Books Read: 2010

Some people, when they’re trying to get to know someone, ask “What do you do?”, as if one’s profession were a determinant of the their character. I prefer to ask what someone’s reading lately. If you’re the same way, here’s an answer.

In previous years’ listings, I’ve gone in chronological order, adding to the bottom of the list. For a change of pace, we’ll go in reverse chronological this time.

30 December – Never Pure (Steven Shapin) – A set of essays without apparent point or purpose. Completely useless.
29 December – Wittgenstein (Ray Monk) – Life of the Austrian philosopher. Second reading, first was some years ago. I feel I missed a lot the first time, but now I feel I understand Wittgenstein a lot better than I did before, and I feel a degree of sympathy for him. It must have been a hard life he lived, and as far as I can see he never found anyone to actually understand what he was saying. I can’t avoid the suspicion that this is because he didn’t either.
28 December – The Hacker Crackdown (Bruce Sterling) – Good popular history of an early episode in America’s discovery of the computer. Cuts a few corners, but responsibly. More journalism than history, actually, but worth a look twenty years later.
27 December – The Essential Davidson (Donald Davidson) – A collection of essays by the philosopher. Read, understood some, have material to think about. Will return to this.
22 December – Alternate Realities (C. J. Cherryh) – Three excellent short novels in one volume. The variety presented is remarkable: a space-operatic piece with Arthurian themes, a realistic novel in which some six or seven of the three human characters are electronic reproductions, and a philosophical discourse in novel form. All of them well-made tales and thought provoking.

19 December – The Double Helix (James Watson)
17 December – The Plot Against Samuel Pepys(James Long and Ben Long) – Slightly histrionic in spots, but overall an engaging and convincingly researched recounting of the trial and the trials of Pepys in the period of the Popish Plot. Good narrative history: hurrah!
17 December – Robust Java (Stephen Stelting) – Overpoweringly thorough in spots, but quite effective discussion of exception handling. Testing and logging are handled more as afterthoughts, but since exceptions are probably the most obscure of the three elements, and considered more of a nuisance than anything else by many java programmers, this discussion is worth reading.
16 December – High Performance Computer Architecture (Harold S. Stone) – Sometimes, often even, I read well beyond my current capacity, to get a sense of the lay of the land in that direction more that for any real understanding of the situation. Reading about computer architecture is one of those occasions. I’m able to grasp the most general details, but I also begin to understand what sorts of things I’ll need to know in order to understand this material properly. I find that my ignorance in this area is profound, and I’ll need at the very least a hell of a lot of math that I haven’t got. Nice to know there’s more to learn.
12 December – Gödel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter) – Re-read this over the last few months. I first read it twenty years ago, and have probably been through it about three times since. Every time, I find more depth in it, which suggests that I’ve learned something in that time.
8 December – The Art of Concurrency (Clay Breshears) – Skimmed for preliminary info on issues around concurrency. Looks quite good, covers standard Algorithms & Data Structures materials from perspective of concurrency: how to implement sorts, searches, graph algorithms, etc., in a threaded environment.
3 December – Tooth and Nail (Ian Rankin)
1 December – Agile Estimating and Planning (Mike Cohn) – More methodology. The title is dry as dust, and so it most of the material, but this is a good map of the agile process at a high level. Probably well-suited to a technically-minded manager interested in understanding how software development works from the developers’ side, and also useful for the developers interested in thinking more about the suits’ side.
27 November – The Radical Middle Class (Robert Johnston) – History of populist agitation in early 20th Century Portland (Oregon). Much more concerned with engaging with other historians, not so interested in doing history. Some history slips through the cracks, though, and it’s good.
24 November – Fallen Founder – The Life Of Aaron Burr (Nancy Isenberg)
22 November (Sheesh, I haven’t been reading much!) Practical Java (Peter Haggar) – Probably the best single book on Java I’ve read. A series of useful suggestions (“Praxes”) with well-written rationales, each of which leads the reader towards an understanding of the machine under the code. Dated (the edition I have is ten years old) but still absolutely handy.
