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Finished Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community by H.C. Flores (2/5). The premise of this book was interesting: gardening with a goal of improving the world often leads to a desire to improve the world more widely, so let's have a book about both gardening and community organization.

Sadly, the book tried to do too much and so ended up doing nothing particularly well. The first half of the book is about gardening. The vast majority of things in that section were covered in more detail (but not much more space) in Gaia's Garden. The second half of the book, on community organization, was not well connected to the first half and equally broad but shallow. That said, each section had one chapter I really enjoyed (seed saving in the first half, and integrating children into gardening and community development in the second half), but even those were fairly shallow; they are just topics I have had less exposure to.

I should point out that this book leans pretty far toward the radically progressive, and if you disagree with the politics of the author, the book will be frustrating (Flores said as much near the beginning). I am progressive on many issues, but I still found myself put off by the author's "my way is obviously the right way" tone at times. Also, Flores tends to be somewhat sloppy with her use of terminology at time.

The best part of this book is the resources section. Because the book covers so many topics, the resources and references in the back are rich sources of pointers. The book may not be worth reading, but if you're interested in any of the many topics it covers, flipping through the back could be worth your time.

P.S. The book is called Food Not Lawns after the organization of the same name. Neither the book nor the organization advocate that food is the only thing worth growing. Rather, they claim that it is under emphasized. But "food in addition to lawns, but more than we have now" is not a very catchy name. =)
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Finished The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl (2/5). This was an interesting piece of fiction which managed to meander around a plot line without really settling on one. Little was extraneous (for every time I said "why did they tell us that?" I later said "ah, that's why"), but much was contrived. An interesting read if you want to read reflections on society, life, science, and technology woven into a narrative form, but not necessarily a good story.
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Finished Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (4/5) and Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape by Robert Hart (2/5). Both books are about permaculture gardening. Gaia's Garden is a general introduction to permaculture gardening. Hart's book is a rambling series of essays which talk about the author's experiences creating a forest garden in England.

Hart's book was interesting, but it was Hemenway's book which made me excited about my future garden. I fell in love with the idea of a garden that is both useful to humans and ecologically balanced. Permaculture gardening focuses on relationships rather than on individuals -- relationships between plants, animals, humans, soil, sun, water, and anything else that affects your garden. By paying attention to the way natural ecosystems strengthen themselves, we can design gardens that are more resilient to problems and require less work. Anyone interested in gardening should read this book.
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Finished Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition by Jared Diamond (4/5). What factors lead a society to collapse? Diamond explores this question in Collapse. A collapsed society, in this context, is one where the human population disappears or decreases dramatically within a region. Thus, for the purposes of this book, a society conquered in war but with the population largely intact is not a collapse and a society where everyone chooses to leave a region is.

So what causes societies to collapse? There are many factors, and Diamond, in his signature stories, weaves those factors into an entertaining fabric that mixes principles with illustrating examples. The commonality in these stories are societies that grow their resource use to the point where they reach the sustainable capacity of their environment. The collapse occurs when something happens, e.g., the society continues to increase usage beyond the limits of sustainability or something (like a long drought) happens to decrease the environmental capacity. The details are more interesting than the conclus

Failures teach us many lessons, and so do successes. After outlining the factors that contribute to the failures of many societies, Diamond talks about the factors which help societies survive the factors which lead to collapse. Between these two viewpoints, we learn that we are not that different from earlier societies. We face some new challenges, but it's largely the same: interconnected societies in delicate environments depleting their forests and soil and dealing with climate changes. Not all difficulties of the past led to collapse, so we should feel hopeful that if we face our choices strength, we can once again survive these challenges.
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Finished Quiet Leadership by David Rock (5/5). I am always reluctant to give books 5/5 because I worry that someday I will come across the most excellent book ever and not have a higher score to give it. If that day comes, I'll deal with it. Until then, this book deserves a 5/5 for its wealth of information and potential for a positive impact on my life.

Quiet Leadership is a book about communication. The core idea is that the best leaders are those who help others to think for themselves. This would amount to nothing more than common sense advice if it weren't for the way Rock backs this up with a process for helping get others to think for themselves. Although the book claims to have 6 steps to help improve your communication skills, each step is actually broken down into multiple parts, so it is probably more like one to two dozen small ideas which group into broader skills.

