Monday, December 17, 2007

Empire, by Orson Scott Card

Empire, A Disturbing Look at a Possible Future, by Orson Scott Card

While entertaining at times, Seven Days In May this is not. Set in our near future, this book tells the tale of a modern American civil war. Parts of the plot are intriguing, such as the idea that extreme political polarization enables the revolt. Other were fairly silly, like the Gundam-style mechanized infantry that took over NYC or the secret base hidden under a mountain lake. I will admit that as one-dimensional as the story is (it was created as a backdrop for a computer game) I was surprised a couple of times by twists. Unfortunately they weren’t of the “I never saw it coming!” style, but more of deus ex machina “You’ve got to be kidding!” sort. I found the political characterizations to be the most interesting aspect; unless we as a country stop electing polarizing politicians that pledge allegiance to their parties instead of the people then parts of this novel could sadly be seen as prophetic rather than a plaything.

First Sentence:
The team of four Americans had been in the village for three months.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dragon’s Fire, by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Dragon’s Fire, by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

Another novel of Pern—hooray! Dragon’s Fire is about finding a safe way to mine firestone, the mineral that dragons need to consume to breathe flames, with a secondary adventure following the diminishing number of watch-whers on the planet. Because this is set long before the novels that made Pern famous, we know the eventual outcome of both plot lines; while the journey is interesting enough I never felt any real jeopardy was attached. The characters would harp (pun intended for you other dragonrider fans out there!) on the dangers of a world without firestone, but knowing that everything works out okay killed the suspense. The people just didn’t come alive as they have in previous volumes, so the personal threats didn’t work well either. Add in a loose analogy for the homeless and a one-dimensional unbelievable villain, unfortunately the only word that comes to mind to describe this is “mediocre.”

First Sentence:
“He’s still waving, isn’t he?” Master Zist called back for the third time.

Agile and Iterative Development, by Craig Larman

Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager’s Guide, by Craig Larman

This is one of those books that is useful as both an ongoing reference and as an introductory text. It provides not only a walk through of several iterative software development techniques, but targeted resources for further reading at the end of each chapter and a FAQ and bibliography at the close of the book. The topics are presented in a narrative fashion with many illustrative examples, making for both easy reading and high retention; knowing Larman’s history of developing and presenting training courses this is no surprise. Much like Rothman’s Manage It!, one of the great things about this book is that it delves into things needed for success outside the development methodology at hand; for instance, wikis and mind-maps get mentions here even though they aren’t specific to any particular technique. Larman also does a good job of discussing both the positives and negatives of various approaches, where many competing books tend to avoid the trouble areas and stick to the party line. This holistic view of the world is what makes this text rise above its brethren.

Another reason I enjoyed this book is my connection with the author: we used to work together a decade or so ago at ObjectSpace. In fact, I was one of the guys that interviewed Craig before he joined. At the time I was working in C++ and Craig had mentioned that he had a brief acquaintance with the language. He was being considered for creating and teaching OOAD and Smalltalk courses as I recall, but as an excuse for Craig to meet more people in the company we were asked to get together. Craig had flown in from Canada for a day of interviews and the word in the halls was all positive going into our session. After introductions I started in on the standard C++ language questions and we quickly discovered that he was exactly accurate with his self-evaluation of “vague familiarity.” As the session petered to an awkward close, Craig suddenly perked up and reached into his bag, pulling out a small bottle (think hotel liquor sized) of Canadian syrup saying, “I brought this for you!” Turns out he brought syrup for everyone, but the timing of remembering a gift at the end of a clumsy discussion was priceless. Of course he was hired and went on to great things, but that remains one of my favorite interview stories.

First Sentence:
What value will you get from studying this book, an introduction to iterative and agile methods?

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond

While very interesting, this was a difficult read. The style is that of a collegiate textbook written by the professor teaching the class requiring that it be read: stuffy, pretentious, and self-congratulatory. The topic, however, was intriguing enough that I slogged through the nearly 500 pages without (much) complaint. The basic tenet argued here is that the triumph of Eurasian culture is in large measure due to an accident of geography. Specifically, the horizontal orientation of Eurasia as opposed to the vertical orientation of Africa and the Americas: the climate changes in a north-south oriented geography are severe enough to prevent a widespread exchange of agricultural technologies, crops, and domesticated animals. Successful large-scale agriculture led to dense populations, innovative technology, and sophisticated trade; trade led to an exposure to a wide range of diseases for Eurasians resulting in an advanced immune system. So, when Europeans first made contact with America, the combination of disease and technology made it easier for relatively small numbers to overwhelm much larger Native American populations.

While interesting, there is one major flaw that seriously hurt the academic standing of this tome: a startling lack of references. Fact after fact is presented on virtually every page, but no indication of where these facts originate—not a footnote in sight. While I’m far from a scholar and don’t normally chase down citations when reading non-fiction, the complete lack of them I found unsettling. I’m guessing that the author’s intent was to create a popular history for the educated masses rather than a thesis targeted at academia. Seeing as the book won a Pulitzer, I suppose he succeeded!

First Sentence:
A suitable starting point from which to compare historical developments on the different continents is around 11,000 B.C.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, by Steven Levy

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, by Steven Levy

This book is part corporate history and part biography, describing how a group of mathematicians created the cryptography that allows us to safely buy books from and porn from, um, never mind. :) Thirty years ago nobody had ever heard of the NSA, the government agency responsible for decoding foreign communications, and they liked it that way. They quietly classified as much cryptological research as possible and kept the science in a backwater of mathematics. The growing distrust of the government in the late sixties coupled with the ascendancy of computers caused this to change, although not without a fight. This is the story of that fight.

I’m familiar with the Diffie-Hellman and RSA algorithms and remember the fiasco surrounding the Clipper chip, but didn’t know much of the background of these stories. Levy details the both discoveries of the public key infrastructure and the innovators themselves as well as the eventual showdowns with the government. While clearly slanted against the NSA (whom led the battle against public cryptography) Levy does a fairly good job of showing all sides of the problem. For instance, he discusses the national security ramifications of not being able to intercept covert messages and some of the huge cases that were broken due to our code-breaking ability. He also talks about the weaknesses of the algorithms we use today and describes some of the more successful attempts at breaking them. The epilogue was the most surprising to me; apparently a couple of spooks in Britain discovered PGP before we did, but kept it classified until just recently. I found this a very interesting read and recommend it to anyone wanting to understand more about the history of encryption on the Internet.

First Sentence:
Mary Fischer loathed Whitfield Diffie on sight.

Knife of Dreams, by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams, by Robert Jordan

I first picked up The Wheel of Time about three years ago (just before starting this blog) and devoured the first ten books in about a month. According to Wikipedia, this is about 3 million words! I found the characters entertaining and the plot intriguing and simply couldn’t put them down. Most series fiction like this are release at a rate of about one a year, so I eagerly awaited the next installment. Unfortunately, apparently the author was very sick and I had to wait much longer. When Knife of Dreams was released in paperback I bought it immediately, but had a very difficult time reading it. I started it two or three times over the past year, but because there had been such a long delay since I’d read the previous ones I found the number of characters and plot lines daunting. A few months ago I heard that Jordan had died and decided I finally needed to finish this.

