Mary Rose Cook's notebook

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Books I read in 2021

Barbarian Days - William Finnegan

A memoir about Finnegan's life as an amateur surfer. Pretty bad, really. It covers most of his life, but it's fragmentary. There's no journey and little continuity. It doesn't show a single object traveling through life. It shows a series of postcards.

The whole thing has a feeling of distance. His unenlightening explorations of why he surfs, why he lets it contort his life, his observations of other cultures, other people, are remote and trite.

I kept on thinking about the film, Malcolm X. That covers a life, too, and in only three hours. And it achieves the remarkable feat of starting with Malcolm X as one person, and ending with him as another. And you can't connect the person at the beginning with the person at the end because they seem so different. But, at the same time, the change that happens is completely coherent, consequent and continuous.

The One Device - Brian Merchant

About the iPhone. Some interesting history of the invention and refinement of touch devices and batteries. And some tantalizing details about the development of iPhone OS. But lots of pretty boring stuff about minerals and mining.

Staff Engineer - Will Larson

A helpful overview of some of the different archetypes and duties of a staff engineer. More anthropology than how-to.

The Undoing Project - Michael Lewis

A good intro to some of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky's research into cognitive biases. But Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman's book, is more useful because it’s more systematic and comprehensive. The Undoing Project sporadically tries to weave the men's ideas into the stories of their lives and friendship, but it's not very richly done.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz - Erik Larson

My favorite book of the year. You really feel like you're there as Churchill makes decisions about the war. You're in his office at Whitehall. You're in his house at supper. You're in his country retreat as he holds court at three a.m.

The author made the commitment to only put in quotes words that are known to have been spoken. It's a masterstroke that makes everything feel very authentic. My dad and I both love WWII history and we read it in parallel, which made it extra special.

Everything Leads to You - Nina LaCour

A lesbian romance novel. Not a good one.

Appledesign: The Work Of The Apple Industrial Design Group - Paul Kunkel

A history of Apple's computer case and concept design from the company's founding up to 1997. It's extremely fun to see pictures of all the different designs that did and didn't ship. I want to read the version of this book that is about Apple's software.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - Rich Cohen

A history of a buccaneering banana salesman who made it big. Pretty fun. An account that feels like it would be about events from a long time ago, but, amazingly, is about things that happened only in the last century. See, for example, the bit where a banana salesman overthrows a government.

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't - Julia Galef

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made - Jason Schreier

In the book, Bruce Straley, the co-director of Uncharted 4, talks about how the team had a prototype of a level where the player would control Nathan through a ballroom dancing sequence. They cut it. The prototype employed a set of interactions that were only used in that sequence. The player had to learn those interactions, but could never apply them again.

Instead, Straley's goal was for the game to have a set of core mechanics that are small in number and appear again and again. The player can use what they learned in one context and apply it in another. For example, they can take what they learned about climbing in a mountainous environment and apply it to traversing trucks in a chase.

The book also has a great section about how the creator of Stardew Valley spent six years on the game, lost all objectivity and thought the game sucked, kept working and polishing and then players loved it. It reminds me of how I heard that Richard Curtis underlines the jokes in his scripts because they stop being funny to him long before he finishes the final draft.

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn - Richard Hamming

I took a number of things from this this book (work on problems for which you have at least a clue where to start; aim your career in at least a vague direction and it will go father than if you just follow your nose) but one of these things was so staggering that it put all the others in the shade:

If you aren't working on the most important problems in your field, what are you doing?

He illustrates with this anecdote:

I had been eating for some years with the Physics table at the Bell Telephone Laboratories restaurant...Fame, promotion and hiring by other companies ruined the average quality of the people so I shifted to the Chemistry table in another corner of the restaurant. I began by asking what the important problems were in chemistry, then later what important problems they were working on, and finally one day said, "If what you are working on is not important and not likely to lead to important things, then why are you working on it?" After that, I was not welcome and had to shift to eating with the Engineers.

I've actually read this story before. A decade ago, I read You and Your Research and that talk includes this story. But when I read it back then, the effect on me was zero. Now, it has genuinely changed the direction of my work.

For the last year, I've been going on long walks and sorting through ideas around making software authoring tools that prioritize one of these three things:

Hamming's book made me realize: these are important problems. I expect I bounced off the idea years ago when I considered what some important problems might be and didn't have a clue where to start. Now, because of working at Airtable and walking and learning about other attempts at similar things and learning more about the history of interactive computing, I do have a clue where to start.

Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World - Steve Kemper

I love reading about how something was designed and built. This was pretty fun.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory - John Seabrook

Explores several pop song writing studios. Some interesting details about how the songs are designed.

Conversations with Scorsese - Richard Schickel

Again, anything about how something was designed and built.

PUSH TURN MOVE, Interface Design in Electronic Music - Kim Bjørn

A survey of many of the types of affordances in music making devices.

Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups—Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000 - Jason Calacanis

Very detailed and specific about the craft of angel investing.

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber - Mike Isaac

Return to the Little Kingdom: Steve Jobs, the Creation of Apple, and How It Changed the World - Michael Moritz

I might have enjoyed this if I hadn't already read Insanely Great and Hackers.

Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology - Howard Rheingold

An overview of many of the most important advances in interactive computing. Extremely valuable for the work I'm doing.

Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design - Jenifer Tidwell

I seem to have read a lot of surveys this year. This one was a helpful grounding in common UI patterns.

The Millionaire Next Door - Thomas J. Stanley

A useful handbook on budgeting and saving.

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution - Gregory Zuckerman

A history of Renaissance Technologies, the algorithmic trading firm. Mostly bland office feuds. I was interested to learn about their approach and methods, but there was very little about that. The Bloomberg profile is much more interesting and also much shorter.

Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes - John Pierson

In the '90s John Pierson was a producer's rep - a person who finds a distributor for a film - for a number of indie directors. The book talks about how he sold films like She's Gotta Have It, Slackers, Roger and Me and Go Fish. It's pretty interesting.

Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design - Bill Buxton

The essence of this book is that, through sketches, you can discover and refine user experiences. Sketches may or may not be on paper, but are always timely, disposable, clear, low detail, suggestive and not definitive. The book has useful material on techniques for creating sketches.

The author puts forward two non-obvious and possibly wrong but possibly not wrong ideas: sketches are very effective at generating more ideas, and it's possible to design an interactive medium without simulating the full experience.

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