All posts by James Reffell

Reading #67: 2015 in Nonfiction

Just to keep track, here’s (most of) the non-fiction I read in 2015.

  • The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch
  • Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
  • The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture by Scott Herring
  • The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology by Tom Shippey
  • Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny
  • Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art by Zabet Patterson
  • 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Montfort and Patsy Baudoin
  • On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delany (re-read)
  • A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S.

I’d like to (some day) write more about a few of these. Peripheral Vision and 10 Print were fun to read next to each other. The Hoarders was challenging for me because of its subject and how forcefully non-judgmental the author’s approach was. A Red & Pleasant Land is an intense critical and artistic study of Lewis Carrol’s works in the guise of an RPG campaign supplement. And The Reformation was … long.


Reading #66: Fiction in 2015

Just to keep track, here’s (most of) the fiction I read in 2015.

  • Annhilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (re-read)
  • Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
  • Confusion by Neal Stephenson
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (re-read)
  • Hawk by Steven Brust
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (re-read)
  • The Desert and the Blade by S. M. Stirling
  • The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

There were some fine novels in here! The Peripheral in particular is amazing – still thinking about it months and months after first reading. I was also lucky enough to hear Gibson read a few chapters live before I started.

I read Aurora and Seveneves around the same time, and perhaps my thinking about both of them is tangled, but both struck me as authors I like taking a swing at very old SF tropes (the generation ship and the planetary disaster). And then making them more realistic (at least in part) and way more depressing.

Lock In and The Martian are both smaller novels, and both lovely examples of how well you can execute realistic, near-future science fiction with a narrow focus. Also, not depressing.

I enjoyed Hawk very much but you definitely need to have read all the seven hundred preceding Vlad Taltos books first.



Reading #65: Design Books in 2015

Just to keep track, here’s (most of) the design books I read in 2015.

  • Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand
  • Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
  • 100 Diagrams that Changed the World by Scott Christianson
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert

I have trouble talking cogently about design books while I’m designing, but I particularly recommend Abby Covert’s book. The best information architecture books for new information architects for sure. Very likely one of the best for experienced (jaded) IAs as well.

Reading #63: Season of the Witch & Ancillary Justice

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love
Season of the Witch
 by David Talbot

I didn’t grow up in California, so certain things about the history of the state, and in particular the history of San Francisco, only slide into place when I have a little more context. This can be around little everyday things — it was only after reading a history of the colonization of California by the Spanish, and subsequent annexation by the United States, that I understand the origin of half the street names in this city.

At a deeper level than street names, if you live anywhere long enough, you start to ask questions, often in fuzzy and inchoate ways. A lot of those questions boil down to: “How did we get here?” In San Francisco, a lot of the “how we got here” questions have at least some roots in the period Talbot covers in Season of the Witch, between 1967 and 1982. Talbot covers the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping of Patty Hearst, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone by Dan White, the Zebra killings, and some other less deadly but still fairly sinister episodes.

It’s not a perfect history, and the decision to end with (but not explore deeply) the AIDS crisis and the 49ers victories doesn’t seem quite right. But if you read this alongside Randy Shilts’s works (The Band Played On, The Mayor of Castro Street), the holes start to fill in. Among other effects, you start to see the force of history in the people and politics of today. Knowing our current Mayor Ed Lee, seen as a force of corporate gentrification in today’s housing crisis, got his start as a housing activist protecting the Chinese community changes how you see him, regardless of your opinion of his policies. Knowing (in gruesome detail) that Senator Feinstein saw the bodies of her murdered colleagues in City Hall and had to make the announcement of the assassination to the city goes a long way to explaining her personal brand of law & order politics, for example.

Also, in reading it, I’m apparently being a good San Francisco citizen and reading the One City Book of 2015.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Hugo and Nebula award winner! Despite some nasty Hugo award related hijinks. There’s an interesting Gender Thing, which works well in context and I enjoyed, but overall the story fits neatly into an Iain Banks style of space opera – very focused on the problems of empire, amorality, and an overall sense of futility, with also some stuff blowing up and cool things. The antagonist (kinda), Anaander Mianaai, is probably one of my favorite villains (sorta) in any recent novel. I’m eager to see what she does with the universe next.

Reading #62: California Bones

California Bones (Daniel Blackland, #1)California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

I’ve lived in California for almost 18 years now, but last year was my first visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. The pits themselves are bubbly, smelly, and a little anticlimactic. The life-sized models are 70s-esque and cartoonish. Watching paleontologists work on giant crated hunks of tar extracted from LACMA’s new garage is surreal and wonderful, but it’s a little hard to see what they’re doing. The museum is fantastic, though. Skeletons of giant sloths, mastodons, saber-tooth cats (“Not tigers,” I’m corrected by my daughter). It’s a small museum but well done and the view into the fossil lab gives an impressively clear view of what paleontologists actually do.

