Summer reading mini book reviews

What We Leave BehindIt's been a decent summer of reading for me, and I thought I'd post some very brief reviews of some of what I've encountered along the way.  For each book I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.  I've organized the reviews into three sections: Culture, Novels and Business & Politics:

Culture

Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick
Finally, Mitnick gets to tell his side of the story when it comes to his adventures in computer cracking and social engineering.  Though his writing style isn't particularly compelling and his personal meditations on the interpersonal aspects of his adventures are a bit awkward, the details of how he pulled off some pretty technologically impressive (albeit illegal and sometimes destructive) hacks - and how law enforcement responded - make for compelling reading on their own.  As someone who spent a fair number of hours in my childhood trying to deconstruct how the phone system and the emerging world of BBSes and Internet nodes worked, Mitnick's book is a great visit to the past and a reminder that humans continue to be the weakest link in all computer security.

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A pretext for violence

I'm reading with sadness the news coming out of Norway.  Apparently, 32-year old Anders Behring Breivik decided that his Christian beliefs were so threatened by cultural shifts, minorities, immigration and multiculturalism that he needed to bomb and shoot people in order to address that threat.  The killings were politically motivated: the bomb was detonated at the Primer Minister's office and Breivik then stalked and shot at close range people at a political retreat.

Some will talk about the dangers of having weapons of various sorts and sizes available to individuals like Breivik and passionately implore for tighter controls and regulation of firearms or other weapon-making materials.  Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about when, where and why we create weapons designed to kill other human beings, and how we allow them to be used.

Some will talk about how this is a clear cut example that acts of terrorism are an ongoing threat and need to be safeguarded against using increased governmental or military power to fight terrorists and prevent attacks.  Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about whether current efforts to prevent acts of terrorism are effective, and what else could be done.

Some will speak of a lone madman who was mentally ill, and how we must find better ways to diagnose and treat mental illness of this sort before an individual's darkness can turn into violence.  Indeed, we should be asking hard questions about how those among us who suffer from mental illness are treated and how they are helped.

But we must not forget that behind all of these interrelated paths to such awful acts of violence, there is a singular cause that no amount of weapons control, military might or psychological analysis can predict or prevent:

Somehow, this man was able to construct a worldview for himself in which it was permissible to murder other people because of their political views.

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The Social Network

I saw the movie The Social Network tonight, here are my spoiler-free comments.

The movie was incredibly well made.  Aaron Sorkin's writing was as good as the best days of The West Wing, each member of the cast seemed to just nail their role, the editing was some of the best I've seen, and so on.

Perhaps most enjoyably, this is a mainstream movie that is at least in part about the culture and goings-on in the modern world of Internet entrepreneurship, I believe the first of its kind. It fully embraces the geekiness that was and is a part of building a web application like Facebook: in the first 30 minutes, the Apache webserver software project is mentioned at least twice, there are dramatic lines about needing more Linux webservers running MySQL, there are punchlines that involve the emacs text editor, and scenes of glorious code writing marathons - wow.

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Discouraged and Encouraged

Discouraged

I installed compact fluorescent bulbs throughout my house, and the big box stores lit up their parking lots day and night.

I decided to drive my car less, and the oil companies spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

I installed a rain barrel to water my organic garden, and the big agriculture companies shipped genetically engineered, highly processed food around the world for me to enjoy at a moment's notice.

I made a living running a business that tried to care first about doing the right thing, and my government used the taxes on our income to prop up businesses that lie, cheat and steal.

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12 kinds of social networking status updates

If you're new to Facebook, Twitter or some of the other social networking spaces out there, you're probably asking yourself, "what should I expect to see when it comes to the status updates that people post in these places?" Or if you're a social networking veteran, you might still be thinking, "what's my niche online?  How do I decide what to post?"

Well, you're in luck!  I really enjoy cataloging and categorizing these kinds of things, and so I've put together this list of 12 kinds of social networking status updates.

Most every status update will fall into one of these categories:

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Superbowl XLIV

Line of ScrimmageA few random thoughts on the Superbowl, quite belated in Internet Time:

After the initial total failure of my cable-less schemes for watching the Superbowl online, and the subsequent grumbling trip to an alternate viewing venue, I enjoyed watching the game. I say "enjoy" as in, "it roused the part of me that enjoys the technical aspects of physical competition and spectacle," not enjoy as in, "I really appreciate the Superbowl and what it says about the state of humanity." And I couldn't help but feel pretty dirty afterward.

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Recommendations for the Local Newspaper

Jason Truitt at the Richmond Palladium-Item has requested input from the paper's readers on its current strategic planning conversations, saying "we want to do a better news operation in 2010."  As I've done in the past, I'd like to try to answer some of Jason's specific questions here, and while they're somewhat particular to our community, my recommendations might be useful for other papers too:

1. Watchdog journalism involves writing stories that hold public officials accountable for their actions or stories that help to right wrongs in the community, for example. In what ways could we improve in this area?

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Growing a Geek Culture in Richmond

Surveying the courseA few weeks ago I was asked to talk with some folks at the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce about Summersault's past, present and future, and I enjoyed the conversation and questions very much.  One really good question that came out of the meeting was "how can Richmond better encourage, nurture, cater to technology professionals like the ones working at Summersault?"  I'll simplify that question to be "How can we grow a better geek culture in Richmond?"

It's something that I think about a lot (especially when we're trying to hire someone), but I didn't have a ready answer - partly because there is no simple answer, but partly because I hadn't really ever taken the time to write one down.  Below is a list of ideas and comments, in no particular order, that came out when I put the question to the wider Summersault staff.  I hope that you'll contribute your own thoughts and suggestions, and I'll pass the list back to the Chamber and anyone else I can find who might be in a position to work on some of these things.

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Beyond one hour chunks of time

Sushi SelectionOne of the downsides of working in a field where so much is beholden to the almighty billable hour is that my brain has started to re-wire itself to engage the day in terms of one-hour chunks.  This model is reinforced by other phenomena in life - calendaring software like iCal and Google Calendar make it easy to parcel out the day in discrete bits of time, beeps, alarms and bells go off on the hour mark in many workplace and educational settings, and then there's the cultural convention that "all meetings take about an hour" unless otherwise noted.  We're increasingly a people whose quality of life and measure of productivity has everything to do with the 24-hour clock.

I generally don't mind this standard when I'm in "work mode," but I've noticed a very undesirable side effect on the rest of my life: I've been slowly losing the ability to spend open-ended social time with people, without my brain trying to fit it in to some predetermined scheduling blocks. The end result is that I think I'm less open to the wonderful, serendipitous experiences and discoveries that one can make in the comfortable and unregulated presence of friends and loved ones.

I've written before about the cues we give and get for when a conversation is going to go deeper, and when it's probably not.  To answer my own question about what kinds of states of being allows you to go deeper in conversation, I've been actively working on spending more open-ended time with people I care about and want to get to know better.  I have a few thoughts about how it's going, and what approaches are working:

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