Emma - Jane Austen

I haven't read any Austen in ages, so when my wife re-read Emma it seemed a good opportunity for me to read it at the same time. It's good. It's long. It's annoyingly long, because it's also good, so you can't properly begrudge the excessive length.

Emma herself is a great heroine, because she's basically silly and annoying, but not excessively so, and works out her flaws over the course of the book. Embarassingly, having watched Clueless before reading Emma gave me a much better understanding of Miss Woodhouse's character - the parallels are excellent.

As I said, it's good. I can't really judge it much better than that, as right now I have a sore throat and am really irritable. Some of the sentences test the limits of my comprehension in this fuzz, but it's still an enjoyable read.

Posted 2017-06-26.

Real World Haskell - Bryan O'Sullivan, John Goerzen and Don Stewart

I've been meaning to read this book for some time now, and having got sufficiently nostalgic about Haskell, I finally did. "Real World Haskell" is apparently one of those oxymorons, like "ML for the Working Programmer", but I don't care. I still like Haskell.

This is not a short book. There's about 600 pages of proper content. It took a decent number of commutes for me to read (don't worry, I take public transport :p ).

I was intrigued as to how much theory they'd use, and how they would introduce the more algebraic structures. I feel the start of the book is pretty darn good, building up slowly, so that when you hit monads, around page 300, you've already seen the pattern a few time, and then you get the general version of it.

The code examples didn't convince me in a few cases - I was suspicious of some of the corner cases, and the barcode recognition code just seemed messy to me. Still, they helped move things along.

Once monads are introduced, a few extra topics like monad transformers and error handling are presented. I'd never really played with "ap" before, or studied MonadPlus, so I got to learn some new tricks, as well as seeing various style points written down that I'd only previously inferred. This was pretty much the high point of the book.

Then, from around page 450, the "real world" kicks in. Various programs introducing real-world interaction are given, and sadly this is pretty dull. Databases, web clients, GUIs, meh. Why do all books with network programming examples always have to re-explain TCP vs. UDP? There are some cool bits mixed in. "Concurrent and Multicore Programming" is pretty interesting, as is "Profiling and Optimisation". The book ends on a reasonably fun note with "Software Transactional Memory".

A few of my pet favourite subjects were missing - for example, no untied data types. Mutable arrays are hidden carefully in the Bloom Filter example chapter, without a sensible index entry. Indeed, many of the chapters feel ordered arbitrarily, sometimes using functions which are only described chapters later. There's no category theory, which I think is a good thing for a book like this.

Then there's the errata. I felt the start of the book was pretty good. By about halfway, I think everyone was tired out. I started spotting sufficiently many bugs that I started reading the book with the errata web page open. "Yep, thought that was a mistake."

A six-hundred-plus page book is a massive undertaking, especially if you're trying to produce nice code examples and cover a bunch of platforms, and write things to only use the features you've described so far. I'm still a bit disappointed. I must admit, there's a good book on Haskell in there somewhere, covered in a layer of errors and flab. Is it good? I don't begrudge the time I spent reading it, but I wish it had a little more confidence and didn't have to spend quite so much time and space justifying its "real world" nature.

Posted 2017-06-06.

Cocaine Nights - J. G. Ballard

I'm finally working through a few books by "famous authors who are influences on William Gibson". William Burroughs was a bit of a disaster. Ballard looked potentially tricky, so I went for one of his more conventional novels.

This book is not surreal, unlike much of his other work. In fact, it's rather more hyperreal than surreal. It's a ray-traced pile of chrome balls on a checkerboard versus the complexity of reality. A simplified model of the world to try an idea.

Cocaine Nights is ostensibly a whodunnit, set in the ex-pat community on the Costa del Sol. In reality, it's a musing on the nature of crime, and the environments of retirement communities. It makes me think of a generation-earlier version of Chuck Palahniuk - indeed there are thematic similarities to Fight Club.

For all that, it's a rather staid, repetitive novel. Perhaps this is a commentary on those timeless retirement communities where nothing changes. The crime involved has an airless quality, colour drained by the sun. Much of the repetition can be laid at the feet of the protagonist, who is fascinated by the underworld. It seems that it's this character's voice, rather than the author, who is bludgeoning the message home rather artlessly.

It's a funny book. Not quite the whodunnit it suggests, unsubtle in its motives and message but restrained in its detail. The writing is enjoyable and brings in a good sense of place. I feel I now need to read a bit more Ballard to separate out the novel from the author.

Posted 2017-05-28.

The Seven-Day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century - Ricardo Semler

I've been holding off on reviewing this for a while. I thought What Got You Here Won't Get You There was a bit annoying. This is a whole different ball game.

Ricardo Semler is the owner of a reasonably large company (Semco). He inherited a reasonably successful company from his father, changed it massively and grew it. This book is about his management style.

His management style is, in his words, "democratic", and in the view of someone like me "anarchic". Well, it is a democracy, but rather more a direct democracy of everyone involved. Power is delegated, but there's also no centralisation of a wider strategic direction. There are good parts to this, in that people on the front line have control to make things work and do things right. There are bad things, such as when a firm that does environmental assessments got clobbered for breaking environmental laws - laws they knew they were breaking, but couldn't actually prioritise fixing.