13 November – The Prophet Unarmed (Isaac Deutscher) – Second volume of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky.
13 November – The Man Who Invented the Computer (Jane Smiley) – purportedly a biography of John Atanasoff, this book has almost nothing about the man who (with his assistant, Clifford Berry) built the first functioning electronic digital computer. It is, however, one of a number of worthwhile books on the astonising development of the computer in the twentieth century, Smiley’s emphasis is in part on the parallel stories of Atanasoff, Turing, and Zuse, and the material on Zuse is the most novel to me. I’d known of his developments, but nothing in detail, and Smiley fills in some of that picture, and for that the book is welcome.
Smiley’s other concern is the lawsuit over the ENIAC patents. She does her best to make this interesting, but in the end, one sympathizes with von Neumann, who attempted to open-source the whole business by fiat, and nearly succeeded.
12 November – Truman (David McCullough) – A hefty slog. Perhaps McCullough is guilty of hagiography, but I found I liked the Truman he presented quite well – a man with a sort of basic decency that’s not much in fashion now.
8 November – Iorich (Steven Brust) – A masterpiece of light entertainment. As usual.
29 October – A History of Modern Computing (Paul E. Ceruzzi) – Reasonable treatment of the topic.
28 October – “A Shadow Of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television” (David Everitt)
24 October – Soldiers of Reason (Alex Abella) – An attempted history of the RAND Corporation, attempting to tie that organization to almost every development of the latter half of the twentieth century. Frustrating, because RAND is actually important, but this isn’t the book to tell you how.
24 October – Structured Computer Organization (Andrew S. Tanenbaum)
21 October – The Future of the Internet (And How To Stop It) – Jonathan Zittrain – Extended think piece, nothing very necessary in it.
20 October – Destiny Disrupted (Tamim Ansary)
15 October – Revolutionaries (Jack Rakove)
13 October – The Awakening of American Nationalism (George Dangerfield)
2 October – The Task of The Translator (Todd Hasak-Lowy) – Truly terrible collection of short stories. Review posted elsewhere.
30 September – Johannes Brahms (Jan Swafford) – Biography of the composer. Very effective – the life is moving throughout, in an empathic, not in a pathetic sense. Some quotes and anecdotes are re-used (which always aggravates me) but otherwise Swafford makes good use of his sources and constructs a convincing potrait of an intriguing figure. Top-grade stuff.
28 September – The Big Clock (Kenneth Fearing) – Flawed but excellent noir thriller. Noir is cursed with two of the best stylists in twentieth-century literature, and Fearing isn’t one of them, but if the implicit comparison is avoided, he comes off quite well on his own.
26 September – Seven Types of Ambiguity (Elliot Perlman) – Lately, I haven’t been impressed by contemporary novels. This was an impressive novel. Not an easy book to read, but impossible to put down.
20 September – Rainbow Mars (Larry Niven) – An odd little book, a reversion to a sort of 1950s semi-hard science fiction. The science is internally consistent, but bizarre, in an appealling way.
19 September – Mathematics: The Loss Of Certainty (Morris Kline) – History of mathematics, aimed at supporting the claim that the desire for “certainty” – well-founded proof – is misguided.
12 September – Ada Lovelace (Dorothy Stein) – Hopelessly muddled and confused throughout. Stein may know her subject, but she is useless in articulating it.
11 September – The Struggle For Mastery in Europe (A.J.P.Taylor) – Dense stuff. Long list of assertions about states and statesment, and their actions and motivations. This is as it must be, Taylor being Taylor and the period being as it is, but still: very, very dense.
4 September – The Tail That Wags the God (James Blish) – Essays and criticism from the science fiction writer. Mostly SF criticism, some of it quite intricate, but also a piece on “modern music” and an autobiographical essay – the latter possibly the best thing in the book.
