my recent reads..

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters; From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Power Sources and Supplies: World Class Designs
Red Storm Rising
Locked On
Analog Circuits Cookbook
The Teeth Of The Tiger
Sharpe's Gold
Without Remorse
Practical Oscillator Handbook
Red Rabbit

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Elements of Style (Illustrated)

I raved about Robert W. Harris' When Good People Write Bad Sentences a few weeks ago. Since then I saw Jeff Atwood's post making the point that great coders bring many of the same skills used in writing to their programming. Jeff cited the Strunk & White classic, The Elements of Style.

So I thought may be it's time to check it out again. I have vague memories of seeing it back at school; I certainly don't remember studying it in any concerted way.

I was unsurprised to discover that the core of the book remains a concise litany of rules of correct English usage. Exactly the kind of un-engaging treatment that I praised When Good People Write Bad Sentences for avoiding.

This part of Elements of Style is remains a great reference guide; you wouldn't really want to just read it like a book. It makes me wonder why we don't have these style guidelines built into our word processor and editing software. Sure, we have spelling and grammar. But as these books prove so well, the correct words in the right order does not alone make for good style.

I did, however, read the illustrated Fourth Edition from 2000. It has two surprises that take it beyond a simple reference book.

First, the quirky "American Modern" illustrations by Maira Kalman are a delight to browse.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.

Second, we have the new chapters added by E.B. White such as "An Approach to Style". These provide much more interesting reading, with a humorous vein in the same class as "When Good People Write Bad Sentences".
Another segment of society that has constructed a language of its own is business.

Its portentious nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure, executives walk among toner cartidges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them-every person of spirit wants to ride a white horse. The only question is whether business vocabulary is helpful to ordinary prose. [...]

A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the user's dreams than to express a precise meaning.

DeGarmo and Lister had a name for that in Peopleware: Management by Hyperbole!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Oracle Shell Scripting

I remember seeing Jon Emmons' announcement on the Oracle News Aggregator and I've had it in my "wanted" list on bookjetty for ages.

This week I discovered Jon's Oracle Shell Scripting: Linux and UNIX Programming for Oracle (Oracle In-Focus series) at the NLB and have just enjoyed a good read of it.

I wish more DBAs had read this book. In fact it should be mandatory to get an OCP certification!

Let's face it, most Oracle installations are running on a *nix variant, and you can't be a DBA if you are not comfortable at both the SQL*Plus and shell prompt. To be a good and efficient DBA in my book, I want to see evidence of thinking smart, and repetitive task automation. When I see so-called DBAs who are happy to type the same "select .. from v$.." query every day of their working life, I doubt their brain is switched on, and I find it really, really scary to think they have the sys/system passwords!

They say tool usage is a sure sign of advanced intelligence in birds. And the same applies to all of us in IT. The three examples I look for at an Oracle Database installation are:
  • RMAN
  • Grid Control
  • Shell scripts

If none of these are present, then I tend to presume the real DBA has long left the building. Even if you are using third-party alternatives, do you continue to re-evaluate the Oracle capabilities with each new release?

Jon Emmons' book is of course more focused than this. It perfectly fills a niche, with an approachable, practical and comprehensive coverage of shell scripting from a DBA's perspective.

I can see the ideal audience for this book is people who are reasonable familiar with Oracle administration but are new to shell scripting. This book will rapidly teach you all you need to know on the scripting side (and let you skip alot of stuff you can learn later).

In other words, if you are a DBA who has just been assigned to manage a Unix-based system for the first time in your career: get this book. Forget all the (great) general Linux/Unix/shell scripting books for now. Don't even think the Oracle docs will teach you what you need to know. Oracle Shell Scripting: Linux and UNIX Programming for Oracle (Oracle In-Focus series) is what you need!

If you are coming the other way though - an experienced Linux admin being told that from Monday you also need to manage an Oracle database - I'd say this book probably doesn't have much to teach you. There's much more you'd need to learn about Oracle first (after telling your manager he's crazy), and there are really no scripting tricks in the book that you shouldn't already know. The main benefit you get would probably be a few pages in chapter 6 that cover the tricks of using sqlplus in a shell script - all in one place rather than having to tease it out of the Oracle docs (see this related question on stackoverflow).

Hot Pink Flying Saucers and Other Clouds

I stumbled upon Hot Pink Flying Saucers and Other Clouds in Kinokuniya last week. This is a mischievous little "gift book" with some 30 utterly amazing pictures of "clouds that look like things". I had to get it, despite the fact that the 3" x 5" format just doesn't do the subject justice. If anything deserved to be a full size coffee table book, this is it!

