Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hustler Days, by R. A. Dyer

Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red, and America’s Great Age of Pool, by R. A. Dyer

I like to shoot nine ball, but I’m not very good. Reading this almost makes me glad of that fact; these guys would see me coming from miles away! Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, and Jersey Red are three of the greatest pool hustlers this country has ever seen. This book is more than simply a biography of these sharks, though; it is the story of the fall and rise of pool through the twentieth century. The narrative jumps around a lot between the three players making it occasionally hard to follow; eventually they start to show up at the same tournaments and it all comes together.

I was surprised to find that the man known as Minnesota Fats didn’t take that name until after the Hustler was released. The movie was a hit, and an aging hustler that bore a strong resemblance to Jackie Gleason’s character hijacked the name. The newly minted Minnesota Fats then parlayed that into fame and popularity. Imagine, the only pool player that most people can name isn’t famous because of his prowess at the table!

First Sentence:
On January 19, 1913, at an hour uncertain, the child who would become Minnesota Fats took his first gasping breath in this world.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Beyond Singularity, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

Beyond Singularity, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

Wow, this book was awful. The blurb on the back cover states, “Explore what it will be like to be human in a posthuman world.” Considering one of the things about literature I enjoy is experiencing the emotions of the people in the story, when the authors often go out of the way to make the main characters seem as non-human possible I suppose it isn’t a surprise I hated this. The only episode I liked was the final one, The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe: it told of a future Tennessee and their battle with neighboring Kentucky. The rest range from tolerable to execrable, with the bulk landing on the unfortunate side of the scale.

First Sentence (from the preface):
“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence.”

Friday, March 24, 2006

Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developer's Notebook, by David Flanagan and Brett McLaughlin

Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developer’s Notebook, by David Flanagan and Brett McLaughlin

First a book about geeks, then a book by a geek, and now a book for geeks. I gotta get a life! :)

Tiger was the code-name for the most recent version of Java. This notebook details a bunch of the new features introduced in this release, and does a pretty good job of it. Generics is the feature about which I’m the most excited; for all Java’s hype as a type-safe language this was an aspect sorely missing. I’ve been a fan of generics ever since I worked on JGL back in the late 90’s. Many people are upset about the addition of templates (and most any change in the language), but then some people will bitch about anything. Fools.

The biggest complaint I have is that the chapter on the new threading and synchronization constructs was really rushed. There was as much space dedicated to enumerations as there was to the much more complicated topic of concurrency! Minor quibble aside, the authors do a good job of explaining the new features. It is a quick read and worth your time if you work in Java.

First Sentence:
Even with nearly 200 pages before you, its going to be awfully tough to cover all of Tiger’s new features.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton

Just a Geek: Unflinchingly honest tales of the search for life, love, and fulfillment beyond the Starship Enterprise, by Wil Wheaton

My second geek book in a row, but this one was a much more pleasant experience! Where it took me a couple of weeks of effort to digest the dry prose of Leading Geeks, the dry wit found in Just a Geek was consumed in a couple of hours. This is the story of how a waning celebrity came to terms with himself and started his second career.

There are some great Star Trek anecdotes here, good vision into what happens behind the scenes at cons. He also talks about various auditions and acting gigs—an enlightening look at world that is completely foreign to me. In my favorite vignette he describes an amazingly harsh imaginary response to an insulting audition:

“I’ve been working my ass off to give you this performance, and even though I can tell that you’re not interested in me at all, I’m going to fucking do this, okay? ... So why don’t you all just lighten the fuck up, and respect the fact that I came in here to do this stupid song and dance for your noncreative asses?!”
Well, that’s not exactly true. I said something more like, “Oh. Well, thanks for seeing me,” and I walked out of the room.

Priceless stuff, and exactly the kind of diatribe I carry on in my own mind constantly but never have the balls to say. One of these days...

While most of the stories are related to Wheaton’s acting career, the writing takes center stage here. I enjoy Wheaton’s blog and was curious how his style would translate into a full-length book. Quite well, as it turns out, although a fair portion of the text comes directly from his online entries. He carries the narrative well, though, stitching the stories behind the blog together fairly seamlessly. To use an analogy, if the blog was a DVD, this book would be a commentary track. Unlike many commentaries, though, this one rocks!

First Sentence:
On a hot June afternoon in 2000, I joined my best friend Darin for lunch at one of our teenage haunts, Old Town Pasadena.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Leading Geeks, by Paul Glen

Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology, by Paul Glen

This book echoes a lot of beliefs that I hold true, and validation is always a pleasant thing. You’d think I liked it because of that, but I found it a tough read. The style is very dry and overly structured: the premise is broken into a few large sections, each section split into main topics, each topic contains a list of items, each item detailed. While functional decomposition is great for software, it makes for a tedious book! Plus, when an item touches on something covered elsewhere, a simple “Chapter Ten will discuss this” is written and tying the points together is an exercise left for the reader. In a few places this would happen multiple times on the same page, a habit I found really irritating.

