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 “year of living dyingly” 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.

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 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:


Daniel Dennett: Ants, terrorism and the awesome power of meme

Found this wonderful TedTalk on You Tube by Dan Dennett, it summarises some of the ideas that he discusses at length in his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I’ve always enjoyed reading his books. Dennett is a committed atheist, but this does not make him an enemy of the religious. His arguments and analysis are fair and the book’s purpose valuable and unlike Dawkins, Dennett takes a measured and rigorous approach: he seeks to explain religion rather than attack it. I’ve been reading his new book for a couple of days now and am thoroughly enjoying it. The Ted Talk below is very short but nevertheless Dennett manages to make some convincing arguments about the nature of ideas.

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.

Audiobook: Dune

I have lost count of the number of times I have read Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s one of those books that I find myself coming back to and re-reading. In fact I think that I have read it at least twice in the last 12 months.

Dune is set far in the future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary fiefdoms are controlled by noble Houses that owe allegiance to the Imperial House Corrino. The novel tells the story of young Paul Atreides (heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides and scion of House Atreides) as he and his family relocate to the planet Arrakis, the only source of the spice melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. In a story that explores the complex interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, the fate of Paul, his family, his new planet and its native inhabitants, as well as the Padishah Emperor, the powerful Spacing Guild, and the secretive female order of the Bene Gesserit, are all drawn together into a confrontation that will change the course of humanity.

I started using iTunes again the other day, as much as I have railed against it in the past it’s actually a very good tool for subscribing to podcasts, and I like the iTunes store, it’s easy to browse and find what your looking for as well as purchasing music. I came across a new Audiobook version of Dune available for download last week so I went ahead and purchased it and downloaded it through the store.

I’ve almost finished listening to it on my iPod. It’s a strange feeling. I’m used to reading books and not to listening to someone else read to me. However it’s been quite an enjoyable experience. For the most part its read/narrated by a Scott Brick, but in some parts other actors assume the voices of the main protagonists and do a good job making the characters come to life .. which is actually quite entertaining.

I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I think might invest in some more audiobooks …

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. 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.