absfac + booklog   177

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou (@Kindle)
Finished 2018-06-10. Recommended. A brisk read, funny and maddening.

A consistent theme here is very successful old men deciding to rely too much on social proof and gut instinct over due diligence, physical evidence, and the advice of more conscientious but lower status people around them.

Also, to be frank, Stanford doesn't come off looking too great, particularly the Hoover Institution, although I guess anyone with a clue already knew that Hoover is a pernicious parasite.
booklog  nonfiction  finished:2018  silicon-valley  biotechnology  venture-capital  stanford  conservatism 
june 2018 by absfac
Free Food for Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee (@Kindle)
Finished 2018-01-05. Recommended. Remarkably rich, thematically and characterologically, for a first novel. On the other hand, I found it a little longer and more meandering than I wanted it to be, and your enjoyment may be modulated by your tolerance for detailed portraiture of the manners of upper-middle-class people in the orbits of Ivy League alumni networks and New York finance.

I'm a Korean-American from the New York area myself, and via my family and acquaintances thereof from my youth I have had some very attenuated contact with the world that Lee describes here. It wasn't much, but even that small dose ultimately filled me with disgust and resentment, and I'm pretty glad that I bailed out and went West to become a Bay Area computer geek. By all rights, I should find this novel annoying as fuck, just because of what it reminds me of. But I enjoyed it! So probably you will too.

One problem with writing novels set in contemporary America is that Americans have shed much of the social constraint that provides the potential energy for novels of manners set in past times or foreign cultures. In the 1990s Korean-American community in New York, Lee locates a subculture that is as repressed and status-obsessed as the English were a century earlier, and mines this fertile ground, obtaining in the process a surprising and unique window into the American psyche more generally (for the manners and attitudes of class that Lee describes are hardly limited to Korean-Americans).

Also Lee writes with exceptional compassion for every single one of her characters, even the choicest douchebags of New York banking, and I think you have to read the novel to believe it.
booklog  finished:2018  fiction 
january 2018 by absfac
The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux, by Cathy N. Davidson (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-12-30. OK, I suppose. Many suggestions overlap with those of other education reformers but this is a good overview of some of the major issues with American higher education. Most of her recommendations are pretty remote from typical practice and sadly I do not have high hopes that they will be realized in the near future across large swathes of the higher education landscape.
booklog  finished:2017  education  higher-education 
january 2018 by absfac
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-12-23. Highly recommended. This is a deeply moving, meticulously crafted family epic set in the 20th century in Korea and Japan, written in the realist tradition of 19th century European novelists, but oriented in a fashion that foregrounds a 21st century sensibility and concerns including women's rights, immigrants' rights, and the experience of marginalized people. Also a page-turner without resorting to cheap cliffhangers or other excessively mechanical plottiness! Nicely done.

It is hard to separate my reaction to this from the ongoing hype (it is making numerous best-of-the-year lists, and indeed that is why I finally made the leap and read it). Do I like this so much because it is very much the kind of fiction that fits the current cultural moment, or is it as enduringly good as I perceive it to be? Regardless, it seems excellent, maybe good enough to place Lee in the running for the best living American novelist; at least, it is hard to think of someone who is clearly better.
booklog  finished:2017  fiction  historical-fiction  korea  japan  immigration  globalization  feminism  religion 
december 2017 by absfac
The Craft Sequence: (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow, Four Roads Cross), by Max Gladstone (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-11-30. Recommended.

Law is magic, literally. Unusually original, brisk and sharply written, and reflective of 21st-century concerns, without being crudely allegorical. I found this thoroughly enjoyable, although not (yet) quite sublime in the way that I hope for the very best fantastic fiction to be. My relatively minor complaints are:

(1) You can see the big bang climax coming in each one of these books; they each finish with a similar-feeling magic confrontation in much the same way that most superhero movies conclude in a giant fight with a gigantic beam of light firing out of the sky. You will probably enjoy these climaxes, but you will not be terribly surprised by them.

(2) The rules and limits of magic never feel clear enough to prevent the reader from suspecting that some new deus ex machina twist of magic is going to pop up from out of nowhere to save the protagonists from their predicament. This is rather odd, given that the author has literally constructed role playing games set in this universe. To be clear, it would be terrible for the universe to feel completely mechanistic, for the rules to be laid out in crudely expository form, or for the reader to hear the proverbial dice rolling in the background. However, other authors have managed to achieve a more authentic sense of peril and less arbitrariness without falling into these traps, and to be honest I'm not exactly sure why. (Actually arbitrariness, and its resultant deflation of dramatic tension, is just a very common pitfall of fantasy fiction in general and the so-called New Weird more specifically, which is to some extent an inevitable hazard of these genres' embrace of mystery and the sublime, and the New Weird's stylistic mannerism of densely packaged, vivid, novel imagery.)

Still these are minor complaints. You will rarely read fiction this well crafted (oh snap, see what I did there?!!!).

