Book review: Go Set A Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it in high school. The movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a favorite as well. I always thought it was a shame that Harper Lee only published the one book, but I respected her decision not to turn out uninspired works just to make money. When it was first announced that a new novel was going to be released, I was thrilled. Then I found out that the circumstances were suspect at best.

Concerned that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of, I decided not to purchase the book. But when I was at the library a few weeks ago and noticed several copies on the shelf, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Let’s be clear here: Mockingbird is a better book than Go Set A Watchman. Although Watchman was written first, I don’t think it could survive without being preceded by Mockingbird. Mockingbird is why you care about the characters in Watchman, and I found that I did care very deeply about them.

Watchman is the story of an adult Scout, who has gone off to New York and become a career woman. When she returns to her childhood home, she’s struck by the way racism pervades Maycomb. Being away from it has caused her to lose her desensitization. The frog is out of the pot. Scout, being young and wordly, is passionate about righting all the wrongs. Meanwhile, even those who largely agree with her advise moderation.

I had heard long before I read the book that Atticus, the heroic Atticus, was racist. I was expecting the stereotypical southern racist, but that wasn’t the case. Atticus’s racism is a more nuanced, almost well-intentioned racism that you can almost start to agree with until you suddenly remember that it is still racism.

There are a few plot details that would allow one to argue that Mockingbird and Watchman aren’t in the same universe, but that does a disservice to the story. The Atticus of the 1930s and the Atticus of the 1950s are the same man, but Scout has changed. I think most people can identify with the idea of seeing faults in their parents as adults that they were totally blind to as kids.

This is where Watchman shines. It’s not going to become an American classic, but it is much more thought-provoking. In Mockingbird, the line between good and bad is largely clear. Not so in Watchman, and it forces the reader to consider not only the abstract concepts of race, but how to address racism in the real world. Is it right to burn down all the injustice in a sweeping blaze of righteous indignation, or is it better to slowly work to help those who can be helped and let the rest fade away? And if it’s better to work slowly, is that a position that can only be held by the privileged while the oppressed are forced to endure more oppression?

There’s no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a better book: artistically, commercially, and politically. But Go Set a Watchman is an important follow-on, and I’m glad it has seen the light of day. I only hope that Harper Lee really does feel the same way.

Book review: Bourbon Empire

Those who know me well know that my go-to drink is bourbon. “Take glass, insert whiskey” is my favorite cocktail. I’m hardly a connoisseur, and I don’t consider myself particularly well-educated on the subject. When I heard about Reid Mitenbuler’s Bourbon Empire: The past and future of America’s whiskey, I  thought it sounded like a good way to catch up.

Although the book is an examination of the history of American distillation, it lacks a dispassionate tone. Mitenbuler clearly enjoys bourbon, though he presents both the highs and lows of history. The use of humor in the narrative makes the reading experience more like a conversation over a glass of whiskey than a lecture.

That’s not to say that this book couldn’t be used in a history class. Bourbon did not develop in a vacuum, and Bourbon Empire discusses the effects that law and bourbon have had on each other over the centuries. Prohibition is, of course, the obvious example, but the practices of the whiskey industry were an important part of getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed.

As a first book, Bourbon Empire is an exceptional result. My only complaint is that it ended much too quickly. The stories behind bourbon brands are rarely as interesting as the marketing department would have you believe. Nevertheless, Reid Mitenbuler weaves them together into a complex and enjoyable experience worthy of a terrific bourbon.

Bourbon Empire is published by Viking Penguin and is on sale now.

Actually, it’s about ethics in book reviews

Bruce Schneier shared a story earlier this month about how Amazon is apparently mining information to flag book reviews when the reviewer has a relationship with the author. I write book reviews (though I don’t post them to Amazon), so this seems relevant to my interests. I can see why Amazon would do something like this. People buy books, in part, based on reviews. If Amazon’s reviews are credible, people will be more likely to buy well-reviewed books. Plus: ethics!

The first few purchases would likely be unaffected until the buyer has a chance to form an evaluation of credibility. And even then, how much stock do people put into online reviews of any product or service? I tend to only look at reviews in aggregate, unless the specific reviewer has established credibility.

I hope that my occasional book reviews have established some sort of credibility with my ones of readers. I certainly try to make it clear when I might have a bias (e.g. disclosing stock ownership or a personal friendship). Mostly, though, I’m motivated to give accurate reviews in order to advance my own thought leadership. I’m very self-serving sometimes.

