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Articles tagged with: Book Review

14
August
2016

Storytelling with Data

Book Review

Storytelling with Data

Authors: Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Publisher: Wiley, 2015

I've been doing a little bit of data visualization for the last couple of months. The intent has been to get insights that could trigger decisions to add business value. While I've produced dozens of charts in the process, I've at times wondered if there's a better way. That's when I picked up this book written by an ex-Google employee who employed best practices in visualization to assist the HR department in their recruitment process.

If oil is considered as liquid gold, data is cyber gold. In the Information Age of today, data is perhaps becoming more important than ever before. Yet data remains just a bunch of numbers if we don't see past them to understand causes, patterns, trends, forecasts, dependencies, correlations and contexts. Yes, data can tell a lot about the systems and the world they represent. It's therefore important to analyze data. If data is cyber gold, it's not available in a glittering form. It has to be mined, processed and polished.

1
August
2016

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Book Review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2015

As a species, we are but one among millions of species on Earth. How is it that we are at the top of the food chain, more populous and more successful than any other species? Is it because we have bigger and better brains? Is it language that made the difference? Is it because we succeeded in forming complex social structures that other species were incapable of? Is it because we were curious about the world around us? In this captivating book, Harari sweeps grandly across the entire history of the human race, covering all these aspects of our progress and more. Where historical evidence is sketchy, he excites us with his imagination, not through fantasy but through clear logical explanation that makes sense. How is any of this relevant to modern engineers, you may ask.

Technology has given us power but what about happiness? Is mere economic growth fuelled by capitalism progress? Are we better off today with our myriad digital devices than our ancestors who wielded nothing more than stone tools? We live longer and have plenty to satisfy our desires, but are we happier than the first Homo sapiens? Are we right to measure progress based on the well being our species alone? Are we right to engineer genetically the future of our own species? These are the more interesting questions that Harari asks.

20
June
2016

Computer -- A History of the Information Machine

Book Review

Computer -- A History of the Information Machine

Authors: Martin Campbell-Kelly, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, Jeffrey R. Yost
Publisher: Westview Press, 2014

The computer may be just 150 years old but in this short time period it has made for itself a rich history. This is mainly because technological evolution happens at a much greater pace when compared against biological or geological evolution. To condense this history into a book of just twelve chapters is indeed a remarkable achievement. While computers are now essential to our culture and lifestyle, it's interesting to know how they got here. It's interesting to read about the scientists and engineers who made it happen. It's interesting to understand the processes and the historical backdrop that shaped the computer evolution. It's with this intention that I picked up this book and I was not disappointed.

For some of us, the history of the modern computer is not really a secret. We know that they evolved from desktop calculating machines. Then there were the expensive mainframes built on a monolithic architecture. Mainframes gave way to minicomputers, which in turn gave way to personal computers. Then computers became portable in the form of laptops and notebooks. They got interconnected via the Internet. More recently, smartphones more powerful than the first mainframes can fit in our pockets and talk to other devices wirelessly. While all these are familiar facts, the interesting parts are in the details of how such things came to pass.

11
April
2016

How Software Works

Book Review

How Software Works

Author: V. Anton Spraul
Publisher: No Starch Press, 2015

We are so used to technology these days that we hardly think about them. We rarely ask how they work because we are mostly interested in the convenience they bring. But sometimes we may get curious, especially as engineers, and start to ask how they work. Looking specifically at software, the "magic" is even deeper because they work silently and often in the background. They only give occasional indications to the user.

When I make online purchases with my credit card, how can I be sure that the transaction is secure? For that matter, how is trust established in such transactions? When I created an online account on any website, how are my passwords stored? How secure are the sensitive data that I store on the cloud? How is it that movies like Jurassic Park look so real while at the same time an entire movie like Toy Story or Wall-E can be animated by computers? How is it that video games can render scenes in real time? How can an entire movie fit on a single disc without much loss of visual quality? How is Google able to retrieve search results in split seconds? How is software able to find the best route from point A to point B on a map?

10
March
2016

Good To Great

Book Review

Good To Great

Author: Jim Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2001

India is in the midst of a start-up revolution. Young engineers barely out of college are launching start-ups. Local start-ups such as OlaCabs and Flipkart are giving tough competition to big names from the world stage. Some even have made it big outside India and in this regard InMobi and Zomato come to mind. Yet, how many of our homegrown start-ups will ever become great? For that matter, can established players such as Infosys and TCS be considered great? How does one define greatness? What does it take to become great?

To say that Jim Collins has written this book would be misleading. He makes it clear that he had a team of twenty people who together put in 15,000 hours of research. Ideas and concepts on their own may not convince readers. He therefore starts clearly by putting forward his methods of research and criteria used to separate great companies from mediocre ones. Companies that showed better than market performance over a period of 15 years were deemed as great. Greatness was not linked to one particular CEO and his charisma. The goal was to identify a set of fundamental principles that were found to be common across great companies regardless of industry, technology or CEO.

24
January
2016

Bringing a Hardware Product to Market

Book Review

Bringing a Hardware Product to Market

Author: Elaine Chen
Publisher: Elaine Chen, 2015

Bangalore has been a start-up hub the last couple of years. It's not uncommon to find students graduating not just with a degree but also an idea for a start-up. I have met such fresh engineers at maker fairs, exhibitions and demo nights. They have a prototype that's usually on display. The prototype works. Next, they tell me that they are going to market or scaling up. Often they sound as if prototyping was the toughest part and the rest is merely tying up loose ends.

I guess this perception comes because they have not been exposed to the challenges of making a product or what it entails. They have no knowledge of the manufacturing process. They might have solved many technical problems in the prototyping phase. This gives them a sense of achievement and a false sense of completion. One of the greatest myths in the mind of an uninitiated inventor is to assume that the road from prototype to product is a simple straightforward step. Engineer and product management consultant Elaine Chen explains otherwise.

22
December
2015

Make: Electronics

Book Review

Make: Electronics

Author: Charles Platt
Publisher: O'Reilly, 2009

If there's one book that I should recommend to beginners of electronics, this one by Charles Platt would be it. In fact, it's so beautifully written that I kept asking myself why didn't I have such a book twenty years ago when I did my engineering. As a student, I had been made to learn a lot of theory that came complete with its dose of Fourier Series and Kirchoff's Laws. A handful of labs and a project did bring some practical exposure but this book turns the traditional approach to learning electronics on its head.

Subtitled as Learn by Discovery, this book presents the basics by way of simple experiments. Components are explained. Readers are guided through the connections. Wiring diagrams and schematics are presented cleanly without clutter. Theory is kept to a minimum and introduced only to clarify certain concepts. So who should read it?

11
December
2015

Einstein's Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time

Book Review

Einstein's Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time

Author: Marcia Bartusiak
Publisher: Joseph Henry Press, 2000

Last month the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Relativity has changed the way we understand the world around us and rewritten Newtonian laws of physics that stood for 300 years. It is therefore fitting that we review how far we have come in these hundred years and how much more we need to do. It is with this intention that I picked up Marcia Bartusiak's Einstein's Unfinished Symphony.

What is relativity? Newton formulated his laws on the assumption of an absolute space, space that's at rest. He also assumed that time itself was universal and synchronized across the universe. Einstein shattered these assumptions by showing that both space and time are relative concepts. Bartusiak takes us through this wonderful historical journey of the discovery of relativity and beyond. She points out the key milestones and the scientists who were key figures in these discoveries.

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