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Mmmmm, books.

All of the books I read in the year 2015, in roughly the order in which I read them.

1. Skeleton Coast, by Clive Cussler

OMG I am so embarrassed that I read this book, and I will read just about anything with pride. I do not read books on a Kindle, or on my iPad, but I do listen to recorded books when I’m in the car or, sometimes, working in the shop, or exercising. I regard recorded books differently than those on the printed page. My selection criteria are looser and more wide ranging. I’ll choose a recorded book from a screen menu that I would reject if I saw it in the bookstore. That’s how I came to read Moby Dick and Salman Rushdie. Sometimes I enjoy the choice (Rushdie), other times I don’t (Dick). But that is how I came to read this execrable volume of garbage. I chose it simply because I see Cussler’s name prominently displayed on every airport bookstore shelf and I wondered whether there was any there there. Not only is this dreadful fiction, it reflects puerile politics, infantile thinking, and reprehensible human conduct. To my everlasting shame, I continued listening to the very end, in exactly the same way that you find yourself slowing down to see the blood on the freeway at the scene of the crash. All I saw was more contemptible stereotyping, more repulsive jingoistic violence, and more reactionary politics. And what does this say about America? That people read this garbage seriously and agree with its immoral moral stance? OMG!

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Brad Kessler and one of his goats.

A superb book about a simple thing. Funny how simple things are what makes life worth living. Kessler is a writer, a really good writer, who buys some goats and starts a farm. Hilarity ensues, as you might guess, but Kessler’s writing about the hilarity is superb. Kessler is a classicist, and goats and goat herding are ancient, so he has much fodder for timeless reflection. Also, cheese. Highly recommended.

It’s difficult to describe this book, as it’s a fantastical conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan about imaginary cities. Someone with more literary taste than me would like it more.

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Me, playing with my 1978 Van Pelt pumper.

Now that I own a firetruck I thought that I should learn a bit about firefighting and firefighting equipment, so I asked my neighbor, Mark, who is a professional fireman, and he loaned me a couple of his old fire science textbooks. Like any government-approved publication, the stuff in the books is simultaneously really easy and really difficult.

An exercise-centric, hands-on interaction design introductory text for high school students. This is a nice piece of work and it addresses an important need: getting youngsters prepared for the work world where UX is an important employment path.

SEALs are amazingly capable soldiers, elite Janissaries with awesome killing power. They have skill, training, and equipment with no equal across the world. In the 20th Century, we feared the mass destruction of nuclear holocaust. In the 21st Century, we should fear the tightly targeted destructive capability of the SEALs. They can kill and destroy anything they want, anywhere, anytime. The fact that America has developed — and regularly deploys — soldiers of this high caliber and awesome destructive ability is important to know. Power of this magnitude must be deployed with reticence and great care.

In any case, the SEAL training, doctrine, and the character and personalities of the men themselves are extremely fascinating. These guys are not necessarily who you want as your friend, but they are the guys you want on your side when war breaks out.

There’s a lot of really valuable insight here into the meaning of the information age. I contend that digital technology is unique in human experience and it demands significant changes in the way we do things and way we value things. Doctorow and Gaiman are as perceptive as Clay Shirky on this topic. Recommended.

The bible of service design from the people who invented it.

This unexpectedly enjoyable novel has depth. Hidden behind the nearly-Victorian manners of its older protagonists is a contemporary story of racial tolerance — and intolerance — in a small English town. The story is sweet, but it has an earthy edge and a worldliness that is refreshing and entrancing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. Recommended.

I have become a fan of Jeet Heer on Twitter (@heerjeet) where his fascinating tweets consistently make me ask myself, “How does he know this stuff?” This volume is a collection of his literary criticism such as you will find in literary journals of the type that I never read. What sets Heer apart is that his essays not only address writers and literature, but comic book artists and science fiction authors. His essay on Robert Heinlein is startling and exceptional.

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Robert Mason in Vietnam with his “Slick.”

I first read Chickenhawk shortly after its initial publication in 1983 and was immediately taken with its unique viewpoint chronicling the author’s journey through Army training and deployment to Vietnam. There are many books about fighter pilots, the knights of the air, heroically jousting with their peers, but books by military truck drivers are rare. Mason, as pilot of the ubiquitous Huey cargo and personnel helicopter, called a “slick” because it lacked any guns, has the job of ferrying soldiers to the battlefield, often hauling destroyed men on the return trip.

