Non-Fiction 2017

Last year I read 130 books, split relatively evenly between fiction (63 books) and non-fiction (books 67). Yes, I am geeky enough to have a spreadsheet! If you are interested, I average 2.5 books per week, with an average of 343 pages per book.

Honestly, the main reason I started keeping a spreadsheet was that it helped me avoid reading the same books multiple times (which is annoying when you realize, generally half-way through).

I thought it might be interesting to go over the books I read over the last year (at least for me—I have no idea what you might find interesting). This post is just about non-fiction. I will eventually do another post covering fiction.

I’ve broken down the books into some general categories, although no guarantee that these categories are particularly accurate—they are just what seemed reasonable to me.

History

In 2017 I read more non-fiction history books (17) than any other category. Someday when I’m bored, I may go back and see if this is normal or not (my spreadsheets go back to 2004, but they got steadily more complex, and I’ve only been tracking fiction vs. nonfiction for about 5 years, and only started adding categories in order to write this post).

  • Globe – Life in Shakespeare’s London – Arnold, Catharine
  • Moon Shot – Barbree, Jay
  • Adventure of English, The: The Biography of a Language – Bragg, Melvyn
  • My Father’s Country – Bruhns, Wibke
  • World Crisis, v1, The – Churchill, Winston
  • SOE Agent – Crowdy, Terry
  • First World War, The – Gilbert, Martin
  • Age of Genius, The – Grayling, A.C.
  • Life in Victorian England – Hibbert, Christopher
  • Tudor – Lisle, Leanda
  • Miracle of Dunkirk, The – Lord, Walter
  • Viking Odyssey, A – Man, John
  • Invisible – Surviving the Cambodian Genocide – Pilch, Frances
  • Ernie Pyle in England – Pyle, Ernie
  • Exploring the World of King Arthur – Snyder, Christopher
  • Did Jew Know – Stone, Emily
  • Life in the Middle Ages – Winston, Clara

Of these, Moon Shot, which covers the space race from just before Sputnik to the end of Apollo, was a standout. It is mostly told from the point of view of Deke Slayton and Alan Shephard (who are co-authors), and gives a lot of interesting perspective.

My Father’s Country was also very interesting. I read a lot about the world wars, but not so much from the German side of things. My Father’s Country is written by the daughter of one of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler. One of the things that it helps drive home is how regular people are swept up in grand events.

While talking about World War II, I reread Walter Lord’s The Miracle of Dunkirk, since there were so many Dunkirk-related films coming out. I think Walter Lord is one of the best writers for bringing history to life.

On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed with Churchill’s World Crisis. This was the first book of his World War I series, and he spends a bit too much time trying to convince the reader that a lot of things were not his fault (in some cases, I probably agree, but it makes the narrative a bit whiny). Normally I’m a fan of his writing, but it is probably going to take me a while to get through the last five volumes.

Biography

Although I tend to read a fair number of biographies, I think that this year the number (15) was higher than usual.

  • It’s Been a Good Life – Asimov, Isaac
  • Kill Bill Diary, The – Carradine, David
  • Alexander Hamilton – Chernow, Ron
  • Funny in Farsi – Dumas, Firoozeh
  • Einstein – His Life and Times – Frank, Philip
  • Giant of the Senate – Franken, Al
  • Life in Secrets, A – Helm, Sarah
  • Believe Me – Izzard, Eddie
  • Charles Darwin – Karp, Walter
  • Monty Python Speaks – Morgan, David
  • Diaries of Robert Hooke, The – Nichols, Richard
  • Born a Crime – Noah, Trevor
  • Charles Dickens – Slater, Michael
  • Wish You Were Here – Webb, Nick
  • Revolution for Dummies – Youssef, Bassem

Some standouts:

Born a Crime is fascinating and moving. I’m a fan of Trevor Noah and the Daily Show, but reading about his childhood makes him significantly more impressive.

I have to admit that I ended up reading Alexander Hamilton after seeing the musical, but it is a really good book. If you’ve read a lot of books about Jefferson, it is probably good to read this to see the revolution and post-revolutionary world from a different perspective.

Funny in Farsi is about a young Iranian girl growing up in America. It is funny and does what a good biography ought to—lets you see the world from a different perspective (which frequently reminds you that it is not that different!).

Science and Technology

This is a bit of a grab-bag category.

