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.

The Processes of Life

The Processes of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology was recommended to me as "Molecular Biology For Computer Scientists" (the author, Lawrence Hunter, is a Lisp hacker!), and it is a very good introduction to how living things work at the molecular level.

The text covers: the universal processes of life (and covers just enough chemistry to do so), the organization and development of living things, what goes wrong in living things e.g. cancer, and the state of the art in biotechnology. But throughout, the focus is on understanding processes as examples of regulation (i.e. modulation) and feedback, and living structures as machines or as information-bearing components; and looking at molecular evidence for certain evolutionary explanations. Therefore, engineers and others with a technical background can easily benefit from some cross-domain transfer without getting bogged down in chemistry.

Hunter's writing is lucid and engaging, and he gets to the point very quickly. (In fact, and I didn't think I would be saying this, the book is a page-turner in places.) The core of the book is just about 250 pages, and at $39, it's a great deal, too. For any non-biologist who is interested in learning about the wondrous designs that living things embody, I would recommend reading this book before delving into any introductory-level college text, which is likely to cost more, be many times longer, and contain more chemistry than you are really going to want or need to know.