Monthly Archives: August 2012

Book Reviews for the week starting August 17th-ish

It’s been a rather terrifyingly productive week in the realm of digesting the written word. Find below my book reviews for the past week.


How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday LifeHow to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life by Len Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fisher’s offering is a work written by a scientist but well and accurately aimed at the non-scientist. Where many before him have failed, Fisher has succeeded in crafting a work which does well at dancing the line between too technical and downright insulting. The author very carefully defines his terms once upon first use and then rightly expects his audience to remember them. He is accessible without being annoying.

As to his content, Fisher is widely varied while staying fundamentally true to his background in physics. In his 200 pages he touches on liquid uptake of permeable foods (the eponymous dunking of the doughnut), the protein transition of cooked eggs, the physics of simple tools, math tricks to make your trip to the supermarket less costly, boomerangs, beer foam and ball games. He closes with chapters on the physics behind the sense of taste and human sexuality.

Throughout, Fisher provides not only factual content but historical anecdotes to lighten the mood a bit. Most memorably for me, he relates the brief tale of an Australian man in the 1930s who protested loudly and publicly that the use of an erect penis during intercourse was simply too forceful. He argued that a flaccid state was more respectful and appropriate and one that allowed the woman to draw the instrument of insemination into herself at a time of her own choosing. Personally I suspect this was a case of a movement founded in the fertile ground of a personal shortcoming but regardless of the cause for the statement, it does give one a proper sense for the character of the book.


The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American DreamThe Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I will preface this by saying that I am far from a political person. My idea of steeping myself in political doctrine is to turn on Rush Limbaugh just so I can get my blood flowing at his Audacity of Arrogance. However, I also pride myself on reading a little bit of everything so when this came up at the library book sale bag day it seemed a reasonable title to grab.

Since I’m not perennially political I can’t knowledgeably compare this to other books of the type but I will admit that after reading it I was struck by a positive image of the author. The Obama portrayed here (by Obama) seems a fair, thoughtful and knowledgeable person. His beliefs are centered around an attempt to service the broadest common good through compromise and he’s unafraid to work hard to make those a reality. He’s well-written and expressive and I can’t help but like him more after reading his book. However, I’m well aware that this is the entire purpose of such books so I do take that reaction with a sizable grain of salt.

While there is a fair amount of “the man” here, including personal anecdotes that illustrate his character, he can sometimes be excessively wearying when going off on points of policy. Perhaps this is in part because I agree with what he has to say. His lavishly drawn out arguments fall on my ears as excessive restatements of the obvious which grow tedious rather quickly. No doubt a conservative will find them as infuriating as I find Limbaugh.

Summing up briefly, the book is well-written though over long. A briefer and more forcefully stated version would have struck me as more effective. As it stands now I’m just glad to finally have the ordeal behind me. Not, I suspect, the author’s primary intent.


Red AlertRed Alert by Peter Bryant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Certainly sufficiently gripping and short enough to make it a simple and enjoyable one-day read. It suffers a bit from the fact that the cold war is long over so at first one is struck by a bit of a sense of ennui. Eventually the narrative manages to compensate for this and arrive at a sufficnetly nerve-wracking conclusion. Not a book that will make it to my perpetual to-reread-yearly list but not a bad jaunt for a few hours.


The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seldom is a topic of such keen and personal import brought to the page with this much skill and candor. Didion lays bare her soul as she deals with the sudden death of her husband in a year that finds her experiencing all the phases of grief in textbook fashion. The Year should be required reading for anyone dealing with loss if for no other reason than to allow the reader the knowledge that grieving is a universal, expected and normal reaction to loss.

The only factor which leaves it dangling at less than a five-star rating for me is that it’s not all that personally relatable. I appreciate endlessly her skill and honesty in this work but never having had the experience she describes it fails to resonate with me. I empathize greatly and appreciate her retelling of this period in her life but there are no points at which I can pin my story to her own. As such, it is an interesting museum piece, a fragment of someone else’s life, but not something I can currently internalize.


