with 'books' tag

who is irving l. sepkowitz?

if you have ever checked out a science fiction book from the los angeles public library, odds are good that there is a bookplate inside the cover with the name “irving l. sepkowitz.”

irv sepkowitz died in 1992, and was a television executive. he was involved in negotiating to keep larry hagman on dallas after the infamous “who shot j.r.?” cliffhanger.

he was also a prankster during his days at ucla. one of the pranks he was involved with was dropping 500 pounds of manure on the tommy trojan statue. a comedy screenplay award, the SEPPI, was named after him, and so is sepi’s, a submarine shop near the ucla campus.

the jennifer morgue by charles stross and glasshouse by charles stross were the books i took along to hawaii, and i finally finished glasshouse the other day.

the jennifer morgue is a geek-cthulu spy novel, and the insider humor resulting from that doesn’t weigh it down too much. i would say it is just an okay book. the humor didn’t have the bite of something from a writer like douglas adams or terry pratchett.

glasshouse takes way too long to get going, but i did enjoy where it ended up. it is too thick with explanations of how its world works, which gets in the way of the story.

stross appears to be quite the writing machine. i wish i liked the results more.

good omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of agnes nutter, witch by neil gaiman and terry pratchett is every bit as good as you’d expect from those authors. i picked up a copy of this in the hong kong airport on our way back from our honeymoon, and finally got around to finishing what i didn’t read on the plane.

it’s a tale of the apocalypse with exactly the sort of humor you’d expect from terry pratchett. and probably neil gaiman, but i’ve come to realize that the only thing i’ve actually read of his is some issues of sandman and the day i swapped my dad for two goldfish. i really need to check out some of his novels.

the story brought to mind kevin smith’s dogma, which it predates. but it is considerably more british.

re-invasion from the moon

terraforming earth by jack williamson is a post-apocalyptic scifi novel about an outpost on the moon that is set up to clone a set of humans who are then taught how to go about terraforming the earth after an apocalyptic event (an asteroid/comet strike).

but it takes a few different generations of clones to get it right, with some of the attempts failing due to various problems (aliens, another asteroid, stupid humans).

it’s a pretty good read, and a quick read. the ending is rather bland.

in which i finally review a book i finally read weeks ago

company: a novel by max barry, author of jennifer government and syrup, may be his best yet. you can read the first chapter online for yourself, and i won’t say much about the plot because i wouldn’t want to ruin it for you. definitely recommended reading for anyone who works in an office — or if you don’t, so you can see what you’re not missing.

thud! by terry pratchett was a disappointment, as far as discworld books go. the pacing is pretty stiff, and the satire just isn’t all that biting.

one can become quite detached from reality when one’s famous

the people’s choice by jeff greenfield is a novel about a presidential election where the president-elect dies in an accident shortly after the election — before he is sworn in. the vice president is a quayle-like dunderhead, and the constitutional quirk that is the electoral college comes into play. it’s a fun book, even if the ending isn’t totally satisfying.

american dreamz is a politics and pop culture satire mash-up, where a dimwitted president goes into a funk after being re-elected, starts reading the newspaper, and is put on happy pills so his cheney-esque chief of staff can whisper into his ear when appears as a guest judge on an american idol-like show. with a premise like that, it turns out to be a lot funnier than it should be. a lot of the reviews i’ve seen seem to have liked the iraqi contestant the most, but i think his american cousin steals every scene he’s in.

don’t try this at home: culinary catastrophes from the world’s greatest chefs by kimberly witherspoon and andrew friedman (editors) is a collection of essays and stories from a number of chefs, as you might have guessed from the sub-title. they are pretty consistently great, and most of them are also very funny.

one story is from the execute chef/founders at downtown’s ciudad, mary sue milliken and susan feniger, and is about a disaster they had on their way to cater part of a charity event at the biltmore hotel. like many of the stories in the book, it will make you happy you weren’t on the tasting end of that particular meal.

a feast for crows by george r. r. martin was a bit of a slog. i think i’m starting to like this series more in theory than execution. part of the problem is that this is really half a book (even if it is over 750 pages). the next book in the series will be set at the same time as this one, and fill in the blanks for all of the characters not in this book. yikes!

agent to the stars by john scalzi is a first-contact story where the aliens first get themselves a hollywood agent. it is quite funny, and pretty remarkable for being a book that was intended to be scalzi’s first novel that would end up rotting in a drawer.

the confusion by neal stephenson is the second book in his baroque cycle, and i enjoyed it a lot even though it has taken me a long time to get through it. jack shaftoe and eliza are the two major characters in the book, and since they were my favorite characters from quicksilver, it’s no surprise that i liked this book.

2005 in review: books

i came close to averaging one book per week. the best non-fiction books i read this year were on intelligence and nature noir. the best fiction book i read this year was the kite runner, but i also enjoyed george r.r. martin’s a song of fire and ice series, and terry pratchett’s discworld books.

  1. on intelligence by jeff hawkins and sandra blakeslee (review)
  2. midas world by frederik pohl (review)
  3. singularity sky by charlie stross (review)
  4. children of the mind by orson scott card (review)
  5. the geography of thought: how asians and westerners think differently...and why by richard e. nisbett (review)
  6. myth-taken identity by robert asprin and jody lynn nye (review)
  7. myth alliances by robert asprin and jody lynn nye (review)
  8. ender’s shadow by orson scott card (review)
  9. the tides of time by john brunner (review)
  10. the coming by joe haldeman (review)
  11. camouflage by joe haldeman (review)
  12. shadow of the hegemon by orson scott card (review)
  13. slack: getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency by tom demarco (review)
  14. high stakes, no prisoners: a winner’s tale of greed and glory in the internet wars by charles h. ferguson (review)
  15. fuel-injected dreams: a novel by james robert baker (review)
  16. blink: the power of thinking without thinking by malcolm gladwell (review)
  17. old man's war by john scalzi (review)
  18. the color of magic by terry pratchett (review)
  19. going postal by terry pratchett (review)
  20. shadow puppets by orson scott card (review)
  21. kitchen confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly by anthony bourdain (review)
  22. disneywar by james b. stewart (review)
  23. democratizing innovation by eric von hippel (review)
  24. nature noir: a park ranger’s patrol in the sierra by jordan fisher smith (review)
  25. scoop by evelyn waugh (review)
  26. a game of thrones by george r.r. martin (review)
  27. massive change by bruce mau and the institute without boundaries (review)
  28. someone comes to town, someone leaves town by cory doctorow (review)
  29. a clash of kings by george r.r. martin (review)
  30. the plot against america by philip roth (review)
  31. the light fantastic by terry pratchett (review)
  32. the snows of kilimanjaro and other short stories by ernest hemingway (review)
  33. equal rites by terry pratchett (review)
  34. make love the bruce campbell way by bruce campbell (review)
  35. mort by terry pratchett (review)
  36. rebuilt: how becoming part computer made me more human by michael chorost (review)
  37. bowling alone: the collapse and revival of american community by robert d. putnam (review)
  38. the kite runner by khaled hosseini (review)
  39. behavior in public places: notes on the social organization of gatherings by erving goffman (review)
  40. the mystery of capitalism: why capitalism triumphs in the west and fails everywhere else by hernando de soto (review)
  41. quicksilver by neal stephenson (review)
  42. sourcery by terry pratchett (review)
  43. freakonomics by steven d. levitt and stephen j. dubner (review)
  44. excession by iain m. banks (review)
  45. let my people go surfing: the education of a reluctant businessman by yvon chouinard (review)
  46. the family trade by charles stross (review)
  47. wyrd sisters by terry pratchett (review)
  48. maverick: the success story behind the world’s most unusual workplace by ricardo semler (review)

maverick: the success story behind the world’s most unusual workplace by ricardo semler is another book about the history and philosophy of a fascinating company, this time the brazilian manufacturing company semco.

it is a pretty amazing story, and it sounds like an amazing company. one of the central notions behind all of the changes was to treat the employees of the company like adults, and the hurdles that had to be crossed to do that can be surprising at times. the guidelines in the company’s survival manual might be something every company should adopt.

wyrd sisters by terry pratchett is the discworld riff on shakespeare, and is also very funny. an astute observation: “ninety per cent of true love is acute, ear-burning embarrassment.”

the family trade by charles stross is book one of a new fantasy(ish) series, and it unfortunately is the sort of book one that totally fails to resolve anything significant. the central idea seems a little well-worn, but the execution is very tight, so it works anyway.

let my people go surfing: the education of a reluctant businessman by yvon chouinard, founder and owner of patagonia, is as good as i thought it would be. he lays out the history and core philosophies of patagonia, and they are certainly admirable.

one idea that i especially liked is his explanation of how zen archery has influenced what he does — focusing more on the process than the goal. and thus by perfecting the process, perfecting how the goal is reached.

another is why they devote one percent of their sales to environmental causes: if given a chance to allocate how their taxes were spent, people would jump at the chance, and by taxing yourself you can do exactly that.

excession by iain m. banks is probably the most hard-core science fiction i have read in a long while. an example, from the beginning of chapter five:

the double-sun system was relatively poor in comets; there were only a hundred billion of them. however, many of them had orbits well outside the elliptic and that helped to make the search every bit as difficult as it would have been with a greater number of comet nuclei but in a more planar cloud. even so, it was impossible to check all of them; ten thousand ships would have been required to thoroughly check every single sensor trace in the comet cloud to make sure that one of them was not a stricken ship, and the best the break even could do was briefly fasten its gaze on the most likely-looking candidates.

as scifi goes, it is an okay book. many of the main characters are actually the minds that control the spaceships, and the way that is handled is surprisingly effective. but the human characters are pretty much consistently unlikable, the main non-human race is close to a one-note joke (thankfully a funny one), and some of the main plots really end up not amounting to anything.