Several of the story arcs were great: Mat and Tuon’s relationship ballet, Perrin’s rescue of Faile, and the Aes Sedai civil war all progressed nicely and were fun to read. However, Elayne’s war for the crown of Andor felt a bit forced, and the sections dealing with Rand could have been completely omitted and the book wouldn’t have suffered a bit. I understand that the overarching theme in these stories is that “what was is what will be” but the repetition of events seemed overdone. Regardless, I still enjoyed this trip back to the Westlands. The saga is clearly drawing to a close, and Jordan dictated the ending to his family before he passed so the final book will be published. With the amount of unfinished threads in this epic I expect this next book to be a monster, but I’m looking forward to it!

First Sentence:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.

Permission Marketing, by Seth Godin

Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers, by Seth Godin

The basic premise of this book is that as Americans become increasingly inured to advertising, companies are going to be forced to changed their marketing tactics to get our attention. Godin calls the techniques that are commonly used today (telemarketing, commercials, ...) Interruption Marketing and holds that it is ineffective. Permission Marketing is the answer: offering incentives to get customers to voluntarily accept advertising. Not being a huge fan of advertising myself, I found the idea on its face to be nonintuitive. Godin does a good job of explaining the benefits, though, and by the end I was persuaded to his view of the world.

As with most business books today, this one is filled with illustrative examples. Most of these are used to great effect, such as tracking customer visits and purchases in order to provide ads and suggestions that are targeted at the individual and thus more likely to result in additional sales. Some of the examples, though, are dated enough to jar the reader out of the flow. It has been a long time since Alta Vista was the most visited search engine on the Internet, and a personal services company named Streamline is touted as being on the verge of huge success due to its marketing strategy although they shut their doors about a year after the book was published. Not hugely distracting, but it did clearly illustrate that the book is nearly a decade old.

First Sentence:
It’s not your fault.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

The more I think about this book the more I liked it. It had a confusing and overcomplicated plot, but the style and imagery was captivating and I found myself in a state of eager anticipation each time I picked it up. Toru Okada is the main character and the story opens with him receiving a crank call. In short order we find he has recently quit his job, his wife leaves him, and his cat has vanished. These losses set Toru on three separate quests: to find his identity, to find his wife, and to find his cat. The crank calls act as both conscience and oracle and quickly escalate, arriving not only via telephone but through his dreams and even in person in a fashion. With a few other odd characters Toru starts down a series of vignettes that are increasingly strange and entirely unpredictable. Along the way we take huge tangents that don’t really advance the plot, but they are so entertaining that my usual complaint about poor editing doesn’t come close to applying. I found the ending a bit abrupt with too many unanswered questions, but oddly satisfying.

Originally written in Japanese, the images painted with words are both vivid and surreal. The translation by Jay Rubin is amazing; with only one exception (a passage where the speaker drops into English to make a point) there was no stilted or off-kilter phrasing indicating that English wasn’t the originating language. Three random quotes I particularly liked:
    “If the Dalai Lama were on his deathbed and the jazz musician Eric Dolphy were to try to explain to him the importance of choosing one’s engine oil in accordance with changes in the sound of the base clarinet, that exchange might have been a touch more worthwhile and effective than my conversations with Noboru Wataya.”
    “"Oh well, never mind," she said, her voice like a little broom sweeping off the dust that had piled up on the slats of a venetian blind.”
    “It was fairly nice music, but the kind that seems to melt into the air the moment it emerges from its source.”

First Sentence:
When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George

What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George

This book tells the story of the kid that killed Helen Lynley in George's last book. It was an interesting tale, but I found it way too long. We learn not only about why an eleven year old boy would shoot a stranger, but about his brother, sister, mother, aunt, everyone. Almost 600 pages of an overly-intricate plot, telling an extremely bleak and depressing tale. George's editor did her a huge disservice by not tightening this up.

The author's intent was clearly to generate sympathy for the killer, to try and get the reader to see that violent crimes aren't all committed by evil people. I think it was laid on way too thick: murder, rape, theft, abandonment, child abuse, drugs, gangs, and mental handicaps all affected this family. We are supposed to think that society put Joel into a situation where he committed a heinous crime, but the truth of the matter is he knew what he was getting into. I hope George leaves the political posturing to the editorial page of the paper and gets back to writing mysteries.

First Sentence:
Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France, by David Walsh

From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France, by David Walsh

Bleah. This is a one-sided whack job on Lance Armstrong, all circumstantial evidence and hearsay. I'm not a cycling fan and there has been plenty of proof that the sport is riddled with performance enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that no allegations against Lance have yet been proven. Do I think Lance is a clean rider? The circumstances seems against him, but with cycling officials, opposing teams, and the world at large watching him like a hawk, it seems very odd that no one can catch him in the act. We are supposed to believe the author is a non-partisan journalist simply presenting interviews and background information, allowing the reader to decide who to believe. Unfortunately, it is all very one-sided with no realistic opposing viewpoint. Considering that Walsh is also the author of L.A. Confidentiel, a French anti-Armstrong book, the idea of journalistic integrity is completely shattered.

First Sentence:
It was one of the tougher moments in Greg Strock's unfulfilled career in cycling: the moment when he had to accept it was over.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Back Story, by Robert B. Parker

Back Story, by Robert K. Parker

I’ve mentioned Spenser before; he is one of my favorite gumshoes. It has been a long time since I’d read one so when I spotted this at the library I nabbed it. All of the Spenser books are fun, and this one is no exception. The formula is intact (start with a simple case, mix in the mob as things get more complicated, several attempts on our heroes life, and finally a happy ending) and while predictable it is still a great read.

Besides Spenser, Parker also writes novels starring a sheriff named Jesse Stone (played by Tom Selleck in the made-for-tv movies). In Back Story, Spenser and Jesse meet and even work together a bit. Again, predictable but fun! I always have the images of Robert Urich and Avery Brooks (Spenser and Hawk respectively, from Spenser For Hire) when reading Spenser; adding Selleck to the vistas in my head was only natural. I’d forgotten how much I liked these characters; I won’t wait this long before visiting again.

First Sentence:
It was a late May morning in Boston.

Servant Leadership, by Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, by Robert K. Greenleaf

This book was written thirty years ago, but is still very relevant today. Not just in its message that true leadership is an inner quality as much as an exercise in power, but in the world that prompted the author to put pen to paper. “We are prone to adventurous and illegal wars. Confidence in the integrity of elected officials is at a low point. The total tax structure is a perversion. The treatment of prisoners is barbaric. The cost of it all is staggering.” Sound familiar?

Servant leadership embraces the idea that leaders should serve others by removing obstacles and staying focused on the organization’s values and integrity rather than any overt decisions. I find this idea appealing as it fits in well with agile software development techniques. An agile leader is responsible for having the big picture and for removing any roadblocks the team encounters, but not responsible for doing any of the work itself. This is very much the focus of the book.

While the themes were both interesting and valuable, the style was off-putting. I got the strong impression that the author was a bit of a hippie; not a hipster, but a tie-dyed hippie. I’m all for the zen aspects, but the anti-establishment ideas were often just silly. The nuttiest was the thought that we should reform our educational system by only teaching those that actually want to be taught. While it is a lovely idea that children will attend school without coercion and once there pursue a course of well-rounded instruction, anyone that believes this will lead to a scholarship intensive society is smoking something. Of course, hippies and smoking aren’t exactly enemies... :)

First Sentence:
Servant and leader—can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling?

