Tuesday, December 28, 2010

[books] Containment

ContainmentContainment by Christian Cantrell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good pulp fiction - fast read, interesting idea, though not exactly the most original, and generally well written. There is a bit of a mystery element to it, so I won't go deep into the story, but suffice to say that the synopsis on the book misdirects: I was initially put off by it and left this book lie for a while on my kindle after I bought it. I would recommend ignoring it and just dive in. You'll know within the first quarter or so if this book is for you.

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[books] The Big Short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Extremely well written story of the financial crisis, from the insider's point of view. There is a bit of selection bias since all the "insiders" that Lewis interviews actually saw the crash coming and shorted the market. But don't let that detract from the book - its really well done and hard to put down. Lewis explains the various products and terms (CDOs, CDSs, tranches) quite well - most of which are different names for common sensical products anyway - and then goes on to explain how the mess was created, why it was very hard to value and where there was fraud versus bad judgement. He explains the greed factor - and the process of duping the rating agencies (S&P and Moody's).

The book reads like a fiction novel. Its fast, characters (all real people) are the kind you can relate to (like or hate). I loved this book and would strongly recommend it to anyone, regardless of your interest in finance.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

[books] Luka and the Fire of Life

Luka and the Fire of LifeLuka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not my favourite Rushdie book, but a pretty good one nonetheless. Think Rushdie crossed with Neil Gaiman and rather bright and written for children. Lots of mythological elements but explores dreams and families and has more fun stuff than usual Rushdie psychedelic strange stuff.

I cannot recommend an appropriate age for this book - certainly not too young since it could get a bit scary at times. All the usual Rushdie staples and extremely well written.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

[books] The Player of Games

The Player of GamesThe Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the best Ian M. Banks Culture novels I have read to date. Perhaps only Matter was possibly better.

Player of Games starts in the perfect Culture universe of parties and general good life - everything is provided for, there is no concept of money because its unnecessary and sentient robots are everywhere. It focuses on the protagonist, the best Culture player at any game ever designed. He has been studying and playing games all his life and is a natural recruit for Special Circumstances (Culture CIA equivalent) to go deal with a new civilization that centers completely around playing one game. This game decides who gets what post in their social and political hierarchies; all the way to the top: the game's ultimate winner is crowned emperor.

Interesting, fast paced, has many of the usual Culture elements of advanced civilizations meeting backward ones (but not willing to take them by force). Humorous sentient drones, interesting personality studies and a good story line make this book a very compelling read. Recommended if you like hard sci-fi, have enjoyed the works of Ian M. Banks, Vernor Vinge or Alastair Reynolds.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

[books] Pushing Ice

Pushing IcePushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pushing Ice is my first Alastair Reynolds book. I bought it because it was recommended by the editors at Powell's in Portland (the best bookstore in the western united states, but thats a different story). I'm a big fan of other hard sci-fi authors like Vernor Vinge and Ian M. Banks and this book seemed to have all the right elements of a space opera.

It did not disappoint: it is fast moving, well written, excellent story and it has it all - politics, science, personal drama, aliens. Everytime I thought the book fell into a "usual" mold, the story twisted and accelerated to some other realm. For example: the book starts out with a ship that harvests comets for ice. Saturn's moon Janus, decides to leave orbit and take off on its own - an alien artifact that was masquerading as a moon and nobody realized this. The Rockhopper (aforementioned comet harvesting ship) is ordered to take off after the artifact and figure out what it is. Feels sort of like Rendezvous With Rama doesn't it? Except that it isn't. Its much, much more awesome. Conspiracy in the ship, on earth, who knows where, some bad luck, some bad decisions and the story just keeps accelerating. Starts to feel like Tau Zero. But its not; nor is it fair to give much away beyond this, part of the fun is discovering what happens next.

Its a very fast paced book, really hard to put down. It focuses on a few characters that are developed extremely well - most of the book has a background theme of an ongoing dispute between 2 former best friends. Few things that aren't amazing: while the book is well written, the language itself is not going to win the author awards. This is not to say that its incorrect, just very matter-of-fact. The ending is a bit anti-climactic - but not bad.

Overall: an outstanding work of hard sci-fi. Highly recommended if you like Vernor Vinge and/or Ian M. Banks.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

[books] Dragonflight

  Dragonflight (Pern: Dragonriders of Pern, #1)Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved this book. I discovered this completely by accident while looking for fast reads in sci-fi off amazon. Since it was only 5 bucks, I took a chance and was very pleased at the result.

Dragonflight was first published in 1967. It is set on an earth-like planet that is part of a twin planet system. The basic idea is that when the second planet comes close to Pern, deadly Threads fall on Pern destroying any vegetation that they touch. Pern combats this using indigenous dragons that can teleport. Each dragon has a rider and the man-beast combination is used to destroy the Threads before they cause too much damage.