But my favorite exhibits was the backlit gallery of dire wolf skulls, on the grounds that it looked totally cool.

iPhone Photos Early 2014

See? Totally cool. I don’t actually know this for sure — I haven’t read any interviews by him— but I have a hunch that was why Greg Van Eekhout write California Bones. Because the idea of an alternate dystopian LA  run by terrifying ageless magicians powered by magic extracted from prehistoric bones is also totally cool. (This advanced literary concept is based largely onSteven Brust’s  Cool Stuff Theory of Literature.) And it is! There’s even a scene (which I won’t give away) with the dire wolf skulls, promise.

The peril of a book based on a premise that cool is, frankly, that it won’t quite live up to it. California Bones is a lot of fun, and manages the dual trick of taking the premise seriously (meaning it scrupulously abides by the rules of the world it has set up) while not taking itself too seriously (it’s funny even while being all dark and serious in parts). It does not quite live up to the coolness of the premise, but I’m happy to forgive that, if only for the but with the dire wolf skulls.

Reading #61: The Inquisition, Vikings, and Cossacks

I’m skipping twenty or so books I’ve failed to write about in a timely manner in favor of some more recent ones.

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets London Under by Peter Ackroyd

I love London, history, underground things, and spooky things–therefore this was a pleasure to read. It’s not a linear history or narrative, more a series of vignettes focusing on different underground aspects of London (sewers, wells, lost rivers, Roman ruins, the Underground itself). I could fault it for its glancing and non-specific references to things I then had to look up elsewhere (like the Roman bath-house in the basement of a Thames-side office building) but I enjoyed the looking up as well. The next time I visit London I’ll try to find some of the hidden sights–the Clerk’s well at Clerkenwell, the spots where you can hear the underground rivers flowing, and the section of Roman wall in the middle of a car park.

The CossacksThe Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy

The preschool my kids attend has a fundraising auction every year. This year one of the things up for auction was a large set of Russian books (in translation) along with a bottle of vodka. I’d only read two of the set before and was unable to resist bidding. So … now I’m committed to reading all of them. Easing my way in, I started with an early and short Tolstoy novel, The Cossacks.

It’s a little odd to be reading it when Cossacks are actually in the news, but it’s a fine romance–more romantic toward the place and the people Tolstoy and his wealthy Moscow hero encounter than a woman, though there is a woman. Read it when you’re in the woods.

 The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at The End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Short, sweet, creepy, and a little brutal. All very history / memory / loss / childhood (and creepy things) and so very like The Graveyard Book or Coraline, except for adults.


God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern WorldGod’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World – Cullen Murphy

Quick summary: The Inquisition–Cullen Murphy’s not a fan. It’s a very opinionated history. On the other hand, the various Inquisitions were pretty nasty, and don’t have a lot of defenders. Murphy does a nice job of laying out the different Inquisitions that have existed and their interrelationships (something I was totally unclear on before reading this).

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths – Nancy Marie Brown

Two books in one. One is a history of Snorri Struluson, author of the Prose Edda and ultimate source for a large majority of everything we know about Norse legend. Sadly, I found this (the majority of the book) pretty dry, even as I understood it shouldn’t be–Snorri is a central figure in Icelandic history even apart from the Edda. It shouldn’t have been dull, but it was. The other part of the books talks about the process through which the sagas (Snorri’s and others) found their way into other histories, art, literature, right on up to Wagner, Tolkien, and the Marvel Comics version of Thor. That part was well done and fascinating.

I do love that 700+ years after he dies you can go visit his hot tub, though.

Also read:
A Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon
Satisfying final chapter of a fantasy series that dragged on a bit long.

Reading #60 2013 Bankruptcy Edition

I’m declaring reading note bankruptcy for anything read in 2013. Or early 2014. It was a busy summer and fall and winter. I did keep a list, though.


Of the nonfiction, I particularly recommend How Music Works by David Byrne and A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. Both expanded my understanding of what humans can do, individually and in groups. Much more is hard to ask from any book.

  • How Music Works by David Byrne
  • The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes
  • The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900 by Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway
  • Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City by Paul Morley
  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
  • News from Nowhere and Other Writings by William Morris
  • Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith
  • Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt
  • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

New (to me) Fiction

Of the fiction, I particularly recommend Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyland by Stephen King.

Blackbirds is a fantasy thriller with a noir feel and a unique voice. Joyland is my favorite kind of Stephen King novel — quiet, thoughtful, and creepy. How I Live Now is a young adult novel which kept going in directions I didn’t expect.  Middlesex is hard to describe but you can think of it as a history of Detroit through the eyes of one odd individual. The Newsflesh trilogy is far, far better than a trilogy about zombie-hunting bloggers has any right to be.

