Book Review: The Beast In the Garden

I just finished The Beast In the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature by David Baron. This non-fiction book is a quick read and outlines the comeback of the mountain lion, or cougar, along the Front Range, during the late 1980s to early 1990s. The cougar had been nearly wiped out by government bounties in the early part of the twentieth century, but the explosion of deer along the Front Range, along with revocation of that bounty, led to a comeback. In parts of the Denver metro area, mountain lions came to co-exist with human beings. This was especially true in Boulder, where the nature loving Boulderites assured a plentiful meat supply when they wouldn’t cull deer herds. The mountain lions grow familiar with human habits, learn that humans don’t mean danger, and end up mauling a high school student.

I really enjoyed the way the events were outlined, and Baron does a good job of making sure the science and character development are well balanced. He follows a few of the key players for the entire time, while bringing in other interesting characters, like the cougar hunter, as they appear. The science seems reasonable to me, though I haven’t taken a biology class since high school: large animals don’t have a natural aversion to humanity. Rather, this is a learned trait passed from generation to generation. Remove the killing that caused the aversion, and the animals will become more and more comfortable around humanity, to the point of considering humans a food source.

In the larger sense, though, this book is about managing wilderness, and realizing that as soon as you put a house up in a forest, you’ve changed the stakes. Humans love being around nature, but bleat for help as soon as nature threatens. In some ways, we want a Disneyland version of the forest–all of the beauty with none of the danger. You see this all the time with folks who build around national forest; as soon as fires season comes, they need to be protected. This is a thorny problem, and answers aren’t simple. The Beast In the Garden really is a parable, and I’m not sure we’ve learned the lessons.




Book Review: Dancing with Cats

If you have a chance to read Dancing With Cats by Burton Silver and Heather Busch, don’t bother. However, pick it up and glance through the photos. For it’s in the pictures, of cats and humans cavorting, of almost impossibly resonant images, that this book shines. (Visit the Museum of Non Primate Art for more.) The text is a bit much, using words like ‘aura’ and negative energy, and apparently meaning it. But, if you like cats and have a sense of the absurd, oh the pictures–check it on Amazon.com. I chuckled and chortled through the entire book.

“Dancing With Cats” on Amazon.


Book Review: Deadly Feasts

Deadly feasts: tracking the secrets of a terrifying new plague, by Richard Rhodes, is one scary book. It tracks the discovery of prions, the mishapen proteins responsible for mad cow disease, scrapie, and Creutzfeldt Jacob disease. Following human cannibals in the jungles of New Guinea in the fifties, bovine cannibals of the British Isles in the eighties, and the bizarre history of sheep scrapie from the 17th century on, Rhodes does a great job of presenting the history and discovery of this bizarre group of diseases. I especially enjoyed the characterizations of the scientists, from the Noble Laureate who so enjoyed the New Guinea that he often regretted rejoining civiliziation, yet brought thirty natives back to the USA and helped them through school, to the hyper-competitive scientist who named the molecules even though he wasn’t quite certain what they were.

But this isn’t just a story of scientific discovery. As the foreboding subtitle blares, Rhodes explores some of the scarier aspects of prions. These include spontaneous formation, responsible for the known early cases of Creutzfeldt Jacob disease, trans-species infection, including mad cow disease and scrapie, the long long incubation period and lack of immune system response, and hardiness of the disease. One scary factoid: a scientist took a sample of scrapie, froze it, baked it for an hour at 360 degrees (celsius), and was able to re-infect other animals from this sample.

For all the uneasiness this book inspires, it certainly doesn’t offer any answers. A condemnation of industrial agriculture, a warning that it’s unknown whether vegetarians are even safe, and a caution against using bone meal for your flower garden do not make a recipe for handling this issue. To be fair, it was printed in 1997–perhaps things are under control now.


Book Review: Java Transaction Processing

Since many financial institutions have standardized on it, I hear Java is the new COBOL. Whether or not this is true, if Java is to become the business language of choice, transaction support is crucial. (By ‘transaction,’ I mean ‘allowing two or more decisions to me made under ACID constraints: atomically, consistently, (as) in isolation and durably’.) Over the last five years, the Java platform has grown by leaps and bounds, not least in this area.

