Guus Bosman

software engineering manager


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Here I keep track of some of the books that I've read, often with a short review and some personal thoughts. These are only a selection since I read a lot more books for work.

I like to read book in their original languages where possible: French, German, Dutch, English and I even read three books in Bulgarian. Here is the list of books I'd like to read. See also books about technology or management, and my all-time favorite books.

I'm an engineer, and enjoy science fiction novels. Some of my favorite authors are Vernor Vinge, Terry Pratchett and LE Modesitt Jr. No overview of my reading habits would be complete without mentioning The Economist -- I love that magazine.

Books below are in order of date read; this overview starts in October 2002.


Topic: 

Het Bureau

Het Bureau is a series of seven books that describes several decades of the life of Maarten Koning. It is an autobiographic book based on the career of the author J.J. Voskuil at the national research institute for Dutch language and culture.

I read the first book during my trip to Menlo Park and finished the final book a month later. I greatly enjoyed these books and it become one of my all-time favorite works. Het Bureau is a little like a "soap for intellectuals", describing the life and the career of an academic working on Dutch folk culture and mythology, and the bureaucratic entrails of a stuffy research institute that nobody takes very seriously.

The story is slow, but very carefully crafted. The people in the book involve into very rich characters. I enjoyed the descriptions of Amsterdam and the Dutch country side. Meneer Beerta has become one of my ever favorite characters in Dutch literature. The book is almost boring at times, but very addictive, and sometimes very funny -- the part about the “dorsflegel” was hilarious.

I especially enjoy reading about the board meetings (“de Commissie”). They are short but full of political intrigue. When I read about the interaction between Maarten and his subordinates, it makes my blood curl. They flat-out refuse the work assigned to them, undermine his work and pretend to be out sick all the time.

The book has a nostalgic mood occasionally. It is interesting to read how things were done in an office in the 1960’s. All letters, for example, were typed on a type-writer with overlays for the archive. It is interesting to see how cars get more and more common, and throughout the years more and more employees at Het Bureau get a car. The main character despises cars and doesn’t hesitate to make his opinion known.

The main character is not exactly an optimistic person. "Hij besefte plotseling hoe weinig er van het verleden was overgebleven en hoe uitzichtloos de toekomst was tegen de achtergtrond van de zich opstapelende, zinloze verantwoordelijkheden.” (“He realized how little of his past remained, and how pointless the future was against a background of steadily increasing but futile responsibilities”).

Maarten Koning is cynical about his profession and his fellow researchers.

“Maar ik maak geen indruk! Daarvoor praat ik veel te snel en veel te ingewikkeld. Als je indruk wilt maken, moet je wachten tot iedereen moe is, en dan moet je heel langzaam iets ontzettend banaals zeggen. Dat begrijpen ze en dat wordt het!”

“But I don’t make a strong impression! I speak too quickly and too complicated. If you want to make a good impression you should wait until everybody is tired, and then very slowly say something very mundane. That will be understood, and then implemented!”

Snobism

'Er komen daar natuurlijk allemaal natuurkundigen, chemici, biologen, geologen. Wat moeten die met de Nederlandse volkstaal en volkcultuur?' 'Dat interesseert ze juist!' zei Balk apodictisch. 'Eindelijk eens echte wetenschap!' - hij lachte met een grimmig sarcasme. Voor wat wij doen, heeft iedere intellectueel belangstelling. Dat geeft die bètamensen juist status! En anders prikkelt het het snobisme!' - hij glimlachte gemeen.

Balk is right about that, I greatly enjoyed reading about the scientific work that is being done in Het Bureau and how the ideas about the field change through the years. I subscribed to Quotidian, a new magazine about the study of everyday life.

When I was in high school I had heard about new parts of the book being published -- the publisher managed to stir up quite a hype around these books -- and it was a lot of fun to read old newspaper articles and interviews with characters from the book afterwards.

On a final note -- this is the quintessential Dutch book. If you want to understand more about Dutch culture and history, and your Dutch is fluent and you don't mind reading 5,500 pages... this is the book for you.

Dutch
J. J. Voskuil
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Topic: 

Liars and Outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive

Bruce Schneier

In February of this year Bruce Schneier released his latest book, Liars & Outliers -- enabling the trust that society needs to thrive. This accessible book does a good job exploring the scientific theory of trust and collaboration and combines a theoretical framework with real-life examples. It does not bring many new insights to people who have followed Schneier's other work but the theoretical framework is useful and this is a book worth reading.

978-1-118-14330-8
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English for work
Topic: 

Het Diner

Sasha pointed me to a glowing review in The Economist of a new book by Dutch author Herman Koch. The book hasn't yet been released in the U.S. but I read the Dutch version on my phone.

