Guus Bosman

software engineering director


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Here's a list of books that made a strong impression on me when I read them.

See also the full list of book that I read.

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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.

J. J. Voskuil
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Dutch
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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
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Data-Intensive Text Processing with MapReduce

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.

Jimmy Lin, Chris Dyer
9781608453429
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English for work
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Operating Systems: Design and Implementation

My first introduction to large scale development.

When I was 16 years old I borrowed this book from our neighbor next door. I brought it on vacation in France, and still remember the smell of fresh cut grass when I was reading this book in France, over and over again. The Appendix contained the entire source code of Minix.

Years later when I did my Master's Degree in Amsterdam I followed two courses by the author, Andrew Tanenbaum.

Andrew S. Tanenbaum
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English for work

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

This book needs no further introduction. I read it when I was 14, 15 and this helped me decide to take on a degree in Computer Science.

Douglas Hofstadter
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English for work
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Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software

In my first job at Chess patterns where just coming in fashion in the mid-1990's. Can't say that the GoF is a book that's great to read but it has a wealth of knowledge distilled.

Gang of Four
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English for work

Managing Humans, biting and humorous tales of a software engineering manager

A great, fun read with experiences of a fellow engineering manager. Very recognizable.

Michael Lopps
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English for work

Server-Based Java Programming

Years ago, in 2004, I ran my first project as a team-lead. We created a small transactional site for a TV-show, some type of lottery, and we knew that we would have a massive amount of traffic on the evening of the broadcast.

It was right around this time that I read this book, and it had some great info about multi-threading and scalability.

When the day of the TV show came, all was well and the server held up beautifully. A few days later we heard that the government had stopped the lottery from functioning since it turned out to break certain regulations. So there was no winner in the lottery but... my first high-profile project worked.

I'm sure it's dated now, but at the time it was a great read.

Ted Newark
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English for work

Hiring the Best: Manager's Guide to Effective Interviewing and Recruiting

This is good read on interviewing and hiring new employees. It helps you get in the right mindset to interview people.

When I read it the first time a few years ago it also helped me get up to speed with how interviews are done in the United States.

Martin Yate
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English for work

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