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Mason’s story is harrowing, and the calm, measured pace of the book is a sharp contrast to the white-knuckle flights he describes. Like such well-known first-person accounts of the Vietnam soldier experience as A Rumor of War and Dispatches, this is an anti-war polemic, and like authors Caputo and Herr, Mason arrives at his destination the long, bloody way. Mason is in love with helicopters, and he just wants to fly them. Joining the Army and becoming a soldier seems a fair trade for him to get to fly, until he learns that an army in peacetime is so vastly different from one at war. Although the slow disillusionment that overtakes him during the course of his deployment is predictable, his story is still unique and powerfully affective. When his war ends and the Army spits him out into the world, his downward spiral is breathtaking.

Since that first reading over 30 years ago, I’ve recommended the book unreservedly to others, so it seemed that it was time re-examine Mason’s story. It held up quite well. So well that I was finally motivated to read Mason’s sequel, published ten years later, and purchased in hardcover by me in 1993, where it sat untouched on my shelf until now.

This book tells the full story of that breathtaking downward spiral of Mason’s postwar life. Read it and see what we do to even the successful soldiers. War breaks people, and it does so in subtle and insidious ways. The journey of veterans is not what the politicians who send young men (and women) to war would have you believe. Vietnam was a thinly-veiled exercise in American colonialism and a flexing of our military might solely so some comfortable executives and their politicians could feel mighty. It failed, and the scars it inflicted are every bit as livid today as are the scars of the Civil War.

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This is a demanding book to read, but it offers rewards that justify the effort. It is an exhaustive fictional study of John Brown and his rebellions in the years preceding the American Civil War. While extremely well researched and closely following known facts, it tells the truth as only fiction can. Bank’s narrator is Owen Brown, the third son in the central figure’s family, so the story is told through eyes that are simultaneously contemporaneous, proximate, sharing of the social norms of the day, and both detached and deeply involved in the movements and the morality of abolitionist activism.

The ultimate notion conveyed was that Brown’s Rebellion was the only war in America that was truly about slavery. The actual Civil War was about quelling the Confederacy and returning the Union to wholeness. While Lincoln ultimately did free the slaves, secession was the casus belli, and the North would likely not have gone to war solely for emancipation. There is much of value in this book as a reflection of the resurgent racism in America today. Highly recommended.

The extent of racial prejudice in America is huge and sometimes hard to fully grasp. Up until around the 1960s Chinese were regarded as sub-human by many Americans, particularly Californians.

This book has received accolades that I think are over-generous, but it’s a valuable look into the a rarely seen aspect of our racist culture.

An excellent novel. A simple story of men reminiscing about a past love that morphs into a battle of wills, that morphs into a cautionary fable of where fate takes us. Recommended.

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This was a delightful read by the effervescent Lethem, author of the astonishingly good Motherless Brooklyn. Gardens tells the story of Jewish leftists in America in the 1930s, by following the life of Rose Zimmer, a Polish immigrant, and Miriam, her daughter and 60s radical, along with their friends and family.

As usual Lethem’s prose is complex, soaring, and rich. Some of the scenes he concocts are as good as our English teachers claimed could be found in their favorite novels, but couldn’t. Highly recommended.

You can solve a whole lot of problems in your product and make people really want to purchase and use it if you do one simple thing: pay attention to your users. Hurst’s book is a manifesto for the benefits of including customers in your process.

I’m fascinated by the Navy SEALs, America’s elite force of uber-soldiers, and have read much about them in the last few years. Because they are such a powerful weapon, they are dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, and dangerous in the hands of weak people, and exude danger just by the act of existing. As such, everything written about them is charged with danger and emotion, some supportive, some fearful. This book was disguised as an inside look at SEAL culture and operations, but midway it discarded its sheep’s clothing and revealed itself to be tea party propaganda. Not recommended.

Highly cleaned up memoir of a Silicon Valley engineer becoming a business executive. There’s some really good stuff in here about running a company whose success is dependent more on creativity than on efficiency. This is a new concept for business people who learned their skills in the industrial age, or from those who did, yet it holds true for more companies today than one might think.

The centerpiece of Catmull’s formula is to assume that every new effort is going to be crappy at first, and that it takes time, attention, and humility to improve things. That’s actually a pretty revolutionary approach.

As usual in any autobiography, what isn’t said tells as much or more than what is.

