Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, January 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: three non-fiction books, again.
"Exploring Requirements" is mainly aimed at systems analysts and
software designers, but the material is general enough to be applicable
to almost anything.  "The Man of Numbers" looks at the life and work of
Fibonacci, a pioneer of Western arithmetic, who is mostly remembered for
the sequence of numbers that bears his name.  "The Language of Things"
helps us understand why objects are designed the way they are.

1. "Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design"
   by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg

Developing software is a relatively new activity, and there is a lot of
room for improvement.  It sounds simple enough: software should do what
people say they want it to do.  However, things are rarely black and
white when human beings and language are involved.  This book helps deal
with ambiguities that inevitably arise.  It describes many useful
techniques to help identify the real problem to be solved, and determine
what the actual requirements are.  It looks at the dynamics of the
people involved, and how the framing of the problem can affect the types
of solutions proposed.  It covers generating ideas, naming, functions,
attributes, constraints, expectations and test cases.

The book does an excellent job of covering the complete requirements
gathering process, often in an entertaining way.  The concepts are
universal enough to extend to the design of other objects.  In fact,
one of the chapters looks at the design of a chair, while a recurring
case is about writing chalk.

2. "The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution"
   by Keith Devlin

This book is about the life and work of the man known nowadays simply by
his nickname, Fibonacci.  Leonardo Bonacci was a mathematician who lived
during the Middle Ages.  He is mostly remembered for the number sequence
named for him, where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.  But his biggest contribution was popularising
the Hindu-Arabic number system (based on the digits zero through nine)
in the West.

While working at his father's trading post in North Africa, the young
Leonardo was introduced to the Hindu-Arabic number system.  At that
time, Roman numerals were still dominant in Europe, despite the
difficulty they posed for doing arithmetic efficiently.  Fibonacci
realised how much better-suited Hindu-Arabic numerals were.  He learnt
as much as he could from Arabic sources, and wrote the seminal book on
the topic of calculation, "Liber abbaci".  His book contained numerous
examples, covering many applications in business and finance.  It became
hugely influential in Italy and the rest of Europe during the early

The Fibonacci sequence is just one of many examples in "Liber abbaci"
for practicing using the new number system.  Fibonacci did not discover
the sequence, yet that is what he is remembered for.  The Fibonacci
sequence has since been found to have many applications in nature,
mathematics and finance.

This book provides a pretty good overview Fibonacci and his writing.
It's not a big book, and the sections on his books are not overly
technical.  One of the author's goals was to trace the lineage and
influence of Fibonacci's work through the many books on calculation
that emerged during the Renaissance.  Overall, a brief and interesting
introduction to an arguably underrated pioneer of modern arithmetic.

3. "The Language of Things"
   by Deyan Sudjic

This book attempts to explain "how we are seduced by the objects around
us" through design, luxury, fashion and art.  The author is Director
of the Design Museum in London.  He traces the history of the design of
consumer objects, which has its origins in the Industrial Revolution.
Design has continually evolved, and is no longer restricted to providing
only what is functional.  Fashion can be used to drive us to buy things,
so it's important to the design process.  Some designers go further,
aspiring to make their work approach art.

The book includes many examples of well-designed objects through the
years, and lots of photos are included to emphasise points made in the
text.  An interesting section considers the cultural aspects of design.
For example, the contrasting designs of Russian and US spacecraft are
in part due to the respective cultures.  According to Ernesto Rogers,
"it is possible from the careful examination of a spoon to understand
the kind of city that the society that had produced it would build".

There are several provocative parts too.  Artistic objects are "useless"
when compared to objects designed to fulfil a "useful" purpose.  It is
this type of "uselessness" that makes art more valuable than their
functional equivalents.  The author suggests the Museum of Modern Art,
"whether consciously or not, is doing its best to suggest that design
is just as useless as art, and therefore almost as important".

Overall, an interesting look at design history, and how design is used
to influence consumer behaviour.