Book Review: Sid Meier's Memoir!

I’ve played far too many hours of Civilization throughout my life. If you haven’t, or you’re not an aspiring game designer, then you may find large sections of Sid Meier’s Memoir! hard to appreciate. But I do love Sid Meier’s games and I do dabble in making games as a hobby. So, I really appreciated this memoir that takes you through Meier’s entire career as well as some of his rules of game design that have made him so successful.

This book is not a deep dive. Each chapter, which generally covers a game or two, provides some insight about how a game was developed and why it worked (or did not work) for the player. But the chapters are short, and many of them concentrate on just one aspect of the game or Meier’s philosophy. The two things I found most interesting were the inspiration behind each game, and the gameplay rules that Meier learned over time.

It’s not a tell-all, and it doesn’t cover much about the video game business. You won’t get a play-by-play about the development of Civilization VI. Meier says that he left much of the business side to his partners. Instead, this is a book about the creative process.

Meier touches on enough of his personal life to give you a general outline of his life and some of the real-life hobbies that led to some of his best games. Again, most of the details are left out, but there’s enough there to be inspiring. The thing I found the most surprising in the entire book, is that despite his high position, Meier continued to be an active participant in the programming of his games (or at least the prototypes) late into his career.

In short, Sid Meier’s Memoir! is limited in its scope. It’s mainly about game design and the creative process. But it does that well. You won’t quite feel like you’re in the trenches with the team making Civilization, but you will feel like you have a sense of where their head was at. The lessons about game design and the creative process that Meier provides are drawn from deep experience and most seem self-evidently true. The writing is clear and the insights are real. If you loved his games or you want to make games, you should read this book.

Book Review: No Filter

Instagram is one of the most important cultural phenomenons of the 2010s. No Filter by Sarah Frier covers Instagram’s rise from a two-person startup to the second largest social network in the world. Along the way, Frier explores Instagram influencers, the network’s effect on teens, and its sometimes rocky existance within the confines of its parent company, Facebook. No Filter is competently written and it seems Frier had significant access to the important players. Yet, the narrative lacks a compelling spark, and despite the access, fails to reveal much insight beyond what is already well known about the company.

No Filter is written in the “anonymous amalgamation of interviews” style of other recent hit business books like Hatching Twitter and Console Wars. This means that the interview source of each bit of original reporting in the book is not directly revealed in a footnote or endnote. This is not only problematic for the book as a historical document, it also means the reader is not aware of who’s bias is tilting a particular anecdote. This style can be partially justified if it leads to a more compelling narrative. However, while I found Hatching Twitter and Console Wars to be page turners, I didn’t feel the same way about No Filter. It may just be that Instagram’s corporate history is not particularly exciting compared to Twitter or Sega, but I also think it had to do with the way the book is structured.

The narrative is somewhat abruptly interrupted halfway through to spend a couple chapters on Instagram’s cultural effects, and the people who make their living through the app. Although I am not a regular user of Instagram, I was already aware of basically all of the material in these chapters just from loosely following the news and the cultural zeitgeist surrounding the company. I didn’t feel these chapters added enough value to be worth the interjection during what should have been the heart of the book.

Like many business books written by journalists about software companies, No Filter’s coverage of the technical aspects of Instagram is inadequate. Instagram co-founder/CTO Mike Krieger’s technical leadership is praised, but the reader does not get a sense of what kinds of technical decisions he really made that were successful. What technical hurdles did Instagram face as it scaled? How did they solve them? This is ultimately the story of a piece of software and part of its success is due to the engineering of that software. That angle deserved better coverage.

Speaking of Mike Krieger, we don’t get to know him very well in No Filter. In fact, the only people we get a strong sense of, are Instagram co-founder/CEO Kevin Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It’s like a book about the early days of Apple that talks about Steve Jobs, but only scratches the surface with regards to Steve Wozniak. Okay, Mike Kriger might not quite be a Steve Wozniak, but he probably deserved a few more pages.

Frier does a very good job with Systrom, though. The reader gets a strong sense of his personality. Frier plays up the battles and contrasts between Systrom and Zuckerberg very well. We come to understand that some of the decisions made at Facebook surrounding Instagram were personal, and others were based on the very different characters running the two social networks under the same roof.

When you add up the “influencer” chapters and the lack of character development for many of the players, No Filter starts to feel like a relatively short book. Yes, Instagram is not a very old social network, but given the author’s access, there was surely more to be revealed. I wanted more business, technical, and character narrative and less filler.

Ultimately, No Filter is not a bad book. If you want a cohesive 300 pages about Instagram, you will get it. It’s just a bit of a bland book. It may be that Instagram’s corporate history is not that exciting. Or, it may be that the author missed some opportunities. Either way, I commend Frier for taking on Facebook, a powerful entity in our society that deserves further examination. And her portrayal of the relationship between Kevin Systrom and Mark Zuckerberg was very well done.

Book Review: Ghost In the Wires

Surprisingly, for a memoir about a guy who spends most of his time sitting in front of a computer, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker is a gripping thrill ride. And it’s a testament to Kevin Mitnick and his co-author, William Simon, that it works. In the wrong hands, the same material could easily be boring or overly technical. They found the right balance of action, technical detail, and non-hacking content to keep the story engaging. The book gives you a real sense of the hacking underworld, as well as how surprisingly easy it is to social engineer individuals, companies, and government agencies.

The most surprising part of the story is how little of Mitnick’s exploits were due to what we traditionally think of as computer hacking, and how much was due to social engineering. Mitnick learned to be a master manipulator, and in this book he explains to you how he convinced cops to turn over records, trusted employees to send files to people they just met, and just about anyone to do anything over the phone. If you want to better protect yourself from social engineering, this book is a great primer. It really makes you think about how quick we are to trust someone with a bit of confidence when they know a couple details we assume they would only know if the confidence were warranted.