On the whole, I appreciate that Amazon is trying to keep reviews fully-disclosed. I just don’t think they’re doing it very well. If a reviewer has a relationship with the reviewee and it is properly disclosed, there’s no reason to suppress the review.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares in Amazon.

Book review: AWS System Administration

In his forthcoming book, Mike Ryan aims to introduce Amazon Web Services (AWS) to developers and systems administrators. Correctly creating and managing an AWS environment is a cross between development and administration, so anyone coming from a straight admin or dev background would probably miss key components.

Unfortunately, in aiming for two audiences, he produces a book that doesn’t seem to quite satisfy either. The book goes into a lot of unnecessary detail, for example a lot of Postgresql detail in the backup chapter, and a lot of Puppet specifics scattered throughout.

My biggest complaint is the way the book is organized. Basic AWS concepts like regions aren’t introduced in the beginning. Several concepts appear in passing before they are explained. EC2 security groups are lumped into the chapter at IAM roles, but it makes more sense to separate those.

Much of the book focuses on a single example, without a lot of discussion of other use cases. However, the use of auto scaling and Elastic Load Balancers in various cases is very well explained. The use and limitations of IAM roles is excellent as well.

This book could benefit from some reorganization and a more focused audience. With more information about AWS and less on implementation details for specific environments, the second edition could be a valuable resource.

AWS System Administration is scheduled to be released on July 25. It is published by O’Reilly Media.

Book Review: Thinking in Promises

Mark Burgess is one of the smartest people I know, and the thought of reading his books was always a little bit daunting. Would I be able to understand what he was trying to tell me? I can’t speak for the other books, but Thinking in Promises is a very approachable introduction to Promise Theory. Although the approach is often academic, Burgess does an excellent job of keeping the reader engaged through a variety of examples, humor, and stick figure drawings.

Promise theory came from the work of Burgess and others in developing the computer configuration management tool CFEngine. However, the theory itself is broadly applicable to a variety of interactions. Promise theory lies somewhere between the vagueness of management buzzwords and the strict formality of mathematical language.

Contrary to Western norms, Promise Theory works from the bottom up, describing the intended state without consideration of the steps to get there. Promises are made by agents instead of being imposed by an outside actor. Thus, Promise Theory requires autonomy, making it a more apt modeling framework for interactions that involve humans.

Thinking in Promises starts by explaining the fundamental concept of a promise, and how promises are made, accepted, and evaluated. Following chapters expand on these concepts individually. The final chapters discuss systems of promises, which often involve one or more layers of proxies.

Burgess does an excellent job of making the concepts understandable by both technical and non-technical readers. Each chapter concludes with thought exercises intended to guide the reader toward a greater understanding. Most of the examples used in the chapters focus on non-computer interactions like getting a taxi ride.

The book does not promise to change the way I view the world, and it might be hyperbolic for me to say it did. Nonetheless, Thinking in Promises gave me an interesting lens through which to view both computer and human interactions. I recommend it to anyone looking for a way to model systems.

Thinking in Promises is scheduled to be released on July 17. It is published by O’Reilly Media.

Book Review: The Open Organization

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares in Red Hat.

Three years after Red Hat become the first open source company to reach a billion dollars in annual revenue, CEO Jim Whitehurst published a tell-all book about his company. The Open Organization barely mentions the technology involved in Red Hat’s success, although Whitehurst holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science. The Open Organization, as the title suggests, is about the organizational culture of Red Hat that enables its success.

Whitehurst describes his time at Red Hat as a learning experience that made him a better leader. Previously, he had been the successful Chief Operating Officer at Delta Airlines, guiding that company through bankruptcy and revival in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. The organizational structure of Delta is described as being “top down”, typical of most large companies.

Such a structure arises from an promotes risk aversion and central control. Red Hat prefers a bottom-up approach where employees are given a wide latitude to make decisions. The role of the CEO becomes motivator and context-setter, while accountability is handled by social pressure.

However, the bottom-up approach cannot be truly described as a democracy, a point that Whitehurst emphasizes repeatedly. Red Hat follows a “the best idea wins, no matter where it comes from” policy, but Whitehurst makes it clear that ideas have to be solicited, too. Employees have different preferences about communication, and they need different ways to provide their ideas.

In describing Red Hat’s culture across seven chapters, Whitehurst doesn’t prescribe the specifics to every other organization. In chapter 7, he acknowledges that Red Hat is still a work in progress. Nonetheless, the broader principles are applicable. Whitehurst cites examples from other companies across a variety of industries to demonstrate that it’s not only software companies that can follow Red Hat’s example.

