June 20, 2003
Biggest product launch of the week
I'm at the neighborhood Chapter 11 bookstore, which is jammed...
Sophie answered a trivia question and got the 5th spot in line as a prize. Pix to come...
May 02, 2003
I bought Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom expressly because I could download it for free. Cory Doctorow, your author, and host at boingboing, has given away more than 75,000 electronic copies so far.
Doctorow has produced a utopian sci-fi journey into a future where death and money have been eliminated. It's a quick read, but with a lot of interesting ideas, from the reputation economics of Whuffie and the adhocracies to neural backups that can be restored into a person's clone within a matter of days.
Some sci-fi gets so wrapped up in describing the technoporn that it neglects the story. That's not the case here, as Doctorow weaves a believable, at times gripping story set in the future Disney World, at last liberated from the clutches of Disney/ABC/ESPN/Capital Cities.
There were a couple of really interesting directions I could see the book moving that never really came to pass; I wondered if they were roads not travelled, wrong turns, or just blind alleys. If you've read it, I'd love to discuss them...
This seems like a book that will weather a few rereadings. I recommend it.
April 21, 2003
Review: The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell
I have a tendency to get sucked into social business books. More often than not, they're essay-thin ideas plumped out to book-thick packages.
A few recent examples: Digital Darwinism, by Evan Schwartz, The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, and even The Cluetrain Manifesto by Doc, Christopher "RageBoy" Locke, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine. If you get it, well you get it, and you'll be tempted to skip the last 50 pages explaining what it is exactly that you just got. In many cases, the Fast Company summary is more satisfying.
Not so for The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell weaves together apparently disparate phenomena like public health, fads, subway graffiti, children's television, and Paul Revere's midnight ride, and provides a framework to explain how ideas spread.
Along the way, we're introduced to connectors, salesmen, and mavens, three personality types essential to starting an epidemic.
As a long-time Mac evangelist, it was hard not to read with Apple in mind. Here's a company with a good product, rabid fans, and great buzz with alphageeks, and they continue to slog along at 3-4 percent of the market. The Tipping Point is all about how phenomena go from being down in the noise to suddenly being omnipresent, like the iMac colors a few years ago.
Gladwell has a knack for finding the story in what might otherwise be dry material. Sometimes he does it by taking you behind seemingly familiar material, like Sesame Street or Paul Revere's ride, but often it's by tying the tipping point theory back to current science in cognitive psychology, sociology, or other fields.
Good idea, great read -- Joe Bob says read it!
March 03, 2003
Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Although I have a degree in English, mostly concentrated in American literature, I don’t read much fiction. Mostly, it seems fiction teaches us about human nature and human frailties. The best nonfiction does this, as well, but throws in history, trivia, and reality.
The Devil in the White City has all that and more. It recounts the great Columbian Exposition of 1893 — the Chicago World’s Fair. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the premiere architects of 19th Century America, the fair introduced or helped popularize neoclassical architecture, AC electricity, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, belly dancing (and the melody we all associate with “There’s a place in France where the ladies wear no pants…”). On the periphery of the fair, there was also a psychopath.
Larson focuses on two men, both with grand ambitions: Daniel H. Burnham, the Chicago architect who was the creative engine of the fair, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, who schemed to become wealthy by running a hotel near the fair site, and by running insurance fraud schemes on young women he killed.
Burnham managed to create the most successful fair of the day, and to put Chicago on the world’s map. Holmes managed to bilk creditors, kill and dispose of young women as soon as they became inconvenient, and got rich in the process. In the 1890’s, without credit card receipts, instantaneous telecommunications, or income tax, people could disappear without a trace, even when no foul play was involved. It was easy for Holmes, a charming psychopath, to deflect suspicion by claiming the women involved had skipped out on their bills. A rough contemporary of Jack the Ripper, who killed 5 women, Holmes killed at least 9, with some estimates putting the number above 50. His hotel was constructed with murder in mind, with gas jets venting into some rooms, and a soundproof kiln that allowed him to dispose of remains.
This is a terrific read, by turns creepy and informative, full of detective work and turn-of-the-century technical trivia (the axle of the first Ferris Wheel weighed 142,000 pounds, and had to be raised almost 150 feet).
Weaknesses: I wish there were more illustrations. There’s one small photo at the front of each section, but no maps, and there’s a wealth of material that begs for illustration.
- A few links to make up for it:
January 19, 2003
As I mentioned a month or so ago, I signed up to be an O'Reilly Irregular. My assignment: To scope out a local Borders, and inventory the O'Reilly titles, noting which of their books are displayed face-out, which are old editions, and which (from O'Reilly or others) are getting endcap or table placements.
I did a reconnaissance visit a couple of weeks ago, and guessed that it would take an hour. It was closer to 3. This particular store had 8 endcaps and a table, almost 400 O'Reilly titles, and titles (intentionally or not I'm not sure) scattered among sections. I can understand why Learning Unix for Mac OS X would be in both the Unix and Mac OS sections, but why was Building Java Enterprise Applications: Vol. 1 - Architecture in four different sections?
January 01, 2003
Review: Live From New York
Once the freshest, latest thing in show business, Saturday Night Live is closing in on 30 seasons on the air. I was 7 when the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players made their debut, and first became a regular viewer in the pre-Eddie Murphy lean years, but I've always loved the show.
