Books: 2011

Mostly, what I do is read. So if anyone’s interested (and apparently some people are, since previous lists get hits) here’s what I’m reading lately.

25 December – I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) – A modern fairy tale. A rare triumph of character writing: the narrator seems to be exactly what she claims to be, a young girl in a bizarre situation of poverty surrounded by odd relations and semi-relations. The story is nothing new, but the characters are engaging and the situations are enjoyable to read. Reminded me very much of Gerald Durrell’s reminiscences of growing up on Corfu, which I also enjoyed greatly.
24 December – At the Mountains of Madness (H.P. Lovecraft) – Realized that if I’ve ever read any Lovecraft, I don’t remember doing it, and that my only exposure to his writing (that I know about) has been parody and pastiche. So I read some. Reads more or less like the parody and pastiche. Oh, well.
22 December – The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) – Margaret Atwood writes the sort of books that I hate, and I love them. This is another one, and it’s infuriating and excellent.
18 December – Brainchildren (Daniel Dennett) – Essays on philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and animal cognition. The work on animal cognition is relatively new to me, and as always Dennett picks good problems and treats them in responsible and revealing fashion. The material on artificial intelligence, however, seems like it may require substantial review in light of subsequent advances in technology. For example, since these essays were written it has become clear that statistical methods making no effort whatsoever to model human language processing are staggeringly effective in producing results in mechanical translation, and also in search. For example, the six characters “mr tru” were sufficient to bring forth a link to the essay “Mr. Truman’s Degree” this afternoon: clearly, this is the result of careful work in structuring data, but it is equally clear that this result – previously a benchmark for “artificial intelligence” – has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence in the sense of modelling. Dennett, fortunately, is still active, and I look forward to reading his new work.
14 December – Thucydides (Donald Kagan)
12 December – The Hunted (Elmore Leonard) – Leonard is an author that people have recommended to me at various times, but I’d never got around to reading him until this one fell in my lap. I was pleasantly surprised. At first, I felt the open-shirt casual-sex air of gay divorcees acting like swinging singles was a bit overplayed, but it turned out Leonard had this well in hand, and there was a purpose to it. The first thirty pages or so feel long and unfocussed, but when the book hits its stride, it moves well. The story is a variation on classic Hammett, but all great stories are variations on something, and this is a worthy variation.
10 December – Reasons and Persons (Derek Parfit) – Long, involved, intricately interconnected, and demanding, but Parfit unleashes a steady barrage of insights. Parfit makes much use of the work of Henry Sidgwick and Thomas Nagel, and I expect that the book will be worth a second look after I’ve had a look at their work. And probably a third and a fourth look as well, based on the amount of ink I’ve already put in the margins on the first pass through it.
3 December – The Black Book (Ian Rankin) – I’ve liked some of Rankin’s work in the past. This one, not so much. I suppose it’s an early effort, but it’s fairly clumsy. Most of the book feels like a concerted effort to not think of a pink elephant, or to ensure that the reader doesn’t think of that elephant. There are a few elephants that we’re not supposed to think about, and with the best will in the world, it’s quite difficult to ignore them.
30 November – Swordspoint (Ellen Kushner) – Another great piece of writing I missed the first time around. Glad it fell into my lap recently. It gives the push to my notion that the world needs a journal devoted to books worth reading which are not currently the subject of initial-release marketing push. Perhaps simply reviewing out of print books would be the right way to go.
27 November – The Naive and Sentimental Lover (John LeCarré) – le Carré is the reason for the spy thriller’s existence: nobody would care about them unless they read le Carré, but of those who read a book like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, some subset will try to write that book. And thus is a genre created. This is not a spy novel, however: it’s a modern fiction, suited to the late 1960s. There are delightful bits to it, but it’s not a surprise that nobody has ever claimed to be inspired to write modern fiction after reading this book.
