Audiobook Reviews – August 2021

Antarctica’s Lost Aviator: The Epic Adventure to Explore the Last Frontier on Earth by Jeff Maynard

Biography of Lincoln Ellsworth “an insecure man in search of a purpose” concentrating on his various polar expeditions in the 1920s and 30s culminating in an attempt to fly across antarctic. 3/5

Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson

The story of Medical, Public health and other measures in the last 150 years that have dramatically raised life expectancy. The reality behind some well known stories. 3/5

Dr No by Ian Fleming

Bond returns to Jamaica for a soft assignment that turns out not to be soft after all. He dodges assassins and investigates a mysterious island. 3/5

Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality by Bill Kilday

A insider’s account of the mapping company Keyhole that became Google Maps. Good mix of stories and analysis. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Audiobook Reviews – July 2021

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

Another McCullough classic. Centered on designers/builders the Roebling family but covering everything about the build. 4/5

Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race
by Roger D. Launius

Very much a short overview, but unusually covers the Soviet programme as well. Concentrates on the politics more than technical details. 3/5

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

The Russian counter-intelligence agency sets a trap for Bond. Interesting the first third of the book is the Russian preparations. Bond is not seen. Exciting read. 4/5

Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma and Louise Drove Hollywood To the Edge by Becky Aikman

Well written book about the pre-production, production and reaction to the movie. Well researched with quotes from most people involved. Enjoyable. 4/5

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

A semi-repeat of The Martin where a lone astronaut has to science the shit out of a bad situation. This time to save humanity. I enjoyed and if you like the Martian you will too. 4/5

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America by Jared Cohen

Profiles of 8 VPs who became US President. A biography, circumstances of evaluation and assesment of Presidency. Plus some near-misses and Ford who misses the main list?! 3/5

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Set in 1930s England, a group of children aged 7-12 sail in boats, camp on islands and have adventures on a lake. Fun Children’s adventure book. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Audiobook Reviews – June 2021

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman

Uses lots of studies of exercise in non-industrial societies, Gorillas and Chimpanzees. Contrasts with industrial society. A bit of advice too. 4/5

I love Capitalism: An American Story by Ken Langone

Memoir of businessman and investor. Telling of his upbringing, various deals and stories. Enough good tales to keep my interest 3/5

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger

Very well written, lots of key people interviewed and lots of details. The author is a space specialist. Highly recommend for Space fans 5/5

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon

Well written book covering the the lead-up and aftermath. Picks several people to follow so reader has a connection. Well done. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all

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Audiobook Reviews – May 2021

Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death by Anthony Everitt

A fairly straight biography except for some early chapters setting the scene. Keep things interesting most of the time. 3/5

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

“The secret to outstanding achievement is not talent, but a passionate persistence. In other words, grit.” . Usual pop-psych with the usual good stories 3/5

100 Side Hustles: Unexpected Ideas for Making Extra Money Without Quitting Your Day Job by Chris Guillebeau

100 small businesses and their story. With lessons learnt from each and some themes. Told with lots of puns. 4/5

How The Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone by Brian McCullough

Covering the big internet events and companies between 1993 and 2008. Mosaic, AOL, Ebay, Amazon, Yahoo, Napster and ending with the Ipod. Lots of good stories some new angles. 4/5

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

James Bond infuriates a Diamond smuggling operation run by American Gangsters. Lots of period detail and violent set pieces. 4/5



Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

A nice short biography that attempts to highlight neglected areas such as Franklin’s family and friends his scientific work. Fun without missing too much detail. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all

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Audiobook Reviews – April 2021

Inheriting Clutter: How to Calm the Chaos Your Parents Leave Behind by Julie Hall

Lots of specific advice for Children and Parents on preparing for and handling estates. Lots of good advice on defusing feuds before they start. 3/5

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg

Memoir of a small-city mayor who grew up gay in Indiana. Timed to come out for his presidential run in 2019. Nice enough read with a good mix of stories. 3/5

Moonraker by Ian Fleming

James Bond investigates the mysterious industrialist Hugo Drax and his nuclear missile project which is vital to Britain’s security. Exciting and well written. 3/5

Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA by Neil Shubin

A very accessible account of how various ways genetic information is passed down was discovered, who found it and how it works. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Audiobook Reviews – March 2021

The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey by Richard Whittle

The story of tilt-rotor aircraft & the long history of the V-22’s development. Covers defense politics and technical matters equally well. 4/5

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans

A series of stories about individuals, not just about the Internet but about women and early computing, hypertext, etc. Interesting and well written. 3/5

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Lewis interviews people involved in the Obama to Trump transition at 3 major government agencies. He profiles the people, their jobs and in most cases how the Trump people underestimated the Dept’s importance. 3/5

OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind by Jill Filipovic

Mostly a stats dump with a few profiles and accounts of struggling millennials sprinkled in. With a weird tone shift to boomer-love in the last chapter. Okay I guess 3/5

Six Days of Impossible: Navy SEAL Hell Week – A Doctor Looks Back by Robert Adams

A first-hand account of a training class in 1974/75 where only 11 of the 71 starters graduated. Fun read although some interviews with non-graduates would have provided a contrast. 3/5

Three Laws of Nature: A Little Book on Thermodynamics by R Stephen Berry

Science mixed in with some history, designed for those with minimal science. The equations were simple but numerous & didn’t work in audiobook format. Try the printed version. 2/5

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick Arthur C Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

A detailed account of the film’s making from pre-production though to the bad reviews of the first release. Covers most aspects of the film and people involved. 4/5

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

Pulitzer Prize winning story of a team creating a new model of minicomputer in the late-1970s. Good portraits of the team members and aspects of the tech. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Moving my backups to restic

I’ve recently moved my home backups over to restic . I’m using restic to backup the /etc and /home folders and on all machines are my website files and databases. Media files are backed up separately.

I have around 220 Gigabytes of data, about half of that is photos.

My Home setup

I currently have 4 regularly-used physical machines at home: two workstations, one laptop and server. I also have a VPS hosted at Linode and a VM running on the home server. Everything is running Linux.

Existing Backup Setup

For at least 15 years I’ve been using rsnaphot for backup. rsnapshot works by keeping a local copy of the folders to be backup up. To update the local copy it uses rsync over ssh to pull down a copy from the remote machine. It then keeps multiple old versions of files by making a series of copies.

I’d end up with around 12 older versions of the filesystem (something like 5 daily, 4 weekly and 3 monthly) so I could recover files that had been deleted. To save space rsnapshot uses hard links so only one copy of a file is kept if the contents didn’t change.

I also backed up a copy to external hard drives regularly and kept one copy offsite.

The main problem with rsnapshot was it was a little clunky. It took a long time to run because it copied and deleted a lot of files every time it ran. It also is difficult to exclude folders from being backed up and it is also not compatible with any cloud based filesystems. It also requires ssh keys to login to remote machines as root.

Getting started with restic

I started playing around with restic after seeing some recommendations online. As a single binary with a few commands it seemed a little simpler than other solutions. It has a push model so needs to be on each machine and it will upload from there to the archive.

Restic supports around a dozen storage backends for repositories. These include local file system, sftp and Amazon S3. When you create an archive via “restic init” it creates a simple file structure for the repository in most backends:

You can then use simple commands like “restic backup /etc” to backup files to there. The restic documentation site makes things pretty easy to follow.

Restic automatically encrypts backups and each server needs a key to read/write to it’s backups. However any key can see all files in a repository even those belonging to other hosts.

Backup Strategy with Restic

I decided on the followup strategy for my backups:

  • Make a daily copy of /etc and other files for each server
  • Keep 5 daily and 3 weekly copies
  • Have one copy of data on Backblaze B2
  • Have another copy on my home server
  • Export the copies on the home server to external disk regularly

Backblaze B2 is very similar Amazon S3 and is supported directly by restic. It is however cheaper. Storage is 0.5 cents per gigabyte/month and downloads are 1 cent per gigabyte. In comparison AWS S3 One Zone Infrequent access charges 1 cent per gigabyte/month for storage and 9 cents per gigabyte for downloads.

