Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The Technician

I was up until 2am last night, unable to put down my friend Casey Muratori's new book, The Technician.

It's a really fun and quick read, with a little something for everyone. It mixes together equal parts action, comedy, tear-jerking and interesting characters and still manages to have something to say.

The book introduces us to Michael, a government operative who is very good at what he does, which is mostly killing people. Michael is good at what he does because he has an Aspergers-like attention to detail coupled with a detachment from any level of connection with the people around him (especially those he's putting bullets in).

While Michael doesn't care much for people, he cares very much for his collection of cats. This becomes a problem because he can't be trotting around the globe assassinating people if he needs to be home in time to give his cats their specific regimen of meds and vittles.

In order to keep Michael productively destructive, the government agrees to hire him an assistant to help care for his cats. There's a good bit of hilarity here when the government automatons are thrown out of their comfort zone in doing something as routine as hiring a pet-sitter.

The fun really gets going when Michael decides that if an assistant is ok, then there's no reason that he can't commandeer other government resources for the purpose of helping local strays, whether it be night-vision googles, or, say, a spy satellite.

The book will produce both laughs and tears, and is a page turner in both cases. Casey uses the backdrop to make a point about the way we treat both people and animals, and as an indictment of all who justify doing things they believe are morally wrong by playing the role of 'small cog in a big machine' - the key assertion being that we always have a choice.

The Technician

As an aside, I can't help but recall a conversation Casey and I had a few years back while I was doing XBLA business development at Microsoft and he discussing an upcoming indie game project. We were discussing a few of the changes to the distribution terms that Casey had heard were going into effect, and I was saying while I didn't like them, the decision had been made above my head and that I didn't have a choice in the matter. Can you guess what he told me?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Paintwork

Paintwork was a quick fun read. It's a collection of three loosely related novellas stories, all of which are science fiction with an augmented reality premise.

The first story, for which the book is named, follows a near-future graffiti artist who tags corporate AR billboards with his own custom QR codes, overwriting advertising with custom AR artwork. All is fine until someone starts tagging his works within minutes of his doing so, making him wonder if it's an inside job from within the graffiti community.

The second story, called Paparazzi, is a story about gaming culture and celebrity, with a unique take on gold-farming, and some AR stuff thrown in for good measure. It had an interesting twist at the end that made it's premise quite unique, but I found it the weakest of the three stories.

The third story, Havana Augmented, was a real gem. The story centers on some Cuba-based gamer/hacker types who, without legitimate access to technology or game content, hack their own black-market access to leading MMOs. In the process, they innovate in ways the game authors never imagined, open Cuba to investment capital interests, and go on to wage augmented-reality virtual war in the streets of Havana. I loved the vivid picture the author painted and where he ended up taking the story.

This is great near-term sci-fi, with thought provoking near-future pictures of what some of these technologies may bring, combined with action-packed stories with surprising twists.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: Escape Velocity

This was one of my favorite business books of the year. I've been a disciple of Geoffrey Moore ever since reading Crossing the Chasm and the fantastic Inside the Tornado. Moore is skilled at distilling complex machinations of markets and organizations, getting them down to their fundamental systems, and then explaining those in crystal clear form.

In Escape Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past, he turns his attention to the question of why companies are unable to innovate, arguing that a major factor is their being trapped by the pull of their past and current product efforts. He argues that the way budgeting & planning work at most large organizations, headcount & spending are allocated among existing efforts first, and that afterward anything left for innovating in new areas is meager at best. Having worked at a couple such companies, I was struck by how accurately he portrayed the details of this process and problem.

Moore goes on to propose a framework for tackling this problem in four parts.

First, he describes this budgeting dilemma and proposes that the key areas for innovation, once identified, get planned for outside of the rest of the budget planning process, and that the company make highly assymetrical bets on these in order to acheive 'escape velocity'.

Next he provides a framework for identifying company and competitor areas of strength in a hierarchy of domains of category power, company power, market power, offer power. I found this framework useful for discussion of competitor offerings. He makes the case that your breakthrough will come from focusing on a key differentiator in one of these domains, and identifying which is key.

He then goes on to provide a really useful model for categorizing types of innovation, breaking things into differentiation vs neutralization (innovation efforts in matching competitor offerings) vs efficiency vs waste (innovation efforts spend in areas that won't be leveraged or that don't align with the one area you've picked to differentiate). This framework too, I found really useful, and intend to employ it at work.