It is that level of detail which makes this book so successful. I will reread parts of this book several times before they start to get dry, and Iam going to have to invest real time and effort into effectively using the techniques Rock presents. This isn't another magic bullet communication book.

I'm not going to bother with an overview of the content. The table of contents (which you can see on Amazon) provides as good an overview as I would give here, and the details are too numerous to make sense without reading the book. Instead, if you are interested in effective communication techniques, read it!
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Finished The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (3/5). This was an enjoyable book, more so once I realized it was about the people, not the events happening to them. 

The central premise of the book is that there is a planet populated by people who don't have a male/female sexual identity most of the time and who can emerge as either gender during their sexual period. Le Guin did a fairly good job of presenting hermaphrodites who came off as fairly gender neutral, but they still came off as more masculine than mixed. I think this is largely because of the use of the masculine pronouns when referring to people. I wish Le Guin had chosen to make up a word for a non-sexually selected resident of this planet. It would have taken some getting use to, but I think it would have been worthwhile.

Overall, a good read.
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Finished Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey (3/5). In this book Brest and Harvey provide a guide to large scale strategic giving. The book defines strategic philanthropy and discusses various approaches to strategic giving. It covers the gamut from setting goals to evaluating grant proposals to techniques beyond grant making.

The key point of this book is that strategic giving focuses on investing for impact and social return on investment with a strong focus on evaluation. Although the authors make clear that not all initiatives can be evaluated quantitatively and social impact can rarely be perfectly predicted, doing the best you can to define the expected impact and evaluate the result will help grant makers to spend their dollars more effectively.

As a member of the Seattle/Kirkland Google Community Grants committee, I found the most useful chapters to be those on goal setting and grant application evaluation. Other chapters were interesting but less relevant. Some chapters, such as the chapter on using advocacy to meet philanthropic goals, were not at all relevant to my grant making work. And, perhaps not surprisingly, if you are not doing large scale grant making, you will likely find the book uninteresting.

One concept discussed which has applicability beyond philanthropy is the idea of a sound theory of change. A strategy for change should be backed by a well supported theory of change. A theory of change connects what you are doing with what you want to accomplish. Without a well established theory of change, your actions are likely to be ineffective or even harmful.

Defining a theory of change also provides a departure point when examining failure: if a program did not have an intended effect, it could be because the program was not implemented properly or it could be because the theory of change which connected the two was faulty.

Since I learned about this concept, I have been trying to apply it in my evaluation of proposals for things like fixing the economy. Instead of evaluating the idea directly, I first try to assess what the theory of change behind it is. Although I have not had many chances to use this approach, it seems promising for increasing my understanding and encouraging more fruitful discussion.
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Finished Christian Mythmakers: C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and Others by Rolland Hein (2/5). If you wonder why I, an avowed atheist, was reading a book about Christian myth makers, you need look no further than the subtitle of the book. Tolkien, L'Engle, MacDonald, and Lewis are all authors I have enjoyed. Although this book looks at them primarily as Christian writers, the discussion of each of those authors writings was enjoyable.

Also enjoyable was Clyde Kilby's forward on the nature of myth. Myth in the writings of these authors is not the low definition discredited stories. Rather, this book discusses the higher meaning of myth. In the words of Kilby, "Myth is the name of a way of seeing, a way of knowing in depth, a way of experiencing -- a way that in being disinterested contains the freedom of unending and vital interest." Myth is necessary because "Systematizing flattens, but myth rounds out. Systematizing drains away color and life, but myth restores." Any translation of idea into language, reality into system loses some depth. Myth is what recaptures that depth by providing sidelong glimpses of some sensed truth.

Hein makes the assumption that the truth that myth points to is embodied in Christianity; the Bible presents myth that is also factual truth. This is not a bad assumption in so far as it is what the authors under discussion believed. However, it is an assumption and one that fails to carry its own weight upon further examination.

In the end, this book was a worthwhile read, but the large number of authors surveyed and lack of willingness to examine the basic assumptions Christianity's relationship to myth made it somewhat shallow.
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Finished Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (3/5). This is the first book after the original Foundation trilogy. Foundation's Edge was written decades after the original trilogy, and feels different than the original. Some of the differences make the book feel less dated: women can hold political power and technology has advanced.

