Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Touchback

Most free kindle books are terrible, and I admit that my few reviews of them have reflected that. When I saw that Touchback had been optioned for a movie, however, I decided to leave my prejudices behind and read it.

The book reads a lot like a summer football movie. That's not a bad thing if you like the genre, but I'm afraid it leaves me cold. The idea is that Scott Murphy, a high school football quarterback star, plays his last high school game and wins... but at the cost of getting an injury which throws his future away. He loses his football scholarship, his girlfriend, and twenty years later ends up as a broken man considering suicide as a way out.

He's given one more chance to relive life through an unknown mechanism (not unlike Groundhog Day) and now goes through an agonizing 100 pages figuring out how to change his life.

It's decently written, and one wouldn't be surprised to discover that it was first written as a screen play before the author turned to writing a novel when he couldn't sell it. But the ending is trite, unbelievable, and stupid, which made reading the novel feel like as someone else once said: "Watching Lance Armstrong crash his bike 10 meters from the finish line in Paris after a grueling battle." It didn't help that you could see the ending coming from about 20 miles away.

I can neither recommend the novel nor the movie, assuming it retains the same ending.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Re-read: Altered Carbon

I first reviewed Altered Carbon 4 years ago in Munich, and I recently finished reading it again as the other book that I'm trying to finish is dense and I'm in need of light reading where I don't have to think.

4 years ago I thought this book was violent and difficult to stomach. Maybe I've gotten used to the violence of media now, but now it doesn't feel that way. What's great about this book is that even knowing the plot vaguely, I could still appreciate the story and the way Richard Morgan put it together later. In particular, there are scenes where the protagonist is set up to lose, and he does, despite his smart thinking and talking (and instinct for violence).

The plot is crystal clear and wrapped up, though unlike the standard mystery novels, I don't think Morgan plays fair with the reader: there's no easy way to deduce the story from the clues given to you. Hence, the comparison to Chandler in my previous reviews stand. The prose is great, and the world is fun. And it's quite clear that Richard Morgan is conversant with technology and able to work out all the implications of digital human storage and re-sleeving.

All in all, I'm happy to give this novel my highest recommendation: if you haven't read it, you don't know what good modern science fiction can be. And while I thought the ending was bleak on the first reading, on this second reading, it doesn't seem any worse than any of Chandler's novels.

Highly Recommended

Review: Orange Internet Max (France)

As a very cheap person and proud of it, I rarely run my Nexus One in data mode when I'm at home: I'm usually within wifi range, and I refuse to pay the exorbitant $3/day or $35/month prices that local US providers charge me for. However, when traveling, I value data plans highly and would be willing to pay that price even if asked.

Last year, I had trouble getting even regular voice SIM cards, let alone Internet capable SIM cards. This year, however, we started our trip in Paris, albeit on a weekend. On a Monday, however, I went to an Orange store and got an prepaid SIM card. It cost EUR 9.95. I bought a 10 EUR refill right away so I could subscribe to the Internet Max plan (which was 9 EUR, but the Sim card only came with 5 EUR credit, and the minimum refill was 10 EUR). It's an unlimited data subscription plan that's good for a month and automatically turns off if you don't have enough credit to resubscribe! The worst part of the experience is that part where Orange tries to pretend to be Apple. You walk into the store, and are greeted by a pretty woman dressed in Orange uniform, who will put your name in a queue (driven by an iPad) so you can browse the store until a customer service rep is ready to talk to you. Unfortunately, they did this Apple-emulation strategy wrong: they had too many pretty women, and not enough customer service rep, so I ended up cooling my heels for at least 25 minutes before being able to complete an incredibly simple transaction. I would have preferred standing in line like at a normal store.

What an awesome plan it is. Most of the time, the speed is fine. Much faster the the iPhone 4G that I got as part of the home exchange program we participated in. And of course, any Android phone runs circles around the iPhone as a matter of practicality. Being able to get turn by turn navigation saved our bacon several times while driving (or walking!) around France. We were also able to tether the phone to the laptop whenever we were at a hotel without internet. Try this with your post-paid plan in the USA for less than $25/month!

The best part about this is that while Orange will try to charge you separately for e-mail, if you're using an Android phone, there's no need to pay for the e-mail plan separately. That's because the Gmail app on Android uses http requests, so it looks like browser traffic to Orange, rather than IMAP/POP, which is what Apple products use.