I Am LegendI Am Legend by Richard Matheson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A somewhat atypical example of 1950s science fiction, or perhaps I’m just too accustomed to the rather pulpy and childish short story genre. Matheson’s work is gritty, realistic, cynical and only slightly under-informed. The author paints a picture of post-apocalyptic life that is believable and makes it seem much more contemporary than it really is. The only real annoyance was the author’s insistence in using the word ‘germs’ in place of bacteria. Doubtless this is a nod to his readership of the time but it left me rather perturbed and constantly in search of a red pen.


A Night to RememberA Night to Remember by Walter Lord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overall, an insightful look into one of the most momentous events in our history. It does tend to drag on a bit in points because it goes into such depth with individual stories but some of these are deliciously entertaining. Take the good with the dull and don’t feel bad if you can’t keep the dozens of names which are thrown around straight in your head.

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The Demise of Facebook – A Play in 1,000 Acts

A few months ago when Facebook went public there were a few people around me who perked up their ears, remembering the dot.com boom of the 90s, and said that they needed to buy in to the IPO. As a person who drove down the street and heard ads on the radio for eBay and Google before their IPOs and thought, “Really wish I had some money to buy some stock in that place” I could sympathize. Everybody wants in on the ground floor of some great stock but when Facebook IPO’d something in my soul screamed, “NO!” As it turns out, my soul was right. Facebook now trades below 50% of its initial offering price. Clearly this is because I’m some sort of stock market genius, right? Um. Fuck No. My portfolios are under water same as everyone else’s but I know a real stinker when I see it.

Until today I didn’t really have a good sense of why my instincts shouted at me this way. Everybody’s on Facebook nowadays. I’ve got more friends on there than I have in real life. I see more random crap content from Facebook than from any other source. Where else am I going to get my daily quota of funny cat pictures and meaningless personal status messages? Not to mention, I see more advertising from Facebook than from the television. What can possibly fail in that business model?

As it turns out, at least two things can fail. Firstly, I don’t remember ever having clicked on any of Facebook’s advertising. Ever. Ever ever. Right now on my Facebook feed I see an ad for American Express and I’m abundantly not tempted to click on it. I couldn’t care less. This is the rule for every paid ad I ever recall seeing. It’s a total targeting failure. What I do see is a story from Mental Floss. I’m seriously tempted to subscribe to the magazine and I’m tempted every time I see a posting. Only problem for Facebook? I ‘Liked’ this page because someone else did and Facebook didn’t make a single dime. I’ve run some advertising of my own so I know how their pricing structure works. The fact that Jen liked Mental Floss and shared something and thus caused me to like it didn’t net Facebook a solitary penny. If I actually do make a purchase then it’ll be through Amazon and Facebook will have missed out utterly. Facebook is a great conduit for commonality but they’ve failed to actually determine how to make money with that information.

Secondly, Facebook has tried to be the grand unifier of all information about everything. You can tell it about your reading preferences, your new tattoo or your bedroom conquests and it’ll happily accept all you have to give. The problem is that Facebook is not ultimately the repository of most of the information that will be of real financial use. Sure, I give Facebook my random photos or status updates but today when I was entering the last 10 years of my reading history, information that could be legitimately used to actually sell me something, I was on Goodreads, not Facebook. Facebook introduced me to this third party because someone else I know used them but again, Facebook’s not making a dime.

At its heart, the business model seems flawed and doomed. Facebook is giving up a ton of information and connecting a lot of people but they’re not really reaping as much as they could in return. There are 1,000 specialty websites that service specific needs so well that Facebook seems unable to compete. Want to write movie reviews? Try IMDB. Need to talk about books? Take your pick of websites. Want to just blog randomly? WordPress is your best option. Facebook is the nexus of scads of personal information connecting consumers to service providers but I can’t help but feel that the vast majority of it is going to waste. I like Facebook, but I feel its ultimate ruination closing in on it. A thousand swords of Damocles hang over its head.

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On Work as Community

For the second night in a row I found my dreams haunted by the job I was dismissed from a little over two weeks ago.  In last night’s dream my company wasn’t just a company.  It was a city populated by thousands and I found myself an exile forced to walk in the desert and look longingly on from a distance.  I was cut-off and isolated not only from the company and the people I’d known there but also from the rest of mankind.  The company, apparently, represented the entirety of society.  This honestly isn’t a bad analogy for the way I feel at the moment and it takes a bit of probing in my psyche to determine exactly why.

