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Memory gets triggered in the most unexpected ways. I maintain a fairly large library of printed and electronic books (most of them DRMed -the light cases socially, kindle and Adobe locked the rest unfortunately) on subjects that interest me. It is fairly evident that I will not read them all, but I always have a book (and sometimes a paper) to recommend to a friend that has a problem. It seems that I am not the only one that thinks that personal libraries are supposed to be full of unread books.

Anyway, I was listening to Podcast.__init__ Episode 95 and one of the guests mentioned Parsing Techniques – A Practical Guide by Grune, I think it was when they touched Earley parsers and how most books about parsing do not really touch on how the actual parser is built. Wait a minute I’ve got that PDF! And you can go to the author’s site and download it. And you know what? There is a second edition out. For > 100 euros for a DRMed PDF I may not buy it since parsing is definitely not my thing, but somebody else out there might need the second edition. Judging from my skimming of the first edition, this is close to the encyclopaedia of parsing. I will go through some pages tonight.

Just for a refresher.

That’s the bear trap, the greatest vice. Your job. You can justify about any behavior with it. Maybe that’s why you do it, so you don’t have to deal with all those other problems.

I never expected to find the explanation of BOFHiness in The Soul of New Machine. The book lived on my wishlist for a long time and it was gifted to me, only to wait there inside the kindle for a couple more years. Tracy Kidder follows the team that built Data General’s Eagle, their first 32bit machine and a kind of Plan B for the company, since the market was being dominated by the Vaxen and they had to react. Serious computing history unfolds in front of you.

A very interesting story, and lucky Kidder got to follow a lot of the story in the making, even though this was supposed to be a secret project. While this is not a hard science book, you get to learn a lot about computer architecture, or depending your skills, computer architecture history. You get to understand the magic that happens when your keystrokes are transformed into the desired result. The moment when the software and hardware connect. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about debugging boards with an oscillator.

While I cannot claim the brilliance of Tom West, I do see elements of similar behavior and the reasons for this. I need to work on that.

Thus he supplied them one answer to the question of what happens to computer engineers who pass forty.

I reached 44 yesterday. Still not a middle manager.

Beyond Blame

2017/01/05

That went away fast. You can finish it in one shot. Especially if you are in one of the most thankless professions, with lots of responsibility and zero authority. The narrative, however thin, feels close to heart because this things happen. Or may have even happened to you or someone you know.

cynefin_framework2c_february_2011_28229

The Cynefin model

While this is no Phoenix Project, the first sixteen chapters serve to lay the playgound for implementing a proper postmortem process, where no one is afraid to withhold critical information. This along a very useful bibliography is presented in the last chapter.

As always, the hard thing is to make people who think that “rolling heads” improve morale and performance, to see the error of their ways.

Yesterday’s Kin

2017/01/04

Why are you here?

To make contact with World. A peace mission

I first learned of Nancy Kress via the IEEE Spectrum podcast. Since Yesterday’s Kin was not published yet, I read the Beggars in Spain. This week, it was Kin’s turn. It read fast, less than two nights in a row. Science fiction and genetics is Kress’s playing field and she handles it well.

So what do you do when an alien race, advanced in Engineering comes your way? How do you proceed when they reveal an incoming threat for both races and request for scientific assistance? How do you deal with information sharing? With conspiracy theories that arise worldwide? How do you build trust?

I really do not know what to write without revealing the plot. This is a fast paced story, the genetic science “computes” (well at least if you are not a biologists, then maybe it does not, but I remember she does a lot of research prior to writing anything). It is one of those stories that when reading them I think “It runs so good that I do not see a perfect ending”. Indeed the ending is not the best of endings, but at least it is plausible within the novel’s context and its sub-arcs.

A really nice piece for when on holiday.

 

The Fields Medal. A genius Mathematician racing against time. Will he make it before he’s 40? The journal of his adventure is what this book is about. Along with his fears, the way he measures himself against other giants (does he really have to? To the reader it may seem he does not, but to him is matters a lot; the top is the top). And yes, it is written as a diary.

I will not pretend that I knew, or still understand anything about Landau damping. Or even the Boltzmann equation. In fact I know only of a handful of people who could recognise the complete notation used. Interestingly, this does not make the book less enjoyable. It took me over a year since I first found out about the book, started reading it and then finishing it. And you know what? It was not the Mathematics that put it to a pause. It was a long chapter on music, on stuff that I could follow in complete detail. When I reached there I paused in order to find the proper time to enjoy the written soundtrack. Well that time came about a year later.

