The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

Frank Langfitt


The taxi, while an essential part of the plot, doesn't perhaps feature quite as much as one might expect in this exploration of China and the Chinese as they start to drive the 21st century. It's a view from part way inside: not a Chinese view per se, but from a Western journalist with deep knowledge and strong sympathies for China, who manages to get a variety of people from the city and countryside to comment reasonably candidly about their experiences. It strikes me as a balanced and important contribution to understanding the nature of the emerging "Chinese century" (as it may, but will not necessarily, become), both its strengths and weaknesses.

Finished on Thu, 17 Dec 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

John Markoff


Another history of the early days of computing. The goal is to link the rise of personal computing to the rise of the counterculture and (especially) to the psychedelics of the acid tests of the Merry Pranksters. There's some overlap in individuals, notably Stewart Brand (who makes a brief appearance in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But overall it seems something of a stretch: the most influential players at the time (Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay) weren't especially counter-cultural. But the contrast between the corporate computing world and those of Engelbart and Kay – and for all their differences they share a lot of similarities – is profound, and it's sad that in many ways the corporate side won: modern software draws on the surface aspects of Kay's work on Smalltalk, for example, but at a deeper level is more heavily influenced by corporate needs, and that's become even more pronounced in the years since this book was written.

Finished on Wed, 09 Dec 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold

Stephen Fry


Billed as "Greek myths for the 21st century", which I think is an accurate description, both good and bad. This is clear, humorous, erudite take on the key stories without giving way to too much modernising, and with the thoughtful and witty asides one would expect from Stephen Fry.

The style does occasionally drift too far into the casual for my tastes, I have to say, but that's a minor criticism: I certainly intend to read the other books in this series, dealing with heroic myths and the Trojan War.

Finished on Wed, 02 Dec 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks

Joshua Cooper Ramo


It was all going so well. A book about how networks change the relationships between objects, processes, and people, to the extent that we have to regard a connected object as a fundamentally different beast to its unconnected counterpart. It's easy to see this for, for example, books, where an e-book has access to hyperlinks, can be networked with other readers, and so forth. It's also easy to see for connected houses or utilities, exposed to new security threats by virtue of being networked. And it's easy to see for companies, where network effects rapidly produce winner-takes-all situations simply because increased participation increases the benefits of further participation. The "seventh sense", although not really ever got to grips with, is the ability to perceive these effects and adapt strategy to them.

But then the argument falls apart. The solution to this networked issue: the US must create the best networks, attracting others to use them but not shrinking from pre-emptively attacking – both by cyber and physical means – any other country who disagrees with the premises established from the start (or changed over time) for use of those networks. Networks must have hard gates to keep out the undesirables. Disconnect from other networks to avoid being caught in a web to others' advantage. The owner makes the rules.

Does this sound like a familiar line of politics? – maybe it wouldn't have done in 2016, but now it's all too familiar. There's no real discussion about how networks emerge other than by the force of specific developments and goals, which clearly isn't the case for natural systems and isn't really so for a lot of human-centred ones. So this isn't a book that works for me: it doesn't get to the heart of what networked systems could do for society. But a useful addition nonetheless.

Finished on Mon, 23 Nov 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

On going virtual

Virtual machines are now commonplace in industry and academia. They offer huge flexibility in managing large and/or complicated installations. But what about for individual use, as a power user and developer? Would that work? Would it be worth it? In the interests of science, I decided to find out.

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