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Books I read in 2009

  • The Man who Swam the Amazon: 3,274 miles down the world's deadliest river by Martin Strel and Matthew Mohlke
    24th December 2009
    This book is an account of the 3,000-plus mile swim down the Amazon river undertaken by Slovenian ultramarathon swimmer Martin Strel in 2007. It's told largely from the viewpoint of his co-author and river navigator Matthew Mohlke, and is a very engaging read - Mohlke has an easy style and is quite candid about the various happenings on the expedition, the problems of travelling down the river and the frictions between the various crew members and Strel himself.

    Given that his endevour is central to the book, somewhat strangely Martin Strel is often an almost peripheral figure, perhaps not surprisingly given his physical and mental separation from the rest of the crew (he is the only one actually swimming). It's this psychological distance that Mohkle captures well, and which in retrospect I find so interesting - as Strel's navigator, responsible for directing the swimmer into fast waters and away from danger, he spends a lot of time alongside Strel and observes how he deals with the challenge. But we never really hear Strel's own voice and his motivation for taking on the journey aren't really explored (ostensibly he swims to raise awareness about the levels of pollution and ecological damage found in the major rivers of the world).

    While Strel is swimming there are plenty of incidents both with the support crew, as well as the people they meet and with the river itself (it almosts seems like a cliché that journeys through a jungle river end up becoming a "Heart of Darkness"-esque trip into insanity), and Mohlke is a good story teller. Ultimately these incidents become the principal focus of the book, with Strel remaining a looming and sometimes slightly menacing presence mostly off-screen - less a man and perhaps more like another uncontrollable force of nature that Mohlke and the crew have to deal with.

    For all that though it's a great read, and for me a bit more satisfying than the film "Big River Man" (interestingly though the film often has difficulties getting any insight into Strel's inner world - for example, in one scene Strel says "Today was a hard day for me", but then never elaborates further). I'm now wondering about reading Charles Sprawston's book about Strel Big River Man: The Incredible Life of Martin Strel when it comes out.

  • Crystals and Life: A Personal Journey by Celerino Abad-Zapatero
    15th December 2009
    This is a collection of some of Abad-Zapatero's previously published essays and articles on the subject of protein crystallography (that is, the determination of the arrangement of atoms within proteins by crystallising them and then subjecting the resulting protein crystals to X-rays).

    Since it's a collection, the writing can sometime vary quite dramatically in both tone and level of detail between chapters, but it does cover a lot of ground: from the history of crystal classification, the fundamentals of X-ray crystallography and the "phase problem" (essentially, the reason why crystallography is hard), through both the proliferation of synchrotrons as sources of powerful X-rays and the innovations in software that have enabled the investigation of ever-more complex proteins.

    Abad-Zapatero's career has coincided with many advances in technology and techniques that have transformed the field, and some of these are covered in the book. As someone whose experience is more recent, I found it interesting to read about protein crystallography in this earlier more pioneering age, before it became essentially a routine factory procedure (though arguably this could just be a question of perspective, and - as is suggested in the chapter about the "time crystal" - that the interesting scientific problems have simply moved elsewhere).

    I think that the best pieces here have a sense of eclecticism and playfulness that that is not always communicated in science writing. Although most obvious in some of the autobiographical details (for example, selecting gypsum crystals containing fossilised sea urchins as Christmas presents for his children), throughout there is an almost child-like sense of curiosity coupled with the desire to explore connections not just within science but also with the worlds of art, music and philosophy. For me these connections were the most stimulating, and with which "life" in the book's title transcended its obvious literal interpretation (proteins being the biological building blocks of life) to refer instead to a much broader and deeper idea of how we experience, understand and take pleasure in being part of this world.

  • Open Source for the Enterprise by Dan Woods and Gautam Guilani
    8th December 2009
    For a technical book I suppose this is getting on a bit now - I bought it in November 2005 or 2006 (mostly because I um liked the cover), and so I wasn't sure how relevant it would be 3-4 years on. However I was pleasantly surprised - although the landscape has changed with regard to some of the specific software that are mentioned, there is plenty of general advice that still stands up.

    Essentially the book is aimed at corporate IT departments where traditionally software provision has been bought in from external vendors, and where the use of open source solutions could potentially provide significant cost-saving benefits. The key word though is "potentially": while open source might be free at the point of download, this doesn't necessarily mean that there won't be costs elsewhere in the software lifecycle - most significantly in terms of staff effort spent on learning, installing, configuring and trouble-shooting.

    Successfully using open source then is a question of managing the risks associated with it, and to do this departments must be able to judge both the maturity of software that they are considering, and also their own level of competence in being able to support it (the authors suggest ways to assess each, and for me this advice stands up generally for anybody considering using open source). There are also pitfalls tp avoid (for example, the "key person problem" - where only one person becomes expert within the department, and then leaves taking their knowledge with them).

    Overall I enjoyed reading this and felt like I learned a lot; as a programmer and a long term user of Linux systems (which makes extensive use of open source software) it was interesting to be presented with a broader perspective on open source software usage within an enterprise setting.

  • The Owner's Guide to the Body by Roger Golten
    29th October 2009
    Another book that I'd had for a while and not got around to reading until now. I think I'd expected this to be a rather straightforward book on anatomy and health for the layman, though I don't know why I thought that - instead it takes in various ideas from less conventional practices such as rolfing, hellerwork (of which Roger Golten is a practioner, although I'd have to admit I'd never heard of it until I read this book) and other "somatic" therapies which take a more holistic view than the perhaps more traditional mind/body divide.

    The book turns out to be an easy and interesting read, starting off by challenging the idea of the mind/body divide and encouraging the reader to take a more holistic view. It then moves on to examine various everyday activities such as standing, walking, sitting and even breathing, with a view to explaining how the body operates when engaged in these activities. Golten's assertion is that often the "normal" way that we do things can actually be quite bad for us, but by paying attention to anatomy and biomechanics we can change for the better.

    Golten has a readable and engaging style of writing, peppered with light humour and lots of quotes from philosophers, scientists (most frequently Buckminister Fuller) and luminaries from various therapies, and I found many of his discussions to be quite thought provoking - particularly memorable (for me) is the advice on sitting, and the quote (attributed to Fritz Perls) that "fear is excitement without breath". On the downside, it felt in places like a mish-mash of bits from different therapies, which could make it feel a bit insubstantial at times - and also I found myself a little sceptical of some of the scientific facts that were quoted near the start.

    However as a student of Alexander Technique I found that many of the ideas in the book chimed with my own view of how the mind and body interact as we go through life, and while I didn't have a major shift in my views I did find it extremely interesting, with a number of useful practical suggestions alongside the more general food for thought.

