Recent Reads

Nathan W. Pyle: Strange Planet and Stranger Planet

Totally delightful. This being thinks in manners pleasingly similar to my own. I originally stumbled over this comic on Instagram, which is a great medium for online comics now that a post can have multiple images. I was immediately taken by the manner of speech of the characters, which has a formality and accuracy that just plain makes sense.

Richard Littler: Discovering Scarfolk

The pamphlets, posters and other pleasingly skewed civic media associated with the Scarfolk phenomenon made this a tempting buy, but it was a little disappointing in the end.

I still love all the visual media and elegant turns of phrase to be found within, but the story constructed around the fictional adventure of a visitor to the town of Scarfolk didn’t really grab my interest. The story does a great job of providing a setting in which the imagery fits, and provides more opportunity for the kind of writing we see in the text of the posters and pamphlets, but for some reason I found it a bit tedious to read. Maybe that’s intentional though, and part of the charm, since there is a heavy focus on the trappings of bureaucracy.

For more information, please re-read this section.

Peters and Waterman: In Search of Excellence

I only skimmed this book at first, but then got increasingly interested towards the end. I made the assumption that this book from the distant past world of 1982 would be regurgitating a bunch of antiquated corporate nonsense that has since been cast aside, but some of what it says is still surprisingly relevant.

Relevant in that it feels like only today are the lessons from that world starting to be applied in practice. The interesting parts are about company culture, what motivates workers and what makes large companies succeed. They mention trusting employees, empowering them with responsibility and autonomy, taking risks on side bets, avoiding stagnation by always coming up with new ideas, and keeping business unit size small to cut down on red tape.

It’s not until the last decade or so that I’ve been exposed to companies that are actually doing some of these things. It’s refreshing, but why did it take this long?

Frank Gasking: The Games that Weren’t

This book is about assorted famous and unknown video games that failed to reach market for various interesting reasons. It covered the whole range of history from almost the beginning right up to the date of publication.

I found the book very inconsistent in the amount of information presented on each game – many pages for some relatively uninteresting ones and almost nothing on some of the more tantalizing ones. I suppose this is inevitable given how difficult it must be to obtain this kind of information, especially in cases where the developers have died, disappeared from public life, or are legally bound not to comment.

There were a few stories that were particularly interesting to me. I learned of the existence of Akka Arrh, a novel game that was pushed out of the crib by Robotron – but I think the unpronounceable name would have killed it anyway. I learned what happened to some arcade-to-home ports that were promised in the gaming magazines I loved as a kid but never materialized. There were even bits about console hardware that never hit shelves. Now I know why Carmageddon 3 ended up being so terrible.

The book has a website (linked in the title above) that continues to add new entries that weren’t in the book.

Daniel Konstanski: The Secret Life of Lego Bricks

I contributed to the kickstarter for this book and it was well worth the money and the wait. There isn’t really any need for other books about Lego history – this one is amazingly thorough and answers a lot of the questions I had about Lego the company and their processes.

It’s mainly about the history of Lego themes and related pieces, how they came to be and how Lego learned to understand the popularity of various sets and get out in front of what customers wanted.

Jerry Pournelle: King David’s Spaceship and Jennifer Pournelle: Outies

Prequel and almost-sequel to the Mote in God’s Eye series by Niven and Pournelle, which is required reading for any science fiction fan. These two stories have a similar theme built around using the Empire of Man’s own rules against it. In the former book it’s humans doing it and in the latter it’s Moties.

They’re both decent. My only complaints were that the former book shows its age in its treatment of the one token female character – some but not all of which can be excused by the story being set it a very patriarchal society, and the latter book is a big slow getting started but really picks up in the second half.

Stephen Baxter: Proxima and Ultima

Did Not Like. I tend to find cross-time and alt-history stories tedious because I read SF to learn about the future, not the past. The anachronistic Roman and Inca civilizations depicted here managed to be not completely boring, but I also didn’t like the conclusion of the story arc – it was a downer to me.

