I love books!

2017 Bibliography

Books I’ve read in 2017

These are presented roughly in the order I read them. They include books with hard covers, paperbacks, and audio recordings.

1. A Thread Across the Ocean, by John Steele Gordon (2002)

2. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything, by Peter Morville (2014)

3. The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City — and Determined the Future of Cities, by Joe Flood (2011)

It’s tragic that so many ambitious young men seized on so many bogus ideas for “improving” the city. They talked themselves into ridiculous things like tearing down entire swaths of established neighborhoods to put in unwanted roads, and somehow justifying that fewer fire departments would make the borough safer for fires.

4. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire, by Simon Winchester (1985)

5. The Comedians, by Grahame Green (1966)

6. Sense & Respond: How Successful Organizations Listen to Customers and Create New Products Continuously, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden

I’ve always been bugged by the notion — held by a minority of agilistas — that rapid development cycles obviate the need for design, but beyond that, I’m a big fan of agile. It is a modern management method that recognizes that programming is not at all like an industrial process. Agile thinks about things in the right way.

But, as you might expect in the world of pragmatic, aimless business, executives don’t really give a rat’s ass about doing things in a superior way if that way takes the trappings of power and authority out of their hands. So agile has been a football, kicked around by virtually everybody in the world of tech. Its tenets have been altered, ignored, substituted, and maligned. Many of its strongest proponents have become frustrated and disillusioned.

One obscure practitioner put a name to his particular variant, Scrum, and invented some rather questionable quantitative practices. He gave classes, issued certifications, and didn’t disabuse any managers of the notion that agile means building software faster. It means nothing of the sort, but if executives want development to go faster, who’s to question consultants who sell them “faster?” So, agile languishes. There are zillions of programmers who stand-up and burn-down, led by gazillions of certified Scrum Masters. Nothing is much better. Software still takes the same amount of time it always did. Oh, sure, you can deploy shitty software in a hurry, but what does that get you?

The authors of this book, Jeff and Josh, are designers, not developers, but they have adopted the thinking, tools, and philosophy of agile, not for design, not for programming, but for business. Which, of course, includes design and programming. They present real world practical applications of the idea that you can’t go off and figure out what products or services your users might want. Instead you have to engage in a real-time dialog with your users — over working software — to figure that out. It’s agile, just moved up a notch, moved out of the developer’s cubicle into the managers office.

This is a very useful book that will help you create better products and a better business. Maybe someday, programmers will refer to it to change the way they program.

7. Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, by Emmanuel Guibert (1999)

8. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

9. Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, by Brian Brett (2009)

Our past was based on small family farms, and I believe that our future will be much the same. That’s a good reason in itself to read this book. We’ve been sold a lie, that working in an office is more mentally satisfying than working in the shops or fields with our hands. It isn’t true, and eventually things will find a better balance for life.

10. The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton (2010)

11. The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty (2015)

12. The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans, by Simon Winchester (1999)

13. Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint (2009)

14. The Ardennes, 1944, The Battle of the Bulge, by Antony Beevor (2015)

The campaign made for great drama precisely because it was so unreasonable, unlikely and unexpected. Beevor has become one of my favorite author/historians for his clear writing and peerless research. Even after so many years and so many volumes about this battle, Beevor brings fascinating new insight to the story of the struggle. Particularly interesting is his brutally frank treatment of the Allied generals, revealing which of them were paper tigers and which were the real thing.

15. Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, by Judith Schwartz (2016)

16. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan (2005)

Texas, 1935. Utterly avoidable man-made climate disaster.

I’ve never read anything about this episode in American history, and knew little about it despite its being a well-known story. Egan sets it all out in clear and readable prose, how a huge swath of land, formerly the home of vast herds of buffalo and tribes of nomadic Native Americans, was ruined by racist policy and raw greed. President Andrew Jackson wanted to wipe out Indians, and, in addition to outright genocide, he offered a bounty for killing buffalo. Millions and millions of buffalo were shot and left to rot by white outdoorsmen so the indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years would be starved out and forced to relocate. And after the tribal remnants had gone, unscrupulous promoters hyped the land as suitable for wheat farming. Thousands of unsuspecting farmers moved into the huge vacated area and proceeded to apply wholly inappropriate farming techniques on the very delicate grassland. Of course, disaster ensued. The ruination was so complete that the dust actually blew as far east as Washington DC, where congressmen eventually realized their mistake.

