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.

Book Review: Your Money or Your Life

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, is a collection of simple, common sense observations about money. Perhaps because money is so fundamental to our lives, or because we associate it with work, often we don’t examine these simple truths. But the first step to making sound decisions, about money as about every other topic, is to gather all the facts so you can make a knowledgeable and concious decision. This book helps you do that.

The book takes you through 9 steps to Financial Independence, from cataloging all the money you’ve ever made to keeping a budget to their solution for non wage income. The lessons are told in a easy, simple manner, with ‘real life’ stories interspersed throughout. Some of their most profound ideas aren’t about money, but about work–what human beings look for in work that they used to look for in community and family.

I’m a single guy, and I felt this book was aimed at big spenders with families, mortgages and boats, but I still felt there were lessons to take away. Their end solution is something I’m still up in the air about, but the steps along the way were fabulous–every one simple enough to understand, yet powerful enough to change the way you thought about the concepts discussed. I liked this book and would recommend it.

Book Review: Legacies, A Chinese Mosaic

How much do you know about recent Chinese history? I knew a bit, but reading Legacies, A Chinese Mosaic, by Betty Bao Lord, really brought the recent human tragedies of modern China home.

Bao Lord intertwines two main themes: the story of her experiences as an American citizen who emigrated from China as a youngster and is returning as the wife of a American diplomat, and the stories of Chinese friends and acquaintances, often given to her on audio tape, and recounting the sordid and tragic tale of the last 50 years of China. She does all this against the backdrop of the mid to late 1980s and the Tiananmen Square protests by college students.

This book derives much of its power from the simple stories Bao Lord relates. Whether it’s the man who stays alive locked in his office (for years) because his son flys a kite to reminds his father of his presence, or the stories of the real life excesses of the Red Guards, burning any of the “Four Olds,” these stories are touching and real. Even her own family story has a certain pathos, as we learn about her grandfather dying three years before she was able to visit, her aunt calmly dying of cancer, and a sister who only learned that she was adopted by happenstance.

The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the other major events of modern Chinese history are only touched on as they affect the people in the stories told, but even that was enough to shock me with what this nation endured. In fact, it’s even more shocking than it was when I read about it in the history books, because the folks in the stories are real people.

With enough eyeballs…

I referred to Project Gutenberg obliquely here, but browsing their site I found that they’ve implemented distributed proofreading. This is a very good thing. I did one book, Hiram, the Young Farmer, for PG a few years ago, when I was in college and time wasn’t so precious. The OCR went quickly, but the proofreading was slow going and error prone; the story wasn’t exactly riveting, but it was in the public domain. (In fact, I just took a look at Hiram and found at least two mistakes. Doh!)

But Distributed Proofreaders solves the proofreading problem by making both the scanned image and the OCRed text available to me in a web browser. Now I can proofread one page at a time, easily take a break, and even switch between books if I’d like. Also, they’ve implemented a two phase review, much like Mozilla’s review and super review process. Hopefully this will prevent mistakes from being made, since these are going to be the authoritative electronic versions of these documents for some time. Linus’ law probably holds for text conversion even more than for software development.

Now, it wasn’t apparent to me from the website, but I certainly hope the creators of this project have licensed it out to businesses–I can see this application being a huge help for medical transcriptions (work from home!) and any other kind of paper to electronic form conversion.

It looks like there is a bit of a type competition among the PGDP proofreaders.

Book Review: Hackers

Hackers, by Steven Levy, should be required reading for anyone who programs computers for a living. Starting from the late 1950s, when the first hackers wrote code for the TX-0 and every instruction counted, to the early 1980s, when computers fully entered the consumer mainstream, and it was marketing rather than hacking which mattered. Levy divides this time into three eras: that of the ‘True Hackers,’ who lived in the AI lab at MIT and spent most of their time on the PDP series, the ‘Hardware Hackers,’ mostly situated in Silicon Valley and responsible for enhancing the Altair and creating the Apple, and the ‘Game Hackers,’ who were also centered in California; expert at getting the most out of computer hardware, they were also the first to make gobs and gobs of money hacking.