This book is a real page turner and the story captured me from the first chapter. The book is well written with very credible characters -- yet completely unpredictable.

Dutch
Herman Koch
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Topic: 

Ум царува, ум робува -- приказки за труд и мързела

Това е колекция от Български приказки от детството на Саша и Ирена. Милан и Надя го донесоха от Перущица в Август 2012.

За да разбира кълтура, хубаво е да познава приказки и това детска книжа беше много приятно и помагна да учам Българско кълтура още по-добре. На пример аз вече познавах думата "джаста праста" но не знаех че е момиченце в приказка. Сега разбирам още по-добре какво значи и откъде е думата. И хубаво беше да чета на магарета Марко.

Понягога ролата на мъж и жена се доста старомодни, но това нормално в стария приказки. Имаше много хубаво разкази в книгата. Обичах на примеи "Майстор Манаси" -- смешно беше. Най-хубавото беше "Който не работи, не трябва да яде".

Книгата е от 1979.

Това е втората Българска книга каквото четох. Четох някви разкази преди, но освен „Крадец на праскоди“ не цала книга. Приказки понякога испозват стари думи като в имената „Хурка и мотовилка” но защото радкази се кратки по-лесно е от обикновена книга.

Bulgarian
Елин Пелин и други
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Topic: 

How language comes to children: from birth to two years

Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies

This book describes the current scientific understanding of how children learn a language in their first two years. It is a thorough book but very readable. It is a translation from a French book.

The book is full of fun facts:

  • Babies will babble in a lower pitch to their father than to their mother.
  • Babies at 8 to 9 months already have a feel for which words "sound right". American babies were less interested in Dutch words such as "zwetsen" and "vlakte" which contain "zw" and "vl" sounds that don't appear in English words.
  • Fairly early on, baby babbling will pick up the melody of the mother language. So French babies babble differently than American or Chinese babies, and adults can often tell what a baby's mother tongue is.

I was mostly interested in the developments during the first year, since Nora is now almost 6 months old. Still the remainder of the book was interesting as well, with several case studies of children in France and the USA and every child's language style.

The book is not primarily about dual language kids but the author enjoys pointing out the cultural differences between various countries. French children for example, know more food-words at an early age, Swedish kids more words for activities and American kids more nouns.

I picked this book when I went to the Arlington library with my parents.

978-0262024532
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English
Topic: 

Hoe Starbucks mijn redding werd

This was a moving story, about a rich workaholic who, after losing his job and his wife, rebuilds his life by working at Starbucks.

It was an enjoyable read.

Mieke sent me this book from the Netherlands which is why I read it in Dutch, in a good translation.

Dutch
Michael Gates Gill
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Topic: 

Arlington County Virginia -- a modern history

Sherman W. Pratt

This book gives an excellent overview of the recent history of Arlington County, and the long chapter with "controversies" is especially interesting.

The author, Mr. Pratt, is a long-time activist in County politic. He was personally involved in many events described in the book, sometimes in his professional function as a lawyer, and in the 1970's he tried to get elected to the County Board twice.

Mr. Pratt lives in South Arlington, and his political views tend to lean more Republican than Democrat. As he explains in the book, local politics have been dominated by Democrats for decades and it was interesting to read his contrarian point of view. The book is a very objective one though, and both sides of the stories are told.

I didn't realize the extend of the differences between North and South Arlington. For example, we live close to I-66 and I knew that there had been a major "battle" in the 1960's against the creation of that highway. Mr. Pratt explained that in North Arlington the highway was very unpopular (as I knew) -- but I didn't realize that the highway would actually alleviate the traffic problems lower in the County.

On a longer timescale, it was interesting to learn more about the history of Arlington. The County really transformed from a rural, conservative backwater to the liberal, urban "village" it is now. The book describes the racism that was rampant in the early years of the county, and the political "massive resistance" fight against school integration. It's hard to believe that such policies were advocated only so short ago.

The book is from 1997 and certain developments, such as the cleanup and development of the Potomac Yard obviously are not included. Perhaps it's time for a follow-up book.

0-9661795-0-1
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English
Topic: 

De uitvreter, Titaantjes, Dichtertje

Nescio

This is a collection of 3 short stories by Nescio, dating from the early 1900's. I loved the book.

There is a lot of analysis available in other places of the various themes in the book. For me the most powerful were the melancholic sadness and the beautiful descriptions of Holland in earlier times.

The book mainly describes the bourgeois class but also talks about to the lower classes and farmers ("de pummels"). Lovely, lovely!

This book was a gift to my parents, from November 15, 1991 when my father had broken his leg. He brought it to Arlington when he came to take care of Nora.

9001561063
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Dutch
Topic: 

Responsive Web Design

Ethan Marcotte

This highly readable book introduces Response Web Design, a name coined by the author Ethan Marcotte for creating pages that work well on different devices, be it mobile phones, tablets or desktops.

