Book review: “Tornado Warning”

Three years ago this month, the city of Joplin, Missouri was devastated by an EF-5 tornado. Not only were numerous buildings destroyed, but 159 people lost their lives. This was the first 100-fatality tornado since 116 people died in a 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan. As word of the impact spread, I can recall being thankful that my chasing range was limited to northern Illinois that day. Author Tamara Hart Heiner drove through the Joplin area in the days after the tornado and was struck by the extent of the devastation. After speaking with survivors, she decided to write her first non-fiction book. Tornado Warning, released earlier this month, tells the story of the tornado through the eyes of seven women who survived it.

The women of Tornado Warning led varied-but-normal lives before the storm. Normalcy would not survive the day. I found the early part of the book a little dull, which is to be expected. The women and their families were going through their usual Sunday routine. When the tornado hits, the book becomes positively riveting. One woman rides it out in a bathtub, covering her children with her body and a mattress. Another was in her van. That she and her son survived is nothing short of miraculous.

Heiner does not dwell on the tornado itself. Indeed, the narrative moves the tornado along quickly; like its real-life counterpart, it is here and gone within moments. Much of the book focuses on the hours immediately following the tornado when Joplin residents frantically search for loved ones, rescue their neighbors, and try to come to grips with the stark new reality.

Although scenes shift quickly from one protagonist to another, the reader gets a definite sense of each woman’s personality. The narration seems to take on some of the character of the woman being followed. The rapid shifts made it difficult to keep track of the characters initially, but it proved to be the appropriate style during and after the tornado.

In all, this is an excellent read. It showcases the human side of tornadoes that never seems to make it into IMAX films. The tornado preparedness and safety advice is invaluable and I encourage all readers to not skip it. Some of the meteorological discussion at the beginning of the book is painful (particularly “the jet stream is typically 300 millibars strong”), but this is not a story about meteorology. Heiner does an excellent job of capturing the humanity of the Joplin tornado, so I can forgive meteorological errors.

The net proceeds from Tornado Warning are being donated to Joplin recovery charities.

Book Review: “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”

Shortly before I left for a conference in Washington, D.C., a friend told me that astronaut and Internet sensation Chris Hadfield would be signing his new book the day I arrived. I didn’t even know he had a book coming out, but I figured I shouldn’t turn down the opportunity to get an astronaut’s autograph, so I pre-ordered it. My impression of Colonel Hadfield was that he was a humble and genuine person.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth reads the same way. Hadfield takes the reader through his life and career with a degree of humility only a Canadian could achieve. He tells the stories with such enthusiasm, as if he’s in awe of his entire life. The descriptions of views from space are particularly compelling, and the reader can easily place himself aboard the International Space Station.

One might not expect astronaut skills to be very applicable to daily life. However, as I read this book, I found myself drawing inspiration from his words. His focus on “working the problem” particularly resonated with me. I consider it no accident that the day after I finished the book I made a significant breakthrough on a problem that had been vexing me at work. Although the stakes are much higher for astronauts, we can all benefit from the astronaut way of thinking. Hadfield took great care to point out that being accepted into the astronaut corps did not make him an astronaut. Even a trip to space is not sufficient. Astronauthood comes from years of training, practice, failure, and — most importantly — developing the right mindset.

Hadfield’s advice, developed from years of surviving some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, focuses on what seem to be negative thoughts: sweating the small stuff and “what’s the next thing that could kill me?” He does an excellent job of explaining how these negative thoughts lead to positive outcomes. The lessons are readily applicable to everyday life, even for the earthbound. This is a masterfully-written book. It is both entertaining and inspiring.

Book review: Captive Audience

I recently learned Of Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience when she was a guest on the “This Week in Law” podcast. In Captive Audience, Crawford examines the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal. Crawford makes no attempt to hide her feelings on the nation’s largest cable provider getting (further) into the content business. The book is more of an advocacy journalism work than a dispassionate academic report. Comcast’s supporters may object to Crawford’s arguments, but her characterizations are refreshingly fair. She is quick to point out that the players are acting, not like evil madmen, but rational business actors pursuing their self-interests. Her main concern is that these interests do not line up with what she believes to be the public’s best interests.

Crawford does not blame Comcast CEO Brian Roberts for this disconnect, though his company has worked tirelessly to keep the status quo. The root of the problem is that the Internet industry is both unregulated and uncompetitive. Crawford rejects the notion that DSL, cellular, and satellite services are competitors to cable companies. DSL is too slow and satellite too high-latency for modern Internet applications and cellular, while convenient, is limited by lower bandwidth and small screen sizes.

The state of regulation for cable providers is like that of the early days of the rail road and electrical industries, which is to say non-existent. Cable providers lack the common carrier requirements imposed on the phone companies. As a result, Comcast and others are free to turn the Internet into a walled garden of curated channels, much like the current state of cable television. As dire of a picture as Crawford paints, it’s hard to see it as a likely threat. Plausible, certainly, but I don’t see it on the horizon.

Nevertheless, America clearly has an Internet problem. Our speeds and prices are worse than most of the developed world. In an age where high speed Internet access is increasingly important to social, academic, and economic activities, one third of Americans don’t subscribe to high speed Internet service. A strong correlation between non-subscribership and low socioeconomic status. If Internet connectivity is necessary for prosperity, expensive Internet prevents upward mobility.

Absent competitive pressure, the public interest can only be enforced by regulation. Interestingly, it was the Nixon administration that first sought to prevent monopolies in the cable industry. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats have proven equally unwilling to impose regulation on the industry. Municipal and private sector fiber installations seem to be the only near-term hope for keeping Comcast in check.

In short, I found Captive Audience to be an informative and compelling read. Crawford takes the reader through the history of monopolies in the United States and of the cable industry. She examines the technical and political reasons that Comcast became and remains a monopoly. In closing, Crawford looks at the effect that the Comcast/NBC merger had on AT&T’s failed attempt to purchase T-Mobile. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Internet policy.

Book Review: The Deadline

Project management is an underrepresented genre in fiction. That it even exists is probably no small surprise to many, and probably of interest to even fewer. There is very little about project management that the average reader would find sexy or thrilling. Fortunately, Tom DeMarco makes no attempts at either (despite the occasional hint of a romantic undercurrent).

I wasn’t sure what to expect when my professor mentioned this book in class recently — perhaps a dashing project manager who sweeps through saving the day and buckling swashes at every opportunity. Instead, the reader is given Webster Tompkins, a competent and entirely normal project manager with years of experience and a looming layoff (or, in the words of Mr. Tompkins’ barely fictitious employer: “Released to Seek Opportunities Elsewhere”). While dozing in the back of an assembly, Tompkins is whisked off to the former Soviet state of Morovia. The Noble National Leader plans to turn his small country into the world leader in shrink-wrapped software, and Tompkins is just the man to lead the way.

What sets The Deadline apart as a novel is its entirely unconcealed intention to be a learning tool. The plot, exaggerated conditions and all, serves as a framework to present critical project management wisdom. Conveniently, Tompkins keeps a journal in which is writes these lessons as they occur, condensing the knowledge into bite-sized nuggets. What sets The Deadline apart as a learning tool is its readability. Although this book could readily be used in a formal project management course, it is interesting and well-written. Unlike the dialogue in project management scenarios given in textbooks (which, with apologies to Brewer and Dittman, is lousy), The Deadline reads like actual conversations had been transcribed. The end result is an informative and entertaining read that goes by far too quickly.

Perhaps the most striking thing about DeMarco’s novel is the publication date: 1997. At no time during my reading did I find myself thinking “boy, I’m sure glad that problem is solved now.” Although the nature of IT has changed in the decade and a half since The Deadline was written, the lessons are still very applicable. Especially when it comes to managing the human resources, it seems the lessons are still being relearned by each successive generation of managers (or sometimes not). Being a systems engineer and not a developer may slant my view of the current state, and it is entirely likely that software development managers have absorbed these lessons better. Until then, this book should required reading for every IT manager, project manager or otherwise.

Book review: The Visible Ops Handbook

I first heard of The Visible Ops Handbook during Ben Rockwood’s LISA ’11 keynote. Since Ben seemed so excited about it, I added it to the list of books I should (but probably would never) read. Then Matt Simmons mentioned it in a brief blog post and I decided that if I was ever going to get around to reading it, I needed to stop putting it off. I bought it that afternoon, and a month later I’ve finally had a chance to read it and write a review. Given the short length and high quality of this book, it’s hard to justify such a delay.

Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) training has been a major push in my organization the past few years. ITIL is a formalized framework for IT service management, but seems to be unfavored in the sysadmin community. After sitting through the foundational training, my opinion was of the “it sounds good, but…” variety. The problem with ITIL training and the official documentation is that you’re told what to do without ever being told how to do it. Kevin Behr, Gene Kim, and George Spafford solve that problem in less than 100 pages.

Based on observations and research of high-performing IT teams, The Visible Ops Handbook assumes that no ITIL practices are being followed. Implementation of the ITIL basics is broken down into four phases. Each phase includes real-world accounts, the benefits, and likely resistance points. This arms the reader with the tools necessary to sell the idea to management and sysadmins alike.

The introduction addresses a very important truism: “Something must need improvement, otherwise why read this?” The authors present a general recap of their findings, including these compelling statistics: 80% of outages are self-inflicted and 80% of mean time to repair (MTTR) is often wasted on non-productive activities (e.g. trying to figure out what changed).

