Yes, this is actually two weeks. I was lazy last week, in that I spent a few days camping and then jumped straight into work without doing my self-assignment.
You’ll have noticed few technical books or journal in previous lists or this one, despite the fact that I probably spend half my time reading such things. That’s because I don’t actually finish many of them. I’m going to start listing them anyway, and I’ll state how much of the book or journal I read. I probably read 25% of the average technical journal, or 50% of a technical book.
The Kings of Eternity, by Eric Brown
I’m really enjoying reading Eric Brown. This is the fourth book of his I’ve read, and all in recent months. I’ve bought most of his books over the past few years, but they are part of my ever-growing “to read pile”.
This is, for lack of a better term, a scientific romance. It tries to evoke the sense and feel of a 19th-century science fiction book, and marry it with some modern knowledge and sensibility, without being “oh so clever at what we know now”. While I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece, or the book of the year, I liked it a lot.
It’s firmly grounded on Earth; all the off-Earth action happens off-stage, as it were. And it’s largely about the characters and how they respond to big events, and not the events themselves. So in one sense, it feels somewhat muted, but again that’s part of the tone the author was shooting for, it does feel a lot like an H. G. Wells novel, without being any kind of homage or copy.
Lead protagonist and friends get involved in intergalactic war, one goes off to fight, the rest stay on Earth and, well, live. If you happen to read the book, you’ll see what I mean.
1636: The Devil’s Opera, by Eric Flint and David Carrico
I love the 1632 series, so named because that was the first book in the series. In a nutshell, a town named Grantville and immediate surroundings in Marion County, West Virginia, is propelled back in time from the year 2000 to 1631. That’s the one fantastic thing that happens, the rest of it is what you get when you take Americans with modern knowledge and drop them right into the middle of the Thirty Years War, and translocated into Germany to boot. So one moment of science fiction, and then the rest belongs in the “Alternative History” genre.
This is I think the 20th book written in this series. There are actually at least four “series” going on. There the one with the main protagonists, the movers and shakers of the world, both modern Americans and down-time big players (Cardinal Richelieu, for one). There’s a series that involves a bunch of second-string players, although I don’t mean second string in any derogatory sense, it’s just that these people are actors on smaller stages. And then there are at least two other “series”, although it’s more thematic, since these are mostly short stories that explore the changes to the world, either from an “up-timer” point of view (Americans tossed back in time), or a “down-timer” point of view (1600s people confronted with Americans and their way of thinking).
I love this series because most of the book is actually not on masterminds, but on day-to-day events. It’s history, and it’s politics, and it’s religion, and it’s sociology, and it’s technology.
There’s a big cadre of readers who have become writers in this series, people exploring some idea to its logical conclusion. How can you make a jet plane, for example? How do you change a world’s view towards sanitation? What about computers, when the people in this town just have the high school library to go on, and whatever computers they came through time with?
1636: The Devil’s Opera is in this second series. A number of history-changing events have occurred, and this second series follows up each event from a different point of view. In this specific book, the up-time wife of an up-time admiral commissions a song that solidifies a protest movement, and an opera that is a capstone on an overall shift in behavior. When you take Americans and drop them into a rigidly hierarchical society where farmers and tradesmen are practically owned by nobles, which side do you think the Americans fall on?
Over half the books have been directly written by Eric Flint – I suspect the 1632 world is what he’ll largely be known for, in years to come.
I love it, I highly recommend all the books. They are fun, and you think a bit, and you learn a bit. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that does a better job of describing the series:
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
This book is phenomenal. I’m not going to call it book of the year, or one of the 100 books you must read, but it really blew me away. Imagine a sentient ship, having lived for about 3000 years, and at the start of the book this being is now in a single human body, and wants to right a great wrong.
Oh, and the empire she toiled within is pretty despotic; it has shades of Warhammer 40k, or the universe hinted at by the Riddick movies, or say some of the dystopian European graphic novelists, or Christopher Moeller’s Iron Empire comics. And yet, it’s not as black and white as that, because people live and eat and have sex and make art.
She moves within the human part of the galaxy, and only interacts with humans in this book, but humans are not the dominant race in the galaxy. There are aliens, but they are pretty damn alien, and while a big part of the forces driving the story, aren’t actors. This is a human-level story, except for the ship AIs, and that story is also only alluded to, it seems like the ships might have been co-opted/enslaved by the dominant human empire during its expansion.
The writer employed a fantastic literary device. The main character (first person), refers to everyone as she. Part of it is explained early on, the character is in a society where she has trouble telling gender, and the language is evidently very gender-driven, and she’s reflecting on that in an internal monologue. But even when she knows someone is a he, or someone else says he, she thinks “she”. I found this awesome, because while in the here and now it can be seen as a statement, it’s also something that will still read properly down the road, it won’t date. Without it, the book would still be great, it’s very minor. But it was cool.
The book could easily stand on its own – it told a story that came to a conclusion. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see more stories told in this universe, and there’s an obvious opening or two.
Read this book. You won’t regret it.
Economist, October 5th-11th 2013
I had to wait until the past Tuesday to read the Economist, since I was camping. I even made a joke about it while camping. But as a result, I’m slightly behind now, I haven’t quite finished the most recent Economist issue, this is the one from last week.
The start of the American government shutdown; Ukraine has to choose between the EU and Russia; climate change; roundabouts as a British export to the world; the dreadful launch of Obama’s health reform; an Anna Nicole opera closes; and that was just the first few pages.
I love the political art in The Economist – although it’s not something you can collect on its own (because the pictures would have little meaning without the context of the stories they are placed in), the art is funny, irreverent, relevant and acts as an exclamation mark. It’s a huge part of the charm of the Economist, but generally has an even tone, even when it is mocking one actor or another. For example, a duel with Silvio Berlusconi shooting himself in the foot while Enrico Letta looks on smirking is even-handed to the vast majority of people (it’s what we saw to happen), but must be infuriating to Berlusconi and his handfuls of remaining supporters.
