The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

"Software is hard," Donald Knuth wrote many years ago, when software seemed much simpler than it does today. This brave book tries to explain just how hard software is, to an audience that knows nothing at all about software and believes this ignorance to be a virtue. People don't know exactly how their cars work, but everyone has opened the hood and seen the engine whir and watched wheels move. Lots of people have no real idea what programming is, or why it's hard.

Rosenberg clearly planned this to be the software Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's memorable exposé of life on the cutting edge of computer design. He chose for his target a sure thing: Chandler, a personal information manager instigated and funded by Lotus founder Mitch Kapor. With ready access to ample funds, management expertise, the power of open source, and some of the best software minds in the industry, Chandler must have seemed a sure thing.

It sure seemed scary to me, since it launched shortly after Eastgate committed to Tinderbox, stems from the same inspirations, and sought to address some of the same problems. Because Chandler overlaps so much with Tinderbox, I find it difficult to examine this book with confidence.

Vexingly, Chandler didn't work out: by the time Rosenberg decided to finish the book, Chandler had bogged down in protracted code thrashing. But we don't know that there are no second acts in software; perhaps Chandler is going to emerge next week and be terrific. Or perhaps someone will fork it and save the project. Or perhaps Tinderbox made better technical tradeoffs and created a useful modern agenda and that's really what was needed.

Rosenberg makes clear that Chandler suffered from a baked-in incoherence: it was a successor to Kapor's agenda and so it was about agents and lexical properties of notes, but it was also supposed to leverage ubiquitous email and calendaring, and so wound up being about dates and places. That's too much to fit into a product, and there's a Microsoft blockage astride the calendar/email track. Not recognizing this was probably an irremediable mistake. The hybrid Python/C++ architecture always looked dicey to me, as did the premature commitment to be cross platform at launch. But hindsight is easy (and that hybrid architecture looks better now than it did in 2001).

On this framework, Rosenberg hangs a masterful and engaging survey of the thinking that underlies contemporary software engineering. This overview will have lasting importance, as I think it's destined be the textbook that introduces a generation of students throughout the world to the professional practice of software and to its founding voices — Brooks and the Mythical Man Month, Parnas, Joy, the postmoderns, the agilists.

What Rosenberg doesn't capture — because Chandler seldom captured it — is the way software actually gets written: in slow, steady segments, in dashing sprints, in long nights of inspiration, in weeks of staring at the screen, but always — in the end — by one or two people working to get something to work. In practice, this usually means one or two people imagining how it might work, and then making it happen. There wasn't enough of this in Chandler, and when it did happen, it too often happened to infrastructure, deep in foundations that were expected to underpin grand structures that were never built.

Business writers tend to attribute corporate success to the genius of a CEO, and to blame losses on that executive's personal foolishness and depravity. This is sentimentality, not journalism, and its prevalence is a symptom of the corruption of our business press.

Rosenberg set out to replicate a terrific book about hardware in order to explain software. He chose wisely. He had terrific access. He was spectacularly unlucky; instead of covering the inside story of a revolutionary movement, he has the inside story of a project that fizzled. He brilliantly avoids focusing on the failure, the consequences, the recriminations; instead, he explores the underlying needs and explains why failures like this happen all the time. To have carved such a fine, generous, and useful book out of the debris is a very fine accomplishment indeed.

December 23, 2007 (permalink)

Big Babies
Michael Bywater

I read much of this book while being coddled, delayed, fed, and delayed some more in Heathrow and then flying home to Boston. That's the best and the worst way to read this delightful, insightful book. It was such a good environment that I didn't trust myself to write about it. And then I procrastinated. And now it's another season, and the paperback has come and gone, and you're going to have to work harder to get a copy of this book.

Which you should do right away. Bywater has hit upon a knack, of late, of attaching titles that seem preachy to books that are light, witty, and far more thoughtful than you expected.

