Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review – Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day SpiesDouble Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few years ago, I took to the book "The Longest Day". A number of family and friends did the annoying thing and said "I saw the movie, it was amazing!". I did the more annoying thing and say "I read the book, it was amazing!" I'm a relatively young guy, Vietnam, WW1 and WW2 and the Civil War were well before my time obviously, but it's incredible to see the honor, glory and pride that poured into D-Day. The Longest Day was interesting, but Double Cross was truly James Bond meets WW2. Add a magic medallion and some ghosts and you have inspiration for another Indiana Jones movie!

OK, that's a little outlandish, but Macintrye did an absolutely phenomenal job. His main purpose of the book is to showcase the work that went into the Britain deception of Germany throughout WW2, and how they were able to parlay that into cover for D-Day itself. Interwoven throughout this book are 5 main "characters" (spies) and several other historical figures, from case officers to anti-Nazi plotters. You had to remain on your toes to ensure you didn't miss anything, but the story is complex but extremely well told. By the end, the final chapter "Aftermath" discusses what happened to the main characters, and with some solemnity you discover how they simply "disappeared".

That is the most amazing part of this book. If you're a spy - and more so a double agent - there's no grand reveal, parade, or declassification. Decades later, here we are learning names and discussing idea's. Reading this book was both eye opening and humbling, complex but easy to read, and one of the better books I think I will have ever opened.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Why I eat my lunch

“Don’t forget your lunch” my wife reminds me, as she often needs to, as I step out the door in the morning.  It’s not just that she wants to ensure her husband doesn’t become malnourished, it’s because she took the time to make the lunch and doesn’t want to see it go to waste.

I learned this lesson the hard way a number of years ago.  My wife would send me to work with a lunch bag, and after some period of time noticed I would be bringing home a lunch bag with the same contents as when I left our domicile, but just at room temperature. “Didn’t you eat lunch today?” she would ask.  “Yeah” I would reply, “but the guys wanted to go to the diner today for lunch.”  This begin a series of increasingly more frustrating arguments with my wife, escalating to “FINE, I JUST WON’T PACK YOU A LUNCH ANYMORE!”.  After a brief work stoppage, she started to pack my lunch again.. and I learned to eat them, provide advanced notice when I wouldn’t need a lunch, or make the appropriate provisions to ensure that not eating a lunch one day would turn into that lunch becoming my dinner that night, or lunch the following day.

Each week, I make sure to listen to 2 podcasts: This American Life and the TED Radio Hour on NPR, and the most recent TED Radio Hour show was about “The Meaning of Work”, which is probably my favorite show they’ve done yet.  It already inspired me to purchase and tear through Beyond Measure by Margaret Heffernan, one of the speaker’s on the radio show.  Another act of the show contained a presentation from Dan Ariely on What Pushes Us to Work, Even When We Don’t Have To

I’ve read Ariely’s work in the past and really enjoyed it, his experiments are very detailed and thought provoking and provide specific life lesson’s that we can all take away.  In his speech on the show, he discusses how he was able to measure why we work, and the joy we get from building, creating, and problem solving.  In one experiment, they measured how much our work matters to us by allowing subjects to build something (LEGO robots), and then paid the subject decreasing amounts for each item build ($3.00 the first time, $2.70 the next, and so on).  With a separate group, they performed the same test, but with one alteration.  Once the subject agreed to start another robot, the robot they just created was destroyed.  It was disassembled, in front of the test subject, and placed back into the basket to be rebuilt.

Destroying the robot had a significant impact in the study, subjects stopped creating robot’s far sooner than they had done in the control experiment. Knowing the work was essentially for nothing, it de-motivated the test subjects, caused them to lose their drive, and realize that their time could be best served doing something else.

At work, I’ve noticed a pattern with some other friends of mine.  Some are also lucky enough to have their wives pack them lunches, and over time we’ve managed to swap eerily similar stories about why we “need” to eat lunch at the desk, or why we “can’t go to lunch today, I packed my own”.  After hearing Ariely’s talk about the meaning and purpose of work and building things, as much as it resonated with me in why I enjoy what I do for my career, I didn’t realize how easy it is to take someone else’s work for granted.