As an aside, after using an iPhone side by side with a 2 year old Nexus One running Android 2.3 (no I haven't bothered to upgrade the default OS yet, and probably won't --- I'm cheap with my time as well as money), it's no contest. I'd rather have a 2 year old Android phone than an iPhone when I'm in a foreign country and in need of navigation, search, and making phone calls.

Recommended. An Orange store should be the first thing you look for when you land in France.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Review: The Curse of Chalion

I rarely re-read books, especially fiction. Yet when I was done with my last depressing review, I found myself turning to The Curse of Chalion, for some light, optimistic reading. One of the best things about Bujold is that she comes from writing a lot of science fiction, which means that the theology and magic in the world where Chalion is set in is rigorous, and explained well: at no point does the reader feel cheated in that some weird unexplained magic is used to get characters out of a situation or just to move the plot along. At every point in the plot where magic is used, the mechanism has been already explained before, usually in some conversation that the reader had no idea was important.

This explains my satisfaction in reading the book the first time: you really do get a sense of completion and satisfaction, as well as an "aha" insight every time the author puts some previously explained mechanism of the world to work. I was curious to see how it plays the second time around.

The big flaw in the book which jumps out the second time around is that the protagonist, Cazaril, is too perfect. He has unlimited integrity, is kind even when he's pushed to the limits and betrayed, and never at any moment feels sorry for himself, but works for his employers/liege lords without ambition for himself. It really detracts from the novel on the second reading in a way it didn't on the first.

But other than that, I'm very happy to report that the book holds up well on the second reading. The plot works: there are no gaping holes in it. The universe is intelligently built, and the rules of the universe aren't subject to cheating. Even the prophecy in the book is a fair one, and the reader had ample opportunity to work it out before hand (which I did on the first reading).

Some books work as great escapism for people. This is one of the ones that do it for me: a universe in which integrity, fairness, and a sense of duty is rewarded is an extremely appealing one. If that speaks to you, read the book.

Recommended

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: The Price of Inequality

The Price of Inequality is a depressing book. It describes how American society has gotten to the point where it is today: where there's effectively a state too weak to provide protection for the poor and investment for the future, while strong enough to do transfer payments to corporations and defend tax cuts for the wealthy.

Stiglitz points out that this state of affairs did not have to be. For instance, rather than giving away broadcast frequencies to corporations for free, the government could raise revenue by auctioning them off. Rather than sell mining and oil extraction rights for pennies on the dollar and then be on the hook for cleaning up the environment after the corporations involved have boosted profits by ignoring safety and allowing oil spills to happen, those extraction rights could have been auctioned off for money. Rather than allowing banks too big to fail to bet using tax payer's monies, those banks could have been taxed to pay for an insurance fund for future bailouts.

Every one of these situations is well-described, and Stiglitz has a very convincing set of references showing how the high tax era in the US coincided with the highest economic growth. So even if you were a member of the 1%, it's still in your interest to have a society with less inequality. Furthermore, he notes that we give very little credit to the federal government for doing things right: that many republicans say things like "Keep your government hands out of my medicare" shows that people are so convinced that government can't do anything right but love their medicare that they somehow think it must be private. For instance, government R&D (basic research) has effectively a 50% higher return than R&D in the private sector. And of course, education has been steadily de-funded over the last 30 years as a result of the low-tax movement, and it has proven high returns as well, both socially as well as to individuals.

What Stiglitz does a poor job doing is offering hope. While he takes a stab at how change for the better could occur in the future, it's weak sauce compared to the historical section of the book. The US is probably headed for a 3rd-world banana republic style inequality, where the poor and the rich live in effectively different countries.

In any case, the book is highly recommended. All voters should read this book, but my guess is not too many people will.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: Team Geek

Full disclosure: I was paid to review and provide criticism of an early version of Team Geek. I knew Brian Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman from my time at Google, and there was no way I wasn't going to help them out when they asked me to review a book about one of my favorite topics: the sociology and politics of software developments. Incidentally, one of my early reviewers for Startup Engineering Management told me that the book's great, but it's too late for my manager. My response is that books like the one I wrote and Team Geek are not for people who are already actively bad managers: those people wouldn't read this book unless their managers beat them over the head with it, and maybe not even then. These books are meant for people who actively don't want to be sucky managers, or want to identify sucky managers before foolishly working for them.

