Eric (Faust) - Terry Pratchett

Back to the early Discworld, and the style is very different to late Pratchett, and still more like The Colour of Magic than Guards! Guards! (its direct predecessor). Maybe that's just a Rincewind novel thing; they were never my favourites.

If memory serves, this originally started off as a big, Kirby-illustrated book, but I've got the pictureless paperback. It's short, at 155 pages, and rather more like a stretched-out short story than a compressed novel. The usual Discworld plot arc is not present.

To be honest, it's surprisingly bleak (maybe Rincewind's world-view?). The book covers all of time and space for the Discworld, with the overwhelming theme of people being a bit rubbish and never improving. It's a bit of a contrast to the "in the gutter, looking at the stars" ideology of so many of his other books.

In many ways, the feeling of the book is surprisingly Douglas Adams, from the creation of the universe to its ultimate entropic death, all life evolving from an inattentive time traveller, fallible creators and more. Maybe a bit of throwback to Strata too.

The humour is Pratchett, but somewhat hit and miss at the early end of the series. A few too many "whore" homophone jokes. A tribe that invented wheels but... not using them as wheels? The idea of a "demonology hacker" is fun, but never goes anywhere beyond Rincewind having a rather cardboard cutout early in tow.

In other places, jokes of the slightest subtlety are then explained. Apparently he doesn't have the confidence yet to keep throwing jokes at the reader, and let them just catch what they catch.

Having said that, There are still sly little references that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have got on the last read-through, like the "It can get so very lonely, when you're twenty million light-years from home." Rolling Stones quote. I always wonder how many others I miss. The universe popping into existence with a little musical twang feels very much like a microcomputer boot-up reference, although perhaps a little early in 1990.

Is this book any good? Not really. It's short, it got me through half a day in hospital. I can't complain too much.

Posted 2023-03-08.

wagamama Feed Your Soul

I have very lovely in-laws, and when I asked "Can you remember the recipe for that noodle salad you cooked for us a few years ago? It was so tasty, and I'd like to try making it.", they bought me a copy of this book!

Along with so, so many people, I love a nice plate of stir-fried noodles or rice. My all-time favourite noodle bar was Dojo in Cambridge, for a big pile of noodles before an evening at the Cambridge University Go Society meeting. Sadly I believe it closed in 2014 (a good decade after I'd last been there, to be fair).

Wagamama, though, isn't that far behind, plus has the convenience of being everywhere! Their pad thai might not be as tasty to me as their old recipe, but I still love their ginger chicken udon. While I've got very little hope of reproducing their recipes at home in full style, it's still nice to have a go.

The book is kind of what you'd expect - lots of lovely pictures, explanations of the ingredients they use and the wagamama corporate vision, and a solid body of receipes. Once you filter for recipes that you can be bothered to do on a regular basis, that you and your family like to eat, the relevant content is closer to a booklet, but it's still great.

Those remaining recipes produce some nicely balanced stir-fries, but they also work well as inspiration: They're quite tweakable for whatever you have to hand but also remind me to put in the touches that make it tastier. It leans to ginger over garlic, which works well, gets you to mix in eggs at the right time, and balance out the veg. Oh, and a garnish of sesame seeds and (DIY) pickled ginger lifts the most hum-drum stir fry.

I hope to find the time to try out a wider variety of recipes from the book, which is well put together and extremely appetising, but even just limited to the basic noodle dishes, it's been excellent, and my whole family has enjoyed the results.

Posted 2023-03-05.

Why I am a Liberal Democrat - Ed. Duncan Brack

I came late to liberal politics. Watching the Convservatives and Labour, it took me a long time to realise that politics doesn't have to be defined by class. It seems like "the opposite of fascism and authoritarianism" should be the baseline for any modern party, but apparently not. Then you chuck out the ones not rooted in reality or kindness (there go libertarianism and neoliberalism), and it's pretty much the liberals, and specifically the Lib Dems in the UK...