22 November – The Prevalence of Humbug (Max Black) – a collection of simple and engaging essays on questions of rationality, broadly speaking. Black’s solution to the problem of whether one should be rational is appealing: he claims that there is nothing else a human being can be, at bottom. He takes the example of a reflex decision, such as dodging out of the way of an approaching car: nobody will argue that we should remain in the path of the car, unless there is some good reason to suppose that it will not hit us (for example, if we are acting in a film) or unless there is some overwhelming reason to risk being hit. While any twit can question rationality as a strategy, that twit will not stand in mortal danger to prove the weakness of rationality as a strategy. However, this leaves open the question of whether it is possible to rationally argue that one should be rational all the time or just when it’s convenient. I might choose to be rational at some times (such as when my life is at risk) and not at others (such as when my religious convictions are at stake).
Mid-November – Land of Lisp (Conrad Barsky) – I will probably return to this at some point, but for now I think I’ve got what I can out of it. Barsky’s written a good guide to practical programming in Common Lisp, using some simple games as his teaching material. It’s a good approach, and he’s pretty good at explaining the material, so a lot comes across. Plenty more left to do, on my part at least, but I feel that I learned some useful stuff and set a good foundation for more work.
16 November – A Question of Blood (Ian Rankin) – A competent mystery story, but not more than that. Sometimes that’s enough, though.
10 November – The Music of the Primes – Marcus du Sautoy) – A popular history of mathematical work around the Riemann Hypothesis. Well and clearly written, and it did give me some sense of some of the older material, but I did get a bit lost as we came up to the current day. This is not surprising, I suppose.
31 October – The Escapement (K. J. Parker)
31 October – Reamde (Neal Stephenson) – Since I’m usually reading at least several books at a time, I sometimes find myself finishing a few of them all at a go. Tonight’s bag was something out of the ordinary, however. Stephenson is, of course, an excellent craftsman of story, and Reamde more or less drags you bodily from about page 90 right through to the ending. Yes, it does take about 90 pages to warm up to fever pitch, but that does leave you with about 940 pages in which you only pause to breathe when Stephenson lets you. And he does let you – he’s got the ebb and flow of a story just right, he keeps you with him by letting you pause just long enough to realize how much ground you’ve just covered, and then you’re off again. He’s good with surprises, and he only pulls a few never-happen moments, which happen so fast you’re done with them and on to the next one before you have a chance to really register the improbability. And, I’m pleased to report, he’s finally learning how to do endings. At least, this book feels like it ends at an ending, and not just at the point where his publisher ran out of patience and made him stop.
Parker’s trilogy, of course, is a well-made machine, and in the final volume, all that remains is to let it run. Of course, just because we’ve been watching its construction doesn’t mean we know what it’s going to do, and it’s a pleasure to watch the various gears and mechanisms engage. The ending is a little unsettling, but I think this is because Parker manages to bring the thing perfectly to rest, and this is not something I’m used to.
20 October – Iron Sunrise (Charles Stross) – Fast-paced thirller set in a well-made future. Stross’ particular strength is the construction of a purely fantastic but quite tangible world, and to move you through that world without having to explain, but simply to be in that world.
15 October – Who Are We? (Samuel Huntington) – Huntington is very exercised about the possibility that American might become other than a white Protestant enclave, and he’s written a lot of words on the subject, none of them particularly coherent or insightful.
8 October – Downbelow Station (C. J. Cherryh) – An attempt to put together a back story for her Merchanter books, it seems. Possibly works better if you have those in your head: on its own, this is a bit of a mess. Too many characters who you’re apparently supposed to know, but don’t, alliances we’re supposed to understand or misunderstand. Without the context, this book really has a hard time making sense.
7 October – Zero History (William Gibson) – A sequel to Pattern Recognition. Good stuff, moves well.
3 October – Fatale (Jean-Patrick Manchette) – A nice piece of classic noir, reissued by the nyrb.
31 September The Manual of Detection (Jedediah Berry) – I take a certain perverse pleasure in a certain sort of weird book: books which operate in a sort of slippery dream logic, books which never let you really know what’s going on, but always dangle the hope of satisfaction. It’s a tough wire to walk, and Jedediah Berry seems to have hit it pretty well on this one. Good fun.