The larger change is a change in focus. The original trilogy focused primarily on large themes -- the development of worlds and flow of history -- and secondarily on people. This book focuses primarily on people and secondarily on larger themes. In some ways this makes for a deeper story, but there is a real sense in which the larger themes which were the focus of the first book is what made them classics of science fiction. The original trilogy, in its breadth and scope, was great science fiction. This sequel, in its smaller focus, is just very good science fiction.

That said, Foundation's Edge was an engaging read, and I look forward to getting the next book from the library.
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Finished Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (3/5). For now, I have only read the original trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. It is, I suppose, something of a shortcoming on my part that I had not read them before.

This is a trilogy with grand scope. The great galactic empire is falling, and the great psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, is the only one who knows how to shorten the period of chaos that will engulf the galaxy until a second empire is established. To this end, he establishes two Foundationsto serve as the seeds of the new empire. This is their story.

As with much older science fiction, this series has its flaws. Although Asimov does have some strong female characters, the world they live in is one that assumes that all positions of power -- politicians, scientists, etc. -- are held by males. There is a scene where two women rush to the bathroom to buy some time before talking to the police. Apparently there were no female officers. The technology, as always, was not as impressive as it probably seemed at publication time, but Asimov saves himself from sounding too dated by not providing too much detail. Also, as some people have pointed out, the assumption that history is subject to statistical prediction of the future is less plausible given findings of the mathematics of chaos theory.

But despite all that, the Foundation novels have stood the test of time quite well. I really enjoyed the series (although it would have made more sense if I had know that it was originally printed as semi-independent stories; that would have made the repetition of background info and abrupt switch between story lines make more sense).
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Grrrrr!!! Dreamwidth lost most of my post. It was all there, and when I clicked post, only the first paragraph remained. Let's try again.

Finished Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler (2/5). This book had some great information packed inside of a repetitive package that wasn't very sticky.

Once you picked up the key ideas, most of the conclusions followed in a fairly obvious manner. The key ideas or, at least, the ones that I remember, were:
  • Network influence tends to travel three degrees before shrinking to statistical insignificance. You influence your friends, friends' friends, and friends' friends' friends, and they influence you back. The strength of influence decreases with each separation, but the number of people influenced increases.
  • Network effects are real. They persist even once researchers account for other sources of similarity int he network such as homophily (the tendency for like to be connected to like) and common external factors (people near each other in the network may share experiences).
  • Everything travels across the network -- ideas, emotional state, behavior, disease, etc. -- and because of the three degrees of influence rule, you only have limited control over what you are exposed to and who you can influence.
  • Not all network ties are equal (weak ties and strong ties).
  • The most important information tends to come from ties that are distant or weak. This is because you have a pretty good idea of the information held by those connected with close, strong ties. For example, people tend to find jobs and relationship opportunities through distant or weak ties because they have generally already evaluated the opportunities presented by their strong, close ties. Distance brings information that you have not already incorporated.
Once you know these principles, much of the rest of the book becomes fairly straightforward.
The authors did present some compelling information in their discussion of the internet. Based on studies that they and others have done, they concluded that relationships on the internet tend to be largely the same as traditional relationships. The mix may have changed (more weak ties, perhaps) and the means of network maintenance have certainly changed, but, for better and worse, people are still largely the same creatures.
Overall, I am glad that I read this book. The information was interesting even if the presentation was less than gripping. The information in the book consisted almost exclusively of real studies, so the conclusions are well founded, even if not surprising.
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Finished AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis by Brown et al. (1/5). 1 out of 5 is the score I reserve for books that I consider a waste of my reading time. It saddens me to say so, but this book deserves that score. AntiPatterns has an excellent premise: just as there are good patterns which benefit the development process, there are also bad patterns. These negative patterns can be at many levels including the level of code, the level of architecture, and the social level. As anyone who has been on a real project knows, there is plenty of material for a book with this premise. Sadly, despite the occasional glimmer of interest, this book does not deliver on that potential. Rather, it is dated, boring, and vague.

The book shows its age with frequent references to technologies that, at best, I have but vaguely heard of (CORBA, OMG IDL). Another historical artifact, at least relative to software development at Google, is the strict division of architects and developers. Developers, it seems, are naught but the lowly dregs, necessary only because architects cannot dirty their hands with the writing of actual code. In addition to being annoying, this division is unrealistic. In my world, you need both sets of skills, and I believe, from personal and collected anecdote, that those with both perspectives will come to better solutions.

