What should I read next?

Came across this really interesting service called What Should I read Next? Think of it like a Last.fm for books. You tell it the name of books your reading or particularly books you’ve enjoyed, add them to a list, and it recommends other similar books you might enjoy. It’s really simple to use. I’ve only really started playing with it but so far I’m impressed with the suggestions it makes and how simple it is.

Everything is Miscellaneous

Last week Rob lent me his copy of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger the co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto. It’s a mesmerizing book in which Weinberger talks about organistion, hierarchy, authority and knowledge.

The first thing that I noted and didn’t fully understand until I had finished the book ( and perhaps I still don’t ) was the rather cryptic dedication at the beginning of the book – To the librarians. By the time I finished the book I was left wondering whether David was thanking them for their efforts, thanking them for nothing or simply telling them that they no longer have a function.

To put this in context the book is very much about the history of library science and information architecture in general. Historically we have divided the world into vast categories, subject, topics and hierarchies because real world, physical objects need to be in one place or another, they can’t necessarily be in all the places they might actually belong. The advent of the computers and more specifically the internet has pretty much turned this whole thing on its head, we can now classify objects and even knowledge almost idiosyncratically. We are now becoming aware of how limited the previous hierarchies were which tried to compartmentalise things to make them easy to find ( Dewey Decimal) but in doing this we create a very narrow view of the world. It’s also one that is unfortunately open to abuse, or rather it suffers from biases that inherently lurk in those systems that we create.

How we draw lines can have dramatic effects on who has power and who does not

David further illustrates this point when he writes:

It would seem that Wikipedia does everything in its power to avoid being an authority,yet that seems only to increase its authority – a paradox that indicates an important change in the nature of authority itself.

In opening our eyes to this David makes a really compelling case for a new kind of information architecture that more faithfully represents the messy even chaotic nature of the real world. This messiness on the internet has a unique property – it can actually be used to make sense of the world. Take Flickr tags, for example, thousands of people use them every day to group pictures together, when you consider these tags with other characteristics ( popularity, rating, review, etc ) or information provided, or rather volunteered, by users  we suddenly find that the most interesting pictures for any given search rise to the top in rankings. This is all thanks to the chaos of uncoordinated, unchecked, unintentional meaning that the internet’s users infuse content on Flickr with. Consequently I find myself agreeing with David when he writes:

Discovering what you want is at least as important as finding what you know you want!

Everything is Miscellaneous is a wonderful book and I thoroughly recommend it.

Microsoft adds copyrighted books to its Live Search

Microsoft has added copyrighted books to its online library, stating it has permission to offer the works t searchers on the internet .  They have made deals with with authors and publishers to include their works in the Live Search, and in doing so Microsoft have managed to sidestep the controversy that Google initially triggered when they began their book digitising project to offer the worlds written works online.

User’s have to log into Live Search in order to read the content online, it appears that user’s can only read a certain number of pages and the software keeps track of how many pages visitors have read online for free. Most of the searches I have performed allow me to read 10% of the pages in any Copyrighted book that I’m browsing. I actually find this far more useful than simply being able to browse the table of contents or view selected extracts as one can in Google’s Book Search. This enables me to make a more informed decision as to whether I want to go and buy the book, and also, if im just searching for the answer to a question or need to read up on a chapter on some specific subject, I can read those bits for free online which probably will mean I wont need to go out and buy the book.

Amongst the publishers who have agreed to allow this type of access to their materials are Simon and Schuster, Mcgraw-Hill, Rodale and Cambridge University Press. Microsoft obviously provide direct links to where the books you are reading online can be purchased from. It’s an interesting move by Microsoft when you consider that Google’s wholesale scanning of copyrighted works in library collections will give it a larger database of books, but by working with publishers and obtaining their permission, Microsoft is seemingly able to offer a better experience to users.

Book: The Battle for God

The Battle for God, by Karen Amstrong

A friend of mine lent me this book recently, after I lent him Sam Harris The End of Faith, which I’ve talked about before on this blog. Both books deal with analysing the phenomenon of fundamentalism but the two authors deal with the subject in very different ways. Harris’ book is full of vitriol and lacks any real compassion, whilst some of his arguments are interesting this gets lost in his rabidly anti religious stance, his intolerance of faith is as damaging as the very fundamentalism he discusses. Armstrong on the other hand tries to rationalise and understand monotheistic fundamentalism,by examining in detail Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism. She examines each of them in turn with dignity and depth and amazing richness of detail particularly from a historical point of view

Unlike Harris'(who is so rabidly anti-islam that he’s become the poster child for Islamophobes ), Armstrong’s analysis is very objective, surprisingly so in fact, and I’m very glad I read the book, it taught me a great deal. She tries to understand why fundamentalists believe as they do and behave as they do, but she certainly isn’t afraid of articulating her own feelings about these people.

