Giving books as gifts

book photo

Photo by shutterhacks

A few years ago one of my contracting clients gave me a book for a Christmas gift. It was a thoughtful gesture. It mattered all the more that I received it from a client who I’d spent a lot of time working for and who I know had spent a lot of time thinking about some of the issues the book raised. I read the book, and applied its lessons to my life, both business and personal.

Since then, I’ve given and received books to business colleagues and clients. Books are a unique gift because they convey a message in a way that few other gifts do. A book is a more committing gift than a visa gift card or a piece of electronic equipment (both gifts I’ve also received and was thankful for). You are asking for the receiver’s time and focus, and making a statement that the gift is worthy of both of those. You’re also making the statement that the recipient will benefit from the book. It’s a gift that actually has some demands (a bit like giving a gym membership, without as much judgement).

When you are giving a book, you’re giving a new idea. You are saying you were touched or changed by this book, and you hope that the recipient will find the same idea. You also need to understand the receiver–will they find the same benefit? Have they already tuned into the ideas so it will deepen their understanding? Is this a new perspective for them?

Bonus! If you set giving worthy books as a goal, it will make you read more books. It also has the beneficial side effect of forcing you to evaluate books you read from the perspective of ‘would I want to give this as a gift?’. Not every book has to meet that criteria, just as not every meal should be broccoli and yogurt, but it is a useful filter if you have limited reading time.

I hope I’ve convinced you to try giving books to your clients, colleagues, bosses and employees. The easiest way to start is to find a solid business book that you’ve enjoyed reading (‘Getting to Yes’ and ‘The Personal MBA’ are two candidates) and sending it to someone you have worked with for a while. Then, start a list and add any other books that resonate with you. When the holidays come around, you’ll have a list to choose from. Start small because of this higher bar this sets–you’re not just asking for a ‘Thank You’ and a place on a shelf, you’re asking for time and focus.  And those are precious.

Leanpub ebook: Developing Cross Platform Mobile Applications with Cordova CLI

I took the content from my blog posts about Cordova CLI, and am revising and updating it for an ebook about Developing Cross Platform Mobile Applications with Cordova CLI. I discuss some of the intricacies of Cordova CLI in more depth than either in my blog posts or in the Cordova documentation.

If the topic interests you, I’d love to hear your feedback.

Plus this gives me a chance to use Leanpub, which I’ve written about previously.

Google Analytics Goals and Forms on Google Sites

I recently put together a website for my father’s new book about World War II, and choosing Google Sites was a slam dunk.  I choose a neutral theme, set up a few pages, uploaded some images and logged into Go Daddy (where my father had purchased his domain name) and set up DNS.  Easy peasy.

Two issues came up.  One minor and one major.

First, there is no easy way to point the bare domain at google sites using Go Daddy’s tools.  So can’t be redirected to  Minor bummer, but just make sure all the marketing contains

I set up a form to capture email addresses for people who wanted to be informed when the book was actually published (it is now!).  I was interested in playing around with PPC to drive people to the website, but wasn’t able to set up a goal in Google Analytics to measure signup success.  (So I didn’t end up setting up PPC.)

I looked around and didn’t find anything that would help with this.  Here’s an article about goals and Google Forms, but the writer’s form lives on their own server, which gives them more latitude than someone working with Google Sites.

Anyone have any idea how to do this?

Leanpub: write a ‘lean book’

Ever wanted to write a book?  Me too!

Leanpub lets you write a book, but with a twist.  They’ve built a system where you can write portions of a book, and easily publish to the major ebook formats (PDF, .mobi, epub).  You write the book with Markdown, and can include code samples, images, tables, and sections.  Nothing really new there, though.

The revolutionary idea of Leanpub, and the reason it is ‘lean’, is that you can build your book piece by piece, and sell it whenever you have ‘minimum viable content’.  (You can also include sample content to let people see what they are buying.)  Once someone purchases your book, they receive all further updates.  This type of interaction with users can be very helpful–it spurs you on to finish your book (after all, someone paid for it) and also lets you know if your book idea has traction in the marketplace (did anyone buy the book), and builds an audience for your book slowly over time (going to a publisher with a list of people who’ve already bought your book is a lot stronger than going there with a first draft).