The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel

The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, by Lee Strobel

This is supposedly the tale of a skeptic investigating the historical evidence of the existence of Christ. While Strobel may have been a skeptic at one point in his life, he clearly isn’t now. The story is that of a non-believer using investigative journalism to prove or disprove the story of Christ (although the outcome is never in doubt). The author used to be a reporter covering courtrooms and the style is very reminiscent of your favorite courtroom drama. Or to be more accurate, the prosecution side of a courtroom drama—there is no rebuttal so the presentation is entirely one sided. Like any good lawyer, several opposing factors are discussed (such as gospels excluded from the Bible containing contradictory evidence) but never in any serious detail. The reader is supposed to walk away convinced that an objective truth stating that Jesus Christ is the son of God has been established beyond any doubt, but the lack of any believable counterarguments make it impossible to accept this.

I found that while clearly biased the book effectively supports the argument that a man named Jesus existed and was the leader of a revolutionary faith. The author does a good job of examining historical and archaeological contexts and making the case that Jesus was not a myth. The problem comes when the subject of faith arises; because much of the New Testament can be shown to be historically accurate, we are expected to believe that it all is. While an interesting read, I still wasn’t convinced to make this leap.

I finished this a few weeks ago, but have been fairly busy and just now getting around to discussing it. When I read a book, I try and keep a set of Post-It® Flags at hand to mark passages I might discuss in this forum. Interestingly, I found that of the dozen or so flags I used while reading, virtually none of the marked passages still held much interest to me. Some excerpts I’d marked were flat out unbelievable (such as an argument that canon had no relationship to church politics) while others were simply silly (the implication that this book doesn’t have a theological agenda). The only section that still had any impact was the conclusion. The reader is told that a person can’t think of Jesus as simply a great moral teacher, but must believe that either he is the Son of God or a lunatic. I find this an extremely odd assertion for a text that is supposedly trying to present a balanced message; I think this could have been much more effective as a tool for modifying beliefs if the “evidence” had been simply presented, with the conclusions left to the reader. If I’m forced to choose between only dogma and dementia, this book did nothing to sway my beliefs towards the former.

First Sentence:
When I first met shy and soft-spoken Leo Carter, he was a seventeen-year-old veteran of Chicago’s grittiest neighborhood.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Core JavaServer™ Faces, by David Geary and Cay Horstmann

Core JavaServer™ Faces, by David Geary and Cay Horstmann

I found this to be a concise and informative volume discussing JavaServer Faces. It did a good job of showing both how the technology works and why it can save a developer time and effort. After reading it, I was able to look at a fairly complicated source tree using JSF and quickly make sense of it. As is the case with most technical texts these days it is laden with examples; this is both a blessing and a curse. Because Faces is a web solution, it needs a beefy technology stack to be useful; I thought the stack that the authors chose was discussed in much more detail than was needed. Towards the end of the book, there were a lot of orthogonal tools mentioned as well that seemed very out of place. While interesting, LDAP and Seam don’t have much to do with web front ends. All in all, a solid introduction to JSF.

First Sentence:
Judging from the job advertisements at employment web sites, there are two popular techniques for developing web applications:
  • The “rapid development” style, in which you use a visual development environment, such as Microsoft APS.NET
  • The “hard-core coding” style, in which you write lots of code to support a high-performance backend, such as Java EE (Java Enterprise Edition)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Live From New York, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

“October 11, 1975. A date which will live in comedy.”

I’ve watched Saturday Night Live off and on since high school. Dennis Miller is still still my favorite Weekend Update anchor (with Norm Macdonald and Chevy Chase close behind), Phil Hartman was the definitive Reagan, and Church Chat was special. Of course, the previous seasons were in heavy rotation as well, and Roseanne Rosannadanna, the Blues Brothers, and the (Candygram) Land Shark quickly became old friends. The more recent casts aren’t as consistently interesting to me (with the notable exception of the Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches) and until Tina Fey came along there hadn’t been a funny woman in the cast since Julia Sweeney. Regardless of the recent downturn, SNL is an important part of our culture and I when I came across this book, subtitled “An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” I couldn’t resist picking it up.

At over 600 pages this is a hefty tome, but so interesting I had a tough time putting it down. Instead of a single narrative, we are presented with excerpts of interviews with cast members, writers, executives, and hosts spanning the first thirty years of the show. The excerpts are reasonably short (usually two or three to a page) and loosely linked; when someone mentions something memorable, say when Jean Doumanian took over from Lorne Michaels for a few years, several people will reminisce about the same topic giving us a multi-faceted view. We learn that the original cast was amazingly promiscuous and drug-addled, that pretty much nobody likes Chevy Chase, and that Janeane Garofalo resents her time as a cast member. We hear about the ongoing battles with the network censors, the insane schedules the writers keep to create the sketches, and who the favorite (Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken) and hated (Steven Segal, Milton Berle) hosts are. We also hear about some of the most memorable events of the show, such as when Norm Macdonald accidentally cursed on the air or Sinead O’Connor ripped a photo of the Pope or Nora Dunn’s feud with Andrew Dice Clay. All in all, I found this a fairly honest examination of what happens behind the scenes of a venerated institution. Only one improvement comes to mind: more cowbell!

First Sentence:
Like all show business successes, Saturday Night Live had many fathers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It's a Man's World: 800 Jokes from the Guy's (Warped) Point of View, by Judy Brown

This is an odd collection of humor: borderline misogynistic but not obscene, definitely politically incorrect. Many reminded me of the jokes I thought were dirty in fourth grade: not yet pornographic but certainly not to be told in front of my parents, either. Funny stuff, but not for everyone. A sampling of my favorites:

I can’t get past the fact that food is coming out of my wife’s breasts. What was once essentially an entertainment center has now become a juice bar.
—Paul Reiser
The cop asked how fast I was going. I said, “All I know is I spilled beer all over my hooker.”
—Craig Kilborn
Every porno movie should be called “Stuff That Never Happens to You.”
—Richard Jeni
A lady came up to me on the street and pointed at my suede jacket. “Did you know a cow was murdered for that jacket?” she sneered. I replied in a psychotic tone, “I didn’t know there were any witnesses. Now I’ll have to kill you too.”
—Jake Johannsen
Two guys walk into a bar. You’d think one of them would have seen it.
—Daniel Lybra
Dating is hard, and I figured out why. It’s those damn romantic comedies. No guy can be this nice, sweet, and understanding. Here’s a good example, my ex and I get out of a movie and she turns to me and asks, “Why can’t you be more like those guys in the romantic comedies?” So I turned to her and said, “I don’t know, why can’t you be more like the chicks in pornos?”
—Todd Larson
What if God’s a woman? Not only am I going to hell, I’ll never know why.
—Adam Ferrara
I celebrated Thanksgiving in the traditional way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast. And then I killed them and took their land.
—Jon Stewart
I was pulled over in Massachusetts for reckless driving. The judge asked me, “Do you know what the penalty for drunk driving in this state is?” I said, “I don’t know. Reelection to the Senate?”
—Emo Philips


First Sentence (from the foreward):
It may no longer be a man’s world exclusively, but for the sake of the little boy in all of you, I’ve constructed a joke version of The Little Rascals’ He-Man Woman Haters Club: a book where male comedians promote masculine humor for guys who may feel nostalgic for those bygone days in which they seemed to get their way.

