Saturday, November 19, 2005

Java Puzzlers, by Joshua Bloch and Neal Gafter

Java Puzzlers: Traps, Pitfalls, and Corner Cases, by Joshua Bloch and Neal Gafter

Early last week I came home and discovered a heavy envelope from FedEx waiting for me. I opened it and found a book—Java Puzzlers. To say I was surprised would be an understatement, as I hadn’t ordered it and in fact had never heard of it. Tucked inside the front cover was a note from the publisher saying the book had been sent with the compliments of the authors for my help on the project. My help? What help? The light finally went on when I found my name in the acknowledgements crediting me with puzzle 59. Back in 2002 I attended JavaOne (with Alex and Matt) and went to a great session about Java brainteasers. At its close, Bloch invited the audience to send in other puzzles for future talks; I sent him a couple. He used one of my ideas, and three years later he not only remembered this but sent me a gratis copy! Great guy, that Joshua Bloch!

I’ve always been interested in the trivia and minutiae around software technologies, and this book doesn’t disappoint. It is filled with tricks and obfuscations that can be found within the Java programming language. Things like, “When is i != i true?” [Click for answer] I always learn more about how a language really works from something like this instead of a more traditional guide; it makes me think more and I seem to retain the knowledge longer. Even better, along with the soution is a lesson describing how to avoid the pitfall in your everyday coding. Good stuff.

Besides the puzzles themselves, a lot of thought went into this publication. There are optical illusions between each quandary, reflecting the misdirection that is the theme of the book. The title of each puzzle has an amusing name, many of which include hints as to the nature of the trick as well (my favorite: It’s Absurd, It’s a Pain, It’s Superclass!). Also, the layout is designed so that a puzzle always ends on the bottom of a right-facing page and so the answer is hidden from view reducing the temptation to cheat. Smart.

First Sentence:
This book is filled with brainteasers about the Java programming language and its core libraries.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason and Lee Gruenfeld

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason and Lee Gruenfeld

This was a compelling read. Bill Mason is one of the most successful jewel thieves this country has ever seen—think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. In some ways he was much smarter than the police and FBI: they couldn’t keep him in prison without falsifying evidence. In other ways he was a typical dumb criminal: he publicly thumbed his nose at the cops and purposely made them look inept. The most compelling parts by far were the descriptions of how he planned and committed the heists. Mason robbed Phyllis Diller, Robert Goulet, Armand Hammer, Truman Capote, and the mob among others. Some of these jobs were pretty simple (picking a lock on a hotel door) and others were not (inching around a ledge in a driving rainstorm sixteen stories above the pavement). Interesting stuff; I certainly won’t be using the “Please Make Up Room” signs in hotel rooms any more!

He also spends a lot of time complaining about the harassment visited on him and his family by law enforcement. While I have little respect for cops that abuse their authority, I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone that makes a living by invading homes and stealing family treasures. Glorifying a criminal enterprise is not a good thing. There are a few sentences of remorse at the end, but I never felt Mason was sorry for anything other than getting caught. That said, this book was well written and fascinating. I suppose you’d have to call it a guilty pleasure.

First Sentence:
My name is Bill Mason.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Understanding Variation, by Donald Wheeler

Understanding Variation; The Key to Managing Chaos, by Donald Wheeler

This book has some great insights into data analysis and process behavior charts. Some would call this a very boring, extremely dry topic; unfortunately, the style in which it was written won’t change many minds. Some really good stuff in here about how to separate signal from noise when examining data. An idea I’ve held for a while is that arbitrary numerical goals can be counterproductive, and this book explains why. Is this a page turner? No. Does it make reasonably complicated statistics much easier to understand? Yes.

First Sentence:
Recently the U.S. Trade Balance for February showed a deficit of 11.4 billion dollars.

