Retro-review: City Come a Walkin' - John Shirley

Shirley feels like a bit of an also-ran in the cyberpunk scene. This book gets a foreword by William Gibson, so I got to read it. Another book that didn't leave a lasting impression on me. I think it gets some credit for being written in 1980, and so kinda proto-cyberpunk. You could think of it as being a cyberpunk ghost story, or something. The plot is that all the unhappiness of the citizens of San Francisco are made flesh in the form of a person who then goes around messing with stuff. That's pretty mystical for cyberpunk, but, eh, San Francisco I guess. Maybe it's reassuring to think that San Francisco has always been a mess?

Posted 2022-09-18.


Retro-review: Zeitgeist - Bruce Sterling

Yet another Bruce Sterling book. Turns out I've read a few, which is quite odd since there are very few that I've enjoyed - and those that I have were short story collections.

This is at the silly end of the spectrum. It's not full Zentith Angle, but the plot of about a scammy entrepreneur trying to promote a fake girl band on the eve of Y2K. Obviously.

I often don't remember much of books I read 20 years ago, but I remember nothing of this book except the premise. That's how much it affected me. I don't even remember being disappointed by it.

Posted 2022-09-18.


Retro-review: Slaughtermatic - Steve Aylett

This is one of those post-cyberpunk millennial (well, '98), Tarantino-esque ultraviolent Cool Britannia jobbies. "A terrific read" says The Face. People will say things like "darkly comic". It's probably the most of-its-time book I've read from that period. Quite fun, if you like that kind of thing; I remember enjoying it, but I probably wouldn't go back.

Posted 2022-09-16.


Retro-review: Islands in the Net - Bruce Sterling

This is proper cyberpunk. You can tell because the cover has the title is written in neon orange against a green-on-black set of 3D grid-lines, along with an airbrushed picture of a woman looking concerned, wearing a lot of leather and too much eyeshadow, with exposed cleavage.

Except it's not really that cyberpunk after all. I read this long enough ago that I needed to get a refresher from Wikipedia. It's another rambling Sterling story where there isn't so much a plot as things happening to people.

The world is largely connected by a global Net, with peace and prosperity and stuff, but when a terrorist organisation assassinates an official, our coroporate protagonist goes to investigate, and ends up in places off the Net. In and out of war zones, third world locations, etc., it turns out that there are gaps in the stable world and you can have a bad time there. At one point she ends up in jail for a couple of years, disappeared in a place with no net access.

It all feels a bit meh, with a kind of existential pointlessness seen in Culture novels, although I'm not quite so sure it's deliberate here! I guess the big theme here is that even in a globally connected planet there'll still be the warzones and problem spots, but it's just not that interesting or surprising. The terrorists all feel a bit recycled '70s.

Reading that Wikipedia page, someone's come up with a list of "predictions" from the book, both come true and not. Given it's set around 2023, it's interesting to see how things panned out, although I'm extremely wary of confusing sci-fi with predictions for the future. Despite the Wikipedia entry, it's not really anything like the actual world. Copyright 1988, it fails to predict the fall of the USSR. The book's big threat is terrorist organisations, whereas we're still just dealing with aggressive traditional nations. On the technical side, there's, er, a global network and ubiquitous computers. I guess that's a prediction. Did that really seem far-sighted in 1988?

This is a book. It's sci-fi. You could read it if you want to, I guess.

Posted 2022-09-16.


Craft Beer for the Geeks - Richard Taylor, James Watt, Martin Dickie

In that pleasant little gap between recovering from my big hospital stay and my surprise shorter hospital stay, I looked around a surprisingly good little Foyles on the South Bank. I saw this, and, having got into "craft beer" via low/no alcohol beers while recovering from my ops, decided that this somewhat coffee-table book would be an interesting read.

This is "craft beer according to Brewdog", who have a somewhat... complicated reputation. Buying the book made me finally look up all the things I'd vaguely heard about. As well as the more recent "not fun work environment" allegations, their self-promotion and hype is something impressive. On the other hand, those running the place do seem to be very keen on making good craft beer, and promoting the wider industry.

"Craft beer" just came out of nowhere for me, as I'd not been paying attention for a decade-plus (it's a thing having children does). I'd heard a little bit about these American beers ages ago, but as Big American Brewing looked like a disastrous monoculture, and the country had no tradition of Real Ale, what could they possibly offer?