Lastly there is some debate in Gladstone's fan base about the proper reading order. The two most common suggestions are either publication order or chronological order. I will offer my own opinion, which is that neither is right. Instead, read in publication order, but skip Full Fathom Five until you've read the rest. Gladstone has not actually constructed a five-book series, as the recent publication of the sixth book (not included in this collection) makes clear. Rather, so far, he has written three dyads:

a. The story of Tara Abernathy and Alt Coulumb (Three Parts Dead, Four Roads Cross)
b. The story of Temoc, Caleb, and Dresediel Lex (Two Serpents Rise, Last First Snow)
c. The story of Kai Pohala (Full Fathom Five, The Ruin of Angels)

The thing about (c) is that it is relatively decoupled, whereas the other two dyads are threaded through each other somewhat more (although each novel still functions as a standalone entity). Reading in my suggested order preserves the narrative force of publication order, which produces a number of important effects that would be lost in chronological order --- for example, the dread you feel while reading Last First Snow, as you know some of the terrible things that Temoc will witness, and do --- but elides the distracting interlude between Two Serpents Rise and Last First Snow. Thus, read in this order:

1. Three Parts Dead
2. Two Serpents Rise
3. Last First Snow
4. Four Roads Cross
5. Full Fathom Five
6. The Ruin of Angels

(I haven't read (6) yet myself, but probably will, eventually.)
booklog  finished:2017  fiction  fantasy-fiction 
december 2017 by absfac
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World Reprint, by Mark Miodownik (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-10-18. Recommended. Easy reading, surprisingly touching at points. I would perhaps prefer that the second half be bit more detailed & focused; towards the end of the book, he abandons the conceit that each chapter is a deep dive into a single material and starts to hop from a relatively shallow treatment of one subject after another (probably this is a symptom of a writer deciding to wrap up the manuscript rather than toughing it out with his original plan).
booklog  finished:2017  materials-science  nonfiction 
october 2017 by absfac
The Trials (The Red Trilogy Book 2), by Linda Nagata (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-09-30. Not as good as the first. I plan to finish the trilogy though.
booklog  finished:2017  fiction  science-fiction 
october 2017 by absfac
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Jo Walton (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-09-09. Put a bunch of stuff to read in my queue, so I'm pretty happy with this, even though my reading queue is, well, not exactly hurting for population.

I could have read most of this for free on Walton's blog, but having it on my Kindle has the usual effect of reducing the tendency to distraction while reading, which made it worth buying in that format.

I skipped some chapters though (there's a _lot_ about Stephen Brust's series).
booklog  finished:2017  science-fiction  fantasy-fiction  book-reviews  literary-criticism 
september 2017 by absfac
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1), by James S. A. Corey (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-08-06. Diverting from a plot point of view but something about this reminds me of something a turn-of-the-millennium writer (David Foster Wallace?) once said about how a lot of contemporary fiction feels like a transcript of a movie or a television show. Corey's fiction seems written for the screen, not the page. Maybe this is a completely unfair assessment, biased by my knowledge that this has in fact been adapted into a television series, but Corey's influences seem much more deeply rooted in the tradition of television shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica than in literary SF. The characterization, the pacing, the prose style, the dialogue beats, everything just seems sanded down to appeal to a TV SF fan.

Which is not to say that this approach is entirely cynical --- the authors (Corey is a pseudonym for a 2-person writing team; note that team writing is an arrangement that is also more common in television!) are likely sincere in their admiration of this style of story.

Nevertheless this is primarily very much an adventure story with space dressing, not a science fiction of ideas, and not just because the physics and biology are occasionally improbable (actually, the extrapolation on display is relatively reasonable). The core characters are dispatched from set piece to set piece wearing bulletproof plot armor, and ideas are thin on the ground. (There are a couple of stabs at big ideas: the cultural differences between planet-raised people and station-raised "Belters"; the question of whether society benefits from the free flow of information; neither are explored very thoroughly.)

Anyway, this is the first of an interminably long series --- one of the authors is an assistant to George R. R. Martin, and may have picked up his habit for prolixity over tautness --- and I am not really sure that I'm going to bother with the rest.

p.s. Miller's relationship to Mao is pretty problematic from a sexual (and racial!) politics POV, among many others. It is, in fact, so obviously problematic that it is hard to believe the authors don't know this, but the narrative plays it so straight that it's embarrassing.
booklog  fiction  science-fiction  finished:2017 
august 2017 by absfac
Middlemarch - George Eliot - Google Books
Finished 2017-07-28.

I won't lie, there are stretches of this book that were a slog to get through --- your tolerance for finely filigreed detail on the social prejudices of 19th-century English gentry will modulate this --- but it is definitely an achievement, basically Jane Austen with more psychological realism, to sum it up in a rather glib and inadequate way.

This has been called the greatest English novel ever and I'm mildly embarrassed that it's taken me this long to read it. I have to admit though that, among the Brits, I think both Woolf and Hardy and even Rushdie are more congenial to my personal tastes than Eliot; as for books in the English language, I can think of several American novels that I like better.

Still, worth reading, obviously. Be aware that it is a long book though.

(It is rather irritating that it is hard to find a well-formatted version of this novel on Kindle, mostly a bunch of quick and dirty cash-grab minimally massaged rips of Project Gutenberg. A strong candidate for standardebooks.org.)
booklog  fiction  finished:2017 
july 2017 by absfac
Homesick for Another World: Stories, by Ottessa Moshfegh (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-07-21. Something like a more mannerist, subtler George Saunders? The voice will stay with you for a while after you finish reading, but this is very much early-21st-century American literary fiction, for better or worse. Tentatively recommended.
booklog  fiction  finished:2017 
july 2017 by absfac
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel (@Kindle)
Been reading this on and off for years; finally finished it a few weeks ago.

To be honest, after a while it gets to be a bit of slog. It's long, frequently repetitive book. But overall I am glad that I read it.
booklog  finished:2017  labor  nonfiction  history 
july 2017 by absfac
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-05-06. Ancillary Justice was promising; its sequel, although enjoyable in some ways, is unfortunately a letdown.

