Archive for December, 2012

The Year in Books

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Books I’ve read this year:

  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Daniel H Pink)
    I started the year by finishing this book. I was rather late to the party in reading it; it’s practically received wisdom now, especially for managers of knowledge workers. And of course there is a nice RSA Animate video which has been popular also.
  • Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)
    This was a quick read although I had had a false start or two. It was enjoyable.
  • Digital Typography (Donald E Knuth)
    This book was amazing. I read it on various car trips over a period of about two years in all. It’s really a collection of essays about how Knuth wrote TeX and Metafont, and as such contains some astonishing scholarship. I have now finished one more Knuth book than most programmers!
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)
    I love Bill Bryson’s humour and I find this kind of “popular history” fascinating. A really good read.
  • The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson)
    This one took me a while to finish: I read about half of it and then put it down for a few months, before coming back to finish it. It’s a fictionalised account of a true history: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, following two threads: the story of the planning and architecture of the fair, and the story of the world’s first serial killer who found many victims there.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Joshua Foer)
    A fairly quick read about how a journalist found his way into the world of competitive memory feats.
  • 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (Isaac Asimov, Groff Conklin)
    I like Science Fiction of course, and in particular short stories, so this was something I read as a “rest book” in between more demanding reads.
  • Sift (Lawrence Sail)
    The author is a friend and former teacher of mine; while visiting the UK last year he invited me for lunch and signed a copy of his latest book for me. Knowing him as I do made this book all the more interesting to read. A biographical selection of his childhood experiences.
  • Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely)
    This book was recommended to me by more than one colleague, so I got around to reading it. There is currently a huge market in these types of business-psychology books. This was one of the worthwhile ones.
  • The Curiosity Cycle: Preparing Your Child for the Ongoing Technological Explosion (Jonathan Mugan)
    A quick read that my wife foisted on me under the guise of being an education-technology crossover.
  • Teach What You Know (Steve Trautman)
    This was recommended by a colleague. I originally ordered it from Amazon, then returned it because the print quality was very poor. I got it from the company library instead. Anyway, it turned out to be about 4 times as long as it needed to be. The useful information was there but swamped by endless examples and repetition.
  • API Design For C++ (Martin Reddy)
    At first, I didn’t think much of this book. But it grew on me, I think because tthe initial chapters were fairly uninspiring, and the later chapters were more useful. Now I would recommend it.
  • Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder (Rudy Rucker)
    A quick read as an aside. Mathematical Fiction (a small subset of Science Fiction) is something I always enjoy.
  • A Game of Thrones (George R R Martin)
    Everyone was raving about the TV series, and I don’t get HBO or have any time to watch TV, so I decided to read the book. I actually got 4 books from the series for Xmas; this was just the first one. After reading one, I decided not to continue with the others just yet.
  • Hands (John Napier)
    This book is great. Fairly short, but packed full of insights social, evolutionary and medical about the human hand. You never knew that your hands could be so fascinating.
  • Test Driven Development: By Example (Kent Beck)
    I read this because I wanted to know more about TDD. This book was OK, and certainly contained useful nuggets of information, but you can’t really learn about TDD by reading.
  • For the Love of Physics (Walter Lewin)
    This is a very good book. Unfortunately, I have read many books of its ilk, so for me it wasn’t a great book. But still, a fairly quick read, and enjoyable enough for a filler.
  • Dark Integers and Other Stories (Greg Egan)
    More Mathematical Fiction, another filler book that I read along the way this year.
  • Periodic Tales (Hugh Aldersey-Williams)
    I have a thing lately for the elements, so I lapped this up. Really enjoyed it, and I haven’t yet had enough of reading about the (history of the) elements, so next I read:
  • Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Oliver Sacks)
    A more human take on the denizens of the periodic table. I’ve read several of Oliver Sacks’ books and liked them all. This was no exception.
  • Snuff (Terry Pratchett)
    Well, I’ve read every Discworld novel so far, so it seems like I have to keep on reading them. And I did enjoy this one, more than Unseen Academicals actually.
  • Lauren Ipsum (Carlos Bueno)
    This book is great. As soon as my kids are old enough I’ll be recommending it to them. I read it through in about 2 hours. Imagine if Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were written by Douglas Hofstadter.
  • Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
    It seemed like several friends were reading this, so I did. I couldn’t put it down and finished it in a weekend. This is one for the SF canon.
  • Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)
    This is one of my favourite books ever, better than anything Terry Pratchett did alone IMHO. I find myself rereading it about once a year as a light filler between more weighty tomes. Still as enjoyable as ever and has a really good screenplay going on in my head.
  • Dealers in Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age (Michael A. Hiltzik)
    This was a good book, a fascinating read about Xerox Parc. Most things in computers were invented in the 60s and 70s.
  • The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (Judith Flanders)
    So now I’m at the end of the year, and I picked this book up on my Kindle after seeing it recommended in CAM (which I find a pretty good source for book recommendations). It’s a really good read and I am currently recommending it to everyone. It is really long though, or at least it seems that way on my Kindle.

How 6-year-olds think about evolution…

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Had an interesting conversation with Henry tonight. Can’t quite remember how we started – he was asking something to do with the Ice Age, or the Stone Age. Then he asked, “How did the first person get here?” Now, he’s seen plenty of nature shows; he’s heard of evolution; so I decided to ask him some questions to make him think, viz:

“How did the first cat/dog/cow/etc get here?” (Hmmm… not sure.)
“Is a zebra a horse?” (Yes. A white horse with black stripes.)
“Is a donkey a horse?” (No.)
“But donkeys are quite like horses, aren’t they? Slightly different.” (Hmmm… maybe they are related. Like cousins?)
“Do you still think a zebra is a horse?” (Hmmm… maybe they are cousins too.)
“What’s an example of a small dog?” (A chihuahua.)
“What’s an example of a large dog?” (A golden retriever.)
“How do you know they are both dogs? They are very different.” (They just are dogs.)
“But they look really different, don’t they? More different than a zebra and a horse.” (Hmmm.)
“Is a lion related to a horse?” (No. Hmmm… well, they both run fast. And they both have fur. Maybe they are distant cousins.) [Interesting that he chose “running fast” to be a familial trait.]
“Is a person related to a horse?” (No. Yes? Yes. Oh! People evolved from apes, I saw it in a nature show.)
“Do you know what extinct means?” (Yes. It means something that isn’t alive any more. There aren’t any left.)
“What is an example of an extinct animal?” (A dinosaur. But dinosaurs aren’t really extinct because they evolved into birds!)

At this point the conversation degenerated into a game of dinosaurs evolving into birds and flying around the couch with a blanket streaming behind…