Posts Tagged ‘books’

The latest trend seems to be reading what the rich and powerful read. I regularly peruse these lists of recommendations and occasionally an interesting title catches my eye. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is one of those books.

For a while now this book has been in my ‘highly parallel reading queue.’ This is to say that my usual method of reading consists of a bookshelf of a hundred or so books that I’m somewhere in the midst of reading. From this bookshelf, a subset of about 20 find their way to a smaller bookshelf. These will be read randomly a chapter or so at a time until I’ve worked my way through them and have to reload from the primary bookshelf. Occasionally, as with my last reviewed book, I’ll do a cover-to-cover in a burst, but that is the exception. I’ve got some books that I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years (75% footnote material).

Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished a book there has been a fair amount of reflection and integration that’s taken place. The material in The Sixth Extinction is fairly heavy stuff. It’s not that the science is particularly difficult or that the writing requires you to keep a tablet handy for side exploration (I love side exploration). The thing is that if you have a decent understanding of the history of the planet (so far as we have come to understand it) and appreciate the impact that man can and does have on the biosphere, then by the time you finish the book, you’ll come away with a sense of profound sadness.

I’m a fan of John Brunner‘s work. He had a way of making the large scale personal. He also had a habit of killing off all his main characters within the first ten pages of his books (yes, this is a bit of hyperbole). In many of his works there is a sense that things aren’t going to work out, but you keep pulling for the hero anyway.

The Sixth Extinction is a methodical tour of the effects of the age of man (Anthropocene epoch). It takes us around the world, unblinkingly moving from one die-off in progress to the next. It puts a face and a context to each creature we’re introduced to. If the books thirteen chapters were made into a season of television, it would be the most stunningly depressing series ever. Whereas Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos appealed to our better nature and James Burke‘s Connections left us asking if we were any more than cogs, The Sixth Extinction ends with rats inheriting the Earth.

This may all sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s one of those mirror books that is a distinct departure from all the wishing that we lived back in 1950’s America or how can we become millionaires by eating the same breakfast as Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. We need to read books that show us the big picture. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

Many books on bad situations leave us with a call to action. Realistically though, the damage has been done. The question is one of how long it will take for all the dominoes to fall. For the vast majority of people, asking them to look further than their tribe is near unto impossible. Asking people to consider the planet, therefore, represents an intractable problem.

Read the book, if for no other reason than to come away with a greater appreciation of the impact of man on the planet.

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There’s been a lot of churn lately over the price of Bitcoin. There’s also been much talk about uses (commercial and otherwise) for the blockchain technology that underlies it. I’ve taken an interest, as of late, in the subject and I found a promising source of information in the Michael J Casey, Paul Vigna book The Truth Machine.

If you’re looking for a book on how to write blockchain software. This book isn’t going to be of much interest to you. If you have interest in the history of the technology, its applications and societal impacts, you will find it to be a solid read.

Bitcoin and  Ethereum, and the like are discussed with enough depth to provide non-developers a good sense of use cases. This is after all the point of a technology. Otherwise you’ve got yourself shelfware. All the major players are discussed running the gamut from crypto-anarchists to Wall Street bankers. I find the dynamic of these two extremes battling over this technology fascinating.

One definitely comes away with the sense that the technology is still very much a work in progress. Personally, I find it unfortunate that the public sees it as another get-rich-quick methodology. This loops back to the volatility of the Coin markets.

Another, and arguably more important, takeaway is that the systems currently in place do not scale (or at least have yet to be proven to scale). That Bitcoin can process six transactions per second in a world where Visa processed ten thousand is quite telling.

The underlying problem of who’s in charge comes to mind. Without some form of human governance, poor programming will result in bad actors taking advantage of the system. Nowhere does the book address the issue of longevity. The thing about paper (or animal hide for that matter) is that it has a permanence that has proven itself outside of our advances in storage technology. If we did move to a blockchain-based system of ownership tracking, what happens when another, better one comes along? What will the impact of quantum computing be in a world where work is proportional to CPU expended? What happens when people decide that it’s easier to steal the resources used to mine the coin?

I only have a few issues with the book.

First, for a book on a complex technological subject, I expect extra fact checking. I noticed two rookie mistakes in this department. ASIC is defined as ‘Application-Specific Integrated Chips’ whereas it should be ‘Application-Specific Integrated Circuit.’ It also doesn’t require quotes. In the realm of techno-history, the authors attributed Public-Key Cryptography to Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. This is of course incorrect. That distinction belongs to James H Ellis (at least until the NSA owns up to when they started using it). Although his work was once classified, it have been publicly recognized for some time now.