The book is produced by the Cloud Appreciation Society, and a magical gallery of images is available on their website. It truly reinvigorates your faith in mankind's inner child that organisations such as this exist.

At The Cloud Appreciation Society we love clouds, we’re not ashamed to say it and we’ve had enough of people moaning about them.

The book has made me look afresh at the skies of Singapore. Living here you don't tend to spend a lot of time looking up. The tropical humidity and general lack of turbulence make saturated blanket cloud cover pretty much the norm. We don't have a big weather section in news broadcasts, and no-one really talks about the weather. At night you are lucky to see the glimmer of a dozen stars (half of which turn out to be 747s coming in to land at Changi).

But, no, since picking up "Hot Pink.." I've been drawn to looking up, and I think my prejudices might be misguided. Not everyday, but I realise now there is a little more interesting action going on than I had assumed. I have my camera on standby now, ready to catch any flying saucers, dogs, ducks, or skateboarders that may make an appearance in our skies.

As an aside, you can join the society for just £4.00 + postage. I was really impressed by the playful and transparent disclosure of how membership fees are applied. Certainly the best I've seen for any club or association, short of ploughing through a really dry P&L statement. Makes me want to sign up, simply as a nod to the good job they have done! NB: as of 22-Jun-2009, the image link on the cloud costs page appears to be broken.

PS: shortly after posting this, I discovered another cloud lover here in Singapore. Anonymous_X has been posting cloud pictures on The Clouds Represent My Heart site since August!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The New Yishun Library

Well, weekdays being weekdays, I didn't manage to get up to Yishun last Thursday in time to enjoy Issak's world-exclusive, personally-guided bloggers' tour of the new Yishun Public Library before the doors were thrown open to the masses on Friday 14th.

I did pop in on Sunday though ... along with the rest of the masses. I mean masses. Just collage a few hundred faces on this picture and you'll get the idea:

The new library stretches across the entire upper level of both the old and new extension of the Northpoint shopping centre (correction: it only seemed that way. Apparently it's just in the new extension). That's a pretty huge space, and aside from some scary cubes in the kids' area, it's pretty much all given over to the collection itself.

Kind of makes sense for a library in a mall: drop in; pick up and move on. Side thought: my cynical mind wonders if the centre management insist the library limit the study space and reading corners. Can't have people inside a mall being distracted from spending money for too long, can we?

Sunday was very busy, and it did show up a few "scalability" problems in the layout. With hindsight, NLB may regret jamming the kids area right up to the entrance, having the customer service queue cut across the walkway, and not making space for a few more checkout machines. There seemed to be a perpetual log jam of people trying to get through the kids area to the adult collection. I guess things will quieten down over the next few weeks, but the floor plan could do with a few tweaks before the library can comfortably handle crowds like this on a routine basis.

I didn't mind too much - this once! After all, there's something very reassuring and downright wholesomely right about a LIBRARY opening attracting so much interest.

mrsburdak did make the blogger preview and posted a great photo tour. Also didn't pass up the opportunity to campaign on a few of the hot issues for library users in Singapore;-)

  • The whole website confusion (and broken: go to and click on a menu. Doh!)

  • Messing with the Dewey system by thematically arranging the library. Yep, I also find myself having to check every aisle to find the right section (I dare you to guess which section a book about google maps hacks is in). DBAs call that a "table scan" and hate them like the devil's spawn:-/

OK, so nothing as important as Obama still failing my spell checker, but it's emotional and heady stuff for people who love their libraries.

As I do;-) And now with Yishun I have a fantastic, fully stocked library a door-to-door bus trip away (rather than walk and bus, or walk and train).

PS: thanks Ivan for putting out the call to bloggers about the new library. Hope you continue to get bloggers involved (can't get us to turn up? Make your own: teach the kids to blog at the library). Libraries and blogging are a perfect match in my book.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

When Good People Write Bad Sentences

uush .. I take a deep breath and prepare for the perilous task of blogging about a book that is all about writing well.

I know my writing can be lazy and prone to opacity (to all except me of course), but I do enjoy reading about writing.

However, too many books attempt to just lay down the law - albeit with a garnish of humorous anecdotes - and any 'learning' is short-lived.

Robert W. Harris' When Good People Write Bad Sentences doesn't make this mistake. He knows the problem is not that we don't know the rules. The root cause of our troubles is more fundamental.