Big Babies addresses our propensity to behave like infants. In the street, waiting in line at the bank, dressing for work, choosing our courses: we act like helpless victims and we want an Authority to protect us and reassure us and to redress our complaints. We play dress-up.

So the pilot watch on the non-pilot wrist first of all says 'pilot' which in turn says 'make-believe pilot', which in its turn says 'lost epitome of manliness which never really existed.’ The watch is an icon of saudade, that Portuguese musical genre which sings of yearning for something which never was....There is nothing authentic in the entire charade; and yet we still do it; and at the far extreme of this idiocy I take my place. Let me remind you: (1) I am a pilot, and (2) I wear a pilot watch.

A few pages later, the author returns from a pleasant lunch with an old friend, the distinguished Jesuit Fr. Joe Christie. His wife, a set designer, has left a large block of polystyrene in the living room; the two lunchers, "slightly illuminated", see a polystyrene altar and hilarity ensues and involves old dressing gowns and the Great God Reborzo bin j;Ja;abli. At this point, Mrs. Bywater returns.

"What," she said after a while, "the hell are you doing?"

There was another pause, then Joe — Father Joseph Christie, SJ, orator, administrator of the sacraments, clerk in Holy Orders and a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech — said with commendable dignity:

"We are pretending to be priests."

What is the source of this strange impulse to dress in underwear, to rely on Someone Else to cook your food, to entrust our government to political dynasties and to rely for our safety on kabuki theater that bans perfume bottles shaped like pink hand grenades but has no particular objection to the employment of private mercenaries? I suspect this is the last legacy of the Great Generation and its terrible trauma, and that people will presently follow Bywater's advice and take responsibility for living once more.

Best point: Bywater points to the virtue of commensality. "The art of dining together," he reminds us, "is one of the great cornerstones of civilization."

December 23, 2007 (permalink)

Though we have not found the silver bullet that would cure the software crisis by making programming teams vastly more productive, the last decade has seen a tremendous revolution in programming. The difference: while teams are only incrementally better, individual programmers can do vastly more. The largest programs that we can write have only grown modestly, but the largest programs that one or two people can write -- which is to say, the largest programs that an individual can understand -- have grown dramatically.

The kind of program that was a stunning achievement in 1967 -- a solid and efficient interpreter for an interesting new language, say -- was still a solid MA thesis in 1987. Today, we give that project to the summer intern.

The way this was expected to work was that programming languages would improve, gaining bigger and better abstractions so that programmers could avoid all that detail. The way this worked in practice, though, was not quite what we expected: languages did improve, to be sure, but the key change is that people mastered a new style of programming. It's not just object-oriented programming; it's small methods on small objects.

Right now, about half my readers are scratching their heads because they're expert programmers themselves and they have no idea what I'm talking about. Small methods?

If you're in this crowd, go to your bookshelf and grab your copy of that wonderful collections of Software Tools by Kernighan and Plauger. You know the one I mean — the critical step in explaining UNIX to the world, one of the greatest examples of tech writing and programming style in history. Look at that battered cover, and remember what wonderful code you learned from it.

Now, open it to a random page — say, something in chapter 5. Read the code examples. Try to resist the impulse to refactor — to simplify the conditionals, isolate the loop bodies, clarify the iteration. If you came across this in code you were working on, you'd say, "there are Code Smells here." But this is monumentally fine code — the very best of 1981.

Want to cry? Grab volume 1 of Knuth. Open it to p. 264: topological sort. If you're like me, you learned about topological sort right here. (Toplogical sorting is what we do when we've got a path of links in a hypertext and we want to unroll them into some sort of a sequence; it's what happens in Path View in Storyspace and Tinderbox and I've written it a dozen times over the years). You won't be able to read the code. This used to be a model of clarity; now, it's like reading the Latin you learned in school and haven't touched since.

Kent Beck is one of the leading voices on the subject of small methods programming. Much of his work is situated in the context of methodologies for programming teams, Extreme Programming and Test Driven Development. This volume is all about coding: writing clear and sensible code to do what you want. It's the clearest explanation of small methods style I've seen.