A classic book about what differentiates sustainably successful companies. Get the right people and put them in the right places. Show them your interest and attention by asking sincere questions. Don’t tell them what to do. Simple, but decidedly not easy.

Rudder is one of the founders of dating site OKCupid, and is its resident statistician. His great asset is that he has access to vast quantities of statistical data aggregated by the behavior of his clients while looking for love. This is unique because it tells us what people do rather than what they say. Thus it reveals much about what humans really want.

I bought this book because of having read some of Rudder’s justifiably famous posts on the OKCupid blog. I expected the book to be more of that, only deeper and more interesting. I was disappointed. The depth was mostly greater self-justification and the most interesting essays duplicated work already published on the website.

This book is well worth reading, but I found it very annoying simply because I was there and knew many of the players who feature in this book. It’s not that the author got the facts wrong exactly, it just seemed that he was willing to deemphasize or accentuate certain facts in order to make his desired narrative seem more coherent and inevitable. While everything he said was true, it didn’t really capture the feeling of the time for those who were doing it. To get that feeling, read Fire In the Valley instead.

Not being a contemporary of Lady Ada Lovelace, I really enjoyed Isaacson’s telling of her story, but then I reflect on how not quite precisely correct his telling of the 70s, 80s, and 90s was, and I wonder what isn’t quite right about Lady Ada’s story.

By the way, I arrived at the exact same conclusion about Isaacson’s ever-so-slight misrepresentation of history when I read his biography, Jobs.

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Roy Underhill is a national treasure, bringing the nearly lost art of hand tool woodworking to America by way of his evergreen public television program, The Woodwright’s Shop. He is an intelligent, witty, modest, and indefatigable expert whose show has inspired and educated craftsmen and historians for three decades. He has written several non-fiction books on wood and woodworking, but…a novel? How, well, novel!

I expected his first foray into fiction to be plodding and amateurish, with appeal only to a fan like me. Instead, I found a work of much greater sophistication and depth. Yes, the narrative is a bit lumpy at times, and doesn’t flow with the ease of a more experienced author, but I still recommend it without reservation.

The novel tells a story that appears remarkably far-fetched, until you read the author’s notes to find that his own uncle had a woodworking radio show on the airwaves in the 1930s. It’s not quite historical fiction, but let’s say historically-inspired fiction. Much of the historical detail in the book is based on fact and the crazy cast of characters is more realistic than you might suppose.

The story takes place 75 years ago in Washington DC, a city, like much of America, deeply riven by institutional and personal racism. Surprisingly, Underhill tackles these dark issues with unexpected feeling and optimism in this confection a of a book, which merely makes me appreciate him more. Recommended.

Calvin Cobb is published by Christopher Schwarz’s remarkable Lost Art Press, a tiny new company whose mission is to publish important writing on furniture-making using hand tools. Schwarz publishes the best of new works along with reprints of tomes long out of print. Just because his mission is serious, and many of the books scholarly, doesn’t mean that he isn’t having fun and publishing lighter works such as this one. I really appreciate the great work he doing.

Macintyre appears to be hitting his professional stride with a series of excellent non-fiction books about British spies. This book predates those volumes, published in 2003, as the London Times correspondent was honing his craft. It tells a small human story set against enormous, impersonal events. The contrast illuminates a timeless story from an era long gone.

Everyone knows that World War I was characterized by static trench lines that remained essentially unmoved for years, and combat was mostly the brutal attrition that occurred in the few hundred yards of no-man’s land between them. While true, it obscures the wildly different character of the initial three months of the war, when the lines were as fluid as any blitzkrieg panzer battle of 30 years later. The contesting armies’ hundreds of thousands of soldiers repeatedly swept across the northern plains of France before the battle lines hardened for the duration. But at the moment the lines froze, there were still thousands of soldiers scattered by shock and battle behind the newly formed enemy lines. Some of them were captured, some repatriated, some killed, and others lived remarkable lives such as the eponymous Englishman of this story.

Macintyre meticulously researched this story from the detailed contemporary records and tells it in a clear narrative. Indeed there are some gaps, and some of the player’s thoughts and emotions are conjecture of necessity, but the author gives us his reasoning of who was loyal, who betrayed whom, and why. Highly recommended.

A great science fiction novel set in the post-fossil fuel near future when much of the southern portion of the United States is underwater. Like all good science fiction, Bacigalupi’s work makes us imagine how the actions we take today will affect our children’s future, and this future is a grim one. Recommended.

