What I’ve been reading lately, part 17

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

Happy Christmas, everyone! (Or, for those of you prefer a different holiday greeting, please read it as the one you prefer.) Thank you all, sincerely, for reading my wildly varying musings — and thank you even more for commenting and discussing. I deeply appreciate you all, including (sometimes especially) those of you who disagree with me!


And now, on to the last WIBRL of the year!

Wings — Terry Pratchett

This is the third in a trilogy of shortish kids’ novels, following on from Truckers and Diggers. Together, they tell the story of the Nomes, a group of four-inch-tall humanoids who have lived in a department store for so many generations that they have forgotten there was ever any other world. In Truckers, they are forced to leave the store. I remember reading that one some years ago and finding it pleasant enough. I never read the sequel, Diggers, but some years ago I found a copy of Wings going cheap at a jumble sale, so I picked it up and … didn’t get around to reading it for some reason.

Now I have. It’s really not showing the author at his best. It feels like Pratchett on autopilot: as though he sketched out all the necessary plot beats to get the Nomes to a space launch, then mechanically plodded through generating the necessary prose to get there. With requisite moderately humorous asides on the Nomes’ gluttony.

What does make Wings somewhat poignant is something Pratchett could not have foreseen. He wrote the book in 1990, and its two symbols of modernity and technological progress are Concorde and the Space Shuttle. The former stopped flying in 2003, and the latter was cancelled in 2011. So what was intended in part as a tribute to mankind’s ingenuity has been transformed into a lament for our lost ambition.

Desert Solitaire — Edward Abbey

In May 2016, I took a ten-day working vacation with my friend Matt Wedel, touring the dinosaur museums of Utah. We took one day off palaeontology in that trip, and spent it at the Arches National Park, which immediately became — I’m not exaggerating — my favourite place in the whole world. The moment I left I was desperate to go back. Fiona and I are already planning how we want to spend a long holiday visting all the national parks in Utah in four years’ time, when the boys have all left home.


Here I am, standing below Turret Arch, on its south side.

In the late 1950s, Edward Abbey spent several summers as a park ranger at Arches National Monument (as it then was, before being promoted to a National Park in 1971). He wrote Desert Solitaire about his experience of the southwestern wilderness in general, and Arches in particular. It’s long been one of Matt’s favourite books, so as we left Arches he bought me a copy at the visitor centre.

It’s an infuriating book. On one level, Abbey is great at evoking what I love about the Utah wilderness, and that’s worth a lot to me. On the other hand, he is the most self-regarding sanctimonious windbag outside of Frasier. His scorn for regular people drips off almost every page. His disdain for the idea that we worker drones should be allowed to visit Arches sits uneasily with his evident enjoyment of the fruits of everyday people’s work: trucks and the petrol that they burn, bacon, beer. He seems honestly to believe that the US Government owes him a living — paying him to live at Arches — but that’s no reason why it should be open to the public. I think he would have been a most unpleasant person to be around, and I wonder what proportion of his friends ended up just punching him in the nose.

With all that said, it’s a book that I will undoubtedly return to, just because it’s the closest thing I have to a way of returning to the Utah wilderness. For four years or so, anyway.

The Psychopath Test — Jon Ronson

The first Jon Ronson book I’ve read, and very readable it was too. It’s a compelling overview of psychopathy: the test mentioned in the titled is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, but that is only one of many aspects of psychopathy covered by the book.

Ronson reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell in that his writing is compelling and fascinating, and he tells a good story, but he leaves me not quite sure how well he actually knows his story or how seriously I should take his conclusions. And sure enough, it turns out that psychopathy clinicians, including some interviewed for the book, are not particularly happy about it. In fact Bob Hare, an influential psychologist who is one of the main players in the book has written a lengthy and damning response.

At any rate, it’s fascinating. I’ll be reading more Ronson.

Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway — Dave Barry

I own 27 Dave Barry books — essentially every sole-authored book he’s ever written. For various reasons, I even have duplicates of two of them (Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits and Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys). In fact, even in writing this, I realised it’s silly that I lack his other two books, and have just ordered second-hand copies for £0.01 each, plus P&P. Despite having been huge for decades in America, he is essentially unknown in Britain, so when I discovered him in the late 1990s I started hoovering up everything I could find of his.

And Barry at his best is absolutely brilliant. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve read Dave Barry Slept Here (a sort of history of the USA) and Dave Barry Does Japan (a tarvelogue that pokes as much fun at American tourists as it does at Japan). But as a long-time fan, I have to admit that he began to somewhat repeat himself towards the end of his humour-writing career, and he was probably wise to call time on his weekly column when he did.

But, because it’s about an actual subject (American politics and corruption), Hits Below the Beltway is one of Barry’s better late-career offerings, and well worth this re-read.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century — Steven Pinker

By far the best book I’ve read on the technical aspects of writing. How to put together sentences that work, paragraphs that cohere and arguments that persuade. What grammatical rules really are rules, which are merely guidelines, and which are pure fiction. What marks good writing out from merely correct writing. Pinker is (as you’d hope) an engaging writer himself, and makes all this potentially dry material accessible and compelling.

Trap Line — Carl Hiaasen

I picked this one up because the Kindle edition was on special offer. I’d not heard of it before, and assumed it was very new. In fact, the opposite is the case: it’s a very early Hiaasen novel, the middle one of three that preceded his breakthrough Tourist Season, and which are now all but forgotten. (Hiaasen’s own web-site pointedly shows them with completely different art-work from the 20 subsequent novels.)