One of the most interesting arguments (if that’s the right word) she makes is that as scientific rationalism began to “explain away” God, fundamentalism rose up as its “implacable” enemy. It’s fascinating how she explains that before this conflict between scientific theories and literal readings of holy texts everyone embraced the “Independence relationship” between science and religion – a theory ascribed to Ian Barbour. In which he describes science and religion as separate domains of equal value in life since they focus on dealing with separate parts of our existence.

Armstrong tries to de-demonise fundamentalism and I think offers some hope in favouring discussion, dialogue and integration as a way out of the ever increasing conflict between fundamentalists and humanists.

It’s a very well written book and offers a valuable insight into the genesis of the fundamentalist movement and what keeps these movements growing. It’s an insightful read and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interesting the debate around fundamentalism.

Book Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights. by Matthew Chapman

Actually the full title of Chapman’s book is 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, and it has to be one of the most uniquely interesting and engrossing books I have read in a long time. I actually read the whole thing cover to cover over this weekend, I simply could not bring myself to put it down – in fact calling it engrossing simply doesn’t do it justice.

Image:Amazon.co.uk click for details

The book is about Kitzmiller vs Dover, the 2005 federal trial of a public school board’s attempt at getting Intelligent Design into the high school science curriculum as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution. In the end the plaintiff’s, comprised of concerned parents of students at the school successfully argued that Intelligent Design was a form of creationism, and the school boards policy thus violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

There’s two things that make this book so interesting. The first is that Matthew Chapman, the author, is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin and I find this quite fascinating. It’s almost as though he is uniquely place to offer a perspective no-one else could, even though Chapman is not a scientist but a film director. The second is that although the book covers the trial and does discuss the scientific arguments presenting during the trial, the book isn’t about the science, but more about the people involved.

What Chapman offers through his in depth encounters with the people involved on both sides of the issue is at times a frightening, but also amusing, and above all a very moving story of ordinary people doing battle in America over the place of religion in science and modern life.

Chapman has also written an earlier book called Trials of Monkeys: An Accidental Memoir, that provided an account of the famous Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925 where school teacher John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for breaking a recently passed law which forbade the teaching, in any state funded school, of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals”. Chapman often contrasts the Kitzmiller trial with the earlier Scopes trial – in which all the expert witnesses for the defence ( scientists ) were not allowed to testify by the judge.

Fortunatly the Kitzmiller trial the expert witnesses from both side were allowed to testify and it’s fascinating to see how the Creationist arguments on the so-called theory Intelligent Design were torn to shreds under cross examination.

However fascinating the scientific arguments were what captivates the most are Chapman’s descriptions of the people involved – the Christian Fundamentalists on the school board who bullishly forced through their policies; the faculty members who opposed the board even in the face of intimidation; the parents of children who protested and eventually sued the board; and the two legal teams their respective expert witnesses.

It’s hard not to be disturbed by the description of how the school board went about installing ID into the curriculum. In effect they polarised the community into those who believed in God and Creation and branded everyone else atheist – even though many of the Plaintiff’s and teachers at the school were Christians. The threats of violence and intimidation against the plaintiffs and their families were frightening. Chapman’s descriptions of the families his accounts of conversations with them and the depth of their concerns is captivating. As is their willingness to stand up and fight this even if it meant they were ostracised by the very community they lived in. To get a feel for what I mean, during one Board meeting when concerned parents pointed out that teaching creationism could land the school into serious legal trouble one of the pro-intelligent design Board members stood up and shouted –

“2000 years ago someone died on a cross, can’t someone stand up for him now?”

One of the most amusing bit’s in the book is when Chapman describes the cross examination of Michael Behe the star witness for the defence – a fastidious proponent of Intelligent Design and author of Darwin’s Black Box and the man who coined the phrase “irreducible complexity”. In fact in a recent interview with New Scientist Chapman describes why this moment stood out:

The most disturbing element was how the intelligent-design crowd, many of whom I liked, would intellectually and morally contort themselves to cling to ideas one felt even they did not quite believe. The scientists among them seemed to have taken hold of small shards of the scientific whole that no one fully understands yet, and created a shield against reality. They were smart people, and at times it was painful to watch them. There was a moment when one intelligent-design scientist [Behe] was literally walled into the witness box by books and articles detailing an evolutionary process he said had not been described. And though they had had months to prepare, the school board members who advocated intelligent design still knew almost nothing about it. When asked to define intelligent design, one of them defined evolution.

You can read the book for the actual narrative, but the image of this ID Scientist who is arguing that no-one has ever been able to prove or been able to document how the Immune System in vertebrates could have possibly evolved through natural selection, a corner stone of his argument for Intelligent Design, being systematically walled into the witness box as the prosecuting lawyer literally buries him in papers, books, articles all discussing and describing precisely that evolutionary process … was as I said amusing … but at the same time deeply deeply worrying.

Behe also went on to admit that he had considered a possible test that would falsify intelligent design, when pressed on whether he had carried out the test he replied that he hadn’t and neither had anyone in the Intelligent Design movement. Here was a scientist arguing for his theory to be taught in schools and yet he could not be be bothered to test it. Or as Chapman puts it:

Wasn’t that the first thing you would do? Wasn’t this, in fact, exactly what science was?

Anyway I feel like I’m ranting, but it’s been a long time since a book really captivated me like this and opened my eyes to a number of truths, particularly about the creationist movement in America. For a while Rob and I have been discussing the whole Evolution vs Creationism phenomenon. In fact we’ve both done a fair bit of research into it and I was genuinely surprised whilst reading this book to find that many of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves about why it is the scientific community hasn’t been able to convince the Creationist’s that evolution is a real theory are actually answered – well in part.
If there’s one book you read this summer … read this one!

"…you dumbass…" … dreams within dreams … and Descartes

Had a terrible evening last night all started when I got on the wrong train at New Street and ended up in the middle of no-where. took me four hours to get home in the pouring rain. It was cold, windy and wet! I must admit I was a tad pissed off had all sorts of thoughts going through my head … stupid rain, stupid trains, stupid universe, … god must hate me well I’ll hate him back see how he likes that! blah blah blah.

Anyway as I neared my place I was actually pretty wound up and shivering, then suddenly this cat jumps out in front of me (makes me jump out of my skin!) and runs under this parked car to shelter from the rain I guess. Anyway I remember standing there momentarily looking up at the sky and laughing and saying out loud “oh well it, at least I’m not naked!” … ridiculous I know but it made me laugh, it’s a good job no-one was around I’d have sounded like a nutter!

Anyway I must have got home around 9:15, and figured I was way too tired to cook, and I was too tired to order anything in so I chucked a load of fruit, ice and milk into my really cool blender, 60 seconds later instant smoothie! Had that, thought about watching TV but decided I was too tired for that too so I trundled off to be around 9:45.

Anyway I had the strangest night. I had one of those really weird dreams where your actually having a dream within a dream within a dream. Not sure how or why that happens but its a bit bizarre. I don’t actually remember too much about the dreams, in terms of the details but its just the weird idea that I woke up from a dream to realise I was still in another dream, and then when I woke up in that dream I was still in another one! Finally when I did wake up I just lay there wondering whether I was going to wake up again … is it me or is that just freaky?

Curiously it got me thinking about something Descartes wrote in his Meditations on First Philosophy( which I still think is heavily influenced by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I know many who disagree with me on that but I think theres definitely strong parallels ). Descartes attempts to find a way undermine all of his own beliefs. He does this by considering whether he is mad, dreaming or being influenced by a powerful demon, the idea being that if any of these scenarios were the case then many of his beliefs would be false. Descartes writings are often fairly inaccessible probably because of the way his works have been translated .. however in modern philosophy Descartes little experiment is the basis for the brain in a vat thought experiment, which most people find far easier to relate to.

Image source:Wikipedia

The brain in the vat experiment, in simple terms, asks us to consider the questions a) how do we know that what we are experiencing is actually real. b) if what we believe is a result of what we experience, and we cant be sure if what we experience is real, then can our beliefs be true? The experiment asks us to imagine the scenario that a brain in a vat is connected to a computer that provides all the identical electrical impulses the brain normally receives. The computer would then be simulating a kind of virtual reality but the disembodied brain would never realise this. One of the better dramatisations of this relatively recently was the Matrix movie which I’g guessing most people have seen.