It may be unfair to compare Leckie to Iain M. Banks, but it is hard to escape the comparison. Banks was doing conceptual science fiction ("what if there were an anarchic post-scarcity civilization run by superintelligent AI that justified its existence through a messianic mission of subtle and devious intervention?"), Leckie is doing the British Raj in Space ("here is an interstellar empire, it oppresses the colonials in the exact ways that colonial powers always have, let's have some tea" --- and calling the empire the "Radch" is seriously on-the-nose). Maybe I'm more annoyed than I should be because I feel there was so much potential left on the table here. We are put in the viewpoint of a sharded-off fragment of an AI hive mind in the midst of a galactic civil war and we get a drawing room drama about whether to set out the good china for the guests (this is not an exaggeration), taking place entirely in a single gravity well.

Also, there are some basic nuts and bolts failures of craft:

+ The editing is tragically negligent. Count for yourself how many times you are repetitively reminded that the viewpoint character is a former ancillary.

+ Presumably in order to stretch the material across the trilogy format which is so integral to contemporary publishing, the "novel" (really, half a novel) ends with no particular fanfare right at a critical turning point of plot.

+ The whole issue of ancillaries --- Leckie's biggest science-fictional conceit in this series --- is addressed in a rather muddled way. The protagonist's attitude towards ancillaries and the process of making them is incongruously inconsistent with her (admittedly evolving) attitude in the previous novel, even though this one picks up almost the instant after the end of that one. Furthermore, the removal of Tisarwat's implants --- which is, more or less, like liberating an ancillary --- seems to be treated, by the protagonist, all the other characters, and (crucially) the narrative itself, as a purely practical problem rather than a problematic, historically unique refutation of the empire's historical attitudes towards ancillary slavery. It would be fine to have the characters themselves paper over all this cognitive dissonance, but it feels like a jarring omission for the author to fail to address or at least gesture towards the questions that should be raised in an active reader's mind. Apart from the wasted science-fictional potential, this is rather like a more elevated version of when you see characters in a horror movie stupidly walking unarmed into dark places that are full of monsters --- here we have characters confronting gigantic challenges to their way of thinking without reacting.

Nevertheless, despite all my complaints, there's a better-than-even chance that I'll read the 3rd. I'm rooting for Leckie to realize the potential of this premise, and there is still enough here to be basically an enjoyable read.

p.s. The gender thing is a fun twist and the kind of thing I would like to see more of. But it faded into the background for me in the middle of the last novel. It is amusing to spend a few spare brain cycles now and then wondering if the sex you inevitably assign mentally to certain characters would match up with the author's, and that play can be thought-provoking, but this is frosting, and the fundamental cake is somewhat underbaked.
booklog  finished:2017  fiction  science-fiction 
may 2017 by absfac
Production-Ready Microservices: Building Standardized Systems Across an Engineering Organization, by Susan J. Fowler
Finished 2017-04-09. Somewhat mistitled --- nearly everything here is just general guidance on how to run a reliable software as a service, and it overlaps considerably with other entries in the genre such as TPOCSA or the Google SRE book. (Of course the microservices angle is very savvy marketing.) Where this book is strong is in laying out clear, concise checklists that can be easily followed by any reasonably competent engineer --- in fact, in terms of page count to content ratio, this book may be a more efficient manual for establishing SRE-style practices in a software development organization than either TPOCSA or the SRE Book, although people who are serious about the field will want to read all three.

The biggest drawbacks of this book may be

(a) it is somewhat light on technical specifics (this is a deliberate choice by the author; it makes the advice more timeless but also demands a lot of supplementation on the part of the reader);

(b) the practices advocated by this book assume a level of staffing resources that is genuinely astounding to me, coming from a much smaller startup. Again, the reader will have to do a lot of hard thinking to figure out how to prioritize these issues and implement them in a leaner organization. One thing that emerges fairly clearly from Fowler's portrait of "microservice" development at Uber is that going all in on the microservice philosophy only makes sense for companies whose main problem is how to apply the large engineering resources at their disposal to a sprawling galaxy of problems; for organizations that face different tradeoffs, a simpler and coarser-grained architecture may be far more manageable.
booklog  finished:2017  devops  software-architecture  nonfiction  software-development 
april 2017 by absfac
The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-03-??. It is kind of amazing that Nagata had to self-publish this initially to get her career as a novelist back in gear after hiatus, particularly given the obvious commercial appeal of this particular novel. I personally would have liked a slightly different ratio of science fiction to technothriller, but this is pretty decent overall and I'll probably read the rest in the series eventually. Neal Stephenson could certainly take a page from Nagata on how to write taut action scenes that don't overstay their welcome.
booklog  finished:2017  fiction  science-fiction 
march 2017 by absfac
Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (TED Books), by Dan Ariely (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-03-??. I think I bought the wrong Ariely book by accident. This is the TED Books, a.k.a. glib Cliff's Notes, version of his research. I suppose I should buy a more substantial treatment sometime. Still, interesting enough, as far as it goes.
booklog  finished:2017  psychology  nonfiction 
march 2017 by absfac
The World of a Tiny Insect: A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath, by Zhang Daye (Xiaofei Tian, trans.) (@Kindle)
Finished 2017-03-19. About 2/3 travelogue from the author's itinerant life as an adult, and 1/3 first-person account of the author's encounters with the Taiping Rebellion as a boy. That 1/3 is brutal but it is interesting both how much life normalizes after the unbelievable horrors of the civil war, and how decades later the subtle ripples remain in the culture. Probably only worth reading for people who are really interested in the Taiping period (as I am) but a worthwhile addition to the very limited English language literature on the period.
booklog  finished:2017  nonfiction  history  china  taiping 
march 2017 by absfac
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, by Ben Horowitz
Finished 2017-01-??. Worth reading although much of this material can be found on his blog. All autobiographical business books have some fraction of self-justifying bullshit to leaven the actually useful lessons but the ratio here is quite tolerable.
booklog  nonfiction  finished:2017  silicon-valley  startups  culture  business 
march 2017 by absfac
Inversions, by Iain M. Banks
Finished 2016-11-??. Finally broke down and bought this in print.