Turns out, bad mass-produced beer is a great incentive to start indie breweries, and while there's no Real Ale tradition, they found their own voice, and what they generated is pretty darn good. Like wine, they've stormed ahead as the traditions succumb to enthusiasm and science.

I'd never quite twigged how CAMRA and craft beer get on. Independently-produced, interesting beers that have never seen a wooden cask are a challenge, aligning with CAMRA on providing a quality alternative to mass-produced beers, but differing on how to do so. It looks like a difficult relationship, but feels generational. CAMRA was never cool, it feels like old men concentrating on history. Craft beer is cool and forward-looking, and someone somewhere (*cough* Brewdog *cough*) has done an absolutely excellent marketing job!

So within this framework, where does the book lie? Most cynically, it's amazing marketing, where I've paid to have advertising delivered to me. Less cynically, it's pretty interesting. Despite the "for Geeks" title it doesn't go into any real depth. Apparently it's the sequel to Craft Beer for the People, so I've accidentally bought the second book... but I don't think I've lost much.

The start of the book talks a bit about the brewing process, the ingredients, the science, a few different beer types, some pioneers in the field. It moves on to discussing recent developments in how people are experimenting with certain styles, illustrated with a few example beers to try. It then moves on to a mini cookbook, with recommended beer pairings (including a fair amount on the theory of beer pairing). It finishes off with a bit of a home brew section: The recipes for a bunch of commercial beers (Brewdog's and others), advice on a few more advanced techniques, and hints on eliminating various off flavours.

This contents list makes it something of a funny book. The audience for an introduction to the basics of brewing are unlikely to be the same people attempting complicated reproductions of commercial beers, and the overlap with those who enjoy cooking is not clear. I think this mix works pretty well, in that there's something for everyone, and even if you're not an active homebrewer or chef, they're interesting nonetheless.

The presentation is great. Brewdog are masters of making beer look cool, and this book is no exception. The combination of style and substance, combined with the authors' clear enthusiasm, makes a great case for why craft beer is interesting.

Posted 2022-09-14.


Retro-review: Cyber-killers - Ed. Ric Alexander

This lurid-looking sci-fi anthology from 1997 was clearly cashing in on the cyberpunk genre. It's got Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic in it, plus relatively recent writers I've heard of, like Terry Pratchett, Greg Bear (the short story version of Blood Music), Iain M. Banks, and Pat Cadigan.

On the other hand, it's got plenty of stories from the older schools. Joe Haldeman, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Robert Zelazny are all there (and a few lesser-known names). There's even a story by J. G. Ballard.

In other words, it's a fantastic bait-and-switch. Selling itself on cyberpunk, it's actually a pretty varied anthology, with some decent names, albeit one focused on crime and kiling. It's not what I was wanting to buy at the time, but perhaps it's actually something better.

Posted 2022-09-13.


Retro-review: Distraction - Bruce Sterling

While I've never been the strongest fan of Bruce Sterling, there's late Sterling and early Sterling. Late Sterling is parodic messes like The Zenith Angle, vs. say, some of his earlier short stories. This is not at, but heading toward the "late Sterling" end of the spectrum.

(Quick disclaimer: I stopped reading after The Zenith Angle. Perhaps late late Sterling is better. I dunno, I gave up.)

It's a political thriller with a broken US government in a corporate future, so don't think it's going to be subtle. It's not memorable enough for me to be able to recount the plot after 20 years, save the rival gangs separated by their incompatible digital protocols. The politics bit, yeah, whatever, I've forgotten it. I suspect it was all very much like a Wired article.

Again, my memories are vague, but I think it's rambling like other novels of his at the time - stuff happens to people, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a plot. The sci-fi is all Mondo 2000, and trying to feel any more than "meh" about it is hard.

Posted 2022-09-12.


Retro-review: Noir - K. W. Jeter

Another book from before I started reviews, from my cyberpunk-searching period. This isn't cyberpunk per se, but it's well, noir sci-fi. I don't normally go for authors who write Star Wars/Star Trek/Blade Runner novels, but it seemed an interesting kind of thing. It's crap.

This noir world verges on the parody of a corporate-run dystopia. The protagonist is named McNihil, the dead are resurrected until their debts are paid, and the neural material of copyright infringers is turned into living, sentient speaker cables. I think Jeter was really annoyed about copyright infringement or something.

