Reading The Women Of Troy by Pat Barker.
Friday, September 8th, 2023
Tuesday, August 22nd, 2023
Reading The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Tuesday, July 25th, 2023
Reading An Immense World by Ed Yong.
Tuesday, July 11th, 2023
Reading The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker.
Monday, July 10th, 2023
I want to live in a future where Artificial Intelligences can relieve humans of the drudgery of labour. But I don’t want to live in a future which is built by ripping-off people against their will.
Friday, July 7th, 2023
Wednesday, July 5th, 2023
Reading That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry.
Tuesday, July 4th, 2023
Could the tsunami of AI shite turn out to be a flash flood? Might the models rapidly degrade into uselessness or soon be sued or blocked out of existence? Will users rebel as their experience of the internet is degraded?
In my most optimistic moments, I find myself hoping that the whole AI edifice will come tumbling down as tools disintegrate, people realise how unreliable they are, and how valuable human-generated and curated information really is. But it’s not a safe bet.
Monday, July 3rd, 2023
Quite a few people have been linking to this list on The Verge of what they consider the greatest tech books of all time.
To be clear, this is a fairly narrow definition of technology. It’s really a list of books about the history of computing. But there’s some great stuff in there.
I’ve been thinking the books about computing and technology that I’ve managed to get around to reading, and which ones made an impact on me. Some of these made it on The Verge’s list too, which is nice to see.
Broad Band by Clare L. Evans
I was blown away by the writing and the stories uncovered in “the untold story of the women who made the internet.” Here’s what I wrote when I read the book:
This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.
It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
I read this one in 2020, not too long after it came out. In my end of year round-up, I described it like this:
A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.
Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman
I read this in 2018, many years after it first came out. Here’s how it came across to me:
Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
This book is mostly excellent. But as I wrote when I got my hands on an advance copy, the juxtaposition of memoir and manifesto didn’t work for me:
Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
Okay, this isn’t technically about computing, it’s about the telegraph. But it’s got the word “internet” in the title, and it’s a terrific read. Here’s what I wrote when I put it in Matt’s book-vending machine:
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.”
When Jason linked to the list of books on The Verge he said:
I’m baffled that Tracy Kidder’s amazing The Soul of a New Machine didn’t make the top 5 or even 10.
I’m more surprised that this book is held in such high esteem. It has not aged well. I read it in 2019 and had this to say:
This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.
Monday, June 19th, 2023
I’ve been banging the drum for a
button type="share" for a while now.
The Fullscreen API has the same restriction. You can’t make the browser go fullscreen unless you’re responding to user gesture, like a click. So why not have button type=”fullscreen” in HTML to encapsulate that? And again, the fallback in non-supporting browsers is predictable—it behaves like a regular button—so this is trivial to polyfill.
There’s another “smell” that points to some potential button types: what functionality do browsers provide in their interfaces?
Some browsers provide a print button. So how about
button type="print"? The functionality is currently doable with
button onclick="window.print()" so this would be a nicer, more declarative way of doing something that’s already possible.
It’s the same with back buttons, forward buttons, and refresh buttons. The functionality is available through a browser interface, and it’s also scriptable, so why not have a declarative equivalent?
How about bookmarking?
And remember, the browser interface isn’t always visible: progressive web apps that launch with minimal browser UI need to provide this functionality.
Šime Vidas was wondering about
button type="copy” for copying to clipboard. Again, it’s something that’s currently scriptable and requires a user gesture. It’s a little more complex than the other actions because there needs to be some way of providing the text to be copied, but it’s definitely a valid use case.
Saturday, June 17th, 2023
Coming soon—Ethan’s next book is exactly what the tech industry needs right now.
Tech workers—designers, engineers, writers, and many others—have learned that when they stand together, they’re poised to build a better version of the tech industry.
Tuesday, June 6th, 2023
Reading Babel by R.F. Kuang.
