Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Aki pushed this “young adult” book my way recently, and I liked it because:

  • The story is set in and around San Francisco. As far as I can tell, all the locations mentioned are accurate. This is true for both famous landmarks, and small local-only landmarks in my neighborhood.
  • The computer hacking portions of the story were detailed and realistic, without getting in the way of the story.
  • The topics of privacy, as well as competing state-vs-federal jurisdictions during major emergencies, were all covered in a very informative and readable manner. Not a surprise to find out that the author was Director of European Affairs, for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Oh, and yes, the story was good too! Thumbs up from me.

(ps: Thanks for the loan, Aki!)

Clifford Stoll: TEDtalk and The Cuckoo’s Egg

I recently found this clip of Clifford Stoll at TEDTalk.

I’d never seen him live, so had no idea what it would be like. His continuously exploring curious mind was refreshing to me, and served as a wake up call to me to not get stuck in my ways. Further, the way he brought practical everyday logic to early education was something I found personally moving. His approach of explaining complicated things to kids when they’re curious and eager to learn, and before they start to believe “its supposed to be hard”, really resonated with me. The experiment he put together for his 8th grade class to calculate the speed of sound was straightfoward, understandable and quick. His attitude reminded me of the people, both in and out of school, who had the most influence during my education, and I found myself thanking them yet again for their inspiration. His closing quote from the bell inscription really resonated with me (no pun intended).

Watching this inspired me to dust off my old 2nd edition copy of his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg”, and reread that.

Its now of course an old story from the late ’80s about Clifford, when he was a university undergrad student in Berkeley tracking down a bug in some auditing software. He eventually discovers that the auditing errors are because of unauthorized breaches in the university computers – being used as a conduit to attack classified military research computers. As he untangles the giant ball of interwoven strands of the problem, he just wrote everything down like it was a personal journal, interweaving details of home cooked meals with his new girlfriend, emails and hone calls with sysadmins at the targetted systems, invented hacks to detect when intruders returned to their computer systems, even his own self-questioning of his hippie anti-establishment roots as he cycled across campus to meet with the NSA suits who took interest once evidence of KGB involvement started to emerge.

I found it a fascinating readable story, just like as if a close friend was telling me about some strange thing that happened that day at work… made only slightly more surreal when you keep in mind that its all true.

Chaos for Breakfast by Robert A. Hall


Most “management” books focus on working in for-profit companies. By contrast, this was the first book I’ve read that specifically addressed non-profit organizations.

There was some of the usual stuff about working with managers and employees. But there were also sections on working with volunteers (as opposed to employees), working in mixed employee+volunteer settings, fund-raising, public relations, outreach, political lobbying and the use of metrics to improve how you work. In an era when so many for-profit companies are focused on short term quarterly profits, and not on longer term health of their organization, or their people, I found it refreshing to see these self-evident truths written down:

“…[it is your] responsibility to ensure that the association is still exists in 10 years time to do the good work”

“…[it is your] responsibility to leave organization in better shape then [you] found it.”

“keep everyone informed”. (Something I struggle with constantly, given the very distributed nature of RelEng here in Mozilla.)

At 99pages, its a quick read compared to all the weighty tomes you usually find in that section of the bookstore. Later, after some thought, I went back and read it again, skipping some sections, and carefully re-reading others slowly. He also referred to several other interesting books that I’d never heard of, making my amazon.com wishlist even longer! I found his writing style terse, informative, down-to-earth, and occasionally a little repetitive. I since discovered the author is a Mensan, former US Marine and former Massachusetts State Senator, which explains a lot! 🙂

Overall, it was repetitive in a few places, not relevant to Mozilla in a few places, but I still found it well worth the read, and the re-read!

Nation by Terry Pratchett

As a long time fan of his Discworld series, I thought I’d give one of his non-Discworld books a try. The first couple of pages of this book were interesting, so I bought this on impulse in the bookshop. It was only *after* I finished reading it that I discovered the book was intended for teen readers, and I still liked this book.

