52 Books a Year: #26 - Steppenwolf

Posted by Brian Sun, 06 Dec 2009 04:45:00 GMT

Steppenwolf
By Herman Hesse

4/5

There are some books that you don’t know what to think about when you finish them. Steppenwolf was one of those books for me. At its core Steppenwolf is the tale of a man finally emerging into the world. The Steppenwolf is an intellectual man who falls in with the artistic crowd, which he has always disdained, when he is at his lowest and contemplating suicide. Before this he has spent most of his time reading (kind of amusing for someone reading as much as me) and writing. After a brief intro, Steppenwolf is supposed to be the title figures writing that his been found by a housemate.

The most confusing part is the ending. The Steppenwolf enters a test of sorts under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Combined with the weirdness of the situation in general it is difficult to tell what is actually going on and their is ambiguity at the end as to whether he has actually committed murder or whether it was just part of the hallucination.

Herman Hesse considered Steppenwolf to be his most misunderstood work. Published in 1927, it presented a world of drug use and ambiguous morality in a time where these ideas were highly controversial. The book was perceived as too pessimistic, when he viewed it as a story of transcendence and healing. I tend to agree with Hesse that the story is largely driven by the Steppenwolf transcending his previous views of humanity and life in general. Read it for yourself though. It is very short and can easily be read in a day.

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52 Books a Year: #25 - Cyber Rules

Posted by Brian Sat, 05 Dec 2009 05:10:00 GMT

Cyber Rules: Strategies for Excelling at E-Business
By Thomas M. Siebel and Pat House

3.5/5

Yet another book I picked up at the annual library book sale. This one looked interesting because I was curious to see what the perception of e-business was in 1999. In some ways Cyber Rules was more accurate than I expected, but in others it completely missed the boat.

The biggest fault of the book is how it completely ignores the future of entertainment on the web and attempts to monetize it. He predicted that the role of the net as a business engine would totally eclipse its value as an entertainment vehicle, a claim that is yet to come true. You also get the impression that the only money to be made online is from direct sales to customers and business-to-business transactions in large business marketplaces. The first of these panned out, but the second has not materialized despite numerous attempts by various companies and industry organizations. Other notable mistakes are the concept of e-cash (he thought it would work), the omission of the driving role of the porn industry on the web, and the complete absence of any talk of privacy concerns.

A couple of other omissions are amusing as well. First, Google is never mentioned. While it would have been very small at the time, even in 1999 it was revolutionizing how information is found on the web. Siebel specifically mentions that at the time sites had to submit themselves to search engines, an idea that seems ludicrous today. He also had the idea of agents on the web being used by end users. For some reason he thought people wanted computers to do their shopping for them. In addition, he falls into the mistake of predicting the direction of the web with specific companies, many of which don’t even exist today. That more than anything serves to date the book.

Even with all of those complaints Cyber Rules managed to get a lot rightor 1999. He understood the importance of businesses sharing data across the web, even if he got the exact mechanism wrong. Overall it was a worthwhile read. However, I do get the impression based on reviews read elsewhere that it is weak in comparison with other e-business books published around the same time.

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52 Books a Year: #24 - Necronomicon

Posted by Brian Thu, 03 Dec 2009 19:54:00 GMT

Necronomicon

2/5

Behold the Necronomicon! Fear its power! …or maybe not. There have been many versions of Lovecraft’s infamous Necronomicon released over the years, but this one has been the most popular. It begins with notes from someone referred to as “Simon” detailing how the work was supposedly discovered and the horrors to be visited upon the reader. From there we get a prologue from someone identified only as “the Mad Arab” who discusses his discovery of the methods to be presented to the reader. Most of the book consists of these methods, various incantations in Sumerian and seals. It then finishes with the demise of “the Mad Arab” before he can finish.

The author takes liberties with Sumerian mythology in order to blend in Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos (and the work of later authors who contributed to them), but overall it is more accurate in that respect than I initially expected. Going through the names of various Sumerian gods did make clear to me the origin of many metal names, such as Marduk, Nergal, and Ereshkigal. That combined with the fact that I had just read Satanism: The Seduction of America’s Youth made it fairly enjoyably as a novelty piece. How Bob Larson could have taken this book seriously in any way is just mind-boggling. Worth looking at for the novelty, but beyond that there isn’t much to recommend.