I've read the other Culture books so the central conceit was so transparent to me that there was never much mystery as to what's going on, but still I found this enjoyable in that old-timey Banks way. It's fun to read about the Culture from this angle at least.
booklog  finished:2016  iain-m-banks  science-fiction  fantasy-fiction  fiction  the-culture 
november 2016 by absfac
God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-11-26. Somewhat more discussion of Hong's messianic visions and the religious arguments within the Taiping than I wanted; ultimately the fanatical delusions of the Taiping leaders are much less interesting to me than the social dynamics of their followers, which I feel are too thinly covered here. Still, some vivid and finely written passages, and covers a lot of ground that is excluded from _Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom_ (about which, see https://pinboard.in/u:absfac/b:e13c41fe2c59 ).
booklog  history  china  religion  taiping  finished:2016  war 
november 2016 by absfac
The Psychopath Code · GitBook
Finished 2016-10-02. I think this is exceptionally naive --- does he really think there are no psychopathic artists? does he not see the epistemological problems with the extended passages of armchair evo-psych speculation? --- but it has interesting bits.
software-development  social-engineering  sociopathy  peter-hintjens  books  booklog  psychology  finished:2016 
october 2016 by absfac
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-09-05. Riveting. Maybe Stephenson's best since _Cryptonomicon_; maybe better. Reading this was an uncommonly intense experience; the tension in the first half is almost unbearably relentless. I haven't scarfed down a book at this rate in ages.

Strongly recommended, in the right mood. For maximum impact, avoid summaries of the plot and don't look at the table of contents; just plunge in. (Warning: if your eyes glaze over reflexively while reading descriptions of orbital mechanics then you might struggle with this one a bit.)

Idea for an essay: contrast this with Robert Charles Wilson's _Spin_ as a window into the differing sensibilities of two great novels, by two of the greatest living science fiction writers, tackling similar subjects.
booklog  finished:2016  fiction  science-fiction 
september 2016 by absfac
The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man, by Stephen Frederic Dale (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-08-??. Almost exactly the book I've wanted to read about Ibn Khaldun and his world ever since I first heard about him.

Dale's primary thesis is that Khaldun's work is best understood through the lens of the tradition of Greco-Islamic philosophy from Aristotle to Ibn Rushd. Dale pushes this line pretty hard, and I haven't read Khaldun primary sources and I don't know enough about Khaldun scholarship to judge whether this is idiosyncratic axe-grinding or a contender for the mainstream view, but Dale makes a decent case. At any rate, the book is worth reading just for its portraits of the Greco-Islamic intellectual tradition and the society of North Africa in the Middle Ages.

Most educated English-speaking people know little or nothing about Ibn Khaldun, if they have even heard the name. A book like this was sorely needed. Recommended.
booklog  nonfiction  finished:2016  philosophy  history  middle-east  islam 
september 2016 by absfac
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-09-02. Feels a bit spare and lightweight for a MacLeod novel but interesting enough that I'll probably read the next one.
booklog  finished:2016  science-fiction  space-opera 
september 2016 by absfac
The Revolutions, by Felix Gilman (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-08-??. Lovely and unique. Gilman has one of the most distinctive sensibilities in fantasy fiction today. Recommended.
booklog  finished:2016  fiction  fantasy-fiction  science-fiction 
september 2016 by absfac
Making Software: What Really Works, and Why We Believe It, by Andy Oram and Greg Wilson - O'Reilly Media
Finished 2016-11-26. Some of the chapters are duds, but many are quite useful. A "best of" selection from this book would probably be required reading for all software engineers.
booklog  software-development  finished:2016 
june 2016 by absfac
Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems 1, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff, Betsy Beyer, Niall Richard Murphy (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-06-19. "The SRE book". Long-winded and somewhat variable in quality (for example, the chapter on testing is pedantic, uninformative, and frequently syntactically garbled; and the chapter on Borgmon may be a crime against humanity). Yet this is the frustrating sort of book which has just enough good content that you can't actually ignore or skip most of it entirely, but not enough density of good content that you will enjoy reading it all the way through. I wish a more tightly edited version of this book existed.

However keep in mind that I worked at Google and interacted a decent amount with SRE so other readers may derive more value from its correspondingly greater novelty than I did.
booklog  finished:2016  google  devops  software-development 
june 2016 by absfac
The Practice of Cloud System Administration, by Thomas A. Limoncelli, Strata R. Chalup, Christina J. Hogan (@Kindle)
Finished 206-06-??. I refer other engineers in my org to this often enough that I have an abbreviation for it: TPOCSA. Recommended, although you should skip liberally based on your experience. Probably somewhat better than "the SRE book" IMO.
booklog  devops  google  finished:2016  software-development 
june 2016 by absfac
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-03-22. Recommended, although I would have liked deeper, more precise examination of Humbold's ideas. Still, provokes thought (and envy). Humboldt is not nearly well-known enough in the English-speaking world today. Note how many tags are applicable here.

