Archive for the ‘books’ category

Book recommendation: Outliers by Malcolm Caldwell

2009/05/20

From the author that wrote Tipping point (on my reading list) as well as Blink – which I listened to but found rather controversial. I was very curious what will this one be about.

The book is about success and people that managed to achieve extraordinary results. It touches several topics, I will pick three of them that I found most interesting. It starts with interesting observation – if you look at the MONTH of the birth of junior NHL hockey players, you’ll discover that over 50% of them was born between January and April. Certainly not anything like normal distribution. The point is that cutoff-date for signing up children into hockey training in Canada is January 1st. At the age when this happens (5-6 years), kid born in January has significant physical and mental advantage against kid born in November or December. As result, the early born children perform better in their category, and as result they are more likely to make the selection between the talented and perspective. Those selected get much more opportunities to play and practice, which causes them being really better players than late born ones – a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. As result – if your kids are born after August, better reconsider the NHL dreams. If you believe what M.G. is saying, I mean.

This topic leads to the second big theme that made me think really deep – the 10’000 hours rule.  M.G. claims that in order to be really good at pretty much anything, you have to spend about 10000 hour practicing.  Among many examples he mentions Bill Joy and Bill Gates with their early years almost unlimited access to the computer, Beatles during their concerts in Germany and several others. If this is really true, it has quite serious implications for our profession.

The third is very interesting comparison about how differences between eastern and western agriculture – growing rice in rice paddies vs  western farms has implications on the work ethic and math skills of the population.

He also explores many other quite interesting subjects – the ethnic theory of plane crashes (exploring how “power distance” in particular cultures impacts the communication between captain of the aircraft and first officers), why are merger and acquisition law firms pretty much of the same ethnic origin and also claims that the US schools are basically OK, it’s the parents that do not do enough for their kids education.  Hmm.

To sum it up, it was good and interesting read. Certain parts could be shorter – sometimes it unnecessarily re-iterates the same message,  but it is certainly very intellectually stimulating and thought provoking book.
Although I am a bit skeptical with respect to some of his conclusions or input data – as we know, if we properly select data set it is easy to prove pretty much anything ;-), I am very glad I picked it – the point of view and approach presented is absolutely worth the time and money spent.

The destilled message of the book can a bit demotivating to those who believe that talent and hard work will always pay back: even if you have all the talent and put in all 10K hours, you still need to have that final ingredients of success – such as being born in January for NHL hockey player and a bit of luck. Also those who believe that the succesful people are just lucky or born with silverspoon may be disappointed that all that does not work without the really hard work and practice.

Unless you belong to one of the above groups – recommended. And if you do – you should definitely read it !

Dewey's Classification can be funny

2008/10/13

Yes, I mean *that* dry, boring Deweys Decimal Classification used by libraries around the world.

Here is what I noticed in Ottawa Public Library:

Can you imagine two subjects so far apart from each other – and sometimes sooo close 😉

Book recommendation: Seth Godin – Small is the new big

2007/11/16

On previous weekend I had great opportunity to spend a lot of time listening to books and podcasts. The opportunity was long drive to Quebec City and back, plus the two days spent walking around with camera, taking pictures, enjoying the differences in style and architecture and listening to Seth Godin’s book – Small is the new big.

There is nothing in this book that would actually require to drive almost 500 km one way – you can comfortably get the same benefit out of it without moving out from your favorite sofa, walking around your neighborhood or on a treadmill (hi Joel). The real reason being in the capitol of La Belle Province was Skate Canada – Grand Prix competion in figure skating. And while my wife was watching Jeff Buttle, Joannie Rochette and many others – which is her favorite leisure time activity, I was walking, taking pictures and listening – which is mine.

The book is very well suited for listening while taking pictures. It consists of short comments on large number of topics – business and life related, presented in alphabetical order. This allows to do frequent stops for shots without loosing the context. If you now think that it must be boring to listen something resembling a lexicon you are wrong. Seth is original, often provocative and inconventional, sometimes “common-sensy” obvious, but never boring. I was very surprised how interesting can be a book from an expert in area of marketing – something that I never had any admiration for (or high opinion about). If you are hardcore techie like me with the same prejudice again something so non-geeky and slippery as marketing, give Seth a chance – you may be surprised.

