Andy Weir's Artemis

I recently finished reading Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis, and really enjoyed it. I've been immersing myself in political non-fiction lately (reviews coming soon) so I really needed a fun, smart page-turner to balance things out, and Artemis fit the bill perfectly.

If you're not already familiar with Weir, he wrote the bestselling book The Martian (mentioned here) which then became a surprisingly great 2015 theatrical version starring Matt Damon. It was so well-written, engaging and scientifically grounded that high school physics teachers convinced him to release a profanity-free version that they could teach their courses from.

Similar to The Martian, the book centers on a smart, extraordinarily resourceful main character who seems to be in an uphill battle against life-or-death surrounding circumstances from start to finish. Unlike The Martian, for this new main character the circumstances are much more derived from her life choices and penchant for non-traditional ways of generating income, and the experiences that unfold are much more intertwined with the choices and personalities of other people.

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Mini book reviews

It's been a good year of reading so far. Here are some mini-reviews of what I've been taking in. As always I’ve linked to an online purchase option (with a small referral fee coming to me if you actually buy), but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

I hadn't read any of Franzen's work before picking this up, but I'm planning to now. Purity's storyline takes on several generations of culture, world events and political-technological evolution while remaining a very personal and rich study of a few particular relationships. I enjoyed the way journalism, social media and other tools of the digital age were woven into the plot without becoming perfunctory. Some parts of the book felt a bit rambling or under-developed, but overall I found the writing to be really compelling and the book as a whole a moving and rewarding read.

Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons

I have to pace myself when it comes to reading "insider looks at life in Silicon Valley" books. Partly because I spend my professional life working in tech and I don't always want to read about the tech industry for fun, and partly because it seems like too many of those books are thrown together to create a quick payday and/or ego boost for the author, without a lot of substance to make them worthwhile.

When I saw Dan Lyons` book I thought the concept sounded interesting and fun: "old media" journalist tries to join in the "new media" tech world, hilarity ensues. I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about HubSpot; I've been hearing about the company years now but I could never quite understand why what they did was of any value. So I dived in.

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Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in. Continue reading Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

The End of College?

I found this interview with author Kevin Carey about "The End of College" to be very much worthwhile. He talks about shifting understandings of the value of higher education, the ways in which college replicates privilege, why college is so expensive, and what college might look like in a few decades.

Carey's main prediction is that a handful of very expensive and elite schools will survive in the traditional model while the rest of higher education shifts to online tools and offline experiences that aren't concentrated in a specific location.

Some sort of major shift seems inevitable. As I watch my own alma mater Earlham College wrestle with increasing costs against the backdrop of a highly competitive admissions landscape, I have to wonder if I would spend the money to send my own children to a place like it.

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Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.

Always and never: America's nuclear weapons

There are lots of things to be worried about. War, climate change, plaque buildup, unsanitized user inputs. But somewhere near the top of your list should probably be the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world that are one miscommunication or faulty electronics part away from unexpectedly killing many, many people.

I don't usually go looking for such perturbations, I promise, but when I happened upon this recent NPR interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, I was captivated:

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Influx by Daniel Suarez

I recently finished reading the novel Influx by one of my favorite "tech thriller" writers, Daniel Suarez - here's a quick review.

The basic premise of Influx is that humanity's scientific and tech geniuses have created many more technological break-throughs than most of the world knows about, and that a secret department of the U.S. government has taken extreme steps to hide those break-throughs in the name of protecting everyday people from their practical implications. The plot thickens when there's resistance to that department's methods, and I won't say much more about it to avoid spoiling what unfolds, but you can imagine the story-telling fun that can be had when futuristic-and-very-advanced human tech and mindsets meets present day human tech and mindsets.  And most of it is pretty dark stuff - no kibbitzing with humpback whale scenes here.

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Y Combinator wisdom on helping startups succeed

LaunchPad_300I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers."  This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.

I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better.  I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.

If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time.  The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step.  As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.

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Book Review: Hatching Twitter

hatching-twitterThe cover art and subtitle of Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal are perhaps more sensational than the actual story of Twitter's creation turns out to be, but it's still a really interesting read for anyone who's curious how a company with such a dominant place in our culture came about.

Bilton takes us back to the tentatively formed relationships that brought Twitter's founders together, the failing startup idea that necessitating thinking up a new idea that would become tweeting, and the tangled web of investors, supporters, detractors and high-profile users that would redefine Twitter many times along the way.  If the account is to be believed, and Bilton seems to have done his research, there was a fair amount of drama along the way: ego and jealousy between founders of the success and limelight the others received; dealing with conflicting demands from users, media, investors and employees; inexperienced leaders finding themselves in over their heads, and so on.  I doubt these scenes would be sufficiently exciting for a Hollywood dramatization a la The Social Network, but it was actually refreshing to learn of the real and human ups and downs that were at play.

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