22 December 2008

Fall/Winter 2008 Read Roundup

I keep making a pledge to review the books I read, but it’s a losing proposition as it seems I can devour books at a much more feverish pace than write a simple blurb about them (even accounting for feedback on web forums or twitted remarks).

So, without further ado, here goes the fall/winter 2008 completed read list:

  1. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink — the first few chapters are simply mazing, succinctly laying out what/who “the powers that be” are and how all human created institutions emit a spiritual field…. ….an awesome chapter on “the myth of redemptive violence” and Jesus “the third way”, that posits that Jesus abhors both passivity and violence, and instead implores a third way — nonviolent resistance….the latter half of the book is not as solid, not that the content isn’t top notch, just that the telling is slightly muddled and Wink fails to concisely enumerate practical applications of the book’s first half…

  2. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen — the political book of 2008 (actually, I think it was written in 2006 or 2007 but I did not read until this year), a far superior title to the similar themed material of George Lakoff. I have written a review of one of the chapters here, but the entire book is an excellent look at voter psychology and science of campaign appeals.

  3. Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) by David Cay Johnston — did not desire to read this book at release, as I knew it would just make me angry. And I was correct in that assessment, as you cannot help boiling over how working Americans are fleeced by wealthier interests who in audacious fashion, cover their tracks with silly rhetoric about “free markets” and being about unhinged from evil government interference.

  4. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt — Hunt, of Pragmatic Programmer fame, looks at how we can continuously improve our brainware.

  5. Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd — the man who inspired John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard church movement, a view of the Kingdom in the New Testament

  6. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein — excellent read… …answers questions of how electoral map reverted in 1968 back to how it looked in pre new deal (prior to 1932) times… …how democrats became lost, disjointed, and torn apart by civil rights, wedge issues, and the machinations of tricky dick nixon who is the epitome of all that is wrong about the political process — lying, paranoid, thieving, double faced, inflicted death on the innocent just to prolong a war until election was over… …and the american public who claim to value honesty in a candidate but really love to be lied to, and don’t like hearing truth… …also, the best at campaigning not necessarily the best at governing… …class war, reverse class war, southern strategy, wiretaps, blackbag jobs, provocateurs, racism, riots, student insurrections, etc.… …fascinating read that reads like a blog would today…

  7. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop — was skeptical of this demographic analysis of how americans have segregated themselves into left/right axis, rural/urban, blue/red state, exurb/city, etc… and still think author makes fallatious case for “migration” when it could be due in large part to shifting sentiments… …still, it’s an insightful read on how the center is decaying, campaign appeals and politics made to party extremists, how we seek to be told and confirm what we already believe instead of welcoming dissent…

  8. Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons —  dark, heavy “graphic novel” (back when I was a young whippersnapper, we called ‘em “comic books”) set in an alternate history where Nixon is president in the 80s and costumed crime fighters are being bumped off… Enjoyed it, despite all the depravity, looking forward to seeing it on the big screen next year and hopefully they don’t deviate too much from the Alan Moore story…

  9. The Brain That Changes Itself: Personal Triumphs from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

  10. The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford — while some economists are embracing the irrational actor model, Harford harkens back to rational choice theory, that there is always an underlying economic rationale for what may appear to be mad financial behavior. Very thought provoking as he examines divorce, the pill, and other social/relational questions and how they’ve played out in recent times.

  11. The Shack by William P. Young — the Christian novel of 2008, it brought me to tears… …gripping, touching…

  12. Green Collar Economy by Van Jones — a 21st century economic and environmental manifesto for America… …Jones makes an passionate pitch for joining the interests of economically disadvantaged along with those inspired to the cause of earth care. But Jones is a lawyer and activist, not a scientist, and the big questions I have after the read is how much of all of this is financially feasible. That I agree with the “moon shot” approach, but like the Internet and other technology we are blessed with today, green technology needs an incubation phase.

  13. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller — Miller is such a soulful writer, it’s a dual edge reading experience, as I detect myself bubbling out in his wordy blurbs, and gives you the sense that the enjoyable author would not be somebody you’d like to ask “how you doing” as that query formality would result in a response measured in hours.

  14. Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell — new exodus theology… …1st time read of Rob Bell, good stuff, but very shallow penetration of material…

  15. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell — Gladwell is enduring some criticism for his shallow pop-psychology gleanings, but his discoveries here are nothing more than reaffirmation for me

  16. Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill

  17. In Defense of Food by Michael PollanEat food, not too much, mostly plants… …don’t diet, don’t overeat, don’t pay attention to labels and advisements… …their very presence is an indicator of unhealthiness… …think about what your grandparents would prepare and eat… …real natural food…

  18. Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola — Viola’s followup to his previous “Pagan Christianity” title… …viola is a man on a mission to share his idea that true church is organic, not hierarchical, at least that is the vision of the New Testament church laid out in the bible… …he goes through great pains to criticize the ills of “institutional church” but then is apologetic about it… …then returns to attacking, then apologizes… …he needed an editor on this one for sure as goes in circles throughout his screed… …still, I give Viola credit fore being more on the mark (though i am by no means in total agreement with his vision) than his detractors contend…