This may be because they were, it emerges, co-written with Bill Montalbano. But the big difference between this and Hiassen’s later work is in tone. While Trap Line features the requisite crew of South Florida characters — the corrupt cop, the crooked lawyer, the idiosyncratic gang boss, the put-upon single parent — it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hiassen at this stage that these are the ingredients for a funny story. Instead, what we get is a grindingly realistic book where we can’t laugh at the bad guys, or with the good guys. It’s an engaging and exciting tale, but one that any competent adventure author could have written. It lacks what we will later come to recognise as Hiaasen’s distinctive stamp.

The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems — Jef Raskin

A truly fascinating book by the interface designer with arguably more claim than anyone to be known as the true father of the Macintosh. (Although accounts differ: there are certainly some who dispute his right to that title.)

Raskin had truly innovative ideas abut human-computer interaction, and those ideas were only partially implemented by the Macintosh as we know it. In The Human Interface, he argues (with evidence and numbers) that many aspects of the windows-and-mouse interfaces we’ve all grown used to are inefficient — that for many purposes we would do better with powerful, flexible keyboard-based navigation. (Something that we Emacs users have known for a long time.)

Raskin’s crucial work in getting the Macintosh project up and running, against strong opposition from Steve Jobs, came to an end after Jobs was pulled off the Lisa project and put in charge of the Mac team. He and Raskin could never see eye to eye, and Raskin was constructively dismissed long before the Mac specifications were finalised. As a result, many of his ideas never made it into the Mac, and it was left for him to design another computer, at his own company Information Applicance. That computer was called the Cat:


Raskin’s company licensed the design to Canon, and it was launched as the Canon Cat in 1987, eventually ceasing production in … 1987. Why did it fail? Essentially, Canon refused to sell any units, for example not coming through on an order for 200,000 that Raskin himself had landed. Essentially, corporate screw-ups — and arguably deliberate sabotage by Jobs’ influence at Canon — deprived the world of a genuine alternative to the interface that we now pretty much all use variants of — be it on a Mac, Windows or Linux.

All of this was well in the past when Raskin wrote The Humane Interface in 2000. As well as being technically fascinating, it’s a rather sad book, as all the examples Raskin can point to are already over a decade old; in some cases, two decades. It’s presented as proposals for future interfaces, but it’s really a lament for an alternative past.

Are Raskin’s ideas actually any good? It’s hard to say — they are just too alien. I know from my Emacs experience (I am a thirty-year veteran) that navigation via incremental search rather then by pointing works well in text. I am less convinced that it can work well in other media. His vision of a single giant document conceptually containing all the content in the world, doing away with files and directories, is bemusing yet intriguing. It’s notable that subsequent attempts to implement such things have failed (e.g. Archy). But it’s not really possible to say whether that’s because the ideas don’t work, or just because the inertia of current UIs is too strong to overcome. Maybe we’re trapped in an adaptive trough.

Anyway, the book is fascinating: it works as history, as a personal memoir, and as a view of an intriguingly different UI paradigm. Highly recommended.

Essential The Fantastic Four, volume 1 — Stan Lee et al.

I read this as part of my re-read of the early issues of various Marvel comics. I enjoyed it to start with, but found myself flagging towards the end. Somehow, I didn’t find these comics to have the resonance of the Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk collections I’d read recently.

I’m not sure why that is. I always think of the Fantastic Four as among my favourite comics: I enjoy the family dynamics, and the sense that we’re seeing a 1950s sitcom not too dissimilar to something like Happy Days, but with super-powers. And I love what a complete jerk Reed Richards can be sometimes …


But somehow, this time it just didn’t grab me as strongly as I’d expected — maybe just because I’d slightly overdosed on 1960s Marvel already.

One consistently interesting aspect of these early issues is the heavy-handed and completely oblivious sexism towards Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl), who really does seem to spend her whole time getting captured and being super-vulnerable to the Standard Female Grab Area. The other three team-members routinely treat her with, if not contempt, then condescension. And she seems completely cool with it. It was truly a different age.

6 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 17

  1. Stick around for volume 2 of the F.F, when you get to Galactus and the Surfer and the Inhumans and the Black Panther.

  2. You certainly have Catholic tastes Mike. The only thing missing is Enid Blyton and Ronald Dahl. (Though I know you’ve read them).

  3. *Fiona and I are already planning how we want to spend a long holiday visting all the national parks in Utah in four years’ time, when the boys have all left home.*

    I’m confident the boys would love to see Utah with you.

    *His scorn for regular people*

    We hear this complaint constantly from the people that would like to pave Arches and mine and drill through it. Hiking to the sites is very easy in Utah and the fight to keep the place natural and not overrun occupies vast efforts from people deeply inspired by Cactus Ed.

  4. (Long time reader, first time commenter…):

    Just had to jump in and say that you are absolutely correct that Utah is insanely beautiful. You are making a good decision in returning…

  5. owentt, the boys would love to see Utah with us. But the cost and sheer logistic difficulty of getting all of us over there during a school holiday are prohibitive.

    Not sure I understand your point about Abbey’s scorn for regular people. Are you saying that scorn was justified? Is there no valid middle ground between “pave the whole park” and “keep the public out”? To my mind, its present state is a pretty darned perfect compromise.

  6. Raskin did do some further work on some of his ideas. If you use a Mac, there is a Raskin app in the App Store. It presents all of your files as a zoomable graphic. It’s a little like the SDMS “dataland” I worked on at the Architecture Machine in the 1970s although on a smaller screen. It is kind of interesting, but also extremely idiosyncratic. I found the navigation rather awkward, partly because I have my own idiosyncratic ideas of where to put what which sort of runs against Raskin’s grain.

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