Finally, he presents a well structured blueprint for how to go put all this into action. He does so for both volume-operation vs service-oriented businesses (the tactics are different for each). His model suggests that there are three key phases for these efforts (invention, deployment, and optimization), and that the efforts for each should be handled by completely different management teams with different skill sets. He also outlines the structure for a transition team and process to move the product efforts between these three phases.

Throughout the whole book there are many, many case examples, and I liked that - with one exception - he called upon himself to avoid the temptation of using Apple in case examples (too easy).

Moore has an uncanny ability for structuring order out of the chaos that exists in high tech business. This is a masterwork, and a must-read for anyone in management or planning at any company of a few hundred employees or greater. However, even those other roles or at small companies will, I think they'll get a lot out of the framework tools for evaluating their place in the market, or their competitors. I highly recommend this book.

Escape Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: The Filter Bubble

I got turned onto The Filter Bubble after viewing the author's TED talk on the same subject.

The TED talk gives you main idea, and that's probably sufficient. The book dives into a lot of interesting detail, some of which isn't exactly related to the core thesis, and that's part of the problem I had with it. The idea is sound but the book is a somewhat meandering exploration of the idea... along with other things the author is interested in but that are unrelated.

The thesis is as follows: In order to better serve users, search providers, social networking sites, and other information sources are providing personalized data feeds - feeds tuned to their preferences. As these become our primary sources of information, it results in a feedback loop where we only see what we like, and what we see influences what we like. He borrows danah boyd's analogy of an all-sugar-and-fat diet (it might be what you crave, but it's not good for you), encouraging us to think about ways to eat our digital veggies.

This is not new of course. The advent of television brought about similar paranoia. However, there's no denying that it's true to some degree and the fact that it can be dialed in to each individual user makes it credible. The paranoia is seductive to give into. Even if you don't there's some interesting stuff in the book, though there are also some flaws.


  • I learned a lot about how modern internet advertising & site personalization work. I'd heard of companies like Axiom but didn't know what they do.
  • The book does a good job painting a picture of some possible outcomes of personalized search and personalized advertising (e.g. think of tailored political ads, for example, and the complexities of holding them accountable to telling the truth).
  • He does a good job explaining some basic concepts around programming and technology in layman's terms. Not much use to me, but I might think of recommending it more easily to a relative or non-techie friend.
  • The author delves into a lot of other areas having little to do with 'filter bubbles'.
  • Those areas that do are taken too far, and consist mostly of his own 'what ifs', rather than consulting research and/or data on the subject.
  • The solutions proposed are weak. Telling people they should try to consume responsibly, out-smart the personalization-bots, etc, all seem like they'll fail and/or fall of deaf ears. Suggesting maybe there could be an ombudsman or some regulation seems like a bit of a cop out without proposing how those might work.

I guess I'd say most will be better off watching the TED talk to get the basic idea, and then reading the book only if they want see how deep the rat-hole goes.

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Age of Gold

I recently got through the audio book version of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, and while it started out a little slow, it picked up partway through and there were a couple things I really enjoyed about it.

The book is a history of the California gold rush, starting with John Marshall's initial discovery in 1848, through the goldrush itself, and through to the construction of the railways connecting east and west coasts. The book presents the history by following several individual's stories, some of whom came overland, some of whom came by ship, crossing at the Panamanian isthmus. It ends by telling what became of all those individuals, ranging from cases where they ended up destitute to cases where they went on found lasting legacies (e.g. Leland Stanford went from mining supply sales to railroad tycoon to founder of Stanford University)

The stories the book tells have numerous humorous anecdotes and interesting factoids. For example, when mining companies started using nitro glycerin to blast through rock, the used Wells Fargo to ship it to them - only they didn't tell them WHAT was in the boxes they were shipping. After a few sudden disappearances of post offices, they decided it might be a good idea to disclose the contents.

What I liked best about it was that it connected various other pieces of American history that I've read about elsewhere. From some of the 49-ers following the Oregon trail, to the part California played in funding part of Lincoln's efforts in the civil war, to role the gold rush would have in America's support for the gold standard, for me this book was like that piece of the jigsaw puzzle that lets you connect two large patches you've been working on in isolation.

Finally, the author makes the argument in the end, somewhat convincingly, that the gold rush was a major contributor in forging the entrepreneurial spirit that would see America become the world's leading economy in the following fifty years.

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Churchill

Churchill by historian Paul Johnson is a biography of Winston Churchill that is a short, easy introduction to those wanting an overview of his life and accomplishments. It is far from an objective look, being high on praise and low on critique of the man. If you can look past the bias, it's an easy entertaining read.