  19. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church by Christine Wicker — first, this book is mistitled — it’s really more of a story of the author’s skeptical faith journey juxtaposed against the backdrop of projections about evangelical church strength and future prospects a great deal less than mainstream media has often reported. Second, although Wicker backs up her assertion that “true” evangelicals are about a 25% of published numbers with a wide array of divergent sources, she belabors the point…finally, the chapters on threats to evangelical churches from the outside are probably the weakest, and seem incomplete and the finish (well, i’ll spoil it by letting you in that it was her own epiphany in finding a marriage mate coupled with mixed feelings about lessened evangelical influence in future times)…again, it looked like author was groping for backup empirical tidings to make some culturally anchored assertions when in essence these are timeless matters and questions…

  20. Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries by Naomi Wolf — Alarmist Wolf’s handbook for liberty lovers that wish to take back their country from the fascist forces intent on removing those American freedoms.

  21. Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi — Taibbi channels famed gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, goes undercover, joins fundamentalist pastor John Hagee’s Texas megachurch, participates in 9/11 Truth Movement sessions and other miscellaneous bits of political corruption…

  22. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama — After reading, I did feel more comfortable voting for Obama… …that he seemed “down to earth” willing to listen kind of politico. Of course by next year, I might just as well regret casting that vote, but we shall seee…

  23. Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader by Michael Parenti — a collection of essays by leftist writer Michael Parenti

  24. The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream by John Zogby — Pollster Zogby crunches the numbers to give a peek at America trending to a more multicultural future.

  25. The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight of American Power by Tariq Ali — a condensed history of Pakistan and the influence of its western puppet masters…

  26. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally by Marcus Borg — the title says it all…

  27. Supercrunchers by Ian Ayres — A big recent rash of books in this genre, how the power of numbers and quantitative analysis has transformed marketing into a grander wealth making boom. I do not doubt the success of research based on combing through raw data… …however, always in the corner of my mind is the adage about how “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results”.

  28. The Numerati by Stephen Baker — see my comment above in the “Supercrunchers” blurb…

  29. Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know by Randall Stross — A friendly bio of the big internet giant Google and its net sphere of influence. Acknowledges that while built in F/OSS (free / open source software), there are still bits of “secret sauce” not to be revealed… …namely, the PageRank algorithm and their server power cluster organization…

  30. Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why it Matters by Bill Tancer — see comment above in the “Supercrunchers” blurb…

  31. Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business by Jeff Howe — OK, would have been better as 2-3 essay/articles… …repetitive, redundant, without a lot of new info - better choice would be Clay Shirky “Here Comes Everybody” or even for deeper academic look - Yokai Benkler’s seminal “Wealth of Networks”

  32. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow — the mathematics of randomness for the layman. A delightful read and contains the best explanation to date that I’ve read that explains the Monty Hall problem

  33. Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects by Dmitry OrlovOrlov brings his slideshow into book form.

  34. Churchill, Hitler, and ‘The Unnecessary War’ by Pat Buchanan — Buchanan casts aspersions on the notion that World War II was the “good war” and claims the affair was avoidable. Paints a rather unflattering portrait of Winston Churchill, who is illustrated as a true war pig…

  35. The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Philip Zimbardo — Pop pop pop psychology…

  36. Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne — as much I was so delighted with “Jesus for President”, am sadly disappointed with this title, which seems more appropriate content for a web article or a free magazine piece…

  37. Wide Awake: The Future Is Waiting Within You by Erwin Raphael McManus — This book has been written many times before.

  38. Dangerous Business: The Risks of Globalization for America by Pat Choate — former Ross Perot running mate (for his second campaign, not the first in ‘92) lectures on the unfettered dangers of globalization. Not that Choate is bereft of valid points, but too often arguments including his are bound up in xenophobia and other alarmist appeals. There are indeed issues but we need to focus on the credible, not the fictional bogeymen.

  39. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott - /yawn

31 March 2008

Spring 2008 Reading List

It's been awhile since I logged some book reviews.

Some are worthy of far more than a short blurb. Others have been omitted because they were not noteworthy enough or I've just plum forgotten and will write them up in a future post. In addition to a house overflowing with books, I typically check out 3-4+ books from the local library per week. In fact, in the days that I have compiled this list, I've finished 3 more books.

Oh well, I will simply have to comprise another post with the omitted titles. But, for now, here is a roundup.

