Archive for the Books Category

Review: The Pragmatic Programmer – Andrew Hunt & David Thomas

Posted in Books on February 2, 2010 by jkiparsky

The Pragmatic Programmer – Andrew Hunt & David Thomas
I’ve read a number of books on programming methodology lately – it’s a good way to get ideas of how I could be doing things, and it’s easier than working – and this is one of the better ones. Most such books have either good practical advice smothered under a layer of dogma – the advice may be good, but it’s all got to be separated from the cant and jargon, and weighed individually. Others are good and thoughtful books without a lot of dogma, and also without a lot of practical application. These can be very thought-provoking, and often help you understand the work of producing code, or of working in a team to produce code, or of managing a team to produce code, but they don’t give you anything as concrete as “use version control and unit tests, and here’s why”. Hunt and Thomas don’t come off as defending an agenda, instead their advice is defended as both rational and experienced-based – a combination that’s hard to beat. The writing is even pretty readable, which is rare in this realm.

Piers Brendon: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Posted in Books on January 11, 2010 by jkiparsky

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Piers Brendon)

A difficult book to pull off, and Brendon doesn’t quite manage it. Beginning with 1776 – the year in which the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was published – the British Empire began to recede, and Brendon’s aim is to track it, from colony to colony. However, by tracking colony by colony, he turns a history of the waning of an empire into a series of mini-histories of rising nations, fragmenting his story hopelessly. Each chapter, on its own, is a good introduction to the end of colonial rule in a region, usually with some good thumping examples of British stupidity or racism. It’s unfortunate that Brendon fails to connect them into a history worthy of his title.

From Baker Street To Binary (Henry Ledgard)

Posted in Books on October 18, 2009 by jkiparsky

From Baker Street to Binary (Henry Ledgard, E. Patrick McQuail, & Andrew Singer) – One of the first books I ever read on programming was Henry Ledgard’s BASIC tutorial, which used Sherlock Holmes’ milieu as a pedagogical conceit – Holmes uses the newly-invented Difference Engine to solve cases, and the reader writes or analyzes the programs he uses. It was fun – I was about ten at the time, and missed a lot of the point, but it was still fun and probably influenced the way I think today to some extent. This is not that volume, although it re-uses a chapter from it. It’s more of a tutorial on computers and what they’re capable of, written in 1983. A wonderful historical document, then showing something of the state of the art 25 years ago. It’s worth reading, just so you can remind yourself when you’re done that this is ten years before the world-wide-whatsit metastasized, and we stepped on the slippery slope down to the mess we’re in today.
In other oddly short periods of time, it’s worth noting that the steam engine in the United States had a run of just over a century, and that when UNIX was being written, steam engines were still being manufactured in this country. File this next to the notion that it’s a hundred years from the Civil War to Woodstock. One human lifespan could encompass the blues from emancipation to Jimi Hendrix.
And that’s why I like to read obsolete technical books – they remind you that life is long and history is short.

Simply Awful: The Last Templar (Raymond Khoury)

Posted in Books on July 17, 2009 by jkiparsky

I am typically not one to give up a book before I’ve finished reading it. Sometimes, however, I make an exception. When I reach page 28 of a novel, and can already declare it to be simply and thoroughly awful, I feel justified in giving up. So I’m proud, in a way, to say that I actually gave Khoury an extra 22 pages to convince me, before turning to the end to verify that the obvious ending was the one that he chose, and then closing the book with a resounding thump and listing it on Bookmooch – where it appears on three wishlists, so I expect I’ll be rid of this wretched mistake of a book before noon on Saturday.

I picked the book up on a whim from a book exchange shelf at an office I was working in for a few days – how bad could it be, I remember thinking. I found out, I think, just how bad the contemporary (post Dan Brown) thriller can get. I won’t list all of the awfulness I found in the few pages I read, but I’ll list as many highlights as I have the stomach for:

Beginning with the prologue:
1) Style
The style is simply bad. Rhythmically, the opening of the book is a cliché, sufficiently so that I took it for a parody at first. Here it is, I think fair use will cover this:

“The Holy Land is lost.
That single thought kept assaulting Martin of Carmaux, its brutal finality more terrifying than the hordes of fighters swarming through the breach in the wall.
He fought to block the thought, to push it away.
Now was not the time to lament. He had work to do.
Men to kill.”

