On and off, I've tended to read quite a bit. So, I thought I'd put up some reviews of books as I read them. I am fully aware that they're really more about me than the books, so caveat lector. This page contains the most recent reads - if you want more, I recommend you go to the full index.
This is an extremely deliberate book on management and leadership. As in, it's clearly been constructed to fit squarely in the genre. From the foreword by Stephen "7 Habits" Covey through to the end of chapter points to think about and suggested exercises for your next off-site, the author clearly knows the genre.
The book is about how the author, as the captain of a nuclear-powered submarine, empowered his crew and managed to bring it from being one of the worst-performing boats to one of the best. While it's largely narrative-driven, the leadership techniques are literally WRITTEN OUT IN CAPS so that you can't miss them!
Part of what makes this book so great is that it's clearly not about a heroic and intuitive leader changing things around through native charisma. Throughout the book, the author namedrops all the management books he's read, giving the reader a chance to find out more, but also demonstrating that this kind of leadership can be achieved through study and thought, not just making inspiring speeches.
Moreover, by using concrete examples of what happened, not only is a dry subject given human interest, but the techniques of leadership are illustrated with practical examples. This is why the book can freely reference other books, because it adds something more - insight into the practical applications.
The target audience seems to be managers of managers, with the aim of creating an organisation where everyone is working towards the next level. However, the context of a nuclear submarine is interesting to me as an SRE. Admittedly, if I get my day job wrong I'm unlikely to die in a horrible way, stuck inside an enclosed metal tube filled with nuclear material and explosives far below the sea surface. On the other hand, we deal with incidents under pressure and have to deal with complex systems. We train and practice and optimise our responses. It makes an interesting comparison.
I really rather enjoyed this. Recommended.
A rather less interesting but perhaps more accurate title for this book would be "Qualitative analysis of simple differential equations with practical examples". Put bluntly, this is a boring book.
Examples are things like thermostats, and fish stocks, and capital growth, and epidemics. Things you can model as differential equations. However, this book is about the qualitative analysis of such equations - the modes the system can fall into. It never actually says it, but it's aiming to be approximately right, rather than precisely wrong.
It is, basically, quite boring. Perhaps reasonably worthy. I don't know why it's so boring - it's not a long book, but maybe it's pretty slow despite that. It does have some good insights, but it makes them seem... boring.
For example, in many dynamic systems, we directly attack one variable, rather than try to adjust the system to produce the result we want. To give a topical example, Donald Trump is not actually the problem, he is the result of a system that enabled him to get where he is, and the problem needs to be attacked at a lower level, ideally at a place with higher leverage.
By taking such a structured, academic approach to Systems, you really do end up with a primer on the subject of systems. However, it's neither as amusing, nor as fundamentally insightful as the insanity that is Systemantics (aka The Systems Bible).
A lovely, vitriolic Christmas present from my wife. :)
Right now, Charlie Brooker is probably best-known for Black Mirror, which I still haven't watched. However, he's had a long history of writing for the Guardian, reviewing the week's TV and complaining about the idiocy of the world (these two things going fairly close in hand. His writing is, unsurprisingly, angry and world-weary. There's a lot of reviewing Big Brother.
The writing in question was circa 2007, so it's interesting to see how things have changed. He was complaining about the general state of the world, and in particular regularly complaining about the Bush presidency - if only he could have seen where we are now. He'd have been horrified and not terribly surprised. Indeed, the version of Charlie Brooker who didn't time travel and took the long route from 2007 to now seems to be horrified and not terribly surprised.
Seeing all those extended similes of hatred together is a little wearing, but you also see the patterns of his personality, and occasional surprises. He's a fan of Doctor Who, but generally disappointed by sci-fi which doesn't challenge - cue Black Mirror, I guess. And he went to Glastonbury with an ex-Big Brother contestant who became his friend. Strange world.
Debugging Teams is a guide to team management and leadership for those software engineer types who don't really want to do that stuff. I quite like doing that stuff, so I guess this isn't really intended for me, but it's a fun, short (150 page) read. It's not even 150 real pages - it's got a bunch of cartoony illustrations in there that don't really add anything, perhaps because reading words is hard, or you like to be treated like a baby, or they wanted to pad out a really short book.
