Books, books, books …

I’ve been reading a lot over the last few months, and whilst I wish I had the time to write a fuller review of each of the following, I know I just wont have the time. Therefore I’ve written a short review for each of these titles.

On Internet Freedom – Marvin Ammori
Marvin Ammori is a leading campaigner and legal expert on net neutrality and keeping the internet free. This is an excellent book – and it brings together a set of stories that underline why the Internet changes not only how we think about free speech, but how we must seek to protect and promote it. The message is a simple one – that the Internet has come to be the most important engine of free expression in history. Yet it could also be broken due to the missuse of government and corporate power – motivated by fear, greed, and misguided notions of responsibility. This book does succeed in providing some hope that the spirit of activism on the Net is mobilising people to defend their rights.This book was written against the backdrop of SOPA and was therefore very timely.

Mortality – Christopher Hitchens
I’ve always admired Christopher Hitchens, and over the years have read many of his articles and books. He was never one to shy away from making a principled argument. It comes as no surprise that one of the most remarkable polemicists this country has ever produced didn’t leave without having a few important things to say. It is a sobering and often harrowing account of Hitchens final โ€œyear of living dyinglyโ€ as describes his battle with Cancer in seven essays. The essays begin with Hitchens being diagnosed in June 2010. The openness with which he relates the news is, I think, brave, and his shock is palpable. But I think what I admired the most was rather succumb to rage he instead favours Curiosity. The cancer robbed him of his two main attributes: his voice and the energy to write and its his reflections on these two aspects of his illness that are the most poignant.

Church of Fear : Inside the weird world of Scientology – John Sweeney
There is something fascinating about cults and I’ve read about many over the years in particular learning about the human rights abuses they were guilty of, and often trying to understand how they got away with it. Scientology is one of the worst offenders. I was introduced to it when, at the tender age of 17, someone tried to sell my a copy of Dianetics after asking me to take a “test”, I had time to kill so humoured the individual but I recall after a 20 minute interview I’d learned enough to know it wasn’t something I wanted to be part of. Many people have seen John Sweeney’ documentaries about the Church of Scientology which were disturbing and often difficult to watch. This book lays bare just how terrifying this organisation has become. Sweeney details many examples of people who have either left the church and are critical of it and then extraordinary lengths to which the Church will go to harass and besmirch these individuals. Found myself agreeing with Sweeney when he wrote:

It is as if there is in the United States an eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not criticize another man’s religion” The danger is that in America they are so afraid of religious un-freedom that they fear to discriminate between a religion and a confidence trick.

Async Javascript: Recipes for Event Driven Code – Trevor Burnham
If you are interested in learning more about asynchronous programming in JavaScript I highly recommend this book. The first chapter alone on “The JavaScript Event Model” is worth the price of the book. Technical books about programming languages often focus on the mechanics of a particular language – how it works. Occasionally a book (or an article or blog post ) comes along that transforms your entire perception of a language. This, for me, is definitely the latter. This book was in no small part the catalyst for my current love affair with NodeJS. In a very clear and concise manner, concepts such as the Pub/Sub model, custom events, Promises/Deferreds and Web Workers are detailed with good clear code examples. I think its only available on the Kindle now, but if you’re starting off with NodeJS, or your battling with async code read this book!

How they started in tough times – David Lester
I’ve never read any of the other books in the “How they started” series. However this one was recommended to me by a friend, and it was well worth reading. The book profiles a wide variety of businesses most you will have heard of. Many insights are given into just how these businesses got started and survived in hard economic times. Given the current economic climate, I found the book actually offers hope rather than the typical doom and gloom. The particular companies that are profiled include Wikipedia, Moonpig, Mumsnet, LinkedIn, Walt Disney, Penguin and many more. Pretty inspirational actually.


After the Apocalypse – Maureen F. McHugh
I love reading science fiction and fantasy, this was a wonderful collection of short stories that are about life after an Apocalypse. Any large enough catastrophe is an apocalypse of sorts, leaving lives altered in its wake, with survivors who still need to live in a changed world. What I really liked about this collection is that those survivors are simply everyday people caught up in events, and the choices they make are as varied as human beings can be. With “near-future” being one of the hot topics in science fiction at the moment After the Apocalypse succeeds where others don’t by depicting ordinary people trying to get on with their ordinary lives as best they can, despite the hopelessness and horror around them.

