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: 

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
Topic: 

Terug tot Ina Damman

Simon Vestdijk

My experience with coming of age books has been rather mixed. I disliked A Catcher in the Rye and especially Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I borrowed this book from my parents because years ago I enjoyed another Vestdijk book a great deal. And indeed, Vestdijk managed to write a book about a 15 year boy that is touching, funny, and interesting.

9001547907
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Dutch
Topic: 

De Tweeling

In my parent's house the to-be-returned library books were always on a specific shelf. Right above that were my parents' books, and "De Tweeling" always stood out. The book was published in 1990 so it clearly wasn't there throughout my whole childhood but in my memory the book was always there. It didn't appeal to me then to read it, but two years ago I bought a secondhand copy online.

This is a wonderful novel, and I greatly enjoyed it. It combines a traditional World War II story in the Netherlands with that of a woman growing up in Nazi Germany, and the book beautifully intertwines the life stories of the twins. The reader gets drawn into the story, and is intellectually curious to see how the author will wrap up the story, and emotionally curious to see how the women's lives will turn out.

Some parts of the book read like a boy's book about World War II, vaguely resembling Jan Terlouw's stories about the War in the Netherlands and the hunger winter, others parts are more about family relations and coming of age in difficult circumstances.

The book is also available in an English translation. Recommended.

Dutch
Tessa de Loo
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Topic: 

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have a list with classic books I want to read, and The Great Gatsby is one of the few that we own at home that I hadn't read. While waiting for Nora to wake up or fall asleep I often have a few minutes, and I found this book a perfect companion during those moments.

It is a very readable, entertaining story, and it drew me into a different world -- a great quality for a book. The book is "magic realistic", taking some liberties with basic chronology but wonderfully dreamy.

The edition I read came with a chapter on the history of the book, as well as an extensive explanation from the editor on how this text was derived (from the many drafts that the author wrote).

Sasha bought this book, and saw a ballet of The Great Gatsby last year in the Kennedy Center. I just found through Google that a new movie adaption will be released this year.

978-0684801520
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English
Topic: 

Petrus Stuyvesant, een levensschets

Jaap Jacobs

Petrus Stuyvesant was the last Director-General of Nieuw Amsterdam, and while the name is famous, I knew relatively little about it.

The book is written Jaap Jacobs, a well known New Netherland researcher and author. Earlier I read 'A history of New Netherland' by the same author.

In Russell Shorto's 'Island at the Center of the World' Adriaen van der Donck is the main character -- and not exactly a friend of Stuyvesant. It was interesting to know read a book from the other perspective. Jacobs did a nice job of providing more insight in the life of Stuyvesant, although the book remains a history book, and provides relatively little insight in the character of the man. The book always remains objective and neutral -- I wouldn't have minded if Jacobs provided a little more 'color' to the main character.

I believe I bought this book while visiting the Netherlands last year. I read it during two long nights, while waiting for Nora to fall asleep when she was almost four weeks old.

9789035134102
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Dutch

Cooking for Gracie -- the making of a parent from scratch

Keith Dixon

I'm looking forward tremendously to becoming a father, but I'll admit I also feel a little trepidation, especially for the first weeks. I've heard the stories of a lack of sleep, and I'd not enjoy giving up the pretty healthy eating that we do now -- cooking a lot at home.

So I was interested right away in this book, about a cooking-loving writer for the New York Times who became a father of a little girl and saw his life turned upside down.

The book is beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading it. I believe that my cooking is more down-to-earth than the author's pre-baby culinary baseline so in that sense the transition will be less stark, but it was great to get some insight in how life changes with a newborn.

The book also includes several recipes. I enjoyed the articles about the family's first year together, and I would have preferred to read about that and fewer recipes. Still, I'd like to make the 'Family-Style Roasted Cauliflower with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette'.

978-0307591876
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English
Topic: 

America's Christmas Heritage

Ruth Cole Kainen

I borrowed this book from the Arlington Library; a well-worn copy from 1997. The original edition is from 1969, and while I didn't realize it when I picked it up from the shelves, it is a well-known Christmas book that has even had exhibition in the Smithsonian around it. I enjoyed reading this book during the holidays, although it was not as interesting as the book on Thanksgiving I read in 2008.

The book explores the different traditions that immigrant groups have brought to America for Christmas. The Dutch Sinterklaas for the Santa Claus character (helped by a good dose of American creativity), the German "tannenbaum" tradition, eating turkey from the America's.

As a Dutch-American it was nice to read about the introduction of St. Nicholas to New York by Dutch settlers in the late 1600's, and how St. Nicholas merged with other figures into our current Santa Claus.

The book also contains a large amount of recipes. For me, the main text was more interesting. If anything, the recipes show that in all cultures winter celebrations are accompanied by copious amounts of found, often high in sugar and fat... and delicious.

It is striking to read how many different traditions and rituals exist. The culmination of this mixing bowl is the Christmas celebration in Hawaii.

For me personally, building rituals around the holidays and events is important -- preserving great memories from my childhood and mixing them with Bulgarian and American traditions. The book shows that this is the way it always goes: mixing and combining traditions have led to what we now consider "standard American Christmas" -- the same of course goes for other celebrations like Thanksgiving and birthdays etc. It's a strangely comforting feeling.

978-0308703575
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English

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

This is one of the best books I've read in years, and certainly one of the most hopeful books.

Steven Pinkert convincingly makes the case that violence today, in all its forms, is at an historical low and has been on the decline throughout human history. Ranging from big stuff such as murder and torture, to smaller forms of violence as depicted in advertising in the 1950s, violence is clearly on the decline. This has huge implications for society and politics.