So when I came across a book about why various high-profile LDs are in the party in a second-hand book-shop, I thought "This looks fun/interesting". It wasn't. It's been head-of-line blocking my book reading for most of a year, as it's dull but I'm a completionist.

The idea is to follow up an 1885 pamphlet Why I am a Liberal with a modern equivalent. 120 of the great and the good from 1995 saying why they believe in the party. And, of course, being free-thinking liberals, there are plenty explaining why they don't really believe in the party, but it's the best thing they can find right now. Some believe more in Liberalism, some in the Liberal Democrats, with a careful distinction between the two. The wounds of Liberals/SDP are still visible.

With 120 entries, it's boring, but not hugely repetitive, since different people have their different hobby-horses, different things they believe most important and find in the party. Amusingly, some of them seem to be incompatible, as if the party is a Rorschach blob.

Some themes do come up with regular persistence. Jo Grimond is mentioned an awful lot - someone I knew nothing of before, but apparently hugely influential to a whole generation. I'm probably just badly educated. Around the same time there's much reference to the Liberals being the only party to take a principled stand on Suez, so there are some very clear formative events.

It's mostly political types, with a few successful business people. It was fun to see Barry Norman and Nicholas Parsons on the list. That doesn't seem like bad company.

The tail of the book republishes some of the original 1885 pamphlet. It's a strange contrast. There was a much bigger sense of a need for change, of urgency, in 1885. It's largely gone, but on the other hand, most of the aims have been fulfilled: We do live in a much more liberal society than 150-odd years ago. That's got to be progress, even if it took a couple of World Wars to get on the way.

It's also interesting to see which bits have stood the test of time. Several writers come across well, but Andrew Reid's entry pretty much looks like libertarianism now. It's always intruiging to think how history will judge your views. What is it that seems reasonable now that one day will seem ill-conceived? I wish I knew.

Posted 2023-03-04.

Open Circuits - Eric Schlaepfer and Windell H. Oskay

The danger of following interesting people on Twitter is that occasionally they'll publish a book. This is just such a case. Open Circuits is a collection of... well, component tear-downs, really. An extension of the kind of things they'd post to Twitter, it's a collection of glossy pictures of cross-sections of components.

This sounds so trivial, but it works incredibly well; it's so much more than the description makes it sound. By pulling apart electronic components, the black box is broken. The structure of simple components is revealed, and the complexity of complexs components exposed. The engineering involved in these components becomes apparent, how they're not just delivering the abstract value of "resistance", "capacitance" and "induction", say, but how they're physically laid out, and the quirks of how they're manufactured.

Covering a range of components, boards, cables, connectors, sensors and displays running from the historic(al) to cutting edge is fascinating - seeing the tiny slivers of semiconductor in discrete transistors and LEDs, the complex structure of flip-chips and modern PCBs, the detail present in modern cables and connectors, all fascinating.

The pictures are all lovely, and as the book is by expert amateur engineers, you assume there's engineering behind how they made the cross-sections. Of course there is, and there's an appendix on how they got the pictures; no hidden magic here.

The book is a joy. It has a coffee-table book quality, but surprisingly educational. It reveals a hidden world. It strangely reminds me of Underground by David Macaulay (more famously known for The Way Things Work). Lovely.

Posted 2023-01-14.

Good - C. P. Taylor

Warning: Plenty of spoilers. Don't read if you don't want big chunks of plot revealed.

Towards the end of last year, having recovered from my last lot of treatment, my wife and I went to see a few plays. Among them: Good, or as I like to think of it, "Doctor Who as a Nazi Apologist". Ahem. Well, David Tennant playing a "good" man who eventually ends up ensuring that Auschwitz is nice and humane. Mr. Tennant is excellent, but so are the rest of the cast - for most of the play there's only three of them, on a single, institutional set.

But hang on, why am I reviewing this in my book reviews? Well, a good friend gave me the script for Christmas, and... I do love a good play script, letting me dig through my memories of the play and study little bits of it, and generally have more of a think at leisure.

