Books of 2017

December 28, 2017 • #

I didn’t realize how many things I’d read this year. Looking back at the list, I enjoyed all of them. Here’s a snapshot of my favorites from 2017.

Books of 2017

Political Order and Political Decay — Francis Fukuyama. 2014.

This is Fukuyama’s second volume in his treatise on political systems. Last year I read the excellent first part, Origins of Political Order, which chronicles the first forms of human organized societies and tracks the evolution through to the French Revolution. This part picks up where that left off up to modern governments. I had so many thoughts reading this one, and hundreds of Kindle highlights to revisit. It was deep enough to warrant its own blog post, so I’ll hold off here on diving in further and leave it for a future post. I’ll just say that I think these two volumes should be textbooks in college political science classrooms.

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate — NK Jemisin. 2015, 2016.

The first two parts of the Broken Earth trilogy, this story is the most surprising, original, thought-provoking works of fiction I’ve ever read. Jemisin’s series has been well-reviewed, but I knew nothing about it going in other than its apocalyptic setting.

It’s set in the Stillness, a beyond-inhospitable place where people live in tiny communities banded together to survive the earth’s hostile “fifth seasons”. Due to some undescribed past event, the earth experiences these periodic cataclysmic weather, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. In the Stillness, there is a minority class of people called Orogenes with a mutant power of “orogeny”, essentially like The Force for manipulating earth, giving them the ability to create (or negate) earthquakes. Their counterparts are the Guardians, mysterious people who exist to control and suppress the Orogenes with their own special abilities to quell orogeny. Within this creative, mysterious world that Jemisin’s built, the reader gets to experience a captivating story unfolding to explain the mystery of what happened to this earth. Along the way is a plethora of commentary on race, class, politics, and survival that’s executed so subtly many readers may never even notice. But the story itself is so engaging I ripped through books 1 and 2 in a week.

In summary I’d say my favorite thing about it is its fantastic weirdness. I found myself thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading it — a bar for me that’s rarely surpassed even with great fiction. I’ve been recommending it to everybody, and continue to do so here. Just read it.

Ready Player One — Ernest Cline. 2011.

As I started reading this one, there was some groan-inducing corniness with the unending references to 80s culture and video games. Once I lightened up though, it was a fun, fast read. When I found out they’re making this into a huge-budget film next year, my first thought was “this’ll make a way better movie than a novel.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Phillip K. Dick. 1968.

This has been on the reading list for years. I finally got around to reading it before the release of Blade Runner: 2049. It was more enjoyable than I expected, but didn’t explore its themes very deeply. Both Blade Runner films present a more interesting exploration of humanity and consciousness, with their thin lines between humans and replicants.

The Gene: An Intimate History — Siddhartha Mukherjee. 2016.

It’s hard to recall many specifics since this one was early in the year, but I was engrossed in this one for a few weeks. It begins with the early discoveries in genetics by Mendel with his fruit flies and covers the entire history of the science including controversial subjects like eugenics, gene therapy, and other forms of genetic engineering.

The Grid: Infrastructure for a New Era, Gretchen Bakke. 2016.

Power grid

It took some effort to get through the beginning of this one — a bit politically charged and opinionated when what I was looking for was a more comprehensive background on how the current power grid works. It’s well known that the current systems of power generation and distribution through the electrical grid are insufficient and under threat by many modern, distributed, renewable forms of energy. We’re not there yet with wide enough usage of solar, wind, tidal, and other generation methods. This book outlines how the current grid system works, the political machine behind why it works that way, and what likely needs to change if renewables are to be harnessed efficiently at scale. It was informative with just the right depth of technical background to satisfy what I was interested in.

Alexander Hamilton — Ron Chernow. 2005.

