Reviews of books read last month: a novel and three non-fiction books. 1. "The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway <http://www.amazon.com/The-Gone-Away-World/dp/0307389073> It's the near-future. Following a disagreement over access to natural resources, "un-war" has broken out in the Middle East. The respective leaders never officially declare war, but in reality their armies are engaged in conflict. Such mini-cold wars have become commonplace, and eventually resolve themselves. But this time things get out of hand when one side uses chemical weapons. In retaliation, the other side unleashes a brand new super weapon: the "Go Away Bomb". This bomb works by removing information from matter, effectively erasing whatever is within its vicinity when it detonates. Unfortunately, other nations have also developed the same technology. They all decide to deploy their own arsenals of Go Away bombs, making most populated regions of the planet resemble Swiss cheese. This is the Gone-Away World. Go Away Bombs were designed to be the ultimate "clean" weapons. But it turns out they were not so clean and perfect after all: "the wanton messing we have done with the basic level of the universe is not, after all, completely free and without consequence". A byproduct of their use is the generation of "Stuff", which reifies the thoughts of people who are exposed to it. Dreams and nightmares manifest into monsters, chimeras and bifurcates that torment the other survivors. The story is told from the point of view of a member of a crew of hazardous materials experts. Mostly veterans of the Go Away War, they are engaged to repair part of the world-spanning Jorgmund Pipe after a sabotage attack. The Pipe keeps the "Stuff" away from the survivors. Spoiler alert: something happens about two-thirds of the way through that makes you reevaluate the narrator's account. This was a highly readable piece of speculative fiction thanks to its blend of humour, satire, adventure and intrigue. In addition to interesting central characters, this entertaining post-apocalyptic novel features ninjas, special forces, freedom fighters, an enigmatic mime troupe and an evil mega-corporation. At almost 500 pages it's a bit long, but it sustained my interest. 2. "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Ancius Boethius <http://www.amazon.com/Consolation-Philosophy/dp/0674048350> The author was a member of the Roman nobility, becoming a senator then consul in the early sixth century AD. This was when Ostrogoths occupied the Italian peninsula following the sacking of Rome. Boethius was unjustly suspected of conspiring with the Eastern Roman Empire. He was exiled, imprisoned and executed. While awaiting trial and execution, he wrote his best known work, "De consolatione philosophiae". The book takes the form of a series of conversations between himself and Lady Philosophy. He asks why bad things happen to good and just people, while others profit from their evil doings. She consoles Boethius by discussing the fleeting nature of wealth, high office, power, fame and physical pleasures. These are all at the mercy of Fortune. She argues that happiness comes from within us, and that our virtue is all that we really possess. Drawing on the teachings of Stoic and Christian philosophers, Lady Philosophy says that true happiness follows from self-sufficiency and respect. Boethius also questions her about the nature of evil and free will. This was a popular and influential philosophical work, especially during the Middle Ages. Boethius was regarded as the “last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics”. An interesting discussion on Boethius and "The Consolations of Philosophy" is available online (BBC, In Our Time): <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00g46p0> 3. "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being" by Martin Seligman <http://www.amazon.com/Flourish/dp/1439190763> The author is a leading psychologist who has written several books about his research and ideas about psychology, happiness and well- being. He argues psychology should be more than about just treating those with mental illness: it should be more positive, and help promote mental well-being in everyone. He questions the preoccupation with the vague and one-dimensional concept of "happiness". Instead he proposes a multi-dimensional approach to well-being, having the acronym PERMA. The five elements are: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Drawing from the research of others as well as his own, he examines how each of these components contributes to well-being. For example, positive emotion can be enhanced by identifying things that went well during the day. Engagement (also called "flow") can be achieved by identifying and exploiting one's highest strengths. Achievement requires more than just talent: self-discipline is important, and some people become high achievers thanks to "grit". By working on each of these components, we not only cope with adversity, we can also flourish. The author's RSA talk gives a good overview of the book: <http://www.thersa.org/events/video/vision-videos/martin-seligman> 4. "Getting Real" by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson and Matthew Linderman <http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Real/dp/0578012812> This book was written by some principals of 37signals, a successful startup and the creator of the Ruby on Rails web development framework. It contains highly opinionated views on how to develop web applications, from initial idea to launch and beyond. They recommend an ultra pragmatic approach. They argue for simplicity - even if that means fewer features than competitors. "Done" is better than "perfect". Web applications can always be improved in later iterations. Smaller teams are better. Keep meetings, red tape and formal specifications to the bare minimum. They advise against the venture capital-based funding model, which usually favours providing services for free to quickly grab market share. Instead, charge an adequate price from day one, with a free level of service to give customers a chance to try before buying. Upgrades should be easy. Not relying on outside funding means greater control and flexibility. Overall, some good advice for budding web entrepreneurs. The authors admit that their suggestions are not applicable for all organisations. Some applications are too big or life-critical to be built by just a handful of developers. A later book by Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, "Rework", refines and expands on many of the suggestions.