I was familiar with the highlights of Churchill's time leading Britain during the second World War, but not of the rest of his career. Nor did I know much about his many accomplishments.

A few interesting bits:

  • Early in his career, Churchill seemed equal parts opportunist and bad-ass. Having only mediocre educational achievement, he sought to make a name for himself in the military. He sought out (through influence of his family) opportunities to throw himself into any fight in which the military was involved. As a result, he earned 8 medals while fighting in Cuba, India, Sudan, South Africa and then leading a battalion on the western front during WWI. By opportunist, I refer to the fact that he doubled as a correspondent through most of this time, earning money by writing columns and giving speeches about his military exploits.
  • He was a prolific writer, publishing over 15 million words in numerous books and articles. His work on the second world war won him the Nobel Prize in literature.
  • He showed some savvy as to the publishing business as well. e.g. Post WWII, he struck a deal with his successor as Prime Minister to give him exclusive access to all military documents and exclusive use of them under some set of conditions. This put him at a huge advantage over other historians, and given that  Roosevelt, Mussolini, and Hitler were all dead, he was the only western leader left to publish his account.
A good short read, but best taken with a grain of salt, given the author's bias.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef

Attending Montreal Game Summit recently, I had dinner with a number of developer friends, including Trapdoor's Ken Schachter who - among other skills - may be the best restaurant-connected industry figure.

Ken hooked us up with dinner at Joe Beef, which was a not-to-be-missed experience not for the faint-of-heart or faint-of-wallet. I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say that I couldn't encounter the Foie Gras Double-Down and *not* order it. Oof. My arteries!

Anyhow, perhaps as a gesture of how we gushed over the food, or more likely how much we paid for it, we left with copies of the restaurant's book, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts.

I went through the book over the weekend, and rather enjoyed it. I haven't cooked anything out of it, and I should note that most of the dishes aren't easy fare to tackle though I'll likely try my hand at a few. However, the recipe portions only make up a fraction of the book. There are also a really interesting series of pieces on the history of food in Montreal, backgrounders on different wines and liquors, a guide to interesting train journeys around Canada, and even guides on building your own smoker and building an urban garden.

Makes a fun coffee table if you are looking for something different, and if you like to cook and aren't worried about heart failure, then by all means pick it up.

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Review: Resonate

A few years back, I read (and reviewed) Nancy Duarte's slide:ology , a book about making presentations. I gave it a mixed review, saying that it was very pretty and perhaps useful in conveying some basics about how to use or not use Powerpoint, but that it focused too much on the slides, and not enough on the story, where clearly the latter is more important.

I guess I wasn't the only one to give her the same criticism, because Resonate is largely an answer to this concern. Duarte touts it as a prequel, and I'd argue it's the more important of the two for most people to read.

Duarte centers the book largely around the Hero's Journey (a sound concept for presentation structure), and then backs it up by analyzing a number of case examples from wide variety of speeches, breaking them down into components and showing how they align to this model. She then goes on to give a number of rules to follow when building presentation narratives. I like her "sparkline" model for visually breaking down presentations.

Overall I liked this book much more than Slideology, though I found it to have two downsides. The first is the same I complained about with the previous book: It's a very pretty, but very lightweight book. Almost as though someone built it out of a PowerPoint presentation to begin with, and filled in pieces of the text. As a result, it's very quick to get through (this may be a plus for some) but lightweight in numerous areas.

The second complaint I have about it is that Duarte doesn't delve into the differences in presenting to different kinds of audiences. She does say to tailor the talk to your audience, but doesn't talk about the dynamics of, say, presenting to superiors rather than subordinates; to a large group vs one-on-one, etc. (For example, when presenting to superiors at a large company, one has to be prepared for being sidelined with questions that you don't have the option of ignoring. If one of of these ends in a 10-minute time sink, then I find it useful to have "ripcord" slides that I can jettison to make time, and will have rehearsed ahead of time how to do a transition from slide 8 to slide 11 gracefully)

Still, even with these complaints, I think anybody but the most accomplished speakers will find something of use in this book.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Coffee Joulies review

I supported a kickstarter campaign a while back for an innovative idea: Coffee Joulies, stainless steel 'beans' filled with a special 'phase change material' that liquefies at 140 degrees, absorbing energy in the process (cooling your coffee) and later solidifies releasing energy (warming your coffee). Idea is that the coffee cools off to be drinkable sooner, but stays warm longer. Good for long drives, etc.

