Tag Archives: Reading2020

Come Again

I learned about this book on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP!). One of my favourite nineties comedy performers interviewing one of my favourite two-thousands comedy performers. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not entirely impartial; I was predisposed to like “Come Again.”

Webb’s first book was a kind of a memoir. This is a novel. I’m pretty much the perfect demographic. The lead character went to an English university in the early nineties to study Computer Science. Even though it was a different university, so much was familiar.

Is it well written and researched or just lazy nostalgia?

I think that’s the question for the book as a whole. It’s a quick, unchallenging read. The writing is functional and it’s structured to included a few nice twists and the odd end-of-chapter cliff hanger.

The three sections are quite different in tone. The first and second work well but the third, while entertaining, doesn’t quite seem to fit.

So clearly I’m not going to describe this as “must read.” It’s a fun read and maybe that’s all it needs to be.

Sex Power Money

This book isn’t what I was expecting. I know Sara Pascoe’s standup and thought this might be some fun, light reading.

To be fair, the writing does have fun bits but the subject matter? Not so much. Relationships, power dynamics, tesosterone, prostitution. Heavy stuff! She’s clearly done reseach and quotes interviews1 she’s conducted. This is no “memoir” as many comedians have done. But nor is it an academic treatise. There are still personal bits, as she discusses the struggles she had grappling with some of the more challenging concepts or how her opinions had changed over time. It’s a refreshing approach as most authors push the solution rather that the journey to it. Sometimes the route is more interesting than the destination.

Overall it’s thought-provoking stuff and worth a read for that reason alone. You may not agree with all of it but you might have the odd snigger reaching that conclusion.


  1. She has a podcast series with some of them. ↩︎

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. ↩︎

Facebook: The inside story

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. And the odd thing is that it feels like Steven Levy isn’t either.

I’ve read most of Levy’s previous books and, while he’s never been uncritical, there has always been a mostly positive spin. From Apple, to Google, to the “hacker culture” (including Stallman) I don’t recall any of his previous works quite being so down on their subjects.

It’s to the credit of Zuckerberg and his crew, then, that they were so involved in its creation. All the big names were interviewed on the record and, frankly, few come off well. Zuckerberg himself comes across as petty, jealous, arrogant and not terribly likeable. Even Steve Jobs had a fun, mischievous side.

That’s not to say the Levy doesn’t give credit where it’s due. The coverage comes across as fair, so maybe it’s more fair to say that reality is skewed against Facebook than this book!

It covers everything from Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook projects, through to its founding, move to California, early growth and the last decade of being practically ubiquitous.

Most of the early phases have been well documented elsewhere (including in the Social Network movie), which made the discussion of some of Facebooks biggest missteps, and the threads that connect them, the highlight. The focus on growth at all costs, the organisational split between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the belief that connecting people is an unalloyed good seem to be the key to most failings and, disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

Overall, it’s a fascinating, well written book about a troubling company. If we can’t avoid the company, we should at least try to understand it.

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. ↩︎