Way behind on book reviews; here are some capsules

I think owing to busyness at work, limited sleep, lack of exercise and similar things, I’ve been way behind on writing book reviews. Rather than wait until I have the time to handle each of them properly, I’m going to summarize as many as I can right here.

  • Doug Henwood, After the New Economy (With thanks to Henry Farrell for recommending this.) The new economy — everyone blessed with thousands of (as it turns out, worthless) stock options, everyone making money off senseless business ventures, everyone a “web designer” — is over, and we’re back to the old economy. Henwood argues convincingly that the new economy was only really lucrative for the small handful of people on top, and that most of us just continued to get screwed: the American economy got a lot better for the rich and not all that much better for the rest of us. This all avoids being a tirade, because the author combines the prose of the pamphleteer with most of the erudition of a scholar. (“Most of” here is a compliment: most people don’t read scholars, and people should read Henwood.)

  • Ken Auletta, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It

    I’d say there are three parts to this book, woven all around one another: first, and most sizably, lots of Ken Auletta being a Google fanboy (see his onstage interview with Google’s Eric Schmidt if you want to see a man keeping just on the respectable side of fawning); second, a rather powerful chunk reminding us of just how completely the Internet has changed the world; and third, some nonsense, of the sort that drives engineers nuts, about how Google’s focus on rationalizing markets means that they may fundamentally lack wisdom.

    The fanboy part I’ll ignore; I should have expected, in any book about popular technologists, that it would coo over its subject. When Auletta steps back and describes just what the Internet has wrought in only about a decade and a half, on the other hand, it’s astonishing. Craigslist killed newspaper classified ads and thereby a large chunk of newspapers’ revenue. Google is in the process of overthrowing traditional advertising. YouTube is how many of us consume television shows now, and Netflix is how we consume movies. Amazon changes how we buy books. iTunes (Napster, really) turned music digital. Google is moving into the cell-phone industry. Their acquisition of YouTube looked at the time like they were purchasing a known massive copyright-infringement platform with the intent of directly challenging intellectual-property law. And on and on. It’s breathtaking.

    Now, part of what makes Google Google in all of this — part of what all of us love watching — is the rationality driving it all. We perceive — and Auletta confirms — that Google approaches any new market, asks “What should this market look like?” and immediately moves to drive out irrationalities. Advertising could be done better, so Google is doing it better. Cell-phone software sucks and doesn’t reflect the computer revolution of the 1980s; Google is building Android to fix that. They see a problem and have the resources to fix it, so they fix it.

    If you’re from one side of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures,” and you’re a writer who needs to provoke controversy in a book about Google, you will wag the disciplinary finger at Google here and bemoan their “cold, logical rationality.” It’s a staple of the genre, and I can’t really fault Auletta for it: in writing a book about a tech company, you’re either going to fall into fanboydom or into These Guys Really Should Have Got A Degree In Anthropology So That They Could Understand How Humans Really Are territory; Auletta does both, and does both rather mildly, so I have little to complain about. But in any case, he has to get in his digs: Google’s founders are confused when EPIC objects to algorithmic monitoring of Gmail, according to Auletta because the founders view the world through hyper-rational blinders. This part of the book isn’t really believable, probably because I’m a geek. Humankind has not created very many men who both are prose stylists and who can talk to geeks in their language.

    (Little sidebar from an earlier part of my life. I used to work for a startup that was all about openness when it could afford to be: that is, when the venture-capital funding hadn’t yet dried up. Every month, they’d show the company’s engineers the raw numbers and the bottom line. Then there came a point when maybe they didn’t want to share quite as many numbers with us. When pressed by the engineers in the room, this company’s founder explained, not convincingly, that we geeks would just take those numbers, overreact to them, and get scared. So this was for our own good, you see.

    Turned out that the numbers were really just bad in an objective sense. By the time the company was acquired — because it had a lot of intellectual property, a lot of smart developers, and a world-famous founder — the acquirer bought it by just paying off its substantial debts.

    I’ve taken some lessons from this: 1) that when openness disappears, it’s time to polish off your résumé; 2) that transparency is something that companies keep so long as it’s convenient; and 3) that geeks really do have a great built-in bullshit meter, which entirely derives from that cold, rational, objective viewpoint that Auletta scorns.)

  • E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime

    The only novel I’ve ever encountered that has a detectable meter. On quite a few pages I read it while snapping my fingers. Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excerpt to see what I mean.

    The story centers on one New York family and the intense, exploding world that surrounded them: Harry Houdini escaping from damn near everything; Emma Goldman (whose Living My Life awaits me on my bookshelf) singing the virtues of anarchy and inviting policemen’s truncheons; obsessive men falling prey to the charms of glamorous film actresses; murders happening on the roof of the original Madison Square Garden; and black men resisting abuse and getting torn to shreds as punishment. In its literary skill at combining many historical personages into one fluid story, it’s like Forrest Gump for smart people. This is an exciting, captivating, rhythmic book. My only suggestion would be that you read it in one sitting: the excitement is hypnotic, but only if you’ve let yourself settle into the trance that Doctorow has built for you.

    (Ragtime confirms a pattern I only started to notice when I got into Philip Roth: books by men very often feature completely unexplainable sex by their male protagonists with beautiful women. The men are often awkward nebbishes, yet they end up with curvy, sexually unslakable women. It never makes any sense, but hey: if I get into the position to write a novel, I’ll probably put my fantasies down on paper too. “Maria Romero’s raven-black locks fell around her as she collapsed breathless on the silk-covered pillow. She’d spent the previous six hours engaged in her favorite activity: ecstatic sexual congress combined with a lecture on Löwenheim-Skolem.” Get ready for it, because nerd porn is coming.)

  • Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams

    There’s a lot to recommend this book, and lot to recommend avoiding it. On the plus side, the authors really are on the right of the battle to make companies enjoyable for their workers. Give all your employees windows, they say; it’s nonsense to claim that this is impossible, and hotel rooms — every last one of which has a window — supply the existence proof. And more: don’t push your employees to push crap out the door; let them know that you respect quality, and they will rise to the challenge. And still more: your teams need to “gel” (DeMarco and Lister may spell it “jell,” but I refuse). To make them gel, they need managers, but they don’t need managers to sit watching their every move. Your employees want to create great work; people want to enjoy coming to work every day, and they want to produce something that they’re proud of. Make that kind of job available to them, and the quality product will flow out of them naturally. Hence the quasi-paradoxical line: Quality is free, but you have to pay for it. Peopleware is loaded with good bits like this.

    At the same time, it suffers from some annoyances. The authors seem out to sell their own consultancy, so much of the book feels like hucksterism. Just adopt practices A, B, and C, and you’ll end up with a great company. There’s certainly a selection bias: those companies that enlist DeMarco and Lister’s consulting services probably differ systematically from those that don’t — either in the negative sense that more’s broken at D&L’s clients, or in the positive sense that those clients are the more adaptable ones. D&L insist that they’ve distilled decades of experience into this book, which just makes me crave more evidence that they’ve fomented real, positive change for their clients. Then there’s the inevitable question: if you guys are so good, why haven’t you started a software company?

    So expect about half this book to make you pound the desk with enthusiasm. Expect the other half to make you roll your eyes.

  • Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering

    Everyone in software knows this book by now. It’s most famous for Brooks’s Law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” Brooks presided over a number of massive projects at IBM in the 60s and 70s. He writes from a whole different world: the technical specs for a new operating system would fill 10 or more feet of bookshelf space; contrary to my expectations, Brooks actually seems happy about that. You just have to get the right documentation guy to write clear docs.

    In some ways, Brooks’s writing sounds really antiquated; it’s written for people putting together massive software projects that take years to complete. All the rage nowadays is “agile”: get something out the door within a few weeks or months, then improve it bit by bit over time. In part this is to control customer expectations: put something concrete and limited before your users; now they have a specific reference point against which they can specify their needs, rather than building a dream world in their minds that you’ll never be able to meet. Brooks’s Law certainly applies as much in this new world as it did in the old. As do Brooks’s other maxims: software still needs a designer to impose architectural harmony on the whole.