(i guess this is just one of a number of books that involves “the culture,” the civilization that is sort of at the center of the action. looking through the amazon reviews, this book appears to be the one that focuses the most on the ships and their minds.)


freakonomics by steven d. levitt and stephen j. dubner is the most blogged about book of the year, so consider this my little pile-on. i finished reading the book yesterday, and i would have enjoyed it tremendously if i did not feel like i had already read it all via blogs. as it was, i merely enjoyed it a lot.

the book was, for a while, the most-requested book at the los angeles public library. when i first got on the waiting list for it, it was over 400 names long.


sourcery by terry pratchett is the fifth discworld book. the story sort of collapses at the end, and it feels like some elements (plot and characters) are sketchier and not as fully realized as they could have been. but it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and that makes up for a lot.

now that i’ve read quicksilver by neal stephenson, i’m one-third of the way through the baroque cycle: only 2000 more pages to go! this book is basically three books in one, so that makes it a little easier to digest. it’s historical fiction, set in england and europe during the baroque era, and it includes both historical and fictional characters. there’s also a tie, via family names and one character, with cryptonomicon.

i enjoyed it, although i found it tough to get into the story. the second section is the most entertaining of the three, but the stories from the first two sections come together in the third in a very satisfying way. there’s an interesting mix of narrative styles in the book — some chapters are presented as plays, some as a series of letters, and others as conventional narrative.

probably the most fascinating aspect of the book, since it basically focuses on the lives of “natural philosophers,” or scientists, is what was going on while insights we take for granted, like newton’s laws of motion, were first being published.

the mystery of capitalism: why capitalism triumphs in the west and fails everywhere else by hernando de soto can very nearly be summed up in two words: property rights. more specifically, the formal recognition of property rights that allows property to take on value above and beyond its physical manifestation.

one question it brought to mind for me is whether it is possible that our current copyright system, with no registration necessary, is really stifling the value of so-called intellectual property. what is something like the broken record by twink, if not something built in an extralegal framework? (assuming that they haven’t really tracked down the copyright holders of the “hundreds of vintage children’s records.”)

spartan is a david mamet film starring val kilmer as a special ops officer trying to track down the daughter of a high-ranking government official. (it’s sort of implied it is the president.) it’s not at all flashy, but i think it also fails to spark. the dialogue is classic mamet, of course.

i stumbled in getting discs in the mail the last few days, so now my flow of movies to/from netflix is all screwed up, and i’ve got one movie to last through the weekend. (i only have one book from the library, too.)


a storm of swords by george r.r. martin is the third book in the a song of ice and fire series, and i think it is the best of the series so far. it is more clear how each of the threads of the plot are coming together — or if not how they are coming together, at least that they are coming together. unlike a clash of kings, the second book, i think this one also is better for being a little more self-contained, and coming to a more natural conclusion. but still a cliffhanger of a conclusion, to be sure.

apparently the series is going to be six books long, and with each book weighing in around a thousand pages, that’s a hell of a lot of story. and there are times when i wonder if any of the characters in the first book are going to be left by the end of the last.

the fourth book is already out, although the library doesn’t yet have any copies and there’s a long-ish hold list.

(yeah, i spent most of my weekend reading a 900+ page fantasy book. the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

to induce improper mutual-involvement

behavior in public places: notes on the social organization of gatherings by erving goffman is a book that was mentioned in the notes for matt webb’s presentation about his “glancing” project.

because it is really a rather academic work (and perhaps because it was written in 1963), it chases a sort of precision of vocabulary that makes it tough to digest. but there were a number of interesting nuggets within that made it worthwhile.

here’s a quote from the book, which is actually a quote from georg simmel’s soziologie:

of the special sense-organs, the eye has a uniquely sociological function. the union and interaction of individuals is based upon mutual glances. this is perhaps the most direct and purest reciprocity which exists anywhere. this highest psychic reaction, however, in which the glances of eye to eye unite men, crystallizes into no objective structure; the unity which momentarily arises between two persons is present in the occasion and is dissolved in the function. so tenacious and subtle is this union that it can only be maintained by the shortest and straightest line between the eyes, and the smallest deviation from it, the slightest glance aside, completely destroys the unique character of this union. no objective trace of this relationship is left behind, as is universally found, directly or indirectly, in all other types of associations between men, as, for example, in interchange of words. the interaction of eye and eye dies in the moment in which directness of the function is lost. but the totality of social relations of human beings, their self-assertion and self-abnegation, their intimacies and estrangements, would be changed in unpredictable ways if there occurred no glance of eye to eye. this mutual glance between persons, in distinction from the simple sight or or observation of the other, signifies a wholly new and unique union between them.

it probably doesn’t take much imagination for anyone who knows me to figure out why i found that noteworthy.

(“to induce improper mutual-involvement” is one of those phrases that just popped out at me elsewhere in the book. sign me up.)

the kite runner by khaled hosseini is a novel with events in afghanistan from 1975 up until the present day as the backdrop. but it isn’t really about those events — it is about two boys who grew up together in kabul.

it is an absolutely wonderful book. the writing is amazing, the story is awesome, and overall i can’t recommend it highly enough. easily one of the best books i’ve read this year, if not the best.

i say hello

bowling alone: the collapse and revival of american community by robert d. putnam is a look at the decline of social capital in american culture over the last few decades. it is information-dense, but thought provoking.

i can’t help but feel to be an example of the sort of disconnectedness and disengagement that putnam writes about, but i think i am getting better at fighting against it. bettertogether is a project headed up by putnam, and this list of 150 ways to build social capital would make a fine todo list. and i’m even already doing some of them, like volunteering at the library (#75).

a small irony is that staying in on a friday night to finish the book isn’t a particularly social thing to do.

access all areas: a user’s guide to the art of urban exploration by ninjalicious is a book whose content you can guess from the title, by the founder of a zine (and website) called infiltration that covers the same subject. (via boing boing).

vacation reading roundup

i’m still on vacation, so if i make it to the library i may read another book or two this weekend, but i plowed through a number of books while i was away.

the plot against america by philip roth is an alternate-historic look at an america where charles lindbergh was elected president instead of fdr’s third term, preventing the entry of the united states into the second world war. it’s told from the point of view of a young jewish boy and mostly deals with the turmoil it causes to his family. it’s a great story, and really well written, but i was disappointed by the resolution.

the light fantastic by terry pratchett is the second of the discworld books, and it picks up where the colour of magic left off. unlike that book, it isn’t broken up into distinct stories that sort of stand on their own. it suffers a bit from having to wrap up the loose ends of the last book.

the snows of kilimanjaro and other short stories by ernest hemingway didn’t make me want to spend a month in cuba, but it does almost make me want to go on safari. (only that doesn’t turn out so good for any of the guys in the stories, so maybe that isn’t such a bright idea.)

equal rites by terry pratchett is the third discworld novel, and the first that really conforms to the structure that makes the series great — a standalone story that draws on the backstory of the world and previous novels, but that also talks about a more modern sort of issue through its fantasy-world lens. in this case, it’s opening up the world of wizardry to women, so it bears some extra kinship with the later monstrous regiment.

make love the bruce campbell way by bruce campbell is a fictional story about bruce campbell in a starring role in an a-list movie also featuring richard gere and renée zellweger. it’s very funny, and there are goofy little photoshop mash-ups and illustrations on almost every page. the typography is pretty awful, though. there’s a reason books aren’t normally published in a sans serif font.

mort by terry pratchett is the fourth discworld book (sensing a pattern here?), and tells the story of a boy who becomes the apprentice to death. like all of the discworld books, it is very funny, and the character of death is particularly great, but i thought the story was a bit lacking.

rebuilt: how becoming part computer made me more human by michael chorost is a fantastic book, and somehow i managed to save the best for last. it reminded me in a way of the myth of solid ground by david ulin in how it took the author’s experience and put a heavy philosophical spin on it, but also in the way in which it was not excruciatingly awful (as i found the myth of solid ground to be). chorost writes very frankly about his experience with a cochlear implant and the impact on his psyche, relationships, and approach to life.

don't try this at home: culinary catastrophes from the world’s greatest chefs edited by kimberly witherspoon and andrew friedman (reviewed here) sounds like a great book. one of the chefs to contribute a chapter is anthony bourdain, author of kitchen confidential.

speaking of kitchen confidential, i hope the show ends up better than the pilot. i really wanted to like it, but it just did not gel.

a clash of kings by george r.r. martin is much like a game of thrones was, with an intercut story of court intrigue. i think it suffers a bit from middle-novel syndrome: it doesn’t really doesn’t have many complete stories of its own. but it is a good middle novel — it pushes forward on all the major plots in the series so far, does a good job of backfilling more of the backstory and details about the world, and introduces some interesting new characters and twists.

