Armada

Having read “Ready Player One” and seen the film recently, picking Ernest Cline’s next book, “Armada” was an easy choice. “Ready Player One” wasn’t my favourite book, but it was an entertaining read and that’s what I was looking for this time.

It pretty much exactly met those expectations. It’s well written and easy to read. There are all the retro-references you’d expect in a Cline book. The story moves along at a reasonable clip. The characters mostly make sense, though they could have been better developed.

My main problem is that the twists are so well sign-posted that they barely qualify. I suppose that just adds to the “easy to read” quality?

It’s not going to make you see the world differently or amaze you with new insight into the human condition. But not every book needs to do that. As a little light reading it totally hits the spot.

App Store pricing

Like Spotify’s complaint before it, yesterday’s “App Store Principles and Practices” document from Apple got me thinking.

Apple talks a lot about free apps not paying anything (which isn’t entirely true of course), and it’s always pitched as a feature.

But the more I think about it, the more I think it might be a bug.

This effectively means that all paid apps have to subsidise all free apps. Is this what’s preventing Apple from reducing the 30% fee?

Why should free apps get a free ride? How much value is Facebook getting from Apple? My apps don’t take your personal data and use it for advertising purposes — something that Apple seems to be in favour of — yet I have to pay 30% and Facebook pay nothing.

Of course, we have to consider unintended consequences. It would be fair for Google and Facebook to pay, but what about a game I wrote in my spare time? Or that useful utility I wrote for myself that I’m altruistically sharing?

I don’t know is the short version. Should they charge for each download? Or each App Review? They’d probably need exceptions for certain categories, but also to be very careful that the system doesn’t get gamed.

The other thing Apple doesn’t directly address is Spotify’s most compelling argument: the fact that Apple charges 30% commission for apps that provide digital services, such as streaming music or books, means that no one other than Apple can actually allow in-app purchases in those categories. Apple only allow in-app purchases with the fee yet many of these services just don’t have 30% “spare” that they can give Apple. Apple Music and Apple Books don’t have to play by the App Store rules and they don’t have to pay the 30% fee.

If anything, this is harder than than the free freeloaders problem. It doesn’t seem right that Apple couldn’t compete in these categories, yet the platform owner clearly has a huge advantage here.

Anyway, at least two issues here and no firm conclusions. They always say “bring me solutions, not problems.” Sorry, I failed.

Fuzzy Nation

After reading quite a few non-fiction books I decided that this time I would pick a novel. Having read “Red Shirts” a couple of years ago, I randomly selected another John Scalzi book, “Fuzzy Nation.”

The history of this is a little unusual: it’s not an entirely original story. It’s based on an older story by H. Beam Piper called “Little Fuzzy.” (“Think of this as a ‘reboot’ of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science.)”) Not having read that, I can’t compare but I did enjoy this one.

The story revolves around Holloway, a surveyor of a remote planet who finds both a huge seam of sunstones (beautiful, rare) and a race of small, fuzzy creatures who may be sentient (in which case they’d own the sunstones). Holloway is a self-professed asshole and disbarred lawyer, which provides some humour and a dynamic with other characters.

It’s neither long nor complicated, but it’s easy and fun to read; a bit of a page-turner.

It’s not as good as “Red Shirts” but it’s entertaining and worth your time.

The Incomplete Book of Running

After all my fun with Couch to 5K and the Parkrun, The Incomplete Book of Running, about Peter Sagal‘s running experiences, looked like it might strike a chord.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord was the author. I guess if you’re American and listen to NPR and Wait wait… don’t tell me! you might know what you’re letting yourself in for. But I’m British and am more likely to be listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4. I don’t think that this missing knowledge affected my enjoyment of the book, though.

Anyway, his experience didn’t exactly mirror mine. He’d flirted with running earlier in life and got into running longer distances later. The book starts with him running the Boston marathon. I’m still at the point where 5km feels like a long distance and I barely did any exercise beyond walking previously. Still, there were enough parallels that I didn’t feel lost and the writing was easy and accessible.

It’s more about stories and anecdotes than running hints and tips, but it still covers a lot of ground, from training to motivation to the benefits and downsides.

There were certainly some bit where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was funny or just, sadly, true:

The problem with being a midlife-crisis runner is that once you start, you’re already in decline.

