52 Books a Year: #46 - Flu

Posted by Brian Fri, 25 Dec 2009 18:27:00 GMT

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It
By Gina Kolata


The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed almost 50 million people worldwide, including 500,000 in the US. In Flu Gina Kolata gives an overview of the pandemic itself and then concentrates on the search to reconstruct the virus that caused it. This is the only book I have read on the pandemic so I cannot compare it to the many others that have been written.

Kolata’s writing reads like a newspaper, which is a negative in my book. Flu reads matter-of-factly with nothing interjected by the author. This stood out very starkly against the next book I read, also about disease. Another negative, this one no fault of the author, is that the story is left hanging. At the time of publishing the 1918 virus had not been fully reconstructed yet and the tacked on story of avian flu at the end was only starting.

Overall, if you want a good overview of the 1918 flu and the search for the virus up to 1999, then Flu is a good choice. Just don’t expect any commentary to go along with it.

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52 Books a Year: #45 - If Chins Could Kill

Posted by Brian Thu, 24 Dec 2009 18:25:00 GMT

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor
By Bruce Campbell


Until recently I didn’t even know Bruce Campbell ever written a book, let alone two, so when I found out I immediately picked up If Chins Could Kill from the library. For those who do not know who Bruce Campbell is he is most associated with starring in the cult classics Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness. He also starred in the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and had recurring roles in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Chins concentrates on Campbell’s early life making Super-8 films with Sam Raimi and other childhood friends and the process of making the Evil Dead films. The first Evil Dead was made for the paltry sum of $150,000, which they raised entirely by themselves. Campbell gives an excellent view of just how a movie gets made that cheaply and the conditions it gets done in. The remaining portions of the book concentrate on Campbell’s attempts to break in as an A-List actor, before he settles into his comfort zone a B actor and all the freedom that gives him.

Campbell’s writing is fun and he has no problem poking fun at himself. Pictures are numerous and he also includes hand-drawn diagrams of weird camera setups that Sam Raimi inflicted upon him over the years. This is a confident book written by a man who is quite happy being a B actor. If you are a Bruce Campbell fan or simply want to read a book by an actor in the trenches this is an excellent choice.

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52 Books a Year: #44 - The Gathering Storm

Posted by Brian Wed, 23 Dec 2009 22:21:00 GMT

The Gathering Storm
By Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson


Note: I am not going to talk much about the plot of the book in this review. There are already already a large selection of fan sites that go into laborious detail about the Wheel of Time series if that is what you are looking for.

The Gathering Storm is the 12th book in the Wheel of Time and the first one following the death of Robert Jordan. His wife Harriet selected Brandon Sanderson to finish the last three books of the series from Jordan’s writings, notes, and dictations. Sanderson made a conscious decision to not attempt to ape the writing style of Jordan, a decision that that served him well here.

Criticisms of the Wheel of Time are numerous and many are well-deserved. Jordan originally planned a six book series, but it had ballooned to eleven by his death. His characterization’s of relationships between the sexes tended to be very simple-minded and he repeated character mannerisms to death. He had no idea or desire to succinctly explain a scene and he spawned off so many superfluous plot threads that the reader often needs to consult fan sites just to keep up with who the hell he was talking about and how important they were.

With that being said the series has a lot going for it though. Jordan created a fantastic world where a man had committed the original sin and were thus marginalized in many positions of power. The magic system of the world was fantastic and the concept of the Pattern as a tapestry weaving history is more fully developed than in many other series that have tried similar ideas.

Sanderson stepped into this mess and did an admirable job with The Gathering Storm. The pace is fast. Superfluous plot threads and stamped out and no news ones are created, streamlining the story on the central characters. The main plot threads are advanced quickly to set the stage for the final battle. The dialogue isn’t fantastic and the voices of some characters have noticeable changes, but the richness of the surrounding world make these minor inconveniences. Overall, Sanderson has done a masterful job of taming the beast that Jordan left him with.

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52 Books a Year: #43 - Journey into the Heart

Posted by Brian Wed, 23 Dec 2009 18:17:00 GMT

Journey into the Heart
By David Monagan


Journey Into the Heart tells the story of the development of modern heart disease treatment, starting with the first attempts at open heart surgery through the development of angioplasty. Monagan gives a cursory treatment to the development of bypass surgeries and heart transplants, but the bulk of the book deals with Andreas Gruentzig’s development of angioplasty. Several things stand out about the early development of heart treatments. The first was the complete absence of ethical oversight in some of the early treatments. New surgical techniques were tried in the spur of the moment. One early pioneer, Werner Forssmann even inserted the first heart catheter into himself through his arm after tricking a nurse into giving him access to the necessary equipment to demonstrate that it was possible. In the end Gruentzig’s pioneering technique spawned a multi-billion dollar medical instrument industry and forever changed the course of surgical treatments. While his technique focused on treating heart disease, it showed that non-invasive treatments could be extremely effective in treating serious diseases.

