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Articles tagged with: Book Review

27
April
2017

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

Book Review

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

Author: Marcus du Sautoy
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2008

Published first in the UK as Finding Moonshine, the first US edition got a title that a layman can relate to more easily. Symmetry is everywhere, in nature as well as in man-made objects. Symmetry gives balance and stability to structures. Symmetry is aesthetically pleasing just as lack of symmetry can be used cleverly to draw attention or to suggest that perfection must be left to the Gods. Flowers use symmetry to attract bees, whose vision has been honed to recognize patterns rather than colours. The way bees form their honeycombs is also symmetrical. Outward symmetry can sometimes hide inward asymmetry, as in the human body. Symmetry exists in the molecular structure of methane.

The way to explain symmetry is through mathematics and this book takes the reader through the journey of one specific branch of mathematics called group theory. In particular, the book is about the classification of finite simple groups (CFSG), which is the pinnacle of achievement in this branch. While mathematics is not every reader's cup of tea, this book simplifies the subject a great deal. Anecdotes make it entertaining. The book is also an insightful view into the world of mathematicians and how they work.

13
March
2017

ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever

Book Review

ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever

Authors: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Publisher: Random House, 2010

Rework is a book about a different approach to work and running a business. It was authored by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson who are the founders of the web application development company "37Signals". Since 2014 the company renamed itself to their successful flagship project management tool Basecamp. The company was also behind the development of the web application framework, Ruby on Rails (RoR). RoR was subsequently open sourced in 2004.

Rework is for anyone thinking of starting a new company or changing the culture and practices at their current place of work. It is a condensation of their collective wisdom and lessons learnt from running successful businesses. Unlike other books that I have read of a similar aim, Rework does not read like an autobiography with a few punchy pieces of relevant advice and lots of padding otherwise. It reads more like a collection of anecdotes and opinions on how to run or manage different aspects of a company. The layout of the book is such that it is a very easy read; even pleasurable; and you can complete a few of its short yet to-the-point chapters in a single sitting such as on your bus ride to work or before you sleep.

28
February
2017

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Book Review

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Publisher: Penguin, 2009

This book is about the important role that probability and statistics play in our lives. It's title comes from the fact that the path traced by molecules are haphazard. In fact, it was first observed by Robert Brown, later analyzed by Boltzmann and Maxwell, and finally mathematically proved by Einstein in one of his papers of 1905. Just as random bombardments by molecules on a piece of pollen suspended in a liquid sometimes reinforce and give the pollen a visible nudge, so do random events in our lives sometimes shape our future more than we could have predicted.

There are in fact, two problems with accepting this. Firstly, our minds are not really built to either generate or recognize randomness. Our minds more naturally look for patterns and attempt to find the cause of things. Secondly, we like to be in control. We value skill and ability. So to say that our future is determined by chance is quite the opposite to what we like to believe.

31
January
2017

Idea Man - A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft

Book Review

Idea Man - A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft

Author: Paul Allen
Publisher: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011

In this autobiography, Paul Allen talks about the early years when he joined with Bill Gates and co-founded Microsoft in 1975. While both Bill and Microsoft are fairly well known to the public, Paul has not had that much of a public presence, at least not outside of the US. This may have something to do with the fact that he left Microsoft in 1982, when the personal computer revolution had just begun to accelerate. This book tells us a lot about his contribution towards building Microsoft what it is today. It's also lays bare the complex relationship that Paul had with Bill. The book is also a quick overview of how technology has progressed through the 1970s and 1980s, which is something that will interest today's engineers.

It's true that sometimes success is being in the right place at the right time. If you're too early, the market is not ready or the technology is unavailable. If you're too late, you end up trying to catch up with others. Either way, this book makes one thing clear: it's equally important to be adventurous, be confident in your abilities and have a vision for the future. Quite often Paul mentions that many of the ideas he contributed were pivotal to the success of Microsoft, which explains the title of this book.