  • Science of Everyday Life, The – Fisher, Len
  • How to Make a Spaceship – Guthrie, Julian
  • Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow – Harari, Yuval Noah
  • Mathematician’s Apology, A – Hardy, G.H.
  • Brief History of Time, A – Hawking, Steven
  • Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far – Krauss, Lawrence
  • Undoing Project, The – Lewis, Michael
  • Higgs Force – Mee, Nicholas
  • Bayes Theorem – Morris, Dan
  • Rethink – Poole, Steven
  • Lies They Teach in School – Reich, Herb
  • Secret Life of Fat, The – Tara, Sylvia
  • Death by Black Hole – Tyson, Neil
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Tyson, Neil

I was a big fan of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, and I also really enjoyed Homo Deus, although they are fairly different. Sapiens is a history of the species, whereas Homo Deus is more about where we are going. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the arguments and predictions, but they are well reasoned and thought provoking.

How to Make a Spaceship is the story of the X-Prize (arguably could have ended up in History, but my list, so deal with it). As well as talking about the various competitors and their challengers, it also covers the struggle to actually fund the X-Prize after it was announced.

The Undoing Project is the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who have had a huge impact on how all sorts of fields, including medicine, government regulation, economics and even baseball, apply evidence over “how things have always been done.” Sadly, many (most) fields have not embraced this idea.

Writing

I’ve been doing a lot more fiction writing this year, and so have read a handful of writing books.

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Browne, Renni
  • Police Procedure & Investigation – Lofland, Lee
  • Don’t Murder Your Mystery – Roerden, Chris
  • Outlining Your Novel – Weiland, K. M.
  • Rock Your Revisions – Yardley, Cathy

Don’t Murder Your Mystery was probably the best of them. I wasn’t working on a mystery, but it has a lot of good general advice.

Travel

Really just travel books for places we’ve been or are considering visiting.

  • Discover China – Harper, Damien
  • History of Iceland – Hjálmarsson, Jón
  • Discover Japan – Milner, Rebecca
  • Pocket Paris – Steves, Rick

Politics

What with everything going on, I’ve read fewer political books this year than usual. I’ve also spent a lot of this year with my fingers in my ears going “Nyah nyah nyah – I can’t hear you.”

  • Between the World and Me – Coates, Ta-Nehisi
  • Private Empire – ExxonMobile and American Power – Coll, Steve
  • Colony in a Nation, A – Hayes, Chris

I would recommend all of these. Colony in a Nation show how different a country America is depending on your race and socio-economic position, how we got here, and some possible examples that might suggest how to improve things.

Private Empire is an absorbing look into ExxonMobile, which really highlights how corporations look at the world. Coll manages to make ExxonMobile somewhat sympathetic without glossing over their issues.

Between the World and Me is written from the author to his son, and answers questions about race and history. It can be uncomfortable reading, but it is beautifully written.

Everything else

These are the books that are either not easily categorized or in categories where I didn’t read many others.

  • Kanban – Anderson, David
  • Celtic Knotwork – Bain, Iain
  • NET Core and Angular 2 – De Sanctis, Valerio
  • Norse Mythology – Gaiman, Neil
  • Big Book of Maker Skills, The – Hackett, Chris
  • Phoenix Project, The – Kim, Gene
  • Everything Guide to Starting and Running a Restaurant, The – Lee, Ronald
  • Seriously Funny – Pratchett, Terry
  • Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times – Romilly Allen, J.

I reread a few of my knotwork books since I was putting together a class and then a tutorial on knotwork.

The Phoenix Project was an interesting take on dev-ops and related topics. It was one of the few business books I’ve ever read that actually seemed mostly worthwhile. Arguably, it could be counted as fiction, since it is written around the idea of a company with major problems, focusing on the person on whom the problems are dumped. However, it is really a business book, and so I left it classified as non-fiction.

 

This is a pretty big post, and, as I mentioned, it only covers non-fiction. Not sure if I should maybe do this monthly (handy way of making sure I have something to blog about :-), or just do individual posts about books that I particularly enjoyed.

 

Celtic Knotwork

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on drawing Celtic knotwork, and a number of the attendees asked if I could make my presentation available for future reference. Rather than just send out a PowerPoint, I figured it would be better to convert it into a full tutorial.

I’ve been drawing Celtic knotwork for quite a long time, although I think that I got quite a bit better while preparing for the class and creating this tutorial! One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about knotwork is that it is a blending of some simple math along with some true artistic expression. That, and, as a non-artist, it is nice to be able to create arty things!

I also find it very relaxing. I think that the reason is that it is fairly straightforward, but it requires just enough concentration that you can’t let your mind wander. It is very Zen.

The tutorial covers the basics, although these foundational techniques are the same that you would use for probably 80% of other knotwork designs. If you follow the tutorial, you will end up creating the design from the top of this post, first on graph paper, and then on plain paper.

It is my intention to create two more tutorials, although I will probably take a break before starting on the next parts. The final set of tutorials will look like this (he said hopefully):

  1. Basic tools and techniques (completed) – Getting started with knotwork
  2. Designs and finishing styles (some day) – Using the same basic techniques, this will explore some of the various different patterns you can create, and different types of cords (thicknesses, double-interlacing, etc.)
  3. Different shapes (some day) – Creating knotwork in circles, tori, borders and arbitrary shapes.

