2015 Media Reviews

I’ve appreciated when people take the time to write reviews and highlight connections to other good works. Last year’s list was a success, so this year I’m expanding to other media. This post was regularly updated through 2015 and is now complete.

Starred items are highly recommended. Unlinked items should be avoided. “Dropped” items were left unfinished.

Books

The Peripheral: William Gibson; sci-fi
A dystopian near-future is overwhelmed by a far-future dispute. Wonderful writing, excellent sci-fi.
Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Cory Doctorow; politics
The last hundred years of copyright policy, how it has intersected terribly with the Internet, and what laws should be. Comprehensive and well-argued.
Professional Software Development: Steve McConnell; programming
How to deal with the decades-long gold rush in programming.
* Code Complete, 2nd ed: Steve McConnell; programming
I didn’t realize how much I learned from the first edition 20 years ago until reading this again now. There’s plenty to quibble with (style choices, some undersupported research) but the book has overwhelming value.
Smartcuts: Shane Snow; business
Rah-rah VC startup culture nonsense.
Clear and Simple as the Truth 2nd ed: Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner; rhetoric
How to write authoritatively.
* Working Effectively With Unit Tests: Jay Fields; programming
An excellent exploration of unit tests. The concept of cascading updates is vital. I quibble that his “solitary” tests are unit tests and “sociable” tests are integration tests. I’d like to make the time to port all the examples to Ruby.
Software Estimation: Steve McConnell; programming
How to estimate better when software will complete; valuable even in the age of anti-BDUF agile. Part III is probably only useful if you work on large projects.
The Alloy of Law: Brandon Sanderson; fantasy
Start of a sequel trilogy to the Mistborn trilogy (a friend wrongly told me it was a standalone novel). Nice blend of fantasy and western.
Bad Data Handbook: Q. Ethan McCallum; programming
Get, process, and view the info. After I did this a few dozen times at the Washington Post I can say this book’s advice is spot-on.
I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me: Jerold J. Kreisman, Hal Straus; psychology
The pathology and treatment of borderline personality disorder.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: Eliezer Yudkowsky; fanfic
Starts as a wacky culture clash of modern science in Rowling’s magical setting. After a few dozen chapters it turns into a grim grind of characters plotting against each other endlessly. Dropped when the author posted the setup of the climax and said the story would have a “shorter and sadder ending” unless readers guessed the ending and posted a review of the story (which the fan fiction site counts as endorsements). I mentioned last year I avoid in-progress works, here’s a novel reason why.
Using Structured Design: Wayne J. Stevens; programming
An excellent 1981 book on composing and organizing programs.
Low-Tech Hacking: Jack Wiles; security
Basic physical security: social engineering, locks, and lots of miscellany.
Maybe Haskell: Pat Brisbin; programming
Long-form monad tutorial. With a few exercises it could be perfect.
The Bell Curve: Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray; psychology
Well, I can certainly see why that was controversial.
Just Listen: Mark Goulston; self-help
Great book on effective personal communication. I read it, thought about it a few weeks, caught myself using some of the techniques, and read it again.
The Knowledge: Lewis Dartnell; pop science
Too high-level to be practible, but still a nice read on bootstrapping technology once you get past the first two chapters’ lurid fantasizing about the collapse of civilization.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Marie Kondo; self-help
