Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: In The Plex

In The Plex is Steven Levy's book about Google. After Levy's last book, The Perfect Thing, I was really unimpressed and expected a typical English major assessment of Google. Fortunately, Levy's mostly redeemed himself with this book.

Levy had unprecedented access to top level executives for this book. This meant that you got all the details about Google's funding, it's approach to top secret projects (including the Android acquisition as well as Book search), and what really happened with the Analytics acquisition. Well, not quite. You could take Levy's book at face value, but it's peppered with all sorts of little inaccuracies that point to the fact that Levy was painted a very nice picture, and as an outsider and not someone who lives Silicon Valley culture, the most he could do was to be a little bit skeptical about it.

For instance, there's a little bit about how Google Docs killed Gdrive in a brilliant play of executive politics. But Levy leaves out the context: Dropbox has made a billion dollar business out of that lack of vision by the Google executive. Then there's minor little details like a remark about Jia being famous for Sushi. Uh, no. The big sushi cafes at Google at the time were Pacific and 5IVE. It's very clear that Levy regurgitated whatever line he was fed very well and entertainingly, but obviously his fact-checking was limited or he's clearly preserving future access to Google executives by being as uncritical as possible. The only place in the book where he takes a skeptical look at Google's actions was in relation to China. Even then, there's careful avoidance of the internal craziness at that time (seriously, "blame the intern" didn't go over well with the rank and file at that time, and sticking to that line is definitely something Google's executives should hang their heads in shame about).

On the other hand, there's plenty to like about this book. There are places where he foreshadows the tension between Schmidt and the founders. There's an excellent exposition of Eric Veach's re-invention of the Vickrey auction, and the sun-setting of early versions of Adwords (known at the time as Adwords Premium). There's even a somewhat extensive coda about Google's failure to copy and the consequences thereof.

If you're an old Google hand, you'll get a few kicks out of all the names mentioned in this book that you're familiar with. If you're not familiar at all with Google's story, this is a great book and is recommended. After all, if you wait for a definitive account, you could be waiting a long time.

Review: American Born Chinese

I read that American Born Chinese is so far the only graphic novel to have been nominated for the National Book Award. That blew my mind, since graphic novels rarely get that kind of recognition.

The book is short and a quick read (30 minutes or so). It starts off with 3 separate threads, the first of which I realized (with a groan) that was a mere retelling of the opening of the classic Journey to the West. The second tells the story of Jin Wang, who starts elementary school at an American school and despite having been in San Francisco all his life, is treated like a foreigner. My impression of American schools from popular media is that it's a traumatic experience, especially if you're a nerd, but being a short graphic novel means that Gene Yang only really touches on this at the most shallow of levels (like "I hear that Chinese people eat dogs."). The final thread tells of an American, Danny, whose Chinese cousin Chin-Kee visits and embarrasses him by being extremely Chinese.

The threads all tie together at the end, and we get a neat little resolution that turns the entire book into a nice little parable ("Learn to accept who you are"), but left me wondering why it became a National Book Award finalist. While it wasn't a waste of time, I'm not sure I gained any more insight to how the American Born Chinese experience is all that different. Mildly recommended.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: Norton Ghost

Windows Image backup does the right thing in the majority of cases --- if your replacement hard drive is as big or bigger than your old hard drive. Unfortunately, if you own an SSD and it dies, what you'll usually do is to drop in a HDD that's bigger, RMA that SSD, and then try to restore from backup from the Windows Image backup and then discover that it doesn't work.

The solution, according to my brother, is Symantec Norton Ghost 15.0 (1 PC). The price is fairly cheap, and it was easy to setup and test. Now that I have the SSD back from OCZ, I had a chance to test drive it.

The verdict: it works, mostly. What it does is to restore your drive from the image, but for whatever reason, it refused to restore the boot sector. Fortunately, I had the Windows Recovery Disk sitting around, and when I inserted that and told it to fix the boot sector it did so without any fuss. Result: one fast PC with SSD.

