Monday, April 30, 2012

Quick book reviews

In my blog last week I talked a lot about my view of books and reading.  This week, I wanted to spend some time on some books themselves.  Here are some short reviews of books I finished over the last month or two.  As I mentioned last week, I try to put my single-paragraph book reviews on Library Thing as a way of helping me remember what I've read.  Worth noting, I read all of these as Kindle ebooks.  

These reviews use a scale of 5 stars.  I am a tough grader--the only book that I’ve given 5 stars to in the years I’ve been grading books is Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan.  Obviously, that one is worth reading!  

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (3.5 stars)

This was one of the books I purchased based on his talk at TED this year (which is not yet available on  You may have heard about one of Ronson’s previous books, The Men Who Stare at Goats.  He seems to like examining people outside of the ordinary.  The Psychopath Test is an enjoyable read that definitely makes you question psychology.  I would recommend this book if you are interested in the meaning of psychosis or wonder about what it really means to be psychotic.

Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, & Life Together by Mark & Grace Driscoll (3.5 stars)

The Driscolls' book does not include much that I have not read before, but it does have lots of good stuff to say and does so in a brisk, easy-to-read manner.  The main thing that differentiates this book from other Christian marriage books is that the authors do a good job of openly discussing topics that other books shy away from.  Part of that is Grace Driscoll's life story including sexual abuse.  For many women (and men) this is an important dynamic that Christian marriage books are less willing to confront.  I recommend this book to anyone looking to improve their marriage or tackle issues in their marriage. 

No Going Back by Mark L. Van Name (4.0 stars assuming you read the previous Jon and Lobo books)

This is the latest entry in the John and Lobo series.  If you are a fan, you definitely need to read this one as there are plenty of revelations about the characters in the continuing saga.  It is a book that made me fall prey to just-one-more-chapter syndrome.  To me, it was a more fun read than the last couple of the books in the series.  Please note, I claim no objectivity whatsoever in this review as the author has been my business partner and friend for over 25 years.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (3.0 stars)

Steven Levy is one of the leading chroniclers of the times and culture of the computer/Internet era.  He had unprecedented access to Google and its employees during his research for this book.  His portrayal is generally favorable, but far from fawning.  I liked the book since it gave me new pieces of data about the industry I in which I live and work.  As such, the book was fun for me, but probably will not be of great interest to folks outside the computer industry. 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (4.0 stars)

James Garfield is a president about whom I knew next to nothing.  After reading this book, I wanted to know more, much more.  He was a president who was strong in his Christian faith and very much a man of the people.  The book weaves together the strands of Garfield and his times, his crazy assassin, and the state of the technology of medicine.  Suffice to say, you did not want to get shot in that day and age.  All-in-all, this was a fascinating piece of historical writing that I would recommend to anyone who likes history.

I also wanted to mention one lingering thought from my last blog.   I think the issue of how to show off books is one that the ebooks publishers need to tackle.  Book lovers like to show off their bookcases or browse through them.  There is a real need for a better Kindle app.  There currently is no good way to categorize books in the app.  I have over 100 books and looking through them is annoying.  If I open a book for any reason, it goes to the front of my reading list.  Being able to put the books in shelves with names like, “Finished reading” or “Economics,” would be very useful.  I would also love a sort of slideshow app that would allow me to have a screen on the wall that would show book covers and brief descriptions.  I could put an iPad (or a bigger screen version of one) on the wall and show off/browse my ebookshelves that way.  I could also even allow others to browse my ebooks remotely.  I have a few friends whose ebookshelves I would love to browse.

Here is some free advice for Amazon—buy Library Thing and incorporate its functionality (and my suggestions above) into the Kindle apps.  If they did this (and put a purchase button on it), I’m convinced it would sell more books. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bibliophilia or bibliomania?

I love books.  There, I’ve said it--more or less in public.  The question is whether I suffer from bibliophilia or bibliomania.  The former is just a love of books while the latter is a book obsession that leads to the destruction of relationships and health.  I've been aware of my problem for awhile and I’m taking steps to keep on the right side of the bibliophilia/bibliomania line.  