This was probably a fresh and exciting pattern the first seven or eight times it was used, but today it is simply a sign that a writer has memorized the Way to Write a Thriller, and the first thing is the Gripping Intro. Notice the structure: Simple declarative sentence, compound sentence establishing the scene, shorter compound sentence establishing mood, two declaratives establishing character’s single trait, sentence fragment to take us into movie mode.

2) Movie Mode
Sure enough, what follows is the first scene from the worst quest movies you’ve ever imagined: Martin of Carmaux fights boldly on the losing side as the hordes of bad guys overwhelm the simple, pure Christians, defending the Holy Land from the people who live there. Basically, this is Aliens, but with Muslims. (Clearly, Khoury is trying to make life easy for the scriptwriters: The first 30 pages of the book have two made-for-Hollywood set pieces and a few establishing shots, and the ending gives another set piece and a closing shot.)

3) Hackneyed Cliché #1: The Leaving of Acre
After the fight scene, we retreat to the sanctum sanctorum, where the Ian McKellen character, dying from a poisoned arrow (curse those infidel heathens!), gives him the book’s McGuffin and sends him off in the last boat leaving. Everything about this scene is a cliché, from the purpose (set the modern portion of the plot in motion) and the tone (clash of impulses, Martin is caught between obedience to a superior and loyalty to his buddies) to the dialogue and the writing. For example:
“Martin felt nausea rising in his throat; his face clouded as he struggled for words. ‘I will not desert our brothers,’ he stammered. ‘Not now – not ever!’ ”
The nausea, the facial meteorology, the “struggle” for words, the speech impediment (was that the struggle? the Stuttering Knight might actually be interesting…), and the words themselves, all are in this passage because they’d sounded good somewhere else. The only words here that are not clichés are the character’s name and “he” and “as”. It’s all like this.

4) Details, details.
Since we know that the bulk of the story has a modern setting, we can assume that Khoury read Hammett and figured if it worked once, it’ll work again. Okay, stealing a plot’s nothing new. But did he have to name the getaway ship “The Falcon Temple”? At first it makes no sense, then it conjures up images of Han Solo and company leaving the rebel base on Hoth, and then you realize that it’s Khoury’s acknowledgement of his source, and you realize that this is only page four and the book is already really, really bad.

5) Thud, thud, thud went the symbol
“…Martin of Carmaux slowly and reluctantly turned his back on the land of his birth and stared ahead at the storm that awaited them.”
Of course there was a storm. There would have to be.

And then the real story begins, and it’s all downhill from there.

6) Where are the cops when you need them?
Ignoring reality to make a scene work is okay, but this is just too obvious. How do you figure that four guys on horses in a crowd of people are anything but an easy target for the (mysteriously absent) armed guards?

7) Freud was not a novellist
Introducing your characters by listing the sources of their psychological damage is a profoundly lazy technique, though I suppose it’s one well-suited to the Oprah Age.

This goes on, and on. The archaeologist who doesn’t recognize a bit of grade-school Latin, but remembers it well enough to type it into … what’s this? “The most powerful metasearch engine in her links toolbar”? Is this, perhaps, Google? It’s hard to believe that Khoury wrote this in 2005, about ten years after this stuff became as ordinary as breakfast cereal. (“She poured herself a bowl of the most advanced toasted grain flakes that her supermarket carried”)

Then there’s the FBI guy who’d “always felt he could make a difference.
No – make that known. And would.”

Let’s leave at this: Khoury would be a fine writer, if he could manage to do characters, or dialogue, or exposition, or plot. Even one of those would be a start. As it is, it’s simply awful. And a New York Times Bestseller. As the man said a long time ago, bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.