The reason everyone who codes should read this book is to gain a sense of history. Because the field changes so quickly, it’s easy to forget that there is a history, and, as Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” It’s also very humbling, at least for me, to see what kind of shenanigans were undertaken to get the last bit of performance from a piece of hardware that was amazing for its time, but now would be junked without a thought. And a third takeaway was the transformation that the game industry went through in the early 80s: first you needed technical brilliance, because the hardware was slow and new techniques needed to be discovered. However, at some point, the hard work was all done, and the business types took over. To me, this corresponds to the 1997-2001 time period, with the web rather than games being the focus.

That’s one of my beefs–the version I read was written in 1983, and republished, with a new afterword in 1993. So, there’s no mention of the new ‘4th generation’ of hackers, who didn’t have the close knit communities of the Homebrew Computer Club or the AI lab, but did have a far flung, global fellowship via email and newsgroups. It would be a fascinating read.

Beyond the dated nature of the book, Levy omits several developments that I think were fundamental to the development of the hacker mindset. There’s only one mention of Unix in the entire book, and no mention of C. In fact, the only languages he mentions are lisp, basic and assembly. No smalltalk, and no C. I also feel that he overemphasizes ‘hacking’ as a way that folks viewed and interacted with the world, without defining it. For instance, he talks about Ken Williams, founder of Sierra Online, ‘hacking’ the company, when it looked to me like it was simple mismanagement.

For all that, it was a fantastic read. The more you identify with the geeky, single males who were in tune with the computer, the easier and more fun a read it will be, but I still think that everyone who uses a computer could benefit from reading Hackers, because of the increased understanding of the folks that we all depend on to create great software.

Book Review: Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow

If you thought Halliburton abusing the tax payers was something new and different, think again. Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, by Dee Brown, is a history of the building of the transcontinental railroads. It starts in 1854 and proceeds in detail until the 1890s, then hurriedly summarizes until the 1970s. (The book was written in 1977.) And Brown shows, repeatedly and at length, how the railroad builders screwed the American public time and again.

In fact, reading this book made me very very angry. It’s the same old story: a bunch of rich men want to get richer, and figure out ways to use the public purse to make money. In this case, there were three main ways that wealth was moved from the taxpayer to the wealthy: scams building the railroads, land grants, and high railroad rates. Brown examines all of these in some detail, and sometimes the disgust just made me squirm. He also, towards the end of the book, examines some of the political reaction to the railroads: the Grangers and the Populist Party. And he covers at least some of what the railroads did to the Native Americans.

However, he also intermingles first person accounts in this story of perfidy. Whether it is stories from the immigrants, the first riders of the transcontinetnal railroad, the railroad workers, or the Congressmen who authorized the land grants, he quotes extensively from letters and speeches. In fact, he might go overboard in the quoting department; I would have appreciated more analysis of some of the statements.

Brown does include some very choice, precient statements though. In chapter 11, talking about Pullman’s improvements, a French traveller said “…unless the Americans invent a style of dwelling that can be moved from one place to another (and they will come to this, no doubt, in time)…”. In chapter 12, a fellow was travelling on an immigrant train and was happy to be separated in the mens’ car because he “escaped that most intolerable nuisance of miscellaneous travelling, crying babies.”

I learned a lot from this book, both about American history and the railroads. In large part, the railroads made the modern west–I 80 follows the path of the Union Pacific, and Colorado Springs was founded because a railroad magnate owned chunks of land around the area. It’s also always illuminating to see that, in politics as in everything else, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Book Review: Enterprise J2ME

Update 2/25/07: added Amazon link.

I go to Java Users Groups (yes, I’m struggling to get in touch with my inner geek) once every two or three months. Sometimes there’s an engaging speaker, but most of the time the fellow up front looks like he’s just swallowed a hot pepper, speaks like he has a permanent stutter, and answers questions like I’m speaking Greek. (I’m not making fun; I had a hard time when I was in front of a JUG too.) Regardless of the quality of the speaker, I gain something just by watching the presentation–he points out interesting technologies and usually has a list of resources at the end that I can use for further research.

I think Michael Yuan would be a great speaker at a JUG, as he seems to have a masterful understanding of Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME). However, the true value of his book, Enterprise J2ME, was in its introduction of new ideas and concepts, and the extensive resource listings. This book is a survey of the current state of the art in mobile java technology. Whatever your topic is, except for gaming development, you’ll find some coverage here. Securing information on the device or network, XML parsing strategies, messaging architectures, and data synchronization issues are all some of the topics that Yuan covers.

My favorite chapter was Chapter 7, ‘End to End Best Practices.’ Here, Yuan covers some of the things he’s learned in developing his own enterprise applications, and offers some solutions to five issues that differ between the J2ME world and the worlds familiar to most Java developers: J2EE and J2SE. He offers capsule solutions to the issues of “limited device hardware, slow unreliable networks, pervasive devices, ubiquitous integration [and] the impatient user.” Later in the book, he explores various architectures to expand on some of these capsules.

However, the strength of this book, exposing the reader to a number of different mobile technologies, is also its weakness. JUG speakers very rarely dive into a technology to the point that I feel comfortable using it without additional research; I usually have to go home, download whatever package was presented, and play with it a bit to get a real feel for its usefulness. This book was much the same. Some of the chapters, like chapters 12 and 13, where issues with databases on mobile devices (CDC devices, not CLDC devices) weren’t applicable to my kind of development, but you can hardly fault Yuan for that. Some of the later chapters felt like a series of ‘hello world’ applications for various vendors. This is especially true of chapter 12, and also of chapter 20, which is a collection of recipes for encryption on the device.

Additionally, I feel like some of the points he raised in Chapter 7 are never fully dealt with. An example of this is section 7.3.3, “Optimize for many devices.” The project I’m on is struggling with this right now, but I had trouble finding any further advice on this important topic beyond this one paragraph section. However, these small issues don’t take away from the overall usefulness of the book–if you are developing enterprise software, you’ll learn enough from this book to make its purchase worthwhile.

However, I wouldn’t buy the book if you’re trying to learn J2ME. Yuan gives a small tutorial on basic J2ME development in Appendix A, but you really need an entire book to learn the various packages, processes and UI concerns of J2ME, whether or not you have previously programmed in Java. Additionally, if you’re trying to program a standalone game, this book isn’t going to have a lot to offer you, since Yuan doesn’t spend a lot of time focused on UI concerns and phone compatibility issues. Some of the best practices about limited hardware may be worth reading, and if it’s a networked game, however, you may gain from his discussions in Chapter 6, “Advanced HTTP Techniques.” In general though, I’m not sure there’s enough to make it worth a game developer’s while.

I bought this book because I’m working on a networked J2ME application, and it stands alone in its discussion of the complex architectural issues that such applications face. It covers more than that, and isn’t perfect, but it is well worth the money, should you be facing the kind of problems I am. Indeed, I wish I had had this book months ago, as I’m sure it would have improved the my current application.

Link to book on Amazon.

Book Review: Sixth Column

If you’re looking for an introduction to Robert A. Heinlein’s vast corpus of fantastic science fiction, don’t read Sixth Column, read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. If you’re a Heinlein junkie who’s read all his other stuff and you want a quick, fun read covering the typical Heinlein themes (the able man, war, gee whiz technology, “long live democracy”), then you’ll definitely want to pick up this book.

The basic premise is: the USA has been invaded by “PanAsians,” and the government effectively destroyed. Having subjugated India, the “PanAsians” know how to tie down the USA–lots of labor camps, citizen registration and public executions as punishment for any rebellion. But they also have learned not to interfere with their subjects’ religion(s). One small military base, a research laboratory, has escaped destruction; luckily the plucky soldiers have an able commander and lots of technology the invaders simply can’t match.

From there, it’s just a matter of time. The reader gets to watch how these men build a movement, screw with the “PanAsian” leadership, and eventually free the USA. Of course the technology is hokey and the dialog can be a bit offensive, but it’s realistic (yeah, I think slurs are allowable if they’re marching your family off to the labor camps). This book was written in 1949 and reflects some of the paranoia that Heinlein later gave voice to in Expanded Universe.

But, it’s a fun, quick read and if you like Heinlein, you’ll probably like it. It’s no classic, but not every book can be.

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