Java Transaction Processing by Mark Little, Jon Maron and Greg Pavlik, explores transactions and their relationship with the Java language and libraries. Starting with basic concepts of transactions, both local and distributed, including the roles of participant and coordinator, and the idea of transaction context, the book covers much old but useful ground. Then, by covering the Java Transaction API (JTA) as well as OTS, the OMG’s transaction API which is JTA’s foundation, this book provides a solid understanding of the complexities of transactions for Java programmers who haven’t dealt with anything more complex than a single RDBMS. I’d say these complexities could be summed up simply: failures happen; how can you deal with them reliably and quickly?

The book then goes on to examine transactions and the part they play in major J2EE APIs: Java Database Connectivity (JDBC), Java Message Service (JMS), Enterprise Java Beans (EJB) and J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA). These chapters were interesting overviews of these technologies, and would be sufficient to begin programming in them. However, they are complex, and a single chapter certainly can’t do justice to any of the APIs. If you’re new to them, expect to buy another book.

In the last section, the authors discuss the future of transactions, especially long running activities (the Java Activity Service) and web services. This was the most interesting section to me, but also is the most likely to age poorly. These technologies are all still under development; the basic concepts, however, seem likely to remain useful for some time. And, if you need to decide on a web service transaction API yesterday, don’t build your own, read chapter 10.

There were some things I didn’t like about Java Transaction Processing. Some of the editing was sloppy—periods or words missing. This wasn’t too big a problem for me, since the publisher provided me a free copy for review, but if I were paying list price ($50) I’d be a bit miffed. A larger annoyance was incorrect UML and Java code snippets. Again, the meaning can be figured out from the text, but it’s a bit frustrating. Finally, while the authors raise some very valid points about trusting, or not, the transaction system software provider, I felt the constant trumpeting of HP and Arjuna technologies was a bit tedious. Perhaps these companies are on the forefront of Java transactions (possible); perhaps the authors are most familiar with the products of these companies (looking at the biographies, this is likely). The warnings—find out who is writing the transaction software, which is probably at the heart of your business, and how often they’ve written such software before—were useful, if a bit repetitive.

That said, this book was still a good read, if a bit long (~360 pages). I think that Java Transaction Processing would be especially useful for an enterprise architect looking to leverage existing (expensive) transactional systems with more modern technology, and trying to see how Java and its myriad APIs fit into the mix. (This is what I imagine, because I’m not an enterprise architect.) I also think this book would be useful to DBAs; knowing about the Java APIs and how they deal with transactions would definitely help a DBA discuss software issues with a typical Java developer.

To me, an average Java developer, the first section of the book was the most useful. While transactions are fairly simple to explain (consider the canonical bank account example), this section illuminated complexities I’d not even thought of—optimizations, heuristic outcomes, failure recovery. These issues occur even in fairly simple setups—I’m working at a client who wants to update two databases with different views of the same information, but make sure that both are updated or neither; this seems to be a typical distributed transaction. The easiest way to deal with this is to pretend that such updates will always be successful, and then accept small discrepancies. That’s fine with click-throughs—money is a different matter.

However, if you are a typical web developer, I’m not sure this book is worth the price. I would borrow it from your company’s enterprise architect, as reading it will make you a better programmer (as well as giving you a sense of history—transactions have been around for a long time). But, after digesting fundamental distributed transaction concepts, I won’t be referencing this book anytime soon, since the scenarios simply don’t happen that often (and when they do, they’re often ignored, as outlined above).


Book Review: Divorce Your Car

Divorce Your Car, by Katie Alvord, is thought provoking. In the United States of America, an automobile is many things to many people: transportation, status symbol, hobby, money pit. Alvord takes apart the place of the car in modern society (the focus of the book is on North America, though she does refer to Europe and the Third World in places) and roundly condemns our dependence.

Her book is split into three parts–the first covers the history of the automobile and other forms of transport. She legitimizes what I’d often heard and dismissed as a myth–the car industry bought up the transit systems of cities in the US early in the 20th century and replaced them with buses. The second is a laundry list of the negative effects of the car (which, I must confess, I didn’t finish–too depressed after the first thirty pages). The final section covers alternatives, including walking, biking, mass transit, non-gasoline cars, and telecommuting.

