Tags: books

11

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Starting out

I had a really enjoyable time at Codebar Brighton last week, not least because Morty came along.

I particularly enjoy teaching people who have zero previous experience of making a web page. There’s something about explaining HTML and CSS from first principles that appeals to me. I especially love it when people ask lots of questions. “What does this element do?”, “Why do some elements have closing tags and others don’t?”, “Why is it textarea and not input type="textarea"?” The answer usually involves me going down a rabbit-hole of web archeology, so I’m in my happy place.

But there’s only so much time at Codebar each week, so it’s nice to be able to point people to other resources that they can peruse at their leisure. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of tricky to find resources at that level. There are lots of great articles and tutorials out there for professional web developers—Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, CSS Tricks, etc.—but no so much for complete beginners.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found:

  • MarkSheet by Jeremy Thomas is a free HTML and CSS tutorial. It starts with an explanation of the internet, then the World Wide Web, and then web browsers, before diving into HTML syntax. Jeremy is the same guy who recently made CSS Reference.
  • Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is another free online book. You can buy a paper copy too. It’s filled with good, clear explanations.
  • Zero to Hero Coding by Vera Deák is an ongoing series. She’s starting out on her career as a front-end developer, so her perspective is particularly valuable.

If I find any more handy resources, I’ll link to them and tag them with “learning”.

Machine supplying

I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.

I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”

Ancillary Justice: 1 (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.

The City & The City by China Miéville

China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.

When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:

Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

And Matt said:

Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!

Done!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.

I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.

Making things happen

I have lovely friends who are making lovely things. Surprisingly, lots of these lovely things aren’t digital (or at least aren’t only digital).

My friends Brian and Joschi want to put on an ambitious event called Material:

A small conference based in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking into the concept of the Web as a Material — 22nd July 2016, https://material.is

They’re funding it through Kickstarter. If you have any interest in this at all, I suggest you back it. Best bet is to pledge the amount that guarantees you a ticket to the conference. Go!

My friend Matt has a newsletter called 3 Books Weekly to match his Machine Supply website. Each edition features three book recommendations chosen by a different person each time.

Here’s the twist: there’s going to be a Machine Supply pop-up bookshop AKA a vending machine in Shoreditch. That’ll be rolling out very soon and I can’t wait to see it.

My friend Josh made a crazy website to tie in with an art project called Cosmic Surgery. My friend Emily made a limited edition run of 10 books for the project. Now there’s a Kickstarter project to fund another run of books which will feature a story by Piers Bizony.

An Icelandic conference, a vending machine for handpicked books, and a pop-up photo book …I have lovely friends who are making lovely things.

Recently speculative

I was a guest on the Boagworld podcast—neither Andy nor Richard were available so Paul and Marcus were stuck with me. We talked boring business stuff, but only after an extended—and much more interesting—preamble wherein we chatted about sci-fi books.

When prompted for which books I would recommend, I was able to instantly recall some recent reads, but inevitably I forgot to mention some others. I’m not sure if I even mentioned William Gibson’s The Peripheral, an unsurprisingly excellent book.

I’m pretty sure I mentioned The Girl In The Road. It has a magical realism quality to it that reminded me a bit of Lauren’s Zoo City. Its African/Indian setting makes for a refreshing change. Having said that, I still haven’t read Ian McDonald’s Indian-set River Of Gods or Cyberabad Days, both of which are sitting on my bookshelf alongside McDonald’s Out On Blue Six, which I have read and can heartily recommend—its imagining of a society where the algorithm decides the fate of all feels very ahead of its time.

One book I recommended without hesitation was Station Eleven. Maybe it was because I read it right after reading a book I found to be so-so—Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through—but the writing in Station Eleven sucker-punched me right from the first chapter. Have a listen to the Boagworld podcast episode for some more ramblings on why I liked it.

Somehow I managed not to mention Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. That’s unforgivable. They are easily amongst the best works of sci-fi I’ve read in a read long time. It feels quite exciting to be anticipating the third part in what will clearly be a long-time classic series, right up there with the all-time greats.

