Oracle Scratchpad

June 8, 2009

Book content

Filed under: Non-technical — Jonathan Lewis @ 7:12 pm GMT Jun 8,2009

Rob Freeman raised an interesting topic on Oracle-L a couple of weeks ago with the following:

My question is, what constitutes Oracle Book Writing mal-practice (and I pray I’ve never committed it).  Certainly mistakes crop up in books all the time, I’m as guilty as any writer of this. This chapter I’m reading though, in an effort to get the reader to doing something quickly, does not lay any foundation, skips critical steps and actually prompts them to do what I consider some very dangerous things.

The posting didn’t really generate a lot of discussion – which is a shame – and my privileges to write to Oracle-L lapsed some time ago, so I’m writing my response to Rob’s observations here.

Mark Powell made the following comment, which I thought was an important one:

It is one thing to make a mistake and another to write something without giving proper thought to related facts which could impact someone following the information given.

Like Mark, I think you have to go just a little further than “without attention to detail” to be accused of “Oracle Book Writing malpractice”; but when you’re writing about topics like backup and recovery you’re immediately on the boundary and should take extreme care with investigating and justifying your claims.

Surprisingly, though, the commonest form of response was along the lines of “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), “always check before you do anything”, and even one comment about it being “good to learn from mistakes”.

First: “let the buyer beware” is not an acceptable response. The buyer presumably bought the book to learn – so how can they be in a position to judge that what they’re being taught is bad. Note, particularly, that Rob said the chapter he was concerned with “skips critical steps” – so if the available instructions appear to work how is the learner supposed to know that something critical is missing ? By the time he finds out it may be far too late.

Secondly: if people like Rob won’t stand up in public and say “this is wrong” who will ? How will anything get better if no-one is prepared to point out the errors and omissions and explain what’s wrong ? I hope that some day, when I’m browsing Amazon perhaps, I’ll see a review from Rob on some recent Oracle book that says:  “Chapter NN should be treated with extreme caution and here are a few of the reasons….”. He’s probably too nice to be that blunt, but he maybe he could start with “Chapters A, B and C were good because … but …”.

In passing, I’ve had a couple of people tell me in the past that “the best way to deal with rubbish is to write good stuff instead”.

Wrong!

It’s hard to write good material, but it’s easy to write rubbish and rubbish propagates quickly (especially with “cut and paste” authors around). Look at the comments from Amar Kumar Padhi:

I recollect one incident related to RAID selection for disk storage. Different people produced different published sources that had different conclusion resulting in utter confusion.

If some of those published sources had been critical appraisals of other sources then Amar Kumar’s juniors might have been in a better position to assess the quality and relevance of the information and avoid confusion.

Don’t be satisfied with rubbish – there’s too much of it about and it’s not going to go away by itself.

Finally, for those of you suffering from authors who think that “caveat emptor” is a reasonable attitude to take, here’s a guideline that might help you avoid getting burned too often.

Update Dec 2010: At the time I wrote this note I forgot to say anything in response to the comments – but in my random browsing of my own blog (see the “random page” option in the “special links” near the top of the right hand panel) I rediscovered this blog entry and thought I’d update it. 

In the original note I expressed the hope that I would see Rob Freeman’s concerns appear in an Amazon review. They haven’t appeared for an Oracle book, but there is at least one review where he’s voiced an opinion that expresses his concerns. And on the other side of the coin – here’s an example where he demonstrates how it’s possible to respond to some negative comments presented in a rational fashion.

Rob is clearly far more diplomatic than I am when it comes to pointing the finger – but he has pointed the finger, and more of us should do it – especially in the field where we have most experience.

My opinion on the rubbish that permeates the Oracle arena is still this: if someone publishes rubbish, don’t be afraid to call it rubbish –  but make sure you explain why it’s rubbish. If you want an idea on how to write good reviews for books – whether good books or bad books – here are a couple of examples:

I would say that the aim of a good review (for technical books) is: show that you’ve read the book, display your understanding of the content, and then explain why you found the book to be good, bad or indifferent. Your display of understanding is important – if it’s clear that you understand the content then the reader can trust your review; if it’s clear that you don’t have a clue about what the book says then the reader can discount your review; if you say nothing to indicate your level of understanding the reader has a good reason to ignore your review.

