Last Updated: 05/11/2012


With Meaning in my Life...

(Also possibly of interest is my current reading list.)


Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom ****

by Cory Doctorow
Tor, 2003
First read: Summer, 2011

Even though Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was written several years ago (2003), it still oscillates between insightful and prescient. I see parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movements with its objections to manipulation by the wealthy and powerful and our current dearth of employment opportunities. Of course in Doctorow's world in this book, that is, in the "Bitchun Society" no one really has to work. They work to bring meaning into their lives, and into the lives of others, and so gain respect and the privileges that accompany respect. I heard recently that Pope Benedict XVI thinks that ethics should be a part of our power / economic structure, that those who do good should get rewarded, that people should not have to choose between doing good and earning money, that doing good should be more than its own reward. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom doing good, or just doing service, is rewarded -- with food, with taxi rides, with a place to live. Of course automation and technology have made all these things plentiful, and death scarce, except by choice. But people are still people, with backstabbing and romance (and the combination of the two, sometimes). Here we follow one person through the ups and downs of operating a portion of Disney World on a pro-bono basis with an ad hoc group of like-minded individuals. Doctorow's characters are fun and lively and the technology plausible and the ethical questions interesting. Like is it right for people to not die? Of course all the proponents of the "people should eventually die" point of view eventually die and the opposing view becomes prominent. That's interesting, and fun. And so is this book.

The Iron Thorn ***

by Caitlin Kittredge
Delacorte Press, 2011
First read: Summer, 2011

This is a YA Steampunk novel. YA for Young Adult, which didn't stop Ms. Kittredge from using diverse and interesting language, but it did make the burgeoning romances rather platonic. I was fine with that, nice that a kiss and a cuddle meant something (and not something euphemistic -- rather it's 'youthemistic'. Heheh.) I'm also not very familiar with the steampunk genre, so I can't comment on how faithful she is to it -- there was more magic than I thought there would be, but she blended the supernatural and the gears nicely.

The heroine, Aoife (an Irish name pronounced "EE-fah", apparently, something I should have looked up sooner rather than later; I kept calling her "aye-oaf" or "afe" in my head), is cool and headstrong and takes the challenges as they come -- and they come pretty quickly at times. There are neat characters along the way, too. Dean, in particular, is debonair without being too much of a jerk. He smokes though, so that's pretty un-PC -- probably just endears him to the rebellious YA's in the target audience. He gets the wanderers a dirigible ride which is one of my favorite parts of the book.

It's weird that after they get to an empty house called Graystone that it's then that the action really picks up. It's also when the "reveals" start to cascade and it was fun but almost a reveal too far -- there will be sequels though, so things may become a bit less fantastic as we settle into the rich world of Thorn and Iron that Kittredge is (love) crafting. I'm looking forward to it.

Makers ****

by Cory Doctorow
Tor, 2009
First read: Summer, 2009; finished: Summer, 2011

It took me over two years to read this book. That's not because it was dull, but rather I left it in my car and read from it whenever I was in my car waiting for something: a kids soccer practice to end, the time to arrive for a dentist appointment -- you get the idea. (I also wrote the first draft of this review in my car, waiting for my daughter to get her hair trimmed.) Also, I started reading this book as paper printout's from the author's web site; Cory Doctorow always makes his writings available free of charge, but like many people, I still buy one for the convenience and to support the author. I did get one page of the printout signed by the author at WorldCon in Montreal in August of 2009.

Makers is a great and timely story of techno-inventors, and of popular and start-up culture revolving around micro-chips, 3-D printers, robotics and such-like. And about news -- newspapers, TV news, etc. -- moved to blogging and the death and rebirth of corporate America and Disney -- always at least a hint of Disney in Doctorow books, a lot more than a hint here.

On the down side, but maybe more to do with my taking 2 years to get through the slightly more than 400 pages, I was never able to separate the two male protagonists in my mind: Lester and Perry are business partners but individuals that blended for me. It was made worse because our heroine, Suzanne the ultimate blogger, gets a bit wishy-washy about which one she likes romantically, finally settling on (hold on, I have to go check even now) Lester after he has his chubbiness bio-engineered away to svelteness. (Perry though has the better sex scene in the book, with minor but well-rounded character Hilda).

Also on the down side is that the boom and bust cycles that these folks go through go on a couple of rounds too many -- a bit repetitive. Still, the minor gems along the way make up for it, like the goth Disney World employee who is self-named "Death Waits" and the patent/copyright issues are well woven into the fabric of the story. Don't miss the epilogue -- it's one of the fastest moving segments of the book and includes a great concept piece on how people's flaws, when working together in teams, are multiplicative; i.e. if two people are individually 90 percent unflawed each, then as a team they are only 81 percent unflawed. Virtues, on the other hand, "are additive, a shallower curve." Great stuff.

Elegy Beach ****

by Steven R. Boyett
The Berkely Publishing Group, 2009
First read: Spring, 2010

Since his next book ( Mortality Bridge) has already been published in hard cover and the trade paperback release is encroaching, I decided I'd better get some kind of a review done for Steven R. Boyett's prior endeavor Elegy Beach. This one is a sequel to his first full length novel from about 30 years ago, Ariel. That book is more than a classic, it's an archetype in the field of young-man-fighting-quest fantasy -- set in every boy's dream world: swords, martial arts, unicorns and dragons. Elegy Beach visits the next generation, and while I agree with the author that the writing here is actually better, for example his description of a "magic rave", i.e. a kind of concert where the performers resonate vibes of perceptible magic instead of music (and marijuana), is incredibly good ("The shimmer gave a shudder and the next throb nearly knocked me down. Not a musical note. You felt it. Everything for a mile had to have felt it."), still the plot and character introductions from the original make it remain the funner story.

But this is a worthy sequel, with character development, and fresh characters of its own, and real-world geography, only after "the Change", a sort of apocalypse that makes magic real (and technology non-functional). It made me wish I was in southern California and could go see the landmarks being referenced, being walked past by the characters. And that brings me to the other thing that Boyett does so well in his works: walking quests. He follows in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Cormac McCarthy's more recent entry, The Road, and I believe one of Boyett's favorite books, Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany. (Boyett calls these "Walking Stories" and discusses more examples on his blog here.)

One of the fun new characters is a centaur named Bob. But centaurs here are more oversized insectoids than half horse, half man. They've got triangulish heads and slurred speech. They reminded me of Jon Dark's whip sword wielding exo-skeletal sidekick in the pulp sci-fi series Jandar of Callisto that I read as a teenager. So this isn't Ariel, the classic, but it's still a fun ride, er, walk.

For the Win ****

by Cory Doctorow
Tor, 2010
First read: Spring, 2010

Review published here in the Decatur Daily newspaper.

Ariel ****

by Steven R. Boyett
Ace, 1983/2009
First read: Summer, 2009

I enjoyed this book immensely; so much so that I slowed my reading down even as the pace of the action picked up in the latter third of the book, just to avoid getting to the end. Originally published 26 years ago, I missed it then. I can't decide if I would have liked it better then, when all the allusions were current (or at least recent); or now, when it's all nostalgia for me. Definitely in the tradition of post-apocalyptic and epic journey books that I did read back then (a little earlier actually) like Hiero's Journey (Sterling E Lanier) and Shardik (Richard Adams). I'll quibble a bit with a couple details in a minute, but Boyett handles some things that bugged me a little in his own Afterword. I really enjoyed the candid insights in the Afterword, I'm in tune with this guy. I share his affinity for strong titles, that they are multi-purpose: attention grabbing introductions, foreshadowing devices, and reflection points upon completion. I appreciate that he feels the unreality of haughty diction in much modern fantasy and that toilet travails were conspicuously absent from The Lord of the Rings (even though I personally didn't miss them; I think they were mostly irrelevant to the plot and unseemly, at least when the LotR is viewed as The Red Book of Westmarch .) But now I'm being overly wordy, something Boyett is self-conscious of.