1 September – Mathematical People (Albers & Alexanderson) – Interviews with great and interesting mathematicians. Good fun.
26 August – Linux Users Guide (beta) – Larry Greenfield – Somewhat incomplete and a bit dated, but a reasonable summary of the linux command line and some information on using the X Window system. Better than much that’s available in dead-tree flavor, this is only available on line. I found it at the Linux Documentation Project, following a reference from the Linux From Scratch book.
24 August – Robert J. Oppenheimer and the American Century(David C. Cassidy) – Biography of the physicist, leans heavily on the early portion of the life, with a good though brief treatment of the time at Los Alamos and the subsequent demolition at the hands of Strauss and the AEC.
17 August – 1491 (Charles C. Mann) – Nicely captures the chaos of real science: a summary of what is known and believed about American history prior to and following the Columbian invasion. An area where documentary evidence is difficult to find and harder to believe, and physical evidence is dificult to interpret and easy to take on faith. Worth a look.
14 August – Life Evolving (Christian de Duve)
12 August – Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks (Cathy Cobb) – A popular history of physical chemistry. Like many such, it goes along nicely until the 20th century, and then it dissolves into a list of interesting achievements. Obviously, there is some work to do on finding a path through the more recent history, but this is to be expected. It will happen, but only after we’re all dead.

8 August (or so) – The Emperor’s New Mind – Roger Penrose – Losts of very difficult quantum physics, and some talk about the mind. Not sure how they connect, because I didn’t understand the physics. Interesting, of course, to read stuff I don’t understand, but I don’t feel very enlightened.
6 August – The World of Null-A (A. E. van Vogt) – A forgotten classic, not much worth remembering. The “technology” in this is sufficiently close to magic as to be incomprehensible, and the sotry apparently exists primarily to show off the merits of the technology. The “technology”? General Semantics. Say no more.
6 August – 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Steve Pincus)
5 August – Espedair Street (Iain Banks) – One of Banks’ contemporary novels. Not the top of his heap. Characters are weak and underdeveloped, and the finish is both unmotivated and obvious. Oddly enough, these are not mutually exclusive. Some good moments – it’s easy to imagine it as “showing promise” when he was not as well known, but now it simply doesn’t stack up to his best work. A difficult body of work to stack up to, admittedly.
1 August – Frederick the Great (Gerhard Ritter)
31 July – The Man Who Knew Too Much (David Leavitt) –
30 July – Secure Coding in C and C++ (Robert C. Seacord) – Rather advanced discussion of vulnerabilities in C-type coding. To re-read. Good bibliography, available at
25 July – Just For Fun (Torvalds) – Assisted autobiography by Torvalds. Clearly written to get the people demanding it off his back. Torvalds is not a great writer, but his perspective and his story are both interesting enough to make this worth the two hours it took to read it.
24 July – Open Sources (ed. ??) – Essays on free and open source software development.
23 July – The Art of Deception (Kevin Mitnick) – The famous hacker argues that a proper security policy must focus on “social hacking” threats in order to be effective. This is correct.
21 July – Internet Forensics (Rob’t Jones)
19 July – The Linguist and the Emperor (Daniel Meyerson) – Champollion and Napoleon. Two stories better told in separation, but this little book makes a nice bridge piece between them.
16 July – Fin-de-Siecle Vienna (Peter Schorske) – Seven loosely-linked chapters on various figures of cultural importance in Vienna between the Austro-Prussian War and World War 2.
15 July – Events That Changed the World in the Seventeenth Century (ed. Thackeray & Findling) – Anthology of essays on events of the seventeenth century that changed the world. The world, interestingly enough, turns out to not be limited to Europe, which is a novel approach for thie sort of anthology.
13 July – Logicomix – Doxiadis et al – The search for certainty in mathematics and logic, as told by Bertrand Russell in an (imagined) autobiographical lecture. The graphic novel format is used well, and the personal events are blended well with the intellectual problems, the latter not getting lost in the former.
