Desert Island Books

Appeared in the ACCU magazine CVu, Vol 21 Issue 4, Sept 2009

Introduction (by Paul Grenyer)

I've been doing this series for ten months now and every person has been brilliant. Jon's Desert Island Books is the longest yet and, I have to admit, the one I've enjoyed the most so far. As I know I've said to many people, and maybe even in a previous Desert Island Books, it's about people and Jon has demonstrated that admirably. I've known Jon for a few years and I had no idea he liked fishing! For me, Jon has always been up there with Kevlin as the best of the best of us. He not only understands how to write software, but he understands the people that write it and processes.


I'll start with my two albums. I considered choosing an album of my own. Not stuff I personally composed or sang. Heaven forbid. I couldn't sing in tune if my life depended on it. I mean a compilation of singles from different artists. I bought loads and loads of proper vinyl singles as a boy. The singles I could list. In fact I think I will. Pad it out a bit... What comes to mind.... Early OMD stuff such as Electricity. This is the day by The The. What a cracking single that is. Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins. I liked a lot of the mod stuff too. Poison Ivy by the Lambrettas was a favourite. Pretty much anything from early Dexies Midnight Runners. Everything by David Bowie. Recently, at my daughter's school concert a very talented fifth form girl played the piano and sang True Colours by Cyndi Lauper which reminded what a great song that is. Another favourite from later on was Jeans Not Happening by The Pale Fountains. I bought plenty of singles from previous decades too. Del Shannon, The Isley Brothers, Roy Orbison. The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals. That would definitely be on the compilation album. How many singles could you fit on a compilation CD? A hundred easily. We may be here some time... Lots by the Beach Boys. Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World (recorded for the James Bond film - On Her Majesty's Secret Service in one take. He died shortly afterwards). In short I like most things with a good tune where I have a reasonable chance of discerning the lyrics by listening (the exception being Kevin Rowland from Dexies). But I decided that would be cheating. So I've mentioned it so I can discount it but at least it gets mentioned. That seems to be a standard tactic employed by previous Desert Island visitors. Instead I've opted for two regular albums instead.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

By David Bowie. I just love this album. All of this album. Every single track. Every second of every track. It's hard to explain why you love an album. Perhaps its not something you should even try to explain. How can you explain how you feel about an album you love and know intimately? Other than to say you love it. And know it intimately. So I'll leave it at that.


By Radiohead. A very apt title. You'll no doubt be familiar with the haunting No Surprises which is from this album. Or maybe Karma Police - "Arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill, and we have crashed her party". What a great lyric. But neither of these is my favourite. My favourite is all 6 minutes and 23 seconds of Paranoid Android. I tweeted that I was listening to this about a week ago! In fact I've been fishing for the last two days on the River Wye so I haven't heard it for a while (I never take anything electrical with me when fishing - that would just not be right) so excuse me while I listen to it again for a moment... Rain down on me...from a great height...God loves his children...yeah...


So on to some books. Five books. I'm going to try and make choices that haven't been made by previous visitors.

World Class Match Fishing [1]

I confidently predict no one will have heard of this let alone read it. Fishing is similar to developing software in that both can involve large amounts of invisibility. But even so, unless you are keen on freshwater fishing (as I am) I don't recommend it. To explain a little (there is a point honest), match fishing is where a group of fisherman compete against each other to see who can catch the most fish (by weight) in a fixed interval of time (usually 10am - 3pm when they're the hardest to catch). Small stretches of a river (or pond/lake) are numbered and marked and the anglers draw a number to determine where to fish. Fish, like people, do not spread themselves out evenly. Quite the opposite. Consequently the vast majority of numbers (they're called swims or pegs) have no chance of winning. It's crazy really. (What has an IQ of 100? Answer 100 match fisherman! ha ha) Swims are split into sections; in a match of 60 anglers there might be 5 sections of 12 and there are smaller cash prizes for winning your section (it helps to maintain interest since, as I said, most swims have zero chance of winning). The best anglers will regularly win their sections. Kevin Ashurst was an exceptional fisherman once winning the individual World Championships. In this book he explains, often in great detail, the thinking behind his tactics and strategies when trying to win. I love it for the unselfish explanation of his secrets but even more for the insight into his clarity of thought. Good thinking is pretty rare but he had it in abundance. There are some lovely examples of the Lean principle of removing waste. To give you one example - on a river you can sometimes beat everyone in your section even if they are "better" fishermen than you simply by making sure your float is in the water longer than theirs! How can you do that? One way is simply to slow the float down!