I finally received them in the mail recently, they look like this:

I did some testing on them and the results were not dramatic. I used matching ceramic travel mugs, with lids, and tested both with 2 thermometers, a coffee thermometer and an over thermometer:

I used exactly 1.5 cups of near boiling water and then charted temp over time. I used 3 of the joulies in one mug, and zero in the other.

There was a mild, noticeable effect. However, it wasn't dramatic. Initial temp was 180 in the non-joulie mug, and about 173 in the joulie mug. At the tail end of the experiment, there was about a 5 degree delta the other way, with the joulie mug being warmer.

So they work, right? Not necessarily.

Having those 3 objects in the mug is going to do two things:
(1) It will cool the liquid off at the outset because there's more heat exchange going on.
(2) It will change the overall volume of the resultant 'coffee + joulies' entity. Since the cooling has to do with heat exchange with the outside air (ok coffee <-> mug <-> air). The mug with the joulies is more full, and since the volume rises exponentially compared to surface area, a larger volume will cool more slowly. For an example of this, see THE MOLTEN CORE OF THE EARTH!

So, to know whether the phase change material actually makes a difference, versus say, throwing a handful of well polished rocks in there (see how medieval people kept their tootsies warm in bed), I'd have to do another experiment. Maybe if I have time in the coming days.

 So, I'd say the jury is still out. but I certainly didn't notice a huge dramatic effect. It may have been more pronounced with all five joulies in the cup, but now I'm sacrificing significant coffee volume, and I needs me the java.

[Update: Another thing that occurred to me is that the PCM liquification could probably be verified with the boiled-egg-spinning trick. Heat the joulie up, sit it next to a cool one, try and spin both of them like a top. The one with the liquid center shouldn't spin well]

[Update: Doh! Looks like BoingBoing beat me to posting a review AS I WAS WRITING THIS!. Looks like they concluded roughly the same thing]

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: Reamde

I just got done with Neal Stephenson's latest, Reamde: . I think I held my breath for the last 40 pages or so. Whew, what a ride.

Readers expecting something in the way of speculative sci-fi along the lines of Snowcrash or Diamond Age may find it comes up a bit short. The book certainly does a little exploration of "where might MMO's end up, but not to the degree that Stross' Halting State did. That said, it's not like the book won't reward the reader in other ways.

The book takes the reader on a wild ride that starts when some MMO gold farmers try their hand at virus writing to increase revenues, unwittingly tick off some Russian mobsters, who in turn tick off some middle easter terrorists, and then we're off... The rest is classic Stephenson white-knuckle adventure with the reader rooting for the heroes, and not always sure who's on which side.

Reamde: A Novel

Book Review: Alexander the Great and His Time

I was never much of a history buff in school, and so only had some passing knowledge of the history of Alexander the Great and the empire he created.

The author, Agnes Savill, does a decent job of covering Alexander's history both thoroughly and in an engaging style. If you are looking for an engaging summary of such, this could serve as the book to do it.

However, it should probably be taken with a large grain of salt. As I understand it, there are many points in Alexander's history that are debated. Savill claims to want to address these but so plainly gushes over any positive praise and so quickly dismisses any critical points of view, that she comes off as someone who is not only an Alexandrophile, but is so to the point of being incapable of listening to reason.

Alexander the Great and His Time

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: Business Model Generation

Business Model Generation is described as a tool to help imagine and craft new business models through use of  something called the "business model canvas", a framework for analyzing business models and considering "what if..." type questions around potential different models.

The book is very pretty. It seems cut from the same cloth as Slideology and others like it. Lots of pictures, pages with sparse text and varied typographical styles. This makes the book easy, even a pleasure, to proceed through, and the concepts easy to internalize.

Two complaints I have don't necessarily mean you should shy away from it, but take them into account. First, the book is too lightweight on, well, details around business models. It would be nice to see a few case studies where it at least went to business plan level. Its easy to imagine thousands of business models, but whether they'll fly or not, well, you need to put some numbers behind them. Secondly, where there are case studies, they are all after the fact. It would be nice if they picked examples of businesses they'd worked with so they had the before-after case, including how the process was used to dream up the new model, what worked, what didn't, etc.

These complaints aside, it's still an interesting book. I think it would be of most use as a framework for a group exercise. Say if you and a few collaborators are trying to do a brainstorm on new business models.

So, if with that in mind the book still sounds interesting, by all means pick it up. Just keep in mind that the detail work is left as an exercise to the reader.

 Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers

Monday, October 10, 2011

On publishers 'clearing out the attic'

James Bridle has an other excellent piece up about the evolution of text - or I should say the evolving value of text while text itself needn't evolve into other media. It's a good read if you are interested in text as a medium and/or a business.

