mamamusings: books

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Sunday, 31 May 2009

literary garbage disposal mode

There’s something about the beginning of summer (academic calendar summer, not solstice summer) that brings out my appetite for trashy novels. In the past, I’ve almost always gravitated towards fantasy and scifi for my fiction reading fix, but this year I’ve discovered a new depth to plumb…paranormal romance!

I started out with the Twilight series, out of curiousity; I’d won a gift certificate to, and decided to use it to buy the Twilight series for the Kindle reader on my iPhone. Then I found a free edition of Lara Adrian’s Kiss of Midnight on the Kindle site, so I read that and chased it with the next few books in the Midnight Breed series.

That’s the point where I discovered that “paranormal romance” was a genre, and I started digging for comparable books. I stumbled across Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, which has sixteen books (with the 17th due out in a few days). I love lengthy (preferably complete) series, because I’m a very fast reader, and books tend not to last me long. I’m also much too impatient to wait for the next book in a series to come out. I enjoyed the first eight Anita Blake books greatly, but then Hamilton started to become obsessed with the sexual activity rather than the plot, and the books went downhill. I’ll admit that I kept reading, but with less and less enjoyment. I’ve also now read all the current books in Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series, which suffers from some of the same sexual obsessions but manages to retain a tiny bit more plot and character development.

I also ran across the very entertaining “Southern Vampire Mysteries” series by Charlaine Harris, featuring the very appealing Sookie Stackhouse heroine. Of all of the series, I think I’ve enjoyed that one the most.

One of the wonderful parts of buying the first few books on the Kindle (for iPhone) was that I didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of having people see how lowbrow my reading tastes were at the moment. In fact, that’s the only really good justification for buying ebooks that I’ve encountered thus far. But there’s no way my budget could support my current reading habit in that form, so I’ve been making regular trips to the public library. (The women who work at the circulation desk don’t quite seem to believe that I can read five hardcover books in three days, but they’re quite wrong.)

Today I’ve finished off two books in another Charlaine Harris series, and am getting ready to start a three-book fantasy series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m not sure how long this reading compulsion is going to last, but I’m enjoying it while it does. :)

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categories: books

Saturday, 27 December 2008

unraveling ravelry's social software success

This is the first holiday break I can remember that doesn’t seem to be rushing past me before it’s even begun. I’ve been slowing down a lot, and indulging myself with binges in everything from baking (double chocolate walnut biscotti, my annual gift to our department office staff) to reading (I tore through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in a day, loving every second of it, and am also really enjoying Neal Stephenson’s Anathem), and crocheting.

That last one is what leads me back to social software musings.

During my annual day-after-Christmas bargain hunting with Alex, I came across some bargain-priced sueded yarn, so I picked up a bag full of it. After I got it home, I had a hard time deciding what exactly to make with it. I tried a few patterns from books and magazines, but none seemed to work well with that particular yarn. Then I remembered Ravelry, a social site for knitters and crocheters that I’d joined this past year.

What’s interesting about Ravelry is that it isn’t just glorified forums—there are plenty of very active forums for crafters out there, but that’s not what I was looking for. Ravelry is far more like Flickr or LibraryThing than it is like Crochetville or Craftster. That’s because Ravelry is based around objects—yarn, patterns, projects, people—rather than conversations.

Like Flickr, LibraryThing, delicious, and other successful social software tools, Ravelry entices you to enter data and metadata because it’s useful to you. It’s helpful to enter your yarn stash into their database because once you’ve done it, you have quick and easy access to a list of all your available yarns—without having to dig through boxes and bags. Most serious needlecrafters have enough yarn to make that well worthwhile. And once you’ve done that, it’s easy to add new projects that you’re starting with your yarn.

But the real power comes from the aggregation of that information. After I’d entered my new yarn into my online stash, I could immediately see that there were over a thousand projects listed on Ravelry that used the same type of yarn. And following that link allowed me to further sort the projects by craft type (crochet only), by yarn color, by type of project, and more. That’s what makes Ravelry so very useful to me (and the thousands of other needlecrafters using it)…the ability to pivot on different aspects of the data—the yarn, the pattern, the designer, the crafter, and more.

