Seth Holloway

More joie de vivre than savoir-vivre.

Books Read March 2014

The books this month were fairly random; I finished a couple that I’ve had for too long in a sort of literary spring cleaning.

I also DM’d my first Pathfinder session this month. To prepare for the session, I read quite a bit about tabletop RPGs and how to tell a story. And I took some inspiration from a few good fantasy books.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This book is really highly rated, and I see why. It started off slow, but I stuck with it and was rewarded. This ended up being an awesome, interesting story with a lot of neat, novel fantasy ideas. I’ll finish off the second book soon, then wish the third was already out.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. I’d describe this story as what happens when Superman is a villain.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Remind me not to take a boat to Antarctica. Especially not in the early 20th century. I see why this has been made into a movie or two—it is the classic “unbelievable but true” story.

The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training by Paul Owens and Norma Eckroate. Not that Dog Whisperer (Cesar Milan). Concrete training advice came after a bit of introductory advice that was a little too hippie for me (for example, the authors suggest you feed your dog 100% organic meat and veggies, which I can agree with only in theory). A few of my favorite lessons:

  • there are three Ds of dog training: distance, duration, and distraction. Once your dog can reliably perform, add distance, duration, or distraction. The grad school version of sit requires that your dog sit and stay for minutes while you’re far away and all the dog’s favorite things run by.
  • speak the command once and give your dog 45 seconds to react; right when your dog does the right thing, praise generously.
  • when your dog naturally does something you want to train, immediately name the action and praise your dog. This is called the “Magnet Game” and it’s working well with my dog (we are trying to get her to show us her belly on command). Other examples are for barking (once it has been named you can encourage them to do it only on command) or incidental heeling (if your dog walks beside you, praise the dog and eventually she will learn that staying by you is best).

Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea. This book is short and sweet with a lot of neat tips, like creating character backstories using Fiasco). I’m glad I read this book before the gaming session because it saved me a lot of time and helped me DM more gracefully, I think.

How to Tell a Story by Mark Twain. What a poor title. This book had no direct advice about how to tell a story, and the two stories it contained were less than stellar. At least it was short.

How to be a Programmer: A Short, Comprehensive, and Personal Summary by Robert L. Read. This is a nice essay on how to be a programmer—there’s a lot more to the job than simply writing code. Read describes skills needed as a beginner, intermediate, and advanced programmer. I think this book could form the base of a class on software or be elaborated to create a nice book on the programming profession.


SXSW Interactive 2014 Review

Toopher bought the devs SXSW Interactive badges this year, and we took advantage of the conference being so close. Overall, I’m glad I went. I’m grateful for a company that sponsors my conference-going—it was great to experience South By with my co-workers too. SXSW really is magical, and I’m glad to have it in my city.

The Good

SXSW is overwhelming in the best kind of way. There’s a lot to like:

  • Amazing energy.
  • Great talks in a variety of formats including book readings, panel discussions, interviews, workshops, and standard lecture-style talks. Some of the highlights include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Wolfram, Edward Snowden, Jeremiah Lee, and my favorite talk was given by husband and wife couple Jennifer and Jim Moss who are building software to improve happiness at work.
  • So much to do! At virtually anytime, there were at least three talks I would have liked to see. On top of talks, there was a trade show, various parties and giveaways, meetups, personal meetings and a man’s gotta eat sometime. One odd exception to the too-much-to-do-at-once plight was the Adam Savage (Mythbusters) keynote, which was the only event at 2pm on Monday.