Toward the tail end, he discusses the challenges to publishers bringing online their back catalogs of text - and how they must do things to add context to the work in today's connected world:

 As publishers spin up their digital and print-on-demand backlists, more and more is published with less and less context. These efforts amount to land-grabs and rights-squatting, without adding value. Works without TOCs, indexes, author bios, footnotes. Placing work in context is one of publishers’ primary tasks, stretching out to commissioning introductions, assembling background material, supporting biographies and critical studies. Design belongs here too: good book design, appropriate book design, as important now as it has ever been.

It struck me that this can easily apply to all those game publishers looking to sift through their back catalogs and re-publisher works onto new platforms and business models. Something to think about.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: The Age of Persuasion

Came across The Age of Persuasion at the library and picked it up. It was OK in some ways, poor in others.

The book is a history of modern day marketing, as seen through the eyes of an advertising copywriter turned broadcaster. It covers a lot of interesting history, rife with colorful examples, of advertising over the past century.

On the plus side, there are a ton of interesting factoids, and the authors seemed to have done their research. They cover the advertising side of the business and the factors motivating players in each strata of the business.

On the down side, there are three flaws I find with the book.

The first, which is minor and forgivable, and which can be seen by the cover art, is that the book is very much trying to ride the coattails of Madmen, focusing, and perhaps over-glorifying advertising's 'golden age'.

The second is that "marketing" is not the same thing as "advertising". If the book's tagline were "how advertising ate our culture", that'd be fine, but otherwise the authors perpetuate the myth that marketing is about ramming stuff down people's throats. It largely ignores the other half, which is figuring out what they want or need to begin with.

The third issue is that by seeing the world through an ad man's eyes, the book is too quick to ascribe too much value and too little blame to advertising in the influence that it has. Where they do cite negatives, it's always the other guys, the inept and evil ad men, not the creative good ones (which they likely include themselves in). I feel like it's really not so black and white.

If you can see past the negatives, there are some interesting data points and interesting bits of trivia here. Just make sure you take much of the book with a grain of salt.

The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture

More connected toy sightings

Early in the year I was saying we'd see more connected toys (see #5). I've noted a few on my radar and thought I'd call them out:

In addition, Sifteos have started shipping and several people are doing iPhone connected robot/vehicle toys like what AR Drone did last year. Tankbot is one example, or here's a comparable kickstarter project which I'm supporting.

All of these are continuing what started a number of years back with Webkinz, UBFunkeys and others, as I discussed here and here.

Will be interesting to watch this space.

Omegathon Junior!

The twins turned 8 recently and each wanted their own sleepover birthday party. Tom wanted his videogame themed, so I was put in charge. Since he had his circle of friends had all professed being SO awesome at videogames, I decided to put this to the test. I hope the penny arcade crew will forgive me for totally ripping off the Omegathon, their awesome contest held at Pax.

I wanted to have games that were easy to pick up and play, had play sessions under 5 minutes (because 5 minutes * 6 games * 6 kids, plus time for practice sessions, was going to be all time would allow for), and most importantly, covered a range of periods of gaming history.

We played 6 games, and the 6 boys were awarded between 1 and 6 points depending on their rank on each game. Final round was worth double points, and then the points were totalled.

Here's an account of what we put together. It was a TON of fun, the boys had a blast, and it was easy and inexpensive to put together.

Round 1: Pong

Well, to be accurate, it was "single player handball" on an APF TV Fun machine, my first game system that dad bought back in ~1978. It has several game modes, including a single player "handball". Since the rheostate on my player2 side was giving me trouble, we went with singple player, and then the kids competed to see who could score lowest in one minute of gameplay.

Round 2: Ladybug (on Colecovision)

The kids *loved* this game despite none of them having seen it, and especially loved discovering the secrets to the game (bonuses/extras/specials with the color changes over time, etc).

Round 3: Time Pilot (on Xbox360)

Moving forward, I picked this one because it's easy to pickup and fast to play. Also comparable in ways to Geowars, which we'd play later on.

Round 4: Peggle (on iPad)

Most of the boys had played this in one form or another. Another hit.

Round 5: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

They liked this game too, but only one of the boys had played it before and had somewhat of an advantage as a result. Maybe could have picked something obscure.

Round 6: Fruit Ninja Kinect

I left this one for last as I knew it'd be a double-point round, and the big push for the finish, and thus a chance to work off all the birthday cake sugar. It was hysterical to see them all pouring every last ounce of energy into the game's final seconds. (I'd post pics, but by this point kids were in their PJs and some parents might be paranoid about half-naked pics of their kids being posted).


