Recent books — Machinery of Life, Half-life of Facts, Moonwalking with Einstein


* “The Machinery of Life”:amazon by David Goodsell. I have a reasonable understanding of atoms and electrons and electron-based chemistry, particularly for semiconductor materials. I have never really understood biochemistry — protein chemistry, DNA, etc. I love this book because it builds up from atoms to proteins and other biochem molecules, and has tons of great pictures. It does gloss over some steps and I’d love understand the electronics of protein folding, transcription, and other processes, but still this is a great book. Buy the physical edition, the pictures are absolutely critical.
* “The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date”:amazon by Samuel Arbesman. An engaging discussion about the rate of change in the things we think we know. Not prescriptive, but an important paradigm to keep in mind.
* “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”:amazon by Joshua Foer. I found this book to be unbelievable and strangely depressing. I don’t doubt that these extreme memory techniques work or that these memory athletes exist. But the characters seemed almost farcical, and the use to which they put their memories seem such a waste. I gave up on the book, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out some parts of it were exaggerated.

Recent books – Black List, Quantum Thief, Stone Arabia, and Antifragile


* “Black List”:amazon by Brad Thor. Eh. A treasonous cabal plans an apocalyptic cyber-attack on the US. Pretty standard suspense tale, some interesting characters left completely undeveloped, pretty standard plotting.
* “The Quantum Thief”:amazon by Hannu Rajamiemi. Very nice tale of distant future with terribly advanced nano/cyber systems. Difficult to tell where humanity leaves off and technology begins.
* “Stone Arabia”:amazon by Dana Spiotta. Odd tale of a grown woman and her brother struggling with mortality, relevance, and their own identities. Can’t say I loved it but there was some draw.

and some nonfiction:

* “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”:amazon by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Black Swan was better structured, but this is an interesting follow-on and has kept the material fresh. If you haven’t read one of Taleb’s books, you must. You may not buy it all but it is a very valuable point of view.

Books — a bunch of airplane fiction, Makers, MLK Jr.

A handful of airplane reads:

* “Up Against It”:amazon by M. J. Locke. YA SF, set in the asteroid belt. Nice technical treatment of asteroid belt life and some interesting political plotting, but tissue paper thin characters for the most part.
* “Red Hook Road”:amazon by Ayelet Waldman. In a Maine coastal town, a wedding day turns to tragedy, and the families involved wrestle with that tragedy through the years. For a book that features a horrific tragedy in the first chapter, I found it a little hard to engage, but eventually a couple of the characters hooked me.
* “A Very Simple Crime”:amazon by Grant Jerkins. Very quick tale of murder, and since damn near every character is a psychopath or insane or otherwise deeply disturbed, it is hard to sort out who is really guilty.
* “Spiral”:amazon by Paul McEuen. Teeny robot drones combined with fungal-based bioweapons! Some fun concepts but the story devolves into the classic madman-taking-over-the-world pattern. Not bad but pretty forgetful.
* “Swordspoint”:amazon by Ellen Kushner. An evocative fantasy about a master swordsman and assassin. Nice language but the story itself kind of bored me and I gave up.
* “Before I Go To Sleep”:amazon by S. J. Watson. An amnesiac struggles to regain her memories and her life, and slowly realizes that those closest to her may have been using her amnesia for their own ends. Very compelling mystery tale.

And then some meatier choices:

* “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”:amazon by Chris Anderson. Very nice quick walk through of the maker revolution — personalities, tools, markets, business models, applications, etc. Enjoyable tho at times a bit overstated.
* “Hellhound On His Trail”:amazon by Hampton Sides. The story of last days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chase after his assassin. Very good telling of a piece of critical American history. Despite having lived during the time, and having been in DC during some of the riots, my knowledge of the details of the event (and the emotional impact it had on the nation) was very slim.