So let me quibble: The author (in the afterword) says he later discovered that blow guns have almost no stopping power -- I suspected as much; even guns don't always put people down quickly, anachronistic weapons, especially projectile based ones, are particularly poor at dropping quarry. Point deux: where did all the people go (and why did they go bonkers so quickly). We're offered no explanation for this, although the two could obviously be related as they are in I Am Legend, a book that Boyett credits with some inspiration. Okay, 3: do we really need so much detailed hand-to-hand combat? And is it really plausible that our heroes hack through so many -- it's a bit like the Joker's henchmen being no match at all for Batman, for even Robin. A bit worse to me than leaving out the protaganist's toidy breaks would have been. Still this is a novel of every boy's fantasy land, to meet and befriend or conquer mythical beasts; to be both a loner and to make meaningful friends and do important deeds with them (with a little love interest thrown in). Great stuff; modern archetypal. I anticipate the sequel (although I hope it is neither too sequel-ly nor too explanatory). It's Elegy Beach, due out in November.

Little Brother ****

by Cory Doctorow
Tor, 2008
First read: Spring/Summer, 2009

I finally finished this. It's an important book that makes me uncomfortable. It's well-written and paradoxically easy to read. It's written to be accessible to young people and I think they will "get it", but I worry that youth today (as if I am so old) accept the invasions of privacy and the borderline police state that has replaced freedom in these United States, with few questions asked, as status quo. I voted for this book for the Hugo novel of the year award. I also lugged my copy to Montreal to get it signed by the author; his dedication says: "For Chip -- Stay Free!". Thanks, Cory, I'm working on it.

Kayber Prime -- A Baylock Matherbee Mystery ****

by Bill Perry
First read: June, 2009

This is an unpublished (yet) science fiction short story by a friend of mine and I was truly impressed. (I'm giving the benefit of the doubt with the fourth star, since I assume a couple quirky sentences would be tightened up by a decent editor.) It's only 5,000+ words long but he's done a nice job of world building and, despite being set an indeterminate number of years in the future (100? 250?), Bill managed to "write what he knows", which is software and the related techno-gizmos. Bill Perry is a bit of a software sleuth, unearthing obscure problems in legacy programs. His protagonist here, Baylock Matherbee, is an insurance investigator with a specialty in combing data for obscure details. Matherbee is an interesting character, another prime directive for good writing, complete with idiosyncracies (he likes archaic technology and appreciates fine food). Perry also tosses in a little good guy / bad guy philosophy and ends, as most good short stories do, with a little zinger -- not so much a twist as food for thought; satisfying food like a well-baked potato. Nicely done. (Of course if you'd like to read it, you'll have to contact me, and I'll check with Bill....)

Creatures Of The Night ***

by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
(2004, Dark Horse Books)
First read: February, 2009

A graphic novel with two stories falling loosely under a theme, or maybe a theme was concocted to connect two loose stories? I finally enjoyed the first one, but then I was reading Mr. Gaiman's blog back at the beginning of double-naught-four when his black cat was getting into nightly scrapes. It has a nice short-story wrap-up. The second tale here is interesting mostly because of its story-within-a-story device, but I kept expecting an overt connection between the two, and if it was there, I missed it.

Spin ***

by Robert Charles Wilson
(2005, Tor)
First read: Fall, 2008

This is no doubt a very good science fiction book. I don't read enough of it to know how above the crowd this novel is, but it won the 2006 Hugo award for Best Novel. It's high quality prose, and good "sciency" fiction. The time differential, on earth versus out in the rest of the universe, is a nice conceit. The protagonist, your basic nerdy near-future sci-fi hero, and his evolving relationship with his best friend's sister, from un-admitted crush, to awkward acknowledgement to star-crossed impossibility (pretty literally in this case) to, well, through to maturity and beyond (another good concept, but it's a minor spoiler so you should read for it), is handled very well. It rings true to at least some of us who can identify with a self-conscious adolescence. So while I don't felt I wasted my time reading this book, it's also a bit like that current lunch commercial, where the guy can't remember the chicken sandwich he just had. I'm not sure what the author spent 450-plus pages on. Surely this story could have been as well told in half or fewer that many? I guess if that's my only complaint, it's a pretty worthwhile endeavor.

Once Upon A Marigold (Hardback) ***

by Jean Ferris
(2002, Harcourt)
First read: Summer, 2008
This was assigned summer reading for my daughter this year, prior to her entering seventh grade. I think it's a fine book for that purpose, and she cruised through it much more quickly than I did. I slowed to reading one of the 9-10 page chapters each night before falling asleep. With 22 chapters and an epilogue it took rather longer than its 226 pages really should have. Anyway its fairly formulaic with a runaway boy raised by a troll in a land of kings and princesses. But there's some novelty here and modern relevance and things that will make young people's imaginations wander on. Things like "p-mail", which is an analog to our own new communication method, e-mail; except the "p" stands for "pigeon", as in carrier pigeons. This is one of the more novel concepts in the book, overall it's pretty light fluff, entertaining for youngsters and a bit hokey for us more middle-aged folks.

Night Life (Paperback) ****

by Caitlin Kittredge
(2008, St. Martins)
First read: Spring, 2008
"I could smell her blood because I'm a werewolf.
I had gotten the call because she was dead."
This is some of the "chick-noir-supernatural-detective" first person narration from page one as our protagonist helps us get to know her. A couple paragraphs later our police detective/heroine adds, "... 3 AM and I'm wearing raggedy blue jeans and a T-shirt stained with fingerprinting ink. Not my off-duty attire to be sure, but you try cleaning blood out of a silk halter."

There is quite a bit of hip and witty writing here and it moves quickly. Kittredge builds a nice world, although some things are a little awkward, like the use of "hex" as the ultimate expletive. Okay, maybe in Nocturne City, but it doesn't translate that well. And it's pretty formulaic pulp, but it's youthful and it's current and unabashed. There's also a feel that it's a dime-store novel, right down to fairly frequent typos (I wish I had marked some of them as I went, hard to find them now, but I was enjoying the ride too much!) There are also a couple plot things that I had trouble with, for example, Luna (the protagonist) is always worrying about turning into a werewolf and the story builds toward the full-moon and at one point, in her grandma's house, it's only 43 minutes until the full moon comes up, but Luna never "phases", despite ongoing action for what must be a couple more hours. Also, I may have a quibble with the continuity of a gun during the climax (or I'm otherwise confused). Near the end of chapter 22 she loses her handgun in a fight with Stephen, "The Colt went over the bannister and slid off to parts unknown." Then in the 4th paragraph of chapter 23 "...wishing with all my heart that I had the Colt in my hand;" followed on the next page by "As I went to my knees and lost my grip on the gun." It's no big deal, something you hope the editor catches, though.

I started following the author's blog before she was a published novelist (Night Life is her first), and it's been fun sitting on the sidelines watching her go through it and listening to her moan about deadlines and word counts and editting and making the rent. Somewhere in there she quit her day job and has more novels under contract. It's pretty light entertainment, certainly artful if not exactly high art. I plan to enjoy the next installment, and her running commentary with its angst and ice cream.

Odd and the Frost Giants (Paperback) ****

by Neil Gaiman
(2008, Bloomsbury)
Even though this book is only being published in the UK for World Book Day 2008, which is March 6, exactly a week from today, I received a box of 25 of them from over a week ago. Since it's only 97 pages long I finished my own copy in short order. I've sent a few copies to friends and I'm selling some on eBay. It's a boy's tale. The kind of thing that didn't happen in our real lives as boys at age 12, so we pretended that they did. We pretended, either alone or with our friends, that we were traveling with eagles and bears and trudging off to face giants. And in that capacity this is an excellent book. It doesn't stand up as well as say, Coraline, as an adult read.

(It's been fun reading the author's blog over the time period he was writing this story and to see him tie things in from his other experiences, like at one point Odd says "Whee!" just like in the Jason Webley song that the author told us he was enjoying a few months ago; and to have seen him wrestle with the title -- it's a title styled after legends of yore, like "Jason and the Argonauts", but it's still a bit problematic that only one Frost Giant is actually encountered. Anyway, with getting the books early at a discount and with these insights, I've felt like an insider and it's been fun.)

