Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum

Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum

This is the amazing story of the first person to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly. Slocum is both the author and the sailor and the tale he tells is strangely captivating. In 1895 he constructed a thirty-six foot long sloop by hand and then set sail from Boston. In 1898 he returned, after visiting Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia and South Africa in that order. Along the way he encounters shipwrecks and storms, pirates and presidents, cutthroats and celebrities. An incredible story, this was recommended to me by a friend of mine who has done a fair amount of sailing himself; I’ll in turn recommend it to any of you as well.

First Sentence:
In the fair land of Nova Scotia, a maritime province, there is a ridge called North Mountaini, overlooking the Bay of Fundy on one side and the fertile Annapolis valley on the other.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Collaboration Explained, by Jean Tabaka

Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders, by Jean Tabaka

Collaboration Explained is a great book that works on two levels: both a treatise on a topic and an ongoing reference after the initial study. While there is a lot of good information about popular agile methodologies and fostering collaboration, where it really shines is on the topics of meeting facilitation. My favorite anecdote told of a company that had sign above each meeting room door: “If you have not received a purpose and agenda for this meeting, please turn around and return to your desk.” I sure wish I could work at a place like that!

At the heart of the book is the idea that collaboration is powerful. Tabaka mentions many familiar names that believe in this credo of “People over process” but somehow omits Michael Coté who named his blog with this phrase! She points out that with all the differences in the various popular agile techniques, collaboration is the “daily glue that agile teams apply in order to accomplish their joint undertakings.” As someone that follows general agile techniques but doesn’t subscribe to any particular methodology this rings especially true.

One of the collaborative tools that Tabaka discusses is the “fist of five.” This is a way of quickly gathering a feel for where the group stands on a particular issue with more granularity than a simple pass/fail vote. The idea is that you ask for a showing of the fist of five (I call this the “fiery fist of death” because I like to inject humor wherever I can—and I can never remember the “proper” name!) when you want to get a feeling for where the group stands on a particular decision/solution. Everyone then simultaneously holds up a hand extending fingers indicating their position:

  1. Five fingers: this is exactly what we should do and we are geniuses for thinking of it.
  2. Four fingers: a solid plan that I’m happy to implement.
  3. Three fingers: I can live with and support this decision.
  4. Two fingers: I have a problem with where we are and we need to keep discussing.
  5. One finger: use any finger you’d like to express your feelings. :)

Of course, Tabaka doesn’t express the fingers in quite this way but the end result is the same. This is a powerful technique that I’ve found quite useful, especially in groups that like to hear themselves talk. When I think that we are starting to cycle in our discussions calling for the fist goes a long way towards ending deliberation and moving the group forward.

As I said earlier, this is a great book not only for the discussions but as an ongoing resource. Section IV is particularly valuable, containing templates for many different types of meetings commonly encountered during agile development. Any team leader can learn a lot from reading this book, and individual contributors will benefit by getting a better insight into what makes a group truly collaborative.

First Sentence:
With the current interest in adaptive, more reliable software development practices, project teams and their managers are taking a renewed look at the many people aspects that either contribute to or detract from project success.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Songs of Innocence, by Richard Aleas

Songs of Innocence, by Richard Aleas

I picked this up from a bargain bin in an after-Christmas sale. I’ll admit the cover caught my eye—a naked woman with a teddy bear and a gun—but the promise of a lurid story is why I bought it. I’ve always liked the tales of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and this looked to be in the same vein. While Aleas is no Hammett, I did enjoy this very quick read.

The hero is investigating a suicide that he believes is really a murder. Along the way he uncovers the victim’s sordid past, gets framed for a killing he didn’t commit while escaping blame for one he did, and badly beaten up. Like most mysteries of this ilk the clues tend to fall in the lap of the detective rather than the result of deduction or hard work, but that doesn’t really detract from the tale. The solution to the puzzle I figured out before the reveal, but the ending was both unexpected and shocking. Written in 2007, it is nice to see that the art of noir isn’t dead.

First Sentence:
I was a private investigator once.

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

We all know about Stalin the WWII leader and Soviet dictator; this book tells the story of Josef Djugashvili, the boy who grew up to be Stalin. Another engaging history book—I’m on a roll lately! To discover that the man that is mentioned in the same breath as Hitler was a pirate, gangster, and murderer wasn’t a huge surprise. The fact that he was a published poet and studied for the priesthood, however, doesn’t fit the image I’ve always had. Just one of the many surprises about this complicated man. Probably my favorite morsel was that Stalin started a book club!

While an intriguing and captivating book, I found it difficult to understand in parts. Stalin had many, many aliases—enough to fill up an entire page at the end of the book. Montefiore uses many of these interchangeably throughout the text making it hard to follow at times. I believe the pseudonyms used match the times and stories in which Stalin used them himself so their appearance is consistent, but understanding the why didn’t make it easier to read. Another annoyance was that the author seems overly proud of himself; a huge number of footnotes contain references to his other book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. These small distractions aside, I quite enjoyed this book. Full of surprises, this is a fascinating story that often feels more like fiction than history.

First Sentence:
At 10:30 a.m. on the sultry morning of Wednesday, 26 June 1907, in the seething central square of Tiflis, a dashing moustachioed calvary captain in boots and jodhpurs, wielding a big Circassian sabre, performed tricks on horseback, joking with two pretty, well-dressed Georgian girls who twirled gaudy parasols—while fingering Mauser pistols hidden in their dresses.

Road, River, and Ol’Boy Politics, by Linda Scarbrough

Road, River, and Ol’Boy Politics: A Texas County’s Path from Farm to Supersuburb, by Linda Scarbrough

In 1920, Williamson County was agrarian, Democratic, and dominated by the towns of Taylor and Granger. Today, of course, Georgetown and Round Rock are at the heart of a sprawling suburban Republican stronghold. This book traces this transformation, largely a result of North San Gabriel Dam and Interstate 35. This is a compelling and fascinating read. Once I started I had a difficult time putting it down—surprising for a history text! I especially enjoyed reading tidbits such as how RR620 was a dirt road or FM1431 was a backwater until they received exits on IH-35. Living in that part of the world now, it is hard to imaging these major thoroughfares being anything else. Scarbrough also goes into a lot of detail on the politics behind the dam and the interstate; it was fascinating to read about LBJ and J. J. Pickle working at a local level. Maps and several before/after pictures round out the book, complementing the text nicely. All in all, this is an excellent story telling a lesser known slice of Texas history.

First Sentence:
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, below the Southern tip of the United States, a hurricane stirred.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Other reading!

I was asked the other day why I haven’t been blogging much lately. I am still reading, but have simply been slow to post. A big reason, though, is that we’ve had a recent flurry of magazines start to hit the house. After Thanksgiving my wife and I had a bunch of airline miles that were about to expire so we used them to get a few magazine subscriptions. A week or so later, we received a letter saying that one of the publications we’d ordered was no longer available, and would we please pick five other titles for the inconvenience! A week after that we had another message arrive saying that one magazine was going to be delayed in starting and to pick yet another bunch as an apology. Needless to say that we now have piles of periodicals around the house, especially as we were already subscribed to three papers and a handful of other magazines already!

A quick pass of the house reveals the following recent arrivals:

The saddest thing is, I’m not sure I got them all!

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