Category Archives: Books

Feb 2024 Media Diet

Books

How Big Things Get Done – Very much enjoyed this. Useful changes in my thinking about projects are already happening.

Movies

Self-Reliance

A sad guy allows himself to be hunted for a reality show – if he lasts 30 days he gets a million bucks. He thinks he’s found a loophole. He can’t be attacked unless he’s over 6 feet from another person. So he’s doing his best to always be near someone. Turns out he needs to do some work on himself and its really fun. There’s some weak parts sure, but this at least is different and pretty good at what it does try for.

Joe Kidd

Weirdly, there’s a Clint Eastwood western I hadn’t seen. This one is different because the man has a name.

Black Holes: Edge of all We Know

I was sick and I fell asleep a lot. But it was really good for the bits I woke up in. I loved seeing the drama of scientific cooperation and discovery.

The Speed Cubers

Its adorable. This short doc follows two Speed Cubing champions and their evolving relationship as they come to the world championship.

Feliks is a smart young Australian who set tons of world records. Max Park is a younger American on the autism spectrum who idolizes Feliks and is eating up all of Feliks’s records, starting to beat him in contests. Feliks and Max are developing a healthy relationship and Max is growing his social emotional strengths – learning to deal with defeat or failure as well as triumph. The stakes are both high and low. Its a world championship! … of solving toy puzzles. It’s an epic rivalry for the top! … with two competitors that like each other and wish each other well. It has the same sort of Becky Chambers-esque focus on characters growing and going through natural change that I’m finding so fascinating in contrast to Ready Player One or a Marvel Movie.

My Max is into cubing now. He’s not got all the algorithms but shows flashes where he can intuitively solve things I would have to slog through. Since Max has some cubes, ZZ now has cubes – she has figured out how to do a 3×3 checkerboard and “solve” it. Not bad for such a tyke!

TV

Reacher S2

It’s not as good as S1. There’s more buddies! Reacher has no flaws other than extreme loyalty. Still fun to watch but just a bit lazy feeling.

Jury Duty

It’s a reality show / extended prank. One guy is on jury duty. Everyone on the show but him is an actor including the other jurors, the judge, everything. The acting is pretty good. Multiple plots move forward at once. Max and I are howling laughing at it.

But good lord, it’s on a service with ads. It’s awful to watch Amazon advertise Amazon to me on Amazon. I already paid you for Prime. What are you doing? I hate this.

As I wrote about My 2023 in Books, I realized I want to write more about what I read.

I just wrote up “Why Big Things Don’t Get Done”, a review of Brent Flyvbjerg’s “How Big Things Get Done”.

If the title is a question, Brent has collected data across thousands of large projects and found an answer that he reveals early. Big things get done over budget, late, and deliver less value than people expected. Or they don’t get done. For the most part. Not by a little bit, either – big things fail by a lot. In a database of “16,000 projecgts from 20-plus different fields in 136 countries” he finds that “99.5 precent of projects go over budget, over schedule, under benefits, or some combination of these.”

And it shouldn’t be this way for big things. These are HUGE EXPENDITURES. Stuff like dams, nuclear power plants, healthcare.gov, and similar massive projects that people depend on succeeding. There should be lots of incentives to get it right.

Brent explores why this happens over and over again. He doesn’t duck the question, he has real answers, like:

  • Many projects start without defining why they need to happen. Without a defined why, decisions aren’t always steering to the north star and not everyone will have the same vision.
  • People act too early and don’t plan well before they get started. He goes into how to do that better – pointing out how Pixar did it really well with low stakes small versions.
  • When people get started early, they get delayed on every new emergency, so it takes longer than expected – and every day late is a chance for a new unexpected incident or emergency. Fast is good once you have a tight plan.
  • People estimate poorly because they think their project is special instead of finding a good match of things that have been done before.
  • People lie about the costs so they can use sunk costs to demand more funding when they exceed the budget. (Robert Caro describes how Robert Moses did this repeatedly in The Power Broker). Some “estimates aren’t intended to be accurate; they are intended to sell the project.”
  • The team doesn’t have enough experience so they can’t anticipate that similar problems will show up as happened on previous similar projects. If you’ve never built an underground train before, you won’t know to keep replacement parts for the digging machine ordered in advance.