27 September – Overclocked (Cory Doctorow)
24 September – The Anthologist (Nicholson Baker) – Nicholson Baker has a nice trick of writing apparently stream-of-consciousness not-quite-novels in the perfect voice of a character. This character is not Nicholson Baker, but as you read, you are convinced that Nicholson Baker is only the name on the cover: this is actually a direct line into someone’s head. The Anthologist is a great example of this.
18 September – Half the Day is Night (Maureen F. McHugh) – Excellent .
16 September – What Just Happened (James Gleick) – Not so much “what just happened” as “what we thought was happening at the time”. Quite a brave, man, Mr. Gleick: most of the essays collected here reveal just how thoroughly wrong he was about just about everything he wrote about the the ten years that laid down the groundwork for the world we live in today. Not that he was any more wrong than anyone else, of course, nobody was actually right other than occasionally and accidentally. But to put the evidence between covers is pretty remarkable. Of course, this book is fascinating for anyone curious about the generally accepted wisdom regarding technological developments in the 90s, particularly about consumer electronics, but don’t look for analysis of what actually went on.
12 September – Economics (ed. Saugatto Datta) – A collection of recent articles from the pages of the Economist, organized to shed some light on contemporary economic thought. If your brain just seized up at the thought of “the Economist’s greatest hits” (?!?) you’re right, it’s a weird idea. But it’s just weird enough that it works pretty well. This volume is well organized and while it doesn’t do as an introductory textbook, it’s good at what it seeks to do: putting the last few years in context, using contemporary reporting do it. I figure this is about four weeks’ worth of articles, and they provide a review of the subject that’s worth skipping the next four weeks’ worth of the magazine for, if you need it.
5 September – Wired Shut (Tarleton Gillespie) – If you’re looking for a clear and well-written analisis of copyright law in the internet age, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This is a muddled and turgid mess of rabbinical legalisms, pseudo-Foucauldian theorizing and half-grasped technical details. I slogged through this, and found it void of redeeming features. The writing is as smug and certain as it is incomprehensible, and where comprehensible, meaningless. A disaster.
1 September: Computation and Cognition (Zenon Pylyshyn)
28 August: The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Jeremy Dronfield) – This is a really lovely strange loop of a novel. Sumary would be ridiculous. Let’s just say that Dronfield has a lot of fun with a pleasantly twisted plot, his characters are quite human, and his prose is a great pleasure to read.
24 August: Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson) – Re-read this, since it was lying around. Still a great fun read. You almost don’t mind that Stephenson seems to run out of momentum just about at the end of the book, and the last few chapters feel a little bit like autopilot.
21 August: Invisible Engines (Evans, Hagiu, Schmalensee) – Overview of the economics of platforms. A good primer in how to think about platforms economically. Some technical blunders, but the economics looks reasonable.
20 August: Fairly busy the last few weeks, been reading some but posting not at all. Can’t reconstruct the list of reading, so there’s a month gone. This is why I keep a list, I suppose.
23 July – The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (d. Alan K. Russell) – A collection of mystery stories by Doyle’s contemporaries. (it was pointed out to me that the correct title woud have been “Rivals of Arthur Conan Doyle”, but I think the marketing reasons for the choice of title are too obvious to mention). Some of the stories are surprisingly good, but in the end, it does tend to confirm that Doyle was in fact head and shoulders above his “rivals”. The collection is mostly of historical interest, although fans of the early mystery story will probably find this to be an entertaining collection.
22 July – The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe) – I’ve only read one of Coe’s books previously, a nicely-made piece of work called “The House of Sleep”, which turned on an unfortunately obvious twist, but was a good read all the same. The Rain Before It Falls is, I think, a much better book. I can’t say a lot about it, I think, without giving away more than I want to, but I’ll say that Coe has landed on a character with a wonderful voice, and entrusted a very good story to her. It’s a lovely piece of indirect narrative – this is not an unreliable narrator, but the story the reader gets is not, I think, the one she means to tell. This is a good thing, and it’s worth reading the book to find out what I’m on about.