(also available from the Singapore National Library)

Bad writing is an addiction; an -ism that is given to misdirect your pen. We are gripped by malescribism.

And just like any other condition, a cure is possible given the right intervention. Which is what this book provides (as you can probably guess, planting tongue firmly in cheek is the first prerequisite to recovery).

In 12 easy steps, we learn to overcome our denial, pride, and insecurity, then find the courage to begin the journey to enlightenment:
  • Accept the fact that bad writing happens.

  • Admit you've willingly made writing mistakes .

  • Believe that Standard English can heal you.

  • Stop writing weak sentences.

  • Stop writing formal sentences.

  • Stop writing overweight sentences.

  • Stop writing unclear sentences.

  • Stop writing careless sentences.

  • Stop writing unpersuasive sentences.

  • Stop writing incongruous sentences.

  • Stop writing unstructured sentences.

  • Stop writing unsightly sentences.

If I can only recommend one book on the craft of writing, this is it. Wherever you use English - school reports, blogs, business proposals, or novels - this book can help you do so more effectively, more efficiently and more enjoyably.

The Recovering Malescribe's Bill of Rights

  • I have the right to embrace Standard English.

  • I have the right to respect my inner child-writer.

  • I have the right to improve my writing skills without aiming for perfection.

  • I have the right to create sentences without being motivated by bad emotions.

  • I have the right to spell better than those around me.

  • I have the right to be grammatically correct.

  • I have the right to punctuate correctly without apology.

  • I have the right to edit my work.

  • I have the right to cooperate with my readers.

  • I have the right to give myself permission to be a healthy writer.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Eleven Fire Crackers

OK, plugging in my iPod now to drown out the friggin jingle bells playing in the background. It's barely November, I'm in Singapore ... so who invited Bing Crosby and a troop of reindeer godammit??

Spinning thru albums at random I crank up the volume on Eleven Fire Crackers, and instantly remember why this was a 2 second buy decision back at some music store in Shinjuku.

I picked it up while working in Tokyo a few years back. I was going crazy over the local bands, and this album by ELLEGARDEN was kind of lost in all the great music at the time.

I think I just listened to it about 3 times today. This is wild, energetic J-Rock at its best, a little pop and heavy on the grunge. I guess what sets them apart from other bands in the genre - like Uplift Spice, another of my favourites - is that many songs are in English. Vocalist 細美武士 Takeshi Hosomi's accent is undefinable and intriguing. Could be Orange Country one moment, pure cockney the next. A little like Hyde in English.

Having just rediscovered ELLEGARDEN, it's sad to now discover I am just a month late - they officially suspend their activities indefinitely in September 2008 and go onto other things.

So no chance to see them live anymore (at least as ELLEGARDEN), only go back and checkout their other albums. I can't imagine anything better than Eleven Fire Crackers. But maybe I have some treasures to discover yet...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Get Motivated

I hate motivation books; all that sickly rah-rah and exultations that you too can be like Donald Trump if you just repeat to yourself three times: "I am a success. I am a genius. People love me."

Justin Herald's book Get Motivated is refreshingly different, and a thought-provoking read. You may find it in the bookstore in the "Management Self-help Guru" section, but it is probably better classified under sociology.

This is about common sense philosophy for real people. Justin Herald tells it like it is, and sometimes you might not like it (ethics are important? you gotta actually work hard? Jeez!).

Here's a selection of chapter headings
  • Contender or pretender?
  • Victim of victor?
  • Stickability
  • You set your standards
  • The sad passing of common sense
  • Your future is not in your past
  • Don't just do something ... sit there! (my favourite quote)
He touches repeatedly on the idea of setting your own moral and professional standards and then not letting yourself be swayed or pushed into accepting less.
If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.

This reminded me of another great quote from Anthony Bourdain on Chef's Story:
My best advice if you are starting out and want to be a success: set yourself high standards and stick to them.
(or words to that effect ...)

A refreshing read, and highly recommended. It may be just what you need to get a fresh perspective and work towards being a more positive life. Or not. I'll leave you with The Bitter Stick Girl's brilliant observation:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thomas of Hookton and 1215, The Year of the Magna Carta

Bernard Cornwell is a master and commander when it comes to bringing alive European history from the last millenia. Where Patrick O'Brian has the sea, Cornwell has the land.

I've read most of the Richard Sharpe novels, but I first encountered the grail quest series as audio books from audible.

I must say that in combination with narration by Seán Barrett, I was absolutely hooked from the out. Together, they bring 14th century Europe to life like I have never heard before. Cornwell with his words that pump life into long dead stories, and Barret with his voice that just seems to call down through the ages.