I first came across Ancillary Justice through some comparisons that were being made to Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. I was reading his final work, The Hydrogen Sonata, trying to take it slow, knowing that there would be no further books from that universe. But I ended up tearing through it because it was damned enjoyable (not necessarily brilliantly-written, mind; like most of Banks’s books, it’s a terrific and thought-provoking romp but missing the hand of a sterner editor). Anyway, I heard there were some similarities to the Ship Minds to be found in Leckie’s debut novel so I gave it a whirl. As it turns out, there are very few similarities and that’s all for the best. The universe that Leckie is describing has a very different but equally compelling richness.

I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—and while I can’t say I enjoyed them as such, I can recommend them …though they are insidiously disturbing, dripping with atmosphere. I’m very intrigued by the news that Alex Garland is working on a screenplay.

So if you’re looking for some good recent speculative fiction, try:

Alongside the newer stuff, I’ve been catching up with some golden oldies in the form of tattered second-hand novels like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse. I’m currently working my way through Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and loving every minute of it.

100 words 044

It was Clearleft’s turn to host Codebar again this evening. As always, it was great. I did my best to introduce some people to HTML and CSS, which was challenging, rewarding, and fun.

In the run-up to the event, I did a little spring cleaning of Clearleft’s bookshelves. I took some books on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that weren’t being used any more and offered them to Codebar students for the taking.

I was also able to offer some more contemporary books thanks to the generosity of A Book Apart who kindly donated some of their fine volumes to Codebar.

100 words 030

Andy Parker kindly deposited a couple of books on my desk recently. One was The Martian. I had already read that one, thanks to Tim Kadlec’s recommendation. The other was the much-hyped Ready Player One.

I read it while I was travelling to and from Bulgaria. It was the ideal travel companion—an airport novel for geeks. It’s not exactly the finest prose ever written, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable popcorn entertainment. It reads like fan fiction and I mean that in a good way. It’s like Scott Pilgrim crossed with Snowcrash. It certainly passed the time on some airplane rides.

One moment

I use my walk to and from work every day as an opportunity to catch up on my Huffduffer podcast. Today I started listening to a talk I’ve really been looking forward to. It’s a Long Now seminar called Universal Access To All Knowledge by one of my heroes: Brewster Kahle, founder of The Internet Archive.

Brewster Kahle: Universal Access to All Knowledge — The Long Now on Huffduffer

As expected, it’s an excellent talk. I caught the start of it on my walk in to work this morning and I picked up where I left off on my walk home this evening. In fact, I deliberately didn’t get the bus home—despite the cold weather—so that I’d get plenty of listening done.

Round about the 23 minute mark he starts talking about Open Library, the fantastic project that George worked on to provide a web page for every book. He describes how it works as a lending library where an electronic version of a book can be checked out by one person at a time:

You can click on: hey! there’s this HTML5 For Web Designers. We bought this book—we bought this book from a publisher such that we could lend it. So you can say “Oh, I want to borrow this book” and it says “Oh, it’s checked out.” Darn! And you can add it to your list and remind yourself to go and get it some other time.

Holy crap! Did Brewster Kahle just use my book to demonstrate Open Library‽

It literally stopped me in my tracks. I stopped walking and stared at my phone, gobsmacked.

It was a very surreal moment. It was also a very happy moment.

Now I’m documenting that moment—and I don’t just mean on a third-party service like Twitter or Facebook. I want to be able to revisit that moment in the future so I’m documenting it at my own URL …though I’m very happy that the Internet Archive will also have a copy.

Analogue

I like my Kindle. I mean, I hate the DRM and the ludicrous overpriced badly-typeset books but I really like having a browser with a free internet connection just about anywhere in the world.

The Kindle is a particularly handy device when travelling. I can load it up with science fiction and popular science books without weighing down my carry-on luggage.

But when travelling by plane, there are two points in the journey when the Kindle must be stowed. Even though it’s using e-ink, it is technically an electronic device so it must be switched off for take-off and landing. So I still find myself packing some good old-fashioned paper in my bag.

I noticed that almost all of the printed items I’ve been travelling with aren’t available from bricks’n’mortar shops. These books are generated by the internet.

Books generated by the internet

Adaptive Web Design

Aaron’s book is a great read: nice and short but with plenty of meaty hands-on practical stuff. If you haven’t bought it yet, go ahead and read the first chapter to get a taste for the quality of the writing.

Everything published by A Book Apart

I’ll admit that I’m biased because I wrote the first book and penned the foreword for the most recent one, but c’mon: these little beauties are perfect for travelling with.

Back in March when I was bouncing around within the States, Mandy gave me a copy of Erin’s brand new Elements Of Content Strategy at the start of my trip in Austin. By the time I got to the Pacific Northwest later that month, I had finished the book …just from reading it during aircraft ascents and descents.

Six-Penny Anthems II

Kevin’s somewhat-twisted sense of humour appeals to me. A lot. Six-Penny Anthems II is a great hodge-podge of his cartoons.

I distinctly remember reading this during the landing at the end of a transatlantic flight and giggling uncontrollably to myself. I may have worried my fellow passengers.

SVK

Actually, I’m not sure if this excellent collaboration between Warren Ellis, Matt Brooker and the BERG gang is suitable for take-off and landing. That’s because the accompanying ultra-violet light is technically an electronic device. But you should definitely get your hands on it.

The Manual

If you fancy some thoughtful reading material delivered in a beautiful vessel, be sure to get your hands on the first issue of Andy’s creation. Each essay is written by a web professional but you’ll find no talk of software or hardware.

I’m flying across the Atlantic to New York tomorrow for Brooklyn Beta, which I’m looking forward to immensely. I’ll have my Kindle with me for the flight. I’ll also be bringing one of those artefacts of the network with me.

Have Kindle, will travel

I’m on my way from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t mean I’m about to set out. I mean, right now I’m in a plane flying across North America from Orlando to Seattle. This in-flight WiFi lark is quite wonderful.

There are some other technological inventions that make long journeys more bearable. There’s podcasts, of course. I’m catching up on all the audio I’ve been huffduffing and there’s some truly wonderful stuff in there.

Then there’s the Kindle. Having a choice of reading material packed into a small but comfortable to read device is extremely convenient. Mind you, for take off and landing, you’ll still need a nice slim non-electronic book, such as Erin’s marvelous The Elements of Content Strategy.

But for all of its convenience, some things about the Kindle really stick in my craw.

First of all, there’s the DRM. It’s utterly, utterly pointless and may even be infringing copyright by violating —remember kids, copyright isn’t just about protecting the rights of the content producer; it’s about the rights of the consumer too.

Then there’s the pricing. There are some books I’d really like to buy right now. I’ve got my credit in my hand, ready to hand my money over to Amazon, but then I see that the Kindle edition costs more than the paperback. Often, the Kindle edition is closer in price to the hardback. That’s just not right—or even if it is “right” for economic and legal reasons, it doesn’t intuitively feel right to me, the potential customer.

Kevin Kelly figures that electronic books will cost about a dollar within five years. Sounds about right to me. He also extrapolated that Kindles could be free by November.

The ludicrous asking price for DRM’d electrons is even more galling when the publishers clearly put no effort whatsoever into the production of the work. I really wanted to buy Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel from Iain M. Banks, but when I found reviews bemoaning the conversion quality, I put my credit card away:

I read the Kindle version, and the Kindle version has been lazily put together, I’m guessing from an earlier manuscript version. It has missing or half completed paragraphs. Very frustrating.

Jessica had already bought The City And The City by China Miéville—another book I really want to read—but she had to get a refund because the formatting was so awful.

Phil Gyford, speaking in the context of shoddily-printed physical books, sums up my frustration with the way publishers are treating Kindle editions:

I want to love books, but if the publisher treats them merely as interchangeable units, where the details don’t matter so long as the bits, the “content”, is conveyed as cheaply as possible, then we may be falling out of love.

Cennydd doesn’t even bother with the book-reading aspect of the Kindle, using it instead as an interface onto Instapaper.

The Kindle is a great lightweight reading device that’s particularly handy for travelling with—and the 3G version provides an almost miraculous permanent internet connection without any monthly contract—but the Kindle ecosystem, for all its Whispernet wonderment, is kind of nasty.

Now Amazon have decided that this ecosystem will not include third-party additions like Lendle. Even nastier.

Authors On Tour — Live!

Okay, so the name of the site sounds a bit like the literature equivalent of Girls Gone Wild but why haven’t I come across this site before?

It’s a veritable huffduffing bonanza, with talks from Neal Stephenson, David Sedaris, Simon Winchester, Isabel Allende, Terry Pratchet, John Hodgman, Neil Gaiman, Barack Obama and …um… Les Claypool.

All of them are licensed under Creative Commons attribution, non- commercial, no derivatives.

Anathem

I’ve become a big Neal Stephenson fan over the years. Having a taste for cyberpunk and steampunk, I naturally enjoyed both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. But what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed .

At first I found it frustrating to read Quicksilver—I couldn’t keep track of all the characters and all the events. So I gave up even trying to follow it all. That’s when the book really opened up. I realised that, although it’s a rollicking good adventure, it’s mostly an immersive experience. As I made my way through The Confusion and The System Of The World, I started to really look forward to getting completely lost in the 17th Century.

I was genuinely sad when I finished the three books. I didn’t want them to end. So I was already anxious for the next Neal Stephenson book to come out even before I knew about the subject matter. When I heard that Anathem would be a novel of The Long Now—a subject that has been occupying my thoughts more and more lately—I started to get really excited.

Once I had the book in my hands—and, as usual with Stephenson’s books, the hardback takes two hands and a decent set of biceps—I started to devour it. It’s very different to The Baroque Cycle but equally engaging. Not only is it saturated in Long Now thinking, it even features a version of the clock. The obvious comparison to make would be with A Canticle For Leibowitz but the similarities start and end with the set up of a “priesthood” of knowledge. Anathem very quickly becomes a philosophical tower of ideas built brick by brick, chapter by chapter.

On the one hand, I was pleased by Stephenson’s consistency. Once again, he delivered the goods: a decent yarn, well told, with good—rarely great—pose. But what really delighted me was how different this tale is. Every time I thought I had figured out where the book was going, Stephenson would yank the metaphorical rug from under my feet …often at the very moment when I believed I was getting a handle on the direction of the narrative.

The book is set in its own internally-consistent invented world. The strangeness of this disappears quickly, much like the internally-consistent invented language in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. When new words are introduced in Anathem, it’s always for a good reason. For example, the concept of is vital to a story driven by science and philosophy but that label would make no sense on a planet where has never existed. Instead we get “the Steelyard”, a different term with a different history, but capturing the same concept. This gradual layering of alternate vocabulary has a massive payoff later in the book when two simple words provide the most thrilling rug-pulling event of the whole reading experience.

As you may have gathered, I enjoyed Anathem. While it’s true that I didn’t enjoy it in the same way that I enjoyed The Baroque Cycle, it seems completely unfair to compare 17th Century apples with alien-world oranges.

Now that I’ve finished Anathem, I’m trying to avoid going cold turkey. It’s been years since I read Cryptonomicon so I figured I’d give it another whirl. I’m enjoying it immensely (again). I’m particularly savouring the story of WWII information warfare, like this little exchange on the fictional archipeligo of Qwghlm:

May I … know … to satisfy my own … curiosity … what sort of …? the Duke says, and trails off.

Waterhouse is ready for this. He is so ready that he has to hold back for a moment and try to make a show of discretion. Huffduff.

Huffduff?

HFDF: High Frequency Direction Finding. A technique for locating distant radio transmitters by triangulating from several points.