So today, it looks like I’m having a Turkey sandwich, some pretzel’s and  some cranberry juice.  I’m not really in the mood for it, but I’d hate for it to go to waste.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review – Beyond Measure: The big impact of small changes

Beyond measure: the big impact of small changesBeyond measure: the big impact of small changes by Margaret Heffernan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was listening to the NPR TED Radio Hour and heard Margaret Heffernan speak, and was inspired to pick up her book immediately. She told an incredible story about Super Chickens and how a team of top performs don't necessarily work as a team. Boom.. I pulled over to the side of the road to order this book before I forgot the name.

I only gave this book 4 out of 5 starts because it was too short, and I wanted more. Then again, that could very well be the genius of this book, it's such a quick and easy read, any busy executive or has-some-free-time software developer (such as yours truly) could read it in a heartbeat. The principles of the book are exceptional.. embrace that we all make mistakes, organizational hierarchies can stifle creativity, working more than 40 hours a week is not necessarily more productive, take time to get outside of the office and to walk around to get creative juices flowing.

It's all music to my ears, and sometimes too good to be true. But that's the other lesson of the book.. these aren't things that happen overnight, it's a cultural difference that if you can tweak in your own existing organization (or when creating a new one for yourself), you can build social capital that give you driven and focused employee's, all ready to buy in and lead.

If you're looking for a short, easy read on leadership, pick this up immediately, it's worth every penny.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review – Bad Paper

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the UnderworldBad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had been listening to This American Life recently, and the name of the show was "Magic Words". The theme of the show was how sometimes there are certain words that are said or mentioned that have unintended consequences. Jake Halpern was interviewed during the show; he told his story of interviewing a couple when they were in small claims court in Georgia (which is discussed in the final chapter of his book). It was fascinating to listen to him tell this story, as he essentially asked the owner of a small debt to "prove it"... prove that what these people owe is actually what they owe. The lawyer in turn puffed out his chest and acted sporadic, but when they went in front of the judge, the lawyer backed down.. because Halpern essentially said "the magic words" (which is the phrase he uses in the book as well.

In college, I was a little reckless with my personal finances, got in a little trouble, and found myself on the receiving end of collection calls. It was, unsurprisingly, an unpleasant experience. I think that's why hearing Halpern on the radio show was so invigorating. "Yes!", I screamed to myself, "Give it to the bad guy!"

Ironically, the lawyer is far from the "bad guy" in this book, which helps explain why this book was so interesting. The first half of the book is dedicated to discussing 2 main characters, an owner of debt (Aaron), and the gentleman he purchases this debt off of (Brandon). You see why they got into the business of purchasing paper (debt), how it can be so profitable, and how it can be such a disaster.

As the book moves on, you start to read interviews with other debtor's, debtee's, and collectors, and see how crazy the industry is. It's scary to know that if you default on a loan, who has access to your private information and how hard it can be to truly rectify a debt.

And so "who" is the bad guy in all of this? It depends on the viewpoint, but it's hard to argue it's not the financier's of this whole industry. Halpern paints a pretty strong picture that some in the world worship at the altar of money, and have no problems (even find some joy) in padding their pocketbooks with the debt's and hardships of others.

It's an interesting read, and an easy one at that.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review – How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern WorldHow We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on several online recommendations I picked up this book for pretty cheap off of Amazon.. it was worth every penny. It's a very easy read - especially considering it's a historical book of some sorts. How We Got To Now essentially provides context into some of the most common things we have today, how they arrived, and how we take them for granted. The 6 chapters (each readable in under an hour... and I'm a slow reader) cover items like Glass, Cold, Sound, Cleanliness, Time and Light.

Each chapter dedicates a good mix of information on what life was like when the subject matter was being investigated, and what problem it was immediately solving - for example, did you know that one upon a time, turning on your faucet in a bathroom would result in wastewater and dead fish emptying into your tub? - neither did I.