  • The Common Sense of Science by Jacob Bronowski
    5th October 2009
    This is an intriguing little book with an interesting cover (sadly not shown on Amazon). I picked my copy up in a second hand bookshop in Norwich about ten years ago, but the first publication date is actually 1951 (I have an edition from 1966). I think I was expecting something along the lines of a 1950's pop-science book, with some fundamental scientific principles explained in language for the lay person, but it turned out to be very different: Bronowski's book is about the very nature of scientific enquiry, its philosophy, culture and relationship to society.

    Bronowski characterises science as the combination of thought with observed facts, to produce predictive models which can be used to make forecasts about what will happen in the future. Although this seems uncontroversial, he further suggests that the value of the model is as a predictor of what can be observed - as far as it not observed, the "hidden" mechanisms by which the observed facts are explained should not be seen as accurately describing how things "really are". To me this was a bit of an eye-opener, because I'd always implicitly understood that the model is essentially reality. However Bronowski points out that this doesn't need to be the case, noting that Newtonian mechanics is a highly successful predictor for the motions of stars and planets, but doesn't describe the actual mechanism that produces the gravitational forces.

    There's lots of other good stuff here - for example, he also tackles the misconception that statistic models are somehow inferior to those that are give more definite answers (they're equally valid), and that the idea of "cause-and-effect" which underpinned Newton's work is the only valid approach to science. He also considers the morality of science - concluding that ultimately science is like any other cultural activity in that it both shapes and is shaped by the society that it takes place in (placing the scientific endevour in this context of history reminded me of Arthur Koestler's wonderful book The Sleepwalkers). In the end, for a book first published nearly sixty years ago it feels wonderfully relevant today.

  • Real Philosophy: An Anthology of the Universal Search for Meaning by Jacob Needleman and David Appelbaum
    1st October 2009
    It took me a long time to get through this book - in fact it became something of a running joke between me and Kyle about how slow the going was, and she kept urging me to stop. I suppose the reason that I kept at it was that I really liked the central idea of reading undigested extracts from a wide variety of classic philosophical works.

    The approach is great in theory - starting from the premise that our primary drive is a "hunger for meaning", the book is divided into chapters relating to specific philosophical questions, such as "why are we here?" and "the fact of death". Each chapter begins with an section by the editors summarising the key ideas, which are followed by the extracts themselves. For me however the outline summaries were among some of the best parts of the book, consistently exciting my interest and giving me food for thought, while ironically many of the subsequent extracts were pretty turgid - most often due to archaic styles of language, although in some cases I simply didn't get the point that the writer was trying to make. At these points I yearned for the comfort of more accessible pop-philosophy books like Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy or Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World.

    It wasn't all bad though - among the extracts are Descartes arriving at "I think therefore I am" and Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", and there are a number of other fascinating selections: Lewis Thomas' "Death in the Open",Tolstoy's "Esarhaddon, King of Assyria", and the "The Ninth Elegy" from "Duino Elegies" by Rilke all stood out for me. Many of the passages from less familiar Indian, Persian and Chinese works were also very enjoyable. In these cases the extracts had some literary or poetic quality which lifted them above the others, and made me want to read them again some time. So on balance I'm glad that I persevered - discovering the best selections outweighed the less good.

  • Master the Art of Running: Running with the Alexander Technique by Malcom Balk and Andrew Shields
    29th September 2009
    Kyle bought this for my birthday at the start of the year, and it's one in a series of "Master the Art of..." books where the principles of the Alexander Technique (AT) are brought to bear on specific activities such as running or swimming. I've been running recreationally a couple of times a week for about a year now and have been developing my interest in AT for roughly the same length of time, but for the most part I'd been focusing more on my swimming. So it took a six week lay-off from swimming to focus on applying the principles to my running, and it was interesting to read this book in that context.

    It starts off with the obligatory potted history of Alexander and outlines the general principles of AT (being mindful and aware of what you're actually doing, and of the physical relationships between different parts of the body - specifically the head, neck and back) before moving on to look at how these principles are often ignored - especially in competitive runners - and how they can be applied specifically in running. This includes both body position (as opposed to "posture") and mental attitude, and is as often about not doing what is "wrong" as it is about doing what's "right" (although AT is not dogmatic about "right" and "wrong"). This isn't a training manual, although it does offer some exercises and drills - it's more about increasing awareness of your technique, and then working to improve it.

    For me, not being a competitive runner I found the later chapters about competition less essential. But there's still a lot of interesting stuff that I've started to apply to my own running, and I can see myself trying out more of the exercises in the future. I'm not sure how much someone who is less familiar with AT would get out of this, although it doesn't assume previous knowledge - but hopefully the principles can still be applied, and they might feel inspired to learn more in future. For me, by approaching Alexander's principles again from another direction I think it's renewed some of my interest in those principles not just in running but across my life as a whole - and I can imagine getting more out of this book in future re-readings.

  • Finding Happiness in a Frustrating World by Jim Johnson
    13th September 2009
    Kyle bought this book after seeing it on Amazon while looking for others by physiotherapist Jim Johnson. She had been impressed by his "Treat Your Own Knees" book, in which Johnson emphasises an "evidence-based" approach, recommending treatments which have been demonstrated to be effective through published scientific studies. In "Finding Happiness", he turns his attention to asking why some of his patients are happier than others even when they might appear from the outside to be in a much worse condition.

    It's a quick read which distils the key results of research into the psychology of happiness into plain language. At the core, this research suggests that there are three factors which determine how happy people are genetics, circumstances, and intentional activities (things that we do on purpose and put effort into). Johnson argues that while it's very difficult to do much about the first two factors, we can have a positive effect on our happiness by choosing the goals that we set for ourselves. The best kind of goals are "intrinsic" (activities are rewarding in and of themselves) rather than "extrinsic" (where the reward is dependent on outcomes which may be difficult to guarantee - for example, being more popular), and "self-concordant" - that is, consistent with our interests and values.

    It's certainly an easy read (the book is short and is written in a very straightforward style, which Johnson explains early on is to make the material as accessible as possible) and ends with a step-by-step method to help with selecting activities that are intrinsic and self-concordant. Although I didn't do this final exercise, I still enjoyed it and found it extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Essentially the secret is that there is really no great secret - except maybe that if you want to be happier, then try to do those things that will make you happy.

  • Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
    8th August 2009
    My friend Steve recommended this to me in May (at the time he'd only read the first few chapters). Based on his enthusiasm I bought it half price at Borders and read it in one sitting on a transatlantic flight to New Jersey.