It tries so hard. It's posturingly bleak. It wants to be the tough kid. It's pointlessly long, at 388 pages of tiny text. I remember comfortingly little of it from over 20 years ago, beyond a sense of resentment at the time and mental space it took from me.

Posted 2022-09-12.


Retro-review: redRobe, reMix - John Courtenay Grimwood

A little bit of out-of-order reviewing here. I've previously reviewed Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy (quite enjoyable) and Lucifer's Dragon (a bit less mature) before that. Before those, I'd read redRobe and reMix.

Both books have over-the-top violence and over-the-top plots. Both feature a mixture of "high tech and low life", plus the priveleged rich and religious leaders doing weird stuff, in a style tagged "William Gibson meets Quentin Tarantino". I think this is a fair summary! It's all a bit much, to the degree that I did enjoy his later books more - more mature, with only a medium level of violence.

I think I would, depending on the reader, recommend them. They're inventive and fun, in a kind of turn-of-the-millennium, post-cyberpunk, PlayStation kind of way. If you're put off by the violence, read a later book, for a bit less intensity but similar interest.

Posted 2022-09-11.


Measure What Matters - John Doerr

This book is not the book I thought it was. For some reason, I though it was a book on how to quantify things you want to track. I think that would be an awesome book to have. I like quantifying things. There's a backlash against overquantification - the important things are hard to measure, and things that are easy to measure get watched even if they aren't helpful. And numbers never tell the whole story. And that's before we get to the fact that focusing on a metric leads to it being gamed. On the other hand, this sounds like a good reason to get good at building quantitative metrics - working out how to measure the right thing, control its abuse, and look at the results in context.

Quantitative measurements of progress to a goal push you to be honest with yourself. If you miss, you might have words to justify the miss, but at least you're clear that it's a miss, rather than papering over with some hand-waving. Sticking a number on it helps with coordination and discussion, not unlike SLOs.

As such, it's a disappointment that this book is not about that!

What it is about, though, is how OKRs are great. "Objectives and Key Results" are a way of planning your company/team/personal goals. The big whats of what you want to do, with measurable milestones. Yes, the quantitative element is in this scheme, it's just the book doesn't tell you how to do it. It's a big-picture book. It's got all the usual bits - how OKRs enforce discipline by making you highlight a small set of things you really need to get done over a shopping list you won't complete, the red/amber/green status tracking, etc. It's not new to me, but it's nice to see it laid out straightforwardly.

The reason it's not new to me is because OKRs are the bread-and-butter of Google. While the system was assembled by Andy Grove at Intel (see High Output Management) it was taken on with gusto at Google. Indeed, the book includes an appendix on "How OKRs are done at Google" that I recognised word-for-word from an internal document!

Yet... internally, it's not that simple. In an SRE team, priorities can (and do) change at the drop of a hat, and there's a large operational burden besides "building cool new things". SRE teams have wide scope, looking after large systems that a correspondingly-sized dev team would only develop a small fraction of. As such, there are a lot of plates to spin, and a lot of partners to coordinate with. OKRs have a tendency to turn into a shopping list of the here and now. So, it's nice to have a reminder of how we aspire for them to be!

John Doerr is the reason Google has OKRs. He's been a bit of an OKR disciple, having learnt about them under Grove at Intel, and then spreading them across the industry as a VC at Kleiner Perkins. He knows everyone. The book has praise from Bill Gates, Al Gore and Sheryl Sandberg, a foreword from Larry Page and a chapter from Bono!

OKRs can be explained briefly (the Google OKR description is a short appendix), so the book fleshes it out from a number of angles. There's the history of OKRs at Intel and beyond, descriptions of the major things OKRs provide (focus and commitment to priorities, aligning and connecting teams, providing accountability and encouraging stretch goals), combined with illustrative examples across the industry. Many are big names (Sundar Pichai talking about Chrome), but there are chapters focusing on start-ups, too (presumably to justify that OKRs can be used at all scales). The book's a few years old, so it's interesting to see where those companies have gone, like modest success for MyFitnessPal and, well, failure for Zume pizza. Overall, though, it's an impressive exercise in appeal to authority. ;)

I think in some ways, this is a particularly interesting aspect of the whole thing. OKRs are in danger of being a methodology. The OKR approach came from the management genius of Andy Grove. He constructed it to suit his needs. He thought hard and generated the system. Applying any system without thinking is dangerous. OKRs are applied across the industry in a way that looks surprisingly uniform, in part by appeal to the fact they're being applied everywhere else. Are they being applied thoughtfully?