The book is set on a tropical island after a tsunami wipes out the local villages. The sole survivor is Mau, a teen boy who starts to rebuild his devastated village by himself. Gradually other survivors from different cultures arrive, all looking for refuge and together they rebuild the physical village. In the process, they learn to question the social norms of their elders, and merge their various cultural backgrounds to create a new blended society of their very own. All good food for thought. And being Terry Pratchett, it was all done in a way that would give teens and grownups food for thought about life in the “real” world, while still being entertaining!

Complicity by Iain Banks

This is another murder-mystery story based in Scotland. While this book started off in a similar vein to The Crow Road, it turned out to be darker and more graphically violent. Part of the story was written from the viewpoint of a serial killer, in a very convincing manner. Part was written from the “normal” world of people reacting to the police investigation about the murders while going about their lives, and I found that equally convincing.

Overall, I found the book a lot more disturbing. At the same time, I also found it impossible to put down the book, and I *had* to finish it. Still not sure how to rate it, but obviously Iain Banks is able to spin a very compelling story.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

A great opening line, and it made me stop my browsing in the bookshop to read on, a little curious. By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked and needed to buy the book. This coming-of-age story in rural Scotland is interwoven with social commentary and a family murder mystery. There were surprisingly lots of similarities with growing up in rural Ireland, and I found this book a really good read. Even if you did not grow up in rural Scotland (or Ireland), I think you’d still enjoy the book; you just might not get all the inside jokes or cultural references.

While I had heard of the author before, I always thought he wrote science fiction books that just didn’t work for me. This was my first time discovering that he wrote non-science fiction also, and I liked this book.

Complications by Atul Gawande

A friend at work first gave me this book years ago -it was a riveting read then, and still is now.

In a measure of how much I like this book, I’ve since bought 9? 10? copies, each time to replace the copy I’ve given to yet another friend; most recently another one last week. Each of those friends has, in turn, also been blown away by this book.

On one level, it is about how people make critical decisions when they only have partial information. As an engineer, I feel most comfortable making decisions when I have all the data to make an informed decision. But how do you make informed decisions when the act of gathering all the data will take too long; situations where there is no test, or the patient will die before all the test results come back? And as a doctor, how do handle it if your guess was right and the patient was treated successfully? Or live with yourself when your educated guess turns out wrong, and your attempts to make things better actually make the situation worse?

This book, like his other book “Better“, is written as a series of short stories – each chapter covering a different topic with a different patient. This made the book easy to pickup, and stopping after a chapter is a great way to mull over some of the issues raised. But I find the book hard to put down, even after all these years, and all these re-reads. Atul has quite a skill, being able to describe all the nuances of a complicated field like medicine, and medical diagnosis, in a way that is readable, understandable, and totally fascinating, to someone who knows very little about medicine.

The stories include his failed attempts at a routine procedure when starting his residency, the startling twist in the story of a child who had trouble breathing, a debate about how doctors train new doctors, and the very humble, personal stories of patients who died when they should have lived, and lived when they should have died.

Buy it.

(ps:the last chapter gives a great description of part of a rare-enough situation that I had to deal with once, a few years ago, and am very happy to have survived.)

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

Short summary: I loved this book. I’ve read it end-to-end twice, and dipped back into specific sections a few times since. While the book is written by a surgeon, and naturally focuses on medical situations, he does so in a style that is totally readable by everyone, and on topics that I think are important to everyone, not just other surgeons. To give you an flavor of the book, here’s two quick points that really resonated with me personally.

The opening chapter gives a great description of all his non-medical preparations for a specific surgery case of a patient of his; describing all his dealing with hospital administrators, the patient, nurses, other doctors in the hours required to plan the surgery, and the unforeseen circumstances which change those plans without warning. All this is before he finally gets to do what he trained to do – pick up a knife to start cutting.

This hit a chord with me, because I find it interesting how much it also applied to other fields. Software development is often portrayed as people sitting at desks typing source code, and thats it. Much like surgery is portrayed as a solitary surgeon with a knife. Or a live concert by U2 is portrayed as the four band members who get on stage. The amount of behind-the-scenes work in each of these fields is colossal, and coordinating all those people is a seriously complex task in itself. Throughout the book he outlines work that people are doing to improving existing complex large-group processes. People who were, literally, “making things better”. I found it all very inspirational.