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52 Books a Year: #23 - Programming in Python 3

Posted by Brian Thu, 03 Dec 2009 00:55:00 GMT

Programming in Python 3
By Mark Summerfield

4/5

Programming in Python 3 was my introduction to Python and the book that guided me when I started my pyFish project. When I started the project I decided I wanted to use Python 3, which had just came out, and this was the only book that had been published at the time.

First, the good. If you are an experienced programmer looking to pick up a new language this is a good book. The first section gets you up to speed with the language quickly and little time is wasted with introductory concepts. Through the rest of the book you get a good overview of Python features,with extra emphasis given to those added in Python 3, and information about libraries that can be used for various tasks, such as XML processing.

It’s not all good though. At times the writing is very dense. The book covers a lot of ground and Summerfield doesn’t waste much time covering it. Needless to say this is not the book for someone new to programming. However, the choices in Python 3 books were still pretty slim last I looked so this might be the best choice there is. I know it will serve as a useful reference for yours to come on my shelf.

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52 Books a Year: #22 - Agile Estimating and Planning

Posted by Brian Wed, 02 Dec 2009 02:12:00 GMT

Agile Estimating and Planning
By Mike Cohn

4.5/5

Agile has gotten a bad reputation over the years from those who do not understand it. I get the impression that it has been forced on many unwilling teams by managers chasing after the latest fad. Unfortunately Agile works best when it develops organically within a team until they decide to more formally adopt it as a development style. This was the case with our team at work. We had been moving more towards Test Driven Development for a couple of years and when a larger project than usual came up we decided as a team to move more formally towards an Agile approach. We used Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn as our guide.

As a writer Cohn moves along at a crisp pace with real world examples. Many development books feel the need to crack jokes or make pop culture references left and right. This is not one of those books. He covers estimating size, planning, scheduling, and tracking. In addition he tackles why you would want to adopt Agile. The chapter on financial prioritization is especially useful for developers, as it gives insight into tools that can be used to justify the costs of projects to those with the checkbook. If you have a team that is considering Agile then this book is an excellent choice to start with.

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52 Books a Year: #21 - Satanism: The Seduction of America's Youth

Posted by Brian Wed, 25 Nov 2009 18:29:00 GMT

Satanism: The Seduction of America’s Youth
By Bob Larson

0/5 for content
5/5 for unintentional comedy

Satanism is basically a Jack Chick comic stretched out to fill an entire book. According to Bob Larson I am a disturbed satanist because I enjoy heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons. You are also a satanist if you give the peace sign or practice Wicca. If somebody actually tried to use the arguments in this book on me in person, I would be too dumbfounded to form a coherent thought.

I don’t even know where to start with the inaccuracies this book portrays. He claims Metallica’s Creeping Death to be a satanist song, but the lyrics are actually a straightforward telling of the plagues upon the Egyptians from the point of view of the Angel of Death. How he portrayed a song describing a biblical story as satanist is mind-boggling. I was keeping a list of inaccuracies, but gave up shortly into the book because of the sheer number.

The bigger problem though is that he never questions the stories of callers to his radio show, most of most of which sound fabricated by some kid having some fun with the Christian talk show guy. I used to be a radio DJ and it is usually quite easy to tell who the pranksters are. You would think a talk radio host would make some effort to separate out the bullshit.

Unfortunately Larson is still around performing exorcisms, talk radio, and writing books. He may mean well, but his efforts are very misguided. If you want to stop back into the paranoia of rock music in the 80’s though, pick up Satanism for a good laugh.

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52 Books a Year: #20 - On Paradise Drive

Posted by Brian Mon, 23 Nov 2009 02:41:00 GMT

On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense
By David Brooks

2.5/5

I was familiar with David Brooks from his appearances on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer alongside Mark Shields and always came away very impressed with the fact that there was a conservative on TV who was willing to engage in meaningful debate. I know many of them exist, but they get drowned out in the usual 24-hour news format hyperbole. So when I saw On Paradise Drive by David Brooks at the library book sale I immediately picked it up. Unfortunately it ended up high on style with a lot of seemingly misguided substance.

Brooks attempts to make the argument that we are a future-oriented people, always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While this is true to a certain extent, that pot of gold we are looking forward to is today often just a big screen TV. While we may look to the future with an idyllic eye, the things we are looking to aren’t those that will bring any lasting happiness. At the same time we turn a blind eye towards the future of weightier issues, such as our environment and debt with the hope that they will just work themselves out.

