meets Hidden Figures by way of The Martian. A world in crisis, the birth of space flight and a heroine for her time and ours; the acclaimed first novel in the Lady Astronaut series has something for everyone., On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process. Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too. Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

This book discusses science and technical communication from the perspective of someone who comes from professional theatre and acting. Alan explains how his accidental discovery of the application of theatre sports to communication created an opportunity to teach technical communicators how to be more effective. Essentially, the argument is that empathy is essential to communication — you need to be able to understand where your audience is starting and and where they’re likely to get stuck before you can take them on the journey.

Unsurprisingly given the topic of the book, this is a well written and engaging read. The book is nicely structured and uses regular anecdotes (some of them humorous) to get its message across.

A detailed and fun read.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Book Cover If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?
Alan Alda
Self-Help
Random House
June 6, 2017
240

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Award-winning actor Alan Alda tells the fascinating story of his quest to learn how to communicate better, and to teach others to do the same. With his trademark humor and candor, he explores how to develop empathy as the key factor. “Invaluable.”—Deborah Tannen, #1 New York Times bestselling author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell and You Just Don’t Understand Alan Alda has been on a decades-long journey to discover new ways to help people communicate and relate to one another more effectively. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is the warm, witty, and informative chronicle of how Alda found inspiration in everything from cutting-edge science to classic acting methods. His search began when he was host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, where he interviewed thousands of scientists and developed a knack for helping them communicate complex ideas in ways a wide audience could understand—and Alda wondered if those techniques held a clue to better communication for the rest of us. In his wry and wise voice, Alda reflects on moments of miscommunication in his own life, when an absence of understanding resulted in problems both big and small. He guides us through his discoveries, showing how communication can be improved through learning to relate to the other person: listening with our eyes, looking for clues in another’s face, using the power of a compelling story, avoiding jargon, and reading another person so well that you become “in sync” with them, and know what they are thinking and feeling—especially when you’re talking about the hard stuff. Drawing on improvisation training, theater, and storytelling techniques from a life of acting, and with insights from recent scientific studies, Alda describes ways we can build empathy, nurture our innate mind-reading abilities, and improve the way we relate and talk with others. Exploring empathy-boosting games and exercises, If I Understood You is a funny, thought-provoking guide that can be used by all of us, in every aspect of our lives—with our friends, lovers, and families, with our doctors, in business settings, and beyond. “Alda uses his trademark humor and a well-honed ability to get to the point, to help us all learn how to leverage the better communicator inside each of us.”—Forbes “Alda, with his laudable curiosity, has learned something you and I can use right now.”—Charlie Rose

I, Robot

Not the book of the movie, but the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I’ve read this book several times before and enjoyed it, although this time I found it to be more dated than I remembered, both in its characterisations of technology as well as it’s handling of gender. Still enjoyable, but not the best book I’ve read recently.

I, Robot Book Cover I, Robot
Isaac Asimov
Fiction
Spectra
2004
224

The development of robot technology to a state of perfection by future civilizations is explored in nine science fiction stories.

What If?

More correctly titled “you die horribly and it probably involves plasma”, this light hearted and fun read explores serious answers to silly scientific questions. The footnotes are definitely the best bit. A really enjoyable read.

What If? Book Cover What If?
Randall Munroe
Humor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 2, 2014
320

The creator of the incredibly popular webcomic xkcd presents his heavily researched answers to his fans' oddest questions, including “What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool?” and “Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?”

Abaddon’s Gate

This is the third book in the Leviathan Wakes series by James SA Corey. Just as good as the first two, this is a story about how much a daughter loves her father, perhaps beyond reason, moral choices, and politics — just as much as it is the continuation of the story arc around the alien visitor.

Another excellent book, with a bit more emphasis on space battles than previously and an overall enjoyable plot line. Worth a read, to be honest I think the series is getting better.

Abaddon's Gate Book Cover Abaddon's Gate
James S. A. Corey
Fiction
Hachette UK
June 4, 2013
560

The third book in the New York Times bestselling Expanse series. NOW A MAJOR TV SERIES FROM NETFLIX For generations, the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt - was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark. Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

We’ve owned this book for a while, but ironically Catherine lost it for a bit. It seems very topical at the moment because of the Marie Kondo craze, but its been floating around our house for probably a year.

The book is written by an 80+ year old and explains the Swedish tradition of sorting your stuff out before you keel over, which seems like a totally reasonable thing to do when the other option is leaving your grieving kids to work out what on earth to do. The book isn’t as applicable to people not at the end of the lives — it for example recommends starting with large things like furniture and younger people are unlikely to have heaps of unneeded furniture.

That said, there is definitely advice in here that is applicable to other life stages.

The book is composed of a series of generally short chapters. They read a bit like small letters, notes, or blog posts. This makes the book feel very approachable and its a quite fast read.

I enjoyed the book and I think I got some interesting things out of it.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning Book Cover The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
Margareta Magnusson, Jane Magnusson,
October 19, 2017
144

D�st�dning, or the art of death cleaning, is a Swedish phenomenon by which the elderly and their families set their affairs in order. Whether it's sorting the family heirlooms from the junk, downsizing to a smaller place, or setting up a system to help you stop misplacing your keys, death cleaning gives us the chance to make the later years of our lives as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Whatever your age, Swedish death cleaning can be used to help you de-clutter your life, and take stock of what's important. Margareta Magnusson has death cleaned for herself and for many others. Radical and joyous, her guide is an invigorating, touching and surprising process that can help you or someone you love immeasurably, and offers the chance to celebrate and reflect on all the tiny joys that make up a long life along the way.

Best Foot Forward

Catherine and I have been huge fans of Adam Hills for ages, so it wasn’t a surprise to me that I’d like a book by him. As an aside, we’ve never seen him live — we had tickets for his show in Canberra in 2013, but some of us ended up in labor in hospital instead, so we had to give those tickets away. One day we’ll manage to see him live though, he just needs to get back to touring Australia more!

Anyways, I enjoyed this book which as mentioned above wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise is that he said something interesting which I have been pondering for the last few days…

Basically, its nice to get on stage and say things, either entertaining the audience or in my case perhaps educating them a little (I give technical conference talks). However, that’s not the most important thing. You need to work out why you’re on that stage before you go out there. What is the overall thing you’re trying to convey? Once you know that, everything else falls into place. I think this is especially true for keynote speeches, which need to appeal to a more general audience than a conference talk where people can pick from a menu.

What Adam seems to be saying in his comedy (at least to me) is to embrace life and be good to each other. Adam is a super positive guy, which is delightful. There is something very special about someone who lifts up those around them. I hope to be that person one day.

Best Foot Forward Book Cover Best Foot Forward
Adam Hills
Autobiography
Hachette Australia
Paperback
353