20 July – Istanbul (Orhan Pamuk) – Gorgeous.
15 July – The Discoverers (Daniel Boorstin) – A lovely ramble through the history of ideas. No great sense of cohesion, no thunderingly important Underlying Message, and no real need for one, just a stroll through, roughly speaking, man’s developing sense of the world around him.
12 July – Roman Blood (Steven Saylor) – I’d really, really like to come across a piece of contemporary detective fiction that doesn’t suck. This isn’t it. Set in Rome, back in the day, it feels like a pastiche of Raymondius Chandlerius, with all of the cliches transposed across the centuries undisturbed. At least the detective doesn’t smoke tobacco, that’s one thing. The story is sufficiently complex that it’s hard to spot the trick of the ending, but that’s the opposite of good. A good piece of detective fiction is simple, and an ornate structure simply displays a failure to grasp that simplicity.
9 July – Patriots and Liberators (Simon Schama) – Almost unreadable history of the Dutch revolution. I’m sure it makes a lot of sense – once you already know the story. Since I didn’t already know the story, I found this completely unenlightening.
7 July – Elements of Set Theory (Breuer, or something) – Lots of “aha”, lots of “erm, okay”, and a fair bit of “um, hang on”. Will be reviewing this, preferably with my more math-savvy friends.
7 July – Transition (Iain M. Banks) – Yeah, I love another one of his books. So sue me. The guy makes incredibly complex stories that make all kinds of sense at any given point, and that lead you forwards and backwards at the same time. Forwards, since you’realways wanting to see what he’s going to do next. Backwards, because every scene seems to reveal something about what you read maybe fifty pages back, and things are making more sense, but there’s no time to go back and think about them. And then he comes to the last fifty pages, and all the clocks go “bong!” at once, and then he’s done, and you want to read it again. Brilliant.
3 July – Hugger-Mugger In the Louvre (Elliot Paul) – A flat attempt at a funny mystery story. The humor isn’t funny and the mystery isn’t coherent. A waste of time.
30 June – Philosophy of Mind (Jaegwon Kim) – a summary introduction to some topics in phil of mind. Very confusing, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Phil of mind has traditionally been a confusing sort of discipline. Trying to sort out the confusion was entertaining, and often frustrating.
29 June – 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know (ed. Kevin Henney) – 97 2-page essays on particular aspects of programming. Some novel observations, many convincing explanations and evolutions of commonly accepted practice, and some spirited defenses of “branded” methodology, primarily the “agile” approach. Well worth reading. As always, thinking about the ideas is the useful part of the exercise – if simply read, this is a useless volume of trite cliches, but if engaged with, it is quite productive.
23 June – Infinite Ascent (David Berlinski) – Berlinski uses the tools of literary theory – improbable associations, coincidence, confident assertion, and selective deployment of facts – to outline a history of methematics. It’s an interesting and not misleading book, but I found that his method is at odds with his material. Mathematics is much easier to understand in less-adorned forms, without the swirl and slew of meaning added here.
21 June – Perdido Street Station (China Mieville)
14 June – From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry (Martin Campbell-Kelly) – Campbell-Kelly’s focus is firmly on economic history, meaning this is a strikingly dull tome. I lashed my way through it mostly because I don’t like to give up on a book once I start it, but it took considerable effort. However, for someone interested in the economic history, this might well be a useful volume. Campbell-Kelly does go to some pains to cover the 60s and 70s, periods in which the most interesting work was being done in academic and research computing (Unix, C, glimmerings of GUI, AI, and on and on). Perversely, his commitment to address the boring stuff shows his real dedication to the topic.
11 June – Shank’s Mare (Ikku Jippensha) – Dating to 1802, this comic novel proves that there is nothing at all new in contemporary entertainment. It has about three jokes: the main characters alternately find themselves in trouble trying to get into a woman’s bed, try to get food or sake for free, or find themselves falling into or consuming some sort of excrement. Really, Jim Carrey could have a ball with this.