12 July – Eastern Standard Tribe (Cory Doctorow) – Doctorow has interesting ideas and a solid knack for plotting, and he demonstrates that that’s all you really need to write a good sci-fi yarn in this world. Unlike some writers (ie, Banks), he seems to specialize in short books that read fast, but they don’t feel like they’re missing anything. They maybe don’t have the heft of a Banks across-the-universe saga, but they don’t really feel deficient for it.
11 July – The Success Of Open Source (Steven Weber) – a political scientist attacks the problem of why open source sems to work.
9 July – Write Great Code, vol 2 (Randall Hyde)
6 July – TCP/IP Foundations (Andrew Blank) – Some useful information, more user-level documentation of Windows-specific tools than I’d like.
6 July – Euclid’s Window (Leonard Mlodinow)
5 July – Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) – If you’re in the habit of reading popular non-fiction arguments in favor of this or that position, you might some time read similar tome from a previous period, and see how much sense it makes. Chesterton’s apologia for his own peculiar Christianity is a good case in point. Absent the counterpressure of his opposition, his arguments fall on their faces- just as I imagine many currently popular accounts of why the sun is bright or why the market moves will in fiarly short time seem nonsensical to any reader, as they mostly seem nonsensical to a serious reader today.
4 July – Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
2 July – Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software (ed. Feller, Fitzgerald, Hissam, Lakhani) – A collection of reasonably scholarly papers on various aspects of open source software. Some intersting material on economic aspects of the field, specifically on distribution of resources in a non-monetized economy. So, how do people decide where to spend their scarce time? How do non-coercive networks of developers decide how to allocate their scarce developer-hours? That sort of question is interesting, not least because there is hard data (repository commits, bug logs, and so forth) to at least suggest answers. A few pieces are more “thinky”, and correspondingly less interesting. Most interesting omission, to me, was the lack of any real attention to Stallman’s concern about “free as in freedom” and a rights-based justification for Free Software. I’m pretty sure this reflects a selection bias in the authors chosen to write the chapters, but was this intentional, or unintentional, or do the most interesting thinkers on open source really not care about that angle?
1 July – Portraits in Silicon (Robert Slater) – A collection of brief sketches, from Babbage through Knuth. The pieces on the more recent figures (those still active in 1987, when the book was published) tend to be somewhat fawning, but overall a reasonably decent tour of some of the major figures in the development of computer science.
27 June – The Inverted World (Christopher Priest)
24 June – The Business (Iain Banks) – The first of the non-Culture novels I’ve read by Banks. He’s just as good in our time and under our laws of physics, and that’s very, very good.
23 June – The Great Nation (Colin Jones) – 18th Century France, through the Revolution.
22 June – Safe For Democracy (John Prados) – History of the CIA. No great surprises, somewhat dry and obsessed with naming participants in events, problematic in a book concerned with so many disparate events over much of a century. Continuing characters get lost in a flood of minor actors, and the thread is often difficult to pick out.
21 June – Philosophical Tales (Martin Cohen) – A somewhat disappointing assemblage of half-understood anecdotes about some of the great philosophers. Merely mediocre until we reach the contemporaries, at which point the author begins to contend, wrongly in most cases.
18 June – The Spanish-American Revolutions, 1808-1826 (John Lynch)
13 June – The Trouble With Computers (Thomas K. Landauer)
10 June – The Thirty Years War (C. V. Wedgwood)
9 June – Artificial Intelligence Programming (Charniak, Riesbeck, McDermott, & Meehan)
8 June – Champlain’s Dream (David Hackett Fischer)
7 June – Chess and Computers (David Levy) – A failry non-technical summary of the state of computation chess from a man evidently well-immersed in the the field. he book dayes back to 1976, but it’s a good look at the early days of the field. I’m tempted to try to track down the programs that he writes about and see how they work, but that might be a project for another day. The description of Turing’s work on chess – he came up with the algorithms and executed them by hand, playing an entire game against another pseudo-computer – is charming and makes me love Turing that much more.