14
December
2016

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Book Review

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Author: Nicholas Carr
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2010

We live in a connected world in which access to information is no longer limited to society's elite. Just by searching on Google we can get instant answers to almost any question. Through our smartphones we can access services that bring value and convenience to our lives. We are constantly connected to our family and friends, so that we get the latest news in a matter of minutes if not seconds. But we are not merely consumers of information. We are also producers of information that we share with others: emails, blogs, photos, videos, chat messages, and so on. Surely, this means we are better off than our ancestors, doesn't it?

In this book, the author argues that technologies that powered the Information Age, the computer and the Internet in particular, have not really improved our IQs. By flooding our senses with multiple streams of information, they have overwhelmed certain limits of our brain. By placing importance on information, we have sacrificed the ability to think deeply. Without realizing it, we have become victims to modern technologies in ways that were not anticipated even by its creators.

12
November
2016

Go Kiss the World

Book Review

Go Kiss the World

Author: Subroto Bagchi
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2008

Today India is recognized worldwide in the field of IT and software but this is not something that happened by chance. It didn't happen simply because government decided to open up the economy in the early 1990s. This reputation was built by hard work, dedication and good values of India's first generation of entrepreneurs. We are not talking about the Tatas or the Birlas. We are talking about entrepreneurs who came from India's middle class. This autobiography is about one such individual, Subroto Bagchi, who founded MindTree.

MindTree was founded in 1999 by ten entrepreneurs and Subroto was one of them. It was India's first venture-funded IT company that went towards IPO. When it went public in 2007, it was 103 times oversubscribed. Unlike many others, MindTree survived the dot-com crash and the business uncertainty that surrounded post-9/11 years. As David to Goliath, it beat bigger competitors in securing high-profile customers. How did they do it? Subroto tells this story in candid tones about himself and the company he built.

31
October
2016

Inviting Disaster

Book Review

Inviting Disaster

Author: James R. Chiles
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2008 (eBook edition)

We live in a complex world of machines that we've built for ourselves. While machines and their connected systems exist for our needs and service, they can sometimes go terribly wrong. They don't behave the way intended. Once they go rouge, they can't be controlled. What the world then sees is the fallout from a disaster no one expected. This book takes the reader through dozens of such disasters. The author narrates these disasters almost as if they're happening beside us. He explains the technical details. He describes the frantic attempts by those at the scene working on the dangerous edges of technology. In the process, he fills us with a sense of awe and respect for technology.

Yes, those of us who take technology for granted will be more respectful of it once we read this book. Going by the promise of Murphy's Law, many things can go wrong. The author notes that if such a law exists, we should be seeing lot more disasters. In reality, for every disaster that comes to front-page news, there are probably many more near misses that somehow did not run away to a disaster. Failures are likely and they do happen quite a lot in many systems. Due to built-in redundancies, good design and fail-safe mechanisms, many of them are caught early. But many small failures linking up together lead to a disaster. The author states, "A disaster occurs through a combination of poor maintenance, bad communication, and shortcuts. Slowly the strain builds."

7
September
2016

The Art of Designing Embedded Systems

Book Review

The Art of Designing Embedded Systems

Authors: Jack Ganssle
Publisher: Newnes, 2008 (Second Edition)

When I picked up this book, I half expected to read about a serious subject written in a serious textbook style. Within the first few paragraphs it was clear that this book surprises and interests, not least by its almost chatty informal style. It's a book written by an engineer for engineers. It's a book written by a practitioner with many years of solid experience. The author is not presenting here a theoretical framework or a wish list. He is rather condensing many years of experience from which readers can directly benefit. He gives loads of tips and tricks that engineers can start applying in their daily work.

The relevance of this book is of course obvious. Embedded systems are everywhere: in home electronics, in personal devices, in industrial automation and increasingly in tiny devices that are going to come in their billions as part of the Internet-of-Things. Now more than ever firmware developers need to learn from the experiences of others and adopt best practices. To learn from self-experience through mistakes and mishaps is something neither engineers nor their employers can afford.

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