Recently completed

  1. Jesus for President by Shane Clainborne, Chris Haw — an incredible book that follows in the vein of the remarkable Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, and more recently, The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd. But written for a younger and culturally hip audience with the hardcore theology, but phrased in a much more pleasing comprehensive language. It's about how the Jesus story has been corrupted with the taint of Empire. and how Christians need to make Jesus their president. They can begin by claiming their own holidays and heroes, who served in the call of Christ, not in service for Empire conquests. Even the design and layout of illustrations is a spectacular work. One of the graphic designers (who has quite a bit of experience in designing magazine layouts) I work with simply marveled at the book's illustrations and layout style, and was compelled to pick it up and take home to read. I will have much more to write on this one. Definitely, it is one of those sorts of books that you purchase, read (and reread), and then purchase again after giving to another.
  2. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman — What would happen in the world if the humans just disappeared? In each fascinating chapter, Weisman takes the reader on an imaginary journey. From islands of plastic particulates floating in the ocean to abandoned island hotel resorts where one can get a glimpse of how it would play out.
  3. Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages by Alex Wright — I could never imagine that a book about the Dewey Decimal system would be such a page turner. Well, not the Dewey Decimal system itself, but the human practice of collecting and organizing information. Glut spans the entire arc of history and each chapter was a treat.
  4. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress by Howard Zinn — Howard Zinn's writings are eye opening. This is a collection of shorter Zinn essays, mostly reprints from magazine articles.
  5. Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant — A wonderful book that I could easily relate to. Though I don't originate from rural Virginia, like Bageant the theme of having my feet in two distinct worlds is quite familiar to me. The working man's version of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, and is a superior book in my estimation.
  6. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein — The Lords of Wall Street and financial barons of the day have joined in a chorus, telling readers and listeners that Klein needs to "grow up" and economics debate are over her. While I agree that the "shock (and awe)" metaphor is strained, I don't see the critics picking apart the historical accounts of neoliberalism champions saddling up with barbaric autocrats to implement and enforce extremely unpopular economic policies. Though she's been slighted for her depiction of Milton Friedman, a bigger target for Klein is "End of Poverty" golden boy Jeffrey Sachs, who is painted in unflattering tales. Klein's missive is more hit than miss, though many will just tune it out instinctively, without ever addressing the evidence displayed.
  7. The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun — Berkun numerates the fallacious thinking on inventive thinking. In a nutshell, the lies we've swallowed: the myth of epiphany, that we understand the history of innovation, that there is a proven method, people love new ideas, the myth of the "lone inventor", good ideas are rare, the best ideas win, and finally, that innovation is always good.
  8. Thank you for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs — The rules of the ancient but timeless art of rhetoric, framed in today's cultural context. Heinrichs employs TV sitcom references to serve up debate lessons. While younger readers might not know who Eddie Haskell or other historical pop culture allusions are, "Thank you for Arguing" is a wonderful book and I've begun a third reading.
  9. The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky — For a short period after the conclusion of the American Civil War, democracy for all (men) was restored to the southern states, and freedmen were elected and appointed to political offices. Soon, however, the "defeated" Confederates responded with a campaign of terrorism to recapture their land from the clutches of an "inferior race" and their "carpetbagger" apologists. As America moved forward, and Democrats came back into power, the plight of those unshackled grew increasingly irrelevant. Within a decade, the condition of freed slaves became as wretched as the previous days of slavery. Here is another take on Budiansky's work, from one who celebrates the "glorious and successful struggle of my ex-Confederate ancestors to overthrow a multiracial liberal democracy right here in America".
  10. Justice in the Burbs: Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live by Will Samson, Lisa Samson — A look at suburbia and social justice.
  11. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen — The 2nd edition, a decade later, of a book that illuminates how Americans are ignorant of history. Some highlights of the more egregious errors in your high school history books. And some words on how and why it is this way.
  12. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis — Lewis is a fabulous writer, able to wrap a story and theme together, so much so that it reads like a page burner novel you simply cannot put down. And in the telling, the human faces exposed from the narrative, reveal even more about life. Oh, I didn't even mention that the subject of the book is the evolution of importance of the tackle (specifically, left tackle protecting the quarterback) position in football, interlaced with the story of a young phenomenal recruit named Michael Oher.
  13. Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky — The digerati are celebrating Shirky's latest as a Web 2.0 paean. Indeed, it is an interesting read, peppered with illustrations on how internet technology and push button publishing have enabled organization efforts that would simply be impossible in a pre-internet world. To some, this is not a startling revelation, but for others, it's earth shattering news. The examples Shirky relates are instructive, but there is not much in reasoning or speculation over what fruits are going to be borne from these breakthroughs. It's over a decade now, since the world plugged in to the world wide web, and still I don't think we have any clue about the long term ramifications.