A moderately twee book about decluttering one’s home.
The Power of Habit: Charles Duhigg; pop science
A bunch of stories I don’t quite believe that illustrate the lessons of uncited research papers on habits.
* How to Win Friends and Influence People: Dale Carnegie; self-help
A practical guide to being kind and generous. The “revised editions” lose character and coherence, pass on them.
Daemon: Daniel Suarez; thriller
Insipid Dan Brown wannabe with magic scary computers.
* Debugging: David J. Agans; programming
2nd read. A valuable, practical guide.
The Mongoliad, Book Two, Book Three: multiple; fantasy
Compelling low fantasy set against the 13th century Mongol invasion of Europe. The “go kill the Khan” plot is great and the “wander around the occupation” storyline is decent, but I recommend you entirely skip every chapter of the book 2 + 3 storline about Father Rodrigo and Rome: it’s slow, predictable, revolves around a character who is crazy whenever convenient for the plot, and only once connects to the established plot in an estatic vision. I’m done with this series/world, but if anyone can spoil the banner/twig subplot please email me.
Invasion of Privacy: Michael Weber; privacy
A vital topic written about in an insipidly breathless style. I was hoping for a guide I could recommend popularly but dropped it in the second chapter.
The Hanson-Yudkowsky AI-Foom Debate: Eliezer Yudkowsky, Robert Hanson; essays
The didactic arguing the uninformed. Old content repackaged like Jell-O salad.
A Deepness in the Sky: Vernor Vinge; sci-fi
2nd read. I described the great couple pages of exposition about the role of future programmers and had to reread it.
* Badass: Kathy Sierra; business
A must-read for anyone who makes something with users. Read twice this year; referenced often.
We Learn Nothing: Tim Kreider; essays
Human, insightful essays.
Authority: Nathan Barry; business
2nd read. How to write and sell ebooks. Decent.
Wireless: Charlie Stross; sci-fi
Nice anthology, though I skipped the Wooster/Jeeves setup with an unlikeable narrator.
* The Mom Test: Rob Fitzpatrick; business
2nd read. How to interview potential customers without accidentally misleading yourself.
Clean Ruby: Jim Gay; programming
If Ruby had namespaces or you already had DDD bounded contexts DCI could be brilliant, but without those it is almost completely insane. But it has a really sharp analysis of common Ruby problems and is good brain-stretching practice.
CLOSURE: _why the lucky stuff; programming
2nd read. The culture of programming.
Dark Pools: Scott Patterson; history
The rise of algorithmic and high-frequency trading.
Bitcoin for the Befuddled: Conrad Barski, Chris Wilmer; technology
Lurches between how-to, handwaving cartoons, and serious math, all sprinkled with delusional boosterism.
The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land: Lev Grossman; fantasy
Well-written deconstruction of the narcissist magical masquerade/portal fantasy tropes. I laughed out loud at some of the clever writing.
Seveneves: Neal Stephenson; sci-fi
A story of the end of the world. Mostly exposition by volume. Part 3 would’ve been better as a sequel.
Handbook of Self-Determination Research: Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan; academic
An academic anthology of papers related to self-determination theory.
Floornight: nostalgabraist; sci-fi
Science can measure and divide the soul but then alternate dimensions and half the cast is secretly from other worlds and random stupid nonsense happened until I dropped it.
* Anathem: Neal Stephenson; sci-fi
11th read; still awesome.
* Close to the Machine: Ellen Ullman, literature
My favorite book on the culture of software development that has grown to drive general culture over decades.
