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Book Review: Return Of The Dapper Men

Return of the Dapper MenReturn of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. This book is amazing. The story is great: a world with no adults, where time has stood still since... forever? Then, the Dapper Men arrive, and time begins again. The children and robots that inhabit the world need to fix some things, and one of the Dapper Men helps them nudge things along. The world That Jim McCann creates is a world ripe for exploration, and when I finished the book, I wanted to read more about the next adventures that were in store for everyone.

I met the book's artist, Janet K Lee, at an event at my comic book store a few weeks ago and picked up the book. While the story is great, what really draws me in is the art. There's a lot that goes into the way Janet does it, and it's a fascinating process. The art is perfectly matched to the story, and it's easy to get lost in the fanciful details.

I'm looking forward to the sequels.

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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of EverythingFreakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been recommended to me several times over the past few years. I've always been interested in checking it out, so I added it to my library hold request list and when it became available, I jumped on it.

The first thing I'll point out is that the book is really only about half as long as the Kindle progress bar indicates it is. About halfway through, I found myself surprised to be reading the Epilogue, even more surprised when the Epilogue wasn't very long. It turns out that the second half of the book was devoted to Q&A with the authors, reprinting several newspaper columns by the authors, reprinting a book review, and a very extensive index of searchable terms specifically formatted to be useful in an eBook. When I had finished the book, most of the supplemental material wasn't interesting to me (the review and columns pretty much rehashed a lot of the info that was in the main text, e.g.). So all in all, it turned out to be a quicker read than I expected.

The book itself presents what I'd classify as "pop economics" (and I don't think I'm alone in that classification). That is, the authors use economic theories to address questions that are more interesting than what economics is usually used to address, and they do so in a non-threatening, non-academic fashion. For example, they present a case study related to drug trafficking to explore why if drug dealing is such a lucrative business, drug dealers still live with their mothers. One of the most "in your face" theories they present deals with how legalized abortion in the US in the 1970s is the primary cause for the dramatic decrease in crime in the US in the 1990s. The way the authors took outlandish and bizarre questions, broke them down into pieces that could be reasonably studied, and followed the trail wherever it led them made for compelling reading. I was especially intrigued by the chapter dealing with cheating, where they examined how teachers can (and do) cheat for their students on standardized tests and how cheating is apparently rampant in the sport of sumo wrestling.

More than anything, this book shows that it's worth actually taking the time to think about things, and to think about them in unconventional manners. Ask questions, don't necessarily accept that the questions can't be answered, or accept the standard pat answers. But instead, really think about the questions and explore all sorts of possible solutions. I'm not an economist, and I'm not going to spend a lot of time thinking about questions like they ones explored in this book. But I do spend a lot of time in the course of my job thinking about all sorts of questions that can stand to be examined in unconventional ways. So in addition to being an enjoyable read, this is the kind of book that helps me think about the way I think. I like that.

Should you read this book? Absolutely. The case studies are generally interesting, no matter what field of work you are in. Additionally, the writing style is compelling, keeping what could otherwise be tedious material fresh and fun to read.

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Inside Delta ForceInside Delta Force by Eric Haney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book because every time I stumble across the TV show "The Unit," I really enjoy the show and I thought I would enjoy reading the book that serves as its basis. I was not disappointed, this was a very enjoyable book.

As a memoir, there's no real formal plot to follow, but Haney does a great job of creating a narrative flow that makes sense. The reader is guided through the creation of Delta Force from the perspective of a member seeking admission. Readers learn about how the selection process works gradually, just like Haney does as he's going through it. Once on the force, Haney guides the reader through the intense training required to prepare for real-world missions. Finally, Haney takes the reader through several early Delta Force missions, demonstrating how all the selection and training was essential to creating a team that was able to effectively respond to worldwide threats.

I'm not a military buff, and I appreciated that the book was written in such a way that was accessible to me. I learned enough about the military to properly frame the events described, but not so much that it was completely overwhelming and took away from the narrative. Additionally, much of what Haney describes with respect to discipline, training, honor, dedication, etc. is not limited to military life -- these principles are directly applicable in business settings or anyone's personal life. From that standpoint, there is much in that book that is generally inspirational.

As I read, I highlighted several passages. Haney's matter-of-fact observation on winning versus losing battles struck me as interesting and true:
In combat, there are no winners. The victors just happen to lose less than the vanquished.
The book is full of statements like that, where Haney makes an observation and moves on without getting mired in attempting to discuss deep philosophy.

Haney's observation on how to improve an organization struck me as applicable to a business setting as to the military:
There is no better way for an organization to improve itself and move forward in a professional manner. But it is a process that must be fundamentally rooted in trust and mutual respect. The very instant it becomes a weapon rather than a lens for diagnostic analysis, the process is dead.
This observation was made after describing the process of an "after-action review" where "each man's actions were gone over in complete detail... mistakes were analyzed and successful methods were noted." It seems that Delta Force was able to successfully perform self-analysis -- including detailed examination of errors -- without using that analysis as a way to punish the low performers. This is how teams are successfully built and strengthened, and is something that the business world would do well to take note of.

Finally, one of my favorite quotes from the book came as Haney discusses the problems encountered when decisions were made and/or overruled by top officials who didn't have a good understanding of what was actually happening:
Nothing is impossible for those who don't actually have to do it.
I see this mentality all the time.

A note about the Kindle edition: the book contains a selection of photographs. For the print version, I don't know how the photos are presented in the book, but it's somewhat awkward in the Kindle version. They photos are stuck at the very back of the text, with no explanation or indication that they are there, and appear to simply be a direct representation of the photo page. I think the formatting of those photos could be improved. As far as the text goes, it was formatted for the Kindle just fine.

Do I recommend this book? Unquestionably yes.

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"Daily Haiku: 2011" Now Available

Last year, I published a book of the silly haiku I wrote all throughout 2010. Well, I continued the Daily Haiku project throughout 2011, and have a new volume available.

I know you want to by a copy or three, so here's how you can do it. At lulu.com, they have the hardcover ($20) and paperback ($10). Use the coupon code "LULUBOOK305" (good until January 31, 2012) at checkout to get 25% off the order (which will help offset the shipping charges). I'll eventually have a Kindle version available, and the paperback version will eventually be available on amazon.com.

I'm also working on getting my Baseball Haiku put together in a book, but that's taking a little while to get organized.


Book Review: The Leader Who Had No Title

The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and inThe Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success in Business and in by Robin S. Sharma
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because I was finding myself trapped in corporate red tape and dead ends with respect to career advancement. Someone recommended this as a good book to help with thinking about leadership outside the confines of the corporate world.

I like how the author presented this in the context of a story, instead of a typical dry business leadership book. It's all common-sense stuff, but it's nice to read it in the digestible format presented here. The author takes the position that leadership is not something that is compartmentalized to business settings. Instead, leadership characteristics are pervasive in every area of our lives. By focusing on incorporating leadership ideas into every aspect of your life, it can make you more successful all around.

The book provides a fresh inspirational take on leadership. I enjoyed reading it to help me think about a big picture view of leadership, not just trying to figure out how to get ahead army job. I plan to retread it every few years.

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Book Review: Becoming Agile

Becoming AgileBecoming Agile by Greg Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because I recently started a new job that uses Agile, and I wanted to come up to speed with the methodology as quickly as possible. Coming from a development background focused on variations of the waterfall method, this book was a good introduction to using Agile in real-world situations.

Instead of a book of theory, this book presents a fictional case study of a team moving to Agile processes. I liked how by doing that, the book shows how to bring Agile processes to a team in an evolutionary manner. In the real world, you just can't switch processes by snapping your fingers, and this book shows examples of how to explore new processes and bring them into your team in a way that makes sense.

Reading this book has helped me come up to speed with the new (to me) methodologies I'm using ant my new job. I'm not sure that it's the kind of book I'll be coming back to often, but it was definitely a good read to help me get up to speed.

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First Day Of Work: SUCCESS!

OK, it's only been one day, so I really can't even expect to have a fair view of the new job. Even so, I can already tell that I'm going love it.

I started the day early. Not knowing what the traffic was going to be like, I wanted to give myself two hours so I'd easily have more than enough time to get there. I ended up leaving twenty minutes later than I planned, but it only took me 72 minutes to get there. I really was expecting it to take at least an hour and a half. I must have missed the traffic. At the worst, I had to slow down to 55mph before getting off the interstate. The evening commute was similar: 76 minutes. I listened to podcasts (Coverville and The Roadhouse) in the morning. In the evening, I chatted with family and friends on the phone.

The day itself was typical first day. Most of the morning was HR and company orientation. The IT department got me set up with my accounts and passwords. I had a little bit of time before lunch to start poking at the company wiki and learning.

A handful of folks went to lunch, which was nice.

After lunch, I spent more time poking through the company wiki, requesting development machine access, configuring my workspace, and meeting a few other employees. I also spent some time filling out all my HR forms. I set up my CVS access and Eclipse, and started browsing at the code. Before I knew it, it was time to head home. The time just flew by.

The environment is laid back, and the company seems to treat the employees like adults. So far, I'm not seeing evidence of overly-bureaucratic policies. The environment seems oriented to getting the work done. It's a very liberating change from what I'm used to.

I'm also hugely impressed by the break room. Free fountain sodas, fancy coffee, and fancy tea. A wii, big TV, and a couple of pinball games.

I'm hoping that I'll be able to work my schedule to shift to earlier office hours, which will allow me to get home earlier. It'll require getting up earlier, so it will take some shifting around to figure out a reasonable schedule.

I'm looking forward to going back tomorrow.


So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

Farewell BaseballFarewell Baseball

Today was my last day at work. I start a new job Monday.

I've worked at the job I'm leaving for about twelve and a half years. It was my first job out of college. I worked there from 1996-1999, then took a break to work for a startup for three years. In 2002, I was thrilled to be able to return to the job I left, and I've been working there ever since.

Changing jobs was a very difficult decision, primarily due to the fantastic team of people I am leaving behind now. Several of the people still working there were working there when I first started in 1996. Such longevity is extremely unusual in the software development industry. These people are more than my coworkers, they are like family. My time at the job has been highly rewarding, and I hope to be able to work with each of the people on the team again at some point.

It was difficult to make the decision to leave, but it was time to go. Over the past several years, the company has been shifting strategies with how they produce the software that I wrote for them. The more things shifted, the more obvious it became that there was not going to be a good long-term fit for me going forward. I started looking for another job, and things actually fell into place pretty quickly.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had some great conversations with people at the old job, including several levels up the management chain. Everyone seemed interested in hearing what I had to say about how I'm seeing things change on our team, and what can be done to help ensure the future success of the team. I hope that the team continues to thrive. Who knows -- if things at the company shift back to create an environment similar to the environment there was two years ago, I'd welcome the opportunity to work with my team again.

I'm really excited about the new job. I'll be writing software that the company sells, instead of software that is used internally. I haven't done that since the startup I worked at. It's different when you write software that the business is built around than when you write software that plays a supporting role. The new company also uses a semi-agile methodology, which will be a welcome change (and challenge) from the semi-waterfall methodology that I've worked in my entire professional career. I've been reading a lot about agile lately to help prepare.

The new job is not going to be without its drawbacks, to be sure. Notably, my commute is going to change from about seven minutes to an hour fifteen or more. I'm not going to be able to meet yarbiedoll for lunch anymore. I already told my ticket rep with the Grasshoppers that I won't be renewing my season ticket for baseball next year. I've dropped off the committee I was on at church. I'm sticking with the praise band, but pretty much everything else I was committed to that takes time, I've cut back. I'll be listening to a lot of podcasts on my commute. It's definitely going to be a different mindset, with the new commute.

As I finished out my final days at the old job, many of my coworkers came by to wish me well. I'm definitely going to miss that team. On the flip side, I'm looking forward to getting to know my new team.


Writer's Block: Time for change

If you could ask the leader of your country anything, what would it be?

The elimination of Daylight Saving Time.

This is, of course, the primary plank in my "Dr. Mellow For President" election campaign.
Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this book.

Several people have recommended it to me, and the Kindle version was recently on sale at a great price, so I picked it up and put it in my "to-read" pile. When it bubbled to the top of the pile, I was glad to read it. For me, it was quite a page-turner and kept my attention well. I managed to read it over the course of just a few days.

Quick plot synopsis: The book focuses on the main character: Jacob. It follows him in two timelines: the "present," where he is an old man in a nursing home, and the "past," where he is a young man who joins the circus for a season after a tragic situation completely disturbs his idea of normalcy. I like how the author goes back and forth between the timelines. In the present, Jacob is excited about the circus visiting town, which brings back a flood of memories from his past. The main story is the story of Jacob in the circus. It's a hard life, but he manages to fit in well enough. During his time in the circus, he makes friends, he makes enemies, he falls in love, he deals with success, he deals with failure. His job is with the animals, and a big part of the book (especially the 2nd half) deals with his relationship between a newly acquired elephant, the performer who works with the elephant, and her husband (who is also Jacob's boss).

What I liked: The characters were believable, as was the plot. I loved going back and forth between the two timelines, and seeing how they related to each other. There were enough twits and turns in the story to keep me engaged, but not so many to become confusing. It's pretty obvious that the author did some research on how circuses worked in the depression era, and the details that she includes provide great color to the story. It's really a behind-the-scenes look at a circus, so it's pretty raw and rough around the edges. This kept it interesting.

What could have been improved: After the book was done, there was a Q-and-A piece with the author where she indicated that the backbone of the story was based on the biblical story of Jacob. I didn't see it. After a bit of internet searching, I saw some discussions that included some explanations on the parallels. After reading them, I can kinda see it, but it's a stretch. It doesn't change how much I enjoyed the book, but it left me feeling that the author was trying to do something with the story that she wasn't quite successful doing. *shrug* If you read the book, go into it looking for those parallels. You'll be more successful finding them if you know to look for them, because it's not at all obvious.

Should you read it? Yes, it's a very enjoyable read.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: "Is where you’re from the place you’re leaving or where you have roots?"

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