  14. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner - A historical look at the CIA, from inception to current times. The CIA would have had greater success had it simply tossed darts at the wall. Even the few successes (like Afghanistan) sowed the seed for more epic future failures.
  15. Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola, Mike Barna — The Barna/Viola manifesto against the organized church has caused an eruption of blog speak amongst church traditionalists. Basically, Barna/Viola argue that just about everything about contemporary church practice is rooted not in Jesus, but in Roman/Greco pagan rituals. Church buildings, paid clergy, professional staff, dressing up, etc.… are in the crosshairs. Church was pure when it was conducted as "house church" as early Christian performed it. Barna/Viola are as guilty as those they criticize by lifting a whole lot of meaning out a few bible verses, but my gauge is that they are more on the mark than dissenters give due.
  16. What Orwell Didn't Know edited by Andras Szanto — A collection of essays inspired by George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. Each essay is authored by a different author and the book concludes with a reprint of Orwell's famous essay that sparked these writings.
  17. Red Letter Christians by Tony Campolo — A "Red Letter Christian" is someone "who's really into those verses in the New Testament that are red letters" (some bibles highlight the words of Jesus in red). Campolo explains why he is a Red Letter Christian. A good read, though overly wonkish in parts.
  18. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer — The story, recently made into a movie, of a college graduate giving it all up to go into the Alaskan wild. The book mirrored the movie, with additional background on the characters, along with the author's own reflections on the tale.
  19. Whistling Past Dixie by Thomas Schaller — A wonkish look at the U.S. electoral landscape, with a central theme that Democrats need to write off the South and focus on western states, where many are ready to flip the Democratic column. Schaller contends that the election of George W. Bush in 2000 was the culmination of the Republican Southern Strategy, resulting in the first swearing in of a Southern conservative. According to Schaller, Democrats need to counter with a "Non-Southern Strategy" and run against South Carolina like conservatives target Massachusetts. Early chapters explore some voting history, as I have pointed out here in previous articles, on how the electoral maps today look like a mirror image of those after the civil war (up until FDR was elected in 1932, based on coalition between Northern and Southern voters that held until Civil Rights). During the period between 1868-1932, the only time a Democrat was elected was when a third party candidate effectively split the vote.
  20. Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenburg — See my review here.
  21. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons — What do young people think about the Church? The Barna group has done some studying on this, and the results are not pretty. By large margins, younger Americans see Christians as judgmental, gay bashing hypocrites. Not for their sacrificial love, which was the central message of Jesus.
  22. Cracking the Code by Thom Hartmann — Thom Hartmann, one of the few talk radio hosts I can actually listen to, shares his thoughts on cracking the "conservative" code. While I've enjoyed previous books by the author, this title is a disappointment for me, as the fluff to signal ratio is lopsided on the wrong side.
  23. The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby — Jacoby laments the tide of ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism that has infected America. We've been dumbed down by a culture of infotainment, and there will be a price to pay for this embrace of stupid. I think Jacoby overlooks and trivializes benefits of technology, but unlike the drivel slobbered by Andrew Keen and Lee Siegel (see below), there's quite a bit of substance here, and well worth the read.
  24. Heroic Conservatism by Michael Gerson — George W. Bush speechwriter makes the case for the "compassionate conservative" brand of Republicanism. Gerson believes conservatives must latch on to social issues like AIDS relief, poverty reduction and ending hunger around the globe. He professes his like and respect for George W. Bush but disdains prominent Republicans for their unenlightened vision, and even writes how he urged Bush to dump Donald Rumsfeld. Gerson is a gifted writer, but I get the same vibe as when I read Peggy Noonan (or other presidential speechwriters, left or right), that he's been whiffing too hard on his own flowery wordage. He trots out arguments about moral high ground, oblivious to the criminality and corruption (or even the charges of such) in the administration. He flogs a straw man in addressing "liberals" but is reliant upon simpleton rhetoric to defend his own cause.
  25. Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul by Dave Goetz — A friend recommended this title to me, and after I completed it, I informed him that it was narcissistic tripe full of pointless handwringing. He was taken aback, and yes, I was a tad too harsh. But please, if you desire to read something along the subject line, Justice in the Burbs would be a better selection.
  26. Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel — What a whiny piece of irrelevancy. Siegel decries the internet and its takeover of a realm he once enjoyed near monopolistic role in. Mr Siegel, I'm sorry you can't find a time machine to scoot back to 1994, where there weren't millions willing to do your job for free. Yes, granting everyone a voice in the forum means there's a lot more garbage to wade through. But it also means there is more gems and treasure to be found. Welcome to the 21st century.