I also learned that Greece finally cracked down on Golden Dawn; that London has a thriving start-up cluster that may grow big and while Germany has a start-up cluster it has had no breakthroughs yet, that people are trying to turn Frisbee catching into a new big-name sport (really? sounds loony); and an article on Paul Klee and a big retrospective on his work now at London’s Tate Museum.
This issue had the 5th of 5 articles in a series on the 2008 financial crisis; the entire series is well worth reading as a basic primer on modern banking.
Scientific American Mind, September/October 2013
To me, Scientific American is a pale shadow of its former self, much less the spin-offs like this. I periodically pick one up anyway.
The major takeaway from this issue is that we had an unhealthy amount of attention paid to self-esteem starting in the 1980s, and it should stop, because we’re obsessed by self-esteem, and it is bad for us, at least when it comes to high-skill jobs. High self-esteem makes it hard to see your shortcomings, and thus you’re likely to not fix them. And if a surgeon has shortcomings, people die. Or if a musician has shortcomings, no one listens to their music. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is the old trope about the tortured genius, something I have personal experience with. Not the genius part, per se, just the angst and depression.
Evidently the trick is to be compassionate rather than having self-esteem – you can be compassionate and still improve yourself, and you’re less likely to be depressed to boot. There’s a fair amount of research, albeit still fuzzy. I’ll check back on this in a few more years.
The other cool bit in the magazine was a collection of current thinking and knowledge about learning – what works and what doesn’t. This thinking is driven by lots of experiments and tests, and not by anecdotal or testimonial reporting. In other words, while it may not be the final answer, it’s far better than the tribal lore we had in previous generations. Science is wonderful.
- self-testing (especially before you’ve learned the material)
- spreading study over time
- ask why (“channel your inner four-year old”)
- explain it to yourself
What doesn’t work
- Keyword mnemonic
Hopefully at some point this will trickle down to kids, who are still being taught largely ineffective techniques.
The New Yorker, Oct 7 2013
I go through spurts of reading The New Yorker. It’s an interesting magazine, and genuine, I just don’t quite fully live in its world. I easily could. Well, maybe not; I have roots in other worlds that aren’t quite compatible with the world of the New Yorker. But, I can visit and stay for a while.
This issue’s cover was “The Newspaper that took on the N.S.A.” – it was an article on The Guardian, and to a lesser degree on Glenn Greenwald etc. I had actually never heard of The Guardian until Glenn Greenwald’s articles got a lot of attention, and now I am in the camp where I hope The Guardian can continue to exist, because it’s the only remaining example of the Fourth Estate that I know of. All of the previous champions have hobbled themselves – I no longer respect The Washington Post or The New York Times, they’ve bowed their head too much to the government. And most of the British papers are a travesty. I imagine there are some others worldwide, I just don’t know much about them.
There was also an article on Philip Roth, some interesting interviews with Egyptian preachers in the days surrounding the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, a piece on Joyce DiDonato, a reigning mezzo-soprano in the opera world, and a review of the TV show Masters of Sex, which I guess I need to watch – this is about Masters and Johnson.
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol 20 No 1, 2013
I buy a lot of journals, and skim through them, reading the occasional article. For me, it’s a long-term bet, because most of this stuff is useful 10-20 years down the road.
The theme of this issue was on embodied interaction. This has been trying to come to the forefront for years, although the closest we’ve gotten in terms of large numbers of users is in things like the Wiimotion and Kinect controllers; most of this has been in academic environments. It’s definitely something we as humans want – we like touching things, and involving the whole body sounds like it would be a good thing. But it’s also tough, because most computer input needs to be precise, and it takes a lot of training for gestures or movements to be precise.
I skimmed through the articles, but nothing really caught my attention.
Linux Format, issue 175, October 2013
This is my favorite remaining mass-market technical magazine. Most of them have gone the way of the Dodo (starting with Byte’s departure some years ago).
I keep reading it, and it’s still mildly worth it. I just don’t know what to say about it.
Fast Company, issue 179, October 2013
I sporadically read this, typically when the cover catches my eye. This time it was because this was “the 10th annual innovation by design issue”, and because it had a big article on Apple that promised “the real truth about how Apple does design”.
I enjoyed the timeline in design – they covered the past 10 years of design highlights. There were a number of 2-page interviewlets with CEOS and their design chiefs, and to their credit Fast Company covered a lot of companies, not just the usual tech companies – Burberry, Nike, Pepsico.
But the point of the magazine for me was the Apple article. They tracked down a lot of big and small players, or at least the ones that would talk, and it was an interesting montage, because quotes from one person would contradict another. Instead of trying to create a single story, they just tried to pull on the threads. I can’t say I learned a lot, but it was interesting.
The other article I found interesting was on Fab, the new “I want to be the major player in retail” company. Fab has been growing fast, and we’ll see if they can reach Amazon heights or higher. From the article, it seemed like Fab was looking to displace Ikea, JC Penny, Bed Bath & Beyond, and not so much Amazon or Walmart. I’ll have to try buying something from Fab and see how it goes.
Wired, 21.09 September 2013
I still love Wired magazine, even though I stopped reading it regularly some years ago. I was a reader starting with the first issue, and recently I’ve been reading most issues, so maybe I am a regular reader again.
Lately, Wired has been jam-packed with interesting and useful things. It’s now less about the articles for me that predict the future, and more about the covering of the future that is here today. This is one of those magazines where you want to read it while sitting at a computer, so you can follow up on what you just read.
But, for example, I really want to play Day Z now. Or go work for Github.