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Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Renegades of the Empire

 Scott Macdonald told me that his group at Microsoft (DirectX) was so famous that a journalist wrote about it. The book was called Renegades of the Empire, and not only was it not available at any of the libraries near me, but there was also no kindle version. Which meant I had to buy a used copy from Amazon and read it on paper with a booklight and everything.

The book describes Alex St. John, Eric Engstrom, and Craig Eisler's careers at Microsoft, how they started the DirectX effort, shoe-horned it into Microsoft (killing off WinG in the mean time), and then proceeded to try to create a web-browser (named oddly enough Chrome before being called Chromeeffects) which would fail.

The trio's antics are famous and very politically incorrect. The kind of statements regularly made by Alex St. John, not to mention the antics (hiring contractors using the marketing budget), deliberately dissing their own company at product rollouts, would undoubtedly get someone fired today. There's even a story of a food-fight in one of Microsoft's meeting rooms, with the clean up bill sent to then Microsoft VP Brad Silverberg, who wrote an e-mail saying, "I hope you enjoyed yourself."

Having worked with a few ex-Microsoft employees, I now understand much of their behavior. For instance, there are several instances in the book where a manager going on vacation would come back to discover that his team had been taken away from him. That explains why many former Microsoft employees would never take vacation. (To be honest, I think that attitude permeates much of tech companies today --- even at Google one of my friends once reported that taking vacation was given as a reason to deny someone a promotion, so I won't pretend that things are any better today)

Anyway, the book is eye opening, hilarious in parts, and well worth reading for the insight into the way various people you might encounter at work behave. Recommended.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Review: The Messy Middle

 The Messy Middle is a book about entrepreneurship. Rather than being one about raising money, etc., it's almost entirely about the development of a startup past the initial stages but before being fully successful as an independent entity or being sold. The author started Behance, which was bought by Adobe, and sprinkles his narrative with anecdotes and stories from both his time managing Behance and as a transformative middle manager at Adobe.

The book covers many topics, but the management sections are interesting. In one particular case, he compares a well functioning team to that of a human body system, and describes a well-jelled team as having a healthy immune system, which would wholesale reject any transplant of a foreign entity (such as an new leader being injected into the mix). He describes the manager's role there as helping to suppress the immune system so that the new transplant can contribute. I will note that like many managers, at no point does he consider promoting someone from inside. (And in this particular case, he had been long time friends with the new manager and had faith that it would work out without tearing the team apart)

I switched from the audio book to kindle format in the middle of this book, but there were many anecdotes in this book that were geared entirely towards the product manager, rather than the engineering leader. One thing that particularly stands out is the fact that he considers the most important piece to be self-motivation, mentioning that startups are usually so hard that if you can't motivate yourself you absolutely will not finish.

There are huge sections about motivating yourself, optimizing processes, and right at the end a few notes about getting advice from third parties before any kind of sale happens. It's definitely good stuff and worth your time to read. There's the usual amount of self-aggrandization from any successful entrepreneur, but also enough useful stuff that I wouldn't consider it a problem.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Review: Batman Zero Year

 DC periodically reboots its universe for no reason other than to reimagine/retell all the origin stories from their classic pantheon of superheroes. Batman: Zero Year is of course its most recent retelling of Batman Year One, and in contrast to the grim and gritty Frank Miller approach, goes for the modern, post-apocalyptic viewpoint. 

The art style is modern and clean and a joy to view. The writing and main villain (The Riddler), not so much. Bruce Wayne, for instance, takes a long time to figure out that Wayne enterprises would be key to providing him with resources for his battle. Similarly, there are key scenes that make no sense, such as Lucius Fox injecting Wayne with a vaccine without telling him. The Riddler taking over Gotham City is a nice excuse for providing apocalyptic images, but ultimately shows how much supervillain victories look like the dog catching the school bus. He does nothing with that victory and never seems to be a serious threat.

The denouement, when it comes feels more than a little cliche, with Batman working away from a love interest that was barely introduced and one never cares about. I don't now why anyone would consider this even comparable to Miller's work.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Books of the Year 2021

 I read 69 books this year, including a couple of re-reads. It was heavily tilted towards non-fiction, which makes the non-fiction selection challenging.

By far the most useful book I read this year has to be Noise. A book about how to make decisions and remove jitter from your decisions has to qualify very highly in terms of usefulness. The problem is that the book is on the dry side. I would say that on the political side, the best book I read this year was The Price of Peace, the biography of John Maynard Keynes. It describes the long march and battle of ideas, and really shows how bankrupt the modern economic theories of Milton Friedman et al, are compared to Keynes' vision. It ties right in with Democracy in Chains giving you a complete understanding of the political economy. My favorite topic is still science, unfashionable as it is in this day of vaccine denial. I thought Exercised was a solid debunking of paleo exercise  and diet myths, and explains why we hate exercise so much despite also needing it. I also cannot help having a soft spot for Justice and The Wisdom of No Escape, both of which are exemplars of clear writing and thinking. By far the best business book I read this  year was Working Backwards. It's a clear explanation of how Amazon won so many battles against competitors with much higher margins and frequently better engineers. It's definitely well worth your time.

I guess having said all that, I will go for The Price of Peace as the book of the year.

The best fiction of the year was an easy choice: Project Hail Mary, easily the best novel I'd read in years. If you enjoyed the Martian, don't waste your time dithering. Just get the book and read it already.

I read a ton more comic books than usual, but none of them really stood out. I guess March would take the price, if I had to choose. As you can see, I found a bunch of really good books this year. I hope you try some of them!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Reread: Use of Weapons

 Use of Weapons was one of the first Iain M Banks books I read oh so long ago, and I decided to read it again recently out of curiosity as to whether it held up. The book runs in two narratives, one moving forward in time, and one moving backwards, revealing the post-singularity society of the Culture as well as the character of Cheradine Zakalwe, who works as an operative for Special Circumstances, the dirty tricks arm of the contact section of the Culture.

The world building is excellent, with reveal after reveal of the culture and the way it operates interspersed with the memory of Zakalwe mixed in. The surprise ending (which I won't spoil) doesn't surprise the second or third time reading the book, and upon reflection, is the weakest portion of the book, since it doesn't actually explain the nature of the identity.

The next weakest portion of the book is the plot, where Zakalwe's generalship surprises the planning and machine minds behind the entire purpose of pulling Zakalwe out of retirement. One would think that having had repeated encounters and use of Zakalwe, the machines/Special Circumstances agents wouldn't be surprised again.

The Utopia that is the Culture is one of the few Utopias in fiction that's believable: a post-singularity society run by machines where the organic peoples are essentially pets does seem like it could be more moral than ones built by humans themselves. I enjoyed the re-read.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Review: Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership is a book featuring two SEAL task units' explanation of how leadership principles in the US Navy Seals work, and can be applied to the world of business. As with many leadership principles involved, most of these are common sense, but the authors do a good job of giving these principles catchy names so you can remember.

For instance, Leading Up the Chain can also be called "Managing Up", but hey, no matter what you call it, it's a good principle --- you usually need to overshare information up your management chain, because when they're the ones not directly involved in the work, situations, techniques, and problems obvious to you in your day to day life simply aren't things they aren't going to know about.

Similarly, they point out that in a leadership position, you have to act as though you have agency and effectiveness for all aspects of your organization involved in your mission. Because if you don't, you're just going to fail:

SEAL troops and platoons that didn’t perform well had leaders who blamed everyone and everything else—their troops, their subordinate leaders, or the scenario. They blamed the SEAL training instructor staff; they blamed inadequate equipment or the experience level of their men. They refused to accept responsibility. Poor performance and mission failure were the result. (pg 36)

The stories/anecdotes, and examples from the Iraqi missions are fun, and illustrative of the modern military. Even after they've penetrated an enemy HQ, they still have to collect evidence and document it and label it correctly. It took discipline, but it shows that an elite military unit really can live up to the demands the civilian society asks of it.

Where do the book fall short? Well, the military's enlisted men, by and large, once they've been deployed, do not have the freedom to change jobs. They would face extreme sanction. And of course, once you're in the field self-preservation (and team bonding) ensures that they will stick it out long enough to return to base (though as the book points out, some return in body bags). The modern work environment, however, means that your talent can walk any time. But this makes leadership more important. As the book explains, you really have to explain the why behind every mission and not assume everyone understands it. If you brief your team and get no questions, that means that people don't understand it, or don't believe it and are too polite to let you know.

The book's worth a read. It's entertaining, and yeah, you might know all the common sense stuff, but it's worth reminding yourself of them every so often.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Review: Influenza

 Why read yet another book about Influenza, when I'd already read The Great Influenza? I kinda skipped the history of the so-called Spanish flu, having already gotten all of those details from that other book, but the modern parts of the book were actually interesting.

For instance, I didn't know that the approval of Tamiflu was actually steeped in controversy. It turns out that it reduces your symptoms by one day, but only if you take it right away. But we stockpile it anyway, thanks to some insider's political involvement during the procurement process. Similarly, I didn't know that the British NHS would only vaccinate the very old and the very young with the flu vaccine and basically not recommend flu vaccines for everyone in between. Again, I don't know if that's changed since the COVID pandemic.

In any case, it seems like any kind of treatment/effective vaccine for the influenza is quite some time away, and of course, since the book was published events have over-taken it and we've gotten effective COVID19 vaccines in record time, so maybe if another influenza pandemic kicked off we might be able to do it again.

I thought the book was good, but not as good as The Great Influenza.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Review: The Math of Life and Death

 While Bowen was in pre-school, there would be days when he would regress, going from playing with challenging problems to something dumb and simple. On those days, I would comment that he'd taken a stupid pill, and just wanted to do something that wasn't an intellectual challenge.

I must have picked up The Math of Life & Death on one of those days when I'd taken a stupid pill. The book doesn't really describe anything I didn't already know, even to the point of rehashing the old Google interview question involving the Birthday Paradox.

While I was working my way through this book, on a bike ride Bowen asked me why even though we're on the decimal system, directions and time were described in minutes and seconds, which were in base 12. And I had just read the section of the book the day before about how certain human cultures counted in base 12 by counting the knuckles of the fingers of one hand (excluding the thumb), which added to 12, while using the other hand to count off the number of 1-12 cycles, which is how you got 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, and 12 hours per half day.

Dang, I did learn something from this book after all! The book is transparently written and entertaining with all sorts of factoids like this that kept me going. And hey, it must not have been a stupid pill if it made me sound like a knowledgeable dad to my (now cynical and difficult to impress) 9 year old.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Review: Mindset - The Psychology of Success

 In recent years, you might have heard of or been encouraged to take a Growth Mindset. Well, Mindset is the book that kicked off this trend. To some extent, the book is similar in philosophy to something that I said about startup a few decades ago: "Your success as a startup is dependent on luck, market factors, and all sorts of vicissitudes you have no control over. However, you might as well plan for success, because if you planned for failure you will achieve it."

Similarly, the book basically eliminates discussion of fixed traits such as IQ, body shape, etc., but basically says: "you should plan as though there are no fixed traits, since no matter what traits you have, you can improve your success at a task through the right kind of work, and the evidence is that the people who approach life with this attitude are much more successful than the people who adopt the idea that their major attributes are fixed with no hope of changing them."

Put in those terms, the book is pretty much common sense. But there are several subtleties that I wouldn't have realized that the book points out. For instance, the book points out that women are much more dependent on external validation/evaluation of their performance than boys/men are:

Boys are constantly being scolded and punished. When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct. Boys are also constantly calling each other slobs and morons. The evaluations lose a lot of their power. (kindle loc 1344)

A male friend once called me a slob. He was over to dinner at my house and, while we were eating, I dripped some food on my blouse. “That’s because you’re such a slob,” he said. I was shocked. It was then that I realized no one had ever said anything like that to me. Males say it to each other all the time. It may not be a kind thing to say, even in jest, but it certainly makes them think twice before buying into other people’s evaluations. (kindle loc 1346)

That boys constantly "neg" each other actually gives them power --- control over how they view other people's opinions and evaluation. Similarly, Dweck points out there it's possible to have a fake growth mindset, where the focus isn't really on growth and personal improvement, but on external achievements --- she describes a high achieving high schooler who succumbs to ulcers and other health problems due to the pressure put upon her by her parents.

Dweck also points out that growth mindset is contextual. You might have a fixed mindset about your drawing abilities while adopting a growth mindset about your engineering skills. There's nothing wrong with that unless your approach percolates to your family and children, where they start emulating your mindset. Plenty of examples (long-winded, unfortunately) are scattered throughout the book to drive home her points.

I thought the book was worth reading, common sensical as it was, but maybe that's an indicator of how successful the book was --- you'll read it and kinda think well, of course! But as with everything else in life, adopting that common sense is much harder.


Monday, November 01, 2021

Review: 3 Doctor Strange Books

 Boen was looking for a movie to watch, and so I pulled out my copy of Dr. Strange, which my wife had watched years before, and rewatched it with him. The special effects on that movie are still good, and I found it enjoyable, though I was very surprised when Boen asked me to read Doctor Strange comics to him instead of his usual non-stop diet of Invincible.

First up, was The Oath, which despite being ranked very highly was a very simplistic story. But it was clearly targeted for little kids and Boen enjoyed it enough to ask for more Dr. Strange. Then I tried The Way of the Weird. This was less dumb, but still not very good, and far too talky. Boen got bored by the 4th chapter and has since gone back to his usual diet of Invincible. I finished it and the book ended in a bad place, so I checked out The Last Days of Magic. This was passable fantasy, but still dumb. There's no sense of wonder, and despite the scope of magic, it clearly has nothing on anything Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore did in the DC Universe: Swamp Thing, The Sandman.

Clearly, the writers tried, but couldn't produce anything of clear literary value. It's amazing to me then, that the Dr. Strange movie ended up being as good as it was!