# My top eBooks picks from Packt

Packt Publishing is offering a buy one, get one free deal on eBooks until March 26th. What I like about Packt is that they have some very niche books, like a book on Gnucash! I was curious about what other books they had and I made a list of my favorites below.

# BeagleBone

Packt has three books on the BeagleBone listed below. They all look a good source for BeagleBone project ideas if you are looking for a next project.

# Security / Networking

• CISSP in 21 Days: During breaks in my graduate program1, when I haven’t had a test for a while, I sometimes feel the urge to take a test and this one is usually on the list.

• Traffic Analysis with Tshark How-to: Wireshark rocks; Tshark is wireshark on the command line, which rocks more.

# Functional Programming

Packt seems to have a number of books on Clojure2 and the following looked interesting:

# Misc

1. Only one class left!

2. I actually searched “lisp”, but I’ll take Clojure.
3. I can never remember the find syntax. I do use zsh’s echo **/*.pattern a lot.
4. Leslie Lamport, the main developer behind $\LaTeX$, has been recently awarded the ACM Turing Award

# Kafka is hilarious says DFW and I

I was elated to find Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (DFW) on my library’s staff pick shelf.  I’ve been meaning to read it so I quickly snatched the book.  The opening essay on the Adult Video News awards[1], is absolutely hysterical. My favorite line:

A suspicion that we’d had all week but decided was unverifiable is now instantly verified when one of yr. corresps. gets accidentally shoved against a starlet and is jabbed in the side by her breasts and it hurts.[2]

The third essay in the collection, “Some remarks on Kafka’s funniness from which probably not enough has been removed”, laments that “it is next to impossible to get [American college undergraduates] to see that Kafka is funny.”  His example is “A Little Fable:”

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day.  At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.[3]

Kafka captures the absurdness of modern life and presents it in a very chilling way.  I think most people find his delivery style unnerving and uncomfortable.  But in works like The Castle, he perfectly captures the individual helplessness caused by bureaucratic paradox.  It is his subtlety that makes it great and that is where the humor lies.  He’s like a Douglas Adams[4], but just not as in-your-face.

In this sense, I disagree with Joseph Epstein’s Is Kafka Overrated?.  He concludes with, “great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”  While he may have been crushed, his stories force readers to consider uncomfortable truths.  When we stress about whether to check-in at work, despite being ill and most likely virally contagious, we are having a Metamorphosis moment.  When Glenn Greenwald’s partner was held at Heathrow airport for nine hourshe was re-living The Trial.  The irony of The Castle[5] was not lost on me when I was involuntarily recalled to Afghanistan, only to be sent home because my job had been canceled months ago.  Kafka provides comic relief for the modern life, especially one where governments are increasingly infringing on our privacy.[6]  When you take your shoes off at the airport gate, knowing that this ceremony is delusional, but you choose not to engage your rational being and acquiesce, Kafka is enjoying the schadenfreude.

# Thoughts on Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge is filled with 9/11 conspiracy theories, eccentric characters, and a wild alternative universe called the “Deep Web.”  It is very Pynchon; the only difference is that this universe is found through computers and not through hallucinogens like some of his other books.

This was the most comprehensible Pynchon book to me.  Probably because I was alive during 2001, I’ve lived in Manhattan, I am familiar with the techno-jargon, and I’ve at least heard of the exuberant tales of tech boom.  For those that are worrying that Pynchon is becoming more accessible, fear not as Jonathan Lethem writes in his review:

Thomas Pynchon is 76, and his refusal to develop a late style is practically infuriating.  The man’s wildly consistent: the only reason Bleeding Edge couldn’t have been published in 1973 is that the Internet, the Giuliani/Disney version of Times Square and the war on terror hadn’t come along yet.  This book, and Inherent Vice, make jubilant pendants on his mammoth enterprise, neon signposts to themes he took no trouble to hide in the first place.

But in the deep web of this book, lurks a darker message.  Bleeding Edge could not have been released at a more appropriate time.  At its core there is a struggle between those who want to get lost on the Internet and those who want to find them.

