Books! Book Review

by Dave Michels

Thought I would share my thoughts on some recent books.
I don’t read many books any more. I instead read a ton of “news” on the web daily; mostly thru Google Reader and Twitter links. I read books when I travel. This last trip I tried out the Kindle.

The Kindle is very interesting and deserves its own separate post. But I will share my plan that backfired. The Kindle makes sense for travel since it is so small – smaller than a single book, much less the 5 I loaded. But it is too expensive for the occasional reader like me. It turns out they hold their value pretty well on eBay, so I planned to effectively rent it and sell it after a month of travel. I estimated my rental charge at $40 which seemed reasonable to me. The plan backfired on me because Amazon dropped their Kindle price $60 during this period, so now my rental price will be closer to $100. Oh well, those are the risks.

Anyway, the point of this post to briefly discuss the two technical books I read on this trip:
Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger (a unified theory of the web). This is your basic contemporary business book.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez. This is a novel – more accurately an Internet thriller.

Let’s start with Daemon.
I very much enjoyed this book. It was well written and researched and created a plausible techno thriller. I’ll do my best at a summary without spoiling it.

The villain in this book is a Bond level deviant hellbent on a new world order. The big twist is he is dead. Before dying he planted several traps and triggers that are queued by, among other things, news headlines. Since these computer “daemons” are running on distributed computers throughout the world and triggered by unknown events; the cops, feds, NSA, etc. have no traditional means to stop it.

Meanwhile these programs collectively expand from murder to army recruitment, stock market manipulation, extortion, even treason.

The book is very entertaining. It starts off very plausible, and doesn’t really drift too far from that for the majority of the book (though it does indeed cross that line). It is not too technical or condescending in its explanations thanks to believable non technical characters that need this explained. Suarez does an excellent job of motivating the reader to turn the pages as the events that unfold are intriguing. The characters are not particularly strong or likable. The primary character we follow is a local cop that is constantly confused and somewhat self destructive. There is no sex or major relationships – just murder, mayhem, destruction, and violence.

I get very frustrated with most techno thrillers, but this one largely worked. I recommend it if you enjoy technology.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined is largely an exercise in the obvious. It is not a novel or intended to be entertaining. More of a text book explaining the web. If I was teaching a class called Web101 to non technical students, I would use it as a text book.

Personally I found it too slow and too obvious. Weinberger belabors points as if he was paid by the page. There are some real nuggets in the book and I highly recommend it for skimming rather than reading. I think Weinberger would be an excellent keynote speaker or some other venue with a stopwatch.

The book does a good job of explaining the notion of small pieces making the web work – much like this blog – just a small part of your web experience. The concept of small pieces with no central control introduces both problems and opportunities that Weinberger discusses. He also compares it to the real physical world and shows how much we have adapted our rules to accommodate the web.

For example, he claims bananas are the number one item in a supermarket, and that we accept the supermarket hiding the bananas both far from the door and the registers in hopes we will impulsively buy other items we discover. Yet, if etailers take the same approach and make us peruse many items to get to the one we want -we likely abandon ship.

Another example of our adaptation is feeling successful if Google finds a relevant page on its 14th offering. He compares this to the white pages, and suggests that if they offered up 13 wrong answers before giving the right number we would never use them.

Weinberger makes several valid points and many I never considered. If you are into the web, and feel you understand how things work, you may enjoy skimming it. If you are new to the web (unlikely to be reading this blog), and curious why it works, then it is highly recommended.