One way of knowing I have a book problem is that I never have enough bookshelves.  I’ve included a couple pictures of my main built-in bookshelves.  I have other smaller ones scattered throughout the house as well as some piles and I'm looking to build another wall of bookshelves.  Even those will not be enough to house all of the books I have boxed up in the basement.  Though I have friends with even more books and bookshelves (ahem, Mark), I really do have a problem.  

Part of my solution has been to switch to ebooks.   I love the experience of reading a real book, of turning the pages.  Switching to ebooks was hard.  On the other hand, ebooks give me the benefits of always having a pile of books with me when I travel, of not having to keep building more bookshelves, and of being better environmentally. 

Another book problem I have is that I often forget what I’ve read.  To counteract that, I started a few years ago to force myself to write at least a paragraph about each book when I finish it.  

I used the Library Thing Web site.  It is a site for book lovers that allows you to catalog your books, give them ratings, and review them.  The ratings and reviews are then available for others to see and use in evaluating what books to read.  I was pretty good about entering my books there for a couple years.  One unfortunate consequence of switching to ebooks is that I stopped entering my reviews and ratings over a year ago.  The reason?  My system relied on a pile of books to remind me.  With ebooks, of course, there is no pile.  So, I've switched to an electronic mechanism and also will start putting some of my reviews in my blog. 

To give you some idea about how I read books, here are the books I currently am reading.  My definition of “currently reading” is that I have read at least one chapter of the book in the last two weeks.  This list is directly from my Kindle (well, the Kindle app on my iPad): 
  • Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
  • The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
  • Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Change the World by Leroy Barber
  • Almost Amish by Nancy Sleeth 
  • The No-Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know about the Peloton, Your Gear, and Riding Strong by Patrick Brady
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
  • The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot
  • 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  • Quiet by Susan Cain
  • Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge
  • It Happened on the Way to War by Rye Barcott
  • The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science by Laura J. Snyder
Putting that list up (and forcing myself to not edit it) was an interesting exercise.  Showing what I’m reading is rather revealing.  At the same time, I realize it is also a way to show off.  That is another part of the reason I have moved to ebooks—I came to understand that my love of bookshelves and books was, at least partially, a way to show off.  That is one of the areas that as a Christian I need to move beyond.  

One thing to note about the list above is the lack of any fiction on that list.  That was the first step which I took years ago to curb my bibliomania.  If I read fiction, I can’t stop.  I will give up sleep and pretty much anything else until I finish the book.  My solution has been to only allow myself a few fiction books a year.  I’ve read Mark Van Name’s Jon and Lobo books over the last few years.  In some years, that was the only fiction I read.  This year, I permitted myself to read the Hunger Games series.  A few years ago, I read the Harry Potter books.  In each case, the better word would be devoured.  

All kidding about bibliomania aside, is this really a problem I need to solve?  For me, the answer is yes.  I see any part of my life that is out of control or all-consuming as something that competes with putting Christ first in my life.  Obviously, books and reading are not the only place I need to work on.  But, it is a place to start.   

I finished this blog entry early.  Think it would be OK if I got in some reading before going to sleep?  On my Kindle, of course! 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My dad

About two years ago, on April 18, 2010, my dad died.  In those two years, some memories about him have faded and others have become sharper.  

It is impossible to even come close to adequately describing a life in a blog entry, but I plan to try.  As I assume most of the folks reading this blog know me at least somewhat, I’m hoping that I can give you some sense of who my dad was by telling you about him in terms of some of our similarities and how he influenced my life.  Maybe you'll be able to see a bit of him when you see me.  The picture below would have been from late 1959 when I was almost 2 years old on my first cycle.  He would have been 30.  

While I don’t think he looks much like me, we shared a number of physical characteristics.  We were about the same size—six feet tall and on the wrong side of 200 pounds.  All my memories of him were with lots of gray hair, like mine, but slightly curly.