Read mostly on airplanes and other transit.
booklog  finished:2016  science  biology  geography  history  nature  natural-resource-policy  europe  ecology  politics  slavery  evolution 
march 2016 by absfac
The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, by Michael Storper, Thomas Kemeny, Naji Makarem, Taner Osman (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-02-06. Read as a companion piece to Annalee Saxenian's _Regional Advantage_; whereas that book compared the Bay Area to Boston, this (much more recent) one compares the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Note that, like Boston, LA was once a significantly more important center of high technology than the Bay Area, and it appears to have declined (much more sharply than Boston) for related though not identical reasons.

I suspect a lot of people will find this book rather dry reading, but if you read between the lines it is a blistering indictment of the culture, government, and leadership of LA. It is also rather dryly critical of the so-called field of "Regional Science and Urban Economics" (RSUE); the authors find the explanatory power of New Economic Geography and institutional/economic sociology more powerful.

There's a lot of thought-provoking material here. I have more to say about this but, as with Saxenian's book, I'm still digesting.
booklog  finished:2016  economics  history  urbanism  san-francisco  los-angeles  geography  business  culture 
february 2016 by absfac
Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, by AnnaLee Saxenian (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-01-31. Recommended. Today we take for granted that Silicon Valley is the world's leading computer technology center but a half century ago Route 128 was more important, and even as recently as the early 1980s it was quite comparable. To this day, most people still think of the Boston metro area as a "strong second-place" to the Bay Area in technology. But the truth is that it's quite a distant second. (The most important technology company offices near Kendall Square today are Microsoft's and Google's --- satellite offices of West Coast firms.) This is a detailed account, probably unparalleled, of the forces that enabled Silicon Valley to win. I want to write more about this and how it might be out of date (for example, it may be that Apple and to a lesser extent Google have managed to create a hybrid between the strengths of Silicon Valley's more collaborative firm organization and old, Route 128-style "autarky"), but right now I'm still digesting.
silicon-valley  technology-industry  economics  business  booklog  finished:2016  nonfiction  history 
february 2016 by absfac
Velvet Vol. 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (@Comixology)
Finished 2015-??-??. Enjoyable continuation of Vol. 1. Works better read all at once; the individual episodes slice the plot a bit too finely.
booklog  finished:2015  fiction  espionage-fiction  comics 
january 2016 by absfac
Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules, by Steve McConnell (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-01-21.
+ Some of this gigantic tome is fluff. For example, consider McConnell's bestiary of lifecycle development models; they all boil down to how you use your iteration cycles, and a more systematic treatment considering a smaller number of fundamental forces would be better than the butterfly collection that's presented here.
+ The book is also pitched towards developers delivering software in the context of a large corporation, where there is in theory a clear product specification that can be discovered and then delivered; it takes a little more work and selective reading to apply McConnell's insights, for example, to the exploratory, open-ended development process required in a startup or a research lab.
+ Nevertheless, there's a lot of interesting material here, presented briskly (compared to the sources; for example the chapter on productivity environments packs in nearly all the substantive material in DeMarco & Lister's _Peopleware_). Overall, almost anyone who works on high-pressure collaborative software projects will benefit from some subset of this book. Feel free to start skimming liberally when you find material that doesn't apply to your situation though.
booklog  finished:2016  software-development  nonfiction  management 
january 2016 by absfac
Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (3rd Edition), by Tom DeMarco & Tim Lister (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-01-21. Hugely overrated, but has some decent bits. The most significant empirically validated finding in this book is a rehash of a 1985 ICSE paper [0] by DeMarco and Lister on workspace productivity. As far as I can tell, they've been leveraging that nugget into widespread reverence for their other pronouncements (which have far less documented empirical validation) and a lucrative consulting business over the subsequent decades, without adding anything as substantial to the stock of public scientific knowledge. Still, I don't want to rag on this too hard; there is at least food for thought in the rest of this book.