This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the company's approach: It centres around managing by not managing - on any tricky issue which divides the company, the default action is to do nothing. I'll admit this is an often-effective and underused technique in most companies - most places feel they must make some action, and try to do too many things, and are ineffective at "wait and see". However, I think "do nothing" should be an active decision, rather than an incidental side-effect of a political log-jams.

It seems that the Semco empire is highly siloed. If every decision has to be made across the entire group affected, those groups can't grow too large. Everyone runs their own infrastructure. The global inefficiencies are weighed against local agility. It seems the business models they've chosen work like this, although I don't think this model can scale for everything. Having worked at both a siloed company and a company with large and effective horizontal projects, I now appreciate what effective strategic steering can do.

And at the top of it all is Ricardo Semler. He does rather go on a bit about how his job is very nice, and largely involves taking himself out of the loop and going off having a nice time around the world. I'm not quite sure what the message is, here. Being the capital owner of a large stake of a successful business is nice, perhaps?

I don't disagree with everything in the book. However, it takes things to extremes for reasons that are unfathomable to me. It's like a annoying, hyperbolic person arguing for something you believe in a way that makes you feel less convinced afterwards.

As for the book itself, it's quite tedious. Perhaps the book is a model of Semco? It's pointlessly long, rambling, doesn't particularly make any conclusions and for all that is apparently very successful in the marketplace.

Posted 2017-05-27.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There - Marshall Goldsmith

More accurately, "What Didn't Stop You Getting Here Will Stop You Getting There". The core thesis of the book is that people limit their success by holding onto various destructive behaviours. As they've been successful in the past, they don't realise that these behaviours are a blocker on further progress, and may think they're part of their success.

There are 20-odd specific behaviours listed in the book, but they can be boiled down to "Don't be self-centred and arrogant". As people get more successful and rise up an organisation, they both need to get other people doing the work and learning new skills themselves. If they keep taking on the work themselves and shooting everyone else down, this doesn't happen. Leadership needs teamwork.

The other part of the book is about how to change. It's about gathering feedback and using it. This is where I really start to disagree with it, although the disagreement extends to the behaviours, too. Basically, the suggestion is "When someone says something to you, nod and smile and thank them and don't say anything". I disagree with this. Sure, when you have a senior role people take your opinion seriously, but gentle, positive and constructive feedback helps others grow, and if someone has some constructive feedback for you - well, you should engage with it. Not deny it, certainly, but at least dig in and truly understand what they're saying.

The higher you go, the more gently you need to steer and provide feedback, and perhaps this is really my main problem with the book. It's for executives - pretty much people trying to break through to being CEO of a large company, and being held back by their bad habits. Perhaps it's just a bit lost on me. Indeed, given it's a bestseller, I suspect more people have bought it than are actually in its true target market.

Posted 2017-04-29.

Naked Lunch - William Burroughs

Burroughs is one of those authors that other authors keep refering to, so I thought I should go read some, and, well, this is his most famous book.

The issue I have is that Naked Lunch is uninteresting, unintelligible and unpleasant. If it weren't for all of those, I could probably cope. A not-nice subject is discussed in not-nice terms. However, those terms are also tied into the slang and culture of a distant decade. I'm sure I'd find modern junkie culture pretty much unintelligible too, but this is... rather worse.

And, at the end of it all, I don't really care. There are very few books I've given up on (I read all of Gravity's Rainbow, and I still have no idea why), but this is one.

Posted 2017-03-02.

Turn the Ship Around! - L. David Marquet

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.

Posted 2017-02-08.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer - Donella H. Meadows

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).

Posted 2017-02-08.

Dawn of the Dumb: Dispatches from the Idiotic Frontline - Charlie Brooker

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.

Posted 2017-02-07.

Debugging Teams - Brian Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman

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.

Posted 2016-12-23.

Ancillary Mercy - Ann Leckie

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.

Summary: Meh.

Posted 2016-12-08.

The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul - Douglas Adams

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.

Posted 2016-12-08.

High-Output Management - Andy Grove

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.

Posted 2016-12-08.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency - Douglas Adams

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.

Posted 2016-12-08.

Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson

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.

Posted 2016-11-12.

The Checklist Manifesto - Atul Gawande

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.

Posted 2016-11-02.

Complex Analysis - Eberhard Freitag and Rolf Busam

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!

Posted 2016-09-10.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World

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.

Posted 2016-06-11.

Solitaire - Kelley Eskridge

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".

Posted 2016-06-11.

Neptune's Brood - Charles Stross

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.

Posted 2016-06-11.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion - Robert B. Cialdini

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.

Posted 2016-04-16.

A History of Britain 3: 1776-2000 - Simon Schama

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.

Posted 2016-02-21.

Playing to the Gallery - Grayson Perry

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.

Posted 2016-01-17.

Crucial Conversations - Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler

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.

Posted 2016-01-12.

Speccy Nation - Dan Whitehead

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.

Posted 2016-01-01.