Monday, January 28, 2008

The broker

Although this is a fairly old book of Grisham's, I got around to reading it only now. The broker is the story of a cunning Washington lawyer and lobbyist, who amasses money and power by hook and crook. One of his crooked deals gets him between a rock and a hard place. With multiple foreign secret services after his life, he cuts a deal, pleads guilty and gets into federal prison.

The twists begin when the CIA lets him loose with a presidential pardon, so that he can be bait. The CIA wants to know who will come after / kill him. They throw him in Italy in a totally foreign environment and leak his presence.

The real fun begins when the FBI and the CBI get into loggerheads, trying to one-up each other. Backman's cunningness comes to the fore, when he escapes multiple assassins, comes back to Washington and plays the political establishment to clean his life.

An engrossing read, left me on a high. I found it funny though, how Grisham calls it 'hacking', when a user uses an internet cafe to send email. The other references to technology like the smart phones, encrypted email etc all sound quite realistic though.

Would recommend this.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Dreaming in Code" by Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg's "Dreaming in Code", despite its rather evocative title, is the mundane story of an ongoing software project called "Chandler", a tool for Personal Information Management (PIM). Wait, that's not right. It is a vividly written but altogether-familiar story of software development. A story of requirements ("specs") and disagreements, of delays and deadlines, of plans, of changes in plans and of more changes in plans, of ideals and of pragmatism, and of course, of bugs that make you tear your hair out in agony. The sort of things that are all too familiar, when it comes to coding.

Why then, was it written? Over to Rosenberg :
Chandler offered a look at the technical, cultural and psychological dimension of making software, liberated from the exigencies of the business world. [pg 54]
But I am getting ahead of my tale.

In the post-war era, a project that took on a special meaning with the development of computing machines: the augmentation of human intellect. Here, many people thought, was a tool to rival language, and writing, a tool perhaps to re-invent man himself. The vision has been expressed eloquently: most notably by Vannevar Bush ("As We May Think") and Douglas Engelbart ("Augmenting Human Intellect"). Chandler, an open-ended open-source project, follows in that same tradition.

Mitchell Kapor, the owner of OSAF, and the hero of our story, was the designer behind Lotus 1-2-3, the first widely successful spreadsheet used in the business world. Lotus 1-2-3 made Kapor a millionaire several times over. His next product called "Agenda", was supposed to take personal information management to the next level and from the reviews, it did! -- but it never really took off and Lotus dropped it like a hot potato (see this review by James Fallows, that praises Agenda but also gives a good idea of its difficulties). But Agenda remained on Kapor's mind and in Chandler, he tried to go back to the same feeling that inspired him to build it.

What was this spirit? PIMs like Microsoft Outlook separate their content into silos: there's email, there are tasks, there are lists, there are action items, and so on. But of course there are no such neat categories in human activity where everything is also something else. My email is also a task (not the least because I actually have to type a reply to it), a task or a project involves emails, emails are parts of projects, emails are a way to store and access files, documents. In other words, the decomposition of the artifacts of human activity, while convenient, is also just that: an analytic convenience. Agenda aimed to go beyond silos -- as does Chandler. A personal tool that would not be caught into silos, something that could truly capture the way humans actually worked, and thereby help them do their tasks better.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Programming itself is all about silos. Formalization, which is after all what programs are all about, require us to logically decompose processes and methods into categories. The better the categories are defined, the better a program will work. Overlapping categories and amorphous boundaries, while not unimplementable, are almost guaranteed to break down in some scenario or the other. Still, Chandler was almost a romantic project, a project that followed in the tradition of Bush and Engelbart so it had an open-ended vision, something most software projects can't really afford.

That Chandler could do so was because it was administered by Kapor's OSAF, the Open Source Applications Foundation. This was to be a non-profit project, a project solely instigated by what is called "the programmer's itch", an urge to get something done that starts off with a personal wish or frustration ("I wish I had a software that did this" or "Damn, why can't this calendar software do that??" etc). The non-profit part (which of course depended heavily on Mitch Kapor's deep pockets) meant that the Chandler team was liberated from constraints that come when you program for profit.

But there was a third component that made Chandler special. Chandler was to be open-source and therefore it was meant to harness the forces of peer production. This meant that a core Chandler team would work on the code, while at the same time, at least in theory, relying on a vast array of programmers all over the world. In short it would take the best of the two modes of production, made famous by Eric Raymond: "the Cathedral and the Bazaar". In his essay, Raymond postulates that there are two modes of production. One of them, embodied by the cathedral, is a top-down, command-and-control approach, where a plan is built up and then systematically carried out. The other, embodied by the bazaar, is bottom-up: a group of people find each other and self-organize, without any command-and-control structure. The development of Linux followed the bazaar model -- and the main reason for its success that the internet offered a wide range of tools for a lot of people, all over the world, to collaborate. Raymond's conclusion is what he called Linus' Law: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow".