Currently in the queue

  1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  2. Kingdom of the Gospel by George Eldon Ladd
  3. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

3 March 2008

Software is Hard

When Dreaming in Code was first released, it sparked my interest, but I shelved the idea after reading a few online excerpts. Its content seemed to be a rehash of my own career experience, thus I concluded that it would be bereft of any insight. However, when author Scott Rosenberg offered a free paperback version to anybody who would post some feedback on the book, I took him up on the offer. When I returned home from attending to some errands on Saturday evening, a package was lying on a chair in my den. Within 24 hours, the content of Dreaming in Code was digested and as promised, here are my nuggets of contributory feedback.

Ostensibly, Dreaming in Code is a tale about an ill fated group of software developers and their quest to create a revolutionary personal information manager (PIM), a calendar/email software package that didn’t suck like Microsoft Outlook. Mitch Kapor, of Lotus 1-2-3 fame captained an all star development squad that Rosenberg was given access to and tracked over a period of 3+ years. Intertwined with the tale of Project Chandler, is a general glimpse at the history of software development and how paradoxically, as computing machines grow more powerful, new expressive programming languages that abstract machine instruction have flowered, the complexity of building software has not diminished and is just as difficult as it ever was.

As mentioned, as I read through Rosenberg’s account of Chandler development, it was easy to relate to my own past experience. My beginnings in the field date back to the “dinosaur days” — when I began my programming career, the department was titled “Data Processing”, not Information Technology, and my first manager still did his coding via punched cards, and was unfamiliar with the usage of a text editor — but now stretch into the 21st century where I earn a salary as a web developer. So I’ve been involved in many a software project, some successful, some not, and some that qualify as “death marches”. As I read, these are the significant thoughts culled from the material:

  • The Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF) was staffed by some super smart minds. Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3, along with heavyweights renowned from past glory at Apple and Netscape. Yet they all floundered and grew frustrated at the project pace.

  • Some of the technical architecture decisions made I found quite odd. Like picking Python, a scripting language, for developing a client application. Python makes perfect sense for a web application, server side tasks or as a package customization extension tool. For desktop software, at least at the time when the Chandler effort started, I can’t think of a single smashing success story where a scripting language was employed client side.

  • Also, from feedback elicited from developers by Rosenberg bore out that the Chandler programmers working in Python weren’t totally conversant with Python, and may have been writing Java (or other language) in Python. Consequently, they were nullifying the higher order advantages of a programming language like Python. And from my own personal history, I would never embark upon a major software construction project with lead developers not fluent in the project’s adopted language.

  • While Kapor fronted the money for Chandler, according to Rosenberg, he was very democratic about how the project direction evolved. It seemed that developers planned and plotted according to Kapor’s vision, but Kapor restrained from authoritarian edicts in lieu of an organic approach. Perhaps the project would have been better served if there was a definitive proclamation from Kapor on the form of the desired deliverable. Again, as staffers joined and departed, the project roadmap veered into the leanings and predispositions of the developer du jour. Granted, at the source code level, this is understandable, but when it applies to database platforms and other critical juncture type decisions, it’s too much twisting.

  • As Rosenberg noted, Chandler development occurred in a peculiar time window — after the dot com bust but before the Web 2.0 explosion of AJAX and cloud computing applications that Google and other wunderkind startups have been tossing our way the past few years.

  • Finally, I wonder how much of a factor of just plain “being hungry” is. While the Chandler team was devoted to their work, Rosenberg doesn’t portray them as working incredible stints of overtime and pushing hard to close the gap between releases. Not that I believe programmers should be devoid of a life and devoted 24/7 to cranking code, but it’s not unreasonable to expect stretches where the team lives and breathes code in pursuit of a milestone. In fact, looking back over past project experience, I remember fondly those periods. Sure, it’s a problem if such a state is to be sustained over more than a couple weeks, but it was a burning focus. And while I understand the idea of a software creator proving that the first time wasn’t some crazy fluke, it’s just not the same as the team of young arduous programmers working feverishly on a new startup, living off of a credit card. Or a young programmer, fresh out of school or self instructed, eager to prove his mettle.

Rosenberg is a gifted writer — as I flipped through the pages, my head was nodding in agreement. But in this case, he’s speaking to a programmer already acquainted with the questions posed. I’m not certain that the material would appeal to the non-geeky. And there is little here that is new or noteworthy. The melding of the Chandler story and the 10,000 feet overview of software construction history shortchanges some questions that I would like to see explored in greater detail:

  • Study of successful project efforts. While the majority of software build efforts are plagued by cost overruns and missed project deadlines, there are plentiful success stories. What about Paul Graham and Viaweb? Microsoft Excel? Or the modern 3D Massively Multiplayer World of Warcraft game by Blizzard. What did they do differently? How much of “success” is due to being at the right time and place?

  • Small teams vs. large teams. Yes, large teams are burdened with the exponentially growing networked relationship tallies (aka Brooks Law), but isn’t there an inherent bias in our perception, given that if a small team (or lone maverick individual) fails, it’s not likely to draw notice, whereas a large team failure is a colossal misfortune of misapplied monies, wasted personnel, etc.… And are not small teams handicapped by a knowledge gap?

  • What about the psychology of computer programmers? This topic was briefly touched upon in the book, but it’s a rich one that merits more research. Is there a special “programmer” personality? From past reading, I remember tales of how programmers were recruited back in computer infancy days — how math wizards, those with chess playing aptitude, card players, puzzle aficionados, housewives, etc.… were sought as programmer solutions. But there wasn’t a simple formula that could be employed — just that some people had a knack for it and some didn’t. Or study on how to foster harmonious relations between the programmer and the non-technical designer.

  • What set of tools are needed to close the gap? Rosenberg discusses Microsoft legend Charles Simonyi and his Intentional Programming concept, but are there more practical, incremental steps that can be taken? What is the state of educational research on this topic?

23 February 2007

Worthwhile Books

My ability to read books far outpaces my performance in posting reviews of them — my supply of books is presently flooding my capacity to store them has been exceeded for quite some time. Not that every book is notable enough for the sake of a review, but the queue of ones I wish to write about keeps accumulating. Truly, I am blessed with the gift of speed reading; however, my writing pace is unable to keep up. Meanwhile, I was spurred to concoct this list, and thought I’d share it .

Now, mind you, significance is not necessarily the equivalence being the best. And significance here is purely a subjective slash, centered on my life’s walk, and those texts that sparked in me a quest for further discovery, or jolted me from the clutches of a uninformed and/or misinformed state.