[0] DeMarco and Lister, "Programmer performance and the effects of the workplace", ICSE '85.
booklog  finished:2016  software-development  nonfiction  management 
january 2016 by absfac
High Output Management, by Andrew S. Grove (@Kindle)
Finished 2015-12-??. Much food for thought here, and not just for people working in business or people who have a job title with "manager" in the name. Ultimately, this is about how to become more effective, as you become more senior and experienced in your field, by focusing your attention on higher-leverage activities that influence other people. Recommended.
booklog  nonfiction  management  finished:2015 
january 2016 by absfac
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (@Kindle)
Finished 2016-01-04. Stephenson tries his hand at a straightforward technothriller. Has its moments, but ultimately bogs down in an interminable sequence of unbelievably laboriously described multi-viewpoint action scenes that feel like a huge slog.
booklog  fiction  finished:2016  espionage-fiction 
january 2016 by absfac
Transition, by Iain M. Banks (@Kindle)
Finished 2015-12-31. Not, despite Amazon's billing, actually a Culture book, although imagining how it could have been one is maybe more entertaining than the actual plot. I'm sure this all fit together properly somehow in Banks's head, but overall it never really delivers on all its promise. Also, the rampant sexposition and rather bald political ranting have to be written off (even to someone completely sympathetic to his politics) as aesthetic flaws.
booklog  finished:2015  fiction  science-fiction  iain-m-banks 
december 2015 by absfac
Ghost Spin, by Chris Moriarty (@Kindle)
Finished 2015-05-??. Moriarty is still skilled at the nuts and bolts of pulling you from one page to the next, but this one kind of fizzles out towards the end. And to be honest I don't remember that much about the prior two books in the series, despite how original they felt at the time I was reading them, so maybe I'm overrating her books overall?
booklog  finished:2015  fiction  science-fiction 
june 2015 by absfac
Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schüll (@Kindle)
Finished 2015-05-??. Recommended by indie game designer Dan Cook. The title makes this book's subject sound narrow, but there is so much fertile soil for thought here, for anyone interested in capitalism, technology, psychology, and the organization of human societies, that I can't even really summarize it right now, but I second Cook's recommendation.
booklog  finished:2015  nonfiction  game-design  psychology  sociology  las-vegas  stochastic-processes  economic-inequality  social-engineering 
june 2015 by absfac
The Way Into Chaos: Book One of the Great Way,by Harry Connolly
Finished 2015-02-18. Brisk enough but I find the ratio of interesting fantastic conceits to grinding plot gears too low. Will probably not read the rest.
booklog  finished:2015  fiction  fantasy-fiction 
february 2015 by absfac
Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje
Finished 2015-02-09. Lent to me by a friend. Rather loose and impressionistic; some well-written passages; overall Ondaatje is probably a better poet than author of narrative prose but still this is a fine book.
memoirs  booklog  finished:2015  sri-lanka 
february 2015 by absfac
The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence, by Josh Waitzkin
Finished 2014-11-27. Written by the real-life subject of the book/film _Searching for Bobby Fischer_. Recommended by, of all things, a former competitive Starcraft player. A mixed bag, but there are some useful insights here.
booklog  self-development  chess  martial-arts  games  child-development  nonfiction  finished:2014 
november 2014 by absfac
Pretty Deadly Vol. 1, by Kelly Sue DeConnic, Jordie Bellaire, and Emma Rios (@comiXology)
Well drawn with lovely colors. The writing feels a little arbitrary for my tastes but it's not bad.
comics  fiction  booklog  fantasy-fiction  finished:2014 
june 2014 by absfac
Velvet Vol. 1, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (@comiXology)
Enjoyable espionage fiction. Brubaker continues his consistently solid streak.
comics  fiction  booklog  finished:2014 
june 2014 by absfac
Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey (@Kindle)
Finished 2014-03-23.

I started reading this long ago on the recommendation of an intelligent and pretty woman who, I quickly concluded, has, erm, rather different taste in fiction than I do. Additionally, it is astonishingly long and I have finally finished it, years later, having fallen completely out of touch with the person who recommended it to me, mostly out of some OCD sense of obligation, and also desire to move it from the "Current" to the "Done" folder on my Kindle. Even so I was skimming for the last couple hundred pages. The one thing that was genuinely educational about this book: I think that most men will be quite surprised at what is herein revealed about the feminine libido (of some women).
booklog  finished:2014  bdsm  fiction  fantasy-fiction  romance-fiction 
march 2014 by absfac
The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell (@Kindle)
Finished 2014-03-23. A classic, justly so, although very much an artifact of its time.
booklog  finished:2014  economics  labor  history  socialism  social-inequality  britain  george-orwell  the-road-to-wigan-pier 
march 2014 by absfac
Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, by Tyler Cowen (@Kindle)
Finished 2014-03-??. A more accurate though less marketable title would be "Computer Chess and Some Extrapolations". Still enjoyable.
booklog  finished:2014  economics  nonfiction  futurism 
march 2014 by absfac
Young Avengers, by Jamie McKelvie, Kieron Gillen, et al. (@comiXology)
Finished 2014-02-??. I don't read much superhero comics, which I mostly find terrible beyond even the proportions expected from Sturgeon's Law. However, this is McKelvie and Gillen channeling the unique pop-cultural energy of Phonogram into a sharply written allegorical tale of young adulthood. So, it's good, and also super queer which is a nice change of pace. McKelvie is perhaps the most talented figure artist working in American comics today and every page is packed with superbly clean lines and creative compositions. Gillen contributes his unique command of dialogue and multilayered themes; the one issue I have with him is a tendency towards plotting via deus ex magica. The series has been widely acclaimed, and overall the accolades are mostly deserved.
comics  superheroes  booklog  finished:2014 
march 2014 by absfac
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt (@Kindle)
Finished 2014-03-08. The Taiping civil war (more commonly called the Taiping Rebellion) is an incredible part of history that most Americans haven't even heard of, even though it's fairly recent (roughly concurrent with our own Civil War). Here, Platt relates the later phases of the war primarily through the prism of a few key characters --- Hong Rengan, Zeng Guofan, Frederick Townsend Ward, etc. The result is absolutely absorbing, reminiscent in some ways of Goodheart's _1861_ (which I also read recently, and with which it shares some themes: the American "filibusters" appear in both). There are so many astonishing stories and characters here that when I relate parts of it to people, I have trouble figuring out what to highlight. Recommended in the strongest possible terms.
history  china  britain  war  religion  taiping  booklog  finished:2014 
march 2014 by absfac
The Clan Corporate: Book Three of The Merchant Princes, by Charles Stross (@Kindle)
This series has been described by Krugman and others as social science fiction, but Stross is really drawing out the plottiness of this thing, with the result that it's about 2% social-scientific ideas playing out, and 98% plain old dynastic/political intrigue. I bought this along with book 2 while loading up my e-reader prior to a long trip; I was disappointed after reading books 1 & 2 but I kept soldiering on through the third since I'd already bought it, hoping that the series would turn around. But I think Stross is really serving a different kind of reader than me. Won't be reading further in this series.
booklog  finished:2014  fantasy-fiction  charles-stross 
february 2014 by absfac
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh (@Kindle)
About half this material will be familiar to readers of the comic. I suppose I bought & read this partly as a way of supporting the author.
booklog  comics  humor  finished:2013 
november 2013 by absfac
The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks
Finished 2013-10-??. All right. Better than The Quarry at least. Still, I can't shake the feeling that Banks's heart isn't fully into his realist (non-"M.") novels; the last excellent one I read was The Crow Road. He spools out a bunch of threads but doesn't seem interested in tying them off in interesting ways; the overall feeling when the novel finally comes to a rest is one of anticlimax. Arguably still worth reading for the many fine passages, such as those depicting the weirdly reality-distorting euphoria of young love and the way that we reflect on it as adults.
booklog  finished:2013  fiction  iain-m-banks 
october 2013 by absfac
The Quarry, by Iain Banks (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-09-??. The tale of a circle of friends gathering for a boozy, druggy week at one of their homes, as a last reunion before one of them dies of terminal cancer. The story is told from the viewpoint of one of their sons, who is an adult high-functioning autistic spectrum case. I fear that this may be a bit spoilerish but this is the rare (sole?) Banks novel where, effectively, none of the guns on the mantelpiece fire. Perhaps he intends this as a sort of inside joke to his fans (a Banks novel that passes and ends in relative quietude is arguably as big a surprise as any narrative twist), but nevertheless, in my opinion, normalcy is restored in the end with far too much ease, and it weakens the story. The most interesting dynamic set in motion as the novel starts is the uneasy chess game between autistic protagonist Kit and the circle of friends, who are all chasing a certain Macguffin and assume that Kit is vulnerable to their manipulations because he lacks a typical adult's emotional intelligence. Kit, for his part, is more devious than older people think, but perhaps overestimates his competence. There is fictional potential bursting out all over this premise but it is, as I note, incompletely explored.