Looking at this list, all but Middlesex follow a similar pattern: they’re short, take a classic genre trope (or three) in a new direction, and feature a distinct voice.

  • The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
  • Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
  • Abaddon’s Gate  by James S.A. Corey
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Deadline by Mira Grant
  • Blackout  by Mira Grant
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  • A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
  • Gate of Ivrel by C. J. Cherryh
  • Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  • Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
  • Joyland  by Stephen King
  • The entire Change series by S. M. Stirling

Graphic novels

  • Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  • Prophet, Vol. 1: Remission by Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milogiannis and Brandon Graham
  • Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight by Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy and Emma Rios
  • Fatale, Book 2: The Devil’s Business by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
  • Invisibles (whole series) by Grant Morrison
  • Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction
  • Hawkeye: Little Hits, Vol. 2 by Matt Fraction
  • Young Avengers, Vol. 1 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Re-Read Fiction

  • Against the Odds by Elizabeth Moon
  • Cetaganda by Elizabeth McMaster Bujold
  • Phoenix by Steven Brust
  • Dragon by Stephen Brust
  • Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • The core Dorsai novels by Gordon Dickson
  • Most of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” by
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull

Reading #59: Statistical Wizards, Revelations, and Vampires


Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of RevelationRevelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
by Elaine Pagels

This is a general introduction to the Book of Revalation, the historical contexts in which it was written and later understood, and what current scholarship has to say about it. I’m not particularly literate in the Bible (nevermind biblical scholarship), so quite a lot of it was over my head. I was left largely with an urge to correct those shortcomings, rather than specific thoughts about Revelations.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don'tThe Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t
by Nate Silver

The 538 guy talks about predictions. This is basically a book-length polemic in favor of Bayesian statistics and against frequentist statistics, which should make it pretty dry. Silver is an excellent storyteller, however, and builds his argument with a nice series of stories without getting too cutesy.

Anyone who deals with predictions in their work–and that means basically all of us who build digital products–should read this. Those with a statistics background might find some of it basic (and those who like frequentist inference might get a little cranky), but there’s something useful in here for everyone.

Monoculture: How One Story is Changing EverythingMonoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything
by F. S. Michaels

Oh man, I really wanted to like this book. I’m amenable to its core argument–that public culture at any given point in civilization tends to have a dominant narrative, that that narrative can drive out alternative ways of looking at the world, and that the current dominant narrative is an economic one. So far so good. In my perfect world, that would have been chapter one, and then we would have gotten on to something interesting. (E.g. what are some emerging alternatives? How might we change a dominant narrative?) But no, that’s pretty much the whole book. It is a short book, but in this case I found brevity unhelpful.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New PlanetEaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben

Another disappointing book! Once again, I’m amenable to an argument like that which McKibben makes, but I’m not persuaded by his specifics. In this case, as one of the early people to warn us about climate change, he comes with a great deal of credibility. And when laying out the bad-to-worse case for the impact of climate change, he makes a lot of sense.  His preferred solutions, though, all seem to fall very short of the mark. He advocates a move to a very local-based  economy, and is suspicious of large-scale interventions (whether through policy or technology). I’m all in favor of more localized economic activity (though for other reasons) but there’s just no way we can get out of the climate fix we’re in without national, and international, policy changes.


'Salem's Lot‘Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King

I’d somehow gotten to 2013 without reading some of the classic King works, and I’m aiming to rectify that. (I’m not a big horror fan, but I do like King’s small-town life narratives, and I’m happy to have a monster or three in the middle of them.) As expected, this was a completely satisfying vampire novel set in small-town Maine.

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1)
by Saladin Ahmed

Nominated for a Hugo! It’s lovely to see a fantasy series inspired by Arabian mythology and 1001 Nights rather than the more common European mishmash. And as first-in-a-series novels go, it’s a good one. Solid plot, interesting choice of primary characters, and plenty of ghuls to slay.

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1)
by James S.A. Corey

Space opera which is in space, and suitably operatic. Things explode, things happen to planets, and then more things explode. Satisfying.

“Some day music will only be air”

It’s a story full of lists. Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishize and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music there ever was, which we can compile and organise and reorganise and merge with and feel into and in whatever way possible find the time to listen to, and we’ll need the time, all the time there is, all the time that music finds to press itself into.

Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (Paul Morley, 2003)

In 2005, Youtube was founded by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim as a video-sharing site. In 2012, Youtube surpassed radio and physical media as the “most popular way American adolescents listen to music.