After you finish your book, you can submit it to all the other epublishing vendors (Amazon, B&N, etc) or a print on demand store.  (They also have support for building a book directly out of a blog, if you have written anything that structured.)

I have built 4 books on Leanpub.  Using CakePHP to generate Markdown, I was able to combine some articles about CSA I had written with a directory of relevant farms.  You can see the Denver guide.  I found the process fun, if not lucrative.

This is a great concept.  It really makes you, the author, focus on two areas of publishing that technology can’t help with: writing and marketing.  The best book in the world won’t have any sales if people don’t find it, and the most promoted book won’t sell if you don’t write it.

I did see some minor issues around footnoting, and not everyone will enjoy writing in plain text and ‘compiling’ the book to PDF (a process that takes around 30 seconds each time you do it), but the platform seems to be evolving (one of the founders is pretty active in the support google group).  All in all I think Leanpub is worth a look, especially if you are writing a book where a chapter or two will save people time in their job.

If you want to know more about lean publishing ideas, check out the manifesto.

“Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows

I recently finished “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows.  A primer on systems theory, this book is a very accessible introduction to these structures that influence so much of our ecology, economy and lives.

The book is only seven chapters and around 200 pages long, but covers a lot of ground.  First, she covers the basics of systems, including stocks (the thing that changes over time, like water in a bathtub or money in a bank account), flows (the movement of stocks, like a drain in a bathtub or wages deposited into a bank account) and various kinds of feedback loops (the things that act on a stock, like a thermostat monitoring bathtub temperature–a balancing loop, or interest in a bank account–a reinforcing loop).  Then she spends some time examining the some members of the systems ‘zoo’, by varying the type and number of stocks and feedback loops, and observing behaviors that arise.

She then dives a bit deeper into this behavior, and examines why systems are stable, and at the same time what kind of surprises arise from them.  She also looks at some of the archetypes of problematic systems, like the tragedy of the commons, escalation and addiction, and proposes some ways to avoid these archetypes or how to withdraw from them.  She starts off each archetype with an example drawn from the newspaper headlines when she was writing (in the 1990s).

The next chapter enumerates change points–where can you or I intervene to most effectively use our time to modify systesm we find abhorrent or unfair or wrong.  The author discusses twelve different areas to apply energy, ranging in effectiveness from changing numbers or parameters in the system, like the tax rates and the level of the minimum wage (minimal effectiveness), to transcending paradigms (maximal effectiveness).  She calls the list order “slithery” and acknowledges that this is a first draft and that points of leverage can increase or decrease in effectiveness depending on many factors.  But even having such a list is extremely useful as a starting point to think about change.

The last chapter is all about lessons from systems, of which my favorite is “Stay Humble–Stay a Learner” where she quotes a psychologist taking about the difficulty of becoming an error-embracer; we don’t just have to accept that we make mistakes, we have to admit them.

After a slow start, I really enjoyed this book.  The examples were accessible and grounded in the real world.  And she explained complicated ideas in ways that made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of it like that before–always the hallmark of a challenging and worthwhile book.  The author wrote “Limits To Growth” in the 1970s, so there are definitely progressive undertones throughout the book, but nothing over the top.

This book is a great way to get a gentle introduction into systems thinking, which is a fundamental way of understanding the world.  It’s not going to give you any easy answers, but will give you one more tool in your mental toolbox to understand the problems of the world.  I wish she had had a small section of exercises at the end, because they would have offered a deeper understanding of systems with some hands on work, but other than that, I have no quibbles.

Two books of interest to freelancers

I recently read two finance books that might be of interest to freelancers.

The first is The Money Book For Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a finance book aimed directly at people with sporadic income.  This book is written in an easy going style, with examples drawn from the author’s lives, as well as those of their friends.

The major takeaway is that you should pay yourself first–when a check comes in, allocate a percentage for taxes, a percentage for retirement, and a percentage for an emergency fund.  Do that first, so you aren’t even tempted to spend it.  I do this because of my corporate structure and SIMPLE IRA, but if you’re a new freelancer, or someone who is a schedule C worker, then it’s great advice.