WhatBackblaze B2 AWS S3
Store 250 GB per month$1.25$2.50
Download 250 GB$2.50$22.50

AWS S3 Glacier is cheaper for storage but hard to work with and retrieval costs would be even higher.

Backblaze B2 is less reliable than S3 (they had an outage when I was testing) but this isn’t a big problem when I’m using them just for backups.

Setting up Backblaze B2

To setup B2 I went to the website and created an account. I would advise putting in your credit card once you finish initial testing as it will not let you add more than 10GB of data without one.

I then created a private bucket and changed the bucket’s lifecycle settings to only keep the last version.

I decided that for security I would have each server use a separate restic repository. This means that I would use a bit of extra space since restic will only keep one copy of a file that is identical on most machines. I ended up using around 15% more.

For each machine I created an B2 application key and set it to have a namePrefix with the name of the machine. This means that each application key can only see files in it’s own folder

On each machine I installed restic and then created an /etc/restic folder. I then added the file b2_env:

export B2_ACCOUNT_ID=000xxxx
export B2_ACCOUNT_KEY=K000yyyy
export RESTIC_PASSWORD=abcdefghi
export RESTIC_REPOSITORY=b2:restic-bucket:/hostname

You can now just run “restic init” and it should create an empty repository, check via b2 to see.

I then had a simple script that runs:

source /etc/restic/b2_env

restic --limit-upload 2000 backup /home/simon --exclude-file /etc/restic/home_exclude

restic --limit-upload 2000 backup /etc /usr/local /var/lib /var/backups

restic --verbose --keep-last 5 --keep-daily 6 --keep-weekly 3 forget

The “source” command loads in the api key and passwords.

The restic backup lines do the actual backup. I have restricted my upload speed to 20 Megabits/second . The /etc/restic/home_exclude lists folders that shouldn’t be backed up. For this I have:

/home/simon/.cache
/home/simon/.config/Slack
/home/simon/.local/share/Trash
/home/simon/.dropbox-dist
/home/simon/Syncthing/audiobooks

as these are folders with regularly changing contents that I don’t need to backup.

The “restic forget” command removes older snapshots. I’m telling it to keep 6 daily copies and 3 weekly copies of my data, plus at least the most recent 5 no matter how old then are.

This command doesn’t actually free up the space taken up by the removed snapshots. I need to run the “restic prune” command for that. However according to this analysis the prune operation generates so many API calls and data transfers that the payback time on disk space saved can be months(!). So for now I’m planning to run the command only occasionally (probably every few months, depending on testing).

Setting up sftp

As well as backing up to B2 I wanted to backup my data to my home server. In this case I decided to have a single repository shared by all the servers.

First of all I created a “restic” account on my server with a home of /home/restic. I then created a folder /media/backups/restic owned by the restic user.

I then followed this guide for sftp-only accounts to restrict the restic user. Relevant lines I changed were “Match User restic” and “ChrootDirectory /media/backups/restic “

On each host I also needed to run “cp /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key /root/.ssh/id_rsa ” and also add the host’s public ssh_key to /home/restic/.ssh/authorized_keys on the server.

Then it is just a case of creating a sftp_env file like in the b2 example above. Except this is a little shorter:

export RESTIC_REPOSITORY=sftp:restic@server.darkmere.gen.nz:shared
export RESTIC_PASSWORD=abcdefgh

For backing up my VPS I had to do another step since this couldn’t push files to my home. What I did was instead add a script that ran on the home server and used rsync to copy down folders from by VPS to local. I used rrsync to restrict this script.

Once I had a local folder I ran “restic –home vps-name backup /copy-of-folder” to backup over sftpd. The –host option made sure the backups were listed for the right machine.

Since the restic folder is just a bunch of files, I’m copying up it directly to external disk which I keep outside the house.

Parting Thoughts

I’m fairly happy with restic so far. I don’t have not run into too many problems or gotchas yet although if you are starting up I’d suggest testing with a small repository to get used to the commands etc.

I have copies of keys in my password manager for recovery.

There are a few things I still have to do including setup up some monitoring and also decide how often to run the prune operation.