Darth Bane: The Rule of Two

Just under two years ago I read and reviewed Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I remember at the time hoping that Drew Karpyshyn would write a sequel. I felt that Bane was an incredibly well realised character and one that the reader is drawn to and serves to illustrate that good and evil aren’t necessarily absolutes. A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to learn that a sequel had been released so I bought a copy and read it in the space of two evenings.

Darth Bane: The Rule of Two continues where the previous book ended. Darth Bane is now the Dark Lord of the Sith after destroying the entire Sith order who had united under the banner of The Brotherhood of Darkness. In Bane’s eyes The Brotherhood of Darkness with it’s emphasis on equality was a perversion of the true ideals of the Sith and had to be destroyed so the Sith order could be rebuilt based on it’s oldest law. As the last surviving Sith Darth Bane promulgated a harsh new directive: The Rule of Two:

  Only two there should be; no more, no less.
     One to embody the power, the other to crave it.

At the beginning of the book, after Brotherhood have all been destroyed by a thought bomb, Bane comes across a young ten year old girl who is sensitive to the Force, and who in a fit of rage kills two Jedi. Though she is young Rain possesses an instinctive link to the dark side that rivals his own. Bane is impressed by her power and takes her as his apprentice: Darth Zannah. With his guidance she will become essential in his quest to destroy the Jedi and dominate the galaxy.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, that captivates from beginning to end. We learn more about Bane and his ambitions and his quest for greater knowledge and power. We watch as he continuously tests his young apprentice and we are not only drawn into his scheming but also into hers. This serves to constantly remind the reader that the essence of the Rule of Two is that the Apprentice will one day grow stronger or more cunning than his/her own master and on that day must kill the Master, assume the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith, and find an apprentice to train in the ways of the Dark Side.

I wont reveal much more of the plot but I will recommend this book, as a great bit of fun reading … also I really hope there is a follow up since Bane’s story definitely does not end with this book.

Zen Master Raven

Having spent the previous evening working till way past midnight, I decided to keep my laptop switched off yesterday – It was Saturday after all! Besides I’d come to a realisation earlier in the week. That although I really love what I do at Talis, I’ve been using my work, rightly or wrongly, as a way to hide from other things that I haven’t figured out how to deal with.

Death

    Mole came to Raven privately and said, "We haven't talked 
about death very much. I'm not concerned about where I will 
go, but watching so many family members die, I'm wondering 
what happens at the point of death?".
   Raven sat silently for a while, then said, "I give away my 
belongings".

After visiting dad’s grave yesterday morning, I decided to take a trip into the city center and do a little shopping – wasn’t really sure what I was shopping for. I’ve been having strange moments like that a lot recently – strange in the sense that I’m doing things that feel random, they don’t necessarily have any purpose at the outset. Anyway after buying a couple of DVD’s and some clothes, I ended up at Borders Book Shop in the Bull Ring.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I simply walked from one aisle of books to another glancing at the shelves to see if anything caught my eye. I love Science Fiction and Fantasy novels so I did consciously walk over to that area and spent a while there but didn’t find anything that really stood out. I also spent a fair bit of time rifling through a bunch of Manga novels but I aready own all the good stuff and some of the newer series have proven to be disappointing. Eventually I ended up in the section entitled Philosophy / Spirituality – that’s when I found “Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird“. When I got back home I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening reading it from cover to cover, twice! Here’s why …

I had this terrible feeling that whilst I understood much of it … there’s a huge amount of meaning within it’s covers that I simply can’t figure out … yet … It feels like a thorn in my mind … and I love it …

The Spirit of the Practice

    Relaxing with the others after zazen one evening, Owl
asked "What is the Spirit of the practice?"
    Raven said, "Inquiry."
    Owl cocked his head and asked, "What do I inquire 
about?"
    Raven said, "Good start."

