Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Best Of Lists

Best fiction of the year:

* Invisible, by Paul Auster
* The Eighth Day, by Tom Avitable
* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
* Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Best non-fiction of the year:

* Always Looking Up, by Michael J. Fox
* The Use of Hand Woodworking Tools, by Leo McDonnell
* Woodworking Basics, by Peter Korn

The year-end numbers are in, and clearly I've been goofing off more than usual: only 92 books read, of which 51 were non-fiction and 41 fiction. This is a huge drop off from last year's numbers of 112 fiction and 39 non-fiction; I'm at merely 61% reading productivity this year!

Now of course I know it isn't a contest... but still, it is useful to look at comparisons over time periods. As you can see from the rather narrow topic of two of my best of the year non-fiction picks, I could claim to have spent much of my reading time in the shop... but I don't know that it would be an accurate explanation. Oh well, we can only look to 2010 to see which way this trend moves!

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

You can view Prof. Pausch's last lecture at CMU on the web; this is the accompanying book. He succeeded in keeping it from being maudlin, and in keeping it interesting.

You might wonder, what qualifies someone to write a book like this: just knowing that he's about to die of pancreatic cancer? But it turns out that by describing the things that worked for him, Prof. Pausch added value in this book. And, he was a pretty accomplished fellow.

The short list of takeaways: work hard, persistence counts, have integrity, work well with others, love your family.

My recommendation: thumbs up; worth reading.

The Concealed Handgun Manual, by Chris Bird

This is an excellent book. Even for folks not interested in carrying a concealed handgun, Mr. Bird touches on an obvious, yet not talked about phenomenon that dramatically affect the way we live: we are taught that being a victim is appropriate, acceptable behavior. We are taught to be sheep, and to not protect ourselves and our loved ones. And we are taught that if one does protect oneself, there will be hell to pay.

Does that seem over the top? It isn't really. Consider public schools: many have a zero tolerance policy on violence. If little Sally is attacked at school and appropriately fights back, she's in as much trouble as her attacker, at least as far as the school district is concerned.

These lessons, unfortunately, work well, with insidious consequences. Look at the Virginia Tech situation, where Seung Hui Cho murdered 30 people. All reports indicate that no one fought back -- even after it was clear that individuals were being murdered, that there was no negotiated agreement to be had. The Incident Review Panel pointed out that playing dead amid the carnage was a survival technique for some students. Frighteningly, the Panel didn't make any recommendation or comment about the opposite behavior: that students should be taught to fight back. In fact, the event was credited with the opposite outcome -- with reducing the ability of trained, law abiding citizens to defend themselves with weapons.

If the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 on September 11th, 2001 had been brought up in this politically correct, ultra-liberal, CYA - lawsuit avoidance mentality, thousands more innocents might have been killed by terrorists. Fortunately, Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, and Lou Nacke, took the heroic high road and defended if not themselves, at least their nation.

Notifying and waiting for the authorities is clearly the best course of action in any life threatening situation. Except for when it gets in the way of saving your life. If your assailant is about to kill or inflict severe bodily harm upon you, you should defend yourself. Otherwise, all the police will be able to do is investigate your murder after the fact.

The author attributes to Professor John Lott Jr that "... a woman who defends herself with a firearm is 2.5 times more likely to survive a violent confrontation with a criminal without serious injury than if she were not to resist at all... with anything other than a firearm, she is four times more likely to be hurt..."

As Mr. Bird writes, "US courts have consistently held than law-enforcement agencies have no duty to protect an individual citizen."

The question that bothers me is: why do so few politicians trust their law-abiding citizens, even those willing to be trained and tested, to carry guns for protection?

[An aside on the "law-abiding" part of this: based on the most recent data provided in Texas, licensed concealed handgun carry (CHL) holders accounted for 0.26% of the criminal convictions in the state. It would be nice for the number of convicted CHL holders to be zero, but problems with fewer than 0.05% of the licensed CHL holders is still pretty good.]

Mr. Bird's book is informational as well as thought provoking.

Leading Lean Software Development, by Mary & Tom Poppendieck

You could accuse me of some bias here: I'm a big fan of Mary & Tom's books, and Tom wrote the forward for my book. But I assure you, my fully objective opinion is that this is an excellent text.

It differs greatly from their prior work primarily in that LLSD takes more of a systems tone: in fact, the "software development" part of the title is too much of a constraint. I'd recommend this book to anyone responsible for delivering value to clients, in any industry.

Harrington on Hold'em, by Dan Harrington

This is an excellent book on no-limit, tournament style Hold' em poker. Probably this book will improve my game, and equally likely, I'll need to re-read it several times as I continue to play, to better understand nuances that weren't as obvious (to a beginner like me) the first time.

It is far better than other poker books I've read thus far.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker

The sub-title of this book is, "this book can save your life." I believe that to be true.

Some key points: trust your intuition, if a situation doesn't "feel" right, then it isn't right, and perhaps most important, don't hesitate to be rude to protect your space and your safety. On that last point, De Becker gives several examples of how appropriate it can be, especially for a woman in a potentially dangerous situation (e.g., an elevator, stair way, parking garage) to tell an unwanted male, "I don't want your help," and to even follow up with, "I said NO!" The point being, rudeness is preferable to many other outcomes.

