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Recent Reads

January 31st, 2010

I tend to read – a lot. I remember in grade school, we would get this little catalog of books (alas I don’t recall the name of the company) and inevitably, I would order 10 or 20 books. In college, I really enjoyed Great Books and Great Ideas – we read something like 30 books over the course of the year but the cool part is we had to buy over a 100 (my list was a bit different but you get the idea)! Ever since then, I’ve had a thing for reading lists like Joel on Software‘s Fog Creek Software Management Training Program Reading List and Adaptive Path‘s list.

Growing up, I was a science fiction guy and I read pretty much anything Piers Anthony put out (I particularly enjoyed Bio of a Space Tyrant and Incarnations of Immortality). Oddly, I actually enjoyed standardized testing time because it meant I’d have a fair amount of time to read. These days I tend towards books related to software though I still indulge in the occasional Tom Clancy novel though I haven’t really touched a Grisham in a while…I will admit to pounding through The Da Vinci Code though.

Anyway, I find myself very intrigued by what others are reading so, egotistically, I’m thinking there is an outside chance that someone tracking this blog may be interested in what I’m perusing (mostly, I’m thinking Joe or Jeff…) Here, in order of most recent read:

Freedom (TM)

Freedom (TM) is Daniel Suarez’s followup to one of my favorite books of 2009 – Daemon. Required reading for last year’s Hackers B and B, Daemon is a geek friendly book that includes a main character using a perfectly realistic SQL attack to hack into a computer (there’s no “this is UNIX” moment from Jurassic Park here.) Suarez is to geek what Tom Clancy is to military: dead on details abound. I tore through Daemon and I hotly awaited the conclusion of his epic tale. I was not disappointed.

The Daemon is the creation of an ultra rich (mad?) genius game designer Matthew Sobol. When Sobol dies of brain cancer, he unleashes his program on the world where it reeks havoc. Throughout his first book, we’re lead to believe the Daemon is ultimately an evil creation but Freedom(TM) shows us the other side of Sobol’s work. Indeed, we find a new world order emerging as darknet members (people who’ve joined with the Daemon) form new communities committed to sustainability (it’s easy to see where Suarez was influenced by Omnivore‚Äôs Dilemma.) Of course the old guard fights back as it sees its power and influence begin to wane…

I don’t want to say too much and ruin anything, but if you’re a geek, a gamer, a programmer or just someone that likes a fast paced action filled book, well then Freedom(TM) is your cup of tea. Some may be put off by the heavy handed political commentary but I wouldn’t let that stop you from giving it a go. I hope this isn’t the last book from Suarez though he’s set the bar awfully high.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals has been on my reading list for quite some time now and over the holidays I finally got around to ordering it – as my first foray into the world of the Kindle. Yes, my dad came through in a big way and allowed me to join the likes of Neal Ford, Stu Halloway and Scott Davis…but back to Pollan’s book. Omnivore’s Dilemma starts with a simple question: where does our food come from? Pollan follows a humble hamburger back to the corn fields of Iowa and ultimately the oil fields of the Middle East showing us how the lack of diversity on the modern farm isn’t doing the farmers, the environment or our midsections any favors. No, it seems modern agriculture is designed to benefit large multinational corporations more than anything else. Shocking. Some will shun meat after reading about its processing but me, well I like a good burger. However, we’ll be picking up some grass fed beef from Thousand Hills shortly…

Part two explores the organic movement from the amazing synergy of a true farm ecosystem consisting of cows, chickens, pigs and grass working together in concert to the, shall we say, less noble minded large scale operations that see a market to tap. We consume a fair amount of organic food but there’s no comparison to what we get all summer long from our local CSA, Foxtail Farm. Thanks to Pollan, I’m more skeptical of the organic label though I still think its ultimately for the better and I’m even more convinced that supporting local growers is an important step – we get better food that’s produced in a more sustainable way.

The last part of Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at hunting and gathering with Pollan crafting an entire meal that he scavenged. He creates an amazing meal that reminds us that food isn’t just about shoveling sustenance into our maws – it’s about connecting with those we love. And it really is stunning what you can find if you know where to look though I won’t be hunting mushrooms anytime soon…

Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t a new book but it’s still relevant and will definitely change how you approach food. I have a different mindset at the grocery store now and I try to follow Pollan’s advice on diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Whether you do all your shopping at Whole Foods or the quickie stop, arm yourself with Pollan’s teaching; you’ll eat better and ultimately you’ll feel better.

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever

Based on effusive praise from Kathy Sierra, I picked up Cliff “Beyond Bullet Points” Atkinson’s latest book, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Atkinson‘s book is an exploration of how social media sites like Twitter are changing the landscape of public speaking and while I wasn’t quite as blown away as Kathy was, there certainly are some good points to be found in this quick read. I’ll start with the positive and then finish up with my criticisms.

I can understand why Kathy is so fond of this book – throughout, Atkinson reminds speakers of a vitally important lesson: it’s about your audience stupid. Too many speakers epitomize the “me me me” approach of presenting and that’s a recipe for failure. Though I find the “four tweet” model bit minimal (especially for longer talks), it is a useful exercise that I’ll be incorporating into my talk prep. Again, the notion here is to focus on your audience and really think about the key ideas you’re trying to communicate. I also like thinking about Twitter sized bites – making your talk “Twitter friendly” is valuable advice.