19 May – Moths In the Machine (Daniel Kohanski) – Probably the best single work I’ve come across for the lay reader wanting to understand something of programming. It doesn’t go terrifically deep, but the explanations are clear and should prove usful. Fails to distinguish beween the two senses of “functional” in programming; this is a minor kvetch.
27 May – The Year of the Hare (Arto Paasilinna) – Considered one of the great Finnish novels, this really is quite an exceptional piece of work. I don’t know if Americans who don’t know Finns and Finnish culture will understand it or enjoy it, but to me it sums up a lot of Finland in a short novel. Great fun.
26 May – A Free Man Of Color (Barbara Hambly) – A murder mystery set in 1830s New Orleans. Read at the instigation of a friend who sometimes has good taste in novels. This time, not so much. Hambly’s exposition is painful; almost everything the novel is pointed out in an authorial aside, framed as Ben January’s inner monologue. Most of the details of life in the period come across as tidbits filched from some genuine historical source; I was somewhat surprised that no bibilography was included. In the end, little is shown, everything is told, and the reader feels a little like a student chained to a desk in a very boring lecture, with the lecturer laboring under the delusion that she is making novel points in a clever way. Perfectly useless.
25 May – Tools For Thought (Howard Rheingold) – Another brief review of the careers of important computer scientists. This seems to be quite a popular genre. Rheingold’s focus is on the figures laying the path to the GUI, and the so-called transparent interface. (So-called, because it is in fact as complex and little more discoverable than the traditional text-based interface). This is a prescient choice, since the book was written in 1985, well before it was obvious to everyone that only mouse-driven pointy-clicky interfaces would stand a chance of computerizing the world.
22 May – The French Revolution (J. F. Bosher)
18 May – Pragmatic Project Automation (Mike Clark)
17 May – The Fuller Memorandum (Charles Stross) – I like Stross’s writing a lot, but this is not his best work, I think. I suspect, though, that the Laundry Files is is bread-and-butter series, and I can’t fault the man for wanting to make a living. So a half-baked concotion of techno-thriller and Lovecraftian Unimaginable Horrors once in a while isn’t such a great sin, I suppose, if it keeps him writing books like Accelerando.
16 May – Unlocking The Clubhouse: Women in Computing (Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher) – Tedious and uninformative recitation of received notions supported by carefully selected anecdotes from a longitudinal of CS majors at Carnegie Mellon. The authors spend about two thirds of the book explaining why it is that women do not succeed in computer science programs, and the last third of the book advocating various means for getting more girls into computer science programs. Nothing much is said about the evident fact that this would mostly mean more discouraged women leaving CS programs midway, feeling like failures, and getting English degrees. (the typical path described by Margolis and Fisher)
15 May – Accelerando (Charles Stross)
14 May – Lloyd George (Thomas Jones)
13 May – Why I Write (George Orwell)
11 May – The Art of Intrusion (Kevin Mitnick & William Simon) – More or less a retread of The Art of Deception. Useful, but the previous book covered the ground more effetively.
8 May – The Society Of Mind (Marvin Minsky) – Minsky presents a theory of mind which may or may not be intended to be taken literally – hard to tell – but is certainly a fit object for exploration. This is a reductive theory, in that it explicitly proposes to reduce thought to components, none of which “thinks”. Minsky does a good job of exploring the ramifications of his particular reduction, but he does not offer anything to support a literal application, which makes me suspect he’s more interested in the logical game than in a “true” theory. Good man for that, there’s a lot here.
4 May – A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard) – Lovely writing and deeply observed. A bit over-done at times. A good reminder to pay attention, and to care, and to know. A good reminder, also, that one’s own sentences are never as good as one feels they must be.