Phase 1 focuses on “stabilizing the patient.” The goal is to reduce unplanned work from 80% of outage time to 25% or less. To do this, triage the most critical systems that generate the most unplanned work. Control when and how changes are made and fence off the systems to prevent unauthorized changes. While exceptions might be tempting, they should be avoided. The authors state that “all high performing IT organizations have only one acceptable number of unauthorized changes: zero.”

After reading Phase 1, I already had an idea to suggest. My group handles change management fairly well, but we don’t track requests for change (RFCs) well. Realizing how important that is, I convinced our groups manager and our best developer that it was a key feature to add to our configuration management database (CMDB) system.

In Phase 2, the reader performs a catch & release program and find “fragile artifacts.” Fragile infrastructure are those systems or services with a low change success rate and high MTTR. After all systems have been “bagged and tagged”, it’s time to make a CMDB and a service catalog. This phase is the next place that my group needs to do work. We have a pretty nice CMDB that’s integrated with our monitoring systems and our job schedulers, but we lack a service catalog. Users can look at the website and see what we offer, but that’s only a subset of the services we run.

Phase 3 focuses on creating a repeatable build library. The best IT organizations make infrastructure easier to build than repair. A definitive software library, containing master images for all software necessary to rebuild systems, is critical. For larger groups, forming a separate release management team to engineer repeatable builds for the different services is helpful. The release management team should be separate from the operational group and consist of generally senior staff.

The final phase discusses continual improvement. If everyone stopped at “best practices”, no one would have a competitive advantage. Suggested metrics for each key process area are listed and explained. After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Finding out what areas are the worst makes it easier to decide what to improve upon.

The last third of the book consists of appendices that serve as useful references for the four phases. One of the appendices includes a suggested table layout for a CMDB system. The whole book is focused on the practical nature of ITIL implementation and guiding organizational learning. At times, it assumes a large staff (especially when discussing separation of duties), so some of the ideas will have to be adapted to meet the needs of smaller groups. Nonetheless, this book is an invaluable resource to anyone involve in IT operations.

Book review: The Green Revolution

It came as a bit of a surprise that there’s an entire series of mystery novels set at the University of Notre Dame.  It came as a great surprise that these novels were written by a long-serving member of the Notre Dame faculty.  The Green Revolution is the 12th Notre Dame mystery novel written by Ralph McInerny, and one of over forty mystery novels he has printed.  As a loyal Boilermaker, I found the basis of this novel to be most pleasing.  The Green Revolution takes place during the 2007 football season, one in which Notre Dame did not have net positive rushing yards until the third game of the season.  As the season progresses, more and more Notre Dame fans begin calling for the ouster of the football coach, and some faculty move to end the football program entirely.

The apparent murder of one of the coach’s harshest critics is the purported theme of the book, but McInerny seems to spend a good portion of the novel discussing Notre Dame for Notre Dame’s sake.  Certainly there are some references that would only be understood by persons more familiar with the institution than I.  As a mystery novel, though, it works quite well.  The identity of the killer remained unknown to me until the very end, but looking back, it all made sense.  The writing style was enjoyable, even when the references were beyond me.  No doubt I will pick up another McInerny book the next time I’m  in the mood for a mystery.

Book review: The Last Match

In an attempt to have actual content, I’ve decided to do the occasional book review.  The books are whatever I’ve read recently, likely from the public library.  The first installment is David Dodge’s alleged thriller The Last Match.  Dodge is best known for his novel To Catch a Thief, which became a rather successful film by Alfred Hitchcock (you may have heard of him).  Set in the late 1950s, written in the early 1970s, and published in 2006, the story is as diverse geographically as it is chronologically.  Unfortunately for the reader, the plot also lacks cohesion.

Quoth Dodge’s daughter in the afterword:

…he wrote The Last Match out of his head, skimming through the memories of a lifetime, combining fact and fiction, real-life personalities and invented characters, landscapes and lovers and lifestyles to his heart’s content.

It is not clear to me if Dodge intended this work to be published, or not, but it does seem to be written for his own sake, as his daughter’s words suggest.  The individual sections of the plot are often quite disconnected from each other, to the point where they could have been re-written with little effort as independent short stories.  Indeed, one of my biggest problems with this book is the fact that I spent the first two-thirds distracted by the wait for the plot to become apparent.  It might have been a more enjoyable read had I known from the beginning to expect the chapters to be only loosely bound.

The library categorizes this story as a mystery, but there is little mystery involved. The cover lead my wife to immediately identify it as a romance novel, but it lacks the thinly-veiled sexual descriptions common to that genre.  The amount of crime and pursuit certainly qualify it as a thriller, although I found it to be not-so-thrilling.  I selected the book somewhat arbitrarily from the shelf at the library, and will willingly admit that I probably did not wind up with the best possible book.  I’m certainly open to reading another David Dodge novel, but I cannot recommend The Last Match.