Category Archives: My Reading Habits

Some random thoughts on my current reading habits

A book on FLOSS and Hegemony

The actual title of the book is ‘Hegemony Resistance and Computing: A Study in Postcolonial Political Economy‘. And, as the author mentions, it took six years to write, a bit longer to haggle over the title and, finally, the short-hand of the title stuck 🙂

With the aim of initiating a conversation (link to discussion group) he has put for download a pre-release version of the book. I’ve been lucky, along with Sayamindu, to have had the chance to read drafts, drafts of drafts, notes of the chapters. Discuss over the issues put forward and sometimes help in looking up references or, cross-checking them. The book also got me to read up afresh on Hegel.

We often joke that he is going to end up with a triptych – the first book was a popular primer on GNU/Linux and was written in Bengali. Let’s see how that works out. It would be appreciated if feedback is provided to the author.

Glitches in collecting book data based on ISBNs

Over the weekend I snagged a somewhat cheap and, easily available hand-held barcode scanner – an iBall LS-162. Fairly nifty device and, works plug-n-play on Fedora.

The reason behind this was to finally collect and collate information about all the books that is stashed around me and, create a nice list based on the ISBN data. Which is here I ran into a glitch I did not anticipate. A number of the technical books which I buy (yes, in spite of the Safari, ACM and IEEE subscriptions, sometimes I do buy books) are Indian reprints and, using the ISBN to look-up the metadata isn’t working out as planned.

Does anyone have a pointer to what I should be looking the data up against ? Additionally, does anyone know of a small tool which can take in a list of ISBN numbers and, pull down the metadata for the books to output to a CSV ? I tried traditional tools like Alexandria, it did not work out. If you want a sample list of the ISBNs, leave a comment on this entry and, I’ll point you to a download link or send it over email.

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Education and, educators

Around 4 days back, I had an interesting conversation over micro-blogs with a friend. When he was at Pune, we spent a small part of the evening talking about education, educators and, the process of educating as observed here and elsewhere. It did boil down to a (somewhat idle) lament that “the system isn’t performing according to expectations”. I thought over this over the weekend and, while I am not an educator, I am a “person interested in education”, and, it makes sense to attempt to try and see what the expectations are.

Any functional education system has to provide the participants with the tools and constructs that allow them to have independent streams of thought. While it teaches the formal discipline and rigor needed to pursue new topics, its scope should ideally encourage original thought. More importantly, it should encourage creativity, be intolerant of casual approach and, be ruthless in demanding excellence.

The problem is that reality isn’t always like that. There are a significantly high number of education institutes, some of them of past repute, who are sliding down the slippery slope of mediocrity. This fall is aided by the fact that the “education system” doesn’t lend itself well towards measuring the quantum of knowledge passed on to the students by the educators. And, it is compounded by the sad truth that the prolific growth of institutes have encouraged a somewhat exponential fall in the quality of the staff. The final nail in the coffin is the datum that the system of measuring “education” is around the results of an examination. The fact that the examination pattern does not encourage “thinking” is somewhat of a greater problem.

It is true that the better educators have not involved themselves within the system as much as hoped for. It is also true that the students have been lax in bringing themselves up to speed. The refusal to be aware of whom to benchmark themselves leads to a sort of navel gazing that is self-destructive at best and, a society-exploder at worst. With the current trend of public-funded schools not getting the number of teaching posts at the expense of wider inflow of private education (both at primary and, higher education levels), it does mean that the situation is possibly going to take a larger turn for the worse – a significantly higher section of the school-ready population is going to be unable to get decently functional education.

I don’t have any solution. That rankles. I do observe with rising alarm the somewhat inevitable slide. That needs to change.

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Reading “The Art of Community”

I did reach a personal goal of bringing down the rate at which I was reading books. From around 4 books a week to 3 books a month – that’s a fair enough achievement. Among the ones I wrapped up recently, was The Art of Community (1st Edition) by Jono Bacon (linky)

I finally managed to add it to my Safari Bookshelf (for some odd reason I had to delete a book to free up a slot inspite of not being over quota) and, I did have high expectations from it, Jono has been active and visible in various communities and, I expected his enthusiasm to reflect in the writing. The book is a good one and, definitely worth a read. Interesting chapters are: Building Buzz, Measuring Community, Handling Conflict and, Hiring a Community Manager. A couple of observations about the book:

  • it draws on the shared experiences and, “stories” from various personalities and, projects making it somewhat of a “comfortable” book to read. You get to see that there are patterns to the problems across various communities and, tribes and, such patterns can be addressed
  • it isn’t “preachy” or, prescriptive or, even full of homilies. That’s a saving grace really. However, the deliberately chatty nature of the book sometimes becomes a bit too full. However, not mandating prescriptions to “fix” communities is a good thing to have in a book
  • It does have the usual attempts to define what a community manager does (including the by now cliche of “herding cats”). The end definition is somewhat more easy-on-the-ear (read the book for that :))
  • it doesn’t delve too much into the measurement aspects of the vitality of a community and, somewhat implies that the entire effort to build up and, sustain a community is somewhat of a “soft” skill issue. That, I’d say goes against the grain of the intent of the book – to demonstrate the easy of formation of communities and, the significant efforts to keep them sustained. And, although the anecdote about the 5-A-Day is insightful, on the whole, it doesn’t break new ground in statistical assessment or, deriving sense out of the number crunching
  • I’d have liked to read about examples from upstream projects like GNOME, KDE and, Mozilla. Because of the size and, nimbleness of their releases, the community experiences would have far more anecdotes about processes, tools and workflows. The book does justice in talking about the importance of having open and transparent processes, however, it doesn’t delve too deeply into the catastrophic failures that can happen if the vital emotions of Belief, Respect, Accountability and Trust are thrown to the winds. There have been ample cases in the world of Open Source where one or, all of the foundations have crumbled and, havoc ensued. Dispassionate discussion about them helps bring out the case for the need to have a vigilant community.
  • I recently read Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder (linky) and, expected The Art of Community to demonstrate the validity of legitimate peripheral participation in the Ubuntu community. There aren’t too many examples of those.

In short, although the books falls a bit short of my expectations, it is a good read and, a book to have on the shelf. It does not lend itself towards creating neat little check-boxes like, say, a Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project by Karl Fogel (linky). Or, it isn’t aimed for companies who want to build a community around their products/services as is documented by Dave Neary in his blog.

On a related side note, the other books which I read and, would recommend are: 97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know, 1st Edition by Barbee Davis (linky) and, 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know, 1st Edition by Richard Monson-Haefel (linky). Both are extremely nice read especially because they have a diverse range of inputs which make it topical. There’s a need for a 97 Things Every Community Manager Should Know as well 😉

Lastly, it would be delicious if the Safari folks allowed the bookshelf to be treated like an actual library bookshelf – check-in and, check-out books at will as opposed to waiting for a specific number of days to be able to remove the books. Oh well ! you can’t have it all I guess.

Of books again

Spent a greater part of the day reading A Better India, A Better World by Narayan Murthy. And, for better or, for worse, re-read a few parts of Imagining India: Ideas For The New Century by Nandan Nilekani.

There is nothing much to be said about the book from N Murthy. A collection or, more aptly, a collation of his speeches and writings these are collected around various themes. A basic point which the publishers might have considered is the selection of font and size. A book that is wholly text matter based requires a much pleasant font and comfortable spacing rather than the close-spaced result that one sees in the book. There are a few things that stand out when one reads the collection:

  • his speeches tend to have repeated imagery and quotes and, a bit of sameness that becomes jarring if the book is read as a whole
  • while the speeches employ rhetorical flourishes, the writings, especially in the columns of business journals have a much sharper edge and clarity
  • “Be the change you want to see” is a theme oft repeated and, provided for via various examples. And, I did end up liking a number of the anecdotes.
  • The sections on Values, Leadership and, various addresses to the students are worth a re-read.

All said, I had a different set of expectations from the book. Probably, that was one reason I ended up re-reading segments from Nandan Nilekani’s book. Narayan Murthy has been somewhat “up there” and, expecting a bit more insight in terms of vision isn’t asking for the moon. So, whereas Nilekani’s book does a thorough overview of a situation and digs dip down into nuts and bolts operational parts, Murthy’s writings tend to remain a bit on the “preachy” side. And, somewhat dispassionate. The book is worth reading if one has heard or, read him infrequently, else, borrow a copy to read up the section on Values. Might be worth it.

Books and more

I have been spending a couple of days reading through Masterminds of Programming: Conversations with the Creators of Major Programming Languages . The books which are somewhat related would be Handbook of Programming Language and, Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think (Theory in Practice) . And, among all of these books, I’d still prefer the HoPL (a review from Usenix is here). One of the reasons is that the book ie MoP, uses an interview structure to lay out the ‘conversation’. Even in a free-flowing interview, there is some form and framework which constricts the responses and, does not allow a sense of the ‘meta’ to be read. Having said that, there are interesting insights from the chapters on ML, Lua and Postscript. MoP is an interesting book to have, but for casual reading and, only if you are interested in poking about the idiosyncracies of programming languages with the aim of trying to figure how the blocks fit together. However, I’d still say that try to get a copy of the 4 volume set of HoPL. That is worth a space on the shelf.

