2020
The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now
Thich Nhat Hanh

A beautiful book about living in mindfulness. If you're interested in learning about the practice of mindulness and compassion, I would highly recommend this book.

I see that I am like a wave on the surface of the ocean. I see myself in all the other waves, and I see all the other waves in me. The manifestation or the disappearance of the waves does not lessen the presence of the ocean."

Wilderness Essays
John Muir

One of my favorite collections of nature writing. I listened to this collection of essays on audio book recently on several walks at Lake Kegonsa and Governor Nelson state parks.

These essays are an engaging patchwork of observations about the beauty of the vast landscapes of the American West, encounters with other people, animals, and plants in the wilderness, and praise of the cleansing and invigorating power of being alone and immersed in the wild.

Muir weaves a certain sense of awe through his writing from his "being-in" nature, sometimes expressing seemingly numinous experiences. However, rather than reflecting deeply inward or attempting to navigate the meaning of such events, he remains grounded; he points to the source. There is an interesting contrast between Muir and Emerson here that I would like to explore sometime.

I smile each time Muir implores his imagined reader to leave town and seek such outings.

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature's sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups in endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing. The petty discomforts that beset the awkward guest, the unskilled camper, are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.
(John Muir, "The Yellowstone National Park")

One of my favorite essays from the collection is "A Near View of the High Sierra"

Now came the solemn, silent evening. Long, blue, spiky shadows crept out across the snow-fields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed and waiting like devout worshipers. Just before the alpenglow began to fade, two crimson clouds came streaming across
the summit like wings of flame, rendering the sublime scene yet more impressive; then came darkness and the stars.


How still the woods seem from here, yet how lively a stir the hidden animals are making; digging, gnawing, biting, eyes shining, at work and play, getting food, rearing young, roving through the underbrush, climbing the rocks, wading solitary marshes, tracing the banks of the lakes and streams! Insect swarms are dancing in the sunbeams, burrowing in the ground, diving, swimming,--a cloud of witnesses telling Nature's joy. The plants are as busy as the animals, every cell in a swirl of enjoyment, humming like a hive, singing the old new song of creation. (John Muir, "The Yellowstone National Park")


Now comes the gloaming. The alpenglow is fading into earthy, murky gloom, but do not let your town habits draw you away to the hotel. Stay on this good fire-mountain and spend the night among the stars. Watch their glorious bloom until the dawn, and get one more baptism of light. Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate, under whatever ignorance or knowledge you may afterward chance to suffer, you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland. (John Muir, "The Yellowstone National Park")


It may be asked, What have mountains fifty or a hundred miles away to do with Twenty Hill Hollow? To lovers of the wild, these mountains are not a hundred miles away. Their spiritual power and the goodness of the sky make them near, as a circle of friends. They rise as a portion of the hilled walls of the Hollow. You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature. (John Muir, "Twenty Hill Hollow")

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Julian Jaynes
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
C. G. Jung
Fathers and Sons
Ivan Turgenev

Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Basarov (who embodies the first popular appearance of nihilism in literature) have a memorable relationship in this novel. Turgenev has a compelling style that you can really slip into quickly. I listened to this on audiobook on morning walks throughout the summer, usually spending some time with a few chapters before starting work. One thought that comes to mind at the moment is that I wish I'd read this in my early twenties, just to know how re-reading it now might have felt. Perhaps I'll return to it again in 10 years. I found Bazarov to be fairly insufferable, but empathized with each of the characters - Arkady for his initial idolization of his friend, whose ideas seemed so compelling to him at university, his own personal growth in balancing this discovery with a practical appreciation for tradition, music, and the arts; Bazarov for his cold materialism that is undermined by his own falling in love with Anna Sergeyevna; Nikolay and Pavel Kirsanov for their earnest confusion at the picture of a new generation that leaves them feeling isolated from modern ideas; Anna Sergeyevna for her independence and isolation. Every character seems naive but caught in a search for understanding and being understood, often finding themselves out of time in one way or another.

