Dr. Neil's Book Reviews

The Black Swan
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Swans are white. Whiteness was considered to be a distinguishing feature of being a swan. Then black swans were discovered in Australia. This one, unpredictable, event changed the concept of what it means for an animal to be a swan. This book is by the well read and ever self-confident author of Fooled By Randomness, another great book.

I give this book nine out of ten.

What I like about it:

Nassim is excellent at getting his point across. The book sets the scene, tells some back story and then gets to the meat of the topic. Firmly planted in the real world and not some theoretical pure math hypothesis of how the world works, this book explores the randomness of events. Nassim proposes 2 views of the world Mediocristan and Extremistan; the Extremistan world can be changed by a single event, whereas in Mediocristan no single event can impact the total outcome.

In order to get a 10:

The author would spend more energy describing the concepts and focusing on simplifying the message. By his own admission many students will listen to what he says and agree then fail to apply the knowledge. I think the book could be shorter and still get the same message across without the need for personal glorification by the author. To counter this, the personal tales from the author are mostly interesting and add a human aspect to the story being told.

Applications = Code + Markup
By Charles Petzold

Charles Petzold is the programmers author. His writing has taught hosts of developers how to build Windows applications. Most of my initial Windows programming knowledge came from Charles’ original Programming Windows books. I have been fortunate enough to meet Charles and learn that he sees himself first as an author not a programmer. This should be apparent to anyone who reads his books, he writes with style, flow and panache. His books are easy to read and stand out in the vast wasteland of badly written technical books.

I give this book nine out of ten.

What I like about it:

The book takes the reader from the fundamentals of the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) through to the details.
I love the writing style, this is a technical book I read from beginning to end, not just dip into in order to solve problems.
I love the approach of teaching the reader how to build a full WPF application in code before discussing the XAML markup language.

In order to get a 10:

The book would have pointed out and recommended best practices for building applications on Windows. There are few places where I cringed as the sample program was doing something that I knew was not a good idea, for example displaying a message box in the OnSessionEnding handler of an application. While I appreciate the lesson learned from the sample was worthwhile I feel that it would have been good to point out the downside of doing this. Often a book like this will become a ‘bible’ of how to write applications and the religious zealots will hold the book up and say “Look Petzold displays a message box in his OnSessionEnding handler, so it must be good practice

The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins

I have been a fan of the writings of Richard Dawkins for over 10 years now. This book is brilliantly written, stimulating, thought provoking and funny. Richard has a very British sense of humour that appeals to me. His intellectual pursuits further cement my connection with him as an author.
Richard’s ability to break down the arguments and present Religion with a scientific viewpoint is invaluable. The truth behind the delusion that still persists throughout the world is clearly stated and broken down into its (ridiculous) components.

I give this book nine out of ten.

What I like about it:

I love the tone of the writing, treating the reader as an intelligent human with the sense to work through arguments to conclusion.
I love the way the book is structured and the layout of the chapters. The train of thought flows well from one section to the next.
I like the way Religion is examined and the reasons for Religion existing explored.
I like having finished this book with the thoughts that Religion is a virus of the human brain wrongly imposed on children.
I enjoy knowing that many other smart people have seen through the delusion and the opportunity exists to unveil the delusion to others.

In order to get a 10:

This book would have been written with the religious reader in mind, I fear this book will preach to those already converted to disbelief.

The Mind Gym, Wake Up Your Mind
By Octavius Black and Sebastian Bailey

I read this book in two phases, I read the first half in Europe in the summer of 2006, I found the contents interesting, the style mildly amusing and the pace too slow. Six months later in Sydney I picked the book up again and raced through the second half, hardly believing it to be the same book. This book is about changing your state of mind to better deal with situations and improve your opportunities. Upon finishing this book I reflected on why it had appeared slow going when I started reading it and seemed fast paced and witty the second time around; my conclusion is that this book requires energy from the reader. My mind was more distracted when I was in Europe, working on other projects and constant traveling. The second time around I was ready to read the book and learn from the lessons presented. Books like this require active reading, if you feel you have the energy to actively read this book, you will be rewarded.
While the authors names (especially Octavius) may sound like the baddies in a Harry Potter novel they are obviously smart, forward thinking people who wish to share their knowledge.

I give this book eight out of ten.

What I like about it:

I like the way the lessons in the book are presented with exercises to make the reader think and stretch their imaginations.
I like the references throughout the book to a very English way of thinking, I am not sure how this would work for a non-Anglo reader, but they worked well for me.
I love the tongue in cheek, ironic and slightly sarcastic sense of humour that filters down from the authors.

In order to get a 10:

This book would have picked up the pace faster. I think the fact I didn’t ‘get into’ this book to start with was the lack of energy directed at me as well as expected from me. To get more energy from the reader I think the authors needed to place more energy in the book up front.
There would be more focus on the positive. While I understand it is important to understand how negative thoughts and behavior impacts our output, I felt there was too much focus on the negative explaining the downsides. To reinforce the positive lessons that can be learned it would be better to tip the scales of the books content towards the positive.

The Long Tail
by Chris Anderson

When this book was first published I avoided it, I thought I knew what it had to say. I had read the articles in Wired and other magazines and listened to podcasts discussing The Long Tail. I figured the book would be a rip-off, trying to capitalize on the phrase de jour. I was wrong. This book is worth reading, it provides some interesting perspectives and more depth to the conversation.

I give this book seven out of ten.

What I like about it:

Chris is a smart author, he knows how to get a point across and reinforce the point through data. This book is an outcome of work done by more people and Chris has done a great job of distilling the research done into valuable points.
The Long Tail is a very readable book, it feels comfortable and easy going, there is nothing that made me stop and scratch my head then go back and read a paragraph again.

In order to get a 10:

The book would have contained less repetition, I often wonder how many books I have read where the facts and lessons could have fitted into a book half the size. This book is a good example.
I would have liked to see more ‘homework’ or take home points. At the end of each chapter there should be a summary of the chapter and then some thinking points aimed at stimulating the reader into thinking about the implications to their business.
The examples in the book focus heavily on the entertainment industry, music and movies. I would like to have seen some more exploration of the other markets where the opportunities have opened up and the long tail is emerging.

The Art Of The Start
by Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki is a great author. A man that started in diamond sales, has worked for Apple and now runs his own venture capital organization, Guy has seen a few starts in his time. Along with reading this book I recommend trying to see Guy in action on stage. He might not be Steve Jobs on stage, but in his own way Guy is just as good at grabbing the audience attention and holding on to it.

I give this book nine out of ten.

What I like about it:

Guy is smart, funny and has a way of getting the point that other people somehow miss. This book tells it how it is, and rings true for me after having founded a number of software companies and been involved in the start-up process with many more.
The book provides both a good read and insightful thoughts on the nature of starting something.
I like the FAQs at the end of the chapters.
I love the real world advice that will save the reader energy if well heeded.
If you are involved in a startup I would recommend this book.

In order to get a 10:

The book would have had more depth. The book didn’t go far beyond telling me what I have already learned from startups in my own experiences. I know not many people have had those same experiences, but I would have liked some more insights into the psychology of the startup process.

The Starbucks Experience
by Joseph A. Michelli

Starbucks is a fascinating company. They have ‘taken over the world’ with coffee shops in over 35 countries. Starbucks is obviously about a lot more than simply selling coffee. There are lots of companies that sell coffee and yet they never get as big or successful as Starbucks. This book explains 5 principles that Starbucks works with to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

A short easy to read book, with plenty of insight into the facets of a company that makes a difference to so many people around the world.

I give this book eight out of ten.

What I like about it:

I love the writing style of the author. The book is short enough to read in one sitting, although I am not sure you could fully digest the contents in one go.
I liked the action items at the end of each chapter, asking the reader to consider how they utilize the principles or could do better.
The real life stories of Starbucks customers and partners (employees) were used well to explain a point or a principle.

In order to get a 10:

I would have liked to see more of the urban myths around Starbucks explained or debunked.
It would have been great to get some insight into the future road map for Starbucks, the author seemed to have high level access to Starbucks management and yet there is very little in the way of where Starbucks is going.

Naked Conversations
by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel

After several false starts I finally started blogging in seriousness after having lunch with Robert Scoble in 2003. I am fairly sure Robert didn’t try and sell me the wonders of blogging, in fact I think during that lunch I did most of the talking (no surprises there!) Returning to my office I felt the need to start a blog and post entries. If blogging is contagious, then Scoble is the number one carrier!

It was with interest that I picked up Naked Conversations. I wasn’t sure what I could learn from this book. It was however an enjoyable read and reminder as to the gentle persuasiveness that Robert Scoble imparts on all he meets.

This book is written by two blogging evangelists and I wasn’t expecting to see anything negative about blogging. I wasn’t overly disappointed but there were attempts to explain when blogging wouldn’t work. Overall it is hard for me to identify who the target audience is for this book. If you are a blogger you may find this book a little slow going at first. But the stories are interesting and the reasoning behind the authors arguments solid.

The first section of the book is filled with stories and anecdotes about how successful blogging can work wonders and some examples of failures. The following section covers some good tips for blogging practices. The final section on the broader picture provides some thoughts on the future of blogging and social networks.

I give this book seven out of ten.

What I like about it:

I liked the chatty style of the book, almost in the flavor of a blog, but more formal.
I enjoyed reading the stories of successes and failures in the blogosphere.
The section with best practices provides a good direction for first time or newbie bloggers and reminded me of a few things I sometimes forget myself.

In order to get a 10:

I think there should have been more open discussion as to the downsides of blogging, not just from the direct impact but also an indirect impact. Something I have seen in enterprises that support (or even encourage) blogging is the fear within the culture emerge of ‘secrets escaping’. This has led to more secrecy within an organization than is healthy which has business implications.
I think the book while chatty good have been somewhat faster paced. Many of the points were labored over long after the message had been delivered.
A chapter covering some of the content from the last section “The Bigger Picture” would have been good at the beginning of the book. It sets some expectations as to how and where blogging fits into the ecosystem.

Dynamics of Software Development - 2006 Edition
by Jim and Michele McCarthy

I give this book ten out of ten.
What I like about it:
  • easy to dip into the book and read a rule (or three) and get value from them without having to read the book from the begining to the end.
  • written from the trenches, at the time of writing it Jim and Michele worked at Microsoft on the Visual C++ team. There are many good stories in the book from the trials and tribulations of that team.
  • common sense writing that often makes you think "Doh! why are we not doing that?"
  • you dont have to buy into everything in the book, take what works for you now and come back later to grab more value when you are ready for it
  • the 4 stages of the development lifecycle partition the rules cleanly
  • all the original content from the first edition is still there

This book (when first published) formed a major part of the turn towards Agile for me and my development teams in the 1990's.
When I first read Dynamics I realised that software development could become fun and creative again. Building software didn't need to be a trudge through schedules, missed deadlines, working with 'bozos' and finger pointing.
I have used the ideas from Dynamics for over 10 years now in the software development teams I have run, worked with, trained and mentored. In the 1990's I bought multiple copies of this book for the teams I worked with. In those work places it was recommended (in some places compulsory) reading and I believe still should be for many software development teams.
It is fantastic to see this book back in publication and hopefully a new generation of developers will learn to create great products and reach their potential.
Software For Your Head by Jim and Michele, although full of great ideas, proved hard to read and requires commitment to get to the end. I am very pleased to see the Core protocols and commitments from Software for your Head updated and added to the end of Dynamics. This time the Core is presented in a much easier to digest format.

by Malcolm Gladwell

I give this book nine out of ten.
What I like about it:
I loved the writing and the content kept my attention through most of the book. The pace is mostly good.
In order to get a 10:
I think there could have been some deeper probing into some of the ideas, by the end of the book I got frustrated with the repetition of some of the content.
Have you ever wondered how you knew something without even thinking about it? Maybe you knew something was amiss or something was exactly how it should be. You might say “I have a feeling that this is…” but not be sure about where that feeling comes from. In Blink Malcolm Gladwell exposes some thinking behind this phenomenon. As with his previous book Tipping Point, Malcolm’s writing is extremely readable and easy going. I ‘get the feeling’ from reading his words that I would like him. He is smart, observant and descriptive.

Coder to Developer
by Mike Gunderloy

I give this book eight out of ten.
What I like about it:
this book is aimed squarely at the computer programmer. A number of topics are covered that help coders become better developers. The idea being that to develop and ship software requires more than just the abilty to write code. I agree with this. Each chapter could be read on its own and covers one topic. Programmers will become better at shipping software if they follow Mike's ideas.
In order to get a 10:
Mike should have provided more hands on examples. In the book he discusses a project that he is building but I didnt feel connected with that project and the code snippets felt disjointed.

Test Driven Development in Microsoft .NET
by James W. Newkirk, Alexei A. Vorontsov

I give this book seven out of ten.
What I like about it:
It is easily to read. The topics are well presented and clearly defined. The book introduces the concepts behind TDD (Test Driven Development) Some of the less trivial aspects of TDD are discussed, like testing web services or using transactions. Refactoring is introduced very well in chapter three. The concepts of FIT are well explained and demonstrated.
In order to get a ten:
The book needs to decide who the target audience is. The material seemed too hard for a first introduction book and too simple for advanced developers. As the book is about TDD it should have spent more time examining the benefits of developing software using this approach. I would have liked to have seen more real world (hard to solve) problems tackled.

Software For Your Head : Core Protocols for Creating and Maintaining Shared Vision
by Jim and Michele McCarthy

I give this book eight out of ten.
What I like about it:
The ideas in this book have enormous power. They could (and can) change the way people work with each other for the better.
The book presents the function that team = product. The better the team works together the better the product. This is so obvious and yet gets constantly overlooked.
The patterns and anti patterns of behavior are very well observed and described.
After reading this book the second time I have been to a McCarthy boot camp and the book does an admirable job of describing what is achievable.
I have tried each of the protocols described in this book and I can tell you they rate amongst the best ways I have discovered of helping teams work well together.
The title describes the book well, it takes some time to work this out. It is a clever idea that we can load new software into our brains and therefore become better at doing something – such as interacting with other people (or even ourselves!)
In order to get a ten:
It would be easier to read. The book is written too much like a software manual. The McCarthy’s previous book – Dynamics of Software Development – was much easier to read and proved to be very popular with the development teams I introduced it to. Software For Your Head requires commitment to read to the end.
The examples would be clearer. Throughout the book are stories which serve as examples of the ideas being presented. I often have to read these a second time to get the full meaning of them.

User Stories Applied For Agile Software Development
by Mike Cohn

I give this book eight out of ten.
What I like about it:
It is well written and easy to read. The book is presented in a nice flowing style that I found mostly friendly and enjoyable.
Each chapter concludes with a summary of the information from that chapter and questions to help reinforce learning process.
At the end of each chapter are listed the responsibilities for the developer and those for the customer roles.
The book covers User Stories and that is pretty much it. It does what it sets out to do. The title describes it well.
The contents are well thought through and seem to cover most questions that I get asked on a regular basis relating to user stories.
In order to get a ten:
It would be shorter. It feels like a lot of reading to get what is in fact a simple idea. It takes too long to get all the information from the book. I can see the struggle involved in getting all the information into the book and at the same time keeping it concise.
The book would contain some hands on exercises (or walk through examples) for the reader to follow the entire process. Part IV presents an example but is taken from an external examination point of view. I would like to be drawn in and become part of the process so I can get a better understanding of user stories.

Questioning Extreme Programming
by Pete McBreen

The title of this book is very apt and it does exactly what it says on the cover. Pete asks many of the hard questions that continually come up when discussing XP (extreme programming). I feel that this book is aimed at the reader who has a good understanding of the topic. I would not recommend this to someone as their first exposure to XP. I also feel that to get the most out of this book it helps to understand where the author is coming from, Pete’s previous book on Software Craftsmanship is almost a prerequisite to this book, as I would suggest is Kent’s Extreme Programming Explained .
The book is very readable and the layout is similar to the other books in this series. Short easy to digest chapters, which have become the de facto standard for the books in the XP series.
I had to laugh several times while reading this book as the questions posed are identical to the ones I hear on a regular basis when teaching and mentoring extreme programming to development teams. It’s good to know I’m not the only one hearing these issues. I feel that Pete takes a good angle on the topic as a whole and shows how even someone like himself who isn’t convinced by the 'nirvana' of XP can learn from the process and take benefits back to the work place.
One thing that Pete doesn’t attempt to do is answer all the questions, so if you expect this book to answer all your questions then you’d be disappointed. As I’ve said Pete asks the hard questions and often just leaves them asked. What this does do though is encourage some thought around the issues and opens up the topic for further enquiry and debate.
Roodyn Rating 7/10

Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results
by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen

This is a great book that I wish I had to hand for many of the teams I’ve worked with in the past. It’s really slim and easy to read, you should be able to finish it in one evening. This makes it really accessible for busy people or people at work.
Fish tells the story of a downhearted, poorly productive team that has real issues and is suffering. The book takes you through a period in which the team learns to be a productive cohesive team that gets the job done well.
The book works off a set of key values and it puts real emphasis on how to enjoy the work you do. This is such a problem in this day and age, and can help people discover how to enjoy what they do without changing the job they are doing. It looks at how some teams that have jobs that would appear to suck, yet manage to enjoy their work and love what they are doing.
If you feel you need some changes at work and help to make those changes then get this book. It addresses some similar issues to books like Who Moved My Cheese, but in a much more real world than the maze and mice.
I thoroughly recommend this book and I will be using it in the workplace.
Roodyn Rating 8/10

Agile Software Development
by Alistair Cockburn

Great book, loved reading it, read it cover to cover for the first time August 2002. I had it sitting on my shelf and flipped through the pages to pull bits and pieces from it for a few months before that, but never got around to reading it.
Cockburn is a great writer, I read through the book easily, it flows very nicely and it no surprise he enjoys writing poetry.
He discusses everything from people and individuals, how people tackle problems and that some people are more effective than other people. How these people make up teams and how the teams work together, with a brief mention of teams as ecosystems.
He then plunges into what is his topic, methodologies. Cockburn has been working studying and writing about methodologies for around 20 years. He discusses what methodologies are, how they work and what the purpose of them is. He examines Agile and self adapting methodologies, what he calls ‘Light but sufficient’. The book goes through a set of steps which you can carry out to move yourself into a more agile environment. He also discusses the Crystal methodologies that he has drawn up. Recommend it as a good read, he has lots of interesting facts, including a discussion on Musashi who I didn’t realise was a 17th Century samurai who never lost a fight and not an Australian food supplements company!
Cockburn knows stuff and can teach us all much.
Roodyn Rating 9/10

The New New Thing
by Michael Lewis

I remember reading Liars Poker after a trader friend of mine told me I could learn everything I needed to know about stock market traders from that book.
Well he was wrong but it was a good read and I learnt a lot that helped me deal with brokers and traders.
Lewis' takes on another adventure altogether with The New New Thing, the only similarities are the huge amounts of money be played with, and I mean played with.
The author shadows Jim Clark and relates his antics back to the reader in a humorous and yet very real story of Jim's passions and hates.
For those who don't know (which seems to be a surprisingly large number of people I meet) Jim Clark founded Silicon Graphics, then started Netscape and lost billions of dollars in the process.
The book entices the reader into Clark's life as he attempts to create his third billion dollar business at the same time as building the worlds largest yacht and make it fully computer controlled.
I got the feeling that Clark is having a lot of fun building what amounts to the largest remote controlled boat.
At the same time he is fighting a battle for his beliefs and not always winning.
This is a good easy read, with plenty of laughs as well as some seriously fascinating information.
Roodyn Rating 8/10


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