Sunday Jan 03, 2010

The 2009 List

It's that time of year again. And what a long, strange trip of a year it's been. Some thoughts from 2009:

Work moment.Trip to India in April, at the tail end of a tour that took me to Mexico City, Johannesburg, Mumbai and Bangalore. While meeting with the technical managers in the Bangalore office, someone mentioned that "innovation is a bad word now." The ensuing discussion - of how innovation is not a substitute for direction, leadership and strategy, nor is innovation in the form of disruption necessarily a strategy in itself - was frank and bi-directional. The "new isn't better unless it informs strategy" maxim shaped much of my thinking around cloud computing as the year progressed.

Family moment. There were more than a few this year: watching the Devils implode in the strangest playoff game I've ever seen, with my son there for mutual comfort; getting to see Renaissance in concert for the first time ever, and seeing Yes for the umpteenth time; spending a long weekend in Atlantic City with my wife, daughter and sister, and laughing until we were exhausted every day; watching my son play football for the first time, and seeing him earn a varsity letter in hockey, the first in our family since my sister lettered in x-country letter 25 years ago; going to a Yankees playoff game with my daughter, sitting closer to the airplanes departing LaGuardia than the field, but loving every second of it. Tops, though, was an afternoon and evening spent slicing, dicing and eating and our way through the Chef Allen's reality cooking experience, as my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by working for our dinner.

Nerd toy. Tie between the old school and new school. Old school: drum set, purchased from a work friend and representing one of the biggest challenges to my marriage in more than two decades. Not a good thing to have down the hall from your home office when you're doing a podcast. New school: USB 8-track Alessi mixing console, prompting the completion of the basement "Studio Zero".

T-shirt. Jeph Jacques "Bear Monster" shirt, followed closely by his "Robot Family Tree" shirt. Bear Monster has become my preferred travel t-shirt. Also found out that I'm not the only one who thinks it's important to travel comfy: Cory Doctorow told me he can't understand why anyone who would thousands of dollars for a business class airline ticket, fly in a suit, only to arrive looking rumpled and uncomfortable.

Reading. Finished Neal Stephenson's Anathem to start the year, and it was one of the best books I've read in ages. Worked my way through his Baroque Cycle, all 2,700 or so pages of it, and it was enjoyable but egregiously long. When the stock market was close to its bottom, and New York City was easy to nagivate due to reduced commuter traffic, Cory Doctorow slipped me an advanced reader copy of Makers and it reset a lot of my expectations around work, value, and doing what you love.

Email. None of mine, and not really an email (again). Our daughter got a message that opened with "Congratulations" and was from her first-choice university.

Thoughts for 2010: Striving for "balance" between all parts of my life and those of my family members. Laughing as hard as I did over the July 4th weekend. Spending time on micro-sized projects, whether it's helping the band with their website or getting a friend's consulting business represented in a blog, or investing in economic bootstrapping through Finishing up Professional WordPress and trying hard to write a little bit, each day, along with exercise, eating fruits, spicy sauce, and vegetables daily, and cheering for the home team. A decade ago, we felt that bubble-induced sense of everything being directionally wonderful, and yet almost everything went pear-shaped from our sense of security to the economy to our trust in government institutions. Ten years after, when at times it feels like many things are going wrong, it's time for Randy Pausch's head fake, realizing that we have the means to drive the course correction we want.

Wednesday Dec 23, 2009

Avatar: Putting the Rich In Rich Presentation

Went to see Avatar last night, on the flat silver screen instead of the 3-D version. In a word, it was spectacular. In other words, it was an homage, but not in the Dances With Wolves simile that seems to be popular.

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

Visually, Avatar was quite simply the best movie I've seen. Ever. For once, the movie wasn't about the special effects or how many things or people exploded with life-like splatter. The effects were great, but it was the photography and world-building that created context for the photography that made this movie. Personally, I felt that many of the Pandoran geographic elements were taken right out of the Roger Dean album cover book, including "Arches Mist" (the Pandoran holy site) and the "Floating Islands" riff that appears in Avatar as the floating mountains. Whether or not James Cameron borrowed from, or was inspired by, Roger Dean, the movie had me experiencing a fully animated interpretation of some of my favorite artwork of all time. It's one of the few cases where seeing something like this left me invigorated and excited, eager to see it again, rather than disappointed at the lack of attention to detail.

The most dismissive treatment of Avatar is that it's Dances with Wolves set in space. Making that comparison, however, ignores the body of prior science fiction art and misses the some of the underlying themes. The closest comparison I can draw (and again, whether homage, sampling or borrowing, I can't say) is to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the second book in the original Ender series. In Speaker, we're introduced to life forms that are vaguely anthropromorphic in some ways but have intensely alien connections to their environment that drive the conflict through the book.

Bottom line: this is one I'm going to see again before it leaves theaters, and the last movie that got a double dip from me was the first Toy Story in 1995, because it set the bar for computer animation. Avatar resets the bar for rich presentation of a rich storyline.