If only my 2nd form history lessons were like this. But how can history teachers brought up in the 1950's, using text books written by dainty scholars hope to convey a true sense of the times?

It may look quaint in a tapestry, but battle with sword and bow is particularly brutal. But of course for the men of the time it was just all part of life. As Cornwell tells the tale of Thomas of Hookton, the grim reality of life leaps from the page with Barrett's voice.

Seriously, the best way to "read" the grail quest series is to listen on audible. there are three volumes:

A great companion read is 1215: The Year of Magna Carta. It is a fascinating - and less dramatic - study of England in the 13th century: the years of Prince John, the legend of Robin Hood and of course the Magna Carta.

It was only after reading this, and having been embued in the era thanks to the Grail Quest audible recordings by Seán Barrett, that I finally got a true sense of the complex relationship between France and England after the Norman conquests of Britain.

And then there is the Magna Carta. Probably more significant as a legend and ideal than an actual statement of rights. In its time, it seems to have been seen by some as a scandalous concession to the masses. Even Pope Innocent III condemned the charter as
..not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust, thereby lessening unduly and impairing his [the king's] royal rights and dignity

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Premature Exultation

No better lesson on counting chickens...

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister is often cited as the classic software development management text; one that rightfully puts the focus on people.

So I had heard about it long before finally getting around to reading it recently.

It is a really good collection of insights, suggestions and anti-patterns that makes a great read, and good food for thought. Especially because it sweats the little things, like office furniture, interview techniques, and the evils of the telephone.

My favourite phrase in the book:
Management by Hysterical Optimism
Haven't we all seen that in action at some time? (unfortunately)

The authors do however take a little liberty in claiming the Hawthorne effect says people perform better when they're trying something new. Which I believe to be true, but isn't exactly what the Hawthorn effect is (people will be more productive when appreciated or when watched).

My report is not all good however. There more I read into the book, the more I felt the authors' advice was biased towards a certain ideal organisation that is I think by no means universally applicable.

In short: workers all strive to be master craftsmen; they provide their own motivation, vision and goals; management is best advised to just provide the creature comforts and get out of their way.

While many may relate to this (personally I do too), as a general theory of management I think it is a crock. In the 60's they would have called this 'flower power'. In the 50's it would have been labeled a 'communist conspiracy'.

No, I think the real world is a little more complex than that. But Peopleware nevertheless delivers a great deal of practical advice.

Seven False Hopes of Software Management

My favourite "list" from the book...
  • There is some new trick you've missed that could send productivity soaring

  • Other managers are getting gains of 100% or more

  • Technology is moving so swiftly that you're being passed by.

  • Changing languages will give you huge gains

  • Because of the backlog, you need to double productivity immediately

  • You automate everything else; isn't it about time to automate your development staff away?

  • Your people will work better if you put them under a lot of pressure

With a preference for the decimal system, I have the temerity to add:
  • Build it and they will come!

  • We just need a SOA architecture!

  • It's going to take too long/cost too much, so can you revise your estimates?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Think Like a Rocket Scientist

I've been lax in my little posts about books I've read. One of the reasons is that I'm now addicted to bookjetty, which makes it sooo easy to track my reading and think "I'll review/blog it later". The other reason is simply time.

But reading Jim Longuski's The Seven Secrets of How to Think Like a Rocket Scientisthas prompted me into action again.

This is a great book on practical innovation, and generally just getting things done. Although it takes the "Rocket Scientist" as the model (understandable, since Longuski is one), it largely avoids the trap of being elitist and sycophantic. It's just an honest and thoughtful analysis of how rocket scientists work, and presented almost like a pattern language for knowledge workers.

The "seven secrets" are actually seven stages of the creative process, from the initial idea generation through to delivery. Each stage includes half a dozen or more "secrets" (or patterns), so the book is more like "The 50 Secrets of How to .."
  • Dream

  • Judge

  • Ask

  • Check

  • Simplify

  • Optimize

  • Do

The book is also littered with great quotes, has a bibliography that immediately adds many books to your "must read" list. Perhaps the best part is however Longuski's ladder of the "Greatest Sci-Fi Films of the Twentieth Century" gratuitously included in the appendix. Longuski clearly has some "issues" with Shuttle-era NASA, but when these intrude on the text, they just serve to highten the drama!
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage-to move in the opposite direction. -- Albert Einstein

When you find a good move, look for a better one. -- Dr Emanuel Lasker

Do. Or do not. There is no try. -- Jedi Master Yoda

It is often said you can lie with statistics. But-it's even easier to lie without them -- Jim Longuski

PS: I since wrote a reflection on this book called Code like a Rocket Scientist

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Show the Whale!