On the other hand, the text itself has no filler. Unlike many management books, as well as having a main thesis, it's packed with specific advice, examples and suggestions, so that it's actually relatively dense. The main idea is that even if you don't want to do leadership stuff, you're still better off doing it than leaving it to chance and dealing with the fall out; a stitch in time saves nine. The core of their advice is to encourage a positive team culture, specifically one centred around Humility, Respect and Trust - which allows people to be open and honest and learn things and contribute without feeling under fire.
The authors have management experience from both open source (specifically Subversion) and Google. Indeed, a subtitle of this book could have been "How engineering management works (or is supposed to) at Google". Reading this book as a manager at Google, this part was slightly preaching to the choir, but good to refresh. The OSS side was... interesting. Now that we have a large number of significant, long-running OSS projects, culture in open source projects is being recognised as a big thing. In the short term, a few bright people can make a project, but over the long run, with contributor turnover, it's all about having a culture that encourages people to join and develop. This book is a great resource for people trying to work out how to run such a project.
To change tack for a moment, recently I went to see "The Book of Mormon" with my wife, on her birthday. In effect, the message is that a positive and helpful culture can more than make up for a lack of... rigorous rationality. This seems to mirror the message of the book - rather than try to have a perfect crystal of software, go for a positive community of practical people delivering something people want to use, and maybe you'll actually get some success.
Recommended if you want to know how Google engineering management is supposed to work, or if you want to make a piece of OSS people want to work on.
The third in the Ancillary Blah series, and the culmination of the trilogy. Also, in my opinion, a bit disappointing. Things kinda get sorted out to a degree, with an appropriately don't-fix-the-entire-universe ending. The disappointment comes from just not exploring the possibilities available. The Presger are involved, relatively boringly. A bunch of spare AIs turn up and nothing's really done with them. That Dyson sphere from the previous book just isn't mentioned. Instead, there's a lot of counselling for young and emotionally distressed officers. Er, yay? The previous books didn't exactly avoid this, but I wasn't desperately hoping for more.
The other Dirk Gently book!
This one wanders quite firmly over to more of a fantasy genre, although the previous book lurked on the edge of that space. I didn't enjoy it quite as much. The connectedness runs through this book as a stronger thread than in the last book. It's enjoyable for the most part, but I felt it made for a let-down ending: Dirk fails to (intentionally) do anything helpful, and then connectedness sorts it out at the end anyway. I like the fridge, though.
Now that I'm back in management, I thought I should catch up on a few more management books. Google's management philosophy is (or was) allegedly based on this book, so I thought it was worth a read.
This book is the missing manual for being a manager.
It's not about Leadership or abstract stuff. It's about the nitty-gritty of what management's about, and how to do it. Grove's model is that the output of a manager is the work their team does, which sounds simple but does force clarity around a fairly hand-wavy area. It's about results.
From there, it covers lots of useful stuff, especially around meetings, one-to-ones, feedback and appraisals. Grove is clearly a workaholic and makes no bones about it - but it's really worked for him. :p
This is a book from the early '80s. It's based around the experiences of physically manufacturing stuff. E-mail is not a given. So, there are things that do not translate to the modern environment. They're kinda interesting historically, but they're not entirely useless since all the suggestions are grounded in principles, so that they can be extrapolated to the modern high-tech workplace.
Is it good? Yes. It's pretty short, but very solid and practical, and makes a nice contrast to most other hand-wavy management books. I don't want to take everything in it verbatim, but it's flexible enough to work. I wish I'd had it when I started managing.
It's been soooo long since I last read this. It really does deserve a re-read.
In my teens, I preferred the (early) Hitch-hiker books. Now, I think these are my preference. They're not quite as acidic as the H2G2 books (which passed me by a bit at the time), and the structure is just more fun. The setting's familiar (I think the last time I read this was before I went to Cambridge), and it's very weird to think of the protagonists now being younger than me (definitely not the case last time!).
It captures the feel of '80s tech wonderfully, with Richard's piles of tech, Silicon Fen entrepreneurs, chaos theory and all the rest. It could be a late Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls text adventure.
So, for me, it's both warmly nostalgic and just an enjoyably structured Adams story. We lost him far too early.
