The books I spent time with in 2014

A sci-fi kick, tech startups, and what made my 5 year-old daughter fall in love


I’m only including books that I read in their entirety, or at least read most of. I read a few dozen pages of another dozen or so books, plus tons of scattered writing about programming and startups.


Novels:

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

I’d been meaning to read this for years. Its ambition is staggering — I can’t think of a more ambitious novel. Should be more widely read outside the nerd world. And it achieves most of what it tries to be: an historical novel of WW2 codebreaking interlaced with a contemporary (1990’s at the time) tale of an overseas tech cryptography startup and its connections to the past.

But there’s something fundamental that’s absent. It’s almost missing a gene for literary meaning, which reduces some parts to shtick (like the pointedly stoic renderings of human endurance and suffering) and others as maddeningly incurious (like the contrast between the programmer characters’ approach to life and that of the non-technical people around them). Doesn’t feel like it is all that it could have been. But what a great read!

Highly recommended.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I gave up on this 50 pages in, because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Huge mistake! As I learned after I came back, Stephenson was just setting up a big world to support his story, which soon takes off and never stops going.

It’s really a political action thriller in the Tom Clancy vein, run through with all sorts of elements that he mixes like a mad scientist: hacking, survivalism, combat tactics, smuggling, air traffic control and MMORPGs. The plotting alone is an achievement, not to mention the seamless integration of a dozen fast moving trends in technology, world culture, business, politics and economics, all of which are kept firmly on a personal level.

But in addition to this wizardry, it goes farther than the other NS books I’ve read in doing something meaningful with its characters, and has a clear and consistent literary thesis. Which is: to be human is to be constantly seeing your immediate task as a game you’re playing, whose relationship to your actual goals is hard to keep in focus, and sometimes completely opposite to it.

Or to put it another way, to be human is to be constantly pulled between the satisfying completion of immediate tasks (speed past that slow-ass Tahoe hogging the left lane!) and the service of long-term goals (survive by living carefully). This contrast makes the central dramatic question of the novel become one that plays out within each character simultaneously: can they act in the immediate term the way their long term self would have them act? Which is, of course, one of the essential questions of human existence.

The ending falls apart a bit and he seems impatient to wrap things up, but almost the whole book is his best writing. A better novel than Cryptonomicon, though the stage setting is not as iconic.

Highly recommended.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Not a good book overall, but one worth reading for its central idea: an all-encompassing textbook, called the “Primer”, which takes a poor and parentless child and coaches her through an education so comprehensive, meaningful and deep that she emerges at the other end one of the world’s most powerful people. Everyone interested in rethinking education should read this.

It was recommended by my co-founder/collaborator Josh, with the warning that I would want to build the Primer after I finished the book. I do.

Highly recommended.

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow

One of those Cory Doctorow novels that never coheres into something whole, but which has a handful of interesting experiments along the way. You can get most of the good stuff in the first 10 pages, which introduce the memorable Wumpuses, autonomous recycling robots that violently process anything manufactured into its component atoms and thus turn old cities into forests and farmland.

Not recommended.

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Sort of the opposite of The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, in that no handful of pages is that great, but the whole adds up to something deeper and more meaningful than most of his writing. This is an epic tale, with business at its heart — the inspirations that lead business ideas to come together, the maddening compromises and personality clashes that they engender, and the unsatisfying ways that they resolve.

This sort of tale has been told well in other forms, but here it’s centered around people who are laser-focused on hacking and creating, and not getting bogged down with business minutiae, and who honestly don’t really care about money. That sort of tale really hasn’t been told before, and it’s clearly difficult to pull the sprawling anecdotes and issues together in a linear story.

I get the sense that in the end, Doctorow didn’t quite know what to do with the world and situations he’d created, but even just muddling through and checking in on the characters as events progress and overtake them, the result is fascinating and has a sober honesty that his other writing often lacks.

Recommended if you’re interested in tech startups and tinkering.

I’m Gone by Jean Echehoz

Tried to read this, but found it to be the most pompous, boring nonsense in the world. Do people actually read this stuff? That’s what you get for trusting a jacket quote from the New York Times Book Review

Tech-related nonfiction:

Rails Tutorial by Michael Hartl

This is one of the major starting points for learning to program for the Ruby on Rails platform. It’s not bad, but I think Hartl makes a major mistake in his approach. He tries to take you through every single tiny thing you would do if you were creating a Rails app the “right” way, including writing tests with the rspec testing library and set of conventions.