I have long had the habit of averaging around 4 books a week (there have been highs of 6 books per week too). That is, reading through 4 books (mostly of different categories/genres and types) through the week. This means, that my bookshelf is a mess. And, it also means that booksellers of all kinds are very happy with me (I have a large store of dead-tree versions and, a nice long order sheet at the online stores). Around 6 months back, I figured that with rising prices of ‘books’ and, shrinking space on my shelves it is best to take a couple of steps:

  • bring down the average number of books read per week from 4 to 1
  • start utilizing my online bookshelves more, especially for the technical books I read
  • start exploring the possibility of using netbook/mobile devices with ebook readers to get reading material

So, looking back, I see that I am currently averaging around 2 books a week. Which I like. Because, it gives me ample scope to make extensive notes about the books and their topics and provide me with thought points. On the online bookshelves part there hasn’t been much success so far other than managing to clean out most of the pending books on the Safari subscription. It is on the last that I am still pondering and, probably it would be sometime before I manage to get hold of a nice mobile device coupled with a ebook reader that allows me to read books. I just don’t intend to invest in a ebook reader hardware/software combination right now. So, no I am not looking at Kindle like devices at all. I guess my selection of Bengali literature would have seen an upswing if the ‘traditional’ Bengali publishers allowed their books to be listed on online stores.

ps: I am open to reviewing books since they allow me to indulge in my favorite luxury while getting a chance to read new stuff. So, if you know someone who’d appreciate a good reviewer, I’d be interested to get in touch.

Yes We Did !

A manifesto is defined as a public declaration of principles and intentions, often political in nature. The word itself has a genesis in the word manifestus meaning clear, evident.

For those who haven’t been following it, the FOSS Manifesto which was published recently, provides the clearest articulation of the will and motivation of the followers and practitioners of FOSS as both a technology and a philosophy. It breaks new ground from two aspects:

  • by demonstrating that there is a need for the political parties within the system to grow up and embrace the newer issues that are relevant in addition to the existing (and, somewhat age-old) issues that are raised during the time of elections and,
  • by providing ample proof that a completely inclusive process of asking for and receiving inputs in the effort to shape and mould public policy works

There would be some objections on the second point in terms of reach out to the masses, but the very fact that the world of FOSS isn’t limited to the elitist groups of folks who are interested in FOSS for the mere sake of FOSS philosophy is something noteworthy. Having FOSS (where the last S isn’t just software) plonked bang in the middle of a political consciousness is an effort worth applauding. This is thought of to be the elections where the youth of the country are expected to exercise their will, their comprehension and their ability to shape the nation’s destiny. The youth now have an agenda which they can feel comfortable rallying around and strive towards making a change. To borrow a phrase from an electoral process that was filled with hope, optimism and choice – Yes We Can !

For all those who worked tirelessly to make this manifesto happen and, get it accepted into the mainstream political spectrum – here’s a round of applause.

Read more here.

Guy Kawasaki and a ‘Reality Check’ on stuff businesses are made of

I had signed up for a copy of ‘Reality Check- The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition’ and, the book arrived nicely packed and all. Thanks to the team who took the trouble to ship it. Shipping charges to India are fairly high and, so thanks once again.

The book is “Kawasaki’s all-in-one guide for starting and operating great organizations – ones that stand the test of time and ignore any passing fads in business theory“. That is a fairly tall order, but the book does not disappoint. Direct, often blunt and cutting out the flab in sentences, Guy gets to the bottom of the story. For those who follow his blogs or, have read his earlier books, this would provide some parts of deja vu. And yet, there are new stuff in the book. It is entertaining and there are places where you just have to laugh out loud at the sheer irreverence of it all.

Good stuff around pitching (heh! that was a no-brainer), business plans (but Guy has on and off written about it), innovation, customer service and unsurprisingly schmoozing. Short crisp sentences bristling with ideas that challenge the reader to pause-think-rewind-restart and a list of clear don’ts. This is an engaging work from someone who is the ‘real deal’. Some of the content comes across as commonsense, but then, commonsense is the most uncommon commodity right now in the great game of startups.

Books in the same genre are generally cut-n-dry, full of good natured advice and suffer from a complete lack of delivering the punch line in a form that one can remember. This one doesn’t do that. And, the punchlines would be repeated over various meetings and gossip sessions. It is a thick book but it holds sway over you. In fact, it is highly recommended to have a copy handy.

From the Wikipedia entry:

In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of humility, not always with the lack of knowledge. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in the Greek world. The proverb “pride goes before a fall” is thought to sum up the modern definition of hubris.