The Bad

The conference is a victim of its success and has clearly outgrown its space. I think all the negatives are related to how big the conference is, although if SXSW was smaller it would lose the grandeur. Some negatives:

  • Sessions tended to lack depth, which makes sense because there were thousands of people from diverse backgrounds. You trade depth for breadth at SXSW.
  • Traffic of all kinds. There were just too many people getting around downtown, so the streets and sidewalks were crammed with cars, bikes, skateboard, and people on foot. The sheer number of people made for long lines for everything from bathrooms to food, to talks.
  • Poor planning. This wasn’t the norm, but it happened a few times; for example, Tim Ferriss, who could probably have packed a keynote, was tucked away in a small room so hundreds of people were turned away.
  • Somewhat related to poor planning and traffic: it was hard to get from one session to another. I attended sessions in the Austin Convention Center, the Sheraton, the Hilton, the Driskill, the Four Seasons, the Omni, and the Palmer Event Center. With zero to 30 minutes between sessions, I was routinely late. A few times I missed getting into the next session because I stayed until the end of the current session. I felt that encouraged bad behavior, like bailing early and skipping sessions in order to wait in line for the next talk.

There are no easy solutions here, and the organizers really did a great job. Each negative I’ve listed could be viewed as a positive: the conference is a great place to hear about new ideas; the number of people makes the conference epic; sessions filling up means they are interesting talks, and, truthfully, across five days I was able to see almost everything I wanted to see.


Books read February 2014

February’s focus was on finishing The Wheel of Time series, but I snuck in a couple other books.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman played a nice angle in this contrarian’s guide to happiness. He synthesized a fair amount of information and presented his path to happiness.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. This book was almost like a scientific version of The Antidote: where The Antidote is a story, The Happiness Hypothesis is a pop science textbook. Haidt did a fantastic job combining psychology and philosophy along with history and his own story. His metaphor for your mind, the elephant and the rider, is amazing. Basically, your rational mind, the rider, isn’t really in control of your body, the elephant. For too long, people have thought of their mind and body like a car: you go left when you want to go left, right when you want to go right, and over a cliff if that’s what you desire. But Haidt points out that you reflexively jump when you see a snake and automatically recoil from a hot surface—your body acts before your mind can process the event. Haidt suggests this is because your body has evolved to survive for much longer than your brain has. You can drive a car off a cliff, but you can’t easily ride a horse off a cliff. Haidt extends the idea and suggests that we are emotional creatures who often wrap our feelings with rational alibis. The book covers a lot of neat studies and compares modern thought to historical perspectives.

Towers of Midnight (The Wheel of Time Book 13) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Book 12 fed nicely into 13 and I went into the finale with a full head of steam.

A Memory of Light (The Wheel of Time Book 14) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. How do you end an epic tale? Well, this is one way. I might have liked more information, but I didn’t want to read yet another book. I’m happy with Sanderson’s tradeoff between quality and time. I’m glad to have closure on the Rand al’Thor saga.


Why Not Do it For All of Us?

I created a repo in hopes of it becoming the most starred repo on GitHub. That’s a pretty audacious goal, I know. Bootstrap currently has over 64,000 stars, making it the most popular repository on GitHub.

Just check out @mdo’s profile page:

@mdo's GitHub profile is hot

So many stars! What a badass. Who doesn’t want cred like that? Now we can all have it, or at least part of it. We’re not going to make an important product, but we can get a lot of stars ☻

Please join me in my quest to the top. Do it for me. Do it for yourself. Do it for all of us.


Books read January 2014

With the winter break I was able to read quite a bit! The books were pleasurable though less brainy than previous months.

The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (P.S.) – Reading linguistics books is dangerous when you’re married to a linguist. Pinker tells an interesting tale, but I wasn’t completely convinced. I found the overview of cognitive science studies absolutely brilliant.

Homeland: The Legend of Drizzt, Book I: Bk. 1 – The Drizzt series is very well reviewed, and I understand why. The lowest ratings hint at the fact that the books are pretty simple and thrive in D&D lore. The book is definitely no Diamond Age or Dance with Dragons, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

Exile: The Legend of Drizzt, Book II – More of the same: a straightforward, pleasurable hero story based in D&D universe. The Drizzt series is a nice break from the more involved Wheel of Time.

The Shunned House – I asked friends for fantasy series recommendations and received too many good suggestions. H.P. Lovecraft was one of them, so I found this book and plowed through it. I see why people love Lovecraft! I cannot describe how, but the writing style is so evocative and creepy.

Case of Charles Dexter Ward – Perhaps because I haven’t read many graphic novels, or perhaps because I am impatient, I found myself skipping the drawing and going straight for the story. This made for a quick read. Unfortunately, I felt Lovecraft’s ability to generate tension and suspense was was hindered by the shortened story.

The Wendigo - Amazon recommended this along when I got the Lovecraft book. I would have liked more description of the Wendigo (and if the story wasn’t written a century ago I would have wanted to hear how wendigos are undiscovered), but I liked the book overall.

Fifty-One Tales - This is another recommendation from a friend. Apparently, Edward Plunkett a.k.a. Lord Dunsany, is one of the first fantasy authors. While The King of Elfland’s Daughter was recommended, I was drawn to this book as an introduction to his style. Of the 51 tales, my favorites were The Workman—about a workman vainly struggling for immortality—and A Moral Little Tale, which says that Puritanical beliefs are actually devilish because God appreciates mirth.

Dracula – A classic fantasy story that I knew but had not read. I hate redoing things, so reading a story I already knew was challenging; however, the book was good. It unfolds as a series of diary entries, which I thought was unique and clever. I am stunned at the lack of resolution—I feel like the climax is on the penultimate page.

The Elements of Style (a.k.a. Strunk and White) – This is a short book, but it was not a quick read for me. Between The Language Instinct and conversations with my linguist wife, I have come to realize that I have an elementary understanding of English grammar. Strunk and White often pressed the limits of my knowledge with highfalutin terms like gerundive and dependent clause; however, they offer great examples that helped me understand the concepts without mastering the vocabulary.

The Gathering Storm (The Wheel of Time Book 12) – After a break, I was ready for more Wheel of Time. I read summaries for books 7-11 and jumped straight to the finale, which is written by Brandon Sanderson with the late Robert Jordan’s notes. I don’t know if it is Sanderson’s writing or the fact that the books are rushing towards the end, but I loved this story. I should finish the series in another month.


Hugo Award Winners and Nominees - Fantasy

I have been searching for good fantasy books and there’s no shortage of suggestions. One suggestion was to pick something from the Hugo Awards. The Hugo Awards recognize the best sci-fi and fantasy novels, which is a huge body of work. I was frustrated that I could not find a more granular categorization—where do you start with a list of 280+ critically acclaimed books? Knowing at least the genre would help a lot. Since I couldn’t find a categorized list of Hugo Award winners, so I decided to create it.

I noticed that most of the books had Wikipedia entries that included a “Genre” entry in the sidebar, so I grabbed the additional information. Below is a list of the Fantasy novels that were nominated for or won the Hugo award. Enjoy and happy reading!

This task was made bearable by scripting the look-ups with Beautiful Soup in Python. If you’re interested, the source is available as categorizing-hugo-award-winners on GitHub.


Books read December 2013

Lord of Chaos: Book Six of ‘The Wheel of Time’ – I finished up book six of the Wheel of Time series and am ready for a break. This book felt like a slog, but ended really well. Some friends advised I skip the middle, so I think I’ll read summaries before jumping to book 12 to start the finale.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book – I thought this book had great bang for the buck. Robin Williams shows how to transform boring, bad designs using CRAP—that’s contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. The second edition is a bit dated; perhaps the third edition is closer to today’s flat UI trend.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (A Touchstone book) – This text asserts that there are four levels of reading: elementary (the basics), inspectional (quickly understanding the big idea), analytical (deep reading), and syntopical (thinking critically and comparing the words against all your related knowledge). I wish I would have read this earlier, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten much out of it because I didn’t think I needed it. I found that the deep dives into new subjects that I frequently did during my PhD is called syntopical reading.

The Effective Executive (Harper business Essentials) – Management guru, Peter Drucker, provides a great guide to working on the right things. As with many business books, you could summarize it in one blog post, but then you lose the nuance. I’m curious how Drucker would argue that a busy executive should read his entire book instead of a concise summary.

Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is – Another book from my productivity queue. This was a quick read with some interesting points. I was intrigued by thinking about whose problem something is and how decision makers’ interests rarely align with he people experiencing the problem.