Chernow’s epic was the only biography on my list this year. Hamilton was a fascinating guy. He’s probably tied with Franklin for “most interesting Founding Father”. One of the takeaways I had from this book wasn’t specific to Hamilton but rather the time and political climate in which he lived. When people talk about the post-2000 era political environment as the most divisive, hostile time in our nation’s history (not that it isn’t plenty pointlessly divisive), they’re overlooking the shaky early years of the country’s formation, not to mention the Civil War era. During the year of the Constitutional Convention and the following half decade Hamilton served as the first Treasury Secretary, many of the governance structures we take for granted today were controversial and unproven. Thanks to his Federalist Papers arguing the case for strong central government to hold together the tenuous connections between states, and his advocacy of using (small and reasonable) debt to finance economic growth, the first two decades of the United States were prosperous, even though there was significant political upheaval, which the book chronicles in depth.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — Yuval Noah Harari. 2011.

Best work of nonfiction I read in 2017. Not in a long time have I done so much highlighting and note taking with a book.

It’s an account of human history and evolution from the Stone Age to today. Harari begins by tracing where along the path of primate development that Homo sapiens diverged from the other species of early humans like Neanderthals. His thesis is that Sapiens came to dominate (and possibly eliminate) all other rival species through a distinguished ability to cooperate in large numbers — hundreds or thousands in cooperation rather than dozens. He argues that humans owe this capability for mass shared interest to our ability to create and “believe in” fictions or myths. Whereas other primates could only cooperate in tight-knit familial or band-level groups, Sapiens developed the capacity for creating shared myths: religions, governments, currencies, and more. I found it absolutely absorbing and am looking forward to rereading it soon.

Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War — James S.A. Corey. 2011, 2012.

Leviathan Wakes

During the summer I got into this: a fun, fast-paced series called The Expanse. It’s your classic space opera — big in scope, full of plot and action, and enough political intrigue to get interesting without getting so complicated as a “Game of Thrones in space”. It’s got a clever, semi-realistic setting in which people have spread throughout the solar system on the back of improved propulsion technology. But it stops well short of light speed travel and other wild concepts. There’s an interesting political dynamic where groups of people that have spread out beyond Mars to stations in the asteroid belt or distant moons of Jupiter and Saturn (known as “Belters”) have a strained relationship with Mars and Earth, who also have their own issues with one another. Against that backdrop a group of rag tag survivors end up thrown in the crossfire.

The Box — Marc Levinson. 2006.

Like a lot of nonfiction these days, this one was too long, but I did find parts of it interesting. In March I listened to Alexis Madrigal’s fantastic Containers podcast, an audio documentary on global economics and trade through the lens of shipping containerization. The Box is sort of like the history textbook version — an informative but somewhat dry account of how we went from breakbulk shipping everything (meaning longshoremen loading individual items piece by piece into ship’s holds) to modularized, automated shipping using standardized containers. What TCP/IP did for packetizing computer information, containers did for physical “stuff”.

Woken Furies — Richard K. Morgan. 2005.

This is the last part of the Altered Carbon trilogy, which I started last year. I felt this was the weakest of the bunch in terms of storytelling, but found it to have some of the most interesting ideas of the whole series. What I said last year about the first two parts mostly holds true here, but the overall plot felt a bit strained and had too much to accomplish to tie up the loose ends.

Woken Furies

My favorite concept was the idea of “DeComs”. The book is set on Harlan’s World, the oft-mentioned home planet of Takeshi Kovacs. He joins up with a band of people who roam an uninhabited continent to find and decommission rogue AI-controlled robots — remnants of a past conflict gone haywire. His crew makes a living trekking out and battling the machines to “DeCom” them for cash. I have so much fun reading each subsequent idea or cyberpunk concept Morgan throws out there. With the new series coming to Netflix soon, I hope I have time to revisit part one beforehand. I really enjoyed that one.

Recent Links: Mapping Air Quality, the Problem with Agile, Indie Jazz

November 29, 2017 • #

Mapping Street-Level Air Quality in California

This is amazing work by Google putting air quality sensors on their Street View cars to collect air quality data. The resolution of this is amazing — to see how drastically the pollutant level changes from street to street.