The Open Organization is a well-written book that turns out to be an easy read. Unlike many management books, it focuses on practical effects instead of theory and provides numerous examples. The content is well laid out, establishing the “why” before moving on to the “what” and finally the “how”.

My main complaint is that Whitehurst does not address the potential criticisms of Red Hat’s method. The blunt and argumentative (although generally collegial) nature will not be appealing to everyone. Furthermore, the way the company aggressively defends its culture (a phenomenon described in several places) prevents whimsical change but it also could discourage appropriate changes from the outside.

Nevertheless, The Open Organization is an excellent book for leaders at any level of an organization. I strongly recommend it as a guide to opening up your own organization. Picking and chose what works for you.

The Open Organization is scheduled to be released on June 2. It is published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Book review: “Tornado Warning”

Three years ago this month, the city of Joplin, Missouri was devastated by an EF-5 tornado. Not only were numerous buildings destroyed, but 159 people lost their lives. This was the first 100-fatality tornado since 116 people died in a 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan. As word of the impact spread, I can recall being thankful that my chasing range was limited to northern Illinois that day. Author Tamara Hart Heiner drove through the Joplin area in the days after the tornado and was struck by the extent of the devastation. After speaking with survivors, she decided to write her first non-fiction book. Tornado Warning, released earlier this month, tells the story of the tornado through the eyes of seven women who survived it.

The women of Tornado Warning led varied-but-normal lives before the storm. Normalcy would not survive the day. I found the early part of the book a little dull, which is to be expected. The women and their families were going through their usual Sunday routine. When the tornado hits, the book becomes positively riveting. One woman rides it out in a bathtub, covering her children with her body and a mattress. Another was in her van. That she and her son survived is nothing short of miraculous.

Heiner does not dwell on the tornado itself. Indeed, the narrative moves the tornado along quickly; like its real-life counterpart, it is here and gone within moments. Much of the book focuses on the hours immediately following the tornado when Joplin residents frantically search for loved ones, rescue their neighbors, and try to come to grips with the stark new reality.

Although scenes shift quickly from one protagonist to another, the reader gets a definite sense of each woman’s personality. The narration seems to take on some of the character of the woman being followed. The rapid shifts made it difficult to keep track of the characters initially, but it proved to be the appropriate style during and after the tornado.

In all, this is an excellent read. It showcases the human side of tornadoes that never seems to make it into IMAX films. The tornado preparedness and safety advice is invaluable and I encourage all readers to not skip it. Some of the meteorological discussion at the beginning of the book is painful (particularly “the jet stream is typically 300 millibars strong”), but this is not a story about meteorology. Heiner does an excellent job of capturing the humanity of the Joplin tornado, so I can forgive meteorological errors.

The net proceeds from Tornado Warning are being donated to Joplin recovery charities.

Book Review: “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”

Shortly before I left for a conference in Washington, D.C., a friend told me that astronaut and Internet sensation Chris Hadfield would be signing his new book the day I arrived. I didn’t even know he had a book coming out, but I figured I shouldn’t turn down the opportunity to get an astronaut’s autograph, so I pre-ordered it. My impression of Colonel Hadfield was that he was a humble and genuine person.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth reads the same way. Hadfield takes the reader through his life and career with a degree of humility only a Canadian could achieve. He tells the stories with such enthusiasm, as if he’s in awe of his entire life. The descriptions of views from space are particularly compelling, and the reader can easily place himself aboard the International Space Station.

One might not expect astronaut skills to be very applicable to daily life. However, as I read this book, I found myself drawing inspiration from his words. His focus on “working the problem” particularly resonated with me. I consider it no accident that the day after I finished the book I made a significant breakthrough on a problem that had been vexing me at work. Although the stakes are much higher for astronauts, we can all benefit from the astronaut way of thinking. Hadfield took great care to point out that being accepted into the astronaut corps did not make him an astronaut. Even a trip to space is not sufficient. Astronauthood comes from years of training, practice, failure, and — most importantly — developing the right mindset.

Hadfield’s advice, developed from years of surviving some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, focuses on what seem to be negative thoughts: sweating the small stuff and “what’s the next thing that could kill me?” He does an excellent job of explaining how these negative thoughts lead to positive outcomes. The lessons are readily applicable to everyday life, even for the earthbound. This is a masterfully-written book. It is both entertaining and inspiring.

