Tag Archives: reading

Reading 2021

I failed to reach my target of reading twelve books in 2021 by quite some margin this year. I finished only ten books, and that’s including the cheat of counting two short stories as two books!

Despite my objective of reading more fiction, I also failed with that (just the one novel and the two short stories).

While the volume was down both on previous years and my target, the quality was actually pretty good. From the story of the company behind the BlackBerry to the story of the Seventies, how to build a computer and how computers were made. All were worth a read.

The low-light was undoubtedly Malcom Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.” A reasonable “long read” blog post but stretched very thin over an entire book.

For 2022 I have the same target as 2021. Will I do better this time? Watch this space…

Talking of which, what is the point of these posts? Are they reviews? Not really, they’re thoughts or recollections or highlights of reading the books. Some read more like reviews, others are tangents, things that reading the book made me think about or consider in a new light.

Pilot Error and Showdown

In one sense this was me trying to cheat my “twelve books in 2021” challenge. Does reading two short stories count as two books? Goodreads seems to think so…

But it wasn’t just a cheat. These are still stories that I did want to read. Dan Moren is a writer I’ve followed for a while, though entirely in his Mac-centric, technical writing at Six Colors1 and podcasting at Clockwise. The stories are both part of a bigger sci-fi-space-opera universe but work well stand-alone.

Of the two, I enjoyed “Pilot Error” the most. I didn’t see the twist coming, though looking at the remaining page-count I knew that either one was coming or that it was intended as a major cliff-hanger for the follow-up book.

As a short taster for the writing, the characters and the universe, these stories fit the bill. I’ve not managed to read a whole lot of fiction this last year or two, but I’ve added Moran’s books to my list.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, you can read them for free.


  1. As a Brit, that spelling kills me but I’ll stick with the official site name. ↩︎

Losing the Signal

I have a confession to make. I had a BlackBerry for a few months and I hated it. To be fair I was late to the party. By the time I used one, the iPhone had launched and and the BlackBerry was not the Cool Thing any more.

Nevertheless, a few years before that I remember seeing them all the time around the City and Canary Wharf. They had an impressive tactile quality, where were people continually touching them, scrolling the side-wheel or the spinning the little trackball on the later models. By the time I started using one, the hardware itself was still great but the software was incredibly dated.

Clearly there was something about the BlackBerry that was interesting. This book, “Losing the Signal,” is about the maker of the BlackBerry.

It’s a history going from the foundation of the company to roughly the resignation of the co-CEOs that had run the company for years. Since we all know how it ended, the simple chronological structure works well. The authors interviewed just about everyone on the record. They managed to get both the good and the bad out of those they talked to, making it neither a hagiography nor uncritical.

In the end, the story is one of hubris. Early on, it was a huge advantage to the company. Everyone else knew that mobile email was at best niche, at worst a waste of time. Everyone, of course, was wrong and RIM was right. But in 2007, when the iPhone launched, that hubris started to work against them.

Unlike rival handset makers, Lazaridis didn’t come to Barcelona armed with 4G prototypes, but with a physics lecture... Now he was going to explain to Verizon why they were wrong about 4G.

I’ve seen this behaviour before – from my own employer at times – the supplier telling the customer that they’re Doing It Wrong. They knew that the next generation of cellular technology wasn’t a big deal – the speed was unnecessary, the power consumption was a problem – knew that customers valued the security of the BlackBerry above the web browser of the iPhone or the App Store of Android. Only this time they were wrong.

I knew some of the story, having seen the devices and read articles, especially post-Android, post-iPhone, but it was good to read the whole history. The access the authors had to the key people is impressive and they made good use of it.

In the end, if you’re interested in the earliest successful smartphones, BlackBerry is the company to follow and this book is well worth reading.

Sweet Caress

I rate William Boyd as one of my favourite authors, so when I say that “Sweet Caress” isn’t his best work you have to calibrate it appropriately.

As a structure, it’s almost identical to “Any Human Heart.” It’s a journal or memoir of an interesting character, covering pretty much their entire life. In this one, Amory Clay is born early in the twentieth century and lives a full life as a photographer in Europe, North America and Asia. The timing allows her to see the World Wars, the rise of fascism, the Vietnam war and much more besides. It covers her successes and failures, and the consequences of them both.

What makes it work is that Clay is entirely believable. She’s fun and brave, impulsive and flawed. Lacking any of those qualities might have made it less of an entertaining read or less plausible.

Boyd is a great writer. He has the characters, the structure and the story all wrapped up in a way that appears effortless. There are surprises and twists. Even the ending is satisfying.

The plan was to read more fiction this year. This was a good start.

How to

“If you convert [your car] to run on copies of this book instead of gas, it will burn through 30,000 words per minute, several dozen times faster than the word consumption of a typical human.”

If you thought that “How to“, the follow-up to “What if…” would be more practical, then you’d be wrong.

Whether it’s chasing a tornado without getting up from your couch or moving your house with jet engines, Munroe takes another fun, inventive journey through science and maths. While it doesn’t quite hang together as well as “What if,” it still manages to amuse, educate1 and entertain.

There are so many good bits that it’s difficult to mention even a few highlights, but I think possibly my favourite part is where he fails to faze Colonel Chris Hadfield, even when asked how to land a space shuttle that’s attached to the carrier aircraft (response: “Easy peasy”).

If you’re at all interested in science or engineering, you should read this book (if you haven’t already). Just — please — don’t take the advice literally.


  1. I mean, not directly. You’re unlikely to have an exam where you need to know how to build a lava moat. But the thought-process in getting a serious answer to an absurd question absolutely has value. ↩︎

The Value of Everything

Economics is one of those subjects that I’ve only ever seen from the sidelines. When I was at school, I remember seeing friends drawing simple demand curve graphs. It looked pretty straightforward, though, of course, anything you don’t understand very well often does.

Over the years, “life” touches on the concepts fairly often. Whether it’s what’s going on at work or things the government is doing (or not doing), you can’t get far without hearing the word.

Probably what I need is an “introduction to economics” book. Instead, I read Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything,” which talks about the concept of “value” which isn’t quite the same thing but was fascinating nevertheless.

For example, reading about forecasts and GDP1, you often see hints, or explicit mention, that government is “unproductive.” Certainly, the idea that private enterprise is more efficient than the government is thoroughly entrenched. What I hadn’t really considered was how “value” and GDP is defined. And, it turns out, that what the government does is by definition unproductive.

This is a narrow definition of “productive” that then makes its way out into society by people who don’t know that it’s an economics term. Much as the word “theory” is used to discredit “the theory of evolution” by people who think “theory” just means a hunch or guess.

Having defined value, Mazzucato moves on to discuss the implications, from the contribution to GDP that banking, pharmaceutical and technology companies make to the effectiveness of government spending and austerity.

It’s not the most exciting of subjects, I grant you, and it’s written fairly flat and academically, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. A few times I found myself disagreeing, or thinking a statement was overly generalised, only to find that she covered that in a subsequent section. This was a little frustrating on one hand but on the other kept me reading to the end.

Overall, it’s easy to recommend if you’re conflicted on the role of government and big business. As ever, there are no easy answers but it clarified a few things and made me think and about others.


  1. Yeah, maybe I should get out more. ↩︎