Anyway, it is unfortunate that the last of Banks's books is not that great. Still, I think he wouldn't want us to treat it, or him, with a better opinion than we feel it deserves, merely out of pity. I read this on a bus, and I suppose it's all right, but if you're aching to read a bit of Banks (and it is very sad that we'll never have more of his prose), you could reread any of the Culture novels and have a much better time.
booklog  finished:2013  iain-m-banks  fiction 
september 2013 by absfac
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steven Levy (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-08-??, mostly while busing around the Balkans. Entertaining. Mostly but not entirely accurate as far as I can tell (for example the description of MapReduce is a bit mangled, but what are you going to do, he's just a journalist). Rather naively booster-ish in spots. My feelings about my time at Google are kind of complicated but reading this reminded me of the best parts of being there.
booklog  finished:2013  history  internet  google 
september 2013 by absfac
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-08-??. Read mostly while busing around the Balkans. Highly recommended. However the jacket blurbs about how this book defies categorization, etc. are hyperbole or perhaps simply hype. It's just a historical novel, and does not defy categorization any more than, say, Forrest Gump, although the invention is considerably subtler. Don't be confused. There are a lot of footnotes and these should be taken roughly in the same vein as the footnotes on Eliot's _The Waste Land_.
booklog  finished:2013  fiction  historical-fiction  soviet-union  communism  economics 
september 2013 by absfac
The Halo Effect: ...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, by Phil Rosenzweig (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-08-??. Finished on a plane. Bought a long time ago because it was recommended by Aaron Swartz. A useful corrective that will make you skeptical of all other business literature. Recommended.
booklog  finished:2013  nonfiction  business  management  psychology  advice 
september 2013 by absfac
When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail, by Eric Jay Dolin (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-09-??. Lots of good material here. For example, most American readers will not be familiar with the American merchant fleet's involvement with the so-called "coolie trade" whereby hundreds of thousands of Chinese were enslaved as guano mining labor in (islands off the coast of) South America. On the other hand, it becomes clear after some reading that the British and Spanish China trades were orders of magnitude more significant, in the age of sail, than the Americans', and thus anyone interested in the subject will probably want to follow this book up with something like Charles Mann's _1493_. Still, this book makes a nice, shorter warm-up for that one.
booklog  finished:2013  nonfiction  history  world-history  globalization  united-states  china 
september 2013 by absfac
The Hidden Family: Book Two of Merchant Princes, by Charles Stross (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-08-03. Read on a plane. Diverting, but Stross has droned on for six hundred plus pages now and still hasn't really wrapped up any major arcs. Put together the first two books and you still don't have a complete novel. This is treading into G.R.R. Martin territory here.
booklog  finished:2013  fiction  fantasy-fiction  charles-stross 
september 2013 by absfac
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-09-??. Less focused than Mann's earlier _1491_, but more interesting in some ways. The lost world of the American indigenous peoples (the subject of _1491_) is fascinating, but it is not the world we live in. The globalized post-Columbian era is. This book traces a few selected biological and economic currents in the early history of globalization. It does not even pretend to be comprehensive in this regard --- could any remotely digestible book comprehensively treat both the economic and biological fallout of globalization? --- but personally I felt that Mann's subjects were well-selected. Required reading for anyone interested in world history.
booklog  finished:2013  nonfiction  history  world-history  globalization 
september 2013 by absfac
The Family Trade (Merchant Princes), by Charles Stross (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-06-??. Doesn't get into the meat of the concept by the time the book is over. Stross has already apologized publicly that this is only half the novel*, so let's give him a pass until I read the second half.

