Spring Reading

Suffering from an undiagnosed illness and kept away from the mountains this spring I’ve had the opportunity to read a good number of books in addition to wasting too many hours playing DOTA 2.  Here are some micro reviews:

God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens: A Christmas gift from a relative, the late Hitchens’ tear down of religion (all religion, not just Christianity, mind you) was my first reading after plowing through the first four A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books.  Written in classic polemic style, it is concise, easy to read, and absolutely one sided.  Even-handed this is not.  Yet that is the point of a polemic: to make the case that your argument is so strong that there is no other argument to consider, no valid opposing point of view.  Although his vitriol is tiring on occasion, that his arguments should be considered by believers and atheists alike cannot be denied.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo:  Most laymen with an interest in modern physics or its development are familiar with many of Paul Dirac’s results and innovations: the Dirac equation, the Dirac delta function, bra-ket notation, the prediction of the anti-electron (positron), and so on, and yet most of us have little awareness or understanding of Dirac’s life and personality.  In this book, Farmelo does a great job showing Dirac’s troubled upbringing, struggles to succeed as a young adult, supreme awkardness in his personal relationships (hence “The Strangest Man”), fame and triumphs in his 20s and 30s, and acolyte of the quest for truth in mathematics through his later years.  The book is occasionally dense, and sometimes a little dry, and probably couldn’t be enjoyed without a prior interest in Paul Dirac, but for those interested in the early development of quantum theory this is a great book.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: According to the front cover, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker prize, but I respectfully disagree as to its quality.  A fairly long tale told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell set in the middle years of King Henry VIII’s reign, a complex web of relationships is developed, but little empathy is developed and the plot plods along ultimately going almost nowhere.  For a more interesting yarn involving the same characters (and more!) I would suggest instead watching Showtime’s TV series “The Tudors”.

CUDA Programming: A Developer’s Guide to Parallel Programming with GPUs, by Shane Cook: In my real life as the lead developer for a high-performance in-memory database and analytic engine, I’m frequently asked whether any of our calculations could be optimized by running them on GPUs instead of CPUs.  Consequently, I used my time on a recent trip to Texas to read Shane Cook’s introductory book on programming GPUs with CUDA and found it to be very enlightening.  Nothing can compete with raw experience, but for a quick head start on developing with CUDA (only for nVidia GPUs), this book does a really good job at explaining the necessary concepts and developing examples to show fof the various capabilities and pitfalls of GPU programming.  A few more examples of converting real world algorithms to work on GPUs would have been appreciated, but there’s always trial and error in Visual Studio to figure that out…

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle: I’ve struggled these past few months to come to grips with a long lasting illness, and at times felt a need to seek help working through things. Through this process, I was recommended two books by Eckhart Tolle, and read this one first.  Written in question and answer format, the book is structured as a long conversation between the reader and Tolle himself, working to guide the reader to understand the importance of “now”, and how “now” is the only thing that ever is.  Regardless of what happens or what has happened, you are living “now” and all that is not “now” needs to be dealt with rationally and minimally.  Personally I found this book very helpful, and that’s pretty much all that can be said about it.  Some people would probably find it fluffy and just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, as would I have a year ago, but if you’re struggling to come to terms with something in life, this book is a powerful kick in the pants to get mentally back on track.

A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle: Unlike “The Power of Now”, Tolle’s “A New Earth” is much less focussed on becoming mindful about “now” and living focussed solely on your current being, and instead focusses on the matter of ego and how it affects oneself as well as humanity in general.  The points he makes are interesting and seem quite valid, but for me this book lacked the poignancy and power of his previous book.  Furthermore, a few sections veer just a little too close to “mumbo jumbo” when he starts discussing things beyond the self.  Not bad, but not great either in my mind.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day, by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan:  One of the constants of popular Himalayan mountaineering literature is that it’s told from the perspective of the visitors: the North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans who visit the Himalaya each year to climb and conquer its mighty peaks.  Nonetheless, there are few expeditions to the Himalaya that don’t have Sherpas or other high altitude porters (HAPs) assisting them all the way from the valleys to high camps, and often all the way to the summit.  These Sherpa climbers support expeditions, save lives, and die on the mountains just like white people do, and it is their story that Zuckerman and Padoan bring to life in this book.  A remarkably quick read, requiring only a few hours, their book vividly tells the story of climbers like Chhiring Sherpa from their upbringing in tiny villages to their involvement in the tragedy that unfolded on K2 in August 2008.  Well written and brief, this book fills its niche well and we can hope that more stories in the future share the perspective of the local climbers and guides and not just the visitors with the money to pay for the expeditions.

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