Mini-reviews of books I read last month: two sci-fi novels and two non- fiction books. 1. "The World Jones Made" by Philip K. Dick <http://www.amazon.com/World-Jones-Made/dp/0575098988> This novel was written in 1956, and is set in the then-future (2002). After a nuclear war between the Cold War superpowers, the new federated world government, Fedgov, has been slowly rebuilding things. Relativism is the sanctioned political philosophy: "The law gives anybody the right to live as he pleases", as long as they don't make anyone else try to follow that doctrine. Paradoxically, Fedgov enforces this policy with security police (Secpol). Children of the survivors of the nuclear fallout are at risk of random genetic mutation. Some mutant humans have special abilities, and they tend to gravitate to the margins of society. One such mutant is carnival fortune-teller Floyd Jones, who can see one year into the future. Meanwhile, large alien lifeforms have been floating peacefully through space, occasionally entering Earth's atmosphere. Some people see these "Drifters" as threats and want to destroy them. Fedgov prohibits this, arguing they are harmless. But when Jones's predictions start coming true, members of the anti-Drifter cult seize on his warning that the Drifters do indeed pose a threat to humanity. Fedgov is overthrown by a Jones-led cult. Former members of Fedgov want to depose Jones and his followers, but it won't be easy. Doug Cussick, former Secpol agent, wonders "how he could possibly kill a man who knew the topography of the future. A man who could not be taken unawares: a man for whom surprise was impossible". Written by prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick (PKD), this novel raises questions about ideology, determinism and ethics. During my Uni days I was obsessed with PKD's stories, and read whatever I could get my hands on. This novel is one of the few that I hadn't read yet. Overall, there are some interesting ideas here in a compact story, but it's not his finest. I'd recommend "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" or "Man in the High Castle" if you want to get a taste of PKD's work. Many of his stories have been adapted into movies, including "Blade Runner", "Total Recall", "Minority Report", and most recently, "The Adjustment Bureau". Apparently, Terry Gilliam is planning to adapt "The World Jones Made" into a movie. 2. "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi <http://www.amazon.com/The-Windup-Girl/dp/1597801585> This dark, gritty "biopunk" novel is set in a post-peak oil, globally warm future. Multinational "calorie" corporations control the world's food supply. They hoard genetic material and release modified seeds that produce sterile plants. They are also suspected to have released crop-killing viruses, which have begun mutating out of control. This novel is arguably a thought experiment of what could happen if current trends continue to their logical ends. The action takes place in Thailand, nominally still a monarchy with a child Queen. In reality, there's a delicate balance of power between the ministries of Trade and Environment. Both sides are corrupt, and are played off against each other by foreign interests. The fiercely independent Thais have their own seed bank, and seem to have access to unique and disease-resistant species that are coveted by the multinationals. Sources of calories, be they food or energy fuels, are scarce. Rising sea levels have forced people to higher ground. The Thai capital is surrounded by dykes and levees due to the constant threat of flooding. People rely on basic transport methods to get around: walking, riding on bikes or in rickshaws. Heavy work is done using gene-hacked (genetically-engineered) super-elephants called megodonts. Like their ancestors, the megodonts are revered. Among the white people in Thailand, called "farangs", are agents of multinationals who run various businesses as fronts. Refugees from other conflicts (e.g. Malaysian Chinese) have fled to Thailand in the hope of restoring their fortunes. Representing their lower status, they are called "Yellow Card Men". Added to this diverse and volatile mix are gene- hacked human servants, called "New People". From Japan, they are like futuristic geisha girls, intended as menial assistants, slaves, or simply for entertainment. Thailand supposedly has a ban on "New People", but somehow a few have managed to slip into the country. There's a lot of food for thought in this enjoyable, award-winning page-turner: resource scarcity, sovereignty, tradition, corporate power, corruption, international intrigue, even the rights of humans and "new" humans. Readers will also learn a bit about Thai traditions and culture. Highly recommended. 3. "Adapt" by Tim Harford <http://www.amazon.com/Adapt/dp/1250007550> The book's subtitle, "Why success always starts with failure", hints at the author's main premise. Humanity faces many complex problems, such as climate change, poverty, peace and financial stability. The chances of solving these problems first time is very low. Mistakes will inevitably me made along the way. Through trial and error, appropriate solutions can be found, as long as we learn from our mistakes and those of our predecessors. In other words, by adapting to the outcomes of incremental decisions, we can eventually arrive at viable solutions to complex issues. This applies at every level: from individuals in their everyday lives, to competitive corporations, governments and other organisations. In the first chapter, the author summarises the recipe for successful adapting. "The three essential steps are: to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know when you've failed". The bulk of the book elaborates on these steps, and draws on many diverse examples of failures and successes, such as: industry in the former Soviet Union, the Iraq War, foreign aid, oil platform and nuclear power plant disasters, and financial crises. A common cause of repeated failure is the lack of flexibility or unwillingness to adapt in the light of newly obtained information. Written by "The Undercover Economist", Tim Harford, this book covers more than just economics and finance: psychology, anthropology, evolution and physics also provide relevant evidence for the importance of adaptation. 4. "Balancing Agility and Discipline: A Guide for the Perplexed" by Barry Boehm and Richard Turner <http://www.amazon.com/Balancing-Agility-Discipline/dp/0321186125> Developing software can be a complex undertaking. An alarmingly large proportion of software projects fail to meet the required objectives: they under-deliver on functionality, go over time or budget, or are scrapped before completion. Over the years, various approaches or methodologies have been proposed to deal with the problems of writing quality software. These include: eXtreme Programming (XP), Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), Rational Unified Process (RUP), Lean Development (LD), Scrum and Cleanroom. Proponents of each methodology can be so dogmatic that they are blind to alternatives. The purpose of this book is to provide a refreshing, ideology-free assessment of the various methodologies. In short, the authors argue that methodologies need to be selected or adapted in accordance to five key variables or risk factors: project size, type of personnel, criticality of deliverables, organisational culture and dynamism (changeability in requirements). The book outlines a framework for determining which methodology is most suitable given the circumstances of the project. It surveys the leading methodologies, across the entire spectrum from controlled/disciplined to agile/flexible. Strengths and weaknesses are identified, describing both typical days and crisis days for each methodology. Polar charts, called "home ground" plots, display each methodology's sweet spot with respect to the five factors. These profiles can be used to help guide selection of the most appropriate methodology for a project. This book should be required reading for project managers and software developers, especially those who believe there is only "one true way" to undertake software projects.