Red Dragon: Thomas Harris; thriller
Great, creepy read.
* The Silence of the Lambs: Thomas Harris; thriller
The perfect thriller novel.
Hannibal: Thomas Harris; thriller
An decent sequel ruined by a batshit ending.
Hannibal Rising: Thomas Harris; thriller
WTF, a Mary Sue prequel!?
Supergods: Grant Morrison; history, autobiography
An insightful wander through the history of superhero comics and culture.
The End of Absence: Michael Harris; literature
What does it mean to always be connected? Skip part 2, it’s shallow interviews and desultory self-experimentation.
The Surgeon of Crowthorne: Simon Winchester; history
Fun, weird story of a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Thinking Functionally with Haskell: Richard Bird; programming
A very academic introduction to Haskell.
Object Design: Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, Alan McKean; programming
One really insightful and valuable section about object role stereotypes; the rest is good but is now common wisdom or better-covered in Domain-Driven Design.
Toast: Charlie Stross; sci-fi
This anthology is full of fun ideas and most stories have are love-or-hate manic.
* Data and Goliath: Bruce Schneier; politics, security
A must-read on how and why privacy and security are vanishing in ways we’re barely aware of.
Mindset: Carol Dweck; self-help
Nice pop science cover of her fascinating research.
Design For How People Learn: Julie Dirksen; education
How to design useful education materials and usable products.
Holy Fire: Bruce Sterling; sci-fi
My 2nd read comes 20 years after my first and I see a whole new side to this deep, thoughtful novel of age and surveillance culture.
Confessions of a Public Speaker: Scott Berkun; business
Personal stories about public speaking. Fun read, though not a great how-to.
Winning Through Intimidation: Robert Ringer; business
How a middleman thrived despite cutthroat negotiation. Read after Dawson.
The Progress Principle: Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer; business
Description of important research in motivation and collaboration as parable.
* Ratio: Michael Ruhlman; cooking
The cookbook I have wanted for twenty years: covers the fundamentals of cooking and baking to equip the reader to experiment and tweak successfully.
The Power of Habit: Charles Duhigg; psychology
Read the appendix first; late chapers on organizations are a bit of a stretch.
Rationality: Eliezer Yudkowsky; psychology, logic
Long collection of essays on what it means to be right and how to accomplish it. Under-cited, prone to coining jargon, and occasionally immature, but it’s irreplaceable for its breadth and clarity. It’s also much improved over its previous collection as “The Sequences” by organization, intros, and light editing.
A Manual for Creating Atheists: Peter Boghossian; rhetoric
An OK read hampered by not hitting the books on actual research into how people change their minds. Refreshingly, it has zero of the standard justifications for atheism or pussyfooting around religious worldviews.
What Shamu Taught Me: Amy Sutherland; psychology
Persuasion that actually works on humans; not over-long.
Misspent Youth: Peter F. Hamilton; sci-fi
Narcissist gets everything (and everyone) he ever wanted because he’s just so special. Read to the bitter end waiting for the denouement but the author had no idea what he story he was telling.
Pandora’s Star: Peter F. Hamilton; sci-fi
Humans cure aging and can travel to other planets as cheaply as a plane flight and this changes nothing about society. When a planet of billions was presented as less varied than my neighborhood I dropped this author.
Early Retirement Extreme: Jacob Lund Fisker, Zev Averbach, and Ann Beaver; personal finance
A compelling alternative to the standard American life script.