🏔 Running in Circles

I love Ryan Singer’s perspective on product development. In this post he levels critique at the now-commonplace “agile” software development process. It’s been distorted into a simplistic set of tactical process methods (building in “cycles”), and has lost what its original value was as an upgrade from the old school “waterfall” approach.

Agile became synonymous with speed. Everybody wants more, faster. And one thing most teams aren’t doing fast enough is shipping. So cycles became “sprints” and the metric of success, “velocity.”

But speed isn’t the problem. And cycles alone don’t help you ship. The problems are doing the wrong things, building to specs, and getting distracted.

🎷 The Best Jazz on Bandcamp: October 2017

Bandcamp’s blog is one of my favorite places to find new music these days. They do an excellent job surfacing the interesting things from the community and featuring them like this. Must be some real music nerds over there; just browse their blog post titles and see what I mean.

Spacers and Earthmen

September 18, 2017 • #

This is part three of a series on Isaac Asimov’s Greater Foundation story collection. This post is about the first installment of the Robot trilogy, The Caves of Steel.

We’re still early in the timeline of Asimov’s epic saga. The short stories in I, Robot set the stage for dozens of future novels that take place in the same universe and along the same timeline. The far-future stories of the famous Foundation series have threads leading all the way back to the “3 Laws” and the Robot series, which starts off the action on Earth. The Caves of Steel is the first Robot entry, introducing the recurring character of Lije Baley. With this one, we set the stage for humanity’s eventual galactic expansion.

Caves of Steel

While I, Robot and Asimov’s other robot story collections lean toward the cerebral and philosophical, The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery, buddy cop procedural.

The setting is New York City millennia from now, on an inhospitable and mostly ruined Earth where humans are collected in domed megacities. In between the dense urban complexes the landscape is barren and in ruin. The city’s inhabitants never go outside, living 100% of the time within the “caves of steel”. As a result, Baley suffers from debilitating agoraphobia. Just outside of New York is Spacetown, a colony of “spacers” — humans from the 50 or so nearby “spacer worlds” that had been colonized hundreds of years before that return to Earth for trading purposes. Spacers look down on the “earthmen” as dirty, diseased, and lesser people. And while people of Earth have banned robots from their cities, spacers embrace them and promote the spread of human-robot cooperation.

Baley’s set on a mission to investigate the murder of Roj Sarton, a spacer roboticist from the planet Aurora that turns up dead in the outpost of Spacetown. Baley serves as the classic gut-driven detective cop, paired on the case with a humanoid robot partner named R. Daneel Olivaw, the straight-laced logical one of the duo.

The earthmen have a general distrust of robots, fearing that they’ll take their jobs. Most robots are machine-like, purpose-built laborers or assistants, but R. Daneel is humanoid, a spitting image of his creator, whom we later find out is the murdered Dr. Sarton. Baley is initially unaware that Daneel is a robot, but is impressed by his incredible investigative abilities. Through their work together hunting for the culprit, Baley comes around on his opinion of robots, eventually agreeing with the spacers that humans and robots should cooperate to expand to other planets.

The setting is fascinating given the year it was published. The urban sprawl megalopolis has been the host of countless sci-fi works over the last 50 or 60 years. Not to say Asimov invented the concept, but his version must have been in the minds of the creators of Coruscant, The Sprawl, or Los Angeles 2019. To his credit, Asimov does do a decent job with the political elements of spacer vs. earthman, the “medievalist” Luddites vs. the pro-robot camp. The resolution to that conflict is what plants the seed of the Galactic Empire trilogy. Given that he published these in all sorts of mixed up order, it’s impressive how well they hold together as a chronological series1.