New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley

New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley

I have always liked Sherlock Holmes, ever since I found the Baker Street Irregular series when I was a kid. So, when I came across this anthology of new Holmes tales written by modern authors lying in the bargain bin, I picked it up. The stories range from mediocre (The Affray at the Kildare Street Club by Peter Tremayne) to simply awful (The Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat by Zakaria Erzinçlioglu). Some of the worst cliches of fan fiction are found here: Holmes meets H. G. Wells in The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor (by Stephen Baxter), sniffs with derision at Thomas Edison for taking credit for inventing the movie projector in The Enigma of the Warwickshire Vortex (by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre), and mentions his friendship with the Curie family in more than one story. Despite the banality, though, there was one great idea that permeated the collection. The editor wrote a preface and brief introduction to each entry that told the story as if Holmes and Watson were real and this book was a compilation of research into the cases Watson never published. He goes as far as to mention how and where the various authors discovered the notes from which the case was detailed — fairly amusing. There is an excellent appendix as well that details not only when and where all the Conan Doyle stories were published, but provides a lengthy list of other “apocryphal” Holmes stories as well. Some of these sound quite interesting; if nothing else the New Sherlock Holmes Adventures should give me some good reading in the future.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
For more years than I care to remember I have been researching the life of the first and best known of all private consulting detectives, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Movin' Out

Movin’ Out

My wife and I went to see Movin’ Out the other night. I’ve always liked Billy Joel and was looking forward to seeing this show — I wasn’t disappointed. A story line is loosely stitched around a bunch of his music and expressed via modern dance. If you had told me that I was going to enjoy something that revolved around interpretive dance I’d have laughed in your face, but this was really good: a combination of swing, jazz, and ballet. The characters don’t sing or talk themselves, all the sound is provided by the band. There is a brief synopsis of what happens in the program that helps fill in any story gaps in the music and dance; the drunk Junior League ladies sitting next to me didn’t read it and spent a lot of time loudly whispering to each other trying to figure out what was happening. Despite that, we loved the show. The music was great; the band and singers were all top notch. Some of the lyrics were altered to better fit the setting, but nothing major. The encore was a bit cheesy with the band going into a rendition of New York State of Mind but of course changing the lyrics to an Austin Texas State of Mind, but the rest was fantastic. Movin’ Out is engaging and vibrant, satisfying and entertaining. Go see it!

The Shadow of Saganami, by David Weber

The Shadow of Saganami, by David Weber

I’ve enjoyed the Honor Harrington series but thought it was getting stale. After 15 or so books the plotlines are starting to get a bit repetitive so I was happy to see a new series in the same universe being created. This wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier Honor books, but still enjoyable. A bunch of new characters are quickly introduced and several are promising. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.

While the centerpiece is still a military space opera, politics takes a significant portion of the bandwidth. We’ve got planets run by big business, planets with strong socialist tendencies, planets with rigid class divisions, planets with limited governments, etcetera. The plot revolves around all these worlds trying to form a single constitution to join a larger political body. While this could have been fairly interesting à la the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, it tended to drag. Weber has a tendency to drone on long after his point has been made; my dad would say he is the kind of guy that if you asked him what time it was he’d tell you how to build a clock.

After a slow start the story is captivating, but I think about 150 pages could have been shaved off without too much trouble. If you aren’t in a hurry, though, it is worth wading through. I wouldn’t use this as an entry point into the Honorverse, but it is well worth reading.

First Sentence:
Admiral of the Red Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Duchess Harrington, sat beside Vice Admiral of the Red Dame Beatrice McDermott, Baroness Alb, and watched silently as the comfortable amphitheater seating of the huge holographic simulator filled up.

The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney

The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney

The Bright Spot is a mystery novel set in a dark time in our not too distant future. It is mostly formulaic; the protagonist finds himself thrust into a situation that he doesn’t comprehend, refuses to take the easy way out multiple times, and eventually obtains both understanding and power. While not amazingly original, the vision of our future that surrounds the characters is more interesting. The supposition is that something called workware has been invented that allows people to flawlessly perform tasks, without training. Think of it like what happens to the heroes of the Matrix when getting new knowledge downloaded: one minute you don’t know how to fly a helicopter and the next you do. There is also the unfortunate side-effect of the person running workware not remembering anything that happens when it is active. Workware is the MacGuffin that drives the plot; turns out that someone has the ability to take control over someone running workware and can make them do absolutely anything, including murder. The characters are one-dimensional and the plot is fairly obvious, but I still enjoyed reading it.