Small methods programming is especially well suited to NeoVictorian Computing, because it assumes that the coder is free to design and refactor objects on the fly. Small methods, in the end, mean that you have to give developers a lot of design autonomy, so your design has to emerge from the hand of the artisan, rather than having it imposed by the grand architect or the design committee.

December 18, 2007 (permalink)

Judith Jones broke into publishing when, as a junior editorial assistant, she plucked The Diary of Anne Frank off Doubleday's slush pile. She joined Knopf in 1957 and she's still there, fifty years later, though Knopf's purchaser has itself been sold and resold. At Knopf, she launched a cookbook revolution, starting by the discovery of Julia Child. She edited Child, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden — the whole modern cookbook revolution. She's bright and witty and she remembers everything and knows how to craft a book.

It's wrong to criticize a book for not being what it doesn't seek to be, but still I read this wonderful book and sigh for a companion volume: My Life In Books. This is an instructive memoir for the historian, not only for the wonderful details and coincidences, but also for what's left out.

  • Jones was at Bennington when Bennington was remembered to be its best and most distinctive. A couple of decades later, David Mamet recalls that Bennington was little more than "Sex Camp”. Was it always so? Jones knows, and remembers, and could tell us.
  • Jones went to Paris after the War, chaperoned by Mrs and Mr. John Gunther and armed with letters from Arthur Koestler. She worked for gangsters, cohabited, breakfasted with Truman Capote. We hear a lot about the meals they ate; I'd love just a little more about what they talked about.
  • Jones moved to New York at the perfect moment. She spent the sixties as an important (and increasingly-influential) editor at a major press, moving from French to fiction to cookery. She must have known everyone; she certainly cooked a lot of dinner parties. I'd like to know a little more about those parties. Did they all drink as much as it seems? She was probably at Capote's Black and White ball: what was it like to be there, on a salary?
  • Jones' crusade to give dignity to women's kitchen work begins just as American feminism was gathering steam. How did she think Mastering The Art of French Cooking fit with The Second Sex? I imagine she thought about this a lot: de Beauvoir was a Knopf author, her editor was Jones's boss, and perhaps the difficulties in acquiring and translating this title was part of the reason Knopf hired Jones in the first place.
  • The middle part of the book is filled with memories of long days in a cookbook writer's kitchen, thrashing out details and perfecting the books. I'd love to hear how, exactly, this worked. How much editorial time and travel could her company expend on a new ethnic cookbook? How did she approach the task of crafting a book? What does she really think about ghost writers? How much structural editing did she undertake?
  • We spend a lot of time at the table, but almost none in the office; time begins, in this volume, when we get home from work. I'd like to know a little bit about the office. How much of her work was acquisition scouting? How much time was spent soothing aggravated writers? How much was spent drinking lunch with Dottie and the gang? She says that, when Knopf decided to "let Mrs. Jones have a chance" by acquiring Mastering the Art Of French Cooking, her boss Blanche Knopf walked out of the meeting (chaired by her husband Alfred!) in protest; did people really do that?

December 17, 2007 (permalink)

Then We Came To The End
Joshua Ferris

An engaging, likable novel about working in a Chicago ad agency. The agency is located a few blocks from my Mother's apartment, and my mother worked in a Chicago ad agency right near there, too, in a brief strategic hiatus between leaving New York magazines and moving up to newspapers (albeit this meant working for Mr. Hearst). Ferris gets it right, and he writes about work, and he's funny.

Plus, it sneaks up on you gradually that this is a curious formal experiment: the entire novel, except for one chapter, is written in first person plural. The exceptional chapter is third person, and if you think that's a curious lapse then you're properly set up for the closing twist. It's quite a trick to generate suspense with a curious formal posture, but Ferris pulls it off.

