I can also sympathize with the fictitious Joe and Jane in the examples — I have no love for the GNU build system / autotools. I've also had to waddle though ugly auto* files and deported documentation on occasion ;). The only part of autotools I do like, is GNU Make: because it is the most portable make implementation available, short of limiting things to a subset of the standard syntax.
I don't quite understand the authors comments about m4, because it is a pretty simple tool. Heh, I still remember watching The One on TV one night, and interspersing it with learning the m4 macro processor. IMHO m4 is an incredibly useful tool: being a fairly generic (yet expressive) macro processor lends itself to virtually any tasks that can benefit from pre or post processing. Although to be fair, for what most (smart) people would use m4 for doing, I typically (ab)use the C Pre-Processor (cpp) into doing for me \(^_^)/. The main reason I avoid using m4, is because I can never seem to count on a *consistent* set of behaviours whereever m4 can be found/ported, the last time I required m4 for a project, I ended up in a "F it, I'll make a C||C++ compiler a dependency" like situation: because the platforms m4 would not behave IAW the norm. It is a shame really, GNU M4 adds some nifty features (and even more shamefully, it was a ported/tweaked version of GNU M4 that was the problem child in the aforementioned situation lol)
When it comes to building things of my own, I usually create a Makefile; exception being Qt based stuff, in which case I generate makefiles with qmake ;). I've also considered implementing a Perl script that automagically does the right thing (or should I say, the infering the right thing) through a quick bit of build rules written in XML — but why do that, when there is a tool like ant? I personally like makefiles and GNU Make; then again I'll put up with virtually any make with $() and documented inference rules... hehe
SCons has been something tha thas been increasingly interesting to me, but unfortunately time constrants mean writing custom makefiles is a more economical use of time then learning a new tool like SCons :-/. Like wise, the main reason I have never adapted the Boost libraries is no time to fiddle with their build tool, which also interests me.