We shared a name.  He was William Baird Catchings, Jr.  He hated the junior.  His dad was called Bill and he was called Billy.  So, of course, I was called Barry.  No, I don't know exactly why.  Suffice to say, only my mom and brother still call me Barry.  

My dad was born in Raleigh, on Halloween 1929, just a few days after the stock market crash that began the Great Depression.  As a young boy, he lived downtown on W. Johnson Street near Saint Mary's.  His dad, my grandfather was an engineer.  They lived well.  My dad likes to tell me that when the season's new clothes would come out, Belk's would come to the house to show them to his mom.  But, like many others, they lost everything in the Depression.  They had to move to Cary.  It is pretty funny that about 50 years later I moved to Cary, one block from where he lived in the mid-1930s.

My grandfather worked on building airports, and especially in the late-1930s and 1940s, that meant moving a lot.  Even though my dad was born in Raleigh, he lived many different places and did not really have a place with strong roots growing up.  He eventually ended up in NJ where he met and married my mom.  They lived there for over 25 years before moving to Manning, SC where they lived for almost 30 years.    

My dad was careful with money.  He often lectured me about the dangers of credit cards.  He claimed they were the reason he and his parents had to move to Cary.  I’m sure that his views on money had some influence on my cautious attitude toward investing and saving.  

Even though he was very careful with money, my dad became an entrepreneur.  He worked for many years as an accountant, but his passion was antiques.  When he was laid off as an accountant in the 1970s, he chose to make antiques his business.  The name of the business was The Silver Porringer.  He and my mom traveled up and down the East Coast to antique shows selling the silver and other antiques they bought at garage sales, auctions, and from other antique dealers.  Looking back, I respect the courage it took to start a business with two kids approaching college age.  

To this day, I prefer eating food off of silverware and even have some in my drawer at work for eating lunch.  (Only silver plate in case anyone was wondering...)   I still can recognize some silver patterns when I see them.  

My dad loved to travel and I do as well.  He took us to Europe when I was in seventh grade.  As kids, we drove over much of the eastern US on vacations.  Of course, he was always looking for antique shops.  Jamey and I would try to see signs for them well in advance and then point out cows or something interesting on the other side of the road so he would not see the signs.  

As some of you may have noticed, I am prone to kidding people.  So was my dad.  When my kids were young, they went to spend a week with my parents.  My parents wanted to know what foods they like to eat.  We said that for vegetables, the only one we knew they all liked was corn.  So, my dad made sure they had corn at pretty much every meal.  He would gleefully sing to them, “Corn, corn, corn, corn!”  For years afterwards, every Christmas each of them would receive a wrapped can of corn from my dad.  He did have a little trouble knowing when to stop kidding!  

My dad was a man of his generation.  He tended to be reserved and not show much affection (at least until he got older).  He said, and at least partially believed, “Children should be seen and not heard.”   But, whatever his faults, he was a good father.  Much of who I am today is due to my dad.

I am proud to be William Baird Catchings, III.   

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A frog from my past

I spent this past weekend in NYC with Susie.  We walked around Manhattan, wandered through museums, ate too much, and generally had a good time.  The primary reason for the trip was the opportunity on Friday to participate in an oral history panel discussion that the Computer History Museum conducted.  The discussion was about the Kermit file transfer protocol.  A little over 30 years ago, I worked at Columbia University on the original versions of Kermit.   The picture below is from 1981 and shows a much younger me at work in front of PDP-11 and DEC-20 manuals. As you can see, I've always dressed well at work!

Kermit is a protocol and set of programs for moving files between computers before the Internet. In the early years, that meant dial-up connections as slow as 300bps.  (Note the lack of K, M, or G before the bits per second!)  We designed Kermit to work between a wide variety of computers—from IBM mainframes to DEC minicomputers to CP/M microcomputers. To make them able to work together, we designed the protocol to accommodate the lowest common denominator and assume as little as possible. The Kermit programs on a pair of computers negotiated what was possible at the beginning of a file transfer session and were able to work, often in situations where nothing else would. 

I worked on Kermit from its inception in 1981 until I left Columbia and moved to North Carolina in 1985. During that time, I developed the early versions of the Kermit protocol with my boss at Columbia (Frank da Cruz), wrote a number of the original versions of Kermit, co-authored an article for Byte magazine with Frank, and spoke at conventions about Kermit.  Frank continued working on Kermit at Columbia until 2011.  During that time, Kermit became a program used around the world and even in outer space.  Frank even traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989 to speak about Kermit and how to improve it. 

Frank was on Friday's panel discussion along with me and another person who worked on the project long after I was gone.  It was very interesting to discuss the work I had done so many years ago and to in turn hear stories about Frank, Columbia, and Kermit that were new to me.  

I came away from the experience with a couple thoughts.  First, I am proud to have been a part of Kermit.  I believed in the effort and was an enthusiastic (if naive) supporter of the idea of creating software that could be freely used and help as many people as possible at the beginning of the PC revolution.  

At least as importantly, I am once again convinced of how God blessed me in my work during that time, and the years since.  Not only have I had opportunities to work at a number of interesting projects and jobs, but I have been compensated well along the way.  Even better, I have had the support wonderful wife for almost 32 years, and three great kids as well.  I have much to be thankful for. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Amistad - Friendship

Last week, Susie and I enjoyed a long weekend in Virginia.  We spent that time with some friends (the Grizzles) that we have known for over 30 years.  They invited us and a number of other people to their retreat home called the Bellfry.  Even with seventeen of us, there was plenty of room at the Bellfry.  The home and its rustic setting were perfect.  It is nestled in the foothills outside of Lexington, Virginia with beautiful views, hiking trails, a labyrinth, and more.  The home itself had plenty of bedrooms for everyone, a dining room table large enough to accommodate everyone, and food that made us want to gather around the table frequently.  

The group consisted of people who are involved in one way or another with the Amistad Mission.  Other than the Grizzles and the director of the Amistad Mission (Chris), I had met none of them before the weekend.  Generally, I am not great at warming up to new people.  This group, however, was easy to become friends with.  That may have been due to where we were (the Bellfry and its environs), the special people in the group (such as Father William, the founder of Amistad), and the common cause we all cared about (Amistad, which is Spanish for Friendship).  I came away, however, feeling that there was more to it than that.  This week’s sermon at church may have provided me with the answer.  Pastor Doug spoke on John 15 which includes the parable of the vine and the branches as well as Jesus’ exhortation for Christians to be known by their love for one another.  Christians are called to “abide” in Christ as branches rely on the vine for nourishment.  That abiding should then lead to us loving one another.  While that has sadly often not been the case, that is very much what I felt during this weekend.  It was a group of fellow Christians, trying to better abide in Christ and in so doing being able to love one another.  Most of us left talking about ways to get together again in the future, whether in the cities we are from, a reunion at the Bellfry, or in Bolivia.  I am looking forward to it.  

I came away from the weekend with one other thing I wanted to do--tell about my trip to Bolivia.   A year ago, I spent two weeks of my company’s seven-week sabbatical program in Cochabamba, Bolivia with the Amistad Mission.  The time I spent in Bolivia at the orphanage that Amistad runs had a real impact on me.  As much of the trip was outside my comfort zone and outside my control, I really had to rely on God rather than my skills, my resources, and my technology.  I also learned to relax (at least a little bit) and just enjoy simple pleasures like playing basketball with the children. 

I’ve included a couple of pictures here from my trip.  The picture above left is of Zulma on her favorite perch.  The one on the right is of one of the girls from the orphanage dressed up for one of the Stations of the Cross performed by the children on Good Friday.  

I put my journal entries from that trip into blog format.  Since I can’t figure out a way to list the entries with the oldest first, start from this entry and then use the links on the right to navigate the entries in chronological order.  While it may be more than you want to read, it will hopefully give you a bit of an idea about my trip.  Maybe it will even encourage you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and control.