Ravelry pulls together a number of the factors that make social applications work:

  1. It meets the specific needs of a specific community. Facebook did this for college students, Flickr for photographers, LinkedIn for people looking for jobs or workers. If you build it, they won’t come…unless you’re helping them solve a specific problem.

  2. The initial hook is not the value that you’re providing the community—it’s the value that you’re providing to yourself. Storing and re-finding your own bookmarks is the hook in delicious; being able to store, organize, and share your photos pulled people into Flickr.

  3. The value to the user grows as the community expands. This isn’t true for most forum based sites, which simply don’t scale well. But site that are focused on objects rather than conversations provide increasing value as they scale to more users. The successful sites scale at a reasonable pace, as well—including Ravelry, which continues to add users from its waiting list at a rate that doesn’t overload their infrastructure, thus avoiding the “fail whale” problem that can lead users to decide a site isn’t reliable or useful enough to invest time and energy into.

  4. The sites are well designed to pivot on critical data points that are relevant to their users. That’s most likely to happen if the people building the site come from their target community of users and therefore understand the nature of the information needs. Mark Zuckerman was a college student. Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake were both photo enthusiasts. Joshua Schachter wanted a way to store his own bookmarks efficiently. And Ravelry was started by an avid knitter (Jess) and her coder boyfriend (Casey).

There are plenty of communities of interest out there that can benefit from online sites that help them connect in useful ways. The success of those sites, however, will depend on how well they get the above things right in their implentations.

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categories: books | crafts | social software

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

best techno-thriller ever

Back in February, Joi Ito posted about a book entitled Daemon that had been recommended to him by Stewart Brand. It sounded interesting, and I made a mental note of it. Then in May I ordered it for my summer reading pile.

Once it arrived, Gerald started reading it, and later Lane started reading it, and it migrated out of my sight for quite a while. When I was packing for the trip to Alabama last week, I grabbed it and stuck it in my bag—and Saturday I finally started it. Then on Sunday I stayed up until 2am to finish it!

It was awesome. Seldom do contemporary writers combine engaging narrative and plot with genuinely knowledgeable representations of technology, but this one really does. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in gaming, security, AI, distributed systems, or just good fiction.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy it right now. The book was apparently self-published to begin with, under the pseudonym Leinad Zeraus (which is the real name of the author, Daniel Suarez, spelled backwards). After it became popular (and with Stewart Brand and Joi Ito recommending it, that was inevitable), Penguin Books’ imprint Dutton purchased the rights, and they’re re-releasing it in hardcover in January. Go pre-order it now! Really! It is a wonderful book. (I’d tell you to get the older edition from the library, but according to WorldCat only fifteen libraries in the entire US have it in their collections. Sad.)

In the interim, our pseudonymous paper back version seems to have shot up in value—used copies are going for $80 and up! I’m not selling, though. We’ll keep this one in the permanent lending library.

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categories: books

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

summer fiction plans

Lest you think I plan to spend my summer immersed entirely in professional reading, here’s my fiction reading list at the moment:

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categories: books

Sunday, 16 March 2008

in search of a story

Many years ago, when I was an insatiable consumer of science fiction, I read a short story in which a human being was temporarily given the ability to experience a performance given by aliens—but the caveat was that the ability was temporary, and could never again be experienced. I believe it was an Isaac Asimov story, but I’m not 100% sure.

Does this ring a bell with anyone? I was discussing my memory of the story with Lane the other day, and he’d really like to read it. Unfortunately, I’ve had no luck finding it. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Ten minutes after I posted this, I found the story. It’s called The Secret Sense.

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categories: books

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

science fiction book meme

Via Dorothea.

“Below is a Science Fiction Book Club list most significant SF novels between 1953-2006. The meme part of this works like so: Bold the ones you have read, strike through the ones you read and hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put a star next to the ones you love.”

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, yes, I’m a heathen. love the storyline, loved the movies, but reading the books was not fun for me. just don’t care for his prose style)
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein* (yes, I know, Heinlein was a sexist pig. but I loved this book.)
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin*
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson(
7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey*
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card*
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams*
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin*
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon*
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith (I have read other things by him, though)
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson*
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

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categories: books

Thursday, 27 October 2005

microsoft research talk: why business people speak like idiots

This afternoon’s talk is by Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere, authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots : A Bullfighter’s Guide. How could I resist a talk with that title?