Recent Fiction — Adiga, Child, Ignatius, Stein, Abercrombie, Flynn, Simonson

* “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”:amazon by Helen Simonson. An aging British major finds love unexpectedly across race and class boundaries. Awkwardness, tragedy, loss, redemption all ensue. An excellent tale.
* “The Blade Itself: The First Law: Book One”:amazon by Joe Abercrombie, and the two following books in the series. Does a great job of creating empathy for an unloveable set of main characters — a torturer, a foppish young swordfighter, two savage killers, an amoral wizard, a drunkard.
* “Gone Girl”:amazon by Gillian Flynn. Twisty and fun tale about a missing woman and her husband, the leading suspect. Lots of twists and turns.
* “The Art of Racing in the Rain”:amazon by Garth Stein. A story featuring a dying dog dying, a dying spouse, and a terrible custody battle is going to be a downer. But a couple of really interesting characters and some redemption at the end manage to lighten the tale just enough.
* “The White Tiger”:amazon by Aravind Adiga. Very engaging novel set in modern India, provides a lot of insight into the many cultures and contradictions of the nation.
* “A Wanted Man”:amazon by Lee Child. Reacher novels are always fun, looking forward to the movie. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense but that is not why one reads Reacher.
* “Bloodmoney”:amazon by David Ignatius. Now this plot makes a lot of sense and one can totally imagine that some form of this chicanery has taken place. Good characters and good pace.

Recent nonfiction — Quantum Universe, Disrupting Class

* “The Quantum Universe”:amazon by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. An attempt to explain quantum mechanics. Some good elements but the authors wed themselves to an analogy using clocks that I think just confuses the matter. I gave up 30% in.
* “Disrupting Class”:amazon by Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson, Michael Horn. Like most nonfiction books, this should be a pamphlet. Good stuff but overly drawn out. Kids have different types of IQ and learning styles, technology can be used to create custom targeted learning experiences.

Recent Books — Master and his Emissary, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and others

* “The Snow Whale”:amazon by John Minichillo. Don’t know why I picked this up, exactly the kind of satirical farce I hate. Gave up on, blah.
* “The Master and his Emissary”:amazon by Iain McGilchrist. Get your pith helmet and machete, this is a deep jungle to fight your way thru. Deep exploration of brain function, psychology, philosophy, history, art, culture. The sections on philosophy just about killed me (which given the thesis I find very intriguing and perhaps even a bit concerning.). Fascinating but set aside a long time to read and ponder. I don’t buy the arguments completely but an interesting and well-detailed articulation of a theory of human culture and how it relates to brain function. One area where the argument rings hollow to me is the discussion of modern music. The author attempts to support his core argument with evidence of the emotionless nature of modern classical music, but gives only one sentence to jazz and completely ignores the music that people actually listen to, pop and rock. I don’t think removing this one support point damages his argument, but it does make me wonder about the overall quality of the argument. But still, a very well thought out discussion and worth reading and thinking about.
* “The Prophet”:amazon by Michael Koryta. Needed some light fare to recover from the previous slog. A solid mystery set in smalltown northern Ohio with some character complexity. Fun but not remarkable.
* “Where’d you go, Bernadette”:amazon by Maria Semple. OK at first this seemed like light farce and I kind of hated it. I stuck with it just for the Seattle setting but thought “Wow, if you are not in the Seattle/Microsoft network, you will get nothing out of this.” And then the book took a left turn when Bernadette opened up and revealed herself, and became a terrific tale of self discovery, of a mother and a daughter, of love, loss, and reunion. Really enjoyed it, it has been optioned for a movie, hope they pull this one together.