"Whereas I think: I’m lying here in a haystack... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitesimal in comparison with the rest of space, which I don’t occupy and which has no relation to me. And the period of time in which I’m fated to live is so insignificant beside the eternity in which I haven’t existed and won’t exist... And yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood is circulating, a brain is working, desiring something... What chaos! What a farce!"

"A man's capable of understanding anything - how the ether vibrates, and what's going on in the sun - but how any other man can blow his nose differently from him, that he's incapable of understanding."

Classics of Russian Literature (The Great Courses)
Irwin Weil
To Build a Fire
Jack London
Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers
Andy Greenberg
Maya To Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed (The Great Courses audio recordings)
Edwin Barnhart

After listening intently to Edwin Barnhart's lecture series on the Ancient Civilizations of North America, I picked up this series, which covers a range of topics on ancient Mesoamerica, focusing primarily on the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan civiliations. It was particularly interesting to learn about the Dresden Codex, one of the four remaining Mayan books, which includes, among many interesting astronomical ideas, the Venus pages, which enumerates dates grouped by the 584-day synodic period of Venus.

The Dharma Bums
Jack Kerouac
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
David Sedaris
Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke

I don't usually get into science fiction, but I read this book on a recommendation around the holidays, and I thought it was pretty fun. I love the concept of the enormous cylindrical craft serving as an artificial planet imagined in the book.

Ancient Civilizations of North America (The Great Courses audio recordings)
Edwin Barnhart

I listened to this over the course of several weeks in January and February and was completely fascinated by the lectures. I picked it up while browsing Audible and realizing I had no conception of the history or cultures of ancient North America. While I was familiar with Cahokia, I was intrigued to learn about Poverty Point, North America's first known city, and Poverty Point culture. It was also particularly interesting to learn about the Clovis and Folsom cultures and the ancient fauna of North America. The lectures were accompanied by a 200+ page PDF with maps and photographs of many historic sites and artifacts.

2019
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
George Dyson
Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella H. Meadows

Donella H. Meadows was a sustainability advocate, environmental scientist, and writer. This book provides a concise introduction to the nature of systems. She paints a clear picture of theoretical concepts and their applications in the world, using examples drawn from everyday experience and history. Her approach is opinionated and humble, and I thought it was a wonderful book. In Chapter 7 of the text, she quotes Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

We can, and some of us do, celebrate and encourage self-organization, disorder, variety, and diversity. Some of us even make a moral code of doing so, as Aldo Leopold did with his land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends o' to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.",

Several ideas mentioned in the book that I often find myself contemplating. One key idea is the notion that the boundaries of a system exist only as they pertain to a particular context; the universe is a continuum.

Another is the idea that everything we might claim to know about the state of the world is a model - though our understanding might be somewhat congruent with reality, it is at most a crude approximation.

System structure is the source of system behavior. System behavior reveals itself as a series of events over time.

The bounded rationality of each actor in a system may not lead to decisions that further the welfare of the system as a whole.

Everything we know about the world is a model

The Lean Startup
Eric Ries
The Leader's Guide
Eric Ries
The Laws of Human Nature
Robert Greene
The Human Swarm
Mark W. Moffett
The Fellowship of the Ring
J.R.R. Tolkien

The 1990 audio recording narrated by Rob Inglis is excellent. Inglis's rendition of the songs and poems in the book and voices of the characters brought the recording to life. I enjoyed listening to Tolkien's foreword about the origin of the Lord of the Rings. In the foreword, he mentions his disdain for allegory:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. ... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.'

TCP / IP Illustrated, Volume 1: The Protocols
Kevin R. Fall, W. Richard Stevens
Rework
Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson

I enjoy listening to both Jason Fried and DHH talk about business and software development. I appreciate their common-sense, pragmatic approach to running a business. Several key points that stuck with me from this book include the idea to "emulate chefs" by teaching what you know to build a trusting audience, and to always try to "do a job" before hiring for the same position, so that you have some basis of understanding the particular challenges involved. I also appreciate their emphasis on limiting the number of things you try to achieve in order to do them well. This book seemed fairly congruent with Ari Weinzweg's The Power of Belief in Business - a book I enjoyed from his "Lapsed Anarchist's Guide" series, which has a similar unpretentious (yet strongly opinionated) vibe.