The problem with this approach is that if there is any deviation from the set of tools you are using, or even their version, then you are out of step with the tutorial. This happened to me dozens of times, not least of all because I took some advice not to use rspec at all but to use Test::Unit, the testing system that’s basically built into Rails.

It might still be a decent place to start. I certainly haven’t found a better one to recommend. By working my way through the first 150 pages or so of Hartl, I think I got background I needed to get the most out of the other tutorials I went on to use.

No strong opinion.

Slicing Pie: Fund Your Company Without Funds by Mike Moyer

Describes a set of rules and techniques that you can use to divide up ownership of a startup on an ongoing basis. The idea is that the normal way this is done — using percentages of ownership that vest over time — is clumsy and incomplete, and requires too much negotiation and prediction up front.

Instead, cofounders and early employees can agree to a scheme like Moyer’s to allow ownership allocations to adjust over time as conditions change. The “Slicing Pie” set of rules take into account length of time working, capital contributions large and small, and disparate value of expertise.

I don’t know enough about startup finance and law to know how feasible Moyer’s proposed system is, and how it would hold up in court, but it makes a lot of sense to me, and my cofounders and I have been using it for a year with happy results, at least so far!

Recommended.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

More often than not, when a journalist writes about something I know well, I’m seriously disappointed with the result. This has happened with the writing in the New York Review of Books about the nation of Georgia, with Malcolm’s article about machine learning, and with just about all mainstream media commentary about high frequency trading. I usually come away with the impression that journalists seek a catchy story, first and last, and in service of that story, they avoid focusing on inconvenient details and avoid asking questions that might undercut the story.

This phenomenon is doubly disappointing when the writer is one I like, as it is here. There’s nothing like seeing a journalist write about something I know to make me realize that journalism is just a business like any other.

Having read Flash Boys, I think I’ll never be able to read his writing without being distracted by the authoritative smirking that permeates his discussion of things he disapproves of. That tone used to seem personable and honest, in the manner of, say, Molly Ivins. Now it just seems slimy, manipulative and intellectually dishonest.

Recommended as a good read with plenty of accurate background, as long as you maintain some skepticism.

Dreaming in code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software by Scott Rosenberg

Ostensibly an account of the failed development of an ambitious piece of software in the early 00s, this book is more broadly a thorough introduction to what exactly software engineering is and why it is so much more complicated than outsiders think.

Everyone who wonders what programmers do all day, why big programming projects almost always go off the rails, or why brilliant managers can’t get great work out of programming teams, should read this. This is the kind of book that digests a massive amount of informative to distill it more clearly than you’ll find anywhere else. I know the subject well, and every time I thought, “Oh, if he’s talking about X, he should really tell story Y!”, I turned the page and there he was, telling just that story.

Highly recommended.

Science-related nonfiction:

Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen Johnson

I’ll think about this book for the rest of my life. It is one part history of scientific innovation, one part call for less government protections of intellectual property, and one part prescription for how to guide your way towards opportunity for invention.

Johnson’s main thesis is that most innovation comes from noncommercial collaboration and exposure to prerequisite ideas through openness, failed experiment and accident. Don’t be a monk, meditating until you achieve resounding insight; be a gregarious and messy experimenter.

Highly recommended.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik

Useful and entertaining tour through a sampler of materials science history. Light and quick, but disappointing in its lack of focus and depth. Some of this loses focus a bit and becomes a list of surprising facts that could have been cobbled from Wikipedia.

For example, did you know that chocolate contains a bajillion different compounds, the complex aroma of which is responsible for the complicated taste you experience?

No, and that’s interesting, but… so what? I’d love to learn what a few of these compounds actually are, and what the nature of the smell receptors are, and what this means on a material level. That’s not Miodownik’s focus… most of the time. But it is his focus some of the time, and that makes the book worth reading. He is a scholar of ceramic materials, among other things, and his guide through the firing of china teacups is exquisite.

Recommended.

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman (Audible audio-book, of the live 1961 lectures)

I could listen to him speak forever. His attitude towards knowledge fits perfectly for me; in talking about atomic physics, he’s constantly trying on different metaphors and seeing how they do or don’t apply. I couldn’t get anything out of the lecture on perpetual motion and conservation of energy proofs, but the others are delightful.

Recommended.

Misc nonfiction:

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman

Limited and repetetive (I only made it halfway, feeling like I’d gotten the point twice over already) but incredibly relevant to my life. I recognized that I am a bit of a pessimist (and sometimes a lot of one) and that this holds me back from happiness and achievement. This isn’t news — I’ve been working all my life to be more optimistic, generous to myself, and comfortable with happiness — but I noticed new aspects of this and clarified others.