The idea of workware isn’t amazingly farfetched with today’s technology; neurophysiology is a quickly growing science, prosthetic limbs are becoming more and more advanced, and cochlear implants are allowing deaf people to hear again. How distant are automatic learning technologies? Okay, probably not in my lifetime. But 50 years ago the idea of a device that allowed a deaf person to enjoy Boléro would have been laughable. Who knows?

First Sentence:
They called themselves Recreation, described themselves as sort of educational, sort of artsy.

Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels

I’m behind on blogging the books I’ve read, but came across this list the other day and couldn’t resist mentioning it. Lists like this I always find amusing, but rarely agree with them completely. Then again, that is usually the point — to generate conversation. This particular one is even more bogus that most, though; the criteria for inclusion was simply books the authors liked, and although the title reads all-time only books since 1923 were allowed. This article should have been named Our 100 Favorite Modern Novels but then it probably wouldn’t have gotten published in Time.

The most surprising part was a title I wouldn’t have expected to find on a list like this: Watchmen. Graphic novels generally get very little respect when compared with “traditional” literature so seeing one here was unexpected. While I agree that Watchmen is a seminal work, it seems unfair to compare such different forms of the written word. After all, The Snowy Day isn’t here, either. In any case, I’m glad to see graphic novels getting some respect. Unfortunately, while Watchmen is an excellent story, I suspect that many people will dismiss it as comic book fare simply because it deals with super heroes. The Road to Perdition is a title that might resonate with more people, especially with the recent Tom Hanks movie. The goal of the list wasn’t to introduce new art forms, though, and The Road to Perdition probably doesn’t belong on a list of the best ever. But I digress.

Ignoring all that, with any list like this the first thing you do is try and name the novels are missing. My list: Brave New World, The Maltese Falcon, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, Fahrenheit 451, The Hunt For Red October, Winnie-the-Pooh, A Separate Peace, Rebecca, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to name a few off the top of my head. I could quibble over several titles that are there that shouldn’t be as well, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. :)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Only the Paranoid Survive, by Andrew S. Grove

Only the Paranoid Survive, by Andrew S. Grove

Unfortunately, I’m continuing my series of mediocre books. This one discusses strategic inflection points, those times for a business when its fundamentals are about to change. For instance, with Intel the point where they decided to phase out its memory chip business for microprocessors was strategic. While I found this fairly interesting, I was disappointed that it was so focused on looking backwards: a lot of stuff about how to look back and tell when an inflection point occurred but very little about how to determine when one is happening or how to react to one.

I think my current company is in the midst of an inflection point right now. Not a market-driven one as discussed in the book, but an internal one. Our main product wasn’t designed to be scalable, but we are now trying to sell it into enterprise sites. Needless to say, it isn’t going as smoothly as you’d hope. There has been a lot of talk around the choices: do we rewrite or rearchitect? Clearly the resulting decision will dramatically affect the future of the company, but which way to go?

First Sentence:
I’m often credited with the motto, “Only the paranoid survive.”

Friday, October 21, 2005

Tales to Astonish, by Ronin Ro

Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution, by Ronin Ro

This is a biography of Jack Kirby, one of the most influential comic book artists in America. I knew that a lot of the pioneers of the heroes we know today got screwed by the publishers but not many of the details. When I got into comics as a kid, Kirby was one of the names spoken in hushed tones in the shops. Yeah, we were geeks. Anyway, this book details the life of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and the original X-Men to name just a few. If you recognize a character from Marvel Comics there is a good chance that Kirby drew him or her if not having a hand in the actual creation. Kirby created art at an amazing rate: ten hours a day, seven day a week. Today’s artists make a lot of their money by selling their original art, but much of the art Kirby created was stolen or misplaced by Marvel. There was a period where Kirby and Marvel weren’t even speaking; amazing considering the obvious influence he had on the company. Imagine Chrysler not welcoming Lee Iacocca or Microsoft ignoring Bill Gates. In the background of all this drama, the comic book industry is unfolding into what we see today. If you enjoy comics, you’ll be fascinated by this story.