It's a great idea to put the play on now. With all that's going on in the world, it feels timely, and forty years after the last run means it doesn't have to suffer critical comparison with the previous showing from people who watched it then! The previous run had a much larger cast, with live music. This production strips it down to three core actors, and recorded music, in a non-descript set. There are minimal props - pretty much just books and documents, heightening the sense of how people hid behind words despite what was happening.

The minimal set and props helps with the fact the script jumps back and forth between scenes, effectively a collection of "How did I get here?" snippets on the way to The Final Solution.

It was far less subtle than I expected. I thought the play might gradually twist and subvert a genuinely good man, but he's pretty horrible. Sure, he's a liberal, but he's a pretty ugly specimen of a human being. He leaves his wife and children for a dumb student half his age, he is flattered into the Nazi party, he completely fails to help his Jewish best friend (instead, coveting his Summer house - which he gets!). He'll burn books as long as he can keep his own copies, and generally drop any principles he thought he once had.

The particularly grim thing is not that he's a good man turned bad, he's an ordinary man who wants to think of himself as good, who is clearly bad. It makes us wonder what we'd do in those circumstances.

Of course, there's more to it than that. There's a bit of a rumination on the meaning of "good" - Halder keeps using it to mean "nice" or "convenient". He hopes to be a good man, doing right by friends and family in a difficult situation, while ignoring the fact that he's betrayed both. He also faces genuinely tough times not of his own making - indeed, his guilt coping with his mother's senile dementia leads to him writing a novel favouring euthanasia... and hence to his popularity with the Nazis for providing a "humane" cover for their actions. He doesn't recognise that a literature professor is perhaps not the best medical ethicist, but just listens to the flattery.

He doesn't become a cartoon villain (despite donning an SS uniform and performing actions beyond anything suitable for a cartoon). A shred of liberality remains. He's never a true-believer in the Nazi cause, and keeps thinking they can just ride out the insanity. He is amply rewarded for his support, but is always quietly aware of the stick that awaits if he steps out of line.

Halder tries to find various excuses for the cowardice he shows, and the horrors he perpetrates. He tells himself he's making sure everything is done more humanely - and there's even revealed to be a shred of truth in this as, in passing, Eichmann agrees not to carry on with one of the "procedures" after "accidents". The Goethe scholar tries to reject reject "good" and "evil" to justify his behaviour. And, in a pattern that runs through the whole play, he uses words, concepts and abstractions to disconnect from the plain brutality of mass violence and murder.

The ending is inevitable but astonishing; mostly, though, my thoughts return to the earlier parts of the play: Halder's clearly a crappy man, but am I good?

I mean, this is probably the kind of question that you think a bit more about when you're going through serious illness, but I hope the play would have got me thinking about it anyway.

I think there was a time when I'd be unwilling to judge others too heavily - nature and nurture putting a heavy weight on some people, and social pressure being almost unavoidable. Did Nazi Germany mean we had a country of Evil People fighting a country of Good People? Surely that's too simplistic? My view was: Maybe everyone's capable of evil? If that's the case, can we really judge those who fell under its sway?

As time's gone on, and I've watched popular support build for politicians who trade in hate and degradation, it's clear that there's a mix - those who fall under the spell, those who resist, and those who don't rock the boat. Nazi Germany didn't need to be 100% evil people, the evil people just needed to be in charge. Just like the Allies didn't need to be all good, but just have enough good to hold sway.

Put another way, Evil sounds like a simplistic concept best left to childhood moral tales, but in the face of events like the Holocaust there's no shades of grey, this is the right term. Authoritarian regimes, mass murder, unilateral invasions, anything that crushes people as if they were meaningless numbers - these are evil.

So, to my surprise, I believe in evil. Do I believe in good? Good's tough. Evil is relatively easy - if you have the will, destruction is straightforward. How do you save millions of lives? Maybe you invent vaccines or set up a humanitarian programme. This seems a bit of a high bar. I don't just believe in immense evil, but smaller evil, so maybe I should be thinking about smaller good. What does it take to be good in a way that adds up across millions to make a better world?