In the end, Tom and one of his friends tied for the lead position.

All the kids were given trophies, which Alisa ordered a couple weeks ahead of time and which were dirt cheap. Here's a pic of one of them.

Anyhow, I hope this gives some other parents an idea to do the same sort of thing. The kids were already talking rematch at next year's Omegathon Junior when they went home the next day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: The Tomorrow Project

Recently, I blogged about science fiction as a tool for forecasting future usages and the like. In that post, I mentioned The Tomorrow Project, a science fiction anthology curated by an Intel co-worker. The project enlisted several science fiction authors to look at what we are researching at Intel and draw from these for their stories.

The book is available for free in PDF form, or can be bought in carbon form here:The Tomorrow Project.

It's a short read and definitely worth getting. I didn't care much for the first story, which is more of a far-reaching sci-fi story. The other three however, are near-future sci-fi vignettes that are each *okay* as stories, but are great imaginative pictures of uses of near-future technology. Among those name-checked and addressed: Home automation, ubiquitous sensors, computer-driven automobiles, media/content creation and more.

I recommend checking it out.

The Tomorrow Project: Bestselling Authors Describe Daily Life in the Future

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: Liar's Poker

A few months back I reviewed Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Shortly thereafter, a few friends recommended his earlier work, Liar's Poker. I got around to reading it last week.

Liar's Poker was Lewis' literary debut, and tells the account of his time as a Wall street trader at Salomon Brothers, where he spent several years.

The book talks in detail about the hiring process, culture, and career path at the firm, and in the process paints an accurate picture of the dog-eat-dog harsh culture in these firms. It would strain credibility for me if I didn't have a good friend who worked at such a firm and who has shared countless stories that mirror Lewis' account. It then goes on to talk about the rise and fall of the firm during rushes around gold-rushes in the mortgage security and junk bond markets.

While not as detailed an account of the systemic flaws of modern day markets & market regulation as The Big Short was, it does go into enough detail in the style that Lewis has become famous for. Namely, taking complex and dry topics and making them engaging and digestible.

Where the book shines though, is in the portrayal of the personalities and the culture of trading firms. Characters given pseudonyms such as "The Opportunist" and "The Human Piranha" should give you an idea of why so many who work in this business don't last more than a few years.

Liar's Poker

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: Ready Player One

After having a number of friends recommend Ready Player One,  I bought the Kindle version and read it on my iPad & iPhone.

Through the first half of the book, I came *very* close to putting it down, and was ready to dismiss it as the worst book I'd read in several years. I persevered only because so many had recommended it, and the book did improve and redeem itself *somewhat* in the second half.

The basic premise of the story could be described as "a mix of Cory Doctorow's For The Win with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Charlie is replaced by Richard Garriot". The story is set in a future in which the bulk of civilization spends its time immersed in the ultimate virtual world. The simulation's creator leaves his entire fortune to the gamer who can decipher the ultimate easter egg. Doing so pits nerdy gamers against evil corporations, in a race through countless 1980's entertainment based puzzles.

On the down side, the writing is at best cliche and predictable. At worst, it's like something a high school student would write. Excessive hyperbolic use of adverbs, shallow and predictable characters, and loose plot points abound. Painful to read, but again, the author gets a handle on it in the back half of the book. Also, the 1980's pop culture references are far too frequent and wedged in every corner of the story in ham-handed fashion. Worst of all, as a science fiction piece it is unimaginitive, and most of what's envisioned here is retread from Snowcrash or other classics. Futurists beware.

The latter half of the book improves a great deal, and the final race to the prize actually gets it to page-turner status.

I don't recommend it as strongly as I'd recommend Snow Crash, Halting State, or For the Win. Go pick those up if you haven't read them. They're a far better use of your time, IMHO.

Ready Player One

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: Havana Nocturne

I came across the audio book of Havana Nocturne while searching the local library for something else. I was intrigued by the synopsis on the back and ended up very happy I picked it up.

The book covers the rise and fall of the Havana mob; the group of American organized crime bosses that conceived of, established and grew a mecca of vice in Havana Cuba; then amassing a fortune from it only to watch it all collapse overnight during the Cuban revolution. The book is filled with a lot of interesting stories and some great characters, ranging from a variety of stereotypical mafioso, to Castro, to Batista whom he overthrew, to stripper Bubbles Darlene, who made a name for herself walking the havana streets in only a transparent raincoat.