Since the Bible is a given for any Christian, and would occupy the top of any Christian’s significant book list, my list here omits it.

  1. The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill
    The Jesus story examined from the perspective of what the culture looked like at the time. The historical backdrop and its relevance explained, illustrating how upside down the kingdom Jesus advanced. Considered in the context, Jesus was more radical than is commonly conceived. Down is up, rich is poor, poverty is luxurious, triumph is gained by losing. Love replaces hate, shalom overcomes revenge, enemies are to be loved, a basin replaces the sword, etc…. This book was a big force in how I was transformed from Christian in word to Christian in deed.

  2. Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World by Jonathan Kwitny
    An eye opening book that awakened me from my Reagan-esque conservative slumber. Kwitny, former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, chronicles the follies and foolishness of U.S. intelligence organs intervening in foreign government activities in a post World War II world. Kwitny details how a vagabond backpacker trekking across the globe was more attuned to political matters than the CIA. Really stunning stuff, calling into question all the billions spent on meddling into the affairs that are of no concern to the average working American. Reading through some reviews at Amazon, I saw one reviewer note that Endless Enemies was sort of a precursor to John Perkins Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. No, while the themes of both books are tangential, Kwitny’s work is well researched, while Perkins is mostly constructed from his own empirical remembrances of anecdotal tales. True, Perkins was an inside man who now in a sense, came out and acknowledged his part in what many perceive to be less than ethical conduct that still goes on today, now in the form of Halliburton or Bechtel or other $BigDefenseContractor. Kwitny also authored a great biography of Pope John Paul II.

  3. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten
    A recent release, 2006, by the author of another one of my favorite books, When Corporations Rule the World. It’s not even been out a year, yet I’ve read it at least three times, and some chapters over a half-dozen times. Korten writes how globalization is just the recent most manifestation of Empire, in stark contrast to Earth Community — a sustainable and democratic model, in contrast to “Empire” which is the embodiment of a “fortune for the few and misery for the many” scheme that has been the dominant theme throughout history. David Korten is no starry eyed hippie — he was an insider that worked for the global organs he now identifies as advancing the interests of Empire over Earth Community.

  4. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler
    A shocking read, one that is made truly gripping by the remarkable writing of Kunstler’s, who exposes how precarious our lifestyle predicated on the existence of cheap oil might be. Here is a review I penned of Kunstler’s work.

  5. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn No doubt that this work has been a treasure for those of a progressive ilk, but I had never heard of it until a family member brought it home and informed me it was serving as their history textbook at school. From the very opening chapter, the reader is riveted by Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress where Zinn cites the logs of Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba, showing the Spanish conquerors in a different light than is typically portrayed in the schoolroom. Not that the theme is about blame, judgment or condemnation — instead, a look at how traditional Columbus history telling glosses over enslavement and mass murder as the “price of progress”. Zinn aims to elucidate historical insight from the perspective of everyone else besides the political leaders and generals. Each successive chapter, covering a segment of American history from the point of view of slaves, the oppressed, war victims, civil rights protesters and even plain ordinary working Americans. Even if your political philosophy is diametrically opposed to Zinn’s, his “follow the money” approach of examining American history is much deeper than the shallow, jingoistic fare that is usually trotted out.

  6. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
    An annual reading happenstance for me, this material should be part of every school child’s curriculum. Setting goals, repeating and reinforcing those goals every morning and every night is a bonafide recipe for success.

  7. The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie
    Through the years, I’ve purchased reams and reams of computer books and sadly, the everlasting value of the lot of them is total nil. And typically, your average tome devoted to technology topics is chock full of pages and pages of unnecessary bloat. Even the few that are relevant and worthy for a short duration often take way too many words to lay the groundwork, explain a concept or illustrate a technique. Not the K&R book as it’s affectionally referred to. Terse, concise, succinct, less than 200 pages, but if you can grok and master, you can righteously call yourself a proficient programmer. This is the example that all computer books should strive for!

  8. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
    This is a non-fiction work but it really reads like a science fiction novel. At least after the initial chapters — where Kurzweil lays out how Moore’s Law not only applies to integrated circuits, but to most all advancing technology, and he illustrates this with charts and graphs plotting it all out. From there, it’s a trip into how the GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics) threads ravel together will revolutionize life as we know it. Intelligent medical agent nanobots, self healing organs, downloadable brains, and the prediction that some living today will witness the coming of human immortality. Kurzweil believes it will be, and is carrying out measures to ensure his longevity to be here for it when his prediction comes to fruition.

  9. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter An extraordinary work, written in 1979, and a huge impetus in my career choice of computer science. I don’t really know how to describe it — a book about “strange loops”, winding together bits of Lewis Carroll, the art of M.C. Escher, the music of Bach with mathematician Kurt Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness. In the simplest form, his discovery entails the translation of the ancient Epimenides Paradox into mathematical terms. A mind blowing trip into paradoxes of finite v. infinite, mind v. machine, and relevancy for artificial intelligence research.