Good shouldn't be purely the absence of evil. I hear "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing", and I think... if they do nothing in the face of evil, are they good men? On the other hand, the action required is not clear to me.

Working out what "good" is in the face of human beings is complicated. I have a relative who helps out in many local charities, but is caught up in the fear of migrants hundreds of miles away and actively supports the Conservatives who are hurting so many people. How do we quantify that?

I can't even look to "selflessness" as a key component to good - if everyone acts selflessly, you end up with O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and in Good the the elimination of the Jews is justified by their selfishness (in not wanting to be eliminated). "If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" is not unreasonable. I'd be hard pressed to call "enlightened self-interest", in and of itself, "good" though.

Perhaps it's good to have no single definition of good. Much evil has come from certainty, and a pluralistic approach to good seems far better than puritanism. We can be sure some things are evil while letting people find their own good.

Anyway, apologies to philosophy students pointing to vast amounts of pre-existing work in this area. I've fared badly with historical philosphers (see my review of Russell's A History of Western Philosophy), who seem to prefer to be exactly wrong than approximately right.

This is not the outcome I expected, going into this play. I expected to be encouraged to see the shades of grey, the slide from "good" to "evil", but in the end it has encouraged me to keep the contrast clear.

Posted 2023-01-07.

Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett

It's been a while since I've read some Discworld, but this popped up in a second-hand bookshop, so I took the opportunity. It's a funny one.

It's clearly Late Discworld. The appearance of modern football on the Discworld is not seen as a risk that may call forth the Dungeon Dimensions, but something to be absorbed, like in the Moist von Lipwig books. Yet at the same time it doesn't at all feel modelled on our history, like in Making Money or Going Postal. Football is largely presented as organised violence, with plenty of hooliganism. Whether this is a commentary on Ankh-Morpork, or football, I don't know.

This kind of thing makes me wonder about why these subjects crop up in the Discworld. Is it because they've appeared on Earth, and the Discworld mirrors the Earth, or because the same concepts crop up across the multiverse? It never seems clear to me.

The rise of football is a little weird. Early on, you think it might be controlled by Vetinari, acting as Terry's stand-in within the universe to manipulate the plot into existing, but he denies repsonsibility. It seems to be some kind of magic, and there's a hint at the gods' involvement (and the religious experience of football), yet it never really comes to fruition.

Rincewind and the Luggage return as extremely minor characters, which is actually rather pleasant, since... I've got to admit, I never found them that great. The world was the initial attraction, and other characters have become favourites since. (Ironically, my favourites are Vimes and Vetinari, those who face their challenges head-on, unlikely the cowardly Rincewind!)

The book weaves together plots around football, fashion and the identity of the mysterious Mr. Nutt. The first two sub-plots are a little aimless and lack suspense, so the novel's really driven forward by Nutt's identity. The rest, well, it's just fun reading.

As always, there's plenty of that, with some lovely little jokes. Nutt, as the team manager, epitomises the deeply philosophical manager pulling complex meaning out of a popular sport. Elsewhere, the superhero trope is subtly mocked when a highly distinctive character is apparently completely disguised by a simple false beard. There are a billion jokes of greater and lesser subtlety.

In short, it's not particularly well put together, covering a subject I care little about in a lacklustre way. A mildly disappointing story in the hands of any other author, this was still pretty darn enjoyable.

Posted 2022-11-21.

Plays 1 - Tom Stoppard

Having read Arcadia and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and enjoyed them, I jumped at the chance to pick this up in a charity shop. This volume covers The Real Inspector Hound, After Magritte, Dirty Linen, New-Found-Land, and Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth.

It's rather interesting to see the path connecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Arcadia. The former is heavy on the wordplay, a bit Beckett, not really driven by plot or people, but really about ideas. Despite what non-scientists say, Arcadia is easy to follow, and has a lot more to do with plot and people, and is still really about ideas. Both feel serious in their own way. What happened in-between?

