Beautiful Evidence

Kristi gave me Edward Tufte’s latest book for Christmas, Beautiful Evidence. It was quite good as usual, but probably not as good as the previous three, which were all excellent. A lot of examples are repeats from previous book, like the excellent infographic describing Napoleon’s march on Moscow- it would have been nice to see some new artifacts.

The ending of the book is strange; there are several pages of Tufte’s outdoor scupltures, apropos of nothing and without introduction. I guess you can do that when you are your own publisher!

Books: Rails for Java Developers

I’ve been reading the beta copies of Rails for Java developers and really enjoying them so far. The book starts off moving through the ruby language feature by feature and comparing them to the features of Java, which is a great way to apply what you know to learning something new. Things continue in this manner through comparisons of ruby’s ActiveRecord to Hibernate, rails’ ActionController to struts, and so on. All the while the authors strike the right balance between fun asides and getting to the point (some books can try way too hard to be entertaining and fall flat).

I haven’t actually written a Ruby on Rails application before or since reading the book, so I can’t comment on the completeness of the material, but I can actually read Ruby now and write some short scripts so that’s a start. This is more than I can say about some of the online materials I’ve read about ruby.

If you’re familiar with java and would like to learn more about Ruby and Rails definately pick up a copy of this book. You might even learn a thing or two about java in the process.

Credit where credit is due: i originally found out about this book due to this blog post (which said a lot of what i just said..)


I recently finished reading JPod by Douglas Coupland. It was a pretty strange book. The only other Coupland book I’ve read is Microserfs, but that was probably most of a decade ago so I can’t remember if that was nearly as weird. While the plot is ok, the ending is pretty weak.

The presentation is interesting (strange): there are pages containing the first million digits of Pi with one mistake to find, pages full of numbers where one zero has been substituted with an O, random words in huge fonts on pages that serve to divide it into chapters of sorts. These artsy things waste so much paper that the book is an astonishingly fast read given its heft.

The strangest part of the book is the level of narcissm on Coupland’s part. (Perhaps since this is on my blog I can’t really talk). At the beginning Coupland appears to grind an axe by having his characters declare that Melrose Place was a ripoff of his book Generation X and that the ripoff was so blatant as to be “actionable”. After that the characters refer to him occasionally, but that’s just leading up to Coupland appearing as character at least nine different times. The ending even revolves around him. I’ve seen authors give themselves cameos in books before (Cussler in particular I remember happening to be yachting around when his characters needed help), but this was pretty over the top.

Wisdom of Crowds and IBM

I’m working my way through James Suroewiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is excellent. I was struck by an observation about the difference between socialogical diversity and cognitive diversity in a discussion about the culture at NASA around the time of the shuttle Columbia disaster. From page 183:

What was missing most from the MMT, of course, was diversity, by which I mean not socialogical diversity but rather cognitive diversity. James Oberg, a former Mission Control operator and now NBC News correspondent, has made the counterintuitive point that the NASA teams that presided over the Apollo missions were actually more diverse than the MMT. This seems hard to believe, since every engineer at Mission Control in the late 1960s had the same crew cut and wore the same short-sleeved white shirt. But as Oberg points out, most of those men had worked outside of Nasa in many different industries before coming to the agency. NASA employees today are more likely to have come to the agency directly out of graduate school, which means they are also far less likely to have divergent options. This matters because, in small groups, diversity of opinion is the single best gurantee that the group will reap benefits from face-to-face discussion.

This paragraph immediately made me think of IBM. IBM has always been one of the leading corporations in valuing sociaological diversity, but the vast majority of its new hires are fresh collge graduates. In my (limited, since I was never a manager) experience, hiring a so called “experienced hire” was like getting blood from a stone, whereas there always seemed to me lots of money earmarked for college hires. In fact IBM seems to focus large amounts of energy on gobbling up as much of the latest graduating class as it can, particularly the top N computer science programs with internship programs like Extreme Blue.

