Tag Archives: 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. ↩︎

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

Unix: A History and a Memoir

This is probably the geekiest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s basically one step up from reading the source code for your favourite operating system. Or perhaps having a favourite operating system.

What I would say is that Unix has been pretty much the only constant throughout my career. I started with Solaris and HP-UX at university. I installed an early version of Linux on my personal machine to avoid the thirty-minute walk from home to the university labs. I’ve done consulting, I’ve developed both vertical and horizontal applications1, C and C++, Swift and Java, banking and telecoms. Pretty much the only thing they’ve all had in common was some sort of Unix underpinning.

And that’s bizarre. So much of computing changes in five years, yet Unix wasn’t even new when I started at university!

This book is the story, the memoir, of one of the people who built it. And it’s fascinating but probably only for a relatively small audience. I loved the first chapter, where he name-dropped some of the people who Kernighan worked with. Plaugher. Aho. Ullman. Honestly, if you’ve not heard of them, you’re probably not the target market for this book.

Also, if you’re Richard Stallman, you’re probably not the target for this book either: in the last chapter, he says that GNU software is “open source.”

On the other hand, if you’re not Stallman and you know about some or all of the people involved, then you are the target for this book. Read it. You’ll love it.


  1. Is that common terminology? A “vertical” application is one that’s applicable only to one industry, such as a trading application. A “horizontal” application is usable by many, like a database or operating system. ↩︎

Never split the difference

If I took this book to heart, I should try to convince you to read it.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like this book, and I mainly took it out of the library so I could make the joke in the first paragraph (and others like it). I mean, negotiation isn’t my job. I’m not, like the author, a hostage negotiator. I’m not even in sales. The key, of course, is that we all have to negotiate from time to time. While I may not often have to negotiate money in my day job, I do have to agree on the scope of work. This is a form of negotiation. We all have to buy stuff or hire someone to deal with jobs around the house.

What I’m saying is this book won me around. Something that deals with “human factors” can never be a full instruction guide, but in ten chapters, from “mirroring” to trying to figure out those “unknown unknowns” Voss walks you through the whole process. The examples are varied, from sales to hostage negotiation, some more relatable than others, but they all serve their purpose.

Some areas you’ll have seen before. I’ve come across the suggestion to “mirror” previously But even in those cases, there are new suggestions or contexts to consider.

I guess the ultimate test is whether I’ll actually use the suggestions. Some will undoubtedly take some nerve, but I suspect most people will get something out it. I’m not sure I’m going full FBI the next time the need arises, but I absolutely intend to use some of the ideas around how best to ask questions and guiding people towards the correct — your — answer.