Book review: A biography of the Pixel by Alvy Ray Smith

Alvy Ray Smith played a key role in creating a great deal of digital graphics content over the decades he worked at Lucasfilm and Pixar, and this book is a tour de force and a tour of the people, places, technologies, and companies that played key roles in these creations. The book, A Biography of the Pixel,  serves to correct the historical record about how the early digital computers and computer graphics software came to be and also provides the links between these early efforts — some of which might be well-known to you and some won’t be — and how different (almost always) men stood on each other’s shoulders to get us to where we are today. The illustrations are genius and help to explain his points in the evolutionary cycles of the Fourier series, Kotelnikov’s sampling equations, and Turing’s computational efforts, how computers and digital animation worked hand-in-hand, and the great digital convergence that we know and love today and celebrate what Smith calls Digital Light. You don’t have to know any math to find his explanations lucid and indeed, delightful. These innovators not only had a great scientific idea but drove technology into a fruitful application, while finding powerful supporters to help promote them. Along the way, you’ll see some old myths busted that digital can fully represent analog pictures and sound and how computers don’t have to be electronic numerical calculators — instead, they have become the most “malleable tool ever invented by humankind.”

I realize that a 500+ page book is a big commitment. I would start by reading the Finale chapter, which is a neat summary of all that Smith has presented in one cogent narrative. That should whet your appetite to want to dive into the entire epic journey.

Book review: The Spectacular

The best recommendation that I can give to a work of fiction is the feeling I get when I finish the book that I haven’t read a novel. With this book The Spectacular chronicling the lives of three generations of women, I felt like I was reading real reporting about what happened to each of them and had to check to make sure that it really was fiction. The three women are all flawed in interesting and complementary ways: grandma has adjustment problems as an immigrant from Turkey, mom doesn’t want to be a parent initially and leaves her daughter in grandma’s care to go find herself, and the daughter has so many issues that drive the narrative that to document them here would spoilt the book. The author tackles some very real issues: gender identity, understanding how to live with others, finding your calling and your passions, etc. I really enjoyed this book, even as a white cis male. There are many familiar chords that were struck while reading its pages, and I wanted to meet these three women in real life when I was done. Highly recommended. I have read an earlier work by Zoe Whittall and would recommend her earlier works as well.

Speech: Using NetGalley to Promote Your Self-Published Book

One of the best ways to promote your book is by reaching new readers with pre-release copies, and thanks to a service called NetGalley, you can add this to your toolbox.

I have been using NetGalley as a reader for the past several years: the idea is that I can read new books that interest me for free, provided that I review them and post my reviews on Amazon and other book selling sites. In this presentation, I will show you the author’s point of view. Yes, it does cost to make your pre-release “galleys” available—but the fee is a very reasonable $450 per book, or $200 if you are a member of IBPA. In this presentation, I will show you how NetGalley works, what kinds of books are best for the service (including audiobooks) and the best time to take advantage of it as part of your book marketing efforts. 

This speech will be given to the St. Louis Publishers’ Assn September 8.

Here is a copy of my presentation slides

Avast blog: An Ugly Truth: A book review

56470423. sy475 New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang have been covering the trials and tribulations of Facebook for the past several years, and they have used their reporting to form the basis of their new book, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for DominationThe book is based on hundreds of interviews of these key players  and shows the roles played by numerous staffers in various events, and how the company has acted badly towards protecting our privacy and making various decisions about the evolution of its products. Even if you have been following these events, reading this book will be an eye-opener. If you are concerned with your personal security or how your business uses its customer data, this should be on your summer reading list. The book lays out many of the global events where Facebook’s response changed the course of history.

My review of the book and some of the key takeaways for infosec professionals and security-minded consumers can be found here.

Wanna read books for free? Here’s how.

For those of you who are avid readers, you might want to investigate a service called NetGalley. I have been using them for seven years and have read hundreds of books for free. The only catch? I have to read them on my Kindle (or Nook or equivalent device) and then write a short review that I then post to Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, and other bookselling websites.

It is a terrific service which publishes the pre-publication versions of books, which used to be called galleys back in the days of Gutenberg, to a select audience of what they call “professional readers.” These versions often have small editing mistakes but are otherwise close to the actual text that you will see in the finished book.

The workflow is as follows. Once you join the service, you will get weekly notifications in your email about upcoming new books. Sometimes there is a short description, and you can click on that and get a longer one that will give you an idea if you are interested in reading the book. The service is used by both new authors and established ones alike, and there are tens of thousands of readers and authors using the service. Some books are immediately available for download; some will require the publisher to approve your request. Sometimes I get turned down, but usually within a day or so I have a new book waiting for me in my NetGalley account. I then send the digital file to my Kindle reader, and within minutes I can be reading a new book. Pretty neat, this whole internet thing, right?

I would say over the past several years I go through phases where I read more books on my Kindle than in print, and then the reverse. Given that bookstores have been mostly closed for browsing under the pandemic, I have gone back to using my Kindle more.

The NetGalley service keeps track of when the book is actually available for sale on the book ecommerce sites and sends you a tickler so you can post your review accordingly. That appeals to me, because I like to be in the first batch of folks posting my review.