978-0984442577
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English for work
Topic: 

Scalable Internet Architectures

Theo Schlossnagle

Scalable Internet Architectures provides a good introduction to scalability and performance engineering for large internet applications. The book has useful high-level discussions and interesting real-world insight but could have benefited from better editing. The book would have been even stronger with more focus on theoretical aspects -- which the author explains well -- and less emphasis on specific tools and code-snippets. Overall, even though the book is from 2006 it is worth a read, especially for engineers new to the field.

The author of the book, Theo Schlossnagle, is principal at a consulting company and his real-world experience with scalability and other aspects of large-scale engineering clearly shows in the book. He excels at outlining the challenges and possible solutions on a high-level, giving the reader a good background to make informed choices.

Still relevant 6 years later

The book was written in 2006 but most of the material is still relevant; the architectures and concepts that are described are still valid today. The code examples and the recurring emphasis on the author's favorite tools, Spread and Whackamole, are less useful for a book on this level.

The book is almost exclusively focused on the ‘back-end’ server architecture and doesn’t talk much about ‘front-end’ items except for mentioning that cookies make an excellent 'super local' cache for web applications. Most of the development in the field since 2006 has been client-side, with the possible exception of experimental things like SPDY, Google’s new protocol. It would be interesting to read more about the impact of increased Ajax use and streaming partial page-rending such as Facebook’s on the back-end architecture.

"Developers have no qualms about pushing code live..."

The excellent first three chapters introduce the field of scalability and performance engineering and explain the challenges that occur once an internet application reaches a large scale. The classic tension between flexibility and stability is summarized succinctly, where "developers" are really a proxy for the demands of the business to deal with a changing internal and external world:

"In my experience, developers have no qualms about pushing code live to satisfy urgent business needs without regard to the fact that it may capsize an entire production environment at the most inopportune time. [...] My assumption is that a developer feels that refusing to meet a demand from the business side is more likely to result in termination than the huge finger-pointing that will ensue post-launch".

For me this is a very familiar discussion -- part of being an engineering manager is to make these types of judgment calls: when will we push back, when will we take risk, what is the risk/benefit trade-off.

High-level problems and solutions

The author is at his best when explaining high-level problems and their possible solutions. The author explains the need for horizontal scaling and introduces various techniques that make this possible. He goes into advanced topics but doesn’t forget to cover the basics. For example, there is an excellent walk-through on the performance gains from serving static content vs dynamic content. This is a good description for people new to the field and it is well illustrated, including the slowness of the initial TCP handshake and the dramatic difference in memory footprint of Apache 'bare-bones' versus Apache with Perl or PHP compiled in.

An interesting piece of real-hand knowledge is the author's claim that on web servers (in clusters > 3 servers) one can expect up to 70% resource utilization. That's a good benchmark to have.

I also liked the explanation on caching semantics. The author illustrates the problems of having shared, non-scalable resources (such as databases) and explains how introducing caches can provide the ability to create a more scalable architecture. The sample PHP code is helpful in explaining caching and two-tier execution. The book discusses transparent caches, look-aside caches and distributed caches.

The descriptions of the various types of database replication were good to – master-master, master-slave, and even cross-vendor database replication, where an expensive Oracle master is used in combination with open source PostgreSQL slaves. The latter definitely has its pros and cons and would introduce quite a bit of extra maintenance, but author is right that is opens the mind to think about possibilities like that.

Peer-to-peer

Throughout the book Schlossnagle discusses peer-to-peer high availability software. The tools Spread and Whackamole are being pushed quite a lot; they are part of a project the author worked on at John Hopkins University. This peer-to-peer concept brings in an interesting perspective – for me looking at these solutions makes sense, although it is not something I have worked with yet. However, the author gets too specific in the last chapters of the book, and instead of high-level discussions he delves into the specifics of using Spread for logging, which is a missed opportunity to really discuss the various architectures in that area.

The book is clearly written by someone who has been in the trenches, although the tone is a little cynical at times: "And yes, 1 fault tolerant and N-1 fault tolerant are the same with two machines, but trying to make that argument is good way to look stupid". The book could have benefited from a stronger editor who would have kept those things in check. The book is woolly, especially chapters 4 and 5, and could have been a bit shorter.

Recommended

The book provides a good high-level discussion of concepts such as various caching models, fail-over and scalability, combined with real-world experiences of the author. The book would have been stronger if it had had a better editor but is worth a read, especially for engineers new to the field of large scale websites.

There are very few books out there that discuss all these aspects on a high level. Perhaps a second edition can fix some of the minor shortcomings, but the book is recommended.

More info: http://scalableinternetarchitectures.com

0-672-32699-X
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English for work

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