Recommended.

Book review: The Dip

2007/10/21

Subtitled “A little book that teaches you when to quit and when to stick” by Seth Godin.

So what is the dip ? It is the strange valley after you start with something, causing that after initial quick success you will get worse before you can get better. Obstacles that you either overcome – or you quit. Seth explains that these obstacles are there for a reason – they separate those who want something badly enough from those who do not. We know them in various forms. Back at the university, the first 2 years packed with math were the dip. Very little of the math we have had to learn was actually really necessary – other that learn you how to think, how to study and in addition to that, separate those who really wants to have that Computer Science degree strong enough.

Graphical rendering of the dip can look like this:

The Dip

Dip is the division between the amateur photographer and a pro, between the a coder that can write a Excel macro or a quick applescript to the guy who can write the whole system. It requires different skills, different tools and in process of acquiring them, you will experience pain and difficulties. I am still in the dip with Ruby and Rails – after initial excitement with “wow this was fast” now comes “how do I achieve this ? I can do it in J2EE and ASP.NET, but what would be the true Ruby/Rails way ?”.

The dip is not the only curve Seth is explaining. It is one of three “evolution scenarios” in pretty much any new venture: a job, school. The other two is flat curve of cul-de-sac, dead-end and the cliff – line going up to the breakpoint and then going down. With respect to quitting, there is a good point when to quit each curve: the flatline any time – the sooner the better, because it is just waste of time to stay and the cliff – any time before the breakpoint (after which is too late).

The book is not about the later two curves – it is about the dip. Seth describes various types of dips – in sales, manufacturing, education, relationships and impact of quitting in various phases. But the crucial question is when and where is it good idea to quit, what does it mean quitting and why quitting and failure can be different.

The old proverb says that “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. Seth Godin challenges this and explains which is right time to quit and right time to stick. His advice makes sense – as you know, those who never win and never quit are idiots :-).

The Dip is a very short book and has excellent content to length ratio, very little deja-moo that so often fills the business strategy books. Recommended.

Book mini-review: Breaking Windows

2007/10/20

I’ve spent lot of time today reading. I am catching up with my reading stack. Between stuff I’ve finished was: Breaking Windows : How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft

The impression ? Mixed feelings. Maybe I’ve expected something different. Lot’s of details on internal politics and inner fights, not too flattering portrait of Bill G as control obsessed person with very questionable interpersonal skills. From technology perspective, very little what was both interesting and new. I can hardly tell how close to reality are the facts presented, but I often disagreed with the conclusion and analytics. Overall, it was probably worth the time spent on the book – the more you are into politics and relations, the more you may like it. If you are (as I was) expecting a view from more technology side and other stuff that matters, get another book.

Scary part was realization how every freaking email anybody ever wrote could be (and in fact, it indeed was) digged out and used to put its author into a fairly uncomfortable situation ! One should be very careful what one writes into an email, blog or even newsgroup … It does not matter that you later fix it, change it or even delete it. Google and other search engines will find it before, cache and store it for eternity …

Book recomendations: Google Story, The Tipping Point

2007/10/16

Thanks to sudden memory jump in my iPod (from 4GB Nano 2gen to 8 GB iPod touch) I have enough space to load some books in addition to podcasts. I normally do not like abridged versions, but the weather is getting worse so I do not get enough walking time for full versions. These two were both 3-4 disc long audio books.

The Google Story is interesting if you are into history of computing – because it describes the probably the largest transition in computing history – the evolution of World Wide Web to a platform and the evolution of the company that made the Web actually useful. I still remember how much time did it take in 1997/1998 to find anything relevant when the best way how to do this were directories (in early Yahoo! style) or AltaVista and hours and hours of paging through the irrelevant results. Then in early 1998 my friend Rajeeva (I was working in New Jersey at Merrill Lynch) made me aware of that company with funny empty looking page and strange name Google :). And now, 9 years later the shareprice of GOOG is well over $600 – just unbelievable.

