Sunday, January 22, 2006

Fumbling the Future, by Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander

Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented Then Ignored the First Personal Computer, by Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander

In 1973, Xerox had built a networked personal computer, mouse, graphical user interface, and laser printer. Before Microsoft. Before IBM. Before Apple. Yet nobody has ever heard of the Alto, and Xerox is still known as a copier company. How did all this technology get squandered?

I really enjoyed this story. It is a fantastic look at what happens when marketers and developers aren’t on the same page. Xerox marketing didn’t think a PC would be useful (some bright bulbs in that group!) and the developers kept improving technologies Xerox didn’t want to sell. This is a cautionary tale about what can happen with poor management and poor communication within a company. I recommend it to anyone in a high-tech company, especially those directly influencing product creation.

First Sentence:
Here is a three-part trivia question about televised personal computer advertising: Name the companies responsible for
  1. The longest playing series of personal computer commercials?
  2. The most creative single commercial?
  3. The first personal computer commercial?

Raising Cole, by Marc Pittman with Mark Wangrin

Raising Cole: Developing Life’s Greatest Relationship, Embracing Life’s Greatest Tragedy: A Father’s Story, by Marc Pittman with Mark Wangrin

This was a very difficult book to read. Not because of complicated sentence structure or an unnecessarily large vocabulary, but because of raw emotion. Cole Pittman was a football player at the University of Texas that was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel of his truck in 2001. His father wrote this story, describing both the amazingly close relationship they shared and the aftermath of his death. It is honest and poignant; I’ll admit I was literally brought to tears while reading the last couple of chapters. The main message of this the author tries to impart is simply to not leave anything unsaid. If you were to die tomorrow, are you sure that everyone you love knows that you love them? A hard question. I probably still haven’t come to terms with my fathers death a few years ago, and this brought a lot of those emotions back. There was too much unsaid between us when my dad died. I am the type to keep my feelings largely to myself; this book helped me to see I need to change that somehow.

The Pittman family uses two interesting concepts to maintain their unusually close relationships: Love Wars and Dead Man’s Talk. Love Wars are simply trying to outdo each other with gestures of affection, like driving 10 hours simply to meet for lunch. Dead Man’s Talk represents no-tell confessions, like talking to a dead man: “A dead man couldn’t repeat what was said. It would not make him angry or stick in his craw. It wouldn’t change an opinion or influence a friendship. It would be said, and it would disappear forever like a breath on a cold night.” Love Wars is a concept I grok and will certainly be using in my life. Dead Man’s Talk is more opaque to me, though; once a meaningful fact is known I don’t see how it can possibly not affect a relationship. Clearly it worked for Marc and Cole Pittman, though.

First Sentence:
It’s been more than three years since I buried my oldest son in the red Louisiana dirt near Minden.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Visions of Liberty, edited by Martin Greenberg and Mark Tier

Visions of Liberty, edited by Martin Greenberg and Mark Tier

This was one of the most disappointing collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time. Nine tales of a future without government, none of them interesting. Every author takes the same approach: that utopia can be achieved when bureaucracy is removed. No courts or laws exist, and society functions flawlessly. Poppycock! We are a venal and selfish civilization and need some form of arbitration. I believe in limited government, but not anarchy. While the idea of a world run on honor and ethics is appealing, I’m too cynical to believe it is possible and the authors didn’t present any believable alternatives.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
Imagine we’re on a plane; we’ve crossed an ocean, we’ve landed; we’re taxiing up to the gate.

Beyond Software Architecture, by Luke Hohmann

Beyond Software Architecture: Creating and Sustaining Winning Solutions, by Luke Hohmann

I read this book not quite a year ago, but let a friend borrow it before I blogged about it. There is a good story behind why I have it as well. The author is a friend of mine from the old days. Luke went to Michigan for college while I graduated from Texas. When they met in the Rose Bowl last year, we made a “governor’s bet”—if his team won I’d have to ship him some Texas BBQ, if mine did he was sending me California wine. As we all know, Texas was victorious and Luke was on the hook for some hooch! When he paid up, he included his latest book along with two bottles of wine. Good guy, that Luke!

This is a really good reference for anyone in the software business. The author covers everything from product naming to when to start over and rewrite the whole thing. Developers will receive an understanding of what the marketing folks do for a living, and non-technical people will get a peek into what it takes to actually write software. Everyone involved will start to understand how a software project should be managed as well, what questions to ask and when to ask them. The best part is that at the end of each chapter there is a summary and checklist of things your organization should be doing; this makes the book valuable not only as a one-time resource, but as something that can be used time and again.

One of the topics covered concerns technical debt. This is a concept I’ve been concerned with for a while at my current job, but didn’t have a solid term to define it. Technical debt is what a project collects when tasks are done “quick and dirty” instead of taking the time to think about the entire problem and solution. The effort that is needed to later fix the inevitable issues that arise from cutting corners are the interest payments on the debt. Virtually every decision that was made on one of my current projects for the past couple of years (before I joined, of course!) was made with speed in mind, and now the product is in such bad shape that it is difficult to make any sort of change at all with any degree of quality. I’ve been railing about this at the office, and Hohmann’s words have helped bolster my case.