After reading the description, I will admit that I was not thrilled about the book. It seemed like a stretch; moreover, a story about a battle to save a planet from a recurring natural disaster? Sounds mildly depressing.

The book is anything but: it is very well written; McCaffrey's command over the language is commendable,  the story is extremely engaging, fast paced and mind bending. There is an interesting twist to the tale and I would recommend not reading up about the book on wikipedia a priori.

Strongly recommended if you're in the mood for some quick sci-fi.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

[books] Starbucked

Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture by Taylor Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fast, funny, reasonably balanced read into the workings of the coffee trade and Starbucs. Fascinating parts include the history of coffee consumption in the US - or large, milky, beverage consumption really. Insights into how Starbucks makes money, where the dollars in your $4 latte go, what Fair Trade coffee means and why it exists and finally, the cultural imperialism that Starbucks leads to. Clark tries to be neutral, but achieves that by stepping too far in one direction (anti- or pro- S'bucks) and then overcorrecting, giving the book a distinct "make up your mind" feel.

Not a book to buy, but a good pickup from the library and a fun read.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

$4 latte breakdown

Sad how little of my coffee consumption goes back to the farmer. Breakdown of a $4 latte: http://bit.ly/cpkpJr

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

[books] Rework

Rework Rework by Jason Fried

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have great respect for 37signals: they seem to manage to build fantastic, usable product after product like clockwork. Moreover, I strongly agree with their focus on product design and how they generally run things.

Fried and DHH try to distill their philosophy down and put it into a form that is completely readable over a glass of wine and a sandwich. (2 hours, so maybe 2 glasses of wine?)

Key ideas that I love and completely agree with:
* Companies / products are trying to outdo each other in adding features, as if that was the only factor that sold things. Try to underdo the competition - have fewer features than your competition - but really nail the experience. Help people get stuff done.
* Workoholics are bad: they work so hard because they haven't figured out how to get stuff done quickly. Obsessing over minutae is not cool. Working all nights is not cool. Workoholics burn out (eventually). On a personal note: been there, seen that, this is so true, its not even funny.
* Don't plan: any more than you absolutely have to. ie plan for the next day/week but thats about it. Because planning is a joke - all you are doing is making a guess about what you / your team will have done by a certain time. The further out it is, the more variance you introduce and the worse your guess gets. So quit trying. Focus on the next important thing, keep yourself nimble and adjust.
* Be the *not* somebody. As in: UnderArmor is *not* Nike: they are not trying to be Nike. Virgin America is *not* like United and American (I made this one up). By focusing on who you hate and are trying really hard to *not* be, you clearly define who you are.
* Distributed teams work just fine. Make sure you have some time overlap, make sure you all meet up in real life every once in a while (1-2 times / quarter). +1 from personal experience.

This list goes on, this is stuff that I remember (ok I cheated and looked at the back cover and remembered some of the stories).

I think this book is great. It's such a fast read, it's a cheap book, you can get it on various i-devices, read it on your commute or while sitting in boring meetings - just make sure you read it.

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Monday, February 15, 2010


Full disclosure: I work for Google. I do not work on the AppEngine product in any capacity.

I wrote a webapp! It is designed to solve one problem: help you keep track of your weight. I had iphones and nexuses in mind, so it should work well on those.

Please check it out: http://poundometer.appspot.com/

Nerd Fanboy Talk:
I love AppEngine. I don't know of other technology that lets you go from something in your head to a production deployed app in a few minutes; where you don't have to worry about creating tables, dealing with databases, all that nasty stuff. And running your own servers too.

OK, I lied. I am aware it is possible to do these things running my own python/django instance or having someone host it or doing something similar with ruby/rails and a myriad of hosting services. Regardless, I stand by my adulation of AppEngine. The ability to write something and deploy it in minutes/hours is simply awesome.

Forgot the best bit: Throwing in an easter egg that triggers if user=.
Result (via twitter):
"oh and the bf made me a valentines day app (sort of)! Doesn't get any sweeter than that. ;)"

Nerd Stats:

find . | xargs wc -l
total: 236

python, appengine, Google Chart APIs.

Seashore to do simple image and favicon.

~3 hours, including an inordinately long time dealing with css and figuring out that stupid meta viewport tag to make it look right on a handheld.

Friday, February 12, 2010

[book] Matter

Matter Matter by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My third Ian M. Banks book and perhaps the best so far (Feersum Endjinn and Consider Phlebas being the other two). Matter does not have the distinct writing style of Feersum Endjinn, but is bigger and more interesting in scope. It is a Culture novel and the latest one in the series. Culture novels are distinguished by the fact that they are set in the post-materialistic, intergalactic society/empire called the Culture, but each book is a complete story and environment by itself, so one needn't go in order.