Whaddaya know, an actual science fiction novel that isn’t space opera or fantasy. The author takes actual reality and extends it into the near future and then tells a human story within that framework. The story is human, but about the protagonist’s struggle against the elements using technology, science, math, and grit. It is not a tale of human emotions battling against each other against a futuristic background, as is so much of what passes for science fiction. Recommended.

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I had the opportunity to meet Andrew Weir at a private showing of the movie version of his book and he is an intelligent and modest fellow who writes code for a living. He said that his childhood ambition wasn’t to be an astronaut but rather to be one of those guys behind a monitor in Mission Control in Houston. After the movie, Weir was interviewed on stage by Mythbuster Adam Savage along with actual astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield. Until you meet an astronaut it’s hard to fully grasp just how hyper-competent they are in all things, including having good manners. Hadfield is no exception, and it is evident that, while he would never publicly denigrate someone, he would equally never praise something disingenuously. So when he compliments Weir on his uncannily accurate portrayal of how astronauts think, it carries some weight. The video of this interview can be seen here (The bald head in the front row in the opening shots is me).

The so-called “Smart City” as envisaged by those poised to sell it for a profit is not only not smart, it isn’t good or even consistent with the notion of what a city is. It’s so easy to put a gloss of futuristic modernism on fascist software and sell it to eager, amateur civic leaders. There is so much money to be made doing so that big companies whose business is based on selling garbage technology infrastructure (the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, IBM) can not restrain their glee. Greenfield dismembers their claims one by one in this slim, but dense, book.

I considered reading this exhaustive, rambling, amusing autobiography of the Rolling Stones guitarist and founder on printed pages, but instead listened to an audio recording of it voiced by the talented Johnny Depp. I’m glad I did. Depp’s over-the-top acting is actually quite an accurate rendition of how Richards speaks, so listening to Depp through the long book feels just like listening to the old rocker, regaling me himself with tales of inventing modern rock and roll, through a smoky haze across a pitted table littered with needles, fag ends, and dark whisky. A hoot.

As a programmer, I am familiar with the concept of complex systems. In this book, Dana Meadows expanded my understanding of how systems work outside of the confines of a digital CPU. There is lots of valuable insight into how the world works to be found here, particularly how systems thinking is so easily misunderstood. From now on I am including this book in the essential tech practitioner’s bibliography.

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In the future, historians will look back on America’s century-long War on Drugs as the single most grandly foolish and self-destructive thing ever undertaken by this country, and there are a plethora of foolish and self-destructive things to choose from. Hari’s book puts this assertion into some perspective. It’s an interesting read in that it is simultaneously an intimate, personal story, interweaved with the intimate, personal stories of others affected by the drug war that simultaneously tells the much vaster, impersonal story of a nation warring only with itself and its citizens.

The War on Drugs has always been a racist mechanism. It was created almost single-handedly by one sociopathic individual who capitalized on race-baiting and fear to build his own career. Since then, the self-powered juggernaut has become an extremely effective tool for institutionalizing racism by those with sufficient money and power to get their drugs without fear of arrest. Highly recommended.

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Clearly, the American debacle in Vietnam was easy to see coming a decade away. The French saw it, the English saw it, Ho Chi Minh saw it, and all of the “Old China Hands” in the Foreign Service (who were fired during Cold War years of commie fear) saw it. The only ones left were the blind ones, the quiet ones, who idiotically thought that they could tell people what to do.

This is an exhaustive book and it’s also exhaustive to read. Perlstein’s style is to bombard the reader with staccato facts from contemporaneous history. As you read you begin to get a strong sense of the zeitgeist of the 1970s — the draining self-loathing from our defeat in Vietnam, the anger of our jingoistic reaction to that failure, the pain and worry of traumatic social upheavals, the tightening fear from OPEC’s gut-punch embargo — and you begin to understand how a nation could surrender itself to a willing belief in feel-good lies told to us by that great Teflon President whose every utterance was a feel-good lie, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Recommended.

