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Review – The Professor and the Madman

Posted: March 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: History, Reviews | Tags: books, History, language, linkedin, OED, Oxford English Dictionary, review, reviews, roman history | No Comments »
The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is at once an unceasingly sad story and a tale of redemption, to a degree, through hard work.

Our protagonist, the titular ‘Madman’, is an unfortunate, if high functioning lunatic.  His mental problems result in the commission of a murder of mistaken identity. He is subsequent incarcerated in a criminal asylum in Victorian Britain.

The Madman is William Minor, a medical doctor traumatized by his service in the American Civil War and haunted by the persecutions of fictitious assailants who assault him nightly as he sleeps.  The upshot of this sorry state is that during the day Dr. Minor is generally robust and intellectually engaging.  With the abundance of time on his hands that results from his incarceration Minor devotes himself to the careful work of aiding the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Simon Winchester’s prose is well constructed though a bit wordy at times.  He seems sometimes to be looking to use a particularly nice word and so writes his way along a circuitous path to facilitate.

It is a short book but an interesting book and definitely worth a read, though definitely not the best I’ve read lately.  All the same I enjoyed reading it.

Review – The Big Short

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: business, Reviews | Tags: books, business, economics, History, linkedin, math, review, reviews | No Comments »
The Big Short

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short by Michael Lewis is an incredibly well written and approachable account of the sub-prime mortgage crisis of late 2008. Much like my reaction to Where Men Win Glory (read review here), my reaction to The Big Short is one of pronounced anger.  It is maddening to see how blind, greedy and stupid the world’s banks were and to a large degree still are.  To try to recount any of the story in support of my review would be futile; Michael Lewis has provided an exceptional account.  All that there really is to say, is that you should read this book and read it soon.  Heck, has the paperback on sale for $10.00.

There are many great books that have come out of the near collapse of the global economic system but this one should be your first read on the topic.  The essence of the sub-prime crisis was an unyielding complexity; a lie so good that the people who first told the lie eventually believed it themselves.  People didn’t know or couldn’t understand what they were pouring their money into.  Michael Lewis’ great gift is that he can tell this complex story of billions of dollars and myriad twists and turns in an engaging and approachable way.  This isn’t a technical manual of our collective near-collapse, rather it is a technically detailed biography of some of the people at the very heart of events.

I give this book  starstarstarstarhalf star

Some other worthwhile reads on the subject include:

Too Big To Fail All The Devils Are Here Crash of the Titans

The Noun Project

Posted: February 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Technology, Work | Tags: business, icons, internet, linkedin, mapping, Visio, webapps | No Comments »

Last week in my wandering around the web I found a cool website called The Noun Project, which per their own mission statement “… collects, organizes and adds to the highly recognizable symbols that form the world’s visual language, so we may share them in a fun and meaningful way.”

I readily admit that for most people the reaction is probably “So What?”, but I think that The Noun Project is a great idea and is a site that I’m likely to return to fairly often.  As someone who routinely creates maps of processes and systems a key part of my job is to make the complex easy to understand through visualization.  So to me the noun project represents a great source of uniformly formatted icons that I can deploy in my maps with ease.

If you’re ever asked to visualize a concept or a process I’d recommend you give The Noun Project a visit at

Paper Weight Calculator

Posted: February 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: apps, Fun, internet, linkedin, webapps | No Comments »

In another entry from the “How/where did I stumble onto that?” file, today I’d like to introduce you to a cool single purpose web app that I’ve found. A paper weight calculator.

It’s pretty simple, but it does what it does well. Essentially the app calculates the weight of any given amount of paper. You provide a few key details like paper dimensions and basic paper quality and the app spits out a weight. You can quickly and easily find out that 1000 sheets of letter size, 50 lbs paper weighs about 25 lbs.

This isn’t necessarily useful, at least not to me, but I think it is a good example of a simple idea well executed. Check the site out at

Review – Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

Posted: January 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: History, Reviews | Tags: books, History, linkedin, military history, review, reviews, roman history | No Comments »

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome by Anthony Everitt is a good book and was enjoyable to read.  I am however left somewhat unsatisfied by the text and cannot conclusively identify the cause of this dissatisfaction. The author is very up front about the fact that the existing documentation of this period of Roman history is spotty and of suspect motives at best or non-existent at worst.  This of course creates a major stumbling block in the compilation of a meaningful modern history text.  So this begs the question, is my dissatisfaction based on the author’s style or is the author’s style effectively dictated by the sporadic and patchwork history from which he is pulling?