Mitnick manages to make himself relatable. By including personal details, descriptions of family life, and imagery of his surroundings, he comes across as a regular guy. He compares his hacking activities to an addiction. I can almost buy that. He was getting notoriety, solving interesting puzzles, and probably feeling the same kind of rush that cleptomaniacs feel. It sounds like it could easily become a compulsion if you’re good at it and don’t have a certain moral wavelength turned on.

And I say that last sentence carefully. Because Mitnick (as far as I know and he claims in the book) never did anything especially damaging compared to some of the other well known hackers. He says he wasn’t in it for money or to do harm, but instead to satiate his curiosity. A significant portion of the book concentrates on this fact, and how the media played up his story to make him sound a lot more evil than he deserved. And that apparently affected his prosecution by the government. John Markoff, a well known New York Times reporter at the time, is singled out for particularly incredulous stories.

Yet, my biggest criticism with the book, would be Mitnick’s lack of sympathy for his victims. He spends a lot of time emphasizing how little damage he did, and almost no time apologizing for the damage that he did do. Sure, he may not have sold the source code he stole for a profit. And sure, the people he tricked mostly just had their time wasted. He didn’t actively try to ruin anybody’s life. Yet, mitigating his “work” inevitably cost companies and individual a lot of time. Employee time is money. It probably cost taxpayers millions of dollars investigating, trying him, and catching him. His exploits made people feel unsafe and caused them emotional distress. And he doesn’t seem very sorry. For that reason, I found him especially difficult to root for during the early chapters. Even his “pranks” as a teenager sometimes seemed mean spirited if I were to be on the receiving end of the frustration they caused.

In the end, though, Mitnick won me over. I found his relationship with his mother and grandmother endearing. I think the way he turned his life around after getting out of prison the last time is remarkable. It seems he’s done a lot of good the last twenty years. He’s an example of why people deserve a second chance, and his book is an interesting examination of social engineering and the media-legal system complex.

The Web Has No Design Standards

A reader recently complained to me about the hyperlinks on this blog. The reader thought the links were too hard to distinguish from the rest of the text. And the reader’s right. The Swedish Greys desktop theme that I thought looked cool eight years ago, while attractive in an aesthetic sense (to me at least), is not the most usable or accessible. I’ll be looking for another theme.

I was able to style my blog however I wanted to and it looks the same in all browsers. That’s the flexibility of good HTML/CSS standards. Every site can look and behave exactly as the creator envisioned. It’s also why the Web’s a usability nightmare. We have to learn to use every site we visit because every site is designed differently. How come when we talk about Web standards the focus is almost entirely on technical standards? Where is the worry about design standards?

I recently finished reading the classic book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and it talks about standards. Normans says “When all else fails, standardize.” Basically when you have no other way of implementing good design, you turn to standardization so at least every user only needs to learn how to use the similar things (in this case web pages) once. And I think we have no other way, because if we did, we would have figured it out in the past 30 years.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember using the pre-CSS and pre-JavaScript Web as a little kid on Mosaic. You knew there that the blue underlined text was always a hyperlink. And you knew that the back button always took you back a page. And you didn’t have to worry what different actions buttons did, because there was no JavaScript. I’m not saying we should go back there, but in many ways having the constraints made pages easier to use. There was no need to think. Now we have no constraints, but that’s why we need standards.

Every other major consumer computing platform but the Web has design standards. Apple’s platforms are famous for their Human Interface Guidelines. They are an attempt to ensure all apps follow some standard design conventions. Not every app does, but Apple has some ability to enforce them through its app stores, and some users even demand developers follow them. So, they are at least kinda sorta followed by most major apps. If the Web had design standards, maybe users would demand developers follow them too. Google and Microsoft have design suggestions and guidelines for their developers. This is why a good app for each platform feels “at home.”

But we have no design guidelines for the Web that are widely accepted. Sure, people have tried. But the only way we’re going to get something that’s actually followed is if we have a standard. And a standard needs to come from a standards body (Apple, Microsoft, and Google are the standards bodies for their respective platforms). W3C, please put some focus on a design standard. Not everybody will be forced to follow it, but it could do a lot of good in terms of usability.

Classic Computer Science Problems in Java is Published

I am pleased to announce that my fourth book, Classic Computer Science Problems in Java, has been published. It is now available for purchase from the publisher’s website. As Manning’s deal of the day, the book is available today (January 5, 2021) for 50% off.

Classic Computer Science Problems in Java is a continuation of the Classic Computer Science Problems series, with previous incarnations in Swift and Python. They teach problem solving techniques from the realm of computer science in an approachable code-centric tutorial-like fashion. They are relatively light on theory and heavier on analogies, examples, and code. You don’t need a computer science education to pick up the books. In fact they were designed with self-taught programmers in mind. You do need to be at least an intermediate programmer. You can find out more about the contents of the series at classicproblems.com.

The Java book follows the success of Classic Computer Science Problems in Python which has sold more than ten thousand English copies and has been translated into eight other human languages including Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, German, Russian, Polish, Korean, Traditional Chinese, and Japanese. Beyond the three original book programming languages, the source code has been ported by the community into five additional languages including Go, C++, Ruby, PHP, and JavaScript.

I don’t know if the Java book will be as successful as the Python book, but I do know that there will be a lot less readers upset about the inclusion of type annotations. Manning provides a short free sample of the book on their website, so you can check it out before you buy. Let me know if you have any questions on Twitter. I’m @davekopec.


About Me

I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

You can find me on Twitter and GitHub. Check out my podcasts Kopec Explains Software and Business Books & Co.

Copyright

©2012-2021 David Kopec. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.