Autumn Cthulhu

Picked up on a whim when browsing a book store, and it was worthwhile. Given the distinct lack of new, original stories coming from Lovecraft himself (death is no excuse!), one must make do with stories set or potentially set in the same universe. While few of the short stories in this volume fully captured the Lovecraftian flavor I like, they were close enough.

Benford & Niven: Glorious

The anticipated third book in the Bowl of Heaven series, which I mentioned in an earlier post. It introduces another new type of macro-engineered habitat, and was interesting and entertaining. I liked this best out of the three books in the series, I think.

Alastair Reynolds: Inhibitor Phase

I was absolutely delighted to stumble over another Revelation Space book that I didn’t know was coming, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. This puts a nice cherry on top of a universe that still inspires my imagination.

James Martin: Calgary the Unknown City

This was recommended to me but I found it a disappointment. I was hoping for some insight into the history of the city and some little-known facts. While there was some of that, the bulk of the book is more like a tourist guide advertising present-day popular businesses and tourist spots, which a never-ending stream of snide and sarcastic comments and jokes so obvious they could go without saying.

The Berserker Saga

At the beginning of 2021 I decided to make a project of reading Fred Saberhagen’s entire Berserker saga, in as close to chronological order as possible. I had been accumulating the books for years already and only had a few left to find.

For those unfamiliar, the basic premise is that one of the very rare warlike species in the galaxy built a fleet of intelligent, self-replicating war machines as an ultimate weapon to overcome their bitter enemies. It worked, but random events eventually let the war machines turn on their creators. These berserker machines then proceeded to continue to eradicate all life down to bacteria around the galaxy until they ran into humans, who were the only other intelligent life violent enough and well-placed to fight back. This setting yields a universe for war and adventure stories spanning a large volume of space, and thanks to carefully balanced environmental factors around space travel, also somewhat expansive in time. It’s a shared universe too, with other authors occasionally invited to play.

Overall I enjoyed the series. It’s a similar universe in scope and wonder to Larry Niven’s Known Space, though I do much prefer Known Space.

Saberhagen’s writing style is a bit odd, especially in the early stories. He repeats bits of exposition too frequently, has some awkward phrasing and never made much headway towards having female protagonists. A friend suggested to me that this awkwardness results from editing together the originally serialized stories, and that may account for some of it but I find it had to believe it’s all from that.

He also has an unusual convention, perhaps meant to be thought-provoking, of referring to all intelligent lifeforms as “human” and our particular variety as Earth-descended human. I have a little trouble accepting this as non-accidental because I’ve seen far too much abuse of such terms in science fiction (though admittedly mostly in film). Perhaps his point is that all intelligent beings should consider themselves kin based on that property alone, which I certainly agree with. It’s just weird to abuse the term that way.

That said, the writing improved noticeably in the later (non-serialized) stories and the adventure is there and there are enough mysterious artifacts and natural wonders to fire the imagination.

If you choose to follow this path, be aware that there are lots of volumes that contain reprinted short stories. Here’s my reading order, with repeats crossed out. You might be able to find a more optimal combination of compilations than I did.