Watchmen (Paperback) ***

by Alan Moore
(1987, DC Comics)
Hailed as a great novel in general, not just a great graphic novel, I bought this myself used off eBay a few months ago. I find it good, but sometimes have trouble following the relevance of the pictures. Maybe there are elements of mosaic or collage in addition to a linear story. It is an epic story, original in its juxtapositions; novel and formulaic at the same time. I enjoyed the quotes, for example, "'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.' Who watches the watchmen? -- Juvenal, Satires VI, 347 Quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report, 1987" (The Iran-Contra affair, for those of us who have forgotten...)

Fragile Things****

by Neil Gaiman (2006, HarperCollins)
Read: Fall 2007
Once again, as with his Smoke and Mirrors collection of short stories, what I really enjoyed immensely about this collection is that the author provides a bit of the background for each story. That is, Neil tells us, very candidly (as near as I can discern), the story of the story. I like that, and perhaps that is a reason why "October in the Chair" is one of my favorites here. It is itself a story about a story and still Neil gives us the back-story, so going 3 deep, as it were (or is). And possibly because I read it most recently (it appears last in the book) I also remember really enjoying "The Monarch of the Glen". Or perhaps it is because, as Mr. Gaiman tells us extra-narratively, "It was good to catch up with Shadow, two years after the events in my novel American Gods." All the stories here are well crafted yet plainly written. Give it a try.


by Richard Bach (1977, Delta Books, Dell Publishing)
Re-read: Fall 2007
When I was 14 I was absolutely certain that the soul, my soul, was a separate entity, something that could and would live on if my body died. That the loss of my corporeal self would simply set my ethereal self free; and that, most likely, my soul would live forever. That precept is the required suspension of disbelief in Illusions, a book I first read while in my teens. It's undeniably a good book and the concept of an "advanced soul" is a strong one, but it's also flawed here, as it usually is. The rules and goals just don't hold up. We suffer because we want to? We can make end-wrenches float around if we want to? Why would that be something we'd choose to do? Why bother with this space-time manifestation, i.e. the physical Earth and its human culture? So it must be worthwhile somehow. But then why break the rules? Just to show that you're above the rules? To help set other people free? Why are they trapped? Yadda, yadda and yadda.

As I said, advanced souls, or simply superior insight, is an interesting concept. That's why I re-read this book at this point. Research. And there is good stuff here. The pseudo-quotes are secure in their profundity. An example, "Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't." Still I think I prefer Bach's earlier "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", which I also re-read a couple years ago. I like it though as much for the phenomenon that it was in the 70's in spite of its brevity (or possibly because of it). I also enjoyed the sentience in JLS and Jonathan learning to adjust his wings to fly faster, to dive like a falcon.

I do like the self admonition here (in Illusions), by the character Richard, that the minor miracles are basically hocus-pocus, just eye candy for the masses. But the book never really trancends that.

The Pinhoe Egg***

by Diana Wynne Jones (2006, Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins)
Read: Winter 2006-2007
This is a brand new book, still only in hardcover and all that; it's nice to be "up with the times" on occasion. On the other hand its "A Chrestomanci Book", meaning its not the first of its kind, although they don't seem to be a series, that is a sequence of books with a common story and characters, quite the way a lot of series are these days, like the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, more like the old Nancy Drews, although I'm not sure that any of the characters are the same in the other books since I haven't ready any of them so I'm a bit behind the times in that respect.

Anyway, this is a very quick read and enjoyable in a light way. It's tough to tell what time period its set in exactly, they have a few cars and phones but they neither seem widespread nor particularly novel. And the relationship of witchcraft and magic to the general population is obscure -- very unlike the clearly articulated and clearly delineated wizards vs. muggles in the world of Harry Potter.

Then there's the title, The Pinhoe Egg, but the egg appears late and is of only moderate signifigance -- or did I miss something? Now all the pain and frustrations from 10th grade English class come back, where our teachers made us think that symbolism was the raison d'etre for literature. The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations and their ilk. (I was spared Moby Dick, it was probably causing too many snickers in 1977; or maybe it was just overwhelmed at that time by Jaws (the movie).) But here the titular egg doesn't seem to play into the subtext of overcoming difficult and embarrassing family relationships or any other significant plot element for that matter. But there is some worthwhile exploration of the human condition in this trials-of-family theme, especially for "young adult" readers. If they're through the Potters and done with Lemony Snicket, this is another wholesome feed.


by Neil Gaiman (1997, HarperTorch)
Read: Summer 2006
Excellent read and I fail to disagree with other reviews that describe this as a punk-era Alice in Wonderland. The protagonist is almost as lost in a realm with very foreign rules and he stumbles around becoming the unwitting hero. The characters are robust despite the comic book sensibilities and Saturday morning cartoon names, e.g. the archetype huntress character is named, er, "Hunter". My favorite character is the Marquis de Carabas; I'm not sure why, either it's his panache or just his ridiculously long and obtuse name. "Door" is a novel character and cute and slightly vulnerable while still maintaining a bearing of royalty and cunning; I can't help but like her too. And the villains are despicable.
But also the plot is not an epic quest, it's mostly just the good guys wandering around a strange place meeting people and dealing with it all. It's no Lord of the Rings or Dune in that sense, not even Hiero's Journey. And it's very much like The Wizard of Oz and I thought so before the characters even started making fun of themselves in that regard. Still it's time well lost, and the more so if you catch at least some of the allusions, like "The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel." Enjoy.

Smoke And Mirrors****

by Neil Gaiman (1998, William Morrow)
Read: Winter 2005-2006
What I really like about this collection of short stories is the meta-information that the author provides in the Introduction, "the tales about the tales", as it were. The stories themselves are good enough, somewhat normal, particularly in the respect that they end with a twist or are concept pieces. But coupled with their back story they become very personal. For example, "The Gold Fish Pool and Other Stories" reeks of a real life experience of an inexperienced author in Hollywood and combines that with the concept that maybe it's not just goldfish who have really short memories.
It did take me a long time to get through the book, I renewed it about four times, finally getting my act together enough to do so online, without having to actually go to the library, not even my local branch -- that's pretty handy. At 352 pages it's not really a long book, I just read in such fits and starts these days that it takes me forever to plough through anything longer than the Publix ad.
I was surprised at how much sexuality is in the book. It's treated very adultly, not with snickers, but this one is definitely for "mature audiences".

American Gods****

by Neil Gaiman (2001, HarperTorch)
Let me start with the fact that I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan from his Sandman comic book days. More recently I've really been enjoying his
blog where he is very open and informative and real about his life as a popular author.
In American Gods he has crafted an unusual novel about which he has said: "The first thing I knew when I started American Gods - even before I started it - was that I was finished with C.S. Lewis's dictum that to write about how odd things affect odd people was an oddity too much...." So it's an odd, unusual novel. It's about gods of all ilks and their bickering and their struggles to be relevant in the New World. And their interaction with one man in particular, Shadow, our protagonist. It's chock full of arcane deities and delightful little side tales about people coming to America, and dragging their gods and their culture along, whether they really want to come on or not.
There are also interesting historical tidbits, like the subtle relating of the fact that in ancient Egypt it was the practice of the well-off to delay sending their deceased women to the embalmers for 3 days, particularly if they died young. This was to ensure that the corpses were not too attractive to those who prepared them for the afterlife.
Characters are as well rounded as called for. As example one old man, Hinzelmann, tells straight-faced tall tales of his forbears much the way my grandfather Patton told them. As truth, unbelievable but with "proof", you could go down and still see the cobblestones in Jamestown where the Irish immigrant had gotten off the bus, having heard that there was money just lying in the streets in this prosperous American town; upon finding a nickel he tossed it back, saying he'd wait until he got up-town where the big money was.
There are details and parts of the book that were a bit lost on me, maybe a second reading would pick them up. At least many of the loose ends are tied up by the very end and things don't just stop in perpetuity like I feared at one point deep in. It's a magnetic read, and not religiously offensive, so long as you have a wee bit of tolerance.