Aside from being a passable mystery tale, Asimov forms something of a parable about the risks of unjustified prejudice and presumption. The medievalist hatred of spacer outsiders has for hundreds of years stifled the advancement of Earth livelihood. Human survival is dependent on moving forward rather than standing still, and the elimination of prejudice from both sides (Earth to Aurora and vice versa) is essential to each’s survival; the Spacers and Earthmen need each other. Without the spacer worlds the Earth is in a tailspin of destruction, and the spacers have created societies too uniform and isolated, with shallow gene pools that need an injection of diversity after shunning outsiders for thousands of years.

I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of storytelling. Asimov puts together a compelling “whodunit” that had me hooked until the final act when the crime’s details are uncovered.

  1. A little hindsight here, given I’ve already read a couple of the Empire and Foundation novels. Look for Han Fastolfe. 

Recent Links: Playing with Numbers, Logistics Networks, Vancouver Island

September 13, 2017 • #

🎓 Numbers at Play: Dynamic Toys Make the Invisible Visible

Great tools keep up with their users. They operate at the speed of thought, ever shrinking the feedback loop between conceiving of an idea and exploring its consequences.

Tools for thought must support communication not just from the expert to the novice: they should enhance conversation between collaborative peers. They should enact thought at the speed of speech. With tools this fluid, we can reinforce natural dialogue through novel representations without awkward pauses. We can support students in co-constructing meaning as they discuss and resolve their multiple interpretations.

Fascinating work by the Khan Academy research team. They’re exploring different types of tools for teaching using visible, tangible “toys” to visualize concepts like fractions, subtraction, and more with interactive models.

🚢 How Logistics Networks Respond to Natural Disasters

I just finished up reading The Box, a history of how container shipping came about and evolved the global economy. With the storms of the last few weeks, I always wonder what sorts of second- and third-order impacts there are around the world when supply chains are disrupted by natural events.

🇨🇦 The Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island

I enjoyed this piece in Cruising World about a family’s sailing trip down the west side of Vancouver Island. The wild, wooded, and rocky coast of British Columbia is amazing landscape. They took this trip with their daughters of 2 and 5. What an amazing experience for kids to see wild bears and the village outposts in those harbors.

Subscription Pricing Models

September 8, 2017 • #

Since Apple changed their subscription pricing options for App Store developers back in 2016, several high-profile apps that have made the switch from fixed pricing to the subscription model. TextExpander, Day One, and Ulysses are just three that I know of and use.

I may be biased as I’ve been building and selling subscription software for years, but I love that the Apple ecosystem is supporting this now. Ulysses provides a great example: their fixed model had the price at $45 for the Mac app and $25 for the iOS app. Their new subscription is for universal access on both platforms for either $5 per month or $40 per year, plus a 14-day free trial for new users. I’d long heard that Ulysses was a great editor for writing, but held out forever on really using it because, for one, there are a ton of great text editors, but also I didn’t know how much I’d really use it once I dropped the coin. At a $5/month subscription, I don’t have to feel bad, I can just cancel if I’m not using it enough and be out a $10 or $15.

There’s been some backlash from the community about this shift from fixed to subscription models. The AppStories podcast did an episode recently on the topic with some interesting discussion. To me the reasons for backlash are threefold:

  1. Users don’t like change — We’ve experienced this time and again with our product. Even when we release new features that seem universally fantastic, we’ll still get naysayers wanting a checkbox to “make it work like it used to.” Change that makes the price higher, even if it’s only perceived to be higher, or even when the alternative is the developer is no longer able to support the app, there are those that still can’t accept it.
  2. Users don’t get continued (or enough) value from the product — Even if the recurring price is super low, like $1.99 per month, some users will feel like they don’t use the app enough to warrant that price forever. A flat $10 might be okay. A fair enough reason. It comes down to who the developer wants as a customer. Are they building something for the few, higher-value niche customers, or a mass market?
  3. Most people are cheap — There are a shocking number of people who are willing to have subpar experiences to save some money. The frustrating part for developers is when users want the savings part, but don’t want to make that sacrifice in quality. The glut of free replacements out there makes it challenging for developers to charge anything at all for many users.