it is even more graphic than the first novel. so for novels that feature a lot of younger characters, it’s not entirely suitable for younger readers. a previous reader had helpfully underlined a couple of salacious bits in the library’s copy of the book.

kevin roderick reports that calvin and hobbes is reappearing in papers as a promotion for the new collection of all of the strips: the complete calvin and hobbes by bill watterson. awesome.

the los angeles times covers the release of the game: penetrating the secret society of pickup artists, a book whose very concept makes me want to run screaming for the door. but there are some hilarious quotes in the article.

i don’t know why it showed up on the california politics page of the times.

someone comes to town, someone leaves town by cory doctorow is his longest book yet, but somehow still manages to be a really quick read. i started it yesterday after finishing massive change, and just finished it.

i like this one a great deal more than eastern standard tribe, and have the feeling that is going to be clawing around in the back of my mind for a while. it is pretty supremely strange.

i really love the feeling of catching up on the books i have checked out from the library. it reminds me of going to the library was i was younger, and the way i used to just chew through books. but now that i don’t have any due dates hanging over my head, i think it may finally be time to catch up on some of the books i own but haven’t read yet.

speaking of the library, the docent training is ten weeks, starts in mid-october for six weeks, takes a holiday break, wraps up in the new year, and is currently scheduled for wednesdays during the day — they’re thinking of possibly doing it also or instead on saturdays, because they are really interested in getting some younger docents on board. and apparently not everyone is as flexible to blow off work reschedule their work day as i am.

massive change by bruce mau and the institute without boundaries bears a certain resemblance to wired magazine in book form — very graphic, concise (and fairly shallow) text, and too-short interviews with some interesting people. lots of great photographs.

a game of thrones by george r.r. martin is a book that rick had spoken highly of (or perhaps it was one of the other books in the series).

it is a pretty amazing fantasy book — a huge cast of characters, and a densely woven plot full of intrigue. each chapter is told from the point of view from a different character, and though the plot is densely woven as a whole, it takes time for some patches to actually get filled in. the back story and setting is doled out in small doses, to great effect.

i am trying very hard to not see any connection between spending most of my weekend reading this book and the film i also saw.

scoop by evelyn waugh is a comedy set against the backdrop of journalism in 1930s england. it’s a little bit of mistaken identity, some fish-out-of-water, and a fair heaping of clueless bumbling. it has bits and turns of phrases that are very funny, but overall it drags.

nature noir: a park ranger’s patrol in the sierra by jordan fisher smith is a book that i thought might be amazing after hearing him read excerpts at the central library last march, and i was right. it is a wonderful book, and you are really missing out if you don’t seek it out. the way he weaves together stories about the park he patrolled (which was condemned to become a reservoir) and stories about people in the park is amazing.

democratizing development

democratizing innovation by eric von hippel is a fairly dry, academic business book, which made it tougher than i had expected to get through. there are some interesting observations and insights in the book, but they are perhaps too few and far between. you can read the book online.

over on planet mysql, the related topic of distributed version control has gotten some attention, with some shout-outs to free tools for doing distributed development. (i’ll add one for mercurial.)

ian bicking tries to argue in favor of centralized scm systems, but i think he’s neglecting the cost imposed on the center of the project by such centralized systems that the distributed systems do a really good job of distributing — you can impose something even better than his proposed “we don’t accept patches, we only accept pointers to branches in our repository” — “we don’t accept patches, we only pull changes from publically-available repositories.”

i can’t imagine the security nightmare of providing global check-in access to everyone, and the complexity of tools that would be required to manage the layers of dead-end branches.

potter at the gym

this morning at the gym, i noticed that the people on both sides of me when i was on the elliptical machine were reading the latest harry potter book. (i’m sure the girl on my left was, and am less certain about the guy on my right.)

i don’t understand how people can read while exercising. i can barely concentrate on music. my mind just tends to wander rather freely.

disneywar by james b. stewart is a blow-by-blow account of michael eisner’s reign at disney, right up through last year, when roy e. disney and stanley gold’s fight with the board was getting under full steam.

it is an exhaustive account, and not very many of the players end up looking that good. the deception (and probably self-deception) at the higher levels of disney is just stunning. the machinations of who-reports-to-who, especially as abc enters the picture, represents a level of political intrigue way beyond anything i’ve seen.

kitchen confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly by anthony bourdain is a behind-the-scenes look at being a chef in gourmet restaurants mostly in and around new york city. it’s a colorful book, with some great characters including bourdain himself. it is also a very personalized story — it’s not just a generic look at the restaurant business.

i popped this in the library queue after andrei mentioned it.

shadow puppets by orson scott card is the penultimate book in the whole ender saga, or so we’ve been led to believe. i think i agree with the reviewer on amazon that calls it a punctuation mark in the series. it’s fairly lackluster, and that makes the biggest flaw of this last part of the series stand out — the geopolitics are absolutely ludicrous.

there’s less of the bean-as-brilliant-mindreader schtick, which is a very good thing, but none of the characters are particularly strong in the book.

going postal by terry pratchett is the latest of the discworld books, and it is brilliant, of course. it’s the story of a con man who is is appointed postmaster general instead of being executed, and how he applies his talents to revitalizing the post office even in the face of the signal tower (“clacks”) monopoly. it is very funny, although it doesn’t have quite the heart that monstrous regiment did.

the color of magic by terry pratchett is the first of the discworld books, but it is fairly unlike the other books in the series that i have read. it is basically four interlocking short stories. i thought it started sort of weak, at least compared to the other discworld books. it has some very funny bits.

i don’t know that i would recommend starting the series with this book — i certainly don’t feel like i lost much by not having read this until third or fourth.

i’ve got another discworld book up next, because my last trip to the library was pretty much a bust. it was one of those trips where the books that the system claimed were on the shelf were not.

my voracious book consumption has continued with old man's war by john scalzi, a really good science fiction book centered on the idea that humans are having to aggressively battle other intelligent species for worlds to colonize, and they’re doing it by recruiting seniors and buffing them up.

the plot isn’t the best part of the book, but it does well in providing a framework for the characters and ideas, which are really what make the book shine.

i guess the best way to review blink: the power of thinking without thinking by malcolm gladwell is to give my immediate impression: i liked it.

it also resonates with on intelligence, such as the example gladwell cites of a psychological experiment where the subjects would read comics while either holding a pen using their lips (preventing them from smiling) or with their teeth (forcing a smile) and they would either report the comic less or more amusing, respectively. that’s just what you would expect using the theory of how the brain works from on intelligence: you’re causing (or suppressing) associations with humor because you’re forcing values back up the feedback chain.

fuel-injected dreams: a novel by james robert baker is a story about a late-night radio dj’s life colliding with a phil spector-like record producer who has retreated into drug-addled nuttiness. it’s funny and well written, with some clever plot twists and an appropriately loopy ending.

the book is 20 years old, which makes some of it seem eerily prescient with spector on trial for murder now.

high stakes, no prisoners: a winner’s tale of greed and glory in the internet wars by charles h. ferguson is the story of vermeer technologies, the company that created that created frontpage and was acquired by microsoft. it’s a very personal account of the story, and it’s a good read. ferguson is quite a character, and his characterizations of various dotcom celebrities and microsoft insiders are entertaining.

the book was written about six years ago, and some of his predictions have fallen short in the meantime. microsoft hasn’t really claimed a huge percentage of the server market, and the frontpage server extensions certainly haven’t done much to drive iis adoption.

slack: getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency by tom demarco is a book that evan williams, one of the founders of blogger, recommended recently. to briefly and perhaps badly reformulate it, the main lesson of the book is that there is an efficiency vs. efficacy trade-off that needs to be acknowledged, and something that can increase efficacy (even if it decreases short-term efficiency) is to leave some slack. that’s not to say you should work 20% less, but that you may want to spend some percentage of time not working directly towards your main goal.

you can see this reflected, obviously, in google’s 20% time, where employees are free to spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want. but there’s a lot more to the book, and i don’t want you to get the idea that it is just a validation of the idea of google’s 20% time or anything like that.

like most good business books, it is a fairly quick read and at the end of it you’re left with the vague feeling that you knew, or should have known, all of what you just read.

here’s a quote that struck me as noteworthy: “it is success in the absence of sufficient power that defines leadership.”

i sometimes feel a little silly about reading management books like this since i’m not management, and don’t particularly aspire to be. but that quote puts in perspective why i read them anyway. and although i don’t aspire to management, it is still a subject that fascinates me. i guess the role i aspire to is consigliere. at least when sinecure isn’t available.

tomorrow (saturday) at 10:30am is the annual meeting of the los angeles conservancy at the cineramadome at arclight hollywood, and it will include a slide presentation about looking at los angeles, a collection of photographs of los angeles. it’s open to the public, not just conservancy members.

shadow of the hegemon by orson scott card is where the shark gets jumped, i think. but it is still a quite good book.

bean, our lead character and child military genius, goes on a bit about how he organizes his small army so that each platoon (and other level of organization) can operate independently — usually with full information, but that is so that they can have the confidence to act when they have incomplete information. later he talks about how he has learned to trust his instincts when something is wrong. the parallel between those two ideas is never made explicit in the book, but i think they really are two facets of the same idea.

and it brought me back to on intelligence and the notion of hierarchical memory and how the neocortex works (or may work). maybe a lesson to draw is to trust, and train, your instincts.