Book review: Captive Audience

I recently learned Of Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience when she was a guest on the “This Week in Law” podcast. In Captive Audience, Crawford examines the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal. Crawford makes no attempt to hide her feelings on the nation’s largest cable provider getting (further) into the content business. The book is more of an advocacy journalism work than a dispassionate academic report. Comcast’s supporters may object to Crawford’s arguments, but her characterizations are refreshingly fair. She is quick to point out that the players are acting, not like evil madmen, but rational business actors pursuing their self-interests. Her main concern is that these interests do not line up with what she believes to be the public’s best interests.

Crawford does not blame Comcast CEO Brian Roberts for this disconnect, though his company has worked tirelessly to keep the status quo. The root of the problem is that the Internet industry is both unregulated and uncompetitive. Crawford rejects the notion that DSL, cellular, and satellite services are competitors to cable companies. DSL is too slow and satellite too high-latency for modern Internet applications and cellular, while convenient, is limited by lower bandwidth and small screen sizes.

The state of regulation for cable providers is like that of the early days of the rail road and electrical industries, which is to say non-existent. Cable providers lack the common carrier requirements imposed on the phone companies. As a result, Comcast and others are free to turn the Internet into a walled garden of curated channels, much like the current state of cable television. As dire of a picture as Crawford paints, it’s hard to see it as a likely threat. Plausible, certainly, but I don’t see it on the horizon.

Nevertheless, America clearly has an Internet problem. Our speeds and prices are worse than most of the developed world. In an age where high speed Internet access is increasingly important to social, academic, and economic activities, one third of Americans don’t subscribe to high speed Internet service. A strong correlation between non-subscribership and low socioeconomic status. If Internet connectivity is necessary for prosperity, expensive Internet prevents upward mobility.

Absent competitive pressure, the public interest can only be enforced by regulation. Interestingly, it was the Nixon administration that first sought to prevent monopolies in the cable industry. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats have proven equally unwilling to impose regulation on the industry. Municipal and private sector fiber installations seem to be the only near-term hope for keeping Comcast in check.

In short, I found Captive Audience to be an informative and compelling read. Crawford takes the reader through the history of monopolies in the United States and of the cable industry. She examines the technical and political reasons that Comcast became and remains a monopoly. In closing, Crawford looks at the effect that the Comcast/NBC merger had on AT&T’s failed attempt to purchase T-Mobile. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Internet policy.

Book Review: The Deadline

Project management is an underrepresented genre in fiction. That it even exists is probably no small surprise to many, and probably of interest to even fewer. There is very little about project management that the average reader would find sexy or thrilling. Fortunately, Tom DeMarco makes no attempts at either (despite the occasional hint of a romantic undercurrent).

I wasn’t sure what to expect when my professor mentioned this book in class recently — perhaps a dashing project manager who sweeps through saving the day and buckling swashes at every opportunity. Instead, the reader is given Webster Tompkins, a competent and entirely normal project manager with years of experience and a looming layoff (or, in the words of Mr. Tompkins’ barely fictitious employer: “Released to Seek Opportunities Elsewhere”). While dozing in the back of an assembly, Tompkins is whisked off to the former Soviet state of Morovia. The Noble National Leader plans to turn his small country into the world leader in shrink-wrapped software, and Tompkins is just the man to lead the way.

What sets The Deadline apart as a novel is its entirely unconcealed intention to be a learning tool. The plot, exaggerated conditions and all, serves as a framework to present critical project management wisdom. Conveniently, Tompkins keeps a journal in which is writes these lessons as they occur, condensing the knowledge into bite-sized nuggets. What sets The Deadline apart as a learning tool is its readability. Although this book could readily be used in a formal project management course, it is interesting and well-written. Unlike the dialogue in project management scenarios given in textbooks (which, with apologies to Brewer and Dittman, is lousy), The Deadline reads like actual conversations had been transcribed. The end result is an informative and entertaining read that goes by far too quickly.

Perhaps the most striking thing about DeMarco’s novel is the publication date: 1997. At no time during my reading did I find myself thinking “boy, I’m sure glad that problem is solved now.” Although the nature of IT has changed in the decade and a half since The Deadline was written, the lessons are still very applicable. Especially when it comes to managing the human resources, it seems the lessons are still being relearned by each successive generation of managers (or sometimes not). Being a systems engineer and not a developer may slant my view of the current state, and it is entirely likely that software development managers have absorbed these lessons better. Until then, this book should required reading for every IT manager, project manager or otherwise.