I hate recommending products like this (partially working products are lame), but there's really nothing else out there that will do the trick, so there you go. And yes, one more SSD RMA, and I'm just going to sell my SSD on Craigslist.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Startup Engineering Management Beta Program Closed

Due to overwhelming response to yesterday's post about Startup Engineering Management, I have all the beta-readers I need for now. (And yes, the feedback has been coming in, and I'm very grateful for everyone who's sent me e-mail)

Needless to say, I'm inspired by the response and will proceed with the project. Thanks to everyone who has participated. I may reopen the program later as rewrites and revisions warrant.

I know the web page originally said June 18th was when I would close the beta, but when beta-signups got to the point where they were almost overwhelming I had to change the plan. I honestly had no idea I'd get this much response.

Independent Cycle Touring presentations

Independent Cycle Touring, in some ways, is the book that I spent 18 years cycling in order to learn how to write. As a cycle touring book, it includes everything I've learned, but as a writer, I honestly have no idea how to sell the book, other than a traditional book tour. Unfortunately, traditional book stores attract literary types, not outdoor types. Bike shops, on the other hand, usually attract racer-wannabes, rather than tourists.

One of my favorite outdoor stores is REI. I've been an REI member since 1992, before my very first bike tour, when I bought tents, sleeping bags, and to the bemusement of my parents, started to learn how to pitch and strike these fancy high-tech American tents in our front-yard. I am very pleased to announce that I've arranged with REI to tour most of their Bay Area stores and give a presentation about my recent adventures in Europe. This will not be a rehash of material already in the book, and is timed so that I would be back from a trip through the French and Swiss alps and will (hopefully) have fresh pictures to share.

If you're an REI fan and live in the Bay Area, mark your calendars for the appropriate stores. Registering for the talk/presentation is free. Thank you very much to Polly from REI for helping me organize this. A full calendar of events will be posted on the book's Facebook page.

Independent Cycle Touring in Europe:
Imagine pedaling through quaint mountain hamlets in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, past fields of wildflowers in Germany’s Black Forest, along the shores of lovely lakes near Salzburg in Austria, or high above the Mediterranean in the French Pyrenees… With its diverse landscapes, vast network of roads and cycle paths, and bike-friendly accommodations, Europe is a fantastic cycling destination. Tonight, independent cyclist and guidebook author Piaw Na will share his expertise on planning bike tours in Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany, Italy, England, and Scotland. Piaw will cover the nuts and bolts of organizing an independent tour, including route-planning, seasonal considerations, lightweight gear, training, transporting bikes on planes/public transit, navigation tools, accommodations, and more. Following the program, he’ll sign copies of his new how-to guidebook, Independent Cycle Touring: Exploring the World by BicycleIf you register for this free presentation at, we will hold a seat for you until the scheduled start time. Seating may be available at the door, even if registration is closed.

7 pm–8:30 pm, Tuesday, August 2 at REI Marina
7 pm–8:30 pm, Wednesday, August 3 at REI San Carlos
7 pm–8:30 pm, Tuesday, August 30 at REI Berkeley
7 pm–8:30 pm, Tuesday, September 13 at REI Fremont
7 pm–8:30 pm, Wednesday, September 14 at REI San Francisco
7 pm–8:30 pm, Monday, September 19 at REI Saratoga
7 pm–8:30 pm, Thursday, September 29 at REI Mountain View

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Beta Test My Next Book!

My next book has reached a critical juncture. It's called Startup Engineering Management, and you can read all about it (including seeing a free sample) at the above link. At this point, all the content is mostly there (though if I'm missing content please let me know about it!). While I've tried to get proof-readers by giving free copies away, that's not worked very well --- I've learned that people who get something for free don't attach very much value to it. So what I've decided to do is to offer the advanced reader copy at a massive discount. At $4/copy, there's not much room to cut the price further, and you're not out very much money if you dislike the book. I'm offering this for a limited time, and will decide whether or not to put more work into the book (more content, table of contents, index, cover) if the response is positive. If you provide feedback that affects the book substantially, I'll give you a free copy of the final book. If you provide any feedback at all, you'll get to upgrade to the final version at a substantial discount.