The stories are numerous and detailed in here. I was also pleased by how many echoes I found with my other reading. I’d read about the building of the Pentagon and the chaos of the the early building of it. So much was done so fast, but so much had to be redone. I’d listened to the 99pi/Cautionary Tales episode about the building of the Sydney Opera house and how it ruined the architect, who fled the country and never saw it completed. I’m reading Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” and it’s a great peek behind the scenes to see how and why the author thought his 8 years of research/writing would only take a year.

This book was a big eye-opener for me, articulating things my experience had turned into instincts. I was able to use it before I even finished, referring engineers I work with to find “reference projects” to figure out timelines instead of doing the same things that didn’t work for us and don’t work for anyone else.

If you do things that take longer than a month, this is a pretty valuable book to read. If you do things that are new or haven’t been done before, it’s VERY interesting. I’m going to go on about this a lot to other folks about it.

Jan 2024 Media Diet

Books

I started a couple of good ones as well. I track all that over on bookwyrm.

TV

The Brothers Sun – This was really good. Fun, violent, funny. Real challenges and character arcs and good twists. The fight scene at the driving range was incredible. A deftly shot, well choreographed smash. Loved it. Michelle Yeoh is getting what she deserves. Justin Chien is great.

BLUE EYE SAMURAI – Stunningly smart. The twists are vicious. Gorgeous as well. Gets dark.

Over the Garden Wall – a really off-kilter cartoon from one of the creators of Adventure Time. Kids and I liked it a lot. They said it seemed like Centaurworld, which was also very yum.

I rewatched Shoresy because it really helps me SET THE TONE.

And I’ve been slowly working my way through Moonlighting, which is such a treasure from my childhood. Jason Lefkowitz turned me onto this – I love the casual 4th wall breaking, the bits they throw in to fill time, the Christmas episode that pulls back to reveal the whole production company singing. And the actual episodes are also good!

Krapopolis – I love everyone in this and cannot bother myself to watch another episode unless I want to fall asleep.

Chad and JT Go Deep – a heartwarming dumb silly journey. Half dramedy, half hidden camera prank show, funny. A Tim and Eric flavor sprinkled over it all.

Movies

Maggie Moore is a very light dark comedy. Really enjoyed this – Tina Fey is good at being not just Liz Lemon. Jon Hamm is good at being not just Don Draper. Micah Stock steals the show as a very pathetic villain.

Dredd – I was stuck in bed with a bad back and thought I’d check it out. It’s horrible. It’s one of those movies that takes the fascist joke seriously and makes it unfunny. Very violent and gross and well shot.

The Imitation Game – brilliant. Deserves all the praise it got.

a swarm of butterflies against a blue sky

The Power Broker Read-along 1

In addition to my work book club (we’re reading How Big Things Get Done by Brent Flyvberg) I found out that one of my favorite podcasts “99% Invisible” is doing a read-along of the massive Robert Caro book “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”. It’s a biggie – so they are going to work through it over the course of 2024, with one episode a month covering a 12th of the book. This sounds totally achievable.

I’ve just finished the first part – Robert’s beginnings, his family, his progressive paternalistic origins and the brutal education in power that he goes through. This guy seems to be a massive intellect, a fantastically energetic powerhouse of change, an aristocratic snide jerk who looked down on all of us (my ancestors are particularly some of the people his family organized to keep from embarassing them), and possibly one of the most destructive people who doesn’t get credit for it. Once you listen to Butterflies, the Memory Palace’s story of how Thomas Midgely was inadvertently a destructive monster who murdered so many of us a fraction at a time, you begin to think about the other secret monsters in the world – killing us in tiny slices. They removed so many parts of so many peoples lives, bringing the day of their death closer than needed.

Listening to the first episode of 99PI’s Power Broker read-along was great – Robert Caro is the guest, you begin to grasp that Robert Moses did the same, but in the middle of people’s lives and he did it for aesthetic reasons. He wanted to prevent us from having trains and public transportation. He had the choice and he chose to do things that made so many people in my region sit idling in cars, pumping exhaust out and increasing their blood pressure. It reminds me of the part in Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett where a demon takes credit for a the design of a UK motorway as a force of massive incremental evil. I was hooked in the first 20 pages, but I feel like we are in masterful hands by now. I was eager to not get too far ahead of the podcast – but now I can get through the next chunk. It is definitely not too soon to get started and join in – I am eager to chat with folks about it.

My 2023 in Books

I read more in 2023 than I expected to. Over on Bookwyrm, they make a nice report of it, but I thought I’d share something more personal for you. (BTW – I still recommend you switch away from goodreads to a platform built for you and join bookwyrm).

Two authors captured most of my attention in 2023, Naomi Novik and Becky Chambers. I want to share them with you!

Naomi Novik

At the beginning of the year, Cory Doctorow posted about the joy of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I was hooked and thought I’d try consuming the first book.

Friends, it consumed me. And then the whole series followed, one after another. I had to see it through. Each book had a new twist, a new country, a new region, new insights into power and servitude and love and friendship. The series takes a premise that sounds a bit ludicrous, then takes it extremely seriously and chases it into every dark corner. That premise is something that is almost embarrassing to summarize: What if in the Napoleonic wars dragons were real, intelligent, commonplace and part of the war. Magic isn’t a thing, there are no wizards, just real speaking dragons exist and are part of the war. In this world, Laurence finds and becomes bonded with a newly hatched dragon named Temeraire.

Laurence and Temeraire go on an epic journey as they travel the whole world in the effort to defeat Napoleon’s relentless army and innovative dragon tactics, to keep Britain free. In each book, Temeraire asks more and more from Laurence about the world as it is, Laurence finds himself trying to explain the contradictions inherent in the system he never questioned before, and their relationship continuously evolves as they encounter other cultures and other relationships between humans and dragons. I got so excited as I read along:

Big tough downer moments! But as always the star of the show is the shifting relationship between Temeraire and Lawrence- and him slowly changing his views on the enslavement of dragons.

Lien returns! Napoleon is seen!

Matt K Commenting on Black Powder War

And then,

Just wonderful.
All of the stressors and impossible hypocrisy of the empire begins to rise in the relationship of Laurence and Temeraire. What hope is there for recognition of dragons if humans see other humans as things?

Matt K commenting on “Empire of Ivory”

And the action is intense for every book. Huge epic battles with aerial dragon to dragon fighting and mid-air boarding parties, prison escapes, heists, sword fights, pistol duels etc etc. Naomi Novik doesn’t miss a trick. I can’t scratch the surface of the 9 book series for you, but it was worth all the reading. In 2024 I’m going to tackle her “Scholomance” series with high expectations.

Becky Chambers

At the other end of the spectrum of epicness I was utterly charmed by the works of Becky Chambers. In 2022 I read “A Psalm for the Wild-Built” and liked it, but didn’t realize at the time how good it was (?????). I didn’t realize her skill is the beauty of small-stakes stories.

Then I read the first book of the Wayfarers, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and started to catch-on(?????).

Everyone has stakes and a journey and I am fond of all of them. Now I’m in for the next books.

Matt K on “A long way to a small angry planet”

There was a really big battle climax to the book – but it was overshadowed by the simple beauty of the relationships developed for every character and the huge emotional stakes. It’s a big universe where humanity is a very very small part. Earth’s gone, humanity depends on the largess of richer species. Rosemary, comes from that background and joins the multi-species crew of the Wayfarer, a working spaceship that gets a very interesting assignment opening up a wormhole to the home planet of a dangerously behaving new species. The journey is fantastic. The end is a gut punch where a difficult choice leads to a precious character’s life being risked. And the risk doesn’t pay off. I wanted to read up on the further adventures of these characters. I wanted to plow through more adventures of the crew of the Wayfarer in the Wayfarers series! More more more!

But Becky is too good. She disappoints you in the absolute best ways. Each new novel is warm, kind and interesting, it’s in the same universe, but it doesn’t just let you stay where you were. Each book takes on a new aspect.

The next book takes two characters that are very minor from the first book and sets them out to grow and learn in a completely new environment. It expands the stage from the size of the ship to a wider society and mixed cultures. Two characters are fleshed out – one as they become a fully realized person growing up from the first page, the other healing from a sickening origin into an independent kind woman. And there’s a heist, sort of. It’s great. It ends with a warm hug and I loved it. (?????)

It’s just so calm and kind and full of heart. I really love the way minor characters have leapt into fully dimensioned people with giant stories. It gives you that sonder chill.

Matt K on A closed and Common Orbit

She does it again with the third book. In the first book, it’s mentioned that humanity had to flee the dying Earth in an Exodan fleet of spacecraft looking for a new home. These generation ships had to not repeat the mistakes that ruined the planet they launched from, so everyone has work, food, housing in self-sustaining systems. Eventually they find or are found by the wider galaxy – but who cares about some fragile monkeys in steel cans? It takes a very long time until we are allowed to settle and immigrate to other planets. And not everyone wants to leave the sturdy culture humanity has built in their aging ships for the razzle dazzle of the wider culture. This book takes place in one of the Exodan ships, explores who stays, who leaves, who grows and who dies. Their is a mystery that gets solved, but it’s very Chambers – the point is people figuring out how to be together and why. Everyone has stakes, reasons for who they are – and in the end you can celebrate the new places the characters end up. (?????)

The last Wayfarer book leaves it all behind for a crisis of intersecting cultures in an intergalactic truck stop. We get to learn the story behind an incredibly unusual romance, the ways these cultures conflict and work together, the real pressures that divide them and the ways they can help each other grow past those pressures and divides. All this happens in a kind of a “bottle episode” – three strangers are stranded when there is a cascading satellite crisis that renders them incommunicado and unable to take off. The crisis in the sky leads to them having to encounter each other instead of just passing through – and they learn why each is there. As things on the ground are starting to get better, there’s a crisis on the ground and they all help each other to get through it. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is the good kind of bottle episode. (?????)

Where Temeraire is an epic tale of grand battles, it is also a small story of two people growing and maturing as they face uncomfortable truths about how they relate to each other and the world. Laurence and Temeraire are the true constants. The Wayfarer series is about smaller challenges, smaller stakes, but very personal ones. In each one of these books the stakes are just as important to the characters as a grand battle. And Becky Chambers manages to make you care and understand across each character, taking the time to build them fully.

Now I get how a Becky Chambers story works so well. The smallness is part of the point. She can make the small stakes MATTER. They matter to the characters and they matter to me. So I decided to read the sequel to “A Psalm for the Wild-Built” in the “Monk and Robot” series.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is a gem (?????). It gets smaller and more detailed. The two characters are the same Monk and Robot from the first book are going to tour the world and fulfill a bigger mission – but the way they grow with each other on the journey is massive.

This little arc charms my heart as all of Becky Chambers books do.

The world is so big and the story so intimate, the climax a hidden tiny change in a conversation.

Matt K on A prayer for the Crown-Shy

Superlatives

CJ Leede’s, Maeve Fly was something I picked up randomly in a bookshop and had to purchase after a few pages. I absolutely loved it (?????) and cackled at the pitch black darkness in it. It’s a dash of American Psycho, a splash of Chuck Palahniuk, stirred with Elsa and Anna, then strained through a used bandage.

It is definitely the grossest book I read this year, and Mary Roach’s hilarious Packing for Mars has a whole chapter on astronauts pooping. Packing for Mars was probably the funniest book I read, though Mel Brooks’s All About Me came close.

The most depressing book was The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi. I mistakenly got my work’s book club to read it and… people weren’t happy. There is no happiness in this very thinly veiled fantasy allegory for climate change.

Two timers

I read some great books that flipped between two times – A Closed and Common Orbit is in there, but I read two right next two each other.

Witch King flips back and forth between two times. One is a mystery – who trapped us? What intrigue is afoot and how can we foil it. The other is a rising challenge, a hopeless rebellion against an overwhelming authority.

Both are told with strength and warmth- our protagonist is frankly a bit of a shit in the beginning, but we learn why and see where they are coming from and where they are supported more than they see.

It ends with the perfect ending for a mystery and the aftermath of a rebellion. The story is done.

I’d absolutely enjoy another book in this world but this stands well all by itself. (?????)

There’s so many good bits and little shiny details in this epic redemption journey. In the past, a simple occupation mission by an atrocious all-conquering invasion force goes awry with a mysterious conspiracy coming to a head. The protagonist is an AI ship consciousness multiply embodied in enslaved human soldiers. A crisis builds under the watchful eye of an empress that rules from within thousands of bodies.

In the present, the aftermath of the crisis is our protagonist singly embodied, troubled by the atrocities it committed and dedicated to a hopeless mission of vengeance.

There is a lot of dealing with a… not an untrustworthy narrator but an extremely neurodivergent naive narrator. Lots of fun gender issues and language issues that present as interesting puzzles for the reader.

This book wowed me (?????) and I’m eager to read the sequel.

In 2024, I’m going to shoot for 24 books read, but I think I’d like to write more about them. It’s been fun writing this post, but I could do a little bit more as I read each one.

Moving on from GoodReads to BookWyrm

Friends, I’ve read a lot of books.

I started tracking books a long time ago on LibraryThing, when LibraryThing was giving out a CueCat. I liked LibraryThing, but they never got as popular as GoodReads, and I had friends who actually used GoodReads. So I moved on to GoodReads to be with my friends, since community trumps technology. I really wish I could have used the functionality of LibraryThing but still kept tabs with my pals. Sadly, these folks want to have a walled garden and don’t value interoperability.

Both of them ended up shutting down their APIs, which sucks because I wanted to use my data for me! I ended up routing around their damage.

But what a bunch of palaver!

I don’t want to give my data directly to Amazon (the owners of GoodReads). I don’t want to lose APIs or access to all the data that I’ve been putting in. I also care about my friends, but not that they use the same website as me!

So I was incredibly excited to discover a great book tracker in the Fediverse!

I think you should come with me and you should join BookWyrm.

BookWyrm is a social network for tracking your reading, talking about books, writing reviews, and discovering what to read next. Federation allows BookWyrm users to join small, trusted communities that can connect with one another, and with other ActivityPub services like Mastodon and Pleroma.

https://joinbookwyrm.com

BookWyrm is open source, decentralized and federated. It’s built on top of the ActivityPub protocol like Mastodon.

What does that all mean and why is it important?

BookWyrm is open source. The lead developer has a day job as a baker and isn’t trying to build an empire. When I wanted a feature that didn’t exist, I didn’t have to ask a product manager, I was able to open a Merge Request to contribute a solution! The documentation is also open and easy for anyone in the community to help improve.

BookWyrm is decentralized. That means it isn’t just one website like Twitter, GoodReads, FaceBook, LibraryThing, etc. It is made up of many sites – there are 22 sites live as I write this. If you don’t like one of them, you can leave and move to another, you’re not locked in to the choices and beliefs of whoever owns a server.

And Federated means that all these sites speak about books to each other in a special set of ways called ActivityPub. Some of these sites are for folks who speak a certain language or live somewhere or are interested in a certain kind of book… But if you have a friend on a different site, you can still be friends! The sites all speak to each other in a federation of small common websites. Bookwyrm has good people on it – you can find a good like minded community or span across communities.

And because BookWyrm speaks ActivityPub, it means that people who left Twitter for Mastodon can be friends with you on BookWyrm – they can comment on your books safely from their own community! It’s as natural as sending emails from your work to someone else’s.

And when I want to just get the books that I marked to-read so I can search for them across multiple places, I don’t have to spend a ton of time faking my way to get my own data. BookWyrm is here for me, not as a place trying to find a business model to exploit me.

So when you join BookWyrm, please – say hi and let’s chat about books– I’m @mttktz@bookwyrm.social!