The Girl in the Spider’s Web

An unexpected continuation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is written by David Lagercrantz, apparently with the support of Larsson’s estate but without the support of his long-time partner. Larsson’s familiar characters make a return to a plot that is at once new and entirely recognizable. Beyond that, there’s really not a whole lot to say: if you enjoyed the first three books, you’ll enjoy this one.

And while I did enjoy the book, I can’t help but feel that it lacks the electricity of the original series. I’m not familiar with Lagercrantz’ other work but this book reads more like a sequel to a Dan Brown story than something worthy of the Millennium Trilogy. The nuanced characters of the original become exaggerated caricatures of themselves who now have to save the world and while still fun, it’s ultimately just another action novel.

Recommend? Eh, no need to diminish the positive memories of the original.



Who has the right to control your attention? I ask because a friend pointed me to this Bloomberg article claiming that we will soon tire of the trendy group chat applications (namely Slack) and find them just as burdensome as email. I couldn’t disagree more. That opening question is what sets Slack and similar apps apart from email and ultimately makes them so valuable.

Many of the most successful technologies of the early 21st century have been about wresting control of our attention from the mass media broadcasters of the 20th century and returning that control to individuals. DVRs then YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, indeed the web itself and the rising use of ad blockers all empower users with fine-grain control of how their limited attention gets spent.

But one-to-one communication tools haven’t seen the same advancement. We make allowances for phone calls and emails because this type of communication requires that we give control of our attention to others. When the interruptions from these tools are few and far between, it’s easy enough to handle the distraction and return to the original task.

Unfortunately, many have taken advantage of this situation to outright steal our attention. Telemarketing and spam infuriate us because they interrupt us, yes, but also because we have such impotent mechanisms for protecting ourselves from them. We’ve applied fix after fix to make sure we only give our attention to those who actually deserve it. But caller ID, do-not-call lists, custom ringtones, visual voicemail, spam filters, message priority, mailbox rules, and VIP lists are just bandaids that don’t address the core issue: these tools were built without any real protection from attention theft. Telemarketing and spam are the most egregious examples, but we encounter varying degrees of this type distraction all the time. Whether it’s the over-sharing grandmother or the company-wide birthday emails, lengthy voicemails or reply-all storms, despite our best efforts we can’t eliminate these low quality messages because there might be something important mixed in with the mess.

This is the power of Slack: it’s a communication tool that puts control squarely in the hands of message recipients. Don’t want to be interrupted for all-hands announcements? Mute the #general channel. Don’t want to be bothered by cat videos? Don’t subscribe to the #cat-videos channel. Want to be notified every time someone mentions pandas? Add panda to your Highlight Words. Slack gives every user the tools they need to protect their attention from those who would steal it for unimportant gifs, redundant announcements, and yesterday’s news. The burden is placed on message senders to appropriately categorize their messages and the transparency of Slack channels makes it easy to see who isn’t following the rules. Is Slack perfect? No. It’s a new enough tool that there are many rough edges and unanswered questions about etiquette. One of those questions: is it appropriate to invite people to a channel without their consent? And Slack’s relatively new group messaging feature (private messages between up to 8 people) strikes me as a regression that allows message senders to bypass channels and notification settings all too easily.

Despite some shortcomings, Slack is an excellent step forward and has many other awesome features (emoji reactions are a favorite of mine). The fact that Slack protects the scarce resource that is my attention is what makes me an avid user of the product and a huge fan. Thanks for your attention.


The Partner

Some light reading from Christmas (not to disparage John Grisham, but his novels don’t exactly push the limits of the genre). The fun of this book is untangling the legal mess that has ensnared the main character. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear the mess hasn’t so much ensnared him, rather he has created this mess intentionally through his own meticulous planning.

Unfortunately, it’s an awful lot of planning that leads to a frustratingly unsatisfying ending. Recommend? Meh.


The Martian

This XKCD sums the whole thing up perfectly:

“You know the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘We have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table full of parts or the astronauts will all die?’


The Martian is for people who wish the whole movie had just been more of that scene.”

Not sure I can do better than that. Ultimately, The Martian is a fun, light read with a whole bunch of interesting science mixed in. Weir’s writing style works really well for the portrayal of the main character (though other characters are a tad weaker). Overall: highly recommend.

Oh, and the movie is good too! But the book is better.


Creativity Inc.

There is so much great stuff in this book that it’s been surprisingly difficult to concisely summarize. I keep putting off writing my little mini review because I keep trying to distill the book down into some key points, but I think I’m finally accepting that can’t be done. So instead of trying to attempt that, I’m just going to say that with this book Ed Catmull puts into words many ideas that feel intuitively correct, but, at least for me, lacked formal definition or demonstrated success. It’s great and you should read it.

