CSS Secrets: Better Solutions to Everyday Web Design Problems

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


Authors: Lea Verou

Publisher: O’Reilly, 2015

Front-end web designers have to know CSS very well in order to create styling that’s effective and maintainable. This is easier said than done because CSS is a complex language. To be good at it, one must learn from the masters and Lea Verou is one of them. The author presents those parts of CSS that are not obvious. She uses CSS in very creative ways to overcome limitations in the standards. Readers should already have some grasp of the basics. When they are ready to take their knowledge to the next level, this is a book that they cannot miss.

The book itself has been designed using CSS. The secrets are presented as solutions to well-stated problems. There are 47 secrets in all but readers will learn a lot more than these. All examples can be tried interactively online and the links to these examples are conveniently placed at the end of each section. Readers are of course at liberty to use their own tools (such as http://jsfiddle.net/) to try out the examples. This implies that we can learn the secrets by practice, which makes the book all the more enjoyable.

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The Manual of Technical Communication

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


Authors: Students of University of Alabama in Huntsville

Publisher: UAH Business and Technical Writing Program, 2014

There’s one aspect of being an engineer that’s often overlooked by engineers. Engineers focus on solving problems, building systems, writing code, designing models, and so on. They enjoy this sort of work but what they don’t enjoy is to communicate. Perhaps this is because they lack the essential skills to do this right. Most university degrees in engineering include at least one module on technical communication but students take this module out of necessity rather than motivation. It’s important for young engineers and students alike to realize that technical communication is the “x-factor” that could make them stand out from the crowd. This book written and edited by students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is a practical guide and a good starting point for all engineers.

Why is technical communication so important? An engineer’s work cannot see the light of day unless she can explain her design decisions to her peers; or rationalize the budget and cost considerations of a project; or describe clearly the idea that’s in her mind; or convince her boss why something needs to be done differently; or make a presentation to potential clients; or write an email that summarizes what was discussed at a lunch meeting. If as engineers we are unable to put across our ideas clearly, we will probably not reach our full potential and put to risk the projects we work on and our careers in the process. Continue reading “The Manual of Technical Communication”

Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


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.

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ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever

Author: Imran Nazir

Book Review


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.

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The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


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.

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

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


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.

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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


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.

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