Second, the book wanders off the path of techno-history and into the realm of  conspiracy theory and political opinion when they introduce ‘speculation’ of hacking in the MH370 incident and spend the bulk of the last chapter on the latter.

On the whole, I found the book to be a very good and current survey of the landscape of blockchain technology and its history.


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I just finished reading Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. As with his previous biographies, this one is just as well-researched and presented.

Leonardo is one of those one name people. Long before Prince, Madonna or Usher (funny how they’re all designations of some sort) the name da Vinci was attributed to only one individual. All this fuss over a distracted, self willed, person who started far more things than he finished.

Yes, he was a prima donna. Yes, he tended to tinker over a thing far after the commissioner expected it to be complete. Yes, he was distracted by, well, just about anything. But, what a mind.

Best of all, he just didn’t seem to give a damn. About expectations, glory or money. Which is not to say that he didn’t care about comfort. He liked pretty things (and pretty people). But one gets the distinct impression that what he really wanted was to have a patron (patron sounds so much nicer than sugar daddy) who would appreciate the quality and not quantity of his work. He wanted the freedom to explore the universe (such as it was in the late 15th and early 16th century).

He loved pageantry. He loved to learn, to teach and to collaborate. He was a self-promoter who appears to have been not really up to the task.

He was always stretching, always reaching beyond his understanding. He was always reinventing himself.

People would commission him based on his past works. Many times this lead nowhere for them. With da Vinci, they should have been thinking about what he might do rather than what he had done. How poorly would he fare in today’s world where people are hired to essentially give repeat performances. This being especially true in the technology sector. Kind of like wanting to visit an exotic land where you stay at Holiday Inn, eat at McDonalds and everyone speaks English. Or in perhaps more relevant terms, you invest in a startup that’s going to change the world with a guaranteed return and no risk.

Leonardo was the definition of the deep bench. It wasn’t until the end of his life that he found in the king of France a person who got that you don’t “hire” a Leonardo for what he does, but rather for who he is and how he changes those around him. I find it quite disappointing they expectation that people have of being assured an immediate return at a cut rate. This is the measure of mediocrity in both the individual and business worlds. People want to be given a fish and have no patience to learn how to fish themselves. How much better would the world be if we sought out and nurtured those capable of creating a multiplier effect?

He was also very human. He could be unreliable and ill tempered. His relationship with his relatives was the stuff of reality television.

Isaacson does an excellent job of putting meat on the bones of this icon of creativity.

I’ve read quite a few treatments of da Vinci’s life s one is by far the best. So many seem to be intended to ride the tide of get-genius-quick that is so pervasive today. Nothing like everyone being above average. He didn’t become the man come icon overnight. He became who we know over a lifetime, with the attendant work. As Isaacson noted, he is seen as a genius rather than a craftsman because, but certainly not solely, of his habit of not releasing his work until it was perfected. Granted for most people this would be attributed more to OCD than genius (and with good reason).

Isaacson’s narrative style is engaging and I hope that someone takes the time to translate it to a long-form, visual format.

Overall, I came away with the sense that da Vinci was a real person who inhabited a real world. I can’t say I’d’ve liked to have lived there, but it’d’ve been fun to visit.

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The early years of computing were a like a Renaissance dance, lots of people who somehow manage to get to dance with each other at least once. A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age gives us yet another place to stand and watch that dance.

Claude Shannon is one of those people who fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. The problem with fundamental change is that we tend to be on one side or the other of it. Today we speak of information theory as though it’s as obvious a concept as making paper. Kind of the same way we obsess over software developers being able to write code to sort numbers or reverse linked lists. At some point, the fundamental reality of the existence of high-quality libraries and data structures will make these queries as relevant as requiring people to explain a tape sort. But I digress.

He was a researcher, tinkerer, teacher, juggler, and for all appearances didn’t seem attached to labels. He had Vannevar Bush looking out for him. As an MIT professor, he had Danny Hillis and Ivan Sutherland, among others, as doctoral students. He worked with Alan Turing during World War II. And the box-switch-thing that turns itself off. That was him.

Reading the book, you get a sense of possibilities explored. So often people either dismiss or defer possibilities. He literally had a basement full of them. If only he’d know Ron Popeil, every home might have a few of them.

I don’t know how well he would fare in the world today. In his time, Bell Labs basically paid to have him around. He had cachet. He also helped focus people’s ideas. He brought this sensibility to MIT with him as a professor. We get so terribly wrapped up in being hyper-specialized, in know the what but not the why. To often we come across the proverbial Gordian knot and turn away. People are either unwilling to try, or believing themselves to be special, simply act as though the problem does not exist. (Treating people poorly and flaunting violations of the law fall into this category.) Few people are willing to question the fundamentals. What do you need? What do you have?