This series of talks by authors, which included Neil Gaiman’s earlier this month, is truly one of the things I love most about being at MSR—Tamara Pesik, a former libarian (actually, is there such thing? once a librarian, always a librarian, I think) does a great job of bringing in interesting authors for these talks.

Chelsea starts out by showing the Business Week cover story on Microsoft, and says they wanted to have a conversation with us as to how Microsoft can start to woo back some of the customers and media that they’ve alienated.

We’re going to play a game, she says. Puts up a slide with images of the $10,000 pyramid. She’s going to toss out words and see if we get the right answer. Focus on what Microsoft has and doesn’t, but she ends with the fact that Microsoft, unlike some of its competitors, is missing personality. She seems to think that the perceived corporate personality is reflective of the people here, which hasn’t been my experience.

Mentions Whole Foods humanity, Virgin Airlines humor and edginess. Hands the microphone over to Brian., who says we have to worry more about “this thing called personality” than we ever have before.

(His approach strikes me as somewhat condescending, and targeted at the wrong audience. Most of these people are “individual contributors,” and are far from lacking in passion and personality.)

Why? He says there’s something profound and significant happening right now that hasn’t quite caught up to us yet, and cites Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind (I seem to be one of the few people here who’s read the book). Pink does do a great job of talking about things like why Starbucks can charge so much for a cup of coffee, and why we buy designer toilet brushes.

Says Msft has functioned for too long on the left side of the brain — analysis, data,, logic. We need to have more persuasion, narrative, empathy.

Shows Google’s halloween logo as an example of how companies can use personality to build brand connection. Says he’s a power searcher, he should care about algorithms. But he doesn’t. To him, all search engines are basically the same product. He cares about the aesthetics. He wants a “Michael Graves” search engine. Does Microsoft “get that”? He’s right about this—I mentioned in one of my Internet Librarian posts the speaker who said that Microsoft’s products fail to delight, but that Google’s almost always do.

Also shows Apple’s inclusion of Rosa Parks on their home page this week. At the company worked (works?) at, Deloitte, it would have taken six weeks of committee meetings to get this on the main web site, but Apple did it in 24 hours. Very powerful stuff. Could Microsoft have done this?

Shows a “napkin drawing” that GMail sent out to announce their service (I hadn’t seen this before). “It’s so authentic!” he exclaims. (“Huh?!?” I respond to myself. That’s not authenticity. That’s a carefully crafted marketing message that has manipulated his responses exactly as they planned.)

Then shows Ballmer’s infamous “developers, developers, developers” speech. He loves the passion. If they could change one thing about it, it would be to substitute the word designer for developer in that chant. This (Microsoft) is a company that reveres technology…perhaps it needs to make room for people who, in Apple’s terms “think different.” I’d agree with him on this point, too.

Talks about the “dinosaur” ad campaign. It’s funny, yes. But it’s insulting, too. Why can’t we turn our $ into better advertising campaigns. If he were us, he’d fire our advertising agency. Someone in the audience talks about how that campaign was carefully tested, and Brian says “THAT’S THE PROBLEM!” He’s been in marketing, he knows how testing can kill a product. Someone in the audience points out that on the individual level, we do have that passion and creativity, but that there’s a “blanding” process.

Someone asks about Microsoft bloggers—is that good or not? He responds “yes and no.” Reaching out to customers is good. But, he says: “I’m shocked that you guys tolerate Scoble. You pay this guy to criticize your company? Not in my company, man.” (Um, is Deloitte really doing that great a job of building its brand?) I think he’s way off base on this. Scoble has done an enormous amount to change the stodgy, defensive stereotype of this company. And while he does occasionally (and appropriately) criticize, he does a lot of singing the company’s praises, too. Because he does the former, people are willing to listen to the latter.)

Shows Dennis Hwang, who does Google’s artwork. Labels the image “Your new headache.” Who are our Dennis Hwangs? How do we identify and celebrate them?

Next shows Infosys Consulting’s web site, and compares it to ours, which he says is covered with SGPs—“stupid generic photos.” (The classic is a black hand and a white hand shaking.) What do we do when we see these? Ignore them. And that’s not what we want people to do.