  10. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips
    A cogent treatise on “wealth and democracy” in America. Packed full of charts and graphs along with profiles of the richest Americans in each historical era, Phillips chronicles the source of wealth for the upper crust. And how wars historically have dramatically realigned the picture. But the impactful piece is the portion where Phillips draws parallels of the United States with past powers England, Spain and Holland. How we are trending towards a second Gilded Age as contemporary financial powers entrench their aristocratic hold at the expense of us all and our total economic health. How the Reagan era brought forth a focus on FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) business sectors while diminishing manufacturing and entrepreneurial ventures. Phillips is viewed as a “Republican turncoat” for this work, but I believe it to be most prescient. When favor is granted to those interesting in prolonging wealth off of that which is already built over those who build and make anew, that nation’s aggregate wealth is headed for a downward slope.

Honorable mentions

The following books almost made the cut, but got squeezed out in the final analysis. Partially because they are of a more specific focus, or perhaps they were impactful, but not as great as others that made the list.

  1. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis C.S. Lewis is an extraordinary writer, the words just eloquently stream from his pen onto paper. A treatise on what all Christians, regardless of denomination, believe, written carefully to avoid controversies between differing denominations.

  2. The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them by Amy Goodman, David Goodman
    The lefty politics of Amy Goodman is too extreme for many, including me, but she’s a doggone excellent journalist and has written (along with her brother) an insightful book that exposes mainstream journalists for the establishment access seeking whores that they are.

  3. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
    Eye opening study of all the facets and segments of the fast food industry.

  4. The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People by John Loftus, Mark Aarons
    Lots of conjecture, based mostly on the author’s network of “old spy” clients, but it’s fascinating reading and in the vein of Kwitny’s work above.

9 September 2006

Conservatives Without Conscience

My reading far outpaces my ability to write, and I'm sitting on a to-do stack of book reviews a mile long. Anyway, here goes the first in what I hope will be a burst of reviews in the next few weeks, time permitting.

More striking to me than the substantive content of John Dean's bestselling Conservatives without Conscience, are two featured quotes in the book, neither by Mr. Dean. The first is present on title page and states that if only white person votes were counted, KKK member David Duke would have been elected governor. I never knew that, and to consider that is shocking. The second, is an excellent prescription for the role of government.

If you think [the United States] could never elect an Adolf Hitler to power, note that David Duke would have become governor of Louisiana if it had just been up to the white voters in that state.

--Professor Bob Altemeyer

Authoritarian governments are defined by ready government access to information about the activities of citizens and by extensive limitations on the ability of citizens to obtain information about the government. In contrast, democratic governments are marked by significant restrictions on the ability of government to acquire information about its citizens and by ready access by citizens to information about the activities of government.

--Professor Robert G. Vaughn

The preface of Conservatives without Conscience begins with a lengthy tale of what Dean reports as a "smear campaign" against him — Silent Coup, and his subsequent lawsuit and conflict with convicted felons G. Gordon Liddy and Chuck Colson. Basically, Silent Coup contained scurrilous charges that it was Dean who orchestrated the 1972 Watergate burglary in order to protect his future wife, by removing information linking her to an alleged callgirl ring that worked for the DNC. Despite the unsubstantiated claims and overwhelming criticism of the book's claims, there was a contingent of conservative champions, including Liddy, Colson, and rising conservative media celebrities Monica Crowley and Brit Hume. Dean triumphed eventually in a lawsuit settlement, but this development propelled Dean in pursuit of the changing nature of conservatism in America. For me, it offered another episode that illustrates how depraved and sinister Mr. Liddy is — for example, during his Silent Coup promotion campaign, he gave out the Deans home phone number over the air on his radio show.

It is in the introduction too, where Dean writes of a relationship with Barry Goldwater and how they together embarked on a project to chronicle the misdeeds and misdoings of contemporary conservatives (of which Goldwater most definitely was aghast at in his late years, even supporting Democratic candidates here in Arizona, and the local Air America radio outlet used to run commercials about Goldwater spinning in his grave...). Unfortunately, Goldwater died before they could complete project, but the book is dedicated to his memory.

From there, Dean departs into more of a sociological treatise (which he really isn't qualified to give, but he simply relays information fed by prominent researchers). Interesting detail is given to the famous authoritarian Milgram Study whereby people, impressed by an "authority figure" are willing to deliver intense bodily pain to test subjects. Milgram's research explains how those fall easily into grasp of authoritarian leaders. The link between authoritarianism and conservatism is explored, where right wing authoritarians fit the following:
» read more

28 June 2005

How America Lost Iraq

Aaron Glantz's How America Lost Iraq is a compelling read, and offers a detailed examination of the war from an unembedded reporter's perspective. Glantz starts his volume off by expressing his belief that Saddam Hussien was an evil tyrant in need of action for regime change, and feuded with his leftist editors who desired an anti-war, non mainstream media perspective of the American invasion. Initially, his interviews with Iraqis revealed support for Bush's overthrow of the Hussien government. Many Iraqis, but not all, were thankful for Saddam's ouster.