30 April – The Ant and the Peacock (Helena Cronin) – Sexual selection and altruism in Darwinism – a historical review.
29 April – Object-Oriented and Classical Software Engineering (5th ed.) (Stephen R. Schach) – This edition, at least, is hopelessly out of date, but contains sound underlying notions.
28 April – Evil For Evil (K.J. Parker) – Second volume of the Engineer trilogy. The second volume of a trilogy is usually a bit of a slog: the author has got a lot of exposition taken care of and now she needs to get you across the middle section to the big finish. Parker manages to get around that difficulty by skillful manipulation of the several plots she’s got in the air, and the book takes you up a mountain path so gently you don’t realize how much ground you’ve gained until you round the final bend and see the plain below. I look forward to the descent.
26 April – Wireless (Charles Stross) – A collection of excellent and nearly excellent short fiction from a writer I will now be reading extensively. Great stuff.
20 April – More Programming Pearls (Jon Bentley) – Some nice essays on software engineering. Very informative for those willing to read over old problems and consider how they were solved.
10 April – Essential XML (Box, Skonnard, Lam) – Overview of XML. I also don’t like XML much, but I suppose I need to know about it. Now I know something about it.
10 April – Arithmetic Refresher for Practical Men (A. A. Klaf) – Charming review of arithmetic up to logs. Antecedent, I think, to the excellent Lisp book, The Little Schemer.
9 April – Clark Gifford’s Body (Kenneth Fearing) – An excellent and sadly mislaid novel of men and politics.
7 – April Elements of Java Style (Vermeulen et al) – A little book of good advice for Java programmers. Room for disagreement, of course, but generally good.
5 April – The XSL Companion (Neil Bradley) – An overview of XSL. I don’t like XSL much, but this is a reasonable summary.
3 April – Close to the Machine (Ellen Ullman) – One of my favorite writers, period, is Aaron Cometbus. It doesn’t matter if you care about the punk scene in Berkeley in the ’90s, his writing is direct and simple and honest and true, and sufficiently so in each case to make the material a revelation, no matter what he writes about.
Ellen Ullman’s little book has the same set of virtues. She’s writing about being a programmer in the ’90s, she’s writing about her own life, but what she writes is much more than this. Well worth reading. Worth saying more about, but I don’t think I will just now.
2 April – Ghosts (Paul Auster) – Second of the three novellas in Auster’s New York collection. Tedious. Left the collection in Portland. Give me Hammett and Christie and Chandler.
1 April – Lingua Ex Machina (Bickerton & Calvin)
29 March – A Murder Is Announced (Agatha Christie) – By gum, Agatha Christie is good fun to read. To pick up on the rock band analogy, reading a Miss Marple story is like hearing your favorite band play their big hit – you know exactly how it’s going to go, and it’s why you’re there in the first place, and you love it, and everyone’s waving their lighters and singing along. Okay, it’s possible to drag that out too far, but she is bloody good at this. Nice shout-outs to Hammett and Chandler in this one.
25 March – The Accidental Time Machine (Joe Haldeman) – Fun trip around the track first laid by H. G. Wells. I started and finished this on a a flight from Washington D. C. to Seattle, and had time to read a tedious Ph. D. dissertation on the REST architecture, and also got in a nap. It’s not a very demanding read, but it is an enjoyable example of the form. Reading Joe Haldeman’s take on this story is a little like hearing a really good rock band play the hell out of Louie Louie – you know exactly what’s going to happen, there’s nothing new here, but it’s still a lot of fun, and what the hell, it’s only about two minutes and thirty seconds out of your life.
18 March – Gity of Glass – I suppose I should like this, but I found it hard to really get around the sense that Auster got tired of the story about two thirds of the way through and decided to end it. I don’t blame him, I suppose – I was getting tired of it too – but I’d hoped he would carry it off.
17 March – The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain – This beats out the Maltese Falcon as the noir novel par excellence. A classic moral fable with cool and unpleasant characters who can only be destroyed after they finally ascend to a morally pure love. Cain realizes that other noir novels end too early – when the characters first emerge from the immediate legal danger, or plummet into it. Cain understands that that’s when the real story starts. Brilliant.