I think it’s a wonderfully delightful book. The author Robert Aitken, is a well known American Zen Master, whilst he has written a number of other books and essays this piece is very different. His literary device of using animals, unconventional in Zen, is remarkably successful in presenting the promises and risks, hopes and fears of the Tallspruce community that Raven Roshi shares with his students, neighbours and friends. I think this book captures the spirit of Zen as much as any book can, and it demonstrates how Zen can become the practice of a lifetime.

Character

    One evening, in a discussion of his personal problems,
Raven asked Brown Bear, "What is the role of character in 
the practise?"
    Brown Bear said, "I try to keep my promises."
    Raven said, "I try to keep my promises, too, but I'm easily
distracted."
    Brown Bear said, "The cold wind reminds me."

Aitken’s book is the distillation of a collection of stories, some only a few sentences in length, that, as he sees it, illuminate the Way. These stories are succinct, charming and contain a huge depth of insight. The stories might feel weird, but are hugely compelling.

Very Special

    In a group munching grubs one afternoon, Mole
remarked, "The Buddha Shakyamuni was very special
wasn't he! I'm sure there has never been anyone like 
him".
    Raven said, "Like the madrone."
    Mole asked, "How is the madrone unique?"
    Raven said, "Every madrone leaf."
    Mole fell silent.
    Procupine asked, "How does the uniqueness of every
Madrone leaf relate to the practice?"
    Raven said, "Your practice."

Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck

Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck by Chip and Dan Heath is absolutely brilliant!

At many times in our lives and especially within the context of business at some point you will need to get a point across that is critical to your success and the success of those around you. If you are in a relationship the very same thing is true. That success comes down to your ability to create a compelling communication. At it’s core thats what this book is about – communication – and it provides many examples of how to successfully communicate ideas but also what makes them stick. Conveying a message well is good, but conveying that message and having people act upon it is better, and invariably that’s what makes ideas stick.

If you haven’t read this then you need to!

The Myths of Innovation

The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun is a small but powerful book about innovation.

Scott has a wonderfully engaging writing style – it’s friendly, conversational, full of humor and informative, which I found was extremely well suited to the task in hand. He provides examples of how innovation works, where innovation comes from, and debunks several popular myths of innovation, pointing out that whilst there is a ‘eureka’ moment, there’s a whole lot of hard work which lead up to it in the first place.

For me this was actually quite profound given that myself, Rob, Chris, Alan and Ross spent a month sequestered away working on developing a prototype – we were given the shortest of briefs a problem to solve and were asked to come up with something compelling and innovative – during the course of that month we had our own ‘eureka’ moments and we can certainly attest to the hard work that was involved before we reached that point. In fact it’s something I’ll talk about far more when I discuss another book: Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage through Collaborative Innovation Networks.

As for Scott’s book it really is well worth reading and I can’t help but agree with Don Norman who said this about the book:

The naked truth about innovation is ugly, funny and eye-opening, but it sure isn’t what most of us have come to believe. With this book, Berkun sets us free to try to change the world, unencumbered with misconceptions about how innovation happens.

The Starfish and the Spider

I finally managed to finish reading several books. The first I want to talk about is The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.

This is a excellent book that makes a very compelling case for decentralization in organizations and businesses. The authors contrast the Spider which represents top-down management, with the Starfish which is essentially headless … all its “legs” go in any direction it wants to … but the starfish still moves and is effective.

Whilst the first few chapters of the book present a couple of case studies and examples that serve to illustrate the main themes of the book. It’s really from chapter four onwards that the book picks up pace as the authors discuss operational principles behind decentralised organisations – the need for pre-existing networks as a substrate, the role of catalysts and champions to activate leaderless organisation, “circles” as their chief co-ordination mechanism, and “ideology” as the glue holding everything more or less together.

After reading the book I’m left feeling that the notion of leaderless organisations is unquestionably superior both morally and aesthetically – to centralised organisations. Partly because of their structural simplicity and elegance, but also, and more profoundly from my point of view, because they rely so openly on trust and the belief that man is fundamentally good and ultimately because they are capable of drawing the best from people and providing them with truthfulness, meaning and purpose in their life.

It’s interesting to also reflect on the fact that not only do organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous operate as a decentralised organisation, but also organisations like Al Qaeda, and it’s the very nature of that de-centralisation that makes them so difficult to contain.