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Timothy Ferriss

I’m honestly not sure exactly how I feel about this book. It contains some excellent advice—“don’t tolerate the mediocre” is a phrase that I particularly like—as well as some ethically-challenged advice, such as “get good at being a troublemaker and saying sorry when you screw up.” This duality is common throughout; in some places the advice seems sage and reminiscent of The E-Myth and in others more like a guide for fraudulent used car salesmen or scammers. Regardless, it has sparked interesting discussions with several of my friends.

One concept I really liked was that some kinds of stress are actually healthful and needed for personal growth. Ferriss calls this concept eustress, as in the opposite of distress. Distress refers to stressors which cause pain and suffering, in this context things like destructive criticism and abusive bosses. Eustress is stress that is positive and the stimulus for growth, such as constructive criticism, role models, and physical training. People who avoid all criticism fail. Role models that push us to succeed, to stretch our limits, and to accept risk and grow should be desired. It seems the complete elimination of stress is the main goal of many people these days; I found the idea of eustress a refreshing alternate viewpoint.

A recurring theme in the book is to outsource virtually everything you do; firms like YMII, Elance, and Brickwork India will provide assistants to help you do anything from market research to balancing your checkbook. The idea is that if you get others to do your work, then you have nothing but leisure time! I find this a fascinating idea, but one that doesn’t scale well. Assuming everyone bought into this, who is left to do the work? I suppose that is a problem for future generations, though; for now there is no shortage of people willing to supply labor for outsourcing. There are some ethical issues here too; as a manager when I hire someone I hire for the skills displayed during the interview, not for their ability to outsource assignments. Ferriss puts forth the defense that if the work is getting done the company won’t care, but I’m not entirely comfortable with that rationalization. Again, this makes for excellent discussions with your colleagues!

First Sentence:
His friends, drunk to the point of speaking in tongues, were asleep.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, by Bruce Campbell

Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, by Bruce Campbell

This is one of the funniest damn books I’ve read in a long time. I opened it last night and couldn’t put it down until I was done; I often laughed out loud, once even waking up my sleeping wife! Campbell tells us how he landed a part in a Mike Nichols movie and what happens as the production gets underway. What starts as simple research into his role as a doorman ends up with Campbell being chased by the Secret Service, and simple suggestions to the cast and crew result in script changes that increasingly move the lighthearted romantic comedy further from its roots—and closer to something fans of Ash might recognize!

Campbell is at his funniest here: self-deprecating and sly, outrageous and absurd. We see a Buddhist in a fistfight and picking up a one night stand. We see a duel fought outside a southern strip club. An eco-terrorist is captured and a plot to rob the Smithsonian is foiled. There are funny Photoshopped pictures throughout as well; my favorite was the Welcome to Michigan sign that included the phrases, “Great Lakes, Great Times, Ohio State Sucks!” I loved Campbell’s In Chins Could Kill and this one was even better! Groovy!

First Sentence:
I read the e-mail out loud and wrinkled my nose when I got to the “another book of this type” part.

Accidental Empires, by Robert X. Cringley

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, by Robert X. Cringely

Accidental Empires tells of the rise of software and the downfall of hardware. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Aldus, and Adobe as well as products such as Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and IBM’s PC family all have their histories told in varying degrees of detail. Those sections are both engrossing and informative. However, when Cringley talks about the individuals involved (especially Gates and Jobs) he comes off as a bit angry; for instance, Gates’ poor personal hygiene and Jobs’ megalomania are often ridiculed—I suspect the intent was humorous but instead it seemed snarky. The book really goes off the rails, though, in the sections where the narcissistic tendencies of the author are in full force. We get Cringley’s opinions on what makes a company succeed or fail and advice for entrepreneurs. We hear many times of the greatness of InfoWorld (Cringley’s employer at the time) and which software luminaries ask Cringley for advice. We even learn his draft number for Vietnam and the fact that he wears cotton briefs instead of boxers. While I’m sure the author’s family was impressed, I wasn’t.

Last updated in 1996, this book is badly dated. NeXT is presented a viable platform, Novell “absolutely controls the PC networking business,” open computing is equated with client-server architectures, and Y2K is predicted to utterly destroy the mainframe industry. Hmmm. (The most unfortunate quote has to be, “Think of Bill Gates as the emir of Kuwait and Steve Jobs as Saddam Hussein.” Considering today’s common perception today that Microsoft is evil and Apple is visionary, this is particularly ironic.) To be fair, I imagine a book written today about current events will appear to be out-of-date in ten years so it is hard to complain too much, but it was a bit distracting.

I picked this up because I liked the subtitle: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. The style implied by the cover doesn’t disappoint; I found the tone to be funny, informal, and irreverent. If you are interested in a broad overview of the history of the modern software industry, this is an excellent read. If you don’t like smug commentary, though, you might want to look elsewhere.

First Sentence:
Years ago, when you were a kid and I was a kid, something changed in America.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Black Swan, by Nassin Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassin Nicholas Taleb

This book examines the fallacies of forecasting and the hidden risks we all (usually unknowingly) accept by ignoring the problems with our statistical methods. For instance, Wall Street brokers use amazingly complicated models to predict which stocks will rise and fall, but none of these models ever seem to protect the public from crashes due to events such as 9-11 or Enron. These rare events affect our portfolios in a much more significant way than any daily gain or loss, yet the future-looking models don’t warn us when needed. Taleb believes that this is because the most important changes in our world can’t be predicted: “History does not crawl, it jumps.”

I really liked the writing style the author uses here. Uncommon words and complicated sentences are often encountered, but I never got the impression that Taleb was trying to impress anyone; he simply comes across as smart: “The discovery of human epistemic arrogance ... was allegedly inadvertent.” He doesn’t dumb down the admittedly intricate topic, but treats the reader as an equal. Refreshing. I also enjoyed the author’s sly sense of humor. “Assume that you round up a thousand people randomly selected from the general population and have them stand next to one another in a stadium. You can even include Frenchmen (but please, not too many out of consideration for the others in the group), Mafia members, non-Mafia members, and vegetarians.” Lines like these often made me smile, something I didn’t expect from an opinionated book discussing history, philosophy, and statistics.

First Sentence:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull.

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block

Another fun entry in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series! The plot is much the same as we’ve seen before: Bernie pulls a carefully planned heist, gets framed for murder, sleeps with a woman he just met, and eventually solves the crime clears his name. Predictable, but fun! In many ways, this series reminds me of Remington Steele with its offbeat approach and zany antics. Even the titles use the same gag, with all the Bernie books using the word burglar and every episode of Remington Steele including the word Steele. This book was an entertaining diversion for the hour or so it took to read.