Finally, on a lighter note, here’s  a little gem I came across on Dilbert recently on the topic of book content.

6 Comments »

  1. I agree 100%. I read the same thread and skipped the debate as I found the discussion be more about people explaining how they would not be hurt as they always question authority. It may feel good to say, but it is much harder to do. That is especially true when it comes to books for beginners in an area. Another reason I do not like that response is that I seldom pay good money to get books that are wrong just so I can practice critical thinking.

    I wish books were rated by people similar to how music and movies often are on sites like rotten tomatoes. There are books I treasure and there are books I regret buying. After a while you end up buying books based on the authors more than on the back cover. The problem is more that the best authors in the Oracle world doesn’t publish often enough (hint, hint… :-) )

    Comment by Mathias Magnuson — June 9, 2009 @ 6:31 am GMT Jun 9,2009 | Reply

  2. I like the solution Stack Overflow has take with regards technical matters – however, the danger in this approach is that popular myths (or more commonly, things which were once true) can still be rated as correct.

    Comment by JulesLt — June 9, 2009 @ 11:10 am GMT Jun 9,2009 | Reply

    • JulesLt,

      I’ve just had a quick look – and the idea of marking topics up or down looks like a good one. There are opportunities for abuse, of course, and it suffers from the usual problem that there are lots of people who don’t know what they don’t know and therefore think an “easy” answer is a good answer. Abuse or ignorance (which is the more important problem) could easily result in bad answers being promoted. I also found it quite hard to navigate to things I might be interested in – and that’s a problem that could grow as the volume increases.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — June 10, 2009 @ 7:32 pm GMT Jun 10,2009 | Reply

  3. I agree – books are there to learn from them. One has to accept the right of the author to slip up, but there’s something like moral commitment to prevent the “students” from being avoidable mislead or talked into doing plain nonsense. The web is full of bugs caused by guess-and-shout (just look for chr() as second argument for sys_connect_by_path() on the search engine of your choice), so books should protect their good name as reliable in a better way – as well as the authors!

    Regards
    Martin Klier

    Comment by Martin "Usn" Klier — June 9, 2009 @ 3:01 pm GMT Jun 9,2009 | Reply

  4. No author can be expected to get it 100% right 100% of the time, be it a book, an article, a web site, a presentation or a blog, but I think there is more of a duty to your potential readers to be more rigorous as you go up the scale of permanence (from blog to book). There is also an expectation that a published tomb that you pay for is of good quality. I wonder if you could take back a technical book with serious errors and demand your money back as it is not “fit for purpose” under the sales of goods and services acts (UK laws). Mind you, I still have an Oracle Press book from V7 days that I keep as it was so bad.

    A big problem is that 99% of people are just too busy to check and question the advice they come across. Yes, they should question, but when you are stuck and you come across a potential solution, most people will just take it. It’s how the Oracle Myths stay alive. If advice is repeated, most people will accept it as truth.

    After a while I guess we learn who we can rely on for advice and to always favour those who back up their assertions with evidence, like you do Jonathan, and avoid those who don’t, like a certain popular American expert.

    And that leads me on to why I think people can get away with poor advice. Most of us are averse to specifically pointing the finger at someone, especially in print or on the web. I will discuss my misgivings about some experts with friends, I’ll mention some during presentations, but I won’t write it down. I’m just too weak!

    Comment by mwidlake — June 9, 2009 @ 6:54 pm GMT Jun 9,2009 | Reply

  5. As an author of a few Oracle books, I agree- we need to preface the works with a caveat emptor. Of course, as an author, I do my best to test the exercises to ensure
    accuracy for content as well as to do research with sources to back up the content of the technical materials. One thing that upsets me is that many books on Oracle and database technology fail to credit sources for many technical items. I do my best to reference materials for additional information so that the reader can obtain value from the work.

    Comment by Ben Prusinski — June 27, 2009 @ 2:38 am GMT Jun 27,2009 | Reply


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