Where his observations are right on is how this relates to our work ethic. Looking towards the future is how we allow ourselves to work terrible jobs for low pay. The idea that it will all be better in the future drives on on. His Fry! concept also seems to speak to a strong American trait, namely our ability to devote our lives to perfecting some absolutely trivial thing. His biggest example is the french fry. Think of how many people have devoted their lives to making the perfect fast-food french fry. Is their any rationality to this? Not really, but our ability to focus so intently on something so small is one reason why we have pushed out so many technological innovations in our history.

Despite the lower score I would recommend this book. While many of Brooks’ observations may not stand up, he has an engaging writing style and the book moves along quickly. It’s not heavy reading and there is enough to learn to merit picking it up.

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52 Books a Year: #19 - Programming the Universe

Posted by Brian Wed, 18 Nov 2009 23:56:00 GMT

Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos
By Seth Lloyd

4/5

Quantum mechanics makes no sense. If you think you understand it you need to start over. It is completely non-intuitive, but our current understanding of the universe depends upon it. In Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd first explains the basics of quantum mechanics before moving on to what a quantum computer is and how it works, starting from a single qubit. Then he takes the next step and posits that the entire universe is one large quantum computer. From here the book goes back and forth from impossibly small to unimaginably large as he explains more concepts of quantum mechanics and then explores what they mean in the context of a universe-sized quantum computer.

The writing is dense and I found myself reading passages several times to make sure I understood what he was trying to say. It would probably be a very difficult book for the average person to read. Lloyd manages to hold it together into a cohesive whole though if you have the patience. Unfortunately my notes on this book have disappeared and it is far to dense to remember five months after reading it. Highly recommended though.

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52 Books a Year: #17 & #18 - The Joy of Work & What Do You Call a Sociopath In a Cubicle

Posted by Brian Tue, 17 Nov 2009 18:02:00 GMT

The Joy of Work: Dilbert’s Guide to Finding Happiness at the Expense of Your Co-Workers 3.5/5
What Do You Call a Sociopath In a Cubicle? 1.5/5
By Scott Adams

It almost feels like cheating to include these, but they were presented in book form. Plus, some of my later books will more than balance out the brevity of these. What Do You Call a Sociopath In a Cubicle? is completely non-essential. It is simply a rehashed collection of comics from 1989-2001 that had already appeared in other collections. There is no new writing from Scott Adams at all. I only have it because it was a $1 at the library book sale.

The Joy of Work is much better. In addition to the comics much of the book describes Adams’ formula for enjoying yourself in the workplace, company be damned. The highlights are his humor formula, which describes the various elements of humor and how many you need, and his impersonation of a consultant at Logitech, where he was brought in to give a phony talk to unwitting audience. It’s not on the level of his earlier books, especially The Dilbert Principle, but it is still quite amusing.

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52 Books a Year: #16 - The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories

Posted by Brian Mon, 16 Nov 2009 18:27:00 GMT

The Thing On the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories
By H.P. Lovecraft

4.5/5

I read my first H.P. Lovecraft stories a couple of summers ago and loved them. This collection contains twelve stories, most of them quite good. The highlight in this collection is At the Mountains of Madness. Longer than most of his works (almost a short novel) it describes an expedition to Antarctica and the horrible things found there. Since Antarctica was barely explored at the time of his writing it provided excellent fodder for this type of story, a remote location about which very little was known. He soon unveils cosmic horrors upon the reader and proves himself to be a master of suspense.

This collection also contains the following stories.

  • The Tomb
  • Beyond the Wall of Sleep
  • The White Ship
  • The Temple
  • The Quest of Iranon
  • The Music of Erich Zann
  • Imprisoned with the Pharaohs aka Under the Pyramids
  • Pickman’s Model
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
  • The Dunwich Horror
  • The Thing on the Doorstep

Of these, Pickman’s Model stands out as a quintessential Lovecraft short-story. Unexplained sounds, a concealed horror, and an mysterious location all combine to form all palpable sense of dread. The Dunwich Horror might be his best known work, but I had read that previously in another collection.

Much of Lovecraft’s work has become cliche today because of the huge influence he has had. Because of this I usually encourage new readers to remember that most of his work is from the 20’s and 30’s and to try to read it from that perspective. While many modern readers can probably guess where At the Mountains of Madness is going it would have been a much more novel experience for a reader in the 30’s. With that being said the complete works of Lovecraft should be required reading for any metalhead or D&D player. This collection would be a fine place to start.

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