52 Books a Year: #36 - Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Posted by Brian Thu, 17 Dec 2009 01:14:00 GMT

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
By John Boswell


To say same-sex marriage is controversial in the U.S. would be an understatement. I’m always a fan of controversy so when I saw Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe at the annual library book sale I had to pick it up. I was curious to learn how common it had been in the past.

First, this is a very scholarly work. It is definitely not a piece of popular non-fiction. John Boswell is extremely thorough. Almost a third of the book is given over to appendixes and many pages are half footnotes. The number of citations is astounding. There is a good amount of original research done from primary documents of the period here.

The big theme throughout is that the premodern Europe did not have the rigid view of sexuality that we have today. To label someone as gay would have had little to no meaning. Circumstances varied from culture-to-culture, but many cultures did have same-sex marriage. While the term marriage wasn’t used in any of the ancient ceremonies discussed here, the intent was clearly the same. It appears that the most common same-sex union was what we would today think of as a civil union.

If you are dogmatic about this issue, then don’t even bother picking this book up. Boswell is concerned with only what the facts show him to be true, but those against the issue will probably take offense to his translations of the source material, which he often translates differently from others. He backs up the reasoning for this with strong arguments though. Recommended for the patient reader who wants to have a more informed opinion on the history of same-sex unions.

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52 Books a Year: #35 - Reengineering the Corporation

Posted by Brian Wed, 16 Dec 2009 02:39:00 GMT

Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution
By Michael Hammer and James Champy


Reengineering is a fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in cost, quality, speed, and service.

I often get annoyed at work at the way the business analysts do things and since there is no chance of them meeting me on my ground, I decided to work on meeting them on theirs. With that in mind I went to the library and picked up Reengineering the Corporation, which lays out the case for making drastic changes to how your company works instead of small incremental changes. This is different from the model where I work (we follow kaizen), but you have to start somewhere.

I was surprised at the lack of worthless corporate speak here. Hammer and Champy have a serious case to make and they aren’t wasting time telling you how to synergize your data flows to maximize mindshare. They laugh at the idea of a corporate value statement. The crux of their argument is that it is only by being willing to throw away your preconceptions of how the work should be done can you truly optimize the process. If you try to make the changes incrementally you never take the leap that is necessary to streamline it. Basically, if it isn’t disruptive then you aren’t doing it right. They make the case for putting back together the pieces that Adam Smith and Henry Ford took apart and putting them back together, transforming task-based jobs into process-based jobs. Unnecessary fragmentation leads to inefficiencies in the form of rework and errors.

Some statements were made that appeals to the coder in me. The only one that I have in my notes though is that people outside of a process should only care about the the input and the output. They shouldn’t care about how it is done. Any programmers out there should realize this is simply encapsulation. For business guys these fellows aren’t too bad.

Reengineering does not cover actually implementing one of these efforts. As the title says it is a manifesto for why you would want to do this. High level issues are covered, such as roles and stages, but nothing concrete. Case studies are sprinkled throughout the text and that those do the job well enough.

I read this book to start to get a perspective of everything going on at work from the analysts point of view. That goal was fulfilled fairly well. Time to move on to some others.

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52 Books a Year: #34 - Snakes In Suits

Posted by Brian Mon, 14 Dec 2009 18:35:00 GMT

Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work
By Paul Babiak


Do you think you have psychopath in the workplace? What should you do about it? Do you even really no what a psychopath is? What about a sociopath? What is the difference between the two? These are the questions that Paul Babiak attempts to answer in Snakes In Suits.

A thorough and cautious approach is taken throughout the book, with the author reminding the reader on a regular basis not blindly label co-workers as psychopaths. He also describes the clinical differences between a diagnosis of psychopathy and one of sociopathy, along with a description of the clinical tools used to diagnose each.

The brunt of the book of the book deals with identifying psychopaths in the workplace and the facade they will create to different workers, depending on that workers level of power and influence. He or she may present themselves as a hard worker who simply needs some help to those they can get to do their work for them while taking all of the credit. They may present themselves as an ambitious go-getter with innovative ideas to a superior, presenting the work other co-workers did for them as their own. Those who cannot be used will usually be ignored and/or abused, giving them the only true view of the psychopath, but no power or influence to stop them.

He also weaves a sample story between every chapter that describes the rise of a psychopath in a company and how we manages to eliminate those who suspect him by stealing work and sucking up in a charismatic manner at the highest levels. Babiak isn’t the most talented writer in this respect, but it does serve to break the book up, with every other chapter serving as a mini-application of what was just discussed.