First Sentence:
It was a slow day at Barnegat Books, but then most of them are.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chris Bunch's The Gangster Conspiracy, by Steve Perry and Dal Perry

Chris Bunch's The Gangster Conspiracy: A Star Risk, Ltd., Novel , by Steve Perry and Dal Perry

Chris Bunch died a few years ago, so I was surprised to see a new novel in his Star Risk, Ltd. universe. Turns out that Bunch had the outline of a novel ready to go when he passed, so his friend and fellow writer Steve Perry and his son finished it for publication. I was hoping it wasn't as bad as other authors that have had books written posthumously, and luckily it wasn't. In fact, it was pretty good! The Star Risk novels are easily compared to action movies: wry humor and action sequences are more important than plot or character development and in the end everyone gets their just desserts. The Gangster Conspiracy is no exception and delivers on the promise. The ending finds the heroes wealthy and happy and going their separate ways so it is probable this will be the last entry in the chain of novels; this seems fitting as any future exploits won't have Bunch's hand in them. Regardless, the Star Risk series has been a guilty pleasure, and I've enjoyed reading them all.

First Sentence:
If you had to go broke, there were worse places to do it than the new Star Risk Ltd. offices.

Powers of Detection, edited by Dana Stabenow

Powers of Detection: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy, edited by Dana Stabenow

Similar to Murder by Magic, this anthology blends the mystery and fantasy genres in twelve short stories. Interestingly, Stabenow in the introduction says that she only put together Powers of Detection because her (excellent) story Justice is a Two-Edged Sword was rejected for Murder by Magic for being too long. I think Stabenow’s collection is more even quality-wise than Edghill’s, but both are quite enjoyable.

Fairy Dust by Charlaine Harris was my favorite, a story set in rural Louisiana where a couple of fairies ask a mind reader to solve a murder at a strip club. (I also agree with the editor that the opening line is fantastic: “I hate it when fairies come into the bar.”) The Price by Anne Bishop is also very strong; I’d be interested in reading a novel focused on the antagonist and the odd world in which she lives. Lovely by John Straley was the most unique with the protagonist being a raven, although Simon R. Green’s The Nightside, Needless to Say is a close second where the hero is a zombie. The weakest story in my opinion is Mike Doogan’s The Death of Clickclickwhistle although the curses and exclamations of the characters are fantastic: everyone uses famous villains to cuss! “Why in the name of Jeffrey Dahmer do you talk like that?” “Adolf Hitler!” “Vlad the Impaler!” “Ah, Saddam Hussein.” And of course, “George W. Bush!” Great stuff!

First Sentence (From the introduction):
This anthology is all Laura Anne Gilman’s fault.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

D Magazine's Dallas: The 30 Greatest Stories Ever Told, edited by McGill and Rogers

D Magazine is like most local interest magazines: it covers a range of topics including politics, crime, business, and lifestyles aimed at the affluent local (in this case, Dallas) crowd. To celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2004, the periodical released a book containing 30 stories that span the publication’s history. I grew up in the Dallas area and was looking forward to reading this, but many of the stories are badly dated. Blackie Sherrod’s ode to Jack Proctor for instance didn’t have much meaning to me because I’d never heard of Proctor. Tom Stephenson’s description of the Cullen Davis murder investigation was a compelling read, but because it was written before the trial actually took place it was a frustrating finish that left me hanging. Mike Shropshire’s examination of the Clayton Williams gubernatorial campaign suffers in a similar fashion, as the election hadn’t yet taken place. This book would have been much more interesting if the editors had provided introductions or epilogues to illuminate the vignettes. If you spent any time in the Metroplex during the 80’s or 90’s then you might enjoy reading this—despite the tone of this review, I did like this book—but without a connection to the area (and the lack of any expository text) I suspect you’ll find this a bit of a mess.

First Sentence (from the Foreward):
It seemed a simple task: pick the 30 greatest stories ever told in the pages of D Magazine.

Machiavelli for Beginners, by Curry and Zarate

Machiavelli for Beginners, by Curry and Zarate

I spied this on the bookshelf at a friend’s place: a short, illustrated biography of Machiavelli. With Karl Rove in the news so much these days, I couldn’t resist borrowing it. I’d read The Prince in high school but hadn’t retained much and knew even less about the author himself. This does a good job of both summarizing the life of Machiavelli and explaining the political and social dynamics of the day. Even without an interest in the Machiavelli and politics of power, this is a fascinating book simply for the presentation. The illustrations use many styles, from cartoons to woodcuts, collage to post-impressionism. The exposition is part text and part comic book style speech balloons. The combinations lead to a wide variety of unique looks that keep the pages turning—I consumed this in a single sitting. This is a quick, easy read that is both entertaining and informative; I quite enjoyed it.

First Sentence:
For over four hundred years, Niccolò Machiavelli has been a byword for cynicism, immorality and cruelty in politics.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

End of Story, by Peter Abrahams

End of Story, by Peter Abrahams

An unpublished writer gets a job working with inmates and decides one of them is innocent, taking it upon herself to solve a crime that is nearly ten years old. Why does she decide this felon is innocent? Because he is a great writer. (Clearly people with the noble skill of creating prose can’t be criminals, right?) This writer-cum-waitress is bright enough to figure out what happened to a guy that disappeared from witness protection, finds the obvious clue that all the cops missed at the time, but doesn’t see that breaking someone out of prison is a bad idea. Bleah. If you like one-dimensional characters, people used as MacGuffins, and telegraphed plots, then this is the mystery for you!

First Sentence:
“How is going the writing?” said Dragan Karodojic.

John Adams, by David McCullough

John Adams, by David McCullough

I’ve always been interested in the early days of our country, but until now have read mostly historical views of the times such as The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers and Witnesses at the Creation and not much about the lives of the people involved. Most of what I knew about Adams was vague snippets from high school history: a signer of the declaration, the first ambassador to the Court of St. James, and our second President. My wife and I recently saw a local performance of the musical 1776 and I realized how shallow my understanding was. I’d loved McCullough’s Truman, so I picked up his John Adams hoping for a similar experience. This is the second book for which McCullough has won a Pulitzer Prize and the second that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Much of the biography is told in the words of the subject: excerpts from letters written by Adams, his wife Abigail, or Thomas Jefferson appear on nearly every page. (To see how much insight we gain by looking at period correspondence is humbling; today email has clearly taken the place of hand-written letters and I suddenly think history will be poorer for it.) I was very surprised to see how integral Abigail was in John’s decision making process; I’ve always had the impression that the opinions of women at that time were considered trifling at best, but this union appears to be a true partnership, more like I’d expect to find today. McCullough clearly believes John Adams would never have achieved his success without the guidance of Abigail, and he makes an excellent case.

One frustrating thing for me was trying to keep all the players straight. I’m not sure if it was unique to the Adams family or simply the way it was done back then, but many people were given the same name as their father or mother. Three John Adamses, two John Quincy Adamses, and four Abigails in just four generations, and not a single Senior, Junior, or nickname in the bunch! The author does an admirable job of limiting the confusion, but at times it was hard to follow some of the passages. Overall, though, this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a compelling read.

First Sentence:
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.

Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management, by Johanna Rothman

Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management, by Johanna Rothman

This book is best summed up on the cover: “There is no One True Way that works for all projects.” That message alone makes this one of the most valuable management texts I’ve read in a while. Most books in this genre detail a single approach to project management and claim superiority over all others. Rothman take a much more pragmatic approach (not too surprising as this is published under The Pragmatic Programmer banner) that is refreshing in its honesty. Instead of being told to drink the kool-aid for any one particular style, we are shown the buffet and told to take what we want.

There are many gems of wisdom here, several of which resonated with me. The variety of topics is wide, ranging from planning to completion, managing up as well as down, hardware projects (albeit briefly) as well as software, and managing multi-site projects and multi-project programs. The topic of testing has a good overview as well, from unit level at one end of the spectrum to system testing at the other. One interesting discussion describes the difference between QA and testing (and today’s reality that most QA groups are really testing groups): QA can and should reach into all aspects of a product—including the development process itself—and has the power to make changes to improve the quality of not just the product but the organization as a whole. I’ve met a few QA managers that fit this description, but by and large I realize my experience has been with mis-titled testers instead; I suspect this section will color my view towards this area of software development for the foreseeable future.

One piece of advice I liked was the recommendation for managers to develop multiple skills while on a project: interpersonal, functional, domain, and non-technical. Instead of simply getting to know the requirements and schedules, work with everyone involved to become a well-rounded manager in both knowledge and skill. Even if the project fails (and Rothman also advocates that knowing when it is time to leave a failing company or project is an important skill) your professional development still advances. Too often it is too easy for me to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of getting a project to completion; remembering to stop and smell the flowers and examine the big picture strikes me as an excellent idea.

This book covers a wealth of topics and yet is less than 350 pages; this means that many terms and approaches aren’t covered in great detail. They are all summarized, though, and a healthy bibliography is in the back so avenues of further research are easily discovered. If you are about to embark on your first management gig or if you are a grizzled veteran, this text should be on your bookshelf.

First Sentence:
The easiest way to start a project wrong is to just start.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Texas Music

Diamonds in the Sun, by Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros

My wife and kids are our of town for a few days, so I thought I'd get out and see some live music—something I don't get to do much anymore.

I heard an artist a few months ago at SxSW that I really liked, Walt Wilkins. I've been waiting for his new CD ever since, so when I saw that he was performing at Antone's on Tuesday celebrating its release, I went. I'm really glad I did—the band sounded great! They played all the tracks from Diamonds in the Sun, plus several extra numbers. I didn't see too many people purchasing CDs before the band started playing, but midway through the set the ones they had on hand sold out! I wasn't quick enough to get one so I went down the street to Waterloo Records afterwards and picked it up. There were two other people in the store doing the same thing I was—surely a good sign for the disc. There are several great tunes here, but my early favorites are Stand Up Seven (a bluesy number with good advice) and Honky-Tonk Road (a story of a band on the road). Great CD, pick it up if you get a chance.

On Wednesday night I drove down to Hill's Cafe to hear Two Tons of Steel at the KVET Free Texas Music Series. It has been raining nearly every day here in Austin, but luckily it quit just enough for the band to perform (Hill's has an outside stage). Tow Tons is a great band; they call their sound countrybilly—I always think of Brian Setzer playing country music. Before the show I was talking to Chris Dodds, the drummer, and we discovered that several years ago he used to work for the same company I do now! Small world, for sure.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Ten Gallons!

“id=”BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5090590954833926226 As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a regular blood donor. I went in this afternoon to give and was told I’d reached the ten gallon mark! I’m pretty happy, as I can’t seem to keep other good habits going on a regular basis. I’ll work out for a while, then lapse into watching sports on TV instead; I’ll eat healthy, then find myself gorging at Burger Tex; I’ll drink only water for a while, then spend $150 buying every style of Dogfish Head at Grape Vine Market and drink it all in a long weekend. For some reason, though, making fairly regular blood donations is something I’ve managed to keep up with over time. I struck up a conversation with a fellow donor and was fairly pleased with myself for reaching ten gallons—then he told me he’d just reached the fifty gallon mark. Yeah, fifty gallons! It took him 33 years, but still damn impressive. I’ve got a new goal now!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, by Scott Gray

The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, by Scott Gray

I found this book quite interesting, although the writing was terrible. I’ve heard a lot about Bill James and was looking forward to learning more about him. Because of the wide range of topics, this is neither a complete biography or a well-rounded baseball discussion. Gray is clearly a huge James fan and spent a lot of time fawning over him and making odd comparisons, such as “Bill James was the closest thing to Neo that the baseball matrix has ever seen.” The basics are covered (birth, marriage, kids) but not in much detail and thick with baseball allusions: “[Bill’s wife] threw out the ‘first ball,’ as it were—a baby girl named Rachel.” In addition to the sparse biographical information, we get long passages about James’ opinion on non-baseball topics such as what evidence juries can see and the criminal justice system. Of course, James did often weave such tangents into his Abstracts, so I suppose this could be seen as a parallel, but I found it distracting.

This book generated a lot of discussion in my book group. We are all baseball fans (or in one case, was before the strike) and I was surprised at the widely varying opinions. In fact, about all we could agree on was that this was a poorly written book! The biggest argument was around James’ contention that the minor league system is a charade: “Players are assigned to the minor league team ... without the team having any say ... anonymous young men playing to develop skills rather than playing to win. ... If you’re selling a sport and the players don’t care about winning, that’s not a sport. That’s a fraud.” While there is a bit of truth here, ironically we were discussing this while watching the local Triple-A franchise—along with over 8,500 other fans. Considering we were nine games out of first place and there was a 40+ minute rain delay, “fraud” seems an overstatement to me.

The appendix was by far my favorite part. It was a collection of short paragraphs that shared many of the essential ideas that James brought to the baseball world. Many of these show why he is considered controversial: clutch hitting is a myth, aggressive base running hurts a team more than it helps, and the designated hitter increases strategy to name a few. The ideas here countered many of the wilder opinions presented in the main text, such as having variable distances between the bases depending on the park dimensions. Yeah, you read that right!

First Sentence:
Like William Shatner singing “Rocket Man,” bad lineups have a perverse appeal.

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, edited by Matthew Diffee

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, edited by Matthew Diffee

A few months ago I read a book about rejected cartoons that was a bit disappointing. A friend then let me borrow this one, promising it was much better. He was right! Many of the cartoons made me laugh out loud and were funnier than others I’ve seen in the New Yorker. What this collection was missing was a description of why these in particular were rejected, although the implication is that they were too risqué or wierd for the magazine. There was a brief introduction to each artist that more than made up for this failing, though. Each artist filled out a two page questionnaire, which was filled to bursting with humor. Some doodled over the whole thing, others answered the questions with tongue firmly placed in cheek (“What’s the hardest part of cartooning?” “Groupies.”), but my favorites were where the cartoonist was asked to draw something about his childhood. Amusingly, an amazing number of them dealt with nuns and priests. This book is well worth your time!

First Sentence (from the introduction):
Let me tell you how lucky I am.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Built To Last, by Collins and Porras

Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Collins and Porras

The subtitle of this book is Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, but that turns out to be a better description of the content than Built To Last. This is a large case study of companies that have been successful for over 50 years (American Express, Merck, Nordstrom, 3M, IBM, Disney, Boeing, Ford, Motorola, Wal-Mart, ...) and are widely respected by modern CEOs. There are lessons here to be sure, but in the same fashion as in The Tipping Point it is all anecdotal, not causal. Observing that all these companies have common traits is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that companies that have these traits will be successful. Collins and Porras mitigate this lack of proof quite a bit, however, by examining rival companies (Wells Fargo, Pfizer, Melville, Norton, Burroughs, Columbia Pictures, McDonnell Douglas, General Motors, Zenith, Ames, ...) and finding them lacking.