I found the book to be quite good in outlining the problem and highlighting solutions. The dependence of modern life on the car is a dependence on convenience. But, to some extent, it’s a matter of inertia. Automobiles are so prevalent and easy that many of us never try the alternatives, let alone use them in preference to our car. A strong point is that she realizes that car-free living isn’t for anyone, and makes a point that going car-lite can have a positive effect as well. She also touches on the far reaching implications that technology decisions have had on our society, our cities and our lives–from subsidies to the development of advertising. It would have been interesting to read more about that, but what she did say was definitely thought provoking.

However, I do have three quibbles. Alvord cites sources extensively, but her arguments would be more compelling were the sources less biased (as you can tell by titles like Asphalt Nation) and more first hand. She ignores two factors that would affect my divorce. Giving up your car, or at the very least being aware of alternatives, makes driving after drinking less likely–a good thing! On the other hand, if you don’t have a car, you suddenly have a dearth of available camping and hiking activities. But these concerns aren’t everyone’s, to be sure.

Overall, a book well worth reading, especially if you commute a lot. Too bad they don’t sell it as a book on tape!


Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrel Huff, should be required reading for everyone. The cachet of numbers are used all the time in modern society. Usually to end arguments–after all, who can argue with “facts”? Huff shows how the same set of numbers can be tweaked to show three different outcomes, depending on where you start and what you use. The fundamental lesson I learned from this book is that mathematical calculation involves a whole set of conditions, and any number derived from such a calculation is meaningless without understanding those conditions.

He also mentions that colleagues have told him that the flurry of meaningless statistics is due to incompetence–he dispatches this argument with a simple query: “Why, then, do the numbers almost always favor the person quoting them?” Huff also provides five questions (not unlike the five d’s of dodgeball) for readers to ask, when confronted with a statistic:

1. Who says so?

2. How does he know?

3. What’s missing?

4. Did somebody change the subject?

5. Does it make sense?

All this is wrapped up in a book with simple examples (no math beyond arithmetic, really) and quaint 1950s prose. In addition humor runs from the beginning (the dedication is “To my wife with good reason”) to the end (on page 135, Huff says “Almost anybody can claim to be first in something if he is not too particular what it is”). This book is well worth a couple hours of your time.

“How To Lie With Statistics” at Amazon.


Book review: The Great Divide

The Great Divide, by Stephen Pern, explores one man’s trip from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide. Now, this book explores the backbone of the USA, but the author is definitely (perhaps defiantly) English–and in many ways, from his frequent stops for tea to his sardonic wit to his idioms (biro, peg), it adds to the charm of the book. From New Mexico to Montana, Pern relates the obstacles, emotional, physical and personal, which confront him during his journey. Typically tongue-in-cheek in his prose, he also strikes true notes, especially when commenting on life in America. He lays out a succinct contrast between the New World and the Old: when confronting the lack of historic artifacts on his jounry, he muses “Life [in America] was first established, then lived. Back home [in Europe], it was the other way around.”

The logistics of supplying his 2500 mile journey were worth the read alone–his description of peanut butter rationing chimes with anyone who has backpacked with luxury foods. He also includes an appendix with much information, including suggested maps, useful equipment and obstacles encountered. should you wish to follow in his footsteps. In 1986, when he wrote the book, there was no Continental Divide Trail, although it looks like Congess designated a (still incomplete) route in 1978. Pern is also very clear when he diverges from the Divide, providing maps with small comments and textual explanations of his detours. Many of these are for good reasons–bad terrain, a hot shower, a resupply mission.

But the most interesting sections of this book was not the physical exertion nor the beauty that he described (though a picture section would have been a fantastic addition). No, in the tradition of Least Heat Moon’s ‘Blue Highways’ and Bryson’s ‘In A Sunburned Country,’ it is his interactions that really lend depth and meaning to his book. Whether it’s the innumerable breakfasts fixed for him, a surly shopkeeper in Montana, or a Navajo shepherd who can’t speak English and doesn’t understand the lifestyle of her grandchildren, Pern takes each encounter and uses it to reflect a bit of the American psyche.

