Tags: book

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Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

A Scandal in Bohemia

Well, this is rather lovely! The Paravel gang have made an atmospheric web book out of a Sherlock Holmes story (yay for the public domain!).

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

Blade Runner Sketchbook (PDF)

I was sad to hear of the passing of Syd Mead last week. Here’s a sketchbook of his remarkable work for Blade Runner.

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019

Books I read in 2019

I read 26 books in 2019. That’s not as many as I’d like, but it is an increase on 2018.

Once again, I tried to maintain a balance between fiction and non-fiction. It kinda worked.

Here, in order of reading, are the books I read in 2019. For calibration, anything with three stars or more means I enjoyed (and recommend) the book. I can be pretty stingy with my stars. That said…

Kindred by Octavia Butler

★★★★★

Kindred is a truly remarkable work. Technically it’s science fiction—time travel, specifically—but that’s really just the surface detail. This is a study of what makes us human, and an investigation into the uncomfortable reach of circumstance and culture. Superbly written and deeply empathic.

The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder

★★☆☆☆

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.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly entertaining space adventure, although my favourite parts are the descriptions of the inner magic of mathematics. This is a short read too, so go ahead and give it a whirl. Recommended.

The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli

★★★☆☆

The writing is entertaining, sometimes arresting, though it definitely spills over into purple prose at times. As a meditation on the nature of time, it’s a thought-provoking read, but I think I prefer the gentler musings of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

★★☆☆☆

Another highly-regarded book that I just couldn’t get into. That’s probably more down to me than the book. I can see how the writing is imaginative and immersive, but the end result—for me, at least—was no more than perfectly fine.

Reading this kind of reminded me of reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. They’re both perfectly fine books that were lavished with heaps of praise for their levels of imagination …which makes me think that people need to read more sci-fi and fantasy.

A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented The Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

★★★★☆

A terrific biography! Admittedly you’ll probably want to be interested in information theory in the first place, but how could you not?

This book could probably have been a little shorter without losing too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a great companion to James Gleick’s The Information.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

This is like the love child of Craig Mod and Umberto Eco …and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A thoroughly entertaining genre-crossing jaunt that isn’t going to stress you out. Fun!

Inferior: The True Power Of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini

★★★☆☆

Superbly researched and deftly crafted. This is an eye-opening journey into the cultural influences on experimental science.

Resilient Management by Lara Hogan

★★★★☆

I’m getting kind of cross with Lara now. First she writes the definitive book on web performance. Then she writes the definitive book on public speaking (I’ve loaned it out so many times, I’ve lost track of it). Now she’s gone and written the definitive book on being a manager. It hardly seems fair!

Seriously, this book is remarkably practical, right from the get-go. And the one complaint I have about most management books—that they’re longer than they need to be—definitely doesn’t apply here. If your job involves managing humans in any way, read this book!

The Future Home Of The Living God by Louise Erdrich

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing wrong with this book, per se. But I think it’s situated too much in the shadow of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to stand on its own merits.

Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

The second novella in the Binti series. Just as much fun as the first. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book in the series.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

★★★☆☆

I really enjoyed this evolutionary tale. It’s equal parts biology and philosophy. I will never look at cephalopods quite the same way again.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

Just as entertaining as Robin’s first book, this has a fun vibe to it.

By pure coincidence, I followed Sourdough with…

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

★★★★☆

I wrote:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

To which Robin responded:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I Contain Multitudes is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining work. You might not think you want to read a book all about microbes, but trust me, you do.

I stand by this appraisal:

They’re both such wonderful books—apart from the obvious microbial connection, there’s a refreshingly uncynical joy infusing the writing of each of them!

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

★★★☆☆

An first-contact novel with a difference. The setting, the characters, the writing—everything is vivid and immersive. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker

★★★☆☆

The sheer joy of the writing is infectious. If you’ve got some long-haul flights ahead of you, this is the perfect reading material.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

★★★★☆

This has stayed with me. This is Ann Leckie’s first foray into more of a fantasy realm, and it’s just as great as her superb science fiction.

Internal consistency is key to world-building in works of fantasy, and this book has a deeply satisfying and believable system that is only gradually and partially revealed. Encore!