The book is being reviewed everywhere. I never go anywhere in distant cities without a book in hand, and so when I showed up for a lunch with a hot Web CEO in SF and he wondered what the hell I was carrying a book for, I explained it's the novel of the moment. I'm not convinced this will hold up to Great Novel expectations, but if you're hoping for a serious and thoughtful little story about work today, executed by a writer who is paying attention, then this will cheer your day.

December 5, 2007 (permalink)

A wonderful little collection of notes about growing up in Boston between 1820-1840. Dall can write; this set of anecdotes is meant to correct some impressions left by another 1900 memoir, but it stands cheerfully on its own.

There used to be a fort on Boston Common; it was where the girls played. (Kids were always kids; the boys were sent to their own corner, thank you much.) It was a comfort zone; later, at least one battered wife stowed her portable belongings in the old play fort while she cast around for shelter for her infant and herself.

"No one born after the Civil War has seen a lobster!", Dall writes; lobsters back then were big, and businessmen would stop one the way back from the office and choose a lobster for the family dinner.

Delightfully detailed, this curious bundle of cheer was reprinted by Arno in 1980 and should not be difficult to find.

November 26, 2007 (permalink)

A helluva nice biography about a helluva nice guy. Ted Geisel tried to sell a kid's book. Nobody would buy it. He gave up. A college friend bumped into him as a trudged home after yet another rejection and, having just landed a job as an editor. bought it. Hilarity ensued.

What's striking, though, is how much sheer work went into these books — all of them, not just the vocabulary-constrained and ground-breaking Cat In The Hat. Endless tinkering was required, until every invented syllable and every last block of solid color was exactly right.

The Morgans' biography is generous and sympathetic, a mood that suits the subject. All was not entirely rosy; Geisel was reclusive and anxious and difficult, he made a wretchedly difficult business partner, and after his wonderful first wife killed herself he married his best friend's wife. This made for some unsettling ruckus in La Jolla, but they got along and so, eventually, did their friends. (I remember my mother on the subject of one the second wives in her own circle: "I wanted to hate her. I expected to hate her. We all did. But we didn't.”)

November 24, 2007 (permalink)

The introductory chapters of this lively little book are a superb introduction to cooking. What are we trying to do? What tools do we need? What does almost everyone do wrong? These essays, on topics ranging from salt to kitchen equipment to the essential kitchen library, are a wonderful idea.

The bulk of the book is a glossary, a project of which I was skeptical. We don't really care what it's called; we want to know how to do it. (People who are inclined to look stuff up have resources and Larousse, and lots of people won't bother) But Ruhlman seizes the opportunity by preparing dozens of bite-sized essays on topics that range from cauliflower (sadly neglected) to trichinosis (not the concern your mother told you it was). The selection of topics is interesting: cauliflower but no asparagus, sauteuse and tagine but no wok. These aren't casual omissions, I think, but reflect deliberate and interesting selections from the vast menu of possibilities.

What I miss, since so much of the book focuses on the joys of classical sauces, are a table of the most familiar of the classical sauces and their relationships, and also a table of classical ratios. (Ruhlman describes the ratio table in Making of a Chef and I've wanted to see his ratios ever since.) And, while I'm wishing, how about a table of classical potato preparations, so we can remember which one is dauphin and which dauphinoise. Tallyrand's guide to the potato is back — though impossible to find on his site if you don't know how to google it; something like this would make a wonderful appendix.

November 19, 2007 (permalink)

Mr. Pip
Lloyd Jones

The story of Miranda, a girl who lives in a remote village on the short of Bouganville, an island in the South Pacific, and her discovery of the world. A guerilla war has closed the mine, government controls blockade the island, and isolation from the distant, modern world is nearly complete. The last White person, Mr. Watts, takes over a schoolhouse abandoned by fleeing German missionaries. He reads them Great Expectations, which the entire village adores, and which inspires spirited debate over the proper role of profane stories in community life. This is the story of the English Class that went exactly as well as could be expected, and if the teacher suffers a bit in the process, that perhaps is the nature of the post. Post-colonially ambitious literature, ambitious metafiction, and a Booker shortlist nomination ensue.