Comics

Daredevil: Guardian Devil: Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada; superhero
Daredevil is antagonized for no particular reason in a wordy, clunky story.
Ultra: Seven Days; superhero
A superhero story about their friendships rather than punching villains. The leering tabloids are a nice if-this-was-real touch, but the tasteless scene ending in a broken window near the end of the book had me rethinking whether that leer was just the authors’ all along.
Federal Bureau of Physics v1; sci-fi
Didn’t realize this was ongoing. Nice start, may turn out to be excellent worldbuilding or stupid mustache-twirling.
A series of Marvel cross-title storylines:
“The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.”
The Boys: Garth Ennis, Darick Robertston; superhero parody
An over-the-top gross-out anti-superhero farce.
Death of the Family; superhero
The Joker has himself mutilated, then attacks Batman and his various sidekicks. Not really a coherent story.
Ex Machina: Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris superhero
Supero turned politician does politics, has adventures, drops plot lines, suffers an author insert, and brings the plot to stumbling conclusion that implies everything he did was worthless (and not in a deep literary way).

Video Games

* Shovel Knight: Yacht Club Games; platformer
An incredibly polished love letter to the NES era.
Hexcells, Hexcells Infinite: Matthew Brown Games; puzzle
Minesweeper with hexagons, more rules, and (infuriatingly) perfectly reversed controls. The sequel is just more levels, but fixes the controls.
A Good Snowman is Hard to Build: Alan Hazelden, Benjamin Davis, Ryan Roth; puzzle
A charming little riff on Sokoban. After solving the puzzles, nap on a bench for a harder set.
Mountain: David O’Reilly, sim
Ambient background game that feels a bit like teenage poetry: tosses out evocative ideas, but there’s no coherent point to it. A nicer idea than execution, so I hope to see more games explore this liminal space.
Fry Cry 4: Ubisoft, open world action
FC3 was the first open world game I’ve played; this was the second. I played it to pieces, 100% completion even though stealth-attacking bases is almost all of the fun. To increase difficulty, I had a lot of personal rules: must be unsuspected (not just zero alarms), only weapon kukri, no throwing knives/grenades/meat/stones, no mines/c4, and often no dragging bodies or moving fallen bodies.
FTL: Advanced Edition: Subset Games, sim
Star Trek as a time management game. Very polished update to the original, but no improvement to the ending.
A Druid’s Duel: Thoughtshelter Games, tactical
Really quite different grid-based tactical combat with short-lived units.
Hero Generations: Heart Shaped Games, puzzle
Clever roguelike. Fun, but the UI has a lot of low-hanging fruit waiting to get fixed
Yomi: Sirlin Games, card
The video game of one of my favorite card games, which simulates a video game. It’s Street Fighter 2 as a beautiful card game about outguessing your opponent. Unfortunately the price you see is only half the game; the other half of the characters are unlocked by an in-app purchase (currently USD $15).
* TIS-100: Zachtronics, programming
A captivating game for programmers about coding concurrent assembly using the actor model.
Hero Siege: Panic Arts Studios; action
Twin-stick shooter heavily inspired by Binding of Isaac. An almost totally bland grind, like a hot dog bun-eating contest, but sort of satisfying for it.
Nightmare Cooperative: Lucky Frame, puzzle
Turn-based tactical game with nice art and one big idea (group movement) that works quite well.
* Towerfall and Dark World DLC: platformer
My addiction after completing Spelunky; also a great party game. (AKA “That one game for the Ouya”.)
OlliOlli: action
Cute 2d skateboard tricking game that I dropped quick due to unclear, hyper-touchy controls.
Quest of Dungeons
Weak, unpolished roguelike wannabe.
Skullgirls: Autumn Games; fighting
Similar to Marvel vs. Capcom. Art is stripperiffic, but the gameplay is solid. Deeper than I wanted to get into without friends to play for endless summer high school days.
To The Moon: Freebird Games, adventure
Looks like an RPG, but plays like a point-and-click adventure. I don’t enjoy those, so I dropped this about twenty minutes in.
Orion Trail: Schell Games, puzzle
Affectionate Trek parody. Unfortunately thin on mechanics with a dominant strategy.
Xenonauts: Goldhawk Interactive, tactical
Fun, faithful X-Com remake with a better UI and a few great new mechanics. For polish and variety, add these mods: Raz’s NoHiddenTurn, Enhanced Crash Sites, Saracen Reborn, Instant Grenades, Random Map Pack – Farm Edition, Random Map Pack – Desert Style, Random Map Pack – Arctic Collection, Khall’s More Portraits, NamesOfTheWorld, Lore+.
Papers, Please: 3909, puzzle
Shuffle papers as a border control officer to a Soviet satellite. So well-themed it never occurred to me that you get performance-based pay — a friend told me when I confusedly complained no one could enjoy this game. I’ll need to take another swing.
One Way Heroics: Smoking Wolf, RPG
Cute little game, though I was more satisfied by how well the central mechanic pokes fun at old-school RPG stories than the gameplay.
Dust: Humble Hearts, metroidvania
Pretty but tedious due to slow button-mash combat. Dropped about 2 hours in.
Steam Controller
A wonderful piece of hardware that’s different enough from every other controller that it takes 10-20h to really “click”. Unfortunately, as comfortable and powerful it is, the configuration software is very bad (often loses configurations, fails to load, stops working, or otherwise prevents use) and shows no signs of improvement after 3 months of regular updates. I hope this will be worth linking in 2016.