I could forgive the dated references and social structure if the book were otherwise interesting. I quite enjoyed The Mythical Man-Month despite its age. However, this book was boring. The authors used a distinctly academic style. As a reader, I don't care about the general development of the field of software patterns. I don't care to read in excessive detail about who else may have named a similar antipattern or why the authors think their version is better. I want substance.

And yet, substance rarely appeared. Comically, although perhaps understandably given how definitions drift over time, the authors called the solutions to their antipatterns the "Refactored Solution". But the solutions were generally vague and unactionable. For example, one antipattern is "The Blob", that class that does everything and is the heart of your application (yup, I'm familiar with that one). The suggested solution: find cohesive components, move them into other places if such places exist, otherwise create such places. Poof! You're done. As if it's that simple.The coupling within real blobs is deep; without a description of how to manage that complexity, the refactored solution does not go beyond common sense. The other antipatterns follow this same pattern: a description of a very real problem is followed by a worthless solution.

I did get something out of this book: as with traditional design patterns, one of the best things about design patterns is that they name common problems, making them easier to talk about. That said, the 6 page appendix which summarizes all the patterns provides all of that value. As for the rest of the book, it was a waste of time.
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Finished Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. This book explores the psychology of being wrong. Schulz's thesis is that while being wrong can sometimes be bad, even tragic, our attitudes toward wrongness are more negative than they should be. Although being wrong can lead to problems from embarrassment to death, most instances of being wrong provide an opportunity for learning and growth. Being wrong, or at least the psychological pattern of being wrong, is the basis of much humor and art. Humor often works by setting up an expectation and then defying it. Art is often meaningful in so far as it brings to awareness the gap between what is represented and the representation. Being wrong, in short, is how we learn and how we find meaning in life.

Being Wrong does not have the scientific depth of my favorite books in the popular psychology genre, but it was still a good read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in how and why the mind gets things wrong.
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Finished Glory Road by Robert Heinlein (3/5). This book was a decidedly entertaining light fantasy with hints of sci-fi. Some of the reviewers on Amazon bashed this book because it is sexist. I disagree but see how they could reach the conclusion. In addition to being in the fantasy genre, this book is a boy's fantasy: man goes on an action adventure with a beautiful woman and a loyal sidekick. Given that premise, the sexuality of both the beautiful woman and the hero are mentioned from a time to time (in ways that might have been racy when the book was first published but which are decidedly mild by today's standards). However, unless you think that a man writing about a woman comfortable with sexuality (hers and others) is inherently sexist there is nothing particularly sexist about the book. In addition, the main female character is smart and strong; she fights alongside her hero and saves him in addition to being saved.

In any case, it was a fun read.
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Finished The Mind of the Market: How Biology and Psychology Shape Our Economic Lives by Michael Shermer (2/5). I do not regret reading this book, but I did not like it. It did not meet my expectations. I expected a discussion of, well, how our economic lives are shaped by biology and psychology. What I found was a standard (and compared to other books, less engaging) presentation of many common ideas from experimental psychology. Rather than a general discussion of economics and psychology, Shermer focused on a narrow point: human beings are not the rational creatures that economists assume we are.  This is an excellent point, but others have made it better (such as Sunstein and Thaler in Nudge).

The book has a couple other limitations. The author mixes experimental psychology and evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology has its place; it is certainly interesting to think about why different psychological states evolved. However, it tends to be highly speculative, at least in popular presentations, and I tend to be wary of arguments which depend on it.

The other limitation is that Shermer is a bit too eager to support his libertarian ideology. He makes statements which imply that the psychological tendencies he discusses support this economic ideology. However, the points he makes are so general that to claim them in favor of a particular ideology weakens the whole book. 

For example, Shermer shows that trade has a psychological purpose (establishing trust and bonding) as well as an economic one (providing goods not otherwise available). This is a fascinating point, and I would have liked to see the consequences explored at length. Instead, Shermer jumps straight from there to the conclusion that the best economy is one based on completely unregulated free trade.

This tendency is both major and minor. Major because it undermines many of Shermer's points. Minor because, in the end, these statements are rare compared to the whole book.

All in all, this book stimulated some thinking, but I would not read it again.
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Finished The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt (4/5). This book is squarely in the genre of experimental psychology digested for a popular audience. As such, it is full of commentary on experiments, many of which are familiar to readers of this genre (yes, he mentions the marshmallows). 