You see in my mind I can’t help but immediately compare Anthony Everitt to Adrian Goldsworthy.  Both content and style are due for judgment but Adrian Goldsworthy is one of my favourite authors and I am acutely aware that my immediate knee-jerk reaction to compare the two authors is not fair.  Goldsworthy hasn’t written about this period of Roman history and so to say that Everitt’s text doesn’t flow in the same manner as say Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, would be to completely ignore Everitt’s forced reliance on problematic source documents. Fortunately though, Anthony Everitt is a prolific historian and has written two previous volumes, one on Cicero and one on Augustus, so I’m hopeful about the opportunity for a more balanced showdown between these two heavyweights of Roman history.

Having identified my bias I can now review Everitt’s text with a clean conscience.

Anthony Everitt’s biography of the emperor Hadrian is a substantial work, doing much to clarify and organize many of the previous efforts to biography Hadrian.  The emperor was widely traveled and during his time in the imperial court of his predecessor and through his own reign Hadrian traveled to virtual every frontier  of the empire.  He visited the site in Britain of his famous wall in the Northeast, the Rhine and Danube frontiers in the Northwest and even the middle-east, having actually taken up the post of emperor in Syria. He was also a voracious follower of Greek history, art and philosophy and traveled there several times. Keep in mind too that he traveled these distances in the days before the internal combustion engine and therefore traveled on horseback or in a horse drawn carriage.

What’s more is that his travels resulted massive building efforts across the empire. The architectural record of Hadrian’s reign doesn’t suffer from the difficulties of the written record.  From efforts, like his eponymous wall in Britain, to the architectural wonders of the Pantheon in Rome and Hadrian’s own villa in Tivoli, to the gargantuan Temple of Zeus in Athens, to the numerous new cities named Hadrianopolis, his reign saw building on a massive scale throughout the empire.

Everitt does much to capture the grandeur and scale of Hadrian’s empire but also the apparent loneliness and isolation experienced by the emperor.  Hadrian was simultaneously a gregarious, heavy drinking, supporter of the arts and a lonely but incredibly competent administrator isolated by his power and intelligence. His unhappy though polite marriage and ill-fated affair with the Bythinian youth Atinous only worsened is loneliness. It is very telling that in the heart of his villa complex at Tivoli lay a round building surrounded by a moat and accessible only by a bridge controlled within the building.  Hadrian built a real life fortress of solitude!

What Everitt fails to do is to map out his route through Hadrian’s history and then follow the planned route.  The text feels to me like it jumps around, it goes off on to interesting though unnecessary tangents.  He routinely handles items in the main text when they’d be perfect has footnotes. A standout complaint of mine, is that even though the author identifies the issues caused by little or poor surviving evidence, he doesn’t do much to ease the journey for the reader.  It feels like saying there is a pot hole in the road ahead and then steering into it.  My thought is that the author could expose us to the potholes but protect us from the spine-shattering jolts.  Alternatively, maybe the author didn’t protect us, the readers, because he wanted to show precisely how disjointed the existing history of Hadrian really is.

There should be no doubt though, Anthony Everitt is a good writer.  On page 91 in the text he sums up the emperor Nerva beautifully when he says, “… for most of his life Nerva had subordinated principle to self-interest, but he had common sense and an intelligent understanding of what the imperial system needed if it was to last.  He had the tolerance of a man without convictions – a useful quality after two decades of Domitian.”

Coming off of my recent reading of Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, Everitt’s biography of Hadrian fails to live up to the standard.  It was good but not great.  I’m hopeful of the author’s chances to impress me when I read his biographies of Cicero and Augustus.

App of the Week – Pixel Ruler

Posted: January 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: business | Tags: apps, business, development, linkedin, review | No Comments »

rulerAs an information management professional I frequently find myself working not only with databases as storage for structured data, but also on the graphical user interface that serves as the front end for databases.  It’s no secret that I’m a fan of big screen computing, at work I’ve got a 24 inch display for my laptop and at home I’ve got two 24 inch displays.  Funnily enough, working with such a big display can create some problems when you’re designing an application that will be used by others.  The average screen size at my office is either 17 inches or 19 inches, both with significantly less resolution than my 1920×1200 display.  When designing a database form I’m constrained by the width and height of the end-user’s display.