5 June – The Rule Of Four (Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason) – I remember having hopes for this when I read the reviews a few years ago. Turned out to be only not as bad as it could have been, not a lot better. The intellectual part of the puzzle is treated as a distraction from the thin plot (boy meets girl, boy gets distracted, girl says, ‘hey, boy, get back here’, boy gets back there). The characters don’t all seem to agree on what novel they’re inhabiting, and even the authors from time to time seem to recall that this is meant to be an academic thriller, and they’d better kill someone. Some scenes seem almost ludicrously pasted in – the token interrogation from the tough cop in the hospital room, the confrontation with the bad guy – and some moments of apparently high dramatic tension are oddly skimmed over, while the boy’s mooning over the girl seems to occupy endless pages. Not terrible (see Raymond Khoury for terrible) but not recommended, unless you really want something that won’t occupy much brain for a day or so.
3 June – Elegy Beach (Steven R. Boyett) – About twenty years ago, a friend of mine handed me a book, and I read it. I thought it was a fantastic book, and I was always kind of annoyed that the author had seemed to disappear without a trace, and not finished the story. About a week ago, I saw a new book by that author, a sequel to… the wrong book. Elegy Beach is a sequel to Ariel, which was a pretty good little story, and it’s a pretty good little book. But I was waiting for a sequel to The Architect of Sleep, which was a much better book with a much clearer need for a sequel. So I’m still kind of annoyed. Elegy Beach is sort of okay, though.
31 May – The Human Use of Human Beings (Norbert Wiener) – Another seminal text. Mostly of historical interest now, as the insights have been absorbed into common knowledge for the most part, but very interesting to see how the ideas underlying today’s assumptions had to be justified.
30 May – Pattern Recognition (William Gibson) – Ishiguro, Saramago, Jonathan Carroll, the list could go on and on: there’s a fascination with the incomprehensible that can’t be denied. The interesting thing is that to be properly incomprehensible – in this sense – the work must be obviously motivated by something, just not by something you can identify. Here we have a novel about the creation of such a work.
29 May – The Two Cultures (C.P. Snow) – Finally decided to read this, after seeing so many references to it. The most surprising thing about it is not how relevant it still is but how little of it was concerned with the battle between the “scientists” and the “intellectuals”. The real point is the chasm between rich and poor, and that’s still the relevant thing, and nobody talks about it when they cite Snow. As for the scientists and the intellectuals, it’s fun to notice that the intellectuals continue to retreat into obscuritanism, a seemingly contrarian response to this problem.

28 May – Henry of Navarre (“The King Who Dared”) – Hesketh Pearson – A fawning and tedious biography of a rather interesting character in history. Written in 1963, I would say it shows the progress in historical writing in the last forty-odd years, except it’s just that Pearson’s no good as a writer. Maurois was writing fantastic biography before this appeared.
27 May – Salt (Mark Kurlansky) – The reason to read these “history of an everyday thing” books is more to view history through a novel lens than to learn about the putative subject of the book. Kurlansky delivers in this regard. Lots of handy hooks on which to hang your history.
26 May – Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond) – Interesting, though there are some assumptions which deserve to be questioned.
25 May – Learning C# (Jesse Liberty) – So it turns out that C# is basically Java with a few minor tweaks, and without the cross-platform applications. Okay, got it. I suppose I’ll write a few things in it, just to say I’ve written in it. The book is a sloppy business altogether, with plenty of editing slips and examples that don’t match the text. I usually expect better from O’Reilly, but they probably couldn’t get anybody useful to write about C#. Same guy wrote the Visual Basic book that’s on the stack to be read – should be a joy.
25 May – Data On the Web (Abiteboul, Buneman, and Suciu) – XML annoys me. It’s an unholy mess that is not optimized for human or machine consumption, and so really serves no purpose whatsoever. I don’t know why it’s so popular. I read this book hoping to get some insights in the matter. No luck. Well, I’ll keep trying.