I’m a person who tends to keep people in one of three circles.  There are a few people, numbering less than a half dozen that I consider the ‘inner circle’.  These are the people for whom you not only do anything but do it without thinking about it and realize only later that you’ve done something important.  And when you do have that realization you don’t even think about it because it was second nature.  The second circle is people with whom you aren’t as intimate but that you might actively seek out for conversation; the ones that you’ve invited out countless times to do something after work but they never seem to have time.  To the third belong all the people that you crack jokes with in the hallway in passing or talk to only in meetings.  You know them well and you may like them but for whatever reason the interaction just hasn’t gone social.

As I sit here on a Saturday morning I realize just what my dismissal has done to my social hierarchy.  When Laura came home last night she noted that I was just a machine of chatter.  Cracking silly jokes and babbling on endlessly and this is at least in part because I just have so much of it pent up.  The third circle that used to suffer through my witticisms and conversation is utterly gone.  This need to babble, I suspect, explains the tendency of many retirees to strike up random conversations with strangers.  They’ve lost their own third circle and the conversation just has to go somewhere.

In addition to losing the third circle, this has an impact on the second circle as well.  Work was a great place for the second circle to congregate.  If you put a few people together from this group it typically results in a great interaction.  Now, without the common bond of a workplace, the second circlers have nowhere to come together (well, they come together, it’s just without me and it’s behind the locked fortress walls of the workplace) and the dynamic is changed.  I was always mystified at the phenomenon of the high school reunion.  Why would anyone want to get together with a bunch of random people from 20 years ago?  I see now that it’s an attempt to reform the second circle of days gone by.

Starting out I was jotting down some notes for this missive and thought initially that this sense of loss was probably an indication that my life was too work-centered.  Having babbled on for 550 words though I’m not so sure that’s the case.  I think this may just be the natural order of things and that I’m just feeling this loss more acutely because I’ve been stationed in one place for so long.

Yes, the third circle is gone, but those are easily enough reformed.  The cohesiveness of the second circle is shattered forever, but another can be built.  Those people in the second circle with whom I have sufficient things in common will persist, perhaps to enter the first circle or perhaps to perpetually float on the fringes.  Either way, this is the nature of things.  Life is not a stockpiling of relationships but rather a dance.  Today’s close and favored dance partner is tomorrow’s distant memory.  One must revel in the moment and enjoy what is and hope that eventually the dreams will stop waking us at 7am on a Saturday morning.

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On Working… and Not Working

Today it has been officially one week since the company for which I worked for almost nine years told me that my services would no longer be required.  For the record I don’t blame them for this since I told them two months previously that I was looking for other employment.  When they had a need to lay off some staff I took it with absolute understanding that they included me in that since I had said, quite specifically and quite redundantly, that I was looking for other work.  I stand by my statement from a few days ago that I would much rather they disemploy me than some person who was determined to stay and relied on that job for their daily bread, as it were.

Despite all that, being unemployed sucks.  Yes, I know, it’s been a week.  Despite that fact I find myself restless and uncertain.  In that week I’ve interviewed for… well, eight different jobs.  To date, none of those have come to fruition.  I find myself rather randomly optimistic (or not) about all of them but the fact remains that after the course of seven days I’m still without positive prospect for future employment.  By the standards of the masses that’s nothing but by the standards of me… well, that’s completely unacceptable.

The reasons for this are all too obvious from my perspective.  Unlike the Rob of nine years ago I can nail the personality part of any interview.  I’m outgoing (for a developer) and gregarious (for a developer) and well spoken (for a developer) and, I hope, my passion and devotion to a job is clear to anyone I’m talking to.  I’m the guy who will come into your organization and do … well, do whatever it takes to get the job done.  I know it’s cliché but in my case it’s true.  Need documentation?  I’m there.  Need product management?  I’m there.  Need a developer to get in front of a group of customers and talk about the product??!?!?!?!?!  I’m there too.  Believe it or not.