Also in 2012, Psy made an estimated $7.9 million dollars from Gangnam Style, including $870,000 from ads attached to his more than 1 billion Youtube views, $2.4 million in income from iTubes downloads, and $4.6 million from commercial endorsements.

Here in 2013, this article traces the artistic, social, and corporate forces that combined to create the Harlem Shake phenomenon.

Music is not quite “only air” yet, but it is close. Books are next, then video. There are all sorts of complex and sticky legal, business, technical, and design questions to answer as we make this shift. But it is worth stepping back and realizing just how big a shift it is. Since 1877, we have taken in the notion that music can be (and eventually should be, and eventually always will be) made available in the form of physical media.

In honor of the shift, I bought a Sisters of Mercy EP this weekend. On vinyl. I could hear Roy from the I.T. crowd saying in my head …

Reading #58: Cooperatives, Stone Axes, and Soviets


The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and PlaceThe Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place
by John Abrams

John Abrams is the founder of South Mountain Company, a design & build worker-owned cooperative in Martha’s Vineyard. His books describes the history of the company, their choice to move to a worker-owned cooperative model, and their overall philosophy of work.

Those principles are:

  • Sharing ownership
  • Cultivating workplace democracy
  • Challenging the gospel of growth
  • Balancing multiple bottom lines
  • Celebrating the spirit of craft
  • Practicing community entrepreneurism
  • Thinking like cathedral builders
  • Committing to the business of place

All of these principles resonate strongly with me, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how they might be relevant in my less tangible design practice. Some of the principles (craft, challenging growth) are similar to the philosophy of the folks at 37 Signals. The workplace democracy angle can be found, at least to a limited extent, at Valve. Thinking like cathedral builders is, of course, a cornerstone of the open source movement. But I can’t think of a technology organization that embodies all of the principles in any meaningful way. I’d like to see one.

Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
by Mark Twain, Harriet E. Smith (Ed.)

Mark Twain did not write a conventional autobiography, and it has not been published conventionally. He tried at various times and in various ways to get his life story down on paper, and what resulted was a mishmash of unordered (or at least unconventionally ordered) stories, notes, copies of old talks, and miscellany that kind-of sort-of adds up to life story. He also asked that it not be published until 100 years after his death–while portions of it have been published previously, the 2010 edition is the first definitive one. (And it’s only the 1st in a projected 3 volume set.) If you really, really like Twain (I do) this is worth reading, but you should know a few things before buying a paper copy:

I enjoyed it immensely, if slowly. And it has given me an idea for a project or two I’d like to work on.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects
by Neil MacGregor

This is a companion book to the Radio 4 BBC / British Museum series of the same name. One hundred human-created objects that span our history on this planet, all from the British Museum, are shown, described, and put into context. It’s a lovely way to cruise around areas of history you know nothing about, and has the (intended) effect of driving home the sheer scale of human history. Plus you’ll never think all stone axes look alike again.


Red PlentyRed Plenty
by Francis Spufford

Red Plenty is an odd and powerful book. It is famously genre-confusing–if you look at the main text, it’s historical fiction, set in the recent past in the Soviet Union. But it has lots of footnotes and good portions of the text are nonfiction. And, due to a combination of its subject (science in the Soviet Union), it’s style, and some of its earliest and most vocal fans, it reads very much like science fiction. I thought it was, when I picked it up–and I’m not alone in this.

So it acts like a one-book vindication of Samuel Delany’s theories of genre. It’s also brilliant. Multiple viewpoint characters–some with multiple sections, some without–experience the brief post-Stalin period where (some) Soviet scientists attempted to create a materially wealthy society through central planning. And they experience the failure of that vision. It’s hard to summarize, but incredibly compelling (and tragic) in practice.

If you do read it, follow it with this intense online seminar on the novel at Crooked Timber, including posts by Spufford.

Report from Planet Midnight Report from Planet Midnight
by Nalo Hopkinson

From PM Press’s series of radical genre works. This includes two short stories, an interview with Hopkinson, and the core piece, a lecture she gave on race, ethnicity, and science fiction. Of the two short stories, I liked “Message in a Bottle” – it was usefully creepy, if that phrase makes any sense at all. The lecture is very direct, which is probably a good thing. Science fiction fandom can miss more subtle critiques sometimes.

Invisible ArmiesInvisible Armies
by Jon Evans

Sometimes I pull things off my wishlist without knowing why I put it on there in the first place. (I have a long wishlist.) In this case the acknowledgements include a bunch of my friends, so probably that’s why.

It’s a thriller, with a eco-terrorism theme. The first half is superb. The second half dissatisfied me–it felt (to me) that the later plot twists were there to be twisty, rather than emerging from the characters and situation.