All in all, this book was inspiring and well worth a read.


Book Review: The Social Life of Information

I just finished reading The Social Life of Information, by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid. This was not the quickest read; it’s a business book with the obtuseness of vocabulary that implies. However, if you’re a computer person with any desire to see your work in a larger context, this is a book you should read. In it, they examine eight separate areas in which computers, and the internet in particular, have supposedly changed our lives (this is typically called ‘hype’, though the authors don’t use the word) in the latter years of the 20th century. (This book is copyright 2000.) You probably remember some of these claims: the death of the corporation, of the university, of paper documents, of the corporate office. In each chapter, they review one claim, show how the claim’s proponents over-simplify the issue, and look at the (new and old) responses of people and institutions to the problem that the claim was trying to solve. They also examine, in detail, the ways in which humans process information, and how the software that is often touted as a replacement simply isn’t.

I really enjoy ‘ah-ha’ moments; these are times where I look back at my experiences in a new light, thanks to a theory that justifies or explains something that I didn’t understand. For example, I remember when I started my first professional job, right out of college, I thought the whole point of work was to, well, work. So I sat in my cube and worked 8 solid hours a day. After a few months, when I still didn’t know anyone at the office, but had to ask someone how to modify a script I was working on, I learned the value of social interaction at the office. (Actually, I was so clueless, I had to ask someone to find the appropriate someone to ask.) While examining the concept of the home office, the authors state “[t]he office social system plays a major part in keeping tools (and people) up and running.” It’s not just work that happens at the office–there’s collaboration and informal learning.

I’ve worked remotely in the past year for the first time, and anyone who’s worked remotely has experienced a moment of frustration when trying to explain something and wished they were just “there,” to show rather than tell–the authors refer to this process as ‘huddling.’ When someone is changing a software configuration that I’m not intimately familiar, it’s much easier to judge correct options and settings if I’m there. The authors explain that “[huddling] is often a way of getting things done through collaboration. At home with frail and fickle technologies and unlimited configurations, people paradoxically may need to huddle even more, but can’t.” This collaboration is even more important between peers.

Reading about the home office and its lack of informal networks (which do occur around the corporate office) really drove home the social nature of work. After a few years at my company, I had cross-departmental relationships (often struck up over beer Friday) that truly eased some of my pain. Often, knowing who to ask a question is more important than knowing the answer to the question. It’s not impossible to build those relationships when you’re working remotely, but it’s much more difficult.

Another enjoyable moment of clarity arose when the authors discussed the nature of documents. I think of a document as a Word file, or perhaps a set of printed out pages. The explicit information (words, diagrams, etc) that I can get from the document is the focus (and this is certainly the case in document management systems sales pitches). But there’s a lot more to a document. How do I know how much to trust the information? Well, if it’s on a website somewhere, that’s a fair bit sketchier than if it’s in the newspaper, which is in turn less trustworthy than if I’ve experienced the information myself. Documents validate information–we’ve all picked up a book, hefted it, examined it, and judged it based on its cover. The authors say “readers look beyond the information in documents. … The investment evident in a document’s material content is often a good indicator of the investment in its informational content.” Just as if someone says “trust me” you should probably run the other way, information alone can’t attest to its own veracity. The authors also look at aspects to documents (like history, like feel, like layout) that simply aren’t captured when you treat them as streams of bits.

And there are many other examples of ‘hype’ that are deflated in this book, and a few other ‘ah-ha’ moments as well. As I stated above, this is a great read for anyone who thinks there is a technical answer to any problem (or even most problems). By taking apart various claims, and examining the truth and untruth of those claims in a real world context, these two authors give technology credit where it’s due, while at the same time explaining why some of the older institutions and important factors in our lives will remain around. Reading this book was hard work, but understanding what the authors say gives me yet another way to relate to non-technical people, as well as fend off the zealots who claim, in a knee-jerk fashion, that more software solves problems. I majored in physics, in college, but minored in politics. It always seemed that the people problems, though more squishy, were more interesting. This book is confirmation of that fact.



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