First Sentence:
Jacob Kurtzberg was tired of being poor.

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Turtledove and Greenberg

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg

If the title didn’t clue you in, this is a collection of short stories dealing with time travel. As I’ve mentioned before, I like the idea of time travel and alternate fiction. This is a pretty good collection, but with the word best in the title I was surprised with the lack of anything by Bester. In any case, this was a solid book. Several stories are familiar, such as Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder and Clarke’s Time’s Arrow. Most were new to me, though, and pretty good. Henry Kuttner’s Time Locker was my favorite; one of those stories where the bad guy gets what he deserves in a most entertaining way. A good read, all the way through.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
We’re all time travelers, whether we know it or not.

Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi

Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi

Networking is not something I enjoy. I understand the importance of it, but hate what I feel is the forced nature of conversation. I don’t consider myself to be shy, but neither am I the guy that announces his presence with a yell when he walks into the room. I’m the guy in the back of the lecture hall making snide remarks about the fools asking questions to hear themselves talk. While I like my coworkers, I prefer to eat lunch by myself with a good book to simply get away from the office. I’d rather be at a bar with my friends than at a happy hour passing out business cards. Networking is not my thing.

I picked up this book because I hoped it would help me change my attitude. Didn’t help much. There was some good stuff in here, I admit: making introductions between my friends that might enjoy / benefit from each others company and then stepping out of the way, for instance, is something I’ve been trying to do. Unfortunately, the general tone of the book reminded me of the self-centered idiot that won’t shut up about his accomplishments sitting next to you on the red-eye. I hate that guy.

Is this a good book? Probably. Did I enjoy reading it? No.

First Sentence:
“How on earth did I get in here?”

Friday, September 09, 2005

The E-Myth Manager, by Michael E. Gerber

The E-Myth Manager: Why Most Managers Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber

I thought his first book made some pretty good points, so I thought I’d try this one too. Lightning did not strike twice, though—this is awful. The idea here is basically every man for himself and you should never buy into a higher ideal. With beliefs like this, volunteerism would be dead! There was a fun quote early on, though, that pokes fun at other philosophies: “They learned ... that you could learn the seven essential skills, or the six effective habits, or the trick of becoming a one-minute Manager. They ... were only treating the symptoms, not the causes.” Way to slam your rivals, Michael!

First Sentence:
At the beginning of every organization, of every business, of every invention—of every life—is an idea.

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

With the movie coming out soon, I thought I’d reread the original source. The (anti)hero is a stylish terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask named V. The villains are the fascist government of England. Anarchy versus fascism—nothing subtle here! A terrorist is certainly an unlikely hero these days, but in comparison to the fascist state it seems almost reasonable. The authors didn’t take the easy way out either and have V be a terrorist with a heart of gold; many innocents and bystanders get hurt here.

Comparisons to 1984 immediately jump to mind while reading, not in the least because it is set in a future that is now in our past: 1996. Interestingly, while the dates are all dated, the content still carries a powerful meaning in today’s world. Libertarians will read this graphic novel and cry out that this is slowly happening here in America. Republicans should take note of the excesses of power and loss of privacy and be warned. Democrats will miss the point entirely, as usual. :)

Not as good as Watchmen, but still excellent.

First Sentence:
Good evening, London.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt

Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt

From alternate history to future history. This novel owes a lot to A Canticle for Leibowitz but doesn’t have the philosophical depth. Canticle tells of how an order of monks tries to keep alive history and technology after a nuclear holocaust. Eternity Road, on the other hand, is the quest of society to rediscover the history that is known to be lost. I loved the references to landmarks during the quest across the future United States, some that exist in our time (the Iron Pyramid) and some that don’t (the Richard Feynman Supercollider). The characters were too one-dimensional for me to really care when endangered or rewarded, but the slowly emerging story of what happened to our world kept me reading.

First Sentence:
It is a fond and universally held notion that only things of the spirit truly endure: love, sunsets, music, drama.

1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

Like the previous entry, this book is just one of an ongoing collection. The Assiti Shards series is a progression of novels telling the story of a West Virginia mining community mysteriously transported back to Germany during the Thirty Years War. I’ve always enjoyed time travel epics and historical fiction, and this combination doesn’t disappoint. The initial entry in this series, 1632 (see the pattern here?), is so far still my favorite, but Flint does a good job of keeping the world interesting.