24 May – termcap & terminfo (Strang/Mui/O’Reilly) – Obsolete, perhaps, but quite interesting to read how Unix dealt with the problem of massive numbers of terminals, all without much standardization. Two very solid solutions came out. Today, of course, you’d probably have some damned XML kludge, but I see that terminfo is still there on my Mac. Makes me want to dig up an old VT100 and try to hook it up…
21 May – Courtesans and Fishcakes (James Davidson) “The consuming passions of classical Athens”.
20 May – Against a Dark Background (Iain M. Banks) – If this is a Culture novel, it’s set in a backwater uninfluenced by the Culture. Basically, this is a standalone, though that’s not obvious at first. Banks’ comic touch is in great form here, which is good, because this is probably the darkest of his books I’ve read yet.
18 May – The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) – A lovely and sad book about the futility of love and the importance of fate.
14 May – The Exchange Artist (Jane Kamensky) – Financial collapse in Boston 1808-1818, roughly. Well told, with some surprisingly close-in detail, justified by plenty of citations and more importantly, told credibly. When Kamensky says “it was raining that night, and travel was difficult” you know that when you look in the notes, you’ll see reference to the almanac. And sure enough, you do. This allows her to tell a very human story, without the usual pitfalls – the “how did she know that” moments that call other histories into question. (Yes, I’m thinking of Richard Aldous…) For me, the point of reading this sort of history is to absorb the sense of the time, and Kamensky gives me plenty to work with there. Slowly, with her help and the help of others, I go filling in bits of my sense of history – not just presidents and wars, but who elected the presidents and who fought the wars.
12 May – Programming With curses (John Strang) – Not a guide to the imprecations preferred by different schools of programmers – that book has yet to be written – but a short guide to the curses library, used to program screen drivers for CLI-based programs.
10 May – Europe of the Ancien Regime (David Ogg) – Returning to the backwards progression through history.
4 May – Write Great Code, Volume 1 (Randall Hyde) – Despite the terrible name, this is actually quite a good little book. he author’s premise is that to write great code on must understand the machine that the code runs on, at least in principle. So he goes about explaining in reasonable detail (ie, enough to be taken seriously, not enough to drown the reader) the elements of the computer that the compiler is intended to abstract us away from – the nuts a bolts of it. He gives you a good amount of detail – enough to get the notion, but not enough to think you really understand it yet.
1 May – Just Java (Peter van der Linden) – Strictly for historical interest, unfortunately. This was an early book on the wonderful capabilities of Java 1.0 – there’s been so much water under that bridge since this was written that this is pretty much a good book wih no audience.
27 April – Nerds 2.0.1 (Stephen Segaller) – Another of the various histories of the Internet, no better than average and not on a par with Hafner and Lyon, who are still the best of the lot. Reading this one confirms yet again that our understanding of history bcomes more and more vague as we approach our own time; if you wish to read this, it would be wise to leave off the last chapter or two, in which the meteroic rise of a Silicon Valley startup is detailed, and various pontifications pontified about the Future of the Internet. Has anyone heard of a company called “Excite”, by the way? It seems they were big in search technology. Around 1999.
25 April – My Name Is Red (Orhan Pamuk) – Years ago, my cousin gave me this book and told me I must read it. It’s been on my shelf ever since. Finally, I got around to it last month. Took me a month to read through it – not because it’s difficult, but because the text is so rich I felt I would get literary indigestion if I were to devour it all at a gulp. I won’t be trying to summarize this, but I will be re-reading it in the near term. Perhaps then I’ll feel like I can say something about it.