While interesting, much of the book was repetitive. It would bring up a trait or lesson (i.e., “Not all visionary companies are founded by visionary leaders”) and then explore how several of the companies in the use case illustrate the tenet and how the anti-companies don’t. The corporate histories were interesting, but in many cases I thought the point was made well before the examples stopped. Towards the end the authors start trying to show how these lessons can be applied to today’s corporations, but I thought this material was covered much better in Leading Change. Built To Last also felt very dated, which I found ironic due to the title. Many of the companies used as anti-examples no longer exist (e.g., Melville, Burroughs, Columbia, Ames) as described, and some of the positive examples (Ford, Wal-Mart) aren’t as admired as they once were. One passage that jumped out at me as anachronistic: “Picture an urban freeway without Marlboro cowboy billboards or rural America without Wal-Mart stores.” Wal-Mart hasn’t been “rural” for over a decade and the last time I remember seeing the Marlboro man he was being played by Don Johnson. Considering the book was first released in 1994 I found this quite surprising.

Negatives aside, this book is definitely worth reading. The keys to visionary companies are few: a strong core ideology, good succession planning, and audacious goals. Core values give a company the ability to use something other than profit and opportunity to make decisions. Succession planning allows organizations to thrive after the founder or other talented leadership retire. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (as the authors term them) give employees something that both unites and motivates them. Together, these factors were found in all successful visionary companies the authors studied. It has been a long time (if ever!) since I’ve worked in a place that had a solid vision or bold goals, but these are certainly ideas for which I’ll be on the lookout in future job searches.

First Sentence:
This is not a book about charismatic visionary leaders.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris is a very emotional man. He calls his tone impatient, but it came across to me as simply angry. I saw Sam Harris discussing this book on The Daily Show and it piqued my interest enough pick it up. It generated a lot of discussion amongst my friends, but the anger hurts what is supposed to be a rational argument: faith itself is the most dangerous element of modern life.

While many of the ideas in the first two chapters are intriguing, the book degenerated into a rant against both Islam and Christianity. In many ways, this is the sort of book that gives such a negative slant to the word atheist. There is a huge difference between someone that simply doesn’t believe in a supreme being and someone that wants everyone else to not believe as well. The first could be your next door neighbor and friend, the second in most perspectives is a negative influence on society (although not much different than missionaries, in my view). This difference between non-belief and preaching non-belief is what in my opinion makes Harris’ form of atheism simply another religion.

I believe that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and widespread tolerance and understanding are the only ways this planet will survive. Harris disagrees, stating: “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance ... is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” Many of the wars and crimes this world has experienced do have a religious back story (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, the Holocaust, 9-11, ...), but I don’t think that it follows that religion itself is the only cause. I doubt that the eradication of religion will stop violence on this scale, but tolerance might. Harris claims that “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse,” but I find this patently untrue beyond the extremists. While it seems unlikely that the Pope is going to relent on his anti-homosexual stance, the previously taboo topic of contraception is apparently up for debate. Clearly this illustrates even the most intractable religious organizations can change their views regardless of the supposed infallibility of their sacred texts. How then can you argue that religion can’t be discussed rationally? Tolerance isn’t a bad thing, but zealotry is; unfortunately zealotry seems to rule the day, both in this country and abroad. I think this is the point Harris is trying to make here, but he buries the lead with his own brand of fanaticism.

I don’t believe in a supreme being or miracles. I see no reason to believe in the God of Abraham instead of Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In fact, I find it easier to accept that the occasional time traveler from our future brings sufficiently advanced technology to the past accounting for supposed miracles rather than an omnipotent being which demands our worship. (Note that I doubt time travel is possible either, but it seems more reasonable than religious mythology.) So will I go to hell if I’m wrong? Nobody can say for sure. I try to live my life in a positive fashion, to do no evil as Google would put it. If there is a just God as most people believe, I’d hope he’d view me with a positive eye and let me into Heaven when the time comes. If God turns out to be capricious and caring more for one’s professed devotion than their actual behavior, well, then say a prayer for me. :)

First Sentence:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Born to Steal, by Gary Weiss

Born to Steal: When the Mafia Hit Wall Street, by Gary Weiss

This book had great potential, but was ultimately disappointing. Louis Pasciuto was a punk that worked chop houses in the 1990's and got mixed up with the mob. I was expecting Boiler Room, but instead got 54. The text is largely quotes from Pascituo, sometimes going on for pages at a time—so much so that Pascituo should claim co-authorship. Pascituo comes off as a poorly educated thug, almost a caricature you'd see on The Sopranos. Weiss does a poor job of explaining how someone like this could successfully sell stocks over the phone, a job that requires considerable persuasion. The most glaring flaw, though, was that Weiss matches Pascituo's tone and language throughout, meaning even when not reading direct quotes we get profanity and off-color similes such as, "one of the firms he changed as often as whores changed tampons." While the actual story told is fairly interesting, the book itself is a bit of a mess.

First Sentence:
Louis always knew that Santa Claus was a crock of shit.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Book of Fate, by Brad Meltzer

The Book of Fate, by Brad Meltzer

I am familiar with Meltzer from his work in comics such as Identity Crisis and Justice League and was looking forward to this. With the Masonic square and compass on the cover and the blurb on the back discussing a two-hundred-year-old secret I was expecting another DaVinci Code. I didn't get it. Don't get me wrong, this was a good story, but the Freemason angle didn't really factor into this—a bit of false advertising.

The plot is set in the world of post-office Presidential politics, and Meltzer clearly did his research. The details of how a former President lives and works had a very authentic feel; in an interview he tells of the access he was granted by Bush and Clinton to create this reality. It was a fascinating glimpse into this world that made me want to learn more about life-after-office. In any case, the story was pretty complicated, including a conspiracy, a guy once thought dead suddenly reappearing, a secret cabal of spies, and a plucky reporter. Like most frenetically paced novels, there are several plot holes and clues that fall into place a bit too easily, but there was enough action to keep it interesting. I thought the ending was somewhat predictable (although I admit I wasn't sure how the escaped lunatic thread was going to work out) but well worth the time.

First Sentence:
Six minutes from now, one of us would be dead.

10-Minute University, by Jim Becker, Andy Mayer, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White

10-Minute University, by Jim Becker, Andy Mayer, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White

The world’s fastest-talking man is back! Here we are taken on a whirlwind tour of collegiate life, covering topics from physics to film appreciation, from philosophy to football. The humor is fast and furious, and unfortunately hit and miss as well. When discussing relativity: “So a child on Earth ages faster than her astronaut mother traveling at near-C speeds, Mom comes home young, refreshed, little Betty looks like a prune.” Evolution gets summed up as, “Natural selection sure is fun when you’re the survivor.” Eh. Comparative literature was my favorite, both for the content—everything from the Bible to Valley of the Dolls—and the structure: the world’s greatest books summed up in a 360 word run-on sentence.