  • Berserker
    • Fortress Ship
    • Goodlife
    • In Temple of Mars
    • Mr. Jester
    • Masque of Red Shift
    • Patron of the Arts
    • Peacemaker
    • Sign of the Wolf
    • Stone Place
    • The Face of the Deep
    • What T and I Did
  • Brother Assassin (also titled Brother Berserker)
    • Stone Man
    • Winged Helmet
    • Brother Berserker
  • Berserker’s Planet
  • Berserker Man
  • The Ultimate Enemy
    • The Smile
    • Pressure
    • The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron
    • Inhuman Error
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • Starsong
    • Smasher
    • The Game
    • Wings out of Shadow
  • The Berserker Wars
    • Stone Place
    • The Face of the Deep
    • What T and I Did
    • Mr. Jester
    • Winged Helmet
    • Starsong
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • Wings out of Shadow
    • The Smile
    • The Adventure of the Metal Murderer
    • Patron of the Arts
  • Berserker Base
    • Itself Surprised (Roger Zelazny)
    • Teardrop Falls (Larry Niven)
    • With Friends Like These (Connie Willis)
    • Deathwomb (Poul Anderson)
    • What Makes Us Human (Steven R. Donaldson)
    • Pirates of the Twilight (Ed Bryant)
    • Prisoners’ Base
    • Friends Together
    • The Founts of Sorrow
    • The Great Secret
    • Dangerous Dreams
    • Crossing the Bar
    • Berserker Base
  • Berserker Throne
  • Berserker: Blue Death
  • The Berserker Attack (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserker Lies
    • Introduction
    • The Machinery of Lies
    • Masque of Red Shift
    • In Temple of Mars
    • Brother Berserker
    • Smasher
  • Berserker Kill
  • Berserker Fury
  • Shiva in Steel
  • Berserker Prime
  • Berserker’s Star
  • Rogue Berserker
  • Berserker Death (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The beginning (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserker Man (anthology) (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The Early Tales (all stories duplicates)
  • Berserkers: The Later Tales
    • Berserker’s Prey (alternate title: Pressure)
    • Starsong
    • The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron
    • Inhuman Error
    • Wings Out of Shadow
    • The Game
    • The Smile
    • Smasher
    • Some Events at the Templar Radiant
    • The Metal Murderer
    • The History of the Galaxy
    • Introduction to The Machinery of Lies
    • Machinery of Lies
    • The Bad Machines
    • Servant of Death (co-author Jane Lindskold)
  • Earth Descended
    • The Adventure of the Metal Murderer
    • Patron of the Arts

Book Report: The Clean series by Robert Martin

I recently finished reading a trio of books of software development best practices by “Uncle Bob” Martin. The books are:

  • Clean Code – this one is about the nuts and bolts of making your code readable and maintainable.
  • Clean Architecture – this is about system-level design; how to modularize systems properly to make them flexible and maintainable.
  • The Clean Coder – how to behave professionally as a programmer, assuming you want to. This was was the most interesting to me, because nobody ever tells you this stuff.

Because I also wanted to turn this into a presentation for my colleagues at work, I’ve taken extensive notes and shared them as a slide deck here.

If you’re interested in knowing what’s in the books but aren’t sure if you want to read them, I encourage you to have a look over my notes. They’re all in order by chapter and summarize what I consider the important points. If they catch your interest, you’ll be able to find the relevant section in the book easily from this.

I agree with much of what Martin says in these books, but by no means all. Architecture and professionalism are areas wherein I want to improve myself, and I intend to continue reading this type of book.

Book report: Deep Work by Cal Newport

(link to book) I read this a while ago as part of a reading group at work. Quite a bit of the content resonated with me – I’ve always found concentration on my task to be both important and rewarding, but it’s getting harder and harder to achieve these days.

Things that I thought worthy enough to bookmark:

  • The Monastic Philosophy: Schedule long periods of time time for your deep work, and isolate yourself during that time. Go physically far away from all people and distractions.
  • The Bimodal Philosophy: Alternate between deep work (in periods of at least one full day) and interaction with distractions. The distractions can give you ideas and check your thinking.
  • The Rhythmic Philosophy: This is Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” thing. Keep a calendar on your wall, and check off every day you achieve a period of deep work, and try not to break the chain. This helps develop a habit and helps you remember to set aside time for deep work every day.
  • The Journalistic Philosophy: Fit in short periods of deep work whenever you get the chance. Just sit down and do it – it doesn’t matter if you’re going to be interrupted in 20 minutes. You’ll still make some progress, and that’s better than none.
  • The Grand Gesture: If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate in your normal surroundings, make a change of scene specifically for working on something you need to do. Take a mini working vacation, with luxuries, in another city and work there.
  • Some useful disciplines:
    • Focus only on the most important thing.
    • Focus on the “lead measures”. Lag measures are your progress on the task so far. Lead measures are your new behaviors that will help you progress better.
    • Keep a compelling scorecard. Competition, even if it’s just with yourself, is motivating.
  • Idleness is important. You need downtime, relaxation and entertainment to be energized and creative. Learn to decide when you’re crossing into laziness without berating yourself for it. Sometimes you even need to do nothing at all (not even entertainment) for a while too – it leads naturally to meditation.
  • Change your perspective – instead of taking focus breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus for distraction. (This is really hard if your workplace is full of work-related distraction, as mine is.)
  • Schedule your internet use both at home and at work.
  • Meditate productively – occupy yourself physically and let your mind wander around your tasks. For example, I like to take a 30-minute walk after lunch every day, and I tend to think about work-related things during this time. It really helps organize my thoughts and make decisions.
  • Be aware of looping. If you keep going over the same thoughts over and over, When you detect a loop, concentrate on the next step.
  • Structure your deep thinking time. Identify variables and tasks, and know what your next step is.
  • Consider the means by which you select your work tools (this mainly means online and software tools):
    • The Any-Benefit approach. We tend to default to using a tool if it benefits us at all, but lately this is being exploited in ways that distract us – notably by social media and web advertising.
    • The Craftsman approach. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negatives.
    • Identify the main high-level goals in your personal and professional lives, then list the two or three most important activities that will help you achieve those goals. Evaluate your current tools on how well they help you with these activities, and look for replacements if any are found wanting.
  • Spring cleaning: Pack everything up, uninstall all your software and log off from all your online accounts. Then unpack, reinstall or log back in the things you actually need during your work week. Get rid of everything still packed away after that.
  • Don’t use the Internet for entertainment. One click leads to another and eats up all your personal time.
  • “Drain the Shallows”: If you can clear your schedule of meetings, brainless work and other interruptions, you’ll be able to concentrate more and get more done.
    • Schedule every minute of your day. This means block off time for deep work, and block off time for petty things like email.
    • Answer this question: “What is the project represented by this email/interruption, and what is the most interruption-free way of successfully completing it?”
    • Make it your default policy to not respond to email, and write your emails in such a way that the default action of the recipient is to not respond.

If you struggle with productivity at work or at home, have distraction and concentration problems, or just want to get stuff done, it’s worth your time to read this book.

What I’ve been reading

The Purple Cow by Seth Godin

A short, easy read and one of the must-reads if you’re of a mind to start a business. It’s about how to differentiate products and carve out a market for yourself. The two main lessons that stuck for me are “Don’t be boring” and “Safe is risky” – the latter I take to mean avoid complacency.

Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson

Possibly the only likely means to beat addictive habits and the thought patterns that lead to self-defeating behavior. It’s a bit hard to internalize though; I expect to re-skim this book every year or two for a refresher. Highly recommended.

More Effective C# by Bill Wagner

Part of my career-related reading plan; I read the first volume a while back and thought I might as well follow up. This book is feeling a little dated now since a lot has changed in C# since it was published, but there’s still quite a bit if useful advice and some interesting tidbits about the language. I added a few things to my style guide as a result of reading this.

How to Think About Exercise by Damon Young

This book was given to me as a gift and it’s a fairly easy read. I’ve been on an exercise regimen for years now, and it was interesting to see how parts of this book parallel my own thinking and parts I disagree with. I find getting out for a walk during the day helps clear my head and get the creativity flowing again, I disagreed with some of the more metaphysical bits about athletic discipline and self-discovery though, but I guess that’s because I have no desire to be an athlete.

The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau

A must-read for anyone who, like me, has toyed with the idea of starting up what the kiddies these days call a “side hustle” to either get some passive income going or maybe eventually become self-employed. It’s really inspiring and motivational, and I’m likely to go back to it for a refresher later. The author also has a podcast on this subject that makes a great listen.

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