If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.

Man's Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl

This is an autobiographical account of Frankl's experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. It is a brief, powerful account of the unimaginable suffering of life in WWII concentration camps and what it revealed to the author about human nature. Frankl seeks to understand human experience through the lens of his concept of "Logotherapy," which is based on the premise that the ultimate motivation of any individual is to find a meaning in life. He asserts that life has meaning even in the most unimaginable states of suffering, and that man has the freedom to find it in his actions, life experiences, and his own dispositions, even when the state of the world is not within his control. This book caused me to reflect on writings of the Stoic tradition - particularly Epictetus (the Enchridion).',

The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations
Gene Kim, Patrick DuBois, John Willis, Jez Humble
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
Tom Nichols
Computer Networks, Fifth Edition
Andrew S. Tanenbaum, David J. Wetherall
Collected Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Becoming
Michelle Obama
Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C
Bruce Schneier

I'm currently reading this book based on a recommendation. I really enjoy Schneier's writing style; he covers complex material in the most easy-to-follow manner. He explains each of the protocols detailed in the book at as numbered-list sets of actions between actors, and writes just enough about each topic for the reader to develop a strong high-level understanding. The book covers a range of topics, including many common cryptographic protocols, algorithms, and real world implementations. The breadth and specificity of topics covered is quite wide and varied - everything from common concepts like man in the middle, various one-way hashing algorithms, and public key algorithms, to more esoteric concepts, like zero-knowledge proofs, Ohta-Okamoto identification, or even how Kereberos works - is covered in the text.

There are two kinds of cryptography in this world: cryptography that will stop your kid sister from reading your files, and cryptography that will stop major governments from reading your files. This book is about the latter.

An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management
Will Larson

It's interesting to learn from Larson's experience as an engineer and manager. In this book, he covers a great deal about managing software, including sizing engineering teams, managing technical debt, fostering communities of learning, and systems thinking. I'd recommend this book to any software engineer or manager.'

Finally, the one thing that I’ve found at companies with very few interruptions and have observed almost nowhere else: really great, consistently available documentation. It’s probably even harder to bootstrap documentation into a non-documenting company than it is to bootstrap unit tests into a non-testing company, but the best solution to frequent interruptions I’ve seen is a culture of documentation, documentation reading, and a documentation search that actually works.

Most system-implemented systems are designed to support one to two orders magnitude of growth from the current load. Even systems designed for more growth tend to run into limitations within one to two orders of magnitude. If your traffic doubles every six months, then your load increases an order of magnitude every 18 months. (And sometimes new features or products cause load to increase much more quickly.) The cardinality of supported systems increases over time as you add teams, and as "trivial" systems go from unsupported afterthoughts to focal points for entire teams as the systems reach scaling plateaus (things like Apache Kafka, mail delivery, Redis, etc.).

Instead of asking the candidate to explain some architecture on the spur of the moment, give them a warning before the interview that you'll ask them to talk about a given topic for 30 minutes, which is a closer approximation of what they'd be doing on the job. Debugging or extending an existing codebase on a laptop (ideally on their laptop). This is much more akin to the day-to-day work of development than writing an algorithm on the board. A great problem can involve algorithmic components without coming across as a pointless algorithmic question. (One company I spoke with had me implement a full-stack auto-suggest feature for a search inbox, which required implementing a prefix tree, but the interviewer avoided framing it as yet another algo question.)