Recent Books — Chabon, Priest, and some YA titles

* “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”:amazon by Michael Chabon. I’ve always wondered what would have happened had Israel lost their 1948 war of independence, and all the Jewish refugees had moved to exile in Sitka, Alaska. OK no I never wondered that. But Chabon does a great job of creating that world as a setting for a detective novel. Another good one from him.
* “The Islanders”:amazon by Christopher Priest. This author is popular in Britain but has never found much of a following here. I don’t think this book will push him over the edge. A strange travelogue/history/mystery about a world of islands, and the people that try to connect with one another during their lives. I was never quite sure what the author was really trying to do. I wonder if Brits as island dwellers resonant with this material in a way that Americans never will.
* “Thirteen Reasons Why”:amazon by Jay Asher. I like to dip into YA fiction now and then, some great stories and series have risen from these beginnings. This book, however, is utter crap, despite some glowing recommendations. Serious matters but trite treatment, awful characters, terrible dialog, just garbage. Don’t pollute your mind or your kid’s mind with this.
* “Forgotten”:amazon by Cat Patrick. This, on the other hand, is a nicely written tale of a young woman with a strange mental/neurological problem, digging into the events of her life that have left her this way. Compelling characters, fun read.
* “Paper Towns”:amazon by John Green. And another excellent YA choice. On the eve of high school graduation, a student disappears leaving behind mysterious clues, and her friend tries to puzzle out the mystery. Not a simple mystery tho, but a deeply introspective and sometimes literary examination of himself, his missing friend, and their true natures.

Recent Books — Barthelme, Suarez, Grant, Kean, Lander

* “The Disappearing Spoon”:amazon by Sam Kean. Breezy walk through all the elements and their quirks, along with the back stories of their discovery and the quirky, sometimes petty scientists involved.
* “Whiter Shades of Pale”:amazon by Christian Lander. If you like Portlandia, you’ll probably chuckle at this.
* “Kill Decision”:amazon by Daniel Suarez. Guy writes a solid thriller with great short term technology extrapolation. I assume he will write a followup to this, there is certainly a very dystopian tale to write.
* “Blackout”:amazon by Mira Grant. The first book in this post-zombie-apocalypse series was awesome, complicated characters and no storybook endings. But in this, the third book, I feel like the author chickened out and went for the happy ending and single dimensional villains. Still fun but could have been more…
* “Forty Stories”:amazon by Donald Barthelme. There is an de Kooning on the cover of this book, and that serves as a hint to the type of stories you will find in here. I’m not sure there is a writing genre called Abstract Expressionism but these stories sure seem to fit the bill — patchworks of elements that seem to form coherent wholes but I’m never quite sure of the intent.

Recent Books — Massive, Arguably, Herzog, Disgrace

* “Massive”:amazon by Ian Sample. “Soul of a New Machine”-style telling of the chase after the Higgs. Not very technical, more about the people and personalities. OK but I’d like a little more science content.
* “Arguably”:amazon by Christopher Hitchens. Well, after reading this, I am embarrassed to claim that I review books, or even read them. Hitchens knew how to deeply read, and man could he completely eviscerate an author. A full book of these essays is a bit much to wade thru, this is powerful stuff.
* “Herzog”:amazon by Saul Bellow. This is a struggle. We all have our inexplicable neuroses, but wandering thru the depths of one character’s particular bag of irrational introspection just isn’t that compelling.
* Contrast with “Disgrace”:amazon by J. M. Coetzee. This story of an aging man struggling with his irrelevance grabs you from the first paragraph and holds you all the way through. I tore through this.

Books — Mooney, Gardiner, Parrot & Olivier, The Information, Lean Startup

* “The Same River Twice”:amazon by Ted Mooney. A film maker and his wife are caught up in events that seem strangely like a film, while he is making a cinema verite film of their lives. Actual events drive the movie narrative, and the movie narrative drives actual events, an interesting interplay.
* “The Liar’s Lullaby”:amazon by Meg Gardiner. Unreadably bad. How has this author and this character been able to sustain a series? I gave up 20 pages in, it read like a particularly bad episode of Law & Order. Worst book I’ve picked up in a while.
* “Parrot and Olivier in America”:amazon by Peter Carey. I really wanted to like this book, and it seems well written with a unique voice, but the style just didn’t pull me in, I had trouble sustaining interest. The book gets good reviews, this is probably my failing.
* “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.”:amazon. Loving this book. I remember when I took my first course as an undergrad on information theory and learned about the interplay of information, entropy, energy, etc. It was perspective altering, and this book brought it all back. A great book.
* “The Lean Startup”:amazon by Eric Ries. I’m way late to this one, but an excellent book.

