Sunday, February 26, 2006

Burglars Can't Be Choosers, by Lawrence Block

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, by Lawrence Block

This is the first of the Burglar books, a series I promised to revisit. Characters are introduced and developed, relationships are established, and the ongoing premise of twisted honesty is established. It appears that there are two main characters in most of the Burglar books, the thief Bernie and the cop Ray. Both of these guys are “a different kind of honest;” Ray isn’t above taking a bribe but will not break his promises, and Bernie is a crook that wants justice. Makes for an interesting setting, but unfortunately here the plot was pretty weak. There are way too many coincidences, and any character that is given a name figures into the crime for which Bernie is framed. While this can work, it doesn’t come off as well here. The players are quite compelling, though, so I’ll revisit Bernie in the future.

First Sentence:
A handful of minutes after nine I hoisted my Bloomingdale’s shopping bag and moved out of a doorway and into step with a tall blond fellow with a faintly equine cast to his face.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Levitt and Dubner are certainly not trying to make any friends here! They start by demonstrating how teachers commit fraud, then compare the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents, illustrate how legalizing abortion has dramatically dropped nationwide crime rates, and finally wrap up with two chapters about how little active parenting actually affects children. Wow. Sure to offend both conservatives (capital punishment doesn’t deter crime) and liberals (a swimming pool is more dangerous than a gun), these guys aren’t running for public office anytime soon!

The entire time I was reading this I couldn’t shake the idea that I was overhearing a group of friends having a good-natured debate at a bar. A lot of thought-provoking questions are asked, but the answers—while seemingly well-reasoned—are lacking much backing data. For example, at one point the assertion is made that traveling in either a car or a plane carries roughly the same odds of dying when measured on a per-hour basis. Okay, I buy it; I certainly spend much more time driving than flying, so the odds of being in a car crash are much greater than a plane wreck. However, there are no data presented about what those numbers may be. It seems reasonable, meshes well with my gut feel, sounds as good sober as it does with a couple of beers. It is also unsubstantiated, something I find a bit surprising for a book on economics.

Another question discussed is, “Does a persons name affect how he is perceived? Is DeShawn Williams treated differently than Jake Williams” It has always seemed to me that the answer to this is yes, but only in absentia. If I hear of someone named Nosmo or Santa or Seven, I’m going to roll my eyes and snicker. Once I’m introduced to that person, though, the name becomes much less important and instead how he or she acts becomes paramount. This issue of how face-time changes perceptions isn’t really touched upon.

Another problem I have is that many of the points-of-view presented are too US-centric. For instance, while it is true that the uptick in abortions seems to correspond with the downtick in violent crime in America, my understanding is this isn’t true in other countries with similar changes in birth control laws. It would be interesting to delve into the data and perhaps see why, but again that isn’t presented here. This isn’t a great treatise on economics because of the lack of hard data. What it is, however, is a really good book for starting bar arguments. I enjoyed reading it, and will recommend it to others without hesitation.

First Sentence:
Imagine for a moment that you are the manager of a day-care center.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Southtown, by Rick Riordan

Southtown, by Rick Riordan

I’m a fan of both Rick Riordan and Tres Navarre, his San Antonio PI. This is the fifth book in the series, and while a good read, the worst so far. The main villain is hunting both Tres’ boss and competitor, and the rivals need to come together to protect each other. The big twist at the end is telegraphed as well, with not much of a payoff. Bummer. There is a chapter of the next book included here, though, which sounds much more interesting. Looking forward to that one!

First Sentence:
Fourth of July morning, Will Stirman woke up with blood on his hands.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Amazonia, by James Marcus

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut, by James Marcus

James Marcus was employee number 55 at Having been a low-numbered worker myself at several internet startups, I was interested in what he had to say. While it wasn’t what I expected, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This is a good read.

Marcus was a Senior Editor for Amazon and as a result the language is a bit lofty. For instance, "It was a battle of superlatives, and a jesuitical pissing contest." Jesuitical. Wow. Other fun words include aquiline, madrigal, bifurcated, encyclical, antebellum, mercurial, and apothegmatic. All in a book about an internet storefront. You get the idea.

The vignettes the author tells are great. My favorite was when he was discussing some of the questions that customer service fields. “I saw a book on television last week, the one with the red cover. Can you tell me what it’s called?” Reminds me a lot of the stories my mother tells; she is a reference librarian and has answered many similarly ridiculous queries. My favorite has got to be, “What is the name of Robin Hood’s dog?” Back to the book. Another entertaining tale comes when Marcus describes what it was like working in the warehouse during the holiday season (apparently all Amazon employees helped during the Christmas rush). He likens the scene to the famous candy factory from I Love Lucy (My second favorite Lucy episode behind the one with Superman!). While the imagery is fantastic, I was also wryly amused at the authors disdain for what people were actually purchasing.