Despite the eye-rolling at management fads, it does feel like OKRs are a pretty stable and useful approach, certainly compared to the fads that occur on the engineering side! Perhaps OKRs aren't supremely optimal, but they're pretty solid.

As an aside, the book's dedicated to "Coach" Bill Campbell, of Trillion Dollar Coach. Books like this remind me of how small Silicon Valley really is at that level, with Intel, Google, Apple and a bunch of VCs at the core of this tight clique. I can't tell if this dynamic is good because of the companies it created in the group, or bad because of the companies denied opportunities by being outside.

This sense of ambiguity comes back in an example in the book showing that OKRs can be used for good or evil. Early on, it's explained how OKRs drove Intel's response to Motorola's 68K, a coordinated sales and marketing assault to push the 8086 ahead of Motorola's technically superior 68000. And that's why we have the x86 dominated world now, with all the inefficiencies that brings. Maybe OKRs are a net force for evil after all. :p

I wanted to end the review there, but I feel I should say a little more about the book. It's well-written and the examples are pretty interesting. It's in the "spin it out" school of management books on topics that could be kept short, but the way it's done means I don't really begrudge that. At this point it's old news for a decent fraction of the tech world, but if you're not up on OKRs it's a pretty good read. I'm still looking for a book on how to quantify difficult metrics, though.

Posted 2022-09-09.


Retro-review: Spares, Only Forward, One of Us - Michael Marshall Smith

Another retro-review of books I read around the turn of the millennium, and a three-in-one at that. Spares title is about human clones being kept to act as spare parts for the ultra-wealthy, but much of the plot actually concerns a weird kind of alternate space called The Gap, and the war there. Only Forward is about a future world where the people of The City live in themed Neighbourhoods. It turns out the protagonist got to the future by visiting a weird kind of alternate space, which is the source of the problems the narrator faces. One of Us concerns someone whose job it is to look after other people's memories. It fortunately doesn't have a weird kind of alternate space, but all appliances are sentient for no particularly good reason, and the ending twist beats the surprise arrival of yet another weird kind of alternate space for irritation.

I'm not a great fan of these books. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I bothered reading three, two would have been pushing it. They're all of a cyberpunk-adjacent, violent and sardonic mould, which I was more or less into at the time, but "sardonic" is hard to not make heavy-handed. For me, the main issue was the repeated pattern of a Really Big Twist Idea that just doesn't fit with the rest of the story, making the whole thing lumpy and uneven, like a snake that's just eaten something way too large. Meh, at best.

Posted 2022-09-08.


Retro-review: Factoring Humanity - Robert J Sawyer

Another quick review of a book I read a long time ago, before I give it away. Humanity receives alien data, someone decodes it, builds a hypercube, and ends up connecting an overview of all humanity and the aliens or something. It was a long time ago. I think I read it on a flight. It was fine. A bit lack-lustre, kept me entertained for a few hours but without any need to chase down more by the same author.

Posted 2022-09-07.


Retro-review: Headcrash - Bruce Bethke

During my "read all the cyberpunk" phase, I read this "cyberpunk parody". It's really not very good. It's not The Wiz Biz level bad writing, but it's also not as fun as that.

For some reason, my vague (20 year old) memories of it make me think of that episode of Murder, She Wrote with virtual reality in it, or maybe Michael Crichton's poor Disclosure. A vision of virtual worlds as clunky as those '90s Virtuality headsets. Unlike those productions, this book comes with the smutty humour of a 14-year-old. Some might call it parody, I call it tedious.

Maybe a book for a cyberpunk completionist, I should have chucked it years ago.

Posted 2022-09-07.


Retro-review: Synners, Fools, Mind Players, Tea from an Empty Cup - Pat Cadigan

Yes, 4 books in a single review! They're all going, and I can't remember much about them as it's probably 20 years since I read them last. Which is a good enough reason to get rid of them! I should be clear, these are not bad books. They were fine to read, they just... didn't speak to me, didn't stick in my memory.

I had a "try to read cyberpunk sci-fi" phase, before eventually concluding that the genre of "good cyberpunk literature" was basically limited to the writings of William Gibson. "Cadigan is a major talent -- William Gibson" on the covers sold me initially, but I'm feeling less generous now.