the coming by joe haldeman is a first-contact story, set in the not-too-distant future of florida. i think he tried too hard to mix in a bit of an elmore leonard vibe, and just doesn’t pull it off.

camouflage by joe haldeman reminded me a lot of a michael crichton book, and that’s not entirely a good thing. it certainly shares a superficial similarity with sphere in that a mysterious (alien) object found in the ocean is a central plot point. but most of the action is in the story of two aliens who are drawn to the object, one which can shape-shift into anything, and another which can shape-shift into any human form.

i found the ending in both books to be pretty unsatisfying, and far too rushed. they also both really suffer from badly cliched scifi sex. here’s a classic review of camouflage from j.p. bonsen on amazon: “Hot alien babeomorph seduces nerd scientist to get near priceless treasure only to be semi-waylaid by evil billionaire immortal whilst buffeted by the passions of unintended xenoromance. Good stuff!”

i picked up both books based on their mentions in jwz’s list of recently-read books.

the tides of time by john brunner is an odd book. it basically is a bunch of stories about a couple experiencing different scenarios further and further back in time. it doesn’t entirely work, and i think that is because you never really know why they are skipping backwards in time until the end of the book. i think this may be my least favorite brunner book that i’ve read to date.

ender’s shadow by orson scott card did not disappoint me at all, much to my relief. it’s a parallel novel to the original ender’s game, telling it from the point of view of bean, a minor character from the first novel, and filling in his back-story.

i’m really in awe of how card has managed to build out the framework of ideas in his earlier books, and make the world of these novels more complex but still cohesive with each additional one. this is a stark contrast with star wars, for example, where george lucas has largely failed to create a cohesive larger work. (yes, i’ll never forgive him for greedo shooting first and midi-chlorians.)

myth-taken identity and myth alliances by robert asprin and jody lynn nye are the latest additions to the long-running series of myth books (originally just by asprin).

a long time ago, i was offended because someone else was buying a book in the series at the same time as i was, and referred to it as a “popcorn” book. but now that i’m older and wiser, i can sort of agree with that assessment. but asprin and nye manage the continue the fun cross-breeding of pop culture satire and fantasy conventions that make the series great.

the geography of thought: how asians and westerners think differently...and why by richard e. nisbett was a book that our ceo mentioned he had read recently, so i picked it up on one of my trips to library. it basically argues that western and eastern thought has some fundamental differences, and much of it boils down to a difference between individualistic and holistic thinking.

this is one of those books that stands across the accessible and academic divide, but i don’t think it fails on the accessibility front (and am not qualified to really judge it on academic merits). some of the studies he cites are fascinating, and do a good job of illustrating some of the differences.

my main complaint about the book would be that it is a little too binary. a few of the studies break things down beyond just western and eastern, but most of the studies are fairly small in scope and so can’t be cut that finely. this means that areas like the mideast and africa aren’t really given much consideration.

children of the mind by orson scott card is the end of the ender wiggin series proper (the other books in the series are either parallel to or between the first four), and it follows closely in the model of xenocide and speaker for the dead in being more philosophical and character-driven than ender’s game. the book is heavy in relationships, with a little side foray into the impact of philosophers on political action.

the series hasn’t disappointed me yet. we’ll see how that holds up with the second series of books that starts with ender’s shadow.

singularity sky by charlie stross is one of those books that has a few really brilliant and clever ideas (like cellphones raining down on a willfully technologically backward and feudal society) that ends up being less than the sum of its parts. the characters just aren’t that compelling, and the story as a whole doesn’t really go anywhere unexpected.

prepaid plans and subscriptions as self-imposed consumption quotas

like i said, midas world is thought-provoking. and as i was juggling a few items in my long-neglected netflix queue, i started to wonder if you couldn’t think about monthly service plans as a sort of self-imposed consumption quota.

(downtown los angeles still badly needs a video rental store.)


midas world by frederik pohl (another book recommendation plucked from the fork archives) claims to be a novel, but is really a set of short stories that trace the history of the world after fusion power is invented and energy becomes plentiful. all of them are delightful and thought-provoking, but none more so than the first. with plentiful and cheap energy, the economics of the world have become inverted and it is only the rich who have time to work and be truly idle. the poor are consigned to unending consumption, fulfilling the rations they are assigned by eating beyond the point of enjoyment, living in gargantuan homes, and never really accumulating belongings. it is an inversion that seems completely absurd, until you remember the strong correlation between poverty and obesity in the united states. the idea that society is racing against itself in order to consume what it produces is an interesting way to look at the world.

robots, even seperated by decades from midas world, actually hits on a similar theme with its story of robots resisting an evil corporation that is eliminating the supply of spare parts so that they can sell shiny upgrades and consign old robots to the scrap heap. between this film and ice age, i think blue sky studios has established itself as a fairly close second-place to pixar in feature-length computer animation. like in pixar’s films, there is a strong story to complement the visual design and trickery. they’ve certainly proven themselves to not be a one-trick pony.

on not finishing books

elf is a neat little service that consolidates library accounts, with a unified calendar of when your books are due, and email reminders.

it helped remind me to renew some of the books i have out that were due just the other day, although it didn’t do anything to help me with the books i have out that are already overdue and can’t be renewed. when i went to see the talk by michael shermer, publisher of skeptic magazine, i took the copy of on intelligence by jeff hawkins and sandra blakeslee that i was nearly finished with, but turned it in while i was leaving. i was very close to done, but i decided to turn it in rather than rack up more fines.

speaking of fines, i just now noticed that the fines and fees will be increased on march 14, 2005. the basic adult book late fee is going from 20¢ a day to 25¢.

when i checked in for the talk this evening, the person doing the check-in recognized my name from the batch of reservations i made for other upcoming talks. i signed up for about a half-dozen of the march/april alôud talks.

the narrative of a bird in a dead tree

jared diamond talked tonight at the los angeles central public library about his most recent book, collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. i don’t have much to say about what he said other than that he says very smart things, and i look forward to reading the book some day.

i did find it tremendously amusing that he made a comment about how americans need to re-evaluate their consumerism, and then there was a large line of people outside waiting for him to scribble on their dead tree with his words printed on it. (that the event is held at a library just makes that even more amusing to me.)

almost every time someone asks a question at one of these things, i think i get driven further to the right on the political spectrum just to give me some distance from the sheer braying banality of what they say. and those aren’t even the questions that make my head explode. if you find yourself asking a question about the narrative of a space, or telling jared diamond to “let the birds talk,” know that i am in the corner with my brain melting.

also, i would think the people who put on these lectures (which are great, don’t get me wrong in that regard) would have figured out how to manage a question-and-answer period. they need to start it by reminding people to ask a question, not ramble for three minutes about how they don’t like the current administration. then the people (or person) with the microphone needs to be moving the microphone from the person who just asked a question to the next person who will ask a question while the speaker is still answering the question.

holiday reading wrap-up (2004 edition)

sock by penn jillette
this is a striking book, and a lot of that comes from the rhythm of the writing — it charges along not unlike penn’s patter during his act with teller. every paragraph (or nearly so) has a pop-culture reference tucked into it. and the narrator is the sock monkey of a new york police department scuba diver who investigates a serial killer, one of whose targets was an ex-girlfriend of his (the diver, not the sock monkey). and as a bonus, when my mom saw this book with my luggage, she was reminded that she had recently run across my sock monkey, and now he lives with me again.
the wild shore by kim stanley robinson
this is the first of a trilogy of books that (apparently) explore different futures for the area around orange county. it’s a post-apocalyptic take, set after someone (possibly the russians) basically knock the united states back into the last century by detonating a series of neutron bombs, and the world has decided to keep the states there by preventing the survivors from joining up. i’m not entirely sure what i think about this book — it really only tells a part of the story as compared to a novel like lucifer’s hammer or the postman. but it tells it well, and it is a well-imagined post-apocalyptic world.
the radioactive boy scout by ken silverstein
this is a non-fiction book, about an eagle scout in the detroit area who tried to build a nuclear breeder reactor in a potting shed in his mother’s backyard that eventually had to be cleaned up by the epa (by workmen in radiation suits — not something the neighbors liked to see, especially when they weren’t very forthcoming about why they were there). the book has a lot more setup than punchline, so i think it fell a little flat at the end. the reviews at amazon for this book are pretty funny — i guess some people took serious exception to the way the author covers the sort of blind boosterism that surrounded (surrounds?) the “atomic energy” industry, and his less-than-flattering (and likely accurate) capsule history of the boy scouts.

this commentary in the los angeles times attributes the decline in book readership to the rise of book prices (at least in part). i’m not sure i believe it is a significant component. the commentary neglects the impact of internet usage (which involves lots of reading and time).

but i do wonder what the trend of per-capita spending on libraries looks like.

oh, and of course the major thing neglected is the impact of amazon and other online retailers. book prices aren’t as high as they seem, especially not for books that have been out long enough to make it into the used market.

one hell of a candidate: a novel of politics by william f. gavin is set against the backdrop of a special election for an open congressional seat in a district in a southern state, where the seat opened up due to the sitting congressman going into a coma after suffering a heart attack. it’s a good and fun book, but it suffers from not having a real central character, and some rather foreseeable plot points. there’s more of a focus on the republican side of the race, with the democratic candidates falling into more obvious stereotypes, but the novel doesn’t really let anyone off the hook.