The other book – The tipping point – is one of the “must reads”, often quoted on the Web. After listening to it I fully agree – it is an important book. So important that I am going to get a treeware copy of it and re-read it in full and to find out how much damage did the abridgment do. The recording was not as great as the Google story – it was read by the author, which is seldom the best option. True, an author is the person with most complete understanding of the message – but it takes different skills, a professional actor to make the message sound as good as it can. Despite of that, I am glad I listened to it and hope you will as well.

Book: Softwar – an intimate portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle

2007/09/23

This is blog entry I wrote over a two years ago – before this blog has even started. Now I found it on the disk during cleanups and found out it is still valid. The iPod mentioned was my first, now long dead first generation Shuffle.

Here it comes:

Spent most of Friday night and part of Saturday reading this book. I did not really expect to finish it, considering the size (~ 500 pages) and the fact that I am not such a great fan of Oracle products – especially not the Oracle Apps. But it turned up to be way better that expected. I mean the book, albeit I partially improved my opinion about the 11i. Technologywise, it is still kind a dinosaur, but now I can more appreciate the sheer size of the problem these guys were trying to address. But back to the book.

The author IMHO did a pretty good job being fair observer. On almost each page, there are comments and notes written by Larry Ellison, which often provide a view from the alternate reality. That was the best part. All summed up, I learned a lot. I did not know before that many of the dot-com eBusiness big names such as Ariba, i2, Siebel were actually founded and run by ex-Oracle employees, usually senior sales folks (e.g. Tom Siebel). Understanding the history of Oracle, from first commercial non-mainframe relational, database through applications up to latest entrance into J2EE world with licensing Orion and making it OC4J, was very illuminating and I quite enjoyed it.

This guy (I mean LE, not the author) is really interesting and definitely smart. Not exactly that type of personality I would enjoy spending a lot of time with, but certainly somebody you will not forget. I did not know about the yachts, 40 acre house with artificial, earthquake-resistant 5 acre lake and a Zen garden. Some people indulge themselves with toys such as iPods and notebooks, some with 300 foot yachts and jet fighters. I hope that Larry enjoyed them as much as I my iPod :-).

Some of the Larry’s comments are really funny:

“People regularly mistake obedience for intelligence. That’s why we think that dogs are more intelligent than cats. .. A dog will fetch a stick every time you throw it. A cat will look at you and wonder: If you wanted the stick, why did you throw it away in a first place? Get it yourself, idiot.” (page 335)

Sapkowski in English is out !

2007/07/30

For all my fantasy-loving friends who consider reading in Czech or Polish too inconvenient: the first book of the grand master Andrzej Sapkowski in English is out. It is book of short stories about Geralt, the Hexer (or Witcher if you want), who is the main character of the 5-book saga with the same name.

You can get it on Amazon.

Most important event of the year

2007/07/27

I have been pretty quiet during last month. Few reasons why, none of them business related. The summer is not the season where people in our industry are incredibly busy – that’s what winter is for … and end of March, government fiscal year end ;-). We had family visit – my two nephews were staying with us for few weeks. So instead of blogging, I was spending evenings with them and weekends as a tour guide around Ottawa’s attractions. I have even – finally, after 9 years in this country – overcome my dislike for really long car trips and visited Niagara Falls.

The waterfall and nature was amazing. The stuff built around it by tourist industry was not. Even the drive would not be so bad (only too long) – unfortunately somebody did place Toronto between Kingston and Niagara 😦 … with all the consequences like never ending traffic jams and way above average number of crazy drivers. The crazy means crazy even compared to Montreal.

After the nephews departure at the end of the last week, the most important event of the year 2007 happened: the Book 7 alias Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows arrived. We finally know where was Snape’s true loyalty and whether Harry made it or JKR ignored plea from Stephen King and other writers and killed him. On July 20th in the evening, I was there, in my home Chapters with my wife and daughter and hundreds of others, waiting for the midnight. It was amazing. Not the marketing hype, but the anticipation and the atmosphere (my compliments to the guy dressed as Lucius Malfoy, he was bang on).

