31 December 2014

2014 in Review

This year I got married to my love, Diana. So the year has been a whirlwind of wedding planning and then getting settled into our new place.

Happy new year to you, and here's to a wonderful 2015!

31 December 2013

What I've been reading lately (2013)


Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. Unmistakably the voice of White Noise, but not quite as amusing this time when the target of its attention is the ridiculousness of capitalist excess.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. As wonderful as it was the first time I read it, perhaps more so. It is one of those rare books where every element that is there is essential in some way.

Freedom (TM) by Daniel Suarez. I have to admit I was skeptical about where Suarez was going at the end of Daemon, but Freedom, the sequel, is even better than the original. The Daemon is now the coordinator of a reputation-based economy, people are walking around with Google Glass HUD glasses to tap in to the darknet, and government contractors are trying to shut it all down. It touches on a lot of interesting ideas, everything from political decentralization to farm subsidies. A highly enjoyable and propelling read. Recommended.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. This parable about seagulls was was the #1 New York Times Bestseller for two years straight. And about half of the book is photographs of seagulls! The message is about self-improvement and transcendence. A little bit woo-woo for my taste but given that you can read it in one sitting it's hard to argue that it's not worth your time.

The Mirage by Matt Ruff. In the weird mirror world of The Mirage, on 11/9, Christian fundamentalists flew hijacked airplanes into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. Osama bin Laden is a senator of the United Arab States and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Saddam Hussein is a kooky mobster. And all these points are explained in part by occasional excerpts from the The Library of Alexandria, the pitch-perfect analogue of Wikipedia. But it's not just a perfunctory swap of America and Arabia: the mystery involves people and artifacts that keep showing up from a bizarre other world... very entertaining.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The less is said about the plot, the better. Ishiguro is a master of understatement. The narration is totally matter-of-fact, and despite what the characters have to endure, much of the plot is just about kids being kids. As a result an almost unbearable tension seems to pervade the entire book. I loved it. Forget looking at reviews (many of which have spoilers), just go read it. Recommended.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Daniel Waterhouse plays assistant to some of the great minds of the 17th century, including Newton and Leibniz. It certainly has the Neal Stephenson quality of continuously amusing prose. The plot stalls a bit towards the end, but from what I gather the next two books are better in this respect.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke recounts her, um, unusual family life, and she's quite compelling especially as she peels back the onion layers of her recollections to unearth the truth. Recommended.

Wool by Hugh Howey. Due to toxicity of Earth's atmosphere, what remains of humanity lives in a creaky and cramped old "silo" that descends 144 stories underground. Of course, things are not quite as they seem, and murders ensue. A fun and light read, though Howey is a first-time author, and unfortunately the writing is distractingly bad at times.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It tries to answer the question, where does Quality come from? It has good bits, but at the end I didn't think I had gotten that much from it.


Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George. The subtitle is Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. After reading The Box, I really was captured by the notion of intermodal transportation and its effects, and started looking for more in that vein. Ninety Percent of Everything is about the human side of the industry, and the author spent a month and a half at sea on the Maersk Kendal while writing this book. If there is anything I took away from this book it's that the sea is a lawless place. Of course, pirates and weather are both unsympathetic. But additionally, sailors are often marginalized people and for various reasons they don't receive the legal protections most of us are accustomed to. A sailor involved in a shipwreck might be lucky to receive a formal investigation into the accident. (Compare this to the endless investigation that takes place anytime a passenger plane crashes anywhere.) As George puts it, "the sea dissolves paper." Ninety Percent of Everything is a decent read, but not really the successor to The Box that I was looking for.

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson. A collection of a couple of short stories and (mostly) essays that have appeared in various places. Fully one third of this book is a surprisingly gripping overview of the planning, construction, and maintenance of the undersea fiberoptic cables that tie the internet together. And in "Locked In," Stephenson presents one of the most salient examples of technological path-dependence: of all the ways we could get to space, it's a self-perpetuating historical accident that we do it by strapping things to large tanks of flammables. Super interesting throughout; recommended.


This year I finished reading the rest of everything I can find by Murakami (in English, anyway). Now I just have to wait for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (release date: August 2014)!