That said, if I pull out one big picture idea, it’s that there’s no such thing as a recipe for success. At Pixar, Catmull and the entire Pixar crew built a successful business because they approached every situation without preconceived notions of how to be successful. It’s an incredibly refreshing take and stands in stark contrast to the litany of business reading that basically comes down to, “Do what I did, and you too will have success.” As the world evolves at an ever quickening pace, it’s pretty clear that a winning formula is not a formula at all, but rather success comes from creating an environment where all the conditions for success are present and finding a few ways to tilt luck in your favor. That’s what the book is about: creating the conditions for success.

It’s been about 6 months since I read the book. I think I just need to go read it again.

One last thought: the section of the book about balance has really stuck with me. Catmull observes that our mental model for balance often implies calm, serene and static situations, but that’s not how we should think about balance at all. It’s much more dynamic, more like a multi-directional tug of war. And when you think about “balanced” situations in that way, it becomes clear that choosing a direction or making a decision isn’t ever final and that you must be careful that the “winning” direction doesn’t pull everyone else down.

Just go read it.


Becoming Steve Jobs

I never wrote my standard blurb about the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. It just didn’t seem worth it. The book was a huge letdown: at one level, lacking insight in its analysis of the life of Steve Jobs and on another level, it felt somehow pedestrian, telling the personal story of an interesting person, but never getting around to the impact of his universe-denting achievements.

In contrast, Becoming Steve Jobs is definitely worth spending a few sentences on. It’s by no means perfect, but the business-oriented perspective of the authors (authors who, it’s worth noting, have more than a superficial understanding of computers) enable a depth of analysis that make it clear just how exceptional Steve Jobs was.

What made Steve Jobs exceptional? I certainly don’t presume to be able to distill the nuance of Steve Jobs into bite-sized bullet points, but my take-aways from the book were:

(1) Clarity of vision — Steve Jobs recognized the future when he saw it and managed to put all of his energy into realizing that future. He also had incredibly discerning tastes, reveared quality, and never settled. That restless need to build and improve can only happen when you see flaws clearly.

(2) Persistence — in tackling problems and facing challenges he seems to have had an unmatchable drive that enabled him to acheive his goals. The ultimate success of Pixar and the acquisition of Next by Apple strike me as prime examples of Steve Jobs persisting in the face of adversity and enduring where others would have wilted.

(3) Willingness to change his mind — in some ways this contradicts point 2, but it’s also how he acheived point 1, he was able to cast asside beliefs and pet projects in the face of new information and better ideas. The shift from iMovie to iTunes as well as the eventual creation of iTunes for Windows and the ultimate decision to allow third party apps for the iPhone all showed that despite Jobs’ strong opinions, his mind could be changed and he wasn’t always correct from the outset.

Intriguingly, the thing still missing is how the hell Steve managed to motiviate so many people to do their best work. That strikes me as the still unaddressed and maybe impossible to understand aspect of Steve Jobs’ career. Ultimately this strikes me as the single most important factor that enabled him to acheive his success. From Woz, to the Macintosh team, to the entire organization at Next, and even his dealings with Pixar, he had a sort of Midas touch for getting the most out of people. Perhaps it was the combination of the 3 points above that resulted in a devoted following or simply (not simply) some element of charisma and character.

In many instances, this was also a sort of anti-Midas touch: there were numerous examples of his personality rubbing people the wrong way (indeed this is the oft-cited narrative of a cantankerous genius who merely stole his success).

But history is pretty clear: Steve Jobs made several significant dents in the universe. None of that would have been possible without a team of talented individuals rallied around their fearless leader.



Irrespective of how you pronounce the title of this novel, Daemon tells the story of a near future distopia where AI runs amuck. It’s light-weight but engaging and you can probably finish it in a weekend despite its length (I read so much dense nonfiction that I forget how quickly time passes while reading an engaging novel). Okay, so the plot will hold your attention, but is it believable? Without giving too much away, there appears to be a computer program reaching into the real world from the virtual world and causing real harm to real people. The fundamental problem I have with this premise is that the apparent artifical intelligence runs without bugs and requires zero human intervention or support. In fact, it may have been designed by just a handful of people and set loose on the Internet. And in what seems like an incredibly short amount of time, it has developed an entire supply chain that employs human automatons who, with plans from the AI, have constructed an entire army complete with robotic cars and advanced weaponry.

The idea that just a handful of individuals could build such a robust application, in secret, with such a vast scope of capabilities strikes me as preposterous. Furthermore, even if such an AI could eventually be developed, the idea that such a system would somehow subvert all of the technological security mechanisms currently deployed on the Internet pushes me well past my ability to suspend disbelief.

There’s a bunch of disappointing stuff about character development and protagnosists as well, but I’ll leave that conversation out since it gives too much away. All of that said, I’m still going to read the sequel. On to Freedom™.