Anyway I think its interesting food for thought.

Oh yeah … as for the dumbass bit … well on the way to work this morning, as with most mornings, I tend to get on the same bus with one of my colleagues, Amanda. She asked me if I’d had a good evening and I told her about my 4.5 hour trip home last night to which she replied … “oh Nad … your such a dumbass” …gee thanks Mandy! I’ll remember that!

Why software sucks

Over on slashdot theres an excellent little article and debate around the issue of why software sucks. The slashdot article points to this news story on the Fox News Network. that discusses the book by David Platt entitled “Why software sucks …. and what you can do about it“. I haven’t read the book yet but I’ve added it to my things to read list. The debate on slashdot though is actually quite interesting and worth reading in its own right. What interests me is how some of the sentiments echoed in the articles and discussions resonate around my earlier views that programmers arent usability experts, and until we start developing software centred around the user … software will continue to suck.

… to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield?

Decided I was going to spend a quiet evening in, am still knackered from my exertions over the holidays and was sitting here leafing through a book of poems, Tennyson’s Selected Poems. For me Tennyson has often been a source of inspiration, perhaps its something to do with the exquisiteness of the atmosphere he creates … his works invoke an illusion of loveliness … and its altogether too easy to loose yourself amongst those words. It doesn’t seem to matter how often I read them, the words never seem to loose their mystique, in fact I’m convinced that they seem to resonate more as I time passes … or as I get older as one of my friends suggested not too long ago.

A long time ago I committed this verse to memory, its the final stanza of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

I always find this verse inspiring, it always serves to remind me that my world is what I choose to make it even though life occasionally throws me the odd curve ball. But that when it invariably does I need to remind myself and believe that the answers I’m looking for are out there but that I have to strive to find them … they wont just fall into my lap.

I guess its that struggle that we all contend with, but its only through that struggle within ourselves that we discover who we are. Or at least that’s what I believe. For me this verse has always been about hope, which can be a wonderful thing. Ironically it wasn’t too along ago I read or heard somewhere that (forgive me I’m paraphrasing here because I cant remember where) hope is the quintessential human delusion – paradoxical in that it is both the source of our greatest strength and our greatness weakness.

I find that at some level I agree with the sentiment, albeit a little reluctantly. We all have hopes, which we often translate into dreams – these dreams or aspirations drive us onwards, or indeed downwards. In attempting to realise them we sometimes choose to draw inspiration from our friends, sometimes we draw it from those we love, at other times we find solace in our own thoughts, or in the cryptical words of others written in, for example, poetry … or even prose ;-). Yet all these sources of inspiration unequivocally force us to look within ourselves and confront who we are, and what is it we think we have achieved or have not. Have our lives had meaning, have we made a difference, have we made anything?

We often decide to pursue these hopes and these dreams, believing that we’ll find what were looking for in attaining them … but when you do you come to the realisation that you have attained but one goal, but where do you go from here? What’s next? and so the journey begins again. Of course its never that clean cut is it? hell, sometimes I wish it was.

” may all your dreams but one come true”

When I was younger I couldn’t understand the significance of this saying. I mean why would you tell someone you wished that all their dreams didn’t come true. The answer is so simple but so easily lost. It’s because without dreams, and the challenges they present us with, and new goals we want to attain, what else is there left to live for, right?

But for all the strength they can give us, there’s an inherent danger, or the great weakness. That we spend all our time dreaming and hoping, and never actually doing. There’s a simple way to address this though as Paul Valery so eloquently put it …

“The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up”

… and … to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield!

ea_spouse : profit at the cost of human dignity

My copy of The Best Software Writing I – selected and introduced by Joel Spolsky arrived the day before yesterday. I finally managed to start reading it last night after getting back from a truly magical evening at the Chinese State Circus. The book is a collection of essays/posts on online blogs that Spolsky has brought together as examples of simple goodle writing that engages the reader and captivates them. Spolsky introduces each essay with his own take on the subject matter. The essay I chose to read first was entitled EA – The Human Story. Anyone who knows me, knows I play several online games (most FPS ones), and I have a great interest in the gaming industry in terms of the products and technologies that they produce.

It’s safe to say that I was not expecting to be moved quite as much as I was by this account, which you can read online in its entirety over at http://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/. Before I go any further I will say this, I believe that ANYONE working in the software industry or in human resources, in fact everyone should read the essay.