So, work has an unbiasing book club, where you read books about how it sucks to be in a minority, to help us overcome our unconscious biases. It's a great idea. Sadly, being an American company, the selection does tend to focus on the issues in America. On the other hand, the issues there are complex and worth learning about.
This book is largely about death row prisoners in the US South, although it also covers some juveniles sentenced to life without parole and the like. Mr. Stevenson is a lawyer who has spent literally decades trying to get justice for these people.
Justice in the South is harsh, racist and uncaring. A black man can be rushed through the courts to death row while being clearly innocent. The degree to which the state actors are either racist or plain just don't care about justice is shocking. Others in the book have committed horrible crimes, but the sentences don't take into account how badly society has let them down.
The penal system in the US is at a scale almost unheard of anywhere else - almost as if a capitalist prison system will expand to meet its needs rather than be an appropriate part of the justice system. *cough* Elected judicial posts who have to be tough on crime to get in lead to inhuman punishment. It's a mess.
Throw into this the racist history of the country - slavery, the Klan, segregation and the rest, and it's not hard to guess that poor, black people are going to have a bad time, and they do.
Reading this book as Trump gets elected is a sobering thought. Uncaring, racist, selfish, narcisstic and power-seeking leaders are what's made the South such an unpleasant place for the marginalised. This is not something you want to see on a national scale.
I read this based on a recommendation from work. Handling alert pages involves doing the best you can under time pressure, and this is pretty much what this book is about.
More specifically, the book is really about the author's attempt to reproduce aeroplane pilot culture in surgery. The thesis is that flying a modern aeroplane is basically too much for a person to do reliably unaided. They need to work effectively as part of a team, and assisted by reminders. The checklists accomplish both of these things - they give people reminders of what to do in both regular and extraordinary situations, but also the checklist routines give a mechanism by which people who've never worked together become a team, and are thus better prepared for those emergency situations. Moreover, standardised checklists provide a way of spreading best practices across the industry, to raise the bar globally.
Surgery has not traditionally had this mindset. The surgeon is an expert and can, based on this expertise, decide what's best. Checklists blunt this vital spirit, necessary for handling complications, etc. Except when the author got surgeons (including himself) to use checklists, they regularly spotted things they missed. Hospitals picked up new best practices. And, when things got tough and sudden complications arose, the surgical team actually worked much better as a well-prepared team, more than just a collection of people in a room.
It's not clear how many of these benefits transfer to other situations. A different form of checklisting is used to manage the construction of immensely complicated building projects. Some outperforming investors use checklists to overcome greed and fear. At my workplace, the default checklist is "automate it and take the human out of the loop".
Towards the end of the book, the point is made that the reason that pilots survive difficult situations is discipline under pressure. This is the core of their culture, and what checklists help propagate.
This is quite a long review of a short book, and the development and roll-out of the surgical checklists is an interesting story in itself, let alone everything else in there. If you care about getting tricky things done quickly, read this book.
This is another introduction to complex analysis, but one that goes a lot further than the other ones I've read. The first few chapters are a standard-ish introduction, albeit less friendly than the other "Introduction to" books that I've read. The latter part of the book really picks up the pace, though, with elliptic functions and their doubly-periodic nature, and then onto elliptic modular forms. The final chapter covers analytic number theory (including Riemann's zeta function).
As I was reading this on the train I wasn't really able to study the book properly, so I ended up kind of letting it flow past me and picking up what I could. Elliptic modular forms, previously handwavey magic that people talked about in relation to Fermat's Last Theorem, is now a concrete thing to me, albeit one I don't understand.
It does appear to be a good book. Without the time and effort to properly understand it, it was a bit of a slog to get through, but I really do want to have another crack at the second half, to see if I can build up some intuitive understanding.
The book is translated from the German, so sometimes the choice of language is a little odd, but overall the text is readable. I just need to understand the concepts!
So, we've been to Disney World. It was as big and complicated an effort as you might expect. Some friends lent us this book before we went. We didn't actually need it, as we actually went with some other friends who were extremely experienced at going to Disney World, and they acted as our guides.
However, as I like preparation, I did read this book beforehand. It's a book for people who like preparation (else why would you buy this book and read it in advance? :). It's perfect for me, and spot on the money. The recommendations were good ideas, and matched up well with what our friends did through experience.