The Ascent Of Money (Niall Ferguson)

Posted in Books on May 25, 2009 by jkiparsky

Subtitled “The Financial History of the World”, this book is more a brief treatise on some issues in finance, with examples from history. The book is organized in topical chapters, which (for obvious reasons of popular history writing) draw as much as possible from an ancient example and a modern one – using those terms in their contemporary and popular senses, of course, in which “ancient” is that which precedes the first World War of the last century, and the “modern” is what happened yesterday. This topical organization prevents Ferguson from really living up to his subtitle, for which some mild disapproval.
However, the book that was actually written is reasonably engaging, and in its somewhat scattered way shed light on both the interplay of finance and history and the recent history leading roughly from the depression of the 1930s to the current one. There’s still room for some good books to be written with this subtitle, but this one is worth a look. The afterword, as it turns out, is worth a read while you’re standing in the bookstore aisle, if nothing else. It’s essentially a 20-page think piece on finance, and as it lacks any trace of data or evidence or even serious argument, it’s quite readable.

The Vertigo Years (Philipp Blom)

Posted in Books on January 19, 2009 by jkiparsky

The Vertigo Years – Philipp Blom

Recently finished reading this survey of developments in the European zeitgeist in the years 1900 to 1914. There’s not much to say about it: it’s interesting stuff, none of it very novel but presented well. While Blom maintains an annual view as his basic conceit, with one chapter nominally devoted to each year, the chapters in fact detail particular developments – the Borgesian list would include Freudianism, “velocity”, the total change in art described by Virginia Woolf, mass murderers, woman suffrage, and so forth – and could easily be read as a series of linked essays. And in fact Blom avoids presenting an overall narrative or theoretical view. We are not told in one sentence or in one paragraph or in one chapter what the period between 1900-1914 was “about”, and Blom should be praised for this. Instead, we have a sort of a cubist sketch of a world in transition (what world is ever not in transition? Very well, then: a world in a more violent and shaking transition than most worlds), seen from fourteen angles at once. Think of it as a “decade descending a staircase” or “fourteen ways of looking at a decade”. While it doesn’t explain, or seek to explain, it illustrates well a period that opened squarely in the 19th century and ended, fourteen years later, with both feet in the 20th, and to do that it must show that period as a moving object.

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography (William Butcher)

Posted in Books on January 9, 2009 by jkiparsky

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography (William Butcher)

While it seems a little churlish to come down on this book – it’s a little like panning the community theater production – it really does serve as an argument for professionalism in publishing. While everybody might have a book in them (and to give him his due, Butcher seems to have spent a good while preparing to write this book) it does take a certain concern for craft and a certain infrastructure to make that book worth reading. Butcher clearly lacked both, and his book is almost useless as a result.
Butcher would have been greatly aided by an editor, or at least sympathetic reader. The number of errors in English usage that appear in this book simply embarrasses a reader. For example, while the word “condescendence” seems to appear in the dictionary on Mr. Butcher’s computer, anyone who had Mr. Butcher’s best interests at heart would have steered him to “condescension” on page 173. Unfortunately for Mr. Butcher, it passed through spell-check, and so it got into print. Worse than this are some of Butcher’s attempts at metaphor. Verne’s publisher, we read, took care “not to let out any information about actual print runs, profit margins, or indeed anything that might bother his golden goose’s pretty little head.” (p. 221). On the same page we find this doozy:

“While ignoring the running sore of the gouging of the illustrated editions (which would fester for another 30 years) it claimed to clear up the repeatedly opened wound of the mputation of the unillustrated ones – by enlarging the wound by six years!”

