The Men Who Stare At Goats By Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare At Goats follows the ups and downs of the use of paranormal and New Age concepts by the US military since the 1970s to Today, mostly focusing on their resurgence after 9/11. The title comes from the Ronson’s search for a man who allegedly has been able to learn how to harness his psychic ability to kill a goat, and other mammals simply by staring at them. The cast of characters is deep and to imagine Ronson tracking them down is part of the fun. Who is the man who actually killed the goat by staring, did it even happen? Who was it that learned Matchbox 20 was the best way to send out subliminal messages? Who took the proposed taking elements of the New Age peaceful measures and distort them to be used in events that lead to Abu Ghraib, Waco and Guantanamo?

The intentions early on seemed so earnest. What if we could take New Age ideas about peace and harness them non-violently in our military? Our military could carry ginseng and could stop their enemies not by firing weapons but by surprising them with hugs and Jedi mind tricks. The violent and disturbing outcomes appear as misunderstandings and distortions of the original intent of the First Earth Battalion, the proposed group of supersoldiers who encouraged nonviolent conflict resolution.

What is clear from reading this book is that parts of the military and intelligence want alternatives. While some of these alternatives are crazy schemes like invisibility and walking through walls, it certainly seems that the military is not about to slow down on them anytime soon.

 
The Men Who Stare At Goats By Jon Ronson
 

The Aviator: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight by Winston Groom

There were two striking ideas that came to me while reading The Aviators, the pace of innovation that happened in the period between the World Wars was staggering and that one man can easily fall in and out of grace. The Aviators follows the lives of Eddie Rickenbacker, the ace of aces in World War I, Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly across the Atlantic and Jimmy Doolittle the first person to fly blind, i.e. only by instruments. The amount of danger involved in what these men did every day was terrifying. Forget about the firefights in WWI and WWII, even just flying from one city to another was risky early on. Not knowing the distance between the plane and the ground and at any moment becoming wrapped up in violent weather, could easily end your life.

The commercial opportunities and mounting war ignited innovation. Flights across the US in clear conditions were nearly impossible and had top speeds of 100 mph. By the battles in WWII, planes were flying several hundred miles an hour, in any kind of weather, all over the world. All three men warned of the need for the United States to become a world leader in aeronautics. Stumping for building the air power of the United States, and fear of future wars brought political enemies. For myself, it’s always interesting to read about isolation and anti-war sentiment, especially in the World Wars. It’s arguably the most brushed aside issue in any history class. Despite the successes of each man, crashes, political enemies, financial troubles, and the Lindbergh baby tribulations force dark times. It is inspiring to see how each man deals with the hard times, overcomes them and ends up so greatly contributing to the US success in WWII.

 
The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight

 

Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation  By Jez Humble

Hopefully, more books I read this year will have an impact on my day to day life, but at the very least this one definitely will. Continuous Delivery by Jez Humble was suggested to me by our VP of engineering along with Release It By Michael Nygard which I read last year. Both cover the software development pipeline by focusing on resiliency and regularly delivering working code. While many a blog will eschew the ideas of continuous delivery, this book gives you the patterns to use to significantly shorten your cycle time – the time between ideation and code live on production.

 

If you talk to people who are responsible for releasing software, most will tell you releasing is painful. The reasons for this sentiment are many: they do it rarely so it is a big event, it’s manual, there is no automated testing, they have no idea what they are releasing because someone else wrote it and the kicker of them all, production is different than their testing environments. This book calls all of these complaints and more out as anti-patterns and models many of the solutions around one idea: if it is painful right now, then move it forward in your process and do it more often, which forces you to automate it. This means if there is only manual testing which is slow and at the end of your process then do test driven development, i.e. write tests first. He includes in this TDD pattern server deployments where one builds the monitoring and health checks first before they release the server as the “test” will pass once they are deployed. Chances are for many teams especially ones with little automation in place, it means doing a lot of hard things first, automated testing, configuration management, better version control strategies, and getting staging looking more like production. Humble suggests incremental improvements but it is critical to have testing in place as you can release all the time but your customers won’t be too happy if your applications break regularly.

 

This book will change the way you deliver software and likely will make your life a lot easier. I also suggest reading Nygard’s Release It either right before or right after as it gives you concrete architecture patterns to implement some of Humble’s ideas.

Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation (Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Fowler))

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Beyond the Myth of the Scandanvian Utopia By Michael Booth

While coming back from our last trip to Iceland, I was walking around the airport bookstore and this book caught my eye. The book’s covers were tongue in cheek and I made a mental note to read it. I for one have definitely had the author’s experience, seeing the endless surveys and headlines about how great the Scandinavian countries are. Having visited Iceland a couple times I couldn’t help but agree, but maybe there was something I had missed. In The Almost Nearly Perfect PeopleMichael explores the 5 Nordic countries, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden and tries to discern what makes them tick. He explores if everything we read in the newspapers like that they are the happiest people in the world is actually true.

 

What is most striking about the book is he’s able to dig through some dark topics in each nation while still making the reader smile. It was fascinating to read about their past ties to Nazis and how some of their citizens have strong anti-immigration sentiment while others are pushing to expand their large welfare state and espouse their progressive attitudes. Clearly, as homogeneous as these nations appear they still have divergent opinions. Aside from the dark topics he also shows what works about these nations, how they are able to leverage their collectivist attitude to garner universal trust, self-control and openness and how they are so successful financially.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

What If? By Randall Munroe

Are you a regular reader of XKCD? Do you like hypothesizing on the fantastical? Have you considered tying yourself to 100 AK-47s and trying to fly through the air? If you answered yes to any of the previous questions then likely you would be a candidate to read What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions By Randall Munroe. In What If? Munroe, the author of all of those amazing XKCD comics that we all quote day in and day out, attempts to answer his readers craziest questions. About half the content comes from Munroe’s What if? site https://what-if.xkcd.com/ so even if you are a regular reader there is more then enough reason to pick it up. For me, the most interesting sections were where he avoided the obvious answers like when answering the question “What if the sun disappeared?” Obviously, we would all freeze and die but think of the upsides, no solar flares, better astronomy, no time zones! It is a great gift for the nerd in your life who wants to find out if the sun actually has ever set on the British empire.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

If you build things for a living that have an interface, whether it be physical or software, this book is required reading. Originally published in 1988, The Design of Everyday Things sets the standard for how we should approach design. Norman uses real life examples of where designs excel and fall down. He then explains what makes the core tenets of what make designs great. Those seven tenets go like this:

  1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head
  2. Simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the powers of constraints
  6. Design for Error
  7. When all else fails, standardize
His real world examples blew my mind. The most interesting is the car which he argues is a great interface and I can’t help but agree. Think how about all of the controls on your dashboard each with clear roles that they play, you often need to interface with them while doing a much more important and complicated task which is driving. We can instantly think of instances where these rules were broken and you had a bad experience. I remember in an old car of mine where treble and bass level and panning controls were massively complicated and clearly broke rules 2, 3 and 4. When things break these design tenets we get frustrated and worse our customers and users get frustrated. This book challenges you to rethink focus on more simple interfaces and build things people enjoy using.

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition

Save The Cat By Blake Snyder

I started the year with a controversial book. It might not seem controversial as it is, at its heart, a guide to being a more successful screenwriter. But Save The Cat By Blake Snyder is a screenwriting guide for those looking to sell their script, not to be necessarily critically acclaimed. Written by Blake Snyder, who sold many scripts in Hollywood and whose film Blank Check was turned into a major motion picture, the book guides the aspiring screenwriter towards building better structure into their script. It also encourages building out the critical pieces that surround a successful script: log lines, planning boards and how to pitch the film. He shows, for example, how simply modifying a log line can help build the foundation for a better script and ultimately one that gets sold in Hollywood.

In Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell asserts that every story follows a simple arch and that every three act structured story aligns with the transitions between our ordinary and adventure worlds.  Snyder takes the concepts set up in Hero and revs them up. He sets up an opinionated guide that says each story must break into certain acts and set pieces by a certain page in the script. For example, if we’re writing an 110-page script, then the Bad Guys Close In beat better have started and been wrapped up between pages 55 and 75 of the script.

The book encourages some good practices about planning and building off a working framework, however, you as a reader are quick to find how many of your favorite films may fall into this story structure. If you are into screenwriting or films at all, it is a must read to better understand how mainstream Hollywood films are written and sold.

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need