national novel writing month is coming up again. 50,000 words in 30 days. that means this is the time of the year where i briefly contemplate participating, but give up after about two hours of failing to come up with a good idea. maybe what i should i really do is just come up with a bad idea and go for it.

write 2,500 words every weekday, catch-up/edit/recuperate on weekends. if i can just come up with a twenty-chapter outline, i’ve got built-in milestones. and i’ve written articles over 2,000 words before….

one advantage this has over all of my various ideas on doing something is that it can be a solo effort. no outside help required. and it doesn’t involve programming.

i figure i’ve got through the weekend to try and outline something and decide on whether to do it.

i went to another talk at the los angeles public library, this time by jeff hawkins, cofounder of palm and handspring, and sandra blakeslee, a science writer, who have coauthored a book called on intelligence, which lays out a sort of foundational theory for neuroscience. it sounds like some really interesting work, with only a minor crossover with jeff’s work at palm and handspring. perhaps i’ll be able to explain better once i’ve actually read the book. (“you are number 9 in the holds list. there are 5 copies eligible for holds.”)

i’ve already rsvp’d for another talk next month, by harold evens, author of they made america: from the steam engine to the search engine: two centuries of innovators. the week has run a couple of excerpts from the book in the last couple of issues. (“you are number 16 in the holds list. there are 12 copies eligible for holds.”)

there’s another discussion i’m thinking of attending next month with robert a.f. thurman, which will be moderated by david o. russell, director of three kings and i ♥ huckabees.

when i was at the library, i returned a couple of books that were due and unrenewable. one i had only gotten part way through (idiot proof: deluded celebrities, irrational power brokers, media morons, and the erosion of common sense by francis wheen), which i wasn’t altogether impressed with, and another that i hadn’t even started (the reformation: a history by diarmaid macculloch), which i’ll have to try again later.

slick: a novel by daniel price is a very clever first novel by a los angeles writer, set in the intersecting world of crisis pr management, the rap industry, and the news media. besides having all the necessary elements of a great novel (plot, characters, dialogue), it’s also loaded with all sorts of clever and interesting tidbits.

the official website for the book has a good chapter-by-chapter reader’s guide. it fills in some bits of back-story, explains some plot and character points, and points out the real events that are woven into the story. (it is full of spoilers, so read it after the book.)

should i blame the book for making me more sensitive to how the author is often billed as a media critic and the guy behind abused by the news, a site whose creation only barely pre-dates the publication of the book, and he doesn’t really seem to have any real background as a media critic beyond that? (which is not to say he does not deserve to be recognized as a media critic. but i think the book is leverage into that, as opposed to a background in media criticism being the leverage into writing a novel that borrows from that field.)

(i picked up the book based on the mention over at la observed, which provides a peek behind the scenes of a pr stunt used to promote the book.)

xenocide by orson scott card is a very worthy successor to the first two books in the series, although it wasn’t quite as surprising as i found the first two books to be. the leap from ender’s game to speaker for the dead was much larger than from speaker to xenocide, but it definitely continues the progression into a more ensemble-driven, metaphysically-rooted story. one weakness is a few of the characters that are clearly just along for the ride into the next book in the series.

the hard part of reading the series is the fear that it is going to take a star wars-caliber dive off a cliff. all i can say for sure right now is that xenocide is no return of the jedi.

i read the curious incident of the dog in the night by mark haddon on the way back from foo camp. it’s told from the point of view of christopher, a 15-year old autistic boy who discovers his neighbor’s dog killed with a garden fork.

for a character that can’t empathize with anyone else, it is surprisingly easy to empathize with christopher. the book does an amazing job of putting you inside the head of an autistic child.

more on the end of the world

lucifer’s hammer by larry niven and jerry pournelle was a book that someone recommended after i read earth abides (or recommended in relation to someone else mentioning it). it was what i polished off while sitting in the jury assembly room. on top of being another end-of-the-world book (this time caused by the impact of a comet), it was even more fun because most of the characters experience the impact in and around the los angeles area.

like a lot of science fiction, it suffers from mediocre characters (particularly the bad guys in the last part of the story) and almost too many liberties taken with events and circumstances to make the plot work. i think the book works best as an apocalyptic tale, and the post-apocalyptic story is disappointingly conventional in comparison.

nuts!: southwest airlines’ crazy recipe for business and personal success by kevin freiberg and jackie freiberg seemed like an appropriate piece of reading while traveling (although i didn’t fly southwest at all). it was recommended by the ceo of my company.

the authors are quasi-insiders, working as consultants for the company and being granted access to documentation about the company that really helps them tell their story. it does end up being a bit puffy, though, so it takes some critical reading.

one thing i found interesting was that the company really makes an effort (or made — the book is a bit old) to communicate with its employees as much as possible. there’s no fear of overwhelming them with information: more is more. that’s the sort of thing i appreciate. i’m constantly digging into the archives of internal mailing lists that i’m not on, just so i know what is going on. it’s mail that i have to deal with that creates a headache.

the book is a good companion to a&e’s airline, which is a behind-the-scenes look at southwest. (there's also airline uk, which does the same for easyjet, and airport, which does it for heathrow.)

watching those shows, you really start to appreciate the value of being conservative when dealing with getting to the airport early, being flexible with your travel plans (not trying to arrive at the last minute), and most of all, not getting wasted at the airport bar.

something i noticed reading the amazon reviews for the other book by the same authors: some nutty reviews that just don’t make any sense (although some of the game reviews do make sense).

american sucker by david denby was a largely disappointing book. it’s a largely autobiographical story about how the author planned to make a million bucks in the stock market so he could buy out his wife’s portion of their new york apartment while they were divorcing, and instead wound up losing his shirt.

the book just failed to grab me in any significant way. if he had focused more on his personal problems during the period, or approached it with more of a sense of humor, it might have been more engaging. but he didn’t, and it isn’t.

monstrous regiment by terry pratchett is another recent discworld book. if i had a daughter, i’d want her to read this sort of book. it’s a girl-dresses-as-boy-to-join-the-army story with lots of fun twists. i really should go back and read some of the early discworld books, although the story certainly stands on its own. i just feel like i’m probably missing some of the references. (but this was down in the popular library section when i was grabbing some books for my recent traveling.)

earth abides by george r. stewart was written in 1949, but only really has a few anachronisms that show its age. it’s a really strong post-apocalyptic story, with the human population pared down even further than any other similar book i’ve read. i think the biggest liberty that the author takes is to have the primary character live so long considering the complete lack of medical knowledge, but it is an easily forgiven stretch because it allows for the story to reach much further into the real establishment of an actual community and culture after the plague that wipes out most of the human race.

(i picked up the book based on the mention on boing boing, in reference to the straight dope question and answer about how long power would stay on in the event of a mass zombification.)

lamb: the gospel according to biff, christ’s childhood pal by christopher moore is a modern-day apocrypha: a (very) humorous story about the life of christ from the point-of-view of biff, his best friend. it’s a new gospel, through the lens of a coming-of-age road-trip buddy story. (and with a hearty disclaimer that it’s just a story. make of it what you will.)

a of m

age of miracles by john brunner is probably the weakest of his books i’ve read so far, which still puts in the category of pretty good. it starts slowly, but the idea of an indifferent alien presence appearing on earth and causing chaos is strong enough for a good story to gel.

no film strips necessary

defensive design for the web: how to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points by 37signals is a fantastic book with loads of great tips about how to make better web applications and sites by handling the edge cases well. it’s the book that every programmer who has written a web application that rejects credit card numbers not written in a specific format should be beaten with. it’s also a good companion to don’t make me think by steve krug.

one thing i wish the book had covered a little more is the localization aspects of defensive design.

(i think zak promised i’d write a review of the book when he scored a free copy for me, so here it is.)

earthly remains by peter hernon is an archeological thriller, set in the late 40s in israel. the book is strongest in the middle, with an ending that is largely unsatisfying, and a beginning that is fascinating but simply goes on way too long. (at least compared to the center section of the story, which in hindsight has the most potential for some real ideas and action, but just doesn’t get the coverage it deserves.)

when i went to get the book from the library, it turned out to not be out on the shelves (despite there being three or four copies in the library), but in whatever place it is that they’ve stored the half of the fiction collection that is not on display. it seems odd for the library to have books that aren’t on display, although i’m sure there are reasonable reasons for it.

the postman by david brin was a book that i picked up on the recommendation of david harper in a comment to one of my earlier reviews. it’s a great book, a post-apocalyptic tale that shows definite echoes of its vintage (early 80s) but without feeling dated. although it sounds fairly cheesy on the surface, the idea that mail service could bring a bit of hope to a destabilized world works really well, and is nicely tied into the anti-ben-franklin writings of the inspiration for the bad guys.

the codex by lev grossman should have been a far more interesting book. i think it was this review from salon that made me put it in my reading queue.

the ending is a letdown, and none of the promise of the book really pays off. the computer-game-within-the-novel is pretty trite — it apparently is a combination of first-person shooter, space combat game, resource management sim game, and oh yeah, it’s “open source”, too.

the writing is good, the characters are good, and the plot is almost good. it just ends up being one of those novels that is worse than the sum of its parts.