So, did Chandler's combination of the cathedral and the bazaar work? Its still too early to tell, Rosenberg's book ends with the release of Chandler 0.5 (the most recent version is 0.7 -- the fully functional Chandler release is 1.0, still a long way off). But the book does illustrate the problems of having an open-ended software project. Because the Chandler team could not agree on a set of requirements, they could not get a batch of workable code out immediately -- the release of workable code being a crucial component in harnessing the forces of peer production. But Chandler never quite managed to get the participation that a peer-produced project generally needs and slowly its team slogged on, making compromises, slowly and steadily.

I could go on and on but I'll stop now. Try Chandler out, I liked it, even if I don't quite visualize using it just yet. What did I take away from Dreaming in Code? Perhaps, if nothing else, this quote by Linus Torvalds, his advice for people starting large open-source projects, burned into my brain (pg 174):

"Nobody should start to undertake a large project, " Torvalds snapped. "You start with a small trivial project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you'll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage. Or, worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision. So start small and think about the details. Don't think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn't solve some fairly immediate need, it's almost certainly overdesigned."

Words from the wise, indeed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World -- A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs decides to go through the daunting task of reading all 32 volumes (32,900 pages) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and does! The result - this book, a compilation of strange, very interesting facts associated with each word he reads, augmented by his own sarcastic humor about the fact and intertwined with funny events in his life, mostly around his quest for knowledge.

Oysters can change sex according to the termperature of the water. I always knew there was something emasculating about warm baths.
The Greek interrogation mark became the English semicolon. Bizarre, no;
This member of the grasshopper family is named for its unique mating call, which sounds like a psychotic witness: "Katy did, Katy didn't, Katy did, Katy didn't."
A Russian nobleman patented a coffin that allowed the corpse-if he regained consciousness after burial-to summon help by ringing a bell. A good idea. Because that could really screw up your week-to wake up and fine yourself in an airless coffin. I guess nowadays they could put cell phones in there.

An encyclopedia with fun oddball facts. Would make for a nice coffee table book too, given you can turn to any page and spend just a couple minutes to be entertained and informed.

Tidbit: Some other people who have read the entire Britannica: Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, C. S. Forester and George Bernard Shaw.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Kite Runner -- Khaled Hosseini

There is only one way that I like a book or movie to end - with a 'feel good' effect on me. For this reason, I had long dismissed Kite Runner from my hope-to-read-some-day list, despite its long held best seller status. I had heard it was a very emotionally heavy story and I imagined reading the book would be lugging myself through pages of anguish, concluding with a grand melancholic finale. Now that I have read it, I know I was not entirely wrong in my assumptions, but I am more than gratified about not having missed reading it.

It is the story of Amir, an Afghan boy, written in first person. It revolves around his friendship with Hassan, the son of his father's servant. The first part of the story is set in Kabul, during its last few years of monarchy, where Amir's childhood days are spent living and playing with Hassan, going to school, and trying to bond with his well-to-do, socially respected father. Amir and his dad move to Pakistan and then to the United States to escape the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Fifteen years later, Amir returns to a Taliban infested, blood-drenched, scary Afghanistan in hopes of redeeming his lost friendship with Hassan and to "find a way to be good".

The Kite Runner is a great book for many reasons. But most of all, it is a great book for the one reason tales continue to be told and fiction writing thrives - its entertainment value. I saw the book at a friend's place. I flipped to read a couple pages just to confirm my suspicions about the nature of the book. About 3 pages later, I was hooked and it remained to be a page-turner till the very end. The second half of the book has loads of twists and turns (and it occurred to me more than once that our hindi movies would do well to use a few of these ;-) ). [And the finale was not melancholic, though emotions do reach an all-time high :).]

It is also a great book for my most favourite reason: the eloquent writing style. The narration is very simple, yet remarkably effective and passionate. So passionate, it was hard for me to believe it isnt the author's own life story.

While it is obvious that I very highly recommend the book, I would like to sneak in the one minor personal quibble I had - the narration seemed like the author did not want to give allowance for happiness. Amir's life has its highs and lows, happy and sad times. The lows are given just the right treatment - narrated in a manner to evoke empathy in the reader without making it unduly dramatic. The highs, though, are either written in a matter-of-factly style or immediately followed up with hints of impending woe - statements on the lines of "It made me happy, lest did I know it wouldnt last long". But all said, I should add that this is mostly overshadowded by everything else that the book became a best seller for.

Now, also adapted into a movie.

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian Mcewan

[This review contains some spoilers but rest assured they will not, in any way, affect your reading of "On Chesil Beach"]

When Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam, I picked up his "First Love, Last Rites", his collection of eight short stories at the British Council Library in Mumbai. These macabre horror tales about sex made quite an impression on me (In the very first piece a 13-year old boy seduces his 12-year old sister and then, well, something happens). McEwan's style is clipped, almost clinical but the effect he achieves is vivid. Each of the stories was like a road full of ghosts: I'd start reading and finally emerge out of the tale bleary-eyed, confused, and more than a little disoriented, admiring the writing and trying to sort out what exactly the writer was trying to say.

What those stories lacked though was any kind of emotional accessibility -- you admired them, you admired the writer's sheer technical skill and always -- always! -- you ended up saying "Wow". But that was it. (McEwan's last two books, Atonement, and Saturday, are beautiful exceptions to this.)

After the weird experience of reading McEwan's sexually charged horror stories, I am therefore happy to report that McEwan's latest book "On Chesil Beach" returns him to his preoccupations with sex -- but that, despite the horror, it is an emotionally accesible, wonderfully written piece of work. (You can read an extract that appeared in the New Yorker).

It begins like this:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

"On Chesil Beach" is the story of that wedding night and of its heart-breaking consequences. Edward and Florence are the quintessential couple. He, 23, is a working-class boy, who has just majored in history and has a fine career ahead of him. Florence, 22, is a promising musician, a gifted violinist. They met, fell in love, and got married. Their courtship, McEwan tells us:

... had been a pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by protocols never agreed upon or voiced but generally observed. Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation. While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not customary
to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.

As the novel opens, they are both sitting down to dinner, their first night after the wedding, on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach. Dinner, of course, is not on either of their minds. Edward is both terrified of and looking forward to what is coming. Florence has the deeper problem, an almost pathological aversion, almost a distaste, to any form of sex. But she loves Edward
... not with the hot, moist passion she had read about but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally. She loved cuddling him, and having his enormous arm around her shoulders, and being kissed by him, though she disliked his tongue in her mouth and had wordlessly made this clear. She thought that he was original, unlike anyone she had ever met. He always had a paperback book, usually history, in his jacket pocket in case he found himself in a queue or a waiting room. He marked what he read with a pencil stub. He was virtually the only man Florence had met who did not smoke. None of his socks matched. He had only one tie, narrow, knitted, dark blue, which he wore nearly all the time with a white shirt. She adored his curious mind, his mild country accent, the huge strength of his hands, the unpredictable swerves and drifts of his conversation, his kindness to her, and the way his soft brown eyes, resting on her when she spoke, made her feel enveloped in a friendly cloud of love. At the age of twenty-two, she had no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Edward Mayhew. How could she have dared risk losing him?
Should she tell Edward about her fears? Is Florence's aversion something that could be easily explained by the mores of those times (remember we are talking about 1962)? Or does she have a "problem" -- does she need therapy? McEwan doesn't say but as dinner advances and the two lovers circle closer and closer to their moment of truth, he fill us in on the details of their courtship, their greatest hopes, their deepest fears. Somewhere along the way, I found myself actually in the room with Edward and Florence, heart in my mouth, watching with my hands over my eyes, almost like in a horror movie, saying furiously "Dont mess it up, you two -- do NOT mess it up".

Do they mess it up? To say what happens and how it happens would be giving too much away but suffice it to say that McEwan's cold, clinical, almost medical prose is perfect in its pitch and the story of Edward and Florence's wedding night stayed in my mind long after I finished reading it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Secret

I am not a book lover nor do I read a lot of books. This is my first stumbling step at getting a review out.

It was one of those days for me where you feel that your life sucks and so does your job (well this happens to me every second day I am in office) I picked up the phone and called my General Manager in India, and after one hour of complaining on phone on how my career was not moving anywhere. He very calmly asked me if I get posted in a new town will I not manage to find an apartment and settle down, irrespective of how much help I get from others in finding an apartment. I told him I know I will manage.
His perspective about my career was the same, in a nutshell he told me please don’t complain to others look for answers yourself and you will find what you want (If you know what you want). He dint leave me in the dark, before he hung up the phone he recommend this book 'The Secret'. It would be $10 well spend read the book is what he said. I picked up the book from Wal-Mart and for once managed to read through the entire book.

The book is written on "Law of Attraction" based on the working of the cosmos, your thoughts and feelings attract real things in life.
A very intriguing thought process, the book contains interviews from practitioners or teachers who believe or follow the principles of 'the secret' and have been successful.

The excerpt
The Secret is the law of attraction
Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it's attracted to you by virtue of the images you're holding in your mind. it's what you're thinking. Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you.
"Every thought of yours is a real thing- a force."


The book focuses on positive thinking (asking, believing and receiving), think or ask from life what you want, believe in your asking and receive what you asked for (I know it sounds like another BS inspirational book).
But if I guess if you are positive and look forward for something in your life it becomes easier to grab an opportunity when it comes to you.
You are expecting things to come to you (Wait on the cricket ground expecting a catch to come to you, you stand a better chance to catch it than the one who is least expecting one)
I never believed in positive thinking being a pessimist myself, but since everything in your life is so much dependent on your thinking and how you perceive life it is worth giving this book a try.
I am not the right guy to explain how this stuff works, but personally life becomes a lot easier being positive and thinking good and looking forward for what you want from life, rather than sitting back and wining; even if you don’t receive what you want, you might probably end up having a better day.