Northern Lights [2]

For a novel I'll pick the last one I read that I could not put down once I'd started. A wonderful book, the first in His Dark Materials trilogy, it's a hypnotic mix of fantasy and reality where the fantasy is a grown-up fantasy weaving a rich picture of a parallel but definitely alternate universe with wonderful flights of imagination. The author says he prefers not to explain the meaning of what he writes instead letting the reader draw their own more personal meaning. I guess that means I shouldn't really explain the meaning I draw from it either since it might spoil your enjoyment if you decide to read it. Let's just say that the trilogy has a fairly strong and obvious athiest aspects to it. Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy [3] was a close second for the novel but I've read that so many times my copy is falling apart.

The Secrets of Consulting [4]

Something closer to home for my third book. I have a lot of books by Jerry Weinberg. His most famous is probably The Psychology of Computer Programming [5] but some parts of that haven't aged particularly well. He writes that he regrets using the word psychology in its title since he is not, nor has he ever been a psychologist. Jerry may not have a certificate or official qualification but it's clear he has a great understanding of people, of the systems they are involved in, and in consulting - the art of influencing people at their request. This is my favourite Weinberg book by quite some margin and, reading between the lines, I think it is his too. I recall Kent Beck once saying he was greatly influenced by it. It's stuffed full of advice under the banner of consulting but in truth much of the book has much broader application. A lot of the book is about change which is pretty universal. It's also one of those rare books that has quality in depth. The more you read it the more you see it's hidden layers and the deeper your understanding becomes. It's well written and the advice is summarised into numerous pithy laws/aphorisms such as The Fast Food Fallacy (no difference plus no difference plus no difference plus ... eventually equals a clear difference, p.173). For a software example of that consider compiler warnings. A rare gem.

The Life of Brian [6]

It seems a shame that Desert Island visitors can't choose a couple of their favourite films. Perhaps Paul could add it as a new category? Meanwhile I'm going to have to cheat by including a film screenplay as my fourth book. Most pythonistas agree this is their finest film. The others are a bit patchy in places but every scene of Brian is a sure fire rib tickler. It's easy forget the controversy it caused when it was released. The back of the screenplay contains some reviews and, possibly uniquely, two are distinctly unfavourable! Entirely deliberate of course. I like the New Statesman's review "Hurray for blasphemy". And let's not forget the classic song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". That would be sage advice if you were stranded on a desert island.

The Systems Bible [11]

My last choice is is proving difficult. Lots of worthy books will miss out. Classics such as Programming Pearls [7] and The Mythical Man Month [8]. I've been reading a lot about Systems Thinking recently. Systems Thinking essentially means non-linear thinking. Human beings have evolved a very strong association that cause and effect are simple and linear; that cause and effect are local in space and time. Unfortunately the world of software is not as simple as that. Developing software takes time. Another phrase sometimes used in this context is "dynamic complexity" a term from The Fifth Discipline [9] where Peter Senge draws a useful distinction between detail complexity and dynamic complexity. The excellent An Introduction to General Systems Thinking [10] is recommended and almost got the fifth spot, but in the end I've plumped for The Systems Bible. This is a light hearted, slightly tongue in cheek book with more pithy summaries in the forms of Laws and Principles. For example Le Chatelier's Principle "Systems tend to oppose their own proper function". Another one is called The Basic Axiom of Systems-function "Big systems either work on their own on they don't. If they don't you can't make them." Very apt. It's occasionally laugh out loud funny too. Ro/Rs on page 47 for example. Well worth considering if you want to edge away from technical aspects of work for a while.