25 April – Computer Ethics (Tom Forrester & Perry Morrison) – If it weren’t for the title, I’d have had no idea that this was meant as a text on ethical issues in computing. There are perhaps half a dozen pages in which ethical issues are addressed at all, and one of them is a list of Guidelines published by the OECD in 1980, without any discussion of the ethical decisions embodied such a list. Most of the text consists of a recitation of mishaps and abuses involving computers in some fashion. At first, one might think that these are intended to set the stage for some in depth discussion; it is only after fifty pages or so that one begins to suspect that this is pretty much it. One is right – that’s all there is, unless you want to count the “suggestions for further discussion” that follow each chapter. These are wildly lurid two-page scenarios of technology gone awry (a society replaces judges with computers, AIDS proliferates and the HIV-positive are placed on databases, and so forth) with a cast of characters (the judge, the lawyer, the defendant, the victim, yada yada) and the helpful suggestion that teachers ask the students to act out the scenarios described. This is not discussion, this is two lazy authors telling a lazy teacher to punt the teaching to the students.
The closest the authors come to taking a position on an issue they raise is in their chapter on Artificial Intelligence, in which case they hotly contend that AI is simply impossible and irrelevant. One wonders, then, why it is included in their text on ethics, and certainly why it appears without any consideration of the ethical questions which might be raised (if there are any). This discussion includes several factual and conceptual errors, and an assertion that John Searle’s argument that AI is impossible because “it just is” (the Chinese Room) settles the question once and for all. In other words, there is no content here. A regrettable book.

22 April – A Brief History of the Future (John Naughton) – Of the many general and specialized histories of the history of computing and more specifically of the mechanical computing of the last sixty years or so, this book is not one. Naughton rehearses much-covered ground better handled, for example, by Hafner and Lyon without benefit of any particular focus or angle on the story.
17 April – The Italian Renaissance (Peter Burke)
4 April – Bearing Right (Willl Saletan) – A detailed study of politics of abortion in the US from mid-Reagan to Bush. Saletan chooses to limit himself strictly to this issue, and covers it well – but this decision means that the effect of horse-trading on other issues is outside the scope of the book. Good example of a study of how policy gets made.
3 April – Death March (Edward Yourdon) – Thoughts on the impossible project, and how to survive it.
2 April – The House of Wittgenstein (Alexander Waugh) – The Wittgenstein family – or at least, the generation that grew up in the earliest part of the twentieth century – is a fascinating case in its own right, and also had the misfortune to be interesting in interesting times. Waugh traces the course of this family through the first and second world wars. Very little on the often-told stories of Ludwig’s life in England, rather a lot on brother Paul’s career as a pianist, a good decision as the latter is fascinating and until now hardly common knowledge.
23 March – The State of the Art (Iain M. Banks) – Short stories. Still good. The title novella reads like a section of one of the Culture novels, others are more like vignettes. Mostly good.
21 March – 6th Annual Best SF (1972) (ed. Harrison & Aldiss) – This collection definitely reflects the turning point in science fiction at the time. Most of the material is in some way “new wave”, including the two “old-school” pieces by Keith Roberts and Joe Haldeman. Roberts’ is a fairly unsuccessful alternate history which descends into political thriller territory, only without the thrills. Haldeman is represented by the novella “Hero”, which, rewritten, formed the initial section of his best-known novel, The Forever War. The most interesting pieces are from unexpected places. Victor Sabah’s “An Imaginary Journey to the Moon” is a sort of cargo-cult science fiction story, having come about when a science fiction fan solicited books from the Science Fiction Writers of America for a school in Ghana. Sabah’s story was written as a class exercise in this school; the result is not a good story, but a fascinating piece of anthropology. The other piece worth calling out is a story called “Darkness”, by Andre Carneiro, which anticipates in many ways the well-known “Essay on Blindness” by Jose Saramago.
