Books change the world

Last week I read a tweet that really got my goat, so much so that I stewed on it all weekend. The author, who is someone from the tech/startup community, said, to Tim O’Reilly no less:

“No-one ever changed the world by writing books.”

This pushed my rant button.

I thought about mentioning some books that have changed the face of civilization. Religious books: the Bible, which defines the shape of many Western civilizations, and the equivalent books of religious law in other cultures. Science books: Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”, which began the scientific revolution, and defined a heliocentric model of the universe. Newton’s “PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, which outlines classical mechanics and gravitation. Einstein’s multitude of publications. Books on economics: Keynes, anyone? Feminism: Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”. Political thought. Philosophy. Need I go on?

On a micro- level, think about a book you read as a child, as a teenager, last year, last week, that changed the way you felt, gave you hope, gave you relaxation that you needed, or an escape from an unpleasant reality.

I could go on about world-changing books all day. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story about a very unexciting book. This book happens to be one that I wrote, on a subject that I’m passionate about. It’s a book on web development.

Now, this book is only a technical book. It won’t start any revolutions or cause any epiphanies, neither will it make you laugh or cry. My family won’t ever read it, and when non-technical people who are excited to discover I’m a published author hear the topic, their faces fall. It will never be on the New York Times list, or on Oprah, or be banned in countries with oppressive governments. It is a humble technical book.

This technical book has, however, sold quite well over the years. Many people have bought it (thank you), some have liked it, and some have reviewed it. Copies are in libraries, used as the prescribed texts in colleges, sold secondhand, and pirated as PDFs on the internet.

Hundreds of thousands of people have read this book, and, I hope, learned a little something about coding for the web.

Some of those people have probably gotten jobs as a result. Some might have graduated college. Some have built a personal website. Some might have gotten a promotion.

Out of those people, I venture that there have to be a hundred, perhaps more, perhaps less, who have started a company that does some kind of web development, whether it’s a consulting company or a startup. Maybe some of those companies got funded, maybe some were bootstrapped, maybe some were successful.

I wonder if that benchmark is something that the author of the tweet might value.

I hope it’s not too arrogant as an author to hope these things: that the books you write change someone’s life for the better, and in doing so change the world. I continue to believe this, and that is why I continue to write.

Socorro’s Community

This post originally appeared on the Mozilla WebDev blog.

As readers of my blog posts know, Socorro is Mozilla’s crash reporting system. All of the code for Socorro (the crash catcher) and Breakpad (the client side) is open source and available on Google Code.

Some other companies are starting to use Socorro to process crashes. In particular, we are seeing adoption in the gaming and music sectors – people who ship connected client software.

One of these companies is Valve Software, the makers of Half Life, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, among other awesome games. Recently Elan Ruskin, a game developer at Valve, gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about Valve’s use of crash analysis. His slides are up on his blog and are well worth a read.

If you’re thinking about trying Socorro, I’d encourage you to join the general discussion mailing list (or you can follow it on Google Groups). It’s very low traffic at present but I anticipate that it will grow as more people join.

Later in the year, we plan on hosting the first inaugural Crash Summit at Mozilla, where we’ll talk about tools, crash analysis, and the future of crash reporting. Email me if you’re interested in attending (laura at mozilla) or would like to present. The event will be open to Mozillians and others. I’ll post updates on this blog as we develop the event.

Big Data at SXSW (begin shameless plug)

On Monday March 14, I’ll be one of the presenters at a SXSW workshop called “Big Data and APIs for PHP Developers”, along with:

We’ll be talking about what Big Data is, how to work with it, Big Data APIs (how to design and implement your own, and how to consume them), data visualization, and the wonders of MapReduce. I’ll talk through a case study around Socorro: the nature of the data we have, how we manage it, and some of the challenges we have faced so far.

Workshops are new at SXSW. They are longer than the traditional panel – 2.5 hours – so we can actually get into some techinical content. We plan on making our presentation a conversation about data, with plenty of war stories.

Hope to see you there!