Recommended for skimming.

The everyday parenting toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child, by Alan Kazdin

Practical, direct, clear, useful. Longer than it needs to be, but not too repetitious. The advice is specific and simple to implement, and as a parent I can confirm its value. It’s intuitively sensible, but also more particular in its ideas than even a naturally effective parent is likely to think of trying. Has already been useful in my parenting.

Recommended.

Fail by Chuck Klosterman

A legitimately brave work. A Kindle single that’s essentially a philosophy essay. Klosterman makes a persuasive argument that the Unabomber’s manifesto is worth reading and disturbingly insightful. I find Klosterman’s writing grating, with its constant Bill Simmons-like casual joking. And his intellectual examination of the recent history of anti-technology thinking is frustratingly scattered. But he’s also deeply introspective and aggressively pushes himself to avoid easy answers, and I find myself thinking about this essay and rereading it. It’s also mercifully short.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Delightful, irreverent, liberal and illiberal. A surprisingly current and edgy piece of literature. The portrait of small town superstition and religious pomp are priceless.

Highly recommended.

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee

Account of the college basketball career of Bill Bradley, who was college player of the year in 1965 and led Princeton not just to the Ivy title but to the Final Four, by far the best an Ivy team had ever done. This should be assigned to journalism students as an example of what NOT to write. McPhee’s fawning admiration for Bradley makes for a pointless snoozefest. I love basketball, looking at leadership and achievement, and politics, and I learned zilch about any of these. So Bradley is so much more dedicated and brilliant than everyone else that… yet the result is merely that he makes a very slightly higher percentage of his shots than other players. Fine, I believe you, but can you speak to that confusing mismatch a little? Can you talk about what makes a valuable player valuable that isn’t just a matter of anecdote?

Not recommended.

Books I read to my 5 year old daughter:

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (and its sequel, How Mirka Met a Meteorite)

Subtitle is “The first-ever wisecracking, adventure-loving, sword-wielding Orthodox Jewish heroine.” A graphic novel. Carmen, my 5 year old, loved it. The main character is a gritty and determined heroine, who experiences plenty of self-doubt but overcomes it. The orthodox stuff is a bit more than I care to explain to my daughter, but most of it isn’t too specific and some of it addresses broader aspects of Judaism and Jewish traditions, which I want my daughter to at least have some background knowledge of. I wish the plot were more compelling; one of the enemies and battles is memorable, but others are not.

Recommended if a kid is involved.

Zita the Spacegirl trilogy by Ben Hatke

Another graphic novel about a young, determined, loyal heroine. Far less of an internal and intellectual book than Hereville, more of a whirlwind tour through over-the-top sci-fi species and scenarios. The magic here is in Zita’s steely, indominable spirit, and in the inventiveness of the characters and worlds.

Highly recommended if a kid is involved.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Rereading for the maybe the fourth time. The morality is a bit stiff and the lessons are uneven; for instance, Gryffindor winning the house cup at the last minute, which seems to teach the lesson that you win everything if you deserve it. Some of the concepts are flimsy, such as the four houses, of which Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff seem like afterthoughts. Hermione seems basically like a Ravenclaw and Ron a Hufflepuff, but instead the houses seem to function in the reader’s mind like an unthinking echo of the class system, accepted uncritically.

I’m also uncomfortable with the effortlessness of Harry’s talent. And I’ve always disliked how flexible the rules of its world are; there’s always another curse or spell or powder that does just the thing, and which can stop whatever dangerous magic is afoot. But the humor and wit from page to page are great, the characters are distinct, memorable, and delicious, and my daughter is gobbling it up.

Recommended.

The Hobbit

Gets better every time I read it. A little tough for my daughter to follow at times, especially with the deeper myth stuff (e.g., the elves), but so intense and brilliant that she loved it and didn’t want it to end. Went over better than I expected. Daughter can become Gollum on command now.

Highest recommendation.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Uneven and dated, with plenty of sexism that requires intense on-the-fly editing when read aloud. (In The Marvelous Land of Oz, an army of women stages a successful revolution and seizes the Emerald City, but all they really want to do is go shopping and wear jewelry.) And yet, what a deep fire of imagination and wonder! Ozma of Oz, in particular, is excellent throughout, and the whole second half is one long confrontation with an enemy that is thrilling and intense. Not as consistently compelling as, say, Harry Potter, and not as literary as the Narnia books, but lots of fun.

Recommended if a kid is involved, though you should skip Marvelous Land of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.


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