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Monday, March 01, 2021

Review: Ray Bradbury - The Last Interview: And Other Conversations

 I accidentally checked out Ray Bradbury - The Last Interview from the library (I thought I was checkout out a different book), but it was short, so I went ahead and read it. It told me things about Ray Bradbury that I never knew, including that he had an exceptionally good memory for a small boy, claiming that he remembered being born (which I'm not sure I believe), and the influence of his grandfather who died when Bradbury was 5 (which I do believe). There's a lot of writerly advice, including the much debunked - do what you love, and Bradbury, like many successful young conservatives, clearly believed that he was a self-made man, despite the evidence that quite a bit of luck was involved in his career as an accidental architect, for instance.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of quotable quotes in the book that cannot help but endear you to the man. For instance, his memories of being a boy jives with my own:

WELLER: A lot of people—we hear this term—grow up. Do you feel like you’ve grown up? How have you been able to stay connected to your inner child over the years? Because a lot of people lose touch with that. BRADBURY: You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future. You don’t worry about the past. You just explode. So if you are dynamic you don’t have to worry about what age you are. I’ve remained a boy because boys run everywhere. They never stop running. They never look back. They just keep running, running, running. That’s me. The running boy. (Kindle Loc 169)

“You don’t have to destroy books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Kindle Loc 574)

I’ve known a lot of Hollywood writers over the years who made ten times my income, and they were profoundly unhappy. Because they wrote things they never should have written. They never went on vacation. They never went to Europe and saw London or Paris or Rome. They were afraid that if they ever left Hollywood, they would be replaced. And they were probably right. They were replaceable. But when you write from within, if you write from within and are true to who you are, you are original and you cannot be replaced. No wonder these writers were scared! (Kindle Loc 821)

A short read, providing many moments of joy, and insight into an amazing story teller. Worth your time. 

 

 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Review: Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man 1 and 2

 After playing the Miles Morales video game, Boen asked to read the Miles Morales comic books, so I checked Vol 1 and Vol 2 of the Ultimates Collection out of the library via Hoopla. Being part of the Ultimates universe, this is a different universe and timeline from the mainstream Spiderman books. That didn't confuse Boen - he seemed to understand that the comic books, video games, and movies were all separate universes.

What was annoying, however, was that the story moved at a snail's pace. Having just come off the first collection of Stan Lee's original run, it's quite clear that the new manga-style Spider-man series never told a story in 3 panels when it could do so in  23 pages worth of slow-moving pacing. That's OK when reading manga, because you get a phone book's worth of material in one go and you get a substantial chunk of story, but in a 6-issue format, you just feel ripped off, even when just checking it out of the library for free.

The story also branches off into some cross-over story (Civil War 2?) that never properly resolves, and so things get nice and confusing. We finished both volumes and Boen wanted more, but I'd be damned if I spent any of my hard-earned money for more reader abuse.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: The Hustler

 After The Queen's Gambit, I picked up The Hustler. As with the previous book by Walter Tevis, this is an old-school novel, about 200 pages also, and quick read. Just as The Queen's Gambit was about chess, The Hustler is about pool. It's not going to teach you the various games, but it will grant you insight into the types of people who play pool for money, and what their attitude towards life is.

Unfortunately, I don't really like the kind of people who play pool. While Beth Harmon was a sympathetic character, Eddie Nelson is the kind of person you would despise: he treats everyone and everything as someone to be used (including the girlfriend who cares for him when he's injured), and when someone else tries to use him, he acts all shocked and surprised.

Certainly not as compelling to me as The Queen's Gambit. I'm passing on the next book.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Review: The Queen's Gambit

 I actually had The Queen's Gambit on hold at the library but over the holidays my wife wanted something to watch, so we ended up watching the Netflix series. I heard that the series was very true to the book, but never got around to cancelling my hold, so one day it showed up  on my Kindle. I didn't expect to want to read it, but ended up reading the whole thing over 2 days, a testament to how short the book was, and how compellingly readable it is.

Unlike the TV show, the book is mostly linear, and doesn't delve into Beth Hamon's past as much. Hamon's character in the book is also much more proactive about getting herself out of alcoholic stupor, though as impulsive as in the book. While the TV show is mostly faithful to the book, I actually found myself enjoying the book quite a bit more, and probably would have been less enamored of the show if I'd read the book first.

After enjoying the book, I went and bought The Hustler, which is high praise for someone who's stingy about money.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Review: Bone Silence

 Bone Silence is the final book in Alastair Reynolds' Revenger Trilogy, which is a series about pirates in space. I checked it out from the library in Audio book format, where it was performed by Clare Corbett, who is an astonishingly able reader, with separate, distinguishable voices for every character, and an English accent that fully brings out what a pirate story in the age of sail is.

The story itself is not so good: the first half of the novel is much padded, with the setup and the introduction of the main villain done slowly. By the time the book gets us to the destination world, we have the Ness sisters having captured another ship, one in deep trouble against the primary villain, and the other furiously trying to unravel the stories of the alien races in the universe they're in.

Everything falls apart, however, at the reveal, where we do learn what the quoins (pronounced "coins") are, but the nature of the world, the occupations, the baubles and black-hole technology are all left open, as though there's a sequel coming and Reynolds is trying to portion out his good ideas and save them  for a later book. I found myself zoning out, which is not a good sign.

As a translation of "pirates in space", you could do a lot worse, but for a Alastair Reynolds novel, you could do a lot better. Rereading any one of his Revelation Space novels or House of Suns would be a better use of your time than the Revenger series.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: The Last Lion, 1940-1965

 I checked out The Last Lion from the library, a biography of Winston Churchill that was so long that it spanned 3 volumes. So of course I checked out the final volume to skip the build up. It turned out that the author of the first two volume died before he could finish the third, and handed it off to a friend to finish. While reading this book, I understood why --- there's a ton of minutia, the editing of some of it would probably have made the book more accessible to the casual reader.

Yet, the book has much to recommend it, with many of Churchill's famous speeches placed in context, and much of the machinations between the US, Britain, and Russia exposed to both deep analysis as well as recounting. It was very clear that it wasn't an accident that Britain was bankrupt by the end of the war, and the US won more than just a military victory. There were lots I didn't know, for instance, why Greece managed to remain a democracy, and how much of the offensives in Africa were because the allies literally couldn't do anything else. Unlike most world war 2 accounts written by Americans, this account makes it quite clear how much Russia had to sacrifice to defeat Hitler, though much of those losses were due to Stalin ignoring the intelligence and warnings provided to him by British officials.

Finally, it still amazed me how strong someone  like Churchill was. After defeating Germany, he was thrown out of his Prime Ministerial office after losing an election to socialists (Churchill was as conservative as they come). In defeat, he wrote:

“perhaps the most gracious acceptance of democratic defeat in the English language.” Churchill: The decision of the British people has been recorded in the votes counted today. I have therefore laid down the charge which was placed upon me in darker times. I regret that I have not been permitted to finish the work against Japan…. It only remains for me to express to the British people, for whom I have acted in these perilous years, my profound gratitude for the unflinching, unswerving support which they have given me during my task, and for the many expressions of kindness which they have shown towards their servant.” (Kinde Loc 54,807)

One cannot expect such eloquence and graciousness of conservatives in defeat today.

I learned a lot from the book, though at times it was a slog. Recommended.


Monday, February 08, 2021

Post-COVID home and office design

 Recently someone showed me a group photo from a Pokemon GoFest. My immediate reaction was visceral: this looks way too dangerous during COVID19 times --- too crowded, too many people in a small space, never mind that it was outdoors. Before this year, there was hope that with a vaccine and good public health measures we could return to post-COVID19 times, but now it's looking more and more like COVID19 will be endemic.

In the short-term regardless, remote-work has become the norm, but I think that architects and office designers are still behind the curve on designing for a post-pandemic world. I'll start with the home. Prior to the pandemic, great halls were the fashion for home design. In a post-pandemic world where work-from-home is the norm, the great hall is the biggest waste of space you can imagine. Consider:

  • Tall ceilings amplifies noise and creates echo-y environments, meaning that the space cannot be used for more than one zoom call at a time
  • The open space does not provide isolation, whether you're doing home work, writing code, or even writing a report.
  • The big empty space  does not afford power sockets which are still necessary for power or large monitors, even if your wi-fi coverage was fast enough or you had a mesh router.
  • Finally, any one cooking or eating in the great hall will disturb anyone who's trying to work.
It is far better in the post-COVID environment to have a lot of small enclosable spaces than to have one big space, and home designs in the past 10 years have not caught up to that reality, and many home buyers have fallen prey to fashion rather than the practicalities of working from home.

Going to the office, the situation is even worse. Office designs in the past 10-15 years have been constrained by the costs in high rent areas such as Silicon Valley and the need to pack as many people as possible in a work environment. All the space recommendations of Peopleware for knowledge workers (engineers, artists, etc) have been deprecated in favor of open-floor plans with no walls or doors. There is no way any high end creative technical talent will put up with that sort of environment in a COVID-endemic environment. So you get announcements like DropBox moving out of their offices in favor of pre-reserved collaborative spaces.

I think for very small teams (3-4 people) it's possible to do long term remote work. But if you have a true multi-disciplinary development, you'll soon outstrip the capabilities of Zoom. Even the best remote work environments cannot beat standing together in front of a white board for impromptu design discussions. And for the most collaborative creative teamwork (think video games, or storyboarding a Pixar movie), you will require in person work. Despite my best efforts I have to constantly push people to jump into zoom calls instead of slacking at each other in a slack channel: the bandwidth provided by even an imperfect Zoom call with a shared screen far outstrips most people's ability to express themselves in the written medium!

A big company like Google/Facebook/Dropbox will probably not miss the creativity hit from daily collaborative work (though I'd argue that they do, but just as described in Peopleware, there's no way to measure the business loss from creative ideas not being put into practice, they don't know what they're missing), but if you're a startup (or in a creative endeavor like Pixar or Naughty Dog), you cannot afford to lose this, and if you visit offices like Pixar's, you'll discover that they never adopted the mass open-space fashion of Silicon Valley. (Peopleware cites examples of "skunkworks" projects where the managers successfully placed their teams in non-traditional offices precisely to maximize team work --- the only reason any startup can perform a large company is that they have focus and team work in ways that big companies cannot do) I suspect that the more creative the work, and the more multi-disciplinary the work, the more likely it is that it will benefit from in-person collaboration and team work. Hence, you might want your accounting department to be entirely remote (nobody wants creative accounting), and payroll processing maintenance and programming could probably be done remotely, but putting together a movie, high quality video game, or solving new technical problems might benefit from in person collaboration.

Unlike pre-COVID days, however, you can no longer mandate that your talent walk in the office every day. You have to make them want to do so. A lot of this is building teams where people are eager to collaborate and see each other in person, but making the office a more desirable workspace than most people's homes (which are, as described above, not configured for decent individual creative work, let alone collaborative work) is a good first step.

Those recommendations from Peopleware include:
  • At least 100 square feet of private work space per person, with a door you can close for privacy and/or noise isolation. (Sorry, head phones do not cut it!)
  • Collaborative work environments that are well ventilated, preferably with windows
  • A gradation of private to collaborative to public workspace
Ironically, the pre-built spaces that have these characteristics turn out to be single-family homes built in the 1950s, with low ceilings, individual rooms, and a shared living room work environment. They sometimes even have kitchens big enough for a team to make and eat a meal together. It probably isn't a surprise that many successful startups had houses as office space rather than an actual office building.

If I were to design an office for the future, I would create a hub and spoke design, with large teams divided into smaller teams, each with a collaboration area, and bigger collaboration areas for cross team communications, brain storming, or design. Instead of the monolithic cafetarias of the past, you would construct smaller dining areas that let teams dine together without putting huge numbers of people together to spread disease.

It's fashionable to denigrate offices in favor of remote work now, but I suspect that the future success stories will come out of in person collaboration for the spark and serendipity that cannot occur through scheduled zoom calls. It will take real courage (not the Apple kind) to build these workspaces of the future that cannot look anything like the sardine-packed workplaces of the past, but the ones who succeed will discover that it is well worth the effort, and the reduced cost of offices in the future will be but one component of that.

Additional Reading
Has the Pandemic transformed the Office Forever? (The author seems afraid to draw any conclusions in this article, but it does a good job discussing trends prior to the pandemic)