If you're the organised type and are going to Disney World, I think you'd be crazy not to read this and take its advice. Recommended for people like me.
I think this book was recommended from the same route as Lady of Mazes. That book was a pleasant surprise. This one was a disappointment.
The core story is about a priveleged young lady who through a bad mistake gets sentenced to effectively a big long VR solitary confinement prison sentence, comes out, and tries to put her life back together.
I didn't care about the character. They were effectively a teenage management consultant in an international soulless corporation. They manage to kill several hundred people basically through complacency and thoughtlessness, but all efforts to instill sympathy... didn't really work.
The character goes through their solitary confinement, comes out, tries to put their life back together. They remain fairly thoughtless and selfish. It all turns out reasonably. I go "Meh".
This seems to be set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but otherwise unrelated. Humans are gone, replaced with human-like synthetic life better adaptable to space and alien environments. The protagonist has just had her mind state beamed into a different solar system (the usual way to get around without incredibly slow and expensive interstellar ships), on the hunt for her disappeared sibling, who was tracking down a lost fortune.
This is clearly a post-2008 story. It's about debt and financial crime. Post-humanity is not a post-scarcity society and everything's very capitalist. Except the happy communist squid colony thrown in, apparently as a contrast. It's a fun enough idea for a book, but just doesn't work well for me. The idea is that everything's driven by the interstellar debt associated with colonisation, and the cost of providing people (or rather, their mind states) for these efforts.
Except... these big, risky ventures are better driven by equity. Indeed, people getting involved in a start-up effort and taking risk for big future rewards through stock options is, well, well-established. Other people complain that the science in sci-fi isn't realistic. I complain that the finance in sci-fi isn't realistic.
Still, ignoring that, it's standard Stross. Compared to his other books, the protagonist is incredibly passive. Stuff just happens to her, and that's about it. Perhaps it's a commentary on agency in a capitalist society.
This is an awesome book. You should go read it.
It's rather like the behavioural economics books such as Thinking Fast and Slow, except that it specifically focuses on how our broken thought processes are used to sell us stuff. The author is clearly an expert, and there are tonnes of great examples.
The book's 30 years old now, so it lacks an analysis of the BuzzFeed-style clickbait article title, but that's the only weakness I can see. :) The book is great.
The book starts off with some stuff on the Empire, but quickly moves onto the Victorian era (and its associated Empire). For a couple of hundred pages, the problems of the Empire are laid out, with good intentions being distacted into high-mindedness and letting millions starve in Ireland and India, and all the rest. There's a fair amount on Victoria, and a fair amount on the politics of the time.
Then, there's the twentieth century. There are the patterns of how modernity and the idea of Britain interact. The turn of the century all the way through to World War II is somehow all covered with the triumvirate of Churchill, Wells and Blair (er, Orwell (*)). The idea of focusing on a couple of people remembered as sci-fi authors is really quite interesting - the history of the future! Schama seems unimpressed with Churchill's choice to switch to the oil for the Navy, with how that then embroiled us in the Middle East, but it seems an historic inevitability, so I'm not quite sure what the issue was.
(*) I so wish he'd kept his name. Everyone describing a totalitarian surveillance state as "Blairite" would be much more fun.
The reminder that Churchill was fundamentally Victorian is good for me. When I think of the rate of technological change nowadays, I have to remind myself that we had people from the horse-drawn era live to see the atom bomb. Shocking technological change is not new.
The latter half of the twentieth century is glossed over - perhaps it's not history enough yet.
I think the main thing I've learnt from all this is that history is not for me. Look at this review. Look at the lack of detail! Patterns and ideas, I can cope with, but the details just disappear far too quickly. I can't remember much of this volume, let alone the others. Here I am, a thousand and a half pages later, remember having pretty much been happy enough to read it, but remembering little else.
A lovely Christmas present from my lovely wife. We've been great fans of Grayson Perry since seeing his awesome show at the British Museum. His work is very distinctive (and accessible), but not outsider art. He's done the conventional art school route, even if he's very much trodden his own path artistically. This seems to have made him very thoughtful about what contemporary art actually is - which you can see in some of his artwork. However, this also comes out in the way he talks about art.