I found this book very revealing of the American character, and that’s not really such a good thing. I recommend this book.

17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig (1974)

18. The Crack In the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester (2005

In this book Winchester focuses his awesome intellect and questing mind on the subject of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. He does a fabulous job!

I was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Bay Area hearing stories of the famous quake. Yet, I learned some remarkable facts about the tremor from this book that I had never heard before. One of the tropes repeated endlessly is that the ensuing fire was much more devastating than the actual quake was. It turns out that this was just marketing spin. The fire was bad, but mostly it just charred the rubble. The city fathers knew that people would regard a fire as a hazard that could strike in any city, but a quake was uniquely San Francisco’s problem. If they couldn’t spin this, the economic future of the City By the Bay would be stunted forever. They spun, and the fire story is still told, but the City’s economic and cultural trajectory never recovered.

Highly recommended.

19. The A — Z Guide to Black Oppression, by Elexus Jionde (2017)

She’s young and unrefined, and her writing is too, but the points she makes are good and her in-your-face attitude is a delight. I wish everyone would read this self-published book.

20. Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry, by Jeremy Blum (2013)

There’s no little irony here that this accomplished programmer has to go back to the beginning to write a little code after a twenty-year hiatus.

21. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado (2014)

Tirado isn’t a welfare queen or a criminal or a drug dealer or some kind of ne’er-do-well, as the sanctimonious conservatives would like you to believe. She’s pretty much a normal person, with flaws and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, except that she doesn’t have any money. She works hard, very hard, probably harder than you, and certainly harder than me. Most clueless people treat Tirado badly because of this. But Tirado is not an outlier. She’s not someone living on the fringes of the demographics of America. She’s actually pretty representative of many millions of people. She’s what you might call a Poor-American. Here in the affluent high-tech bubble of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to misunderstand just how representative she is.

If you own your own home, and own a couple of late model cars, and don’t think it’s an extravagance to eat out two or three times a week, you should read this book. It will open your eyes. It opened mine.

22. Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren (2016)

The author is a genuine scientist but not one who has made some world-changing discovery. She counts leaves and bugs and writes learned papers with footnotes and big words. She begs for grant money. You don’t read this book to find how DNA was discovered or the atom was first split, but to see how a normal career in science might look, and how it might be rewarding even if it doesn’t change the world. Right now is a good time for a book written by a normal woman scientist to be published. Lots of young girls are in need of Hope Jahren’s true story. And so are men.

23. A Colony In a Nation, by Christopher Hayes (2017)

24. Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, by John Markoff (2015)

I still harbor grave doubts about the idea that computers will be achieve what Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity,” where computers become smart enough to tell humans to piss up a rope, but that shouldn’t diminish the plethora of remarkable things they will learn to do along the way.

I would compare this book to those of Walter Isaacson, and favorably so.

25. Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, by Stephen Leacock (1914)

This book is a send-up of rich people. Leacock’s wit is dry but broad, taking the piss of the moneyed gentry. He paints rich people as dumb, lucky, foolish, prideful, and ridiculous. I’m not going to argue with him.

This is a very funny book, and more relevant today as rampant inequality creates a division between rich and poor reminiscent of the extravagance of the boom days of the gilded age.

26. Generative Design: Visualize, Program, and Create with Processing, by Hartmut Bohnacker et al (2012)

I just want to point out that a long-standing meme in the software industry is devising incredibly shitty names for programming languages, like “C,” “SQL,” and “C#,” and this one is no exception. In fact, I’m willing to nominate “Processing” for the worst programming language name evar!

The language, however, is very useful. It’s a simple, interpreted C-form language, but it has powerful and unique operators that make putting creative, colorful, active, dynamic images on a screen.

I’m pleased that I found this massive tome because it is a very useful cross between a tutorial and a reference. It’s big, hardbound, filled with beautiful color illustrations (expensive!), but it has everything the reader needs to become proficient creating visual computer art.