Far too many top Mathematicians and Mathematical Physicists parade in the book. Perelman‘s antics and perseverance get explained. Luckily some simpler (to grasp, not solve) problems too, the Collatz for example. As it happens I too use it sometimes to block my mind from interference. But that’s where the similarities with the author stop. The other thing that felt close to heart was Coq. I always had ideas about using it in ways not expected by its creators, but my academic limited attention per suject blocked this.

All in all a fascinating read about a man, his passion and his target. You can safely ignore the Mathematics. It is hard enough for the professionals and is there to show what he dealt with. The pain is described not in algebraic notation but with plain alphabet.

 

The Last Lecture

2016/09/16

Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.

I will admit to never having seen The Last Lecture. Over the years I’ve started watching it, only abandoning it after the first couple of minutes. The only thing that I’ve seen, and this only by chance, is the part where Randy Pauch describes how his parents let him paint his room. Somehow this stuck with me and in our house the kids are allowed to draw on the walls of their room, only in contrast to his parents, the room gets painted from time to time and the drawings are thus erased.

Somehow I decided to read the book. Mostly because it contains one of the most annoying phrases I’ve ever heard offered as consolation: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand”. Well, you cannot argue with a dead guy, and Pauch, if alive, would not let you win the argument.

It takes tremendous self discipline to write a book like that (even though technically he did not write it, he dictated it on tape and a writer undertook the polishing). I was told though by a good friend that similar efforts (like keeping a journal) help coping with the situation. And this is visible in the writing. As is visible that we are not the main audience of the book, his three kids are (lately I pick authors with three kids). He even admits that at the end of the book. The man has little time left and a lot of guidance to give. So what is this book? A self-help book? A career-advice book? A parenting one, drawing mostly from the example his parents set for him? All of that?

Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think

It is a time-management book. Because here is a guy that was on the path to success, that had a lot to give to his field and his family, who is suddenly told that long-term plans do not matter any more. This is what you’ve got at best, squeeze whatever you can inside. So through his book (and the lecture I suppose) he basically delivers a lesson in time management (which explains how he managed to do so many things until he was diagnosed terminally ill), planning, team building, mentoring and correcting one’s behaviour.

This is not a book that made me feel relaxed or even good about myself after reading it. Nor is a book that I agree 100% with what is written. More likely close to 60% of the advice. But am I happy I read it? Yes. Should you read it? Only if you can handle enumerating all your mistakes so far.

 

 

I do  not remember how I happened upon the book, but it is one of those books that you need to read if you are interested in the technology competition during the Cold War. It is also a far more interesting book than that because by following the lives of Joel Barr (and his alter ego Al Sarant) you learn a lot of stuff about OPSEC failures, how naive and ill equipped  was the FBI during WWII in its counterintelligence efforts,  the Communist Party USA at its prime, the Rosenberg Spy Ring and the technology transfer that resulted because of its operations.

You do learn of the life that two foreigners led during the Cold War “on the other side” and the passion for recognition of one of them “who was not Caltech material” according to R. Feynman which resulted in singlehandedly him kickstarting Soviet electronics. Sarant was definitely driven to prove him wrong, and when placed in an environment where he could operate, in a way he did: The UM-1, the Uzel and Zelenograd are his and created within an environment that did not favor his modus operandi.

You also learn a lot about management, how risk aversive management ultimately leads to failure and how choosing to copy instead of competing (and embracing failure) widens the gap and leaves you behind:

And then one of them, the highest one, a department head at the ministry, asked me, “Do the Americans do that?” When I said I didn’t know, he said, “Son, remember, if they don’t do something, it isn’t worth doing.”

There are also patterns of behaviour that we still find peculiar and contradicting today, but are explainable by those who commit them really easy:

the prospect of committing a crime to further a cause in which you deeply believe is a very exciting one. Here is a test not only of what you believe, but also of what you are.

Think about that the next time a suicide bomber explodes.  This is what rationalises everything in their head. And while you are at it, here is how contradictions between actions and ideology get rationalised too:

These little people in the party accept the discipline of the party, do what they are told, think what they are told; and if these things seem contrary to reason, patriotic duty or common sense, they do them because the party says that is the correct thing to do “at the time”.

There you have it. That explains the party herd. And the following explains the rest:

He was particularly impressed by their ability to tune out the intellectual garbage that was thrown at them from every form of communications media, even in the ubiquitous slogans that adorned rooftops and bulletin boards.

Orwell was a genius! As a rule I try not to buy books that cost more than $20 (thanks to tsundoku) but I am really glad that I broke the rule this time. I find the stories of Berg (Barr) and Staros (Sarant) valuable, both in their political mistakes and in their engineering perseverance.