Later in the book, he described a logistical situation in Karnataka, India, reacting to a confirmed case of Polio. To stop this one case becoming a Polio epidemic, the World Health Organization did a vaccination program in the area. Sounds boring and routine. Aid agencies have been doing vaccination programs for years, it should routine, right?The numbers quoted from Brian Wheeler, Chief Operations Officer for WHO’s polio program, just blew my mind.

They had to vaccinate every child under 5 years of age in an area of 50,000 square miles centered around that single Polio case. Anything less then 90% coverage of the target population – the percentage needed to shut down transmission enough to stop the spread – would be a failure. To do this, they needed to hiring and train 37,000 vaccinators, 4000 health care supervisors, rent 2000 vehicles, supply 18,000+ insulated vaccine carriers, get everyone to the actual location in rural India and have the workers go door to door to vaccinate 4.2 million children.

In three days.

And they didn’t have much advance notice either – from the first confirmed report of Polio to people on the ground, starting the Polio vaccination program was only 32 days.

How do you make all that more efficient for future outbreaks? Everything from rapid escalation processes, so WHO gets involved sooner,  to dealing with cultural/social/educations issues. And they’re still figuring it out.

Try to read a few pages; I suspect you just wont be able to put it down. Thats what happened to me with both of his books so far. His previous book “Complications” was great, and this new book was as good, or maybe even… better?

The Baby Owners Manual

Bought this book again recently, and thought it was finally time to post a review of it.

I first found this in a bookshop years ago, just when some engineer friends of mine had their first baby, so I bought it as an impulse joke gift for them. It was easy to read, informative, and entertaining. I’m an engineer, with no prior baby experience, as were my two newly-parented friends; obviously the author’s target audience.

The book itself was written by father-and-son combination (a doctor and a parent) in the style of a computer manual – you know… the manual you never read… the manual which comes with your new PC… full of simplified diagrams, with bubbles and arrows, showing you how to plug in the printer? and troubleshooting techniques if the mouse doesnt work?… well, this book is exactly that, except its all about how to pickup a baby, burp a baby, change a baby’s diaper (different instructions for boy and girl!), wrap a baby, simple medical issues, while sending you to your nearest Baby Service Provider for more complex problems.

They smiled politely when I gave them the book, but you could tell they thought I was a little nuts.

Weeks later, they each pulled me aside and confided that they learnt lots from the book, loved it and were busy recommending it to other parents. It had become their first book to reach for, exactly because of its quick-troubleshooting design, and they learnt lots of practical tips just browsing through. Wow, funny and really useful. That settled it. Over the years, its become a kinda tradition now for me to buy it for any engineer friends who are having their first baby. So, Monday night, I delivered a copy of this book, along with some other gifts to a proud new parent at Mozilla. At this point, I’ve bought maybe a dozen copies, mostly through amazon, so who knows what that is doing to my own Amazon.com account profile! 🙂

The publishers must think its successful, because they have recently started a series of books in a similar vein: The Dog Owner’s Manual, The Cat Owner’s Manual, The Toddler Owner’s Manual, The Home Owner’s Manual, etc…

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

It felt to me like he was covering a bunch of different topics, or short essays, all in the same book. Some resonated with me much more then others. In particular, these two:

Chapter1: Epidemics:
To me, I always thought of epidemics in the medical sense, flu outbreaks, avian flu, etc. However, I was fascinated by how the same study of epidemics could be applied to other completely unrelated fields. Human fashion. Graffiti. Litter. Teenage smoking. One example he detailed was a gonorrhea outbreak in Colorado Springs, Colorado (population 100,000+), which tipped over from statistically insignificant background noise, to epidemic, because of the activity of 168 people in 6 local bars in 4 small neighborhoods of the town. A statically insignificant small group of people. Another epidemic example he detailed was how “The Broken Window Theory” was applied to the New York City subway, dealing with graffiti, and fare-evaders. I particularly like the two cultural insights behind how they dealt with fare-evaders.