1634 is roughly the year during which Galileo and the Church had their famous clash. Flint posits what would have happened if 20th century dogma was introduced to the era. A little more soap-opera-y in places than I’d prefer (and thus a bit too long), but the authors clearly researched this epoch thoroughly. The characters and situations kept me visiting Wikipedia often to get some more background. While this may be a negative to some, it is one of the reasons I like histories, even fictional ones!

First Sentence:
The palace was over-heated, Mazarini thought.

The Dog From Hell, by Chris Bunch

The Dog From Hell, by Chris Bunch

This is the fourth chapter of the Star Risk series. None of these books will make you forget Isaac Asimov — if Asimov is Citizen Kane then Chris Bunch is Indiana Jones. I digress. Star Risk is the name of a mercenary organization in the far future. The dog from hell is a nod to Cerberus the mythological guard of Hades and the name of a competing group of mercenaries. The plot involves the clash of these two companies, a conflict which had been building through the previous three installments. You don’t have to have read the other three to enjoy this, but I think it will make it more fun. Great for an airplane, which coincidentally enough is where I read it!

First Sentence:
The castle loomed above them on the bluff, centuries-old stone, dank, brooding.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

This is a biography of two men and a book: James Murray, W. C. Minor, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary was the first project that set out to record every single word in the English language; the first edition took 70 years to complete, 414,825 words were defined, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations were included. This isn’t the dictionary that sits on your desk! Murray was the third editor of this massive undertaking, but the one that made the project successful. Minor was the most prolific contributor, as well as a convicted murderer committed to an asylum. The tale of how this unlikely partnership came to be is fairly interesting, but it seemed much too long to me. I suppose it is appropriate for a story about a dictionary to be wordy, though! The author also makes liberal use of his thesaurus—words like trawl, portmanteau, and japanned appear on nearly each page. In most narratives this would come off as pretentious at best, but in this study of syntax it works.

At the close, the author presents some of his favorite words. I’ll take this opportunity to do the same! From

ob·strep·er·ous (b-strpr-s, b-) adj.

  1. Noisily and stubbornly defiant.
  2. Aggressively boisterous.

zy·mur·gy (zmûrjn.

The branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation processes, as in brewing.

jux·ta·pose (jkst-pztr.v.

To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.

ox·y·mo·ron (ks-môrn, -mr-) n.

A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.

First Sentence:
In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

I don’t like Spencer Johnson’s style. I didn’t care for Who Moved My Cheese? and I didn’t particularly like this one either. Both books make some good points, but the presentation is so childish I thought I was reading a book my kindergartener should read. I find a book so patronizing very difficult to take seriously.

A lot of the points he makes seem to be more common sense than anything else to me: set clear goals; reward good behavior; punish bad behavior, but don’t dwell on it. I know there are managers out there that don’t do this (boy, don’t I know it!), but it seems so obvious. We are often not the best judge of our own habits, but I like to think this is how I operate. Hopefully, my team feels empowered to call me on this when I’m not living up to my end of the deal!

First Sentence:
Once there was a bright young man who was looking for an effective manager.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Easy to see why this is a classic. The story is compelling, well-written, and a fun read. The style is interesting: it is a series of diary entries and letters from the various protagonists, presented in chronological order. I’ve read other chronicle-style novels before, but not one where the entries were from a variety of different characters. Often the entries would overlap, providing multiple viewpoints for the same events. Very effective.

I was surprised that the Count himself was only directly on the stage for maybe a quarter of the novel. Considering he was the title character and one of the most famous fictional creations of all time, I expected a lot more of him. The absence wasn’t disappointing, though; in fact, it simply made him more mysterious and sinister. If written today there would be a complete back-story telling us how Dracula came to be and giving him some degree of sympathy; it simply isn’t needed though.

The story was enthralling, even knowing the basic plot from all the various movies and derivative works through the years. As with most reinterpretations, none of them have been completely accurate so there were still some surprises in these pages. While I knew what the ending would eventually be, the path to get there was still entertaining.