Board Games

Power Grid: Rio Grand Games, 2-6 players for 120-150m
Expand territory and compete for limited resources via auction and market. Beautiful catch-up mechanics, but we repeatedly missed important rules (auction starters who don’t win can start new auctions, you can build through cities you can’t build in, etc.). I suspect we’ve missed more because a game has never gone long enough to enter “Step 3”.
Netrunner: Fantasy Flight Games, 2 players for 20-45m
Played a half-dozen games and barely avoided getting obsessed. Deeply engaging asymetrical game.
Discworld: Martin Wallace, 2-4 players for 30-60m
A slightly fiddly game of territorial control that ends abruptly due to secret goal conditions.
Resistance: Indie Boards and Cards, 5-10 players for 45m
A lying role game similar to mafia/werewolf. Uneven pacing, and I learned I find lying games to be mostly unfun stress.
* Yomi, 2nd ed: Sirlin Games; primarily 2 players for 20-30m, alternate modes for 3-4 players for 25-35m
Simulates Street Fighter as rock, paper, scissors with hit points and special edition; doubles the size of the 1st ed with 21 characters. Amazingly great game; I’ve played several hundred matchups and look forward to many, many more for years. High quality materials, mostly good art. Tragically not available as a complete box set to avoid sloppy reviewers making bad price comparisons.
* Flash Duel, 2nd Ed., Revised Printing: Sirlin Games; primarily 2 players for 5-10m, alternate modes for 3-5 players for 10-20m
Great update for a favorite: better endgame and materials, though box is still 2x oversized. Quick to learn and beautifully deep; I’ll be playing Flash Duel for decades.
Robot Turtles: 1 adult and 1-4 children for 15-20m
Teaches some programming skills around decomposing problems, planning ahead, and giving instructions. Includes variant rules for ages 3-8, and it was enjoyed by the kids I ran the game for a few times.

Video

Citizenfour; documentary
A slice-of-life from the start of Snowden’s leaks. Interesting to see the stories get made.
Lucy; action
Even more lazy and stupid than I’d hoped.
House of Cards season 3; drama
“I want you to trust me, so I’ll tell you something that makes me vulnerable. (pause) Oh no, you used it against me!” – Every character in every scene
The Bible Unearthed; documentary
Turns out the Old Testament might not be an entirely reliable historical record.
* Escape From the Ivory Tower: The Haskell Journey, From 1990 to 2011: Simon Peyton-Jones
A warmhearted history of Haskell and stunning introduction to the value of purity and types. This talk got me interested in Haskell and probably changed the course of my professional career.
Rollerball; sci-fi
A slow-paced story about violence and the supporting culture. Occasionally hokey, but still one of my favorite movies.
Whip It; comedy
Cute coming-of-age story.
Mad Max: Fury Road; action
Bang, bang, vroooom bang, vrooom bang bang bang vrooom.
Jurassic Road; action
A generic monster movie that apes Jurassic Park without caring about filmmaking techniques like “continuity”.

Podcasts

Rationalists in Tech: Joshua Fox

Friendly conversations with techies from the LessWrong community site. Very light discussion of topics only.

  1. Laurent Bossavit of Institut Agile: Some info from his book, connections to agile, networking.
  2. Daniel Reeves of Beeminder: About Beeminder, not much else.
  3. Alexei Andreev of Xelaie: Effective ALtruism
* The Bike Shed: Sean Griffin, Derek Prior

Very smart 30m tech conversations based on deep experience with their topics. This is the first podcast I regularly follow