First Sentence:
Welcome students.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Leading Change, by John P. Kotter

Leading Change, by John P. Kotter

This is one of those books that resonates not because it is filled with insightful new ideas, but because it gathers a lot of common sense ideas and presents them in a memorable fashion. It is very formulaic, starting with a list of items that an organization needs to effect lasting change and then expounding on each item in turn. The explanations contain many anecdotes, illustrating both positive and negative reinforcing examples. Charts and tables are also liberally scattered throughout; many cite other books by Kotter which sometimes gave me the impression I was reading a summary of other books instead of something original. Not the most exciting book I’ve ever read, but the content makes it well worth the time.

I’ve been in several companies, some that were successful and some that weren’t. While the reasons some of these failed were obvious, in others it wasn’t as clear to me. Kotter would say that this is in part due to a lack of teamwork. In a slow moving world, teamwork at the top is not essential; in a fast moving world, teamwork is amazingly important virtually all the time. Another key to success is communicating a sensible vision to employees. “Communication comes in both words and deeds. Nothing undermines change more than behavior by important individuals that is inconsistent with the verbal communication.” Teamwork, vision, communication: the combination of these is what defines corporate leadership. Successful companies have it, unsuccessful ones don’t.

Just as organizations are forced to change, so are individuals. Lifelong learning and taking risks is what makes us successful. The keys to this are soliciting honest feedback, active listening, and an openness to new ideas. Why don’t more people do this? Because life is easier without negative feedback and failure. One of the reasons I read books like this is to force myself to learn and change. Introspection is hard, but necessary to grow. If change was easy, everyone would do it!

First Sentence:
By any objective measure, the amount of significant, often traumatic, change in organizations has grown tremendously over the past two decades.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Killed Cartoons, edited by David Wallis

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War On Free Expression, edited by David Wallis

This books contains about 100 political cartoons that were banned from various newspapers and magazines across the country. Accompanying the images are narratives telling why they were banned; these descriptions are what makes this book both fascinating and annoying. With several of the cartoons it is easy to see why they were banned: women tied up on a conveyor belt waiting to be raped or a naked Uncle Sam, complete with pubic hair. Most aren’t as obvious though, which is where the text becomes enlightening. A cartoon showing the American auto industry in a poor light was killed—in Ohio, not in Detroit—because the paper was worried that they would lose the related advertising revenue. One showing the corpse of Orville Redenbacher literally popping out of his casket was not printed because obituary humor is considered hard to defend. Good stuff, much of it thought provoking. The annoying part is the one-sided political slant.

Out of just under 100 cartoons, 26 directly lampoon Republicans and 4 target Democrats. This imbalance wouldn’t have bothered me if much of the text didn’t rail against unfair and unwarranted censorship. The media inevitably takes a point of view in deciding what stories to print and how much attention each story receives. So it is bad for the editor of a newspaper to selectively choose topics but acceptable for the editor of this book? Eh. Newspapers and magazines are printed to make a profit; killing content that cause people to end subscriptions and advertisers to pull ads is going to be a rare thing. Is anyone really surprised that a cartoon with the image of MLK as a kid explaining the wet spot on his bed to his mother with the phrase, “I had a dream” is going to get yanked? (Ignore the fact it is fairly funny!) But wait, don’t journalists look at both sides of every issue and report things in a fair manner? Isn’t any form of press censorship a violation of free speech? Please. Journalists’ reflect their own beliefs in their art, consciously or unconsciously. To believe that what you read in the Sunday paper is fair and balanced is just as naive as believing the spin from the White House Press Secretary. If Wallis wants to make a point about censorship then more power to him (and frankly, I agree with him!), but doing so while showing his political agenda severely damages the legitimacy of his message.

First Sentence:
Success to Paul Conrad means ruining your appetite.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, by Sam Calagione

Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, by Sam Calagione

The story of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery is fascinating. It is part corporate history, part entrepreneurial manual, and part beer odyssey. Before he was 25, Sam Calagione created several beer recipes and opened a brewpub, convincing the state of Delaware to change their laws along the way. The book is pretty honest, talking of failures as well as successes; the fact that a mere 12 years later I can buy the beer over 1,500 miles away tells you that happily the successes are much more frequent. Calagione describes the lessons he learned along the way as well, covering marketing, selling, leadership, management, and pretty much everything else an entrepreneur needs to know. I picked it up because I’m interested in brewing, but found it much more inspiring than I’d ever expected. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in starting a business—or anyone interested in beer!

The book was so good I decided to try some of the product Dogfish Head creates. My local supermarket has a pretty good beer selection and I was able to pick up both Raison D’Être and 90 Minute Imperial IPA. The Dogfish motto is “Off-centered beers for off-centered people;” the two types I tried certainly live up to this unique goal. Raison D’Être had a complicated flavor that I liked quite a bit, and the 90 Minute IPA may be my new favorite beer! I’ll be on the lookout for more brews from Dogfish Head, and hope to visit Delaware at some point in the not-so-far future.

First Sentence:
My dad backed our red pickup truck beneath the second-story window of my dormitory bedroom.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The No Asshole Rule, by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D.

The premise of this book is laid out in the subtitle: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. It tells of the effects of bullies in the office and how to create an environment that avoids them. I found it to be a little light in the latter goal, but an excellent book overall. Nobody wants to work with idiots, but I was surprised to find that evidence shows that jerks at work aren’t just unpleasant, but they can have serious adverse effects on a group. Research says nasty interactions affect mood five times more than positive ones; makes me think the old saying, “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” has more truth in it than I’d have guessed.

I had an interesting discussion about this book with a friend. I found the word asshole to fit the premise fairly well; bully and jerk for instance bring up much different images in my mind. My friend is much more civilized than I am and doesn’t approve of such language and certainly doesn’t use it himself. He made the excellent point that to folks with his mindset, simply using the word asshole can make you seem like well, an asshole. It really brought the point home that what is innocent or funny to one person can be offensive to another. Does this mean that political correctness is a good thing for society? I still say no (hell no, actually!); this thinking leads to prejudice for simply questioning ideologies and outright censorship. As a manager, though, I do need to juggle the various views and personalties of my team to reduce the impact of asshole-ish tendencies.

This was a very timely book for me. I’ve been recently disappointed by the lack of integrity the senior management at my company has displayed. The problem is mine; I continually look for a place about which I’m passionate. Sutton writes, “Passion is an overrated virtue in organizational life, and indifference is an underrated virtue.” While I’m not going to abandon hope in an enlightened workplace, I do need to try and concentrate more on the positives. Sutton also has a counterpoint to this advice: to avoid becoming an asshole yourself, get out as fast as you can. Hmmm.

Creating an asshole-free environment is not just management’s job; the group needs to discover ways of peer enforcement as well. Management of course has an important role in all this; they have to not only give lip service to the concept, but walk the walk as well. Simply saying that assholes won’t be tolerated won’t have much effect if the top salesman or friend of the boss gets a pass when push comes to shove. At a personal level, we can make a difference by controlling our own actions. There is a quiz in the book (recaptured online for your edification) that can help you decide. I get between a four and a six depending on how I’m feeling at the time. Are you an asshole?

First Sentence:
Who deserves to be branded as an asshole?

Search This Blog