Sunday, July 01, 2007

Book Report Catchup

While I haven't posted a book report in a while, I've still been reading. Chalk it up to other work keeping me busy... :-) So here goes an abbreviated report of a few books I've finished as of late...

The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau

Here's an oldie (1980) that I heard recommended numerous times over a few years so I thought I'd give it a shake. Joel's attempted premise is that North America is really broken up into nine small nations, each with its own -isms and a clear divide between them. These clear divisions define their culture, economy, and local government in very distinct ways.

Okay, interesting premise. However, Joel then proceeds to ramble for a few hundred pages using isolated anecdotes to prove his point. Cute, but lacking any kind of analysis it's really a travelogue. Nothing wrong with doing a travelogue, but if I wanted a travelogue I would have explicitly gone and found one. After about 2/3rds of the book, I stopped and let it go.

To Joel's credit, his division of North America is (in my opinion) an accurate observation and one worth exploring. Even 25 years later, I believe that the divisions are still there and the lines would not be adjusted.

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

This is technically a preliminary book report since I'm only about 3/4ths done, however given that I've been slogging through this book for about two years now I figured it was time to make some mention of it.

Andrew Hodges writes an extremely detailed biography of the late, great, Alan Turing. For those of you not familiar with Alan, he is considered the true father of the modern programmable computer. (Wikipedia: Alan Turing) His mathematical insight was revolutionary at the time and led to extraordinary work by the likes of John von Neumann. Alan was also the key to breaking the Enigma which became the crucial turning point for the Allies in World War II. Countless lives were saved by this single breakthrough.

I haven't gotten to the point where Alan being gay creates the social pressure leading to him taking his own life. As interesting as his life should be, Andrew Hodges' writing style has a density that makes it a much more tiresome read than I expected. As a result, I'm left to picking up the book every once in a while only to put it back down after 20-30 pages. I hope to actually finish the book by 2010.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath

I skim through a lot of marketing/business books. The reason is that most of them suck. I mean, really, truly, suck. Unless I'm pressured into reading something because it's "the latest thing" and I want to understand it better, I generally skip most books that come my way. Made to Stick not only passed the "this doesn't suck test", it's something that I recommend for everyone to read.

The book's premise is that making a message stick is formulaic. In reviewing countless sticky stores from urban legands to advertising programs to successful teachers, they bring their message down to six elements: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories. What makes the book itself sticky is that the authors don't make themselves out to be creative geniuses. In fact, the point out in numerous cases that it's the lack of creativity that often makes for the most sticky material. They go on to highlight an impressive number of well recognizable stories and advertising campaigns and reverse engineer them to see what made them work and categorize their elements.

The authors themselves apply their formula to the choice of stories they use for making their point. This of course makes their own stories and results equally sticky. In dissecting approaches I've used in the past, I can see where my better wins fell into these categories whereas others either missed the point, were too complex, or lacked a crucial element. At the same time, I'm working on applying the techniques to my own work and have seen pieces where it works. It's not a perfect game yet, but I've walked away feeling much more focused about my approach as a result.

All said and done, a big thumbs up. Highly recommended.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte

Over the last few years, I've become increasingly aware of how information is presented in addition to the information itself. A recent project where I started aggregating a lot of market data into a single powerpoint for reference was especially eye opening in terms of how some charts and graphs shout out exactly what they wanted to show and others left me puzzled. At the same time, I started following the Visual Complexity and Information Aesthetics blogs both of which really highlighted how powerful charts can be. A quick search around and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information was clearly the grand daddy of The Books to get.

This book rocks.

Published in 1983 before the age of PowerPoint fiascos but after the introduction of computer graphics, Tufte manages to assemble a timeless book that not only shows what excellent charts should look like, but also what horrible ones do look like. He especially takes to task "graphical truth" in publishing with an especially evil eye towards magazines and newspapers that create misleading charts to sway public opinion. Some charts leave him sufficiently annoyed that he even prints corrected versions which would have a drastic impact on how the story is interpreted by the casual reader.

Ironically, there is much to learn for how to create manipulative graphics as there is in how to create clear, correct graphics with significant depth. Tufte of course wasn't trying to show how to be evil, but enough years in marketing and everything gets put through that jaundiced lens.

Edward has numerous other books as well, including an updated second edition. I of course plan to look into a few of those. He strikes a good balance between prose, examples, and making his point.

For anyone that needs to create graphs, this is the grand daddy of charting books and should be required reading.

Last but not least...

McGraw-Hill/Osborne asked me to write the fifth edition of Linux Administration: A Beginners Guide. Unfortunately, I'm no longer the right guy to be writing this book. While I can still do many of the day to day tasks of a Unix administrator, I've become too distant from the day to day experience to be a lead author on something like this. Wale Soyinka, my co-author in the fourth edition has agreed to write the whole thing for which I'm grateful. The book is still close to my heart and giving it up was a tough choice. However, I trust Wale to do an excellent job and maintain the quality. Look for the first printing sometime in early/mid 2008.


Post a Comment

<< Home