Kaplan’s exposition forms a clear pattern: he marshals his arguments with clear, building logic, always seeming as though he is about to wrap everything up with a grand unified explanation, and then he dashes the reader’s hopes with yet another dose of “it’s complicated.” In his defense, geopolitics is nothing if not complicated, so one who quests for sound bites or simple explanations will be disappointed. As he indicates early in the book, this is Kaplan’s mea culpa for thinking that 21st Century technology and globalization would render the influence of geography moot on the international scene, and being quite wrong about it. Whereupon, he takes the reader on a round-the-world tour of the geological realities of the world, that is, why Europe is so vibrant, America so blind, Russia so paranoid, the Middle East so fragmented and fragile, China so fraught. There’s such a pattern in the way a mountain fastness homeland can so determine a people’s nature and so predestine them for fierce defensive character, or how a steppe-bred people are determined for conquest. Yet history is as populated with conundrums and idiosyncrasies as it is with archetypes.

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I’ve become a huge fan of Ben Macintyre over the last few years. His non-fiction works on British espionage are unequaled in sheer enjoyable reading because he makes his subjects so human and approachable. When the Imperial War Museum created a “major exhibition” for the 2008 centenary of author Ian Fleming, creator of Bond, James Bond, it was only natural that they charge Macintyre with authoring the catalog to accompany it. Macintyre deftly blends the story of the world’s most famous fictional spy with the equally intriguing story of his creator. Although this volume is clearly a work for hire, the author’s love for both Fleming and Bond is clearly evident.

Along with the rest of Cold War America, teenage me devoured the James Bond novels and soaked in the popularity of the spy genre during its height in the 1960s. Bond was the fictional prototype for a thousand copycat spies. Naturally, because of the way they were so universally portrayed, I accepted that spies were worldly, urbane, sophisticated, quirky, randy, and deadly. More than anything, this was Ian Fleming’s legacy: the James Bond archetype. When, in the 1990s, I read the superb spy novels of John Le Carré, my familiar archetype got kicked to the curb in favor of the intellectual, quiet, ignored, cuckolded, petty official George Smiley. Aha, the cynical me thought, here is the true reality so obscured by the grossly unreal, fictive Bond. Smiley is the anti-hero, so human with his failures and setbacks. When he vanquishes his enemies, the reader can easily credit the victory to his bureaucratic persistence as much as to his skill. This seemed more real to me, and I now regarded Bond as improbable. The dashing tuxedo-clad womanizer must clearly be just a silly caricature from the movies. More recently, I’ve been reading Macintyre’s inspired non-fiction about British intelligence. In his books Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, A Spy Among Friends, and the present volume on Fleming, all of my bedrock understanding has turned to skittish ice floes. Some of the meticulously researched real characters in MI5 during WWII were every bit the equal of Bond in drinking, eating, gambling, and womanizing. Others, women, were as bold as any Bond girl. And former spy Fleming himself was a globe-trotting, upper class alcoholic until he finally set pen to paper at his beachside Jamaican winter home, Goldeneye, to create James Bond. Autobiography? Not quite. Unreal fantasy? Too much fact for that. Teenage libido? Sustaining. Taciturn bureaucrat? Just one of many types of real spies.

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Schwartz takes pains to say she is a journalist, not an advocate, but we are not convinced. Still, there is nothing wrong with advocacy if one can articulate a case with care and open eyes. I really admire the way she leads with her chin, titling her book in such a way as to provoke barking disbelief even from tree-hugging progressives, who are her natural tribe.

I’ve been living on a working farm for five years now, and I know that what she says is true. Our resident shepherd has taught me the truth of the dirt farming, and how ruminant animals are the symbiotic saviors of soil. All of the horror stories we hear about how cattle are destroying the ecosystem, while centered on a kernel of truth, pillory the wrong enemy. The American system of industrialized agriculture is the real perpetrator. Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) are the true culprit. Cows (and sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, buffalo, elephants, etc) are fine caretakers of the land, but trying to industrialize large animal farming simply doesn’t work.

I found this book compelling because it got below the surface and talked about dirt, a point of view missing from almost every discussion of farming. Our modern notion of farming as “inputs and outputs” is fairly new, and one that was created in the wake of World War One, when all of those ammunition factories saw their lucrative markets going away. The essential ingredient of explosives is nitrogen, so they simply turned their nitrogen-processing infrastructure to the manufacture of that new miracle product, fertilizer, and modern industrial farming was born. Unfortunately, applying nitrogenous fertilizer to your farm is equivalent to feeding a steady diet of methamphetamines to your children. They do excellent up until they become strung out and dependent, and then they die. Right now, the farmland of America is on life-support and about to expire completely. Schwartz has some answers. Recommended.

You can read my bibliography for 2014 here.

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Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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