The Catcher in the Rye***

by J.D. Salinger (1945, Little Brown and Company)
(First read 2004) So this is a classic. I found it somewhat difficult reading so in that sense it qualifies. I can see why some schools have problems letting their kids read it. But what I found to slow my old progress down was Holden Caufield's superfluous style of speaking, it really did. (grin) Also I found it amazing that this 16 year old kid was running all over New York City on his own getting dates and drinks. It's a bit beyond what I would have handled at that age and quite outside my own son's experiences at 15. I don't know if he could relate to it, maybe it's not as relevant as once it was?

The Hobbit****, The Fellowship of the Ring*****, The Two Towers*****, and The Return of the King*****

by J.R.R. Tolkien
Collectively known as The Lord of the Rings (well, you can argue as to whether The Hobbit is part of the LOTR or a lesser prequel, but I won't). I must've read these a dozen times between the ages of 14 and 19 and I'm thinking of doing it again with a fresh
movie in the making.


by Frank Herbert
Probably my favorite science fiction book of all time. One of the most complete invented set of worlds and cultures.
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. The little death that brings total obliteration. ..." You'll have to ask Madelyn why the movie version holds a special place in our lives. We saw it in Richmond, 1985. And it's not because our best man was hanging around with Kyle MacLachlan about then, although that would be a good guess.

High Fidelity(*****) and Holes(***)

by Nick Hornby and Louis Sachar, respectively
High Fidelity (the movie, based on the book by Nick Hornby) and Holes by Louis
Sachar, as written via e-mail to David Rawson a few days before his May 10th (2003) wedding:

I never got around to reading the book (I don't read a lot of actual books these days, although I did just finish "Holes"; which is also one of a flock of coming-of-age-stories coming out about now as films, it was pretty good, classic adolescent fare that we could all use now and then; I didn't see the film, but Madelyn and the kids did a week or two back, during Nathaniel's Spring Break; I don't get Spring Break these days of course), High Fidelity, as you recommended a couple years back. We did finally see the movie tonight, it was excellent. It made Madelyn's skin crawl, which made it all the better for me. She thinks it was stupid; sometimes she fails to recognize certain archetypes and their epitomic representatives.

I'm assuming everything is set for California. We seem to be. We fly out early Friday and back late Sunday. We're booked for 2 nights at the Claremont. (Don't go through with it on my account. I plan to enjoy my trip to the left coast regardless of matrimonial activity. On the other hand Kryssa definitely seems like she's in the upper half of my top five girlfriends-I've-met-of-Dave-Rawson's.)

Return to the House of Usher***

by Robert Poe (1997) Given to me by my wife for Christmas that year.
My review may still be posted at
But I'll reproduce it here:
Robert Poe pens a credible modern tale with enough supernatural undertones to tingle your spine but balanced with modern detective novel explanations whenever reason becomes over-taut. The allusions to Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher are manifold and a pre-re-reading of that classic is recommended. Characters in "Return..." are well rounded, with one or two minor exceptions (the mob lawyer from up North) and the details of the plot ahead are never easily guessed although I saw some of the underpinnings well ahead of the central character, Charles Poe, but we readers aren't blinded by his fateful ancestry. What I missed in this story was the archaic (even in the 1800's) diction of E.A.Poe and his semantic mastery. Rarely in Return... is there a well turned run-on sentence or a sequence of multisyllabic verbage to cause a mental tongue twister causing the reader to pause, and consider.


Born Standing Up****

by Steve Martin (2007, Scribner)
Read Spring 2012
Subtitle: A Comic's Life
I can't recall who recommended this book to me -- it was somewhere on the internet, possibly Cory Doctorow, because of the Disney connection. Steve Martin's first jobs were at Disneyland, not really as an entertainer, but I guess they are all "cast members". I think he started by selling a daily paper there. Anyway, I'm still not a big fan of his comedy, but I ATE UP this autobiography *about* his comedy. It is fast reading and great behind-the-scenes stuff and very real. Martin bounced around among girlfriends and my favorite line in the book comes from his discussions of them (but maybe that's because I'm approaching 50): "Were they beautiful? We were all beautiful. We were in our twenties."

Lily Dale***

by Christine Wicker (2002, Harper San Francisco)
Read Fall 2008
Subtitle: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead
Lily Dale is a small town near Cassadaga, New York. It's along route 60, between Chautauqua Lake and Lake Erie, but Cassadaga has a small lake of it's own, one that Lily Dale shares. Like a number of other communities in this region of New York state, (most notably Chautauqua Institution) Lily Dale thrives in the summer and all but disappears in the cold, snowy winter. Lily Dale is a Spiritualist community. That is, there are mediums there -- they commune with the spirits of dead people. And that is what most of this book says during the first 30 chapters (some 219 pages). I found that first three quarters of the book pretty dull and hard to follow -- a lot of very common first names like Betty and Shelley and Anne and Lynne and Pat and Carol were very easy to confuse and the author keeps jumping back and forth amongst them. I guess it follows some chronology, (the author is a newspaper reporter) and I think the author is trying to make a point, or build an argument, or something, but it was pretty lost on me. And I've been to Lily Dale. Once.

The old photos are good. And things are a bit more coherent toward the end. I suggest skimming the first 200 pages and just reading the last several chapters. You don't miss much, other than one keen observation by a handy man, "I'm sixty-one years old now, and the only thing I know is that we don't know nothing, and even that's on shaky ground." If you want to read more it would've helped me to know that the author includes "A Partial Cast of Characters" as essentially an appendix (I don't think it spoils much of anything to refer to this as you go.). There's also a decent bibliography in the back of the book. Weirdly, the author recounts an anecdote in the book where someone thinks she looks like Annette Benning, you know, from the movie, "The American President", but she claims not to. But then they've either printed Annette Benning's photo (circa 1995) in the back of the book, or, yes, the author does look a lot like the actress.

The Sorrows Of Empire****

by Chalmers Johnson (2004, Owl Books)
Read 2007-2008
Subtitle: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
This is the scariest book I've read in a long time. It's all about how this country isn't what I grew up believing that it was. And what it has become is not something that I'm proud of; it's something that worries and embarrasses me. And that saddens me. This is an academic book, by that I mean it has footnotes and might be used as a text in a university history or political science course. It's well researched, and what it says is that our military, or more narrowly that our military leaders, are basically behaving like bullies and that some of our political leadership is proud of them for it. Congress is largely powerless to stop them -- sure they've withheld funds for things like schools that teach the minions of foreign dictatorships how to torture and oppress their enemies and people; but our military simply changes the name and the location (and the funding source) of the school and goes on with the business it sees fit. As I said, scary.

American Imperialism really started around the end of the first world war, when only certain countries were favored with the right to "self determination", pretty much just the predominantly caucasion countries. What is now the Third World were left dominated by the victors: India, Indochina, The Phillipines. It has gotten worse from there, of late we twist arms to get bases on foreign soil and require special law exemptions for our personnel based there. Sure we bring money, but we bring debauchery, domination and cultural corruption, too. In spades.

And do we need this huge world wide military presence, or could we do something better with our money? We spend nearly 16 times as much on preparing for war as on preventing it. Something is out of balance there. What about the Manhattan Project. It certainly ended WWII, but what about now? Chalmers tells us that all funds used to develop these weapons of mass destruction were hidden from Congress by the War Department. "We the People" who? He gives us plenty of details of how the Presidents and the military have increased their secrecy, their militarism and their intelligence gathering, leaving Congress and the rest of us more and more out of the loop and bullying other countries when we can't persuade their governments to bully along with us. And it's not just the Republican Presidents -- Clinton was right in there, too, being buffetted around by the COM's -- the regional military commanders and the Pentagon.

But then we come to the actual sorrows; the precursors to the end of the American Empire. Turns out it's not a new story. Chalmers tells us about four sorrows: Perpetual War (pretty self explanatory); Loss of Democracy (more power concentrated in the Presidency and Executive Branch); Propaganda (disinformation given to the U.S. populace of Orwellian proportions) and Bankruptcy (literally; our resources will be poured into controlling an empire we can't afford and we will be over-stretched and our economy will collapse). Ask the British, ask the Romans or the Ottomans. There's very little new here, other than the ability to poison the whole planet in our wake.