But that doesn’t seem to be even remotely akin to what the market’s looking for.  The market wants developers to sit with their heads down typing into their keyboards and honestly…. At this point in my career… well… that’s rather dull.  In my experience the only real complexity comes about because people are involved.  Executing on the rote commands of others written into a scope of work document is valueless.  There are much less experienced people than me who can do that.

Long story shortened greatly, I find myself sitting in interviews and part of me wants to just look the other person in the face and make a small but hopefully effective speech.

“Your job requisition asks for a developer who knows very specific bits of technology.  Unfortunately, I don’t know those at the moment.   However, I’ve been programming in some capacity for 25 years.  I was writing computer programs in a day and age when programming meant hooking up a tape recorder to your computer to save what you’d spent hours typing.  I know how to program and whatever it is you need, I can do.

Furthermore, I may not have done what you’re asking for but I can assure you that I am a tenacious and devoted employee.  I will do whatever it takes to get the job done and you can call every boss I’ve ever had to verify that.  I spent nine years at my previous employer doing whatever was asked for without exception and I’d happily spend another 20 with you doing the same.”

It’s funny to me that I’ve spent 15 years of my professional life in software development but fundamentally none of the important lessons I’ve learned have been very software specific.  Ultimately, the simple facts boil down to the axiomatic truths of satisfying the customer and getting the job done.  If a non-software company offered me a job tomorrow in which I could exercise this premise then I would accept it as readily as any.  Perhaps it’s my old support background showing through but in the end there really is only one goal.  Get the job done.  Sometimes you have to write 3,000,000 lines of code and sometimes you have to just prop the door open with a broom handle.  At heart that’s all I want.  I want to contribute to the success of something.  I want to make a difference.  I’m insanely passionate about contributing to the greater good of the universe (or at least some subset of it).  Really that can’t be such a hard position to find.  Can it?

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Books: Life with Father – Clarence Day, 1920

Life with Father

Life with Father

Having long been a fan of the 1947 movie of the same name, reading this book was long, long overdue for me. While reading along I couldn’t help but imagine the cherished William Powell and Irene Dunne having at each other. It does make me wonder how the story would have struck me without the pretext of the movie to look back on with such strong visuals.

The Clarence Sr. of the movie is tempestuous and cantankerous of nature but fundamentally one is left with a positive impression. The viewer never really doubts that he is a good man at heart but one cannot avoid the conclusion that he would be a royal pain to live with. Perhaps in part this is Powell shining through in the role but no matter how many times Father storms about the house at the end of it all you do still rather like him.

Father of the book is just as blustery and just as much of a tempest in a teacup but it costs one quite a bit more effort to like him. The author himself (Clarence Jr) goes to small and periodic effort to endear the reader to his father but the attempts ring rather hollow like a man whose protagonist is watching over his shoulder as he writes. There seems just an edge of boyhood resentment that is very carefully scraped off in the movie’s portrayal of Father.

It is also of note that while the cinematic version is relatively connected and sequential the book takes no such formalities. It seems to jump rather randomly from episode to episode and one is left asking periodically in what decade the particular tidbit is taking place. As such it makes for a very light read but one that requires the reader to throw away any notion of cause and effect.

The thread that I came away with most solidly from this bit of literature was less about the book and more about the movie which came after. Powell’s Clarence is eerily like the Clarence of the text almost as if the role was made for him specifically. The romantic and nostalgic side of me wants to believe that this is because movies in the 40s were a craft and that viewers would notice and object strongly if their beloved characters of fiction are tinkered with even in the slightest. The fact that the plot itself, if you call a disconnected episodic assortment of remembrances a plot, was only remotely similar seems of little import. In these not-entirely-to-be-believed halcyon days of yore it was character that was important to the viewing public. Today all we want is more and bloodier gun battles between larger and more foul-mouthed devotees of thuggery.

If I allow myself to wax realistic for a moment I admit that doubtless my palate has been so repeatedly whitewashed by the movie version of Clarence that I’m not longer intellectually capable of seeing a Clarence Day Sr without seeing William Powell. Psychology of repetition and ordinality aside, Day’s 1920 novel is high on my recommended reading list.

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