As an interesting follow up to reading the book here’s a talk Rod Beckstrom gave at Next Web in 2007, that touches on the main themes in the book:



 

Darwin’s Angel

A relative of mine proclaimed over the weekend … “Nadeem, I have a book you might find really interesting” and presented me with this: John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel – an Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion.

 I started reading it as soon as my cousin handed it to me, in fact I didn’t put it down till I’d finished it! It’s not a very long book, only about 160 pages, it should be noted though that the pages have unusually wide margins and considerably less text per page than most books I’ve read do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s both an engrossing read but also a lot shorter than you might think when you pick it up, and whilst most people probably wouldn’t want to read it in a single sitting it’s definitely possible.

The book is basically written as an open letter to Richard Dawkins in which Cornwell, adopting the persona of a guardian angel attempts to correct the lapses of judgement in The God Delusion. Where this book differs from many of the critiques written in response to Dawkins various works is that Cornwell doesn’t fall into personal attacks, anger, or vitriol. Instead Cornwell exposes the inadequacies of Dawkins’ arguments in a gentle way which is far more devastating in its effect than anything I have ever read by Dawkins.

In fact I was hugely disappointed with Dawkin’s The God Delusion. After all his posing and positioning as an intellectual, a man of reason, a skeptic, a Humanist, I was horrified to see him use pseudo-medical terminology to try to describe religion as a virus and believers of religion as carriers of a fatal disease that is infecting the body of humanity. I mean, wasn’t it the Third Reich that used this kind of language to justify it’s atrocities against ‘Jews’ and many others? I honestly thought it was shameful for Dawkins to resort to these methods. It rang alarm bells in my head … the language and irrational venom was the sort of the thing I’d expect from a theo-fascist like Sam Harris, and the fact that Dawkin’s wont distance himself from Harris finally begins to make sense to me. Harris was the one who infamously wrote:

Certain beliefs place adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self defense.

I distinctly get the impression, these days, that Dawkin’s and Harris’ brand of militant atheism is little more than a personality cult. Whenever I’ve visited www.richarddawkins.net I always get the uneasy feeling that Dawkin’s wishes to replace what he sees as a belief in a fictitious God with belief in a utopia that he himself has imagined or has Cornwell accuses him of  “substituting yourself for God”… and why not it’s big business right … ask the Scientologists ๐Ÿ˜‰ Sadly what seems to escape Dawkins’s and his followers is that the militant form of atheism they are advocating is no different or less irrational than any other organised religion.

Anyway I’m digressing … back to Darwin’s Angel.

I guess one of the reason’s I found Cornwell’s book so enlightening is that it calmly and rationally exposes how Dawkin’s and his followers have failed to see a distinction between benign religion and dangerous fanaticism … in fact I’d go as far as to say that not only have they failed to see it but they are guilty of the very same fanaticism they attribute to religious believers. In fact Cornwell starts off the book by pointing out to Dawkins that it is wrong to bundle all religious beliefs and practise into a bag that supposedly equals fanaticism – it’s no different to saying that all science is dangerous because scientists created the nuclear bomb.

I think it was Cornwell’s chapter on Imagination that touched me the most. I found myself agreeing with him when he argued that you couldn’t simply ban religious imagination without banning the same impulses that have inspired artists and poets:

.. but you are also disturbed by imagination, aren’t you? It’s so close to art, music, poetry – stuff that’s made up rather than facts that can be reducible to physics, chemistry and biology … Biology is true whereas the other stuff is just made up! It sounds as though you would substitute a set of case notes on dementia for Shakespeare’s King Lear; or a horticultural fact sheet for Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. Elsewhere you permit a role for literature in a science-ruled utopia, provided that it is confined to anodyne tropes about “ineffable” sunsets and “sublime” landscapes …you appear in this new book to have definitely retreated from a trust in the dynamic, protean power of imagination when it comes to religion. Have you retreated because you no longer believe in the power of the imagination to impart literary, poetic, religious and moral truth either? Or because trust in imagination threatens your militant atheism? 

This really is a wonderful book and in many was serves a robust corrective to Dawkin’s The God Delusion … I thoroughly recommend it!