Coincidentally today I caught part of the
City Arts and Lectures rebroadcast on National Public Radio of a conversation with Eric Schlosser from November 29, 2007. He's the author of, for one, Fast Food Nation. Schlosser was saying that arrogance is the key ingredient in the fall of empires. Arrogance and hubris in its leadership. He pointed out that even now, as many who were at first okay with the current war in Iraq but are now rethinking that position, that they still have not apologised to any of those among us who questioned the wisdom of this war in the first place. Those questioners were called unpatriotic and aiders of the enemy, and worse. But what's that? Maybe they were right? Time to swallow the pride and find a just way forward, one that tolerates (or even encourages) dissenting voices.

Schlosser made other worthwhile points, not strictly about Military Empire, but about the global imbalance that it encourages. How 35 years ago meat packing was a well paid blue collar job in this country but that illegal immigrant labor and union busting combined to make it a terrible job that only those desperate for work will take. The solution is not to have National ID Cards; nor to build border fences, but rather to ensure decent wages and fair business practices. (This is where some people will pipe up to defend the "free market", but it's a fallacy to think our markets are free. Agriculture is the most subsidized and protected of industries; monetary policy is dicatated by "the Fed"; oil prices are controlled by OPEC.

And, turning another direction, as serendipity would have it, I also read the Executive Director's essay in Sierra magazine today that explains how toy companies like Mattel and Fisher Price have lost control of their brand by using contract factories in China. Only the toy design is done in the U.S. now and since the U.S. companies want the freedom to switch to cheaper factories they also give up any real control of the quality. And the pressure on the factories is intense to be the cheapest bidder; and lead based paints are cheaper than the safer alternatives. And the U.S. companies lose much of that price advantage that they are squeezing out of the foreign factories if they test every batch of products off the assembly lines.

Whew! I've ranted enough, but this is all scary. For the last 25 years we thought we'd gotten somewhere, that we had enough bureaucracy in place to keep us safe and that we could concentrate on maximizing efficiency and raising our standard of living, on consumerism. It just isn't so. And we're not always the good guys.

Lapsing Into A Comma****

by Bill Walsh (2000, McGraw-Hill)
Read Winter 2006-2007
Subtitle: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them; and that's a good short description. This is a fine book of the ilk of William Safire, the details and examples are here. Unsure whether to use a hyphen, it's here, with examples and explanation; e.g. "a gang might re-form, even if it doesn't reform." Punctuation too. (And the exceptions as well, like sometimes sentence fragments are OK.) Many examples and some anecdotes are humorous, others are topical; if I have a quibble in this area it's that things tend to have a newspaper bent and I don't anticipate doing much writing for a daily.
I don't agree with everything, but he seems fine with that, too (e.g. I like sports scores in the same order as the participants, like Gerulaitis lost to Borg in a thrilling match: 7-5, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-8. That way I don't have to look to the end of the scores to see whose is whose; why always put the winner first? Or maybe I just played too much volleyball and listened when they told me to call the server's score first.)
Anyway, as I once told my middle-school English teacher after she had marked a whole raft of commas on my paper as 'superfluous' (or perhaps, like crows, commas should be grouped into a murder), "When they make English a well-ruled language then I'll speak and write it perfectly." Here Mr. Walsh focuses on the confluence between common sense and consistency aimed at achieving high quality communication.

Imagined Worlds****

by Freeman Dyson (1997, Harvard University Press)
Read Fall 2006
The author says "this book is supposed to be about technology, not about social justice..."; but he slips in plenty of both. In the Introduction he quotes Smeed's Rule to us, "you can either get something done, or you can get the credit for it, but not both." Later in the final chapter of the book, "Ethics", he talks about Samuel Gompers, the labor advocate, and tells us "In a society without social justice and with a free market ideology, guns, greed, and jails are bound to win."
Strong stuff and considering that it was published 10 years ago, it's impressive that it is even more on the mark now than then. He offers other nice insights, like about the time scales than humans can grasp. Ten years is the outer limit of our political predictability; on a scale of 100 years each of us, as an individual is dead; to survive on this scale requires family, or a nation, or a culture; at 1000 years only diversity may be a constant in human terms, etc.
I bought this book at Chautauqua Institution in 1998, when it was on the reading list of the oldest continuing book club in America, The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle
(CLSC). I failed to read it then but I found it on my shelf this summer and waded in. Glad I did.

Mind and Nature*****

by Gregory Bateson

The Territorial Imperative****

by Robert Ardrey

Well Done! (The Common Guy's Guide to Everyday Success)***

by Dave Thomas with Ron Beyma (1994, Harper)
(Read 2004)
I was hoping for more insight into the building of Wendy's but mostly this book is about how to be an honest and upstanding person. It's good natured and easy to read but a bit pedantic. There are only a few quick serve restaurant tips, like that Wendy's keeps burgers always on the grill and that way they can usually serve a sandwich in about 15 seconds. Also there are more general business insights, like that building a big corporate office building was a luxury that even Wendy's really couldn't afford. Dave suggests keeping the business more in the field and at lower costs. Perhaps I should try the earlier Dave's Way.


Agile Software Development with Scrum ***

by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle (Prentice Hall, 2002)
I finally bought a copy of this, the "Scrum Manifesto". I'd read and been a disciple of Kent Beck's Extreme Programming Explained, i.e. the "XP Manifesto", but hadn't quite been motivated to read this one. I have now.
As I'd gathered, it is not as fun a read as Beck's book -- no The Princess Bride references here -- but it is a solid explanation of, and justification for using, Scrum practices. I've used a number of these, but not as a concerted effort under a Scrum label. I've used "product backlog", "sprints" (aka "iterations"), "small, co-located teams"; I haven't tried "daily meetings", "sprint reviews", nor some of the glue that binds scrum together, like scrum master, scrum team empowerment, etc.
I believe in agile processes and iterative development. I think that XP offers a lot of synergy in software development techniques and I now think that Scrum offers a lot of value in software development process management.
The admonition from the authors to try Scrum pretty precisely as described in the book for the first several months before adapting it to local conditions sounds like good advice; most environments aren't as unique as those in them think they are. I also agree (after 25 years in the business) that a "waterfall" approach to software development generally does not work (in most places that use it, and are successful, they succeed despite a waterfall methodology, not because of one). So I was heartened by the authors' disdain of Pert charts and up front design documentation. Still I would like to here cogent counter-arguments from proponents of things like CMM (Capability Maturity Model) or other "defined" control processes. The authors view that an "empirical" control process is appropriate for the complex and never-the- same-twice world of software development is well supported in this book, as well as by my own personal experience.
I was a little vexed to see that working long hours and weekends to "meet sprint commitments" was viewed as a good thing -- this flies in the face of one of XP's 12 practices: a 40 hour work week. They also assert that "quality" products typically are produced by Scrum teams, but they don't present strong evidence of that; mostly they ask us to give it a try. I hope to get the chance to at some point.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need ****

by Daniel H. Pink (Riverhead Trade, 2008)
I first read the first 61 pages online , but then I had to find the rest at the library or the bookstore. I placed an order with Books-A-Million, and also ordered Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind to get to $25 and free shipping. Nice trick, Dan; what can you do with a tablecloth?

I liked this graphic manga-style novel; it meets its goals of being a quick read and giving solid career advice boiled down to fortune cookie size. I had already bought two copies, one for each of my nephews as they approach graduations; I'll pass this one on to my own son who is currently at univerisity.