Journey definitely falls towards the popular side of popular science books. I felt the book was heavy on the personal aspects of Gruentzig that I wasn’t all that interested in, while very little detail was paid to the actual treatment developments. Pictures or diagrams of various catheters and balloons as they were being described would have been very helpful as well. I found it very difficult to picture the different types of instruments that Gruentzig was developing. The writing I would consider to be very average. If you are curious about the development of angioplasty though this seems like a find place to start.

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52 Books a Year: #42 - The Paradox of Choice

Posted by Brian Tue, 22 Dec 2009 20:53:00 GMT

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
By Barry Schwartz


In western culture we are swimming in a sea of choice, but when does that sea turn into a flood? That is the topic of discussion in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. If every instance of choice makes us happier, how is it that too much choice seems to make us unhappy? In the past fifty years the number of choices available to the average American has increased dramatically, but research shows that we are no happier for it.

Schwartz lays out his concept of Satisficers, those who look at their choices and choose one that is good enough, and Maximizers, those who must choose only the best, and walks us through how each group makes choices among a dizzying array of options in a very thorough manner. He covers simple examples of choice overload at the grocery store or clothes shopping, adaptation to new levels of happiness or disappointment, regret, comparison, and many others. All the examples and explanation of studies is done in a clear and concise manner.

One of the criticisms I have heard is that it is too thorough, but I disagree. Those people thought the subject could have been captured in a magazine article. At a high level it could have, but the large array of studies and research he covers would have been lost and those are what really hammers his point home

The writing is excellent and never goes into psycho-analysis speak. This book is clearly written for a mass market. This should be required reading for our confused consumer culture. No choice needs to be made, just go pick it up.

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52 Books a Year: #41 - Another Day in the Frontal Lobe

Posted by Brian Tue, 22 Dec 2009 17:43:00 GMT

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on The Inside
By Katrina Firlik


My wife and I picked up a couple of dozen of books at the local libraries annual sale in June. This was part of that haul. A couple of months later my dad was having surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor so I knew I would eventually make sure to read this one my wife picked up.

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe is pretty much what the title implies, walking the reader through the the development of a neurosurgeon and the day-to-day life that entails, focusing primarily on the author’s time in residency. Through case studies, anecdotes, and her own ruminations on why someone would want to get into a career that involves drilling into people’s skull, you get a good picture of the life a neurosurgeon, especially the pressure they operate under. I knew next to nothing about the process one goes through to become a surgeon (besides that it takes a long time) before opening this book and felt I came out with a pretty good high-level understanding of what it entails, at least for neurosurgery.

Firlik’s writing style is what one would expect in a mass-market science book. Lots of big words related to her field, but other than that very easy to read with lots of personal anecdotes. It is interesting to compare it Watson’s The Double Helix that I read earlier this year and compare the style of a mass market science book from 45 years ago with that of today. The biggest difference is simply the level of explanation of technical details. For several reasons I didn’t think The Double Helix would get through an editor today and one of those reasons was the lack of technical explanation on Watson’s part in a way the layperson could relate to. He just dove into chemical structures without laying any groundwork for the reader. That is not a problem in Firlik’s writing (her case is helped by the fact that we can all picture a skull and brain).

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe is nothing groundbreaking, but is a worthwhile read, especially if you know anyone who has undergone neurosurgery.

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52 Books a Year: #40 - Producing Open Source Software

Posted by Brian Mon, 21 Dec 2009 17:44:00 GMT

Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project
By Karl Fogel


Producing Open Source Software aims to build some sort of structure out of the chaos that can arise from a growing open source project. Karl Fogel uses his open source experience, mostly with Subversion, to provide guidance in handling the management, communication, infrastructure, social, technical, and licensing issues that arise in any project.

First, what this book is not. If you are looking for a detailed blueprint on how to become a major open source project, this is not it. I am skeptical that such a blueprint could even exist. Fogel does not go into detail on the strengths and weaknesses of any particular tools and he doesn’t really talk about any projects beyond those he has first-hand experience with. The subtitle here is “How to Run a Successful Free Software Project”, not how to create one. This book primarily focuses on the actual day-to-day running of a project, with some additional discussion of handling start-up issues.

Fogel makes clear that there is no silver bullet for every project and there will be no stabilization point when running an active project. There will never be a point where everything is working perfectly. As the project grows your needs will change. What used to work before for a group of five active developers will not work well for a group of twenty and you must be willing to change how things work in order to accommodate this. His other major emphasis is the need to be public in almost everything. Do not have private conversations about the direction of the project or technical issues. All discussions should take place in a public forum so that the community forming around your project feels like a part of it. You can not hand down orders from on high.