    It's certainly thought-provoking, and Gladwell has an engaging style that is very readable. Here his central idea is that there is more to the stories of successful people (the "outliers" of the title) than we've come to believe. The typical narratives for people like Bill Gates or the Beatles focus on their talents and suggest that it was almost inevitable that - perhaps with the odd lucky break - they would ultimately rise to the top of their field. But Gladwell questions the straightforward nature of these stories - if you dig a little then you find that in successful people, talent is supplemented by hours and hours of hard work: gifted musicians and gifted programmers alike need to spend a lot of time practising (Gladwell estimates it at 10,000 hours) to realise their gifts - and this requires both opportunity and dedication. Without either of these things, Gladwell argues that innate talent is simply not sufficient - in fact, it may almost be irrelevant. He goes on to examine how our cultural backgrounds also plays an often hidden role - for better or worse - in shaping how we behave in different situations.

    What Gladwell excels at is assembling interesting stories to illustrate his point, and he is very good at telling them. If I have a complaint then it's that so much of the evidence that he presents feels rather anecdotal. Even so he presents his ideas in a compelling way, and ends with an exciting idea: if opportunity is more important than talent, then shouldn't we as societies really be trying to provide opportunities for everyone equally? It's something that stayed with me long after I'd finished reading the book. Highly recommended.

  • The Mythical Man Month by Frederick P. Brooks
    2nd August 2009
    what's perhaps most shocking about Fred Brooks' writings on software engineering in this book is how relevant most of it still seems today, in spite of the fact that the first edition was published in 1975. The book is a collection of essays based around Brooks' experiences of the problems he encountered building large software systems (I was reading the 20th anniversary edition, which contains some additional material), presented with great insightfulness peppered with a degree of often wry humour.

    The key observation (which gives the book its title) is that adding more people to a late software project is only likely to make it even later (because each extra person imposes an additional communication overhead on everyone in the project, further reducing the time available to do other useful work). However there are numerous other observations that are equally fascinating: for example, the "second system effect" (the second system that a programmer designs is usually fatally over-designed, since they want to put in everything that they had to leave out of the first one) or that software projects end up being late "a day at a time".

    Just as programming is about more than just writing code, creating useful software systems is about more than just programming - and there is a big difference between a single person writing a program and the development of a large software system, which requires large numbers of programmers working together. It's then as much a question of balancing communication and management with the technical efforts: good management practices are essential to free programmers to do their best work whilst maintaining the "conceptual integrity" of the project. Many of the essays address how to try and balance the competing forces within large projects.

    As with Software Maintenance: Concepts and Practice, what I particularly enjoyed about this book was how it made it me reflect on my own experiences working in software, and in some cases gave me a fresh perspective on what I felt worked and what didn't. I hope that I will find some way to apply Brooks' insights to future projects. "The Mythical Man-month" is a rich source of fascinating ideas and I look forward to reading it again sometime, as I'm sure that it will reward me insights that I undoubtably missed the first time around.

  • The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
    28th July 2009
    Another "trivia" type book, this time from the people behind the BBC TV panel show "QI" (see, which delights in exposing commonly-held misconceptions. The letters "QI" stand for "quite interesting", and panellists earn points for giving interesting answers to general knowledge questions and lose points for boring ones in various rounds that ultimately end with the round called "General Ignorance".

    The book continues this theme of offering surprising twists on things that you don't know as well as you thought you did. It's arguable that its connection to the TV show is somewhat tenuous (TV host Stephen Fry only supplies the foreword) however it's still a fascinating read and definitely one of the better trivia-type books that I've read.

    So we learn for example that Admiral Nelson didn't wear an eyepatch (and the statue on Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square doesn't sport one either, in spite of people claiming that it does), and that the ancient Greeks knew that the world was round, and that Eskimos don't have 50 words for snow. But my favourite bit of trivia: that since humans are one of only two mammals without penis bones, this may well have originally been the "rib" from which God made Eve. Quite interesting, indeed.

  • Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson
    13th July 2009
    Another "science trivia book", this time looking at sex from an evolutionary biology perspective.

    While the framing device occasionally grated on me (the titular Dr Tatiana dispenses advice in response to letters from different animals troubled by their sex lives), it does a good job at showing how varied the methods for exchanging genes are across the animal kingdom. Some of the behaviours are quite mind-boggling for us humans, and reveals that what we would consider to be "normal" is in this context actually extremely atypical.

    The book accompanied a TV series of the same name back in 2004, which from the clips on YouTube to be honest look a bit more fun (and with a dash of "Hitchhiker's..."-style surrealism). More recently Isabella Rosselini's "Green Porno" shorts (see seem to cover similar ground in a very unusual and humorous way.

    My main issue with the trivia approach is that as fascinating as the information might be at the time, I'm often left feeling like I have a set of isolated facts that are quickly forgotten. "Dr Tatiana" suffers a little from this, however in the book's defence this is mitigated by the inclusion of neat summaries in each chapter, which draw out general lessons from the examples that are featured. When explained from an evolutionary biology perspective these seemingly bizarre and even apparently counter-productive sexual strategies make a lot more sense. Overall, both interesting and entertaining.

  • Software Maintenance: Concepts and Practice by Penny Grubb and Armstrong A Takang
    13th July 2009
    An extremely interesting read, though possibly a bit over-academic and dry for many (it's essentially a text book). The authors clearly articulate many of the factors that I - as someone who worked in software maintenance for some years - often found myself struggling with. It was also interesting to read this soon after How Buildings Learn and see many of the same concerns voiced for software as had been for buildings.

    One of the problems with maintenance work has been its poor image in relation to other types of software development activities - that it is boring, of low importance, and requires less technical expertise than more "exciting" work. However the authors contend that maintenance activities are vital if software is to remain viable after it is developed. They identify four categories of maintenance activity: corrective changes (fixing bugs in the design or implementation), adaptive changes (updating software so that it can operate in a new environment), perfective changes (adding new features or functionality) and preventative changes (making changes now in order to prevent problems or deteriotation in the future).

    There is some discussion about how these maintenance activities are actually undertaken. A major part of the process boils down to a reverse engineering or "code comprehension" problem: the maintenance programmer must first understand what the software does (and how it does it) before being able to make stable changes. Due to the "malleable" nature of software, each of these activities requires both technical skill and careful management to avoid introducing new problems elsewhere in the system (so-called "ripple effects"). Things like documentation and code comments can help, as long as they are accurate, and other tools and techniques are also examined.

    I don't imagine that most of this will be news to people who have worked at the sharp end of maintenance, however the issues are presented with a degree of clarity that helped me reconsider my own experiences. Also there is a recognition that management of software maintenance is indeed a management problem, that is to say that managers must recognise the importance of maintenance activities and allocate sufficient resources while also supporting their maintenance staff - because ultimately software needs to be maintained if it is to remain useful and effective.

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
    29th June 2009
    I cheated a little and read this while listening to the BBC recording that I had on tape. As a "play for voices" though I think that this was a good way to experience the work, which describes a day in the life of a fictious Welsh fishing village called Llareggub. It's full of memorable characters and vivid turns of phrase (as at the beginning, when night passes through the village "trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles") and while the name "Llareggub" is itself an indication of the humour in the play (read it backwards), there are also moments of poignancy - for example when blind old Captain Cat remembers the journeys and people of his long-gone youth.

    I think before I read this I had for a long time believed that "Under Milk Wood" was actually a poem and not a play, however it does have many of the qualities that I associate with poetry. The language and imagery is rich and it is less a story and more a series of vignettes or sketches which together paint a picture of the village, greater than the sum of its parts, like a mosaic or a kaledioscope. It is above all hugely enjoyable, and like great poetry I feel that it will reward re-reading. So I'm already looking forward to reading it again.

  • How Buildings Learn: what happens after they're built by Stewart Brand
    15th June 2009
    This is a book packed with fascinating observations. The core idea is that the life of a building doesn't end when it's first built, instead it's only beginning. While this idea might initially feel counterintuative - we think of buildings as being the very essence of unchanging permanance - Brand asserts that in fact the "best" buildings evolve, sometimes radically, in response to the changing needs of their inhabitants. "Best" in this context means those that are most able to provide a suitable environment for the activities that take place within them - whether that's a home, office or manufacturing or retail environment. Buildings that can't be adapted can be expensive to maintain and modify, and are likely to fall into disrepair, or else be demolished.

    Following on from this idea, the book contains an exploration of the various ways that buildings evolve (or don't). It's clear that various factors militate against this evolution - most buildings don't have adaptability or maintainability "designed in" at the start, but there are also financial,legal and planning constraints that prevent inhabitants from making changes. Brand berates "magazine architecture" (the tendency for architects to focus on the look of a building at the expense of how it might be used or adapted in future) as a factor in producing unworkable designs, but also highlights how a lack of accurate documentation (particularly during the building phase) makes changes more difficult and costly.

    Once we recognise that change is a vital part of a building's lifecycle, Brand asks how can adaptibility be designed into new buildings, and what can be learned from what's gone before. "Successful" buildings use tried and tested materials, and designs which can accommodate a range of possible usage scenarios. Extensive documentation of both the design decisions and of what is actually built (which can differ from the plans) is a significant factor in enabling changes to a building in the future. Architects should return to buildings that they've designed to see if there are lessons that they can take forward in future.

    By the end the book had changed my perspective on architecture and how I look at buildings around me. A number of the themes are visited again in Brand's The Clock of the Long Now, and on a personal note with both books I felt that there were also some striking parallels with software development and maintenance (in particular, could a scenario-planning approach could be applied to improve software adaptability?). A thoroughly thought-provoking book and highly recommended.

  • Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
    11th June 2009
    My friend Steve lent me this for my rail journey back from his place at the start of March, but in the event I didn't actually read it until now (he's coming over next week and I wanted to give it back to him).

    This is Marina Lewycka's second novel and tells the story of a group of foreign workers (predomninantly from Eastern Europe) and a dog, adrift in the shadowly British sub-minimum-wage legal-and-not-so-legal labour market (the book is dedicated to the Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecombe Bay in 2004). The characters start out picking strawberries but through various accidents and twists we see them exposed to gangsterism, battery chicken farming, restaurant work and prostitution as they struggle towards their individual aspirations.

    It's a very readable book and the Lewycka's characters are very engaging. There are some memorable incidents and I imagine that many of them do accurately reflect the grimness of the world the characters find themselves in. In fact it feels like often Lewycka pulls her punches, either by rendering horrific situations comical - such as the battery chicken farm - or by simply not showing the final fate of characters that we infer have been sold into the sex trade. The plotting also felt a little uneven as ultimately most of the characters fall away and to leave us with the hero and heroine and a happy ending, of sorts, which perhaps was a little unearned.

    Aside from all these criticisms though I did enjoy the book and felt also I'd got a very slight insight into the unpleasant reality of living on these fringes of society. Definitley worth a read.

  • Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers by Sharman Apt Russell
    7th June 2009
    My second attempt at reading this book, after failing the first time in 2004. I'd bought a copy for myself and also for Kyle after reading a review in New Scientist magazine, but both of us seemed to run out of steam partway through.

    Second time around - courtesy of my on-going project to read all my unread books and a return train trip to Oxford - it was as if I were reading a different book. The chapters are short and although Apt Russell's style can sometimes come across as trying just a little too hard for poetry, I still found it a very engaging and interesting read. Along the way I learned (or perhaps re-learned) some facts - for example, humans and fungi share a common genetic ancestry which means that it's more difficult to find medicine that affects one but not the other - but I also got to consider plants and flowers in a different way. The chapters on "flowers and dinosaurs" and on waves of extinction were particularly memorable.

    As a non-scientist I think that Apt Russell tried to look for some magical quality in the science that she presents, which is ultimately what I enjoyed the most, and I'm glad that I gave this book a second chance.

  • The Art of Swimming: In a New Direction with the Alexander Technique by Steven Shaw and Armand D'Angour
    31st May 2009
    I've had this book for a few years now and while I've dipped in and out of it at various times since I first bought it, this is the first time that I've actually read it from cover to cover.

    The book itself outlines a way of applying Alexander Technique principles to swimming, not just technically in terms of stroke improvement (which actually isn't covered much at all) but also encouraging the reader to approach swimming more mindfully in general. Part of the idea is to try and think about swimming as more than just a physical activity (the classic example being the fitness swimmer who effectively tunes out while doing a set number of lengths), and to find ways to engage with it mentally too. By being more aware swimmers can enjoy the experience more, swim with less effort, and reduce the risk of injury (one of the chapters examines the myth of swimming as being "injury free").

    For me the most valuable parts of the book have been dealing with the fundamentals of being in water, and the importance of being comfortable in a medium that can hold fear even for experienced swimmers. In particular understanding how we adapt physiologically to being in water and how to breathe with confidence are key.

    Aside from that, a big attraction of the book has always been the beautiful colour photographs that accompany the text, and which have kept me coming back to it over time - where the text talks about the joy of swimming, the pictures offer a wonderful visual accompaniment and are worth the cover price on their own.