Recent Books — mostly escapist fare — Stover, Scalzi, Connelly, Hruska, …

* “Heroes Die”:amazon by Matthew Woodring Stover. Very very good tale of a future extreme capitalist dystopia and a parallel world used as a source of entertainment. Caine, the protagonist, is an actor caught up in the system, starting to realize how corrupt it all is, and fighting for the respect and love of his partner. Good stuff.
* “Redshirts”:amazon by John Scalzi. Cute if you grew up on Star Trek reruns, but not sure it is much beyond that.
* “The Drop”:amazon by Michael Connelly. One of his Bosch series of detective novels. Solid, good character, some interesting LA politics, but not groundbreaking.
* “The Dispatcher”:amazon by Ryan David Jahn. A 911 dispatcher takes a call, which turns out to be his long missing daughter. And then the thrill ride starts.
* “The Stupidest Angel”:amazon by Christopher Moore. I’m not usually a fan of farce but this was pretty fun. A sweet Christmas tale, turns into a “Death at a Funeral”-style romp, and then zombies show up.
* “Wrong Man Running”:amazon by Alan Hruska. A man finds himself under suspicion for a series of horrific crimes committed on all the women around him. And since he suffers from frequent blackouts, he may well be guilty. Or not. The main character has some ridiculous blind spots but still entertaining.

Recent Books — Nix, Nassise, Evenson, Gene Wolfe, 1Q84

In order of increasing strangeness.

* “A confusion of princes”:amazon by Garth Nix. YA space opera, kind of reminiscent of the tales of my youth or even back to John Carter books.
* “By the Blood of Heroes”:amazon by Joseph Nassise. WWI and zombies. First in a series. Acceptable but there are better zombie books.
* “Immobility”:amazon by Brian Evenson. A nearly invulnerable amnesiac wakes up in a post apocalyptic wasteland and tries to deal with the remnants of humanity. Hint: no one is really his friend.
* “The Sorcerer’s House”:amazon by Gene Wolfe. I last read a Wolfe book maybe 20 years ago and at that time thought “wow he is weird”. Well he still is.
* “1Q84”:amazon by Haruki Murakami. Childhood sweethearts reunite after 20 years of separation. Oh and she is an assassin, he is involved in a fraud, they’re fighting against a religious cult, some very strange supernatural creatures who might be good or incredibly evil are pulling strings, there is an extra moon in the sky, soulless doppelgängers are wandering around, and other strange shit.

Recent books — Mosley, Adler-Olsen, You Lost Me There, Banks, Amis

* “All I Did Was Shoot My Man”:amazon by Walter Mosley. Great characters, but story felt a little slapdash.
* “The Keeper of Lost Causes”:amazon by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Part of the now flood of Scandinavian author mysteries. A good disturbing tale and a character with promise. But something is off in the book, dialog seems particularly colorless and flat — few idioms, simple structure. I doubt Danes as a society are colorless and flat. It is possible the author chose this style for the protagonist who is somewhat repressed. But I am wondering if it might just be a poor translation. Knowing no Danish, there is no way for me to verify.
* “You Lost Me There”:amazon by Rosecrans Baldwin. An introverted scientist finally comes to terms with his wife’s passing and his inability to really connect. Very compelling.
* “Surface Detail”:amazon by Iain M. Banks. Another of his books set in his Culture universe, this time concerned with virtual environments and their abuse. I find the Culture series to be always entertaining.
* “The Alteration”:amazon by Kingsley Amis. First of his I’ve read, a boy deals with his fate in an alternative world where the Reformation and Renaissance never really happened. An ugly world in many ways. “Alteration” is at play on many levels here.