That said, the basic theme is one with which I wholeheartedly agree: successfully managing software developers is much more complicated than simply handing out requirements and posting deadlines. A leader of technical people needs to provide a comfortable environment where people can be creative and productive. Insulating the talent from corporate politics while singing their praises up the chain and managing the ambiguity that is inherent with software are other major facets. Finally, something that good leaders understand is geeks don’t suffer fools gladly; amusingly this is often directed at the leaders themselves!

A hodgepodge of other facets this book discusses: power is useless for manipulating geeks; creativity can’t be controlled; and dates not tied to anything in reality will never motivate a team. All of these I believe are closer to the truth than not, but I wouldn’t call them infallible, either. For instance, while developers tend to respect knowledge over power, we’ve all been through enough layoffs to understand who really holds the cards. Interesting discussions.

While Glen mostly gets it, he has some odd opinions on seating. He feels that team rooms are bad for concentration and lead to productivity loss. Cubes, though, can be a good thing if they are all the same because there isn’t any status attached to having an office. I think that the team should be able to make this sort of call; some groups I’ve seen strongly prefer a bullpen and it clearly helps the project to have them all together. Others want offices and a conference room for group meetings. Nobody wants cubes—nobody. Cubes are the worst of both worlds: they give the illusion of privacy without actually granting any, yet replaces natural collaboration with prairie dogging. Of course, I’m currently stuck and miserable in cubeville right now so maybe this passage simply rubbed me the wrong way.

I think if you are a non-technical person that finds yourself in charge of a software team, this book can provide some solid insight into the world of developers. Individual contributors that are promoted to managers could benefit from reading this too; hopefully they will pick something up about how different leading is from doing. Experienced supervisors, though, might be a bit bored.

First Sentence:
I hope that you have begun this book with a head full of questions:
  • What’s different about leading geeks from leading anyone else?
  • What can I do to better leverage my organization’s investment in these expensive, valuable, and temperamental employees?
  • What makes geeks so different to manage?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Conquistador, by S. M. Stirling

Conquistador: A Novel of Alternate History, by S. M. Stirling

In 1946, a malfunctioning short wave radio opens a gate into an alternate world—one where Europe never discovered North America. The owner of the short wave doesn’t share the discovery with the rest of the world, but instead invites a select group of people to cross over and colonize this unspoiled countryside. Fast-forward to 2009 and during a smuggling bust a photo of authentic Aztec priests wearing Greatful Dead shirts and a live condor from a completely unknown gene pool is recovered, starting a chain of events that threatens the secret of the gate. And all this happens in the first 20 pages!

This is a l-o-n-g book, nearly 600 pages. While I enjoyed it quite a bit, it could have easily been half the length and still entertaining. A lot of exposition here, and much of it superfluous. Take this sentence, describing a character that is incidental to the plot: “Lord Seven Flower himself was in the traditional costume: silver armbands and greaves, a loincloth intricately folded so that a long flap of snowy cotton edged with embroidery hung to his knees before and behind, gold chains and a gold pectoral across his chest, and a headdress made in the form of a snarling silver jaguar’s head with golden spots, eyes of turquoise and ivory teeth, sporting a huge torrent of colored plumes from its rear in gaudy crimson and green and mauve.” While I really like the imagery, passages like this tend to make me think of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

I would have liked to see a bit more explanations about the gate, but the author simply treats it like the MacGuffin it is. The ending is a bit predictable, and surprisingly doesn't directly set up for a sequel. The characters and world are interesting enough, though, so I’d like to see Stirling will revisit them someday.

First Sentence:
I joined the Department of Fish and Game because I couldn’t be a soldier anymore and I hate cities, Tom Christiansen thought, the Berretta cold and unforgiving in his hands.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda tells the story of Rudolf Rassendyll, a dilettantish Englishman who happens to be a dead-ringer for the king of a fictional Balkan State. The king is captured (becoming the prisoner of the title) and our hero masquerades in his place in order to thwart the kidnapper. It reminded me a lot of The Man in the Iron Mask for obvious reasons but instead of trying to replace a debauched ruler, here we are trying to save a sovereign. Zenda started a bit slowly, but once it got rolling I had a hard time putting it down.

First Sentence:
“I wonder when in the world you're going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife.

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