Larry Hosken: New

Book Report Rise of the Rocket Girls

It's a history of computers at JPL, the rocket people. But the focus is on their computers. These were "computers" in the sense of "ladies who compute things by hand because we haven't invented electronic computing machines yet." This book reminds us that historically, we were pretty stupid about things. It was difficult to find skilled computers. But when a computer got pregnant, back then it was rare for mothers to work, so of course she was fired. And why would you think to reach out to these mothers a few years later to re-hire them? Nobody else did that, so why would you? (More recently, they figured this out; the book covers decades, things get better.) Anyhow, women have it rough now, but things were teeth-gnashingly worse then.

I heard about this book from Piaw.

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Book Report: The Second Machine Age

It's a survey of high-tech stuff. That is, it's a high-level overview of things I've already learned about in detail. I guess. I mean, I sat still and read through a chapter about the idea of exponential growth, realized I was learning nothing, and put the book down. Maybe it's a fine book aimed at folks who don't spend all their time wallowing in this stuff. (Maybe it would have moved on to other topics if I'd given it a chance?)

OK, that was a short book report. So hey, San Francisco people: If you saw my book report about Black Against Empire and it didn't quite convince you to read the book, consider this: it's this year's One City One Book book. So it's trendy… uhm, trendy among people who listen to recommendations from librarians, anyhow…

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Book Report: Hell and Good Company

It's a history of the Spanish Civil War. I didn't know much about it before I read this book, just about what happened to Orwell. This book is mostly little snippets of biography against a little historical background. Orwell is in there, and others. It's mostly stories of foreigners who came to Spain to help the government, Antifa back in the day, as it were. (I guess Franco's mercenaries didn't write so much afterwards.)

Fascist Franco led mercenaries against the recently-risen government. This was before World War II, before most of the world had figured out how bad Fascism was. But this war gave some hints. Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco out. The people of Spain were brave, and brave foreigners like the Lincoln Brigade came to help—but that bravery wasn't much help against Hitler's new bomber planes. This war gave Hitler a chance to try those planes out and confirm that they could make a big difference in a war. They bombed Guernica, a name you might recognize from that Picasso mural.

This book also has the story of Picasso living outside of Spain and planning that mural. He agonizes over it. But I didn't really feel sorry for him. He was having a rough time, but compared to the folks fighting back home in Spain, he had it pretty easy. You want to tell Picasso, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself, think of those folks from the previous chapter."

There are doctors trying out new battlefield medicine. People were figuring out blood transfusions, how to do them at field hospitals. How to set up a field hospital at some town who normally has a small population, but finds itself hosting many many dying and injured soldiers.

And there are writers. Orwell, Hemingway… Folks you've heard of, folks you haven't. They were brave and they struggled and they lost. We talk about how we beat the Fascists in World War II, but Franco ruled Spain until the 1970s, so we can't say we batted a thousand against Fascism. It's hard to read about brave people losing a war, but it's probably good to remember it happens.

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Book Report: Disrupted

In this memoir, a reporter flees journalism to join the marketing department of HubSpot, a snake-oil-ish computer startup. At first I thought he was being overly harsh about the snake-oil-ish-ness. For example, he chides the startup for firing its employees so casually; this seems strange coming from a guy who landed at that startup because the failing old-media magazine Newsweek laid him off. But the more you read, the more you see this place had problems. Spoiler: the epilogue is about the company's illegal attempts to to procure this book's manuscript before it was published, probably with the intent to prevent the book's publication.

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Book Report: The Last Days of New Paris

In a fantastic alternate-reality World War II Paris, magicians summon works of art into the real world. Our protagonist is a war-weary Surrealist in magical pajamas with an affinity for Exquisite Corpses.

In real life, Exquisite Corpses are Surrealist with multiple artists: Someone would make the top of a sketch, and fold over the paper; someone else would fill in the middle of the sketch, though they couldn't see much of the top and then they'd fold the paper again; finally, a third artist would finish the sketch, drawing the bottom. In this book, Exquisite Corpses are like that except come to life in the world and wreaking havoc on Nazis.

This novella has something of the disjoint nature of Surrealist art: from chapter to chapter, it jumps around in time and in viewpoint.

Thinking about exquisite corpses, I find myself wishing that the author had collaborated with a couple of other authors. The book's protagonist is a radical, as you'd expect in a China MiĆ©ville work. But he's also beaten-down and guilt-ridden about events in his past, making his way through a world with interesting magic that follows rules; Tim Powers could have written about that quite nicely. For a third author… I dunno, maybe someone who writes a lot about WWII? Anyhow.

A fun quick read.