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

★★★☆☆

This book has an unusual structure. At times, it’s like a masterclass in writing. At other times, it’s deeply personal. I don’t know quite how to classify it, but I like it!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆

Brilliant, as expected. Some of the stories in here have stayed with me long after I finished reading them. If you haven’t already read this or Stories of Your Life and Others, you’re in for a real treat.

Is Exhalation quite as brilliant as Ted Chiang’s debut book of short stories? Maybe not. But that bar is so high as to be astronomical.

Now we just have to wait a few more decades for his third collection.

Motherfoclóir: Dispatches From A Not So Dead Language by Darach O’Séaghdha

★★★☆☆

I don’t know if this will be of any interest if you don’t already understand some Irish, but I found this to be good fun. There were times when an aside was repeated more than once, which made me wonder if the source material was originally scattered in other publications.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

An alternative history novel with a thought-provoking premise. The result is like a cross between Mercury 13 and Seveneves. There’s a dollop of wish fulfillment in here that feels like a guilty pleasure, but that’s no bad thing.

1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal

★★★☆☆

This is how you bring history to life! The style of writing feels much more like a historical novel than a dry academic work, but all of the events are relayed from contempary source material. The plague is suitably grim and disgusting; the sea battles are appropriately thrilling and frightening; the fire is unrelentingly devestating. I know that doesn’t sound like there’s much enjoyment to be had, but this is the best history book I’ve read in a while.

Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

I know I joke about seeing pace layers everywhere but seriously, Brian Aldiss’s Heliconia series is all about pace layers. Each book deals with one point in time, where we’re concerned with the dynastic concerns of years and decades, but the really important story is happening on the scale of centuries and millennia as the seasons slowly change.

This one was just as good as Helliconia Spring and I’m looking forward to rounding out the series with Helliconia Winter.

The Canopy Of Time by Brian Aldiss

★★☆☆☆

I decided to stay on a Brian Aldiss kick, and grabbed this pulpy collection of short stories. It’s not his best work, and there’s an unnecessary attempt to tie all the stories together into one narrative, but even a so-so Brian Aldiss book has got a weird and slightly haunting edge to it.

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

The sequel to The Calculating Stars and the last in the Lady Astronaut series. Good space-race entertainment.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I’ve just picked up this sequel to Ninefox Gambit. So far it’s not as bewildering as the first book—where the bewilderment was part of its charm. I’m into it. But I won’t rate it till I’ve finished it.


Alright, time to pick my favourite fiction and non-fiction books of the year.

Certainly the best fiction book published this year was Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. But when it comes to the best book I’ve read this year, it’s got to be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hard to believe it’s forty years old—it’s shockingly relevant today.

As for the best non-fiction …this is really hard this year. So many great books: A Mind At Play, Inferior, 1666, Other Minds; I loved them all. But I think I’m going to have to give it to Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.

Only 10 of the 26 books I read this year were by women. I need to work on redressing the balance in 2020.

The People’s Web

Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren’t designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren’t run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.

This really hits home for me. Anil could be describing The Session here:

They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.

This is a very important message:

Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

Building a More Honest Internet - Columbia Journalism Review

The dominant narrative for the growth of the World Wide Web, the graphical, user-friendly version of the internet created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, is that its success has been propelled by Silicon Valley venture capitalism at its most rapacious. The idea that currently prevails is that the internet is best built by venture-backed startups competing to offer services globally through category monopolies: Amazon for shopping, Google for search, Facebook for social media. These companies have generated enormous profits for their creators and early investors, but their “surveillance capitalism” business model has brought unanticipated harms.

It doesn’t have to be this way, says Ethan Zuckerman:

A public service Web invites us to imagine services that don’t exist now, because they are not commercially viable, but perhaps should exist for our benefit, for the benefit of citizens in a democracy. We’ve seen a wave of innovation around tools that entertain us and capture our attention for resale to advertisers, but much less innovation around tools that educate us and challenge us to broaden our sphere of exposure, or that amplify marginalized voices. Digital public service media would fill a black hole of misinformation with educational material and legitimate news.

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

The modern web is becoming an unusable, user-hostile wasteland

If you add another advertisement to your pages, you generate more revenue. If you track your users better, now you can deliver tailored ads and your conversion rates are higher. If you restrict users from leaving your walled garden ecosystem, now you get all the juice from whatever attention they have.

The question is: At which point do we reach the breaking point?

And I think the answer is: We are very close.

Facebook. Twitter. Medium. All desparate to withhold content they didn’t even create until you cough up your personal details.