Each chapter is also dedicated to the idea of the "hummingbird effect" - much like a hummingbirds actions have unintended positive\negative consequences - so do the invention of these items. For example, the radio opened up pockets of new music that were previously only known in their own respective sub-cultures. Country music was only heard in a honky-tonk bar, overnight this music was available "nationwide" (assuming you were an adopter of a radio.

I would imagine Steven Johnson could write a follow up with a number of other items - I'm hopeful he will anyway - the work was very enlightening and encouraging of our human ingenuity. The book closes with an excellent chapter on the forward thinking of other individuals, namely Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and how they were designing programmable computers before ANYONE knew what the terms "programmable" or "computers" even meant. As Johnson put it, most were confused by what Charles Babbage's machine was meant for, Lovelace was thinking about potential applications after it was built. For those who care - I think this chapter is an excellent jump off point to read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, who begins his book with a more thorough investigation into Babbage\Lovelace.

This was a very well done, easy to read book that certainly makes you appreciate where we are now, and leaves you hopeful for where we'll be in 100 years.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Adventures in Cookin’ – Potato Chowder

It’s early October and technically Autumn, but outside it feels closer to winter with it being rainy and low 40’s.  This morning my daughter had dance class, on the way home I was in the mood to make some comfort food.  We stopped at the market to pick up some fresh items, today we’re making Potato Chowder!

I browsed the Internet for some ideas, and settled on this one when I saw it used hash browned potato’s, which I had never had in a soup before.  Armed with some fresh veggie’s and a fresh beer (Goose Island Oktoberfest, can I say that this is the best time of the year to try new beers?), it was time to start cookin’.

WP_20151003_004 The first thing I had to do was create some southern style hash browns, as the recipe called for.  I didn’t really know what southern style hash browns meant, so I figured hash browns and bell peppers would do nicely. I bought a pack of the frozen hash browns – the whole square one’s – and put them in the microwave to defrost.  I then grabbed 2 bell peppers and started dicing;  when my hash browns were ready, I tossed the peppers into a pan with some oil and started to sautee on a low heat. 


Once they started to soften, I started adding some of the hashbrowns, only adding a few at a time.  As I chopped up the hash browns, I seasoned with some salt, pepper, garlic powder and hot seed.  After about 15 minutes of stirring and blending the flavor’s, I removed the hash browns from direct heat – and sampled some with a spoon.. very tasty!


In my stock pot, I added the butter, melted it, and added my carrots and onions.  Much like before, I kept the heat pretty low and got the ingredients to soften some. After a few minutes, I added 3 cups of the hash brown concoction, 14 ounces of the chicken broth, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.  It was noticeable very quickly that this wasn’t enough broth.  I think the real hash browns I used were just very thick and were going to soak up a lot of the liquid, so I ended up adding another can of broth.


Once I got everything mixed together, I brought back to a boil and started to season to taste (yes… it needed more cayenne pepper!).  After reducing the heat to simmer, I grabbed some shredded Wisconsin Sharp Cheddar cheese and added to the soup as well.  (The sharpness of the cheese really stood out later on, I was happy I added this.)


The last thing to do was to add some cream – this is a chowder after all.  I added 2 cups of half and half and continued to stir (but not enough, at one point I was distracted and the soup started to burn a little, argh!).  The soup was a little too thin at this point, so we (“we” being my wife, when things start to burn in the kitchen she arrives to the rescue to tell me what I’m doing wrong) added some flour to thicken the soup a little.  Once the flour cooked in, the soup had a nice consistency to it, and it was all done.

I served it with some crusty bread, and was really happy with the end result.  The soup had a nice level of heat to it – which I was aiming for – the sharp cheese came through, and the consistency of the potato’s was very interesting.  Rather than whole chunks of potato, it was thin strips mixed in which I thought was good.  I’ve made some items in the past and was proud it was edible, this is the first time I made food and thought “I would definitely share this with other people!”