As a programmer, I don’t see this as much of a problem in my job. A rigorous technical interview will easily weed these people out. Also, they tend to focus more on jobs that rely more on soft skills. This makes it easier to bullshit themselves to the top. Babiak can be a little repetitive at times, but this is an excellent read that gives insight into how the current corporate structure encourages opens the door to manipulation by a charismatic psychopath. Pick it up.

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52 Books a Year: #33 - How to Win Friends & Influence People

Posted by Brian Sun, 13 Dec 2009 20:35:00 GMT

How to Win Friends & Influence People
By Dale Carnegie


I can be quite abrasive at times. I am well aware of this and, while I try to limit it to some extent, I consider it to be much better than being falsely nice. My boss felt that my lack of tact could use some help so he suggested I read How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Written in the 1930’s, it is considered a classic and pretty much launched the modern self-help genre. Dale Carnegie’s style is very simple, perhaps to appeal to the widest possible audience. The edition I read also keeps most of the 1930’s slang and examples, which gives the book a certain charm.

The content can basically be broken down to three pieces of advice: be sincere, be nice, and be a good listener. The majority of the book simply goes over techniques to achieve these goals, with the overarching theme being that people are really interested in themselves. The techniques usually involve ways of using this to your advantage, such as by leading someone on so that they make take the final step towards an idea themselves, letting them think that they reached the conclusion without coercion.

My big complaint is how simplified the examples are. There is not a single example in the book where the techniques he outlines do not immediately work. Not a single example shows the shortcomings of his methods. He acknowledges that his methods do not work on all people and in all situations, but it would be nice to see this in action. In the end I don’t see myself using too many of his techniques directly. These methods have been co-opted as corporate speak in modern society to the point of being disgusting to me. I guess I could be little nicer about bitching others out for their incompetence though.

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52 Books a Year: #32 - Foundation Rails 2

Posted by Brian Sat, 12 Dec 2009 20:44:00 GMT

Foundation Rails 2
By Eldon Alameda


I had a brief role developing some portions of OrgSync my senior year of college. That was my first experience with Ruby on Rails and I loved it. This summer I wanted to get back into Rails, but a lot had changed since then with the release 2.0. To help get back up to speed I picked up Foundation Rails 2. This proved to be a nice beginner’s book that helped me understand a number of the new features.

Eldon Alameda’s writing style is clear with a bit of wit mixed in, much like a Pragmatic Programmer book. He gives an overview of many of the different features of Rails with an emphasis on breadth, not depth. To cover these topics in any depth would require a book three times the size. He also deviates some from the core Rails package, choosing to cover RSpec instead of RUnit. Given that Rails seems to be moving towards RSpec this seems like a good choice. My only major complaint was the lack of advanced code samples. The last section of the book builds a sample application, but no thorny issues are tackled.

It is important to actually write code while reading this book. A lot of ground is covered and there is no way you will retain any significant portion of it without immediately applying it. The book also assumes a basic working knowledge of Ruby. The language introduction is only thirty pages long here. As long as you keep these things in mind you will get a lot out of Foundation Rails 2.

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52 Books a Year: #31 - CSS Cookbook

Posted by Brian Fri, 11 Dec 2009 21:29:00 GMT

CSS Cookbook
By Christopher Schmitt

1.5/5 (3 for content, 0 for editing)

CSS Cookbook is a pretty ho-hum entry in the O’Reilly Cookbook series. These books are divided into self-contained “recipes” that one can use to accomplish some task, CSS styling in this case. I read the 2nd edition, which came out after the release of Firefox 1.5 and IE 7, so the content is somewhat dated, but still adequate. It contains basic recipes for styling 90%+ of what you would come across when designing a site. It doesn’t give any insight into how to design a site, but that isn’t one of the goals of the book so I am not holding that against it.

The big problem lies in the editing. The editor of this book needs to be fired. Images are constantly in the wrong sections, captions are wrong, and CSS misleading. It honestly looks like there was no attempt at editing the book at all. From a publisher the likes of O’Reilly this is very disappointing and detracts from the book a lot.

There are no shortage of CSS books to choose from. The Art & Science of CSS is quite good and I have heard good things about CSS: The Missing Manual. Don’t bother with this one.

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52 Books a Year: #30 - The Art & Science of CSS

Posted by Brian Fri, 11 Dec 2009 00:58:00 GMT

The Art & Science of CSS
By Jonathan Snook, Steve Smith, Jina Bolton, Cameron Adams, and David Johnson


I decided that I had fumbled around with CSS enough so I decided to read a couple of books on proper usage. I started with The Art & Science of CSS. While it was directed more at web designers than programmers, I got a lot out of it.