His Reith Lectures were awesome, although I didn't catch all of them. This short (130 pages) book distills some of those ideas into dead tree format, with the bonus of a few witty/silly illustrations by the author. It makes an excellent short guide to art. Much fun.
This is probably my first proper management book since joining Google. In fact, it was lent to me by a colleague (I'm not special - they're lending it to everyone they can. :).
The basic idea is that there are some conversations that are important, emotionally difficult and where you have a difference of opinion with the other party. The kind of conversation you probably shy away from. Or go in guns blazing. The point of the book is that these conversations are really important, and really important to get right. Moreover, the book discusses how to get them right.
There are lots of useful tools in the book. Remember what you're having the conversation for - it's probably not "winning" the argument at the cost of losing the war. Don't try to bowl your opponent over with argument, but listen. Make dialogue open by making people feel safe to discuss what they're thinking. All good stuff.
Nothing felt terribly new to me, having read a pile of manage-y books before. On the other hand, it consolidates a lot of communication-related ideas into a single place, fills in a bunch of gaps, and provides an overall framework. As always with this kind of book, it feels longer than it really needs to be (230 pages) for its core content, but the repetition and discussion help flesh the book out, so I can't complain too much.
Would I recommend this book? Yes. I've already personally recommended it to a friend.
Subtitled "A tribute to the golden age of British gaming", this was an excellent Christmas present. We opened our presents rather slowly this year, and somewhat strangely I actually added this book to my Amazon wish list between Christmas and opening this book! So, it's something of a sign that this was a good present...
This book is a set of reviews of ZX Spectrum games. They're pretty interesting reviews, since they try to emphasise how the games fit into the socio-political climate of the '80s. How could it not, with games like Jet Set Willy, Flunky and Trashman?
Spectrum games are memorable for a number of reasons, and varied immensely over the platform's short commercial lifetime. The book reflects this, being divided into sections - "The Classics", "The Pioneers", "The Greats", "The Dark Horses" and "Never Again". It concentrates on Spectrum-y games, with less emphasis on the more cross-platform games, instead finding the things that were distinctly Spectrumy. The book acknowledges that the Spectrum was, frankly, a fairly rubbish machine, but these restrictions lead to great creativity.
The overall thesis of the book is that the period was a very experimental time, producing games the likes of which we won't see again from a commercial publisher. They were experimental from various angles, from game mechanics through subject matter, as the games industry hadn't settled down, and the Spectrum put a very British lens on all this.
Strangely, the barrier to entry for writing computer games has never been lower - super-powerful computers means that you don't need strong programming skills to develop games (as anyone with a child playing around with Scratch can tell you). There is, once again, a vibrant indie games scene. There's experimentation still, but nothing as insane as in the '80s, and, well, it's all a bit more American these days. Still, it's fun to compare the indie of today with that of thirty years ago.
Back to this book, though. It's a fairly slim volume, independently published, and does have a very DIY feel to it. There's not a huge amount of content to it, but certainly enough to inspire you for many hours of retro-gaming.
This is the second edition of their introduction to special relativity. At around 300 pages long, it feels a fairly long-winded introduction to the subject. In the middle there is a fair amount of padding and repetition. Overall, however, it supplies an extremely readable introduction to special relativity.
There are a number of reasons for this. The initial approach is intuitive rather than formalised mathematically, although the maths is there (but the text is never really maths-centric). The choice of presentation makes the concepts very clear (with a strong focus on the invariance of interval and (rest) mass). "Paradoxes" are clearly explained, the style is chatty, and every chapter has an excellent set of exercises. It's an easy text to learn from.
The downside, as I mentioned earlier, is a certain lack of pace. If you're willing to skip through to run at a pace that suits you, it's a great introduction to what is, in the end, some remarkably simple and elegant ideas.
This is one of those "Introducing..." books with the big pictures and not much text. I'm slowly working through Taylor and Wheeler's Spacetime Physics (it wouldn't be quite so slow, but I've spent the last 6 months Learning the Google), and this was a quick read in the meantime. I must have got it somewhere second-hand.
Spacetime Physics just covers special relativity. This one covers general relativity. It provides a simple introduction to the ideas, but obviously lacks depth. I end up with questions like "If gravity waves are transmitted through space which is itself distorted by the waves, does this make the propagation behave differently to propagation through flat space? Does it distort the waves?".
