The Anthropocene Reviewed

You should read this book.

UPDATE: Out in paperback on March 21, 2023. (I still recommend the audiobook, FWIW)

The adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is a valid one, but in this case, we also shouldn’t judge it by its title. Which is not to say the title of John Green’s latest book isn’t perfectly cromulent, but rather I wasn’t quite smart enough to appreciate it. I didn’t know the word “Anthropocene” (in fact, spellcheck had to help me both times I’ve typed it now), and so the book didn’t appeal to me at all. I honestly don’t remember why I picked it up. Perhaps I learned the word, and so felt a bit of a kinship to the title, it being one of the only places I’ve ever seen the word used. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read the book. Or rather, I’m glad I’m reading the book. I have a chapter or two left. But I need to take breaks while reading it, lest I get overwhelmed. His writing is powerful, and makes me think. So much so that I often need some time to think about what I just read before I can read more.

For those in a similar boat to former me, “Anthropocene” (got it on my own that time) is a geological period, or geological age. Specifically, it’s the chunk of Earth’s history where humans have played a significant role. So we’re currently “in” the Anthropocene, and it’s been happening, well, ever since we did stuff in caves with rocks I guess. Maybe later. I’m not sure we really had an important enough role back then to kickstart the age. Maybe it was when we drove the first species to extinction. (There’s most certainly a defining event or something, but I’m not an expert. I just recently learned to spell the darn thing.)

John’s book is (I think) his first non-fiction book. It’s more about him than it is about the world he reviews, but that’s why reviews are valuable to us. A review is not a description, but rather an estimation and application of value to a thing. And it takes a person to do that. When that person shares some common values and/or world views, their measure of a thing is even more valuable, because it’s likely to align to our own. That actually makes me realize that I’m reviewing a review of things reviewed by another reviewer. That’s weird. So rather than reviewing the reviews, please allow me to review the style of the reviews, and the selection process of which things were chosen to review. It’s still weird, but it feels less icky.

At its most basic, this book gives a star rating (from 1 to 5) on significant items, ideas, events, and stuff which has had a profound effect on John himself. Profundity can be either positive or negative, and so it goes with these reviews. Some reviews are “lighter” than others. Some we can identify with directly, and some are poignant but only as we compare them to similarities in our own lives. (Or as we empathize with him, which I am wont to do.)

That basic framework is nothing more than that, however. A framework. An “angle”, or a template for how to approach what is really more of a memoir of sometimes un-directly-related things. A memoir generally needs to have an overarching narrative, so this doesn’t really fit the bill… but it almost does, because profound events in our lives are indeed what make us who we are. So perhaps the narrative is reflected in the title. In as much as humanity’s impact on the Anthropocene is what defines it, a human’s life is defined by the events within it. These are not all the events in John Green’s life, but it includes some stand out moments which make it clear who he is, and some hope toward what his role might be in the Anthropocene itself.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work that John has written (and performed, as he is the narrator in the audiobook) this book quite well. His writing is compelling, his insight is wise & considered, and he manages to mix humor and heartache in equal measure. The part that really struck me, however, was how vulnerable the writing felt. I don’t think John (or anyone, to be honest) is a good enough writer to “fake” the way this book exposed who he really is, and even more than that… why he is who he is. I suspect it was both incredibly cathartic, and deeply terrifying to write a book which was not only his first non-fiction, but was clearly a glimpse into the author himself.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed five stars: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Wicked Cool Shell Scripts

Over on YouTube, my BASH Scripting series is pretty popular. It teaches the basics of how to leverage shell scripting, and even pushes into intermediate level usage a bit. (And with the flexibility of YouTube, I’ll be able to add to the course and make it better all the time.)

But I’ll never be able to cover everything with my tutorials. Shell scripting is just too awesome. In fact, one of my fellow Nerdlings (hi James!) wanted to know if I had any book suggestions to learn even more about what sort of things are possible. And boy howdy, do I ever.

Dave Taylor has forgotten more about shell scripting than I’ll ever know. We were both columnists at Linux Journal back when it was a magazine. His column was, of course, about shell scripting. Every month, we’d get to learn how powerful BASH (and other shells) can be, while having fun at the same time. This book is basically like 101 of his columns organized into a super fun, and wicked cool collection.

When I review a book, I always try to find both good points and bad points. That’s not just so I look deep and introspective, but because for books I dislike I want to show the best bits which might tip someone over the edge in spite of my negative opinion. And for books I like, I think it’s important to point out weak spots so that I don’t “trick” anyone into getting a book they might regret. It’s difficult to find negatives with this book. I was going to say that a digital copy of the scripts in the book in a github repository would be nice. But then I see the scripts are all available directly from No Starch Press, so I can’t even complain about that. I guess my complaint is that I couldn’t find a reference to the digital copies in the book itself. But that’s pretty weak for a complaint. Yeah, it’s a pretty great book.