Until the rise of Comedy Central and hundreds of cable channels, it was the only place on TV for political satire, and one of the few places for live music. Two of the three songs I can remember hearing for the first time were SNL performances.
Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is a chronicle of the show's history, told by (most of) the people involved. I expected the book to be narrative, but it isn't: authors Tom Shales (TV critic for the Washington Post) and James Andrew Miller structured almost the entire book as a series of interview snippets about particular people, episodes, or events.
The section on John Belushi's death, for instance, includes comments from Anne Beatts, a writer; Lorne Michaels, the show's producer; Neil Levy, another writer; Robin Williams; Bernie Brillstein, Belushi's manager; Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, Bob Tischler, who wrote for the show and produced The Blues Brothers, Tom Davis, Carrie Fisher, Jane Curtin, Tim Kazurinsky, Joe Piscopo, Garrett Morris, and others.
The approach is interesting when it lets you see multiple sides of a conflict or different perspectives on a cast member, as with the extensive quotes from Norm Macdonald, Lorne Michaels, and Don Ohlmeyer, who forced Macdonald's firing midway through the 1999-2000 season.
It can be quite entertaining, as well, as we hear Joe Piscopo explain that his Sinatra impression was really a tribute, then hear from the writers who couldn't believe all the things Piscopo resisted on the grounds that "Frank wouldn't do that," including "Frank wouldn't eat in the Carnegie Deli," "Frank wouldn't wait for Stevie Wonder, Stevie would have to wait for Frank," and "Frank wouldn't jump off a building." Finally, in frustration, the writers considered a sketch called "Frank wouldn't do that."
On the other hand, there are a lot of voices left out: Eddie Murphy apparently refused to participate, and of course former cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Phil Hartman and writer Michael O'Donoghue are now dead.
It's usually the job of the author to provide an objective and critical eye on their sources. Here, that's mostly missing. Depending on whose quote you believe, Lorne Michaels is either the devil, a raging egomaniac, an opportunist who took advantage of the tremendous talent on the show, a gifted comedy writer, a creative genius, or all of the above.
Still, you'll learn a lot about what happens in the manic week leading up to 11:30 Saturday nights here. What the heck does the host really do? How many sketches do they prepare in a given week?
And there's a lot of SNL trivia, as well. Who was the first to say the "f-word" on SNL (I was surprised to learn it wasn't Charles Rocket)? Who was the first (maybe still the only) musical guest to lip-synch on the show?
Live From New York also provides some interesting perspective on the show's history: When did the show shift to being a platform for recurring characters? What led to the "star turn" season with already established performers like Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Harry Shearer?
Still, if you're looking for a history particularly of the show's first decade, I would instead recommend Saturday Night: A Backstage History of 'Saturday Night Live', by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. Published in 1986, it's now out of print, but it's a very entertaining read that tells the story as, well, a story.
If, on the other hand, you're curious about how the performers, writers, guests and executives behind the show look at it, Live From New York is the place to start.
I noticed that there's also a book out now by one William G. Clotworthy called Saturday Night Live: Equal Opportunity Offender. I recognized his name -- he was the NBC censor assigned to the show in its earlier years, and the book is his chronicle of the standards and practices battles with the show.
December 31, 2002
I had a pretty good Christmas. When you throw in my birthday, I pulled in all the books pictured below (click for more detail):
And that's not to mention the gift certificates to bookstores, convertible into even more pulp, glorious pulp!
Update: I've added the titles to my book queue at lower right for easier browsing; Amazon suggests I have 5,660 pages to go (although I'm about 300 pages into "Live from New York", so make it 5,400).
November 12, 2002
Review: The Boy Genius and the Mogul
Daniel Stashower's The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television recounts the invention and the commercialization of television.
It's an amazing story, pitting a remarkable young man named Philo T. Farnsworth, who came up with the essential ideas of television while still in high school in Utah, against David Sarnoff, the autocratic head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
In the early 1920s, with the success of radio assured, inventors turned to the idea of "audiovision," "telephonography," or "television." Most of them focused on mechanical means, most notably the "Nipkow disk" invented by Paul Nipkow, which shone light through perforations in a spinning disk to project areas of light and dark.
Farnsworth, almost alone, believed that the mechanical approach would never work with the sheer amont of information to be broadcast. The key, he thought, was developing a system using no moving parts -- an entirely electronic system relying on a cathode-ray tube.
Sarnoff, our mogul, was hailed as the "godfather of television" in the medium's early days, but actually took some actions that delayed the commercialization of TV while embroiled in a patent controversy with Farnsworth. Eventually, Farnsworth would become the only person paid royalties by RCA, of which Sarnoff bragged, "We don't pay royalties; we collect them." By that time, though, Farnsworth's personal life had cratered, as the constant financial stress led to depression and alcoholism.
The author is a distant relative of Hugo Gernsback, the "father of science fiction" and inspiration of the Hugo award, and he livens up the narrative with quotes from Gernsback's speculative fiction magazines, and as the fictional became real, some of his enthusiast magazines, like Radio News, Electrical Experimenter, and finally All About Television.
August 25, 2002
The OS X book for shell divers
If you're either a new OS X user with some Unix background, or someone who has been using OS X for a while, and wants to know what's under Aqua, I recommend Mac OS X Unleashed, by John Ray and William C. Ray.
A few things are outdated with the release of Jaguar (Apple has switched printing over to the Common Unix Print System or CUPS), but there's good coverage of how to treat your OS X box as a UNIX box.