The books range in their "playing with minds" technology, and more or less amounts of cyberspaces, murders, low life/high tech, Japan etc. If this makes them sound like paint-by-numbers cyberpunk affairs, they're anything but. Cadigan clearly makes her own worlds, puts her own imprint on it all. There's a refreshing lack of Tarantino violence. These are not undifferented carbon copy worlds like Altered Carbon.

All in all, a gentle shrug for a set of books that just aren't me.

Posted 2022-09-07.


Retro-review: On - Adam Roberts

This is going as part of chucking books I'm not going to read again. Adam Roberts seems a well-enough respected sci-fi author, nominated for and winning various awards. Maybe he's written some good fiction. I don't know, because after reading On I'm not reading anything else by him. It's crap.

It's set in a world that's a giant wall. Everyone lives on just the minimal horizontal spaces of this big wall. As the book's awful, I'm happy to spoiler it: It turns out this wall is just the earth, but something happened and gravity's gone sideways. Like the book.

That doesn't really matter to the plot, as little as I can remember it, though, since it's the adventures of some kid who lives on the wall. It's all a bit medieval-ish, which makes sense, because none of the physics in this book make any sense, and people didn't really do physics in medieval times. QED.

To be honest, I don't remember a huge amount about this book beyond the huge sense of disappointment reading it, except for the way the appendix rubs salt in the wound: A rubbish pseudo-scientific explanation of the gravity shift, made all the more offensive by using a lot of actual physics-y maths-y stuff, to explain something that is clearly physically BS. Just don't bother. It's not crap sci-fi, it's crap fantasy pretending to be crap sci-fi.

Posted 2022-09-07.


Retro-review: The Revolution Business - Charlie Stross

So, I'm collecting a few less-wanted books to take to charity shops (hint) and found that I never put the effort into reviewing this book (also hint). My recollection from reading this book, sometime between 2008 and 2012, is that I'm running on inertia at this point, five books into a sequence that's becoming increasingly tortuous and that I'm decreasingly caring about. Reading my review for The Trade of Queens may be relevant.

As my life's flipped upside down over the last couple of years, I'm not finding much time for general reading, let alone chewing gum sci-fi/fantasy, but I think it says something that I've just not bothered with the sequel series (starting with Empire Games) or indeed further Laundry Files. I don't quite know why. Is it because I don't like series to be too churn-it-out? Or maybe because I prefer my series to be set in more of a static universe, and don't enjoy starting a series in an interesting setting only to go on and destroy it?

My thoughts currently edge towards the latter. Ra also frustrated me by constantly changing the goalposts and undermining everything that had already happened. Doing so over a long series just makes it worse. And maybe I just like happy endings.

Posted 2022-08-23.


Raising Steam - Terry Pratchett

This is, finally, the last of the books I finished reading in hospital, but never reviewed (until now). I guess this follows Going Postal and Raising Steam as a Moist von Lipwig book, but moreover it's his last non-young-adult Discworld book. Somehow it feels like it.

The Moist von Lipwig series is interesting as it represents a transition from a stable medieval-like fantasty world where the threat of change has to be defeated (e.g. Moving Pictures) to an Industrial Revolution-like society where change happens - with Vetinari quite explictly weighing up the pros and cons of this change, trading certainty for growth.

I read the book months ago, and enjoyed the plot, but at this stage I'm probably best talking about the lasting impressions. Vetinari is maybe too much like a superhero. Overall, though, I had the feeling of more looseness in the book, of impending real change in the world (in books never to be written). I had a sense of Pratchett, a little like Vetinari, letting the Discworld off its lead after many years of service. Setting it free. A fitting conclusion.

Posted 2022-08-21.


All My Friends Are Superheroes

I've not been reading for a while now. Working on various projects yes, but never really setting aside the time to read, leaving a few books half-read.I spotted this short and fun-looking book on the shelves and thought it might be a good way back into a bit of regular reading.

It's a simple little story about love - the protagonist, Tom, is married to a superhero who can no longer see him, having been hypnotised, and he must try to convince her he's still around.

Despite being written in 2003, it's pretty hipsterish, and feels quite smug about the world it creates. Superheroes inhabiting a mundane world, I guess that's magical realism? All the more so for the fact the super-powers are mostly metaphors. Lacking wide reading, the best I can articulate it as is Coupland written by Vonnegut. Given the super-powers aren't useful, certainly for fighting crime, but are instead mostly emphasised personality traits or character quirks, they're more Mister Men and Little Misses than real super-heroes. If Hargreaves's creations were in their twenties and stuck in dead-end jobs, that is.

