Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Did you own a computer in the 1990ies?  Do you remember Doom and Quake?  I didn't play them that much, but they were very, very cool, especially for those days, when computers didn't have nearly the power that today's mobile phones do.

This book is the story of John Romero and John Carmack, the two main guys behind id software's hit games from the early 90ies.  Amongst many interesting aspects of the story, one that stands out is just how big a revolution computers have been.  Here were these two guys, with no money, no connections, not very supportive families, who, mostly through their own skills and knowledge made millions of dollars, and a name for themselves, all in their 20ies.

The author does a good job of telling the story, and keeping things interesting, talking about many of the other people involved along the way.  Towards the end, as things start to fall apart, some of the infighting and rivalries get a bit confusing, but all told, the book held my interest all the way through.

Some various quotes and bits that stood out:

John Carmack had a cat, Mitsi, that he was attached to, but when the cat peed on his new leather couch, he got rid of the cat by dropping it off at the animal shelter, where it was presumably put down.  He was extremely dedicated to coding and pretty much anything that disturbed him or got in his way was not something he looked kindly on.  Initially, his main motivation for doing the company was so that he had the freedom to work 100% on his own games, and have "enough pizza and diet coke to live on".

Senator Joe Lieberman comes across as something of a demagogue, railing against "immoral", violent video games.

Carmack on learning:
"My basic skills built up during school on apple II computers, but lack of resources limited how far and fast I could go. The situation is so much better for programmers today—a cheap used PC, a linux CD, and an internet account, and you have all the tools and resources necessary to work your way to any level of programming skill you want to shoot for."  

That describes my own experience pretty much exactly!  Once I got Linux and was on the internet, I just kept soaking stuff up and haven't stopped since.  I'm incredibly lucky to have had that available.

Carmack again:
Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought on his own. “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”
Indeed, the company was bootstrapped, and the book never mentions them taking any investment.

All in all, a fun read that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Goliath Stone

Larry Niven has written a lot of great science fiction books over the years, and I would highly recommend you read those rather than this book.

There isn't much of a plot in that the protagonists just bounce from success to success.  The whole thing is dripping with political snipes at people who disagree with the author on various issues.  And it's full of dialogue with lots of "in" jokes for people who follow a lot of sci-fi.  One of these alone might have been tolerable, especially if mixed with a great story, but that's not really there.

The science fiction premise was kind of interesting, but were the sentient nanobots given their choice in the matter, I'm sure they too would have fled from this book towards something better.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

After Tamerlane

At nearly 600 pages, this is not a light read.  Spanning the past 600 years, and the entire globe, it also covers a lot of space and history.  If you don't find history interesting, this is most certainly not the book for you. On the other hand, if you think that history is fascinating, this book contains a great deal of it: it covers the rise and fall of empires around the world since the fall of Tamerlane.  That's a long time, and the book is not restricted to Europe; indeed one of the things I liked most about it is the coverage of Africa and especially Asia.

It breaks down and discusses, in detail, a lot of what happened in India, Iran, and what was the Ottoman Empire over the years, as well as China and Japan, and how all of them interacted, in turn with the European nations.  It turns out that the "Europe dominates the world" story is pretty simplistic and requires a lot more detail and nuance to give a good account of what happened where, and when.

While not a page-turner, it's written fairly well, and I found it easy to make progress.  As above, I greatly enjoyed some of the coverage of the world outside of Europe.  I've got a reasonably decent grasp of European history, but am well aware that there are critical parts of the "old world" like China and India that I know precious little about, and this book helps fill in some of those gaps.

As the book concludes:
But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense, we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or, perhaps more precisely, in the shadow of his failure.