I imagine this is a common problem for designers; how do you know what 1024 pixels of width looks like within your 1920 pixel monitor.

Well my answer is the handy little program called Pixel Ruler, available here. The program is simple but does its job perfectly; it lets me measure out 1024 pixels and then it gets out of my way.  It’s free, but the developers do ask for a $5 donation if users are so inclined.  $5 is pretty cheap for this simple no fuss solution.

Review – Where Men Win Glory

Posted: January 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Reviews | Tags: books, History, linkedin, military history, review, reviews | 1 Comment »
Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tilman, by Jon Krakauer is a great book.  The book, in much the same way as the story of the character who’s story it tells, is fascinatingly complex, while also being strikingly on-point. It is also a very hard book about which to write a review.  This book in combination with the story it tells struck a surprising emotional chord with me.  In all honesty, I’ve found it difficult to collect and summarize my thoughts through the haze induced by a blinding rage at Pat Tilman’s treatment at the hands of the American government. It is with great difficulty that I put aside this rage and review the book.

Pat Tilman made international headlines when after the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and the skies over Pennsylvania, he left a promising career in the NFL to join the elite U.S. Army Rangers.  Tilman was however far more complex than the media’s one dimensional portrayal of him as a national hero.  He wasn’t some dumb jock looking to kill some “rag heads” post 9/11. He was a mature and sensitive man, who was deeply affected by the events of 9/11. In many respects, 9/11 brought life, and the importance of things within life,  into sharp focus for Pat.

Krakauer follows the thread of Pat’s life successfully by focusing not just on Pat’s achievments but on his failures and how each shaped his character.  The book shows that Jon Krakauer obviously has immense respect of Pat Tilman but also successfully avoids the pitfalls of being a mere posthumous cheerleader to a fallen hero.  That said, the author doesn’t maintain journalistic objectivity either.  Krakauer’s feelings are obvious but I’d argue that their appropriate. If you read this book and don’t find yourself admiring Pat Tillman, and understanding Krakauer’s respect for Pat, then I’d urge you to check your pulse – you’re probably dead, or at least lacking a heart.

I do have one complaint of the book, though it is admittedly absurd, self-defeating and I can’t envision any solution.

As much as the author shows an obvious respect for Tilman, he also shows the seething anger, which I also feel, towards the civilian and military leaders who betrayed Pat in life and in death. I honestly feel that the author’s anger is legitimate. I also worry though, that the author’s anger will allow critics to devalue and defame his work as political rather than historical.  So in essence one of the key features of the book, the author’s emotional commitment to the story, is also I fear a possible weakness.  I however can’t see the book being written any other way.  Jon Krakauer deserves a Pulitzer for this book.

The final note I’d like to make is that not only does this book tell an amazing story, it does so in an intelligent prose with a superlative vocabulary.  Again, Jon Krakauer deserves a Pulitzer for this book.

Review – Caesar: Life of A Colossus

Posted: December 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adrian Goldsworthy, books, History, reviews, roman history | No Comments »
Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar

Caesar: Life of a Colossus

I recently finished reading the subway-friendly paperback version of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of A Colossus. I enjoyed reading it immensly. Caesar: Life of a Colossus is very well written, with exceptional attention to detail as well as a strong understanding of, and fluency in, the broader social and political trends of the period. The text is startlingly detailed, never boring or dry, yet the work remains eminently approachable. This is perhaps Goldsworthy’s greatest charm as a writer, he’s exceptionally smart but always shares his knowledge without any hint of a jargon filled or exclusionary tone. Goldsworthy is careful to support his conclusions and always up front about any doubts he may have himself, or that he reasonable expects you might have. This bolsters his positions and adds to his credibility. Near the close of the book I found this quote which I think speaks to Goldsworthy’s credibility:

For this book I have attempted to look at the evidence we have and to try to reconstruct his life. There are some things we do not know and are unlikely ever to know. The aim has been to treat each episode in his life without assuming the inevitability of subsequent events.