Books — Goon Squad, Woiwode, Lively

A kind of melancholy grouping of books this week, all exploring time and mortality in different ways. I need to switch it up after these.

* “A Visit from the Goon Squad”:amazon by Jennifer Egan. A half dozen characters and their interplay over their lifetimes. Time wears us all down, changes us, transforms us. The structure seemed a little gimmicky but maybe ok.
* “A Step from Death”:amazon by Larry Woiwode. A brutally honest meander thru the author’s life as he contemplates fatherhood and faces death. The narrative bounces paragraph by paragraph across decades, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be chaos. But it is excellent. And tough.
* “How It All Began”:amazon by Penelope Lively. A chance mugging sets off changes through a set of interconnected lives. Along the way the characters mull over the choices in their lives, the randomness of events, and the passage of time.

This Week’s Books — Design, Relativity, Capitalism, and the Short Serpent

After “last week’s foray into the fanstastical”: I needed to get a little grounded again in my reading.

* “Universal Principles of Design”:amazon by Lidwell, Holden, Butler. Nice reference on 125 fairly universal patterns to follow in designing products or experiences. Nice reference, not really a book you read, but something you come back to time and again.
* “How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog”:amazon by Chad Orzel. I thought this would be even more approachable than it is. A reasonable walk thru relativity but it isn’t really that simple. There are chatty interludes with the author’s dog thru out the book that tend to lighten the tone, but the material is still what it is.
* “Why Capitalism?”:amazon by Allan Meltzer. An abstract defense of capitalism. Honestly put me to sleep. In flipping thru it looked like maybe it got more concrete later but I was gone by then. I guess if Allan Meltzer tells CMU he wants to publish something, then by damn it gets published, but something a little more engaging would have been nicer.
* “The Voyage of the Short Serpent”:amazon by Bernard du Boucheron. And then some fiction, but definitely heavier fiction. A noble mission sets out to reconnect with lost Greenland colonies, and finds itself ground down to survival basics just as happened to the colonists. Rough tale but very human.

Books — Land of Decoration, Mirage, Monster Hunter International, Westing Game, Man from Primrose Lane

* “The Land of Decoration”:amazon by Grace McCleen. God, Satan, or her own psychosis speaking to her? A young girl deals with the stresses in her life and teeters on the edge of something. Gripping.
* “The Mirage”:amazon by Matt Ruff. A really promising and well-imagined alternative world in which the events of 9/11 happened in reverse. But ultimately I was disappointed as the author didn’t use this construct to explore any deep issues, but instead wandered off into mysticism and cartoon character bad guys. I was entertained but I had hoped for more.
* “Monster Hunter International”:amazon by Larry Correia. There are “better zombie books”: out there, but this was an engaging tale. However, this book needed an editor, it was just too long.
* “The Westing Game”:amazon by Ellen Raskin. Fun light mystery, recommended by @ellegold. Think “Ten Little Indians” without all the deaths.
* “The Man From Primrose Lane”:amazon by James Renner. OK I thought this was just a solid mystery and then time travelling sent everything sideways, along with a little dash of supernatural. A little convoluted at times, and a vague sense that the author is cheating (time travel can explain any unlikely set of events), but still a very very engaging story.

Recent books — Dream Park, Backstage Wall Street, Filter Bubble, and some dreck

* “Dream Park”:amazon by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. Not sure how I missed this one 30 years ago, a very nice murder mystery set in a futuristic theme park. Has aged well, the story is solid.
* “The Barsoom Project”:amazon by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The followon to Dream Park, not nearly as good. I gave up. Too much wandering around in mythology and the psych aspects of Dream Park.
* “Avogadro Corp”:amazon by William Hertling. Interesting ideas about the emergence of a worldwide artificial intelligence, but terrible writing, terrible characters, terrible story telling. In the hands of a good writer this would have been quite a tale.
* “Backstage Wall Street”:amazon by Joshua M. Brown. The author pulls the curtains back on some of the sell side antics of financial services firms. If you were confused and thought that financial firms were working on your behalf, this is the book for you.
* “The Filter Bubble”:amazon by Eli Pariser. Great book on how the major players on the Internet are collaborating to feed us pablum. Reminds me that I need to challenge myself in my reading and force different thinking into my life.