The plays in this book are, well, playful. If not downright silly. The Real Inspector Hound is a deliberately rubbish murder mystery mixed in with the story of the theatre critics. People love plays about plays. Stoppard views this as paired with After Magritte, which is a rather silly play about people explaining impossibly unlikely situations, with a side-helping of how different people can see the same event differently. Not that deep, but pretty fun.

Dirty Linen/New-Found-Land takes a rather different tack, being about MPs and civil servants in the houses of parliament. The former is about sex-scandals in the houses of parliament, a play of the slightly seaside postcard type (albeit rather knowingly) that feels a bit dated and heavy-handed now. New-Found-Land, dropped in the middle of Dirty Linen, is a rather funny little ode to the US, to celebrate the British naturalization of an American friend.

This pattern of paired plays continues with Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth which, while taking bits of those Shakespeare plays, is really about the idea of having two languages that overlap in words, but completely diverge in meaning. It feels a little clunky in Dogg's Hamlet, but the reprise in Cahoot's Macbeth works better for me. The latter playlet is a production of Macbeth in someone's living room, as was done under the Soviet regime when unapproved arts were repressed.

There is this theme running throughout the plays of police, inspectors, reports. Perhaps that's just the theme used to select the plays for this volume, so I'm not sure I can read much into it. Compared to Rosencrantz and Arcadia, I wasn't particularly impressed by this lot, but by the end I'd rather warmed up to them. Not everything needs to be a serious masterpiece, sometimes things can just be fun.

Posted 2022-10-09.

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (modern theatre guides) - John Fleming

I saw this while browsing a second-hand bookshop in Rochester, and snapped it up. This slim volume provides background and context for the play, some analysis, a production history, and ideas for workshopping. It really interested me because Arcadia is so rich and dense in themes and ideas. Having the opportunity to let someone else do some analysis and see how it compares to my own thoughts seemed attractive.

The background and production history sections, despite not being what I bought the book for, were very interesting, addressing angles I'd not really thought about before. Apparently Stoppard was a liberal (small c) convservative, at odds with the mainstream of socially-aware and active playwrights. A nice alignment with my Centrist Dad tendencies. Reviewers felt the play might be a bit inaccessible, with its references and scientific ideas. Partly, I think this underestimates the average audience (Review: Well, I get it, but the common theatre-goer might not!), but partly as a Cambridge STEM grad the science is light and simple.

The analysis itself doesn't so much open up whole new vistas to me as help explore themes I knew were there. Learning that the play itself was structured something like a chaotic bifurcation map was fascinating, and identifying the echoing lines throughout the play pulled out another strand. Stoppard's word-play is very evident, and you can see some form of wider structure, but the book helps identify the patterns at all levels.

There's a bit of discussion of the trend of "science plays", particularly in the '90s. Treating the idea of a play about science as unusual is extremely telling (but alas true). Science is... pretty much all the higher learning not labelled "arts and humanities". It's the other half of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures. That there's no natural integration, but a playwright needs to dig deep and research in order to incorporate science into their repertoire, and it's unusual. We no longer have an expectation for polymaths - there's only one in the play, they're two centuries ago, and they have a bad end.

I found it interesting how Fleming's "arts view of science" identified the three big ideas of the 20th as relativity, quantum and chaos theory. Fashionable mistaken for truly important. While chaos relates the knowable to the unknowable in dynamic systems, I would place the more fundamental results on what is formally knowable on a much higher pedestal: Russell's Paradox, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and Turing's Halting Problem. Nonetheless, deterministic chaos is perfect for mild artistic misuse in a play like this.

This short book has no hope of pulling out every reference in the text. It's a dense play, and a full analysis would end up much longer (and less interesting) than the play itself. Indeed, in the workshopping section, many of the exercises focus on researching the various aspects of the play. There's also a short bibliography at the back, alongside the references (never has "The Genius of the Place, The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820" sounded so interesting!). Mostly, though, this volume has served to remind me how much I love Arcadia.

Posted 2022-09-19.

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.