"The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species. The implications touch the core of our beliefs and values -- for what could be more fundamental than an understand of whether the human condition, over the course of its history, has gotten steadily better, steadily worse, or has not changed?"

The book's message resonates greatly with me: life nowadays is better than ever, and modernity is a force for the good, fueled by the ascent of reason. This is a very hopeful book.

The first part of the book, describing historical trends, is stronger than the second part where the author goes into detail on how the human minds works. A minor point of criticism is that some of his statements about more recent history, indicating that the US is becoming more liberal, seem a little premature, even though the long-term trend is probably correct.

I bought this book at the airport in San Francisco, traveling back from work.

Steven Pinker
978-0670022953
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English

Financial Crisis Inquiry Report

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report is the official report the congressional committee that investigated the causes of the financial crisis in 2007-2010. The report reads surprisingly well, but is disappointing when it comes to analysis and finding root causes. We bought a copy of the book in the bookstore at the IMF on a Sunday afternoon in D.C. and I read it while we lived on 2400 M Street.

On the plus side: the book is well structured. Many of the developments during the crisis require an understanding of derivatives such as CDOs and mortgage backed securities, and the book does a good job explaining how they work. Unfortunately, the majority report is written as if the authors don’t like financial markets. There is a constant tendency to frame things in a negative light, such as when describing securization, with suspicion. Also, if concepts like derivatives or structured finance are “arcane” to the authors, maybe someone else should have written the report.

Bi-partisan and not digging deep enough

The main beef I have with the report is that it completely fails to bridge the bipartisan gap in Congress and gives a very one-side (Democratic) view of things. The report was written by a 10-member committee; 6 Democrats and 4 Republicans. No consensus was reached, and the 6 Democratic members voted in favor of the main text, the 4 Republicans against.

This matters a great deal, for example when discussing the influence of the government’s home ownership policies and programs such as HUD. It would have been interesting to know if there was a strong correlation between affordable housing programs and the increase of sub-prime mortgages. The main text makes a reasonable case that HUD was not a major factor in the crisis, but as so much of the report it remains anecdotal. Instead of simply saying ‘no’ (the majority) or ‘yes’ (the dissenters), a real discussion based on scientific analysis would have contributed much more to understanding the fundamentals behind the crisis. In general, the report is good in describing what happened, but sorely deficient in digging deeper and trying to answer ‘why’. Obviously, understand the root causes is essential for framing policies that can help prevent the next crisis.

After the introduction, I read the chapters written by the 4 dissenting members first. I liked their treatment of frequently debated topics such as “should we have saved Lehman”. The 4th dissenter, who is associated with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a standalone chapter where he blamed the government policies on affordable housing. Again – it’s interesting to see these opinions, disappointing that there was no effort to reach an (academic) consensus. In general, the report is superficial and often reads as a partisan attack on “deregulation” and “complex finance”.

Still, it was an enjoyable read, almost like a thriller. The demise of Bear Stearns makes for fascinating reading. When the crisis was unfolding I listened to NPR a lot and often I'd hear the voice of Kai Ryssdal, the presenter of Marketplace in my head while reading the report.

The report made me understand something that I had wondered about before -- the unwillingness of many lenders to lend during the crisis, even when they offered good collateral. The problem for some lenders is that they are not allowed to own certain collateral, so when the counterparty disappears they may end up owning and having to sell the collateral immediately, at fire sale prices. The influence of this also surprised the SEC, as the report explains.

A difficult job for regulators

The chapters about the regulators were quite interesting. First of all, it is silly that financial institutions can shop around for favorable regulators. The regulators had to make difficult choices during the crisis (and before the crisis). What is in the best interest of the country? Never ever allow any risk and thus dramatically reducing innovation and profitability? It explained that moral hazard was a strong motivator for the regulators to letting Lehman fail. Similar trade-offs were made by Congress. The decision to create hybrid public/private companies such as Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae created huge losses to the taxpayer during the crisis (estimates range to $400 billion). However, arguably they also helped to create a better mortgage market in the years before that. Again, would have been quite interesting to read some analysis of the economics and politics of those decisions.

My goals in reading the report were two-fold: learn more details about the crisis, and understand the root causes. The book helps with the first goal, but sadly fails in the second.

978-1610390415
English
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Topic: 

Walden

Henry David Thoreau

Walden, written in 1856, is a famous American book about living in the woods and finding one self. The strength of the book is the way Thoreau looks and nature, and captures the spirit of living in the woods near a lake in print. I enjoyed his observation of natural phenomena. The way he described Walden lake -- the way it freezes in the winter and how it thaws in spring -- gives you a renewed appreciation for nature. Thoreau spends several pages describing how a loon is flying over the lake.

His economical and sociological viewpoints on the other hand, are inconsistent and somewhat immature. For example, Thoreau is arguing against the principle of division of labor but at the same time he is more than happy to use highly specialized tools, such as a good axe, to build his own house.

The psychological aspect of the book -- looking into oneself and finding the relationship between yourself and the world around you -- is not very convincing and rather superficial.

Incredibly, he also said that it is better to make bread without using yeast! "Yet I find [yeast] not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more respectable to omit it.” While you can certainly make great breads without yeast, I think that Thoreau has crossed a fundamental line here ;)

Joking aside, this was an interesting book. It was slow at times, but over-all I enjoyed reading this American classic.

0-89471-495-3
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English

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