Recent books — Made to Stick, Burroughs’ Mars series, Bazell, McDevitt, and more

* “Made to Stick”:amazon by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Excellent how-to on how to effectively promulgate ideas. Reader’s Digest version of the book — tell stories, not bullet points. I don’t like many business books, they all seem to blur together, but this is an excellent book.
* “Why Startups Fail: And How Yours Can Succeed”:amazon by Dave Feinleib. Solid lessons for startups from a guy who has been in many, and has invested in many. And is a friend and colleague from MSFT and other past endeavours.
* “A Princess of Mars”:amazon by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ok I admit I actually read this book almost 40 years ago, and I bet it hasn’t aged well, but I loved it and I in fact still have the whole paperback series and am hugely looking forward to the movie, tho I fear it could be a bomb.
* “Firebird”:amazon by Jack McDevitt. One of his Alex Benedict novels, think Indiana Jones in space. Fun stuff, solid tale. A Nebula nominee, for good reason.
* “Wild Thing”:amazon by Josh Bazell. Not as good as his first, “Beat the Reaper”:amazon but still a fun ride.
* “Don’t Put Me In, Coach”:amazon by Mark Titus. I wanted to like this book — a loyal Buckeye — but it is sophomoric, misogynistic, and homophobic. When you claim not to be bigoted but use misogynistic and homophobic language over and over again as “humor”, well, you need to rethink.

This month’s advice for B&N — put those Nook dudes to work

Scene yesterday afternoon at the Local Barnes & Noble — 5 of us in line waiting to pay for books; 1 sales clerk working hard (and telephoning back for help that never came), and the Nook salesperson at the Nook counter waiting sadly for someone to ask him about Nooks, straightening and dusting all his Nook accessories. The line moved so slowly that I called the store — someone picked up — I said “hey you need help up front checking people out” — the person on the other end said everyone was busy helping customers.

A simple proposal — get a payment app working on a Nook with a card reader. If the Nook salesperson isn’t helping anyone, have him wave over a retail customer and check him out on a Nook. For the customers, a win — they get thru the line faster and aren’t annoyed by seeing the Nook guy just stand there doing nothing. For the Nook sales effort, a win — you get a customer over at the Nook counter and you can softly sell him on the attributes of the Nook while checking out.

Last month I whined about in-store presentation. This month checkout. I’d really love to see B&N thrive, I love books and I like bookstores. So I will keep tilting at the windmill.

Recent books — Ebenezer Le Page, Inside Apple, Calvino, Atom Chips

* “The Book of Ebenezer Le Page”:amazon by G. B. Edwards. Well this really grew on me. The life tale of a Guernsey resident over most of the 20th century, it was rough sledding at first, but I was in love with Ebenezer by the end. He knows every person and every scandal on the island, many of which touch his life. Great tale.
* “Inside Apple”:amazon by Adam Lashinsky. Much more interesting than the Jobs biography, gives some insight into the operations of Apple and speculation about how it might fare with the loss of Jobs. Really useful operational insights for any company.
* “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”:amazon by Italo Calvino. A novel that explores the nature of reading and the nature of books via a very unusual structure. I didn’t really enjoy the fabulist elements, not my taste, but a unique structure.
* “Atom Chips”:amazon, edited by Jakob Reichel and Vladen Vuletic. After the navel-gazing of the Calvino piece, I needed something much more definite. This is a pretty dense graduate-level text on chip-level designs to manipulate individual atoms. I am wading thru it, not a quick read.