Its hard to wrap one's head around the sheer chutzpah of the mob at it's peak. Feeling increasing heat under the eye of the US government, they took it upon themselves to take over a country and create an offshort mecha of vice - and succeeded in doing so.

The book is an entertaining read. A few interesting observations:
- Myer Lansky, "Financier of the Mob" and basically the book's main character, shows some excellent leadership qualities. (1) He's unflappable in front of of his partners and underlings. Even in the middle of the Cubans rioting post-revolution, he remains cool as a cucumber. (2) Despite being in the mob, he knew that peaceful reconciliation, even if more costly, was preferred to violence. (For a lesson applicable to today's business world, replaces 'violence' with 'litigation')
- The whole book is a example of what can happen if you underestimate the possibility of serious disruption to your business. Nothing is 'too big to fail'.
- Fidel Castro was a bad-ass. Say what you will about him once he got into power, but prior to that, doing things like throwing himself off of a boat in police custody and doing a 7 mile ocean swim to shore, well, pretty bad-ass.

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution

Monday, September 5, 2011

Futurism, Forecasting & Fiction

Just after posting my review of Charles Stross' Rule 34, BoingBoing linked to this NYT piece on Sci-fi authors predicting the future, perhaps better than analysts or others. Among books name-checked in the article are Super Sad True Love Story (which I loved), and Ready Player One (currently reading, my review won't be good).

Not alone in recognizing the potential of these authors to predict our possible futures,Brian David Johnson, an Intel co-worker, has an interesting anthology out. The Tomorrow Project is an anthology of Sci-fi short fiction by leading authors (Ray Hammond, Douglas Rushkoff, Markus Heitz, and Scarlett Thomas), commissioned by Intel to speculate on the implications of certain technologies.

I haven't read it yet (on the to-read list after I'm done Ready Player One, and perhaps Stephenson's new book coming out in a couple weeks), but though it a good time to mention the project and link to it.

The Tomorrow Project is available as a free download here. There's a follow-on with a different set of authors in the works as well.

Book Review: The Republican Noise Machine

A well researched, though left-biased, detailed history of the right's efforts to subvert the media industry/engine. I found it depressing to read, in that I came away not feeling like there was a solution, other than perhaps to take an extremist left-leaning set of tactics that are equally dishonest. It feels like either way, the inevitable victim here is nuanced, intellectually-honest debate.

Though depressing, it's an interesting read and a good look at how the media can be used as a tool by a well organized force. This of course is nothing new:

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” - Joseph Goebbels

The Republican Noise Machine : Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Review: Rule 34

After I reviewed Charles Stross' Halting State, I gave it a mediocre review for the story, but strong praise for the picture it painted of the possible futures of virtual worlds, augmented reality, and many other facets of gaming.

With Rule 34, Stross has improved his storytelling, while still having a keep eye for possibilities of technology in the not-so-distant future.

Like Halting State, Rule 34 follows an ill-equipped detective investigating a series of crimes and getting in over their head. Instead of a bank heist, this time it's a series of bizarre murders involving bizarre fetishes (thus the title, Rule 34, as explained in number 3 here). As detective stories go, it's not bad, and I think better than Halting State was. Be warned, for those that mind, that there are some racy bits, so not for the kiddies.

Again though, where Stross shines is on his take of the future of 3D printing, custom fabbing/making, DRM, Internet memes, with a good measure of the Big Brother police state (something pretty common amongst UK-based sci-fi writers these days it seems).

This is my favorite piece of fiction so far this year, after Super Sad True Love Story. New Neal Stephenson coming out in a couple weeks though, so we'll see if Stross gets bumped from the podium...

Book Review (x2): Richards' Life vs Clinton's My Life

A while back, I listened to Bill Clinton's My Life as an audio book while I also read Keith Richard's Life. I thought it might be funny to review them together, stating something like "what a difference an possessive pronoun makes". They turned out to be more similar than I'd thought. Both had their moments, but I wouldn't recommend either as strongly as they were recommended to me. As such I'll keep the reviews short.

The first thing you'll hear about Clinton's My Life is that it's huge, at over a thousand pages. My local library had two versions of the audio book, abridged vs unabridged. I highly recommend the abridged version, not just because of the length, but because it's read by Clinton himself, while the unabridged version is ready by someone else.

On the plus side, the main things that come across in Clinton's book are his genuine passion for public service and politics, as well as a portrait of a really hard-working and entrepreneurial Clinton during his youth and early career. There are some great stories about how he capitalized on opportunities thinking outside the box. There are also a few good anecdotes about hardball negotiations during his time in office. If you enjoy stories of this kind, or like hearing about the backroom mechanics of Washington, you may like this book, modulo the caveat I'll get to in a minute.