I do like the idea that, moving to a new town, the narrator by fluke initially meets and befriends a superhero, and then by mutual acquaintance becomes the only "regular" person in a clique of superheroes. The central love story is rather sweet. It's very clever (and it knows it). Why does it irk me so much?

For whatever reason, it feels desolate and soulless. Like a US city designed for cars and not a person to be seen. Outside of the main romance we are told of a lot of heartbreaks, but they're all empty, usually some dry superhero metaphor joke. Tom and his wife are the only real people in a papier mache world.

Maybe that's a deliberate stylistic choice, but it leaves me cold.

Oh, and a decent number of characters act like dicks. That never works for me.

Posted 2022-07-28.


Newnes Mechanical Engineer's Pocket Book - Roger Timings and Tony May

I saw an early edition of the Newnes Engineer's Pocket Book on a bookshelf in a AirBnB we were staying at, and it was very interesting. So, I had to get myself one. This edition was first published in 1990 - I chose an older edition as a) earlier editions were less specialised - even in 1990 it was split out from a general engineer's pocket book, and a) it was a bit cheaper!

In many ways, this is one of the most useless books I have. I have never been a mechanical engineer, and am unlikely to be one. And this is not introductory material - it assumes you know the theory, and want a reference. On the other hand, it's interesting because it gives an insider-like view as to what matters to a practical mechanical engineer.

The main sections are Engineering Maths and Science, Engineering Design Data, Engineering Materials, Computer Aided Engineering and Cutting Tools:

The maths and science part has geometric formulae (including how to enter them on a calculator!), statistics, and basic electrical and mechanical engineering calculations, among others. There's not a lot new here for me, but it's handily presented.

The design data covers screwed fastenings, riveted joints, some other fasteners, gears and belts, and shafts. The literal and metaphorical nuts and bolts of mechanical engineering. I found it interesting to see the huge amount of detail that goes into "a screw" or "a cog". A lot of this is just tables for the standard sizes of these things, with the occasional reference for equations you may need. I also found it interesting to see that they included various trade-marked components - it's not just de jure standards, but also the de facto ones!

The materials section starts with a nice little section on the properties of materials (elasticity, plasticity, etc.) and relevant tests, before diving into the nitty-gritty of various metals and polymers. Lots and lots of tables of numbers of little interest. What it did bring home to me is how many subtleties materials have. I knew cast iron and steel were very different, for example, but the variety of material structures, and associated properties, that can be generated through the various impurities and heat treatments is very impressive.

The computer-aided engineering section is a bit of an outlier. It's much more of an introduction to CAD and CAM, rather than assuming the reader knows all about it. It gives a lot of insight into the state of common practice at the start of the 90s. Amusingly, it gives an oversight of G-code without ever saying "G-code".

The final section is on cutting tools. More about drill-, cutting- and sanding-like machines than I imagined there could be. Lots of tables, and a fair number of diagrams that meant nothing to me, but I now understand it to be a complicated area!

This is not the first Newnes pocket book I've bought. Back in the '90s, I bought their pocket book guide to the Z80. At huge cost to my early-teens budget, this was the cheapest way I could find to get access to full documentation of the Z80 instruction set, complete with T-state timings (very handy for optimisation!). It's incredibly strange to look back from now at how hard it was to get information. In some ways, it gives you an idea of how wide the "pocket book" range was, even then. If you look at the range now, it's huge, and full of very specialist topics. Complexity is ever-growing.

I have no way of judging if this book was useful in the early '90s, or if it's useful now, but it was certainly a good way to get a rather specific view of a subject I know next to nothing about!

Posted 2022-05-30.


The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

Rather pleasantly for the rather preachy genre that is sci-fi, the "small angry planet" in question is not Earth! On the other hand, this book is not short on opinions. It is, in the parlance of cynics, extremely woke. This is no problem, it's rather pleasant to read some sci-fi that's much more about relationships than about emotion-less cardboard cut-outs solving difficult problems.

The story centres on what is effectively an interstellar highway building team, whose job is to punch the wormholes that create express routes through space (my memory's a bit faded - I read this towards the start of my hospital stay, but am only reviewing it now). And of course, they're a rag-tag bunch of misfits. Beings from various different alien races, generally weirdos as far as that race goes.