Books read October 2013

In October I continued on The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, completing books two and three (a grand total of about 1500 pages). So far I’m really liking the series, which is a fantasy hero story. As of now I still prefer A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R.M.. A Song of Fire and Ice takes more risks—perhaps because the series is less about good and evil (or it is not so obvious who is truly good or evil). In any case, I will complete the Robert Jordan (then Brandon Sanderson) series.

The Great Hunt: Book Two of ‘The Wheel of Time’

The Dragon Reborn: Book Three of ‘The Wheel of Time’


Advice for a new manager

Someone asked me for advice on becoming a manager. Caring enough to ask probably means the new manager will do well, but I offered some resources that might help too. Below is my reply.

I think the following books would be useful:

  • The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business – I imagine you’ll have expanded responsibilities and a lot of interaction with other parts of the business, so I recommend this book to get an overview of various functions. It also contains a ton of pointers to other books if you want to go deeper in one subject.
  • The Five Temptations of a CEO: A Leadership Fable - One of the easiest business books I’ve ever read because it reads like a story. The title says its for CEOs, but I think anyone in power should read and implement the lessons.
  • HBR’s 10 Must Reads - Collections of 10 great essays on business subjects like management, leadership, and strategy. If you do nothing else, read Peter Drucker’s seminal paper, Managing Oneself and figure out if you’re a reader or listener (among other character defining qualities).
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box - This is framed as a book for leaders, but I think everyone should read it as it would improve relationships.
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths - This book is great because it will reinforce the idea that people are different. It’s a book about how to achieve great things by focusing on your strengths, but along the way you should learn that other people need the same. Figure out what your people are best at, help them discover it for themselves, then play to the strengths and everyone wins.
  • The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering – Not my favorite book, but I think it’s very important for managers to remember that nine women can’t gestate a baby in one month. This book is full of important lessons.
  • Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams - I had been wanting to read this one for a long time, and I’m glad that I finally did. It’s written by a couple empirical software engineering consultants (my description) who looked at a ton of data and performed thousands of interviews, then synthesized the information into a book. It’s a bit redundant, but I’d prefer a manager who read this book over one that had not.
  • How To Win Friends and Influence People - A classic. I’ve heard you can tell when someone has read this book. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but he has some fantastic, enduring ideas about how to treat people.
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion - Years of psychology research packed into one book. This book just has so much great information about how people think and act. For example, a woman was killed in the streets of NYC and numerous people heard it happen but none of them did anything; the theory is that they thought someone else would fix it. The takeaway: if you want someone to do something, give clear, actionable orders directly to them. That’s powerful stuff for managers, I’d say. There are many other gems in here.
  • The Prince - A classic on power and leadership. I found this book to be far less cynical than people make it out to be.
  • The Art of War - A classic that’s a really quick read. You might not often find yourself physically fighting on facile ground, but it might help to know the strategies and tactics.
  • The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership - This book had its highs and lows for me—there were points where I wanted to quit and other times when I thought it was great. You could probably get the basics by skimming it. A couple big messages were to think more before making a decision (unless it must be done now, put it off), gather lots of information, and think critically.

I’d also recommend virtually everything by Jeff Atwood (a few highlights: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2005/02/managing-with-trust.htmlhttp://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/11/the-two-types-of-programmers.html, http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/06/escaping-from-gilligans-island.htmlhttp://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/06/escaping-from-gilligans-island.html) and Joel Spoelsky (like http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/08/07.html) as well as talks by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skD1fjxSRog, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-7l8cnpI4k, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SARbwvhupQ, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F-3E8pyjFo), Dan Pink (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html), and Robert Greene (who wrote Mastery, 48 Laws of Power, and the Art of Seduction). There are also good podcasts by Zig Ziglar, Dave Ramsey, and others.

If you’re not already a member of Audible.com, I highly recommend that you sign up now. Take advantage of your downtime (exercising, cleaning, commuting) by listening to books and podcasts.

Did I miss something? Anything you’d recommend?