There is something strangely satisfying to see people stand in line to buy a book. Other that HP series, I have never seen it happen on this continent. Regardless whether you like the story or not, what JKR achieved (in addition to make some pretty nice wad of cash for herself and others) is bringing people back to books and to reading. Not only kids. Reading books is essential – just watch Idiocracy to see where the TV will lead you 😉

So hour after midnight I was home with the Book 7 and started to read. I have finished shortly before midnight same day – with short break for sleep. What a weekend ! The book seven did certainly not disappoint. I will not go to details – not even now when Connie finished it and hopefully Shane did as well, some of my friends may still be reading. Gabo – wikipedia has full plot outlined, so unless you want to get a spoiler, do not go here

In some sense, the Harry Pottter saga was like a greatly written piece of software. JKR created illusionary world which was very rich and very consistent. Even with allowing magic, there were rules and things worked within the system. In software, you must pay attention to details (otherwise it will not work) and whenever you are writing larger system, your design should be solid otherwise your own creations may get in your way. In the books 1 to 7, I have not found any major contradictions or ugly hacks. Well thought-over plot, nicely designed story development, perfectly implemented – I mean written. Hats off. You can seldom see this gift in fantasy stories – somehow dealing with magic and dragons often lures the writers to be sloppy, cut corners, ignore details and bend the rules. There are few exceptions – such as Belgariad, Discworld or The Hexer Saga (to read this one you better can read Polish or Czech). From “scientific” sci-fi, one of the best “software-like artworks” is IMHO Dragon’s Egg and Starquake.

Thanks for all the magic, JKR.

Book review: Dreaming in Code

2007/07/02

Thanks to long weekend and more quiet time in last couple of days (Happy 140th Birthday, Canada!), I managed to read something else than Ruby-ism/Rail-ism. Among others, I finished the Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg, a book promising to explain why software is hard.

It is pretty tough question to answer. The way this books tries to address it is following the story not very well known open source project named Chandler through it’s beginning over period of 3 years. Chandler was – and still is – developed by the OSAF – Open Source Application’s Foundation, founded (and financed) by Mitch Kapor, who was before the founder of Lotus Development Corporation and designer of the “Ur-spreadsheet” Lotus 1-2-3.

The Chandler project – unlike most opensource projects was blessed – or cursed – by very solid financial backing, which allowed to hire fairly large team for fairly long time, without worrying too much about running out of time or out of money. It also contributed to quite ambitious goals (“Outlook killer”) and to lot of time being allocated and spent on design and research projects (known also as BDUF – Big Design Up Front antipattern).

For me personally the most interesting discovery from reading the book was how similar can be the issues in two completely different projects that lacks clearly defined goal and requirements. In Chandlers case, the basic design questions were open for unhealthy long time: what is the platform for the repository ? Is it going to be peer-to-peer system or using centralized server ? What is the proper set of features ? How the user interface would look like ? I found these questions so familiar and reminded me of one other (non-opensource) project …

Throughout the book, you can find lots of quotations, observations and pieces of wisdom related to our profession collected from variety of sources – books, interviews, Web. For illustration few of them:

“Joy is an asset. It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most efficient mode of creative work” Eric Raymond

“In science, the whole system builds on people looking on other people’s results and building on top of them. In witchcraft, somebody had a small secret and guarded it … Traditional software is like witchcraft …” Linus Torvalds

“In any project that is introducing new technology or design … plan to throw one away, because you almost certainly won’t get it right for the first time” Frederick Brooks

“… we should train developers the way we train creative people like poets or artists…. They study great works of poetry. Do we do that in our software engineering disciplines ? No. You do not look at the source code for great piece of software. Or look at the architecture of great pieces of software. You do not look at their design …” Richard Gabriel

Conclusion: Maybe not as easy read as originally expected – mostly because of the length and level of details related to Chandler, but nevertheless worth reading by all means. If you are professionally involved in building software for living, this books outlines many issues of the field. You may even have feeling terribly strong deja-vu (if you are around for couple of years/decades). Or – if you are younger – it can be a great example of things to avoid 🙂

Recommended.