After Dark. Interlinked stories that all take place on a single night in Tokyo, starting from just before midnight. This isn't Murakami at his most imaginative, but I did enjoy the dialogue and the dreamlike mood of the story. Also, it's a really quick read.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A collection of short stories. It's quite entertaining, but I thought that the stories, on the whole, are not nearly as memorable as those in The Elephant Vanishes (see below).

Dance Dance Dance. I suppose it's about the narrator's search for fulfillment in the modern world. It's really funny: there's Murakami's usual crazy cast of characters, but my favorites are the narrator's ward— a precocious teenage girl— and her parents: a spacey photographer mom, and a clueless writer dad named Hiraku Makimura (yes, really). I enjoyed it a lot, and I think it's one of Murakami's best. Recommended.

The Elephant Vanishes. A collection of short stories. This was the first of Murakami that I read, and I wanted to circle back to it. It's packed to the gills with whimsy. Some of my favorites: "The Dancing Dwarf," about a guy who works at an elephant factory (yes), and "Barn Burning," wherein the narrator meets a seemingly nice guy with an uh, unusual hobby. Recommended.

Sputnik Sweetheart. When his friend Sumire disappears into thin air, the unnamed narrator is summoned to a remote Greek island at the behest of Sumire's lover, an older woman named Miu. Rather melancholy.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. Murakami manages to interview many of the survivors, and some of the perpetrators, of Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 sarin gas attack on the Toyko subway system. He acts more like an editor than an interviewer, letting each interviewee tell his or her story. What I found particularly interesting is that Aum's members, though not the most social folks, were hardly what you would call marginalized people. Aum was able to recruit scientists and engineers, people who could have made a decent living in the "real world", and get them to build its chemical weapons! All in all, quite haunting.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami's meditations about training in Boston for the NYC marathon, and the relationship between the thankless task of running and the thankless task of writing. A bit long for its content, but it is a nice view into Murakami's mind.

31 December 2012

2012 Book Reviews

I continue to be alive (and I continue to read books), not that you would know it from this blog.


Endgame by Frank Brady. The subtitle is Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. As a young man, Fischer's brilliant performances turned chess into a spectator sport in America. Bafflingly, he grew to become a wanted criminal (for playing in a 1992 tournament in Montenegro in violation of US sanctions) and a paranoid recluse who became known for his criticism of Jews and the US.

Endgame is an entertaining read, and a page-turner in places (speaking as a person who hasn't played chess in some time and never previously absorbed the historical record here). Especially interesting is the account of the 1972 World Chess Championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky, when Fischer's antics made it unclear whether the championship would even be played.

Yet when considered not just as a story but as a biography, I think there is something missing. Certainly every biography relies on speculation to some extent when it comes to the inner mental life of the subject, but one thing that Endgame made clear was that Fischer's thoughts and motivations were completely opaque (even to the author, who met Fischer when Fischer was just ten). How can a normal person ever understand what was going on in the head of this prodigy/madman, and what can one possibly learn from it?

Mildly recommended.

JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford. (The O'Reilly store also has a DRM-free ebook.) Although JavaScript is not a language that was actively designed to trip people up, it will certainly always feel that way. Crockford identifies a subset of the language that has a high usefulness to danger ratio. J:TGP is a short read, despite teaching JavaScript, or The Good Parts of it anyway, from scratch. It's a must read for anyone who programs in JavaScript, even if you decide that you dare to tread places that Douglas Crockford doesn't. Highly recommended.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean defectors. From these and numerous other sources, Demick fills in an amazing account of a totalitarian regime that managed to eliminate all organized criticism of the state, yet can't keep the lights on at night. The state controls distribution of all food, but the other side of this coin is that during the famine of the 1990s, when even the people who went to work didn't get food, many North Koreans realized they no longer had anything to lose by breaking a few of the rules.

North Korea has done an incredible, though incomplete, job of isolating itself from the outside world. What is so riveting is hearing recounted the pivotal moment when each of these defectors realized something was very wrong about their notions of the outside world. One North Korean soldier, for example, recalls marveling at the elegant construction of an illicit American nail clipper as he realized he would also looking at the pointy ends of American weapons.

