Fun summer book reading suggestions?

Hey everybody, I’m looking for some fun books (mostly fiction) to read this summer. What would you recommend? One book I recently enjoyed was The Martian, a novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars who needs to figure out how to survive and get home with minimal supplies. It was a little heavy on the science, but I liked learning a couple things while reading it. I also enjoyed Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, even though it wasn’t fiction.

I’m not much of a fantasy reader (normally I prefer sci-fi), but I did enjoy The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and his follow-up book, The Wise Man’s Fear. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was satisfyingly haunting–highly recommended.

Almost anyone in the tech world would enjoy Hatching Twitter, by Nick Bilton. I like almost anything by Jon Ronson as well. Likewise, Ramez Naam and Lee Child and Daniel Suarez are good bets for me at least. I enjoy just about everything by John Scalzi, although Redshirts got a little too meta for my taste.

I also enjoyed The Last Policeman by Ben Winters, about a policeman who stays at his post in the months before an asteroid is predicted to collide with the Earth. I’m not a horror fan, but an unexpected delight was the comedy-horror novel This Book Is Full of Spiders by David Wong.

When I asked for reading recommendations in the past, here’s the description I used:

Okay, I’m looking for fun, light reading for my vacation. I don’t want search stuff, I don’t want heavy reading, I don’t want geopolitics or history.

Things like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Or Terry Pratchett. Or early William Gibson. Cheesy cyberpunk if they don’t get the computer stuff too wrong. Neil Gaiman. Transmetropolitan.

So, what fun books have you enjoyed recently? Tell me what books you’ve really enjoyed!

Good Books for Summer Reading?

It’s summertime, so I’m looking for a bunch of fun books to read. I just ordered two books by John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation and The God Engines), two books by Dean Karnazes because I’m training to run a marathon (Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss and Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner), plus Zero Day: A Novel by Mark Russinovich. I’ll let you know how they turn out.

I’ve gotten some great suggestions for good books to read in previous years. Here’s how I expressed my summertime reading preferences early on:

Okay, I’m looking for fun, light reading for my vacation. I don’t want search stuff, I don’t want heavy reading, I don’t want geopolitics or history.

Things like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Or Terry Pratchett. Or early William Gibson. Cheesy cyberpunk if they don’t get the computer stuff too wrong. Neil Gaiman. Transmetropolitan.

Based on that, what books would you recommend for fun summer reading?

Review: In The Plex, by Steven Levy

Steven Levy just wrote a new book about Google called In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. It succeeds the most on the “how Google thinks” part–if you want to understand how Google thinks, get an overview of Google, or understand its impact on the world, this is the book for you.

I think anyone interested in Google would enjoy this book. People who don’t know much about Google will get a good overview. People who are really interested in Google or the search industry will get a better understanding of how Google thinks. And even if you’re an expert, you’ll probably learn a few new tidbits. For example, Levy reveals the identity of GoogleGuy, the Google representative who answered questions from webmasters as early as 2001. You’ll also hear about inside-Google allusions like Audrey Fino or Emerald Sea.

Given that Levy isn’t a computer scientist or a Googler, I wasn’t sure how deftly he would internalize or explain how Google looks at the world, but for the most part he nails it. The book, like many accounts of Google, emphasizes the company’s focus on making decisions based on data and logic. At some points I felt that Levy pushed this point too hard. On the other hand, I recently had a conversation with a Google colleague about Lady Gaga, and the word “scalability” cropped up a lot more than you would expect for a conversation about a pop star. :) I don’t think Google is full of purely left-brained eggheads, but I’m willing to concede that compared to the average population, we probably skew further in that direction than most places.

Reading the book, I realized how much you could write about the different facets of Google. Even in 400+ pages, some topics get short shrift; it felt like Levy covered Google News in a single, condensed paragraph. But Levy gives complete and clear explanations for the parts of Google that receive his focus.

Here’s a simple litmus test: if you’ve read more than 2-3 of my blog posts in the past or follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably enjoy reading In The Plex.

Blog to Book?

I recently went looking for some software to make a blog into a book. Here’s what I found:

- Lulu will take PDF files for a book. Blogbooker.com will try to create a PDF from a blog. Unfortunately, my blog made BlogBooker choke (I have 991 posts from my blog) — even when I excluded comments.

- Blurb.com will try to create a book from a blog, but it only supports blogs hosted on WordPress.com, not other WordPress blogs. That will help some people who want to print their blog into a book, but not everyone.

- I had the best luck with FastPencil. In order to reduce the size of your exported blog, you’ll first want to go to your comments section, click on the “spam” link and clear out any spam comments by selecting all the spam comments and clicking “Empty Spam”. Then you can export your WordPress blog (from the Dashboard, click Tools, then Export) as an XML file that you can download to your computer. From there, FastPencil lets you upload the .xml file and then select which blog posts to include in the book. You can also filter by time, which I had to do. Even my blog posts (no comments) from the last year and a half still made a 350+ page book, and FastPencil choked on turning my entire blog into a book.

FastPencil did a few things well. Included images were imported, and some formatting such as bold made it into the PDF. But other formatting, such as code formatting and newlines/spacing between paragraphs didn’t make it. Embedded content such as videos or polls were likewise empty. Trying to import my entire blog also didn’t work. But all in all, I was impressed with FastPencil. They also have nice collaboration tools (e.g. you can designate editors, reviewers, co-authors, and project managers to help in writing/polishing the content). The site also works through your web browser instead of as a downloadable program, which appealed to me. If you’re used to WordPress, FastPencil won’t be too much of a change.

It’s still not a point-and-click affair to make a nice looking coffee table book out of a blog, but it’s getting closer. Right now, the “make a book” niche feels like the early days of recordable CDs. Back then, CD-R discs were expensive enough that I would spend time to make sure that I used all the free space on the CD. Eventually prices dropped so much that you didn’t feel bad about burning a half-empty or not-perfectly-polished CD.

If you’ve tried other blog-to-book services or websites, let me know your experiences in the comments.

Book review: Freedom, by Daniel Suarez

I recently got to read Freedom, the new book by Daniel Suarez, and can highly recommend it. If you haven’t read Suarez’s earlier book Daemon then you should read that Daemon first. If you have read it, Suarez picks up where the first book ended.

Daemon and Freedom are set in a future tantalizingly close to the present. In Daemon, a software tycoon and game designer named Matthew Sobol is dying. Sobol writes a program called the Daemon that scans news sites on the web for stories about his death. When the Daemon detects (via the web) that Sobol has died, it springs into action.

A wider audience can enjoy Daemon, but computer science and techie folks will especially enjoy how plausible some of the ideas are. For example, the Daemon initially stays below the radar of the government by recruiting from within a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which skews toward a younger demographic and not older FBI agents. As someone who has seen weird, emergent behavior like this, I can understand why a bunch of people on the web enjoyed Daemon.

Freedom continues the world of the Daemon, but now we learn that the Daemon might not be all bad; it might just be ruthless in changing the world. Freedom pushes the concepts of Daemon even further: members of the guerrilla resistance fight against copyrighted DNA and for sustainable next-generation energy. They also share a private augmented reality. The new members of the “darknet” also share an interesting reputation system that’s a bit of a cross between Whuffie and PageRank.

You can enjoy Freedom for the action (there’s plenty of that, especially later in the book), but the “idea density” of Freedom will leave you thinking afterwards. Recommended, especially if you like Daemon or other books like The Truth Machine or The Unincorporated Man.

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