Saturday, June 3rd, 2023
Thursday, June 1st, 2023
Reading City Of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Saturday, May 27th, 2023
Considering the average website is less than ten years old, that old warning from your parents that says to “be careful what you post online because it’ll be there forever” is like the story your dad told you about chocolate milk coming from brown cows, a well-meant farce. On the contrary, librarians and archivists have implored us for years to be wary of the impermanence of digital media; when a website, especially one that invites mass participation, goes offline or executes a huge dump of its data and resources, it’s as if a smallish Library of Alexandria has been burned to the ground. Except unlike the burning of such a library, when a website folds, the ensuing commentary from tech blogs asks only why the company folded, or why a startup wasn’t profitable. Ignored is the scope and species of the lost material, or what it might have meant to the scant few who are left to salvage the digital wreck.
Tuesday, May 16th, 2023
Reading Planet Of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wednesday, May 10th, 2023
Reading Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Tuesday, May 9th, 2023
AMP succeeded spectacularly. Then it failed. And to anyone looking for a reason not to trust the biggest company on the internet, AMP’s story contains all the evidence you’ll ever need.
This is a really good oral history of how AMP soured Google’s reputation.
Full disclosure: I’m briefly cited:
“When it suited them, it was open-source,” says Jeremy Keith, a web developer and a former member of AMP’s advisory council. “But whenever there were any questions about direction and control… it was Google’s.”
As an aside, this article contains a perfect description of the company cultures of Facebook, Apple, and Google:
“You meet with a Facebook person and you see in their eyes they’re psychotic,” says one media executive who’s dealt with all the major platforms. “The Apple person kind of listens but then does what it wants to do. The Google person honestly thinks what they’re doing is the best thing.”
Monday, May 8th, 2023
There are two kinds of time-travel stories.
There are time-travel stories that explore the many-worlds hypothesis. Going back in time and making a change forks the universe. But the universe is constantly forking anyway. So effectively the time travel is a kind of universe-hopping (there’s a big crossover here with the alternative history subgenre).
The problem with multiverse stories is that there’s always a reset available. No matter how bad things get, there’s a parallel universe where everything is hunky dory.
The other kind of time travel story explores the idea of a block universe. There is one single timeline.
This is what you’ll find in Tenet, for example, or for a beautiful reduced test case, the Ted Chiang short story What’s Expected Of Us. That gets straight to the heart of the biggest implication of a block universe—the lack of free will.
There’s no changing what has happened or what will happen. In fact, the very act of trying to change the past often turns out to be the cause of what you’re trying to prevent in the present (like in Twelve Monkeys).
I’ve often referred to these single-timeline stories as being like Greek tragedies. But only recently—as I’ve been reading quite a bit of Greek mythology—have I realised that the reverse is also true:
Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.
Hear me out…
Time-travel stories aren’t actually about physically travelling in time. That’s just a convenience for the important part—information travelling in time. That’s at the heart of most time-travel stories; informaton from the future travelling back to the past.
William Gibson’s The Peripheral—very much a many-worlds story with its alternate universe “stubs”—takes this to its extreme. Nothing phyiscal ever travels in time. But in an age of telecommuting, nothing has to. Our time travellers are remote workers.
That book also highlights the power dynamics inherent in information wealth. Knowledge of the future gives you an advantage that you can exploit in the past. This is what Mark Twain’s Connecticut yankee does in King Arthur’s court.
This power dynamic is brilliantly inverted in Octavia Butler’s brilliant Kindred. No amount of information can help you if your place in society is determined by the colour of your skin.
Anyway, the point is that information flow is what matters in time-travel stories. Therefore any story where information travels backwards in time is a time-travel story.
That includes any story with a prophecy. A prophecy is information about the future, like:
Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.
You can try to change your fate, but you’ll just end up triggering it instead.
Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.
Thursday, May 4th, 2023
Mandy takes a deep dive into the treatment of altruism in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.