15 March – Linux and the Unix Philosophy – Mike Gancarz – Eric Raymond wrote this book first, and wrote it better. Don’t bother.
12 March – The Cello Suites – Eric Siblin – Siblin is a rock critic who came across the cello suites and, reasonably enough, fell in love with them. Being a journalist, he wrote a book about the matter. It’s not a great book – Siblin’s method is to take fragments of the stories of Bach and Casals and scatter them about in thirty-six chapters, one for each movement of the suites. There is nothing new here, of course, but the rock critic’s naive and unfeigned adoration for (if not appreciation of) the music does carry him through what would otherwise be a somewhat pedestrian affair.
12 March – Programming From the Ground Up – Jonathan Bartlett – Intro to programming in Assembly language, leading up to C programming. Good stuff. Would have liked more nuts and bolts of assembly, but I think that wasn’t his purpose.
11 March – Out of their Minds – Shasha & Lazere – Profiles of some known and lesser-known figures in computer science. The authors are a CS professor and a journalist, and between them they manage to present interesting facts in a readable fashion. Unfortunately for their sales, the “interesting” that they dig up is fairly recondite stuff to the average reader, and they don’t go to a lot of effort to sex it up. Points for honesty, and those actually interested in the subject will appreciate it, but this won’t make the top of anyone’s sales charts. That’s probably okay, it’s a good piece of work anyway.
8 March – Refactoring to Patterns – Joshua Kerievsky – Why is all of the writing on refactoring and design patterns so very bad? The ideas are all good ones, but the attempts to explain them, going back to the Gang of Four and Fowler’s book on refactoring, are all mumbling, hopeless muddle-headed mush, choked with meaningless “UML” diagrams and catchphrases. This, unfortunately, is no exception. Very unfortunate, in that this is exactly the right approach to both ideas: take them together. Generally, the design patterns you see up front will be wrong, and generally the time when you recognize the patterns that need to be applied will be when it comes time to refactor. So the book should be good – ugh.
2 March – Gate of Ivrel (C.J. Cherryh) – Swords-and-sorcery, thundering bosoms, and a little science fiction to make the premise work. Not bad.
1 March – “The Robber Bride” (Margaret Atwood) – Not a bad little novel. Atwood makes good use of three points of view to present a fractured, cubist view of a fourth character, and of the three, in a sort of funhouse mirror. She’s good enough to make you care about the characters, to like them, even, without fawning over them. This is not generally cited among Atwood’s “greatest hits” but I’d think it’s the best of hers that I’ve read so far – which is admittedly a short list, but it includes Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, which are usually at the top of that list.
23 February – “Conned Again, Watson”( Colin Bruce)
18 February – “GoTo” – Steve Lohr – More history of tech. A lot of familiar material here, but Lohr did his own interviews, so there’s some new stuff, like the Java chapter. Nothing very startling, though.
Mid- February: Joel Spolsky, “More Joel On Software” – If you liked the first one, this is more of that. Good ideas, presented with that “I know I’m right, so I’m right” air that makes you wonder what it is he’s missing, or maybe what it is that he knows is dead wrong but he’s hoping you won’t notice. Fun, anyway.
Mid-February: “Edgar Box”, “Death in the Fifth Position” – I’m fairly confident that “Edgar Box” is a pseudonym, and I can’t blame him. Couldn’t tell whether this was meant to be a parody, or if it just came out that way.
8 February – Well, I have an internet connection again. I read some books since January, including Gerald Weinberg’s Psychology of Computer Programming, M. E. Yapp’s History of the Middle East since 1941, and Ian Rankin’s Tooth and Nail. A few others, I think, as well.
Rankin, I think, is a good writer of mystery novels, but his writing falls flat often enough that I’m not going to say he’s a real favorite of mine. Weinberg is a classic in the field – at least, it shows up in a lot of bibliographies – and it’s good reading. Hilarious in spots, one can see the 1970s shining through all over, but good observations, some of which have stale dated and some of which are still on. Worth reading just for that challenge to the facile notion that programming is a static discipline with easily stated invariants.