In Producing Open Source Software Fogel has provided a nice set of guidelines for how to run your project. If you feel your project is growing beyond your initial group of developers and is actually being put into use, then I would highly recommend this book to help provide some structure as the project grows.

In keeping with the open source spirit you can read the whole book on the author’s website.

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52 Books a Year: #39 - Cryptonomicon

Posted by Brian Sun, 20 Dec 2009 21:23:00 GMT

By Neal Stephenson


Cryptonomicon weaves a fantastic historical mystery that bounces between several story lines in both WWII and modern times that all come together into a coherent whole at the end. Stephenson has said that there was another set of stories set into the future as well, but those got cut due to size. The hardcover version I read is 910 pages so I can see the need to cut whole story lines.

Stephenson’s writing is superb as usual. The views of WWII era characters have not been modified for modern ideas of racial sensitivity, giving a more authentic feel. Each character has a distinct voice and viewpoint. As a programmer I was drawn to the Waterhouse’s (both WWII, Lawrence, and modern, Randy), who are portrayed as having a very logical thought process to the point of having a complete lack of social grace. Chapters centering on them also have the most complex mathematical explanations, but is not essential that you follow these in detail to understand the novel. The most amusing of these describes Lawrence Waterhouse’s production as a function of sexual satisfaction.

The only seeming hole in the book is the reemergence of Enoch Root in the modern story. He pretty clearly dies during WWII, but then reemerges with no explanation in modern times. It’s hard to believe that such an enormous plot hole was unintentional (or maybe an explanation was in the cut future story lines) and this has led to much speculation. Some interesting ones involve the Philosopher’s Stone and the Book of Enoch, but there is no hard evidence in the book to justify this, only indirect.

Be prepared for a long read. With all of the separate story lines it takes about the first 1/3 of the book before things get moving, but everything merges together beautifully at the end. Ancestors of many of the characters here are used in subsequent Stephenson novels, so it looks like I have some more reading to do.

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52 Books a Year: #38 - Snow Crash

Posted by Brian Sat, 19 Dec 2009 19:29:00 GMT

Snow Crash By Neal Stephenson


Snow Crash was Neal Stephenson’s breakthrough work and is a must read for any self-respecting computer geek. I won’t waste time rehashing details you can easily find elsewhere, so I will just focus on what I liked and didn’t like.

It takes serious balls to name your lead character Hiro Protagonist, but Stephenson pulls it off by never once dwelling on his name in a heavy-handed fashion. Hiro captures the psyche of a great number of programmers better than any other author I have ever read. Y.T. is a resourceful D.I.Y. punk in a world descending into anarchy. The story is wonderfully paced and most of the side characters have a point. Raven is a pretty well-developed villain and you even get to see his more human side with a clear explanation of his motivations. Initially presented as a caricature he ends up evolving into a character whose motivations you can identify with to at least some degree, despite their destructive consequences.

I can’t decide if I liked the ending or not. It ends very abruptly with some seemingly loose end, but I think you are supposed to piece together those loose ends from clues dropped throughout the book. The biggest example of this seems to be the fight between Uncle Enzo and Raven. Previous events lead the reader to only one logical result, but you are never explicitly told what happens. The only other problem I had is the heavy handed use of explanatory monologues to explain Sumerian mythology. It comes across as very unnatural, especially near the end of the book when Hiro is explaining everything to the other power-brokers.

Overall, this is a fantastic read. I am a sucker for cyberpunk and dystopian worlds and this one is excellent. If you are at all into the culture of computer programmers than this book is for you. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a lot more Neal Stephenson to read.

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52 Books a Year: #37 - The Double Helix

Posted by Brian Sat, 19 Dec 2009 05:09:00 GMT

The Double Helix
By James Watson


If you want a fairly thorough guide to The Double Helix you can find one here.

The Double Helix is an autobiographical telling of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and others. It gives a rare unfiltered account into one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

Watson’s writing is breezy through most of the book, but things get bogged down on occasion when dives into chemical structures without giving the reader much background. Today’s editors would most likely not let his technical explanations through.

It caused a fair amount of controversy when published. Co-discoverers Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins objected to the publishing. He is very clear up front that the story is told as how he felt at the time of the events. He is not using hindsight to correct his youthful views. He also freely admits that his telling of the events may not be accurate, but they are how he remembers them, taking no others viewpoints into account. There is also a prevalent thread of sexism throughout towards a co-worker of Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, whose work greatly contributed to their discovery. My edition attempts to soften this in the epilogue, but in comparison the rest of the book it isn’t much. We must remember that this was the 1950’s though and attitude was quite common at the time.

Books like this may be common today, but when published in 1968 it really stuck out. It is now considered a classic work of non-fiction. Highly recommended for anybody interested in how scientific discoveries are made and the effect the personalities of the people involved has on the process.

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