an eddy in the bitstream

Day: March 28, 2005

The Baroque Cycle

Just finished racing through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, three novels set in the 17th century. As early modern European history was my undergrad major, and technology my current occupation, this series was a real treat (which can explain how I finished 3000 pages in 3 weeks).

Barbary Corsair pirates, the birth of the commodities markets, the debate over the origins of the calculus, defenestrations of all kinds. What a riot.

In Xanadu: A Quest

I liked William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain so much that I convinced my book club to try another of his travel books.

The short review: it’s not as good as Mountain but still worth a read. This is his first book, for which he became (justifiably) famous while still an undergrad. It feels a little “green” compared to Mountain — I’m chalking that up to Dalrymple’s relative youth and it being his first book. I hear traces of what will become excellent writing 10 years later.

The Unconquerable World

Jonathan Schell’s book was a Christmas gift a couple years ago. Took me some time to get through it. Not because it was poor writing (though it’s not particularly lyrical) but because it’s emotionally difficult to consider war when your country is mired in one.

I guess I should feel hopeful after reading it; maybe I’m too cynical, but I didn’t feel it. Maybe I just need to listen to less NPR news and take more walks in the woods.

The Philosophical Programmer: Reflections on the Moth in the Machine

My friend Lori read this several years ago, when she was a programmer and I was not. I ran across it at the library and thought I could do with a little rumination on my current occupation.

Daniel Kohanski offers a nice historical overview of the computer, some thoughts on writing beautiful code, and best of all, some observations on how the rigid and unforgiving logic of computers is changing the way we (programmers) think. There’s some good theology in there somewhere.

The most advanced work in computers today is in artificial intelligence, which is one way of saying, we’re trying to make computers a little more forgiving and a little more fuzzy. Take your PC out for a few beers; that’ll fuzzy it up.

My favorite excerpt:

At one job, I came up with a maxim henceforth to be known as Kohanski’s First Law of Programming: Something that has a one-in-a-million chance of going wrong will go wrong the first day we go live. To which was added Liff’s Corollary: It will either happen in the first five minutes or just after everyone has left for the day.

Ain’t it the truth.

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