Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, May 2012

   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

   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

   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

   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

   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

   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

   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.