27. Annihilation: Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer

The prose here is an exercise in fuzzy, vague, hinting at something that might be happening. The sense of foreboding and inexplicable danger just outside of one’s peripheral vision is strong to the point of annoyance. That foreboding kept me reading, but it never really did pay off. This whole book — hundreds of pages — could have been covered in a chapter, and should have been covered in a chapter.

Evidently people love this style of writing, as there are sequels. Not for me.

28. Paris After the Liberation 1944–1949, by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper (1994)

In the Twentieth Century, as in the preceding century, Paris was the cultural hub of the world. Even Hitler, who bombed everything out of spite, and the Americans and British, who bombed cities in order to liberate them, didn’t bomb Paris. It’s avenues, monuments, and buildings remained intact, but the humanity of Paris seethed under the German boot, and all of that tension and emotion boiled over when the city was liberated in 1944.

Charles de Gaulle, Paris, 1944

Capturing Paris was arguably Hitler’s biggest triumph. During the four-year-long occupation by the Germans, Paris endured, but many of its residents were forced into terrible moral compromises. War, as we all know, kills soldiers but devastates the lives of many millions of civilians.

When Paris was liberated, it was a bubbling cauldron of politics. The communists were a big deal in Paris in the years before the war, and they fully expected to be the dominant party after it. There were spies and madams and fascists and collaborationists, diplomats and freebooters. The British and the Americans swaggered into town in much the same way that the Germans had a few years earlier. There were factions of the French Resistance, some still fighting, others looking for political gain, and some just wanting peace. All of these sides found the tendrils of the Cold War starting up.

The various groups fought for power, influence, money, respect, recognition, and revenge, and it’s all here in this marvelous book. One chapter might cover the humiliating battle between two different resistance groups, and then the next chapter takes us to socialite parties with the rich and famous, then the next chapter visits the runways of Parisian Haute Couture, detailing the resurgence of fashion as the fighting stops. We meet Yves St Laurent and Ernest Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle and Eisenhower, Camus, Sartre, Philby, Picasso, and Simone de Beauvoir.

I know this book will not be for everyone, and some of the exhaustive passages about infighting between the Maquis and the communists were a bit much for me, but overall this is a fantastic book. Beevor is my current favorite historian. His scholarship is incredible, and his far ranging interests are endlessly intriguing. This book reveals a side of the war you’ve never seen before.

29. Maker Cities: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities, by Peter Hirschberg, Dale Dougherty, Marcia Kadanoff (2016)

The authors make the case that people making things is as powerful a tool for economic development as having a prestigious university in your backyard. As a maker, I agree with this assertion.

30. River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (2017)

Late in the 19th century and early in the twentieth, powerful men were learning they could reshape the world with their steam engines and rifles. They hatched many schemes, like damming the Colorado, spanning the continent with rails, and killing all the buffalo. A few of these schemes prospered, but many came to misery and failure. The Dust Bowl is a case in point.

In the 1890s, well-intentioned entrepreneurs (there’s the trouble right there!) thought up the wild idea of importing hippopotami from Africa. This was seriously considered in the American Congress, but ultimately fizzled out before anyone could take action. This is where author Gailey takes over. The one leap of faith you are asked to make is that the scheme went through and the lower Mississippi is packed with clever, brutish, ill-tempered amphibious mammals that can eat a human whole. After that, the book is basically a western drama, with hippos instead of horses and cows.

Gailey has appeared on the scifi scene only recently and has been making quite a stir, becoming a finalist for the prestigious Hugo Award. Personally, I’m tickled at her success because Sarah used to work at Cooper.

31. Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, by Nick Offerman (2016)

Offerman understands the value of collaboration, and his workshop is a group endeavor. In this large format book he showcases his co-workers, mentors, and fellow travelers. He also shows off the products they create. Actually, he presents step-by-step instructions showing how you can create versions of these products in your own shop.

His quirky metaphors, jokes, and insider tales make this a fun and easy read, but the details of joinery give it some heft.

32. The Cuban Affair: A Novel, by Nelson DeMille (2017)

It’s a caper novel involving a veteran, a hot babe, lots of money, displaced Cubans, guns, and bad guys that fall like bowling pins. Take it on a plane with you, or to the beach.

33. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

I highly recommend this book to everyone, and particularly those in the tech business, as we need to know more about how people behave. Although it’s scholarly and long, it’s easy to read.

34. Autumn In the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt (2012)

China has been a cipher to me all of my life. I’ve read some books, but without having been there, my knowledge of the geography is useless. I never left the city of Nanjing, but, as it happens, a lot of the action in this book centers on that city in the 1860s.

The rise of the Taiping coincided with the collapse of the ancient dynasties in China. It was a horrific war with casualties in the millions. While I was there, I mentioned the Taiping Rebellion to a few natives, and none of them knew much about it. China’s subsequent history has included several upheavals that were just as horrible so I guess I understand their ignorance.

To a westerner, the most fascinating aspect of the story is the participation of the English and Americans. There was an enormous amount of trade with England, and the English economy, at the time, was ridiculously dependent on China. They claimed neutrality, but their behavior exhibited quite a bit of meddling. The book makes clear, though, that the English meddling was chaotic, confused, and conflicted. There were entrepreneurs, generals, admirals, politicians, and missionaries, all with a personal axe to grind. This was in a far less enlightened time, when many of the English considered the Chinese to be a separate race of less-than-human beings.

This book is not an easy read. it’s exhaustive, and I’m still plodding through it a few pages every night. Eventually I’ll finish it. Or not. But it has given me a glimpse into Chinese history, combined with my glimpse into modern Chinese culture and geography, that really helps me to understand China’s role in the world.

35. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway (1940)

This novel tells the story of an American farm boy fighting with the partisans against the fascists in the hills of Spain in the late 1930s. If you step back and look at the plot, it’s pretty macho and straightforward, but if you look closely, the complex and multi-faceted characters give the story depth and emotion. You really feel for these people, even when they misbehave.

The conditions in the mountains are brutal. The partisan band lives in a cave and has to dodge fascist patrols and bombs from airplanes. Stealing a horse is a big step forward for the band. Even more brutal than the partisan life is the vicious internecine warfare in the villages. Hemingway, in a long passage of dialog, relates a fictionalized account of a real event, where Republicans — the good guys — throw their fascist neighbors off a cliff after beating them with rakes and hoes.

Ultimately, the book is a tragedy because of what happens to the protagonist, but it’s a reflection of the larger tragedy of the war itself being lost.

Overall, this novel has aged very well. Yes, there are a few quirky things that seem…old, but it’s still a real page-turner. I’ll be reading more Hemingway in the future.

36. China In Ten Words, by Yu Hua (2010)

Randy Finch

On my recent first trip to China I made a new friend, Randy Finch. He’s an American filmmaker living and teaching in Taipei. His knowledge of cinema is encyclopedic, and it was lots of fun discussing and recommending films with him. He’s been doing good work in VR and AR, and that’s what he was speaking about in Nanjing. He was the only other westerner on the roster, and we became good friends over the course of our visit. Randy is a Sinophile. He loves the land, the people, and the language of China. It was so much fun walking the backstreets of Nanjing with him as he fearlessly approached strangers on the street to engage them in conversation with his pidgin Mandarin.

I asked Randy to recommend a book that would enlighten me about China and Chinese culture. He immediately recommended China in Ten Words.

The author, Yu Hua, has constructed ten chapters around ten words that are important in China. Some of them seem pretty straightforward, like reading and writing. Others, though address the unique Chinese experience, like grassroots, revolution, and influential Chinese poet, Lu Xun. Of course, these are the English translations of the Chinese words.

Yu grew up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the entire society was turned on its ear. Some of the stories he relates are harrowing and could only happen in a revolutionary communist dictatorship. China is past that, and has turned towards a controlled-capitalist economy. In particular, the words bamboozle and copycat provide intriguing insight into how the manufacturing juggernaut of contemporary China has grown.

It will probably take a hundred books to understand China, but this one is an excellent start. Thanks, Randy.

Six of the books I read this year were by women.

Here’s last year’s bibliography.

Here’s my bibliography for 2015.

Here’s my bibliography for 2014.

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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