time’s eye (a time odyssey, book 1) by arthur c. clarke and stephen baxter, in addition to having a clumsy title, also ends up being a choppy ride. the basic premise is that the world gets remixed, time-wise, by mysterious aliens, and there ends up being little pockets of different bits of history that collide with each other, eventually boiling down to the army of genghis khan facing off against the army of alexander the great, with a few 21st century soldiers and cosmonauts and late-19th century british troops thrown into the mix.

one of the biggest flaws of the book is the actions of one of the cosmonauts, which plays out in a frightfully predictable way. (sadly, i was thinking at one point that it was refreshing to see the authors had not leaned on the sort of character/plot device that a more mediocre talent like michael crichton would, but then just a little bit later they went and did exactly as i feared.)

what is most interesting about the book is really the larger-scale problems brought about by the mix-and-match of different parts of earth from different times, and some of the interplay between the characters about what it means. in that sense, the book feels like a little bit of a mix-and-match: a michael crichton book plopped into the middle of an arthur c. clarke framework.

but my real disappointment is that i finished reading it just a short while ago, after the library was closed. if i had been thinking, i would have hit the library earlier to get some more books, since it will be closed tomorrow.

chindi by jack mcdevitt is a pretty mediocre work of science fiction. it’s not bad, it just doesn’t offer characters of much depth, or a plot that goes in a particularly believable or interesting direction. it sort of feels like rendezvous with rama remixed by a second-rate star trek writer. perhaps it was even more of a let-down after having read a couple of other great science fiction books. this is actually the third book in a series, although it is not really promoted as such. i can’t say that i’m eager to track down the rest of the series.

the quote on the front cover calls mcdevitt the heir to clarke and asimov, and i’d have to say he’s going to have to start coming up with some more original ideas and interesting characters to pull that off.

dead bugs and ham

speaker for the dead by orson scott card is a very polarizing book, as you can tell from the user reviews at amazon. i definitely come down on the side of those who see it as a vastly superior work to the first book in the series, ender’s game. but it almost isn’t fair to make the comparison, because they are really totally different flavors of book. where ender’s game is heavily action-driven, with the a thin layer of philosophical thinking bubbling on the surface, speaker for the dead is almost exactly the opposite. the cast of characters is much deeper, and more richly developed, than in the first novel, although each character does hew pretty closely to a single core characteristic.


the crucible of time by john brunner is a fantastic book, it’s a shame that it is out of print. it traces the development of life on a doomed planet, basically from the time of the first astronomers to their escape from the planet before it is obliterated. the creatures aren’t humanoid, but more bug-like, and the technology they develop is based largely around specialized creatures. this all takes place over many generations, and across some intervening near-calamities.

it’s a book i’d very much recommend. powell’s books has some copies, or you can do what i did and get it at your local library. (the los angeles public library system has five copies.)

a place so foreign and 8 more by cory doctorow is a collection of short stories. some of the stories are available for download online. none of them are extraordinary, although i enjoyed “to market, to market: the rebranding of billy bailey”. “0wnz0red”, the final story in the book, was not quite what i expected (something laced with 133t-speak), which means it was quite a bit better than i expected.

night watch by terry pratchett is a book in his discworld series, of which i’ve now read one book. it’s the 28th book in the series, so i guess you could say i’m really late to the party. (unlike last night, where i was first. relying on the public transportation can introduce another level of promptness to your timing.)

it was a fine book, but i’ve almost certainly missed things by not having read any other books in the series. (just what i needed, another 27 books to add to my reading list.)

the light of other days by arthur c. clarke and stephen baxter takes an idea that was a minor element of clarke’s childhood’s end and really explores the ramifications: what happens when you can open a window into any other point in space, and even into the past? it’s the death of secrets. religions collapse. governments crumble. people go into hiding, moving about under chameleon-like cloaks and within darkened spaces.

fun stuff, and a story well told.

the big con: the story of the confidence man by david maurer was a book that mark fraunfelder recommended over at mad professor. the book inspired the sting (which i have either never seen, or have not seen for a very long time), and is a fun non-fiction account of how the big con games operate (along with a few of the short con games).

i wonder if any of the big con games are still operated, or if the cons have simply come up with better ways of getting the same effect through legitimate corporations, churches, and government.

i’ve started writing a quick review of trading up: the new american luxury by michael silverstein and neil fiske of the boston consulting group several times, but always seemed to get interrupted by something. (i’ve also read three or four other books since finishing it that i also need to note.)

the basic thrust of the book is that there has emerged a bracket of goods and services that is both higher-price and higher-volume than the typical product price curve would lead you to believe. it gives many great examples of how businesses have tapped that trend, including victoria’s secret and callaway golf clubs. according to their research, everyone has a few categories where they are willing to “rocket,” or pay more for premium versions. divorced women lead the pack in that regard, willing to do so in as many as thirty categories. but outside of those categories, they flock to the lower-price items. this is squeezing out the middle of many categories.

an interesting, well-written business book. definitely some ideas to take into account if you’re of an entrepreneurial mindset.

the big con by david w. maurer was a book i picked up after a mention on mark frauenfelder’s mad professor. the book was the inspiration for the sting, but is itself a non-fiction book about big con operators. lots of fun language (not surprising, for a book written by a linguist) and a fascinating overview of one of the more dignified criminal industries.

super flat times: stories by matthew derby is the book i read earlier this year, forgot to mention here, and then couldn’t remember the name of. it is a supremely strange set of short stories set in a bleak pseudo-future. i happened to run across it when stocking up on books for my upcoming travels. (in which i overloaded on science fiction, so be prepared to see short reviews of a half-dozen science fiction books in the not-so-distant future.)

i have to say i was pretty disappointed by eastern standard tribe by cory doctorow (author’s website, including free electronic versions).

the story didn’t really seem to get moving until half way through the book, and ultimately the world he creates just isn’t as interesting as in his first novel, down and out in the magic kingdom.

i think another problem i had with the book is that i just didn’t find the central idea very well developed, or all that intriguing. and you might think i would, considering that i work with people in far-flung timezones, many of whom work schedules that are warped to sync up with non-local timezones. and i regularly use irc to coordinate and socialize with coworkers.

judging a monkey by its cover

monkey in the middle by josh pryor was another impulse check-out from the popular library section of the central library, based mostly on the title and inside-the-cover description. the book is almost sunk by its overly wrought prose, but manages to pull out a mostly-satisfying story about genetically engineered monkeys and a former special ops soldier sent to kill saddam hussein. did i mention that the story is a little off-kilter?

and looking back at previous entries, i see that i forgot to mention buzz monkey: a novel of crime by sam hill. it’s another slightly-off-kilter detective story, basically, and the protagonist lives in a 1930s-era school (his bedroom is the gymnasium, and his company operates out of the classrooms and offices).

there’s another book i read this year that was supremely weird, but i can no longer remember the name or author, and my searches have turned up fruitless. it was set in a world where all food was made out of meat, solid clouds of stuff floated through the air, and many more strange things. the story was told as vignettes obtained by listening to the pockets of air in giant cement pits that people were put in for reasons that are never entirely clear.

pattern recognition by william gibson is actually the first book i’ve read by him (having not read neuromancer yet). and once again i find myself reading a book where the protagonist works in marketing.

i thought cayce, the protagonist, was a very richly drawn and interesting character, but most of the other characters were a bit thin. the locations and experiences brought more to the story than the other characters did. the writing (the language) is just fantastic.

overall, it is a book that i would recommend, although i found it to ultimately be a little bit unsatisfying.

so i finally caught up with another geek classic and read ender’s game by orson scott card for the first time the other day. i think it is easily one of the giants among the geek classics, although some of the language and characterizations haven’t quite stood the test of time.

i can understand how the book appeals to a certain geek aesthetic with regards to a feeling of superiority, i was impressed that the book was relatively nuanced in comparison to most science fiction (and geek lit).

they’re making a movie based on the book and ender’s shadow, one of the sequels. the first draft of the screenplay was written by card, and the second draft is being worked on by the screenwriters of x-men 2. ender ages from six to eleven in ender’s game — i wonder how they plan to pull that off in the movie. (movie news via marginal revolution.)

sex, drugs, and migrant workers

reefer madness: sex, drugs, and cheap labor in the american black market is the second book by eric schlosser, who also wrote fast food nation. the book is actually three essays, looking at different segments of the underground economy (with a focus on the united states): marijuana, migrant workers in california, and pornography. it is all quite thoroughly researched and fascinating stuff, and one of the most interesting things was the history of reuben sturman, who controlled a vast chunk of the porn market before he was convicted of tax evasion.

the book doesn’t really comment on it, but it is an interesting that it progresses from something totally illegal, to mostly-illegal-but-rampant (specifically the prevalence of undocumented immigrants as migrant workers), to mostly-legal.

perhaps it will eventually all be legal.

jester’s dead

the bug by ellen ullman came to my attention via salon’s best fiction of 2003, and it is truly a fantastic book. it manages to be centered around a very technical core without failing to provide a compelling story or strong characters. if you’ve ever programmed, or worked with programmers, you should absolutely check out the book. heck, even if you don’t meet either of those criteria, you should do so.

holiday reading wrap-up

moneyball by michael lewis

this book did not fail to live up to any of my expectactions. i don’t follow baseball at all, and am only a baseball fan in the sense that i really enjoy bull durham. but i still got a lot out of this book, which details how the low-budget oakland a’s were able to field teams that got to the world series despite the bleatings of bud selig (and others) about the impossibility of doing so.

