MAYBE IT'S JUST MY good luck, but the dot-com downturn seems to have peeled away a good many business-type books from the quarterly reading stack. That's a fine thing. The holidays are coming, and chatter about money will only detract from the festive spirit or, in some cases, actively depress us. Submitted for your approval: seven worthy techish books that won't bore you with talk of stock options and business strategies or even, in two cases, with computers at all.
Sam Sifton trolls the canyons of Manhattan and feels like part of a generation. Or maybe he doesn't. His A Field Guide to the Yettie (Miramax, 160pp., $10.95) leaves one with the sense that even though he believes all of us are destined to join the Young Entrepreneurial Technocrat generation (do you hold a job you have a tough time explaining to your mom? you're in), he's not too impressed with any of it. Seeking his quarry-demographic in New York and Silicon Valley (although not in Seattle), Sifton describes the e-biz personality archetypes—the PR Bunny, the E-Artiste, the Crossover Geezer, and so on—with less of the Preppy Handbook-type affection than the sociological-study illustrations might suggest and more of a magazine-article-writ-large sneer. The book is extremely funny in spots but never really incisive about where these geeks and wanna-be geeks came from or where they're headed after the next big stock split. He's documented a nation of climbers and cocktail-party chatterers, but I didn't see anything about the true belief and heart (tsk, how unironic of me) that made the Net the coolest cultural phenomenon of the last 50 years. Still, it's a fun book and worth picking up; if nothing else, it'll give you something to discuss with your mystified mom.
If you want belief and heart and don't mind some frank partisanship, you might try taking on the hefty, glossy Inside Out: Microsoft in Our Own Words (Warner Business, 208pp., $45), a company-produced oral history of that well-known Redmond company. Produced as a 25th-anniversary treat for the employees and alumni, the book is a surprisingly interesting history for the rest of us. Pretty and flush with facts both broad and arcane (did you know that Office 95 came out in 1995? OK, did you know the 24 Redmond cafeterias handle about 17,238 people every day?), the best parts of this very big book are the first-person stories and reminisces from the rank and file. If you've ever wondered what a director of localization does, Microsoft's got your number. Don't expect an unbiased history of the megabeast here, but it's a great window into how the erstwhile Redmond Menace sees itself.
Inside Out includes writings from Bill Gates, of course, but so does The Slate Diaries (Slate eds., Public Affairs, 376pp., $14), a collection of entries from the Web site's regular column. Think of this as the microview of Gig (reviewed in our last tech-books roundup) or of Studs Terkel's magnificent Working: A various collection of people talk about how they spend a few random days of their lives. As you might expect, your mileage may vary from essay to essay: Some of the famous featured writers (the collection is, for obvious reasons, writer-heavy) such as Douglas Coupland appear to have phoned in their brief entries, while unknowns such as Peter Desmond, an accountant, go to the trouble of opening up a fascinating window on their lives. I personally enjoyed the ordinary folk most, since I'm less impressed by celebrities than by hearing how humanity's rank and file go about their business, but there's certainly something here for everyone. Even a Seattle Weekly alum (Orianda Guilfoyle) makes an appearance; you'll never look at our classified ads section quite the same again. An excellent book for quick nibbles of writing.
Ordinary people often do extraordinary things, and occasionally, extraordinary people do extraordinarily dumb things. Such is the lesson of The Undergrowth of Science: Deception, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty (Oxford University Press, 272pp., $27.50), a history of bad science that's by turns funny, scary, and sad. Walter Gratzer documents a number of episodes when science, specifically scientists, went entirely off the truth tracks. How do intelligent men and women get led astray by such intellectual red herrings as cold fusion, telekinetic spoon-benders, and (horrifically) racial-purification eugenics? Gratzer explains how the pressure to excel, to explain lab results, and, sometimes, not to be executed by a dictatorship can make good scientists go bad or, in any case, go stupid. (The chapter on Soviet science is heartbreaking and infuriating.) Gratzer is British, and his tone is dry and very funny; understanding how mistakes and delusions happen to the best of us, he saves his outrage for those episodes of history when science fell slave to the worst impulses of human nature. The book doesn't expect readers to possess great scientific knowledge, but you've got to be willing to read carefully. You'll find the effort worthwhile. Gratzer's research is impeccable, and his aim is true: By explaining how scientific endeavor goes wrong, he gives us a sense of how monumental an achievement it is for science to keep going, as it so often does, right.
IF YOU LIKE SCIENCE gone right, of course, you can't do much better than E=mc2, the tiny formula that explains how the universe works. Of course, now all someone has to do is explain "E=mc2." Enter David Bodanis, whose E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (Walker & Company, 224pp., $25) provides a history of the little marvel as if it were a human—parents, adolescence, descendants, the works. The approach works better than anyone could have hoped. This book is deeply charming and not the least bit intimidating. Every portion of the equation came into being, human-like, through the efforts and hopes and passions of men and women, and Bodanis employs the lightest possible fictionalization techniques to involve you in their stories. You will appreciate E=mc2's beauty and power by the time you're done with this remarkably quick read. Will you understand it? Well, generations of physicists have been wrestling with those five little characters—don't expect to pick up your Nobel any time soon, but you will understand why they're interested and what the stakes are. This book is especially recommended to those who don't feel that women have enough representation in the history of science; Einstein's story isn't the only one central to this book. Even an equation's got to have a mommy or two.
Neither Undergrowth nor E=mc2 is overly concerned with computers or the Net. Lest you feel deprived, Webworks: e-zines (Rockport, 192pp., $40) will provide a fix of many, many, many Web pages' worth. Martha Gill took on this entry in Rockport's Webworks series, which purports to cover Web design issues (other books in the series include advertising and e-commerce). She's selected a number of sites that offer examples of various techniques in information design, reader participation, promotion, and so forth, interviewing the designers responsible and covering their efforts with lavish screen captures and annotations. But the sites she chooses are in large part distressingly similar—navigation on the left, text down the middle, related links and little ads on the right—and Eclipse blends into Fortune blends into Salon and so on down the line. Only in the final section on self-published 'zines do we see designers kicking out the jambs. Worse, the advice from site to site is contextless; what one designer considers a critical flaw (frames!), another designer uses cheerfully. A little inter-site commentary would be nice; as it is, Webworks: e-zines is a good-looking but ultimately unsatisfying yearbook of the Web circa 1999-2000, with all the myopia that implies.
If you want clear vision, you're going to have to put down the mouse for a minute and get with Scott McCloud, whose Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form (Harper Perennial, 256pp., $22.95) blows the doors off the Rockport effort. Yes, I said comics, and, yes, the book is (like McCloud's 1993 Understanding Comics) written in graphic-novel form—that is, like a comic book. If you think that somehow diminishes it, try again. McCloud is a deep thinker and, synthesizing thought from everyone from Jakob Nielsen to the Xerox PARC Media Lab to fabled information- design guru Edward Tufte, comes up with a manifesto for the future of comics that also serves as a clarion call for Web designers and content providers. Comics have in many ways blazed trails for the Net (and not just in design; his chapter on the legal and censorship hurdles facing comics is a must-read). Familiarizing yourself with his unified-field theory feels like a hit of pure intellectual oxygen. Your mom may not understand why her grown child is reading a comic book, but then again, isn't that the definition of what you do?