First Sentence:
Left Munich at 8.35 p.m. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser

This was a fascinating book to read right after The E-Myth Revisited. That book preached that the franchise model is the best thing since sliced bread, and this one seems to believe that franchises are evil and are to blame for exacerbating many of America’s social ills. An interesting juxtaposition and it happened completely by accident!

Schlosser complains a lot about how the industry takes advantage of its employees. He seems especially upset about accepting federal funds for job training; he often claims that no training is actually supplied and so taking the money is tantamount to fraud. Once he does actually admit that training is provided: “[The fast food industry] often teaches basic job skills ... to people who can barely read. But the stance ... on issues involving employee training ... strongly suggests that its motives ... are hardly altruistic.” Who cares about the motives? The result is many people that can’t get a job anywhere else are provided a way of earning money and receiving actual job experience. Do any of these employees expect a gold watch after 50 years of flipping burgers? Of course not!

The author seems to take exception to the fact that McDonald’s allows its franchisees to set wages according to the local labor market, but has strict rules about the thickness of a pickle slice. Why he thinks wages for someone in New York City should match those of someone in Brownsville, Texas escapes me, although I do expect the same burger at any McDonald’s I visit so the pickle thing makes sense. Schlosser also seems offended that the corporations are anti-union. I personally believe that unions are anachronistic and cause more problems than they solve these days, but still found it surprising that he couldn’t see why a company wouldn’t want a union around.

Yet another diatribe was that the legal agreements that potential franchisees must sign are extremely limiting. The point that he seems to miss is that nobody is forcing these guys to do anything! When was the last time someone held you at gunpoint and said you had to open a McDonald’s... or else? Oh, and just so you know, parents need not accept any responsibility for the rising obesity rates in our youth; this can be blamed squarely on the fact that the fast food companies target their advertising directly at our kids. Whew!

Clearly the politics of this book greatly annoyed me. The descriptions of the history of the fast food industry were really well researched, though, and the tales of how flash-frozen food can be made to look and taste as we expect was admittedly disturbing. I was disappointed he concentrated so much on just McDonald’s; seeing how non-burger chains like Subway or KFC stacked up in the food preparation arena would have been really interesting. If his goal was to provoke thought he succeeded, but if his goal was to create political activist vegans (which honestly I don’t think it was) he failed miserably. Well worth my time, however.

First Sentence:
Carl N. Karcher is one of the fast food industry’s pioneers.

The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber

The first theory of this book is that there are three warring personalities inside each businessman: the Entrepreneur, the Manager, and the Technician. The Entrepreneur is the dreamer, the one with all the ideas. The Manager is the pragmatic one, the planner. The Technician is the doer, the one that makes it all work. All three of these are inside every successful professional to some degree. Striking the proper balance between the three is the trick; too much Entrepreneur and business accomplishes nothing, too much Manager and the business doesn’t grow, and too much Technician and the business withers on the vine to due lack of attention. This makes a lot of sense to me; I see a lot of the last two types in me and not much of the first.

The second theory is that the franchise model is business plan that gives the highest chance for success. A business that is franchised needs repeatable, documented processes for virtually everything. With clear documentation, you can be assured that the job gets done regardless of who is doing it. Ideally, you try and remove all the skill from the job, replacing it with a system. Think of an assembly line; if all someone does all day is tighten the same bolt over and over again as it passes by on a conveyor belt, the position takes very little training and not much skill. Many people instinctively buy this argument when it comes to individual contributors, but Gerber holds that it applies to management as well. “You may think that the successful implementation of a management strategy is dependent on finding amazingly competent managers — people with finely honed “people skills,” with degrees from management schools, with highly sophisticated techniques for dealing with and developing their people. It isn’t. You don’t need such people. Nor can you afford them. In fact, they will be the bane of your existence.” I love this quote, especially the bit about management schools. Of course, my friends with MBA’s don’t exactly agree. :)

First Sentence:
The E-Myth is the myth of the entrepreneur.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

I picked this up because I wanted something light to read on the plane. It had been a while since I’d read any hard science-fiction, and this looked interesting. About a quarter of the way in it became clear this wasn’t the first book in this universe (something not noted on the book jacket) but it was written well enough it didn’t matter.