  1. Sandi & Derek’s Rules: Experiences implementing Metz’s rules
  2. Rails 4.2: How Sean became a Rails committer; changes in Rails 4.2
  3. Flipping the Script: Coffeescript and ES6
  4. Put Everything on the Front End: Performance work in Rails and Rails apps
  5. Rails is Not Your Architecture: OO design
  6. Shh! Library Under Maintenance: Working through a deprecation
  7. At the Car Wash: Rails grab bag
  8. Attributes API, Relation#or, Paid Open Source: Rails 5 features, how Thoughtbot supported them, and a perf note around blocks
  9. Monorails, For the Kids: Rails maintenance
  10. I Don’t Get Functional Programming: Good tour of Haskell’s benefits to coders with the author of “Maybe Haskell” (review above); Giant Robots 137 (below) is a little better.
  11. Form-ing Opinions: The joys and pains of integrating libraries, especially for forms
  12. A Poor Man’s binding.pry: Debugging and conference talk strategies
  13. Begrudging Applause: Lighthearted look at giving talks and Rails with Aaron Patterson
  14. An Acceptable Level of Hassle: DHH rants a bit
  15. Might as well be about trains: Writing talk proposals, consulting, and OO design/process with Sarah Mei
  16. Wizards are hard to kill: Decompressing from RailsConf 2015
  17. Railing About Performance: Light chat with Sam Saffron
  18. This Podcast Is Rigged (But Not Animated): Rails assets and 3d graphics
  19. The Oncoming Storm: Rspec with Sam Phippen.
  20. Intentionally Excruciatingly Painful: Tactics for integrated tests.
  21. The “Best” Canada: Interview with someone who mumbles unintelligbly.
Giant Robots 137: Haskell Rennaisance
Excellent tour of Haskell’s benefits to coders with the author of “Maybe Haskell” (review above).
Bootstrapped With Kids: Brecht Palombo, Scott Yewell

Two entrepreneurs chat about life and businesses strategies in roughly equal amounts.

  1. Funnel Power: Catchup after a hiatus and a nice conversation about email in the sales process.
Functional Geekery

Conversations with very experienced functional programmers.

  1. Robert C. Martin: SICP, assignment, meshing functional and OO, and no rants
ConversionAid

Conversations with very experienced functional programmers.

  1. How Rob Walling Grew Drip Revenue by Over 300% in 6 Months: Fluffy interview.
  2. How to Use Marketing Automation to Put Your Growth on Auto-Drive: A pitch for Drip phrased as a conversation.
The Startup Chat

Marketing expert Hiten Shah and sales expert Steli Efti. I wandered off after a few episodes – they know sales and marketing better than anyone but I’m not curious enough to overcome my dislike of podcasts.

  1. 001: Spitballing podcast content and form. Content begins at 19:00.
  2. 002: How great attending MicroConf was
  3. 003: Free plans on SaaS
  4. 004: How to get, give, and use advice.
The Zachtronics Podcast

Indie game developers chat. I listened because I liked TIS-100 so much, but these chats didn’t grab me.

  1. Asymmetric Publications: Discussion with Kingdom of Loathing folks who’ve ignored every basic practice (source control, backups, analytics) and blithely survived the fallout (lost data, bad decisions)
  2. Blendo Games: Discussion about the production process.
The Haskell Cast

Interviews with notable Haskell developers

  1. Edward Kmett on Lenses: A bit about how the Haskell core is developed and then a lot of detail about lenses, comonads, and even more esoteric topics.
  2. * Don Stewart on Real World Haskell: A great look at working with a multimillion line Haskell project that’s 6+ years old, has had 100+ devs, and many non-traditional developers.
  3. : A broad look at what’s happening in GHC development.
  4. Simon Marlow on Parallelism and Concurrency: Also a bit about Haskell + functional programming inside Facebook.
  5. Brent Yorgey on Diagrams and the Typeclassopedia: Diagrams and TeX. Also lots about combinators I couldn’t follow.
  6. Bryan O’Sullivan on Performance and Efficiency: A light chat about programming practices; almost incomprehensible due to audio issues.

Final update: 2016-02-04

My second year of tracking my reading done, I’m feeling quite good about the practice.

I’m glad I added tabletop and video games, I feel like those were worth recording and sharing. Movies and podcasts were a flop that almost dragged down the project. I had little to say, didn’t enjoy writing it, and doubt that people will get much value from them. They had me dragging my feet on my queue (and writing up books) knowing I had an unpleasant task that outweighed a small investment of time and attention. I did continue to enjoy the Bike Shed and Functional Geekery podcasts in place of music during video games. But unless I run into something exceptional I’m leaving those media out of future posts.

Please post a comment if you’ve gotten anything out of these reviews or have a list of your own to link to. Here’s links back to the 2014 book reviews and forward to the 2016 media reviews.

Want more? I'm not as good at forgetting to update @pushcx on Twitter.