Book Review: The Selfish Gene (40th Anniversary Edition)

Another classic book that I've gone through again lately is The Selfish Gene  by Richard Dawkins. I listened to the 40th Anniversary Edition on Audible as he was narrating it himself, and I particularly wanted to listen to the 40th Anniversary Edition to see how his own thoughts had changed over time.

Dawkins can be a polarizing figure. I'm mindful of how his work would have been received at the time it was written. I understand many of the comments that people make on him, but I find the vast majority are either misunderstanding him (you need to take him very literally but I find people read into his words, things that he's not actually saying), or are feeling like their deep-held beliefs are being severely challenged. I have no doubt that the latter hurts.

It's hard to believe that this was written 40 years ago, as the ideas are still fairly fresh and interesting to listen to. I liked the way that, instead of fixing his earlier ideas on the fly, he read the book as it was originally written, then inserted final paragraphs after each chapter if necessary to show where he'd updated his thinking or where he now thinks he was wrong. Being prepared to do so, is one sign of a true scientist. Many others would have just updated the content to current thinking.

One the whole though, I think he's done a great service to humanity, in helping us break out of medieval thinking.

This book explains his thoughts on many aspects of evolutionary biology. He dives into genes as persistent units of information, and the bodies that they inhabit, are basically vehicles chosen for their ability to aid in the replication of the genes.

One thing that I didn't particularly like is that in a number of places, he really belabors the points being made. I presume that more modern eyes don't need the reinforcement that readers 40 years ago would have needed. I also find that the analogies start to break down the further they are stretched.

The cover said "The most inspiring science book of all time". That would be a big call, and I can think of others that should have that moniker instead.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and I understand that many would find the concepts challenging to their world views. It must have been ever so challenging at the time the book was written.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: The Second Machine Age

One of my colleagues Orin Thomas is a prolific writer. I've lost count of how many detailed books he's written, and I've no doubt he's lost count as well. If you've worked in Microsoft-related IT for any length of time, I'm sure you'll have read one of his books, particularly if you've been involved in certification. You can see a partial list of his books here.

But the other thing that amazes me about Orin is that he's also a prolific reader. I can't believe how many books he gets through, and he's inspired me to get through way more. I have not the slightest doubt that being a good reader is a prerequisite for being a good writer. Every time I meet with Orin, he mentions books that I should read. I note them down, and slowly make my way through many of them.

Based on my interest in where I think society is heading, one of the books that Orin suggested was The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson (Author), Andrew McAfee.

I grew up in an age where I wasn't worried at all about the future job market, and in the future of work itself. But the work and study that I've been doing in recent years has changed that. I really do see a period of major social disruption coming. I think if you're not seeing that, you're not really looking.

Whenever we've had disruption in the past, the scale has been much, much lower. "We don't have massive pools of unemployed scribes" is a comment that I often hear. But the disruption that I see coming is very different to what we've had in the past. Today, in my country, there is a major upset if a couple of hundred people lose their jobs at a car plant, even though that was entirely predictable since about 1992 when the government set the industry on a new direction.

In the future though, I can see single decisions sidelining a million people at a time. We're just not ready for that.

This book is an excellent source of material for you to consider. It goes through economic data and positions where technology is and where it's taking us. It argues that we're in the middle of a second era of staggering innovation, and that it will affect us even more than the first machine age did.

After convincing us of how amazing all the technology is, the authors then discuss how the increased prosperity is only shared by a small percentage of the population. I'd argue that it's heading towards a minute percentage. The prosperity won't be spread across the community, and particularly not to the people at the lower economic levels.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and challenging and I'm glad Orin suggested it to me. I have a deep interest in these things, and this just helped add to that.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn

I'm a fan of Pat Flynn. If you haven't listened to his Smart Passive Income podcast, and you have any interest in being self-sufficient without "working for the man", Pat's podcast would be a good start. Pat has people ask him about ideas though and he's put his ideas on how to work out if an idea is worth pursuing in his book: Will It Fly? How to Test Your Next Business Idea So You Don't Waste Your Time and Money.

People often have what they think are great ideas but they don't know if they really are good ideas or not. The lousy situation is where they then invest a great deal of money building/creating something, only to watch it fail miserably in the market.

Pat's book is designed to help to avoid that.

Pat is a thought leader in this part of the market. And he's done very, very well from his work. Ironically, it all started because he lost his "real" job. In this book, he helps you through the steps of what to do before launching (or particularly before investing heavily) in your business idea.

Entrepreneurship is hard, but it can also be very rewarding. That's a scary concept for many. So often, people live from pay to pay, or have such heavy commitments, that they feel they really have few options.

I can't say that I miss doing a "normal" job and I can't imagine ever wanting to do one again, no matter what happens. I wish this book had been available decades ago. It would have saved me a lot of time and effort along the way.

Bottom line?