You can find the tutorial here, as a PDF. This is a first draft, so if you find any mistakes or find any parts confusing, please add comments to this post to let me know!

 

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Octopus Prime

Let’s transform and go get some sushi…

Yes, there seem to be almost no limits that we won’t go to for a bad pun. This was my costume at Mile-Hi Con 49 last weekend, where it won a judge’s choice award (one wonders what is wrong with that judge!).

Actually, Anna and I built it originally for our friend Rose’s mini-convention, Karval Kon, but decided that so much work had gone into it that we might as well do a bit of cleanup work and take it to Mile-Hi. One big problem was that Mile-Hi presentations are done on a stage, and so I had to redesign the feet so that I could climb stairs (and even then, I almost went flying).

Most of the construction is of layered foam-core over a wooden frame, decorated with various fish tank supplies. The glowing chest plates are a couple of old Android tablets showing animated fish tanks. Anna carved the head out of foam. I did most of the (very substandard) sewing, including attaching dozens of suckers. Lots of work to look like a 5-year-old’s Halloween costume :-).

The routine (such as it was) was done to a dramatically orchestral version of the Transformers theme which faded into an instrumental version of Under the Sea, from the Little Mermaid. My tag line was “Michael Bay isn’t really even trying anymore.” To be honest, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying particularly hard from the beginning.

In case of quail…

In case of quail, do not stand in a box with an antenna.

 

I can think of no other interpretation.

 

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Eclipse

Total Eclipse, Wyoming, August 21st, 2017 by John Hellyer

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but there was a total eclipse of the sun this week (on Monday, August 21st, 2017)!!

Anna and I and some friends drove up to Wyoming on Sunday, and on Monday morning found a great spot in the park in Riverton, Wyoming. This was a great spot–not hugely crowded, but enough people to make it a truly shared experience.

Where we were, the total eclipse started at 11:39 and lasted for about two minutes, and was truly awesome–in the original sense of the word. It got noticeably colder, and you got a real sense of our puny place in the universe.

The crowd cheered when the sun disappeared, and cheered again when it came back. We all knew it would come back of course, but, well, you never know–that would have been a really bad time for the universe’s operating system to crash.

The great picture of the eclipse is not mine, but by another friend, John Hellyer, who attempted to get to Torrington, Wyoming, but didn’t quite make it because of traffic (although he obviously made it into the path of totality). We had no trouble with traffic on the way up, but got stuck in several jams on the way back, and didn’t get home until around midnight.

My pictures were terrible. This is the best one I managed:

Although I did end up with one very cool shot into a close-by parallel universe:

Glad we’re not orbiting that star!

 

 

 

In Print!

I just had a short story published in Phantaxis magazine! The story is called Playmates (as in childhood playmates, not the R-Rated kind!).

I used to write a lot of fiction, but stopped for many years. As I now have a bit more free time, I’ve started up again, and this is the first piece that I’ve had published.

I am about half-way through reading the issue, and there are some good stories in there. Mine is in there too!

If you are interested, the magazine is available for sale at Amazon in print and Kindle formats. There is also a special deal this weekend (August 18th – 20th, 2017), where you can get the Kindle edition for the low low price of free!

Underground, overground…

We’ve been clearing out the remnants of my cousin’s* stuff after moving him into a nursing facility.

If you are having trouble letting go of things, I highly recommend spending a few weeks clearing out a hoarder’s house. It makes you want to go home and throw away everything you own!

But, what makes it so insidious is that, amongst all the trash and forty-year-old receipts, you sometimes find something quite interesting.

My aunt* was a war bride, married while my uncle was stationed in London. I don’t think that this underground map was a collectible per se–it was just something that was just lying around for 75+ years.

What is fascinating to me is how work-a-day this is. It looks very like the maps you can pick up in tube stations today, with almost no indication that the blitz was in full swing, while the tube stations were turned into nightly shelters.

Actually, I don’t know exactly when in 1941 this map was printed–it is just labelled as “Number 2”, but the blitz ran through May, with occasional raids occurring long after that, and many people continued to shelter in the Underground throughout the war.

One slight indication of what was going on is the paragraph under the map that reads “Until further notice, Aldwych Station is closed and the passenger train service between Earls Court and Willesden Junction stations is suspended.” Aldwych Station was used as a repository for items from various galleries and museums. It is now a “closed” station that is often used for filming TV shows and movies. I don’t know the exact issue with Earls Court, but Willesden Junction was a major supply depot.