Of course it’s possible for a developer to misprice their app, to overpredict the value delivered to a user. I’ve seen it happen with SaaS products: something I use a little changes their pricing model a bit, it becomes not worth it to me anymore so I cancel. But I’m a believer that developers will tend to get this right more often than not (at least eventually). With subscription pricing, small pricing adjustments are easier decisions for a developer to make. Going from $5 to $2.50 a month is less momentous a choice than going from $50 to $25 in fixed price model. It’s better for the user, too; there’s less feeling of being ripped off, and no need for promo codes and refunds.

But hands-down the best feature of subscription models is that the apps you love get to stick around for the long haul. At this point we’ve all been burned by services we rely on disappearing on us. I’m happy to pay to keep things around that I use regularly.

Recent Links: Waymo’s Cars, ARCore, and Fantasy Maps

August 31, 2017 • #

📱 Google Announces ARCore

This is Google’s answer to Apple’s recently announced ARKit coming in iOS 11. After years of buzz with little substance, it’s great to see AR coming around to fruition with real commercial potential. The confluence of hardware fast enough for SLAM, mature OS platforms, and the APIs making it simple for developers to drop in and experiment with.

🛣 Inside Waymo’s Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars

Waymo seems clearly in the lead in vehicle automation. This piece has some stunning figures on what they’re doing not only with their well known Fireflies and minivans, but also in simulated models for teaching the algorithms:

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day. Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

The article mentions a facility where they’ve built real-life replicas of difficult lane configurations and traffic scenarios. I did a little hunting and found the location north of Merced, CA.

Here at the End of All Things

While cartographers have developed so many ways to present geographic information, the maps that accompany fantasy novels don’t vary a lot in terms of the information they display. They are about location, distance, and terrain for characters to hike through and for us to follow along. They are rarely political maps. They focus on geography over borders and on movement over status. The scholar Stefan Ekman suggests one reason why that may be: a lot of the borders and boundaries around fantasy realms are dictated by natural or supernatural features and have to do with states of being rather than simple movement in space. The kinds of borders we are familiar with — the result of historic processes or Gertrude Bell-style whim — are mostly banished. Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

I feel the same as the author. Fantasy novels read without their accompanying maps feels wrong for me. Any work that includes maps I prefer reading in hard copy. When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books on Kindle, I would always have images of maps of Westeros open on another device for continued reference.

Recent Links: Glue, Org Charts, and Patreon’s Growth

August 16, 2017 • #

⚗️ Amazon Announces AWS Glue

AWS Glue is a fully managed extract, transform, and load (ETL) service that makes it easy for customers to prepare and load their data for analytics. You simply point AWS Glue to your data stored on AWS, and AWS Glue discovers your data and stores the associated metadata

Interesting new service from AWS (is there a need in computing they don’t cover at this point?), providing serverless ETL transformations on datasets hosted anywhere. The automatic discovery is particularly interesting for applications dealing in highly variable data structures.

🏢 The Strategies and Tactics of Big

A conversation between Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky on big companies, their org charts, and what makes each (and their products) different.

💵 Inside Patreon

Patreon is still tiny compared to Kickstarter, where 13 million backers have funded 128,000 successful campaigns, but it’s rapidly growing. Half its patrons and creators joined in the past year, and it’s set to process $150 million in 2017, compared to $100 million total over the past three years.

This is a fascinating company, creating a funding mechanism for independent creators with a different model than the Kickstarter structure.

Weekly Links: Ambient Computers, Drones, and Focus

June 1, 2017 • #

💻 The Disappearing Computer

For his final weekly column of his long career, Walt Mossberg talks about what he calls “ambient computing”, the penetration of IoT, AR, VR, and computers throughout our lives:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought. Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices. This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.