Negatives about this book: there's quite a bit of discussion of celebrity stalking, about which I have no interest, and serial killers, for which, ditto my lack of interest. You can skim those parts and still get quite a lot out of this book.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I liked the first section of this book best, as I learned (or confirmed) a lot about the place of corn in factory farming in the US.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

After the Echo, by Russ Clagett

This excellent little book was recommended to me by a firearms instructor. The instructor was right: it is a useful book for anyone who might imagine using justifiable deadly force to stop an assailant. It also gives valuable insight into the world of police snipers and the issues with which they must deal.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

Imagine Strindberg on acid, writing (and drawing) a depressing graphic novel.

I found it pretentious and unappealing.

Then again, it's the sort of book around which my alma mater might build an upper level class.


Securing the City, by Christopher Dickey

This is an excellent and very readable view of New York City's efforts towards counter-terrorism. Dickey gives a historic perspective of terrorism in NY, describes the tensions between Federal agencies and the NYPD, and touches on the sometimes thin constitutional line between preventing a calamity and over-stepping the law.

An aside: why is it that everything I read paints the DHS, FBI and CIA as often bumbling, always in-fighting, bureaucracies that treasure individual political favor and control over what's best for the nation? I'm beginning to believe that it is true.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, by James McManus

You'd think this would be a cool, interesting book.

You'd be wrong.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

This is rather an unusual work: the famous Crumb illustrated the first book of the Bible, stuck to the words (based on a couple of basic sources), with no subversion. After all, the actual text is odd enough: enough violence, drama, sexual intrigue, envy, pride, and duplicity to more than fill a few seasons of any prime time show, or more likely, telenovela. Well, I'd not read this in a long while, and the illustrations did help me through it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Invisible, by Paul Auster

This was a delightful surprise. The last book I chose from the New York Times' "100 notable books of 2009" gift list turned out not so well. But this one: all is forgiven, NY Times! Interesting, captivating even, and sometimes disturbing, it held my attention to the very last page.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More Hold'em Wisdom, by Daniel Negreanu

This book of poker tips was far more interesting than Negreanu's prior text. I found the advice interesting, and I was only occasionally confused. (Unlike when I'm playing hold'em; then I'm often confused!)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Venetian Judgment, by David Stone

This is a very enjoyable spy thriller. No Man Booker Prize for this sort of book, but just what the doctor ordered for spending a couple of hours in a waiting room.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

In this entertaining book, Crawford positions building or repairing things as a noble alternative to - well, whatever it is that knowledge workers do.

There are several quotable nuggets: "... some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short." [p27] That certainly describes many software problems.

Crawford suggests that one needn't abandon a virtual profession to work with one's hands, as he did, a PhD who operates a motorcycle repair shop. To that end: "So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. ... But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don't have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damanged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level 'creative.' To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable." [p53]

Crawford is no less critical of the self esteem movement: "The educational goal of self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves instead around group dynamics. ... The more children are praised, the more thy have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others." [p158]

And, "Children who enjoy drawing... some were rewarded for drawing ... whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this had the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it." [p194 - 195, referring to Lepper, Greene and Nisbett]

Does Crawford take an unfair, one sided view of things? You betcha. I suspect it is quite deliberate; he needs to push hard to compensate for thousands of business management articles.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

This had been sitting in my truck's console for a very long time, as a back up book. Since I wanted to avoid a trip to Sam's this weekend, I opened it up -- and had a tough time putting it down. So now I need a new backup book, because I finished this one that very evening.

Interesting plot, interesting characters, well written.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hold'em Wisdom for all Players, by Daniel Negreanu

The notion of the book is to provide tips on improving performance at Texas Hold'em, presumably targeted to amateurs. For that it is perhaps okay, although the editor should have paid more attention: it uses jargon that the target audience may not follow.

It isn't that the advice seems bad -- to the contrary, it seems quite reasonable. The problem is, there's nothing unique about his advice: it is rather a compendium of generally good ideas, told in an easy to read, conversational fashion.

So not a bad book, just not a great book. But was it worth the brief reading time? Sure! I figure the more I learn on this topic the better a player I can be, and perhaps there's some important lesson that this book reinforced that I don't even realize yet.

Amateur Barbarians, by Robert Cohen

If this novel represents modern American literature, then I'm sorely out of the loop. As the jacket points out, Cohen was "...touted by The New York Times Book Review as the 'heir to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.'" I should have quit right then.

It was, in fact, the New York Times that pointed me to this book, top of the "100 notable books of 2009" gift list.

The problem is, the main character, Teddy Hastings, bored me so much by his narcissistic whining that by the end of the first chapter I was irritated. Just a few more pages about the other main character, as the chapter title puts it, the "melancholy" Pierce, was enough to shut me down.

Not even the attempts at building suspense worked: why was Teddy briefly in jail, why did he take a sabbatical from his job, what's up with his weird relationship with is wife? Who cares. It just isn't interesting enough to find out.

This novel gets filed in my seldom-used category of "unread."