There is a wide range of books available on the service, and this also includes audiobooks as well as the traditional printed text. You can set your subject matter preferences and other parameters for your account. If you don’t want to wait for the weekly notifications, you can browse for new titles at any time.

If you really like a book and want to get to interview the author, NetGalley will help facilitate that relationship. They also make it very easy to take your review and get it put on the bookselling sites with a couple of clicks.

As I said, the service is free for readers. They make their money from publishers (and self-published authors) who pay a fee to post their galleys on the service for a specific time period. The fees vary from a single book for $450 for six months to discounts for multiple books for publishing houses or members of various publishing associations.

I will be giving a seminar on NetGalley in September for the St. Louis Publishers Association. Email me if you are interested in seeing this presentation.

book review: Make it, don’t fake it (Sabrina Horn)

I’ve know Horn and worked with many of her staff for decades, since I am a freelance journalist that has written about many of her B2B enterprise technology clients.  Reading her book Make it, Don’t Fake It was part trip down memory lane, part catching up on key moments of tech history, and part appreciating her advice.

I think like many business books, the first half is strong and full of creative and great suggestions on how to become more authentic and more honest as a business leader. For example, she writes early on in the book “when you are first starting out, doing and being anything to win business is tempting and also dangerous.” I liked that she poses the question, ”Am I ready to become a business founder?” and that you need to carefully consider the exact role that you want to play in your company. She takes you through a process to disarm your fears and minimize the risk of starting your business with a series of exercises that are well worth studying. But you need the practice and the patience to do the work – if you didn’t think similar items in “What Color is Your Parachute” were for you, then this book’s advice is wasted.

Horn also gives an analysis of the common traits in the best and worst employees she has hired over the decades, something that I as a manager can relate to. For example, people who could do things that she couldn’t, and respected my authority as a boss. (I once had an employee who refused to acknowledge that simple fact, and while he was very smart, he was impossible to manage.)

Ultimately, the “hardest thing about building a great brand is keeping it that way,” and she goes on to suggest ways to investigate initiatives for both business expansion and contraction while listening to your customers and your staff carefully. And running a postmortem exercise after every time you make a big mistake or fail to get some important client.

Horn comes down on the tech bro culture, but she could have strengthened and sharpened her analysis and made it more relevant, especially in this hyper-woke world where culture can be tricky to navigate. And as this tweet proves,  “online a lot of people benefit from appearing to be friends so that they can push their brand. I don’t have it in me to be fake and play those kinds of games.” There are many dimensions to being authentic, indeed.

Book review: A Dark and Secret Place

The copycat serial killer on the loose is a common plot point, but this horror/thriller takes things a step further. Some of the steps I can’t reveal without spoilers but let’s just say this novel has some very strange stuff going on and it plumbs the depths of psychosis of several of its characters. The POV is from the daughter who has found out her mother killed herself, and she tries to figure out what happened. The two were never very close, and the death brings out many life moments that were swept under the rug and placed into dark reaches of her memories. While I am not a big horror genre reader this book worked for me as a pure thriller and mystery. The characters ring true and of course the bodies begin to pile up as the copycat killer continues to strike. Highly recommended.

Book review: Chasing the Lion

54860446The workings of a counter-terrorism elite strike force are at center stage in this thriller. The team is threatened by a clever adversary who is taking advantage of the inauguration of a new president just days away. If this sounds like a story that is ripped from current events, it has plenty of realistic passages as the team struggles to figure out what is the exact nature of a threat that combines chemical weapons with potentially mind-altering drugs that could be dispersed across the Washington Mall the day of the inauguration. If you are a Clancy fan you will like the explanations of the military hardware and weaponry but there is a lot of spycraft to keep you entertained too.

Book review: You will remember me

This thriller is an excellent study of what happens when trust goes out the window between a couple. The phrase what you don’t know could possibly kill you comes to mind, but I don’t want to give away any plot points. Let’s just say that when a boyfriend goes missing meme is well thought out and isn’t as much of a trope as you might think. You see the novel from the perspective of the boyfriend, his girlfriend, and his stepsister, all of which have something to hide about their dark pasts. Granted, they all have their justifications about keeping the truth from the others in this novel, and as the book evolves you get to see these reasons and make some judgements about them. I found the novel a fascinating character study and well worth your reading time, and made me think about whether we really ever know anyone that we love or spend time with. And you will remember the plot of this book for some time too.

Book review: Just Get Home

This novel about one night in LA post-quake reminds me of the movie Magnolia where we follow several characters as they try to deal with their lives and another disaster over the course of a single day. One young mother is out on the town with her friends, her young child left at home with a sitter. Another teen girl has been raped by some thugs,. Both are trying to get home and suffer various adventures along the way, eventually joining up in their travels that involve spending the night in Griffith Park. Having lived in LA for several years, I found the situations interesting and captivating, and the characters are strongly drawn and compelling. How the two relate to each other from different backgrounds — the older woman lives in Van Nuys where the other says, “people with money don’t live in Van Nuys” is also a major sub-plot. I highly recommend this book.