If you look at the map itself, it is instantly recognizable, despite there being a lot fewer stations and lines:


There are only 5 lines instead of the current 11 (not counting all the various overground lines shown on the modern maps). I also really like the little Olympic rings that show interchanges. I guess those were lost as the data on the map became more dense.

Then there is the back of the map:


There is no legend, but I am fairly sure that the Xs mark stations that were damaged or closed by bombs. A bit of googling shows that the listed places were all hit in late 1940/early 1941. The lack of explanation could have been because of censorship (although it is hard to see how useful that would be), or could just be standard British understatement. It is sobering either way.

Despite all my reading, I find it hard to imagine what London was really like during the blitz, or what it would have been like to huddle in the Underground during bombing raids. I know that my Grandma and my Uncle Ray were evacuated at various times (my mother wasn’t born until 1945), but my Grandpa generally didn’t bother with shelters–which meant that my Grandma didn’t get the option.

Apparently they were playing cards with some friends during a bombing raid when my Grandpa’s factory* was destroyed–they could see the fire from their house, although they originally thought it was the next-door building (which belonged to their card-playing friends).

My father was just a baby at the time (he was born in 1940), but he really didn’t like sirens. I remember once when he was sleeping and a siren went off on the television. He leapt out of bed and ran to the window before fully waking up.

In the 1970s, when we lived in London, I vaguely remember that there were still fenced-off bomb sites.

Patently Absurd

Well, I officially now hold a patent – US Patent #9,612,825Systems and Methods for Merging Metadata-Based Applications! I wouldn’t bother reading it if I were you–I wrote the thing, but after the lawyers were done with it, I barely understand it!

The application took about three years, and is good for 20 years, by which time the technology on which it is based will be moldering deep in a landfill somewhere.

There are goodish reasons in our industry to get patents, and I am proud of what we’ve done, but I have to admit that I am generally not in favor of software patents. I’d happily give mine up–if everyone else would give up theirs at the same time :-).

 

There are a lot of problems with software patents as a breed:

  1. I have had to read a number of patents to make sure we were not in violation, and almost every time I’ve done so, after reading the problem, the patent describes the blindingly obvious approach that just about anyone in the field would have taken to solve the same problem–except that now, they can’t–because someone has patented the blindingly obvious approach.
  2. Twenty years might make sense for a patent on a threshing machine, but in the computer world, it is an absurd amount of time.
  3. Software patents are wildly abused. Big companies often allow each other to share their portfolios of patents, while small companies are stuck out in the cold. Whole companies exist that don’t add anything to the world except a bunch of lawsuits to protect patents that shouldn’t have been granted in the first place.
  4. The stated purpose of patents is to encourage people to release things and get some protection for their invention without the idea immediately being stolen–and to guarantee that the idea will (eventually) go into the public domain. Software patents tend to have the exact opposite effect–preventing new things from being released, or being pulled almost immediately, because of the threat of lawsuits.
  5. Nobody looks at old patents to get ideas because, by the time they are legal, they are irrelevant. Most people only look at patents to make sure that they are not in violation–which, I can tell you from personal experience, is a pain in the neck–and you can never really be sure until someone sues, and a court decides.
  6. Often the concepts in patents are designed to be as wide as possible–often much wider than any actual reasonable implementation. I had to argue with the lawyers a lot to prevent them from doing that with this patent.

I could keep going, but there’s a lot of stuff on this already out in the world.

There are probably a few ideas in the software world, mostly related to really complicated algorithms, that might deserve some sort of protection (although 20 years is probably excessive). Even in those cases, I’m not sure that patents are the right approach.

One thing that did surprise me–there is a cliché of patents being granted because of overloaded clerks who don’t understand them. In this case, the examiner for this patent had a very good understanding of the concepts and prior art, and raised some really good points. I think his name was Albert something… (Actually, to give them their due, the examiners were Qing Chen and Clint Thatcher).

For my part, I extracted a promise from my partners that we wouldn’t use any patent in my name for “evil.”

I also have to admit that, despite all of this, getting the final approval did make me grin a bit :-).

If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I will blazon my mark,
And what if I don’t and what if I do?

— Dorothy Parker

 

 

Don’t Press This Button…

We were recently in California, and spotted this button in the elevator in our hotel. The urge to press it was almost overwhelming. I can only assume that it turns the elevator into a much more epic, adventure-filled ride.

On the other hand, if too many people hit the same button in their own elevators at the same time, you might have another 1906-level earthquake to deal with, and that would be a bad thing to have on your conscience!

Also, there seemed to be no buttons available for the Confectionarium or for “Up and out” which is an obvious oversight.

Frost

We had a big frost storm the other day. No point to make other than it was really pretty. Note that these are color pictures.

This was the grass of our lawn:

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