Adam Keys and Geoffrey Grosenbach introduced the term for 2008 on the rails podcast: show the whale.
I think it's perfect, and in my lexicon already!
==> No, this is not the official fail whale logo! The real one was done by Yiying Lu, a young designer from China/Sydney, who now is world famous thanks to twitter's stability problems.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

24 Season ... 7?

Props to Sophia for finding me the Jack Bauer quotes at 24 wikia.

It's a curse to be reminded how long we've been waiting for Season 7, but great to find out that a two-hour Season 7 prequel, 24: Exile, will air in the US later this year on November 23rd.

Hmmm ... time to break out the 1-6 box set again and go sleepless for a week. That will be the longest week of my life;-)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What Customers Really Want

I was involved in a conference last week that left me painfully aware of the missing "voice of the customer".

However it did bring to mind a great book I recently read - What Customers Really Want by Scott McKain.

Not to be confused with the product management text What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services by Anthony Ulwick. Completely forgettable in my view, and arguably dangerous in the wrong hands ... particularly when it gets into the dangers of having customers actually involved in the process!

.. well perhaps one good thing about "What the Customer Wants" is that when picking it out at the library I discovered "What the Customer Really Wants" only a shelf away.

I still can't find "What the Customer Really ReallyWants".

Back to "What the Customer Really Wants": in the first few pages I was skeptical, expecting the book to be yet another meaningless management ra-ra piece. Luckily Scott managed to catch my attention before too long and it soon became clear that the book is a gem. Scott McKain talks from the perspective of real experience, and his no-bullshit, folksy plain talk is a welcome relief from the "gurus". Importantly though, it is not just about experience, but also the fact that McKain has distilled and can share valuable insights as a result of that experience. Most are in the "bleeding obvious - but why haven't I thought of that before?" category.

Even the book's organisation is refreshingly to the point. Six main chapters covering six key disconnects..
What Customers REALLY WantWhat Business Supplies
Compelling experienceCustomer service
Personal focusProduct focus
Reciprocal loyaltyEndless prospecting
InnovationStatus quo

"Continuous improvement is the enemy of innovation". That got my attention. It's an interesting point of view: Kaizen - constant change - has its role. But innovation is anything but about being constant - its about seeking the dramatic step change. The problem is that most of us cannot cope with being completely focused on incremental change AND at the same time the search for shattering innovation.

The customer is not always right .. but they are always the customer!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Designing the Obvious, the Moment, Not Thinking and how bad design can make you physically ill

I had a violent adverse reaction to the design vomit that is
  • massive visual overload

  • poorly aliased graphics used instead of heading text

  • shockingly low-res advertising images (at least DBS have had the initial ads used on launch replaced)

  • "social networking features" that pervert the term, like submit a recipe that is an email link!!

  • Deserves a Daily Sucker award and should probably be renamed to

I could go on, but it just makes me choke. Best medicine: jump to hungrygowhere, who got there first and have done a vastly better job on the web site.

The other essential part of my recovery was to go back and luxuriate in the clarity of thought epitomised by Robert Hoekman's two books on design:

These are two books I think every web designer and, yes, every developer should read. Or have on a bookshelf in easy reach.

Designing the Moment is the one I find myself returning to. It takes a case study/cookbook approach and nuts out many of the issues in contemporary UI design. It's not an encyclopedia or complete reference - you will need to go elsewhere for that. But it does get you in the groove (in a "teach a man to fish.." kind of way). Even if my immediate design challenge is not directly addressed, it is great for getting in the right frame of mind for cutting through all the confusion and honing in on my core issues and purpose. It also contains the single best argument for using "sign in" rather than "login", and some great discussion of form alignment considerations.

Designing the Obvious is the first book, and contains the full discussion of Hoekman's philosophy of the obvious. You could probably get a web design job on the basis of studying this book alone! My only slight qualm is that while it presented a methodology and process for requirements analysis for example, it doesn't really give you a glimpse of other established practices and advice on how to harmonize in a larger and more diverse team situation.

This may sound like sacrilege, but I find these books even better than Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think. Krug's book is great in its own right, but I feel that Hoekman has taken the art one step further. I'm sure he would agree with Isaac Newton:
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants..