Both authors are engineering managers at Google. However, much of their experience pre-dates Google, and this is a good thing: they have a lot of experience with software engineers in general, and a lot of exposure in the open source community such as subversion, where they're both big shots.

A lot of the book is focused on how to deal with people in a technical environment. There's an entire chapter on how to manage people (cleverly sneaked in there even though the book claims not to be a book about how to manage people), and one on how to deal with users. A lot of the advise is on-topic, backed up with anecdotes, and well-illustrated with examples. My biggest critiques of the original version of the book have now been eliminated and the prose is relatively tight. The section on how to get your manager to love you (i.e., provide frequent updates and over-communicate) is great and everyone should take it.

While this book will not make you a better office politician directly, reading it and applying its principles will at least make you a better engineer in many ways, and more effective at getting things done. Big companies that typically don't bother training new engineering managers could do worse than hand a copy of this book (together with Peopleware) to all new engineering managers.

Recommended.

Review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Fiction authors love to pretend that their craft is never obsolete, unlike those of us who write technical books. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a spy novel, set in a world that's as obsolete and as alien as they come. The elements of that novel, the cold war, Kim Philby, and the lack of notable comparable success on the American and British side of the espionage circle form the backdrop for the book.

Yet as spy novels go, this is a book that's as likely to withstand the test of time as any. The novel is about deception, not only of self, but of country. It follows a spy, Seamus, who finding that his last field operative has been killed, takes on one last assignment. One which he is led to believe, would lead to his opposite number on the East German side to be removed.

Le Carre does a great job of in-cluing us into this world. He never tells us explicitly about trade-craft, but instead shows it as it happens. Yet in the end, all these technical deductions on the part of the reader is a red-herring. The ultimate ending depends on the protagonist being ignorant of the ultimate goals and rules of the game as it is being played by his superiors, much as many lower level engineers or managers in corporate environments end up touting the party line, ignorant of how they are being manipulated.

The ending is quite a bit of a downer, but perhaps an astute (and introspective) reader will come away with reflections on his life, and what it means to accept a goal knowing that those setting it for you might instead have other objectives.

Recommended.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Review: What's Going on In There?

What's Going On In There is a baby neurologist/brain development book. You might consider it competition for Brain Rules For Baby, except that Lise Eliot goes into depth about neurology. This is less boring than you might think, since neurons, synapses, and myelinization is all interesting stuff. However, if you're looking for a practical manual for raising children, Brain Rules For Baby is the superior book.

Part of this is that Eliot breaks apart a child's development into its multiple subskills instead of chronologically as a parent would encounter its development. That means that in one chapter, for instance, she would cover vision development from conception to 2 years, and then in the next chapter she would cover motor skills from conception to 2 years. As a result, you're never given a good timeline for how things come together, or what to watch out for when, unless you were to take notes and create one yourself out of the raw material she gives you. She tries to fix this by providing copious cross references, but those just make you annoyed, especially when you get to the cross-referenced chapter and find yet more cross references.

She covers a lot of ground, but my impression of the book is that pretty much anything you can do for your child is covered in the pre-natal pre-birth section, while she has relatively few concrete pointers for you to consider once the child is out of the womb. For instance, in a lot of places in the book she talks about high quality childcare being as good as a stay-at-home mom. But nowhere does she define what high quality childcare is, and how to find it. Sounds pretty crazy? But that's what most of the book is like.

That doesn't mean the book is useless. I found the section of why men have bigger brains than women (even after correcting for body weight) interesting. I found the discussion of gender differences interesting. I enjoyed the discussion on the impact of musical training on brain development (though it's much more sparse and less in depth than I would like). There are a few gaping holes in the book (for instance, not being bilingual herself, she says nothing about bilingual upbringing except to note that it takes longer for the child to speak), but Medina's book had similar holes.

All in all, the book's mildly recommended, but seriously, read Brain Rules For Baby first.

Review: A Dance With Dragons

After A Feast For Crows I told myself that I shouldn't read any more books in the series because of how bad and frustrating it was. But I found myself on a flight with a copy of A Dance With Dragons checked out from the library, so I read it.

The good news is, the book is much better than A Feast For Crows. The bad news is that the pace is still glacial. Much of the book could be summarized in 20 pages, and there are a bunch of irrelevant sub-plots and not very many resolved threads (though I'm sad to lose yet another one of the better characters in the series!).

Not Recommended.