Then, after a while, when you’re comfortable with the system, you can start to save for other goals.  One of the strongest parts of the book was when they encouraged you to sit down and write out your particular financial goals.  It’s tough to do, because when you do so, then you’re confronted with the hard work of trying to achieve them, but it’s great advice.

While this book was full of tips for dealing with the income side, I felt like the outgo side was covered as well.  They had advice about breaking up your expenses into required (taxes, retirement, emergency), overhead (rent/mortgage, food, insurance), and variable (eating out, classes).  Once you know your overhead and required expenses, if you get a windfall (that big client finally paid!) you can siphon that off into a separate account and use that for future months of expenses.  The authors also did a good job talking nuts and bolts, going down to the details of what type of bank accounts you need.

They didn’t really cover some things that are on the periphery of financial concerns–corporate structure, handling employees and contractors and types of insurance, for instance.  But doing so would probably have distracted from the main point of the book, so I understand.

If you’re a freelancer, and this strategy doesn’t work for you, you probably want to check this book out.

I also read Are you a Stock or a Bond by Moshe A. Milevsky.  This book is a fascinating look at the best way for modern savers with 401(k)s and IRAs to replicate what the WWII generation had–a pension.

The hook of the book is that savers should consider their lifetime earning potential and job prospects when planning a retirement asset allocation strategy.  Those who are in a more stable job (the author uses himself as an example–a tenured professor) should consider their earnings more bond-like and thus invest more in stocks (to the point of borrowing to buy stocks).  Those in a more tenuous job (farmer? I don’t remember his example) should do the opposite.

The hook, while thought provoking, is not really the focus of the book.  In fact, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t spend more time telling you how to determine if your income stream was more stock like or more bond like.  Instead, he charges off into what you should do with your accumulated savings when you retire.

The short answer–buy an annuity.  The reason for this is that the guaranteed income from an annuity is impossible to replicate from the same amount of capital invested individually.  Why?  Because an annuity spreads payments across a population in which some will die before others.  Annuities essentially transfer wealth from those who die early to those who die later.  This asset class reduces your greatest financial risk at retirement–running out of money.  Just like a pension.

Definitely a thought provoking book, and one that would be especially useful to people approaching retirement.

On writing a book

I saw this great post on the nuts and bolts of writing a book on the BJUG mailing list. Well worth a read.

I have sympathy in particular with his ‘writing schedule’ comment. I started to put together a book with some friends, and it was hard to keep things moving. We ended up not moving forward with the book and placing the content on a blog (which has proven hard to update as well). The book was about software contracting.


Book Review: Google Maps API V2

Seven months ago, I wrote about Google Maps Gotchas. I mentioned Scott Davis’ Google Maps API Pragmatic Friday article, published by the Pragmatic Programmer folks. Well, a few things have happened since then. In April, Google released version two of their maps API (though they still haven’t set a date when version one will no longer be supported), Scott revised his article and I spent a tax deductible $8.50 to give it a read. What you’ll find below is my take on his article.

The good: first, the ordering was easy, and I received my custom PDF (complete with “Prepared Exclusively for Daniel Scott Moore” as a footer on every page) in less than 20 minutes. Scott explains in a very easy to understand fashion how to create a map. He also covers each of the API’s javascript objects and how to use them. In particular, I thought the list of events and objects that fire them (in the ‘Events’ chapter) was a good reference. Now, Google provides a class reference, but Scott’s are a bit easier to understand here’s a comparison, for the Gmarker class:

Google API:

A GMarker marks a position on the map. It implements the GOverlay interface andthus is added to the map using the GMap2.addOverlay() method.A marker object has a point, which is the geographical position where the marker is anchored on the map, and an icon. If the icon is not set in the constructor, the default icon G_DEFAULT_ICON is used.

After it is added to a map, the info window of that map can be opened through the marker. The marker object will fire mouse events and infowindow events.