However, the goodwill earned quickly dissipated as the United States bumbled the occupation and transformed infuriated Iraqis into a majority who oppose the American occupation. The 2004 campaign in Fallujah was the big turning point that enacted a metamorphisis of the insurgency from fringe elements to a significant segment of the Sunni and Shia population. In the north, rival Kurd tribal factions enjoy their status, and in many respects have implemented same sorts of controls Hussien imposed on the nation at large. Huge money flows to contractors and foreign mercenaries, yet the social situation deteriorates for Iraqis, as they pull their children out of school, and unemployment rises to obscene levels.

A cycle of violence is lodged in perputuity, American forces are heavy handed in retribution that pushes innocent Iraqis into sympathy for the insurgency. Every civilian caught in the cross fire and deemed colatteral damage hardens the hearts of natives. Women and children are picked off by snipers, ambulances riddled with bullet holes, and in one shocking account, shieks shot in the head at a human rights office. Roundups and detention of Iraqis, with no probable cause, and no information given to the family on where suspects are taken and what the charges are, enrage many. Understandable that our forces must exercise caution in a dangerous locale, but from the perspective of the Iraqi native, the American occupation has wrought a great wrong.

Mr. Glantz has penned a recent article stating that immediate withdrawl may be the only way to avert a civil war. As in his book, he describes how the Bush administration hired a North Carolina company called Research Triangle International (RTI) to appoint new political leaders for the country.

A final note — regarding general Iraqi dislike of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but disapproval of American persecution of him — due to the history of his family, specifically that they were martyrs who suffered and died speaking out against Saddam Hussien.

15 February 2005

Empire has been built through economic manipulation, cheating, fraud, seduction, through economic hit men

And now former Economic Hit Man John Perkins has had an epiphany and penned a new book titled Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It's indeed a page turner, I could hardly set it down, as Perkins tells the story he served as a tool U.S. neo-imperialism and how the global game works. The author also makes some bold claims, including unproven charges that Ecuador president Jaime Roldos and Panama president Omar Torrijos were assassinated for standing up against the corporatocracy.
Yeah, it was a tongue-in-cheek term that we called ourselves. Officially, I was a chief economist. We called ourselves e.h.m.'s. It was tongue-in-cheek. It was like, nobody will believe us if we say this, you know? And, so, we went to Saudi Arabia in the early seventies. We knew Saudi Arabia was the key to dropping our dependency, or to controlling the situation. And we worked out this deal whereby the Royal House of Saud agreed to send most of their petro-dollars back to the United States and invest them in U.S. government securities. The Treasury Department would use the interest from these securities to hire U.S. companies to build Saudi Arabia–new cities, new infrastructure–which we’ve done. And the House of Saud would agree to maintain the price of oil within acceptable limits to us, which they’ve done all of these years, and we would agree to keep the House of Saud in power as long as they did this, which we’ve done, which is one of the reasons we went to war with Iraq in the first place. And in Iraq we tried to implement the same policy that was so successful in Saudi Arabia, but Saddam Hussein didn't buy. When the economic hit men fail in this scenario, the next step is what we call the jackals. Jackals are C.I.A.-sanctioned people that come in and try to foment a coup or revolution. If that doesn't work, they perform assassinations. or try to. In the case of Iraq, they weren't able to get through to Saddam Hussein. He had -- His bodyguards were too good. He had doubles. They couldn’t get through to him. So the third line of defense, if the economic hit men and the jackals fail, the next line of defense is our young men and women, who are sent in to die and kill, which is what we’ve obviously done in Iraq.

Basically, the con is to go into developing nations, overhype and inflate economic estimates and projections to justify massive loan expenditures made out to the the developing nation which in turn flow back to the corporatocracy. Loans which the dependent nation will be unable to pay back, and thus the global powers will now have their "hooks" into the country's leadership. Fat profits flow to firms like Chas T. Main, Bechtel, Halliburton, etc.…, the foreign land's ruling class become enriched in loot, but economic pain is inflicted upon the common folks, who ultimately end up paying for the party.

Perkins tale seems to be abridged for the general readership as he covers his induction into his "chief economist" role for Chas T. Main all the way into current events, which he writes, compelled him to finally publish the book that he'd tried to write years before, but was "bribed" to keep silent. Critics can rightfully shred a good deal of the printed material here, as most all of the book is anecdotal in nature, though bibliographic links are presented in support of transpired events. Again, it's not so much a detailed breakdown of chicanery, but Perkins own wrestling with what he was and what was done in the interests of an empire, not so altruistic and benevolent as Americans typically believe. Repeatedly, Perkins bangs the theme of life being a "series of coincidences" and how "the world is as you dream it", contrasting his "man in the middle" perspective with the natives in foreign lands and the American public, who are totally blind to these global affairs.

Additionally, it's been a few years since he was a primary player on the global economic stage, thus, a great deal of his inferences regarding current affairs seem to be based on kvetching with contacts he's kept from his days of past international intrigue. Latter chapters in the book give fuel to those who wish to dismiss his words as conspiracy chattel.

Still, I think a great deal of what Perkins writes has merit, and it is consistent with what other "globalization" insiders spilling the beans have detailed — including David Korten and Joseph Stiglitz. Total adherence to the altar of capitalism is not a panacea for the ills in the world, and it's had a destructive effect.