On genre:
Banks writes epic space dramas where the sci-fi and space elements just add that much more spice and deft story turns, but just like the other two books I've read, the space and sci-fi parts of the book are almost incidental. At the end of the day, it is really a political drama set on the edge of a culture clash between highly advanced and underdeveloped societies. The fact that it is set in space, allows Banks to use everything from extremely intelligent AIs to nanotech to really drive home the deification of a super advanced society from the perspective of the backwards. There is this constant, dark overhanging thought of how little the lives of billions of people matter when two highly advanced societies clash. This was present in Consider Phlebas as entire planets and star systems got destroyed in the Culture-Idiran war and is present in Matter as well.

On environment:
I enjoy reading about the environments he creates - Matter is set on a shellworld and it is difficult to explain what exactly that means and why it is interesting without revealing too much. Not only does he create one fantastic world, he throws in 5 distinct species competing for this world (in a way) and their own worlds and backgrounds and such. The Morthanveld water world, the Nariscene war-rock, Culture ships, the Oct and Aultridia and of course, the Sarl that form the center of the novel - each species with its own language, planet/star/cluster etc.

The only complaint about this book, really, is that like the others, it is slow to ramp up, sometimes drags along, and then speeds up and barrels like a speeding meteor to an end that is almost entirely unpredictable (until you get into the final few chapters). It also leaves a bit of a "whaaa???" feeling when its done. I had to go back and read the last chapter again - it made things better, but a bit more closure would have been better. Perhaps.


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Saturday, January 23, 2010

[books] Feersum Endjinn

Feersum Endjinn Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Feersum Endjinn is a work of science fiction set in a time long after the enlightened humans have left the planet and the people living on earth have some technology, not all of which they understand. There is also the kript, or crypt or cryptosphere: an internet of sorts where AIs are free to roam. Moreover, when "real" people die, they can download into the crypt and continue "living" as a sentient being there. People can crypt in at any time and in some cases, crypt forms can take take control of corporeal entities.

This jumble provides for a great story set in the time when the sun's orbit is going to lead the planet into a space cloud, thereby dimming the sun and bringing on a long ice age (the whole thing is referred to as the Encroachment). The first generation of humans anticipated this and left a device to help the rest survive this - this is the titular Feersum Endjinn. The problem is that the current humans have no idea how to activate this and, as if that wasn't enough, have embroiled themselves in internal petty conflict.

Thats a lot to say without giving away the rest of the plot - one last interesting element: the book is written as 4 different alternating narratives. One of these, a character named Bascule, speaks only in phonetics. Thus, there is a good fourth of the book that reads like this:
Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.

Its interesting, albeit on a different plane, how quickly the human brain adopts to this form of written english. Pretty quickly you will find yourself reading phonetics just as well as you do regular English. Fascinating.

All in all, a good book, recommended if you are into science fiction and want something a bit different.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

How much money should you donate to Haiti relief efforts

As much as possible.

This form of ambiguity makes my engineer brain implode. It can't deal with things like "as much as" (possible is a known quantity). So we need to come up with a reasonable model, plug in some numbers and see what it looks like. Here's a proposal:

Match every non-essential dollar you have spent for a week (its been close to a week after the earthquake) with a dollar for relief.

What does non-essential mean?
It depends (hah, ambiguity is back!) but we can take a stab at the definition. For a person reasonably well off (steady job, income that you actually save or invest), it should be everything except food and housing.
Average food cost is $18/day according to Dept. of Labor statistics - so lets double it and say $30/day. For a week, thats $210. Please note: if you are a Googler or a Facebooker or any of the Valley companies that covers your meals, you can't take this deduction.
Housing is 1/4th your monthly rent/mortgage and similarly utilities are 1/4th of your monthlys. Apply corrections as appropriate if you are supporting a family.

Weekly spending estimate:
Favourite form of spending (credit card / cash / atm card) over a month divided by 4. Round up to nearest 50.

Subtract essentials from spending and you are good to go. Mental math if you keep a close track of your expenses, two minutes checking your banking/credit card online if you don't.

In case you need any more motivation:
The Big Picture: Earthquake, 48 hours later and 6 days later

How to donate: Any way you can.
I personally find it easiest to use Google Checkout or Amazon Payments, but thats because I have an established account and its just easy to click away. I work at Google (full disclosure), so if you are uncomfortable about that connection, please use Amazon.
Amazon Payments (if someone knows the simple URL for this let me know - I cannot unscramble amazon's URL here). You can also just go to Amazon and find the prominent link on their main page.

EDIT: Most companies I know of have donation matching programs; please make sure to look into these to potentially double your gift.

UPDATE: I was reminded of http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/ in case people are trying to find people in Haiti.