Talks about the excellent iPod packaging, quotes the I.D. Magazine award praising it. This delightful, joyful user experience isn’t about the features and functions—it’s about the feeling that it creates, and the bond that’s created, when I experience this company’s products.

There’s some interesting question and answers, but it’s not clear to me what the goal here is. I was really hoping for more of a discussion of their book itself, and less of a this “we know what’s wrong with you,” somewhat condescending talk.

Puts up on the screen the text from Microsoft’s announcement of the recent re-org. “Is this how you talk to your family?” they ask. They’re right on target with that. Brian points out that it’s unlikely the executives from whom that came actually wrote it.

He then, however, appears to makes the assumption that we all talk like this within the organization, that we’re all corporatized drones. That’s a flawed assumption—which I just challenged him on.

They skip past a bunch of slides that look genuinely interesting…I wish they’d done more of their standard approach than trying to make this “Microsoft specific.” (Funny thing is that Kathy Sierra did some very similar things when she spoke to us in MSN, but I found it much less grating. I think it’s because she focused not on “here’s what’s wrong with you,” but instead on “here’s the good stuff I see here and here’s how to unleash it.”)

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categories: books | microsoft

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

neil gaiman at microsoft

One of the many perks of working at Microsoft is the top-name speakers they bring in. This week it’s author Neil Gaiman—whose work, I’m embarassed to admit, I’ve never read. I’ve purchased a paperback copy of Stardust for him to sign, and I think I’ll give it to my son as a birthday present this weekend (I’m pretty sure he won’t be reading the blog before then, so it’s safe to say so). We can read it together, something we haven’t been doing enough lately.

Gaiman is doing a public talk and signing at a Seattle bookstore tonight, but it’s lovely having a smaller, more intimate version (there are about 125 people attending) here in my building.

Starts by saying it’s appropriate that he’s talking here, since he rencently spoke at Google—their motto, he says, is “do no evil,” while ours seems to be “we don’t really have a problem with that.” (laughter in the room)

Says his new book, Anansi Boys, is funny and happy, in contrast to its predecessor, American Gods. Describes the new book a bit, and then does a brief reading from the book. (Great delivery. He’s fun to listen to.) It’s a screwball romantic comedy ghost thriller epic novel (with probably a few more genres thrown in).

He says here in the 21st century, there really aren’t meaningful genres anymore. They’re basically ways to avoid a part of the bookstore you’re not interested in. This book will go either in SciFi or Literature—he doesn’t care, since it went straight in on the bestseller list at #1.

How did that happen? What does that say about the wired/wireless world we’re living in?

Advertising in the publishing world doesn’t come anywhere near advertising in the brand product world. He feels he “solved” this problem for himself back in 2001.

He was an early adopter—CompuServe, GEnie, the WELL. Then when he finished American Gods, he discovered blogging. He told his editor he wanted to write about what happens between when you type “the end” and when the book hits the bestseller list. Nobody ever hears that story—what happens with getting rights to song lyrics, for example?

He had a great time writing the stories on the blog—and when the book came out, he had 20K readers of his blog! So he carried on. It was like the online community sites he’d used before in many ways.

Currently the blog has 1.2 million individual visitors (he doesn’t say in what time period—is that monthly? weekly?). That meant there were many people looking forward to the release of Anansi Boys, who went out and bought it as soon as it was released. (“And suddenly, Dan Brown was ground beneath my heel,” he says, to widespread laughter.)

But, he points out, it was a side effect of the blog, not the purpose of it. (This is really important…)

The downside of the blog is the impact on signing tours—instead of 150 people, he gets 750—and a very sore signing hand. As a result, alas, the paradigm of the book tour breaks. This is a quandary that he’s trying to resolve.

Backs up and speaks to those who are here because someone else told them to be here, and provides some background about what he’s written. He started with a (graphic novel?) called Sandman, going all the way through the movie he just wrote called Mirrormask, modeled somewhat on Labyrinth. Made it for less than $4 million.

Just started filming a new (and much higher budget) Beowulf movie in a “Polar Express” animation style; if PE was 1.0, this film will be 3.0. Made for adults—plenty of blood and killing and mead. (“Lots of mead.”) This is the biggest, best dragon battle ever made, he promises.