But there's no doubt Don't Make Me Think has some great advice. Some of my favourites:
  • Don't use a mission statement as a Welcome blurb (aargh!!)

  • Usability testing on a budget. Spend one morning a month with a few testers. Debrief immediately over lunch. Act.

  • Mad magazine parody of the NYT tagline:
    All the News That Fits, We Print..

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Final Solution

Uncommon Sense: Out of the box thinking for an in the box world

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense is an interesting collection of opinion pieces taken from his blog through to around 2004. While you can read much of the material (and catch later articles) in his blog archives, the book does enhance the content will a liberal scattering of charts and also some additional commentary.

Some of the topics are evergreen, such as the failures of the education system, and the gap that often exists between the actual and the perceived in conventional wisdom. Some are specific to a point in time, like his pre-occupation with the 3G bandwidth auction debacle.

Certainly worth grabbing a copy for a thought provoking read, and ample encouragement to add his blog to my reader for continued entertainment.

Cochrane also has a nice practice of introducing many of his articles with a related quote. One of my favourites is from Douglas Adams:
Technology is the name we give to stuff that doesn't work properly yet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Looking down your tailpipe from level 56

The RSAF Black Knights got the nod to perform at this years National Day celebrations, which means aerobatics between the buildings in the CBD. Yeehaw!

Now, I've been in Singapore long enough to know that NDP celebration preparations are taken seriously, and you never have less than 4 practices of anything (including fireworks, to everyone's great enjoyment).

So with about two months to go, its seems the RSAF have started daily practice flying around the city. From my desk on level 56, I get a stunning view of the F-16s fly by at arms reach and then get thrown into a 180 degree climb. Stunning.

Looking forward to the next two months of this. Oh, and NDP itself;-)

Monday, June 16, 2008

bookjetty - a great new site to track, share, buy and borrow books

I've fallen in love with bookjetty, a great new site for books by Herryanto Siatono.

Although this blog is officially dedicated to prata (and always will be!), you can tell I use it to keep a diary of the books I'm reading. I probably always will, but I do try out all the "book tracking" sites, facebook apps and so on that I come across.

None have really jiggled my worm until I discovered bookjetty.

The killer feature for me is the great library integration on the site. It helps answer all the usual questions I have whenever I hear about a new book..

  • Have I already got it or read it before?

  • Does one of my friends have it? Maybe I can borrow it..

  • Can I get it from the local library?

  • Can I buy it online?

  • (oh, and if the last two steps fail, I may actually visit a real bookstore!)

The library catalogue checks work a treat - right within your booklist. I used this feature yesterday as I knew I would be heading to the library. Within 5 minutes on bookjetty I had added a few books I'd been interested in reading and found out that 3 of them were available and on the shelf at my local library. An hour later, I had them checked out.

The bookjetty developer(s?) have done a great job of integrating the libraries, especially considering that most are still running archaic web 0.1 systems which are not very mashup friendly. I've posted before about a kludge to do library lookups from an amazon page, but it never works very reliably because of the dumb library catalogue it needs to talk to, so I can appreciate some of the challenges they may have had.

And here's an example of how the library checks appear...

If you are into books, I heartily recommend you go and register at bookjetty and check it out!

Saturday, June 14, 2008


..or "how to (try) and make the new economy work like the old one"

I recently borrowed John Hagel III and Arther G. Armstrong's Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities from a colleague for a quick read.

It was published in 1997 by McKinsey & Company, and I must say it kinda shows. The book suffers from a myopic pre-occupation with the dual assumptions that:

  • organisations must race to establish virtual communities: the spoils will go to the fast and the bold
  • the aim is to profit from transactions conducted by the community while also garnering peerless customer loyalty

Ah, the golden days of the internet bubble! This is an interesting read if for no other reason than to see how far we have come; how much has been learnt, and how much we have yet to learn.

As I studied the authors' recipe for profitable community-building I found myself challenging the principle that success requires an imposition of control by an organisation: the company studies the market, decides what community should be built, writes a business case for it, and appoints the expert team to design, build, launch, and market the community.

This is an astonishing proposition given the book's initial premise:
The rise of virtual communities .. has set in motion an unprecedented shift in power from vendors of goods and services to the customers who buy them.

"Over my dead body!" I can hear the voices echoing from the boardroom - undoubtedly the prime audience for this book, which I think could reasonably be subtitled "how to (try) and make the new economy work like the old one".

The idea of a "community" that is both external to the organisation while remaining under its control permeates the book, and is perhaps the primary misconception that has taken the past 10 years to rethink and recognise for the oxymoron that it is.