This nauseating imagery does not help clarify Verne’s hopelessly bad contract situation; on the contrary, the tangled syntax makes a fairly simple concept unnecessarily confusing, particularly when the word “gouging” is used in reference to the contracts, giving us two different sets of “wound” metaphors. Again, a reader who cared about Butcher, or about the success of his book, might have prevailed upon him to clean up both of these travesties of writing. Other passages read like poor translations: “Every syllable mulled over and polished until it wouldn’t shine any more” could have come from the French, via Babelfish.
Beyond the relatively mechanical process of perfecting the prose, an editor might have spotted some of Butcher’s fixations and steered him away from them, to the great improvement of the book’s content. Butcher’s biography of Verne is concerned with a few discrete topics, and only incidentally with the life of the writer. The possibility of Verne’s homosexuality exercises his imagination to no end, although almost nothing in the way of evidence for this hypothesis is presented – mostly a set of innuendos and double entendres which appear in suggestive translations, but without context or the original French – from these, selected from a lifetime of correspondence, we are to conclude that the writer was gay, when we are also told of mistresses and an aggressive pursuit of heterosexual romance in his youth? A quote from page 179 is typical of the “evidence” for this hypothesis: “Many questions remained about Verne’s America. Did he use his freedom to womanize, or worse?” Well, perhaps. I do not say here that the hypothesis is unthinkable, or that it would defame Verne to suggest or to prove it. What I do say is this: Butcher has suggested, insinuated, and otherwise urged that Verne was attracted to other men and specifically that he was fixated on anal sex. His support for this comes only from suggestive passages of letters and writings, none of which appear to relate to any concrete incident. Whatever the truth of the matter, Butcher has only raised the question of why this matter received such attention in his book, when his claim’s support is so very slender.
Another of Butcher’s fixations is the mistreatment that Verne received at the hands of his publisher: from the middle of the book, almost every page is concerned with the miserable contracts that Verne signed, with the miserable pay (essentially a monthly sum for a fixed number of volumes per year), with the indignities committed upon the stories and upon the prose. This is of course a substantial fact of Verne’s life, and must be understood, but rather than being better understood by this focus, it seems to be distorted in the magnification. One really can’t understand what this financial abuse meant to Verne’s life, because we are given so very little of his adult life.
The last of Butcher’s fixations that I’ll mention here is with his own status as the pre-eminent Verne scholar of our day. There are altogether too many mentions of the feats of academic strength claimed by the author: the only scholar to have read such and such a corpus of texts, the only scholar to have assembled a comprehensive list of Verne’s residences, the only scholar to have done this, that, and the other. This self-tooting horn very quickly becomes tiresome, particularly since the feats are generally so uninteresting.
And, as a sort of cherry on top of all this there is the now-requisite trip into the subject’s head. I’m not sure what on earth posesses an author when they do this, but it seems that a distressing number of them find it acceptable to generate extended passages of text purporting to reveal the inner thoughts of their subject, with no possible motivation for those passages. In Butcher’s case, he has at least the grace to concede in a footnote that he’s talking through his hat, which grace he squanders by attempting to justify the practice. It’s really quite remarkable, and so easy to avoid. If an author wants to speculate on the possible but unrecorded feelings of a historical figure, they may do so with perfect license, and all they have to do to make it legitimate is to mark the passage as speculation: “One might imagine Verne saying to himself…” or “I suppose that old Jules would have thought…” But there is no such caveat, and so I have to mark it down to a certain chutzpah of the author. Perhaps he thinks nobody will notice…

With such a depressing catalog of failures, I wish I could cite some successes of the book, but I’m afraid there’s very little. The overall course of Verne’s life is given a little more detail than on Wikipedia, but one could really hope that there is another biographer out there that is actually concerned with writing about Verne and his life…

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Georgina Howell)

Posted in Books on January 4, 2009 by jkiparsky

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Georgina Howell)

Briefly, Georgia Bell was a wealthy English woman who made use of her privileged positon to do what she bloody well wanted to – already a good achievement in a society where she could have easily submerged herself in a husband and keeping a proper house. What she bloody well wanted to do, though was “to be a Person”, which she did in grand style. After a period of wandering, she finds that she is one of England’s most knowledgeable authorities on the Middle East, an area which has taken on a degree of strategic interest with the coming of the first World War, and becomes a significant figure in providing information and setting policy around that region. The biography falls into two natural sections: the first, her development to 1915, is a sort of Bildungsroman, in which young Gertrude gradually discovers herself and her potential, and through a mixture of good fortune and a fierce willingness to seize upon what luck hands her becomes one of the most interesting figures of her era. This first half also leads up to the great tragedy of Bell’s life, and the climactic chapter detailing her love for Dick Doughty-Wylie and his eventual death is unfortunately the dramatic peak of her story. There is much worth reading in the second half of the book, but Howell is not able to give bureaucratic infighting and internal machinations of the English colonial establishment the same level of intensity that she gives to her asault on the Swiss Alps. A shame, because the latter portion of Bell’s life is precisely the most important part, and the part where her story can most illuminate the history of that region.

Reading Howell’s treatment of Bell’s life, I was struck once again by the absolute dependence on contemporary events in a putative history. This is a fine biography, allowing for some ill-advised decisions along the way, but it will age very quickly, since it is so dependant on current events in the middle east for its framing. It’s a bit of a giveaway when the only sequelae of events mentioned in the book are those which are contemporaneous with the writing. In this case, we skip neatly from Bell’s time across several decades to remark on ironies raised by events in the papers in the last ten years, but nothing in the intervening time is mentioned. If we’re to hear about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in a biography of Bell (and there’s no reason we shouldn’t) we should probably hear something about his rise, or we learn little. A history of the middle east is not what I’m asking for here, of course, but the current arrangement is simply consigning her book to the remainer tables within the next year or so, where it really doesn’t deserve to go.
Howell covers the events of Bell’s life well for the most part, and is for the most part good about sourcing her information, barring one chapter in which we spend far too much time in Bell’s head for the documentation provided. While Howell can’t be blamed for loving her subject, it is a bit much to find her describing at such length and detail what Bell “must have felt” or recounting events which we have no right to assume are documented in journals or letters – without giving any sources for the detail she provides. However, a careful reader can always spot this kind of dramatization and read around it, so there’s no great harm done except to the incautious reader.
I understand that there is another recent Bell biography floating around the world of books. When I am able to lay my hands upon a copy, I will undertake to report further on my readings in Belliana.

Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Posted in Books on November 30, 2008 by jkiparsky

Human Smoke is Nicholson Baker’s non-fiction treatment of the leadup to and the initial stages of the second World War. I found it a bit of a disappointment. While I sympathize with Baker’s inclinations to pacifism and even incline towards his sympathies, the book seems to me a dishonest way to make the case that the pacisfists of the World War II period were “right” (Baker’s word). The text consists of a series of carefully selected excerpts from contemporary documents, none longer than a page or so. The only editorial commentary before Baker’s afterword is the statement of the date at the end of almost every item. Always given in the same form (“It was April 6, 1941”, “It was June 3, 1941”, etc.) this becomes a sort of ticking clock in the book: we all know the end. It’s Hitchcock’s method of scaring the crap out of his audience: put the bomb in the box, give the box to the innocent child, and follow the innocent child through the city until the bomb blows up, catching a glimpse of every clock in the city as you go by it. A great technique for a thriller, but in a history it’s a little loaded. The repeated references to the date really serve no other purpose, as the precise date for the events cited is not as relevant as the context of events, and the context in this book is only that which Baker chooses to provide.
The limited context, in fact, is the basis of Baker’s argument, and this is where I have a real problem with his method. Without an explicitly stated thesis, he presents just those items from the old records that he can find which suggest that the pacifist position was the correct one. In other words, if you read a more complete record, Baker’s argument disappears like smoke.
The question of whether satyagraha might have defeated fascism is a fascinating one. I think it’s not impossible, although surely the human cost would have been inconceivably more vast than even the cost of the war as it happened: if anything can be learned from Hitler, it’s that people will in fact kill and go on kiling because they’re told to, much more often than they will resist those orders. But the question is not given a real hearing in Baker’s book, it is only alluded to. In the end, this amounts to a collection of anecdotes about the second world war, some of them quite good. From the man who wrote Double Fold, not to mention novels like The Mezzanine and A Box of Matches, that’s not much.

Dig the wovel

Posted in Books on November 12, 2008 by jkiparsky

For those interested in the newest and latest, my dear friend Jemiah Jefferson has begun publication of her web novel, or “wovel”, Firstworld. The novel is being published as a serial by Underland Press, and has some interactivity built in: At the end of each chapter, Jemiah gives you, the reader a decision to make. The next chapter is written based on the the results of the readers’ responses. Is this a gimmick? Yeah, I guess it must be, but it’s not new at all. I’m thinking of the famous case of the massive public reaction to the death of Sherlock Holmes, which forced Arthur Conan Doyle to restore the detective to life and activity. As everyone knows, the public won, and the detective lived out his days in peaceful retirement in Sussex, keeping bees…
In any case, Jemiah’s project seems like it’ll be quite interesting. The first chapter suggests a science-fiction adventure in a sort of golden-age style for the new millenium. Imagine Hal Clement contemplating the cellphone, and you’re in the ballpark.