That said, this is a particularly good example of this genre. Unlike many authors in this genre, Haidt is a researcher. This seems to have had some positive effects. He makes clear the difference between the clear and agreed upon results of the research and his own extensions of those interpretations. Even when talking about his own work, the distinction is there, although less distinct. He also gives the impression of having thought more deeply about his subject matter than non-researching authors. 

As the title implies, this book is about happiness, and it is about evaluating ancient wisdom from the viewpoint of modern science. Happiness, not surprisingly, covers everything from relationships and stuff to work to morality and religion. I think the breadth of Haidt's explorations is part of what I like.

But what really makes the ideas in this book stick is Haidt's juxtaposition of ancient wisdom and modern findings. After realizing that he could use quotations from various sources of ancient wisdom to help his students remember ideas in his psychology classes, Haidt decided to find the common pieces of ancient wisdom and then evaluate them against the experimental results. The resulting pieces of wisdom come from many sources: the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and more.

Many of these pieces of wisdom hold up well under modern knowledge. Many others, however, are at odds with how people actually work. The evaluation is interesting. And independent of the validity of the ideas is the way that this book makes clear how almost all of the really big ideas about happiness and human nature are common across many cultures, religions, and times.

I only wish that I had read this book instead of listening to it. Despite having already acquired it once, it's definitely going on my wish list.

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Finished Idoru by William Gibson (2/5). This page turning piece of fiction left me wondering whether or not there was any substance underneath the excitement. Gibson is an excellent painter of worlds and moods. But the plot is thin and the characters like store models, detailed on the outside but hollow on the inside. Overall, I would be happy to read another Gibson novel if one came into my hands, but I am not motivated to seek them out.
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Finished Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. (4/5).

I read this book as part of a reading group at work. We had read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and we had mixed feelings about that book. We had enjoyed the ideas but were disappointed by a lack of practical suggestions for personal growth. Siegel's Mindsight only focuses on one of Goleman's domains of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, but that piece is the fundamental one on which all other skill of social and emotional intelligence are built.

Siegel's book describes many practical actions one can take to increase self-awareness. These techniques will sound familiar to anyone familiar with mindfulness traditions (observing the breath, the sensations of the senses, sensations within the body, thoughts, connections to others), but he brings a different perspective. Siegel is a practicing psychotherapist with an interest in understanding the neuroscience behind different techniques. Instead of presenting mindfulness practices from a religious/spiritual point of view, he presents these practices from a practical (e.g., case study oriented) and scientific point of view. For those who have studied mindfulness from a spiritual perspective, this book will broaden your perspective For those who see mindfulness as new age woo woo, this book shows the scientifically and practically grounded effects and benefits of mindfulness practices.

That said, this book was much more focused on the stories of the case studies than on the concepts or the science. This was interesting, but most of us in the reading group would have liked to see this coupled with a more conceptual presentation. Oddly enough, the author would have preferred that too.

We had coordinated the reading of this book with a visit from Dr. Siegel. In addition to giving an interesting talk (which will eventually be posted on YouTube), Dr. Siegel was generous enough to have a more focused session with the members of the reading group. During that talk, he revealed to us that he wrote this book for a general audience; most people learn best through stories. However, he did have another book which, as he put it, contains everything his editor would not let him put into Mindsight. That book is The Mindful Therapist, and I look forward to reading it!
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Finished Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (4/5). As is usual with fiction, I don't have a ton to say except that I found this to be an amusing, well crafted book.
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My goal: find a good book about communication in relationships. There are endless books about communication and endless books about relationship, and most of them are written for an audience whose standard reading fare is magazine articles. I chose Why Can’t You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship by Jeffrey Bernstein and Susan Magee because it was both highly rated on Amazon and available at my library. My rating: 2/9

Why Can’t You Read my Mind? may be good for what it is, but what it is is not what I am looking for. It has some good tips, but this is more than countered by the authors’ barely implicit assumption that the only people reading this book are those on the brink of ending their relationship. Those of us who just want to learn concrete techniques for strengthening communication in our most important relationship are left feeling like we walked into someplace we don’t belong.

If you can get past the fact that this book is written for magazine reading divorce candidates, it does provide a good number of concrete tips for improving communication in relationships. If you want to get the meat without the fluff, you can read my extended notes.


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Erika RS

May 2012

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