  • Liquid Assets by Janet Smith
    29th May 2009
    The subtitle of "Liquid Assets" is "The lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain" and it's a celebration of the boom in outdoor pools that were built in the first half of the 20th century, their decline from the 60s onwards, and the quiet renaissance that started in the mid-1990s.

    As explained in the book, the word "lido" is derived from the name of an island near Venice where people would go to relax - if it were pronounced in the Italian way then it would be "lee-doe", however it seems that most people in Britain pronounce it as "lie-doe". The word gained prominence in the 1930s and seems generally to have been applied to outdoor swimming pools which also incorporated cafés and areas for spectators. The pools themselves were built in many cases by public authorities either somewhat altruistically to provide facilities for local people, and in others by tourist centres wishing to attract more people. In their heyday they could attract thousands of visitors every week.

    The decline of the lidos coincided with the advent of cheaper foreign holidays and the ever-rising costs of maintaining and running facilities which suffered from falling attendances alongside increased burdens of repair work and health and safety requirements. Many were closed and a large number were demolished, so only a fraction survive today and - in spite of a renewed enthusiasm by users - many remain under constant and considerable financial pressure. It's clear from the case studies that the story is not finished yet.

    This is a great book and one of the major joys is seeing so many evocative pictures of different lidos both from the past and the present - it made me want to dive in! At the same time it seems a little sad that many of the most spectacular no longer exist, and the book features an extensive list in the appendix of defunct lidos. On the plus side there is also a list of those that are still open, and signs of hope for the future. Viva la lido!

    See for a great online resource about UK lidos.

  • Freedom to Change: Development and Science of the Alexander Technique by Frank Pierce Jones
    18th May 2009
    This was recommended to me by my Alexander Technique teacher last October, after I'd had around 8 lessons and was about to leave for the US. At the time my expectation was that this would be some kind of practical guide to "The Technique". In the event I didn't order a copy until some months after I'd returned to the UK, and it transpires it's not a guide at all. Instead it's by turns an historical account of the origins and development of the Technique, an autobiographical account by the author of his experiences both as a student and as a teacher, and a summary of scientific investigations into the "pscyho-physiological" mechanisms behind it.

    These three strands are loosely woven together, as in the main the book proceeds in chronological order. I've read other accounts of F.M. Alexander's discovery and development of his Technique, and Frank Pierce Jones' account is certainly the most definitive so far. His description of the experiments that he (Pierce Jones) later conducted to investigate the Technique and provide more rigorous scientific underpinnings are also quite fascinating.

    However for me it is his descriptions of applying the Technique and the results for him personally that I found most engaging. It seems to be taken as a given that it's almost impossible to describe succinctly what the Alexander Technique is really all about to someone who hasn't experienced it (usually people assume it's something to do with posture, if they've heard of it at all), but in Pierce Jones' writing I found both things that I recognised from my own experiences alongside some fresh insights that have I think deepened my understanding.

    Since resuming lessons a few months ago I've become increasingly certain that for most people (certainly myself) the Alexander Technique is not something that can be learnt from a book. However I think that this is a great complement to lessons, and I'm sure that it will reward future re-readings.

  • For Ladies Only? Eve's Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33 by Jenny Hammerton
    4th May 2009
    This book was written by my friend Jenny and is based on her master's dissertation. As the title suggests, it looks at a 'cinemagazine' called "Eve's Film Review" that was produced by Pathe around the 1920's, which was principally (but not exclusively) aimed at the female cinema audience.

    The 'cinemamagazine' format is a bit like today's 'magazine' format TV show, in that it consists of a number of self-contained items which are only loosely linked thematically in that they are intended to be of interest to their target demographic, to entertain and inform.

    I remember seeing some of the Eve's Film Review items when Jenny was working on her degree and afterwards the lasting impression I'd had until reading this book was how comical and slightly patronising many of them appeared to be to modern eyes. However in the book Jenny tries to place the items in their contemporary social and cultural context, helping the reader to imagine how the audience (both male and female) might have viewed the films. Seen through this lens many of the items can seem almost subversive, challenging as much as reinforcing women's images of themselves and their place in society. Jenny does a great job of describing a world where the cinema was a key source both of entertainment and information for people generally, in which this images would have been extremely potent. Aside from this, there is evidence of innovative cinematography in the films, which were not bound by either narrative requirements or censorship. Some of the less conventional items look surprising modern.

    Often with this kind of study, the problem is that the source material cannot be directly accessed by the reader. However in this case Pathe has made an effort to provide a number of the films and made them available for download on the web (see for a selection). Together with the book it's an interesting insight into the world of the 1920s and 30s which for me at least also challenges my stereotypical view of those times.

  • My First Movie by Stephen Lowenstein
    26th April 2009
    Another gift from a friend that has languished unread for many moons (regular readers will have spotted a theme). The premise of the book is that Stephen Lowenstein - himself a film-maker (I though I have to confess I'm not sure that I've ever heard of him before) interviews a bunch of different directors about their experiences making their first films, with a view to gaining some insight into the process which might benefit other first-time directors.

    I don't know that the list of names is really as diverse as Lowenstein tries to make out in his introduction, however from the interviews it becomes clear that directors come from a range of backgrounds and it's interesting to see how different these can be - as are the motivations for making movies in the first place. At the same time some common elements emerge: getting funding for the film is one (although the solutions to this varies), and the struggle to actually get to the point where shooting can begin.

    I think though that there are two things that were particularly impressed upon me after reading the interviews. The first is the question "what does the director actually do?" The glib answer is that he or she directs - as one interviewee observes, the director is surrounded by people (cameramen, sound recordists, actors and so on) who are all expert at what they do, and it's the director's job to make the decisions that get them to all work together so that something actually happens that is caught on camera.
    The second thing that came out for me is the importance of editing. Many of the directors repeated the idea that it's in the editing suite that the raw material is actually shaped into a film, and that the movie is really made.

    Given the number of interviews this was a much quicker and more compelling read than I'd first thought it might be. I also liked the fact that there is a minimum of the technical details of making a film; instead there is a focus on the human challenges that have to be overcome to actually make a film - so that to an extent you wonder how anybody ever makes a film, ever.

  • Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken
    17th April 2009
    In spite of the title this is actually quite a measured and reasonable response to much of the right-wing media in the US. I'm not sure that the comedian Al Franken is particularly well known here in the UK - I don't think that I'd heard of him (or many of his targets, particularly the bombastic Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly) until I'd spent some time in America. But I really enjoyed it.

    His approach is to take the statements that people like O'Reilly are wont to make (for example, that there is liberal - i.e. left-wing - bias in the mainstream US media) and apply some rigorous fact-checking to them to see if they stand up. Of course Franken is a self-confessed liberal so he has his own biases which he freely admits, but nonetheless it seems like much of what is being said is basically untrue. And it's not just the media - for example, many of the arguments made by the Bush administration as the case for going to war in Iraq were simply untrue.

    Really this sort of thing should make you feel quite angry, but Franken has a light touch and so this is a very funny book. He chooses various ways to make his point and doesn't seem afraid to go toe to toe with these people on TV or in person (one memorable episode at the White House press correspondents dinner where he manages to annoy not only Fox News but also various people from the Bush administration).

    So sometimes I felt that I was laughing out loud when I suppose should have been crying inside, and this is possibly reveals a failing with presenting this kind of material within a humourous framework; but on the other hand one of the defining characteristics of many of his targets is that they don't appear to have a sense of humour, and laughter is good. I thoroughly enjoyed this - and thanks to my friend Martyn for giving it to me in the first place.

  • England is Mine by Michael Bracewell
    13th April 2009
    I don't know how long I've had this book sitting on my shelf. I think I must have started reading it once before years ago but I don't remember anything about it. I picked it this time since it seemed neat to read another book about music after finishing Ocean of Sound, although "England is Mine" is quite different both in terms of its subject matter (broading speaking, English pop music from the 60s to the 80s) and in its treatment, which is arguably much more coherent (not to take away from David Toop's book).

    I suppose it's really about how the experience or qualities of "Englishness" have manifested themselves in various ways throught the medium of pop music, and how that differs from American pop music of the same eras. Michael Bracewell refers throughout the book to literature, poetry and cinema as much as to the music he's talking about, and uses these to contextualise pop, and show in his opinion it both reflected and influenced changing ideas of what England and English society was about. So for example there is the wistful longing for England as "Arcady" - the green and pleasant land that WWII propaganda talked about, but which never really existed - contrasted with rebellion as an extreme reaction to the dullness of suburbia.

    Like "Ocean of Sound", it's very readable and also Bracewell doesn't always choose the obvious examples to illustrate his points (for example I felt like the Sex Pistols were barely mentioned). But at the end I wasn't really sure what the conclusion was, and the attempt to come full circle to his starting point (the Powell and Pressburger film "A Matter of Life and Death") seemed slightly contrived. I suppose I felt that my knowledge of pop and popular culture started just slightly too late to really be familiar with a lot of the music and other reference points. Still it is an interesting and engaging read, and I felt gave me some insight into how pop music of the previous decades had shaped the music and culture that interested me in the 1990s. So it was well worth reading.

  • Ocean of Sound by David Toop
    4th April 2009
    I've had this book for a long time and I was afraid that it was going to be hard work, mainly because I haven't heard a lot of the music that David Toop writes about (that said, it didn't stop me reading a biography of Miles Davis back in 1998). But in fact it turned out to be a very interesting and very readable tour around the many and various facets of "ambient music". The book takes its starting point as Debussy's first encounter with Javanese music at the Paris Exposition in 1889, and the influence of non-European music on the work of European composers at that time - but from there it moves onto electronic music, dub, sampling, jazz, performance art and many others.

    Somehow all these are linked by having some kind of "ambient" influence. However, Toop doesn't try to offer any definition of what ambient music actually is. Instead he in each chapter he considers different ways in which the environment is expressed in music - from the overt use of direct samples, through recorded "environmental" sounds, dialogue and so on, to more subtle ways in which music expresses something more to do with the psyche. Along the way he takes in everything from prehistory and "primitive" imitative music to modern electronica.

    It's an interesting if somewhat meandering journey (one of my favourite parts of the book is an almost hallucinary description of a trip to the Amazon to record various rituals of local tribal peoples), and once which prompts various fundamental questions. For example, if background noise can be considered to be music, then what is music anyway? Who decides - the musician, or the listener? (Illustrative of this is an anecdote about the composer Philip Glass, who saw no problem listening to recorded music in his apartment mixed in with the noise of roadworks outside - to him it was all the same.) Why is sampling in music seen as plagarism whereas in literature referring to parts of an existing canon is perfectly acceptable? And, what is the function of music? In modern Western society it's very much seen as a form of entertainment, but in other times and cultures music served other more ritual purposes.

    I'm not sure that this kind of musing is to everyone's taste, however I really did enjoy reading it in the end, and clearly I'm still mulling it over now. It may have taken a while to get around to but it was definitely worth the wait.

  • Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones
    30th March 2009
    It's taken me a long time to read this book, in the main because I wanted to get the most out of it. It's a study of the emerging area of "personal information management", or PIM - essentially, how we as individuals manage all the information that's relevant to us in one way or another (that's what puts the "personal" in PIM).

    The early chapters lay out the ideas of PIM, recognising that information takes many forms - both physical (e.g. letters, photos, clippings, souvenirs etc) and digital (e.g. emails, electronic documents, webpages etc) - and that our reasons for keeping things can vary from the utilitarian to the sentimental. There are detailed examinations of the different strategies that we employ to search for new and existing information ("finding and re-finding"), including how we keep and organise things in our "personal space of information", and the costs (in time, money or missed opportunities etc) that can be incurred by when we fail to manage our information effectively.

    The latter part of the book increasingly focuses on digital information and its associated tools (particularly email and the web), along with the problems of "information fragmentation" (where related information is scattered across different software applications or devices or even between digital and physical media). Finally there are discussions of how future technology might help to overcome many of these problems, while at the same time potentially being a source of new problems.

    The book can get quite academic in some places. However, Jones writes clearly and also recognises that for most people information is a means to an end, not the end in itself, so he keeps his discussions relevant to real life situations by constantly returning to a key question: "does this make our lives easier or more difficult?". Most chapters contain a "what now for you and me" section which offer practical tips on how we might better manage our information today - some of these might sound blindingly obvious (for example, avoid keeping multiple copies of "live" documents on different computers) but still bear repeating.

    My favourite piece of advice however is near the start: if we want to have better control of our information then we each need to become students of our own information management practices, and reading this has made me think more about how I manage my "personal information". Personally I found it a fascinating, enlightening and thought-provoking read.

    (The Keeping Found Things Found project is online at

  • Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?: And 101 Other Intriguing Science Questions by New Scientist
    19th March 2009
    Another birthday book from my friends Steve and Ingrid, this is a collection of scientific tit-bits taken from New Scientist's regular "Last Word" feature, where readers pose questions to which other readers submit their answers.

    If I'm honest I haven't been a huge fan of this kind of book in the past - they feel like the non-fiction equivalent of short stories, and sometimes I feel a bit frustrated by the rather haphazard approach, which seems to jump around a lot of different topics or areas of science without really going into much depth for any of them. So it was somewhat surprising to find this as readable, entertaining and as informative as I did. I learned some interesting things, particularly regarding physiology (for example, is it really unsafe to swim on a full stomach? Not particularly). Most memorably for me was the fact that urinating on your foot in the shower will not cure athelete's foot, contrary to popular belief. Apparently, although this could work in principle, the concentration of urea in urine is for too low in practice to be an effective anti-fungal agent.

    Finally, all the questions and answers aside, the other neat thing about the book is that if you flick through the pages quickly, you can also see a polar bear juggling a seal juggling a ball. Nice!

  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
    14th March 2009
    A friend gave this to me last year, but it's sat on my bookshelf for some time I suppose because - knowing that it's about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 - I thought that it would be gruesome and disturbing. It turns out that while of course there are many gruesome episodes (although Philip Gourevitch doesn't particularly dwell on them), it is disturbing more for the questions that it raises about the international response as much as those about how the genocide initially took place. It's an absolutely compelling book.

    Gourevitch essentially tells the story of the genocide and its aftermath in flashback, through the stories of the survivors that he interviews against the backdrop of Rwanda's continuing struggle to recover and rebuild. Initially he wants to understand how the organised mass killings of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority happened at all, after the two groups had lived together for centuries with few problems. But stepping back, there are more questions, such as why the international community was so reluctant to recognise those killings (which were not in the main frenzied mob attacks but quite methodical exterminations) - as "genocide", and intervene accordingly? How could the good intentions of international aid efforts result in a backwards logic that failed to halt the murder while simultaneously providing support to the very people who continued to commit it?

    He discovers ideological distinctions made between the Tutsis and Hutus by European colonisers that were ultimately exploited by Hutu Power demogogues to demonise the Tutsis and justify the slaughter, which was made in part possible by the social culture of Rwanda, where people tend to act together ("if one goes, all go"). But the outside world also becomes complicit in the killing, by failing to act. Could it be that somehow it didn't fit the idea of what the international community thought genocide should "look" like? To me this is one of the most troubling questions raised by the book (and left unanswered). Ultimately the people who come out with the most dignity are the Rwandans themselves, who are forced to deal essentially on their own with the many difficult problems of rebuilding their country - and doing a much better job than that the (western) nations posturing and heckling from the sidelines.

  • Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
    2nd March 2009
    Another great book from my friends Steve and Ingrid: Ben Goldacre writes a weekly column (also called "Bad Science" for the Guardian newspaper, in which he highlights examples of poor scientific trials and reporting, mainly in the area of health and medicine (Goldacre is a doctor). The book expands on this theme and allows him to go into more depth about the function of medical trials, and the relationship between the media and science which leads to sensationalist reporting of dubious results. "Bad Science" reminds me of two other books: it stands somewhere between Stuart Sutherland's very measured Irrationality, and Francis Wheen's more polemic How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

    For me the core theme of the book is how the scientific process is poorly represented by the media and (possibly as a result) poorly understood by the general public - creating an environment where the misguided or unscrupulous are able to profit from people's ignorance. The spectrum ranges from silly stories about mathematicians determining that Angelina Jolie has the sexiest walk, through self-proclaimed "health gurus" using pseudo-scientifc language, to pharmaceutical companies promoting their latest drugs. Goldacre holds the media complicit by pointing out that in reporting science stories, mainstream journalists tend to take press releases from these different sources at face value, and seem to lack the tools - or the will - to question the information that they are being fed. Their agenda seems obvious - sensational stories sell newspapers - but it's worth considering that we would be shocked if a similar lack of scepticism was applied to (say) the claims of politicians.

    He is keen to stress that there is a very practical reason why it matters that science should be better reported and understood, which is that people's health - and ultimately in some cases their lives - are at stake. The most memorable recent example of this was the confusion over the MMR vaccine here in the UK. Thus large parts of the book aim to provide the reader with the critcial tools needed to analyse scientific claims. Along the way we are introduced to the principles of "evidence-based medicine", the proper design of medical trials, and how to use statistics correctly to in order to avoid unconscious biases. These are all important, useful and interesting things to know, and Goldacre generally presents them clearly. He constantly returns to the point that we have to consider claims for any treatment based on understanding the evidence for its effectiveness (or otherwise), and more than that, that we are all in principle capable of doing that for ourselves.

    Ultimately "Bad Science" is thought-provoking, educational and enjoyable. It even inspired me afterwards to read a about a medical trial in the British Medical Journal. So I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.

  • Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
    27th February 2009
    This was another book lent by a friend and one that I suppose I wouldn't otherwise have chosen to read. But in the event I enjoyed it immensely. Although it's clear from the outset that this it's about the paranormal, initially it wasn't too clear to me where the story was going (although the otherwise-cryptic title might have helped had I known that it's from a quote from the sceptic James Randi, the debunker of paranormal phenomenon).

    The story is told in alternating sections by each of the four main characters (something that reminded me of Irvine Welch's Porno), with the central figure being the hard-bitten journalist Jack Parlabane, who is called in as a sceptic to witness the alledged paranormal feats of celebrity medium Gabriel Lafayette as they are tested under laboratory conditions. (Parlabane's colourful past is alluded to so much that I began to wonder if they are from a previous series of "Parablane" novels.)

    The book feels like it would be a great airplane novel, as it's immensely readable, and I particularly enjoyed how conventions from the detective genre are cleverly applied to a story about scientific investigations into the authenticity of psychic phenomena. There is murder and fraud alongside more shadowy ideological and political dealings; ultimately this is a whodunnit with a twist. At the core of the story is the question, are Lafayette's psychic powers real or not? and what I found most enjoyable about the book was how it keeps you guessing about what's really going on, pretty much right up until the end.

    Along the way there is quite a lot of expository dialogue about how fraudulent mediums perform their magic. Sometimes this kind of explanatory dialogue can feel a bit lazy but I didn't find that in this case, and actually the information is quite interesting of itself. That said, it's perhaps a little ironic that Brookmyre isn't above pulling a few literary sleights-of-hand of his own to mislead the reader as to what's really going on. But even so this was a really enjoyable read and I'd certainly be interested in reading more by Christopher Brookmyre in future.

  • Halting State by Charles Stross
    20th February 2009
    A friend lent this to me and it was a pretty good read. It's a near-future science fiction whodunnit where the story is principally just a showcase for some very neat extrapolations of today's virtual reality games, web technologies and portable electronic devices. In a way it felt like a software developer's book (a feeling compounded by references to programming languages and network protocols, and the abundance of acronyms) - the writing and characterisation is pretty functional and the plot is frequently overwhelmed by all the lovingly-described details of the new technologies and their impact on people and their society.

    One of the cover quotes compares "Halting State" to the work of William Gibson. For me the difference is that Gibson's writing feels more developed - there isn't the same omnipotent narrative voice, the characters feel a bit more well-drawn, and the elements of Gibson's near future world seem to have more space to breathe. Even so, "Halting State" was an engaging read and it's vision of how today's technology might develop in the future is both thought-provoking and alarmingly plausible.

  • The Island of the Fisherwomen by Fosco Maraini
    11th February 2009
    I'd been interested in the Japanese Ama diving women since reading about them in Frances Ashcroft's book Life At the Extremes. The women dive to great depths to harvest shellfish and their diving abilities are prodigious, and most photographs that I've seen of the Ama women since (including that on the cover of the hardback editions of "Life at the Extremes") seem to come from Fosco Maraini's book about his time on the island of Heruka (the eponymous island) in the Sea of Japan, living with and observing the Ama community there.

    Much of the book is filled with Maraini's wonderful colour and back-and-white photographs of the diving women and of the more general community life on the island. The text meanwhile complements the pictures, recounting the story of his search for a suitably "authentic" Ama community to observe (even in the 1950s it seems in many places the Ama were turning away from fishing in order to entertain tourists), the time spent living among them before finally finding a degree of acceptance (with the help of various presents to the local ruler) which allowed to actually dive with some of the women and take pictures up close.

    It's a fascinating and very readable account, Maraini's observations are often very insightful, the translation from the Italian appears to be excellent, and the details of the Ama women's work (and the life of the Ama people in general) are extremely interesting. It seems that even at the time of writing that the Ama's way of life might be disappearing, and I'm not sure if these communities still exist in a form that might be recognisable to Maraini (see for example this 2003 article Japan's Ama Women Divers); however at least the book and the photographs still preserve something of it.

  • Listening to Whales by Alexandra Morton
    5th February 2009
    This is one of the most engaging and fascinating books that I've read for a long time - I've had it since sometime last year, when a friend recommended it to me in an email. Alexandra Morton has been involved in orca (killer whale) research since the 1970s and she describes how our knowledge and understanding of these animals has grown from that time, at the same as profound changes have occurred both in our attitudes towards them, and the nature of the threats that they face to their survival. For me growing up hearing about Greenpeace and "Save the Whale" all the time in the 80s, it's eye-opening to realise just how little was known about orcas back then - even their numbers were in dispute before scientific efforts catalogued the pods in the Pacific off the coast of North America and Canada. Over time dedicated researchers (including Morton, who's speciality was recording the whale songs using a hydrophone) discovered the animal's complex social patterns which are still barely understood.

    Morton's own life is intertwined with the growth of knowledge about orcas, but even without this connection her story is a fascinating one and is told in an disarmingly straightforward and extremely engaging and readable manner (which reminded me very much of Lynne Cox in her autobiography Swimming to Antarctica). Her interest in the orcas brings her to remote Echo Bay in Canada's Johnston Strait where she and her family have become part of a community of people who, like the killer whales, depend on the health of the bay's fish in order to survive. It's a little depressing that by the end of the book the natural fish stocks of the bay are under threat, and so depleted that the orcas that originally brought her to the bay are hardly ever seen there. (Morton lays a large part of the blame for this at the door of salmon farms, also described in a recent New York Times "Scientists at Work" article Saving Wild Salmon, in Hopes of Saving the Orca).

    What I enjoyed about this book was how it engaged me as both autobiography and as an introduction to the orce research; but what also comes through is Morton's refusal to give up on the things that she loves, even in the face of tragedy, and again like Lynne Cox's story there seems to be an inspiring message there for all of us.

  • The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging by Various and Arianna Huffington
    21st January 2009
    Kyle bought me this book for my birthday after we saw Ariana Huffington talking about it on "The Daily Show" at the end of last year - I'd started my own blog a month or so earlier ( but I was still getting to grips with being a blogger. What should I blog about? How long should the posts be? And what are the rules of blogging anyway?

    What I've realised since then is that of course there aren't really any rules, other than just to do it, and then find your own way by keeping at it - and that's pretty much the (very sound) advice contained in the core chapters: you should just make a start, write about what you know, post frequently (something that I'm struggling with), keep it short and use your own voice. Ultimately you'll find your way through actively practising blogging. There's also advice about how to find material, handle comments (both positive and negative), build a "community" around your blog, how to connect to other bloggers, and how to expand your readership.

    It's all good stuff, although I'm not sure that I'd agree that this is the "complete" guide to blogging - I felt that the focus is very much on "building brand" with a blog, and most of the examples come from the area of political journalism and news reporting. There's also a lot of talking up of the Huffington Post and its history, and a chunk of the book reprints posts from the HuffPost bloggers (to be fair, many of them are well worth reading).

    All that aside, it's a very readable book and some of the discussion about how blogging fits into the broader world of news reporting is interesting in its own right - besides which, the core advice (nicely summarised in another blogger's review at is as good as any for a novice blogger.

    (Nb: I've made my own page of useful links culled from the book.)

  • Getting Real: A smaller, faster, better way to build software by 37signals
    20th January 2009
    I sort of read this by accident: although it's possible to buy a physical copy or a PDF, you can also access the book content for free online as a set of webpages (which is what I did), and I found it to be a really interesting and often thought-provoking read. It's focused on developing web applications and outlines the principles that the company 37signals uses to develop their popular applications (including two that I use regularly: Ta-da Lists and Backpack) and the Ruby on Rails web development framework. So it's enlightening to read their take on the development process.

    They cover a lot of different areas, including staffing, interface design and customer support. But I guess if I had to sum it up, then their basic ideas are to start small, work fast, don't agonize over your decisions, do as little as possible and focus resources in the areas that really matter. Ultiumately the focus is on getting things done, so it's important to be clear about what you're trying to build (and why), and to stay passionate about your application. I liked that some of their suggestions seemed to go contrary to what I'd understood to be "best practice" from my previous software experience (for example, and not writing functional specs). Their reasoning is thought-provoking and is often supported with quotes from other sources which are interesting in their own right.

    Obviously this way of working isn't right for everyone, or for every project, and they recognise that in the introduction. You should cherry-pick what you need. For me the most immediately useful suggestion was to avoid getting bogged down in detailed decisions too early ("Ignore Details Early On") but there's a lot of other good stuff in here. So if you're interested in building software then I really recommend taking a look.

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