# Les Earnest is my new favorite person

I just finished What the Dormouse said, which is a great history of the 60s and computing.  Especially if you are interested in how LSD influenced modern computing.  I learned a great deal about LSD and LSD parties from this book; a history of the sixties is incomplete otherwise (or so I’m told).

Significant attention is given to Doug Engelbart and comparisons to others in the Bay area, like Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) led by John McCarthy).  This is where Les Earnest worked.

# Required reading for software engineers: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

After reading the Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper, it’s very easy to see its influence on Bret Victor.  Unfortunately, for the software industry, this book is as true in 1998 as it is today.  My two takeaways were: Interaction Design, i.e. how humans interact with a product, is hard and if software engineers are left to design the product, it will lead to a frustrating experience.

The book is well worth a read to anyone who has experienced, as Cooper described, “Computer Tourettes.”  For example, I have an extremely feature rich thermostat; it can do all sort of things like tell me the time, vary its temperature at different times of the day, and I’m sure other things.  I still can’t figure out how to change the temperature setpoint RIGHT NOW.  This is in contrast to my barometer, where I can simply compare the setpoint marker to the current pressure.  I would much rather have the interface from my barometer on my thermostat.

# Lists of Book Lists

I love book lists.  There is really no wrong way to create the list; breadth of topics are just as interesting as a narrowly focused list.  We love to list things in general: top forty songs, top 100 books of all time, top 5 favorite movies, etc…  There are infinite ways to enumerate objects and for lovers of lists, or those interested in meta-listing, I highly recommend Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists, which is a beautiful collection produced in collaboration with the Louvre.

One can learn much from a list of favorites. Reflecting on my favorite books, I detect a theme of satirical, skeptical, and distrustful attitudes toward authority: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22, The Castle, Atlas Shrugged, and Slaughterhouse 5.  Ironically, my time in the military strengthened this feeling.

# Hi, I’m Tom Pynchon

There are a handful of authors for whom I eagerly wait their next book: Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami (ok, I wait for the translation of his books), and Thomas Pynchon.  Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s latest book and it will be released on September 17th; I already have it pre-ordered.  I was first introduced to Pynchon by way of Gravity’s Rainbow, which was an experience and I’m looking around for a house on top of which I can grow a banana farm.

To build even more anticipation for the book (not that any is really needed), Penguin Press released a Pynchonesque book trailer.  From the t-shirt, to the glasses, to the hours at Zabar’s, this trailer is hilarious.

# The design of the book

I’ve stopped using my Kindle.  Sure, there were some convenient features that I’ll miss.  For example, I enjoyed not carrying around three books on vacation and downloading books was a bit addictive.  However, there were a few things that drove me crazy.  Despite an impressive battery life, there were times when my uncharged Kindle stopped me from reading.  Also, Amazon can modify the book you are reading, which really bothers me.  It almost happened to me while reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde.

# This book contains The Golden Ticket of computer science

It may be a surprise to some that there are theoretical limits on a computer’s ability.  Don’t worry, your next phone will run Angry Birds and Ingress faster than today.  But a program that is given another program as input, will never decide whether that program will terminate or run forever.  This is known as the halting problem and while it may not practically sound that limiting, it shows that there indeed are limits to what can be done with a computer.

Then there are classes of problems for which there are no known efficient solutions.  Even worse, it is not known whether there can be an efficient solutions for these problems.  Among computer scientists, this is known as the $\mathcal{P} = \mathcal{NP}$ problem and it is this problem that Lance Fortnow has devoted his new book, The Golden Ticket, to explaining. Continue reading “This book contains The Golden Ticket of computer science”

# Thoughts on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy

As James Gleick argues in The Information, filtering and search are now more important than the actual information, given the explosion of data. To this point, my filters seem to be off, as I completely missed the announcement of Umberto Eco’s new collection of essays, Inventing the Enemy. I say “new”, but in fact, they were released in September 2012.

This collection is mix of contemporary and historical reflections. For the new reader of Eco, this collection is a good introduction and for the student of Eco, he touches on and expands themes from his other novels.

Here I will just briefly summarize and comment on some of the more interesting essays: Continue reading “Thoughts on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy”