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Archive for the ‘fun_nonfiction’ Category

Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich

Friday, June 25th, 2004

Amazon link

I read a Wired article a couple years ago about the MIT blackjack team, a group of MIT students who used their ability to count cards to beat the system at Vegas and make a lot of money. Millions of dollars allegedly. This intrigued me both because it was about MIT students, but also because it turned out one of the guys I knew at MIT had been on one such team. The Wired article turned out to be a condensed version of a book, Bringing Down the House, which I finally managed to borrow a copy of recently.

The book-length version is also pretty entertaining. It’s undoubtedly exaggerated, but it’s a good story, and a real page-turner – I read the book in a couple nights, staying up way too late to do so. The explanation of how you can set up a team to beat the system at blackjack is interesting, and the vision of these MIT geeks playing the part of high-rollers in a Vegas casino cracks me up. It’s a quick fun read, probably not worth buying unless you see it cheap.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, by Ellen Ullman

Wednesday, May 12th, 2004

Amazon link

Saw this at the used bookstore, and it looked sufficiently interesting that I picked it up. Ullman worked as an independent computer programmer contractor throughout the dot-com years, and this book is a sort of memoir of her dedication to the machine, sometimes at the cost of losing track of the people involved. She confronts the problem I mentioned where real users are so much more messy than dealing with the software:

Before this meeting, the users existed only in my mind, projections, all mine. They were abstractions, the initiators of tasks that set off remote procedure calls; triggers to a set of logical and machine events that ended in an update to a relational deatabase on a central server. Now I was confronted with their fleshly existence… I wished, earnestly, I could just replace the abstractions with the actual people. But it was already too late for that. The system pre-existed the people. Screens were prototyped. Data elements were defined. The machine events already had more reality, had been with me longer, than the human beings at the conference table.

And even after meeting the users, it doesn’t take long to fade back into the code zone, where she boils their objections down to easily makeable changes to the code. Her meditations on programming are pretty observant, I thought. One passage I particularly liked was comparing the internet to a spreadsheet:

What is it about the Internet, with its pretty graphics and simple clicks, that makes users feel so inundated; and about the spreadsheet – so complicated a tool – that makes them bold? The received wisdom about user-friendliness is challenged here. Human beings, I think, do not like to be condescneded to.

The spreadsheet presumes nothing. It has no specific knowledge, no data, no steps it performs. What it offers instead is a complex vocabulary for expressing knowledge. It is, literally, a blank sheet of paper with a notion of columns and rows – and everything held on that sheet is presumed to come not from the program but from the human user. In the relationship between human and computer that underlies ths spreadsheet, the human is the repository of knowledge, the smart agent, the active party. The user gives data its shape – places it in columns and rows – and eventually turns data into more knowledge. It is the end user who creates information, who gives form to data, who informs the spreadsheet.

This is a stab in the back to most user-friendly design guides I’ve read. And it makes a lot of sense. Insulting the user’s intelligence is not a good thing – that’s why everybody hates the Microsoft paper clip. People don’t necessarily want things easier, to be talked down to. They want things sensible. It’s all about consistent usable feedback. The spreadsheet is a great example. The idea of leaving the user in charge is a point I am pondering a lot in the design of the user interfaces I’m helping to develop at work.

The book was a surprisingly touching meditation on the life of a programmer in the dot-com era, when unreality always beckoned. When it didn’t seem unreasonable that everybody knew somebody who had made millions. When people really believed that computers would change everything. Unfortunately, the computers eventually ran into the reality of people, and slammed to a halt. People change slowly. They will adopt new technology, but only if it fits into their life. This is why radically new technology and ideas typically have to wait twenty years for a generation of kids to grow up with those tools. Anyway. Good book. Interesting thoughts. Good writing.

The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin

Thursday, September 25th, 2003

Trillin wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker over the course of 15 years called “U.S. Journal”. As part of that, every now and then he’d throw in an article about eating, as he tasted some outstanding local cuisine someplace. Mind you, he’s not necessarily talking about fancy haute cuisine, something which he actually came to dread; as he put it, “A visitor is invariably subjected to… some comment like ‘We happen to have an excellent French restaurant here now.’ The short answer to that one, of course, would be ‘No you don’t.'” (this quote was actually the one that got me to read this book – a friend of mine mentioned it, I was amused, he let me borrow the book).

Instead Trillin celebrates the wonderful glories of little hole-in-the-wall places across the country. His favorite is Arthur Bryant’s BBQ in Kansas City where he grew up. I’ve now been to Arthur Bryant’s, and it’s pretty darn good. And it oozes character. So I can see where he’s coming from. This book (well, trilogy of books – it’s a collection of “American Fried”, “Alice, Let’s Eat”, and “Third Helpings”) collects most of those food-related articles in one place.

I thought the book was entertaining, but in small doses. An article a day is about the right pace. Otherwise, it becomes overwhelming. And because the articles were written three decades ago for the most part, it’s slightly dated. But anyway.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, ed. by James B. South

Sunday, September 21st, 2003

As a fairly rabid devotee of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as somebody who likes thinking about deeper issues on occasion, this book was irresistible: a collection of articles by philosophy professors and students discussing how various philosophical theories are exemplified by Buffy. It’s interesting how many different ways the same episodes can be viewed. We have feminist ethics, Kantian categorical imperatives, Platonic ideals, Freudian thinking, the Nietzschean will to power, and the most entertaining one, Buffy as a fascistic ideal, with the young brave Aryan girl leading her troops against the mixed-blood demon vampires in an unholy campaign of genocide. I enjoyed reading it – I’d read of many of the philosophical concepts before but it helped my understanding to see how they could be applied to a canon that I knew well. I’m not sure it would be as entertaining to somebody who didn’t know the series inside and out, though. As a note, it’s part of a book series called Popular Culture and Philosophy, including Seinfeld and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and The Matrix and Philosophy, in case any of those bits of popular culture fit your tastes better.

21 Dog Years, by Mike Daisey

Saturday, June 14th, 2003

Mike Daisey’s website

Subtitled “doing time @”, this is a memoir of Daisey’s two years at Amazon. It’s an entertaining account, starting with his being interviewed at Amazon because he fit their profile of being a freak (or as he more charitably describes himself, a dilettante). He suffers through life in customer service, figuring out how to game the system to make himself look better (to keep his time/call average down, he would just hang up immediately on every third or fourth caller). He eventually manages to talk his way into a position in business development, which he admits he still can’t define. Along the way, he contemplates the “Cult of Jeff” (Bezos, founder and grand poobah of Amazon), the hell of Christmas season, mission statements, the rules that made Amazon work (e.g. The Heisenberg Happiness Principle, “As the uncertainty about what is rises, so rises Amazon’s stock price.”), the joys of One-Click ordering when stuff will get delivered right to your desk, etc. Daisey eventually manages to extricate himself from Amazon (turning down a bunch of job offers from other dot-coms who latch onto his status as a bizdev person from Amazon) and start to try to make his life real again. It’s a quick read, so I’m glad I got it from the library.

Gearheads, by Brad Stone

Saturday, May 31st, 2003

Subtitled “The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports”, this book takes a look at the rise of Robot Wars, Battlebots, and the several other TV shows associated with robotic warfare. It’s interesting to me as somebody who watched a lot of these things develop from afar, from being a fan of SRL to cheering my friends on at MIT’s 2.70 contest to seeing the first article about Robot Wars in Wired magazine, back in 1994, featuring a tank-like robot with a chainsaw on top. Stone does a good job of interviewing all the people associated with the rise of robotic sports, and detailing the various legal shenanigans that eventually sucked many of them in.

A Year at the Movies, by Kevin Murphy

Monday, March 3rd, 2003

Kevin Murphy, formally associated with MST3K, decided to embark on an
unusual (some might even say foolhardy) quest. He decided to watch a
movie a day, every day, for an entire year. And to watch movies under
as varied conditions as possible. He sees movies at film festivals in
Norway and projected onto a bed sheet in Mexico, as well crashing
the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. It’s an amusing memoir of his
travails trying to stick to his self-imposed duty, with lots of
insights into the movie-going mind in the process, and why we love the
movies so much.

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

Monday, March 3rd, 2003

This is one of the few books that takes a close look at the medium of comics. Scott McCloud uses the comic book format to explore the conventions of comics, and how comics use our brain to do most of the heavy lifting for them. It’s an interesting look into what makes the medium work, and as a guide to studying the ground rules in any medium.

Poker Nation, by Andy Bellin

Monday, March 3rd, 2003

This book is an interesting peek into the world of professional gambling from one of its practitioners. With chapters ranging from poker strategy to the history of Vegas, the book necessarily is shallow in its exploration of various topics. But it definitely whets the appetite. After Bellin describes the thrill of bringing a huge bet home, it got me tempted to go out looking to play poker someplace. Instead I settled for downloading a shareware Texas Hold’em Poker game. I’m currently down $500 from my stake of $2000. Perhaps I’ll hold off on the casino a while longer…

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