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Audiobooks – February 2021

Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World by Rand Fishkin

Advice for perspective founders mixed in with stories from the author’s company. Open about missteps he made to be avoided. 4/5

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage

A short book on the rise of the telegraph and how it changed the world. Peppered with amusing stories and analogies to the Internet. 3/5

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

A memoir of the author growing up and into his mid-20s. Well written and interesting. Audiobook is read by the author but he’s okay. 3/5

The Age of Benjamin Franklin by Robert J. Allison

24 Lectures about various aspects of Franklin and his life. Each lecture is on a theme so they are not chronological. I hadn’t read any biographies previously but this might help. 4/5

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

3rd book in the Lady Astronaut series. Mostly concerned with trying to find and stop agents sabotaging the Moonbase. Works well and held my interest. 3/5

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street by John Brooks

A collection of long New Yorker articles from the 1960s. One on a stock corner even has parallels with Gamestop in 2021. Interesting and well told even when dated. 3/5

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

James Bond takes on Gangster/Agent/Voodoo leader ‘Mr Big’ in Harlem, Florida and Jamaica. The racial stereotypes are dated but could be worse. The story held my interest. 3/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Audiobooks – January 2021

The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57 by John N. Maclean

An account of the fire that killed a five-person firefighter crew. Minute by minute of the fire itself, plus the investigation and the trial of the arsonist. 4/5

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

An argument against early-specialisation and over-specialisation. How it fails against open non-predictable problems and environments. 4/5

The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver

A vaguely chronological introduction to the Vikings. Lots of first person descriptions of artifacts by the author. 3/5

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott Young

Examples and advice on how to learn a skill very quickly, usually via an intense method. Good practical advice mixed with some stories 3/5

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness by Brian Murphy

An interesting survival story. The pilot survives a crash in a remote area & manages to walk out with minimal gear during winter. 3/5

Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World by Tim Harford

The unexpected connections between creativity and mess. Lots of examples although as one commentator noticed most of them were from people already masters not beginners. 3/5

Outliers: The Story of Success by Martin Gladwell

A book on how the most famous and successful are often there because of their upbringing, practice or chance events pushed them to the top rather than just raw talent. 4/5

The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us by Adam Rutherford

How the latest research that reveals the extent to which behaviors once thought exclusively human are also found in other species. Spoiler: except Culture. 3/5

Tank Action: An Armoured Troop Commander’s War 1944-45 by David Render and Stuart Tootal

The author is thrown into the war as a 19 year old officer in command of 4 tanks 5 days after D-Day. Very well written and lots of detail of the good and the bad. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all
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Audiobooks – December 2020

The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything by Bobby Duffy

Lots of examples of how people are wrong about usually crime rates or levels of immigration. Divided into topics with some comments on why and how to fix. 3/5

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch
by Lewis Dartnell

A how-to on rebooting civilization following a worldwide disaster. The tone is addressed to a present-day person rather than someone from the future which makes it more readable. 4/5

The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World by William L. Silber

Almost solely devoted to America it devotes sections to major events around the metal including it’s demonetization, government and private price manipulation and speculation including the Hunt Brothers. 3/5

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

About half the length of the other books in the series and published posthumously. Laura and Almanzo try to make a success farming for 4 years. Things don’t go well. The book is a bit more adult than some of the others 3/5

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Interesting how close it is to the 2006 Movie. Also since it is set in ~1951, World War 2 looms large in many places & most characters are veterans. Very good and fairly quick read. 4/5

A Bridge too far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II by Cornelius Ryan

An account of the failed airborne operation. Mostly a day-by-day & sources including interviews with participants. A little confusing without maps. 4/5

The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan

“The definitive history of American policy on nuclear war”. Lots of “War Plans” and “Targeting Policy” with back and forth between service factions. 3/5

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World
by Sarah Stewart Johnson

“Combines elements of memoir from Johnson with the history and science of attempts to discover life on Mars”. I liked this book a lot, very nicely written and inspiring. 4/5

My Scoring System

  • 5/5 = Brilliant, top 5 book of the year
  • 4/5 = Above average, strongly recommend
  • 3/5 = Average. in the middle 70% of books I read
  • 2/5 = Disappointing
  • 1/5 = Did not like at all

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