While set in the far future, it had a noir feeling to me — instead of being set on a spaceship cruising between stars I could easily invoke the image of a train traveling in the dead of night, and the bad guys were thinly-disguised copies of Nazis. Even the names invoke images of the past: Frank the Nose, Martin Springfield and Rachel Mansour, and U. Franz Bergman.

A great speech comes towards the end by the lead rogue: “Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing, kid. All the time. It is about the only rule that explains how fucked-up this universe is. Nobody is a villain in their own head, are they? We all know we’re doing the right thing, which is why we’re in this mess.” I recently was in a discussion on the definition of evil; this sums it up well!

All-in-all, not a bad read.

First Sentence:
Just outside the expanding light cone of the present a star died, iron-bombed.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

I’d read this long ago, but a co-worker lent me the second edition which has a few new chapters. I remembered liking this book, and I still do. A lot of good stuff in here, and it reinforced several of my personal axioms. I have often said I believe a team of average people that generate synergy can be more impressive than a group of all-stars that fight for the spotlight. I also believe that you start a planning session by determining how much time the team has to work and then seeing what can fit, as opposed to planning for a particular feature set and expecting overtime or miracles to accomplish the tasks. Both of these ideas are echoed in this text, along with several other gems. It is always nice to find people that agree with you, especially in a best seller!

My favorite chapter is probably The Furniture Police which discusses the idiocy that abounds in today’s corporations about what can be displayed in employee work spaces. If you are thinking about Office Space or Dilbert then you are right on — a lot of humor here. I’ve spent time in places like this which only made it that much better. My current employer is moving us into a cube farm this week so I recommended this chapter to the executives as a reminder. We’ll see what happens.

One of the ideas I’ve had a harder time selling at my company is that the process is more important than the artifacts: why waste time generating a ton of formal UML documents or software specifications when you can use short iterations to iteratively design and demonstrate behavior? While Peopleware doesn’t echo this exactly, many of the examples certainly support this. I’m hoping by asking some of the more reluctant folks to read this we can generate more understanding and discussion of the concept.

In one of the new chapters DeMarco and Lister gain a huge amount of respect from me (I’m sure that comes as a relief to them) for admitting that some of their original metaphors aren’t aging well. It takes a lot for most people to admit they are wrong (I thought I was wrong once, but it turned out I was mistaken) and to do it in print is impressive. They originally used a sports team metaphor to describe a well-oiled team, but in today’s competitive environment the bench warmer is probably secretly hoping for something bad to happen to the star so he can play. Instead they now prefer a choir for this metaphor, because “you’ll never have people congratulate you on singing your part perfectly while the choir as a whole sings off-key.”

In summary, not only should anyone and everyone in management read this book, but as I’ve recently found periodically they should re-read it as well.

First Sentence:
Since the days when computers first came into common use, there must have been tens of thousands of accounts receivable programs written.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

Another literary classic that I’d never read. I tend to really enjoy the classic adventure stories (The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, ...) so I was looking forward to this one. About the first third lived up to my expectations: spooky sounds, lurking dangers, and hair breadth escapes. Unfortunately, the next two thirds seemed to be rehashes of the first. Even the plot was repetitive, with the heroines being captured and freed multiple times throughout. Disappointing, but still enjoyable.

I really liked the way Cooper crafted his sentences. He plays with language so much that there is even some conversation in French — with no translation provided! The setting easily came to life with his graphic descriptions and sound effects, and I had vivid images of all the characters, not just the major ones. (I was even able to avoid thinking of Alan Alda every time Hawkeye was mentioned!) The entire 350 page novel takes place over only a couple of days and as I said earlier the plot is a bit repetitive, so you can see that the bulk of the words are dedicated to description and detail.

I haven’t seen the recent recent movie (one of at least 12 according to IMDb) but I’m interested in doing so now. I’m told the plot of the movie has little in common with the novel, but if the movie captures even part of Cooper’s lush scenery it must have some amazing backdrops.

First Sentence:
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet.

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