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.

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