🚁 Drones Go to Work

Great piece from Chris Anderson on the prospects of the commercial drone space. He makes great points about the true success of the technology being its penetration into business applications:

Although it might surprise you, I hope the future of drones is boring. As the CEO of a drone company, I obviously stand to gain from the rise of drones, but I don’t see that happening if we are focused on the excitement of drones. The sign of a successful technology is not that it thrills but that it becomes essential and accepted, fading into the wallpaper of modernity. Electricity was once a magic trick, but now it is assumed. The internet is going the same way. My end goal is for drones to be thought of as just another unsexy industrial tool, like agricultural machinery or generators on construction sites — as obviously useful as they are unremarkable.

Can Do vs. Must Do

Another good reminder from Fred Wilson on the importance of focus. He suggests setting no more than 3 “big efforts” in a year, the “must dos”. More than that is lying to yourself and losing steam on the ones you really care about:

But regardless of whether you have two, three, or four big efforts this year, you should test all of your initiatives agains the “must do” vs “can do” test. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’ve written about the importance of strategy and saying no. Strategy isn’t saying no. It is figuring out what is the most important thing for your company and deciding to focus on it and say no to everything else.

Weekly Links: LiDAR, WannaCry, and OSM Imagery

May 18, 2017 • #

🗺 LiDAR Data for DC Available as an AWS Public Dataset

LiDAR point cloud data for Washington, DC, is available for anyone to use on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). This dataset, managed by the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), with the direction of OCTO’s Geographic Information System (GIS) program, contains tiled point cloud data for the entire District along with associated metadata.

This is a great move by the District to make high value open data available.

🖥 WannaCry and the Power of Business Models

Ben Thompson breaks down the blame game of the latest zero-day attack on Windows systems. This article makes a great case for the business model being to blame rather than Microsoft, their customers, the government, or someone else. a SaaS business model naturally aligns incentives for everyone:

I am, of course, describing Software-as-a-service, and that category’s emergence, along with cloud computing generally (both easier to secure and with massive incentives to be secure), is the single biggest reason to be optimistic that WannaCry is the dying gasp of a bad business model (although it will take a very long time to get out of all the sunk costs and assumptions that fully-depreciated assets are “free”). In the long run, there is little reason for the typical enterprise or government to run any software locally, or store any files on individual devices. Everything should be located in a cloud, both files and apps, accessed through a browser that is continually updated, and paid for with a subscription. This puts the incentives in all the right places: users are paying for security and utility simultaneously, and vendors are motivated to earn it.

🛰 DigitalGlobe Satellite Imagery Launch for OpenStreetMap

DG is opening up access to imagery for tracing in OpenStreetMap, giving the project a powerful new resource for more basemap data. Especially cool for HOTOSM projects:

Over the past few months, we have been working with several of our partners that share the common goal of improving OpenStreetMap. To that end, they have generously funded the launch of a global imagery service powered by DigitalGlobe Maps API. This will open more data and imagery to aid OSM editing. OSM contributors will see a new DigitalGlobe imagery source, in addition to imagery provided by our partners, Bing and Mapbox.

📷 Updating Google Maps with Deep Learning

If you’re in the mapping space, seeing any of this R&D that Google is doing is mind-boggling.

Weekly Links: Podcast Edition

May 4, 2017 • #

🚗 The Man Behind Uber

The Daily is the New York Times’ daily radio show, which I’ve been enjoying lately. This episode is a companion to their recent piece on Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO.

🚢 Containers

Containers is an audio documentary on global trade and container shipping. Alexis Madrigal dives into the processes that bring things like coffee from a farm in Ethiopia to your local hipster coffee shop.

🚀 Nukes

The crew from Radiolab looks at the nuclear arsenal chain of command. At their invention, atomic weapons were treated like other military munitions: the military leadership had authority to use them like other conventional weapons. Over time we implemented the system we have now, requiring presidential authorization.