It's pretty fun, but, man, it's heavy-handed. Everyone works together harmoniously, except the nasty man who had a difficult childhood, who gets into trouble and is graciously rescued by the others. The quirky engineer with ADHD so thick it's basically a solid comes through in a crisis despite their fears. The Alien Races Are a Metaphor; the varied crew members represent the diversity of Californian-kind, working together.

It's cute, it's fun, it's an enjoyable tale. The fate of the galaxy is never in the balance. Spoiler: A computer dies, which makes the crew really sad, but I guess is supposed to be less traumatic for the reader than a biological entity dying. It's a little clunkily obvious, like a sci-fi writing exercise, but frankly I enjoyed it more than, say, Ra - clever hard sci-fi that just missed the whole "entertaining story-telling" aspect.

Posted 2022-05-21.


Wings - Terry Pratchett

After reading Diggers, I couldn't find the third book in the Bromeliad, but it turned up the other week, so of course I read it. I must say, I didn't start it with much enthusiasm. The end of Diggers makes it clear how Wings concludes, as this book runs in parallel, and I don't find his writing for children as engaging as the Discworld novels (or at least the ones for adults - I've yet to move onto the young adult ones, which will probably happen when I run out of the rest).

So, I trudged through a good proportion of the book, but I must say it caught my imagination. A few twists managed to appear in what could have been an extremely linear story (with a known ending), and it did keep me engaged. While "Truckers" and "Diggers" hint at a single vehicle, Wings is well-named, involving at least 4 kinds of flying transport mechanisms! (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler. :)

I think this sounds like weak praise, but... well maybe it is. It's entertaining, but not riveting, I don't begrudge the time I spent on it, but I've read so many books by him. Ah well.

Posted 2022-05-21.


MS-DOS Programmer's Reference - Microsoft

Includes version 5! For me, this makes it pretty fancy, as I cut my teeth on MSDOS 3.3. I got this in the early '90s - it was already in a second-hand bookshop, and I pleaded with my parents for this and a copy of The Spectrum ROM Disassembly. I'm sad to say that I never really dug into this at the time - I'm sure there could have been some bonus adventures buried in here, although I think I probably managed to pick up enough from other sources.

Anyway, having sat on my shelves for nearly 30 years, I thought I'd read it. There are interesting lessons in history, and sometimes reading things from simpler times gives you better insights into the present.

The structure is a mixture of readable overviews of areas, mixed with pure reference data on data structures and system calls. I think this makes sense - you need the exhaustive enumeration, but that's not enough to get started, and those overviews allow you to see how it fits together better.

Despite that, it's still structured a little oddly. The data structures form a short appendix to each chapter, one chapter per subsystem, but then all the actual system calls/interrupts are put together in a separate (extremely long!) chapter. It feels inconsistent.

As you might expect, I did not read this cover-to-cover. I read the explanatory bits properly, and skimmed the pure reference, digging a more deeply into those parts that interested me. To be honest, the quality is not awesome. It's not dire, but if this were the early '90s and I wanted to do some serious programming, and this were my only reference (no net access, no Stack Overflow!), I'd have a lot of questions. It feels like corner cases and subtleties are missed, in both the explanations and reference. I'd end up having to guess/experiment or reverse engineer DOS.

Trying to diagnose what's missing, I think a decent number of examples would do the trick. e.g. Actually demonstrate minimising your memory footprint before exiting as a TSR. I remember when I was leading a project with medium-complicated algorithms, the best documentation was a link to the academic paper, a quick explanation, and a worked example. I think it's also interesting that we have a school of thought that unit tests can actually form one of the better API definitions. So, yes, examples would be nice.

It could be that "Oh yes, that's not reference, you want this other MS Press book for that, but strangely the only other MS book referenced in this whole thing is a stuck-in card for the MS Mouse Programmer's Reference, which doesn't exactly flesh this book out.

From the content angle, and the technology it describes, the transition from MSDOS 1.0 to MSDOS 2.0 is very clear; the point at which it stopped being a toy CP/M rip-off. FCBs are out, file-descriptors are in, these functions are now superseded, you may now have subdirectories (with lots of entries!). There are the inflection points where the modern world has arrived, and DOS starts to make upper memory and the HMA available. And there's a bunch of poorly-defined stuff about task-switchers, hinting at a relatively well-developed dead end. I enjoyed the chapter on device drivers, which allowed me to finally understand what those .sys files were, underneath the hood.