Goes to Q&A.

Someone asks if Miracle Man will ever be finished—and he says, yes, that could happen. (Apparently this is an old comic character he worked on years ago.) He says that it’s simply too long a story, complicated by a trip to bankruptcy court, which must be resolved before more can be done.

The next question is about his writing in Babylon 5, and since I don’t know any of the names being thrown about I can’t really capture the sense of the q or the a.

Talks about the difference between graphic and textual novels. Graphic novels allow the writer more control over pace and perception of appearance. Text allows you to be more nuanced, make the readers work harder (if they’re willing to play). Contrasts both to movies and their ability to twist what happens in real life.

(As he’s been answering questions, I’ve been looking through the back of the book I bought, and it looks like I might want to acquire Coraline for my son, as well…)

Discusses computers vs paper for writing. He loves writing first drafts on paper, as well as the discontinuity of separate first and second drafts (he likes the distinct quality of separate paper drafts, but eventually moves the mss to the computer). Movie scripts, however, he does completely on the computer.

[After he finished, I bought a hardcover copy of Coraline as the birthday present, so that each child will have a signed book… They both look like great stories, and I’m looking forward to quality reading-aloud time with the boys this weeked.]

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categories: books | microsoft

Thursday, 16 June 2005

book meme break

Packing is killing my creativity. So today’s post is a meme response, courtesy of Weez.

Total number of books I’ve owned
Shit. Thousands. Impossible to count. I’m the daughter of two professors, I’m a librarian by training, and I’m a packrat. There are probably at least 1000 in the house right now, many of them boxed in the study waiting to be moved to the basement.

Last book I bought
Living Wabi Sabi: The True Beauty of Your Life
I walked into Borders last week on a whim, and this book caught my eye. I thought I remembered Joi writing about this Japanese concept of imperfection as beauty some time ago (but I can’t find any evidence of it now…). I picked it up and started leafing through it, and loved what I saw. I ended up buying two copies…one for myself, and one to give to my son Lane.

Last book I read
See above. Also Blink by Malcom Gladwell, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, and Getting Things Done by David Allen. (Am I a trend-follower, or what?)

Five books that mean a lot to me
Hmmm. This is hard.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster
I loved this book as a kid because of the sense of escapism that it provided. I loved it again as an adult, when I found more nuance in it, and then used quotes from the book to open each of my dissertation chapters. For example, for my chapter discussing qualitative vs quantitative approaches to my research topic, I used this passage:

Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars. Therefore, let both kingdoms live in peace.

The Last Fine Time, by Verlyn Klinkenborg
This is an extraordinary book, beautifully written, chronicling life in a working-class Polish neighborhood and bar in Buffalo during the 50s and 60s. It is the only book I can ever remember rationing in order to savor it…I didn’t want it to end, so I’d only allow myself a few pages each night so that I could make it last. It’s the best book you’ve never read.

Illusions, by Richard Bach
From the sublime to the ridiculous, I suppose. While Klinkenborg’s book is a beautiful masterpiece, Bach is a writer of pop-culture bubblegum spirituality. Nonetheless, I read Illusions at a time when I some of its ideas really affected me. I still have it (I’m a packrat librarian, remember?), though I haven’t read it in a long, long time.

The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, by Sherry Turkle
I first saw this book mentioned in The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog a Whole Earth Catalog book on communications (which I think was written by Howard Rheingold, but I can’t find it online—I know it’s in a box upstairs somewhere!) in 1990, and checked it out of the library. I fell in love with it, but it was already out of print. I ended up buying two copies at a used bookstore in Charlottesville, VA. It changed my view of the world of technology and made me want to study the way people used technology to make sense of themselves and their worlds. I’m delighted to see it’s back in print, in a 20th anniversary edition. (I got a chance to meet Sherry Turkle at a PopTech conference a few years ago, and had her sign my book at the time. One of the highlights of my professional life thus far was being invited to a symposium last year in which she also participated.)

Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love this book? No need to count the ways. Is there any more eloquent depiction of romantic love?

Five people I’m sending this meme to
Clay Shirky, Seb Paquet, Caterina Fake, Foe Romeo, and Joi Ito.

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categories: books
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna