Printing press+widespread religious behavior: A theory

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The book The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous provides an explanation of the processes which weakened the existing social ties of family and tribe; however, the emergence of WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) required new social norms to spread and be accepted throughout society. A major technical innovation, in the form of the printing press, provided the means for mass communication of ideas and practices.

David High-Jones’ book Wyclif’s Dust: Western Cultures from the Printing Press to the Present describes the social consequences of what he calls book religion; a combination of deeply religious western societies and the ability of individuals to write and sell affordable books (made possible by the printing press). Religion+printing press created the conditions for what High-Jones calls a hothouse culture, a period from the 1600s to the end of the 1800s.

Around 1440 the printing press is invented and quickly spreads; around 5 million books were handwritten in the 1400s, about 80 million books were produced in the first 50 years of printing, and around a billion in the 1700s. During the 1500s the Protestant reformation happens; Protestant encouraged its followers to read the Bible, which creates a demand for printed Bibles and the need to be able to read (which increases literacy rates). In England, between 1480-1640, 40% of published books were religious.

The changes to society’s existing norms are wrought by cultural transmission, initially via middle class parents making use of edifying books to teach their children moral values and social skills, later Sunday schools took on this role, but also had to offer reading lessons to attract members. In the adult world, accepted norms were maintained by social enforcement. The impact on western societies was widespread because observant religious behavior was widespread.

The original intent, of those writing the religious books, was the creation of a god fearing society. In practice, a trust based society was created, where workers might be relied upon not to shirk their duties and businessmen to not renege on agreements.

In the beginning science, in the form of printed technical books, rarely made an appearance. In the 1700s the Enlightenment happens, and scientific books are discussed by small collections of disparate individuals. The industrial revolution happens, but the bulk of the demand is for trustworthy workers; technical and scientific know how remains a minority interest.

In Part I of the book, High-Jones weaves a reading and convincing narrative. Part II, 1900 to today, is a tale of the crumbling and breakdown of the social forces and incentives that creates the trust based society; while example are enumerated, no overarching theory is proposed (I skimmed this part).

How I write books (my new book)

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Regular readers will know I write books – quite a few by now, it gets embarrassing.

Being an author is a great conversation starter, when people hear you’ve written a book or two they want to know more – everyone seems to have a dream of writing their own book. It also means that people seek me out to ask my advice about a book they are writing, or thinking about writing.

So, I’ve started to write down all the advice I give to people in a new book – How I write books.

I’m following my usual pattern so you can buy early versions on LeanPub now – I released it last week and it immediately sold a few copies. As usual at this stage everything is in a state of flux; spelling, punctuation, grammar and all that jazz will be fixed later. Of course, anyone buying now will get free updates as they become available all the way to the final version.

If you do buy, then please let me know what you think.


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Agile OKRs extra – yet another book

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

I blogged last week that I had begun work on a new book – How I Write Books which is now a work in progress at LeanPub – signup and be the first to know when the draft is published.

Well a funny thing happened while I was setting up my tool chain to write that book: I found another book! Well, perhaps half a book is a better description.

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile Extra is a companion to last year’s best seller, Succeeding with OKRs in Agile. But it isn’t a complete book in its own right, it isn’t really a sequel, it is a companion. It contains a mix of material. Material which didn’t really fit in the first book, material with was’t needed, ideas which didn’t develop far enough and some unfinished chapters.

As such it is like my Xanpan Appendix, unused material which is still interesting and might appear elsewhere in time.

I really want to work on How I write books so I don’t have any immediate plans to progress extra. If you enjoyed Succeeding with OKRs in Agile, if you would like to know more, or if you would like to just see how a writer’s mind works check out Succeeding with OKRs in Agile Extra.

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How I write books – A book about books

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

In the last 15 years I’ve written and published 3 books with publishers, published 5 books myself, plus edited one conference proceedings and pushed out three “mini books” (one with 3 editions) which I never publicised.

In addition I’ve contributed forwards and chapters to at least six books and had two books translated.

Then there are countless magazine and journal articles but they stretch back further, closer to 25 years – and this blog from 2005.

Not bad for a kid who was thrown out of school after asking a teacher how to spell “at” – age of eight, a diagnosed dyslexic who had to learn to read three times – I can’t read my own handwriting its so bad.

As a result I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing. In the last few years I’ve spoken to many people who want to know how to write and publish their own book. A couple of years ago Steve Smith suggested I write a book about writing books. I’ve been avoiding that until this month.

Now I’ve started: How I write books, https://leanpub.com/howIwrite – sign-up to be the first to known when the MVP is published. And if there is anything you would like me to write about in the book please let me know.

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Christmas books for 2021

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

This year, my list of Christmas books is very late because there is only one entry (first published in 1950), and I was not sure whether a 2021 Christmas book post was worthwhile.

The book is “Planning in Practice: Essays in Aircraft planning in war-time” by Ely Devons. A very readable, practical discussion, with data, on the issues involved in large scale planning; the discussion is timeless. Check out second-hand book sites for low costs editions.

Why isn’t my list longer?

Part of the reason is me. I have not been motivated to find new topics to explore, via books rather than blog posts. Things are starting to change, and perhaps the list will be longer in 2022.

Another reason is the changing nature of book publishing. There is rarely much money to be made from the sale of non-fiction books, and the desire to write down their thoughts and ideas seems to be the force that drives people to write a book. Sites like substack appear to be doing a good job of diverting those with a desire to write something (perhaps some authors will feel the need to create a book length tomb).

Why does an author need a publisher? The nitty-gritty technical details of putting together a book to self-publish are slowly being simplified by automation, e.g., document formatting and proofreading. It’s a win-win situation to make newly written books freely available, at least if they are any good. The author reaches the largest readership (which helps maximize the impact of their ideas), and readers get a free electronic book. Authors of not very good books want to limit the number of people who find this out for themselves, and so charge money for the electronic copy.

Another reason for the small number of good new, non-introductory, books, is having something new to say. Scientific revolutions, or even minor resets, are rare (i.e., measured in multi-decades). Once several good books are available, and nothing much new has happened, why write a new book on the subject?

The market for introductory books is much larger than that for books covering advanced material. While publishers obviously want to target the largest market, these are not the kind of books I tend to read.

Top agile books which aren’t about agile or software

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Christmas is almost here and the end of the year is nye. That means it is time for newspapers and journals to start publishing “Top books of the year” lists and “Christmas recommendations.” So, prompted by a recent thread on LinkedIn I thought I’d offer up my own book list: top books for agile folk from outside of agile (and software).

That is: books which are not explicitly about agile (or software development) but which contain a valuable message, and possibly techniques for those wanting to expand their knowledge of, well, agile.

Most of the books I’m about to list address philosophical, or mindset, underpinnings of agile: how to think in an agile way, rather than “how to do agile.” That might disappoint but think about it, how could a book from outside agile tell you how to do agile?

Well, actually, there are three which do.

First The Goal: written in the style of a novel this book explores the theory of constraints and elementary queuing theory, without mentioning either by name. Since it is written as a novel – with characters and back story! – this is an easy read. But please, don’t judge it as a novel, judge it for the message inside.

Next up is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: I blogged a few months ago how these habits could also underpin a team working style. Whether you read this for yourself or with an eye on your team this book does contain actionable advice – and some ideas on how to think. It can be a bit of a cringe in places and I’m not sure I agree with all the ideas but it is still a worthwhile read.

Finally in this section is a book at the opposite end of readability: Factory Physics.

Make no mistake this is a text book so it sets out to teach and can be hard going in places – there are plenty of equations. But, if it is a solid grounding in queuing theory, variability, lead times and the like you want then this is the book to go to. In fact, it might be the only book.

That is it for hands on books which will tell you how to do things on Monday morning. The books which are ones I consider “philosophy” – how to think. Thats my way of putting it, a more popular way of putting it is: Mindset. These are books which have shaped my thinking, my mindset, and as such underpin my approach to all things agile – and more!

First here is The Fifth Discipline. This may be the founding text in the field of organizaional learning, ultimately all agile learning and applying that learning. The “learning view” underpinned my own first book and that still fundamentally shapes my approach to working with individuals, teams and companies.

My next choice continues the organizational learning theme and is the source of perhaps the most famous quote from the that field:

“We understand that the only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers’ ability to learn faster than then their competitors.”

The Living Company presents an alternative view of companies and organizations: rather than being rational profit maximising entities this book encourages you to see companies as living organisms. As such the organizations true goal is to live and continue living. Trade, and even profit, is simply a means to an end. And like all successful living things companies must learn and adapt, those that don’t will die.

Living Company is not alone in presenting an alternative narrative of how companies work. My penultimate book presents an alternative view of that most sacred of management practices: strategy.

The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is a major work that not only charts the historical rise of strategic planning and the subsequent fall it also present an alternative view of what strategy is and how companies come by strategies: strategy is a consistent pattern of behaviour, strategy is part plan but is also emergent and changes in respect to what happens. Strategy claims to be forward looking but is equally retrospective, strategy offers a story to link past events together.

Along the way Rise and Fall accidentally explains where the waterfall comes from (Robert McNamara), how planning is controlling and why even with almost unlimited resources (GE and Gosplan) the best attempts at planning have failed. If you harbour any ambition to implement Scrum at the corporate level make sure you read this book.

All the books above are over 10 years old and had I written this list 10 years ago it would probably be the same. But two years ago I read Grow the Pie, this advances the discussion of why companies exist and how to be a successful company – the secret is to have purpose and benefit society. Written before the pandemic it is now more relevant than ever. Again it isn’t an easy read but it pays back in thoroughness of argument and reasoning. And if for no other reason, read Grow the Pie to really understand what constitutes value.

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Electronic Evidence and Electronic Signatures: book

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Electronic Evidence and Electronic Signatures by Stephen Mason and Daniel Seng is not the sort of book that I would normally glance at twice (based on its title). However, at this start of the year I had an interesting email conversation with the first author, who worked for the defence team on the Horizon IT project case, and he emailed with the news that the fifth edition was now available (there’s a free pdf version, so why not have a look; sorry Stephen).

Regular readers of this blog will be interested in chapter 4 (“Software code as the witness”) and chapter 5 (“The presumption that computers are ‘reliable'”).

Legal arguments are based on precedent, i.e., decisions made by judges in earlier cases. The one thing that stands from these two chapters is how few cases have involved source code and/or reliability, and how simplistic the software issues have been (compared to issues that could have been involved). Perhaps the cases involving complicated software issues get simplified by the lawyers, or they look like they will be so difficult/expensive to litigate that the case don’t make it to court.

Chapter 4 provided various definitions of source code, all based around the concept of imperative programming, i.e., the code tells the computer what to do. No mention of declarative programming, where the code specifies the information required and the computer has to figure out how to obtain it (SQL being a widely used language based on this approach). The current Wikipedia article on source code is based on imperative programming, but the programming language article is not so narrowly focused (thanks to some work by several editors many years ago 😉

There is an interesting discussion around the idea of source code as hearsay, with a discussion of cases (see 4.34) where the person who wrote the code had to give evidence so that the program output could be admitted as evidence. I don’t know how often the person who wrote the code has to give evidence, but these days code often has multiple authors, and their identity is not always known (e.g., author details have been lost, or the submission effectively came via an anonymous email).

Chapter 5 considers the common law presumption in the law of England and Wales that ‘In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the courts will presume that mechanical instruments were in order. Yikes! The fact that this is presumption is nonsense, at least for computers, was discussed in an earlier post.

There is plenty of case law discussion around the accuracy of devices used to breath-test motorists for their alcohol level, and defendants being refused access to the devices and associated software. Now, I’m sure that the software contained in these devices contains coding mistakes, but was a particular positive the result of a coding mistake? Without replicating the exact conditions occurring during the original test, it could be very difficult to say. The prosecution and Judges make the common mistake of assuming that because the science behind the test had been validated, the device must produce correct results; ignoring the fact that the implementation of the science in software may contain implementation mistakes. I have lost count of the number of times that scientist/programmers have told me that because the science behind their code is correct, the program output must be correct. My retort that there are typos in the scientific papers they write, therefore there may be typos in their code, usually fails to change their mind; they are so fixated on the correctness of the science that possible mistakes elsewhere are brushed aside.

The naivety of some judges is astonishing. In one case (see 5.44) a professor who was an expert in mathematics, physics and computers, who had read the user manual for an application, but had not seen its source code, was considered qualified to give evidence about the operation of the software!

Much of chapter 5 is essentially an overview of software reliability, written by a barrister for legal professionals, i.e., it is not always a discussion of case law. A barristers’ explanation of how software works can be entertainingly inaccurate, but the material here is correct in a broad brush sense (and I did not spot any entertainingly inaccuracies).

Other than breath-testing, the defence asking for source code is rather like a dog chasing a car. The software for breath-testing devices is likely to be small enough that one person might do a decent job of figuring out how it works; many software systems are not only much, much larger, but are dependent on an ecosystem of hardware/software to run. Figuring out how they work will take multiple (expensive expert) people a lot of time.

Legal precedents are set when both sides spend the money needed to see a court case through to the end. It’s understandable why the case law discussed in this book is so sparse and deals with relatively simple software issues. The costs of fighting a case involving the complexity of modern software is going to be astronomical.

Christmas books for 2020

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

A very late post on the interesting books I read this year (only one of which was actually published in 2020). As always the list is short because I did not read many books and/or there is lots of nonsense out there, but this year I have the new excuses of not being able to spend much time on trains and having my own book to finally complete.

I have already reviewed The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, and it is the must-read of 2020 (after my book, of course :-).

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. This small, short book provides lots of interesting insights into the motivational factors involved in joining/following/leaving mass movements. Possible connections to software engineering might appear somewhat tenuous, but bits and pieces keep bouncing around my head. There are clearer connections to movements going mainstream this year.

The following two books came from asking what-if questions about the future of software engineering. The books I read suggesting utopian futures did not ring true.

“Money and Motivation: Analysis of Incentives in Industry” by William Whyte provides lots of first-hand experience of worker motivation on the shop floor, along with worker response to management incentives (from the pre-automation 1940s and 1950s). Developer productivity is a common theme in discussions I have around evidence-based software engineering, and this book illustrates the tangled mess that occurs when management and worker aims are not aligned. It is easy to imagine the factory-floor events described playing out in web design companies, with some web-page metric used by management as a proxy for developer productivity.

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century by Harry Braverman, to quote from Wikipedia, is an “… examination the nature of ‘skill’ and the finding that there was a decline in the use of skilled labor as a result of managerial strategies of workplace control.” It may also have discussed management assault of blue-collar labor under capitalism, but I skipped the obviously political stuff. Management do want to deskill software development, if only because it makes it easier to find staff, with the added benefit that the larger pool of less skilled staff increases management control, e.g., low skilled developers knowing they can be easily replaced.

Exercises in Programming Style: the python way

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Exercises in Programming Style by Cristina Lopes is an interesting little book.

The books I have previously read on programming style pick a language, and then write various programs in that language using different styles, idioms, or just following quirky rules, e.g., no explicit loops, must use sets, etc. “Algorithms in Snobol 4” by James F. Gimpel is a fascinating read, but something of an acquired taste.

EPS does pick a language, Python, but the bulk of the book is really a series of example programs illustrating a language feature/concept that is central to a particular kind of language, e.g., continuation-passing style, publish-subscribe architecture, and reflection. All the programs implement the same problem: counting the number of occurrences of each word in a text file (Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is used).

The 33 chapters are each about six or seven pages long, and contain a page or two or code. Everything is very succinct, and does a good job of illustrating one main idea.

While the first example does not ring true, things quickly pick up and there are lots of interesting insights to be had. The first example is based on limited storage (1,024 bytes), and just does not make efficient use of the available bits (e.g., upper case letters can be represented using 5-bits, leaving three unused bits or 37% of available storage; a developer limited to 1K would not waste such a large amount of storage).

Solving the same problem in each example removes the overhead of having to learn what is essentially housekeeping material. It also makes it easy to compare the solutions created using different ideas. The downside is that there is not always a good fit between the idea being illustrated and the problem being solved.

There is one major omission. Unstructured programming; back in the day it was just called programming, but then structured programming came along, and want went before was called unstructured. Structured programming allowed a conditional statement to apply to multiple statements, an obviously simple idea once somebody tells you.

When an if-statement can only be followed by a single statement, that statement has to be a goto; an if/else is implemented as (using Fortran, I wrote lots of code like this during my first few years of programming):

      IF (I .EQ. J)
      GOTO 100
      Z=1
      GOTO 200
100   Z=2
200

Based on the EPS code in chapter 3, Monolithic, an unstructured Python example might look like (if Python supported goto):

for line in open(sys.argv[1]):
    start_char = None
    i = 0
    for c in line:
        if start_char != None:
           goto L0100
        if not c.isalnum():
           goto L0300
        # We found the start of a word
        start_char = i
        goto L0300
        L0100:
        if c.isalnum():
           goto L0300
        # We found the end of a word. Process it
        found = False
        word = line[start_char:i].lower()
        # Ignore stop words
        if word in stop_words:
           goto L0280
        pair_index = 0
        # Let's see if it already exists
        for pair in word_freqs:
            if word != pair[0]:
               goto L0210
            pair[1] += 1
            found = True
            goto L0220
            L0210:
            pair_index += 1
        L0220:
        if found:
           goto L0230
        word_freqs.append([word, 1])
        goto L0300
        L0230:
        if len(word_freqs) <= 1:
           goto L0300:
        # We may need to reorder
        for n in reversed(range(pair_index)):
            if word_freqs[pair_index][1] <= word_freqs[n][1]:
               goto L0240
            # swap
            word_freqs[n], word_freqs[pair_index] = word_freqs[pair_index], word_freqs[n]
            pair_index = n
            L0240:
        goto L0300
        L0280:
        # Let's reset
        start_char = None
        L0300:
        i += 1

If you do feel a yearning for the good ol days, a goto package is available, enabling developers to write code such as:

from goto import with_goto

@with_goto
def range(start, stop):
    i = start
    result = []

    label .begin
    if i == stop:
        goto .end

    result.append(i)
    i += 1
    goto .begin

    label .end
    return result

Christmas books for 2019

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The following are the really, and somewhat, interesting books I read this year. I am including the somewhat interesting books to bulk up the numbers; there are probably more books out there that I would find interesting. I just did not read many books this year, what with Amazon recommends being so user unfriendly, and having my nose to the grindstone finishing a book.

First the really interesting.

I have already written about Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society by Daniel Milo.

I have also written about The European Guilds: An economic analysis by Sheilagh Ogilvie. Around half-way through I grew weary, and worried readers of my own book might feel the same. Ogilvie nails false beliefs to the floor and machine-guns them. An admirable trait in someone seeking to dispel the false beliefs in current circulation. Some variety in the nailing and machine-gunning would have improved readability.

Moving on to first half really interesting, second half only somewhat.

“In search of stupidity: Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters” by Merrill R. Chapman, second edition. This edition is from 2006, and a third edition is promised, like now. The first half is full of great stories about the successes and failures of computer companies in the 1980s and 1990s, by somebody who was intimately involved with them in a sales and marketing capacity. The author does not appear to be so intimately involved, starting around 2000, and the material flags. Worth buying for the first half.

Now the somewhat interesting.

“Can medicine be cured? The corruption of a profession” by Seamus O’Mahony. All those nonsense theories and practices you see going on in software engineering, it’s also happening in medicine. Medicine had a golden age, when progress was made on finding cures for the major diseases, and now it’s mostly smoke and mirrors as people try to maintain the illusion of progress.

“Who we are and how we got here” by David Reich (a genetics professor who is a big name in the field), is the story of the various migrations and interbreeding of ‘human-like’ and human peoples over the last 50,000 years (with some references going as far back as 300,000 years). The author tries to tell two stories, the story of human migrations and the story of the discoveries made by his and other people’s labs. The mixture of stories did not work for me; the story of human migrations/interbreeding was very interesting, but I was not at all interested in when and who discovered what. The last few chapters went off at a tangent, trying to have a politically correct discussion about identity and race issues. The politically correct class are going to hate this book’s findings.

“The Digital Party: Political organization and online democracy” by Paolo Gerbaudo. The internet has enabled some populist political parties to attract hundreds of thousands of members. Are these parties living up to their promises to be truly democratic and representative of members wishes? No, and Gerbaudo does a good job of explaining why (people can easily join up online, and then find more interesting things to do than read about political issues; only a few hard code members get out from behind the screen and become activists).

Suggestions for books that you think I might find interesting welcome.