17 March – Adverbs (Daniel Handler) – Once upon a time there was a guy and he wrote a book and he wanted to be kind of modern and different and play with style and stuff so he wrote a book with lots of characters who all fit together in weird sort of ways and they do things that don’t always make sense and the author keeps coming into the book and you think “Wow, Kurt Vonnegut is dead, and this is what we’re left with?” and you’re sad because it seemed like the book could have been pretty good, at the start, if he’d just settled in and given you a character that you could like or some reason to care or even some sense that all of the different parts actually fit together and didn’t just seem like they might fit together if you tried but you won’t try because you really don’t care that much and so the book seems much better than it is because you don’t care about it and isn’t that what love is really?
15 March – The Elements of Programming Style (Brian Kernighan and P. J. Plauger) – Totally obsolete, of course: a book on errors in FORTRAN and PL/I programs. However, I’m all about the obsolete, and this book is absolutely worth reading if you’re learning to write code. The errors that Kernighan and Plauger highlight are ones that many others have pointed out – although they may have been the first to present them in such a comprehensive form – but tracing them through code in an unfamiliar language really shows up how they come about, and how to avoid them.
The smartest programmers I know are the ones who have made the most mistakes in the most languages; this book gives the reader a chance to vicariously make mistakes in two languages he’s not likely to have occasion to write in. It’s a useful exercise.
14 March – The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene) – I don’t know that I understand string theory any better for having read this, but I certainly know more about what it is I don’t understand. That’s progress of a sort.
11 March – Serendipities (Umberto Eco) Several essays on “language and lunacy”, mostly focussing misunderstanding and language. The first, “The Force of Falsity” is quite good.
8 March – The Player Of Games (Iain M. Banks) – Another of Banks’ novels of “the Culture”, and I find myself liking this guy’s writing more and more with each book I read.
6 March – The Shock Doctrine (Naomi Klein) – A good history of “disaster capitalism” in the 20th century, overlaid with a less than useful metaphor equating Milton Friedman’s economic ideas with physical torture. The metaphor is strained, but the reporting is good.
6 March – The Chomsky Effect (Robert Barsky) – Somewhat fawning review of the linguist’s career as an activist and “public intellectual”.
3 March – Free Software, Free Society (Richard Stallman) – A collection of essays from the founder of the free software movement. Stallman is an extremist on his subject, and his essays are fairly repetitive, but his arguments are worth considering and may prove convincing.
25 February – American Lion: Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)
20 February – As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
15 February – Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
11 February – The Steel Bonnets (George MacDonald Fraser) – A good and readable history of the Scottish Border in the 16th century.
7 February – Use Of Weapons (Iain M. Banks) Holy crap, this guy is good.
3 February – The Java FAQ – Jonni Kanerva – Well out of date, still this is a good walkthrough of Java featurs and logic. If you’re reasonably acquainted with Java but not yet fully familiar with the language, this is well worth reading through to get a sense of features you probably missed in CS110 when you got your quick tour of Java.
29 January – Where Wizards Stay Up Late – Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon – Histories of computing technology have to define their period well, or they all end up starting back at Babbage, or at the Antikythera mechanism, or somewhere like that, and wind up in a muddled summary of Where We Are Now. Hafner and Lyon define their period in terms of the existence of the ARPANET, which allows them to begin at the beginning and to tie the story off cleanly before the beginning of the Eternal September and the end of the internet as a useful endeavor. A quick but not simplistic summary of a fascinating period.
26 January (or so) – The Pragmatic Programmer – Andrew Hunt & David Thomas (review)
24 January – Science in Translation (Scott L. Montgomery) – Subtitled “Movements of knowledge through cultures and time”, which is a pretty good summary of what Montgomery is up to. Dry as dirt and dull as dishwater, but he lives up to his promise.
22 January – Titian: His Last Days (Mark Hudson) My review of this is at LibraryThing – I didn’t like it much. Hudson tries to turn his failure to turn up anything interesting into a sort of biography-cum-novel, but he’s not enough of a writer to pull it off, and ends up with a mess.
12 January – The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton
10 January – The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Piers Brendon) A brief review is posted here.

14 December – Imperial Germany (Arthur Rosenberg)

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