The interesting people are those who solve problems and help other people solve problems, not by merely telling them what the answer is, but by enabling them to see that solutions can come from places that aren’t necessarily rooted in the past ways of doing things.

In our day and age, when we focus on special skills and special languages and special hardware, it would behoove us to remember that there is no best skill or language or hardware. There is only the universe of problems. It is far more valuable to be able to help others see the shape of the solution than to be an individual capable of providing a answer to a well-defined question whose value will in time expire.

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I just finished reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Perception is a fickle thing. When IBM created a text editor for their mainframe terminals, they ran into a weird problem. They we too fast. Changes were applied to the screen faster than people would perceive them. In order to nudge the brains of their users, they made the screen flash when a change occurred.

Working in an industry where people want high returns on low risk, I find myself at a loss to explain my sense of what is the right or wrong path. On more than one occasion. I have spend days preparing presentations to give decision makers warm fuzzies in dealing with issues which seem perfectly obvious to me. It takes days because there is a long way between perfectly obvious and the breadcrumb laden trail that people seem to need.

Unfortunately, you can’t Google yourself into a state of experience. So the question becomes, you do want to understand or just cover you ass? A paper trail does this quite nicely. At some point, you must make the decision.

If you want to glimpse the process, read the book.


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I’ve just finished reading Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky. It tells the story of the US National Security Agency (NSA) up through the end of the Cold War.

Given the number of dry histories of the people and agencies who deal with cryptography and spying, this book is reasonably readable. If you’re looking for a less arch, and more human view on how things got to where they are; you’ll like this book.

The takeaway from the book is that the biggest hindrance in the world of security is people. People who are control freaks or don’t believe that rules apply to them, or believe that the “other side” is stupid, or are just too damn lazy to do the simple things that would avoid issues are the problem. You can’t design your way around them. If you try, you’ll only make things worse.

You can’t pretend you have the moral high ground when you’re collecting enough information to make the US National Archives, the Library of Congress, Google and Facebook look redundant. I’m not picking sides, I’m just saying that if you’ve got a hammer and you use the hammer, own up to the fact and don’t go around telling everybody and their brother that they shouldn’t use hammers and that in fact that hammers either don’t exist or are illegal (or would be if they did actually exist, which they don’t).

Along the way, you’ll be introduced to a cast of well-intentioned, clueless, brilliant and ruthless individuals. There are miscommunications, denial of responsibilities, bruised egos, moments of insight and face palm moments.

Please keep in mind Hanlon’s razor.


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The Chrysanthemum and The Sword is an exploration of what makes the Japanese tick. At least from the standpoint of a early 20th century scholar. Ruth Benedict was one of that era’s foremost anthropologist.

I could go into the interesting discussion of how the American and Japanese cultures are compared and contrasted. Or how she describes the Japanese approach to Buddhism as being free of non-corporeal entanglements. I’ll leave those to the earnest reader.

What made the greatest impression on me was the lengthy and detailed exploration of on (恩) and giri (義理). These can broadly thought of as debt and obligation. In the west, we have a fixation on equivalent exchange. We like to pretend that there is nothing which cannot be fully bought and paid for. The Japanese fully recognize that this is not the case and have build a society around the concepts of overlapping obligations.

One that I have always found difficult to explain is that of shogimu (諸義務) or obligation to one’s teacher/mentor. This is always an asymmetrical relationship. The apprentice has nothing to offer in exchange in comparison to what they are given. In the west, we, as they say, “just take the money and run.” This is especially true in regard to the attitude of Googling for the answers. People have come to believe that they can monetize the collected knowledge of the world without cost to themselves. The problem comes not to this first generation, but to the second and finally fully realized in the third generation of internet users. The problem is that of who supplies the knowledge.

One of the big complaints of the pre-internet era was how big companies hoarded knowledge, making it available only at a premium. Should it not be free to all? Between the small band of developers (relatively speaking) who contributed to open source, the internet and google, we find ourselves in a place where you don’t need a master to monetize. And so rather than having to pay for software as a function of complexity and craftsmanship, we tolerate mediocre software because it’s free (with ads or in exchange for our personal information).

Meanwhile that high quality software we wouldn’t pay for when it was $400 with a year of updates, we will pay for when it’s a $120 annual subscription to a cloud service. Except that now if we stop paying, we lose access.

But back to the thorny question. Do we really believe that the Google-for-code and I-built-it-all-from-other-people’s-stuff crowd are going to give back to the community? What will happen when those who made all these goodies possible and available retire? If we take the C++ community as an example, there are hundreds supporting millions. This doesn’t scale.

Answers? Nope.

Thoughts? Some.

Personally, I’ve got a bucket full of on, so I should get back to it.

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