November 11, 2007 (permalink)

A fine sequel to the superb Farthing. Walton adopts a surprising and useful strategy here; instead of continuing with the hero of Farthing, this second book follows a new protagonist who is being investigated by the same, deeply-troubled police team.

We return here to an England that made peace with Germany in 1942 and that is gradually, by imperceptible degrees, sliding into the embrace of the Nazi world. Step by step, Walton explores Churchill's slippery slope and its effects on daily life -- on the quality of coffee in London restaurants and the language of domestics and innkeepers and cops on the beat.

November 4, 2007 (permalink)

George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman, the villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays and cowardly hero of the Afghan War, returns to find himself ensnared in The Prisoner of Zenda. This pleasant romp makes an interesting bookend to Stephen Frye's wonderful Revenge , though Frye is more ambitious in trying to resurrect The Count of Monte Cristo straight. MacDonald is a parody, but it's never silly and always clever.

October 28, 2007 (permalink)

A sweet and charming fantasy, told by a murdered New Jersey girl who looks down from her heaven and watches her family crumble. A sweet and familiar story, right down to the odd, extraneous classmate who takes an unusual interest in the girl's murder and who grows up to live in a tiny New York apartment, writes constantly in notebooks, and has a strange facility for words. (At a critical moment, she exclaims, "Whoa, pony!"; do people really say this in New Jersey? Anywhere?) Hello, author. Clean writing, nicely imagined, this is a fine little book.

October 17, 2007 (permalink)

Two Women
Marianne Fredriksson

Two middle-aged women meet at a garden store in a suburban town in Sweden. Inge Bertilsson is divorced, a former school teacher who has become a successful writer. She has two wonderful adult daughters. Mira Narvaes, a widow, fled Pinochet's terror in Chile and is now a citizen of Sweden. She has wonderful sons. Both women like to garden. Both have secrets.

For Fredriksson, the great virtue of the Swedish woman is the ability of cheerfully assess what work needs doing and to set about it without fuss or delay. When the power fails and the frozen fish starts to thaw, we make astonishing quantities of fish soup and launch a family tradition, and every year at this time we now gather from distant lands and strange occupations and make fish soup. This is her theme here, as in her great first novel, Hannah's Daughters. And here, too, the spectre of rape dominates the past. But where Fredriksson used formulaic constraints of ethnic epic to cleverly cross-brace Hannah's Daughters, here they are merely applied and obeyed: Mira is a convenient outside viewpoint on the Swedish Family, Inge is a handy domestic rock against which to set Pinochet. But it's all so neat and convenient that it requires us to believe that God is also a Swedish mother, fussing to provide exactly the right characters with precisely the right personalities and to give them exactly the right opportunity to witness, and then to remember again one sunny afternoon on the sunny garden porch, over tea, not far from Goteborg.

October 14, 2007 (permalink)

Following The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross treats us to a merry, supernatural romp as a powerful and wealthy titan of industry attempts an IPO — installation of planetary overlord. An homage to James Bond, and at times hilarious, especially when Stross details the horrific consequences of watching PowerPoint presentations.

October 10, 2007 (permalink)

A wealthy Russian Jew prepares to celebrate Purim with his three daughters. The eldest is married to an intelligent, orthodox student of religion. The middle daughter is married to a lively young Hassid. And the youngest (oy veh) is married to a nice bright graduate student who has no particular use for Jewish observance at all. As you can imagine, this leads to lively discussion around the table.

And when the old man announces that he's going to divide his business interests among the children and go live in Israel, his wife immediately exclaims: "King Lear!" It's not a translation or an adaptation: it's the whole postmodern twist, way back in 1892. We're in Lear, but the characters all know they're trapped in Lear, and they talk about it.

