Monday, June 28, 2021

Fourth 10 Books I Read in 2021

 Reading Period: June 23 - August 3

1. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis


    Surprisingly, this was my first Michael Lewis book. I would say that I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but I was a bit disappointed with the execution. The book starts out really strong, with a short detour into the story of a man's ambitious project to lay a straight line of fiber optic cable from Chicago to New Jersey. The financial markets are all about speed, and shaving off a few milliseconds of travel time between two exchanges is worth billions. This fiber optic story is portrayed well in the movie The Hummingbird Project. However, Lewis then moves on to the meat of the book, a story of some RBC trades who learn that the stock market is unfair, due to front-running and other manipulative practices by High Frequency Traders, and set off to create their own stock exchange. 

    I learned a lot, but it seems that Michael's viewpoint through the book is far from unbiased. Even the story of Sergey Aleynikov, the Goldman Sachs programmer jailed for stealing code, is a bit frustrating to read. On one hand, it seems ridiculous that he was given such a lengthy prison sentence. On the other, Michael defends him to no end, and willfully speeds over less flattering aspects of the story. Sergey sent proprietary code by mail while he was in prison? Also, Michael criticizes Goldman from taking code from open source and then not contributing back to it. Isn't this true of every company? Why would you contribute specialized code in such a competitive industry directly to your competitors? Overall, I was expecting a bit more of an unbiased viewpoint. Still, this was a very interesting book to read, and parts of it certainly made my blood boil. Worth the read, I'm adding a few more of Michael's books to my reading list.

2. Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis


    I loved this book. Endlessly quotable, memorable characters, and ridiculous sums of money. Probably the perfect guilty pleasure of anyone involved in the world of finance. It struck me that the plans of undergraduates have not changed since 1982: 

"Use your economics degree to get an analyst job on Wall Street; use your analyst job to get into the Harvard or Stanford Business School; and worry about the rest of your life later."

    Other memorable quotes:

"Knowing about markets is knowing about other people's weaknesses"

"Fear and, to a lesser extend, greed are what make money move"

3. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis


    This was a perfect follow up to Liar's Poker. The Big Short follows a handful of people that made crazy amounts of money betting against the subprime mortgage market that ultimately collapsed in 2008. Most people have probably seen the movie, but I actually liked the book a bit better. It was less whiny, more detailed, and easier to understand. It is astounding and depressing how unprepared and oblivious financial institutions were to some pretty glaring risks. On the bright side, this book shows that you can lose your company 9 billion dollars and still walk away a millionaire. Welcome to Wall Street. 

    The characters are great, the story is infuriating, and the lessons are obvious. Classic Michael Lewis. Also, right at home is the clear bias of the story. I understand downplaying the role individual home owners played in the financial crisis. However, it seems Michael missed any mention of the government and Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie having even a sliver of blame? Nevertheless, an interesting story and an easy read.

4. Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir


    10/10. Such a solid, fun read. I crushed this book, reading cover to cover within a day. From the writer of The Martian, comes a story about a man with amnesia who wakes up alone on a spaceship. Yeah some parts are corny, but this will probably be my #1 book recommendation going forward. It's just so fun and accessible. 

5. Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel


    I really don't "get" Zen Buddhism.

6. Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch


    The first mind-bending book I've read in quite a while. I am confident this is kicking off a trend, and I already have some more slated to read next. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This book is one part Enemy (one of my favorite movies) and one part Meanwhile (a choose your own adventure comic I had in middle school). The initial half of the book was predictable, but the second half really let loose with the twists and turns. Also, the underlying commentary on the decisions we make and the lives we lead was perfect and really made the narrative seem deeper than it would have otherwise.

"We're all just wandering through the tundra of our existence, assigning value to worthlessness, when all that we love and hate, all we believe in and fight for and kill for and die for is as meaningless as images projected onto Plexiglas."

7. Replay, by Ken Grimwood


    I delivered on my promise, to read more fascinating, mind bending books. This story follows Jeff Winston, who is stuck in a time loop between ages 18 to 43. I loved this book. I don't know what it is about this sort of narrative that speaks to me so much. I think reading about a man who constantly repeats life forces you to confront the horrific fact that you have only one life, you have no idea why you are here, and you can't re-do any of it. This was a beautiful, engrossing novel that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

"We're here, and we don't know why. We can philosophize all we want, pursue the key to that secret along a thousand different paths, and we'll never be any closer to unlocking it."

"For all that they had struggled, all they'd once achieved, the end result was null. Even the happiness they had managed to find together had been frustratingly brief; a few years stolen here and there, transient moments of love and contentment like vanishing specks of foam in a sea of lonely, needless separation."

8. Practical Vim, Edit Text at the Speed of Thought, by Drew Neil


Yes, I read books about text editors in my free time. I would be embarrassed, but I’m too busy flying through code at the speed of sound to have time to care. Over the course of three weeks, I read this book, set Vim as my default text editor, and set up Vim plugins for all of my IDEs. I would guess this style of editing has increased my speed and productivity by about 15%. However, it has increased my sense of superiority by at least 50%. This was a fun detour, :q!

9. Animal Farm, by George Orwell


    My first audiobook, ever? I've always looked down my nose at people who claim to have "read" books when they mean "vaguely listened to while distracted and doing something else." Maybe it is the elitist in me, who scoffs at those without the patience to sit in a chair and read hundreds of pages of software engineering books in a week. I was wrong. This was an enjoyable experience that I can see continuing for the rest of my life. In the shower, on my way to work, working out, and more, I can be reading books! It's funny, reading is one of my favorite things to do, and now I can do it 24/7. Animal Farm was a great satire, and something I would not have been interested in reading on paper. I've started a collection on Audible, and I am planning on "reading" many more classics like this in the future.

10. Circe, by Madeline Miller


    Beautiful book, really. This book chronicles the story of Circe, a Greek goddess, nymph, and witch. Great story, compelling characters, and just a joy to listen to. This was another audiobook, but I'm sort of wishing I read it in print so that I could keep a list of quotes. Some have stuck with me, such as: "a golden cage is still a cage." This is an empowering, female-driven tale. I can't think of any way the book could have been improved. For the story told, and the perspective given, this was pretty much a  perfect book.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Third 10 Books I Read in 2021

 Reading Period: May 18 - June 23

1. Neuromancer, by William Gibson


    The original cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer is a 1984 novel well ahead of it's time. William coins terms like "cyberspace" and "the matrix" in this book, and pits artificial intelligences against humanity. The read was interesting, as it is clearly the initial domino leading to thousands of mimics in literature, television, and video games. Unfortunately, it is too outdated to be worth the read. No fault to William, but as time has passed, the universes we can explore with current science fiction are much more compelling.

2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King


    The best writing guide on the market, written by an obviously qualified master of the craft. The book starts out of an autobiography, transitions to writing tips, and finishes with Stephen's commentary on the writing process as a whole. Definitely worth the read, even if you are never planning on writing a novel.

3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry


    I read this 900 page monster is less than a week, it was that brilliant. Granted I was on vacation and not doing much else, but still, a wonderful book. The characters are engaging, the storytelling is masterful, and before you know it you've spent your non-reading time daydreaming about driving cattle from Texas to Montana. 

    This epic adventure carries the personalities of a dozen characters, but the two central cowboys are  Capitan Call and Gus McCrae. After beating a man to the brink of death, the Capitan merely states to the crowd of onlookers "I hate a man that talks rude. I won't tolerate it." Gus has too many great quotes to count, but one that stuck with me was "the earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight." This is a hilarious, beautiful, heartbreaking book that I would put at the top of my recommendation list.

4. Night, by Elie Wiesel


    This short book chronicles Elie Wiesel's time spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp. This book is horrifying, a first hand account at the worst humanity has to offer. Babies are burned alive, a son kills his father for a crust of bread, and Elie's entire family is killed. An important read, but also a brutal and worrying one.

5. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy


    I read this novella in order to determine if War and Peace would be worth the effort. Leo is no doubt a brilliant writer, and this was a great story about suffering and death. There are some slivers of optimism that can be taken away from this book, and my dislike of these parts made me realize I am becoming way to cynical and pessimistic. Still, this is an authentic, frightening, and meaningful take on death.