Davis’ Book:

In the Core Objects section, we introduced the GLatLng. A GLatLng stores a Latitude / Longitude coordinate, but it doesn’t offer you a way to visualize it on a map. A GMarker is the way to add GLatLngs GMarker to the map for display purposes. The GMarker constructor takes a GLatLng as the only required argument.Once we have the marker, we need to tell the map to display it; map.addOverlay(myMarker) should do the trick. (Objects that you superimpose over the map are called Overlays.) You can remove the Overlays marker using map.removeOverlay(myMarker). To remove all overlays, use map.clearOverlays( ).

var myPoint = new GLatLng(38.898748, -77.037684);
var myMarker = new GMarker(myPoint);

Theoretically a map can support an unlimited number of markers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that performance starts to slow down significantly after a hundred or so markers. (File under, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”)

I liked the real world examples–the fact that you could click through and see the code Scott was writing about in action on his website is a real plus. In addition, he builds a decently complex example in Chapter 7 where the user can add and delete cities. He also gives a good warning about examples that use Gmap, rather than Gmap2.

However, there were some issues. Scott’s coverage of the upgrade to version two of the API is, unfortunately, rather spotty. In his blog, the June release of that feature, and the April revision of the book). He also doesn’t cover GDownloadURL, a convenience method for XMLHttpRequest processing, or the GUnload methods. I’ll freely admit that the maps API is a moving target, and some of the omissions above may be due to that.

However, there are other problems. Though billed as a beginner book, he omits what I consider to be one of the fundamental challenges of Google Maps development–the performance obstacles large numbers of database driven markers (other than the comment mentioned above in the GMarker reference). In addition, he doesn’t cover design options, nor cross browser issues (like the transparent PNG in IE issue).

In the last chapter, he mentions good examples of mapping websites, but Scott omits references to useful websites–something that even dead tree books do. In particular, he doesn’t mention (a wiki full of useful user provided data) nor the Google Maps group (which some users consider a primary differentiator between Google and Yahoo Maps).

One final gripe is that the 75 pages of content that I expected were really only 45–text only filled about 60% of the column width. I expect that in articles I read for free on the web, but in books that I pay for, I like a bit higher content to page ratio.

In short, this ebook is a good choice for the first time Google Maps builder. This is due to the tutorial nature of much of the book, the examples, and the explanation of typical good javascript code, such as using anonymous functions for the event handlers. It is not entirely adequate in covering version 2 of the API, possibly due to API changes, and it ignored some of the more complex aspects of the API.

If you’re looking for a folksy introduction to Google Maps api, it’s worth the $8.50 to have a coherent guide. If you’ve muddled through one google maps project, piecing together things from the API docs and various blogs, it becomes less worthwhile. But if you want some kind of discussion about complex Google Maps issues this document is not the right place to look.

[tags]Scott Davis, Google Maps, Pragmatic Fridays[/tags]

Book Review: Fallout

This graphic novel, subtitled “J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb”, is a good quick read. It’s hard for my generation, raised with the fall of the Soviet Union, to appreciate how stupendous the atomic bomb really was. But this book does a great job of making the history of that period accessible. The book is not that short–around 200 pages–but, due to its graphic nature, is very easy to read.

Fallout is really divided into two major sections. The first is concerned with the idea and creation of the atomic bomb, starting from Szilard’s ideas in the 1930s and ending with the Trinity test in 1945. The second is concerned with the inquiry into Oppenheimer’s advisory position to the Atomic Energy Commission, which occured in the political climate of the 1950s. Both these are worth reading, but the second one, which has much more text–portions of letters are printed along with the graphics–is a chilling reminder of the craziness of that time.

With 6 different authors listed on the cover (and more in the back pages), the illustrations change often enough that you do have to pay attention to know who is speaking. Additional difficulties arise because there are so many characters. I think the book would be stronger if one author had been responsible for all of the graphic content because the characters would be easier to keep track of.

One very nice aspect of this book is the end notes. At the back of the book, extensive text outlines what parts are true and what parts are surmise. As the front of the book saysm “many of the quotes and incidents that you’ll think most likely to be made up are the best documented facts.” For example, Teller, one of the scientists, denies his similarity to Dr Strangelove, and another, Szilard, devises his own cancer treatment using radiation.

All in all, if you’re in for a light introduction to the history of one of the heaviest subjects, Fallout is a good choice.

“Fallout” at Amazon.

[tags]atomic bomb, graphic novel, oppenheimer[/tags]

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