Soundbarrier Blog

Personal blog about hardware, software, data and other interesting things.

Books of the last years

Sebastian Schaetz

Over the last 3 years I read and listened to a number of books. Some of them stood out to me for one reason or another. I am listing those books here.

The list serves the purpose of reminding myself of the interesting tidbits in the book, why I enjoyed it and why I might want to read it/listen to it again. I tried to categorize them but I don't think that is particularly helpful - it is also hard. The box are all fiction books and a mix of history, technology, science, aviation, memoir and biography.

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben R. Rich [^skunkworks] is the first non-fiction technology history book I recommend to anybody who has not read it. The book cover features an F-117 Nighthawk - but I like the book most for its discussion of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird development process and associated technologies. It ties engineering challenges and leadership, innovation culture, Russian missiles in with an absolutely unique aircraft.

Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz is the autobiography by the NASA Chief Flight Director working on Apollo 11 and on saving the crew of Apollo 13. One of the highlights in the book for me is the speech he gives after the Apollo 1 disaster:

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: "Tough and Competent." Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

With this speech Kranz attempts to initiate a shift in attitude for the entire Apollo project. He warns everybody to take responsibility and to do a better job. Quite inspiring.

I was interested in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner because I wanted to understand what environments foster innovation - Bell Lab being a place and time where an incredible amount of scientific and engineering breakthroughs occurred. It is credited with development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell, CCD, information theory, Unix, C, C++, etc. It is written not like a corporate history but more like an electrifying novel.

Cover of the book The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop

To me The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop is closely related to the Bell Labs book. It does not describe a time and place that oozed innovation but a mind - that of J.C.R. Licklider a visionary of the human-computer symbiosis and the networked world. Learning about the the history of batch and real-time processing that cumulates in a description of the mother of all demos and observations about how the audience reacted was fantastic.

Very related is the book The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It chronicles the design of a new computer system in in the late 70s. The story about how engineers who don't know better or don't know to say "no" because they are fresh out of school work day and night on a risky project that is the companies only hope to be competitive in the market sounds very familiar to me and I identified many similarities to my own experience during the early days in my career.

Similarly exciting is the book Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. It describes the story of the "Two Johns", how they met, founded their own company and created two incredibly successful video games Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. Reading about how surprised they were about how successful the first shareware versions of their game were is truly inspiring.

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by [[insert name]] tells the story of the rollercoaster story of the Iridium satellite phone network. It's a wild tale that combines technology, business, governments and markets and how they interact - on a global scale. It's also a story about a lot of money being spent on an technology that fails to meet its ambitious market goals but ultimately does a lot of good.

Books I read from 2018 to 2021 and found memorable

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham is the riveting story of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident. The book has it all: a depiction of the state of the Soviet Union and its daughter-states at the time of design and construction of the nuclear power plant in question. One thing that stood out to me was that according the author, many power-plant parts once delivered from various factories had to be re-worked because they did not meet the specification. The author suggests that in the planned economy of the Soviet-Block states did not reward quality but quantity and timeliness. Also interesting is the re-telling of how helicopter crews poured material over the open reactor to seal and shield it. This effort is astonishing.

Going a bit further back in history, another fascinating book I enjoyed was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer. It is a comprehensive history from Hitlers early days all the way to the end of WW2. I learned about the time before Hitler came to power when he was imprisoned but was able to plot and scheme as well as communicate with his allies. I also enjoyed the author's more personal remarks: he lived in Germany during that time as a journalist and sometimes interjects that he saw such and such arrive on that day at the train station which makes this journalistic account feel authentic.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone is also by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. a book that talks about a despot or rather the aftermath of what happens when a despot is dethroned and a country needs to be rebuilt. The book was made into a movie as well - both are fairly good but the book is truly great. The book talks about the time Paul Bremer was effectively the CEO of Iraq - the author refers to him as the "Viceroy", a phrase that has stuck with me as it is such an imperial and monarchical term.

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid is a fascinating history of disinformation campaigns before, during and after the cold war. The author chronicles different techniques used over the years by various intelligence agencies (CIA, MfS, BND, KGB, FSB) that range from activities like making companies believe orders for industrial equipment are cancelled all the way to planting the idea that HIV/AIDS was part of a biological weapons research project in the US. I enjoyed the philosophical angle where active measure actors justify their activities with Lenin who wrote "The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies [...]".

Two bocks I did not think I would enjoy as much as I did are Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton a book that describes in a very descriptive and "cool" (think Top Gun) way a situation of landing a 5-ship of fighters in a sand-storm during the war in Iraq. The second book I enjoyed more for its honest description of team-work and operations: Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit by Mark Hasara.

One of the most engaging popular technology books I have read in the last couple of years is The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester which talks about the rise of manufacturing and precision in engineering and manufacturing - topics I am very interested in not least because of my job in an operations & manufacturing team. Precision in manufacturing is such a key ingredient and the author explains its importance well: to make a large number of a thing, every component that makes up the thing must be manufactured with such accuracy that there are no exceptions during assembly. Beyond that the author tells fascinating stories about how the first man-made satellite Sputnik inspired the creation of the GPS.

When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought by Jim Holt is a collection of thought-provoking essays about ideas in science, higher mathematics and philosophy such as the theory of infinity, quantum mechanics, computability and on the philosophical side the theory of truth. The author chose these ideas based on his perception of their beauty. I had to do some research on one of the essays about Charles Babbage's proposed mechanical general-purpose computer and Ada Lovelace's contributions. It seems to be a somewhat controversial topic - I like Stephen Wolfram's take on the topic who suggested that Lovelace's contribution was to distill from "a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did."

And finally - a biography of Enrico Fermi: The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David N. Schwartz talks about the extraordinary life of this exceptional scientists. From using the fact that he won the Nobel as an opportunity to flee fascist Italy to anecdotes about Fermi always making a point to stop experiments and work for lunch. Reminds me of scientist I worked with in the past.