6. Python for Data Analysis, by Wes McKinney


    This is an extensive guide to pandas (a Python package for data analysis) written by the creator Wes McKinney. This book isn't well structured and a bit all over the place, and even after reading the whole thing I don't think I learned anything new. If you are completely new to Python or data analysis, I'd recommend sticking with the online documentation or learning through projects. There was one quick chapter on applications for finance that was worth the read, Wes could have written a useful book about that.

7. Web Scraping with Python, by Ryan Mitchell


    Easily the best Python book I've ever read. Extremely well written, concise, and entertaining. Running the pre-defined scripts feels like magic. Ryan wasn't joking when she said web scraping takes very little effort and looks extremely impressive. I particularly enjoyed the tangential items Ryan includes throughout the guide: image recognition, natural language processing, and the legality/ethics of web scraping. Even if you have no programming experience, I would still highly recommend this book. The abilities of a proficient web scraper are just too cool to pass up.

8. The Course of Love, by Alain de Botton


    This is a book with a crazy amount of insight, most of it extremely useful and interesting. However, as I moved along the chapters, I started realize that the book is right on the edge of greatness, but it just doesn't cut it. I'm not completely certain why this is the case. Alain does have a tendency to talk a lot but say very little, and criticisms of  pompousness or overgeneralization are probably valid. I think what didn't sit well with me was the  discussion of infidelity and secret keeping. Alain seems to have some very strange beliefs on this topic. Honesty is less important in Alain's world (he should read "Lying"), and unfortunately it creates some sense of justified moral ambiguity for certain plot points. Without spoiling the plot, I will say Alain is stretching to rationalize selfish behavior and most competent readers will find the attempt laughable.

    I've highlighted more of this book than any other book I've read. Paraphrasing, Alain believes love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm. People know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue. There are no soul mates, no perfect marriages. There can only ever be a "good enough" marriage, and everyone has major flaws. Recognizing that you have major flaws and are very hard to live with is needed for your marriage to work. Having similar tastes to a partner is not important, what is important is finding someone who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. I would be interested in reflecting on these ideas in 30 years, and seeing how much my view on the book as a whole has changed.

9. Be Prepared, a Practical Handbook for New Dads, by Gary Greenberg


   My reason for reading this book is on part due to a quote from the previous book A Course of Love, where Alain de Botton is describing the ignorance of the main character asking his girlfriend to marry:

 "He has never read any books on the institution; he has in the last decade never spent more than ten minutes with a child; he has never cynically interrogated a married couple let alone spoken in depth with a divorced one and would be at a loss to explain why the majority of marriages fail, save from the general idiocy or lack of imagination of their participants.

    Upon reading this, I thought oh, he's also describing me. I've read a previous book on marriage, but the part about never spending more than ten minutes with a child rings true. How am I convinced that I want to have children if I am entirely clueless about the subject? Reading this book was an attempt to expand my knowledge of the subject, and at least get a feel for what fatherhood is like. Gary explains in great detail the requirements of raising a child through their first year of life. This was a funny, easy to read, and enlightening book. Gary makes the tough, gross, thankless job of early fatherhood into a fun and understandable project. Also, this book is a great gift idea I will be getting my friends once they start having kids.

10. The Pragmatic Programmer, by Andy Hunt


    This was a fairly easy read that I learned a lot from. The approaches taught in this book mirror the approaches I have found extremely valuable on my own. Kaizen is the first important principle of programming: continuous improvement every day. My best projects have been slowly chipped away at over time, and these daily optimizations have created some really cool functionality. The second important principle is orthogonality. This principle focuses on independent functions, DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself), and an overall focus on flexibility. It is interesting that a lot of common knowledge,  such as premature optimization is the root of all evil, are things I had to learn the hard way on my own. Reading a book like this will help you avoid these common traps, and learn how to code the right way the first time. Overall, I would say this was worth the read. It is a bit dated (1999), but I think the concepts still translate well today.