It’s written by the spouse of an Electronic Arts employee who wrote this under the anonymous moniker ea_spouse, she chose to remain anonymous because in her own words she has “no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit“. Her account dramatically made the world aware of the shocking sweatshop-like labor practises at EA. It’s important to point out that this account was originally written in 2004 and since it was first published the controversy it generated has led to class action law suits against EA, as well a shedding light on what appears to be a commen trend within the gaming industry.

She describes what her family has to endure as her spouse is forced to work in excess of 85 hours a week for months on end, or in her own words:

Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out

It’s a heart wrenching expose that both captivates and evokes an extremely emotional response in you as you read it. As she laments the forced hours without any overtime or compensation, or even time off for employees you cant help but feel sickened. I had to put the book down and walk away for a moment when she wrote:

“If they don’t like it, they can work someplace else.” Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA’s Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one’s workforce never enters the equation:

Like anyone in the software industry you accept that you do have to work long hours sometimes as deadlines begin to loom, most of the developers that I have known dont mind this, but commonsense alone should tell us that this should always be the exception – never the norm. Ultimately it’s un-sustainable. We’re all human beings, we have lives outside of our work, other interests to persue, other dreams to achieve. ea_spouse ends her account with this …

…when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it’s not just them you’re hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Before joining Talis I used to work for an organisation, where I did clock up close to 70 hours a week for sustained periods. Of course no-one actually forces you, your just left to wander if you want the stigma of being labelled not a team player. I can only comment from my own perspective but I have no doubt that much of the apathy, cynicism and even contempt I had for the industry was a product of just how soul destroying it is to wake up, go to work, come home, sleep for a little and then wake up and go to work again. Your depressed, your constantly tired, your irratable, you become less and less attentive … to the point where you dont even sense someone running up behind you with a lead bar!

But what doesnt kill you, generally makes you stronger … at least thats something I try to believe. As I Read ea_spouse’s account, and thought about my own experiences as a developer working extended hours for sustained periods, I was immediatly able to contrast that with what things are like now.

For me Talis is a very different kind of environment to work in as a developer. I dont know whether its because we’ve embraced agile methodologies that are based around the principle of sustainable iterations of work, or whether its because the people I work with and work for genuinley care about the wellbeing of every member of the team. Or as I suspect its probably a combination of both. Our iterations in Skywalk are weekly, the small team on average completes around 15 units of work per week (our velocity – dont ask me to define what our units represent … I always quote my estimates in donuts! 😉 ), but I recall how our programme lead reacted a few months ago when the team over a couple of iterations averaged twice to three times that figure.

Our programme lead on skywalk, Ian Davis, is probably one of the finest programme mangers I have ever worked with. Probably because he doesnt think of himself as a programme manager. He’s extremely goal driven and yet a humanist who puts the well being of his team before anything else. As a team leader he’s a pragmatist, but it’s his charm and his passion that has helped bring together bunch of talented geeks and focused them into a team in every sense of the word. Anyway a few months back our velocity shot up, we were coming to the end of the development on a research prototype we call, Cenote, we wanted to have the piece up and running so Paul could show off some of our achievements at a conference in Canada. There wasnt a real requirement for the prototype to be made available, it was always a nice to have. But the team wanted to showcase its work, we take a great deal of pride in what we do. Ian was on vacation and in his absence we simply plowed on got it all done and delivered. When he came back and checked our velocity, he was appreciative yet told us that he didnt want us to make a habit of that because it wasnt sustainable. He then planned our next iteration to be around half our normal average velocity on the grounds that he wanted to make sure we all got a bit of rest. I’d never known a programme manager to react like that … or for a company to let him.

Book Review: How to survive a robot uprising

How to survive a robot uprising
How to survive a robot uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Agains the Coming Rebellion
by Daniel H Wilson

This is easily one of the funniest books I’ve ever read! In a nutshell its a survival guide written by robotoscist Daniel H Wilson that aims to prepare the reader with a load of useful tips on how best to quash a robot mutiny. Wilson borrows from famous sci fi movies and then uses scientific fact to predict what robots might be like in the future. It’s a tongue in cheek vision of the future but also a legitimate introduction to contemporary robotics.

After reading the book I wanted to find out more about the author, and came across this video which is part of the Google Author Series. Daniel describes why he wrote the book and its also incredibly funny to watch and listen to.

I thoroughly recommend this book and if you have the time watch the google video you wont be disappointed.