A fascinating and fun read, and bound to satisfy the natural curiosity that many Westerners have about the Hermit Kingdom. Recommended.

What Every Programmer Should Know About Memory by Ulrich Drepper. (114-page PDF, available freely online.) I took just the basics in school (6.004) and this covers a lot more ground, and from a more practical/empirical perspective. Of interest to many programmers (and not covered in many textbooks, to my knowledge) is discussion about how multicore processors and virtualization affect memory performance. (Hint: things can get bad.) I also found the introduction to transactional memory to be pretty wild.

There are lots of specific tips for those programming in C/C++, and lots of demonstration examples with performance charts. But for those of us using mostly higher-level garbage-collected languages the only advice you can really take away is to be economical with memory usage. Still worthwhile if you enjoy learning about how computers work.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The subtitle is From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

On a whim, at what she perceives as the nadir of her life of casual sex and drug use, the author decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not so much a story of an epiphany on the PCT as it is the author's account of hiking the PCT, with many flashbacks to her previous life.

I loved following her development as she learned to welcome the solitude of the outdoors, but beyond that it seemed like the not terribly remarkable story of a young woman with bad luck and questionable judgment who discovers that people on the trail are generally pretty friendly. Contrary to the title, she doesn't really "find herself", but I suppose, who ever does?


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Six nested stories taking place from the mid 19th century to the far future, each of which (except the last) is interrupted and revealed to be a journal, set of letters, etc. being consumed in the next story (and eventually later resumed in reverse order). But this structure is almost a throwaway. The main event is reading six stories so different stylistically that you could scarcely believe they were all by the same author, and listening to how they still manage to rhyme with each other (note, I'm a sucker for stories that "rhyme"). Recommended.

The movie is also quite enjoyable if you can forgive its beat-you-over-the-head monologues (which are not present in the book). Recommended.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez. When a video game magnate dies, an RSS feed-reading computer program he has written comes to life. The Daemon, as it is called, activates booby traps electronically and contacts strangers with various kinds of inducement (money or threats) to help it to carry out its plan. It's a fast-paced and fun thriller, though the writing is just so-so and the story seems to swerve a couple of times without wrapping up loose ends. Mildly recommended; it is good airplane reading.

It's rather eye-opening to reflect on the story and see how the real world has changed since Daemon was published in 2009. The idea of a stateless, faceless, and untraceable entity acting over the internet and making headlines is, to most people, not quite the shocker it might have been a couple of years ago. I mean, it's called "Anonymous" and doesn't involve undead people.

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. A mess of technological woo-woo played out by a cast of completely unlikeable characters in a novel that is way too long.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This appears to be a novel about magic and magicians, but it's probably not what you imagined. In Susanna Clarke's alternate 19th century England, magicians help the English army with mildly useful spells such as conjuring faux ships to mislead the enemy and spying via visions in a bowl of water, but they also have to spend time dealing with politics and English society.

Jonathan Strange is written like classic literature, complete with this wonderful, wonderful, understated English humor. It also comes with extensive fake footnotes (mildly annoying to read on the Kindle). It's a slow to get going but I was quite sad to come to the end of it. Recommended.

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters. When an extinction event-level asteroid is detected heading straight for Earth, society begins to disintegrate. The economy goes into freefall; people walk off the job and go do bucket list things or commit suicide. Except for policeman Hank Palace, recently promoted to detective, who keeps trying to crack his murder case.

A haunting picture of a society where all long-term planning has gone out the window (not a premise frequently suggested by novels!). The Last Policeman suggests questions about motivation and why the heck we get out of bed every morning to do what we do. Recommended.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. Consider these to be variations on the episodes of Homer's Odyssey: where one character is not quite the same, or something goes a little bit differently. All of them border on the verge of being poetry, but I found them to vary greatly in how enjoyable they were. All things considered I don't think I remembered enough about Odyssey to make The Lost Books add up to anything.

Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood is what happens when Murakami tries to write a "normal" novel. No yakuza, no talking animals, none of that. It's a story of young love, and it's both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Recommended.