*http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/03/post-mortem.html
fiction  fantasy-fiction  charles-stross  finished:2013  booklog 
july 2013 by absfac
Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross (@Kindle)
Finished 2013-07-21. Read on a plane.

I know that an author is supposed to keep the reader in suspense, but the more I read of Stross, the more his extremely unsubtle repertoire of tricks for withholding information from the reader annoy me; one wishes he were less lurching about it. Also, the conceit of the novel as an expense report filed in triplicate was not really committed to; all we get is a little more repetition, in the early chapters at least, than is usual for a novel.

Other than that, OK enough I suppose. Probably the only far-future robot-mermaid financial thriller with space zombies (well, one space zombie) that you're likely to read this year.
fiction  science-fiction  charles-stross  finished:2013  booklog 
july 2013 by absfac
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann [Abridged] [Audible Audio Edition]
Finished 2013-06-??. Does this count as reading? Anyway we listened to the whole thing while driving around the West.
booklog  history  world-history  america  finished:2013  audiobooks 
july 2013 by absfac
The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman
Finished 2013-07-24. After lingering half-read on my bookshelf for years.
booklog  finished:2013  nonfiction  design 
july 2013 by absfac
Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, by Jane Gleeson-White (@Amazon)
Finished 2013-04-04. Recommended by a friend. Intermittently interesting, but I can't recommend it entirely. Suffers from many issues, chief among them a pervasive authorial failure to treat double-entry accounting, and variations thereof, with enough precision to distinguish it from the much more general (and consequently vague) notion of "measuring things quantitatively". Needless to say, quantitative measurement has been extremely significant in human history, and it is undoubtedly true that the need for economic transactions have played a large role in the development of quantitative measurement, but the author slides from one to the other with such cavalier disregard for the distinction that it is hard to take many of the book's arguments seriously.

The book is thus strongest when discussing Luca Pacioli and Renaissance Venice. It is weakest when drawing causal connections between that history and more modern history.

A couple of smaller and more specific complaints:

+ The chapter that discusses the fundamentals of double-entry accounting fails to do justice to what seems most significant about the method --- namely, the clear separation of virtual "accounts" within a single business, allowing flows between different stocks to be separately analyzed --- while trying to make a great deal of hay out of the mere typographical convention of laying out debits and credits in two columns (using the unary negation sign for credits would be equivalent, as would any number of alternative typographical conventions).

+ The final chapters drift off into a somewhat unfocused and under-sourced indictment of modern finance and capitalism. These subjects merit a great deal of critical examination, but the analytic chops on display here are sadly far short of the task. These chapters are the type of writing which approvingly cites Naomi Klein without interrogating Klein's methodology or even carefully explaining the logic of Klein's arguments. Additionally, as noted above, Gleeson-White repeatedly tries to draw a causal line from Luca Pacioli's double-entry accounting methodology to subjects as diverse as Enron, Keynesian economics, and the 2008 global financial crisis, but the links seem tenuous at best; "double-entry accounting" is, as I noted above, lazily used as a stand-in for "quantitative measurement". (Perhaps the parallels are more specific and more direct, but the author never makes this case.) These last two chapters would perhaps earn a solid B for an undergraduate term paper; as a work of popular scholarship that I paid money for, I'm left unsatisfied.

Incidentally, computer scientists might find it interesting to note the similarities between the tripartite memorandum + journal + ledger storage system of Pacioli's accounting method, and modern persistent storage systems. The memorandum is a transient sequential log; the journal is a persistent sequential log; and the ledger re-bins log entries into per-account tables. The 3-level hierarchy of RAM buffer + on-disk journal + B-tree forest in a modern relational database system is quite similar, as is the architecture of a journaling filesystem.
accounting  economics  history  booklog  finished:2013 
april 2013 by absfac
The Rise of Ransom City, by Felix Gilman (@Amazon)
Finished 2013-02-??. Lovely sequel to _The Half-Made World_. As thoroughly recommendable as its predecessor.
felix-gilman  fiction  fantasy-fiction  booklog  finished:2013 
february 2013 by absfac
Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (@Amazon)
Finished 2011-10-??. (Backfilling since I seem to have forgotten to log this way back when.)
booklog  fiction  science-fiction  finished:2011 
january 2013 by absfac
We3, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (@Comixology)
Finished 2012-09-29. I don't think this hangs together that well as a story but it's well-drawn and the creators do a decent job with the characterization of Bandit and Tinker (Pirate less so). Eye/mind candy.
booklog  comics  science-fiction  finished:2012 
january 2013 by absfac
Pax Romana Vol. 1, by Jonathan Hickman (@Comixology)
Finished 2012-07-??. The idea of a modern army going back in time to battle (or, in this case, take over) an ancient empire is an old science-fictional idea. Neither Hickman nor his adoring editor seem to be aware that this is a cliche. Nevertheless this volume has enough visual and narrative interest to redeem itself, and I think it is probably worth reading if only to sample Hickman's visual style (which is intricate, striking, and distinctive in contemporary comics).
booklog  comics  science-fiction  finished:2012 
january 2013 by absfac
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