Richards' Life is, as you'd expect, a bit different. The positives are twofold. First, that Richards comes across as some who, even today but especially in his youth, has a passion for the blues. You really get the feeling that given the choice between the music and the success it brought, he'd rather be a pauper with a guitar than the alternative. Secondly, he comes across as someone who lives his life without a shred of compromise, doing exactly what he wants, when he wants. The result is, as you'd imagine, some pretty crazy stories. A bonus is that, perhaps as a result of the times in which the Rolling Stones enjoyed their success, the number of celebrity circles they intersected result in stories involving many household names of the era, from the Trudeaus to Andy Warhol.

There are a couple things both books have in common. The most positive being that both of them have deep passion for what they do. Unsurprising, as I'd argue this is a pre-requisite for success for anyone.

On the negative side though, there's another thing they have in common: Both authors are liars, telling their audiences, and themselves, a lie.

In Clinton's case, when he gets to the subject of the Lewinski affair, he feigns guilt, talks about it being a low point in his life, etc. Then he repeatedly jumps back to his defense used in his testimonial, and nit-picking fine points about how certain questions were asked, and how his answers here therefore truthful. It's like practiced his statements so much that he's started to believe them.

In Richards' case, his lies are two-fold. First, he's an addict, and though he's quit taking heroin, he still speaks to it like an addict does. 'I was always able to manage it', 'I always took it in moderation', 'It actually made me more productive' are examples of what he says in defense of a habit that he elsewhere admits would have killed him had he not stopped. Secondly, what he on one hand positions as being a free spirit and having an understanding about his dealings in his relationships with others, really comes off as his being a coward. In numerous places he talks about long-term relationships he had with women where rather than breaking up with a girl, he just stops coming home until she figure it out for herself. Sad really.

Both books have many interesting stories and points, but show that the authors have flaws they themselves don't see. Interesting, but not the top of my recommended reading list.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review: The Next Decade

The Next Decade: Where We've Been . . . and Where We're Going is George Friedman's follow up to his well received "The next 100 years", and attempts to make some more precise predictions about the way the next decade will play out on the world stage.

Overall I liked it, but not because I agreed with everything Friedman has to say. I agreed with perhaps half, with the remainder falling between disagreeing and not knowing enough to say either way.

The bulk of the book centers around Friedman's assertion that America is an "accidental empire", making comparisons to the Roman and British empires, but asserting that while those were created through might, America's was a mix of that, economic might, culture, and a melange of historical accidents. There's some validity to his claims about America's place on the world stage (e.g. 5% of the world's population counting for 25% of the world's GDP), but the analogy is strained at best.

In addition to this analogy being strained, a couple other things I disliked:
  • The author assumes (at least by the weight given in the book) that 99% of what shapes the world stage is politics. Perhaps I'm naive but I believe that the old institutions don't carry the weight they used to and will carry less going forward.
  • Technology in particular, is given only passing mention. When looking at the growth of high tech in places like India and China; or at the recent twitter-fueled uprising in the middle east, it seems there should be more consideration given on this front.

On the other hand, some things I did like:
  • I learned much about the political dynamics in some parts of the world about which I had little history.
  • He asserts that leaders, and the US President in particular, need to lie. That they need to do things that won't be popular and that sometimes this means saying one thing and doing another. I believe this is true, and to believe otherwise is naive.

In short, I recommend it, but to be taken with a considerably sized grain of salt.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: SVK

I've been real busy lately, so posts have been lacking and book reviews are backlogged a bit as well. I did, however, want to post about SVK, a really cool comic book release I got my hands on recently.

SVK is an attractively and minimalistically-styled, dark sci-fi comic by Warren Ellis & D'Israeli, about unchecked government control, with an augmented reality theme.

The story centers on a gun-for-hire, hired to clean up a problem for a government security agency. While doing so, he uncovers the roots of what the real problem is and what they are trying to hide. The story is good but by no means unique.

The thing that really sets SVK apart, however, is that it comes with a credit-card sized UV-flashlight, which you shine on the comic to reveal the augmented reality world that the protagonist is seeing. See the pics below.

To add icing to an already delicious cake, the directives at the start of the book, the fictional ads directed at the reader, and the fact that the UV light is make to look like a secret SVK device, all conspire to poke at the 4th wall a bit, making the reader a secret agent of the future, if only for a for an hour.