happiness™ by will ferguson

this was one of those cases where i judged a book by its cover, and decided to give it a shot. i think if my expectations hadn’t been raised quite as high by some cover blurbs comparing it to douglas adams, i would have been more impressed. don’t get me wrong: it’s a good book. just not douglas adams good.

serious play by michael schrage

actually, i’m not quite done with this one yet. not a lot of stunning insights, but at least a few, and an interesting look at the nature of innovation within companies.

prey by michael crichton

this is apparently a novelization of tremors where the graboids and entertaining characters have been replaced by half-hearted nanotechnology handwaving. it served it’s purpose of giving me something to read on the plane, but just barely.

ask jeeves

two books i read a while back but neglected to mention until now were the first two jeeves and wooster novels by p.g. wodehouse: the inimitable jeeves and carry on, jeeves. the first is actually more like a collection of short stories, since each chapter is relatively unconnected with the previous. the last is even written from the point of view of jeeves, rather than bernie wooster. the second book tells a more continuous tale, although each chapter stands on its own, too. funny stuff.

i think i originally picked up the books because i noticed one of the jeeves books on rael’s currently-reading list.

here’s a random p.g. wodehouse quote generator.

get wired

wired - a romance by gary wolf is a history of wired magazine, from conception to the point of the buyout by condé nast and lycos. i never subscribed to wired in its heyday (and only have one now as a bonus from my salon subscription), but gary wolf was on the inside for much of the history he tells, and apparently had very good access to the principal players, so it seems to be a fairly rounded telling of the story.

it was funny mapping the personalities some of the people involved on to similar people i knew in the dotcom world, and i always find it funny to see the names of people i know in print. i was always surprised to see john battelle’s name pop up, since i had just recently added him to my blo.gs favorites and hadn’t realized his background.

another book on my recently-read pile is a collection of the big sleep, farewell, my lovely, and the high window by raymond chandler. these are the first three of his novels, all featuring philip marlowe, and they are all fantastic.

slow down to go faster

the shockwave rider by john brunner is yet another amazingly forward-thinking science fiction book from 1975 that almost reads like current events. by the end of the book, i found myself thinking that this was the sort of libertarian science fiction that i had expected when picking up the books by l. neil smith.

i’ve fallen behind on noting what books i’ve read recently (and movies i’ve seen). one of those is cryptonomicon by neal stephenson. i was a little bit apprehensive about the book, but i enjoyed it quite a bit. a common complaint of the reviews i’ve since read has been that the ending is rushed, but i can’t say that was something that bothered me. it was an engaging story with engaging characters, and you really can’t ask for a whole lot more from a book.

without fear of hyperbole

syrup, the first novel by max barry (author of jennifer government), is brilliant. better than jennifer government, even. you should go to the library or bookstore or amazon.com and get this book. the writing is sharp, funny, and brisk. all the previews and reviews of the book i’ve seen don’t really do it justice, but that would be hard to do without revealing much of the plot. (one caveat: it is a pretty quick read. i polished it off in one day.)

the book tied into another thing i’ve been thinking about over the last couple of years: expertise. it is very easy to think you know more about a subject than you do, particularly relative to someone who really does focus on that subject full time. experts make things look easy even when they aren’t. that’s what makes them experts. (this isn’t a major theme in the book or anything — i’d even say the book undermines it’s own point on the matter.)

anyway, the first few paragraphs from the book:

I want to be famous. Really famous.

I want to be so famous that movie stars hang out with me and talk about what a bummer their lives are. I want to beat up photographers who catch me in hotel lobbies with Winona Ryder. I want to be implicated in vicious rumors about Drew Barrymore’s sex parties. And, finally, I want to be pronounced DOA in a small, tired LA hospital after doing speedballs with Matt Damon.

I want it all. I want the American dream.

not bad for an aussie. (here’s the rest of the first chapter, from the author’s site.)

there are times when it was easy to forget that the death and life of great american cities by jane jacobs was first published in 1961 (and other times when it was not). overall, it is a fantastic book. i’m not up on the city planning world, but i think the book has been useful in getting me to think about what sort of area i'd like to live in.

lucky wander boy reminded me a lot of microserfs in the sense that both sort of share an overlap with own personal experiences. whereas microserfs is set in the nuttiness of a mid-90s software startup, lucky wander boy is set in the nuttiness of late-90s hollywood dotcom.

but lucky wander boy is just dripping with video game references and nostalgia (some of them, like the one the book is named for, are fictional), and has a much stronger story than microserfs (from what i remember of that book: it's been years since i read it).

some of the entries in the fictional catalogue of obsolete entertainment are just over-the-top pretentious fun.

the victorian internet by tom standage is a historical look at the growth (and eventual demise) of the telegraph, especially its many parallels to the modern-day internet. a very quick read, and lots of fun. but a reminder of how boring this whole internet thing is doomed to get.

stand on zanzibar, published in 1968, is a gem of speculative fiction that gets so much right that it is easy to forgive the things it didn't get quite as right. in the future world it describes (set in the early years of the twenty-first centry: otherwise known as now), overpopulation is the central problem, with population controls (two “prodgies” per couple) and expanding eugenics legislation (no more dichromatics!) part of the existing (non-)solution. there's just so much jammed into the novel that it is hard to describe. it is written with a very mtv-era pacing and sensibility despite antedating that network by more than a decade. very much worth reading, especially if you like the genre.

(this found its way on to my reading list by virtue of a mention on the fork mailing list. the only circulating copy of the sequel, the sheep look up, in the los angeles public library system is at a branch that is closed. argh!)

on the free software business mailing list, someone asked for recommendations of some basic economics books, which were then collected on a wiki page. information rules got a few recommendations, so i picked it up from the library for reading during my recent trip. in some respects it is unfortunately dated—it came out too early (1999) for it to include any discussion of napster or the final microsoft/doj settlement, and of course too early to talk about the collapse of the dotcom/telecom bubble. but thankfully, the authors weren't just moonlighting business journalists dropping all of the then-current new economy buzzwords, and the book is still quite strong. the authors have a website for the book, but it doesn't appear to feature any new content.

snowfall by mitchell smith is set during the next ice age. it's post-apocalyptic anthropology fiction.

this was a quicker read than stone city, but shares some similarities: the world is very richly drawn, as are the characters. smith's vision of a devolved (and frozen) north american society is incredible. it is a setting that just begs for future novels to tell more of its stories.

oz, the novel

i've only seen a few minutes of hbo's oz (so far: it's in the queue), but stone city by mitchell smith is at least a literary cousin of the series.

set in a formidable state prison, a college professor convicted of a hit-and-run-while-drunk homicide gets tangled up in investigating the murder of a couple of other convicts, pressured by both the official and unofficial prison authorities.

the plot itself isn't particularly deep or complicated, but the setting and characters are incredibly rich.

corporations gone crazy

in another bit of serendipity, i finished reading a book and saw a movie this weekend that both are essentially cynical/satirical near-future/alternate-present looks at corporations gone out of control.

jennifer government, the novel, is the more extreme of the two: the story begins with a plan by nike marketers to boost the sales of a line of tennis shoes by staging the murder of some kids buying the shoes to give them a sort of street-credibility. it's a brilliant and twisted beginning to a brilliant book.

josie and the pussycats, the movie, starts with a boy band (du jour) being assassinated by their record label when they stumble upon the hidden messages being put in their music to drive kids to spend money. (and that's where josie and friends come in, as the new band picked by the label to be placed at the top of the charts.) it's a funny and twisted beginning to a funny and twisted movie.

the movie rights for jennifer government were snapped up by steven soderbergh and george clooney's section eight films, and it will be very interesting to see if they can pull it off including real companies, or are forced to switch to mock brands.

jennifer government also provided a good dystopian counterpoint to l. neil smith's utopian libertarian world. (although calling it dystopian is a bit of an overstatement—the book isn't as hard on the notion of a pervasive free market as smith's books are easy on it.)

oh, and i should point out jennifer government: nationstates, a web-based game based on the book.

something i meant to mention: the director of photography on josie was matthew libatique, who did the same on both pi and requiem for a dream. a top-notch dp.

alternate history, libertarian-style

the probability broach and the american zone are a pair of libertarian science fiction books by l. neil smith. the first was released in 1980, the more recent (a sequel to the first) in 2001.

the central conceit in both books is that a device has been invented that allows movement between parallel universes whose history has diverged since the american revolution. (in the first book, it is between a more authoritarian version of the united states and a libertarian version of the same, with most of the action set in the libertarian version. in the latter, all of the action is in the libertarian version, but with more alternate worlds considered.)

the probability broach is much better than the american zone. neither book is bad, but neither book is all that great. as you might expect, the political posturing of both books is pretty ham-handed.

as science fiction with a futuristic bent (neither book is set in the far-future, but of course the libertarian version of the united states is further advanced than any of the alternatives), the book falls pretty flat. there are some clever ideas (monkeys and porpoises as characters and full citizens, a historic site layered in a plastic coating to preserve it, and the use of dirigibles for transport), but the realization of the world just feels like it has more gaps than that of something like down and out in the magic kingdom.

there are some aspects to the books that are just unforgiveably atrocious:

but i guess you'd be gratified to know that it fits the same vaguely, if not overtly, misogynistic bill as most science fiction.