There is strong emphasis on semantic markup throughout. The coverage of styling navigation, rounding corners, and styling forms was very useful and every example came with quality color pictures highlighting the changes that had been made. These were almost always accompanied with the actual CSS and HTML with the changed or new portions bolded. The writing is also very strong after the first couple of chapters, clearly explaining new styles as they are introduced and why they are being used.

There are a few negatives. The number of authors leads to inconsistency in writing style and the writing in the first two chapters is inferior to the rest of the book. Those authors just jumped right in and didn’t explain many of the styles they were using. It is also assumed that you know the basics of table-less design, something I had picked the book up to learn. Even with these negatives this is an excellent read for learning some advanced usage of CSS.

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52 Books a Year: #29 - Robot Visions

Posted by Brian Wed, 09 Dec 2009 17:55:00 GMT

Robot Visions
By Isaac Asimov


Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors. His science fiction was less about future technology (no useless techno-babble) and more about how that technology would effect humanity. I regard him as as science fiction philosopher. Robot Visions is a collection of thirty-six of his robot stories and essays. It was in these stories that he developed the Three Laws of Robotics and explored the consequences of these laws. Not all of his best known stories are in this collection because they had previously been collected elsewhere. The title story was written specifically for this collection. Previous collections had also edited the stories some to fit into a more coherent whole. Here they are presented exactly as originally published.

The highlight for me was Reason, in which a robot reasons that the machine it was built to maintain is its god. The consequences that emerge from this are quite amusing. The Bicentennial Man also serves as a reminder of how good the original short story was before Hollywood butchered it. There is not a bad story to be found here though.

Asimov was a prolific writer of non-fiction as well, publishing numerous philosophical and science books. Some of his essays are collected here as well and are well worth reading. Some highlight how he came up with positronic brains (positrons had just been discovered) and the word “robotics”, which he was the first to use in 1942.

Overall, this is a fantastic read. Asimov is a science fiction legend for good reason. If you haven’t read any of his works before this collection would be a wonderful place to start.

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52 Books a Year: #28 - Chain of Command

Posted by Brian Wed, 09 Dec 2009 02:15:00 GMT

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
By Seymour M. Harsh

I always alternate from angry to depressed reading books like this. As the title says, Chain of Command tells the story of U.S. intelligence leading up to 9/11 through the Abu Ghrai fiasco. The only complaint I can come up with is the dependence on anonymous sources, but given the nature of the reporting this is understandable. Many of his sources are anonymous for very good reasons. However, given Hersh’s incredible record I do not doubt the authenticity of his reporting.

I’m not going to write too much about this because the topic makes me angry and I don’t want to get worked up right now, but it is important to note that this was published in 2004 when most of his assertions were denied by the administration. He ended up being correct.

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52 Books a Year: #27 - The Art of The Infinite

Posted by Brian Sun, 06 Dec 2009 23:28:00 GMT

The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics
By Robert and Ellen Kaplan


Still on books picked up at the library sale, The Art of the Infinite has the aim of expressing the elegance of mathematics. Our educational system does an excellent job of destroying the creativity and beauty of true mathematics, focusing instead on mechanical calculation to pass standardized tests. Professional mathematicians do not consider this to be mathematics though.

The Kaplans elegantly mix complex mathematical problems with flowery prose. Some will be turned off by seeing this type of writing in a mathematics book, but I found it very refreshing. It fit in well with the concept of mathematical beauty that the book advances. You also get wonderful insights into the personalities of individual mathematicians and how conflicts between those personalities have driven development in the field. The explanations of various theorems and proofs are excellent as well. One that stood out is the beautiful mathematical explanation of sine and cosine.

The Art of the Infinite also tries to address the jumble of symbols that often scare people away from math. Unnecessary symbols are discouraged and new ones are only introduced after an explanation as to why they are being used. Another refreshing aspect was the hand-drawing of all diagrams. The authors felt that imperfect drawings would also help to discourage readers from studying for accuracy instead of the concepts they represent.

The imperfections are small. Some proofs are very long and it is difficult to remain focused to the end. This would have been helped by stopping at points and showing what we have done so far and how this relates to the original problem. There were cases where I forgot what we were even trying to prove by the end. Some of the proofs are also just difficult. It was very difficult for me to grasp the sections on perspective geometry and I lost my way at the end of the proof for Cantor’s set theory. However, in comparison to the positives the, negatives are negligible. The subject matter is difficult, but well worth the effort.

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