Monday, March 26, 2007

Imperium, Under the Jaguar Sun and Software Creativity 2.0

I've been doing a fair bit of reading lately - even more than usual.
Here are some highlights ...

1. "Imperium: A Novel" by Robert Harris

This is a finctionalized biography of the ancient Roman orator/lawyer/
politician Marcus Tullius Cicero.  It is narrated by Cicero's slave and
personal scribe, Tiro.  Two particular periods in Cicero's life are the
focus of the novel.  Firstly, Cicero's campaign for praetor (elected
magistrate), and in particular his risky and audacious prosecution of a
corrupt governor of Sicily, the wealthy and well-connected Gaius Verres.
Cicero uses his considerable intellect, wit and skill in the face of a
bought judge and a jury sympathetic to Verres.

For those who know their ancient history, the novel provides an insight
into the final days of the Roman Republic.  Cicero was a firm believer
in the Republican ideal, and the novel sets the scene for the power
struggles which would lead to end of the Republic.  Julius Caesar,
Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus feature in the second period in
Cicero's life that the novel examines: the campaign for consul (the
highest elected office of the Roman Republic).

Along with an interesting look at the political system of Rome before
it became an Empire, the book reminds us how history has a tendency of
repeating itself.  Corrupt senators, greedy businessman and ruthless,
power-hungry leaders willing to use propaganda and lies to justify
wars.  The election of Antonus Hybrida (from an aristocratic family
but lacking intellect or any other virtue) to the position of consul
should've warned us of how someone like George W. Bush could become
US President.  Will we ever learn?

If you don't have time to read the book, a snapshot of Cicero's life is
available at:

2. "Under the Jaguar Sun" by Italo Calvino

I read this book in the original Italian (under the title "Sotto il sole
giaguaro").  It's a collection of three short stories on the senses:
smell, taste and hearing.  Originally the author had intended to write
two additional stories on the other senses (sight and touch), but
unfortunately he died before he could complete them.

The story about hearing, where a king is extremely sensitive to the
sounds in his enormous palace, was my favourite of the three.  The story
about smell involved customers to a perfumery in Paris, while the one on
taste was about a couple's archaeological (and gastronomical) visit to

3. "Software Creativity 2.0" by Robert L Glass

I've recently finished reading four software development related books.
Most are too dry and technical for the B-List readership, but one may be
of more general interest.  Software Creativity is about the role of
creativity in software development.  It examines the conflicts between
creativity and discipline, process and product, theory and practice.  In
addition to personal anecdotes, the author provides interesting results
from experiments and research conducted in the past 50 years.

The author argues that management and many academics prefers discipline
and formality over creativity and agility.  The process must be control-
lable.  Programmers generally prefer less structure (and the ability to
be creative).  The product is more important than the process.  The
author is mostly of the opinion that creativity is critical to software
development, and should not be eradicated by rigid processes.
Interestingly however, the author shows there are certain types of
projects where process may be necessary.  Is he contradicting himself?
No, because such projects do not actually require much creativity to
solve the particular problems present.  Or they are of such a scale that
a greater degree of structure and formality is required.  Each project
needs to be considered in its own right, given the size and criticality
of the task, the problems to be solved, and the resources available.

A book that both sides of the debate should read to find some common
ground.  It's also a great collection of essays for anyone interested
in creativity in the workplace and problem solving.