ben hyde made some interesting observations about nassim nicholas taleb's fooled by randomness: the hidden role of chance in the markets and life, which prompted me to put it in my library queue.

it's a great book. in some ways, some of the ideas follow from innumeracy—people just don't understand probability. the author is a trader (in the financial markets) who largely deals with options and derivatives, making money on the idea that the downside of many investments occurs with greater force than the upside, or something that is stable may destabilize rapidly and violently when it does destabilize (the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back).

one of the interesting recurring ideas in the book is that of the black swan problem: if you observe a thousand swans, note that none of them are black, and then make the statement “there are no black swans,” it only takes one black swan to unravel your whole hypothesis. past performance is no guarantee of future performance, as they say.


back in january, i placed a hold on american normal: the culture of asperger's syndrome at the library. it took quite a while for my name to percolate to the top of the list, but it finally did.

it's a great book—very similar in style to postville: a clash of cultures in heartland america—written almost like a travelogue of learning about asperger's syndrome.

the core of the book really is about how we define normality, and the author comes across as being just the right amount of skeptical with regard to how simplistically the psychiatric establishment can appear to diagnose and try to treat anything outside a narrowing band of “normalcy,” but he also does not dismiss the genuine afflictions of the people he talked with.

recently read

between my trip to hungary a month ago, and convalescing from surgery, i've actually managed to plow through some books.

slaughterhouse five by kurt vonnegut
although it looks like i didn't write up a mini-review of it, i had seen the film version of this not long before reading the book. it's a great story about a less-than-glorious experience in world war ii, with an interesting time-jumping style. this is one of those classic books i had somehow avoided reading in high school or earlier.
the maltese falcon, the thin man, red harvest by dashiell hammett
this is three novels in one. red harvest was probably the best story of the bunch (the others involve too much stuff-just-happening), but the thin man easily had the most interesting characters. i picked up the book for red harvest and its influence on yojimbo (and its derivatives), but the connection is not as strong as i had expected. red harvest's story has a much larger scope than the movies.
bluebeard by kurt vonnegut
more vonnegut, and the book actually shares a lot in common with slaughterhouse five—a protagonist who served in world war ii and a time-jumping narrative (although there's no actually time-travel involved). the book is the fictional autobiography of an abstract expressionist painter and collector. great stuff.
innumeracy by john allen paulos
it's a little disheartening to see that so little has changed in the fifteen years since this book was released, even as the number of examples that such a book could cite of numerical illiteracy seems to explode. it makes you wonder why the basics of probability aren't covered more thoroughly in elementary and secondary education.

i'm gonna sing the doom song now

wagner james au's salon review of masters of doom, a biography of the founders of id software, is in that fine tradition of reviews that largely uses the book as a pretext for exploring the topic on its own. the book comes off as something like a late-’90s dotcom puff piece, whereas james is much more critical of id's real impact outside of the hardcore gamer community.

reportedly doom iii features less of the huge-horde-of-creatures battles for which id games are known. it will be interesting to see if that's really happens, and how well it works.

i remember when the original doom came out, and crippled some machines on our campus network. the first version used ipx broadcast messaging for its networking support, and that caused enough network traffic to overwhelm slower machines on the same network segment. needless to say, they got that sorted out in the next release.

(oh, you'll probably need to jump through hoops to read the full review. i decided to spring for a salon premium account a while ago.)

on the plane ride back from nyc, i read down and out in the magic kingdom by cory doctorow (which you can also download for free here under a creative commons license).

it's been analyzed to death elsewhere, so i'll spare you. suffice to say, it's a good read and i'd recommend it. cory does a great job of imagining an fascinating future without sacrificing storytelling.

bargain books

some finds in bookcloseouts.com's moving sale:

so long, and thanks for all the fish

after douglas adams passed away, the the salmon of doubt was released. it is a compilation of articles about him, articles by him, and some material dredged from his computer (including several chapters of what might have been his next novel). lots of really great stuff.

american normal: the culture of asperger's syndrome sounds like an interesting book, based on this review at salon. i'm 7th in line for it from the library now.

when the recent push for an agreement for the imperial valley to transfer water to san diego crumbled, california was cut back to its supreme-court-mandated allotment of water from the colorado river, and water politics got interesting. i've got the great thirst: californians and water, a history on hold at the library. i need to finish the book i'm currently reading (hot water music, a collection of short stories by charles bukowski) and go pick it up.

i'm a little disappointed about how long it took for the library to make it from the central los angeles library to my local branch. if the next one takes as long, i may plan to just put future ones on hold at the central library and pick it up from there. it's a good excuse to go downtown.

2003 may turn out to be the year of the book for me.

just for fun, linus torvalds' autobiography (written with david diamond) is a fun book. in addition to recounting his own (sketchily remembered) personal history, linus also lays out his basic philosophies in life, which i found remarkably resonant with my own. his golden rules:

  1. do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.
  2. be proud of what you do.
  3. and have fun doing it.
words to live by. (although i'd quibble a bit with the first, simplifying it to “do as you would have others do.”)

one thing i was disappointed about in the book was the number of copy editing errors, including calling apache the most popular commercial distribution of linux.

two quick book reviews

dave barry's tricky business is a fun crime-caper-comedy set mostly on a gambling boat during a tropical storm. the plot is silly, but some of the characters are really fun.

tom perrotta's the wishbones follows a few months from the life of a guitarist from a wedding band after he proposes to his longtime girlfriend. it will no doubt be the basis for a decent movie some day, although i was somewhat left with the feeling that it already had been, and the movie was called high fidelity.

both quick reads (i read the first on the ride from los angeles to vegas, the second in the morning one day in vegas), and both recommended as such.

i know i'm a bit late to the party, but i read fast food nation on my plane-ride back home. it's not hard to understand why the book would push some people over the edge into vegetarianism. (but i think the biggest impact of the book on me was to expand my distaste for the agricultural industry. hooked on government subsidies, and crooked as a barrel of snakes.)

ev says he'd like to learn how to draw. i can absolutely relate. i have always been in awe of people who can draw.

someone has recommended drawing on the right side of the brain to him, but the reviews at amazon.com seem a bit mixed. keys to drawing seems to have gotten more consistent reviews.

the subtitle of drawing on the right side of the brain is “a course in enhancing creativity and artistic confidence.” i think confidence is what it is really all about: there's so many things in life that people say they are “bad” at (singing, drawing, math, sports, writing), when it really is a matter of confidence. they think they are bad, and the prophecy fulfills itself. not that i don't think talent exists—i've met way too many talented people to believe otherwise. but i don't think a lack of natural inclination precludes anyone from being above average at any of these things. before practice makes you perfect, it makes you better, and more confident.

(i also think that simply chalking up an ability for something to talent undersells the amount of effort and learning that goes into it. it is hard work making it look easy.)

and one thing i ran across at amazon while looking at these books: so you'd like to... design and create your own personal tarot deck.

i've finally finished tackling karen armstrong's the battle for god, which looks at the history of fundamentalism in christinity, judaism, and islam. it is a companion, of sorts, to her book a history of god, which takes a look at the overall history of the three faiths.

lots of good stuff. one of the more central themes in the two books is an exploration of the schism between mythos and logos. it helped me understand the flaws i saw as inherent in these belief systems, which i now see more as an impedence mismatch between religious and scientific thinking. of course, i'm (over)simplifying.

i highly recommend both books. also, here's an interview with the author, post-9/11, and another, pre-9/11.

i've started re-reading arthur c. clarke's childhood's end. it's amazing to think that it was written in 1953, because it really doesn't feel tainted with the sort of disney-tomorrowland-future normally associated with science fiction of that era. strikingly timeless.

now you can buy y2k, the day the world shuts down for just 99¢. it would be fascinating to build a collection of the pre-y2k apocalyptic books. (but seriously, this place is having a closeout sale. there's bound to be a diamond or two in the rough.)

because i'm just that cool, i got a complimentary copy of php functions: essential reference. would i be a bad person if i sold it on half.com? it looks like an excellent book, but i find the online php documentation fits just fine into the way i program (although there's room for improvement — i need to put together some more things to get more done from the keyboard without resorting to the mouse).

the full text of the cluetrain manifesto is now available online. (but you should buy the book, anyway.)

with my $25 amazon gift certificate (from signing up for online payment with at&t), i purchased glyn moody's rebel code: linux and the open source revolution, a history of linux and the modern open source phenomenon (as the subtitle might have suggested). it's very well researched, and a pretty good read, if kind of quote-heavy. (it gets a little wearisome bouncing between quotes and prose.)

one thing that stuck out at me was the characterization of microsoft in the second paragraph of the prologue—to the best of my knowledge, microsoft is an offices-for-everyone sort of place, not a cubicle wasteland. (it just struck me as a misapplied stereotype.)

one story missing from the book is of the first guy who tried to take linux commercial. i remember there was this guy who wanted to basically take over the reins and turn it into a business who got flamed out of existence on the early alt.os.linux newsgroup. i'm pretty sure there's at least some reference to this in the old linux-activists mailing list archives, but i can't find it now. i wish i could find old archives of the alt.os.linux newsgroup.

a sneak preview from the next edition of the worst case scenario survival handbook series:

what should i do when i am attacked by a stealth pakistani remote-controlled robot alien monkey man?

(adapted from an email from marcus without his permission.)