This is closely related to the fundamental yet unspoken assumption of a hard boundary between the corporation and the customer/community. In parts of the book that consider the use of communities within the corporation, the emphasis is very much on within the corporation, or at most, between business partners.

My comments have been a little disparaging, and it is perhaps unfair to find fault in failing to predict the future accurately. It does mean that this book is now little more than a historical curiosity.

However, the book I would be very interested to read is a "10th anniversary rewrite". For my money, I'd say that's Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (any other recommendations? I'm keen to hear..)

For now, I think I'll let Geek and Poke have the last word...

Geek and Poke

The Physics of Large Objects

Sunday, June 01, 2008

I haz audible! / Dune

As a long time TWiT listener, and a fan of audiobooks, I've long been tantalised by one of the TWiT network's biggest sponsors - audible.

To my chagrin, last I checked - admittedly a long time ago - I was unable to subscribe to audible because I live in Singapore. Undoubtedly due to pre-Copernican copyright issues.

After chatting with a colleague from the US the other day who was raving about audible, I thought I'd try again.

Success! I am over the moon to now be a totally addicted audible member (it seems 99% of titles are available for purchase to me - just a few that are restricted due to copyright).

With my free credit (for signing up as a TWiT listener) I bought the unabridged adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. The production by Audio Renaissance is truly wonderful. The selected use of character actors, and subtle atmospheric music and sound effects really bring the story to life, keeping you enthralled for the full 21 hours.

It is many years since I last read and re-read Dune, and it was great to rediscover the book in audio. Still the SF classic I remember, and now I have it sitting in my audible library for another listen in the not too distant future.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blog Stats

I want a t-shirt just like this for my birthday, except I'd change it to "..than MY blog" and add my url;-).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The (original) Office

.. but Slough is still my favourite office.

Forgotten benefits of moving to the cloud..

Out of sight, out of mind.. no more gadget-purchase grief;-)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tu Plang, Unit and the Green Papaya

I've had Regurgitator's Tu-Plang and Unit since when I was working in Sydney around 98/99. These albums are classics. I love their sound, and the lyrics are smart. They still get a regular listen, and that's not going to stop.

In a twist, I saw recently on the Food Lover's Guide to Australia that Quan's mother established a Vietnamese restaurant in Brisbane called Green Papaya, and it has great reviews.

It was Hanoi-born Lien Yeomans's dream come true - opening her own restaurant. At Brisbane's Green Papaya she cooks dishes from North Vietnam. She says she has her rock star son Quan to thank for her fame (he’s with the band Regurgitator) but we think it’s her recipes, each one linked to a personal story from her incredible life.

So next time I'm in Brisbane...

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hash brown or shoestring fries, sir? Service!

Another xkcd classic..


Day to day, our time is marked by weeks, months and years. We take it for granted that no matter where you are on earth, you always know where you are in time.

The calendar is such a routine concept that it takes a book like David Ewing Duncan's excellent and most engaging Calendar to make you stop and think.

A 7-day week is completely arbitrary for instance, apparently originating circa 700 BC in Babylon, and probably influenced by the seven known planets (at the time).

Months are confusion personified. Inspired by the lunar cycle, one is left with the dilemma of trying to fit the cycles within the solar year. The chart below (produced with the open source lcap program) is probably the easiest way to see how the lunar months drift in relation to the solar year. Some, like the Greek astronomer Metron, attempt to rationalise the relationship with great precision (the 19-year Metronic cycle has 7 years of 13 lunar months followed by 12 years of 12 lunar months. Even that is not completely accurate). To most calendarists however, months scarcely retained a notional relationship to the moon, becoming little more than convenient units of time upon which to hang the names of Gods and Emperors.

NB: the difficulty in tracking the moon also came up in relation to the challenge of measuring longitude. Accurate moon charts would have allowed mariners to determine their position even in the absence of accurate time-keeping devices. Predicting the moon's course in the end proved to be much more challenging than building a clock that could survive a nautical adventure and still keep good time. See Dava Sobel's Longitude.

The idea of the solar year - the complete cycle of the seasons from one solstice to the next - is fundamental to how we conceive the passage of time. But we don't often think about the difference between a sidereal year (time for the earth to complete one complete orbit of the sun), and the tropical year (time from one vernal [spring/March] equinox to the next). Or the fact that the year is so very slightly different if you measure between the June or December solstices or the September equinox. And then consider that the Earth is a huge object hurtling through space and subject to varying gravitational forces and other bumps and jitters.