Coming back to this book, would I recommend it? Probably not.
It's 3 years since I made my ZX Spectrum scarf, and I saw this book in one of those super-cheapy book shops for 2 quid, and thought "Oooh." When I made that scarf, I literally only knitted - I did not do any purling. The result is called "garter stitch" and it's pretty ugly. So... maybe I should learn a bit more?
Having a book on the subject's kinda good, since there are plenty of details to it, and I'm not exactly going to learn by osmosis from others. I could probably have learnt a bit more from the internet, but having a book is nice and structured.
The bit before "how to knit" is pretty good - the tools and all the rest (turns out there's more than just vanilla needles), but the actual guide to knitting is pretty poor. The basic "knit" doesn't match what I learnt, and it turns out there are many variations, and I'm doing a variation which, frankly, I think is rather more convenient. It's like "combination knitting", but probably not as good. The diagrams aren't great, so if you're trying to learn the actions you're best off on Youtube.
So, I wasn't terribly impressed by the way that it elided the complexities of the basic knit and purl. After that, it got better. It covers a pile of different stitches and techniques, and then various projects to exercise them on. I find it extremely unlikely that I'm going to end up knitting a sweater, but if I did, there's stuff in here on how to do that.
I must say, it's not a terribly exciting book. It's all a bit "here's how to do this", and unsurprisingly it's rather more focused on making a thing than how the geometry of the patterns are constructed. I guess that's the audience, though. While pedestrian, it does the job, especially if you can find a cheap copy.
My William Gibson book reviews are largely superfluous, as I love everything he does. This book is no exception. I was mildly nervous, as various reviews describe a post-apocalyptic setting, and I'm not a great one for post-apocalyptic stuff. However, the apocalypse here is a very Gibsonian one, and it remains wonderfully readable.
All the Gibson trademarks are here - the mix of the ultra-rich and the poor, the street tech and improvisation, the feeling of an alien place, the action, the inventiveness. I've been following him on Twitter (I know, I know), and (just like reading Distrust That Particular Flavor) seeing some of the process behind the writing makes the writing itself even more interesting!
After so many novels that have telescoped towards the present as time has gone on (the future's arrived, remember? :) this book goes way out to a distant future again, probably a longer time horizon than Neuromancer! This gives Gibson room to go for much more experimental tech and a bigger change to society, and I think he takes advantage of this very well.
Technology-wise, I think he treats nanotech assemblers rather too much like magic, when I think a real-world implementation would have rather large energy issues. Still, he's not exactly known for his hard sci-fi, and if people like Charlie Stross can hand-wave in this area I can't really complain at William Gibson.
To summarise, I loved it. It's a William Gibson book. It (like much good sci-fi) captures and distils now wonderfully, and projects this into an alien, yet familiar, future. It made me very happy.
Macaulay is perhaps best known for The Way Things Work, a highly-illustrated mammoth-obsessed and remarkably comprehensive introductory guide to technology for children. I remember it in my childhood, and it may be featuring in my son's birthday today.
While looking around, I discovered a few other books written by Macaulay, including this one. It covers the underground infrastructure of our cities - foundations, sewers, all manners of pipes and ducts, etc. I'm afraid I had to have it.
In the longer term, I'm sure the children will enjoy it. Right now, it's all mine. It is, fundamentally, a children's book. However, it's not dumbed down, an adult can happily learn from it, and the illustrations are lovely. I'd particularly recommend it to a 25-year-younger me.
I think the official category of this one is "graphic novel", but it's not really great at that. What it is, is an extremely eccentric illustrated history of Victorian England from a very specific point of view. It's made up of a bunch of mini-stories covering various topics (from financial crises through Boolean logic), set in an alternative universe that somehow emphasises how crazy Victorian England was. There are copious footnotes, and even more copious endnotes, and then a super-serving of appendices. The cartoons are almost incidental by the end.
It appears the whole thing started as a joke, turned into a website, and then became a rather beautifully-produced book. When it comes to technical details Ms. Padua sometimes slips, but her historical scholarship is pretty hardcore (Yay, Google Books, it seems). The result is rather wonderful. Lovelace and Babbage would clearly have fit in perfectly to the dot com era.