|Jack Ganssle's Blog
This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).
|For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 35,000 engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
October 5, 2018
I read a great deal, and enjoy books about a wide range of subjects. Lately I've been studying cellular biology, as that's a subject I know little about. The mechanics of the cell are truly fascinating.
That material, though, tends to be pretty dry.
But I recently finished Richard Powers' The Overstory, a fictional account of nine individuals whose lives somehow revolve around trees. Now, trees are important to me as we live in the woods surrounded by them. In the summer and fall they are magnificent, though late in the year we're nearly overwhelmed with dealing with leaves. Our first year here we brought over 200 big bags of leaves to the dump to be mulched. Then for years we'd haul 15-20 big trailer loads there. Now we have a machine that mulches them into a big pile, and every couple of years I rent a front-end loader to get rid of the mess.
We heat with wood. A lot, generally 5 to 6 cords a year. Normally I'm gathering logs all year. On a nice day it's great to get outside and wield the chainsaw and splitter.
Then there's my sawmill, which is a ton of fun, but is essentially nothing more than one of my follies.
The Overstory is an homage to trees. The title reflects the contents: "understory" is the forest debris, of course, mirrored by the detailed stories depicted in the book, yet there is an overarching overstory tying these all together. While each of the nine stories at first stand apart, Powers expertly weaves them together in the second half of the book, creating one unifying message. And, yes, it's tree hugging, though I thought the path of the novel was very compelling.
The best part of the book: the writing. This is the only work I've read by this author, so I don't know if his other books are done so well, but the wordsmithing is on a par of that in Moby Dick. Not that Powers crafts Melville's multi-page-long paragraphs! I had to greatly slow down simply to enjoy his use of language and the imagery he paints. If you love good writing, really good writing of the sort that's so rare it surfaces only a few times in a life, you'll treasure the book.
The author's erudition is breathtaking. His knowledge of computer technology is that of one who has worked in the field for many years. I almost drowned, pleasantly (if that's possible!), in the tsunami of facts and information about trees. Some was rather mystical, like trees communicating with each other. Too mystical, it seemed, till a little digging revealed that the foliage does indeed pass messages through the forest. I suspect Powers overstates the nature of this, waxing almost religious about it. But for the sake of a good yarn getting a bit carried away can be fun.
The book isn't perfect. The last quarter is hard for some to finish. My 90+ year old parents, who are very careful readers, loved the first part but couldn't finish it. It does peter out a bit, and the ending is somewhat predictable. At 502 pages some may find it daunting. If a book is good, for me it can never be too long.
One of the nine characters is a computer geek. I thought he added little to the story, and, though his tale was somewhat interesting, it seemed irrelevant. He overcomes his physical handicap by designing computer games, which I have never had any interest in.
Because of the writing and the compelling story, despite it's flaws, this is probably the best book of any sort I've read in years.
Feel free to email me with comments.
Back to Jack's blog index page.
If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."
Recent blog postings:
- Lessons from a Failure - what we can learn when a car wash goes wrong.
- Life in the Time of Coronavirus - how are you faring?
- Superintelligence - A review of Nick Bostrom's book on AI.
- A Lack of Forethought - Y2K redux
- How I Write Code - Comments first, code second.
- How Projects Get Out of Control - Think requirements churn is only for software?
- 2019's Most Important Lesson. The 737 Max disasters should teach us one lesson.
- On Retiring - It's not quite that time, but slowing down makes sense. For me.
- On Discipline - The one thing I think many teams need...
- Data Seems to Have No Value - At least, that's the way people treat it.
- Apollo 11 and Navigation - In 1969 the astronauts used a sextant. Some of us still do.
- Definitions Part 2 - More fun definitions of embedded systems terms.
- Definitions - A list of (funny) definitions of embedded systems terms.
- On Meta-Politics - Where has thoughtful discourse gone?
- Millennials and Tools - It seems that many millennials are unable to fix anything.
- Crappy Tech Journalism - The trade press is suffering from so much cost-cutting that it does a poor job of educating engineers.
- Tech and Us - I worry that our technology is more than our human nature can manage.
- On Cataracts - Cataract surgery isn't as awful as it sounds.
- Can AI Replace Firmware - A thought: instead of writing code, is the future training AIs?
- Customer non-Support - How to tick off your customers in one easy lesson.
- Learn to Code in 3 Weeks! - Firmware is not simply about coding.
- We Shoot For The Moon - a new and interesting book about the Apollo moon program.
- On Expert Witness Work - Expert work is fascinating but can be quite the hassle.
- Married To The Team - Working in a team is a lot like marriage.
- Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers - Despite the hype, some feel quantum computing may never be practical.
- Apollo 11, The Movie - A review of a great new movie.
- Goto Considered Necessary - Edsger Dijkstra recants on his seminal paper
- GPS Will Fail - In April GPS will have its own Y2K problem. Unbelievable.
- LIDAR in Cars - Really? - Maybe there are better ideas.
- Why Did You Become an Engineer? - This is the best career ever.
- Software Process Improvement for Firmware - What goes on in an SPI audit?
- 50 Years of Ham Radio - 2019 marks 50 years of ham radio for me.
- Medical Device Lawsuits - They're on the rise, and firmware is part of the problem.
- A retrospective on 2018 - My marketing data for 2018, including web traffic and TEM information.
- Remembering Circuit Theory - Electronics is fun, and reviewing a textbook is pretty interesting.
- R vs D - Too many of us conflate research and development
- Engineer or Scientist? - Which are you? John Q. Public has a hard time telling the difference.
- A New, Low-Tech, Use for Computers - I never would have imagined this use for computers.
- NASA's Lost Software Engineering Lessons - Lessons learned, lessons lost.
- The Cost of Firmware - A Scary Story! - A hallowean story to terrify.
- A Review of First Man, the Movie - The book was great. The movie? Nope.
- A Review of The Overstory - One of the most remarkable novels I've read in a long time.
- What I Learned About Successful Consulting - Lessons learned about successful consulting.
- Low Power Mischief - Ultra-low power systems are trickier to design than most realize.
- Thoughts on Firmware Seminars - Better Firmware Faster resonates with a lot of people.
- On Evil - The Internet has brought the worst out in many.
- My Toothbrush has Modes - What! A lousy toothbrush has a UI?
- Review of SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir - A good book about the LM's code.
- Fun With Transmission Lines - Generating a step with no electronics.
- On N-Version Programming - Can we improve reliability through redundancy? Maybe not.
- On USB v. Bench Scopes - USB scopes are nice, but I'll stick with bench models.