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

“Link In Bio” is a slow knife

For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.

Anil Dash on the war on hyperlinks.

It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Oddly Amazing Animals from A to Z

This book is a beautiful tribute to Cindy.

Several talented illustrators have come together to create a unique book about unique animals. Each contributor has a special connection to the book’s original illustrator, Cindy Li. When she was unable to complete the illustrations before passing away in 2018, many of Cindy’s talented friends offered to help finish the project.

I think you should get a copy of this book for the little animal lover in your life this Christmas.

Proceeds from the sale of this book benefit Apollo Li Harris and Orion Li Harris, two out-of-this-world kids who had an amazing mom.

Friday, November 22nd, 2019

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Keynote Address at ADL’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate | Anti-Defamation League

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights | Amnesty International

Amnesty International have released a PDF report on the out-of-control surveillance perpetrated by Google and Facebook:

Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.

However…

This page on the Amnesty International website has six tracking scripts. Also, consent to accept tracking cookies is assumed (check dev tools). It looks like you can reject marketing cookies, but I tried that without any success.

The stone PDF has been thrown from a very badly-performing glass house.

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

Modest JS Works | You were never sold on heavy-handed JavaScript approaches. Here’s a case for keeping your JS modest.

The fat JavaScript stacks-du-jour have a lot of appeal. They promise you to be able to do more with less. But what if I want to do less?

This is a terrific little (free!) online book all about modest JavaScript. The second part has practical code, but it’s the first part—all about the principles of staying lean—that really resonates with me.

Don’t build more JS than you can maintain over the long term. If you’re going to be building something for a long time, make sure what you are building will grow with you. Make sure you don’t depend on other people’s work too much, lest you want to keep refactoring your code when the framework you picked goes out of style.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die — by Craig Mod

Craig compares and contrasts books to “attention monsters”:

That is, any app / service / publication whose business is predicated on keeping a consumer engaged and re-engaged for the benefit of the organization (often to the detriment of the mental and physical health of the user), dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times a day.

Sunday, October 20th, 2019

Own Your Content on Social Media Using the IndieWeb—zachleat.com

A terrific—and fun!—talk from Zach about site deaths, owning your own content, and the indie web.

Oh, and he really did create MySpaceBook for the talk.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

IndieWeb Link Sharing | Max Böck - Frontend Web Developer

Max describes how he does bookmarking on his own site—he’s got a bookmarklet for sharing links, like I do. But he goes further with a smart use of the “share target” section in his web app manifest, as described by Aaron.

By the way, Max’s upcoming talk at the Web Clerks conference in Vienna sounds like it’s going to be unmissable!

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Manton Reece - Saying goodbye to Facebook cross-posting

Facebook and even Instagram are at odds with the principles of the open web.

Related: Aaron is playing whack-a-mole with Instagram because he provides a servie to let users export their own photographs to their own websites.

Friday, September 27th, 2019

The Octopus: An Alien Among Us | Literary Hub

An excerpt from the book Rethinking Consciousness by Michael S. A. Graziano, which looks like an interesting companion piece to Peter Godfrey-Smith’s excellent Other Minds.

Also, can I just say how nice this reading experience is—the typography, the arresting image …I like it.

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

NoJS Side-by-Side

Drag this to your browser’s bookmark bar now!

Such a useful quick check for resilience—this bookmarklet shows you a side-by-side comparison of a site with JavaScript enabled and disabled.

Monday, September 16th, 2019

The Book | The Lean Web

This is such a great little web book from Chris Ferdinandi that you can read online for free.

  1. Intro
  2. Modern Best Practices
  3. How did we get here?
  4. Lean Web Principles
  5. What now?

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Mark Zuckerberg Is a Slumlord

An interesting comparison between Facebook and tenements. Cram everybody together into one social network and the online equivalents of cholera and typhoid soon emerge.

The airless, lightless confines of these networks has a worrying tendency to amplify the most extreme content that takes root, namely that of racists, xenophobes, and conspiracists (which, ironically, includes anti-vaxxers.)

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly

Ignore the clickbaity headline and have a read of Whitney Kimball’s obituaries of Friendster, MySpace, Bebo, OpenSocial, ConnectU, Tribe.net, Path, Yik Yak, Ello, Orkut, Google+, and Vine.

I’m sure your content on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is perfectly safe.