Saturday Jun 06, 2009

Cory Doctorow's "Makers"

Cory Doctorow was kind enough to give me an advanced reader's copy of his upcoming book Makers, which I read in about three sittings. Granted, I'm a Cory fanboy, and I devour his writings like Pop-Tarts (often simultaneously), but this one is, in my slightly biased opinion, his best yet.

It's a love story set with mild sci-fi context, as opposed to a sci-fi story with romantic themes embedded. However, "love" isn't just about interpersonal relationships; Makers is about people who thrive on labors of love - literally thrive, in a post-collapse economy. What's frightening is that Cory wrote the book as the global economy was unwinding at the end of 2008's North American summer season; by the time I got the book in March we were mumbling about new depressions of all kinds. As I read it, I was repeatedly reminded of Shoshanna Zuboff's theme in her book In The Age Of The Smart Machine (now 20 years in print), as she relayed it to Sun's systems engineers in 1995: When we think about a divison of labor in a corporation, we're also creating a division of love, because we should love what we do on a daily basis. Zuboff challenged us to think about individual empowerment, and what it means to really build things rather than create information In intervening two decades between Smart Machine and Makers, a number of business leaders have cried that business schools teach graduates how to make synthetic things - derivative securities, economic models, hedging strategies - but not tangible, real-world goods. If anyone doubts the verity of those long-standing concerns, please visit Detroit for the basis of a case study.

What if we really enter an age of massive free agency, of corporations orbited by tinkerers, coders, freelancers, constructors, and destructors? This idea has been sitting in a pile of (electronic) notes for three months, and only gestated into a blog when James Gosling took the stage at JavaOne wearing a T-shirt promoting the Java Store as a way to create value from labors of love. Makers on a fine grain scale.

So what's the book about? It's about love. It's about how (and why) others love us, or don't. It's about economics and corporations, and at the same time economics and corporations don't behave the way you'd expect at all times. It's about rights - not just copyrights and rights to use, but rights of expression and relation as well. Every time you think the book is taking a financial detour, it snaps you back to a personal future that is (in William Gibson's words) just not evenly distributed.

The only bad part: You can't buy the book until November (but you can pre-order it now, hint hint). Guess what everyone I know is getting for the holidays.

Wednesday Sep 03, 2008

Donner's Biblio Tech blog migration

Marc Donner, a friend with whom I discuss way too much sci-fi over way too much breakfast, has begun migrating his Biblio Tech meanderings from IEEE Security & Privacy to his personal blog. He brings the advantage of perspective (having consumed a huge swath of the genre since he was able to read) with a near-perfect recall. I've only been able to stump Marc once, with an oblique reference to Heinlein's Goldfish Bowl. His history of cyberpunk is worth the read.

Monday Sep 01, 2008

"Old Man's War" Triology Plus One

Once I hit cruising altitude on any vacation, I can typically read a sci-fi book a day. That rate of consumption assumes ample idle time by some body of water (bathtubs included) for reading and ruminating along with the complete lack of late-night calls or slide tweaking. The hallmarks of a real vacation, in other words.

This past week I finished John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" trilogy - Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony. As an added bonus Zoe's Tale arrived the day I finished Last Colony and I was able to devour it before I had filed the first three on the "books to share" shelf. Zoe's Tale is the third book retold from the perspective of a character principal in both the second and third books, and it fills in a few of the plot holes left by the close of the trilogy. The books read quickly and had me thinking about imperialism, colonialism, emerging markets and politics. It's much more of a political science than hard science read - comparisons to Heinlein's Starship Troopers on the jackets of the books are appropriate.

Monday Mar 10, 2008

Locus Magazine Recommended Reading for 2007

Every year Locus magazine, the trade journal for science fiction and fantasy writers, puts out a recommended reading list. I usually end up reading about half of it, sometimes based on re-inforcements from sources like Cory Doctorow (himself a frequent name dropped on the list), BoingBoing or a nod from another author whose work I enjoy. The 2007 list has been published, and I just ordered a half-dozen books from the tally in search of new sci-fi authors and genres.

I'm a bit surprised to see Michael Chabon on the list; his work impresses me more like that of E. L. Doctorow than Cory Doctorow (and they're not officially related). Richard Morgan's "Thirteen" and Charles Stross' "Halting State", both great reads, made the "Best Sci-Fi" subsection. Doctorow (Cory flavored) shows up for his "Overclocked" collection and "After the Siege," a novella recently turned into an insanely great comic book, capping the six-part series by publisher IDW. Ellen Klages' "Portable Childhoods" also makes the "Collections" list, and it's freakishly good in the spirit (pun intended) of Neil Gaiman.

One thing I found with last year's list, which was heavy on Vernor Vinge and earlier performances by Doctorow: more of the sci-fi stories involve what might happen, rather than alien races, bending the rules of general relativity, space operas and human extinction. This year's list builds from an historical fiction point of view (especially Jo Walton and Michael Chabon's works), so perhaps the locus of popular science fiction opinion is shifting to helping us understand and plan for eventualities that are easily conceived and potentially instantiated, rather than those which are merely fun fictions.


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