The concept of a presentation home page is rock solid and I think I’ll play with that as well; starting (and fostering) conversation should be the goal of a modern talk. Considering the wealth of ways people can consume information today, live presentations need to offer something compelling to capture an audience. Turning a talk into one leg of a more immersive experience is a worth exploring.

While there certainly were some strong points in The Backchannel, I felt it took too long to get to the key points which is ironic considering Atkinson’s repeated advice to do so in a presentation. I suspect there was an effort to inflate the page count a bit – the first half of the book could be condensed quite a bit. Case in point, I was surprised to see a chapter that was devoted almost entirely to setting up a Twitter account. A number of the graphics did little to add to the material, in many cases, they stated exactly what was already on the page. It also felt like the book was written on Twitter – so many of the sentences and paragraphs seemed to adhere to a 140 character limit.

Atkinson has a great list of ways the backchannel can blow up but not nearly enough advice on just how to recover when faced with those situations in real life. I understand he wants us speakers to *think* about how we’d handle that situation (and that’s great advice) but I was hoping for more of his thoughts here; I wanted more hard won experience from people who’ve lived to tell the tale. The backchannel blowup case studies were useful but again, I wanted more “here’s what they should have done…”

Though a bit light on content, the last couple of chapters make this book worth reading. Atkinson reminds us to focus on our audience and our message and he has some practical advice for dealing with the realities of modern presentations. Just as we can’t turn back the clock to when bullet point laden talks were the norm, we can’t put the Twitter genie back in the bottle. But we can do a better job of engaging and leveraging these tools to make more compelling presentations.

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
I’ll admit it, this is yet another book recommended by Kathy Sierra… This is quite a remarkable book – it examines how, despite all beliefs to the contrary, popular culture might actually be making us smarter. I know – heresy right? But, consider this. In the 1960s, TV shows had a few main characters, one plot, and each show wrapped up in an hour. Compare that to shows like 24 and The Sopranos that have dozens of characters and multiple plot arcs that extend not only across episodes but several seasons. I’m about half way through and I’ve got to say, the rest of Steven Johnson‘s books are on my list! You might also want to check out this study by two economists from the University of Chicago as well as this New York Times piece and this one on Slate.

Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
I really enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies so I was quite tickled when his latest work was waiting for me under the Christmas tree! Now, I’ll warn you, Diamond is, well, thorough and I’m betting this one will take me a while to cruise through but it’s quite a fascinating look at why societies fail. Diamond examines well known societal collapses like Easter Island, the Anasazi and the Viking colonies of Greenland failed , as well as looking at modern disasters such as Rwanda. While there is clearly an environmentalist undertone, Diamond points to factors beyond extinction of resources in contributing to these failures. I’m a little over half way through – quite a good read (but be prepared – this is not a casual book).

Ambient Findability
This book has been on my radar for a bit but seeing it mentioned on one of the blogs I track finally pushed me to order it. I’m not very far into it but I really like it. Ambient Findability talks about a lot of things that catch my interest these days. I’m not ready to rank this book but it’s worth checking out. Update: I have since finished this book and can’t recomend it enough. In the next few years, the concepts that are discussed in this book will take on added importance…

Behind Closed Doors
I consider The Pragmatic Programmer one of the best books ever written on software so when Dave and Andy turned their attention to publishing I naturally took an interest in what they put out. The handful of Pragmatic Books I’ve read have been top notch and this book is no different. Unlike some publishers, Pragmatic tends towards short and sweet meaning you’ll actually finish them! I rattled this one off in just a few days but you could probably read it in a sitting or two (I deliberately held myself to two chapters a night). I find myself doing more management tasks these days so I found the lessons in here particularly relevant. The story based approach makes this far more readable (I think Joel and Kathy would approve!)

This was one of the books I took to Spain (what can I say, I’m a geek). One of several books Kathy Sierra recommended to me, this classic talks all about getting and staying in the flow state. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of material on using the mind as a competitive advantage in sports (the night before track meets I would mentally walk through the meet) so this really was a natural fit for me and while reading, I found myself repeating sections to Christine!

Getting Things Done
This was another of the books that accompanied me across the Atlantic this fall. I’m not terribly stressed at work (yet) but the idea of being in the flow state more often really appeals to me. I’ve been tracking 43 Folders for a while which got me interested enough to take it for a spin. I have to admit I’m not systematically applying many of the principles yet but in Spain I really wish I’d had a hipster PDA with me!

Yet another book that travelled with me! OK, so technically I’m not “reading” this book – it’s my first foray into the audiobook world. This is really a fascinating listen answering questions like what’s more dangerous, a pool or a gun? Why do crack dealers live at home? Are sumo matches rigged? I’m ambivalent about the audio format; it’s easier when I’m trying to put in a few minutes on the treadmill but graphs don’t translate well and a couple of times I’ve had to fast forward a bit when I accidentally “rewound” to the start…sigh. Anyway, great book!

The Big Moo
This is the first Seth Godin book I’ve read (though again, Kathy has recommended some to me) and it’s all about being remarkable. It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a Godin book since it has something like 33 authors but there are some pretty interesting lessons in this slim tome. This is really a collection of (very) short essays from the so called Group of 33 and while some of the writing is a bit trite and simplistic, at least a few have had me nodding along enthusiastically.

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