I've decided not to use Kickstarter this time. Even though I'm a fan of the site, it's not like I'm going to need a ton of money to finish off the book. The question is whether the book has an audience at all.

Because the book is being offered at such a discount (albeit in rough form --- I've found several grammatical sentence agreement issues already even on a rough read-through, but will hold off fixing it until I figure out whether the book will sell), I am requiring that you disclose your e-mail address so I can add you to a mailing list for reader surveys, etc. I won't sell the mailing list or spam you, I just want honest, direct feedback, and I can't ask for it if I don't have your e-mail address.

With that, go ahead and visit the book's web-site, and if you like what you see, buy!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Review: Feed

Feed is the second novel in my current Hugo Nominees reading list. It's a surprising good novel, even though the subject matter was for me a turnoff.

First, it's a Zombie novel. I feel like Zombies have been way over-exposed in the media. Even worse, one of the characters is named Shaun, as in Shaun of the Dead, a movie that didn't do anything whatsoever for me, and felt really silly. Third, the main narrative voice is a dead-panned cynical young journalist stereotype. Veronica Mars did that really well, but Mira Grant didn't do quite so well.

Then there's the world. Grant does a little better than her characters in constructing a post Zombie-apocalypse world. Many things are well thought out, including frequent blood tests, the CDC's improved status in that universe, the need for licensed journalists to carry firearms, and varying degrees of false positives on testing kits. There are several places where it's obvious that Grant, like many science fiction authors, doesn't actually have a good grasp of science, technology, or even marketing, but this is forgivable: it's quite obvious from the start that Grant's writing a throwaway airplane read, not literary fiction.

The plot involves a very close brother-sister pair who blog for a living and get selected to follow along a presidential hopeful in the campaign of 2040. Then there's a zombie outbreak that turns out not to be an accident but an active act of terrorism. The journalists investigate the secret and figure out who the bad guys are. Then they pull a series of bone-headed-stupid moves that ends in tear-jerker scenes that by no rights should have been necessary. But if you read it with your brain turned off it's not such a bad book.

While this novel would make for a great airplane novel, or a gift for your Zombie-obsessed nephew, I don't see it as a serious contender for the Hugo. If the Hugo was nominated by a committee I would say the committee would need its head examined. If SF fans end up voting for this novel and it wins over say, The Hundred Thousand Kingsdoms, then it would be a travesty. At $9.99, there's probably cheaper beach reads for your summer vacation. Nevertheless, it's so far more readable than the other two nominees that I have left to read.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

This is part of a series of reviews for the Hugo awards. One of the other novels, Cryoburn, was already reviewed and found wanting, so I was apprehensive about having to read novels I wouldn't necessarily like.

Well, the first, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms blew me away. It's not science fiction; it's fantasy, but not the elfy-welfy fantasy that populates the bookstores nowadays. It's bold and imaginative in a way I haven't seen for a while. If more novels were like this the world would be a better place.

The protagonist of the story, Yveine, is called away from the "uncivilized" kingdom she rules to Sky, the center of all the hundred thousand kingdoms. There, she learns that she's to be designated an Heir to the Kingdoms. Except that there are already 2 other Heirs, and they're out for blood.

That sounds very mundane. But this is not a human empire. It's a theocracy enforced by the reality of gods. Sky's inhabitants control the very gods themselves, and the politics and possibilities are all tied to the war between the gods that led to this situation and we get shown drip by drip how the situation both corrupts the gods and how this power in turn corrupts humans.

If that was the only theme in this novel it would have been enough. N.K. Jemisin works in feminism, atheism, the proper use of power, and love in this novel. There's a reveal nearly every other page, and little of it is predictable, even though every reveal makes sense as a piece of the greater puzzle. Despite this being a long book (432 pages in the dead-tree edition), it doesn't feel like as the plot and action moves at a breathless pace. In a brilliant move by the publisher, Orbit, the Kindle Edition is $2.99. At that price, forget about the library and just buy it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I now look forward to reading the rest of the Hugo nominees if they are of similar quality.