Is this worth reading? Very likely no! The only value is in nostalgia, and even then it's of the "I'm glad I didn't have to do serious DOS development during this period, with this kind of documentation!" kind. It slightly makes me want to try a little bit of real mode programming again, but to do so I'd be far better off with Turbo Pascal 5.5 and associated books (some of which gave me my very first insights into computer science, as opposed to just programming - maybe worth another retro-review sometime!).

Posted 2022-05-08.


The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman

If Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman? is steak, this is a burger. Where Surely You're Joking is a fairly-well constructed deliberate volume, this is a collection of odds-and-ends, mostly transcripts of talks. It's a little uneven, unfocused and repetitive. In many ways, though, I think it captures Feynman more honestly than the more organised book, through its lack of preparation and polish.

This is another "read while in hospital" book, and it worked pretty well - clearly much more pop-sci than physics, despite a couple of relatively technical chapters, and the discombobulated structure actually makes it a bit easier to dip in and out of.

Feyman's discussion on how science relates to other areas feels blinkered by his approach to the philosophy of science. He has a particular model of science as being centred on doubt, performing experiements, and ideally spotting patterns. The usual induction and deduction, and this gives you knowledge. Science has a mechanism that works, why do we want any of that messy philosophical stuff?

Science is based on doubt, but he doesn't doubt science. Philosophy can interrogate the parts of science that science cannot interrogate itself, but Feynman seems to miss the wood for the trees.

He also has much disdain for soft/social sciences, since they fail to produce the reliable, reproducible results of e.g. physics. What I find telling is that he never seemed to want to fix the area. My suspicion is that it's a difficult problem, and while the results are unimpressive, he couldn't do any better. After all, I don't image a man like Feynman would be able to stand by idly if they see something they care about badly broken, and know how to fix it.

So, it's an unintentional portrait with subtlety, of a man blinkered by his own deep focus. Despite all this, Surely You're Joking remains the superior book, although for some reason I don't have a book review of it.

Posted 2022-05-04.


Hogfather - Terry Pratchett

This is the first time reviewing a book that I didn't read. Rather, I listened to it. There's a while in post-operative recovery where "reading" is just too darned hard, but "listening" is possible. Unfortunately, I fall asleep with podcasts, and audio books turn out to be not too different, so in practice I think I've listened to this story about twice in overlapping chunks. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I'm reviewing months after reading, er, listening. If you can't read, you're certainly not going to write a review at the time!)

This is very mid-sequence Pratchett. Ankh-Morpork is not yet evolving, as with the later Vimes and von Lipwig stories, but the common danger is no longer the Dungeon Dimensions, either. The threat is an utterly insane assassin, Teatime, on a particularly disruptive mission.

It's really a Death book, and I've never got on with them particularly well, for reasons I've never worked out. I love Death as a minor character, but whenever his plotlines become centre-stage... it's just not my thing. Predictably, the book didn't set my world on fire.

Having said that, it's much better than I might have feared. The plot is good fun and full of very Discworld logic, driven by the best villain that Discworld's ever had. It's a shame that (spoiler!) he gets his comeuppance at the end of the book, so that he's unavailable for any sequels!

Summary: Pretty good, actually.

Posted 2022-05-04.


Mike and Psmith - P. G. Wodehouse

I'm in my forties, and this is the first P. G. Wodehouse book I've read. From the occasional Jeeves and Wooster on the telly, this is not what I expected.

I expected complicated, witty plots of rich, young men. What this actually provides is a school story. Admittedly, they're rich schoolboys who end up getting jobs in the sequels, and Psmith is old beyond his years, but it's still not what I was expecting. My hopes for complex high-jinx were somewhat undermined by the somewhat basic pranks. There's a lot of "ragging" going on.

I am, perhaps, being a little unfair. Once I got over the original surprise, it's not really about schoolboys, it's about young gentlemen who are having to put up with the tedium of still being in school. Mike and Psmith are apart from the other boys, and they look down on and manipulate the masters.

A further horror is that the main plotline centres around cricket (Wodehouse apologises for this!), but he manages to make this entertaining nonetheless - not too much focus on the details, and a bit more on the dynamics around it.

Strangely, I'm a little unimpressed by the book, but it's spurred me on to read more. I'm keen to follow Mike and Psmith out of school and into a real-world setting, and would maybe like to read some other books, like Jeeves and Wooster, to get a feel for Wodehouse's variety and range. In itself, though, I felt this was a bit of a let-down.

Posted 2022-05-03.