I can’t knock the value of hiring under-represented groups like women and minorities into a company, but does that really give you a pool of diverse cognitive experiences if everyone went to the same schools? If a person is fresh out of a given school, I doubt their opinons on things will vary much because they’re male or female, black or white – given the same crowd a few more years to get some experience, see what works and doesn’t work; that’ll give you cognitive diversity.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Who knew when you’re embalmed they sew your anus closed and put little spikey plastic cups on your eyes to keep your eyelids closed?

I read this great book a couple of months ago – once I got started, I couldn’t put it down. Mary Roach has a hilarious stream of consciousness writing style; even while writing around a topic like death, all kinds of tangental asides are made. The book documents the history of how society had dealt with death and slowly learned about anatomy, and some of the strange things that happen to your body when you die (especially if you give your body to science).

Totally worth your time, and much funnier than Coal

Universal Principles of Design

I’m taking an engineering psychology class called “Applied Design of Software User Interfaces” this spring, for which our optional text book is “Universal Principles of Design : 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design“. The title is a mouthful, but this book is a real gem. Its more of an encyclopedia with 100 topics covered in two pages each, with one page of text with references to the primary/seminal works, and the other page devoted to beautifully illustrated and designed examples of the effect described in action.

I’d recommend it to anyone interested in effective design of any kind, or even just to read the interesting psychological explanations of certain effects.

Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML

Mostly because I love Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users blog and have heard much about the style of writing in the Head First book series, I ordered Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML as soon as it was released. (Ok I also got it because CSS is a paticularly nasty time-sinkhole for me when I’m working on anything web-related.)

I love the book, but for me it was too much of an introduction to HTML. Skipping ahead to the later chapters, I did learn some important things about CSS. Discounting that, the book is great. It’s sarcastic conversational tone keeps you engaged in the material, it has great examples and frequent special sections that break up the flow nicely.

This book is especially well suited for people entirely new to HTML- I’d definately recommend this book for that audience. The pacing is so well thought out, almost anyone could learn HTML here.

I enjoyed the parts I actually did read so much, I ordered Head First Design Patterns (taking advantage of my “free” trial membership in Amazon Prime) because I never quite got through the real Design Patterns book.

Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte

Envisioning Information has been gathering dust along with Tufte’s other books that I got for “free” at his excellent one-day course last spring, but now that grad school is on hiatus for winter break, I finally picked it up and it was great.

It covers several topics about presenting information (mostly in print, but much is applicable to computer displays) like:

  • The use of color, to later and separate information presentions
  • Use of small multiples to present information. Lots of little identically formatted graphs/pictures are easy for the eye to discern differences and trends from, because one only has to “decode” the graph structure once
  • Techniques for presenting multidimensional data in space and time (like train schedules and planetary motion) in easy to read, two dimensional charts

The book is full of beautiful examples of well presented information such as train schedules and maps, along with what not to do, accompanied in places by case studies on improvements to the bad examples.

Coal: A Human History

I’m always intrigued when someone spends time to write a book bending the span of human history through the proverbial lens of a particular substance. I thought Salt: A World History was actually rather good, so when I saw Coal: A Human History for $5 at the MIT Press loading dock sale, I knew my proverbial ship had come in at long last!

The book documents, as you might imagine, the history of coal, and how, hidden away in boilers 30 stories tall, it continues to drive much of our society even today. The Chinese first burned coal centuries before the west did, but never got the steam engine/industrial revolution thing figured the way the British finally did. After an initial false start (the rich hated the smell and got it’s burning banned for a couple of centuries, finally relenting when all the forests were chopped down), coal “ignited” the industrial revolution via the need to drain deep coal mines, resulting in the steam engine, then a whirling vortex of synergy between iron, steam engines, transportation and coal.

The book is very readable, written in a smooth conversational tone that goes down easy even in T-ride-sized nibbles. Any person moderately interested in history will appreciate the way coal is weaved into so much of modern western history.

It turns out there are numerous one-topic books of this nature – check out this Amazon list someone created a list of books about one thing.