The other two are good, too.

30 December 2011

2011 in Review

I did a bit less blogging this year, mostly because I was doing more cycling, traveling, reading, cooking, artistry, and really, just more of the things I love that are actually worth blogging about. So I would say it has been a great year.

In the spring I made the very difficult decision to leave Google, and ended up taking about six months off work. I think that taking some time off to recharge, without any plans initially, was one of the better things I've done for myself.

One of the things I had time to do was a lot of cycling. This year I logged 4,150mi of riding and 284,000 vertical feet of climb (up 54% and up 89% Y/Y, respectively). I completed a trifecta of semi- and self-supported bike tours this year: Central California (San Jose to Santa Barbara), the first tour I planned myself; the Alps (yes, again), my climbing-est tour to date; and the Pacific Coast from the top of Washington to San Jose, my first solo tour and my longest tour in total distance to date.

The Alps were, as always, stunning. And counting the Central California and the Pacific Coast tours together, I traversed over 80% of the western coast of the continental US this year. It's truly a remarkable place— it would take little convincing to get me to do any part of it again; yet, it was only passing through Big Sur in the spring that really spurred me to take the much longer Pacific Coast tour in the fall. To think, how lucky we Bay Area residents are to have Big Sur in our backyard! I met so many interesting people while on tour, and I feel like I've gotten to explore a part (however small) of America in a way that I've never gotten to do before, despite having lived here my whole life.

I guess I've raved about cycle touring enough that I also apparently convinced a few friends of mine to try it out for the first time this year. So that has been a lot of fun.

Now I'm working at DNAnexus, a software startup in Mountain View. At a high level, we're building a software platform for managing and analyzing genomic data, so researchers don't have to worry as much about the intricacies of cluster filesystems, fault tolerance, and all that other "fun" stuff. I am enjoying work at DNAnexus for a number of reasons, chief among them the tantalizing possibility that just by making computation easier to use we could help biologists and doctors take medicine to the next level, and help them to build a new kind of understanding of how living things work (and how to fix them, too).

Happy New Year, and best wishes to you all for an awesomer year 2012.

2011 Book List

I read the following 26 books this year, of which my favorites were— non-fiction: The Box, Metamagical Themas, and Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air; fiction: 1Q84, The Diamond Age.

Fiction Roundup

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. As usual with Murakami's books, explaining the plot is neither necessary nor helpful. And, as usual, 1Q84 is endlessly imaginative, entertaining, and a pleasure to read. The story seems to hang together better and have more of a resolution than Murakami's others. Also, there are a number of structural symmetries that add some interesting layers. All in all, somewhat haunting, and recommended.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. I felt a sudden urge to re-read this one while on vacation, and fortuitously, I found a copy in a used bookstore. A bespoke book-like educational device, originally commissioned for an aristocrat's daughter, instead falls into the hands of a girl who lives in the slums. One of the science fiction novels that not only presents a plausible extrapolation— a story of what we could do with technology— but is almost begging to be read (in places) as an example of what we should do with technology. Touching, and perhaps my favorite Neal Stephenson; recommended.

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson. A computer virus triggers a chain of events in a WoW-like computer game, which causes the Russian mob to start a manhunt… and that's to say nothing of the Islamic terrorists… Stephenson's prose is characteristically fun to read at a local scale, but the world he builds here does not possess the same level of sheer awesomeness as much of his previous work. The final showdown, too, is just too long. It is, however, an enjoyable read.

A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge. Humans playing with fire (in the form of computer software) get burnt when they instantiate a super-intelligent entity. One expedition is forced to crash-land on a world of primitive dog-like beings. Vinge's brand of transhumanism, as well as his many inventions for this story (for example, the Tines, the dog-like creatures, which have a distributed pack mind of sorts), make for a fun read. However, I soon got tired of Vinge's flowerly and/or pretentious prose, inserted in places where human readers are meant to be incapable of actually comprehending the transcendent premise. In a way this genre seems to be a form of literary cheating. I could have forgiven that, but a book that is so epic in scope seems to me to also require a much better conclusion than this one had. It was, though, enjoyable enough that I am reading its sequel.