This book won't help you decide if you should be an entrepreneur. But if you've decided to do so, this book is great material for anyone looking to start a business, launch a product, or even change tack in their current business.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

When I was growing up, we were endlessly shown Mother Teresa (now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by Catholics) as an example of a person who had devoted their life to the service of others, and did so in appalling situations. I knew that the myth surrounding this woman was very different to the reality and I'm surprised that I hadn't previously read Christopher Hitchen's book: Book Review: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

An excerpt from the first two reviews on Amazon sum up this book pretty well:

sterlingAg said: "You don't have to either love or hate Mother Theresa to enjoy this book, although it may be a tough read for the former. I've always believed that Christopher Hitchens' goal is not to bring your thinking in line with his; rather, it is to provoke your thought, your investigation and, maybe later, your evaluation. He does this masterfully here."

and

Jay Young said: "About 10 years ago, I hated Christopher Hitchens, particularly for his attacks on Mother Teresa. Of course, I was uncritically relying on Bill Donahue's Catholic League for my views on the subject. I was convinced that Hitchens was launching a malicious, hateful attack on a woman who did more good than he ever did. As you may have guessed, my views have changed since then. …  Hitchens, however, definitely has assembled an incisive case against the idolization of Mother Teresa. The evidence is hard to argue against, and Hitchens only asks that her reputation by judged by her actions, not the other way around."

To say that this would be a tough read for fans of Mother Teresa (or at least of the myth of Mother Teresa) is an understatement.

Hitchens provides a very sharp and strongly argued position for his opinions. She has been held in high regard for very questionable reasons, and with amazingly little positive evidence, and an unbelievable amount of (peculiarly discounted) negative evidence.

The details he provides of her financial dealings, and the depth of her relationships and engagements with very questionable people is beyond compelling and eye-opening.

Hitchens' book is a staggering indictment of the mythology that surrounds Mother Teresa. This is made more compelling by the time he spent with her, and his interviews with her. Remarks like the following provide a hint on her thinking:

"She assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty. She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said: 'I'm not a social worker.'"

Bottom line: Hitchens will have raised the ire of many with this book, but no matter what your initial impressions or beliefs in her are, if you haven't read it, I suspect you aren't well-informed on the topic. Read it before you form an opinion of the book. Don't just believe the positive spin.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: Exactly what to say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact

I'm trying a number of different categories of books lately, because I'm getting through far more than previously. One category I thought it would be interesting to pursue where the conversation/influence areas. One that caught my eye was Exactly what to say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact by Phil M Jones.

This was quite interesting but I'm not sure if I liked it or not.

In this book, Jones takes you through a number of situations, where people often say the wrong thing and make things worse, or where they don't even know what to say, and he gives formulas for how to structure responses that turn the situation back around the way you want, to keep heading to the right outcome.

I have no doubt he's right in what he says.

But having been on the receiving end of many of these discussions, generally as part of fairly strong sales routines, even though it might have helped the seller move in the direction they want, I'm pretty resistant to much of this, and can generally tell when I'm being played or manipulated, and that's what many of these techniques make me feel.

Do I think these types of tactics work well across the broad community? Yes, probably.

Jones has covered quite a bit of ground in the book, and many different situations, and you can tell that he's put a lot of thought into the responses. It might even be a US vs Australian thing, but I still think many would feel very manipulated by the techniques being applied to them. Reading it felt like I was in a highly-motivated selling techniques class, even though the subjects covered were much wider than selling-related ones.

Bottom line: If you deal with the general public and need to find an appropriate way to respond to a variety of situations, you might find this useful. It felt a bit too slick for my liking but Jones is clearly good at what he does.

Greg's rating: 6 out of 10

Book Review: The Phoenix Project

I've been spending a lot of time lately doing DevOps related work, and I thought it was important to post a review of what is often considered the first "DevOps fictional book". I know that sounds like a geeky book but it's not quite as you might expect. The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford is a bunch of fun.

It's the story of Bill. He's an IT manager at Parts Unlimited. (And for those who've done much Microsoft-related DevOps work, yes that's the same name as in the Microsoft sample apps). Bill's day is starting badly when he's pinged by the company's CEO.

Phoenix is the name of a new critical company project  that's in trouble: it's way, way too late, and way, way over budget. Yes, we've all seen projects like that. The CEO wants it fixed and he wants Bill to do it.

The authors of this book are well-known in the DevOps communities but perhaps the surprising part is how well this book is written. It moves quickly and is very entertaining to listen to. I wasn't the only one in my family to listen to it, so that's a testament to it not being too geeky. It's mostly about the human processes involved.

Now even though there are setbacks, everything ends up going better than what I see in most companies, but it's still full of interesting lessons.

This is regarded as a seminal book related to DevOps (even though it's fiction).

Bottom line: If you've never read this or listened to it, and you're into either DevOps, or just into trying to get things done in an organization, it's time to do so.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: 1984 – George Orwell

One of the things that using Audible has let me do lately is to get through additional books that I'm interested in. Part of that has been to go back through real classics. They don't come more classic than 1984 by George Orwell.

When I was at high school, this was one of Orwell's books that I read. Listening to it again now though, two things struck me:

  • How much I'd forgotten of the detail in it
  • How chillingly relevant it is today

The first two chapters in particular had me simply amazed at how prescient Orwell was. So many aspects of what he described that were clearly intended to be horrific and unthinkable at the time, and yet are so close to the current reality in many places that it's quite chilling to listen to.

The book describes Winston Smith living in a dystopian world that is constantly at war, barraged by endless propaganda, and surveillance. Smith is nobody special but is a member of the party, unlike the proles who he begrundgingly seems to admire somewhat.

If anything, it's quite depressing in a way, that humanity has learned so little since this was written in the late 1940's. Obviously, he'd just come through the second world war period, and I can't imagine how bleak that would have been. I'm sure the Nazi regime would have heavily influenced his thinking.

It's fascinating to see how Smith thinks he's a real rebel, yet the party is even more clever all the time.

The quality of the writing is amazing and it's clear to me why this is regarded as such a classic. Apparently, he had tuberculosis while writing most of this book.

Bottom line: If you've never read this or listened to it, it's time to do so.

Greg's rating: 10 out of 10

Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

While continuing on the path of listening to many older but classic books, I had to include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey.

I remember first reading this book shortly after it was released. I note that the version I listened to in Audible recently was the 25th anniversary edition. I'd say it's stood the test of time pretty well. An enormous number of copies (over 25 million) have apparently been sold over those years.

This book had an almost cult following when it first appeared. I know people who believed it completely changed their lives. There were also many associated seminars at the time.

Even though it's dated, what the book is full of is moments where you'll be forced to reflect on your life and realize he's talking about you.

I do like the way he included a lot of practical advice on changes that you can start making. It is written in a pretty matter of fact, yet encouraging tone, designed to make you think about the choices you make or have made, how they are affecting you now, and what you might do to regain control.

He was also writing at a more religious time and place, and I don't share his belief of the importance of religion in his life.

This is by no means a perfect book and again some aspects of it haven't weathered the years all that well but it's still full of meaningful insights.

I was glad that I went through it again, all these years later.

Greg's rating: 7 out of 10

Book Review: The Rosie Effect – by Graeme Simsion

I mentioned in a previous review about how much I enjoyed The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I couldn't wait for the sequel to come out and so I eagerly read The Rosie Effect: A Novel as soon as it was released.

The first book introduced us to Don Tillman, working on genetics at a local university and trying to help Rosie find her father. All along, he's trying to find a wife using scientific principles.

In this book, we move ahead to where Don is now a dad. Nothing goes quite to plan. And of course that's the way it always happens with children.

I clearly remember a friend of mine whose wife was a project manager, and she had planned out the entire pregnancy and afterwards using Microsoft Project. My friend was allocated various tracked tasks to complete.

I won't say more than it ended in tears.

So it's no surprise that there are a few bumps ahead for Don in this book.

I didn't find this book as compelling as the first (I think that's a syndrome involving sequels) but it's still a way better book than most.

I really liked it.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: The Case Against Sugar – Gary Taubes

You would have to be hiding under a rock to have missed the current low-carb ways of eating, and particularly the ketogenic thinking about food. Central to much of this thinking though is cutting carbs in general. The hard part about this for most people, is cutting the primary source of carbs and that's sugar.

If ever there was a leader of the fight against sugar, it's Gary Taubes. His book The Case Against Sugar is very significant.

I remember him shocking people years ago by pretty much pronouncing sugar as toxic. When I look back over my own life to date, I think he's right. If there's anything that I wish I could go back and change, it would have been my various forms of addiction to sugar, in all its forms, including innocuous ones like bread and rice.

In this book, Gary presents a case directly against sugar and implicates it primarily as the the number one thing that's led the world into a Type 2 Diabetes epidemic. I'm one of those people, and when I make the best progress, it's when I've basically eliminated sugar and carbs.

The verdict isn't totally in, as you can imagine, but I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to read or listen to this book, and not come to the same conclusion. And every single day, I now see the results of this in various forums that I'm part of.

As a book, it's compelling but I do think he belabors a number of points. I'm sure he's doing that to simply drive the main message home. But there are some sections where I think he made the same point again, and again, and again. That could have been less.

I really suspect that in the future, when the dust settles on all of this, Gary's thinking will be seen to have been seminal in starting to fix our current issues.

It's interesting that the sugar industry is now seeing the writing on the wall. Sugar was one of Australia's key exports in the past. Fortunately that's in decline. But I note with interest the pop-up stalls in shopping malls now where sugar is being defended with near religious zeal. I'm reminded of how cigarettes were defended when I was young.

Bottom line: If you have any doubts about the role that sugar plays in our lives, just read it or listen to it. You won't think the same way again.

Greg's rating: 10 out of 10