Wednesday, March 20, 2019

[Book] Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Book cover
Over a thousand years before the book's present, there was a war that effectively destroyed all of society.  Picking up the pieces of the technology that was left behind, London was put onto treads, run by steam, so that it find and consume other towns for resources and, ultimately, more fuel to keep moving.

Over time, other towns and cities did the same, while another group, called the Anti-Traction League, created a defensive wall across the only pass in a mountain range to keep these traction cities at bay on the other side.  This gives the background of how steam is the primary driver while other technology - well past steam - is also present.

By putting steampunk over 1000 years into the future, this book represents one of the best thought-out steampunk universes I've ever read.  The social constructs around living on - or avoiding, predatory cities are incredibly well thought out.  That is, this presents as a plausible future.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Thomas, a young Londoner who is a "Third-class apprentice at the Museum of London".  The hero of this story is a young woman named Hester, who is trying to avenge the murder of her parents.  The first action of this story is Thomas preventing Hester from killing her target, and subsequently falling off of London with her.

In the best science fiction tradition, this ornate, fantastical background is a perfect set-up to reflect our present back on ourselves.  At its core, this book is about learning to accept that heroes may be false and that a character's society, itself, might be built upon evil.

The story is incredibly well done, though there are a few parts where the dialog between people is a little flat.  The masterful pacing and very well described action more than makes up for the places where odd dialog momentarily bumped me out of the story.

If you plan on reading the book and seeing the movie, I recommend watching the movie first.  The stories hit the same core-points, though the movie is much more of an action adventure than well balanced action and story.  For me, at least, the book fills in large amounts of detail, some of which was hinted at through movie dialog.

If you like Sci-Fi or Steampunk, I highly recommend this book.  Trigger warnings for slavery and extreme violence.  Skip it if you prefer fiction to be in the known world.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Managing Difficult Problems

I can no longer count the number of times that I've been able to re-invigorate a problem investigation, even if I have zero visibility on the actual problem.  This takes some self-discipline that doesn't come easy, especially during an urgent investigation.

Here's that one weird trick:

I do the depth of reading myself.  If I see multiple threads, I'll read all of them.  Then I will write as short a summary of all of the facts that I can.  Re-summarizing all of the relevant facts that have been shared, pointing out the places where multiple people or departments have a differing view of the facts, and sometimes suggesting a list of questions that should be put back to the customer (the person who is reporting the problem), will usually refocus and reinvigorate the investigation.

Wait what?

When something goes wrong, e-mails have a tendency of getting very long reply chains as people add a few sentences and add more people who might be able to help.  This is pretty normal, and isn't actually a terrible way to go about finding a problem solution.  The urgency is obvious, so most people just skim the top-most e-mails, and keep the chain moving.

On a normal day, few people will read e-mails beyond about two pages worth of text (some report as little as a paragraph).  During a difficult or urgent problem, depth of reading is not likely to get better.  I'm not here to lament this, it is just a fact about humans.

Why?

I started doing this back when I did product support (so long ago it doesn't even hit my resume anymore).  It came from a place of wanting to be able to contribute even when I didn't know the answer myself.  Sometimes by writing the summary, I would be able to see the actual problem and just answer with a solution.  Most often, though, the questions I would come up with would lead directly to a solution.  Frankly, it might be one of the things that I did that helped others think that I should be a manager.

Now, as a manager, I know that I am rarely going to have the answer, so it seems natural to continue doing the depth of reading and actually contributing back a summary and a few questions.  That is, to me, the very act of trying to write a summary of a problem naturally leads to important insights into a problem.

Problem space

It would seem that the people who have been on the thread since the beginning would be annoyed at seeing all the things they already said be repeated.  This has happened twice that I know of over the last 20 years.  It has never happened when the summary also brings up a disparity of reported facts.  In any case, I've taken to explicitly starting with a line similar to this, "I am summarizing this thread to clarify my understanding of what is going on here, and to introduce the problem to those recently added."  I also find it very important to end with something like this, "If I have anything wrong, or I missed an important detail, please let me know."

Every time I've done this, it has led to immediate changes.  First, it is a point where a large number of people can legitimately leave the investigation (even if they can just start ignoring the thread).  That is, some folks who know they have nothing to do with the problem are literally only hanging on to make sure that their one piece of input was heard.  Especially in cases where I am pointing out a dispute in the facts, a number of people will re-investigate the dispute.  About half of the time, the problem itself lies within the dispute.

Feedback

Please ask questions if you have them.  Also feel free to let me know if there's anything above that I should add.  I wish to improve this if I can.  After some time, I'm likely to republish this on LinkedIn.

[Movie] Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018)

Movie poster
This is a documentary film about Fred McFeely Rogers, who was on a popular children's program called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from 1968 through 2001.  The movie starts his career with a children's show that he produced before Neighborhood, the Children's Corner, though skips his earliest work for NBC.

Won't you be my neighbor is a very well paced, carefully timed, and beautifully edited documentary.  It took a relatively small number of interviews with people from his show and life, a healthy portion of interviews from Mister Rogers himself, and a lot of footage from his shows along with just a touch of vacation footage.  I learned a lot more than I thought I would.

Watch this movie if you grew up watching this show.  Watch this movie if you want to know and understand the link between Public Broadcasting, Children's programming, and Fred Rogers, specifically.  Skip it if Mister Rogers' is nothing more than a meme for you.  Not everybody watched it, and a lot of recent adults never got a chance to watch it.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

[Book] Fear by Bob Woodward

Book cover
I haven't been sleeping well.  A good friend of mine suggested that my reading this book may be one of the reasons.  I can't dispute that directly.  As I write this, right before New Year's 2018, I'm actively looking for employment, and that is stressful, but this book definitely hasn't helped.

Subtitled Trump in the White House, Fear is about the presidency of Donald Trump and written by the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.  The book is separated into 42 numbered but untitled chapters which are mostly organized by time, though not entirely.  Each chapter reads like two or three long, stand-alone articles about some set of probably related events or issues during the early parts of Trump's presidency, though I often missed how or why each is grouped together in the same chapter.

The book is well written, and seems to take great pains to state things that happened without editorializing.  This is old-school reporting, which is a difficult style to get used to again, now that I've been living in the modern age of commentary-instead-of-news.  There's a lot of stuff described here.

Emotionally, though, I found the whole book to be exhausting.  Sometimes, because I disagree with what Trump did or tried to do.  Sometimes, because I disagree with things people on Trump's staff did to prevent Trump from doing something.  That is, regardless of whether a reader is a Trump supporter, there's a lot to feel exhausted about.

I almost didn't have the energy to finish this book, and there are a lot of valid reasons to skip it; emotional stamina being near the top.  I read the paper regularly, so there wasn't a lot of major events recounted here that were new to me, though the described machinations of how the White House runs under Trump was enlightening.  Read this book if, like me, you are a politics junkie.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

[Book] Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Book Cover
This is a different form than my normal reviews.  I usually don't go back to old books to add to my reviews, but this is a touch-stone.  It's a book that a LOT of folks have read, and I hope it might help someone who also read this book tune in on where I'm coming from.  I read this book several years ago, and though I flipped through it to refresh my mind for this entry, I didn't just read it again in full.  The tag label on this blog says book-notes instead of book-reviews.

The main character, or at least the character that starts and ends the book is Yossarian.  Yossarian is a pilot during World War 2, and as best as I can tell, spends the bulk of the book trying to get out of doing more of it, while also dealing in the black market with military supplies.

I say above, 'as best as I can tell' because everything is out of order.  Wait, that's not quite fair.  The stuff that happens in the 1944 narrative is mostly in order.  Two major sections of the book are also in flashback, and those are definitely not in order.

Each part of the story is retold from the perspective of someone else, and some of the basic facts don't line up.  This, I am told - over and over again - by well meaning friends and acquaintances, is entirely the genius of the book.  It's a masterpiece because of the very ways it doesn't make sense.

Here's the thing, I can see how the absurdity of war plays out here.  I can even see how the best of that old show M.A.S.H. was probably influenced by this book, but I am a reader that needs a solid narrative.  I actually think this book is something I'd even enjoy if someone simply put it all into a single timeline order.

I'm here to stand on this imaginary hill and say that it is perfectly fine to hate this book for all of the reasons your friends think its great.  I certainly do.

Content warnings for violence and rape.  Those things, too, are what make this book so powerful, and make me want - even more - to avoid it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

[Book] Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu

Book cover
I have a fairly particular view of science-fiction and how it is different from fantasy.  The fantastic element in science fiction is usually both a catalyst for the story itself as well as a way to explore the reactionary side of society.  Where in fantasy, the fantastic element is simply present.  Used as a tool, maybe even explored in depth, but isn't the main goal.

For example, I think of Star Wars as a fantasy story, not science fiction at all.  It does have a classically science-fiction aesthetic.  Yet, boiling it down, Jedi are wizards, space ships are little different from ocean vessels, and the story is pushed forward by that war part of the name.

This book sits on the knife-edge between the two for me.  There is nothing about the nature of ball lightning itself in this story that is necessary to push the main plot.  There is some exploration at the individual, moral level, which to my view, is this books one link to science fiction from pure fantasy.

The theme of this book is the destructive nature of obsession, and the destructive nature of those who are obsessed with something.  There are numerous characters, including Chen, who are obsessed with various things, and the destructive nature of their interactions are compelling, and a little sad.  So, in this way, this book almost feels like a dramatic fantasy story.

The Prelude of this book begins with the main character, Chen, on his 14th birthday, witnessing both of his parents dying from Ball Lightning.  This sets Chen on a life fascinated by this natural phenomenon, hoping to understand this force that killed his parents.  The book sweeps through his collage years and into a professional life where he meets other people who have also been obsessed with ball lightning, and also other people with intersecting obsessions.

Two things of note, this book occurs in the same universe as the Three Body problem (which is fully science fiction by my definition), though it takes place before most of the events of that first book.  Second, though part of both stories do share one character, the story has no relation to the subject of The Three Body Problem.

I liked the book, and recommend it as a good dramatic human story.  It certainly has a science-fiction aesthetic.  If you are really into modern science-fiction, this book isn't it.