Yapp’s history of the middle east is oddly and frustratingly fragmented, but I feel like a more careful reading than I gave it might be rewarding.
18 January – The Crusades (Thomas Asbridge) – Considering he’s trying to sum up three hundred years of intercontinental military, religious, political, and economic history, this is quite a lucid account of the wars over the “holy land”. Enough familiar and semi-familiar stories to keep the attention, and plenty of new information for someone as woefully ignorant as I am. When I was asked why I was reading this, I answered “it’s sort of a long running start for the Rennaisance”, which is actually sort of true. And since the Rennaisance leads you into the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment into the age of Capital, and the Age of Capital into today’s peculiar morass, it’s part of a long running start at understanding today. Not because the “West” is having trouble with “Islam” (someone please explain to me how the “West” now includes China and India), but because the three hundred years of brutal war also break the isolation between Europe and Islam and lead to a more cosmopolitan Europe, which ultimately gives us today.
18 January – Old Twentieth (Joe Haldeman) – It’s been a while since I’ve devoured a book in the course of a day, but if anyone can write that book, Joe Haldeman is that guy. This is a mixed benediction, I suppose. The other piece of fiction I have open at the moment is being read one chapter at a time, piece by piece. I enjoy both, quite well, but I suppose there must be some deeper pleasure in the work I’m savoring – or perhaps it’s that there’s something especially gripping about the book that drags me straight through in two or three sittings. Either way, Haldeman has always been one of my favorite writers, able to put some real thought into a swift plot, and this is another piece of excellent work.
17 January – AntiPatterns (Brown, Malvaeu, McCormick, and Mowbray) – A counterpart to the “Gang of Four” book, Design Patterns, this is a collection of patterns of failure in software, organized into failures at three levels: developer, architecture, and management. The analysis and remedies are best at the developer level, but the management level is also useful. There is an over-abundance of meta-analysis in this book, one gets the sense that the authors are very self-conscious of trying to found a discipline, but there is still some useful material.
11 January – Computer Models of Musical Creativity (David Cope) – Fascinating and fairly difficult book about the production of music by computers and the production of creativity in computers. Both the musical and the computatational sides of the book are at a high level, and Cope does not spare the reader’s ignorance.
10 January – The Structure of Everyday Life (Fernand Braudel) – First volume of a history of “Civilisation and Capitalism”.
9 January – Caim (Jose Saramago) – The last book by the great Portuguese writer, this follows the story of cain as he rambles through the events of Genesis (I suppose it’s all from Genesis, I’m not a big bible scholar). Saramago takes as his starting point the idea that cain was sent out to wander in the world, but we are given no indication of where he went or what he did. Saramago uses this omission as permission to send the “infamous murderer of his own brother” through some mysterious and unexplained holes in time to “other presents” (rightly observing that whenever you find yourself, it is always “now”, therefore one cannot be in “the past” or “the future”). These other presents put cain at the scene of the sacrifice of isaac and the destruction of sodom, among others, and saramago does not have to work very hard to present these as slaughter of the innocents on a more heinous scale than cain’s own crime of passion – which is itself hardly condoned or excused. This material is hardly novel, many writers have taken on aspects of this, but saramago’s take, as you might expect, is his own.
8 January – Fatal Defect (Ivars Peterson) – 1995 book on errors in software and computing. Marginally interesting – you’d have to be particularly interested in the history of computing to find much of use in it.
4 January – Concurrent Programming in Java (Doug Lea)

6 May – George, Nicholas, and Wilhem (Miranda Carter) – Triple biography of the cousins who ruled England, Russia, and Germany in the period prior to the first World War. Some books answer more questions than they raise, some raise more than they answer. This is a third sort, it provides many useful gaps to be filled in by further reading. Nothing else could really be expected from a book with such a wide scope: plan on reading a number of more specific volumes after this one.

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