The first culture changes was with the cops. Seem the cops preferred to chase bigger fish, instead of wasting the afternoon doing paperwork on one trivial misdemeanor fare-evader arrest. However, a few simple ideas changed things dramatically. Instead of doing onesy-twosy arrests, they had 10+ plain clothes cops handcuff fare evaders to each other on the platform like a large daisy chain, and then only come up from the subway station with a “full” daisy chain. Instead of driving each suspect through traffic to the police station, they converted a bus into a mobile police station so that paperwork, fingerprints, background checks could done on site without a slow trip to the police station. Instead of just fining someone for fare-evading, and letting them go, they always ran a full background criminal check on each fare evader – and found something interesting: 1 out of 7 fare-evaders had outstanding arrest warrants; 1 out of 20 had illegal weapons. Suddenly, the cops on the street felt it was not “just a fare-evader”… now a daisy-chain of 20 fare-evaders was a really interesting surprise bonanza box, and the easiest way in the world to catch “real” bad guys.

The second cultural change was with the subway riders. Seems that the general public attitude had deteriorated to “why should I pay, if everyone else is evading”. Even people who would not normally break the rules, who would never consider themselves as criminals, were avoiding paying fares “because everyone else did it too”. However, the daisy-chain of handcuffed fare-evaders was a clearly visible deterrent, a reminder of what the rules were, and how society expected people to behave. Quickly, the number of people trying to fare-evade dropped. Which meant more people paid. It also created the perception of the subway being safer, so more people felt safe to choose to travel on subway. So even more people paid. All this meant they had more money to fix other problems, like old rolling stock, tracks, ticketing systems, etc.
Of course, the NYC subway is not perfect, then and now. However, a handful of small, carefully chosen physical changes, triggered a couple of critical cultural changes, which turned around a problem that had previously been almost given up for lost. I realized its really easy to trick yourself into thinking that a big reward requires a big effort project, and then with those mental blinkers on, only allow yourself to consider big ticket items. “How little things can make a big difference” is a really good subtitle for this book.

Chapter 5: Human group size:
Gladwell contends that human groups, and intra-group human loyalties, only scale up to about 150 people. His suggests its a function of the limits of the human brain to handle all the combinations of relationships between everyone in the group. For groups under 150 people, the inter-personal relationships, friendships, peer pressure, of everyone knowing each other tends to keep people focused and working together towards a common group goal. However, groups that grow over 150 quickly lose internal cohesion, internal focus, because they are just too big for everyone to really know everyone else. Once that cohesion breaks down, people instead start forming smaller subgroups, trusting their own subgroup, questioning motives of those other subgroups, and focusing on their own personal agendas. In a Western-business culture setting, it would be called internal-company-rivalry.

I once worked in a company as it grew from 42people to 180people, and experienced that change of internal cohesion myself. At the time, I just knew “things had changed”, but only later, looking back, I figured out it was to do with how many people were in the company, and not feeling like we were all working together anymore. Personally, I’d always thought the change from “we tight knit small band of brothers in a small company” to “I’m just a nameless cog in a faceless bureaucracy” started to happen somewhere around 100 people, but that was just a gut guess. However, Gladwell shows examples of hunter gatherer tribes, ranging from Australia to Greenland, all averaging just under 150 people per village. The Hutterites (a religion similar roots to the Amish) have a strict policy that once a community approaches 150 people, its splits into two equal separate communities. In business, the same principle is followed by Gore Associates (the manufacturer of GoreTex)… and they believe that contributes to why they have employee turnover 1/3 of the industry average, are profitable for 35 years in a row (and counting), and are constantly successfully innovating new products and markets… all without formal management structures. In groups under 150, he suggests that “personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts” keep everyone focused on doing the right thing for the organisation.

There’s quite a lot of the book given to describing Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. I’m still thinking that part over, not convinced yet.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, especially these two chapters.