Friday, February 18, 2011

Essential non-software books for the software professional

I somehow got into thinking about this topic recently. There are, I’m sure, a number of lists of essential software readings for the software professional. These include books like Code Complete, The Mythical Man Month and The Art of Computer Programming. A quick search found me this lovely link listing (gulp) a hundred books. I’ve read only ten of them.
However, my pet grouse against fellow programmers is their singular vanity about how unique their profession is. (It’s my profession too, but I don’t have such illusions). Us programmers are like other humans(!) in many ways and the life lessons one learns (often the hard way) are similar.
Keeping that in mind, I present my list of essential non-software books for a software professional. This is a fairly personal list, but these are books that have shaped my thinking and beliefs over the years, and I think they’d make a great addition to the thinking software professional’s library.

Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! - I think this should be essential reading for everyone, and not just engineers. It captures the playfulness and never-ending curiosity that Feynman brought to his profession and life. I’ve written at length on this book here.

Better - Atul Gawande is a very rare kind of writer: he manages to write about complicated topics (medicine, surgery, US healthcare policy) in a way that’s accessible and illuminating. Of the three books he’s written, Better remains my favorite. Gawande writes about performance in the medical profession from his vantage point as a surgeon and physician. Yet, he beautifully links the specific to the general, drawing out conclusions that are applicable to any person who’s trying to do better at her chosen profession/vocation. Again, a general read I’d recommend to anyone.

OutliersMalcolm Gladwell gets a lot of flak, rightly or wrongly for his sometimes provocative theses. The Tipping Point was widely well-received when it came out and has been questioned since. I myself am a bit of fence-sitter on that book and I disliked his second effort, Blink. However, Outliers seemed to me like a much better work overall. In denying ‘genius’ as a pat explanation for all success, Gladwell gives a lot of credit to a combination of immense hard work and plain dumb luck.
I find his conclusions reassuring and daunting. 10,000 hours at anything, even something you love seems like a lot of work. But when I’ve seen senior engineers at work knock a task out the park while I’m still processing it, it’s encouraging to think that with enough conscious hard work, I can aspire to that kind of expertise.

The Last Lecture – I cheat here, in that this is not a book. I found the video of Randy Pausch’s last lecture a much more satisfying view, and the book was mostly a rehash of a lot of the material with some supporting material and detail. The original Last Lecture (more here), was pretty much perfect. It’s just over an hour, and if you haven’t, watch it already!
Again, like Feynman’s book, it combines a certain audacity of thinking with playfulness and a sense of humor. Importantly, it’s a healthy dose of perspective on what truly matters.

On Writing – Writing well is a craft software professionals ignore at their own peril. Writing cogently to make a point or to explain tough concepts is an art (see: Atul Gawande) and is an important part of professional growth. Stephen King does a great job of explaining his craft in this heart-warming book. Part memoir and part-how-to, it’s an entertaining and illuminating read. 

This list is pretty basic and I leave out other books that I love, focusing more on books that I feel matter in a professional context. List-making exercises are ongoing, and I have this one from a few years back. That list too will see additions (including a couple from up here), and yes, I now own over 140 books. Book acquisitiveness is a habit that I can’t help.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Bank logo Blues


That’s why they call it the Rich Kid Blues…

                                               - The Raconteurs, “Rich Kid Blues”

I remarked to AG how I liked CafĂ© Coffee Day’s logo. The distinctive purple, red and white just stands out, especially in chaotic cityscapes like in India. Barista’s muted brown and orange/earth tones set the tone for the kind of place it will probably be: upscale, a tad quieter and ‘classier’ than the more mass-market Coffee Day.

However, I notice that banks tend to be a quite boring with color choices. While ICICI Bank makes a splash with its orange hues and HSBC’s red is distinctive, blue seems like the dominant color of choice otherwise. There’s HDFC ( blue, red and white, very square design), SBI (blue, green and white), Citi (blue & white, nice, very modern fonts) and Federal Bank (white and blue).

I wonder why that’s the case. Subliminal reinforcement of values of solidity and dependability?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Alan Moore on the Emergency

Thoughts on Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm

You expect book titles to be nouns. “Midnight’s Children”, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen”, or “Reading Lolita in Tehran” all evoke things, or actions. “Delhi Calm”, however, doesn’t fit the bill. Trying to make sense of the title (the Calm of Delhi?) takes its own time, until you realize that it’s ripped from a newspaper headline during the Emergency in 1975. (“Delhi Calm as X happens.”)

As graphic novels go, this one is gorgeous. The visual style is distinctive and the dull browns and earth tones perfectly convey the era of fear, uncertainty and doubt that the Emergency was.

The narrative, ostensibly revolving around three idealistic Left-leaning friends during the Emergency is just a front. It cleverly places the era in a context, allowing Ghosh to play freely with, and make fun of the age’s dark realities and absurdities. The infamous sterilization drives, the Orwellian propaganda and a brazen power grab by India’s first political family all make great fodder for Ghosh’s inventive style. However, the story also harks back to a more idealistic time, when universities were alive with the sound of debate, and youthful idealism wasn’t in as much short supply as it now seems to be.

Comparisons to Alan Moore’s Watchmen wouldn’t be unfair. While the thematic content is obviously different, just as in Watchmen, Ghosh pushes the graphic novel medium to the fullest. Asides like news articles, hagiographical Films Division-style video profiles of ‘Moon’ (the leader based on Indira Gandhi) and her son, quotes and snippets of poetry pepper the narrative, painting a fraught and claustrophobic portrait of the times. It’s a time underrepresented in Indian popular culture (no books that I know of, and the only film that comes to mind is Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi), and this book paints an unforgiving picture of Indian democracy’s darkest hours. This is a story that needed to be told, and by telling it well, Ghosh brings it alive for a generation that wasn’t even born then.

The publication of Indian books in styles other than The Great Indian Novel or The Populist Bestseller is itself encouraging, and though it’s still early days, the quality (both of the art and writing) of this book bode well for the graphic novel form in India.