The Baking Soda Volcano of Linux

The “best” parts of the book are also hard to pick, because it covers so many aspects of scripting, automation, problem solving, and fun. I think that last one is the most important though. This book is organized into sections like “Unix Tweaks”, “System Maintenance”, and, “Working with the Web”. But you might honestly never use a single script in this book. Directly.

Dave (and Brandon, more on him in a second) provide working, usable scripts for us to use. But the real magic is that they teach us why the scripts do what they do, and how we can do the same sort of things for our own particular use cases. Just like building a baking soda and vinegar volcano doesn’t actually solve a particular science need — these scripts teach us how scripting works, so we can use that knowledge in useful ways. Granted, building a case statement that parses command line arguments doesn’t have the same panache as Kool-Aid scented lava foam drowning clay-and-toothpick townsfolk. But it does teach concepts just as well. (and shell scripts are much easier to clean up…)

If you’re looking for an exact formula to solve a problem, this book is probably not what you’re looking for. If, however, you want to understand the ingredients so you can make your own perfect formula? In the words of the Kool-Aid Man, “Oh yeah!” This is the book you want. And if you actually want to make a digital volcano? Honestly, there might be a script that does something close. Because that’s the sort of teaching style that makes me love Dave’s writing so much.

Second Edition

While still not a new book, the 2nd edition of Wicked Cool Shell Scripts includes the work of Brandon Perry. From what I can tell, Brandon did much of the updating and tweaking to make sure the scripts in the book were up to date. The second edition released in 2016, and while there have certainly been changes in command line shells since then — it’s still very up-to-date, and very relevant as a resource.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Brandon Perry’s contributions to this book, as he’s one of the authors, and a very accomplished writer himself. But as this is a second edition of a book originally solo-authored by Dave Taylor, so it’s hard to tell which bits are Dave’s and which are Brandon’s. For us readers, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Wicked Cool Shell Scripts, 2nd Edition is a wicked cool book, written by two wicked awesome writers, which will teach you to be a wicked sweet shell scripter. And you’ll have a ton of fun doing it. I highly recommend it both as a reference book, and a read-it-all-the-way-through book, because if you enjoy scripting, you’ll get something out of all 101 shell scripts in this book. (and out of the extras thrown in the final chapters too!)

My Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

From Strength to Strength

I’m… of a certain age. That bit smack dab in the middle, assuming all things go well. I’ll turn 47 soon, and that means I’m middle aged. GASP. While I don’t plan to have a mid-life crisis (I can’t really afford it), I have been considering what the second half of life will look like. It’s an exciting and scary topic to ponder. Thankfully, I’m far from the first to ponder such things, and others are better ponder-ers than me. So I can learn from their mental gymnastics. One of the particularly good ponder-ers on the topic is Arthur Brooks. His latest book, “From Strength to Strength” is on that very topic.

First off, the book is incredible. I start with that not because I’m afraid of burying the lede, but because at first I did NOT like it. The first chapter or so is incredibly depressing. And unfortunately I let my emotions get the better of me, and I gave Mr. Brooks a piece of my mind…

Not my finest moment…

I think part of what made the beginning so difficult for me, is that the book is written to the successful professional who is starting to “decline” in the aspects of their abilities that have gotten them where they are today. For me, whether due to undiagnosed ADHD, poverty, difficult childhood, traumatic brain injury — I haven’t actually found my professional success. And so the notion that it’s all downhill from here was a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, the book doesn’t just try to comfort us as we get older, but rather focuses on NEW strengths. (thus the title, duh, Shawn, keep reading…) So the latter parts of the book were relevant, encouraging, and actually quite helpful even for those of us who have floundered a bit more than the author and the professionals he seems to be addressing.

The main push of the book is describing that while the traditional skills we lean on for success (the author calls it fluid intelligence, which is sorta the “smart-ness” we think of with really smart folks) tend to decline as we approach middle age, there’s another aspect of intelligence that sticks around. That “crystallized intelligence” is more akin to wisdom, and allows us to make connections and decisions that are only possible after a lot of experience. To be clear, there is very real, very inevitable decline with a very significant part of our intelligence and ability. This book helps us learn to accept that, and thrive in spite of it.

If you haven’t already noticed a decline in your mental prowess, you will. But whether you’re like me and worry it means you’ll never be a success, or you are already quite successful and worry you’ll fade away into irrelevance, the author helps steer our mental ships to calmer, but still bountiful waters.

That first chapter will kick your butt though.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0 stars

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