First Sentence:
The foundation of a winning solution lies in the architecture that creates and sustains it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Coach Royal, by Darrell Royal with John Wheat

Coach Royal: Conversations with a Texas Football Legend, by Darrell Royal with John Wheat

Darrell Royal is one of the best college football coaches this country has ever seen. While I’m familiar with the legend, I found I didn’t actually know much about the man. This book is far from an in-depth biography, but it does cover at a brisk pace the life of the man known simply as Coach. It is in a conversational format, not a narrative so the content is very easy to follow. I hadn’t realized how much job-hopping Royal did early in his career; after he graduated from (shudder) OU he spent one year each running six different teams before landing at Texas. Can you imagine someone today going from student to head coach at a major university in such a short time? I would have liked to gotten a bit more detail on his thoughts on racism in the 60’s and Title IX, but still enjoyed it for what it was. Any Texas fan will enjoy this, especially after the recent big win!

First Sentence:
I began my conversations with Coach Royal in the spring of 1993 to record in his own words the story of his legendary career at the University of Texas.

Curious Notions, by Harry Turtledove

Curious Notions: A Crosstime Traffic Novel, by Harry Turtledove

This is the second book in the Crosstime Traffic series. While not as well written as the first outing, it does explore a more interesting alternate. In this earth, the Kaiser won WWI and then successfully invaded America in the 1950’s. Well over 100 years later, the USA is still under the jackboot of the Germans. The technology of this world is advanced enough so they could possibly figure out the secret of crossing worlds, which is a serious concern to the prime earth. Of course, a poorly educated 17 year old girl is able to figure out the secret, so it is a bit hard to swallow that the greatest minds of that time can’t. Concentrating on plot holes isn’t a good idea, though, or you might start to wonder why a society that can print money and identification papers that passes for perfection in the alternate worlds bothers to trade at all. The deus ex machina bailout (twice, actually!) of the ending doesn’t help regain any credibility, either. With the simple, repetitive writing and young protagonists, I suspect that this series would be better marketed towards young adults.

First Sentence:
Every now and then, Lucy Woo could pretend that San Francisco was a great city in a great country.

The Ambler Warning, by Robert Ludlum

The Ambler Warning, by Robert Ludlum

I like Robert Ludlum, but the quality of his novels has dropped considerably since he died. His estate has hired unnamed writers to flesh out rough drafts and storylines and publish them as if Ludlum was still alive and writing. A telling sign is the covers now have a ™ symbol after Ludlum’s name — I don’t think I’ve ever seen that next to a normal author credit.

The Ambler Warning is mostly a cheap knockoff of The Bourne Identity. A man wakes up without any recollection of how he got where he was, makes a daring escape, and goes on a quest for his missing memory with the help of a beautiful good Samaritan. Bourne pulls this off wonderfully, but here the gimmicks just seem tired. There were plot holes you can drive a truck through, such as the most observant man in the world drove several cars, bought new clothes and changed into them, and never noticed that his face had been changed. There was a big twist at the end, but it was telegraphed so early that the only shocking thing about it was the hero didn’t see it coming. Not the worst book I’ve ever read, but easily the worst with Ludlum’s name on the cover.

First Sentence:
The building had the invisibility of the commonplace.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu

I don’t normally look at the world as a series of battles to be fought or foes to vanquish. (Some people do, and in general they drive me nuts.) That said, a lot of what Sun Tzu says does dovetail with my general outlook. “Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; ... and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.” I’m a firm believer that a normal work-week (40-50 hours) is much more healthy and productive than seven day, 80 hour weeks. “When ... orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned ... the result is utter disorganization.” Seems pretty straightforward to me, but I’m constantly surprised at supervisors that don’t work this way. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I’m the best manager ever, but I do hope I live up to some of these ideals.

I know I’m not the first person to read The Art of War and find things I can use in my everyday life. “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” I’ll try and remember that next time I want to shoot off a smart-ass reply to an email. :) Good stuff.

First Sentence:
1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Burglar in the Closet, by Lawrence Block

The Burglar in the Closet: A Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery, by Lawrence Block

I haven’t encountered Bernie Rhodenbarr before, but this is just one of a continuing series in which he stars. Like Marlowe, Spenser, Rockford, and Kinky, Bernie is a tough guy with a heart of gold. Unlike those guys, Bernie is a thief instead of a private eye. The plot is straightforward: Bernie gets stuck in a closet during a robbery he is committing and a murder happens in the next room. Hijinks ensue.

Block is no Shakespeare, but his style fits this sort of potboiler very well. Passages like

“A woman? How will you know her?”
“She’ll be doing some serious drinking,” I said, “in a very frivolous bar.”
are littered throughout. A frivolous bar, my kind of place! I’ll be seeking out other Bernie novels for sure.

First Sentence:
“Gramercy Park,” said Miss Henrietta Tyler, “is an oasis in the middle of a cruel sea, a respite from the slings and arrows of which the Bard has warned us.”

