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

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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Mini reviews: Brave, Quiet, Reamde, Freedom and more

Some mini reviews of books (and one movie) I've had a chance to take in lately.  For most items I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first:

Brave (2012), Pixar
I can't say that Brave, Pixar's latest feature film, is anywhere close to my favorite from this studio.  It's not that the animation isn't stunning (it is) or that the watching experience isn't enjoyable (it was), and it's certainly great to see a strong female main character whose departure from limiting traditional roles is largely uncompromised.  But the world wrought by the story feels somehow smaller and more forgettable than other Pixar adventures.  The nuanced and emotionally complex experiences of the characters mostly overcame the awkward dialog and sometimes dragging plot, and in the end it was observing their inner transformations that was most compelling,

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Summer reading mini book reviews

What We Leave BehindIt's been a decent summer of reading for me, and I thought I'd post some very brief reviews of some of what I've encountered along the way.  For each book I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.  I've organized the reviews into three sections: Culture, Novels and Business & Politics:

Culture

Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick
Finally, Mitnick gets to tell his side of the story when it comes to his adventures in computer cracking and social engineering.  Though his writing style isn't particularly compelling and his personal meditations on the interpersonal aspects of his adventures are a bit awkward, the details of how he pulled off some pretty technologically impressive (albeit illegal and sometimes destructive) hacks - and how law enforcement responded - make for compelling reading on their own.  As someone who spent a fair number of hours in my childhood trying to deconstruct how the phone system and the emerging world of BBSes and Internet nodes worked, Mitnick's book is a great visit to the past and a reminder that humans continue to be the weakest link in all computer security.

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