Why Software Sucks... and what you can do about it ***

by David S. Platt( 2006, Addison Wesley )
(Read Summer, 2007)
This is a bit of a self-indulgent romp on "Plattski's" part (like the entirety of Chapter 6), but since he has a decent sense of humor and a light writing style that's probably a plus. The book hopes for the success of Window's for Dummies and the follow-ons in that series (the author is not shy about saying so), but I suspect he won't hit that main stream of an audience. His prior books are for geeks and that's who seems to be reading this one, too. (See

I received the book directly from the author's hands and he wrote "To Chip, Best Wishes" and signed it on the first page. I was taking a course from him on the Composite UI Application Block. He's an engaging instructor with much the same classroom style as his authorship style in this book. There are some good concepts here. He harps too much on the fact that software authors (aka programmers or developers) don't understand the difference between themselves and the users of the software that they create: "Your users are not you." True enough, but the value to me comes with a deeper observation: Programmers are enamoured of making complex things possible, rather than making simple things simple. I've drawn a 2 axis graph on my whiteboard at work. One axis is labelled "more complex things possible" the other "more simple things simple". I've drawn it this way because I don't think these are inverses, but I do think that there's a sweet spot out in that quadrant someplace.

The author also provides some practical actions for users to take to help make software less sucky, and he's right on with these (although they can apply to more than just software): Buy, Tell, Ridicule, Trust, Organize. He allows for no slack with bad user interfaces and useless (or unanswerable) questions posed to the users. I'm trying to incorporate this attitude into my current development project. Wish me luck.

Free Agent Nation****

by Daniel Pink (2001, Warner Business Books)
I'd seen Dan Pink's name around the Web, especially on Wired magazine's site, so when I saw he was going to be lecturing at Chautauqua Institution during my trip home last summer I made it a point to go see him:
Friday morning, July 8, my mom and I went to Chautauqua to hear a couple speakers. First we heard Joy Carroll, one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church (Church of England), author of The Woman Behind the Collar (and wife of Jim Wallis, the author of God's Politics and founder of Sojourners, he was also there but we didn't get to hear him). She was good and as mom said, very easy to listen to with her English accent. Then we saw Daniel Pink who was very entertaining. His current book is A Whole New Mind; his prior best seller, which I bought there and had him autograph, is Free Agent Nation. He's also a former speech writer for V.P. Al Gore. He started by telling us he would take his own speech writing advice to heart in his lecture: "There are 3 things that make a good speech: Levity, Brevity and Repetition. Let me say that again...." He expounded for about an hour, very animated and involving the audience with his hypothesis that skills based in the non-analytical side of the brain will become more important as anything that is .routine. will get outsourced or automated under the influence of the three "A's": Abundance, Asia and Automation. He showed how much our society has by bringing out a designer toilet brush, signed by Michael Graves and available at Target for $5.99. It's no longer enough to offer functional products in the U.S., they have to be special, but still affordable. It's a little hard for me to see how using the right side of the brain can be highly monetized, sure upscale designers are always well compensated but creativity, empathy, storytelling and similar abilities are historically low paid. Maybe it'll be like the "Service Economy" that replaced manufacturing jobs. there are plenty of them but greeters at Wal-Mart, cashiers at Taco Bell and hairdressers just can't generate that much income. It was a good talk and another beautiful morning at Chautauqua.
I've recently finished reading the book, and also had a couple occasions to e-mail the author; e.g. when he asked for "mini sagas" through his web log ( He has taken the time to write back both times.
Free Agent Nation is well written and seems well researched. It is also well organized, I particularly like the end-of-chapter summaries that each include the following sections: The Crux, The Factoid, The Quote, and The Word. You could easily recall the gist of the book by going back and reading only these summaries. I also enjoy the pre-chapter quotes, although toward the end of the book the fictional quotes go farther and farther afield as they are set in the future -- that future was farther away 5 years ago when the book was published and certain shifts in the landscape have occurred, or failed to occur. That is a peril with writing as a futurist. Still a lot of insight remains valid and more should be heeded, like the debacle that is health care insurance in this country; the employer funded model continues to undercut our dynamic work place but remains necessary until a replacement emerges; at the moment the momentum of any such replacement seems to have largely stalled. Anyway, a pre-chapter quote example, from Chapter 5: The New Employment Contract:
"Whenever somone tells you that a company really cares about its emplyees, repeat this simple mantra: 'Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!' and you'll dispel all dangerous illusions." -- Rick Cohen (Agoura Hills, California)
An excellent read, even for those of us still fully ensconced in a large corporation. I fully plan to follow-up with A Whole New Mind.

Code as Design: Three Essays ****

by Jack W. Reeves ( 1992, 2005, developer.* Magazine )
(Read Spring, 2005)
This one isn't quite a book, either, at only 24 printed pages, but it is significant historically. I regard it as a "missing link" in my understanding of changes in software development methodologies. Let me explain why that is.
    The original essay, "What is Software Design" was written in 1992, well before Agile Development Methodologies, before "spiral" lifecycles, before SEI's CMM and before ISO 9001. This was back when Waterfall was king; it was king but it was ailing and its frailties were being well noted and complained about. Many of us were looking to things like rapid prototyping and new notations like Booch diagrams and new tools like CASE and even Structured Analysis was young. C++ was an infant.
    Until a couple months ago I was unaware that anyone had articulated anything as radical and predictive as "What is Software Design" as early as 1992. Books like Martin Fowler's
Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code and Kent Beck's eXtreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change were still years away. But at that time, as I labored under the heavy burden of DOD-STD-2167A type documentation and its "Design the whole thing before writing a line of code" dictums, I knew there was a better way. And I knew (and said so) that no programming project of significance was able to freeze the requirements up front. Usually they were still changing at delivery, with final decisions being made as to what could be squeezed into Rev. 1.0 and what new features would wait for the "fixes" releases. And our design efforts, on the successful projects at least, always included a prototyping effort. We wrote code before the preliminary design documents were signed off (shhhh, don't tell.) Sometimes portions of that code actually ended up in the final delivery. It was one big "unmentioned elephant in the room" scene.
    Anyway, recognizing and elaborating on this, and suggesting solutions, like treating the code as the design, is a worthy and noteworthy acheivement. Even now there are plenty of bastions that have not acknowledged these insights, but they are becoming more obvious and more anachronistic.

Comments on "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing ****

by Eric Sink ( 6/2004, Eric.Weblog() )
(Read Summer, 2004)
This is my first review of a blog entry, or more accurately a series of entries. And it would be a very short book. It's only about 40 printed pages and is itself sort of a review, or an embellished synopsis of The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Its brevity, though, is one of its strengths. You get almost everything you need to know about marketing a small Independent Software Vendor-type company from these few pages.

I particularly like the "Law of Focus" section which claims that it is best to get your marketing concept down to a single word that you can own in your customers' minds. For example, Federal Express owns "overnight". Neither UPS nor DHL will ever own this word. We are also admonished not to try to own the concept "cheap" since: "Very few businesses can thrive while making low price their primary message. Wal-Mart is one of those businesses. Your small ISV is not."

At least 20 of these laws are ones to live by. I'll let you pick the two of lesser value. Read them all here: Immutable Laws of Marketing.

Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code*****

by Martin Fowler (2000, Addison-Wesley)
(Read Fall, 2004)
Well, this is one of the quintessential books on modern software methodology. Some of the others have already been reviewed here: Extreme Programming Explained (Kent Beck), UML Distilled 2nd Edition (also Martin Fowler), User Interface Design for Programmers (Joel Spolsky); and others will be, such as Joel on Software (Joel Spolsky) and Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture (Martin Fowler again) or should be well known to practitioners by now: Design Patterns (Gamma, et al), Code Complete 2nd Edition (Steve McConnell).

In this volume is a strong catalog of step by step procedures for, as the subtitle says, "Improving the design of existing code". These processes are intended to operate as half of a cycle of changes to a product's code base: 1) Add new features 2) Re-work the code into a strong, extensible structure 3) Repeat from step 1. The two activities should be distinct. New features are measured by meeting new requirements (hopefully demonstrated by passing new tests). Refactorings are measured by still passing the existing tests and being able to more quickly and naturally add the new features.

So how do you know when to Refactor? The authors introduce the concept of "bad smells" in existing code. But this is not as loosely defined and subjective a concept as it might appear at first whiff. A couple dozen specific, distinctly identifiable smells are defined and described to the point where they are readily recognizable. This step alone can be invaluable to the maintenance of a living body of code.