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Book Report: Black Against Empire

It's a history of the Black Panther Party, especially their politics. In the late 1960s, the Panthers found a political sweet spot. They armed themselves and defended themselves against illegal police harassment. Angry youths who were tired of feeling powerless flocked to the cause; staying within the law (albeit against unjust law enforcement), steered away from actions that would alienate not-so-militant allies. The Panthers struck a chord and briefly became a powerful voice' they changed the way America thought about race and power. There were weird side effects, too. E.g., when Black Panthers (legally) armed themselves, California's racists quickly passed a big gun control law.

Keeping things legal helped the Panthers make alliances. Their allies were weak reeds, though. When the USA government made concession to leftist causes, the Panthers lost power. They'd made common cause with leftist groups; when the USA stopped the military draft and promised an end to fighting in Vietnam, those allies mostly stopped protesting, didn't hold out for racial justice.

Finding their sweet spot was tricky; the Panthers didn't always get it right. This was fine-tuned politics, and we might not ever know what some of the background thinking was. Some Panther leaders survived to write autobiographies; but some were assassinated by police. (Though this book concentrates on the politics, that's intertwined with the police violence, provocations by the FBI's COINTELPRO,…) Don't get too attached to any "character" in this book; plenty met violent ends.

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I read the James Damore manifesto in which he calls for Google to stop trying extra-hard to recruit/retain women and under-represented minorities. I had first heard of this manifesto through the media/twitter outrageous-news-cycle, and thought he'd called for the firing of all women engineers. But then I heard he wasn't calling for that, that his views had been mis-represented… so I read the manifesto.

He doesn't call for the firing of all women engineers.

He does say that science shows that there are biological differences between genders and thus [hazy logical leap here] we must conclude that these differences are much more significant than any society bias, and therefore it makes biological sense that tech companies would have trouble retaining women engineers and Google should shut down programs that try to counter anti-woman bias.

(Via charts, he suggests that he understands that biological gender differences aren't so big, that there's overlap… but then he goes on to say that Google should shut down anti-bias efforts because biological differences explain why tech companies have trouble retaining women so… it seems he didn't understand the science after all. Oh! Scientists behind the research pointed out his fallacy, too.)

That big scientific study about gender differences in personality? Based on surveys of 17000 people. Number of USA sex-discrimination lawsuits in the USA per year? 24000-29000. If you want to study the way things can go wrong, maybe start there; you won't suffer from small N.

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Book Report: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Maybe it's a novel; maybe it's a collection of interlocked short stories. There's a variety of styles and viewpoints here. I think I picked this book up because someone said there was a part set in San Francisco's early punk scene, with mentions of Mabuhay Gardens and Eye Protection and such. But this book wasn't a good place to find out about such venues/bands. Rather, in one chapter/short story/part/thingy there's the emotional journey of people who happen to be at such venues/listening to such bands. So I didn't learn so much from this book. Still, there are reasons to read fiction beyond learning things. One part of this book about a PR expert helping an ex-dictator, was pretty sweet. It's a nice tale of persuasion: persuading the world populace to tolerate this monster; persuading the monster to try her ideas. Since we don't see inside the dictator's head, nor the head of the world populace, the big shifts happen "off-camera"; but what we can see is still satisfying.

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Book Report: Leading Teams

I'm used to management books aimed at team leaders. This book seems aimed higher, perhaps at directors. E.g. it talks about different levels of autonomy to grant a team; when I read this part, I thought of those as things handed down by higher management. (Those levels: executing the task; monitoring progress; designing the team itself; setting overall direction.) There were interesting anecdotes. Maybe if I'd spent more time thinking about these higher-level issues, I could have done better at figuring out how to apply these to situations I've seen. As it was, this book amused me but I'm not sure I got a lot out of it. (Maybe it would have helped if there had been more examples from engineering-land and not so many from aircraft crews? I'm sure there are similarities, but it's a stretch to find them.) We'll find out the next time I talk with an engineering director about something, I guess.

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Book Report: The Beautiful Struggle

It's an autobiography of an African American nerd growing up in/around Baltimore around the time that I was growing up. This book has a lot of unexplained references. I understood some of the nerd references without having to look them up because I am a nerd of a certain age. But I missed plenty of them, too, because they weren't all totally easy. And figure that I missed 99% of the references which were meant for folks who grew up in the culture of Black Baltimore back then, son of an ex-Black Panther who passed down literature of the struggle… I read this mostly while riding buses and such; I pretty quickly gave up on looking up each thing I saw but didn't understand. Instead, I let the book wash over me. Thus, it was a fun read, but I didn't absorb much. I got some things out of it, some empathy. Like me, he grew up worried about bullies beating him up in school. Unlike me, his fellow nerds would pressure him into fighting so that bullies wouldn't get into the habit of picking on nerds. The way he explains it, you can see how that horrible dynamic played out.

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