Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 #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.

Reading #57: War, Utopias, and the Renaissance


Just And Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical IllustrationsJust And Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations
by Michael Walzer

This isn’t an easy book to read, although it isn’t quite as dry as the title suggests. I imagine (I hope?) that it is taught in military academies and other places where the morality of war is seriously debated. For me, it helped address a frustration I’ve had for years during debates–often online, sometimes in person–about the morality of going to war or of a particular conduct within a war. Walzer shows that rational discussion of war can happen, that can be worthwhile to do so, and gives template for how to do it. How does he do it? First he clears away the two opposite and equally useless positions that are always used: that, on one hand, war is always immoral, and therefore all wars and all conduct within wars are equally moral, and on the other, that once you’re in a war, anything is permitted to win it (the ‘war is hell’ theory) and that any discussion of morality is pointless. Walzer argues effectively that both of these positions are dangerous fallacies, and moves on to show how to, using a combination of moral intuition, historical example, and reasoning, make a moral judgement about any and all situations of war. You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions (although I mostly do) to admire the careful way he constructs his argument in each case. It’s a hard example to follow, but we’d do a lot better if we tried to follow it, rather than the simplistic “terrorists bad” or “drones scary” discussions that tend to dominate our discourse.

Infinite City: A San Francisco AtlasInfinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
by Rebecca Solnit

This is a delicious book. It’s an artistic and historical atlas, with essays by Solnit and other authors, all focused on San Francisco and the different layers of people, culture, and history that exist in this city. Each essay is paired with a map–some of which are carefully detailed, some more artistically interpreted. Since I’m pretty attached to San Francisco and I’m a sucker for imaginative maps, this was a lot of fun to flip through. The highlights for me included a map of coffeehouses (necessarily incomplete, though I was startled by how many I had visited), a map that combined a history of Muybridge’s early photography work with te filming of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and a map that overlays salmon migration paths in the Bay Area with the locations of Zen centers. From the essays, the standout was the history of South of Market residences before the 1960s redevelopment that gave us the Moscone Center.

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve is a short book about a big subject: the resurrection of ideas that had been present and discussed in the West in the Greek and Roman eras, and lost (or, at least, strongly ignored) for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome. This idea of lost knowledge has been part of our conception of the Renaissance since the Renaissance, and while things are always a little more complicated than that, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Greenblatt uses the story of one book hunter’s rediscovery of one work of Roman philosophy (Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things) to illustrate it. The story of Bracciolini’s 15th century discovery of the manuscript is fascinating, and Greenblatt sets the overall parameters of the civilization change that was about to happen … and then he sort of stops, and never quite makes the argument I was hoping he’d make, of exactly how those old/new ideas transformed things. It’s a fine book as far as it goes, but I wish he’d gone a little further.

Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages ReconsideredBarbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered
by Peter S. Wells

I read this book, somewhat coincidentally, just after The Swerve. It’s another book I wish went further than it did. Like a few other recent works on the early Medieval period, it’s setting up an argument against the unsubtle view that after  the Western Roman Empire fell, everything went completely to hell in a handbasket and there wasn’t any real progress again until the Renaissance. Well, that’s an unsubtle view (and tends to ignore anything happening elsewhere in the world), and Wells argues against it. I don’t hink he does it very well, though–Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome did it much more comprehensively and carefully. One example which stood out for me was Wells arguing that the huge drop-off in sophisticated stone building work in Britain after the Romans left wasn’t a sign of technological decline, just different cultural choices. Ummm … no. Anyway, read the Wickham book instead, as huge as it is.

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal ComputerIndustry

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
by John Markoff

Early West-coast computer nerdery! Robots roaming the streets of Palo Alto! Sex and drugs! What’s not to like? When I first got access to the Internet back in the early 90s, I spent hours reading through resources like the Jargon File which told the unofficial (and usually funny and/or scandalous) stories of the early computer era. This is like that, only a little better researched. It’s a little difficult to follow at times, since it is trying to simultaneously follow a bunch of different kinds of connections: academic, corporate, countercultural, EST stuff, etc. You do get a pretty decent sense of what Doug Englebart was up to at different times, though, and that alone makes it worth reading.

Graphic Novels

Are You My Mother?Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
by Alison Bechdel

This is Bechdel’s second autobiographical work, after Fun Home. Fun Home focused on her (not very good) relationship with her father, this concentrates on her relationship with her mother. It spends a lot of time talking about psychoanalysis and different psychoanalytic theories, which … it makes sense contextually (for one thing she keeps relating to her therapists as mother figures), but it’s really not my thing. It’s a fine book, but I think it works better as an adjunct to Fun Home than on its own.