Jacob Gordin's Kenig Lir became a legend of the Yiddish theater. It was the signature role of Jacob Adler, the great actor (and father of Stella Adler, whose influence on American acting was profound). It was the wellspring of the realistic family drama that became the core of Broadway in the 20th century. The dialogue seems stilted, in part because the rhythms of Yiddish sound that way to this generation, in part because our great grandparents liked theater to be more theatrical than we do. Gay adds a wealth of supporting essays and readings, all fascinating in their recreation of a vibrant immigrant world.

October 3, 2007 (permalink)

In Pattern Recognition, Gibson took his wonderfully characteristic and influential science fiction style and showed it to us afresh by writing of a future that is already our recent past. It was a landmark, taking elements from the Neuromancer trilogy and showing them to us again, shiny and new because they were clad in familiar garments.

This novel is also set in our recent past, a few years after Pattern Recognition. Once more, we have Gibson's braided plot, alternating a search for an artistic truth with a quest for a big payday. Once more, a young artist (this time, a retired rock musician named Hollis Henry working as a journalist for a Web startup called Node) is swept off her feet by a mysterious offer of employment and an unlimited expense account, coming from an all-powerful, covert gnome. There are spies and agents in the woodwork. There is voodoo.

This time, it's just too much. I like Hollis. I love Gibson's style. But this feels like a superb pastiche: it's a new Gibson that's just like the old Gibson. Or, Gibson thinks the world really is full of quirky billionaires who are dying to devote their time and wealth to thinking up quests for resourceful young women. Spook Country is the color of television, tuned to an old channel.

August 16, 2007 (permalink)

This series of basic essays on starting and running a small software business says what you'd expect it to say. I didn't find much news here, but I've been running a small software business for a long time. I also didn't find mistakes or distortions.

Inevitably, some of the lessons are just repeating the author's prejudices ("business instincts"). Sink likes trade shows, and thinks advertising is often ill-advised. Fine. What is needed in this argument are two things — income and expense — about which Sink essentially waves his hands. Rogue Amoeba did a series on exhibiting at MacWorld last year that provides the necessary detail; Sink, essentially, likes working a trade show and so finds arguments that the intangibles are worth the cost.

More important, Sink thinks that very small ISV's, including one-person companies, can be very successful. This is interesting, and somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom. It's one thing, though, to argue that software companies that actually make software and make money can be worth building; it's another thing entirely to figure out what the right size is. Sink seems to say that the right size starts at a headcount of 1/2, but a lot of the businesses he talks about have 1-3M of revenues and employ 10-30 people. Which really makes sense? Do you need to build out to 30? Should you want to? I think there's a real difference between aiming at $300K and aiming at $3M, and it's not obvious how to follow the money.

September 19, 2013 (permalink)

A lovely little ghost story, a 19th century cozy gothic in jeans and a sweatshirt. A used book scout who drinks too much and who likes to restore the pennies to Jean Harlow's pavement in Hollywood meets a young woman who he knows at once is entirely too good to be real.

September 26, 2007 (permalink)

A brilliant, fascinating look at the state of Labor in the U.S., or actually at the state of social justice, by a man who fell into Labor Law in the '60s and now wonders if it's been a sensible way to spend his career. This was an Aaron Swartz recommendation, and a very fine one. Geohegan despairs of the future of working people in the US, and foresees an increasing third-world underclass emerging inside the US without help for horrific working conditions and oppressive legal constraints. Yet, in the end, he observes that the difference between oppressive restraint of labor and a vigorous social movement in the US rests upon several small legal obstacles, details that could easily be removed. And while Geohegan, writing a 2004 epilogue, foresaw no hope, the collapse of the Bush regime and the apparent realignment of the electorate, in which the Democrats have traded the inveterately anti-Labor solid South for the old Republican and Union bastion of New England, the old home of bread and roses, perhaps there is hope after all.

September 24, 2007 (permalink)