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.


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

The Future of Freedom

When I visited Washington, DC for the first time many years ago, I was impressed by the many books and magazines about politics and current affairs in Barnes and Noble. There is a lively and very public debate in the US on public affairs, and books play an important role in it. Coming from the Netherlands, where there is less of such a culture (if only because the book market is significantly smaller than in the US), this was impressive.

One of the first nights that we were in DC after moving from North Carolina we went to the bookstore to pick up something to read. The Future of Freedom grabbed my attention, and it turned out to be a good choice. The book discusses a tension between democracy and liberty. Zakaria makes that case that too much democracy is not a good thing, and using examples in the Middle East, developing countries and in the United States he argues essentially for less (direct) democracy.

The main value of his book is that he brings the old discussion that the Founding Fathers of the US had up-to-date with very modern examples. Of course, the book was written in 2003 and is a little dated, certainly with the new developments in the Middle East over the past year, but this does not diminish its value. Zakaria argues that the increasing tendency to democratize everything in society makes the political system less effective and, with the goodness that democracy and openness brings, it also destroys valuable old institutions that are not easily replaced.

In the last chapter he elaborates on his proposed solution against too much democracy: delegating powers to committees. They are overseen by the elected bodies, but only on a high level (up or down vote), not on every nitty-gritty detail. This would give more power to those pesky "unelected bureaucrats", but Zakaria argues that this is not a bad thing, as governing requires specialized knowledge.

I'm not sure if I follow him totally into his conclusion, but the book is interesting, thought-provoking and very well written.

Fareed Zakaria
0-393-04764-4
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English

Voor de troon wordt men niet ongestraft geboren

It was fascinating to read about the first three Kings of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. During most of the 20th century, the Queens have had largely ceremonial roles, but in the 19th century there was a real power struggle between the monarchs and parliament. Ultimately, parliament won and the Netherlands became a constitution monarchy, but the three King Williams fought a hard political battle.

This was interesting book, if a little gossipy. I didn't know much at all about this period in Dutch history; the 19th century was rather boring and generally brought decline compared to the 17th century, so it is not an important part of school curriculums.

Reading the book makes you appreciate why people across Europe revolted against royal rules. There is an incredible amount of scheming and intriguing going on. The descriptions of the private lives of the monarchs were less interesting but it was fascinating to see the politics around and in royal families worked.

This book was a present by Harm and Marijke. I read it during the time that we were moving from Durham back to DC.

Dorine Hermens & Daniela Hooghiemstra
978-9035135109
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Dutch
Topic: 

Havana Real

Yoani Sánchez

This books describes the daily life of a family in Cuba. Yoani started an (illegal) blog, and become world-famous with it. The book collects her stories from 2007 through 2010.

I didn't know much about daily life in Cuba, and this is an eye opener. Incredible, to read about a communist failed state that still exists. I have heard a lot about how life was in Bulgaria before 1989, and it's amazing to read this book. It's no wonder the Cuban authorities are unhappy about this blogs and others like it. The endless list of damning details about people suffering from a lack of basic everyday items speaks very strongly to how the regime in Havanna is totally failing its people.

The book has amazing details. How people, when hearing Castro speak on TV, remembering only one thing: the promise that every Cuban can get a glass of milk whenever he wants to -- and the state TV that cuts to a commercial the moment the replay of that sentence comes on.

English translation of Yoani's blog: http://www.desdecuba.com/generationy/

978-1935554257
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English

De schipbreuk van de Batavia, 1629

This book is a reprint of the original manuscript of the commander of the ship Batavia, which perished on the cliffs before Australia in 1629. It is a project by the Linschoten-Vereeniging, a society that aims to republish original Dutch-language manuscripts related to (ocean) travel.

It was an interesting book to read. The bloody story of the Batavia was mostly new for me. The book consists of two parts: a thorough introduction and summary of the affair, as well as the transcription of the commander of the ship, Francisco Pelsaert. The latter is kept in the original 17th century Dutch, which took a while to get used to but is ultimately quite readable. The summary in the beginning is very helpful, since the manuscript and other documents are not placed chronologically.

The story of the Batavia is quite sad, and the manuscript is explicit in the bloodiness of the whole business.

Harm and Marijke gave me this book when I visited the Netherlands in 2010.

V.D. Roeper
90-5730-234-9
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Dutch

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I'm making it a point to catch up on my American reading from time to time. One of the most well-known American books is the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and enjoyed reading it a lot. The edition I read includes several of his other writings as well, such as a selection of Silence Dogood letters.

A large part of the book is very recognizable, and you can relate to the things Franklin goes through. And then all of a sudden he writes about the financial negotiations with his potential in-laws that break down, and he doesn't move forward with the marriage because they can't agree on a dowry.

Franklin has had an amazingly productive life -- he started the first public library, university and hospital in Philadelphia -- and it's great to read things from his own perspective. I especially enjoyed the description of the journey from London to Philadelphia, a trip that lasted more than two months.

Benjamin Franklin
0-679-64103-3
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English
Topic: 

Data-Intensive Text Processing with MapReduce

Jimmy Lin, Chris Dyer

It's beautiful to see a real change in paradigm happening. I remember in college how much I enjoyed programming in functional languages, and how cool it is to be able to look at problems from a different viewpoint. What Google and others have achieved with MapReduce a similar change in the way of looking at problems.

MapReduce is the name of Google's base algorithm for their processing of huge data sets. Since then, other companies have followed suit. I didn't know much about this field and this book is a great introduction. It provides a good description of the foundation, and I love it that it describes practical uses. Examples they gave are machine translations, Google's PageRank, shortest path in a graph etc.

Actually in use

What I like about MapReduce is that it provides an abstraction for distributed computing that is actually being used and is succesful. The book showed the scaling characteristics of an example algorithm (strips for computing word co-occurrence) on Hadoop: a R^2 of 0.997! That means that there is almost a linear scalability increase when you add extra machines.

Want to read more

This is one of those books that makes you want to read more. For example, since reading this book I've looked into terms such as Zipfian, Brewer's CAP Theorem and Heap's Law. I still need to learn more about Expectation Maximization and "Hidden Markov Models", harping back on some fundamental mathematics I had in college.

I want to read more about machine translations now, Koehn's book perhaps. And definitely want to read the Google article, about "unreasonable effectiveness of data".

This is an excellent book, which provides a very readable introduction to the algorithms and real-world implementations.

9781608453429
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English for work

Going Dutch -- How England Plundered Holland's Glory

An interesting book about William III, the Dutch stadtholder who became King of England in 1688, and more in general the relation between Holland and England in the 17th century.

The books deals extensively with the connections between the Netherlands and England at that time, such as in science, in the shared taste in gardens and painting and in political connections. Constantijn Huygens played a big role in developing this shared taste, according to the author.

The author makes the case that the societies in England and Holland were closely intertwined and mutually influenced each other. This in contrast to the publisher's comments on the cover and the strange subtitle which talk about "plundering" Holland's glory. The author writes: "...here was no conquest, here was an affinity -- a meeting of minds and sensibilities."

Ultimately, William III died without having any children and the English thrown went to his wife's sister. One benefit for the Dutch though, was that William and Mary sent back large amounts of (mostly Dutch) paintings from London to Het Loo, where many of them still are.

The book is well written, if a bit wordy at times, and provides a fascinating glimpse of life at the royals courts in Holland and England. The author used a wide range of source materials to enliven the book.

There are many fascinating stories and details in the book. It was great to read about Newton and Huygens and their work together, and to read about governor Winthrop in the British colony of Connecticut who was looking forward to read the book about the discovery of the planets of Saturn.

A recommended read for history buffs, especially if you have an interest in Western Europe in the 17th century.

Lisa Jardine
9780060774080
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English

Het Heelal

Het Heelal is the Dutch edition of Hawking's classic A Brief History of Time. I brought this copy from Holland a few weeks ago. It was on my parent's attic in our boxes so I'm sure it's my copy, but I don't remember how I got it.

It's not the first time I read this book, and last winter I read several articles by Hawkings, but it's always a great read. The idea of a time-space continuum is appealing, but difficult to understand, I'll admit.

It was interesting to read the book in Dutch (I usually try to read books in their original English, but hey, I had it on my bookshelves). The translator had Hawkings use Dam Square in Amsterdam as a reference point. Good translations though.

Stephen Hawking
Dutch
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