Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, April 2013

Reviews of books read last month: a novel and three non-fiction books.

1. "The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway

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

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):

3. "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being"
   by Martin Seligman

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:

4. "Getting Real" by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson and
   Matthew Linderman

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.