Once you have boiled all this down, it seems a "day" is about the only fundamental unit of calendar time that makes sense. Everything else is just convention and approximation!

Considering the difficulty of measurement, and the many social, political and religious factors involved in common convention, it is quite extra-ordinary that we even have a universally accepted calendar today.

It is easy to forget just how recent a phenomenon this is, and how long its introduction was in the making.

The introduction of the Gegorian calendar required 11 days to be lost for ever!The Gregorian calendar we use today was officially launched by Pope Gregory in 1582, but it wasn't introduced in Britain until 1752 with many countries not adopting it until the 20th century (for example, Russia in 1918 and Greece in 1924). Many quote Mao Zedong declaration of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, which included a point on the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, as the final triumph for a universal calendar (although many cultures still maintain parallel systems such as the Chinese lunar calendar). But do not forget that the flaws in Julius Ceasar's previous calendar had been know long before - the cause of much consternation at the Council at Nicaea in AD325 over the scheduling of Easter, and the subject of the monk Roger Bacon's must distressed entreaty to Pope Clement in 1266 to:
.. apply excellent remedies in this particular .. If then this glorious work should be performed in your Holiness' time, one of the greatest, best, and finest things ever attempted in the Church of God would be consummated.

All of this is of course the background to an epic tale that finds a thread through all peoples over all time.

Which is really the genius of David Duncan's work. He is a great explainer, and in telling the story of the calendar, he tells the story of much of human civilization. And where other "histories of the world" tend to struggle to fit a narrative thread across time and place, the story of the calendar provides Duncan with a perfect segue. The result is the most enjoyable, understandable and effective history lesson I have ever had.

If you have just the slightest interset in history or how the calendar came about as we know it, I couldn't recommend this book more highly.

Other interesting facts:

  • In Britain, New Years Day was celebrated on March 25, the Feast of the Assumption, until it was changed to January 1 in 1752. There are over 30 definitions of New Year listed on wikipedia.

  • Until the modern era of atomic clocks, the most accurate measurement of the year was by Abu Allah Mohammed Ibn Jabir al-Battani in AD 882 (22 seconds short). al-Battani's work came from the same period of Arab innovation that produced modern algebra and added "zero" to the nine Indian symbols that eventually became our familiar number system.

Calendar for December from a French Book of Hours, written around 1470:
Calendar for December from a French Book of Hours, written around 1470
Easter table, England, 1073:
Easter table, England, 1073

Monday, May 05, 2008

Mas Escape - In Lego!

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Long on my "must read" list, I finally picked up Freakonomics (by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner) this weekend, and discovered a fascinating book about interesting questions.
  • What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
  • Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?
  • Where have all the criminals gone?
  • What makes a perfect parent?
  • .. and so on

Questions that are not often asked, but once posed are seen at once to cut to the fundamentals of our society, but also usually discarded as unanswerable.

That seems to be the trick that Steven Levitt has perfected (the economist in the writing team): fixing on an "imponderable" question, and then ingeniously hunting down the situations and data that let him lock an answer within his sights.

What seems to set him apart from other economists is his willingness and ability to collaborate across disciplinary lines when it is the best way to an answer. What the authors talk about as an a-disciplinary approach. Levitt apparently has more in common with Sherlock Holmes that Milton Friedman.

There is an interesting congruence with Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (which I've also recommended before). While they intersect on some common examples (such as the broken windows theory), each book takes away something different. Gladwell is of course intrigued by the inflexion - how closely can you isolate and identify the point at which things tip? What is the mechanism that causes the worm to turn?

Freakonomics on the other hand is seeking to explain why things are the way the are (whether steady-state, trend or tipping point). The search for causality not just correlation. No less than the search for truth! Of course the more interesting investigations are the ones that show truth to be at odds with conventional wisdom!

NB: if you like this kind of questioning, checkout PsyBlog. I came across this recently and it has some great articles.

The authors are strident in professing that there is no central theme to this book, but I think that is disingenuous. I'd suggest that the book as a whole is an object lesson in the dangers of being lead by theories based on observation, which can lead to very different conclusions than those based on careful data analysis. It is a convincing polemic warning us against naive acceptance of conventional wisdom, theorists and experts of all kinds.
An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom.

As Gil Grissom would say:
Let the evidence speak for itself..

Monster Moth

By far the biggest moth I have ever seen! It was in the bushes at my place in central Singapore, but I have never even had the hint of anything so large flying around at night.