Guus Bosman

software engineering director

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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.

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

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

Havana Real

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:

Yoani Sánchez

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

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

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
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: " 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

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

Twee Vrouwen

Twee Vrouwen (Twice a Woman) is a book by Dutch author Harry Mulish, who recently passed away. It had been a while since I read a book in Dutch. It's so much easier than reading in French! Harry Mulish is one of my favorite Dutch authors, but there are many books of him that I haven't read.

My grandmother gave us a copy when I visited the Netherlands a few weeks ago. The book is from 1975 but it was republished in 2008 for the promotional Nederland Leest event.

I greatly enjoyed the book; it's a straight forward story but with many different layers and a lot of symbolism.

Harry Mulisch

HTML5 for Web Designers

HTML5 for Web Designers is a short and pleasant introduction to HTML5.

The book, 87 pages long, is published by the folks of A List Apart, a blog about website design that I follow. It's a quick read -- the book probably took me no more than 30 minutes -- and it gives you the highlights of HTML5 quickly. The introduction, with the history of the development of HTML standards, was interesting.


Web Forms 2.0 is very useful. I think the micro-format like elements such as mark and time are good additions, but I'm not so sure about the new structure elements. The article vs section is a little confusing, and I'm not sure what their added value is. I'm not so convinced of the benefits of the more flexible nesting and outlining that the author describes.

Obviously, the standardization of video and audio playback is huge (as long as we can all agree on the encoding...).

For my work, the Web Forms 2.0 elements are probably going to be the most useful: marking fields as required, specifying that input fields can take numeric input only, etc. Today we use JavaScript libraries for this. A library like ExtJS already allows you to specify this declaratively but native browser support would be even better.

The book purposely did not go into the new standardized JavaScript APIs that are part of HTML5, that would be a nice topic to read on.

Jeremy Keith
English for work


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