Have you ever worked at a company where the same two people always got the most important projects? Me too. It's frustrating to watch these opportunities to learn from the sidelines, and reliance on a small group can easily limit a company's throughput as it grows. This is so important that I’ve come to believe that having a wide cohort of coworkers who lead critical projects is one of the most important signifiers of good organizational health.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman
A Handbook for New Stoics
Pigliucci, Lopez
48 Laws of Power
Robert Greene
2018
My Antonia
Willa Cather

I decided to pick this up while thinking about works of literature about the prairie and life in the American midwest during the late 19th century. Willa Cather's descriptions of the landscape - its vastness, mystery, and raw beauty - and its profound affect on Jim, an orphan from Virginia, and Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant, are captivating. The real strength of this novel lies in its subtle portrayal of meaningful human relationships. We witness, from Jim's perspective, the formation of a deep bond with his childhood friend Antonia, and its lasting effect on the memory of both of the characters.

Early parts of the book (and in particular, the scene recounting the deadly sleigh ride retold by the Russian immigrant Pavel on his deathbed, wherein he and Peter throw a newlywed couple off of the sleigh he is driving to a pack of wolves stalking the party in order to save themselves) have a fairytale-esque quality.

The last third of the novel has left a strong impression on me; I would recommend this novel. Though there is no way to convey the emotional power of language without greater context, but here are a few excerpts that stuck with me:',

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.'

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. She asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. 'I'd always be miserable in a city. I'd die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody's put into this world for something, and I know what I've got to do. I'm going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had. I'm going to take care of that girl, Jim.' I told her I knew she would. 'Do you know, Antonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.' She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, 'How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've disappointed you so? Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I'm so glad we had each other when we were little. I can't wait till my little girl's old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You'll always remember me when you think about old times, won't you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.' As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world. In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there. We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory. 'I'll come back,' I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness. 'Perhaps you will'— I felt rather than saw her smile. 'But even if you don't, you're here, like my father. So I won't be lonesome.' As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.'

Soul of the White Ant
Eugène Marais

I heard about this book in late 2016 while watching a YouTube video of Daniel Dennett talking about consciousness. I remembered the title while laying in bed one evening and found the book on Kindle. I purchased a copy and spent the next few hours reading it. The author and the text are wildly interesting. Marais was a South African who lived from 1871 to 1936, working as a lawyer, journalist, poet, naturalist, and newspaper owner. According to his Wikipedia biography, he became addicted to opiates while young, and his wife died as a result of giving birth to their only son. He also had to deal with the plagiarism of his work conducted for this book (by a Nobel Prize winner, no less!). Tragically, he took his own life in 1936. He is recognized as the first person to conduct scientific research of animal behavior in the wild. In this book, Marais examines the behavior of termites and the termite colony in detail. I was struck by the extent of his research. He describes at great length the structure and behavior of the colony - the roles of each type of termite, the sort of hierarchical class structure. Most notably, he may be the first to posit the idea that the termite colony behaves essentially as a complex organism itself - a sort of emergent phenomenon comprised of many smaller, less complex parts, none of which are likely to be aware of the whole. This was a fascinating book and worth picking up.

Simply Wittgenstein
James C. Klagge

This was a fantastic introduction to the famous 20th century philosopher. I became interested in Wittgenstein after spending some time reading about Logical Positivism in 2014. I\'d since picked up a copy of this book, as well as the biographies "Wittgenstein" by A.C. Grayling and "Wittgenstein - The Duty of Genius" by Ray Monk. I continue to be intrigued by the picture theory of language as well as the concept of language-game (Sprachspiel), the rule-following paradox, and private language arguments. The philosophies of language and logic continue to be a source of great interest, and I am interested in how they contribute to problem-solving and reasoning about concepts natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

Make Your Own Neural Network
Tariq Rashid

This is a great practical introduction to artificial neural networks. Rashid offers a concise explanation of how they are constructed, and summarizes key points at the end of each section. The second half of the book focuses on implementing the techniques described in the first half for building a neural network from scratch in Python, making use of numpy. I read this through twice, and returned to sections on back propagation several more times. For readers who might be turned off by a lot of math, this seems like a good introduction to the topic. For those who need a quick refresher, the author provides an appendix section dedicated to a few basic concepts from Calculus.