Several chapters comprise the catalog of refactorings. The Mechanics and Examples in this section can largely be skimmed until actually needed but the overview and Motivation in each refactoring is well worth first-pass reading.

This book is only 4 years old but some of the tools only envisioned or in research labs are already widely available. Perhaps that's why I didn't get as much out of the 2nd and 3rd to last chapters which offered another viewpoint (from William Opdyke) and some information on a Refactoring Tool (by Don Roberts and John Brant). The latter of these may be in part because Eclipse (the Open Source IDE used primarily for Java development) has incorporated some refactoring tools and I'm familiar with them. (They're scary but once you get used to them they work, at least the ones I tried.) On the other hand many mature software shops have yet to incorporate these modern best practices into their routine development. The software industry is like a viscous liquid on an undulating surface, the various regions are moving at vastly different speeds and in some cases in entirely different directions.

User Interface Design for Programmers*****

by Joel Spolsky (2001, APress)
(Read Summer, 2004)
From Joel's first real job at an industrial bakery (great graphic!) to his description of imaginary users (including one Linux-ite who won't refer to Windows as an Operating System without making little quote marks in the air with both hands); from concepts like "affordances" to truisms like the old Thermos slogan "How do it know?" this book is packed with value. Yes, the whole book is summed up in one phrase: "A user interface is well designed when the program model conforms to the user model." But if you stop at that you miss the fun as well as the practical details and the wizard bashing, the broken metaphors and a deep understanding of just how shallow your customers may be (see "People Can't Read" or "People Can't Control the Mouse", but these are balanced by "Putting the User in Charge" and "Design for Extremes") -- and all the common sense in between. This is essential reading for UI Designers and a good idea for most of us in the high tech arena (circus metaphor intended).

The One Minute Manager****

by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (1981, A Berkley Book)
(Read 2003)
I picked up this thin paperback classic at my public library for a dime in the discards sale bin. It's preachy, pedantic and right on the money. It's a little hard to understand why this type of approach hasn't become institutionalized, or maybe it's not. It's too self-efacing, it requires a practice and a humble maturity that tends to conflict with the self-view of many managers as needing to be movers and shakers themselves. Effective delegation, facilitation and guidance certainly can lead to the kind of productivity related here. And it isn't that hard, it's just embarrasssing to actually do it.

beginning Databases with MySQL****

by Neil Matthew and Richard Stones (2/2002, Wrox)
(Read Fall, 2003)
This is an excellent book for getting started with MySQL, probably the most popular full featured zero cost relational database available. This is probably not a great "Intro to Databases" book, it glosses over a lot of the theory and gets straight to practical use of MySQL. The authors let you know when features are missing, such as Stored Procedures, that you would expect to find in a commercial RDBMS like Oracle or SQL Server. The only chapters I skipped were the one on MySQL Administration (my interest is as a code developer) and the chapters on accessing MySQL from Perl and PHP (I use C++ and Java, so I read those two chapters). As we started a new project, using MySQL for the first time, this book was a real help, allowing me to inspect the database directly after modifying and executing code intended to update the stored data. Definitely recommended for programmers new to MySQL who are not DBS experts.

UML Distilled 2nd Edition (A Brief Guide to the Standard Object Modeling Language)****

by Martin Fowler with Kendall Scott (2000, Addison Wesley)
(Reviewed 02/2004)
I had used UML informally in the recent past and its various predecessors more formally, all the way back to Yourdan/DeMarco's Structured Analysis and Design in 1987, but I hadn't used UML formally until my current Java project. We are using 5 basic diagrams and converting 2 of these into XML from which classes and database access objects are automatically generated. This provides a significant leg up on coding the design.


The One Minute Manager****

by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (1981, A Berkley Book)
(Read 2003)
I picked up this thin paperback classic at my public library for a dime in the discards sale bin. It's preachy, pedantic and right on the money. It's a little hard to understand why this type of approach hasn't become institutionalized, or maybe it's not. It's too self-efacing, it requires a practice and a humble maturity that tends to conflict with the self-view of many managers as needing to be movers and shakers themselves. Effective delegation, facilitation and guidance certainly can lead to the kind of productivity related here. And it isn't that hard, it's just embarrasssing to actually do it.

beginning Databases with MySQL****

by Neil Matthew and Richard Stones (2/2002, Wrox)
(Read Fall, 2003)
This is an excellent book for getting started with MySQL, probably the most popular full featured zero cost relational database available. This is probably not a great "Intro to Databases" book, it glosses over a lot of the theory and gets straight to practical use of MySQL. The authors let you know when features are missing, such as Stored Procedures, that you would expect to find in a commercial RDBMS like Oracle or SQL Server. The only chapters I skipped were the one on MySQL Administration (my interest is as a code developer) and the chapters on accessing MySQL from Perl and PHP (I use C++ and Java, so I read those two chapters). As we started a new project, using MySQL for the first time, this book was a real help, allowing me to inspect the database directly after modifying and executing code intended to update the stored data. Definitely recommended for programmers new to MySQL who are not DBS experts.

UML Distilled 2nd Edition (A Brief Guide to the Standard Object Modeling Language)****

by Martin Fowler with Kendall Scott (2000, Addison Wesley)
(Reviewed 02/2004)
I had used UML informally in the recent past and its various predecessors more formally, all the way back to Yourdan/DeMarco's Structured Analysis and Design in 1987, but I hadn't used UML formally until my current Java project. We are using 5 basic diagrams and converting 2 of these into XML from which classes and database access objects are automatically generated. This provides a significant leg up on coding the design.
I bought The Unified Modeling Language User Guide, the Booch, Rumbaugh, Jacobson tome, but found The Three Amigos' treatment to be a bit unapproachable. At 164 pages (sans appendices), UML Distilled, 2nd Ed. is very approachable! The front and back inside covers provide the essential example diagrams and the chapters are brief and to the point. The authors also provide the most important references, whether in print or on-line. For example, p. 29 introduces Refactoring, p. 37 eXtreme Programming, Design Patterns on p. 33 and CRC cards on p. 75.
Mr. Fowler also pulls no punches when he thinks a technique is over-used or over-blown. He is sympathetic to developers working on "high ceremony projects" and lets all of us know when it is okay to file stuff circularly rather than try to hold onto it and maintain it. This coincides nicely with some of my own experiences where too many design documents should have had titles like "What We Thought the System Would Be During Two Weeks in June".
This is definitely one of those books for getting up to speed on a subject in a hurry; and off on the right foot to boot!

Eclipse in Action****

by David Gallardo, Ed Burnette, Robert McGovern (2003, Manning)
This is an excellent introduction to Eclipse and the current trends in software development using Java and Open Source tools. In particular the introductions to JUnit for automated unit testing, CVS for source control and Ant for project building are at just the right level. These chapters provide the proper combination of the essential, minimal amount of theory with real examples.
Having praised the book I'm going to say a couple of negative things about Eclipse itself, without going into a full critique. Most Open Source tools of significant size manage to give somewhere between an 80% and 95% solution. Eclipse is no exception. It is nicely extensible and customizable but I don't want to write an IDE, I want to use one. For example, when I hit enough "undo"s to get back to the saved state of my file on disk I expect the editor to recognize that fact. The windows were difficult to manage (compared against Microsoft's VS.Net 2000), e.g. there is no dialog to select several windows to be closed and the tabs get shrunk too small to fit the file name so you have to guess which tab to select, etc. Similarly a lot of options end up under Window->Preferences which seems like an arbitrary location -- it feels like a hodge-podge of plugins (which of course it is).
On the other hand there are some nice things like the ability to wrap a block of code in a try-catch block automatically and some of the automatic refactoring (also well covered in this book). I'm afraid given a choice (and spending someone else's money) though I'd still pick a complete, commercial IDE, but when using Eclipse I'll keep a copy of this book handy.