This isn’t the definitive book about Amazon, but it is a good snapshot of what was happening there during the early days. Marcus doesn’t try and detail all the changes in the technology or the business model, but instead just presents them as he saw them. This approach leaves some holes in the story of Amazon, but it is still fascinating in its own light.

First Sentence:
One fine spring day in 1996, I took off from Portland, Oregon, in a prop plane the size of a toy, which seemed to touch down in Seattle only moments later.

Virtual Leadership, by Jaclyn Kostner, Ph.D.

Virtual Leadership: Secrets From the Round Table for the Multi-Site Manager, by Jaclyn Kostner, Ph.D.

I don’t quite know what to think of this book. There were some good lessons about leading graphically disperse teams, but the story framed around the lessons is pretty silly. A man finds a magic coin that lets him discuss the challenges of long-distance management with King Arthur. That’s right, King Arthur. While a fictional story chosen to illustrate principles can work, this one was so silly it was hard to take seriously. The idea is that the Knights of the Round Table were scattered all over England yet King Arthur forged them into a group that was so effective their legend is still talked about today—clearly Arthur knows a thing or two about virtual management.

Ridiculous story aside, there are some good points in here. One of the main reasons I think agile development is so effective is because it places a high value on collaboration. While agile can work in a distributed environment, it is certainly more difficult. I’ve run teams that were scattered across several cities, and it isn’t much fun. What seems to naturally happen is that the various localized groups form cliques, and the cliques tend to resent each other. Okay, resent may be a strong word, but phrases like those guys said... and Houston wants to know... start to creep into the common vernacular. The limited interaction and limited knowledge of the individual groups naturally causes a dearth of trust. Trust, clear communication, and focus are essential; this book illustrates some good ideas for turning a splintered organization into an effective one.

First Sentence:
“No one’s ever going to believe me,” Jim Smith thought to himself.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

I thought that I was familiar with the story of Frankenstein and his monster, but I was surprised at how different it was from my expectations. There was no spooky castle in the mountains, no lightning to bring the monster to life, no fear of fire, no Igor. Instead, the creature is created in an apartment and ends up being both intelligent and well-spoken. The story doesn’t focus on the monster, but on the torment that the doctor puts himself through after bringing his creation to life. His angst was a bit much to take (the good doctor wails loudly at seemingly every opportunity), but didn’t blunt the main theme of not all knowledge should be pursued.

The writing is surprisingly unimpressive for such a famous work; every character (including the monster!) speaks with the same flowery style that sounds as if they consult a thesaurus before making a sound. For instance, the monster has this to say when he first confronts Frankenstein: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather thy fallen angel ... I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I again shall be virtuous. If you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends!” Quite a mouthful from a being that learned English by eavesdropping.

First Sentence:
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Weapons of Choice, by John Birmingham

Weapons of Choice, by John Birmingham

Yeah, another alternate history novel. The plot of this one reminded me a lot of the movie The Final Countdown: a near-future naval task force is mysteriously sent back in time to WWII, right before the Battle of Midway. This book isn’t as angsty as the movie was, no “We can’t change history!” concerns. The characterization is pretty good, but the plot isn’t fantastic. The actual storyline is fairly predictable: both the US and Japan end up with modern technology and the balance of power in the Pacific changes. The interesting bits are where the author looks at race relations between the 1940-era Americans and the 2020-era ones. The military in 2020 is not only racially integrated but sexually-integrated as well. The military in 1942 is only beginning to accept non-whites and is completely prejudiced against women. Makes for some interesting fireworks between the generations.

I picked this book up not only because I like the genre, but because the author has a blog. He sometimes discusses the novels he is writing and asks advice from his readers. A lot of rambling in there too (it is a blog after all!) but still an interesting insight into the process at times. I’m definitely going to stay with the blog for a while, not sure about reading the other books.

First Sentence:
The Caliphate spy, a Javanese carpenter known simply as Adil, resettled himself against a comfortable groove in the sandalwood tree.

Ordermaster, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Ordermaster, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Ordermaster is the immediate sequel to Wellspring of Chaos picking up right where the last one left off. The two books together tell the tale of our hero Kharl; the split between then is fairly arbitrary, though. The first third of the second volume chronicles the aftermath of the war detailed in the earlier book, then it moves into a completely different story. I suppose if the tale was split at the more logical spot the first book would have been too large for the major bookstores and this one not long enough. Conformity is everything these days, after all!

The author has some quotes I really like in this book. “Lord Ghrant’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t look or talk like a leader. He’s not out making free with every girl, and he’s not lining his pockets with everyone else’s coins.” And I thought I was a cynic about politicians! Later Modesitt confirms his pessimism with a passage I really liked. “Don’t expect people to do more at their best than you at your worst, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised in life.” While it doesn’t exactly espouse the idea of expecting the most out of others, they are certainly words to live by. Finally, a long passage that said much more eloquently what I attempted earlier : “Law is a necessary evil. With it, matters are never what they should be. Without it, they are inevitably worse.” Yup.

First Sentence:
“You sure you’d not be wanting more, ser?”

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