    I found his “No Silver Bullet” idea the most compelling of all: that no improvement in software technology or process would improve programmer productivity by 10x over the next decade. Brooks held out some hope for object-oriented programming, but I think his hopes — feeble as they were — have been dashed. The promise and the peril in organizations comes from, and has always come from, the people in those organizations. No amount of technology is going to solve that problem. Brooks summarizes one part of this as Conway’s Law: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce systems which are copies of the communications structures of these organizations.” That’s still the truest thing I’ve ever read on software-organization design.

    For how much it’s discussed, I’m amazed that I still got so much out of Brooks. The Mythical Man-Month remains a must-own.

  • Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved

    This is another book that has to be read in few sittings, I think. It’s really an unending series of heartbreaks and frozen daggers to the gut (metaphorically speaking) for the poor narrator. Having read it over many sittings and scattered sessions on the elliptical at the gym, I lost a lot of its rhythm and its beauty. The narrator is a professor at some New York university (possibly NYU, possibly Columbia — I don’t know that the book ever says), his best friend is a mixed-media artist, his best friend’s first wife is a strange, cold woman, and he’s surrounded by a cast of literal misfits. People die suddenly, others get involved in drugs, and the world just keeps dragging him along. His voice has an exhaustion to it, which Hustvedt conveys skillfully: he’s at the end of his life, looking back on one disaster after another.

    Obviously I can’t really suggest such a book for what it will do to your spirits, but it’s an engaging read.

  • Diego Gambetta, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate

    Fascinating from start to finish. You can think of many reasons offhand why such a book would be endlessly captivating, but Gambetta will continually surprise you with the twists and turns in his subject.

    Start with the obvious question: you’re a criminal, and you want to communicate with your fellow-bad guys. How do you do it? That’s intriguing on its own. If you know the other bad guy, you can vouch for him (or think you can — see “Brasco, Donnie”). If you don’t know him, you need to much more carefully apply the vetting that we use in the legit world: find someone you know who knows him, ask around about him, and so forth.

    Obviously your big concern as an underworld fellow is the police. They’re constantly trying to listen in on your communications, get fellow bad guys to turn state’s evidence, and plant undercover cops in your midst.

    When your organization reaches a certain level of success and infamy — think of the Mafia here — you now have a brand to protect. Rival organizations start claiming your name to strike fear into their enemies’ hearts. To avoid brand dilution, you need to make sure that only those people who are actually in the Mafia say they’re in the Mafia. Trademark law isn’t going to protect you here, so you need to enforce your own brand.

    And how do your establish your bona fides as a bad guy? One intensely fascinating thread in Codes to the Underworld has to do with commitment strategies: imposing some heavy cost on yourself — some cost that absolutely no one outside the Mafia (or whichever group) would ever think of fakin. Henry Farrell, over at Crooked Timber, excerpts one amazing bit on this score:

    Erefaan’s face is covered in tattoos. “Spit on my grave” is tattooed across his forehead; “I hate you, Mum” etched on his left cheek. The tattoos are an expression of loyalty. The men cut the emblems of their allegiance into their skin. The Number [the name of the hierarchical system in Pollsmoor prison] demands not only that you pledge your oath verbally, but that you are marked, indelibly, for life. Facial tattoos are the ultimate abandonment of all hope for a life outside.

    Gambetta has spent decades studying the Italian mafia. He’s a brilliant economic naturalist, with story upon story from the world out there. He’s a gripping writer, to boot. Codes of the Underworld is one of the few works of economics that you’ll be unable to put down. This may be because it’s not recognizable, at first glance, as a work of economics. But its economic cred is pristine; it’s filled with references to the great Thomas Schelling. Highly recommended, both for those who love economics and those who love The Godfather.

    (I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention, by the way, Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior. It’s an boundlessly interesting piece of work.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>