10 Classics in 10 Minutes, by Jim Becker and Andy Mayer

10 Classics in 10 Minutes: The world’s fastest-talking man retells the world’s greatest books, by Jim Becker and Andy Mayer

I got this for Christmas and it is pretty funny. In less than 300 words per story, some of the greatest literature of all time is amusingly summarized. Moby Dick, Gone With the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Grapes of Wrath, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, A Streetcar Named Desire, Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, and The Odyssey all get the treatment. Each recap is preceded by a quick introduction as well, containing such gems as, “[Oliver Twist is a] work of prestigious length, it is no surprise Dickens was paid by the word.” And “[The Adventures of Robin Hood] is the one story everyone knows but no one has read.” Not laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly amusing. The accompanying CD reads the stories for you; great for a morning commute where you want to get away from the news.

First Sentence:
Moby Dick is a true American classic.

The Family Trade, by Charles Stross

The Family Trade: Book One of the Merchant Princes, by Charles Stross

Alternate history is something I find fascinating. This series posits there are parallel earths and a small group of people can travel between them (think Sliders). Our hero suddenly discovers she has this ability and her life changes overnight. Because she was ignorant of the other worlds, we get to discover and explore this strange new place through her eyes. World walking provides the perfect, untraceable courier service; pick up a package in Columbia in our world, switch to the other, travel to where NYC would be and switch back. No customs, no tariffs, nothing. The author takes this idea and runs with it with some very interesting results. The characterization is a bit unsteady (the hero is nervous and wide-eyed one minute, and showing nerves of steel the next) but nothing is so jarring happens as to pull the reader out of the story.

There is no solid resolution to this book, as it is the first of a series, which I find somewhat irritating. Usually I try and avoid series that aren’t yet complete so I don’t have to wait a year between episodes. I didn’t here, but I will be looking for next chapters as they arrive.

First Sentence:
Ten and a half hours before a mounted knight with a machine gun tried to kill her, tech journalist Miriam Beckstein lost her job.

Murder by Magic, edited by Rosemary Edghill

Murder by Magic: Twenty Tales of Crime and the Supernatural, edited by Rosemary Edghill

Detective stories and tales of magic, two of my favorite genres combined. A with most short story collections, this one is hit and miss. A Night at the Opera by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller was my favorite tale, describing a place where magic is simply another profession. This had really interesting people (okay, so they were blatant rip-offs of Nick and Nora Charles but still fun) and a compelling plot; I hope other tales in this universe appear at some point. Murder Entailed by Susan Krinard is another solid tale that I’d like to see explored in more depth, a place where extraordinary abilities are hereditary. At the other end of the spectrum was Snake in the Grass by Susan R. Matthews. The main character was whiny and the mystery painfully obvious from the very start. Yuck. All in all, like most short story collections this was uneven but enjoyable.

First Sentence (from the introduction):
It is a truism of publishing that sooner or later every author wants to commit murder, and I have proof: a new take on the mean streets from Laura Resnick, a charmingly chilling story from Carole Nelson Douglas, alternate police procedurals from Josepha Sherman and Keith DeCandido—detectives amateur, private, and decidedly outside the law, in settings ranging from the haunted galleries of Elizabethan England to the worlds of the Eraasian Hegemony.

I, Richard, by Elizabeth George

I, Richard, by Elizabeth George

I’ve written about Elizabeth George before, and was looking forward to sampling some of her short story work. The first one, Exposure, featured her famous Inspector Lynley but the other four did not. While I was disappointed at first, the other stories are pretty good in their own right. They are very O. Henry-ish, with the endings heavy on irony. While this makes them a bit predictable, they were still interesting.

First Sentence (from Exposure):
When members of the History of British Architecture class thought about the Abinger Manor Affair later on, each one of them would say that Sam Cleary had been the likeliest candidate for murder.

Sex With Kings, by Eleanor Herman

Sex With Kings, by Elanor Herman

This essay attempts to detail the role of the royal mistress in history. It is an interesting book, but hard to follow in places. The chapters are arranged by topic (“Rivals for a King’s Love—The Mistress and the Queen” and “The Fruits of Sin—Royal Bastards” for instance) which means the time lines jump around wildly. Coupled with the fact that many of the ladies have quite similar names (for instance Maria Louisa, Maria Theresa, Maria Anna Christina, and Queen Maria of Castille, or the five different French queens names Marie) and the kings all seem to be either Louis, George, or James I was frustrated more than once. A simple timeline would have been very useful as an appendix. While poorly organized, it was still enlightening.

I was surprised at how much political power the mistress used to possess. They were recognized in court with official titles and regularly performed such duties as welcoming ambassadors— in addition to the obvious duties of course! A far cry from today where a mistress can end a political career. France and England in the 1500’s and 1600’s account for most of the ladies discussed; the only modern mistresses mentioned were Wallis Simpson and Camilla Parker-Bowles. While these modern mistresses provide a sharp contrast between the duties and attitudes of our century and the ones of long ago, there unfortunately wasn’t any explanation of how the shift came about.

A lot of interesting anecdotes, but this book is in desperate need of an editor.

First Sentence:
We picture the royal mistress as, first and foremost, a sexual creature.

Search This Blog