Developing Windows-based Applications with Microsoft Visual Basic .Net and Microsoft Visual C# .Net***

Microsoft Press (no author given) (2002)
I read this book in 2003 after using C# for a few months, with an eye toward taking the MCAD/MCSD 70-316 exam. I read the book cover to cover and did the labs but by that point I wasn't using C# on a daily basis at work; and when I was I wasn't interacting much with a database, something that the book (and at least the practice tests) put a lot of emphasis on. I have not yet taken the "real" test.
The book does give a good flavor of developing a .Net Windows Application and the pace is not too strenuous. The labs and examples are clear and they work. The most annoying thing about reading the book was that the VB.Net and C# information is intertwined; that is, when there is a difference between the two languages they first give the VB information and then the C# information. It became tiresome to skip the VB.Net sections; it would have been very nice if at least the e-book version (very pleasantly it is supplied on a CD with the physical book) would have had a feature to collapse the language not of interest.
Overall this is a good way to get a broad introduction to .Net and C# (or VB.Net).

Crossing the Chasm****

by Geoffrey A. Moore (1991) Sub-title: "Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers"
This book is perhaps even more relevant now that the high-tech world has passed through the first Internet boom and bust and, perhaps, high-tech has gone back to its more normal frenzy. The thesis of the book is presented in the first chapter and should be required reading for all marketing professionals, but the rest of the book is also solid and well worth the time to go through. The premise revolves around a bell curve shaped "Technology Adoption Life Cycle" from Innovators to Early Adopters to Early Majority on the left of the bell peak to Late Majority on the right through to Laggards. The "chasm" observation is that there are discontinuities between these groups and that in particular there is a major leap from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority -- where the real money begins.

Effective C++ Second Edition*****

by Scott Meyers (1997) Sub-title: "50 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs"
C++ seemed like such a natural transition from C, once you got the hang of a few things like classes and inheritance, especially with the help of a decent tutorial like
C++ Annotations. Turns out things are a little more subtle than that. This book is essential reading for those of us who want to write robust and reusable C++ code. It reminds us of bunches of little details that are worth paying attention to, not only what they are but why and what the exceptions are to those rules. It should be a part of your coding standard. And beyond the great information the style is very accessable and unpretentious. It should be re-read every few months or kept nearby as a reference.

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change *****

by Kent Beck (2000) (Posted 12/12/2001)

I read the eXtreme Programming manifesto, "Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change", over the past three days. I'm pretty well sold on trying it. I think it is flawed and hedges it's bets quite a bit by passing responsibility for successful implementation on to the project using it. They must "adapt it locally". Also the synergy assertion that 80% of the bang comes from implementing the last 20% is troublesome -- basically someone could always find the excuse that you failed to implement XP 100% so you didn't see much if any improvement. Those two seem to conflict a bit, as well: Local Adaptation and the 20-80 Rule.

I've got some more complaints that I'll expound on below, but these should be taken along the lines of an analyst's review of Tiger Woods' failure to birdie 1 out of 4 par 5 holes on a tough course -- despite playing one hole imperfectly he is still playing the best golf anyone has ever played in history.

The practices advocated by Kent Beck in XP intuitively match much of my experience. I see plenty of things that would surely have helped most of the projects I've been on: Continuous testing and integration, pair programming, variable scope -- and I've used these from time to time. Particularly the acceptance of variable scope by the customers would be very helpful. On government work these are structured as a "Level of Effort" contract, a type that Beck doesn't explicitly list in Chapter 26 (he mentions a subscription paradigm under Fixed Price).

I still see serious flaws in the requirements definition / use cases / stories area. The XP stories I've seen so far are too vague and a "simplest implementation" of them gives you a very cartoonish system, at least on GUI related items. These simplest systems are not feature rich -- e.g. you can't go adjust your preferences. Preferences? Supporting preferences clearly isn't simplest, that's another whole (set of) stories. But users have become accustomed to rich and full featured software and will be annoyed by an assertion that a simple interface suffices. Etc. (Of course trust and iteration can solve this, but keep reading.)

For some of the original environments of XP where the "customer" was another department within a fairly large company, e.g. Chrysler using it's IT department to upgrade a payroll system, the iterative approach may work well. You've got a captive customer, they can fight you or work with you, depending on their CYA strategy. Similarly if you've got World Class expertise you may be able to capture custom projects for external customers. But for producing shrink-wrapped applications in a competitive marketplace your initial offering needs to be full featured or unique enough to grab some market share. Perhaps you have a disruptive technology (I think we do). That's just as bad since the customer will need to accept that it is a better way of doing business and any simplest system for doing that isn't likely to be all that simple. These types of customers are looking for a dirt cheap commodity or a tranquil revolution.

Also, getting into production and maintenance with this more full featured product may take more than 2 months. And risk mounts the more pre-production development time there is (a point by Beck that I fully agree with).

Another issue I see, particularly for disruptive, shrink-wrapped systems is the Business and Development separation. I think the developers will need close integration and overlap with the Business people. Both need an understanding of the other domain -- at least some percentage of the members do. For us I think we're in good shape there, but need to be careful of insisting that somebody feed us requirements (i.e. stories). We need to know enough to propose these and get help with prioritization of them. (Using a Marketing department as a proxy for the customer is weak -- XP is a more natural fit for Projects than Products.)

Within Development I think it's unrealistic to think that everyone can be comfortable with all sections of code -- systems quickly get too complex and use multiple technologies from COM to XML to SQL, MS Installer and Javascript, etc.

I think particular pairings will occur much more often than others, although institutionalizing them would be wrong: e.g. decreeing that George may only ever pair with Ralph would be wrong, but they may end up pairing 70-80% of the time and that's just going to be normal.

XP also assumes that failure of a project is an option (pp. 11-12). For the individuals involved it probably is -- they can get a new job. But for small companies it may not be -- they need to get it right almost all the time or they will be gone.

Long term milestones don't seem to be very well managed. A stack of story cards is pretty unwieldy.

The "Time Value of Money" stuff left me unsatisfied. I see the sense in pushing off the development of features that are not critical now and may be obsolete before they are needed; but the formula was far from obvious and in the high tech world thing's costs go down with time as often as they go up (pp. 11-14).

And the usual conundrum of testing isn't addressed: Who tests the tests? Mostly they are simple enough. Worst case though, an inverted unit test of a border condition doesn't get caught by functional tests before a failure condition is hit in production. That can be bad. But you're no worse off than you are with other kinds of testing, and much better than with little or no testing.

Then there are coding standards. Beck jests about The Curly Brace Wars but as often as not the irreconcilability of this and other "minor" issues allow individual styles to persist. How important is it to adopt strict coding standards? See the 20-80 Rule.

What metaphor is right for us? And how important is getting the metaphor right?

I'd like to give XP a serious try. At least I think all project personnel should read this book and understand why we want to do something else. If someone is uncomfortable with this approach though, I don't think we have the preferred XP solution available: dump that person. But it may be a serious consideration in Next Hire decisions.

Sams Teach Yourself Java 2 in 21 Days***

by Laura Lemay and Rogers Cadenhead (1999) (Posted 3/06/2002)

I read this a couple months ago while preparing to write a user interface that would be driven by a remote menu definition (i.e. a database accessed via web server). In this case I mean an actual food menu, and the software would need to dynamically lay out some buttons, the exact number and type of which is not known "a priori". Using this book turned out to be a pretty decent approach, at least in combination with the information available at Sun's propaganda web sites (e.g. Along the way I got to try out a number of the "new" features of modern languages such as "reflection", namespaces and inheritance via interfaces. Oh, yeah, and a lack of pointers. Turned out to be a good preface to learning C#, which I think I'm liking even better.

Web Proxy Servers****

by Ari Luotonen (1997) A couple years old but a definitive work on the subject of Proxy Servers. This is a great primer, I read it cover to cover.

Are You Paid What You're Worth?****

(The Complete Guide to Negotiating the Salary, Benefits, Bonus, and Raise You Deserve) by Michael O'Malley (1998)
Well worth the cover price.

The Entrepreneur's Guide to Equity Compensation****

(Second Edition) Foundation for Enterprise Development (1998)
Everything you need to know about stock options, ESOPs, etc. in 72 pages.

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