The life and times of Julius Caesar were turbulent, with widespread violence and political upheavel. And while his story is quite literally the stuff of Shakesperean drama, Adrian Goldsworthy presents us with a balanced telling of the story and provides a nuanced lesson in understanding Julius Caesar as not just a general, not just a politician, not just a seducer of women and not just a patriotic Roman, but as all of these things, and further he helps us understand Caesar’s story as part of a larger story unfolding on an imperial scale. While Julius Caesar’s centrality to the story is never in doubt, the author does provide us with detailed portraits of other major players in the empire’s political and martial theatre. One gets a good sense of men like Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Labienus as well as women like Servillia and Cleopatra. This is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read recently and the author deserves high praise. Adrian Goldsworthy is an historian and author of the highest standard. There are several other great books written by Adrian Goldsworthy. Many I’ve read and reviewed and some I haven’t yet. Feel free to check out my review of another of Goldworthy’s books Caesar’s Civil War, a concise volume that is part of the Osprey military history series.

I’m really looking forward to reading Adrian’s two latest books, How Rome Fell and Anthony and Cleopatra, both of which are sitting on my bookshelf just waiting for me to pick them up.


Getting Comfortable with Google’s Privacy Tools

Posted: November 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: security, Technology | No Comments »

anonymousWhat Does Google Know About Me?

By now we’ve all grown very accustomed to the ease with which Google lets us access information.  It is great that if I have a question about the primary exports of Namibia, the pre-collapse stock price of AIG or just what movies are playing near me tonight, I can confidently rely on Google to quickly and reliably help me find answers.

But ready access to information is a double-edged sword.  What does Google now about me? What happens when a potential new employer or prospective mate types my name into Google?  Will they get a list of my professional and academic achievements, or embarrassing Facebook photos of me passed out in a Tijuana brothel?  Now in my case I’m 100% sure that the latter is impossible since I’ve never been to Tijuana let alone a brothel there, though I suppose the magic of Photoshop could transport me there.  But what about you?

The question “What does Google now about me?” is matched in importance only by the question “What can I do about it?”

What Can I Do About It?

The good news is that Google offers a comprehensive suite of tools to find out what Google knows now and allows you to alter what it tracks and stores in the future.

Of particular importance are the Google Dashboard and the Encrypted Search tool.

Google Dashboard

The Google Dashboard shows you what information is stored in your Google account which is great, but the dashboard takes it a step further by giving you a central location where you can change your privacy settings for each Google service.

The collation of all of your user data into a single place is impressive and useful.  For any given account you can see what e-mail addresses are linked, what calendars you have and how those calendars are shared. The tool delivers a user friendly, cleanly laid out and understandable report that even the most neophyte of internet users should be able to follow.  The report’s simplicity is to be commended.

Encrypted Search

If you’re worried about people finding out what you’re searching for online, Google’s Encrypted Search offers some added security.  The dubious uses of this technology are numerous but so are the legitimate uses. At it’s most simple encrypted search just a good tool to make it harder for someone to gather information about you.  As an example, I use encrypted search when doing investment research. It is nobody’s business what mutual funds or stocks I research. It probably isn’t of value to anyone to know what mutual funds or stocks I research either, but the ubiquity of phishing attacks makes even small steps to obfuscate your activity valuable.


Admittedly Google’s track record on privacy is checkered at best and criminally negligent at worst. They’ve made some colossal blunders like covertly recording WiFi traffic, and having a CEO who believes that “Privacy is a myth”, but the energy and thought shown by the tools and information available at Google’s Privacy Center is a hopeful sign.

I’d encourage you to check out the tools that are available at

Decision Tree For Avoiding Phishing Attacks

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: security, Technology | Tags: internet, linkedin, online safety, security | No Comments »
Phishing Avoidance Decision Tree

Phishing Avoidance Decision Tree

The interesting site LoginHelper recently posted a graphical decision tree that if followed can help users avoid e-mail based phishing attacks of the “I’m a deposed Nigerian prince and I need your help …” type.

I obviously wish that such a decision tree wasn’t necessary but obviously it is.  Phishing attacks still garner newspaper headlines and evening news segments, but with education we can mitigate such threats.  Chances are that if you’re reading my blog you don’t need this graphical decision tree but maybe you know someone who does.  Click on the pictures to see the full-size original on LoginHelper.

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