Against A Dark BackgroundAgainst A Dark Background
by Iain M. Banks

Rereading this one. It’s good, but I’d forgotten it wasn’t a Culture novel and kept waiting for the Culture penny to drop, which it didn’t. It’s a vengeance novel (on multiple levels), so it starts out bloody and gets bloodier. There’s a lot of good weirdness in here (like the Lazy Guns, pieces of old technology that can destroy anything you want them to, in completely unpredictable ways), but the overall tone is a little too dark. Which, well, is in the title I guess.

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions
by Ken Macleod

Oh, Mr. Macleod. This is a detective novel, and the detective part is perfectly fine. But it’s set in a world in which all religions have been ruthlessly, violently, and for the most part successfully repressed. Which is both the core of the novel and somehow not sufficiently appalling as rendered. I also question whether any of the plot points that rely on theological questions from Scottish history (and there are a ton of these) make any damn sense at all to someone unfamiliar with that history. Maybe that’s part of the point, I’m not sure.

The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations

The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations
by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Truly, epically awful. I struggled through it to the end and I’m not really sure why. I like Doctorow and Stross when they keep a careful reign on their tendency to get cutesy. This book is the unholy combination of their cutesy Ids given free reign, to the total detriment of plot, characterization, coherent worldbuilding, or coherent anything else. At best, I guess, they were trying to convey the cultural confusion that anything like a technological singularity would produce, in a lighthearted way. Instead, it’s all a muddle.


by Terry Pratchett

Light, and non- Discworld, story set in Dickensian London. With mostly-historical characters (Dickens himself, Disraeli, Robert Peel) mixed up with partially fictional ones (the Dodger himself). A lot of fun.

How not to handle co-branding

I swear I’ve ranted about this before, but I was presented with the following atrocity while buying some prints from my Flickr photos:


That’s four brands for the customer to (fail to) absorb:

  1. Snapfish (company doing the photo printing)
  2. Hewlett-Packard (apparently insecure company which owns Snapfish)
  3. Flickr (company who hosts the photos, partnering with Snapfish for printing)
  4. PayPal (company who handles payment)

Flickr_yahoo I suppose we’re lucky Flickr didn’t use the ghastly “Flickr from Yahoo” logo which would have brought the total to 5 brands. And eBay, bless their souls, does not as far as I know ever use “PayPal, an eBay company.” (Or even “eBay, a PayPal company” as would probably be more appropriate these days.)

If I were to try to fix the situation, I might leave PayPal as is (payments are important, and the branding is properly contextual), force HP to either fish or cut bait (leave HP out or rename Snapfish) and try to find a more elegant placement for Flickr, possibly text-only.

There’s not much of a larger point here, other than “Bad co-branding: don’t do it!”

Better retweeting: a quick design proposal

Quick_retweet_design_public I like Twitter, I think they do good stuff. (I tweet as jreffell.)

I like retweeting, and it’s been fascinating to see Twitter’s community form the loose norms of the practice. It reminds me of the early use of PayPal by eBay sellers who preferred it to Billpoint, or (truly ancient history) some of the common practices of Usenet.

I’ve seen Twitter’s blog post about an upcoming retweet function, Mashable’s preview of what it might look like, and Dan Zarella’s critique of the design (ironically, I saw the last through a retweet). That sent me back to the Microsoft Research draft paper on Twitter practices (PDF), which I recommend highly. The numbers I use below are based on that paper, so keep in mind it is a draft paper and the data will have some limitations.

I basically agree with Dan’s critique, and hope that when Twitter does release the feature it will do so in a way which preserves current practices as much as possible.


  1. I think Twitter should preserve the current norm of seeing the identity of someone you’re following first, and the person you’re retweeting (whom you might or might not be following) second. I think it will be pretty jarring to see someone “slip” into your stream due to a retweet. The proposed design is also a little unclear around time — because the retweeted tweet is primary, and it might be from some time ago, suddenly it can look like an out-of-order post is in your stream.
  2. The MS Research paper showed 18% of users adding a hashtag to a retweet, and 11% contained additional text (usually commentary). I think these are useful practices and should be maintained if possible — the proposed Twitter design doesn’t allow for the addition of comments  or hashtags as far as I can tell.
  3. 11% of retweets contained an encapsulated retweet. There are two chunks of information that can be (they aren’t always) present in encapsulation — the different sources, but also the chain or sequence of sourcing. I think that’s interesting information!

I threw together a quick design based on these points. This was just a quick hack to see what I could come up with. I think my proposal preserves the practices of retweeting which might matter to people, while still taking retweeting from “just” text to be more embedded in the platform. The design assumes you are following me (jreffell) but aren’t following Bruce Sterling (bruces). I retweet a recent post of his.

Some caveats: The folks at Twitter are smart. I’m sure they’ve looked at designs very like this, and have reasons for not going in this direction (or, as they haven’t launched yet, they may still go in this kind of direction.) I haven’t thought about technical constraints or the API at all, and those are very important. I haven’t designed the “retweet button” itself — though I think the design I’ve seen would be fine if it simply included some space for adding commentary / hashtags.

If you were working on this feature at Twitter, how would you do it?