Then, towards the end, was this important passage:

The differences between running as a lifestyle and “jogging” as exercise are many and much debated, but the key one is this: You “jog” as necessary exercise, something to endure. You run with the expectation that this outing, today, will be the day when it all comes together.

I’ve not really thought about it before, but I’ve never been quite sure how to describe what I do. “Running” feels optimistic; the speed I go is hardly running. Then again, “jogging” conjures up some of the worst stereotypes, the bright Lycra, the headband.

That paragraph seals the deal: I run. I do do it for exercise, but I wouldn’t say that I endure it. If it wasn’t fun — or at least give a sense of achievement after I finish — I wouldn’t do it, I’d find some other form of exercise.

Overall, it’s hardly essential reading but if you like him from his radio programmes, you might get a kick out this book. For me, it was worth it as a way of figuring out my vocabulary.

ReWork

The gist of “ReWork” is that anyone can be an entrepreneur but you don’t have to follow the Silicon Valley tradition of seeking venture funding and providing foosball tables. If you do things right — different — you can make a sustainable business in a more traditional, bootstrapped way, and you don’t have to continually grow to be considered a success.

Many of the “lessons,” however, apply to almost any knowledge work. They subscribe to a less-is-more philosophy, and the book follows that example by being a quick read. Like the less-is-more outlook, that doesn’t make it bad, only very targeted.

If you’re looking for a complete framework for running your business, this isn’t it. (But then you’re probably not the kind of person who is likely to start a business I guess.) Instead, it’s a collection of related vignettes touching on varied aspects, from funding to focus to culture.

Much of the advice is so obvious that you wonder why more people don’t do it. But the fact that people don’t is exactly why their business (was 37signals, now Basecamp) has been a success and that writing about how it works doesn’t give away any “secret sauce.” It’s not that people don’t know the “secrets.” It’s more that people don’t have the discipline to stick to the programme.

Overall, there’s a lot of good material in here. If you own or work for a small company where you can potentially put the advice into practice, it’s probably worth a read.

The Prodigal Tongue

Lynne Murphy writes a great blog, which this book is at least partly based on, about the differences between American and British English. Or should that be that this book is based on?

Books like this really make you question everything you write.

Some of the material I was already familiar with, having read it elsewhere, possibly even on her blog, but there were plenty of new facts to keep me entertained. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember where a word of phrase came from. Did I always say that or did I learn it more recently? How do you pronounce words? When it came up in conversation a few months ago, I genuinely couldn’t remember whether I normally said “skedule” and “shedule.” I kept second-guessing myself!

I didn’t, for example, realise that I’d learned so much American baking terminology. I guess I’ve made more cakes since I got married and picked up the lingo. Part of me did think that “batter” was what you use for pancakes and Yorkshire puddings, but, equally, I couldn’t think of a better word for cake mixture. (Turns out there’s a reason for that.)

The other thing I realised is that one consequence of such a heavy US bias on the Internet is that companies such as Grammarly are continually suggesting American English grammar and spelling corrections. (The spelling I’m normally confident enough to override, punctuation less so.) Before reading this book I always thought that the advice was suspect but I thought it was mostly a matter of taste rather than geography.

Even if you’re not into the details of how the two nationlects — a word she coins to distinguish between American and British English — differ, the last chapter still might be of interest. It’s about the growth of the language outside the UK and the US, how it’s now the most popular second language.

Native speakers in Britain and the US make the mistake of thinking that they have no language learning to do: everyone speaks English, so we’ve got it made.

This is absolutely my experience. Many people — including past me — thought that this was true. I guess it’s where the stereotype of Brits talking slower and louder to foreigners comes from. (I don’t think I ever went that far!)

I’ve learned the hard way that just because people speak English, it’s not necessarily my English. They may understand most of the words but there are idioms and pronunciations that don’t translate. Dealing with non-native speakers requires care and thought, which, frankly, is the least we can do since they made the effort to speak our language. I can’t say I always get it right, but I’m conscious of it and make an effort.

Anyway, if you like the blog, you’ll probably like the book. As you’d imagine, it’s well written. It has lots of nice, little facts you can sprinkle into conversation and it’s nicely structured and feels fairly complete.

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington