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Finished "Focus", 2/5


Finished the free edition of Focus by Leo Babauta (2/5). Leo writes Zen Habits a blog about simplicity and creativity for those of us living in this modern, hectic world. The blog is great, and I dip into it from time to time when I need a refresher on simplicity.

The book has all of the merits of the blog: the content is clear and concise, the writing good, and the advice useful without being accusing. However, while the style and the content are both good, the chapters read as lengthy blog posts rather than a book -- information is repeated across chapters, and there is no overarching narrative thread. (That said, it seems like a lot of books from traditional publishers have that sort of feel these days.)

Focus wasn't a great book, but it was a good reminder of techniques for achieving greater focus and creativity.
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Finished "59 Seconds", 3/5


Finished 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman (3/5).

Books in the self help genre tend to promise quick fixes grounded in little evidence (and, not uncommonly, contradicting actual evidence). Psychological literature sometimes has validated advice, but much of it, not surprisingly, requires a large investment of time and effort. Wiseman wanted to share the scientifically validated but easy to apply tips that people could use to improve their lives.

The number of quick tips which have evidence behind them are few and lack the miraculous impact self help books promise. In this single volume, Wiseman covers many of the stable topic of self help -- happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision making, parenting, and personality. It works out to only about 30 pages per topic (compare that to the shelves of self help books on each topic).

You can read the book if you want more background, but here's a taste[1]:
  • Listing things you are grateful for or things that have gone well increases happiness
  • Acts of kindness, even small ones, increase happiness. Donate, give blood, buy a surprise gift.
  • Placing a mirror in front of people when they are choosing food reduces consumption of unhealthy food
  • Plants in the office seem to boost creativity. Possibly by reducing stress and improving moods
  • Write about your deepest feelings about your relationships to increase the odds of the relationship lasting. Writing tends to remind people of all the good things about the relationship.
  • People lie less over recorded communication media (like email). 
  • When speaking, liars tend to have less detail, use more ummms and aaahs, and use less self reference words (I, me, my)
  • Praise a child's effort, not their ability. 
  • Visualize yourself working through the process of achieving your goal rather than the actual success. Visualization from a third person perspective seems to be more effective.
Some criticisms: The first is specific to the quality of this as an audio book. Many of the "In 59 seconds" summaries at the end of each chapter involve forms or checklists. These make for tedious listening, and it's not very useful to just have them in audio. It would have been nice for the audio book to come with supplementary material for all of these forms.

I don't know if it's the author or the research community, but the chapters on relationships and attraction seem to exude a subtle sexism. Almost all of the tips and studies mentioned describe men as active agents and woman as passive agents. This active/passive division was not the conclusion of some study (and, therefore, worth considering even if I don't like the result). Rather, they were baked into the setup of the studies. For example, a couple of studies focused on how various factors such as a man's confidence or a woman's breast size affected behavior in a night club (results were not surprising). In each of these studies, regardless of what was being varied, the researchers decided to use a setup where men were always the approachers and woman the approached. This was, to put it mildly, annoying.

Finally, this is a book that you should read for its content, not the quality of its writing. It's not bad, but it can be formulaic.

Since I tend to prefer books categorized as "psychology" over those categorized as "self help", many of these tips were not new to me. However, if you want a concise look at the science of improving your life, this book fulfills that goal.

[1] Dear Amazon/Audible, when I buy the audio version of a book, it would be really nice if I were allowed full text capabilities on the
Search Inside version when it exists. Pretty please?
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Finished "Foucault's Pendulum", 2/5


Finished Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (2/5) [1].

Sometimes, you can read a book and see how other people like it without eing terribly fond of it yourself. This was my experience with Foucault's Pendulum.

I think it was partially structural. I tend to get less enjoyment from books that start at the climax and then spend a lot of time looking back to how that climate was reached. I also tend to like a good dose of story in my fiction, and the story was spread thin here.

Overall, not a bad read, but not really my thing. This entry was originally posted at http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/404957.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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Finished "Founding Gardeners", 2/5


Finished Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (2/5).

The premise of this book is a charming one: many of the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, were avid gardeners. What lessons can their passion teach us?

These individuals do, indeed, have lessons to teach us, but, it seems, not quite a book's worth. These founding fathers embraced an ideal which held up the independent, innovative, beauty loving farmer as the ideal citizen (indeed, for Jefferson, this was the only type of citizen that a republic can be built upon). However, they never quite seem to grapple with the problem that the unification of these traits presupposes an education and resources not available to all.

The second lesson, and the one that resonates as a more relevant legacy today, was a pragmatic environmentalism. Although not environmentalists in the modern sense, these founding fathers saw the importance of the environment to both the economy and spirit of the United States. They were interested in reducing the use of fertility destroying farming techniques, finding new and useful plans in the American wilds, and collecting species for the sheer love of their beauty and grandeur.

The passages and sources which elaborate these views are scattered amidst sometimes tedious descriptions of minutia. Fort hose who like reading descriptions of gardens, this may be interesting. I was left bored.

Overall, it was a pleasant read, but not really worth more than half its length. This entry was originally posted at http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/404591.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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Finished a couple books about the Bible


Finished Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (4/5) and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2/5) both by Bart Ehrman.

The first thing to know about Bart Ehrman is that you should ignore the titles of his books. I don't know if he comes up with him or if it is his publishers, but I do know that the titles are meant to grab eyeballs. The books are much less sensationalistic than the titles or the publisher's blurbs -- Ehrman mostly covers academically mainstream, vanilla views of the Biblical as a historical and literary text. These books, like pretty much anything that looks at the Bible as a historical and literary work, are going to be unpleasant for literalists.

The second thing to know about Ehrman is that he is one of those authors whose books cover the same topic repeatedly from different perspectives. Thus, you probably only need to read one Ehrman book to get the general gist of what he has to say. The other books give more depth for those interested in that.

Misquoting Jesus covers how a disparate set of writing came to be the Christian scriptures. It discusses the canonization of the books of the New Testament and how those texts have been altered through the years. Contrary to what it might seem, these alterations, mostly unintentional scribal errors or attempts to "fix" a text that was believed to have been corrupted by an earlier scribe, are extremely valuable. Like genetic variations within and across species, textual variants can be used to determine what the original text was most likely like. The downside of this book, for me, is that it went into a lot of depth of the story of the analysis itself -- how different variant texts were found and dated, who did the foundational work in this area, etc. This is not bad, but it was more depth than I felt I needed on the single aspect of textual variants.

Jesus, Interrupted has a wider scope. It covers all the highlights from Misquoting Jesus as well as covering questions of authorship, historicity, and the much richer views of the Biblical texts that arise if each text is allowed to speak with its own voice instead of being forced to synthesize with the other texts.

Jesus, Interrupted is a strictly better book than Misquoting Jesus. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining more background on the Bible. In addition to having better content than Miquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted has a better style. One particularly nice improvement is that in this book, Ehrman started using a method that encourages more discovery by the reader. Instead of saying, for example, that certain passages are incompatible, Ehrman encourages the reader to place the two passages side-by-side and compare them. It's a fun technique. This entry was originally posted at http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/404343.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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Finished "The True Patriot", 4/5


Finished The True Patriot (website[1]) by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (4/5).

This slim volume -- the authors call it a pamphlet -- has as its goal to show that true patriotism is progressive, and the left has just as much claim to the term as the right.

This premise is intentionally provocative, but the content itself is reasonable and well thought out. The authors define their own view of what a progressive, morally founded patriotism would look like and, while I can quibble with the details, their vision far exceeds the milk sop that comes from the too-flexible seeming members of the left or the for-show morality common on the right.

I encourage you to read it for yourself. It's available free online[2], or if you prefer physical books, the printed version is an aesthetically pleasing physical item.

[1] http://truepat.org/
[2] http://truepat.org/book/read
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Finished "The Bible Made Impossible", 3/5


Finished The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith (2/5 for presentation, 4/5 for the main point).

There is a fine balance between supporting your point and belaboring it. In this book, Smith makes a very important case against what he calls biblicism, but nearly everything you need to get the core point can be found in the introduction and the conclusion. The rest of the book expands the points made there, but not in a way that enlightens. But the core insight of the book is one of those valuable "ah hah!" ideas that is worth pondering for anyone who cares about how the Bible is read[1].

Rather than try to summarize the book, I'll link to a couple other reviews[2][3]. This quote from [3] nicely summarizes Smith's key point:

"What is biblicism? Concisely, it is a theory (often unstated) about the nature, purpose, and function of the bible. Its ruling idea is that the meaning of the bible is clear and transparent to open-minded readers. The implication of this idea is that when people sit down to read the bible a broad consensus can be reached about the will of God for any number of issues or topics, from gender roles to the plan of salvation to social ethics to the end times to church organization.

"The first part of Smith's book is engaged in blowing up this idea. Empirically speaking, the bible does not produce consensus. Empirically speaking, what we find, to use Smith's phrase, is 'pervasive interpretive pluralism.' Even among biblicists themselves consensus cannot be reached. For example, Smith points us to books like the Four Views series from InterVarsity Press. Surf over to that link and look at the titles of the series. Four (and sometimes five!) views on just about every topic in Christianity. What does that say when conservative evangelicals, who hold that the bible is both clear and authoritative, can't agree?

"Thus, Smith concludes that biblicism is a wrongheaded way of approaching the bible. Biblicism doesn't deliver on what it promises: consensus and clarity about 'the will of God.'"

[1] I can hear you saying, "Wait Erika, aren't you an atheist?" Yes I am, but I still care about how the Bible is read. First, how believers read the Bible impacts society and at large. Second, it's hard not to be interested in something when you spent a year intimately engaged with it (http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/).
[2] http://rachelheldevans.com/biblicism-christian-smith-bible-impossibleand see the rest of the series about that book on Rachel's blog
[3] http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-bible-made-impossible-is-impossible.html This entry was originally posted at http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/403854.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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Finished Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong (3/5)

This is yet another book that is good but disappointing because it did not live up to my expectations.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong. Although she is selective in what she chooses to focus on in her writing, she is still, in my opinion, one of the best religious historians when it comes to writing books that are readable, compassionate, intellectually challenging, and jam packed with information.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is, quite intentionally, a very different type of book. It is supposed to be a guide to implementing the ideas in the Charter for Compassion [2] championed by Armstrong. However, Armstrong, the religious historian, seems to have a difficult time communicating the practical.

The book is full of great elements that just don't quite add up to a coherent text. In ~200 pages, Armstrong tries to cover a survey of compassion in different religious traditions, a philosophical discussion of what compassion is and why it is necessary, and a practical plan for increasing the compassion in your life. These threads all get jumbled up, and that makes it hard to pull the value from that book.

In what is both disappointing and supportive of the book's overall value, a lot of the problems were merely organizational. A strong editor who encouraged the use of things like section breaks and parallel structure could have transformed this from an average book to a great book.

All that said, the real value of this book is in practice, not intellectual assent. Armstrong's steps, if applied with appropriate effort, do seem like they would result in a more compassionate self.

The steps do not stand on their own, but for completeness I will list them anyway. Note that some of the steps are sequential while others are not -- this was one of my organizational quibbles with the book (also, the very names of the steps show how much the book could have been improved by an editor with an eye for structure and consistency). The steps: (1) learn about compassion, (2) look at your own world, (3) compassion for yourself, (4) empathy, (5) mindfulness, (6) action, (7) how little we know, (8) how should we speak to one another?, (9) concern for everybody, (10) knowledge, (11) recognition, (12) love your enemies.

And now, it's time to go apply some compassion!

[1] http://charterforcompassion.org/share/the-charter
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Mar. 1st, 2012


 Finished Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship by Robert C. Martin (3/5)

I wanted to love this book, but instead I just sort of liked it. This book is a member of the extensive genre of books on how to write clean code. It sits alongside books like Code Complete by Steve McConnell[1] and many others. Where Clean Code promised to differentiate itself was in the use of three case studies -- about a third of the book -- showing Martin's code cleanup techniques in action. 

However, I was disappointed by that section. As someone who codes and reviews code professionally, the case studies were not particularly enlightening. As seems obvious in retrospect, watching someone clean-up code in fairly straightforward ways is not interesting if you do and see that everyday. What I really wanted was a book on being a better code reviewer with advice on how to spot areas for improvement and convince others of the value of those improvements.

The examples could be useful for someone who isn't in a code-review-heavy environment. Martin does a reasonably good job of taking code that may seem reasonable on the surface and improving its readabilty. That said, his comments indicate that he often has a higher opinion of the cleanliness of his end result than I do. 

As for the general advice and discussion of how to make clean code, I agree with a lot of his tips and disagree with others. Code cleanliness is an area where the core of just-plain-good ideas is surrounded by a nimbus of sometimes contradictory standards that people pick and choose from. The details of what you choose from the nimbus generally does not matter so much as consistency. (Of course, the real trouble occurs when people don't agree on what belongs in the core and what belongs in the nimbus.)

The book definitely was not a bad read, but it did not fit my needs.

[1] Still my favorite in the genre.http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/269612.html

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Finished Test Driven Development: By Example [1] by Kent Beck (2/5)

This is one of those books that I would have rated more highly a few years ago. TDD is not a particularly complicated concept and, these days, it's not particularly new either. Thus, the explanations I've come across online[2] and the one book I've read on the topic[3] have been quite sufficient exposure, making reading another book on the topic superfluous.

That said, Beck's book was, in my opinion, better than Test-Driven Development: A Practical Guide by David Astels. Astels' book is not bad, but it's over 500 pages long, and TDD just isn't really that complicated. Beck's book, at ~200 pages of fairly spacious typesetting, is much more proportional to the complexity of the topic (websites are even shorter, but I prefer to read books, especially when they are available from the library at work).

In short, if you are interested in learning about TDD -- and I think it's an approach all programmer should learn about and apply judiciously but not religiously -- I recommend reading about it on the internet and then, if you're a book person or want to see a more extended example, read Beck's book.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Test-Driven-Development-Kent-Beck/dp/0321146530
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Test-driven_development andhttp://www.agiledata.org/essays/tdd.html
[3] http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/360140.html This entry was originally posted at http://erikars.dreamwidth.org/403017.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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Erika Rice Scherpelz

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